Debi's Birthday

War of the Worlds

Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters, I'm just borrowing them for, um,uh, typing practice. That's it, typing practice. I'll return them to their actual owners (relatively) undamaged. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit beyond pleasure was derived from the writing. Originally published in the fanzine To Life Immortal #2, from WOWie Press, 1990, in a slightly altered form. {Now there's a scary thought: I have readers here at FanFiction-dot-net who weren't even born yet when this story was first written.}

Debi's Birthday

by Susan M. M.

xXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Debi McCullough practically bounced into the room. "Any mail for me, Mom?"

"A card from Uncle Hank and Aunt Nancy." Dr. Suzanne McCullough tried to keep her voice light, hiding the frustration and anger she felt. She was an attractive brunette in her mid-thirties.

Debi drooped, her blonde pigtails visibly wilting.

Dr. McCullough handed her the card. "What does he say, honey?"

Lacklusterly, the child tore open the envelope. It was a Charlie Brown card, and despite herself, she smiled when she read it. Pocketing the five dollar bill, Debi read the handwritten note enclosed. "Oh, gross! Melissa's getting braces."

"Who's Melissa?"

Dr. McCullough looked up. She hadn't heard Lt. Col. Ironhorse enter the living room. Was it his Cherokee blood or his Vietnam experience, she wondered, that let him move so silently?

"My cousin," Debi replied.

"The general's granddaughter," the microbiologist added.

The colonel nodded. General Henry Wilson was Suzanne's uncle, and the Blackwood Project's sponsor in Washington. Turning to face Debi, he said, "I have a message for you. Kensington said to tell you he's ready for your riding lesson now."

"Okay." She trudged out of the room.

"Go change into your jeans first," her mother called after her.

Ironhorse frowned. Usually Debi got excited when Kensington, the gardener/handyman of Government Property #348, a.k.a. The Cottage, found time to teach her how to ride. For her to react the way she had could only mean one thing. "Nothing from her father yet?"

Dr. McCullough shook her head. "What kind of man forgets his own daughter's birthday? He's never been responsible, but how on Earth could he have forgotten that his only child becomes a teenager tomorrow?"

"He travels a lot, doesn't he? Maybe it's just delayed in the mail. International mail is incredibly slow." All Ironhorse knew about Derek "Cash" McCullough came from reading Suzanne's security clearance dossier. She seldom spoke of her ex-husband.

"Yes, he travels a lot. Always somewhere else, never home," the brunette remembered bitterly. "Always tracking down a hot story."

Ironhorse nodded. Having an ex-husband who was an investigative reporter (some might even say a muckraker) had been the only black mark on Dr. McCullough's security profile.

"He's mailed things from overseas often enough to know how to compensate for the time lag," she continued.

"Maybe tomorrow," Ironhorse suggested comfortingly. "Maybe he's deliberately timing it to arrive on her birthday."

"I hope so, for Debi's sake."

xXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"Mom, I'm home," Debi hollered. She dumped her backpack on the floor.

"In here, Deb."

She followed the sound of her mother's voice into the dining room. Suddenly, a flashbulb went off in her face.

"Happy Birthday!"

Dr. McCullough walked over and kissed her thirteen-year-old daughter on the cheek. "Happy Birthday, sweetheart."

A cake lay at the head of the table, surrounded by presents. Thirteen pink and blue roses decorated the white frosting. A small white candle was placed in the middle of each rose. Around the table stood all the residents of The Cottage.

"I hope you don't mind that it's so small," Mrs. Pennyworth apologized, "but I know you are going out with your friends from school later."

Lt. Col. Ironhorse lit the candles.

"It's just fine," Debi assured her. The cake was small only by the housekeeper's standards; Mrs. Pennyworth was a firm believer in big meals.

"Hurry and blow 'em out, Debi. That cake looks good," Norton Drake, the Blackwood Project's resident computer expert, commented hungrily.

"No, no, no." Astrophysicist Harrison Blackwood stopped her. "First we have to sing." Dr. Blackwood glanced slyly up at Ironhorse, as if daring the staid, stuffy West Point graduate to do something as frivolous as singing "Happy Birthday to You." To Dr. Blackwood's chagrin, the colonel not only sang along with everyone else, but had a surprisingly good baritone voice.

"Now blow out the candles and make a wish," Kensington instructed her unnecessarily. The elderly gardener seemed as excited as the new teenager was.

Dr. McCullough handed her daughter the knife. "You get to make the first slice, honey."

"Different wish, or can I make the same one twice?" the blonde girl asked.

Her mother thought for a moment. "You'd better make a separate wish. It might be like a double negative, where they cancel each other out."

"Two wishes?" Norton asked as Debi carefully plunged the knife into the cake.

"Family tradition," the microbiologist explained. "One wish when she blows out the candles, another one when the birthday girl make the first cut. Then I finish slicing the cake." Turning to take the knife from Debi, she bit back an irrational wave of disappointment when she saw Mrs. Pennyworth was already cutting and passing out the cake.

"Mmm, chocolate! This is great," Debi complimented the housekeeper.

The white-haired woman beamed. She was as proud of her culinary skills as she had been of her cryptographic abilities in WWII.

Once the slice of cake was devoured, Debi reached for her presents. The first was a small, rectangular package.

"That's from Grandma," Dr. McCullough said, as though her daughter couldn't read the card for herself. The floral paper came off, revealing a videotape: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. "That was my favorite movie when I was your age."

Debi wiped the slightly dubious expression from her face, forced a polite smile, and turned to the next box. It was gigantic.

"Whoever wrapped that must be a stockholder in Scotch tape," Dr. McCullough observed as Debi struggled with the wrappings.

"That's mine," Norton confessed.

Finally, just as Ironhorse was about to reach for his knife to help her open it, Debi succeeded in tearing it open. And inside the huge box was a tiny ... "Floppy disk?"

"It's a game," Norton told her. "A video game I wrote. I need somebody to test the prototype before I submit it to Atari."

"You think they'll buy it?" Ironhorse asked quietly.

The African-American programmer shrugged. "They've bought my other ones."

"Thanks, Norton." Debi leaned over the arm of his wheelchair to kiss his cheek.

"Hey, if I'd known you were going to do that, I wouldn't have waited for your birthday to give it to you," he teased.

The next three presents were from her mother: a Michael Praed poster, a Guns 'n' Roses CD, and a leather-trimmed denim jacket, fashionably faded so it looked three years old when, in fact, only a week ago it had hung on the rack at Sears. Then came a flat, sloppily wrapped present from Dr. Blackwood: the latest Far Side book.

"Gary Larson. Wow, neat!" Debi exclaimed.

"Glad you like it," the curly-haired astrophysicist replied, relieved. He'd had no idea what to buy for a thirteen-year-old girl.

Debi started on her second piece of cake before turning to the last three packages.

Mrs. Pennyworth half-heartedly scolded the girl about losing her appetite for dinner as she handed Debi her own present. Debi tore the blue paper off the square, heavy package and found two books.

"Password to Larkspur Lane and Sign of the Twisted Candles," she read the titles aloud. The books were slightly scuffed from much handling and looked somehow different from the Nancy Drews she already owned.

"Mrs. Pennyworth, those aren't first editions, are they?" Dr. McCullough whispered.

The housekeeper evaded the question. "Books need to be read, not locked away in a cabinet."

Debi looked at the last two gifts, trying to decide which to open next. One was in the Sunday funnies, a bright red bow on top, and almost as clumsily wrapped as Dr. Blackwood's present had been. The other was neatly done up in green and white striped paper. It had no bow. She smiled to herself. It was easy to guess which was from Kensington and which was the colonel's.

She reached for Kensington's gift, ripped away Blondie and Dennis the Menace, and revealed a hoofpick. After thanking the old man and explaining to the three scientists what it was, she picked up the last package. She felt it. It was a shoe box.

"Combat boots?" she wondered, giggling. She started to rip, then took a second look at the almost professional quality neat wrapping job, and slowly removed the paper. She took the lid off the shoe box. Buried inside a mountain of tissue paper was a small white box. "What's in this? Another box?"

Ironhorse merely smiled. "Open it and find out."

Debi pulled the lid off the smaller box, half expecting yet a third box. Instead lay a leather pendent on a rawhide thong. Embossed in the center was a wolf's head. Colorful beadwork decorated the edges.

Debi hung it around her neck immediately. "It's beautiful. Thanks, Colonel."

"You're welcome," he replied.

She smiled up at the soldier. More than anything else in the world, she wanted her parents to remarry - that had been her candle wish - but if they didn't, well, she liked Col. Ironhorse. Dr. Blackwood was fun, but the colonel ... he was special. She didn't dare think the words 'stepfather material,' even to herself. She wasn't ready to consider Mom and Daddy's reunion a lost cause yet.

Suddenly, she remembered something. Anxiously, Debi asked, "Mrs. Pennyworth, did you throw out the morning paper?"

"No, dear, I saved it for you, just as you asked."

The menfolk looked confused. Dr. McCullough explained, "We saved the newspaper from the day she was born, and from all her birthdays."

"That's a neat idea," Norton said, passing his plate for more cake. "I'll have to remember that if I get married and have kids."

xXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"C'mon, Debi, aren't you ready yet?" Norton asked, restlessly turning his wheelchair in circles.

"Coming, coming," the thirteen-year-old called.

"You volunteered to help chaperone a dozen junior high school girls? You're a braver man than I am, Mr. Drake." Lt. Col. Ironhorse was only half-joking.

"Well, you know, eating pizza and ice cream is a dangerous job, but someone has to do it," the computer expert replied in a mock macho tone.

"I'm surprised Harrison didn't volunteer. Junior high should be just about his age level," Ironhorse commented.

"I think he's working on a new pet theory," Norton hedged. The truth was, Debi had invited him. She hadn't invited Dr. Blackwood. "Has the mail come yet?"

Ironhorse nodded. "Yeah. Nothing from her father."

"Poor kid."

"Make sure she has a good time. Help her get her mind off it. And, Norton, make sure she doesn't say anything about the Project to her friends," the Cherokee warrior instructed.

The computer programmer didn't know whether to be flattered by the colonel's trust, or disgusted at being asked to spy on a child who regarded him as a big brother.