lizabeth awoke with a deep sense of dread. She was soaked with sweat and had the overwhelming feeling that something was wrong.

She had slept fitfully, her dreams clogged with broken images she didn't understand. The soldier from the marketplace gave her a pearl which turned into a giant white moth. Her father took his own leg off and carved it up like a holiday turkey. She came d ownstairs, still in her night-shirt, to find her mother and Olivia having sherry by a huge, roaring fire.

"Hello, sweetheart," her mother said, perfumed arms blossoming out like wings to hold her. For an instant she felt better, but the feeling did not last.

"You look better. I knew a little rest would do you good. You go upstairs with Olivia and get dressed. Tonight is Christmas Eve! Our guests will be here any minute."

All through the evening Elizabeth was moody and stand-offish. She didn't play any games with other children or eat. Her mother and Olivia both noticed and after a while Olivia began to follow her about the party, trying to tempt with sweets and diversions . Elizabeth did not take the bait.

Finally it was time to exchange gifts. Rachel, the youngest of the visiting cousins, was assigned the task of delivering the presents from under the tree. When she tried to hand her a gift, Elizabeth refused to take it, saying, "I have the only gift I sha ll open. It is from my father and I am content."

An admiring murmur ran through the room. "How mature she is!" "Her father would be so proud." "I remember last year, she has grown so much."

"Elizabeth, I do wish you would join us with the gifts," her mother implored. Just then the doorbell rang. As Olivia went to answer it, Elizabeth replied: "I had a terrible dream last night. I'm afraid that something has happened to my father."

Her mother went white. Elizabeth continued: "I will honor his memory..."

Olivia entered, her demeanor an exact match to Mrs. Porchester's. The room was silent. A young soldier stepped in to the room behind her. He was chagrined by the silence which met him.

"I'm looking for Mrs. Porchester."

Weakly she raised her hand. "I am Mrs. Porchester."

"I'm here about your husband."

She seemed ready to faint. Elizabeth watched the whole scene as if in a trance. Olivia began quietly to cry.

"Oh, God, why tonight? Why did you have to come on Christmas Eve?"

The soldier was now supremely uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, madam, I thought you'd want to know."

"You thought I'd want to know that my husband is dead on Christmas eve?!"

"What!?" The boy flushed crimson. "No! No, he's not dead. He's alive. I served with him at Gallipoli. He sent me to see you! Your husband is perfectly fine. He wanted me to tell you that he was all right. He got on a transport ship this morning and he wil l be with you for the New Year!"

There was a moment's stillness as this news sank in.

Elizabeth said, "My father is alive?"

"Not only is your father alive, he is coming home!"

A great, heart-felt cheer arose from all those present. Mrs. Porchester cried for joy, the young soldier was invited in and treated like a member of the family, Olivia got drunk on champagne punch, Elizabeth ate three plates of Christmas pudding and the f estivities went on until almost dawn. When at last the first brave rays of sunlight peeked through the curtains, Mrs. Porchester carried Elizabeth up to bed. As her mother pulled the covers up around her neck, Elizabeth said, "Merry Christmas, Mother."

Her mother sighed happily. "Merry Christmas to you too, sweetheart."

The End

1995 Hyperbole Studios Inc.