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.