Susan Sizemore

Free Stuff


For the Children

by
Susan Sizemore


"Negotiations are continuing."

Daddy's voice sounded calm from his chair across the room, but it was the kind of calm that made Marcie nervous. She stroked the head of her Multi Maia doll, and its hair began to grow and turn dark red, like Commander Levy's.

"That's all they ever say, sir."

Commander Levy sounded angry. Marcie didn't like that. Her daddy was Captain Remy Duchene, and people weren't allowed to get angry at him. He could get angry, but he didn't very often. He had a soft voice. A Laconic Drawl was how she'd overheard commander Levy describe it. Levy had been smiling when she said it, so Marcie knew it wasn't an insult. Commander Levy was nice - mostly. She smiled at Daddy a lot when he wasn't looking, and he smiled at her the same way. She let Marcie call her Dixie when she was off duty. Which she wasn't now, and there was no smile in her voice. Marcie couldn't see the Exec's face, not from her spot on the floor.

Marcie looked up as Commander Levy paced close to her hiding place behind the potted plants. Marcie wasn't actually hiding, she just liked being close to her father and his office had the best private places on all of Station Five. Marcie Duchene knew how to find good private places because she'd spent most of her eight years exploring the ships and bases and space stations where her father's assignments took them. She thought she was going to like Station Five, though they'd only been here three weeks. She liked it because there were other kids on Five, lots of them. She hadn't made any friends yet, but she intended to. After the Changers stopped saying awful things on the comchannels and took their ships away. She didn't want to be too far from her daddy until then. He needed her.

So she'd come to his office today as soon as her lessons were over and settled with her dolls and reader in the spot behind the plants and under the viewscreen that showed too much dark and not enough stars. Station Five was on the farthest far edge of the Commonwealth with no planets or anything nearby. Ships were supposed to come and go from here a lot, but now there was a blockade and there wasn't anything to see. Marcie guessed Station Five was important - or why would daddy be posted here as the new commandant?

"I don't trust the diplomats," Levy said, standing very near to where Marcie crouched. Marcie saw the Exec's pretty dark-eyed face through the flowering arch of vines, but the Exec turned back to face Daddy before catching sight of Marcie.

"It isn't our job to trust." Daddy spoke to his second in command with the same patient tone he used when Marcie stubbornly knew she was right about something that he didn't agree with. Marcie couldn't help but smile at that, though she felt sorry for Commander Levy. "Our job is to wait for further orders."

"And make contingency plans, sir."

"What plans do you suggest, Commander? We both know that Five will be the first place hit when the talking stops. If," he added firmly. "To send reinforcements would be seen as aggression by the Changers."

"I'm all for aggression, sir."

"Do you really want to start a war, Dixie?"

"No, sir. Of course not. The last thing a real soldier wants is to fight. But if there's going to be war anyway…"

"It's not a certainty. We have to believe our differences can be settled peaceably."

"Do you believe it, Remy?"

Marcie had never heard Commander Levy use her father's first name before. She wasn't sure it was proper, or if she liked it. She waited for him to reprimand Commander Levy, but instead he said, "I try, Dixie. We have nowhere to go. I've already been told that an evacuation would be seen as a sign of weakness by the Changers. To evacuate would be sure to bring on an attack."

"But the civilians. The children-"

"No one can leave. I have my orders on that."

"Your own daughter-"

Marcie drew her knees up, and grasped her Maia doll closer with every tense word. It had turned green, with bumps on its head. She strained to hear her father's voice, though he lowered it as he cut the commander off again.

"Marcella stays with me. We face whatever comes together."

Marcie realized she'd been holding her breath as she let it out in a very quiet sigh of relief. She fought down the urge to run to Daddy, knowing she'd be sent away if he knew she was there. This was a private meeting, after all.

"Is that wise, sir?"

"No." He laughed softly. "Wisdom - well, love isn't always wise."

"I'm not the maternal type," Commander Levy said after a long silence. "But I really do worry about the children. The base children, and those refugee children that were brought in on the last transport."

"You're right," Daddy said. "The children deserve better than to be around a lot of tense adults. Especially the orphans. Those children have had quite enough trauma in their lives."

Jealousy stabbed instantly through Marcie. I've had trauma too, she wanted to shout at him for daring to think about kids other than her. I could be an orphan. I don't have a mom! That's close, half an orphan - which made her sad to think about. She was an only child and knew she was spoiled -- and liked it that way. She hadn't met the refugee kids housed over in Vesper Tower, but she decided she hated them if Daddy was going to make a fuss over them when they weren't all that much different than her. What made them special?

"Then you'll authorize evacuation of the children, sir?"

"I can't do that. Don't ask again."

Commander Levy sighed. "Yes, sir."

Levy sounded weary and defeated, and Marcie wanted offer the Exec a reassuring hug. Worry shook through her, strong enough to make her forget hating the refugee kids, almost strong enough to make her come out of hiding and run to her daddy for a hug for herself. Discipline held, though. It was not her place to disturb Captain Duchene when he was on duty. And she couldn't tell him she was scared, because then he might send her away. No, wait. That's what he and Commander Levy were arguing about -- because he couldn't send kids away. Good. Marcie smiled, and Maia turned pink and pretty again, though the hair she sprouted was spiky and green.

"We do need to do something for the children."

Marcie perked up at his bright tone. "Like what?" Commander Levy sounded skeptical. No, suspicious. She hadn't known Daddy long, but she already knew how he could be when he sounded so very enthusiastic. "Why am I not reassured by that look, Remy? What are you going to stick me with?"

"That's 'What are you going to stick me with, sir', Commander."

"Yes, sir. I believe I implied that, sir."

"What about Christmas?" he asked.

"What about it?"

Marcie almost popped up to ask the same question. Curiosity and excitement bubbled up in her. Maia went all red and white candy stripes, and her dress went red with fur trim. Christmas? Marcie hugged herself. She remembered Christmas!

"It's Christmas time back on Earth."

"Really?" Commander Levy questioned. She sounded cool and distant as she added, "I wouldn't know about that, sir."

"You're not from Earth are you?"

"Among other things, sir."

After a pause he added, sounding contrite. "Christmas is the holiday I know the most about. Most of the children on Station Five have never celebrated Earth holidays that are part of their human heritage."

"I suppose you're right, Captain, but what does Earth holidays have to do with the Changer crisis?"

"Nothing." Marcie heard the smile in his voice. "That's the beauty of it."

"You've lost me. No, you never had me to begin with."

"That would be a pity, Dixie."

"What?"

"Never mind. Let's concentrate on Christmas. Commander Levy, I am authorizing you to organize the celebration."

"What celebration?"

"The one that we'll use to keep the children calm and distracted while this Changer thing works out - one way or another." Much of the enthusiasm left his voice when he said that.

"One way or another," Dixie Levy repeated, equally grim.

"We might not be here a week from now," Daddy said. Marcie jumped a little behind her plants at the bang as his hand slapped down on his desktop. "But by God the children of Station Five will have pleasure and good memories if they have nothing else in the rest of their short lives."

"You want me to organize a party for the children?"

"No, Commander, I want much more than that. I want you to give them the time of their lives. Do whatever you have to. The resources of the station are at your disposal. Find out what you need, use who you need, and go for it!"

"Go - for - it?"

It was very hard for Marcie not to jump up and explain in the dense silence that followed Commander Levy's puzzled question. She knew exactly what Daddy wanted, what had to be done. She looked at her Maia doll and silently mouth, 'We'll help her.', and made Maia's head nod enthusiastically.

###

"I do not believe I let him talk me into this."

"I thought you said Captain Duchene ordered you to do this."

"That's true. But I have the sneaky feeling that man doesn't actually have to 'order' me to do anything. All he has to do is talk to me for a while and I melt."

Marcie didn't understand why Lieutenant Sanders laughed, or why Commander Levy joined her. She wasn't lurking, she was waiting at the corner on Level 18 nearest the station school. She wasn't eavesdropping, the officers who were approaching were talking too loudly. Still, she thought she should make her presence known before some invisible line was crossed between quietly listening and being sneaky. She would not be accused of being a sneak.

Then the Executive Officer went on. "I mean it's not like he's the best looking man I've ever seen. Too skinny, and going bald, with big hands and feet - like a puppy. Got those big hound dog eyes and droopy sad sack face."

Marcie stayed very still a few seconds longer behind the shelter of the corridor wall, listening curiously to the women talk about her father. The one thing she clearly understood was the affection in Dixie Levy's voice. She liked Daddy. Somehow that made Marcie feel very good.

"It's the voice," Sanders said. "That New Orleans accent's killer."

"And when he smiles I just- Well, I'm trying not to think about it. This is no time to be attracted to a man."

"This is the best time," Sanders said. "Celebrate life while we have it, I say."

"In the middle of a warzone?"

"The war hasn't started yet. Yes, Dixie, I heard the newscasts last night, and I was at this morning's briefing about the Changer ultimatum."

"We could be dead in two days."

"Maybe. You ain't dead yet, Levy. Go for it, I say. Of course, he has a kid."

"I like the kid."

"Well, then-"

"I'm a career officer."

"So's Captain Duchene."

"Yes. But-" Commander Levy stopped speaking abruptly and blushed a little when Marcie stepped out from around the corner. "Hello, Marcella. And Maia," she added as Marcie swung the doll gently by its currently long red hair. "I got your message," Levy went on as Lieutenant Sanders backed up a few steps so that Marcie could walk next to Commander Levy.

Marcie liked it that Commander Levy took her by the hand without even seeming to notice she was doing it. They walked along the corridor toward the bridge that arched over the hydroponics park between Terce and Vespers. Commander Levy's hand wasn't particularly soft, but it was large and strong, and nice. Like Daddy's hands.

"Thank you for volunteering to help, Marcella. I'm glad your father mentioned our plans to you. I can use all the help with Christmas I can get."

"You're welcome," Marcie answered. She didn't think it would be smart to explain that Daddy hadn't exactly told her about organizing the celebration. "We talked about it all day in school. The orphans were in class today," she added. "Caroline is my age. She hated being in quarantine for a whole two weeks. She says Daddy's mean for making them stay isolated in Vespers all that time. I told her Daddy was only following standard procedure. Daddy isn't mean."

He'd been too worried last night to talk much. Oh, he'd tried to be cheerful. They'd read together and watched an interacvid where he'd let her save him from space dragons, but his attention had been elsewhere the whole time. She'd had to pretend to go to sleep while he read a storybook she'd outgrown a long time before to get him to leave her room. He needed his rest, too, after all. Only, he'd been up staring out the living room viewport with all the lights off when she'd gotten up to go to the bathroom hours later. The view from the big round window of their quarters showed the tall silver spikes of Matins and Lauds Towers and all that too empty space beyond. Marcie'd been almost scared to look into space herself, because she was worried there'd be Changer ships hanging out beyond the space station towers.

So, she'd looked at the lights in the towers across the way and made herself think about Christmas trees. "We need a Christmas tree," she told Commander Levy now. "That's the first thing you need."

"We do?"

Marcie was remembering how Daddy tried to make her forget about being scared. She was thinking that it would be nice if there was someone who could make Daddy forget about worrying. She bet Mommy used to make everything all right. That was what mommies were for. She looked thoughtfully at the hand holding hers. Then she looked up at Commander Levy and said, "Why don't you know anything about Christmas?"

"Oh, I know something about it," Levy answered. "But we don't celebrate the same holidays where I come from."

"Neither do we," Sanders chimed in from behind them. "My family's Wiccan."

"Really?" Levy asked. She smiled at the lieutenant. "That could prove useful."

"I said I'd help you round up the kids-"

"What's a Wiccan?" Marcie asked Lieutenant Sanders. But most of her attention was on Commander Levy. "Don't you like Christmas, Dixie?"

"I don't know that much about it, Marcie," she answered. "Or about Wicca," she added to Sanders. She laughed. "I don't even remember that much about Hanukkah. I meant to look all of this stuff up last night, but then the news announcement came and - Well, we'll manage, I guess," she added with one of those trying to be reassuring smiles grownups had been giving kids all over Station Five lately.

The three of them walked on to the communal room on the other side of the bridge. "This is the largest public space on Station Five," Sanders said. "Plenty of room for your party."

"Big enough for huge tree," Marcie said as she looked around. She slipped her hand out of the commander's and ran around the room with Maia bouncing by her hair. The doll had stars in her hair by the time Marcie circled the huge open space, and Maia's dress was dark green and belled out. "A Christmas tree looks like this," Marcie said, standing Maia up on the short round table nearest to where Levy and Sanders stood. "See, Dixie?"

Dixie took the doll from her and studied it. She looked toward the center of the room. She sighed. "Yes, I see." She glanced at Sanders. "I suppose Operations and Maintenance are already hard at work constructing something like a tree?"

Sanders grinned and nodded. "Engineering also volunteered their services. Everybody I've talked to is pretty enthusiastic about this."

"I don't get it." She looked down at Marcie. "Do you get it, kid?"

Marcie nodded, and spun happily around until she was dizzy. "Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!"

She just barely heard Dixie Levy mutter indulgently, "I guess it does keep their minds occupied," over her own enthusiastic babbling.

Then Marcie got herself under control. She was here on assignment. She was a Duchene, and Duty came first. There were work crews to deploy, assignments to be assigned. "What about presents?" she asked Commander Levy. "And cookies? Hot chocolate? Christmas stockings? Carols? Christmas cards? And decorations? Someone to pretend to be Santa Claus? Daddy's too skinny. We need an angel for the top of the tree."

"A Yule log," Sanders said. "And mistletoe. We Wiccans need our mistletoe."

"For Christmas?" Levy looked terribly confused.

"For Solstice," Sanders explained. "We celebrate Winter Solstice around the same time as Christmas."

Levy scratched her jaw. "Solstice? I see. No, I don't. I've never been much for holidays. I don't get the fuss about any of them. Still, the captain did say-"

"Excuse me, Commander?" a man's voice cut in before she could finish. "I was told I could find you here."

Marcie turned to look at a trio of newcomers. The man who's spoken was slender and had a shiny bald head. He wore an orange robe and a polite, gentle expression. She didn't know him, but she recognized the little round woman in the brown dress. That was her teacher, Sister Angela. Her order had built Station Five as one of their convent outposts before the Commonwealth took it over as a military base. Dr. Agrawal was with them. He smiled at Marcie, who smiled back politely.

"I am Lama Rinpoche," the man in orange said. "A passenger on one of the ships in Docking Bay C." He didn't sound resentful, which was the tone Marcie was used to hearing from the civilians lately. No ships were being allowed to arrive or depart Base Five since the Changer trouble started. The people from the civilian ships didn't like it, and they were always sending people to Daddy's office to complain.

Commander Levy looked surprised at Lama Rinpoche's mild tone, too. Her gaze flicked from Sister Angela to Dr. Agrawal, before she focused on the stranger again. She gave him a cautious nod, and her eyes were expressionless when she said, "Yes?"

"There is a great deal of concern and hostility among the trading ship crews, Commander. A feeling of being shunned, ignored by Commonwealth authorities, even threatened. There is fear of war, of course, but many also feel imprisoned and helpless. There is a rumor in Docking Bay C that I've been asked to have you confirm or deny. It's about-"

"It's unfair, you know," Sister Angela cut in. "First you take our home and now you're co-opting our religious holiday, no doubt for some military purpose." She crossed her arms and looked stern. "Well, we won't have it this time. Not with Christmas!"

"And what about Diwali?" Dr. Agrawal demanded. "What are you going to do about Diwali, Commander Levy?"

But before she could answer another pair of people entered the room and came forward. Both of them spoke at once.

"This is offensive," the man in the black turban said. "It is clearly written that this is the time of the-"

"And what about Mithra's birthday? Why is it that Persian beliefs are always ignored?" asked the man in the floppy red hat.

"Wait a minute." Commander Levy held up her hands for quiet, but people started arguing among themselves instead of listening to her.

In a couple of seconds, a woman in a veil came hurrying in and joined the crowd. Three more people showed up before Marcie decided Daddy needed to know about all the riot and ran of to find him.

###

"Sorry about this, sir."

Daddy still held Marcie's hand when he took Commander Levy by the arm and drew her away from the crowd.

"Maybe Marcella shouldn't be here," Commander Levy said as they moved back and the security people and the crisis intervention specialist Daddy'd brought with him moved into the shouting crowd.

"Of course Marcie's safe here," Daddy said. "She's with me."

Levy smiled, then glanced back. "I doubt it's going to turn violent, but they're all very angry. My fault, sir," she added. "I've never let a situation escalate like this before. In trying to plan a children's party I misunderstood the importance people give to their ethnic traditions."

Marcie was proud of Commander Levy for not making any excuses. She thought Levy was a very good officer, and Marcie knew Daddy thought so too when he said, "I made that mistake first, Dixie." He glanced at the crowd of people that occupied the center of the huge circular room. "All right, people," he said, stepping briskly forward. "Let's discuss what's really bothering all of us, shall we?"

Nobody spoke while he picked Marcie up and set her down on one of the tables. Her legs dangled and she clasped Maia tightly to her chest. Marcie didn't pay much attention to the doll. She was much more aware of the warm feeling that went through her when Commander Levy put her arm around her shoulder. They watched Daddy together.

He didn't actually give anyone a chance to discuss anything. He was good at that. "The real problem is fear," he told all those watching people. ">From what my daughter told me you all came here today to protest that you were getting no respect, that no one cared about your faiths, beliefs and feelings. That you have the impression the history and customs of your people meant nothing to the rest of us. That we were having a party and you weren't invited. You weren't sulking or being petty," he went on in that gentle way he had, and smiled at everybody. "But the truth is, you weren't protesting our plans to hold a celebration to which you are all welcome and wanted. You came because you are afraid."

"Damn right, we're afraid," someone in the back of the crowd called out. "Afraid you'll-"

"You're not afraid of me," Daddy told the man. "You're afraid of the Changers. Not just the fear we all share of being on the frontlines of a possible war." He shook his head. "No. That isn't the real reason we fear the Changers. We're humans and we want - intend - to stay human, no matter what the mighty Changer Empire demands of us. The Changers are a hive mind, ancient and unbending and they've never met anything like us before. I imagine they're scared too. We are all flexible individuals. You all came out to the stars with your own human cultures and beliefs intact. You support the Commonwealth, you work together in peace and tolerance. You adapt, but you don't give up your individuality to do so." He gestured in a way that both pointed to everyone and included them all. "That's what you came to remind the representatives of the Commonwealth of today - to remind those of us who wear uniforms that we are sworn to protect and serve all humankind, in our differences and in our similarities."

People stared at him, and looked at each other. Some of the people whispered to each other. Some nodded and looked thoughtful. Marcie and Dixie looked at each other. Neither of them showed the smile they shared, though it was in their eyes. They both knew that Daddy was being smart, and were enjoying it.

He smiled wider and rubbed his hands together. "Let's talk about those similarities, shall we?"

"We're all human," Sister Angela said. "We all believe in…" she looked around and finished, "celebrations of the divine."

"Celebrations of life," someone else said.

"Of the return of the light," Lieutenant Sanders said. "Midwinter festival is a reminder that the dark won't last forever."

Daddy nodded. "Return of the light. Exactly. We're lost in the middle of the darkest winter humans have ever known. Station Five is right in the middle of the darkest place humans have ever been. It's midwinter, and we need…" He looked from one listening person to another. "Yule logs, and bonfires, strings of colored lights, New Year's firecrackers and the glow of incense."

Marcie noticed the gentle smile he gave Dixie Levy when he said, "and Hanukkah candles. Those candles are lit to celebrate a victory over tyranny, as I recall. We need all our reminders of victory." And she noticed Dixie's slight nod, and half-smile back. They liked each other. Good.

"We need all the lights from all the places and traditions that make us both different and the same and human." People nodded at this, and murmured in agreement as Daddy went on. "If anyone deserves to celebrate the hope winter will pass and that the light will soon return, that peace is possible, it is all of us, and all of our children."

"The children need to know our traditions," Sister Angela spoke up, and took everybody in with a sharp glance. "All of our human traditions," she added. "We can agree to disagree on what is sacred some other time. The captain is right," she told them in her firmest, no one better say a peep voice from class. "The children need to know about the things that are important."

Daddy rubbed his jaw. "The children need to have a party. And presents," he added with a wink for Marcie. "That was my intent all along. I wanted to take the children's minds off grownup worries."

"You've done more, sir. You've reminded us of why we have to stand up to the Changers demands," Dixie said. She stepped away from Marcie and suddenly looked like a no nonsense professional officer again. "My orders were to organize this children's party. Time I got to it."

"And it won't be just for the children," Lama Rinpoche said. "And we will all help."

###

"It's called a latke, sir. Greasy and delicious. Very bad for you." Commander Levy told Daddy. They were all standing by the buffet table. Marcie watched while Dixie spooned apple sauce and sour cream on the plate of pancakes she'd given Daddy. "You could use a little fattening up, Remy."

"Delicious," he said.

Marcie already had a plate of the commander's pancakes, and she agreed with her father. She liked the moon cakes from Chinese New Year too, and all the cookies and cakes and the spiced cider and the eggnog. She sighed happily and turned to look as a smiling dragon went dancing by. Not really a dragon, of course, but people dressed up to look like one. Most of the kids on the station were clustered around the dragon, waving bright, fizzing sparklers. She longed to join the fun, but lingered next to Daddy and Dixie. There was some stuff she needed to find out before she could have fun.

"The latkes are from my grandmother's recipe," Dixie told Daddy as the three of them moved back a little ways to let other people get at the food. " I found her recipe disks packed away in the box of stuff she left me." She looked at the candelabra that blazed with eight candles at one end of the table. "Normally we light one candle every night of the holiday, but since - well, we're having eight nights worth of partying in one."

"I'm proud of you for getting all this together on such short notice," Daddy said to Dixie.

"I had a lot of help."

"But your enthusiasm brought it all together ahead of schedule." He smiled at her in a way that even Marcie knew was a special man smiling at a woman he liked kind of way.

"Thanks…Remy." Dixie smiled too, and blushed almost as red as her hair. It was fun to watch, cause Commander Levy had pale skin. She was kind of like a big Multi Maia doll, Marcie decided, and this was a good thing, considering…

"It was good of you to give your doll to one of the orphan children," Daddy said as he looked from Dixie to her.

Sometimes it was like Daddy could read her mind. It was Marcie's turn to blush. She hadn't told him about giving Maia away. "Caroline didn't have any toys," she said. "I've got lots. You're supposed to give presents at Christmas as well as give them."

Daddy ruffled her hair. "I love you, baby. But you haven't told me what you want for Christmas yet."

"I will," she said. "In a minute." Then she looked around, thinking that this party was almost present enough. She was eight, she wanted stuff, but having Christmas - and all the other holidays - was about the most fun that had ever happened.

There were lights everywhere. The whole room just blazed! It was like being in a room full of stars, with novas and nebulas thrown in. There were candles and the sparklers and Christmas lights and the Wiccans had a cauldron over in one corner with a real campfire going under it. And the room smelled of wonderful things, spices and pine and curry and candlewax, just the way it should on a holiday. The tall tree didn't look artificial at all. It has an angel on top, all sorts of decorations in the middle, and hundreds of wrapped packages underneath. Marcie sighed happily every time she looked at it. And there was noise! Sister Angela had a choir singing carols on one side of the room, and the Buddhist monks were chanting on another, and grownups were standing around in groups everywhere talking and eating and talking some more. It was nice to see the grownups laughing.

She wanted to run over to the tree. Caroline and some of the other kids were over there, but she lingered near Daddy and Dixie, wanting to make sure before she said anything. It was an important question she had to ask, and she had to be certain. Marcie continued to look at the happy crowd while she listened to Daddy and Dixie talk.

"Dixie," Daddy said in his thoughtful teasing tone. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

After a moment's hesitation, Dixie answered in the same tone, "Yes, sir…sure, Remy."

Daddy chuckled. "I've wondered this since we met. Tell me, Commander Melissa Levy who has never been to the southern part of the North American continent on the planet Earth - how did you end up with a nickname like Dixie?"

Dixie laughed, and it was one of the nicest laughs Marcie'd ever heard. "That's an easy one to answer. I was born on one of the old generation ships that left Earth before the Flotter Drive was discovered. Even after the Commonwealth caught up with us and modified our engines we just kept going."

"Don't tell me," Daddy said. "You're from the Alabama?"

"Yep. Whenever anyone leaves home we end up with a Genship nickname. It's something of our heritage we take with us, and celebrate every day."

"Amazing," Daddy said, his tone warm and proud. "You're the first Genship native I've ever known. That's one more reason you're the most interesting person I've ever met."

"Me? Inter-"

"Yes, ensign?" Daddy's suddenly hard voice cut across Dixie's.

Marcie turned around to look as a communications officer handed Daddy a red Alpha class diskcase. Behind her the room slowly went very quiet as people caught sight of the red message square. It was a very unpleasant silence, with all the worry rushing back so fast that even the candles and Christmas lights seemed to fade from it. Even Daddy was pale. Marcie was suddenly very cold. But Daddy was doing something official, she couldn't run to him for comfort though she wanted to. It helped a lot when Dixie drew her into the circle of her arm.

"Is it war?" Marcie whispered the question everyone was thinking to Dixie.

All Dixie could do was look to Daddy, like everyone else. "We'll know in moment, sweetheart."

Marcie was glad Dixie didn't try to reassure her with stupid words about how she was too little to know or worry about such things as wars. The warm strength of a woman's touch felt good, and Marcie hugged her back, hard. Marcie held her breath. She didn't think she was the only one.

Finally, Daddy flipped the red diskcase closed and looked up. He looked at her first, then at Dixie, then at all the silent, waiting people in the room. He smiled. It was the widest smile Marcie had ever seen. She couldn't stop herself from running to him instantly. He grabbed her and swung her up in his arms. "It's all right, sweetheart," he told her, and kissed her on the forehead and cheeks and hugged her really hard. He spoke louder, so everyone in the room could hear him. "Everything is going to be all right! The Changers have withdrawn their ultimatum," he explained over all the questions. "The negotiators on both sides have issued statements saying that they've reached a tentative agreement. We're not going to war today! Champagne for everyone! Everyone over fifteen," he added with a look at Marcie.

"Daddy," she complained, for form's sake, cause she didn't want any anyway.

While everybody cheered, he flipped the red case to Dixie, who quickly opened it and began to read. Meanwhile, Daddy whirled Marcie around and around, taking them into the happy crowd and nearer the Christmas tree. Suddenly everybody at the party was really happy, and somehow that just made what had already been a lot of fun even better. The carols and the chanting seemed louder, the lights brighter, the laughter more real. Marcie didn't understand the difference, but she felt it.

When daddy was handed a glass of sparkling gold wine he called for silence and got everybody looking at him. He continued to hold Marcie with one hand, while she clung to him like a monkey. He raised the glass in his other hand and said, "I intended this party as a celebration for the children. Well, we are all the Children of Earth. Midwinter has come and gone. Prayers have been answered and hope has triumphed. We know that the light always returns. Here's to us!"

People cheered and shouted and hugged and kissed and drank their champagne. Marcie watched it all from the safety of Daddy's arms. The noise was loud and happy around them when she whispered in his ear. "I know what I want for Christmas now."

"Oh, really?" He whispered back. His eyes twinkled when looked at her. She nodded. "What you want, cher?" he coaxed when she didn't blurt the words out right away. "You know Daddy will give you anything he can."

She nodded, took a deep breath, and made herself say the words. "I want a new mommy." She pointed while he blinked and his mouth worked. "Her." And just in case he couldn't tell who she meant in this big crowd, she added, "Dixie."

Daddy hefted her on his hip and held her tighter, which made her think he'd been so surprised he'd almost dropped her. "Dixie?" he said after his mouth worked some more. He took a deep breath and looked across the room. A smile spread slowly across his face. "You want Dixie Levy for Christmas?"

"Forever," Marcie said. "Please, Daddy?"

His smile got even wider as he set Marcie on her feet once more. "Well, I did promise you anything I could, but don't know if I can do this on my own. Cause you see, sweetheart, I want Dixie for Christmas too."

She'd been right. Good. "It'll take a lot of work, but I think she likes us."

"You think so. You'll help me convince her to have us for Hanukkah, right?"

She nodded solemnly. "Of course. Dixie's a very sensible woman. And she says you can talk her into anything -even if you are too skinny and have big feet and droopy eyes."

He was laughing happily when she took his hand and began to lead him across the room to Dixie.

The End.


Copyright © 1999 by Susan Sizemore