Seasons of Change - Book 10 - Seasons Greeting - A Carol Christmas

It's Christmas time, but at Seasons House, the mood is anything but merry. Jane has, after her very best efforts, determined that the redemption of Carl is beyond her considerable powers. The only reason he has not been sent home in disgrace is that holiday travelers made transporation reservations not to be had - even with Jane's contacts and resources. The darkness of failure casts a dark shadow over Seasons House, but then again, it is Christmas, and as Charles Dickens taught us all, wonderful things can still happen.
 

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Seasons of Change
Book 10
Seasons Greetings
A Carol Christmas

by Tigger

Copyright © 2000,2012 Tigger
All Rights Reserved.

 


 
Author's Note: Based on the characters and situations presented in "Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence, Copyright 1989. This story is archived in its entirety at Fictionmania (go to search by authors and select Joel Lawrence)

This story takes place approximately one year to a year and a half after the conclusion of "Tales of the Season: Darla's Story" in the branch of the "Seasons of Change" Universe that I started with "A Losing Season."

Of course, this is a play on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", the entire text of which can be found at: http://www.stormfax.com/dickens.htm

And now, the story. . . . ~Tigger
 


 

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Part 1: Prelude and the First of the Final Confrontations
 

snoglob6.gif Darla, or as her junior colleague was wont to call her, Darley, is a boy: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The certificate of his birth was signed by the delivering physician, the hospital administrator, and the local county attorney. Young Darley is as masculine as rats and snails and puppy dog tails.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly masculine about rats or snails or the tail appendages of juvenile canines. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard the masculine nature of any of those particular creatures to be disputable, as I have, in my experience, had the acquaintance of female dogs and rats. And while I am not certain how one

would ascertain the gender of a snail, I am convinced that there must be at least some of the creatures that are female. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile and I shall not dispute it. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Darley is, most definitely, as masculine as rats and snails and puppy dog tails.

Did her young colleague know she was male? Of course he did not. How could it be otherwise? Darley's partners in this enterprise decreed and ensured that this would remain unknown to the new student. Even as they imposed the same masking of his masculinity upon him as had been earlier been imposed upon Darley. . . that is, upon Darla.

The mention of Darla's masquerade brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Darley was and is male. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Once upon a time, three people sat down to table in order to break their fast. . .
 
 
The First of the Final Confrontations:

*It's as if she's decided this one is a lost cause,* the petite blonde girl thought bleakly as she picked without much interest at her own breakfast. *Lord, she gives me a harder time about such things when there is no one but the two of us here and I'm not really her student anymore.*

Jane Thompson, an elegantly handsome woman, sat at the head of the dining table, her eyes fixed on the third diner, another blonde whose attention was fixed on the huge plate of food in front of her to the exclusion of anyone or anything else. A look that was half disgust, half some other emotion crossed the older woman's face as she regarded the silent student.

*She isn't even calling the twit on that abominable display of poor table manners,* Darla thought. *My god, I guess we really have failed this one.*

Surreptitiously, the shortest of the three figures at the table glanced at the object of Jane Thompson's annoyance. Carol Morris was tall, an attribute that Darla envied greatly, and she was almost pretty - she *would* have been pretty had her makeup been more subtly and appropriately applied. *Not that it truly is poorly applied,* Darla mused, *Actually, it is a superb job if one is going out clubbing or trolling for guys, or even if this was a scene from some theatrical play that necessitated such high color which I am certain was precisely her intention. One thing Carol has learned here is how to apply cosmetics skillfully, but she just refuses to wear it appropriately because she knows that showing up for breakfast made up that. . . blatantly pisses Jane off.*

Darla stifled a sigh. Jane's little cadre had had such great hopes for this student. In fact, there had been the generally accepted opinion that if someone had set out to create the ideal model for a successful Jane Thompson project-student, Carl Morris would have matched that profile almost perfectly.

Physically, Carl was ideal for Jane's forced feminization treatments and subsequent training. Tall, leggy, slender and relatively narrow-shouldered for a male, and possessed of high cheekbones and eyelashes a supermodel would covet, he'd been passable soon after his arrival, unlike the previous student who was not really suited to the masquerade. Jane had expected to be able to pull out all the stops with this one, putting him in situations where preserving the secret of his masculine gender would force him to behave like the sweet, obedient and submissive girl Jane intended he become in every way possible short of surgery.

Secondly, Carl Morris was an egotistical, super-macho asshole whose overblown self image should have crumbled like chalk before Jane's scathing tongue and iron will. He had been sent to Seasons House after having been suspended twice and finally expelled from his suburban high school for sexual harassment - escaping civil charges only through the offices of his uncle, a powerful congressional staffer. He had an extremely insolent attitude towards women and felt no compunction about expressing his offensive opinions about the feminine sex loudly and vulgarly - often in public. The last two times he'd been in trouble at school, he'd gone beyond talk and had physically intimidated two girls. *Without that damned uncle of his, he'd have been charged with threatened assault, and put in a reform school!* Darla thought darkly.

The damned fool had even made an overt and offensive pass at the frill-bedecked Darla on the train platform, and when Jane had reprimanded him for his behavior, had told her to get the hell out of his face. When she'd agreed to take on the role of mentor/secret informer for this student in Jane's program, Darla had expected to feel sorry for her little 'sister' during those first admittedly brutal hours in Jane Thompson's keeping, but she hadn't felt the smallest tinge of sympathy - not for this one. Not after Carl's first greeting to her had been a lewd comment on her lips and completely obscene suggestion about where he thought those lips might do him the most good. Oh, Darla had positively salivated at the prospect of watching Carl Morris' first days at Seasons House.

Except the expected breakthrough, or rather, the expected breakdown had never occurred. Somehow, this chauvinistic idiot had managed to take Jane's best shots without so much as denting his overweening masculine pride or his even bigger ego. A not insignificant accomplishment, Darla had to acknowledge. Even Kenneth, who had amazed Jane, Marie and Darla with his incredible self control and composure under fire had paid a heavy price physically and emotionally in doing so, and he'd only had to keep that up for a few days until Jane found out he'd been sent to her under false charges. Carl had been with Jane for almost six months, all the while following her orders precisely, just as he had promised, but never showing the slightest indication he was weakening.

And Jane had tried everything, including some tricks she'd sworn off following Michael/Michelle's attempted suicide. She'd used the long-duration, high color cosmetics on him and then taken him to a Providence shopping mall in effeminate, at best androgynous clothes as a boy. He'd laughed off the masculine derision the teenaged contingent hanging out there had tried to heap on him. Then Jane had turned Sandy and Caro loose on him, in particular releasing any constraints she had placed on Sandra's dark side, again to no avail. The cross dressed punk had actually laughed at his reflection in Caro's mirror at the end of his first trip to Marisha Chalet. Naturally, that reaction had put paid Jane's plan to have him be the model for Caro's Wednesday afternoon cosmetics class for the local teenaged girls. He'd even managed to spill hot tea on Evelyn White, ruining a favorite antique- laced outfit. Only quick action by Jane had saved the society matron from a trip to the emergency room burn center. Not surprisingly, Carol had not been honored with invitations to any of the society events that the redoubtable Mrs. White controlled.

Worse yet, none of Jane's disciplines or punishments had elicited the expected results from this student, either. Not once, in the six months he'd been here, had Jane been able to reduce Carl to tears. On the plus side, he hadn't evidenced any violent tendencies either, and except for his request for oral gratification on the train platform, had not harassed Darla further. However, their continued failure to unearth any softer, gentler emotions in her charge had upset and frustrated Jane, Marie and Darla.

*It's as if he is marking time, for some reason, waiting for something to happen that only he knows about,* Darla thought, not for the first time. *Odd, too, that after all these months, I still think of him in the masculine tense. It takes real effort to remember to use feminine pronouns in relation to this one. Guess that is the true measure of just how badly we've missed the mark.*

At that moment, Carol wiped her mouth on her napkin and deposited it in the middle of her plate. "Well, that does me. Excuse me, Ms. Thompson, and I will go get ready for whatever games you want to play today."

Darla watched as Jane simply stared at the smirking, girlishly dressed boy for nearly a minute. "I think, Carol, that we will dispense with any further lessons. Obviously, they aren't doing you any benefit as you are still the same obnoxious, ill-mannered immature little boy you were when you first arrived in my home. Since this is Christmas Eve, I think we all would enjoy our holiday fare more if you were to take your meals in your rooms."

"Nothing else has worked so we're going to try solitary confinement on bread and water, eh?" was the snide reply. "What's next? Harsh lights and rubber hoses?"

"You will treated with the same courtesy and concern for your health and physical well-being as you have enjoyed since your arrival," Jane replied in as cold a voice as Darla had ever heard from her. "You will find the accommodations in your room will be unchanged and that you will be fed the same food that Marie will serve in the dining room. You simply will no longer be tolerated at table. That way, you may behave as disgustingly as you please without ruining anyone else's appetite for Marie's holiday cuisine. As to confinement, we've already discussed that issue, have we not? You will continue to behave yourself in accordance with your promises to me, or I shall be forced to call Deputy Beale again."

Carol glared at Jane for she recalled, all too vividly, the evening when she'd overstepped herself in baiting this old bat and her blonde lackey. The deputy who had responded to Thompson's call had promised that the next time Morris went too far, the cop would happily toss his ass - panties, petticoats, ribbons, makeup and all - into the overnight holding cell with all the drunks and petty crooks waiting for morning bail court. "And since you and I both know you're a boy underneath all that pretty girl stuff, well, I'd just have to toss you into the male holding cell."

"All right, MS Thompson," the femininely dressed boy retorted, putting heavily sarcastic emphasis on the 'Ms.', "I shall remove myself from your august presence and wish you. . . an oh-so-VERY joyous Christmas Eve. Let me know, won't you, if you exercise your womanly prerogatives and decide you actually do want to play some more? Far be it from me to deprive you of your little pleasures - it being the holidays and all."

With that, he stood and strode from the room using a masculine gait that Darla would have thought impossible in the three inch- heeled mules Carol had worn to breakfast. Darla turned to see Jane gazing into the now empty passage as well, a look of fatigued sadness on her face.

Finally, Darla could no longer deal with the oppressive silence. "No more exercises, or just no more until after the holidays?"

Marie had told Darla that Jane tended to 'ease up' on her students around the Christmas holidays. Actually, what she did was find a reason to fade into the background and let Marie play Mother Christmas with the beskirted boys while Jane watched from a distance in secrecy, enjoying their pleasure vicariously. This ensured that her authority and the boys' fear of her remained largely intact while permitting them to enjoy the holidays. It also, Marie told Darla, provided her boys with contrasting experiences that made the rigorous re-establishment of Thompson's Law all the more effective after the short, but very welcome respite.

"No more, period," Jane said softly as she filled her cup from the silver coffee pot. Darla thought she could see Jane's hands tremble slightly as she poured. "There isn't any point in carrying this farce any further. I don't know what more I could do with *him* anyway. Admittedly, I remain baffled by his continued lack of response to what should be emotionally traumatic experiences, but that just makes me even less capable of helping him. I cannot safely deal with a personality I don't understand. Perhaps a public unmasking might get his attention, but even so, it is a step I cannot, in good conscience, take with him. That could follow him the rest of his life and affect him in ways I am not willing to take the responsibility for causing. Besides, based on his reactions to date, I'm not sure that would have any more effect on him than any of the scenarios I have used with him."

"Even you can't remember to speak of him in the feminine tense," Darla thought aloud.

"Because he isn't feminine, for all he can be as lovely as any student I have ever taught. With all my other boys, they reached a point where their feminine selves began to shine through the emotional walls they built around themselves - I can't describe it better than that, but I could always clearly see in them the balance of the feminine with the masculine coming into alignment; the feminine tempering and gentling the masculine even as it fulfilled the integrated personality. As perfectly as he has learned every nuance of looking and acting like a young woman, there is none of the truly feminine with this one. The skirts, the cosmetics, even the body language are nothing more than a disposable masquerade for Carl."

"It's hard to believe that someone can disdain women that much and do so well with the trappings," Darla replied.

"All part of his male arrogance," Jane sighed. "I asked him about that recently, and he told me that he did it because his father impressed upon him that he always had to be the best at anything he did. So he excels to prove that, being a real man, he could do all this womanly bull. . well, you get the idea, and do it better than you or I do it, and that the doing does not really affect him in any intrinsic way. Essentially, he strives for perfection because doing less offends his pride. I just wish I knew why he's never truly feared being unmasked in public. Clearly, he doesn't see that as a threat."

"So, now what do we do with him?"

Jane shook her head, making her shoulder length, silver-shot auburn tresses dance about her face. "He's not a court-referred case, so he doesn't have reform school hanging over his head. It was probably a mistake on his uncle's part to settle that civil court case before it went to trial. Maybe if we'd had a court judgment against him as primary punishment and our program as the alternative, we might have made progress with him, but we didn't have that leverage. So, we send him back to his uncle who will, I am sure, send him to that harsh military boarding school."

"When?"

Jane laughed, but it was a sad, mirthless sound. "I'd send him back today if I could, but I wasn't able to make reliable travel connections to get him expeditiously back to Washington until two days after Christmas. I tried trains, buses, planes - I even tried to charter a limousine - without any success. The only option would be for one of us to drive him there and I refuse to let him ruin our holiday more than he already has."

"You going to let him go back into guy stuff, then?"

"And let him know he's beaten me? Hell no!" Jane snarled, shocking her foster child with both the words and her ferocity. "I have failed with him, but that little snot failed right along with me. He never even tried. I will be damned if I am going to change him back one second before absolutely necessary. And don't think I haven't given a good deal of thought to packing him onto that train dressed like Raggedy Anne. However, that is unworthy of me and what I try to accomplish here, so Sandy will be here two hours before we have to leave for the station to do the tear down. I just hope the process is at least moderately painful for him."

"You never did try using the letters you showed me when we were first trying to figure out why he wasn't reacting the way we expected," Darla reminded her mentor. "Surely those would make an impression on him."

Jane shrugged. "I considered it, but he never gave me the slightest indication that he might be open-minded enough to understand what they say. I have discussed his case generally with Eric, and specifically about those letters. He reluctantly agreed with me. In that boy's state of mind, he'd conclude that those letter were just one more of my schemes."

"What are your plans for the rest of the day, then?"

Somehow, Jane's visage became sadder still. "Allie's surgery is scheduled for later today. I don't want the child to be alone so I will go to the hospital to stand in for the parents."

"No luck on getting them home?"

"None," Jane sighed. "They're afraid that if they request humanitarian leave, they will be given humanitarian discharges for the convenience of the service. Then they'd be out of work on top of everything else."

"That's unbelievable!" Darla raged.

"But within the realm of possibility. The services continue to downsize. Soldiers who cannot go where they are needed take up quota numbers that could be filled by soldiers who can. I checked and found that the numbers bear out what they told me. Their commanding officer is on their side, but the bean-counters who would make the final determination are evidently taking a very hard line on this type of thing."

"That really sucks," Darryl's voice growled. "Oops, sorry, Aunt Jane."

Jane stood and walked over to put a hand on her ward's shoulder. She squeezed gently. "That's all right, this time, dear," she said bending over to plant a kiss on Darla's forehead. "In this case, your assessment was nothing but the sad, stupid truth. Will you be okay here today? With him?"

Darla snorted. "Of course. That punk only thinks he's tough. I'll be fine, Aunt Jane."

"I'll be back in time for dinner, dear. They've scheduled the anaesthesia for four o'clock."
 
 

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Part 2: Christmas Yet to Be
 
The stately Victorian mansion seemed hollow and empty as Darla moved about the first floor public rooms later that morning. For all the bright holiday color and decorations, Seasons House felt dull-gray and lifeless to the young man in girl's clothing.

Darla (originally and still sometimes Darryl) Smith had lived through gray and grim holidays before. All of them, actually, before a benevolent judge had sent a troubled, abused boy to Jane Thompson thinking he had been a voluntary party to several crimes perpetrated by his sadistic older brother. Darryl Smith had never even had a birthday party in his entire life prior to his coming to live with Jane Thompson, but every birthday or holiday since that magical moment had been . . . well, a dream come true for the love starved adolescent.

*And that is a big part of why you are so pissed off with Morris right now, m'dear self,* Darla admitted to herself. *Our failure to make any progress with him is casting this damned pall over the holiday season, and since last year you tasted how sweet a family Christmas is, you want to lash out at the obvious cause.*

The femininely turned-out boy was still arguing with himself over the relative fairness of that outlook when the cause of this internal conflict came into view.

For a moment, Darla could not quite believe the evidence of her eyes. Carl. . . Carol was sprawled on the parlor davenport, one leg flopped over the back of the sofa, the other draped along the cushions' edge with her foot resting on the floor as she read the morning newspaper. Unfortunately, she was wearing a skirt so her position put her petti's, garter belt, stockings and panties on full display.

"Dammit, Carol, sit like a lady!" Darla snapped, her anger bubbling over.

Perfectly made up, but hard gray eyes turned to gaze up at equally perfect blue ones. "But I am not a lady, Darla," was the quiet reply. "If I were in fact female, I think I would much prefer to be a slut, if that bitch Thompson is the model of what is required to be a lady."

Darla's hands fisted so hard she felt her nails cutting into her palms. "You agreed to follow Jane's orders," she hissed, striving for self control. "And that means you are to be a lady. . .HER kind of lady and LADIES do not lay about upon divans with their legs akimbo like some damned tramp waiting for her next john!"

Carol gave a cold bark of laughter, but rolled off the sofa to her feet, very daintily arranged her skirts and then reseated herself with caricatured feminine grace. "You were saying?" Carol asked, fluttering her lashes.

"Why?" was all Darla could manage to get past the fury-driven lump in her throat.

"I promised *MS* Thompson, that I would do my best to follow her orders. As I am not really a girl, that is my best."

"That's bull and we both know it! You haven't given anything even approximating a real effort to get with the program since the day you arrived!"

"Why should I? *This*," Carol shot back, running a long-nailed hand down her bodice and skirt, "Is bullshit! She wants to make me like women better by having me try BEING a woman? What is that? Walk a mile in her spike heels and learn her righteous point of view? Crap! She's just another bitch of a woman trying to tell men what to do. Well, I've taken everything she can dish out, and I still say, 'Screw her!'"

"Don't you think there might be a possibility that you are wrong, about women in general and about Ms. Thompson specifically? If you don't listen or do as you told, how will you ever find out?"

"There's nothing you or that woman can teach me, chickie. As to the other, well, I've done what I've been told to do, when I've been told to do it, how I've been told to do it."

"And not a damn bit more!" Darla accused hotly.

"To what purpose? I've already told you what I think of this idiotic learn-by-doing program here. Besides, I'm out of here in a couple of weeks anyway and there's not a damned thing you or your MS Thompson or even my uncle can do about it!"

"So you turn eighteen. Big deal. Your uncle has told you there isn't any money for you until you pass muster with Jane, which you won't if you don't straighten up."

"Straighten up? Isn't being 'straight' a little hard when she rigs me out like this? And my uncle is in for as big a surprise as your sainted Ms. Thompson. He's not the only relative I had, and the inheritance he runs as trustee supposedly for me isn't the only one I have coming."

Darla was about to ask what Carol meant by that when the front door bell chimed.

*Who can that be?* she wondered. "We need to finish this discussion. Don't disappear!"

"Sure, sweetcakes. Whatever you say, short-stuff."

With a barely stifled growl, Darla spun on her heel and strode to the door.

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Darla glanced through the glass surrounding the heavy oak front door to see a man she had never met before. The heavy trench coat he wore against the blustery chill of a December day in New England hid all but his face in its bulk.. *One of Jane's business colleagues making an unannounced holiday visit?* she wondered as she opened the door. "Hello," she said through the still-chained door, "May I help you?"

The man gave her a considering look before nodding and passing a card through the cracked-open doorway. "Yes, please. Is Ms. Thompson at home? My name is Donald Madden."

"Who is it, dear?" Marie's voice called from the hall.

"Is that you, Miss Marie?" Madden called.

"Who?" Marie asked surprised as she came up to look out at their visitor. "Donna. . .aallld?" she suddenly stuttered out.

"Yes, ma'am," the fellow said with a little half smile. "I wondered if Ms. Jane was home?"

Marie gently elbowed Darla out of the way. For several moments, she stared at the man as if deciding what to do next. Finally, she sighed and unchained the door. "She's not here, Donald," the older woman offered in a coldly uninflected voice that Darla had never before heard coming from the gentle Marie. "Won't you come in for a moment and take the chill off?" she asked.

"Oh, all right. Just for a moment, though," he replied hesitantly.

*Whatever is bothering her about this guy,* Darla mused. *Marie actually wants him to stay.* She watched as Marie put her hands out to their visitor only to pull them behind her back after a brief handclasp. *Not only that, but she more than halfway wanted to hug him, but stopped herself. What on earth would stop Earth- Mother-Marie from pulling someone to her loving heart? Whoever this guy is, and whatever is causing Marie to give out such mixed signals, he is not merely another of Jane's business acquaintances.*

"You'll stay and have a cup of tea, Donald," Marie ordered briskly as she divested him of his heavy coat. "Why, you're chilled to the bone. Go make yourself comfortable in the morning room and I'll get the tea. Darla, you and Carol keep him company, please."

Left to play hostess, Darla started to guide their guest into the sun-warmed morning room on the southeast corner of the huge house, only to find him already halfway down the hall toward the room. *Maybe he just knows classical Victorian architecture?*

"Come along, Carol," Darla ordered wishing there was something else she could do with the delinquent student, "And be on your best behavior."

"Of course, dear," Carol replied in a catty purr, "Don't I always?" she asked before adding, "In public?"

They found their visitor strolling about the ornately decorated room, a strange smile on his face. Darla took this opportunity to take the measure of the man. He was not tall, perhaps five feet eight or so, but not much more, and slightly built. Male pattern baldness had begun to thin out the light brown hair on top of his head while his face was clean shaven.

He stopped his wandering at a display of nick-nacks. Smiling, he reached out a single finger to pet one of the menagerie of crystal animals arrayed on a table positioned before a window to catch the sun.

"Hardly anything changed," he murmured to himself before looking up to smile at Darla and Carol. "Marie ran off before she could introduce us. I've already told you my name. You two are?"

Blushing, Darla automatically dipped into a curtsy. "I do beg your pardon, Mr. Madden. My name is Darla Smith and this is my. . . friend, Carol Morris."

Donald Madden quirked an eyebrow in response, particularly when Carol pointedly did not emulate Darla's formal greeting, and then came over to clasp each girl's hand in turn. Just then, Marie bustled in, weighed down by a heavy silver tray. *My goodness,* Darla thought, *She is using the formal silver tea service. Tante Marie is really pulling out the stops for this guy!*

"Here, let me help you with that, Marie," a smiling Donald Madden offered as he took the tray from her. He settled the tray on the large coffee table that Jane used for precisely that purpose in her lessons with students, and then politely waited for the ladies to seat themselves. "Shall I pour, Marie?" Marie nodded, but Darla could see the tension in her eyes as she watched their guest's every move.

"This room hasn't changed a bit," he said to Marie. "Do you still insist on dusting the crystal creatures yourself?"

Marie blushed, but before she could answer, Carol trilled, "Oh, the only time Marie gets at all upset is if we so much as look cross-eyed at her glass pets."

Donald regarded the tall, blonde beauty for several moments with an intensity that made even the haughty Carol look away. "I take it you two are Jane's current students in residence?"

"So she says." "Yes, sir." were the simultaneous responses.

Nodding, Donald turned toward Darla. "I assume, then, that you are the big si. . .that is, the experienced mentor student?"

Understanding hit Darla with icy clarity. *He KNOWS!* Perhaps it was the shock of that realization, but Darla answered him without fully considering her words. "Yes, sir, but I'm not very good at it, I am afraid."

"I see," was all he said as his gaze shifted back to Carol.

"So, Don. . ald, tell me what you are doing up this way?" Marie leapt into the break, her voice still wary.

For her part, Darla watched and listened with interest as Marie tried to divert the conversation away from Carol. *There is no doubt in my mind that he knows about Jane's teaching practices and that he believes that both Carol and I are really male under our dresses and pretty undies. The only way he knows those hard little truths is if he is a parent or relative of one of Jane's former students, or one of Jane's supporters among the law-types or social services folks, or. . . .or he's a former student himself,* Darla wondered about that, and then recalled the comment about Marie's possessiveness of the crystal zoo. *Only a former student would know that only Marie is allowed to so much as look at those things with a duster in hand. Not only that, but Marie stumbled over his name - twice - each time nearly calling him Donna. Therefore, I think I can safely assume that Donald is one of Jane's boys, and that was his 'femme-name'.*

The conversation turned to Donald's current activities, but he sidestepped those questions. *Wonder why he doesn't want to talk about himself? Because he simply doesn't want to answer Marie's so-very-pointed questions about himself? Or might it be because Carol and I are here and he's afraid he might give away one of Jane's secrets to our detriment? I wonder. . . Marie is really of two minds about him. Nervous and wary, yet somehow pleased and hopeful.. But I've been here when a former student has come to visit before, and Marie was not nearly so reserved or cold as she is trying to be with Donald Madden. Could he be one of the two infamous Thompson failures? If he is, he must be the corporate raider because the other fellow is in prison, serving life-without-parole as a three-time loser. Isn't this interesting?*

Darla's thoughts were broken when the man turned back to Carol. "Tell me why Miss Smith believes she is not doing a good job as your mentor," he ordered. "You seem to have acquired all the appropriate social skills and graces."

"Donald. . ." Marie tried to intercede, but it was too late. Darla saw something change in Carol's demeanor, saw her eyes become hard.

"Because there is nothing she and that Thompson woman have to teach me that I care or need to learn."

"And how long have you been here?" the man's voice was suddenly very soft.

"It will be exactly six months tomorrow. Merry frigging Christmas!"

"CAROL!" Marie snapped. "That will be ENOUGH of that language. Apologize immediately!"

Madden held up a hand to Marie. "No, don't apologize unless you mean it," he said, his eyes still fixed on Carol. "Do you know why I came up here?"

Setting her cup down, Carol sat back in the chair. "I am sure I don't really care," she retorted, no longer playing the game.

"I can see you don't, but I will tell you anyway. I came here because I did not want to face another Christmas like the fifteen I've suffered through since I was Jane Thompson's student. I came here because, surrounded by people, in the midst of a hundred parties, I was unutterably lonely."

Carol gave a derisive bark of laughter. "So why did you come to this armpit of the world? There's not that many people here."

"Because for all the mistakes I made while I was here, and they were legion, I wasn't ever lonely here," he said simply.

"Oh, so you are like Barbie's little friend Skipper here," Carol disdained, pointing theatrically at Darla, "one of Ms. Thompson's perfect little society boys and girls; a credit to her sadistic little program."

"I think you owe both Miss Smith and Miss Thompson an apology, young lady," Madden said coldly. "But you wouldn't mean them either, so again, please don't bother. To answer your challenge, no, I am not one of Jane's successes. After seven months here, she finally had to admit that I wasn't going to come around and, very sadly, sent me home."

"Good for you!" Carol cheered. "It's good to know that she can be had after all."

"You really are a fool, aren't you?" Madden said, his head shaking in what seemed to be disbelief. "You haven't listened at all, but I will put it to you again, this time in simple words. I screwed up here. I was so sure I was right and she was wrong that I only went through the motions. Oh, I learned all her lessons because there wasn't any way not to, but I never internalized them. I left here the same foolishly proud, arrogant asshole I was when I arrived."

"You don't look like you've done so poorly. That's a hand- tailored suit you're wearing and those shoes you're wearing cost as much as some cars."

"I've been successful," he admitted. "And many people have suffered a very great deal for that success. As a result, nice people either fear me or dislike me, and the only ones who are willing to pretend to be friends with me are those who want to be friends with my money."

"Who needs friends?" Carol waved that away disdainfully.

Sighing, Donald rose to his feet and offered his hand to Marie. "I had better go," he said with real sadness in his voice. Then he turned back to Carol. "I asked that very same question fifteen years ago when I was Jane's student. I know the answer now - *I* need them. Someday, you'll need them, but you won't believe that now. You're too much like I was - proud, arrogant and stupidly sure of yourself for no real or valid reason. In fact, I think in fifteen years, you too will find yourself alone and worse than just alone, you will find yourself lonely, despite any apparent success you might achieve, despite however many hangers-on you have around you pretending to be your friends. Look at me, you adolescent fool, and see your future if you don't mend your ways and start listening to people who have only your best interests at heart."

With that, Madden spun on his heel and left the room.

Marie, a distressed look on her face, rushed out after him, followed by Darla. They caught up with him as he was pulling his coat from the foyer closet. "I am sorry, Marie, for losing my cool that way. She's just so much like me, making the same damned mistakes I made."

Marie only put her arms around him and hugged him. "I'm glad to see you, again, Donna, and so glad you cared enough to come back. Jane would love to see you, too."

"I can't stay long, and I don't think it would help for me to see that one again," he said sadly.

"Mr. Madden?" Darla interjected. "Carol will not be eating with us tonight by Jane's order. Perhaps you would join us for dinner? Say about 6:30? Jane could really use the company, I think, because, well, as you can tell, things are not going well with Carol. Maybe . . .maybe seeing you would help improve her spirits."

"Yes, Donna, please come to dinner," Marie urged.

There was a look of wistful longing in the man's pale blue eyes. "All right, I'll try. But I will call first to make sure it is all right with Aunt Jane." He finished buttoning his coat and gave Marie a kiss on the cheek before offering his hand to Darla. "And I don't think you've anything to be ashamed of with respect to your performance of your responsibilities as big sister, Miss Smith. Some . . . some of us just don't know when we're being helped or when we're well off. Good day."
 
 

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Part 3: Christmas Present
 
Deep in thought, Darla returned to the morning room to find Carol still munching on one of Marie's cookies.

"Nice try," Carol said cheerfully, raising her teacup to Darla in a mockery of a toast.

"Huh? I beg your pardon?" Darla asked.

"Better watch that 'huh' stuff, Darley. Good old Auntie Jane might decide that 'huh' is a curse word and wash your widdle mouf out wif soap," Carol taunted. "I said, 'nice try.' I have to admit that last plot of Jane's was pretty good, bringing that loser in to act like a charter member of what I am sure is the huge Jane Thompson failure club. Even better for him to try to draw connections between his alleged time here with my own deeply regretted experiences, but guess what, blondie? It didn't work! If that is me in fifteen years, I will be MORE than satisfied with my life. You won't find me griping about my lifestyle or worse, coming back to this pit to cry about being lonely."

"You think that he was a plant? That he was putting on an act?" Darla asked, disbelieving. "For YOUR benefit?

"If you're going to try to play, how did he put it? Oh yeah, mentor for Thompson's future students, then you are going to need some serious acting lessons, Darley," Carol chided. "You'll never sell anything like that. Of *course* it was an act. Had I bothered to give it any thought, that is just the type of dirty trick I would have expected next. Her sadistic little games didn't work, so now she tries to scare me into playing along with her."

Raw fury lanced through Darla and her fists literally itched to smash that sarcastic grin off Carol's face. "That is the second time you've used that word in regards to Ms. Jane," Darla hissed, "And if you had the brains God gave a jellyfish, you'd know there is a huge difference between deviant sadism and the kind of tough love expressed by Jane Thompson. Yes, she's rough on us. Sometimes, she's even mean, but that's what it takes sometimes to get people to take a hard, honest look at themselves."

"Oh, I find it very hard to look at myself in the mirror right now without losing my lunch," Carol mocked. "Come off it, Darley. Even if I were to concede that this whole program has a real and truly noble purpose beyond Thompson getting her jollies dishing out humiliation - which I *don't* - I will never believe that woman understands any more about love than any other woman I have ever met. Womanly love is one of the universe's great oxymorons."

"Maybe it is just that you are about as lovable as . ."

"Ah ah ah, blondie," Carol scolded. "I've already warned you about those naughty words once today. Besides, as my mentor, aren't you are supposed to be setting a properly genteel and ladylike example for me?"

There were times, Darla fumed, when counting to ten just wasn't enough. Unfortunately, she just didn't have time for the ten thousand or so she'd likely need to control her temper. *If only Jane were here instead of at the. . .waitaminute! That's it.* "So, you think womanly love and caring, particularly womanly love and caring expressed by Jane Thompson is a contradiction in terms?"

"Actually," Carol responded, sounding serious for the first time, "I'm not sure I believe there is such a thing as love, period, but I definitely believe that dried up old bat has not the slightest understanding of that concept in any way, shape or form."

"Get you coat. I'll be right back," Darla ordered before slipping out to find Marie. They were all going for a ride.

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With steadily growing trepidation, Marie watched the two young women staring into the critical care unit through the viewing gallery's large window. For her part, she couldn't bear to look upon a child in such a condition, forced to suffer such intrusive indignities and pain, but that was just another area where Jane Thompson was stronger and more courageous than she was. Moreover, Marie had more than a few reservations about this plan of Darla's. The pediatric oncology unit at Children's Hospital was Jane's special cause, and not one she had ever shared with a student before. *I hope this was the right thing to do, and if it wasn't, I hope Jane understands. Lord above, but that girl is just as strong willed and determined as her mentor once she gets a notion in that head of hers.*

Darla had one eye on the tableau in the hospital room, and one eye on her recalcitrant 'little sister'. For her part, Carol's attention was totally focused on the two figures below them. Truth to tell, it was difficult to tell that those figures were people. The one on the bed was in an isolation bubble, his or her features blurred by the way the plastic form refracted light. All one could really tell was that the child was small and very, very frail.

The other figure was swaddled in a complete set of bulky surgical greens, complete to gloves, a hood and a surgeon's mask. A single hand passed through a glove-like extension into the isolation bubble so that the doubly gloved hand could gently caress the unmoving child.

"She had to go through a complete decontamination cleansing before putting on that outfit," Darla murmured, "And even then, she cannot touch the child directly because the little one no longer has any resistance to diseases."

"Poor kid," Carol replied, her attention still fixed on the two figures in the room. "What's going on?"

Encouraged, Darla explained about Allie's condition and what was going to happen today.

"How good are the chances of a recovery?"

"The docs say 70/30 in favor, maybe better. Jane says they were able to get a pretty good match from this donor. It'll be touch and go for the next few days. They pretty much won't know for sure until a week from now."

"Where's the kid's parents? Where's the 'loving' mother?"

"We couldn't get them turned loose from their stations over in the middle east, not without threatening their careers."

"Figures," Carol snorted. "Kid comes last."

Darla resisted an urge to retaliate, and with great effort, kept her response measured and rational. "Assuming Allie makes it through the critical times to come, they're going to need their jobs, because it still won't be over. I don't know the whole story, but as I understand it, the only way the government would let them out of what they're doing is by terminating them. No pay, no benefits, no healthcare. Kind of hard to choose, I'd think."

"Government workers or contract types?"

"Government."

Carol only hummed in her throat. "If it wasn't for the eyes, you wouldn't be able to tell it was the old bat," she said distractedly.

"It's Jane," Darla affirmed coldly, but Carol didn't say another word.

They stood there in silence for almost half an hour until the hospital room door opened. Several more green-garbed figures filed in, led by one whose bountiful feminine endowments even the formless medical garments couldn't quite hide. She walked over to Jane, putting a gentle hand on the seated woman's shoulder. They exchanged words that those watching from observation gallery couldn't make out, and then slowly, with obvious reluctance, Jane removed her hand from the glove-bag and stood. Suddenly, she was in the arms of the nurse, her head and shoulders heaving in racking, emotion-ridden sobs.

"Jane is proud," Darla said softly, "And Lord knows that Jane is also determined and forceful, but she is also loving. Would a sadistic woman take time, go through that awful decontamination process, just sit with and try to comfort a frightened child?"

Carol again said nothing, only looked from Jane to Darla and then back again. Finally she shrugged. "Are we through here?" she asked as she turned to leave the room without waiting for an answer.
 
 

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Part 4: The Interludes
 
 
First Interlude:

Carol had not said a word during the drive back to Seasons House leading Darla to hope that she might be reconsidering her harsh assessment of Jane Thompson and her motives for taking on troubled young people.

That hope was dashed when, the moment they reentered Jane's mansion, Carol went straight to parlor sideboard and snatched up a crystal decanter filled with brandy. She'd already downed the first swallow when Darla caught up with her. "You shouldn't be drinking that," she reprimanded.

"After slipping me that mickey finn the first day I was here so that she could steal my luggage, I don't think Ms Thompson has anything to say to me about this," Carol retorted, taking another injudiciously deep swallow from the snifter and choking as the fiery liquid burned its way down to her stomach. "How much do you figure she had to pay the hospital to play along with that little melodrama?"

"I beg your pardon?" Darla asked, shocked.

"That was just too perfect - particularly on the heels of the supposedly prodigal student earlier today - life doesn't happen that way unless you count bad movies and Charles Dickens' novels. Look, Darley, I know she's rich as hell - she couldn't live in this place, drive those cars, dress us in clothing of this quality unless she was rolling in it, okay?"

"So what?"

"So, I figure she needs tax sheltering. Hospitals are good for that purpose and they always need money. Why, I bet they were *really* accommodating to a woman who offered them ten, maybe twenty-five thousand to help cover their latest project or cost overrun. Heck, she probably got the parents of that kid to play along for a few hundred or so."

Speechless, Darla could only stare as Carol helped herself to another splash of Jane's brandy. "You. . you. . "

"Now, now, Darley, remember the lessons of the great Thompson. To paraphrase, one should always engage brain before activating mouth," Carol taunted, "Think of what you want to say before trying to speak."

"You have the pure, unmitigated. . .I don't know whether to call it gall or stupidity, to think that what happened at the hospital was staged?!??"

"Oh, come off it, bitch. At the risk of sounding repetitious, of course it was staged! Thompson is a female, isn't she? Of course it was a just another damned female trick. Another attempt to make me think she is REALLY trying to do something that benefits someone. Well, stuff it!"

"You really have terrible image of women, don't you?" Darla breathed. "My god, what is it that made you that contemptuous of women?"

"Experience, my dear, simple hard experience. I have never had a woman in my life who didn't try to screw me. Some managed, some didn't. In recent years, fewer have managed because I have taken to heart the inverse Golden Rule - Do unto others as they would do unto you, except do it first."

"But your mother . . ."

"Was the first and the best. . . or the worst, depending on your point of view, to let me down."

Darla thought of the letters Carl's uncle had forwarded to Jane in the hope that they might help turn him around . . . letters from a mother to her son. "But your mother was killed when you were just a kid. . .a drunk driver I think I heard Jane say."

"She LEFT me, okay? With HIM, okay?" Carol was becoming agitated, and was showing more real emotion than Darla could remember seeing once he'd regained his equilibrium a couple of days after his arrival.

"With who, Carol?"

"DON'T CALL ME THAT, DAMN YOU! MY NAME IS CARL!"

"Who did your Mother leave you with, Carl," Darla asked gently.

"My father, dammit, with his belts and his hard hands and his harder words."

"Then why don't you hate men instead of women?" Darla asked, wishing Jane was here for this emotional event and feeling inadequate to the task. *But he's talking, at last. Maybe. . maybe. . *

"Women should have helped me, protected me because I was just a kid who couldn't do that for myself! The teachers who never saw the hurts and injuries. The principals who only saw the homework that wasn't done and sent notes home to him so he'd have more excuses to get out the belt. The social worker who couldn't prove her case and get me the hell away from him and who pissed him off so that things got even worse because he became more careful. My MOTHER who should have taken me with her when. . when. . " Carol's voice broke, but then she recovered. "When she ran away the last time. You know what? I just remembered - that was Christmas Eve, too."

"Isn't that the night she was killed in that accident?"

"So?" Carol snapped. "If I'd been with her, she might not have been at the intersection when that drunk ran the stop light."

"Or she still might have, and you'd have been killed, too."

"She always drove more slowly when I was in the car," Carol replied stoutly. "Sometimes I think she was the one responsible for that accident, that she was. . was. . "

*Oh god, why wasn't this information included in Carl's file? We ALWAYS get reports of child protective services investigations, even if they find nothing. DAMN his asshole of a father and his connections! But, is that the truth or is he playing me the way he claims Jane is trying to play him? Damn, but I am not qualified to deal with this, but I am the only one here.*

"You think she was trying to kill herself?" Darla asked and watched Carol closely - looking for some indication of what the teenager was really thinking. Her only answer was a very jerky shrug. "Jane has contacts in the police departments. We could probably get you a copy of the actual police report. At least that way you'd know for sure."

A look like none Darla could remember seeing on Carol's pretty face flitted across her visage - a look of uncertainty - before her features hardened again. "What would it matter, anyway?" she asked, attempting disinterest. "She still left me. She still cared more about herself than she did about me."

The bitterness in Carol's voice was palpable, and Darla knew there was nothing she could say that would get through the student's rebuilt walls. *But, maybe, just maybe, her. . his mother can get through them. It's worth a shot, isn't it? Jane is going to send him home in two days anyway.* "Wait. . I have something I want you to look at."

It took only a few moments for Darla to find what she wanted from Jane's office. She returned to find Carol refilling her snifter. "That stuff will put you on your cute pantied butt," she said without thinking.

"An excellent idea," Carol said, making her voice intentionally slur drunkenly. "Now that I have remembered why I hate Christmas Eve, getting smashed has a certain appeal."

Darla picked up the decanter with one hand and held out a ribbon- bound packet with the other. "Well, the bar just closed. Here, these were always intended for you. You might find them interesting."

"What are they?"

"Letters from your Mother. Evidently, she used letters like most folks use a diary because she didn't want to keep one at home. She'd mail them to herself - to a mailbox she kept at a storefront post office. Your uncle found them when he was executor of her will."

"Even if they aren't just another of Ms. Thompson's little ploys, there can't be much in them. Otherwise some hotshot lawyer would have tried to use them to get me away from my father."

"I don't know about the lawyer, but for what it is worth, you have my word of honor that these are legit - the real deal."

Hesitantly, Carol held out a fine, perfectly manicured hand for the packet of letters. "What the hell," she said diffidently. "They might be more amusing than the other junk your Ms Thompson provides. Might be worth a few laughs."

Darla watched as Carol turned and began to leave the room with a greatly exaggerated hip-swing that would have sent Jane through the roof, and had several times in the past six months.

"Carol? I mean, Carl?" Darla called out. The femininely dressed young man stopped and turned about, lifting one finely shaped brow in both inquiry and challenge. "You might think about something. If your father was really that. . .awful to you, why are you working so hard to emulate him? Okay, women have let you down, but do you have to become your father all over again, just because you don't want to repeat the women's failures? Can't you be better than both, and not less than either? I promise you, that is all Jane truly wants from you and for you."

"Oh really? Then why does she do her level best to embarrass and humiliate me at every damned turn, eh? Well, let me tell you this, blondie, the reason she hasn't gotten to me is my father. My father would NEVER have let a bitch like Thompson get the better of him, and neither will I because I refuse to be less than he was. I don't need her, or at least I won't in a couple more weeks. So the only other hold she has on me is that threat of humiliation and public ridicule, and *I* am the one who controls that lever because I REFUSE to relinquish it to her."

The two teens stood there, stares locked for several long moments. Finally, Carol broke the stare-down grinning broadly. She then toasted Darla with the snifter and left the room.

"God, let me not have made things worse. Please?"
 
 
Second Interlude:

After her day at the pediatric oncology unit, Jane returned to Seasons House weary in mind, body and spirit. More than anything else, she wanted privacy for her spirit, a hot bath for her body and a large snifter of brandy for her mind, but she was Jane Thompson, and she had responsibilities. Thus, she rapidly found herself in her downstairs office, discussing the day's events with her two assistants. In truth, it was almost more than she could deal with in one day. A student she had been forced to admit she'd failed, the totally unexpected return of one of her other two failures and the discovery that one of her few real secrets, her special cause, had been revealed to one of her students.

Tiredly, she shook her head to clear it. *I should be glad they caught me before I reached the decanter. No way would alcohol help me deal with all this.* "Well, I suppose it is just as well that he will be reliant on his uncle's largess for a few more years. That should encourage him to keep his mouth shut. Bribery ought to work as well with him as it did with Donald."

"Ummm. . Aunt Jane?" Darla put in. "I don't think Carl is really going to need his uncle's money."

"Why do you say that, Darla?"

"Because during one of our set-to's this morning, Carol let slip the possibility that she might have an inheritance from another relative - one that she comes into on her eighteenth birthday. I don't think it was a lie."

"Well, that would put the fox among the chickens, wouldn't it? I will call his uncle and ask him to check. Anything else happen today?"

"Well. . ." Darla started, then hesitated. Jane resisted the urge to groan and instead gave the girl a 'let me have it' gesture with her elegant hands. "I gave Carol the letters."

For a moment, Jane said nothing as her fatigued brain tried to work her way through the possible ramifications of that act, but finally she gave up. "Why, may I ask?" she asked, her eyes closed against the first twinges of an incipient headache.

Darla's shoulders drooped. "I got her talking when we got back. Actually, I think she got herself drunk because by the time I found her, she was throwing back your brandy like it was fruit juice."

"Wonderful. Another violation of our agreement," Jane noted. "I told her that she might be served wine at table, as that is the custom in many families, but that the stronger spirits were off limits. I'm sorry for interrupting, dear. You were saying that you had her talking? About what?"

"Why she dislikes and distrusts women, and specifically about her mother. Did you know her father was abusive?"

Jane nodded. "It's strongly hinted at in some of the letters Carl's mother wrote to herself. Unfortunately, powerful men can hide such things from the authorities, or worse, with the help of the authorities. By the time the uncle had enough to go after Carl, the boy was old enough to express himself in court and told the social worker he would prefer to stay with his father."

"He said that the social worker failed him!" Darla exclaimed.

"I'm sure he felt that way. I suspect that he was too afraid of his father to do anything else, and the social worker didn't pursue it any further. In her defense, she had a heavy caseload, kids who really needed to be moved from obviously brutal situations, and by all accounts, Carl's father was smart enough not to leave much in the way of evidence."

"Oh," was all Darla could manage. "Anyway, he blames his mother most of all, for not taking him with her the night she was killed. So, I gave him the letters hoping he'd read what her real intent was from that last letter."

"You didn't point it out to him?"

"No, I figured that he'd take that as one more instance of Jane Thompson's manipulations. I was sort of hoping that he'd find it himself and maybe, just maybe, believe they really are his Mother's words. I'm sorry if I messed up."

Jane reached out and lovingly stroked the soft blonde hair, a gentle smile curling the lips of her full mouth. "You did fine, dear. I'm very proud of you for not giving up, for continuing, even in the face of all our setbacks with this student, to try to find a way to reach him."

Jane stood and went to her desk where she produced a business sized envelope. "I was planning on giving you this tomorrow morning as a Christmas present. Perhaps now is more appropriate."

Darla took the envelope and carefully opened it and removed the one page document. Her first thought was that it was some type of award certificate as it was made of a heavy parchment paper and had some type of seal embossed in the lower right hand corner of the page. Then she opened it, and felt her head begin to spin as she read aloud the words at the top of the page.
 
 

Proclamation of Adoption
Case of
Jane Thompson and Darryl Smith

 
 
The signature at the bottom of the page, embossed by the great seal of her state, was of Aunt Ruth - Judge Ruth.

"Omigod," Darla exulted. "It's approved? It's real? I'm your. . you're my . . "

Suddenly, Darla was wrapped in two pairs of loving arms, and was being hugged tightly. "You're my son, now," Jane said softly, "And God help you, dear, I am your mother."

Darla reached out with both arms to pull the two older women even closer as all three shared kisses and tears. "He already did, Momma-Jane," Darla/Darryl whispered over the lump in his/her throat, "The day He sent me to you and Marie."

They stood there for several minutes, basking in the warmth of the mutual embrace and in their shared love. Finally, Marie pulled back first. "I have to get dinner finished. Darla did invite Donald to join us and I think the two of you need to go clean yourselves up and dress for dinner."

"He may not come," Darla noted, very reluctant to let go of either woman.

"And then again, he might," Marie replied. "Now scoot, the both of you, or my Christmas Eve dinner will be spoiled."

"Very well," Jane replied. "But Marie? Set four places, please. You will also be joining us at table tonight." Marie started to protest, but Jane cut her off with a single raised hand. "Not another word, Marie. Whether Donald comes or not, I want to celebrate tonight with my family."

"Me too," Darla said, trying to inject a touch of sass into her voice. "So THERE!" whereupon all three began to giggle.
 
 
Third Interlude:

Carol wished she dared slip back down stairs to refill her now- empty brandy snifter. The booze made reading these blasted letters a damned sight easier. She didn't want to believe they were from the woman who had given birth to Carl Morris - simply didn't want to because they were true. That would mean her entire outlook as Carl had been a lie and that . . . well, that the Thompson woman might be right.

She'd never admit it to Little Miss Perfect-Panties-Darla, but the visit to the hospital had rocked her opinion of the Thompson woman. She'd jerked Darla's chain pretty hard after they got back to the house, but the truth of the matter was that seeing Ms Thompson and that poor kid had done funny things to her inside.

"And that's just bullshit," Carl's voice snapped out. "Just like she's got me thinking of myself in the feminine tense when I'm not careful. Cripes, but this is going to be a colossal pain in the ass when I finally turn eighteen and Granddad's trust starts paying the bills. Guess I will just have to drop out of sight for a few months while I practice being a guy again."

A knock sounded at the door. "It's not locked," the be-skirted boy called out before adding sotto voce "On this side of the door, anyway."

"It's Marie with your dinner," a muffled voice called. "Could you open the door for me?"

A very unladylike stomach growl immediately ended any inclination the unhappy teen might have entertained to give Marie a hard time. "At least the food is good," she thought as she hurried to open the door.

Marie swept into the room carrying a huge tray which she set on the window seat beside the bed. "Now I gave you seconds of all your favorites and an extra big piece of the pie. There's hot tea in the thermos, but I can bring up milk if you'd prefer."

"That . . that . . . tea will be fine, Ms. Marie," the surprised student stuttered out.

"Well, enjoy your meal. If there is anything you need or want, give me a ring after the usual dinner hour. Jane wants me to eat with her and Darla tonight."

"Th. . thanks. A lot."

Marie shocked the youngster to the core when she went up on her toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Bon Appetite, cheri."

Uncertainly, Carl/Carol walked over to the tray and removed the lids from the various dishes. "Good grief, she really DID fix all my favorites. She noticed? And cared enough to still prepare them for me? After the way I acted today? What the hell is going on here?!?!"

The question went unanswered so she/he settled down to eat. The fact that his/her table manners, including seated posture, and her/his use of the napkin and all the flatware were impeccable, even by Jane Thompson's high standards, went unnoticed even by the sole occupant of the room.
 
 
Fourth Interlude:

"I guess I am the last person you ever expected or perhaps even wanted to see again, Jane." Donald Madden said as he sipped his after dinner coffee in the Seasons House music room.

"Let's say that you have often been in my thoughts and let it go at that?" Jane replied.

"Especially now, I would bet."

"How so?"

"I met your junior student today, Jane. Other than the fact that he makes a much prettier and more believable girl than I ever did, it was like deja vu. What happened?"

Jane sighed. "Same thing as you - he knew something his uncle and I did not. Basically, he had a financial parachute in the form of a legacy that he takes control of in two weeks. His guardian, the uncle who sent him to me did not know about that inheritance until Carl let it slip this morning to Darla and I called him to ask about it."

"Truly deja vu. Me all over again."

"Except I won't tell Carl the truth about Darla. I told you about your big sister . . Lord what was her name?"

"Martha. . .I mean, Martin," Donald supplied.

"He's a doctor now, by the way. In any case, I revealed the truth about Martha to you in the hopes that you might understand what we were trying to do with you - in hope that you might decide to straighten up and become a big sister yourself."

"I was too sure I was right and you were wrong."

"Well, nothing I've tried with Carl since those first few days of shock-treatment has touched him in any way I can determine. Now I know why, but I am not going to reveal to him that all of my other students were cross-dressed young men, too."

"I was a bit surprised by that young person, Jane. She. . .he seems, I don't know, almost like a . . well, a younger version of you. Star pupil?"

"My son, Donald. The adoption papers arrived today. He is very special."

"Well, I let you down fifteen years ago, but is there anything I can do to help with, what did you name him? Carol? You name it, I'll do it."

Jane regarded her guest for several moments. "I cannot imagine why you would make such an offer, or given your opinion of me when you left here, that you actually mean that 'you name it' part."

"Try me."

"In all honesty, Donald, I am afraid there is nothing that can be done with him at this point except cut all of our losses and try to move on. I've already made arrangements to send him back to his uncle after Christmas. I am curious, though, what has changed your outlook so radically."

"What usually causes a man's world to get turned upside down? I fell in love."

"Congratulations."

"Save them, Jane. I took over her family's company for the patents it held. Met her when my team arrived to start the demolition and the world as I have always known it ended in a single flash of emerald green eyes. Unfortunately, she can't seem tolerate me for all the myriad reasons you impressed on me when I was Donna."

"So what are you doing now?"

"I am fighting to save her company from my own investors using my own money. It will be close, but I think I have the deal just about done. Then I plan to appoint her as CEO and set up a sale plan so she can buy it back from me."

"Do you need another investor?"

"You? I didn't come here to hit you up for money, Jane. I just came to. . .well, tell you I wish I had learned some of these hard lessons fifteen years ago, when they didn't hurt so much."

Jane smiled. "Well, when you win your lady, bring her to visit." and then her smile changed to one Donald and almost a hundred other young men would recognize with more than a little frisson of fear and trepidation. "I will show her the family pictures."

His mouth literally dropped open as the full implications of that promise became clear. "You would, wouldn't you?" Donald laughed.
 
 

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Part 5: Christmas Past
 
Reading the letters had only become more difficult for Jane's junior student. *I wouldn't put it past that Thompson woman to have forged the lot of them from a sample of my mother's handwriting,* Carl thought as he reached for the last letter in the pile. * but somehow, I think these letters are the real McCoy.*

Already in bed, he opened the simple white envelope, extracted the single page and began to read.
 
 
December 24, 1986

Dear Me,

Well, he found and destroyed the presents I bought for Carl, just like he promised he'd do. Except this time, I have evidence of his cruel little games. Hopefully, my brother will be able to use his new influence as staffer to that congressman to help us escape. I'm going to drive to Washington tonight and give John the pictures I took of him destroying Carl's presents. Surely some honest judge would consider that an act of abuse. Maybe my boy and I can be free before Christmas is over. God, I wish I dared bring Carl with me, but the bastard would be suspicious and might stop me from leaving, or get his good buddies in the local police department to have me stopped and arrested. Detained, he'd call it. I have to do something, though. Every day, I see my happy, outgoing little boy becoming more unhappy, more guarded. I just hope John has the power he says he does. Maybe, just maybe, my son and I will sing holiday carols yet this year.

Dorothea Madden.
 
 
Tears burned at the back of Carl's eyelids. That letter had been written the day his Mother died. Suddenly, the dam broke and the tears came became a deluge as harsh, wracking sobs overwhelmed him. He hadn't cried since his mother's funeral - not since his father had promised him something to cry for unless he stopped - and now he couldn't stop.

And he didn't stop until exhausted, he fell into a troubled slumber.

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Carl woke up from his nap and slipped out of bed. He tiptoed down the hall and found, much to his surprise, his Mother seated in her old rocking chair, smiling at him.

"Hello, sweetie. Don't you look pretty in that dress."

Carl looked down and was surprised to find himself in a dress - in Ms. Thompson's little girl, Raggedy Anne punishment dress. "Why am I dressed like a girl?" he asked himself.

"Because you are," the image of his Mother said in complete seriousness as she reached down to stroke a blonde curl back into place. "Maybe because here in this special place of dreams, on this most magical night of the year, you need to be a girl more than you need to be a boy. I must say, though, that you do look nice as a blonde, and the pigtails are very cute, too," A sad yet sweet smile warmed the almost forgotten face of Dorathea Madden. "You know? I used to wish you'd been born a girl because then your father wouldn't have taken any interest in your upbringing."

"But I was. . am a boy," Carl countered.

"So you were . . .are," his Mother agreed. "But since you're dressed as a girl right now, you'll have to sing soprano when we do our carols tonight."

Still confused, Carl was further surprised when his Mother stood up, and literally towered over him. Smiling, she reached down to take his child-sized, white-gloved hand in her adult-sized one. "Come along, dear. Your father will be home soon and you know we have to be finished with our secret church service before he arrives."

"I must be dreaming," Carl murmured to himself.

"Maybe, dear, and maybe you're remembering things you haven't let yourself remember since the night I. . . had to leave you."

"Since the night you DIED!" the very little-girlish boy accused. "Why couldn't you take me with you? It's been hell here with him."

"You have a great deal to do in the world that is good, my love," his Mother assured him as she led him down into the basement of their old house to a door Carl suddenly recognized. "Things that will, in part, make up for the bad things your father did in the world."

"Me?" he demanded, his voice breaking as it had not done in over four years.

"You. If you get your act together and listen to Ms. Thompson, that is." A single, unshielded incandescent light flared in the hidden little room, revealing a small Christmas tree and a little china Nativity scene on a low table. Carl examined the little scene and rubbed his eyes vigorously. *Why does Mary look like she's wearing surgical greens, and why is the Child wearing bandages instead of swaddling clothes?*

Carl turned to ask his Mother only to see her putting an old fashioned LP record on a cheap little stereo turntable. Immediately, a familiar holiday carol began to sound through the attached speakers. His Mother began to sing along, and from some deeply buried, long-forgotten memory, the words came to Carol, and she too began to sing.
 
 
Said the night wind to the little lamb,
"Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite."

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
"Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea,
With a voice as big as the sea."

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
"Do you know what I know?
In your palace warm, mighty king,
Do you know what I know?
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold--
Let us bring him silver and gold,
Let us bring him silver and gold."

Said the king to the people everywhere,
"Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere,
Listen to what I say!
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light,
He will bring us goodness and light."

 
 
Carl found himself eagerly waiting for the next song when a huge shadow fell across the two carolers. "I told you what would happen if you disobeyed me again on this, Dorothea," his father's voice boomed. "I don't want the boy being fed this "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men" drivel. He needs to learn how to be tough, hard and ruthless, and you need to learn to stop defying me," Both mother and child watched as the dark shadow unbuckled his belt and slid it from his torso with an evil hiss. "He's going to be like me if I have to beat the steel into his weakling spine."

The belt licked out and his Mother screamed in pain. Raw fury boiled up inside Carl and he seemed to grow instantly back to his normal height. With surprising ease, he caught his father's arm in one hand while his other took his throat. For just a moment, his hand flexed about the throat it held. It would be so easy, he mused, so easy, but then his Mother's words came back to him, and the words of the carol they had just sung together. ". . .make up for the evil your father did. . " and the promise of "goodness and light."

"I am NOT going to be you, old man, or even anything LIKE you!" he hissed into the dark, still-featureless face, his grip still firm on the throat. "I REFUSE to be you! Everything you were, I will be the opposite; everything you did, I will undo and by far most importantly, everything you destroyed, I will recreate."

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". . . I will recreate. . .recreate. . . recreate. . WHAT?!?!"

Carl came awake with a jerk, his eyes wide and the muscles of his hands rigidly gripping. . . . nothing. Breath came in deep, heaving gasps as his head swivelled about, taking in the now familiar features of his room. . . or rather of Carol's room at Seasons House. A quick glance at the bedside clock told him it was a little after three A.M.

Shivering from more than the room's nighttime chill, Carl made his way to the private bath off the main bedroom. Two glasses of water later, the shaking at last began to subside. "Lord, what a dream, and yet, it was so bloody real."

Quickly, he padded back to the bed and slipped beneath the heavy comforter. *I don't believe in messages from beyond,* he told himself. *Things like that don't happen to real people. Only in movies or novels. But, darnit, I remember that room beneath the house and although our Mary didn't really look like Jane Thompson, I remember that Nativity Scene, too.*

"Oh god, this is really, really crazy. I have to think this all through, but I think I just promised . . . well, certainly myself that I'd . . that I'd. . . oh man, *I* am going crazy."

Sleep eluded the beautifully gowned young man for the remainder of the long, lonely night.
 
 

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Part 6: The End of It
 
The sun had yet to rise when Marie slipped down from her third floor apartment to begin fixing her special Christmas morning breakfast. Given Carol's imminent departure, and moreover, the reasons for her being sent away, this would not be the most joyous of holidays, but Marie was still determined that the traditions would still be followed.

As she entered the dining room, her sensitive nose caught the first whiff of "Coffee?" *Blast it!* she thought sadly. *It must be Jane. Obviously she couldn't sleep because she's fretting about Carol, too.*

Only it wasn't Jane, Marie soon discovered, it was Carol and she working some type of dough in a bowl. "What are you doing, child?" Marie asked, her eyes blinking hard against the sudden glare of the brightly lighted kitchen.

"Cookies!" the skillfully made up young person said happily. "It's Christmas Morning and I decided we needed Christmas cookies." Then, seeing the look of shock on Marie's face, the pleasure fled from the bright eyes.

It had been a long, painfully-reflective night for young Carl. The dream had indeed been a catalyst for the retrieval of memories long suppressed. In the harsh light of those mental images, his behavior over the past years had shamed him deeply. He'd been forced to acknowledge that he'd been a thorough-going bastard, that he HAD been his father all over again, and that recognition shamed him and humiliated him as nothing Jane Thompson had done with him ever could do. Obviously, he could not possibly keep his promise to his dream Mother and to himself without some significant changes.

Only problem with that decision, Carl had concluded at about four thirty, was that he didn't know how to be any different. That was when another of his dream-Mother's words had come back to him. "If you get your act together and listen to Ms. Thompson, that is."

That was the solution, he'd decided. Well, he'd learned the easy lessons already - it was the hard ones he'd resisted by his ridicule and sarcasm. Now, he. . no, *she* was determined to become the best student Jane Thompson had ever taught. And since she'd gone a long way towards messing up everyone's Christmas, she'd figured the first place to start making amends was by trying to restore some of the cheer her abominable behavior had cost Jane Thompson's family. *But from the look on Marie's face, it appears I have overstepped myself. DARN!* "Umm. . .I guess I should have asked, first. I'm sorry about the mess, though. I will clean it up right away!"

Marie had been around Jane's boys for almost twenty years, and she knew something had changed with this one. Whether this marked the bare beginning of the long prayed for breakthrough, she didn't know, but it probably wouldn't hurt to indulge the child and see what came of it. Besides, Marie had a secret sweet tooth. "No. . no, child. Keep on as you were going. You're right. We didn't make cookies this year. Have you found my special holiday cookie cutters? No? Okay, let's see."

Soon, the French Canadian woman and the girlishly pretty boy were working side by side, turning out dozens of brightly colored sugar cookie Christmas trees, snowmen, Santas and angels. As the last batch went into the oven, Carol (for that is definitely how Marie was thinking of her), asked Marie if she could make a call home, to her uncle.

*I guess there is very little purpose to keeping her incommunicado now that Jane has already decided to send her back home in two days,* Marie decided. "Use my phone, dear," she offered as she unlocked her kitchen phone. Determined not to eavesdrop, all she heard as she slipped from the kitchen was "Hi, Uncle John, it's me, Carol . .I mean, Carl. Yes, I know it is very early, but I was wondering if you could help . . "

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At seven o'clock, Jane came down to find a Carol she'd never seen before. The outfit was bright - a red corduroy jumper over a green silk blouse - but the girl had long had the skill to dress and present herself beautifully when it suited her own purposes. No, it was her demeanor that was new - that and her attention to details that had previously been ignored.

For one thing, her hair was done in a very complex array of curls that required several barrettes (nicely color-coordinated ones, Jane noted) to hold in place. The arrangement was actually more suited to an evening gown than her current sassy little outfit, but it represented the first time the young person had ever made such an effort on her own. She had even tried accessorizing, although the fine gold chain bracelets and the necklace of tiny pearls she'd chosen were overwhelmed by the bright holiday outfit. Still, she had tried, and done fairly well. She actually looked about as demure and as ladylike as any student making their first independent dressing. Suspicious, Jane warily asked, "Yes, Carl? What do you want?"

Carol swallowed hard, and forced herself to make eye contact with the stern-faced teacher. He. . no, make that *she* had used every trick *she* had learned in her tenure in Seasons House getting ready for this moment. *I don't know how to look more girlish than I do right now,* he. . . *she* thought even as she fought the urge to run and hide. Only her dream-Mother's words and her own promise gave her the courage to stand up under that cold stare. *Think girl,* she told herself sternly. "I was wondering, Ms. Thompson, that is, I wanted to ask you, do you think we could go to church?"

Stunned, Jane was momentarily speechless but finally managed a "Church?"

The shy smile that lit the perfectly and appropriately made up face was nearly as surprising as the request for church. "Yes, Ma'am. One with music if that is possible, please."

"With music," Jane repeated, feeling very much like someone had just pushed her through Alice's rabbit hole. *Okay, who are you and what have you done with Carl Morris?* she thought.

"Yes, Ma'am. Please?"

*I have no idea what he is up to now, but since I was going to attend services anyway. . * "All right, Carl, you may go to church with Darla and me, but let me warn you. Any disruptions, any acting out and I will call Deputy Beale. I think you can be very sure precisely how little he will enjoy having to deal with you when he'd rather be with his family on Christmas morning."

"Oh, thank you, Ms. Jane!" the changeling cheered. "I am very grateful." She turned to head out of the room, but stopped and looked back to Jane, but this time was unable to hold eye contact. Her eyes fell to her own toes, and she literally wrung her hands before managing to rasp out emotionally, "Oh, and even though I have that inheritance coming, Ms. Jane? Darla did tell you about that, didn't she?" Carol looked up in time to see Jane's sharp nod, then continued. "Anyway, I'd like to stay - here with you and Marie and Darla - until you think I am ready to go out on my own. I know you expected to be rid of me, but I promise to really do my best from now on. My word of honor."

"Stay? Here?" Jane eased down into a nearby chair. "Ummm. . . .we'll. . well, we'll discuss it. Later. After church."

"Great. Thank you again, Ms. Jane. I'm going to go get ready for church."

Instinct took over, and Jane-the-teacher momentarily reasserted herself. "Excellent notion. Change into something more appropriate for church, please. We leave in forty minutes." *Let's see how she handles that direction, now.* "Okay, .. I mean, Yes, Ma'am. And thanks again," Carol told her just before turning toward the foyer. Still reeling, Jane stood back up and watched as her 'failure' dashed up the stairs.

When she came back to herself, Jane turned to find a grinning Marie standing next to her, a plate in her hand. "Christmas cookie, Jane? Carol made them this morning."

"They don't say 'Eat me', do they?" Jane asked with a wry smile on her face. "Tell me, Marie. That was Carl, wasn't it? I mean, that girl who just was here talking to me? Beautifully dressed and for heavens sake, smiling?"

"One and the same, dear. I was surprised, too. I thought perhaps you and Donald might have talked to him last night."

"No, we didn't. I checked on him about midnight, and found him clutching one of his Mother's letters as he slept. You don't suppose they made the difference after all, do you? I really expected him to just say 'bah humbug' if I offered them to him and ignore them as he had ignored everything else we've done with him. . her."

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Jane had refrained from making any comment on Carol's 'Sunday-Go- To-Meeting' selection, but it had been difficult. Certainly, with any other junior student, she would have made at least one or two very pointed observations intended to make the be-skirted boy want to die of embarrassment. *It certainly wouldn't be difficult to find things with which to tease him just now, either,* Jane thought with a smile. Evidently, Carol (*Or was it Carl?* Jane mused) had decided that the appropriate ensemble for church strongly resembled the frilly, pink-on-white, overly- feminine outfit Darla had worn to the train station the day Carl arrived. Right down to the boxy little veiled hat, the fussy beaded purse and the opaque white stockings decorated with pink roses.

*So that is what he. . she would look like as a big sister,* Jane thought as they went out to the car. *It really wasn't necessary for her to put on *two* petticoats with that dress. That sort of thing is really only for in-house practice. And I would not have insisted on quite so much heel when the pavement might be slick with ice, but she does look very nice. So, what happens next?*

Walking into the pretty little non-denominational church looking like Disney's Alice-in-Wonderland going to her First Communion had been the hardest thing Carol had done in a very long time, but she'd done it. Being Carol was, she had decided during the long hours of pointed self reflection before dawn, the first step in keeping the promise she'd made to her Mother. . . and to herself. When no one looked at her in shock and disgust, she relaxed a little. When the singing began, she relaxed totally and let the music take her away.
 
 
Said the night wind to the little lamb,
"Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night . . ."

 
 
Jane, still off-balance from the morning's surprises, suddenly became aware of a slight catch in Carol's voice as she sang. Turning to look at her student, she was rocked yet again. Carol was crying - still singing - but crying at the same time. *This is the first time, since the moment Carl walked off that train, that I have seen this child in tears. Why???*

Maternal instincts that most junior students would swear were non-existent overwhelmed Jane, and she gently put her arm about the sobbing girl who buried her head into Jane's shoulder.

"Child," Jane whispered, "Whatever is the matter?"

"My. . my mom. . .," Carol quietly choked out past the tears, "she. . .she loved that carol. How could I have forgotten that, Ms. Jane? What's wrong with me that I could forget something like that?!?"

"You remembered now," Jane replied gently even as she continued to wonder *Maybe I should call Bill Beale. I do have Carl's fingerprints somewhere. I think.*

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Jane parked the Lincoln in front of Seasons House and joined the two girls on the walk. "Where did you learn to sing like that, Carol?" she asked as they walked up to the walk to the main entrance.

"My Mom sang with me when I was little, Ms. Jane. I had forgotten that and I had forgotten the pleasure of singing in the years since my Mom di. . .since my Mom's accident."

*That is the first time, in my experience, that Carol or Carl has referred to his Mother as 'Mom'.* "And you just remembered?"

Carol reached out an uncertain hand to squeeze Darla's shoulder gratefully. "Darla gave me my Mom's letters yesterday. They sort of jogged my memory for me. . . about a lot of things. And good old Darley also said something else that struck awfully close to home."

*Darley?!?* "May I ask what that was?"

"She asked me - not precisely in these words - why I was becoming the very thing I hated most in the world - my father. I wanted to tell her I wasn't, but after talking to Mr. Madden yesterday, and well, after seeing you with the little boy at the hospital, I realized that was exactly what I was doing."

Jane was still thinking about what to say or do next when Marie flung the door open waving a piece of paper like a flag before sweeping an unprepared Carol into a tight hug. "Carol! Your uncle sent you a fax. You did great, honey."

"What? Why would he send you a fax? Let me see that, Marie," Jane ordered.

Her eyes went wide, and then Jane began to read the document in her hands.
 
 
"From: The Office of the Honorable James McIntyre, Vice Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
 
To: Office of Legislative Affairs, Department of Defense
 
Please inform me at the earliest possible date of any reason that the following personnel cannot be granted humanitarian leave without loss of rank, seniority, or other benefits, in order to be with their child who is undergoing radical, hopefully lifesaving bone marrow surgery at Children's Hospital at Providence, RI. . . ."
 
 
Jane looked up to stare at a suddenly embarrassed Carol. "You asked your uncle to intervene for Allie's parents?" Carol could only nod. "Lord, why didn't I think of that? I'll call the hospital and tell them to have the parents call me. I will make sure they have tickets and a place to stay if the leave is awarded. Even if it isn't, thank you for trying, child."

"It wasn't anything difficult, Ms. Jane. My uncle did all the work, and as you say, it's not a done deal yet."

Jane leaned over and planted a firm kiss on Carol's blushing cheek. "You tried when you didn't have to try."

"I have important promises to keep, Ms. Jane." Carol said very seriously before turning to Marie. "Will you be bringing my lunch upstairs soon, Miss Marie? Singing makes me hungry."

"No, she will not, Carol," Jane said firmly. Carol stared at Jane, worry filling her eyes until Jane smiled gently. "It would give me great pleasure, Miss Morris, if you would accept my invitation to have Christmas dinner with my new daughter and me."

"New daughter?" Carol squealed, her eyes slewing to a broadly smiling Darla.

"Yes, my daughter. Darla's adoption papers came through yesterday."

"Way to go, Sis!" Carol cheered, and soundly thumped Darla on the back, nearly knocking the smaller girl over in the process. "Oops, sorry," she apologized, looking very abashed. "I am really happy for you, Darla, because one thing I did learn here is how much you love Ms. Jane."

"You know it," Darla smiled back, her eyes sparkling. "Momma- Jane is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

"Come on, you lot," Marie ordered. "I've got a light tea laid in the music room to tide you over until dinner."

"Good idea. I think it is time Carol started piano lessons anyway. Anyone who sings like you do, dear, should be able to accompany herself on a suitable instrument."

Tears Jane realized were liquid joy started to well again in her student's lovely dark eyes. "Oh, do you mean it, Ms. Jane? I. . .I really have wanted to learn. My mom was going to teach me, but she. . she never got around to it."

"No time like the present, Miss. Now, come along. Oh, and Marie? If you'd call the travel agency to cancel those tickets for me? I don't think we'll be needing them. Not right now, in any case."

"Ms. Jane?" Carol asked, her voice hesitant.

"Yes, Carol?"

"Ummm, if you're going to be 'Momma Jane' to Darla, could I maybe call you 'Aunt Jane'? Please?"

The look of longing on the young person's face struck at Jane's hidden soft heart. Fighting for control, she managed what she hoped was a matter-of-fact smile. "Well, I did tell you that was an acceptable form of address your first day, did I not? You were the one who chose to call me Ms. Thompson or Ms. Jane, but in answer to your question, yes, you may call me Aunt Jane."

Carol's "Thank you," was barely audible. "Excuse me," she said suddenly, "I have to fix my face." and then fled for the powder room, leaving the three other women smiling behind her.

Jane watched as Darla and Carol chattered over their tea and cakes. *There's still a good deal of the old Carl in there,* she decided, *but for the first time, there is also really a Carol there, too. And the child is trying, really trying for the first time. A little too hard, of course, but they all go through that stage of trying to be perfect. She'll slip occasionally, and I will be able to use those missteps to begin the healing and rebuilding process. Oh, thank God, I *haven't* failed her! No, that's not quite right. WE haven't failed her.*

"Heavens," Carol said later, "But I feel like a combination of Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge."

"Oh?" Darla asked. "How so?"

"I want to say "God Bless Us, Everyone,", but then, I feel like He already has. Except he had Marley, and I have Darley."

"Could we lose the Darley-thing, please?" Darla asked sounding mightily put upon. "It sounds like the name of a yuppie beauty contestant with big hair, bigger. . umm. . teeth and a tiara, or worse, your favorite mongrel dog."

"Oh, if I must," Carol answered in the same tones.

Jane and Marie laughed with the two young people.

"Merry Christmas, Carol," Darla said softly. "Welcome to the family."
 
 

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Merry Christmas from Tigger & Brandy!
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End of A Season's Greeting: A Carol Christmas
 



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