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Debi's Birthday

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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  at FanFiction-dot-net who weren't even born yet when this story was first written.}

 

 

Debi's Birthday

War of the Worlds

by Susan M. M.

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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."

 

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"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."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

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"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.

xXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Debi sat on the patio, a first edition Nancy Drew unread in her lap. Her cocoa had long since gotten cold. She stared unseeing at the pond, ignoring the swans.

"Gertrude, back five," Norton ordered quietly. His voice-activated, custom-made electronic wheelchair (his own design) obeyed, taking him away from the patio door and out of Debi's earshot.

"Is she still moping out there?" Ironhorse kept his voice barely above a whisper.

Norton nodded. "She's been like that for two days."

"What kind of a man did Suzanne marry?"

"They're divorced, Colonel," Norton reminded him. "And right now, she's ready to strangle him."

"I just might help her. Father or not, he's got no right to hurt a sweet kid like that."

The computer programmer's left eyebrow rose. Ironhorse hid his feelings so well that his co-workers sometimes forgot he had any. "Couldn't you use your Pentagon connections, track him down?"

I don't think Gen. Wilson would approve of us using Project funds and equipment that way." Besides, he'd already tried and drawn a blank. All he'd been able to find was that Cash McCullough was somewhere in Latin America. Even his own network wasn't sure which country he was in. The soldier looked out at the patio again. "I'm going into town. I have an errand to run."

xXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Ironhorse came back forty-five minutes later, went down to the laboratory, ignored Dr. Blackwood's and Norton's greetings, sat down, and buried himself in paperwork. He hardly lifted his head from the desk until the phone rang an hour later.

"Ironhorse. What? Yes, pass them through," the colonel ordered. Then he corrected himself. "On second thought, escort them in."

Dr. McCullough picked that moment to look through the Plexiglas window of her work area. She wondered what made Ironhorse smile so widely. For that matter, what was he doing working in the lab, when he had a perfectly good office of his own upstairs?

Five minutes later, the microbiologist stepped out of her office into the main lab. "That's funny."

"Funny strange or funny ha-ha?" Norton asked.

"Funny strange. Mrs. Pennyworth just called. She wants me to come upstairs, but she didn't say why."

"Paul," Dr. Blackwood called.

"Yo." He still didn't look up from his paperwork.

"Come over here a moment," the astrophysicist invited. "Something's up."

Obediently, Ironhorse rose from his desk and walked over to join the others.

"You think something's wrong?" Norton wondered.

Ironhorse shook his head. "The security system would've let us know if anything was wrong. Still, it can't hurt to go up and take a look, make sure everything's okay. If nothing else, we could all use a chance to stretch our legs."

Suzanne McCullough stared. The slave-driver of West Point advocating a break? Although his copper face was a sternly inscrutable as ever, his dark eyes were smiling - almost dancing. She was struck with the incongruous memory that his middle name was Wayadigadoli, Cherokee for 'wolf eyes,' and wondered why that bit of trivia had stuck in her mind. She'd never bothered learning Harrison's middle name.

The elevator, for once, came when it was called. A few minutes later, they were all in the living room.

"Debi, is everything all - oh, my goodness." Suzanne McCullough stared at the giant vase on the table. Leatherleaf ferns and other greenery surrounded pink rosebuds, tightly curled rosebuds that were just beginning to open. Debi knelt on the couch next to the end table, doing a passable imitation of Ferdinand the Bull.

The thirteen-year-old took one last sniff before looking up. "Oh, Mom, he didn't forget. Daddy didn't forget."

"Of course he didn't, sweetheart," the scientist said softly, hiding her suspicions.

"Look, thirteen roses, and baby's-breath, and Mrs. Pennyworth says these are myrtle and - "

"They're beautiful, Debi," Dr. McCullough interrupted. "Was there a card?"

"Yeah, except ... it's not Daddy's handwriting," Debi told her.

"Well, he probably phoned the order in," Ironhorse suggested. "More than likely that's the florist's handwriting."

"Oh, okay." Debi went back to smelling the flowers, satisfied by the explanation.

"Happy Birthday, Debi. Sorry I can't be there with you. Love, Daddy," Dr. McCullough read aloud. It definitely wasn't her ex-husband's handwriting. It did, however, resemble the handwriting she had seen on memos and budget requests. She looked over to Ironhorse and smiled. "You old softie," she mouthed silently.

Ironhorse only winked.

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Author's Note: the original publication of this story had a picture of Ironhorse by Lana M. at the beginning of the story, and a picture of Debi, Ironhorse, and her roses at the end of the story by Cynthia G. I'm sorry I can't include them with the story. I'd at least like to acknowledge and thank them, as well as the fanzine's editor, Nancy K. Too do nakatae!