Daniel remembered his cousin Casey always with a guilty grimace, ashamed of how he’d behaved towards him, but at the same time knowing he wouldn’t change his behaviour even if he could go back in time. Yet he kept a photo of Casey on his desk; wrinkled of face, balding, those strange wise eyes fixed on the camera, on him, it seemed. Casey had died of old age at fifteen, victim of progeria, the rare and cruel disease which aged sufferers seven times as fast as normal. Casey had been twelve in the picture, already frail and liver-spotted.
Today, Daniel directed his usual half-grin, half-grimace at the photo as he came into the surgery. Today he was Dr Daniel Quarrell, one of two doctors sharing this suburban practice, considered to be a kind and caring person by his patients. He specialised in paediatrics, though not exclusively, and a lot of his patients were family people with teenagers or younger children. It was generally known that if you were older, say sixty or more, Dr Quarrell would probably pass you on to his colleague, Dr Amy Price, who had more experience with the medical problems of the elderly.
Daniel, had he been prepared to share a moment of complete truth with anyone, would have said he couldn’t stand them. He had been through enough therapy in his teenage years because of Casey to be honest with the fact; he found age repellent. Yet he thought he’d found a good enough mechanism to deal with this shortcoming in himself. He worked hard, paid any debt to society that he still owed and devoted himself to his family; wife Emma and infant twins Kayla and Joshua. It had been the therapist’s idea that he keep the picture of his cousin, not his own.
He sighed and pushed the memory away. Early as it was, he already had patients waiting and couldn’t waste time in the past. Mrs Rendell was here again with her asthmatic toddler Jayson, who dsetroyed more puffers than Daniel had used disposable razors. Then a new patient, Peter Stanton, then Alison Smithley, the 18 year old who worked at the local Supa-Valu store and no doubt wanted yet another medical certificate for a sickie. Daniel fixed on his professional smile and went out to fetch the Rendells.
After they left, with Jayson wheezing at every step, Daniel finished his notes, narrowly preventing himself from recording that that spoiled little brat whould be allowed to hold his breath for as long as he wanted next time he fed a puffer into a VCR. That might give his exhausted mother a few minutes peace. It wouldn’t look good if he ever had to face a medical board. He then went out to fetch his next patient. No notes to help; this was the new patient. Daniel smiled at him. “Peter Stanton?” The boy appeared to be about ten, surely too young to be visiting the doctor by himself. Daniel glanced past him at the other people in the waiting room. “No, I’m on my own. Here’s a note.”
Daniel scanned it; apparently from a Mrs Jen Stanton declaring that Peter was here with her knowledge and consent. “All right, Peter Stanton,” he said amiably. “Sit down and let’s take a look at you.”
“Not Peter Stanton. Just Peter.”
“All right, ‘just Peter.’ Peter and the Wolf, is it?” Daniel chatted as he usually did to put his young patients at their ease, but Peter only waited tolerantly, a brief, too-old smile on his face. “What seems to be the problem?”
He expected a sore throat or stomach anusea or any such thing that wouldn’t make the boy visibly ill. Some children could be worse hypochondriacs than adults. “I’m not sure I can explain in fifteen minutes,” Peter said.
“Try,” Daniel requested. “I do have other people waiting.” Some precocious sexual problem? “I promise I won’t laugh, whatever it is,” he said, keeping his face very serious. “Let me take your blood pressure. We may as well make sure you’re completely healthy, hm? It won’t hurt. I’ll just put this cuff around your arm. You’ll feel a bit of pressure, that’s all.”
“It should be 110 over 70,” Peter said, looking at his arm.
“Smart boy,” Daniel said, examining the reading. Peter was spot on. “Open your mouth.” Peter did. No soreness. Nor, upon inquiry, did he have a stomach ache. Daniel’s perplexity grew; perhaps the boy was hypochondriac. He might have to have a word with Mrs Stanton, who should have made the time to accompany her son. Or foster-son; that refusal of the surname might mean something. “All right, Peter, you’ve got me. I can’t pick what your problem is. Want to tell me?”
Again the boy hesitated and now Daniel was oddly sure the difficulty wasn’t shyness or embarrassment; the boy didn’t think the doctor was going to believe him and he didn’t know how to say it so that he would. “Look, Peter, don’t worry about the fifteen minutes. If you need more time, we’ll take more time.” And Mrs Stanton can come and complain in person about the bill. “Are you worried because your mum isn’t here with you?
“She’s not my mother,” Peter said, and Daniel was quietly pleased with his diagnosis. “My mother had a breakdown when I was little, before I could understand about myself. I was taking too long, you see.”
“Peter, hold it there,” Daniel interrupted, horrified. This was more than silly lies to get attention. Ï’m going to call Mrs Stanton and get her in here, okay? I don’t think I should be talking to you about this without someone here and I’m only a GP. I’m not qualified.” He tried to smile, to cheer the boy up, but Peter, though he seemed unnaturally calm, didn’t play. “But I know some really good people you can talk to, that know about this sort of thing and how you can deal with it. No way are you to blame….”
“Doctor, I don’t have a psychiatric problem,” Peter said, almost snapping the words. Daniel stopped in shock. “Let me throw some numbers at you. I was born in the Western Australian town of Kareela, 1931, in September. My real name is Edwin Stock, but if you look that up, the records will tell you Edwin died in infancy. I didn’t – but the fact that I remained in infancy for seven times longer than normal isn’t something my family wanted noticed. If we hadn’t lived in a damned isolated area of the state, I doubt they could have got away with it, especially after my mother’s breakdown. I was pased on to my elder sister Eleanor, who managed to deal with me for another twenty years until I was physical four, when my body would finally work with some sort of dexterity, enough for me to dress myself and hold a pen, that kind of thing. It got a bit easier after that. Eleanor’s daughter Jennifer started looking after me from when I turned eight.”
“Jennifer Stanton?” Daniel blurted.
“So – uh – she’s here with you in Perth?”
“No, she’s still in Kareela, but I asked for the notes ahead of time. They threw me out. I’m not bitter; it was amazing that they tolerated me as long as they did. It’s not as easy to hide from the world as it once was and people were getting curious.”
“I would have thought it was easier,” Daniel said, trying to hear the words and not see the speaker. “With the Internet and credit cards and all those things which mean you don’t need to be face to face.”
“But it’s harder to fabricate records,” Peter said. “When I was born, quite a few kids might not have proper birth records, say if they were born in a very remote place or at home and the parents didn’t get around to it. A man without a birth certificate or proper ID or whatever could still get by and do very well. These days it’s almost impossible to be a real zero. There are so many records required that it takes a lot of work to slip between the gears.”
Now Daniel did stare at him, the smooth face and innocent brown eyes, skinny arms and child’s costume of baggy pants and camo-coloured T-shirt. “You said you didn’t have a psychiatric problem,” he said, abandoning disbelief because it hurt too much to cling to it. “You don’t have a physical problem that I can see. So just what can I do for you?”
“Find out why I’m like I am,” Peter said, staring back. “Help me speed up so I’m like them.”
Daniel spluttered. “My God – look, if half what you’ve said is true, don’t you realise, people would kill to be like you.”
“Not if they spent seventy years living like me, they wouldn’t. Dr Quarrell, I spent nearly fourteen years shitting into a nappy because I couldn’t control my physical functions. My family couldn’t be there every moment to carry me, but I couldn’t use a pen or a computer keyboard or hold a book. To everyone otuside my family I didn’t – couldn’t exist. It was too difficult to explain my presence.”
“But look at you now. You’ll be going out into the world – you could rule the world!”
“How?” Peter asked patiently. “I can’t move without a guardian beside me. Like you when I came in, you looked for my mother. I can’t hold property, I can’t drive, I can’t go anywhere without questions. I’ve been in the city about four weeks – I live at a hostel for out of town kids – and everyday life is getting to be a real problem. It’ll be another forty or fifty years before I’m old enough to get by and even then it won’t be exactly easy. And there’s something else.” He hesitated and the look of anguish abruptly flashed his true age. Ï’m lonely, Dr Quarrell, I’m fucking lonely. This body doesn’t really know aobut sex yet but there’s basic human need for companionship. Adult companionship. You know the kind of adult companion who’d be interested in a child.”
That bleak statement, of all Peter had said, convinced Daniel Quarrell. Belief sank down through shock and confusion as he met the boy’s eyes and saw the tiny ironic twist of his mouth.
“All right,” he said and let his breath out in a sigh. “So why me? There are two doctors in this practice and three more in a practice two streets over just for starters. Ego aside, I know I’m not that special a doctor. I graduated exactly in the centre of my class, ten years ago.”
Peter didn’t smile. Instead he pointed at the photo of Casey on Daniel’s desk. “I know who you are,” he said. “I know who he is. When I first realised I was different, I began to read everything I could find about ageing. I hoped there might be others like me, but I didn’t find any. What I did find was accounts of progeria sufferers, who age seven years to one and die in their teens. There is roughly one affecetd child for every four million born. They live dog years, as your cousin Casey said once. He was trying to joke for the camera. That was when they did that show about progeria for the This Day Tonight show.”
“I didn’t see it,” Daniel said harshly.
“I’ve got a recording. He talked about his cousin who was in medical school. Said maybe you’d find a cure for the disease one day. It was too late for him but maybe not for other kids.”
“Peter, I know all that,” Daniel interrupted. “It was nine weeks before Casey died and I could never watch the fucking show. I saw Casey on his birthday and at Christmas. I couldn’t stand to lok at him. So if you think you’ve found the great humanitarian working to defeat ageing, sorry. I really am just a GP. I don’t work with cellular biology.”
“But you hate ageing,” Peter said.
“I think there should be a way to slow it down,” Daniel agreed. “But that’s a philosophy. I’m not doing any specific work in that area.”
“So help me find out.”
After work that night, Daniel called his wife to tell her he would be delayed. Emma sounded rather frazzled and he could hear the twins crying in the background. “Do you want me to bring some takeaway after my meeting?” he asked.
“Sure, that’d be great. Anything.”
“I’ll get Chinese. See you soon.”
“So tell me about this new patient,” Emma said, dishing out some more fried rice to Daniel’s plate. He must be pretty special to keep you that late – unless you’re really seeing a younger woman, of course.”
They both laughed. Emma, olive-skinned and dark-haired, had recently had her twentieth birthday. She and Daniel had married not long after she turned eighteen.
“I’d be locked up if I was seeing a younger woman,” Daniel protested, grinning. “No, he’s a kid and I’m trying to decide whether he’s a psych case or really has something unusual. He claims to be a sort of reverse-progeria patient. Knew about Casey and certainly didn’t sound like a ten year old.”
“I hope somebody’s not playing some sort of sick game,” Emma said, frowning. “You know, an adult priming the kid and sending him to you to stir you up.”
“Hey, a lot of people don’t like me, but I doubt they hate me that much,” Daniel said. He thought about that second evening session with Peter; tests so detailed and uncomfortable that no child would put up with them willingly unless there was a damned good reason. Of couse, it would take a few days for the blood results to come back. For the rest, the kid was supremely healthy. His teeth appeared to be a child’s second set of teeth, not those of a 70 year old adult. Asked why they hadn’t worn down or shown signs of a lifetime’s decay, Peter shrugged and said he had always been resistant to any illness or infection.
Daniel meant to try him on mental acuity next; a questionnaire of some kind to test his knowledge of his supposed lifetime, but even if he passed, there was no real way to prove or disprove Peter’s claim.
“I guess I can always tell him to come back in forty, fifty years. If he still looks like a teenager, I’ll know he was telling the truth.”
“The hostel people are pretty curious about me, yeah,” Peter answered Daniel’s question two or three weeks later. “They deal with Jennie – or they think they do – and they’re under the impression I go to a school for gifted kids.” He grinned, a twisted, bitter expression that in no wise belonged to a child. “In another year I”ll have to shift to another place before they get curious. Boys grow so fast at my age, you see.”
“Yeah. Well, I guess that’s it for today.” Daniel glanced at his watch. “Look, Peter, my wife Emma’s kind of curious about you. How’d you like to come to dinner and meet her?”
“You told her?”
“That’s right. We don’t have secrets, but she’s never told anyone else any of mine.”
Peter still looked dubious but he said, “All right. Thanks.”
During dinner at home, Daniel watched Emma and Peter chatting, apparently delighted with each other. Afterwards, leaving Peter to entertain the twins for a few minutes, Daniel came into the shiny white-and-silver kitchen while Emma stacked dishes in the washer. “What do you think?”
Emma’s expression was a curious blend of bewilderment and awe. “I’m not sure what I think yet, Dan. He could just be a superintelligent little boy – and then he says something which my grandfather could have said, same phrasing, same sort of thinking behind it. Everyone is a product of his or her time, you know, you can’t escape it. We’ll be the old fogies for our children and be horrified at the things they do and say.”
“Him too. He’ll just take longer to get there.” She was silent a moment and then said, “Daniel, I have an idea.”
“I hate the idea of Peter being so alone at that hostel all the time, never able to really talk to anyone. You work such long hours and the twins, darlings though they are, run me ragged, especially now that they’re walking. It would help a lot if I had someone here who could mind them for a couple of hours now and then or run errands. It wouldn’t be too much for Peter and we could look out for him. What do you think?”
“It’s rather like bringing work home,” Daniel said uneasily. He did not like the idea without being clear why he didn’t like it. It wasn’t as though Peter could be considered any sort of rival for Emma! Still, refusal wasn’t really possible, not with her looking at him that way and having stated her case with the forthrightness of the teenager she still was at heart. In the end he agreed and went back to the lounge room to put the proposal to Peter, who gave him a stunned sort of grin and nodded wordlessly. Daniel drove him back to the hostel after that so that he could put the wheels in motion for his “guardian” Jennifer Stanton to send the necessary paperwork.
The tests became weekly and then daily, including such things as measuring Peter’s height and weight, testing urine and taking blood. Peter put up with them in silence.
Four years after Peter came to live with Daniel and his family, a new patient came to see Daniel to get a prescription for birth control pills. She was Rose Garcone, with clear fresh skin and a smile which blossomed whenever she saw Daniel. Rose was sixteen and had a lot of difficulties with her family. Daniel encouraged her to confide in him and soon she was visiting the surgery late in the afternoon so that she was the last patient and her doctor would then walk her most of the way home. Unlike his last troubled patient, Daniel did not mention Rose to Emma.
Peter had seen Rose twice, entering the surgery as he left. Daniel didn’t think Rose had particularly noted the boy, but when he realised, he changed the times of Peter’s visits to avoid any more encounters. Daniel also contrived to arrange things so that Peter was never there when the Quarrells entertained. Peter himself was quite willing to go out to the movies or the library and was mentioned only as the very intelligent child of out of town friends.
One afternoon about three months after Rose appeared on the scnee, Peter watched the twins playing in the summer garden. He sat on the grass, a laptop computer beside him, but he was ignoring his work. Kayla and Joshua didn’t just run, they bounced and circled and tagged each other. This last year, they’d become real little people, he thought with a smile. It seemed they’d been babies and then toddlers only yesterday. Now they were old enough to be in kindergarten and were developing lives and opinions of their own. Tomorrow – Peter tilted his head back for a quick glance at the setting sun. Tomorrow they would be passing him.
“Kids!” That was Emma calling from the back door. “Kay! Josh, move it on in. Peter, are you still there?”
“Sure, Emma, right here,” he called. “I’ll get them for you. You come here, you little devils!” The twins ran shrieking in delight, but failed to vary their dodging enough. Peter grabbed Joshua in an armlock and then reached out and grabbed Kayla when she tried to dart in and tag him. Emma winced, laughing, at the volume of their shrieks as Peter hauled the twins in. When he released them, they ran past their mother to the kitchen for the dinner they could already smell.
“They’ll be starting school next year,” Emma said, unintentionally echoing Peter’s own thoughts of a moment ago. “Hard to believe. They grow up so fast.”
“Yes,” Peter said quietly.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Peter patted her arm as he met her gaze. Ït’s all right. Really. I was just thinking that myself.”
“You never go out,” Emma said. “Not during the day, with friends, to anywhere. Only things like night-time cinema where you can come and go like a ghost. I worry about you.”
More than anything, Peter feared outstaying his welcome with Emma. He was not so concerned about Daniel Quarrell, to whom he was an interesting medical problem that could not yet be solved, but Emma was different. She didn’t try to behave as though he was any other man – or boy – but nor did she obsess about it. She let him babysit the twins and talked to him like a person. That was the best description Peter could find.
“I can’t be known,” he said. “I have to be a ghost, at least until I’m an adult and I can do things without constant checks on me.”
Emma looked at him, a curious frown on her face. “Have you thought that you wouldn’t be a child everywhere?” she asked.
“Other places in the world, you’d be considered adult at thirteen. Remember that show about the Cambodian child soldiers?”
Emma’s question stayed in Peter’s mind for another three years. His body was now about eleven years old. Meanwhile, Daniel was completely absorbed by Rose Garcone and dismayed by her growing attachment to a young man her own age, whom she said wanted to marry her. Daniel’s tests on Peter became more perfuncvtory and Peter spent much of his time studying online and with Daniel’s books. Emma’s throwaway remarks that afternoon in the garden had made him think.
One evening after he had spent most of the day in the State Library, Peter came home to find suitcases in the hall. He didn’t have to go far to hear the reason; Emma and Daniel shouting in their bedroom. The door was closed but the name “Rose” came through as though they had a loudspeaker. He stood there, irresolute, until Josh slipped through the barely opened door to his room. He was lengthening out, at eight, already taller than his twin sister and close to Peter’s height. They looked at one another as equals.
“Mum’s kicking Dad out,” Josh said. “Until he learns some manners or until Hell freezes over.”
All this was said so solemnly that Peter had to fight not to laugh. He was appalled, in himself, at wanting to laugh but still it bubbled up. “Where’s your sister?” he asked.
“She’s hiding under the bed.”
“Am not,” came Kayla’s voice from across the hall and she came out to join them, made braver by Peter’s presence, he guessed. She looked at her brother, then him. “Peter, you don’t get older,” she said and he felt both a shock and a sense of relief, that the twins had seen it at last.
“I do,” he said, “but I do it slower. What takes you one year, takes me seven.”
“Why?” Josh blurted and Peter thought; there are some things at which your sister is braver than you. You waited for her to say the words
“I don’t know,” he said. “Your dad’s been trying to find out. Do me a favour, don’t tell people? They’d think I was weird.”
This made perfect sense to eight year olds and the twins nodded seriously. “We won’t,” Josh said.
“Will you be going with Dad?” Kayla added.
Daniel burst out of the bedroom at that point, looking rather discomfited to find his children and Peter awaiting him. Neither of the twins seemed to have any idea what to say. Emma opened the door quietly again and they heard her voice calling them. Josh and Kayla fought a brief battle of loyalty, then both ducked past their father and into the room with their mother. “I’m sorry, Peter,” Emma cried and she closed the door.
Daniel, Peter saw, was already shrugging off his young wife’s betrayed pain. “You can’t stay here, Peter,” he said. “She won’t let you without me.”
Not only one betrayal. Yet she had said things which could help him, more than Daniel’s experiments ever had. Peter nodded towards the cases. “Have those got some of my things?”
“Yes, the brown one…”
“And you don’t have anywhere you need to go, do you?’
Rose’s name hung unspoken and then Daniel shrugged it off. “No,” he said. “I suppose I don’t. Do you have an idea?”
“I’ve been reading about the international aid group, Doctors Without Borders,” Peter said quietly. “They work in the refugee camps of the world, anywhere there’s trouble…”
“I know that, damn it.” Daniel grabbed the larger case and carried it outside. Peter took the smaller brown case and followed him. “You have a point to make sometime today? I don’t feel particularly charitable right now.”
“In those camps, they won’t care that I look like a kid. They will only care whether I know what I’’m doing. And I do know, Daniel. I’ve studied first aid and I’ve learned as much medicine beyond that as I can. I’ve watched you work. But I can’t go overseas without a guardian.”
“There’s the slight matter of money,” Daniel said, as the taxi he had called pulled up beside them on the road. “Do you have a solution to that one?”
“In fact I do,” Peter said.
“Come on, how could a kid like you…”
“There are no kids like me,” Peter said sharply. “Teach your fucking grandfather, Daniel. I have the money, by mail and Internet investments. So tell this driver to take us to the airport and we can wait for seats. First class if you like. There’s enough money for us to go anywhere you like while we go through the administration requirements for Doctors Without Borders. Or if you don’t want to, I can pay you just to pose as my guardian until I get where I need to go.”
“Don’t worry about it – son,” Daniel growled, quickly altering his voice as the driver wound his window down and looked at them uncertainly. “Get in, I’ll put our cases in the boot.”
In the bombed and hungry devastation of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Daniel saw Peter drop some of his guard. Not all; he still could not tell anyone what he was, but certain things were easier. Daniel himself was gratefully accepted by the other doctors of the aid group and had more work than he knew what to do with. There was no chance for him to pick and choose as he did at home. He was too tired even to think about the women among the volunteers, and he had no wish to be staked out for the vultures for looking at the local women. Some of them had put off the heavy veils, at least you could see faces now, but the fear would take many years to fade.
Under Peter’s direction, they had obtained fake papers for him that showed him as Daniel’s son, fourteen years old. He did not really look fourteen but the passport said so, people accepted it and fourteen was a more useful age than eleven. He was allowed to help out with first aid and if he did more than that, in the desperately short-handed chaos of triage in the aid camp, no one noticed or said anything if they did. Peter revealled in it, but Daniel grew more silent and resentful. He had got nowhere trying to discover the truth behind Peter’s lifespan. There had been no papers, no recognition among his peers and now, because of a little lapse of judgment, he was here among the heathen in a filthy, neolithic-style country, working like a peasant.
One hot night he had been back in their tent for a couple of hours before Peter came in; exhausted and grimy and thin-faced, but his expression glowed. “I operated,” he burst out as soon as he was in. “There was no one to do it – Dr Jensen couldn’t leave his other patient when this one was brought in and there was no time to get anyone else. It was a burst appendix. I just went ahead – the nurses stared at me but no one said anything. So long as they didn’t say anything; nothing happened. And I did it. I removed the appendix and the man will live!”
Daniel heard the joy in his voice and remembered, as though it was seventy years ago, how he had felt when he first saved a life. Where had it gone, he wondered, lying back on his pallet and watching this illusion of a boy sitting down to pull off his boots. That joy and fulfilment had been so important to him. Only now had Peter been allowed to know it. He wanted to say something to show that he understood, but only heard himself saying sulkily, “You don’t need me any more, do you?”
“How do you mean?” Peter scrabbled in a pack for a rations box; army rations from somewhere in Europe, probably stored away in a vault since D-day. He had missed the regular mealtime for the volunteers, which was not much better than the supplies available for the refugees.
“I was your token adult for as long as you needed one, wasn’t I? That’s why you came into my surgery, stayed in my house.”
Peter stared at him, the smooth boy’s face wearing a grim adult expression. “I wanted to be like the rest of you – I didn’t lie! And I let you run all those tests on me, trying to find out the why of me, so you could publish and be famous. It’s not my fault you didn’t. And now, instead of being the man who cheated on his wife with a teenaged girl, you’re the selfless humanitarian helping Afghanistan recover from the war and the Taliban.”
“Oh, give me a break,” Daniel growled. “Don’t try to talk as though it was all for me. Look at you; you’re bouncing up and down because finally, in all your years, you got to do an adult thing.”
“In this world, I am adult,” Peter said quietly, “and I waited much longer for this than you did.”
Hearing the echo of his own reluctant thoughts didn’t make Daniel feel any better disposed towrds Peter. “Fine,” he said. “You’re adult. You’re also on your own – son! I’ve had enough, I’m getting out of this place. My tour of duty or whatever they call it is up in a few days and I’m getting shifted to Kabul and then home. You stay here in the desert and be a man, why don’t you?”
With that, he turned over on his pallet and ignored Peter, who only ate the contents of the ration tin and went to bed himself. In the morning when Daniel woke, Peter had already gone to work. Daniel did not see him again for fifty years.
For Daniel, the time was an immensity, an entire life whose course was altered by a single encounter and opportunities failed. It was long enough for him to forget almost everything he wanted to forget. His life became rather quiet. He moved back to Perth, ostensibly “to be near my children,”although Joshua and Kayla showed no particular interest in their father as they moved form adolescence to adulthood and families of their own.
Daniel was almost a recluse in his home, which was notable for its understated elegance and lack of mirrors. He underwent plastic surgery twice and exercised at least three times a week at the gym. He scaled down the numbers of patients he saw but as always, nearly all of them were under fifty years of age. His receptionist was puzzled by the docvtor’s insistence on personally checking the details of any young boy who had not come to see him before.
“Hey,” she said, vidphoning her friend while the doctor was busy, “he’s so weird about boys that it sounds like he’d been charged with molesting and that’s crazy when you know this guy. Anything female so long as it’s over thirteen and under twenty but no boys, I promise you that.”
For Peter, the long, long life as a boy taught both caution and finesse. He didn’t try to contact Daniel. Nor did he issue anythreats, by phone or any other medium. The isolated city of Perth had swollen in size in the past half century; it was simple for Peter to move unseen through the streets and to find out almost anything he wanted to know. He learned that Dr Quarrell, as part of his strenuous exercise program, ran on Cottesloe beach at laest once a week at dusk on Wednesdays. He had things he wanted to say to the doctor, so he went there.
Daniel jogged slowly through the heavy sand fo the dunes, restored to their natural appearance after decades of burial beneath grass and tea rooms. The calm ocean gleamed silver-red under the sunset, half blinding him to the details of anyone on the beach. There were others around, surfers and the occasional fellow runner, but they ignored the elderly man. When one boy got in his way, Daniel was highly irate. “Excuse me!” he said pointedly and and moved to go around the youth.
“Hello, Dr Quarrell,” Peter said. “I just want to talk to you a moment.”
Daniel’s eyes blurred with tears from looking into the sun. He was sure that was what it was. He moved around to Peter’s side and rubbed his eyes clear until he could see him. He was older; a boy of seventeen maybe, still smooth faced and not needing to shave. Peter wore the universal costume of teenagers today; brief shorts slit at the sides to show the brightly coloured undershorts beneath and a shirt of material so stiff it stood out from the body of its own accord. Peter’s hair was shaved up the sides, leaving a fall of brown hair between his eyes.
“I didn’t do anythign to you,” Daniel said, furious at the querulous tone in his own voice. Ï helped you out. Sure, we disagreed and I still remember how rude you were, but everyone moves on, you know.”
“I know,” Peter agreed. His peaceful manner was definitely not teenaged. It was the calm of someone who has seen well over a century of life and is not bothered by any of it. “I don’t resent you, not any more. You didn’t have much time to learn and you didn’t really hurt the girls. They moved beyond you. But that’s not what I came to talk to you about. I came to thank you.”
“Learned sarcasm in a hundred years, have we?” Daniel grated.
“No, I mean it. I want to thank you for the lesson on how not to waste my life, even with the handicaps I have. You wouldn’t believe all the places I’ve been in the last fifty years and what I’ve seen.”
“I was there in Afghanistan, remember?”
“That was barely scratching the surface of the desert, Daniel. I’ve seen things that stretch the limits of humanity. I’ve been in the war zones of Indonesia and the Middle East. In refugee camps, chaotic places where no one notices a boy alone because there are so many boys alone. If I do things and say things beyond what a boy should know, no one cares. I’ve got papers that say I’m nineteen and so what if I look young for that? I’ve operated on the victims of land mines, you know? I have to thank you for that skill because without you, I wouldn’t have been allowed to learn it.
But on that day before you left, remember how I came back and told you I had operated for the first time? There was no one else and a man would have died. I saved him and then there was another man and a boy and a woman. Childhood is shorter in those lands. Emma told me that once and she was right. Human lives are so precious, Daniel. I’ve learned to cherish you in your time, to grieve when you pass on but to remember it’s your natural span and that the very speed of that passing means there will be more of you to care for and always some of you who need me.”
“Precious?” asked Daniel, his voice cracking in the fragile notes of an old man. His legs, exercised and pumped with drugs as they were, felt suddenly weak and he eased himself down to sit in the sand. The boy considerately crouched beside him. “I – am precious to you?”
“Sure,” Peter said. He laughed suddenly, not an entirely friendly sound. “I’m no saint, Doctor, especially now. It’s no treat being trapped in a teenager’s body for as many years as I have and will be, but I think I’ve got the experience to deal with it. Personally I don’t like you but I’m not here to punish you. I know you’d rather have what I’ve got, just as I wanted the same span as you have, to fit in.”
“You don’t want that any more?”
“No. No sense pining after what I can’t have. I’ve things to do. Unlike you, I expect to be here in another hundred years when the planet’s gone to hell, so I’m busy learning various skills to deal with it. Doctoring now, ecology, physics, everything I’m going to need when I emigrate to the new world.”
“Unless I missed something, the only “new worlds”up there are the colonies on the Moon and Mars and they’re coffins inside rock, so confined that they’re going to spot what you are pretty damn fast.”
“I said something to make you angry?” Peter asked curiously. He studied Daniel carefully. “You’re not having an attack, are you? Breathe slowly, try to calm down!”
“I’m a fucking doctor, kid, don’t tell me to calm down!”
“Kid?” It was still curious, not challenging. Peter shook his head. “I think I am punishing you, aren’t I, Daniel? Of course there’s no new Earthlike world discovered yet but there will be, within a hundred years. If no one else does it, I will. Having somewhere else to go will be the only useful help for the human race, I think, and I’m the only one qualified to lead the migrants. The only one who has lived long enough to remember Earth’s changes.” He got lithely to his feet and looked down at Daniel. Peter appeared to hesitate a moment before offering his hand to help the old man to his feet. Daniel glared but accepted the hand, sharply aware of the strength that easily raised him. The sun had sunk below the horizon now and the evening breeze off the waves was cool, chilling deep in his bones.
For a moment they looked at each other in complete honesty.
“I tried to help you,” Daniel said. “So what if I wanted what you had.”
“You wasted the time you had with Emma,” Peter whispered. “She was crazy about you.”
Both shook their heads.
“If I was young,” Daniel said, “would you choose me to go to the stars with you? I know you can’t, you won’t – but would you?”
The hesitation was barely apparent before Peter nodded. “I’d choose you,” he said. “Good luck, Daniel.”
He turned and walked away, unhurriedly, but he was still nowhere in sight by the time Daniel made his way through the heavy sand of the dune path to the road and his vehicle. Gone like a faerie child in the dusk, the old man thought. Yet a child would not have understood the need in him or had the kindness to lie, at the last. So hes tood there, gazing out to sea or at nothing, ignoring the looks of the young people walking past him and laughing with their friends. “I would have helped you if I could, Casey,” he said aloud. “I really would.”
This story originally appeared in Aurealis: Australian Fantasy and Science Fiction Issue 32.