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Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (42 page)

BOOK: The Book of M
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But it turned out that almost all of them were happy to stop being soldiers. They'd dedicated their lives to it before, but not because it was their calling—it had just been the only job there was to be had in D.C.

As for Malik, the city gave him caretaker leave, to enjoy what little time Vienna had left before she forgot him.

Zhang received his task last. He was cutting through the grass behind House 33 on his way to the carriages, the way he did every day, to make sure they were still secure. He was always worried about the weather or someone curious trying to sneak into one. The morning sun was glaring over the roofs, blinding white as it climbed. His shadow skipped through the weeds, jagged. It bumped into another shape and dissolved, like two streams of water meeting. He stopped short. Another pair of boots was in front of his own in the grass.

“Good morning,” Yoshikawa said when Zhang looked up. The young sentry Davidia had ordered to run up to Gajarajan with news of the books when they'd first arrived.

“Sorry,” Zhang said. “I wasn't looking, I didn't see you.”

“It's all right. I should've called out, maybe.” He grimaced into the warm glow for a moment. “I've come with good news. We've managed to find some space in one of the commercial buildings we've already renovated where you can store your books. A library again. It's not fancy, but at least it's got a roof and a door with a lock. We'd like to name it after the friend you mentioned—Paul. Gajarajan hopes you will be pleased.”

Zhang was. He was so pleased all he could do was blink back tears and nod until Yoshikawa laughed.

“Follow me then. I'll show you the place.” He smiled and gestured past House 33, toward the small new downtown area.

They turned off Lafayette Street into a building that looked like it had once been a pharmacy. Inside, the left half was completely bare, save several rows of empty medicine shelves, and the right half was New Orleans's only tailor, where people took turns in shifts to sew items the city badly needed: bedsheets, socks, underwear.

Zhang had never built a library before, but he had plenty of help. Volunteers poured in the way they did for the garden and the tailor. Some even brought a book or two that they'd managed to save in the early days.

The day Zhang started arranging the rebuilt bookcases into rows just like a real library, he gained two more helpers.

“Surprise!” Vienna cried as she poked her head through the door.

Zhang gasped, startled, and then started laughing. “Did you break out of jail?” he asked her.

“Nope, even better,” she said. Malik followed her in. “Parole.”

“I swear, you'd think she wasn't—” He gestured at the empty ground behind her. “
Teenagers.

Zhang smiled at him. “It's good to see you both,” he said. He'd hardly spoken to Vienna since the day they'd arrived—Malik had become even more protective than he already was, trying to prevent anything from startling her, scaring her, hurting her. Anything that could force a traumatic forgetting, no matter how small. But Zhang
could tell that when she must have asked to see the library, there was no way Malik could refuse.

“Over here,” he said. He was more than happy to put her to work. “Can you . . .” He trailed off awkwardly.

“Yes, I can still read.” Vienna snorted, as if he was being silly. “Don't give me the kid gloves, General. If you want to know something, just ask.”

“It's just Zhang now.” Zhang smiled. “You want to start putting the books into groups so we can see how much space each genre will take up?”

Vienna saluted happily and made her way toward the mass of stacked boxes. Malik shrugged as they watched her dig through the first pile. “She thinks it'll do more damage if I hide or avoid things,” he said. “She'd rather know she's forgotten something, for as long as she can remember she's forgotten it, than not.”

“SO HOW WAS SHE?” AHMADI ASKED AS SHE WENT OVER TO
her small table, where a squat paper bag sat in the center. Zhang had knocked on her door next to his after dinner, to tell her Vienna had come to volunteer at the library that day.

“Just like herself.” He smiled. “I think Malik was happy too, to see her like that again.” He felt better than he had in a long time. “Today was a good day.”

“It was,” Ahmadi said. She held up the bag. Something liquid sloshed against a jar inside. “Guess what I learned New Orleans has today.”

“Is that alcohol?” Zhang's mouth tingled. “Honest to God
real
alcohol?”

She nodded. “Moonshine. One of the wall guards makes it.”

“Promote him immediately,” Zhang said as he jumped up to retrieve a cup from the other side of the room.

“Taste it first,” Ahmadi warned. She pulled the bottle out of its paper bag. “The only thing that's the same is the name.”

“As long as it gets the job done.” He grinned. There was only one chair in the room and then the bed, so they sat down cross-legged on the floor facing each other next to the lantern, and Ahmadi poured him half the liquor. They clinked the cup and bottle together and went for it.

“Oh, God, it's disgusting,” Zhang sputtered, laughing. “It's like gasoline!”

“If only we didn't remember what the real stuff tasted like.” She took another swig and coughed.

Zhang tried a second sip and coughed again, too. He drank more anyway. That warm, floating feeling he'd almost forgotten prickled at the edges of his brain. Not enough by far, but at least it was there at all. It made him remember how it was supposed to feel. He told her about his day at the library, and Ahmadi told him about her day on the wall. She was smiling more. They finished the whole bottle, still coughing with every swig.

“You're right,” she finally said. She held up her empty jar and studied it. “New Orleans needs a new moonshine maker.”

“Do you know how?” Zhang asked.

“No.” She shrugged. “Only archery.” Her eyes unfocused a little, gazing through the wall of their house, somewhere much farther. They glimmered softly in the light of the lantern. “I miss Tehran.”

I miss Arlington,
Zhang thought. Did he actually, anymore? “I miss Portland,” he said instead, but it wasn't really true either.
I miss Elk Cliffs.
That was true.
Max. Paul. Imanuel.

“It's strange to finally know you,” Ahmadi said.

“What?”

“I mean, in person.” She smiled to herself. “Paul used to tell all of us so many stories about the two of you as kids or teenagers. His way of remembering you. Prom. The first car you wrecked. When you both got caught toilet-papering your science teacher's house.”

For a moment, the ghost of the Red King had been there, but Ahmadi's smile, her laughter, was chasing it away. She knew only the
old Paul, the blustering teddy bear with a temper that was all bark and no bite. Something deep inside healed over, a little bit.

“Am I not how Paul made me seem, now that you've met me?” he asked.

“No—the opposite.” Ahmadi paused. She seemed as if she'd just admitted something she'd wanted to say but hadn't meant to. She smiled again, nervously this time. “This is going to sound weird, but after all the time I had with Paul, all the stories, when you finally found us . . . It almost felt more like you'd returned again rather than just arrived for the first time.” She risked a look at him. “It felt like you'd come back home.”

Maybe it was the alcohol, he told himself as he watched her in the dim glow of the firelight. But it wasn't. The stuff had been so weak it was barely more than dishwater. There was no clouded, dull wonder as he leaned closer to her in the small room. Only a focusing, as if everything around them became sharper, and time slowed down. He could feel the exact contours of her through the air from two feet away, as if she cast waves of pressure in the shape of her form. Sound contracted. Ahmadi had stopped talking, staring frozen at the point of his Adam's apple.

She's so short,
Zhang thought. His skin tingled. He had never realized how short she was. Even crouching, he had to bend gently at the shoulders to reach her.

AHMADI HAD BEEN RIGHT. IT WAS LIKE COMING HOME. SOMETHING
that was familiar, something that he knew and understood. Something that remembered him back.

That night Zhang rolled over and was surprised to feel the soft warmth of another body near his own on the mattress. He opened his eyes and looked in the dark at the silhouette of Ahmadi's back above the blanket. Her back was different from Max's. Different color, different slope of the rib cage, different gentle outline of muscles. There were scars on the top of her right arm—a wide band of burns and
darkened lines that circled her shoulder. For the first time in a long time, Zhang felt something like hope or happiness as he realized that later there was a chance she would tell him about them. There was a chance they would share even more things and then remember them.

He closed his eyes again, but in the darkness, without his being able to see the pale glow of her skin and the narrowness of her shoulders, it was impossible to know it was Ahmadi there, not someone else. Her warmth radiating softly beside him felt the same.

Did you get to wherever you were trying to go before you forgot everything, Max?
he wondered.
Did you find whatever you were looking for?

He hadn't managed to rescue her after all in the end, but as he lay there now, with Ahmadi—knowing that the night hadn't been the last of its kind with her, but maybe the first, if he wanted it—it felt like an answer, just in a different form than he'd wanted. It must have happened after all. Max must have forgotten him, or at least some of him.
Enough
of him. Because if he had become a person who could leave Washington, D.C., for New Orleans, who could give up searching—who could possibly someday have feelings for someone else—it could only mean one thing. She was gone.

Zhang wrapped his arm around Ahmadi and put his face against the back of her neck. He nuzzled her softly. To try to make it more real. She murmured, still half-dreaming, then dropped back into deeper sleep again.

“Blue,” he whispered. It was the last time he'd say it, but not the last time he'd remember.

That was the cruelest part. Not that Max had left, but that she had forgotten. It wasn't her fault, but it was still cruel all the same. Zhang didn't want Max to forget him, but she had anyway. Now he wanted to forget
her,
and couldn't.

MALIK LET VIENNA COME BACK THE NEXT DAY AND THE DAY
after, gradually relaxing as he saw how good it was for her. Ahmadi
switched some shifts at the wall to join in. It made Zhang happy to have them all there together, completing their little family—but he couldn't relax. Whenever Vienna was in the library, he was afraid to sit down, to look away for even a second. He felt terrible for not trusting her, but he had been close to only one other shadowless, and she had disappeared once she began to forget. Just up and vanished, and never came back. He couldn't let himself believe that Vienna wasn't going to do the same. Every time she went to the tailor's side to watch them work, or walked outside to stretch her legs, or said she needed a snack from the communal garden, Zhang would make an excuse to follow her. “I just need some air,” he would lie unconvincingly, scrambling for the door an instant after Vienna went through it.

When all the shelves had been fixed and the books organized on them, they painted signs for each genre, built tables and chairs, and hung up a partition to divide the tailor from the library. It took almost a week of constant work, but Zhang didn't mind. Vienna and he would've worked all the way through the nights if Malik and Ahmadi hadn't shown up each time and blown out all the lanterns just like when he'd been counting the books on the road.

The day the library was finished, they held a small ceremony. Everyone that had come from D.C. gathered to see the books as they were meant to be—not hidden in carriages, but proudly displayed on shelves. They took turns reading from Paul's poetry as huge swaths of fabric billowed on the tailor's side just above the dividing wall, the helpers swinging them up to shake out the dust. The verses were punctuated with the soft, gliding sound of shears as they cut. But every gentle intrusion only made Zhang smile. It wasn't usual, but it was more than Imanuel ever could have hoped for.

Transcendence was still coming, and they knew they'd have to face them, but for the first time in a long time, they all felt like they were finally home.
Home.
Zhang hadn't expected to truly ever feel that again.

THE DAY AFTER, VIENNA FORGOT WHO AHMADI
WAS.

Ahmadi took it so well that when Zhang awakened in the middle of that night and heard through their shared wall the muted, strangled sounds of her sobs, it frightened him. He had heard her cry before, like when they lost one of the carriages to fire. But he had never heard her cry like
that,
and he didn't know why she was. The next day she gamely introduced herself to Vienna and shook her hand when Malik brought her around, and then did it again every time they dropped by House 33 or the library. Every time they “met,” Zhang heard Ahmadi sob again in secret later that night.

Things started to change. Vienna got confused more often. Instead of rolling their eyes at him, Ahmadi and Malik stopped saying that Zhang was being overly protective when he scrambled to follow her around. They had started trading off, in fact, so she was never alone.

“I know you're there, Zhang,” Vienna said to him the next time he tried to eavesdrop on her from the hallway outside the communal kitchen.

Zhang sighed and walked into the room. “I'm just worried,” he confessed. “I don't want you to feel alone or scared.”

Vienna was at the sink, standing with her hands on the chipped ceramic lip, but the water bucket was untouched, the drinking glass in front of her empty. Its shadow sat lonely on the counter, without the company of the silhouette of Vienna's hands beside it.

BOOK: The Book of M
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