The Memory Thief
by Ken Altabef
There are a lot of weird myths that circulate around Homedale. Right up front, I'll tell you
that Homedale is a nursing home full of crazy old folks not long for this earth. At eighty-five I
suppose I'm pretty high on the short list myself. So there's that. I'm not looking for sympathy for
me or any of the others here. We've lived full lives, all of us. Now we mostly just sit around
talking, and when old people get to gabbing that much you will hear a lot of screwy stories. No
It's said there's an angel that walks these halls at midnight, visiting folks in the form of a
nurse dressed all in white. In the wee hours she makes an offer of forgiveness and sweet
redemption. I haven't seen her. That's a pity. I'd like to take her up on her offer.
Then there's the one about the black cat. It's said that if the cat pauses at somebody's
doorway after supper, they'll die before the night is through. I'm not sure about that one. I've
seen that cat around, but not everyone checks out soon thereafter.
And then there's the shadow that steals memories. This one sounds especially screwy at
first, since everybody knows old folks are always forgetting things. Hell, most of us have our
own photo tacked on our doors just so we'll remember which room to shuffle back to at bed
time. It's a long, slow, downhill slide, my friends. But I've seen the shadow thief, and I know this
one's true. He stole something from me. And this is where I get a little tripped up because, of
course, I can't remember exactly what he stole. That's the whole point. But let me tell you--I'm
not the least bit senile, not yet. I can remember the administrations of nine different presidents
and the names and ages of each of my ten grandchildren. I can list the starting game lineup for
the Mets all the way back to 1961. And I still remember the dosages for every medication I've
ever prescribed over a career of damn near fifty years as a family practitioner, including
medications they haven't manufactured in decades. And that's how I know. Searching through
my memories I find a nice big black hole, right there, and I know what he's stolen. He took my
youngest daughter's wedding. I remember every other family wedding clear as a bell, just not that
one. It's gone. And a father isn't likely to forget something like that.
I remember when he did it too. Folks talk about the memory thief as a shadow sitting on
the edge of the bed. But that's not the way I saw him and there's nothing wrong with my eyes,
either. He was standing near the window. The thing is you can only see the memory thief out of
the corner of your eye at twilight. If you turn to look at him, you find him gone. So I didn't see
his face much, but I know his silhouette. He's a small fellow, and thin, with a head just a mite too
large for his body. That's all I know.
One by one he visits people and takes their fondest memories away. Now maybe you
think that's no big deal, since folks here are older than the hills and just about ready to die
anyway. But it's just not fair. Our memories are all we have left. That's treasure to us.
I resolved that if I ever crossed paths with that little thief again I'd catch him; I'd get my
hands around his scrawny neck and teach him a thing or two about stealing from old folks.
I kept my eye on the window every night. No, actually I kept my eye on the pictures of my
children and grandchildren tacked to the corkboard next to the window. That way, I'd just make
out if anything moved in the twilight. I left the window open a little bit, all night long, even
though that's against the rules. A few times the night nurse came in and shut it. She wasn't
dressed in white and she didn't offer any sort of redemption. I made believe I was asleep. After
she was gone, I crept out of bed and cracked it open again.
One night he came back, and sure enough I saw him there out of the corner of my eye. I
was thinking about my son James, about the time he'd fallen from his bicycle and skinned his
knee. And then I felt that memory slipping away, getting fuzzy, my boy's voice stretching as if
under water, receding like a train in the night. It was heartbreaking. It was downright painful. I
didn't want to lose that memory, especially after the way I'd lost James himself only a few years
later, when he caught pneumonia. I was a doctor and I still hadn't been able to save my boy. But I
patched up his skinned knee that day and he smiled at me, I think he did, I suppose he must have
but all of a sudden I couldn't recall.
And then my arm shot out and I had him. I had that little memory thief by the heel. He
thrashed and tugged, trying to yank his leg away, but I had him. And I wasn't letting go.
I could see him pretty good then, by the clear light of the moon. He was a child, a boy of
only about ten or some such. That was why I'd thought his head too big for his body. He was a
child. And he was very thin.
"Lemme go!" he hissed.
He had a face of a sort I'd seen too many times before. His skin was pale and a bit sallow,
with a small nose, slightly upturned. His eyes were sunken deep into dark, bruised sockets. His
hair was mostly gone, leaving only a light brown fuzz on top of his head.
I didn't much want to hurt him anymore.
I let him go, but he didn't bolt like I expected. He stared at me with an imploring,
desperate look I knew only too well. I'd seen that look now and then in my long career, on the
faces of dying men and women, and children. Too many times. And you can best believe that
even once is too many.
"Now listen you . . . I don't know who you are or what you are . . ."
I didn't know how to finish that sentence, either. My threats had suddenly been choked to
death by compassion.
"You're a doctor?" he asked.
His upper lip stiffened. His eyes glittered as they shot back toward the open window. He
was too proud to ask.
"You look like you might need one," I said. "You're sick, aren't you?"
"I can take care of myself. Tired, that's all."
I nodded. "Let me see something, okay?"
He didn't answer, but kept still as I gently pressed down the skin beneath his right eye
just enough to inspect the inside of the lower lid. It was just as I thought. He had some form of
cancer, most likely leukemia.
"You're very pale under the eyes, kid. Do you happen to know what that means?"
He shook his head. I knew what he was thinking, maybe because we both shared the same
memory. He was thinking about my son's skinned knee.
"Can you help me?" he asked. His mild, elfin nose held high, he wasn't looking for
sympathy, just an answer to his question.
"I . . . I don't think so."
"But you can," he insisted. "I know you can. Just not here. Can you come with me? Will
"The place I'm from. Oh, you'll like it very much." He jerked a thumb toward the
window. "It's easy to get there." He swung one leg over the sill. We were three stories high.
"You want me to jump?" I asked.
"Fly! You'll fly!"
I peered at the window ledge. "Not gonna happen."
"But you can fly. You just have to believe."
Sure enough he had both legs out the window and was still hovering knee-high to the
ledge. Then that tired look crossed his face again, as if he'd just realized what a long journey lay
before him. "Maybe you're right. It's only the gay and innocent who can fly. Just as like, you'd
I snickered. He'd used the word 'gay' like I hadn't heard it since I was a child myself.
"Can you swim?" he asked.
"I can swim."
"Meet me at the pool tomorrow. Noon."
Before I could ask any further, he was gone.
The geriatric pool at Homedale is not a pretty sight. It boasts a perfectly controlled
temperature at eighty-seven degrees. A safety-conscious five feet deep at its deepest. There's no
frolicking, no diving, no horseplay of any kind. Not even any swimming, really. Just a bunch of
old folks bobbing on the surface and gossiping. That's what we call exercise round here. There
are a lot of age spots on display, and liver spots, and scabby patches of eczema amid sagging
folds of pale, flabby skin. Don't get me wrong, a good number of those warts and wrinkles belong
to yours truly. Like I said, it's really not very pretty.
I'd decided not to tell anyone about my encounter with the memory thief. It would've
been a whopper of a tale though. My friend Gus Wilders would've believed it. He was another
ex-physician here, pushing ninety with a bad case of Parkinson's. And Doris Mayweather
would've backed me up, too, and Norman Sendowski. But all the rest? I knew how they'd look at
me. They wouldn't believe me. Just another old fart swearing to tall tales as he spun away down
the long and winding road to senility. No, I decided to keep it to myself at least one more day.
So, the swimming pool near noon. There was no sign of my little friend. I hadn't thought
there would be. An open window at midnight is one thing, the geriatric pool quite another.
We're not allowed to go under water. That's squarely against the rules and I knew as soon
as I submerged the whistle would blow and I'd say good-bye to pool privileges for a few weeks.
But I did it anyway. Still a rebel at heart, I guess. Like I said, the deep end is hardly five feet, so I
had to crouch down and fold my old legs under, and make believe everybody couldn't still see
I closed my eyes, held my breath and, yes, I heard that damn whistle blowing above me.
But when I came up for air, everything had changed. It wasn't chlorine stinging my eyes but full-fledged salt water. I could taste the brine on my lips.
And there was no bottom. I found myself treading water in an open air lagoon. A streak of
white-hot panic rattled these old bones. A verdant shoreline in brilliant greens and pastel blues
lay a hundred yards away. I might be able to tread water for a minute or two, but I sure wasn't
going to swim all the way to shore. I wasn't going to make it.
"Shit!" I hissed. "Shit!"
"Please don't," said a mischievous voice. "At least not in the pool." It was the boy.
"I'm not gonna make it," I cried.
He just laughed. Turns out he was pretty good in the water, but at half my size there
wasn't all that much he could do to help. "Hold on, Doc." It was all he could do to keep me
afloat. I couldn't hope to swim properly with one shoulder locked by arthritis and the other arm
damn near useless as well, but I could kick a little, just enough to get me to shore. We hit the
beach, both of us badly out of breath, and I rolled over and kissed the white sand.
The boy lay beside me, still breathing fast and shallow. He lay on his back, his face
almost as pale as the sand. He was really struggling but hadn't swallowed any water so there
wasn't anything I could do but watch.
"Just . . . tired," he gasped. "I'm all right."
"Where are we? Out of the pool? Have I gone nuts?"
He didn't say anything. I don't think he could've answered anyhow. I feared he might
pass right then and there and I supposed it'd be my fault. Old fool. Silly old fool.
After a while though, he came up breathing right again and said, "I have a little house
Tiger Lily built for me. Not far."
"You saved my life, I think."
He frowned. "Dinosaur."
I wasn't insulted. "It's even worse than that," I said. "At least some of the dinosaurs could
A dry, lifeless laugh was all he could manage. I wondered if I'd have to carry him home.
"You got a name, kid?"
"Peter . . ."
"That's Captain Peter to you, landlubber."
He jerked his head toward the bones of an old sailing ship beached in the lagoon.
"Aye-aye, sir." I tossed him a brisk salute. "Lead on, Cap'n."
We traveled from the beach to a lightly wooded area inland. The trees seemed in a similar
condition to little Peter, both young and worn-out at the same time, their fresh green leaves half
crusted with brown despite the warm summer weather. We came to a pretty little house, its walls
peeling red paint, with a mossy roof of dried thatch and a stove-pipe hat for a chimney. The boy
had just enough strength left to crawl straight into bed.
"Where are we?" I asked again.
He mumbled something I couldn't understand.
"I can't be here. Not like this. I have diabetes. You understand? I need my insulin . . . and
my blood pressure pills."
His eyes closed. I shook his shoulder, gently at first, and then a little harder. "Peter?
No use. I tucked the covers under his chin and let him sleep. I stood over him, my head
nearly scraping the thatched ceiling. What the hell had I gotten myself into? This couldn't be
real. Maybe I'd finally had that big stroke everyone was always warning me about. I decided to
take a walk around and see.
Damn. It sure didn't feel like a dream. I near went into a panic. I'm eighty-five years old.
I need those medications.
I spent the next few hours hiking up a mild rocky slope in search of high ground. I
couldn't get too far up the ridge on these shaky old legs and a death-gray mist covered the
southern part of the island, but I saw enough. Aside from the vibrant colors of the lagoon which
was still alive with foliage, the island seemed lifeless. To the west lay a woodland that had seen
better days. The leafless skeletons of trees rattled with an icy midwinter breeze even though it
was summertime, and the grass on the plain lay as sparse as the hair on my head. To the other
side there was nothing but a desert of scrub brush and gray stones.
When I returned to the little house, Peter had a little cook fire going and meat roasting on
the spit. It took me a moment to place the smell.
"Where'd you get the rabbit?"
"I know places. Secret places. Caught him bare-handed, too."
"I'm the fastest thing on this island. Faster than the wind. Always was. Always will be."
"I'm sure," I said. When he'd first mentioned Tiger Lily I'd thought of the old movie
What's Up Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen's first film. Funny movie. It took me about this long to
realize that wasn't something a kid would be familiar with, not even a kid as quirky as this one.
There was another Tiger Lily back there in my past. It couldn't be. But then again, nothing else
made any sort of sense.
"What happened to Tiger Lily?" I asked.
"All gone, and her Piccaninny braves too. Small pox got 'em."
"I see. And the pirates?"
"Killed by the wild beasts."
"Killed by the pirates."
"Of course. And the fairies?"
"Gone. They all went away when I started to get sick . . ."
He pushed his food away.
"You've got to eat," I said. "You need to keep up your strength."
He stared down at the half-eaten rabbit leg. "I don't want to die . . ."
"You won't. You'll be okay."
"You can help, right?"
"Of course." It was a lie, but whatever else was there for me to say? "Don't you worry. In
the morning I'll brew some medicine. I saw some wild roots on the hillside. I can use them."
He smiled as his eyes closed. I carried him back to his bed of green ferns. He looked so
thin and drawn I didn't think he'd make it through the night. I sat over him, smoothing the sweat
from his brow and adjusting his covers. That was about all I could do. I had retired from
medicine twenty years ago, a lifetime ago. I never thought I'd be in this situation again, sitting a
death-watch vigil over a sick child. Leukemia. That one casts a long, long shadow. It was a long,
When he woke in the morning I tried to push the rest of the rabbit on him but he was too
weak to eat. I had started feeling weak too, and awfully thirsty. I wondered what astronomical
level my blood sugar had reached. I needed my medicine.
"Peter, what do I have to do to get back?"
"You aren't going to leave yet, are you? I've got so much planned. A snipe hunt, and
there's this treasure map I found . . ."
I took his hand. "I won't leave you, I promise. Not until you're all better. But what if I
needed to get something from the other side. Medical supplies or such?"
"Oh. It's easy. On the west side of the lagoon there's a rock that sticks up, Marooner's
Rock we call it. Evil sea captains used to put sailors on it and leave them there to drown. Wait
for the tide to come in. When the seawater closes over your head you'll be back in the pool. But
if you go, I don't know . . . I'm not sure I'll be able to fetch you back again."
It was a long speech and left him totally spent. I squeezed his hand. "I see. Fine. It's all
right. I think I have everything I'll need right here. I saw some feverfew and hollyhock not far up
the hill. I'll go and make that medicine now."
He was already asleep.
Of course there wasn't anything I could use for chemotherapy there on the island, even if
I'd known how. I might as well be looking for a good spot to bury the boy. That was the
inevitable end of all this. For a moment it became all too much for me. I'd buried my own ten-year-old son a long time ago back in Hartford. I don't think I could stand that type of pain again.
Had Peter realized my intention when I asked about getting back? He had rummaged through
some of my memories after all.
Anyway, it didn't matter. I was telling the truth. I wouldn't leave him until he was done.
So in the meantime I brewed up some green tea from a few strands of prairie grass and wild
onions I'd found.
I fed it to him slowly, in tiny little sips. This wouldn't do anything but settle his stomach
a little, I knew, but we must take comfort where we find it.
"Why were you stealing our memories?" I asked.
"Wanted to know . . . what it was like to have a father."
"You must have had a father once."
"Long ago," he said, "But I can't remember . . . I flew away out the window. I thought my
parents would always keep it open for me, but I stayed away too long, and when I flew back the
window was shut and barred. My parents had forgotten all about me. I can't ever go back."
"How long have you been here?"
He tried to shrug, but couldn't quite manage it. "A few hundred years I guess . . ."
"And you're still ten."
"Uh-huh. Tell me something, Doc? What's it like to grow up?"
I straightened the crick in my neck, my old bones giving forth a little arthritic click. "You
don't really want to know."
"My lost boys. They all left and never came back. I guess they found out. I guess they all
"I suppose. And you here all alone. The fairies and pirates and beasts all gone. Say--what
about the mermaids?"
"Haven't seen one in ages."
"I see. Take another sip now." I pressed the wooden cup to his lips but he'd already fallen
off to sleep again. His lips slightly upturned, his breathing shallow but regular, he seemed at
peace. Just before they'd drifted shut, I thought I'd seen a glimmer of hope in his eyes. And that
was the point. That's what adults do in a hopeless situation. We make believe, we offer some
little comfort. We don't let the children see us cry.
In the morning he was gone. Gone! I didn't know what to do. Like an idiot, I rummaged
through the bed of ferns looking for some trace. Had he died in his sleep? After hundreds of
years, had he been reduced to nothing more than a trace of ash?
I stood up to go outside and nearly toppled over. Damn. I was so weak and dizzy.
Everything was kind of fuzzy and I knew I probably wasn't thinking straight. Trouble. Big
trouble. What was that he'd said? Marooner's Rock. I had to get back.
Damn. I wasn't going to make it.
I shuffled out of the little house into a bright summer's day. The leaves were still brown
on the trees but somewhere a goldfinch was singing.
Peter came trundling down the forest path, heading straight for me. He had an emerald
green python draped across his shoulders like a limp rag.
"I hope you're good and hungry. We'll feast on snake stew for lunch!"
"And vanilla pudding!"
I was so happy to see him alive and well I chuckled like a schoolboy. My heart felt ripe
enough to burst, and in that moment I probably could've taken wing and flown like a songbird
myself. "Where are you gonna get the pudding?"
"Make believe pudding, you old fart. Just as good as the real thing, I promise."
Of course. All doctors know about the placebo effect. Give someone a sugar pill and
promise that it will help them, and sometimes if they believe it enough they get some benefit. A
cure for cancer? Not hardly. But in this place it was different. I remembered what Peter had said
about flying. You just have to believe. In this place make believe was as good as reality. There
probably wasn't anything I couldn't cure, provided I had the right patient. One who believed in
me. That's all it took.
"That medicine I gave you . . . ?"
"Heap good medicine!" Peter said, doing his best Picatinny brave impression.
"Can you go fetch that cup for me?" I didn't have the strength to go back into the house.
When he brought me the bitter dregs of the tea, I took a hearty gulp. "Here's lookin' at
We sat down to lunch and Peter regaled me with talk of his morning's adventure. He'd
gone back to the mermaid's lagoon, those being the only residents of Neverland who had not yet
deserted him. I had suspected as much, seeing as the lagoon was the only spot on the island still
bright and colorful. Of course there was a mermaid queen and a princess and something about a
sea turtle and a large ravenous loon with a nasty beak. After Peter killed the angry bird they'd all
drunk tea from seashell cups and he'd headed home with only a small diversion by way of the
python. I was overjoyed to see him up and around again, and enjoyed every bit of the stewed
snake meat and the make-believe pudding.
I stayed on with Peter for a few weeks more, though I'll admit he paid little attention to
me. He was too busy frolicking in the forest, refurbishing his tall sailing ship, and convening
with his friends the sparrows and owls. He even forgot to feed me half the time. But of course
that mattered hardly at all. Eating pretend food seemed to do the trick just fine. He never even
bothered to thank me for 'curing' him, but, well, that's just Peter.
Eventually I decided to go back.
I sat atop Marooner's Rock on a storm-tossed evening as night closed in. The tide rose
quickly. It began to rain as the water crept over my dangling ankles. Cold water. I have to admit I
was not over fond at the prospect of sitting on that rock with seawater slowly creeping up toward
my neck. Peter had a wicked sense of humor sometimes. It crossed my mind he might have been
playing one of his jokes on me.
But that wasn't true. I had to believe it would work. And I did. I really did. When the
water covered me I'd be back in the geriatric pool again, in hot water for disobedience, probably
wondering if this had all been some sort of a dream. On that eerie note, I heard a splash just to
my left and turned. A pretty face popped up out of the water, and I glimpsed my first mermaid
just before I went under.
"I don't know," pondered Gus, "maybe we're all just a little out of our minds."
Mary paddled up next to us. "Don't feel badly about it," she added. "I'm sure it's all just
an innocent mistake."
I splashed a little water on my face. "I'm telling you, I saw what I saw!"
"Watch me! Watch me!" Peter howled as he swung out over the lagoon. He released the
vine and, plunging toward the water, added, "Who is more graceful than I?"
"Not me." I said.
"Not me," chimed Gus and Mary and Norman.
His question was punctuated by a gigantic splash.
The lost boys (and girl) cheered.
It had finally occurred to me that in this place we could all be young again, if only we'd
believe. That's a tough trick though. None of us was able to pull it off. I'd looked in the mirror
too many times for that. My young face was a far distant memory. I couldn't even imagine being
Neither could the others, although Gus had rid himself of the shaking hands and his other
debilitating tremors. He could well imagine himself without the Parkinson's, sure enough. And
I'd gotten rid of the diabetes and the bad shoulder and pesky lower backache. So it's still good.
"But really," said Mary, "a Viking longboat with a teenaged girl at the helm?"
"I saw it!" I insisted. "And probably Peter did too. We'll ask him, if he ever comes up for
We don't see much of Peter these days. His new crew is not quite as wild as the previous
troupe. We don't have the muster for crocodile hunts and secret missions. Our idea of fun is
reminiscing around the campfires, snacking on crocodile sandwiches. For the most part we're
content just to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the company of good friends.
Me? I'm waiting for the fairies to come back. Won't that be something?