The Word Thief
The words vanished so slowly that, at first, Walter Washington didn’t even notice.
When it happened the first time, he thought it was simply a misprint. Why else would the last word on the final page of King Lear be missing? What rogue editor would deliberately leave it out?
But then he noticed it in other volumes lining his shelves. Hamlet was missing whole pages. Macbeth – the entire second act. Shakespeare was the first writer to completely disappear from the old man’s collection.
Walter would spend hours flipping through his books, tracing the blank pages with the tips of his long, lean fingers, searching for some hint that the words had ever existed somewhere outside of his own aging mind. He remembered late nights with Roger during their courtship, drinking and kissing and reciting the bard’s sonnets with such conviction… But now, he could not recall a single couplet. It was so long ago – had he simply imagined it?
One rainy afternoon, Walter was struck with a feeling of deep longing for those same timeless words as he passed by the local library branch on his way to pick up the morning paper.
He entered the building, browsed the classics, and found what he was looking for…but stopped just short of touching the spines lining the shelves. What if the disappearing words were contagious? He could bear the guilt of a personal collection lost forever, but a public library was too much for his conscience to even anticipate.
The next empty volume he found on his shelf was the collected works of Poe. The cover and spine and pages were still there, but they remained as crisp, clean, and blank as the day the sheets were shipped to the printer. The inscription Roger had written on the flyleaf was gone. Even the notes he’d penciled in the margins were beginning the fade into oblivion. Soon, the entire shelf had been transformed from a collection of timeless wisdom to a stack of attractive leather-bound paperweights.
The contemporary lit was the last to go – Atwood, Murakami, the Nicholas Sparks novel Walter had picked up at a used bookstore on a lark, then discarded when it began to hit embarrassingly close to home. He stopped picking up the morning paper, because as soon as he unfolded the pages, it became a race against time, the words beginning to vanish in a staccato rhythm across the columns as he fumbled with his bifocals.
He wondered, sometimes, if he was going mad. But at his age, Walter was too afraid to voice his concerns aloud, for fear that he’d be locked up. He still remembered the last time he’d visited Roger, caged away in the home. Shuttered windows. Small, sterile rooms with doors that did not lock. Dour and disapproving nurses behind every corner. And no shelves lining the walls. Not a real book in the place – just yellowing issues of Reader’s Digest and TV Guide in the common area.
Walter let his subscriptions to Time and the Economist lapse. What was the use? He started to leave the TV on long after the evening news ended, simply to fill the void that the lost words left in his small apartment. But the primetime programming started to fade, too. There were gaps between breaths. Puffs of static. Blips of white noise, growing longer and more numerous each day.
When the mail began to spill out of the mailbox and onto the street, Walter’s neighbors grew concerned. They hadn’t seen him enter or leave the house in weeks. Telephone calls went unanswered. No one stirred in response to the doorbell, the increasingly desperate raps against shuttered windows.
Dreading the worst, the police knocked in the front door. And that’s when they found the old man, crumpled in an unmoving heap on the floor, surrounded by the torn and tattered pages of a hundred scattered books, the television quietly crackling in the background.
A wedding ring had fallen from the widower’s frail fingers, clutched in the palm of his skeletal hand. He was still breathing, but when he opened his mouth to speak, no words came out. After a few moments, choking silently as his unfocused eyes gazed into the distance, Walter Washington slowly shook his head, and did not move again.
They never saw the silent shadow as it slipped from behind the bookshelf and out the door.