The man sat alone in his room, letting the long hours pass. His back was hunched in the rocker so that his chin rested on his neck, and he watched shadows that played on the ground through milky eyes and cataracts that left him nearly blind. He saw a world distorted and blurred—ghosts of a life once focused.
This isn’t me, he thought.
He used to be someone. That much he knew, though he was certain of little else. His thoughts had left him a long time ago, and every day even more slipped quietly away, wisps of smoke in the night, unnoticed, until there were no more left to hold on to. Age had taken his memories, robbed him of his purpose, left him tired. So he remained in his chair, letting vague notions like this one form and dissolve, until at last he heard a knock.
The door opened, followed by soft footsteps that came to rest beside his chair. “I think this belongs to you,” the nurse said. She had the loveliest voice, each syllable a beautiful note that made his weak heart stir. And at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to speak—to tell her all the stories from a life he no longer recalled. His chin and lips quivered, but no words came. Only his breath escaped him.
She placed something heavy in his lap, and he looked down at the silver smudge of a tin box. He tried to turn his head to thank her, but every part of him refused. His body no longer obeyed his wishes. He tried harder, and in the height of his frustration, he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. Her gentle, calming touch warmed him through, like a roaring fire. But the feeling passed as quickly as it had come, and she withdrew. He heard her move back to the door.
The melody of her voice lingered in his mind. He wanted to hear one more word. He did not.
Please come back to me.
After some time, his legs grew heavy from the weight in his lap, and he remembered the box. He focused on his hands, loose skin draped over veins, and thought about what it might be like to use them again, after all this time. It might have been years, decades even—there was no way to know for sure. These were hands that had served him well. Somehow he knew they would again.
One thought, willed stubbornly into existence. An impulse that escaped his frozen mind and shook his body to the core. A twitch, then another. Movement. He concentrated harder, and with trembling fingers, his hand lifted. He let it fall onto the surface of the box.
There was an etching, and he traced it with his finger.
This was his name, before he’d forgotten it.
He let his hands continue on until they found a latch, and with all his strength, he flipped it back. But as he went to open the lid, he heard his door open once again. The footsteps that came were different now, heavy with intent. When they stopped by his chair, he felt a strange presence looming over him, watching.
The visitor reached for the box with gloved hands, but the old man held on as tight as he could, conjuring what little strength he could muster. He didn’t know what lay inside, just that it belonged to him. His emotions swelled, and somehow he managed to pull the box from the stranger’s grip. But his arms were left too tired from the struggle. The box fell, and its contents spilled across the floor.
Herman slid from the chair and collapsed onto the ground, and with fingers spread wide he searched the scattered pile. Among all the things that made no sense, he found something that did. His fingers gripped cold steel. He clutched it, held on for dear life.
The stranger knelt beside him and took something else from the pile. Herman saw it glimmer in the moonlight.
Don’t you understand?
The dark soles of the boots retreated to the door and left the old man behind.
This is all I have left.
Slowly he crawled after the thief, still clutching the metal object, until at last he reached the door. Poking his head through the crack, he saw the stranger, the thief, waiting for him at the end of a long hall. Taunting him. Testing his resolve. Then the stranger turned, a shadowy cloud of gray and black, and disappeared through another doorway.
The passage was long, and the old man hadn’t moved in years. With a long sigh, he considered returning to his room. No. The thief had what belonged to him. He would get it back.
Herman’s muscles quaked as he lifted himself up. It was grueling.
The first step was the hardest.
He moved with a shuffle rather than a walk, and he had a stoop that made him appear half his size. His joints shifted and popped. Step after step, he desperately willed one foot in front of the other. Still, he moved, despite the ache of swollen joints, despite legs that wobbled under the strain. He moved forward, determined, toward the room at the end of the hall where the stranger waited. And with each step, he stood taller. Stronger.
And then he was there. He stepped into the room. Instead of the stranger, he found a woman asleep, holding a child to her chest. Her room, like his, was dark, with the rhythmic pulsing of lights and machines. Machines that had saved lives. He smiled; this felt familiar. But his smile faded and his face darkened when he looked at the infant, blue and still.
He knew what to do with the object he had carried so far. He inserted the rubber ends of the stethoscope into his ears and placed the other end on the child’s back. He heard the abnormal breaths, the whistling from deep within. Every breath slower than the one before it, until the beating of the heart stopped altogether.
For a moment, there was quiet and despair.
Without thinking, he placed his other hand on the child’s back. The warmth of his heart flowed through his fingertips. So many years of unspoken words and thoughts, a wave of love, rushed forth.
The child’s air came quickly, silencing his worry. Rich and unrestrained. And then the energy that flowed from him into the child reversed direction as swiftly as the breathing had resumed. He gasped, feeling the air as it filled the child’s lungs—filled his lungs. And with it, his mind was flooded with the faces of thousands of children, the faces of those he had healed over so many years. The thought of each child brought with it a gift—a memory returned.
His work was done. He looped the stethoscope around his neck and returned to the hall, just as a group of doctors rushed past him into the room.
The stranger was waiting for him, standing by his doorway. This time, Herman walked proudly, unafraid of what lay ahead. The stranger still had something that was his.
Before he reached the door, the stranger stepped into his room. Herman followed—and stopped cold. He saw himself, in the chair, resting peacefully. His family sat around him, eyes swollen with tears, at once sad and happy. He turned away from his other self and studied the scattered belongings still on the floor.
The stranger grabbed his arm before he reached for them. “You won’t be needing those anymore.”
The stranger took the old man’s hand, and into it he placed the object he had taken earlier. Herman studied the object carefully, considered what it meant.
When he looked up, the stranger was gone. Someone else stood in the stranger’s place.
That voice. The nurse. In all his life, she had never looked more beautiful. He kissed her softly.
“This belongs to you,” he said, sliding the ring over her finger.
Story edited by David Gatewood