Next of Kin
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

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