The doughnuts were terrible – stale enough you could probably use them as ballistic missiles – but at least the coffee was halfway tolerable. Support groups aren't known for the high quality of their catering, and "Coping With Bereavement" was no exception. The attendees had been taking a much-needed break but were slowly drifting back to their seats, some clutching their second or third coffees, surreptitiously dropping mostly untouched doughnuts into the wastebasket, and more than half returning from outside, smelling of cigarette smoke. The group facilitator Carl, a paunchy, middle-aged gent with thinning hair and a complexion resembling half-set concrete, waited until we were all seated.
"Who'd like to go next?"
His eyes travelled around the circle, and I made a point of making eye contact. Might as well get it over with.
I gave an unbothered shrug. "Sure."
I'd lost count of the number of times I'd uttered the words "My brother was murdered". The curse of support groups – every time, there'd be at least one new person, and it's only polite to give them some backstory to work with. I suppose in some way it's also a blessing. The more you say it out loud, the more desensitised you get – as much as you can get desensitised to your twin being murdered in your bathroom.
I lie about a lot of stuff. But that much is the truth.
You get used to the reaction from newbies – wide eyes, stifled gasps, uncomfortable shifting in seats. This time, the only newcomer – a primary school teacher who’d lost her husband to a car accident – burst into tears. Hastily pulling out a tissue, she blew her nose noisily and shot me an apologetic glance. I pressed on, vaguely touching on how I'd been doing since the previous meeting. Sure, I said, I was still in shock – reeling from the tragedy. I'd lost a lot of people in my life – more than anyone should – and I knew talking about it was the only way to keep myself from drowning in grief. Because it felt like a piece of me had died. Usually, talking about it helped, but this time I felt no connection to what I was saying. I'd said it so many times over the years it felt like reading from a script. I refrained from sharing that particular observation.
Rather than sticking out the rest of the session, I left after I'd run out of things to say. Six weeks was usually the limit of what I could stomach before I conceded that my life, such as it was, would have to go on. I wouldn't be going back – at least for another year, but by then I'd have to search out a different meeting. Otherwise, it all just gets a bit awkward. Exiting the building and hunching myself against the autumn chill, I chain-smoked my way through five cigarettes before a bus came to transport me back to the scene of the crime, as it were. I knew I wouldn't sleep that night. Instead, I crossed off yet another day on the calendar I kept by my bed and spent more hours than was healthy staring at it.
The next day was like most others. I got up, I ate, I showered in the bathroom in which my brother had taken his final breath, and I went to work – trust me when I say what I do is too unremarkable to remark upon. I begrudgingly slogged my way through after-work drinks with some of my colleagues, bought a mystery meat kebab on my way home, stopped by the local off-license to fill a carrier bag beyond its recommended weight limit with cheap lager then, with some resignation, went back to my flat. By the time I'd worked my way through all eight cans, I was too sloppy to take my clothes off before falling into bed, but I did cross another day off the calendar.
And that's it. Day-to-day, I've pretty much told you everything. Every now and again I might go to a different bar with my co-workers. I might have a dirt burger instead of a kebab. I might buy wine or vodka instead of lager. But that's all. Trust me, I'd love to go travelling or get a more rewarding job or even a girlfriend, but there's no room in my life to do anything like that safely. And yeah, I know – there's shit going on here I haven't told you about. Congratulations on your observational skills.
For the sake of moving the story along, play out the days I just described side by side for three hundred and fifty-eight in a row. Got it? Good. That's my average year. Except for Saturdays and Sundays when I skip the work bit and just drink alone in my flat.
On September 16th, I called in sick to work, stocked the cupboards with enough supplies to last me a week, turned off my phone, and hunkered down to wait. Though deep down I knew I would be safe for the next few days, I never risked it. Best to play it safe, stay put, and mark those final seven crosses on my calendar in solitude.
Wednesday finally rolled around.
I'd started getting sick days before, which was par for the course. The 23rd was always preceded by flu-like symptoms, and the resulting bone-tiredness was the only reason I was able to sleep at all. I woke, as always, with a heaviness in my chest which had become all too familiar over the past two decades. The "problem" hadn't kicked in until my late teens and came as a bit of a shock when it first happened – during my first week at university, in my pokey student room after an all-night drinking session with friends. Okay, saying "a bit of a shock" is a gross understatement. I totally and utterly lost it and was convinced I'd been spiked with LSD, or maybe even PCP while I'd been out on the town. At least, until exactly a year later.
After staring at the ceiling for a good hour, I heaved myself out of bed, eyeing the clock. Seven-fifteen. Dragging a box from my closet, I moved it into the bathroom and unpacked the contents. That done, I sat at my kitchen window, smoking my way through most of a packet of cigarettes with shaking hands. Trying not to think. Trying not to break. No point in having breakfast – I'd only lose it down the toilet later.
Eight-fifty. I shrugged out of my dressing gown and entered the bathroom, closing and padlocking the door behind me. Taking a few deep breaths, I did a quick inventory. Table to the left – knife, rope, cable ties, hammer, plastic bags. I rarely needed everything, but it never hurts to be prepared. Sometimes things could get way out of hand.
I stepped into the shower stall and cast a look at my watch. Three past nine. I braced myself against the cold tiles. Closed my eyes. Waited for a minute. And then–
I never fully recall how it happens, but there's always a gut-wrenching, pulling feeling, accompanied by overwhelming dizziness and a tidal wave of nausea. It feels like being turned inside-out. I staggered sideways and lost consciousness for a split-second. When my vision swam back into some semblance of functionality, I was looking at myself – another me – gazing back with the same expression of confusion and pain. We were alike in every single way; from the cosmetic – he had the same skateboarding scar over one eyebrow – to the molecular. The latter I couldn't see, but I knew it for sure. We both kept staring mutely for the span of a few heartbeats, and then my double's eyes narrowed, lips curling back from his teeth in a snarl. His eyes had gone from fright to murderous hatred in an instant, but that instant was all I needed. His muscles tensed, ready to launch at me, but I'd already reached for the hammer on the table, swinging it expertly enough to knock my opponent out, but not kill. Experience had taught me death by bludgeoning creates a lot of inconvenient mess. He silently crumpled to the floor, and I wasted no time in pulling a plastic bag over his head, securing it tightly with a cable tie. That done, I retreated to the far side of the bathroom, sliding unsteadily to the floor – waiting for him to die. He never regained consciousness, but as he started to suffocate, his limbs spasmed and thrashed in an instinctual effort to survive. It was heart-rending to watch, but I didn't look away. After he went still, I waited a further five minutes, to be sure.
I've always attempted to witness their departures, to no avail. I would blink, and in that split-second, the body would vanish. I don't know where they go. I don't know where they come from. I don't know what they really are, why this happens to me, and I don't understand why they always come on the same day of the year without fail. All I do know is that they want me dead. It's kill or be killed. One year, I tried locking one in my closet, hoping he would disappear the way they usually do. Didn't work. Three days later, he died of thirst and, only then, vanished. Turns out they have to be dead before they go away. I've been doing this twenty years now, and though I've gotten pretty good at dispatching them, it never gets easier. Hence the support groups.
Now you know.
Inexplicably, things went downhill after that. There was no reason that particular one should have hit me harder than the others – it was a quick, clean kill. Trust me, there have been times it's taken days to clean up afterwards, and weeks to heal sustained injuries. Maybe the accumulation of death had finally hit a tipping point. Perhaps I was just sick of it. Honestly, I had no idea why I'd stuck things out for so long – it's not like my life is otherwise rich and full of joy.
It turned into a rough year. My drinking escalated, I lost my job, I didn't even bother going to a support group, and I tossed my calendar in the trash. I had no savings, so after six months, I found myself moving from my flat to a friend's sofa, then to a shelter, and finally on to the streets. September rolled around, and I committed my first robbery – stealing the wallet of a woman as she sat tapping away on her laptop outside a café. I didn't pay for a bed in a shelter or buy food. I had a specific purchase in mind.
I no longer marked days off on a calendar – zero hour was indelibly inscribed upon my DNA. On the morning of the 23rd, I found myself in the back alley of a run-down warehouse district. My cracked watch told me it was four minutes past nine. Again, the wrenching, pulling, dizzying, nauseous feeling. I sagged against the wall, feeling rough brickwork snag my threadbare jacket. Blackout. When I came to, he was standing over me, breathing heavily and flexing his hands with homicidal intent. I now knew why they hated me so – they wanted what I'd kept taking from them. Life. I didn't even try to climb to my feet as he took a step forward. Instead, I reached into my pocket and withdrew my earlier purchase. I looked up and met his crazed eyes, placing the muzzle of the gun in my hand against my right temple. The thing that was me but not me stopped breathing, just for a moment. I smiled thinly. Began squeezing the trigger.