This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Word Fountain, the literary magazine of the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
The way I see it, I'm not stealing. These people are old, dying. Nobody loves them, or cares enough to come and see them. The nurses at the hospice think I'm an angel, volunteering to spend time with them three nights a week, three hours a night. Sit with them, talk to them, pretend to understand their garbled moans. What I'm taking from them, they don't want anyway. No one in their right mind would want this stuff.
It's hard to describe how I see someone else's memories, but here's the best image I can come up with: imagine a building crammed with bookshelves, like a library. Sometimes it's a mansion, sometimes a modest house, sometimes a broken-down shack. Many of the books are out of reach, or have no titles on the spines, or the pages are stuck together, or faded, or unreadable. Most of the contents of the books are stupid and dull. Some are disgustingly sweet, or just the usual happy crap common to most people, the stuff we take for granted because we think it's routine, even though it isn't. But that stuff doesn't interest me. For me, the best memories are the nasty bits. The trauma, the pain, the horrible things that happened to you, the rotten, unforgivable things you did to others without thinking. The stuff you really don't want to remember. I love it.
The Alzheimer's patients are the worst. Their libraries look beautiful from the outside, but inside, the shelves are a mess. Worm-eaten pages from one book lead directly to crumbling pages from another. Whole shelves are empty, or connect to shelves in another room. What's left, though...wisps of joy, fleeting moments of family and friends that flutter away before you can really grasp them, and the sharp, sharp scraps of pain and guilt and regret.
I take their memories. It's my gift, my talent. Maybe I'm the only one who can do it, I don't know. I rip those pages out of their books, stuff them into my pockets, and get the hell out of there. I don't take everything, just the really bad memories. Who could object to me taking that from them? They're going to be dead in a few days, or weeks, or months. And then all this stuff will be lost. That would be the real crime.
Granted, they seem to want to hold onto their bad memories. Maybe the act of dredging this stuff up, extracting it, and ripping it out causes them to relive the trauma. Maybe when I take the worst moments of their lives from them, they get to experience them all over again.
It doesn't matter. I guess those days are over.
Maybe I should have read up a bit more on the new resident before I sat with him. Albert Gustavus Goodson. Ninety-three years old. Served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Widower twice over. No children. Wealthy recluse. No friends - at least, none who could be bothered to check up on him. Outlived all his family. Had a massive stroke, didn't get to the hospital before permanent paralysis set in on much of his body and robbed him of the ability to speak. My kind of guy.
I suppose if I'd done some reading I would have found out about the strange case of A.G., the man with the perfect memory.
Perfect. Absolute recall of everything that had ever happened to him. Everything he had ever seen, everything he had ever done, everything anybody around him had done. Two wives, seven cats, three wars, four writeups in books about psychology. Countless loves, countless deaths.
No, not countless. Not countless at all.
His memory is...let's say it's like a crystal cathedral. Not like the one that TV preacher built. Bigger, way bigger. A mile high, massive, wide, and sparkling like the diamond in your mother's wedding ring. Thousands of floors, hundreds of thousands of shelves, millions of books, everything gleaming, mirrored and transparent at the same time. Every page crisp and clean, full of sharp text and vivid illustrations. Amazing. Like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. I could spend so much time here, wandering the shelves, climbing the stairs from floor to floor, searching for perfect memories of pain and loss.
And so much else. Perfect memories of banality. Breakfasts and trips to the bathroom. Thirty-seven years of commuting. Every church sermon, every magazine article, every commercial jingle. All of it.
I don't know how long I spent with him that first night, wandering in the maze of library stacks in his cathedral of memory. I think it was a lot longer than my usual three hour session. Maybe they left me with him all night. It was a while before I realized I was lost. I couldn't remember how to get out, how to get back to me. I wasn't sure I wanted to. And then I couldn't.
I don't know what happened. Maybe he died and transferred his memories to me. Maybe I died and got stuck inside him. Maybe he vacated his body and left me alone in here. Maybe he somehow swapped our bodies and walked out of the hospice in a young, healthy body, never to return. I don't know.
I know his memories are intact. Every one of them. Every girl who broke his heart. Every man he lost in the jungles and mountains. Every time he burned his bacon. Every time he fed his cat, or left his umbrella in a cab, or bought stamps, or stubbed his toe, or washed his socks.
I want to leave, but I can't. I can't stop rummaging through his memories. Room to room, floor to floor. I haven't even put a dent in what he remembered. Every time I try to find the way out, I get distracted by something else, some other pain or trauma or whatever. There's so much in here. So much more than I've ever encountered in one place before. Too much. Too much.
I have no idea how long I've been here, or how much longer I'll be here. Maybe someday somebody else will come to me, somebody with the same gift I have. Maybe they'll look on this cathedral of memory with a jealous eye and decide they want it for themself. Maybe someday somebody will come and take all this away from me.
God, I hope so.