Read Next of Kin Online

Authors: Dan Wells

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages), #Health; Fitness & Dieting, #Diseases & Physical Ailments, #Alzheimer's Disease

Next of Kin

BOOK: Next of Kin
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Next of Kin
A novella
by
Dan Wells
Copyright © 2014 by Dan Wells. All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America by Fearful Symmetry, LLC. Cover design by Chersti Nieveen.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Dedication

This book is dedicated to Ben Olsen, who told me to just let the bomb explode. Not in this book, in a different one—it’s not like I’m going to put a spoiler right here in the dedication. Come on.

Acknowledgments

This book exists because of the hard work and invaluable expertise of many people, foremost among them my assistant, Chersti Nieveen, who offered suggestions on the manuscript, designed the cover, and handled a thousand other business-related tasks so that I could have time to write. The editing and proofing were done by Angela Eschler and Heidi Brockbank, and the production was carried out in a ridiculous rush—yet with flawless precision—by Christopher Bigelow, Eugene Woodbury, and Ben Crowder. Other helpful advice was given by Steve Diamond, Maija-Liisa Phipps, and my lovely wife, Dawn Wells.

More than anyone else, this book owes a debt of gratitude to my grandfather, Lowell Alley Wells, who was one of the greatest men I’ve ever met, and whose mind was eaten alive by Alzheimer’s Disease. I don’t think I could have become a horror writer without living through that horror. Grandpa, I’m glad you’re in a better place now. Say hi to Grandma for me.

Part One

I died again last night.

His name was Billy Chapman, found in a snowbank in the streetlight shadow of a parking garage, and when I drank his memories, his death became mine. I remembered stumbling out of the bar, into the biting cold through a thick haze of booze; I remembered slipping on the ice and the sudden, sharp pain. I remembered all thirty-five years of Billy’s life: his job and his boss and his car that didn’t work and his wife Rosie.

Oh, Rosie. He loved her more than anything in the world, and with his memories, now so did I. And neither of us would ever see her again.

The police said we died of exposure, and that’s common enough these days. In a good cold winter like this, most of my memories come from drunks who never made it home, or homeless wanderers who never made it anywhere. In warmer weather I die in other ways, but year after year, my story is the same. I live from death to death, sometimes two weeks, sometimes three, holding on as long as I can while my brain slips away like sand in an hourglass, grain by grain, loose and crumbling, until I can barely remember my own name and I have to find another. I drink their minds like a trembling addict, desperate and ashamed.

In the old days, I used to kill them myself, topping off my memory whenever and however I pleased, but those days didn’t last long. The others called me a fool for loving them, these tiny mortals with their tiny lives, but they never understood that I was one of them now. That my mind contained a hundred thousand human selves, and whatever fragment was me—my true self—was lost forever in that overwhelming crowd. I’ve lived as a banker in Nebraska, as a soldier in the Confederacy, as a Portuguese sailor in the Age of Exploration. I wove silk in the ancient dynasties; I fought and died on the banks of the Nile. The memories sink and surface like flotsam, more painful every time. How can I kill my own heart? How can I hurt them when their joys become my own? So I wait for them to die, and then I drink in peace.

And my mind is full of death.

Sometimes I die peacefully, drifting away as I sleep. These are the easiest deaths, especially if I know it’s coming, and my family is gathered close, and we talk and we laugh and we think about old times, and then I close my eyes and smile and dream. These are the easiest, but they are far too rare to count on. Most of my deaths are full of pain and fear: five endless, desperate seconds in a rolling car, or five agonizing months in a chemo drip and a painkiller cloud. I’ve even been murdered, more times than I can ever remember. Every time, though, every single time, the death itself is never the worst part. Leaving is never as bad as the people you leave behind.

Oh, Rosie.

Part Two

I don’t have many friends, as you might suspect. The people I know—or the people I think I know—don’t know me, and I’ve learned from painful experience that those artificial links are best left alone. As for the others like me, the Gifted who can do the things I do, I have no time for them. I am neither human nor Gifted, and even the ones who share my disdain for the others’ bloodlust—the ones who call us Cursed or Withered or Lost—don’t really have a place in my gap-riddled mind. I avoid them as I avoid everyone else. There is only one connection I keep, a man named Merrill Evans, and after drinking Billy Chapman’s memories, I visited Merrill the next day. I often visit him after a death. The old man understands me, whether he realizes it or not. Either way, I owe him, and it’s the least I can do.

I parked my car in the little lot behind the Whiteflower Assisted Living Center and went inside. It smelled like hand sanitizer and canned oxygen, and the air crackled with that impossible combination of reverent silence and too-boisterous laughter from nervous children, talking to loved ones in an exaggerated pastiche of the same conversations they had twenty years before.

“How are you, Dad? It’s me, Brian, your son. No, Gordon’s not here, that’s your brother. He died thirty years ago.”

“Hi Mom. I said, ‘HI MOM, HOW ARE YOU?’ Say hi, Maddy, but say it loud so she can hear you. MOM, THIS IS MADISON. Say hi, honey.”

“Do you remember our old house on third? The biggest house in the neighborhood, and my mother kept it so clean. Did you ever go to that house? Oh, it was wonderful, with a wrought-iron gate and the most beautiful roses in a bright white trellis on the wall. Do you remember when you pricked your finger there?”

I stood at the reception desk, and the nurse smiled. “Hello, Mr. Sexton. How are you today?”

“I’m fine, thanks. How’s Merrill doing?”

“I’m sure he’ll be great now that you’re here.” Her voice was chipper, but a hint of sourness crept into it as she talked. “I wish his family visited as often as you do. Do you know he has three grandchildren? And his family almost never visits at all? The cutest little grandchildren you’ve ever seen. They were in here over the summer.”

“I’m sure they come in when they can,” I said.

“They could come more than they do,” she said, shaking her head and picking up the phone. I put out my hand to stop her.

“Don’t bother calling—he’s not good over the phone. I’ll just show myself up.”

“That’s fine,” she said. “You know the way.” She smiled, and I smiled back, but I only got a step away before she called after me.

“Mr. Sexton? Remind me again how you know Mr. Evans?”

“I met him once,” I said, “not long before the . . . Alzheimer’s. He was a good man.”

“I’m sure he was,” she said. She’d only worked here a few years, so she didn’t know either of us well.

I turned again, my gaze rolling across the foyer full of visitors and residents and catching on one in particular: a teenage boy, skinny in his baggy coat, with ragged black hair that seemed almost deliberately uncombed; his own private rebellion against his mother or grandmother or whoever made him come in here today. He wasn’t talking to anybody, just sitting in the corner, waiting. Expressionless. I longed, sometimes, for that lack of feeling. It would make so many things so much simpler.

Whiteflower was one of the new-style Assisted Living Centers, more like a hotel than a hospital. Merrill Evans lived in room 312; a dark red vase sat on the shelf outside his door, a sort of mental hook to help the residents find their rooms when they couldn’t remember the number. Merrill got the vase on a trip to San Francisco with his wife, and he remembers it sometimes. I knocked on his door and waited while he shuffled close enough to yell out.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s Elijah.” Not my real name, but the one I’ve been using the last twenty years or so. The only one he’d know me by, if he knew me at all.

“Who?”

So he didn’t know me today. “I’m your friend, Merrill. I’ve come to talk to you.”

“All my friends died in Vietnam.”

What little he remembered changed from day to day; today it looked like he remembered the war. “You fought in the Tet Offensive,” I told him. “I fought there, too.” It wasn’t even a lie.

He grumbled and opened the door, but his wrinkled face scowled when he saw me. “Hell, you didn’t fight in ’Nam. You weren’t even born yet.”

“I have a young face,” I said, which wasn’t technically a lie either. I’d looked about forty years old for centuries.

Merrill grumbled some more but opened the door. “Nothing else to do around this place,” he said, and walked back to his recliner, slowly but steadily. His mind was gone, but his body was still strong; he was sixty-five years old, younger than most of the residents in the building, but early onset Alzheimer’s was common enough, and he couldn’t take care of himself, so here he was. Healthy as a horse, empty as a drum.

BOOK: Next of Kin
11.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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