“Let me tell you a story,” the old man said to the child as they sat on the bench beneath a tall oak tree in the park.
Brushing the mischievous yellow bangs back from her bright blue eyes, the little girl nodded. Her name was Amanda Jean Anderson and she was nine and she liked stories very much.
“This is a story about an animal called a kangaroo,” he began with a smile. “Now let me tell you, kangaroos are the funniest animals that God ever thought up. They have long floppy ears and a stupendous tail and when they move, they don’t walk at all but they hop!” He finished with a chuckle. Thomas Platt enjoyed telling stories more than anything. And he knew that children make the very best audiences because they knew how to laugh so well.
Amanda was just a bit confused. The old man had kind brown eyes and she certainly appreciated his pleasantness, but she could not understand why he was talking like this. She ventured hesitantly, “Was it a robot kangaroo?”
“A robot?” Thomas said with astonishment.
“We have a robot kangaroo at school,” Amanda explained.
“Oh,” said Thomas. “Then you know about kangaroos.”
A smile burst over Amanda’s face. “The kangaroo is a marsupial that lives in Australia. Kangaroos are herbivores.” She was a bright girl who enjoyed learning and she did not mind showing off just a little.
“Oh,” said Thomas. He said quietly, “You know they have pouches.”
Amanda wondered if the old man was just being silly. She said, “The marsupial pouch of the female kangaroo gives shelter and safety to the kangaroo young, who are called joeys.”
Thomas was disappointed. The girl not only knew about the kangaroo pouches but she was aware that their offspring were called joeys. His whole story about a kangaroo named Joey who fell out of his mother’s pouch might not work with someone who knew so much about kangaroos.
He stared across the wide field of green and shifted uncomfortably over the plastic bench. The plastic was yielding and comfortable, but it felt foreign, like the soft silvery suit he wore and the pristine unpolluted air that filled his lungs. It was all foreign to him. Beyond the grass he saw the tall buildings of the modern city and wondered if he belonged here at all.
“Go on,” urged Amanda. She could tell that she had upset the old man somehow. It did not matter what kind of story he told her. “Tell me your story.”
Thomas considered the situation. Could he even entertain a child of the 22nd century with stories that were more than one hundred years old? He hadn’t been sure when he’d sat down on the bench and now he was less sure. In fact, he was nearly certain that he couldn’t.
Amanda put a happy lilt in her voice. “Go on.”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. He remembered the last little girl he’d told the kangaroo story to. His granddaughter’s face had lit up when she laughed. It was a sad memory because Marie was gone now. Everyone he had ever known was dead. The cryogenics program had literally saved his life, but now his whole family was gone and he was alone.
“You promised me a story,” Amanda nudged playfully. “I think you owe me a story, sir.”
He decided to try again. It had been just bad luck that he’d picked the kangaroo story. Why, he had many more tales of whimsy and mischief that he was certain would entertain this little girl. His face softened. “I think I’ll try a different one. A story just for you.”
Relieved, Amanda pinched her ears between fingers and thumbs and said, “I’m ready.” The old man laughed.
“Now, this story is just a little scary so I don’t want you to be frightened,” Thomas said in a soothing voice. “Remember, it’s just make believe.” The story he’d picked was about a battle between monstrous sea creatures and the beginning might be scary to a little girl. But it had a fine ending, with happy fishes and a wonderful mermaid princess. He would tone down the dark parts of the story and rush to the part where a fish named Arthur escaped. He began, “At the bottom of the deep ocean there live huge creatures that no man has ever seen. They have eight extraordinary long arms and only one bulging eye at the top of their bodies.” He stopped, looking at the little girl’s face. Her cheeks were drawn and her tiny mouth was pressed tight.
Amanda blinked. She did not understand why the old man was talking this way again. Didn’t he know that people visited the bottom of the ocean? She said quietly, “I’ve been to Ocean World with my parents.”
Thomas felt a hot flush. His voice was shrill. “What?”
“I’ve seen the giant squids. On the Marianas Trench ride. I’m sorry,” Amanda said. “I don’t mean to ruin your stories.”
“No,” Thomas said in a soft voice. “It’s not your fault.” This was no one’s fault. The cryogenics technology had one flaw. It could bring that man into the future but it could not take away his past. “I’m sorry. I guess I don’t really know any stories that you would like.”
The lines of distress that marred the old man’s face disheartened Amanda. He was a nice person and she felt guilty about disappointing him this way. Smoothing her auburn dress, she watched the fabric crinkle and bounce back as she struggled to come up with a solution to this problem. There was one thing she might be able to do but it was a disobedient act and she hated even thinking about it.
Amanda knew the grown up word for what she contemplated was fibbery. Children called them fibs and scoos but she was old enough to know that fibbery was more than just telling scoos. Fibbery included all aspects of deceit. And what she wanted to do was pretend that she liked the old man’s story, no matter what she really thought. This was most definitely fibbery. She promised herself that she would admit her misdeed to her parents later and ask for their forgiveness. “Go on,” she said. “I may have seen the giant squids but I have never heard your story before. Please go on.”
“No,” Thomas said sadly. He dismally thought about all the expense and trouble involved with freezing him and bringing him to an era where technology could save him from the cancer. It had all been a waste. He wouldn’t be happy in a place if he was useless. And storytelling was the thing he knew how to do best.
“Please,” Amanda said. “Tell me a different story. I promise not to interrupt this time. Please.”
Touched by the little girl’s concern, Thomas studied the tiny hands clasped in her lap and that beautiful shy smile made of magical rose lips. And her eyes, he watched the wonderful blue sparks of life. They were drawn with worry because of him. This was not what storytellers do, he scolded himself. Storytellers are the shapers of happy eyes.
Though it might not be easy, Thomas was determined to make this little girl happy. He would make those eyes shine bright again. He began slowly, “Now, I would like to tell you a story that is only told to special little girls who know most everything. You see, this is a story about rocket ships and very tall green aliens. They live on the other side of the universe on a beautiful world called Rainbow Planet.”
Amanda concentrated on smiling. Committing fibbery. She knew about aliens, everyone did. There was an alien neighborhood right there in New York and the Andorans were blue with black ears, the Crem were red, and the Phantosians a bright yellow. But she would not interrupt to tell the old man the truth. That rocket ships had been replaced by wormhole science before Amanda was even born. She did not want to make the old man unhappy so she did fibbery.
His heart pounded with joy as Thomas watched the little girl’s smiling face. This was what made living worthwhile. He continued, a laugh rising in his voice, “The aliens that live on Rainbow Planet are called Thumpers. They’re called that because they’re so tall that their feet have to be very large and they thump when they walk. Now the universe is a big place but the Thumper’s rockets are very, very fast and they travel everywhere. Sometimes they even come here to Earth.”
For just one moment, Amanda’s smile wavered. She could not help it. Her father had explained in detail just why wormholes were necessary to travel in space. She was very proud of understanding nothing could travel faster than light and that it would take far too long to explore the universe using only rockets. It was a struggle not to tell the old man the truth.
Thomas ceased talking. He had seen the change in the little girl. He felt like a fool. She was just trying to be nice so his feelings wouldn’t get hurt again. He said, “People travel to other stars now? I’m sorry.”
“Go on,” Amanda begged. “I am listening.”
Thomas couldn’t put her through this anymore. He should never have sat on the bench. He was no storyteller in this era, that was clear. But he didn’t want her being upset so he said, “Tell me about the rocket ships. Where do they go?”
Amanda felt terrible. She knew that the old man had lost something because of her. She couldn’t do fibbery right and he had seen the truth. “People go to all the stars,” she answered slowly. “But not with rockets anymore.” Sudden desperation rose inside her and she blurted, “I really like talking with you.”
Thomas was touched. “Thank you,” he said. “Don’t feel bad. I’m not from here and that’s the problem. Actually, I’m not from now.”
“Are you a New Arrival?” Amanda asked. Curiosity sparked inside her. She knew about people that came from the past. They slept for hundreds of years. She wanted to ask the old man how long he’d been sleeping.
“That’s what they call us, don’t they,” Thomas said.
“I hope that wasn’t impolite to call you that.”
“No, of course not. This is actually the first day I’ve been out on my own. I would say qualifies as a New Arrival. I’m not familiar with your time, as you can tell. Would it be impolite to introduce myself?”
With a glad smile, Amanda told him, “People introduce themselves all the time and it is not impolite.”
“My name is Thomas.”
“I’m Amanda Jean Anderson,” she said, her heart light. Something nice was happening. They didn’t need stories to enjoy one another’s company. And they certainly did not need fibbery. How could she have been so foolish as to expect a bad thing to make things good? She pointed to the row of houses on the street past the little pond. “I live right there. The gray house in the middle. My little brother Jimmy is four. We’re very close.”
Overwhelmed by this wonderful creature, Thomas murmured, “I bet you are.” Here was the joy that he would have given her. Here was her spirit soaring. There was no need to tell her a story. Amanda was all the wonder that good stories are made of.
“I wonder if I can ask you a question. It may be impolite.”
“Of course,” Thomas assured. He swept out a hand with a flourish. “I am at your disposal, madam.”
Amanda giggled and said, “I’m not sure if I’m a madam yet. I think you have to be older.”
“You’re only as old as you feel,” Thomas said.
“I don’t feel old enough to be a madam.” Amanda’s voice was high and light. She certainly enjoyed this. “What I really wanted to know is how long you were sleeping.”
“I was asleep for over a hundred years.” Thomas said. “They froze me on October 5, 1969.”
Amanda was surprised. She had assumed that Thomas was centuries old.
There was something about the girl’s reaction that struck Thomas as odd. She looked perplexed. He wasn’t sure what it meant and he asked, “Didn’t you know they put people to sleep for so long?”
Amanda said, “No, I thought you were longer. I’m sorry. I mean I thought you were sleeping longer.”
“Really? And just how old did you think I was?”
Sighing playfully, Amanda admitted, “I was going to ask if you knew George Washington.”
“Now I am surprised,” Thomas said. “You know everything about the universe but you don’t know this. I think you may be interested to know that I was the fifth person in history to be cryogenically frozen.”
This made no sense to Amanda. She was sure cryogenics had been around for a very long time. “You told me 1969,” she said. “When did they start doing it?”
“It started as a secret program for the military. Captain Jonathon Brinker was the first successful attempt in 1967. He was frozen for only a few weeks.”
“I really don’t know about cryogenics,” Amanda said. “I thought they were doing it for a long time.”
Thomas was interested in Amanda’s perspective of the past. He asked, “When do you think rocket ships were invented?”
“I never asked my father that,” Amanda said. “That is a very good question. I learned in school that in China they had gunpowder a long time ago. So—a thousand years ago?”
Thomas was delighted with this charming moment the universe had given to him. “I saw the first rocket ever shot into outer space on television.”
Amanda was amazed. “I am going to ask my father about rocket ships,” she said very seriously. “I do not know about rocket ships.”
“Let me see what I remember,” Thomas said. “The first rockets were called Mercury rockets. American rockets. The Russians had theirs. There was a big competition between our two countries. It had to do with politics. And it carried over into the space race.”
Amanda was fascinated. She knew where Russia was and she thought Russians were exotic. This was a very exciting story. She asked, “Did you see the race?”
Thomas chuckled. “The space race lasted for years. It was a race to see who could build the first rocket to the Moon. Can you guess who won?”
“I think I know,” Amanda said. “I’ve seen the Moon flag.”
“Well, you thought space ships were a thousand years old,” Thomas teased. “I didn’t know you knew about the Moon.”
“I think I do,” Amanda said.
“I saw a picture of that flag on the Moon and I was surprised it was fluttering like that. I didn’t know it got so windy on the Moon.”
“I don’t think it gets windy on the Moon,” Amanda responded with glee. “I think you need wind for it to be windy.”
“You might just be right.” Thomas smiled. Maybe this new world did have some things to offer a hundred-year-old man. Amanda’s dancing blue eyes and her wonderful smile were the greatest gifts he could ask for. Maybe he would fit in here after all.
Chris Dean is a Midwestern American farmer. Chris began writing stories as a youngster, exciting adventures with that imitable detective Sheerluck Holmes and breathtaking tales like The Cow That Ate the Universe. The writing started again a couple of years ago with articles in regional publications. Now Chris is back into fiction.