lizabeth and her friend Jane, who lived three houses down, sprawled on the window seat in the front room eating orange cakes. A paper "faery theatre" lay between them, beautifully designed fairy finger puppets scattered close by. Mrs. Porchester sat in the rocker across the room and worked on her needlepoint. The two girls were washed in the beautiful morning light from the first spell of sunshine they'd seen in weeks. They giggled and chatted quietly, pretending to feed sweets to "Columbine" and "Blackberry."

Olivia came in from the market, her ruddy cheeks framed by a gray wool hat and scarf.

"My Lord, what a beautiful day. It certainly feels good to have the sun on your face on a cold day, doesn't it?"

"Yes, days like this are quite special."

"Oh, look at the two of them. What a picture. Hello you two."

In unison the two playmates returned the greeting.

"I'm sorry I'm late."

"That's all right, Olivia. We're fine. I fed the two of them some orange cakes, I hope that's all right."

"That's what they're there for. I stopped and had tea with Millicent, we went to the..." She paused, peering out the window behind the girls. "Oh, My Lord. He's back."

Immediately the two girls spun around to assay the street. Outside, a reedy little man in uniform moved down the street, a determined look set on his face. He was the government man who notified families of the death in combat of fathers, husbands, sons and brothers. Behind him, a straggling, silent parade of women and children followed at a slight distance.

This nondescript public servant had become, for the families in those few blocks, a harbinger of death. He was known as the "message man," a label spontaneously attached to him on his third visit.

The room was utterly still as all four waited for the bell to ring. Elizabeth continued to peer out the window, unaware that her mother had gone pale with fear. The moment dragged on until finally Elizabeth said, "He's gone past."

At once they all bolted for the front door, spilling out onto the sidewalk and joining the silent crowd churned up in the wake of the message man.

He stopped to consult a scrap of paper. A quiet, uneasy hum ran through the crowd in response. At last he selected an address and stepped to the door, pausing to fix his collar before knocking timidly.

The street remained silent despite the wave of shock and relief that coursed up and down the sidewalk.

He knocked again.

Jane said, "That's my house. Mrs. Porchester, why is he at my house?"

Elizabeth said, "That means your father is a hero."

1995 Hyperbole Studios Inc.