Read Dead Ringers Online

Authors: Christopher Golden

Dead Ringers

 

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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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For the lost ones, the happy ones, the broken ones, the sad ones, the hopeful ones … the ones with their minds on fire. For my friends. I love you all.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Profound thanks to my editor, Michael Homler, my agent, Howard Morhaim, and my manager, Pete Donaldson, for their faith and enthusiasm. Thanks to everyone at St. Martin's Press for your efforts on my behalf. A special thank you to those who served as early readers on this novel and whose feedback proved invaluable: Leah Zander, Amy Young, Jim Moore, and the inimitable Tom Sniegoski.

Finally, much love and gratitude to Connie and our children, may they be near or far. Forever, my darlings.

 

All my favorite people are broken.

—
Over the Rhine

 

MONDAY

 

Frank Lindbergh had managed to escape his childhood home for a handful of ambitious years before death and fate conspired to bring him back. The house on Hammersmith Street was a faded, peeling memory with a sagging front porch that propped up an equally sagging second-floor deck. The two-story colonial duplex sat among a dozen other houses that were nearly identical except for the age and hue of the paint job. This was the street where he'd ridden his bike and chased the ice-cream man. Back in those days, the front porch would have been full of people drinking Budweiser and listening to the last Red Sox game of the season on the radio. The grill in the side yard would have been billowing clouds from a sausage grease fire, smoke whirling off into the sky with the first autumn leaves on a late-September breeze.

Twenty years was a long time.

Growing up, Frank had promised himself he'd get out of this neighborhood. His dad had done painting and plastering and his mom had been a school lunch lady, taking in seamstress work on the side to make ends meet, and all the happy blue-collar horseshit he heard up and down Hammersmith Street made him want to scream. He'd never wanted that life for himself.

Frank didn't like to think about his childhood, mainly because it all seemed so trite to him. Drunk old man, funny after four beers, mean after eight, violent if he turned to whiskey. Frank had a cap on an upper incisor that he'd only gotten fixed when he graduated from college and was on the hunt for a job—prior to that he'd liked seeing it in the mirror, would smile at himself every day just to catch a glimpse. His father had torn up his knuckles on that broken tooth one night and had vivid white scars there until the day they'd closed his coffin lid.

Frank had scars, too.

He'd moved out three days after high school graduation, worked three jobs to pay for UMass Boston and a spot on a friend's couch. All the time—hell, from seventh grade on up—he'd been laser-focused on becoming a newspaper reporter. A
journalist,
he'd told anyone who'd listen. When he hit the streets after college, he landed a job at the
Boston Phoenix,
which had been the craigslist of local rags before it went under. From there he'd moved to the
Boston Herald,
pretended he believed at least half the crap they printed, and dedicated himself to the dream he'd promised to his thirteen-year-old self: becoming a crime reporter.

Six months after coming on staff, Frank had gotten his wish. Crime beat.

Seven weeks later he received his pink slip, and things had gone to hell from there. He'd lost the latest in a string of girlfriends, lost his apartment in Somerville, and had to move back in with his mother, Ruth.
Just
his mother, because his dad had fallen off a ladder the year before, broken his neck, and been dead before the paint bucket hit the ground. Living back on Hammersmith Street, Frank gave the same answer whenever anyone asked what had happened with his journalism career—the Internet was killing print journalism, but he planned to start his own Boston news Web site as soon as he finished raising the funds.

Dad had been drunk the day he died. He had fallen from the ladder, yeah, but it was alcohol that killed him. Frank and his mother never talked about it, just like they didn't talk about his own drinking once he had moved back into the house. Ruth stayed silent and picked up the bottles Frank left around, just as she'd done for his father for nearly forty years. She cleaned up after her son until the moment the cancer made her too weak to get out of bed.

Lymphoma. It had killed her ten months ago, a week before Thanksgiving. Ever since, Frank walked around the house with a trash bag twice a week picking up his empties and quietly apologizing to her ghost for the mess.

Most nights he sat in front of the television, the laugh tracks of old sitcoms a temporary respite from the yawning silence inside the house at night. Sometimes, though, he turned the TV off and sat in the wan light from the floor lamp, just listening to the ticking clock on the wall and the groaning beams up in the attic. It would be worse this winter, he knew. The baseboard heat would pop and hiss and somehow he'd feel even more alone.

Tonight he felt himself nodding off, licked his lips, and sat up straighter in his chair. Last time he'd been to the fridge he had retrieved two beers to save himself another trip. Now he drained the dregs of one and used the opener on his key ring to pop the cap on the other. He stared at the darkened television screen for a few seconds.

“My kind of party,” he whispered to himself.

Nights like this, when he sat and drank beer without even the company of those old sitcoms … those were the nights he worried. He found comfort in the idea that worrying about himself must be healthy, that he had not hit rock bottom as long as his behavior concerned him. But that reassurance always came cloaked in the blur of drunken logic, and in the mornings he remembered that noticing your car was headed for a tree was not the same as swerving to avoid it.

“Enough of this shit,” he whispered to himself. He rested the bottle of Heineken on his thigh and stared at the label. “Tomorrow, this is all gonna change.”

A week ago, he'd run into Bobby Suarez, a friend from the neighborhood who'd moved a total of six blocks from his parents' house and was now assistant principal at Doherty Middle School. The eighth-grade English teacher was going out on maternity leave and they needed a long-term substitute starting in mid-October and going through the end of the school year.

You keep your shit together, come in for an interview, I can probably hook you up,
Suarez had told him, following the words with a smile just a hair shy of condescending.
Could be they'll even let you start up a student newspaper or something, inspire the next generation of future journalists
.

Suarez's tone made clear how useful he thought journalists were. Frank told him to fuck off, in the way friends did, especially in this part of town. He half meant it, but only half. Suarez was doing him a solid and if he could get himself cleaned up in the morning, go in and give a decent performance at the interview, he promised himself he would track down an AA meeting on the way home.

He'd made empty promises to himself before and had learned to recognize them, so he sat up a bit straighter in the chair and took a breath.

“You're going,” he told himself.

Frank had been in AA for nearly a month last summer. He used his mother's death as the reason for falling off the wagon, but in truth he'd started drinking again weeks before she'd passed. Not this time, though.

He glanced around the living room with its faded photos on the walls and threadbare furniture … and the ghosts of all the times he'd vowed to leave and never return. If he didn't seize the reins of his life, he would end up nothing more than a drunk old man and die right here in this house. His ugliest demon was the knowledge that his life had no purpose, but the spark of hope and ambition that hadn't been completely extinguished in him reminded him that he could still
find
purpose. Choose a path.

“Tomorrow,” he rasped in the gloom of that dingy floor lamp.

The Heineken bottle felt warm in his hand, but he tipped it back and drained two-thirds of it without taking a breath. Lowering the bottle, he stifled a belch, then brought the bottle to his lips again and sucked back the last gulp of beer before setting the empty on the little table beside his chair.

Dead soldier,
he thought.
The last one
.

Late-night promises were like Schrödinger's cat, existing in a state of flux, full of the potential to be kept or broken. Only in the morning would he know if the cat was alive or dead.

Frank pushed himself up out of his chair, unsteady on his feet. The dark, silent television screen seemed to mock him, reflecting a fun house–mirror image of him as he stumbled and caught himself on the back of the chair. He shook his head to clear it, chiding himself for letting six beers have such an impact on him.
Should've finished your dinner,
he thought.

Making his way to the stairs, he heard a thump from the back hall. His thoughts were swollen and wrapped in gauze, but he stopped and frowned as he peered toward the back of the house. A long, low creak came from the kitchen, something shifting its weight on the old flooring back there.

A knot formed in his gut and he felt an icy tickle at the back of his brain. His skin prickled with the impossible certainty that he was not in the house alone, and he held his breath. Even as he stepped along the hall, shoving himself away from the stairs, he knew he ought to head up to his bedroom—to the cell phone charging on his nightstand.
Call 911,
he thought, but instead he listed toward the kitchen, heedless of the warning an intruder might receive from the creaking of his footsteps on the floor.

Frank put a hand on the kitchen door, felt the cold, chipped paint. An image swam into his head of his father, rooting around for a midnight snack. The few times Frank had come down during the night—frightened by a nightmare or coming down with a flu—and discovered him there, his father had barked at him and sent him back to bed. All but once. That one time, Frank Sr. had made his boy a mug of hot chocolate and told him, in a rare moment of introspection, that people made their own monsters … that half the time, they
were
their own monsters.

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