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Authors: Peng Shepherd

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BOOK: The Book of M
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“Not even close.” Dr. Zadeh grinned. “This is airplane Indian food.”

An hour later, he had finished the tea they gave him. It was strange how it worked, retrograde amnesia. He knew what tea was, what India was. He knew the words for everything, and all their meanings. He knew people spoke English in Pune—among other local dialects—as all schooling was taught in English in India. When he heard that Hemu Joshi played cricket, he realized he knew what cricket was, the rough idea of the game, even what the ball itself looked like. But he couldn't say for the life of him if he'd ever seen one with his own eyes—eye.

He wondered if it was like this for Hemu Joshi, too. Inside, he thrilled at the knowledge that he would meet him soon. Someone else who would understand what it was to be like himself—or
not
himself, rather. He hoped it would work. That one of them might somehow teach the other something and unravel this mystery.

He turned to Dr. Zadeh, but the doctor had fallen asleep while looking over the amnesiac's file again, leaving it open on his foldout tray table. The amnesiac slid it to his own.

He read the police account of the car crash again, and the paramedic's report. A collection of colorful ovals filled one page.
My brain,
he thought. They seemed bright enough, he guessed. He didn't know which part meant that his memories had been knocked loose. His visitation log was also there. Charlotte's basic information. Name, phone number, relationship to patient. Ex-wife.

Another fact to add to his collection. He had been married once. For a moment, it didn't mean anything. Then it did.

“Charlotte,” he said. He waited for the name to sound different now, but it didn't.

Dr. Zadeh stirred. His eyes opened, beholding the man drowsily. They settled on the file open in front of him. His whole face sharpened, coming to life.

The amnesiac pointed at the paper on top. “My ex-wife,” he said again. He swallowed. “That was cruel of you.
Cruel.

Dr. Zadeh looked down. “I'm sorry. That wasn't the way I wanted you to find out.”

It wasn't good enough. “Wasn't the way you wanted me to find out? How could you do that? How could you keep that from me?”

“I had no idea she wouldn't tell you,” he said back. “When she didn't, I—I felt wrong betraying her confidence without speaking to her first.”

“Her confidence?” the amnesiac snapped. “What about
my
confidence? I'm your patient. I'm the one you're supposed to help. I'm the one who doesn't know who he is. Even
you
know more than I do!”

“I—”

“Yes, you do. You knew who she was! You want me to get better? Why tell me some things and withhold others? Are you trying to—to
curate
me? What else do you know that I don't?”

“Noth—”

“Shut up! Just shut up!”

“Sir!” the flight attendant cried.

“Please, it's all right,” Dr. Zadeh said to her. “Everything's under control. We're the medical case on your passenger register. We've been invited by the prime minister.”

The flight attendant narrowed her eyes. Dr. Zadeh was holding his passport out so she could verify his name, but she moved on with no more than a warning nod to him, ignoring the document. She had already known where they were sitting, the amnesiac realized. Everyone in the world knew who he was but him.

He sucked in a breath so he could start shouting at Dr. Zadeh again as soon as the flight attendant was far enough away, but he glimpsed a sliver of the sky through the window as he shifted in his seat.

The pure blue, the white. The clouds were so thick and rippled he couldn't see the ground. Above, empty; beneath, endless silvered fog.

He pressed his forehead to the cool safety glass. “Enough . . . ,” he trailed off. The clouds glided by below. They remembered nothing either. They drifted, they rained. How had he forgotten how beautiful they were? Somehow that hurt most of all. How was it possible to forget something like this? “I can't think clearly and look at the clouds at the same time.”

“I'm sorry,” Dr. Zadeh murmured again. The plane relaxed into a curve of warm wind, a gentle lingering dip, then out. The amnesiac realized that it was true—he barely noticed the drone of the engines anymore.

“Dr. Zadeh,” he said softly.

“Yes?”

“Do I have any children?”

“No,” Dr. Zadeh said, wounded. The amnesiac looked at him. “No. I promise you. No.”

THE DAYS MELTED TOGETHER IN THOSE EARLY
MONTHS AT
Elk Cliffs Resort. Even in the mountains, the heat was oppressive, humid and heavy, like a forest swamp. Do you remember that, Ory? The nights were only barely better. It was as if the breeze had stopped when all the shadows did, the air still and thick between the trees, the grass beneath us so warm that I could barely stand to touch you as we slept, as much as I wanted to feel the comfort of your arms around me, the solidness of your body. I began to dream about air conditioning, vivid hallucinations that made my skin prickle at the imagined chill.

It almost felt like camping, on the good days. Sleeping in the grass, blankets stretched into tents over our heads. Everyone had agreed it was temporary, just because of the heat, but after a while I couldn't imagine moving back inside to the ballroom, even if there was frost on the ground. I think it was because we were all inside when we found out the shadowlessness had reached us. Being in there at night brought it all back too vividly. It was like the building itself remembered.

After a month, things started to change. People began leaving. First three slipped silently away in the night, too cowardly to say goodbye properly, and a fourth ended up sobbing hysterically by the fire as she tried to explain why she had to go. Libby, from Paul's side of the guest list. They had been on the high school swim team together, you told me later. Paul walked her all the way down the mountain, arm in arm, and came back crying. That night around the fire, I heard more people whispering about when it might be their time to leave, too. When it might be too soon, just right, too late. Whether they lived near enough that it might be worth the risk, or too far. I watched you through the flames as you eavesdropped. Your and Paul's families were still in Portland, where you both had grown up, but all
of mine were in Maryland—a survivable distance from Elk Cliffs. We'd seen reports about Baltimore on television before the signal had gone out, but if there was anything left, maybe they were left, too. We could make it if we tried.

But how to convince you? I'd been waiting for the right moment for weeks. You hadn't been ready to hear it. I felt like I had only one chance—and if I blew it, we'd never leave.

“The second scouting party didn't come back,” Rabbi Levenson said when Paul and Imanuel brought the idea of going up again. We'd sent the second party out one week after the electricity had gone down at the resort. There had been fierce debate over forming a third one after that—questions about whether we were sending the last survivors on earth to their deaths, or possibly worse, alerting dangerous people, shadowed or shadowless, to our secret haven—but in the end we had to do it. There was nothing—no television, no cell phone network, no internet, no radio—or at least nothing that we could pick up. We had no other way to know what had happened down below. Rhino had led that group too, with one of the shotguns. They never came back.

“What else are we going to do?” someone argued.

Rabbi Levenson persisted. “We don't know what's out there. We can't put any of us in such danger. It isn't fair to ask.”

“Then we'll only accept volunteers, like the first time.”

“The risk is too great. We're all we have left.”

“So we should just stay up here forever?” Paul's voice was loud, on the border of threatening. Just weeks ago, he'd been smiling, tears of joy streaming down his face as he stood trembling with Imanuel before the old man. To watch him face off against the rabbi now, red-eyed, was deeply unsettling. Some of us were trying to calm him down; some of us were already shouting over him, demanding the third scouting party be formed.

“We have to figure out why it's happening!”

“It's too dangerous!”

“We're going to die up here if we just wait, then!”

“What are we even waiting for?”

“The last group didn't come back!”

“I'll go again,” Marion said. Everyone fell silent. I looked down before she could make eye contact with me, ashamed that I wasn't brave enough to volunteer once more as well. The fire hissed as it ate a fresher twig of pine, then quieted again.

“Me too,” Jae-suk said, and rose from the grass. On the other side of the flames, Lauren and Pierce also stood.

They returned a week later; all had survived. I almost didn't believe it when I heard until I ran back to the courtyard and saw them cresting the summit, climbing over the low decorative stone wall. You, Paul, and Imanuel were already there, pressing glasses of boiled river water into their hands. Jae-suk's wife was sobbing with joy, clinging to him.

“Did you see any signs of the second group?” I asked after they'd finished hugging everyone.

Jae-suk shook his head. “After the mountain—just, nothing.”

“We did bring back a bunch of first-aid kits, though, from some of the abandoned stores,” Marion said. “And a jacket. We found one jacket. For later, I guess.” She had her right arm tucked tightly against her, as though sprained or fractured somewhere.

I took off your button-down that I had been wearing over my T-shirt for sun cover and wrapped it around her arm protectively, like a sling. “Imanuel needs to look at that,” I said to her. Imanuel was an obstetrician, but he was the closest thing we all had to a paramedic.

“It's an arm, not a baby.” She smiled. Everyone burst out laughing, it seemed so funny. We were all just so relieved they'd made it back.

There wasn't much more to the third team's report. They'd walked until they reached downtown Arlington and then gone through every home and shop, cautiously at first, then desperately, then hopelessly,
searching for survivors. Buildings were burned or emptied out, windows smashed, doors crushed in. If there were any shadowed survivors in hiding, they must have been too afraid to make contact. The group was late back because they got lost a few times, because there inexplicably seemed to be streets through the city that hadn't been there before. At that early time, none of us understood how that could have been possible.

The camp began to divide that afternoon, around the embers of the fire that was about to be lit for the evening. Half of us thought it was still too early and too dangerous, and the other half maintained that the worst of it had happened. If there was a time to go, that time was now. Sweat trickled down the small of my back and soaked into the waist of my pants. I watched you watch the rest of them argue, trying to determine which side you were on. And I watched Imanuel. You and Paul's families were too far away to hope to reach, but Imanuel was originally from Philadelphia—and Baltimore was on the way to Philadelphia. The four of us together, at least until Maryland, was the best plan we were ever going to get. I'd seen the way Imanuel had watched the ones who were leaving lately. He was growing more and more ready to leave too, just like I was.

Maybe I will talk to him and Paul,
I thought. See if together, the three of us could convince you that we should go with them.

That was when we heard the screaming.

I sat outside as you, Paul, Imanuel, Rabbi Levenson, and Gabe talked quietly in the ballroom. I'd been invited, but I refused to par
ticipate. Instead I watched the darkness, listened to the wood creaking as the trees shifted in the breeze. For once, I couldn't feel the sauna-thick night air. I couldn't feel anything at all.

“What do we do?” I heard you ask faintly through the closed glass doors.

Marion's shadow had disappeared.

The rest of the search party was all right so far, but the guests were too terrified to take any chances. They had been with Marion. Jae-suk was quarantined in room 382 of the resort—with his wife, Ye-eun, who refused to be separated from him—and Pierce and Lauren in rooms 390 and 392 respectively. They had to be persuaded at gunpoint. Marion went willingly into room 300.

“Marion—” I said in the moment before Gabe, a T-shirt wrapped around his face, pulled the door shut on her and locked it. Her eyes jerked up to mine for a single instant. There was something terrifying in them, a desperate ferocity to hang on to that name. “Marion,” I said again, leaning against the smooth, silent wood on the outside of the door.

I never told you what I did during those three long days, Ory, while the camp debated what to do. Not because I wanted to hide it from you, but because you would've convinced yourself that I had been “contaminated,” but been too afraid to say anything, because you'd never be able to consign me to the same fate. I just didn't want you to worry.

“What's your name?” I asked quietly through the door.

“Marion,” Marion replied, slightly muffled. I imagined her sitting in the same position as me.

“Where are you?”

“The honeymoon suite, I think,” she said.

I laughed despite the grim situation. It came out like a snort.

“Going okay so far, I guess,” she continued after a few minutes. “It's only been a day, though.”

“A day and a night,” I countered.

“How are the others doing?” she asked hesitantly.

BOOK: The Book of M
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