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When I was four, I killed my first ant. It didn’t have a name. Of that, I was absolutely certain.
My own name isn’t important to you right now, although it’s likely you’ll learn some version of it soon. I think you’ll end up learning a lot about me in the coming days; some will be true, most will be false. There is a crucial element that will be missed, simply because it’s unknowable to anyone else. Anyone but me.
But I’m going to share it with you.
At the age of 19, as a soldier, I killed my first person. He had a name. Of that, too, I was absolutely certain. And he changed me.
My act of violence led me to learn who he was and what he meant to others. And, at the same time, I learned something essential about myself. Something I was unprepared for. I recoiled in profound, uncomprehending terror.
Today, I work in a hospice. No one there knows what I’ve done. No one there knows who I really am. They think I’m there to work, which is technically true. But I have more tasks than those given to me by supervisors. One particular task - one I’ve prepared for and dreamed about - is to be done today.
Today is when I learn whether or not I’m going to die.
Today is my 522nd birthday. Believe it, don’t believe it; it doesn’t matter to me. When I killed my first person the age of 19, I did more than take his life. I assumed parts of him. He was a left-handed blacksmith’s apprentice named Pierre Gaultier. The moment he breathed his final breath, my left hand lost its sinister clumsiness. I instantaneously understood the basics of metalworking. And I learned his name. I felt his name. It was as familiar to me as my own.
It was the most horrifying moment of my life. The most disorienting. And that night, using my newly dextrous left hand, I tried to cut my own throat. The blade passed over my skin as if it were iron. I later hanged myself from a beam in an abandoned abbey, only to dangle uselessly for three days before I was found and cut down by a local derelict. I begged him to help me take my life, but I didn’t have enough money to make it worth his while. When I killed him in a rage of frightened and confused desperation, I absorbed his alcoholism.
The following centuries were a haze of blood and drink. I’ve absorbed countless talents. Countless traits. Countless vices. But the names - the names aren’t countless. There are 7,339 names inside me now. 7,339 clusters of memories to haunt me.
This all leads to today. For 500 years, I’ve stayed under the radar. I’ve hidden in the shadows and killed and killed and killed, hoping to absorb any knowledge someone might have of another man like me. Another man who shares my curse. But I’m unique. No one is like me. Every open throat and subsequent transfer of name and ability has yielded nothing useful.
Nothing useful that is, until last month. He was a man called Gustav Brennerson, and along with his name, he transferred to me his influenza. It was the first time I’ve ever been sick.
The hospice here has 44 beds. 41 are filled.
I dream of names and cancer every night while I’m taunted by the false death of sleep. Tonight, wherever it is I lay my head as it seethes with 41 new names, I pray it seethes with something new. Something malignant. Something terminal. Something that will end these centuries of hideous wandering.
I dream of being eaten alive.