Linda Lee looked at the tree in the cafeteria and wondered why Mrs. Hart and the other boys and girls were hanging things on it.
Dick Wilson was the first one to notice her. "Hi, Linda. Y'act like you never seen a Christmas tree before."
"Linda, come help us," ordered Mrs. Hart. She held out an armful of tinsel. "You take these and hang them on the branches, just so."
Obediently, the 16-year-old girl in the brown braided wig, white blouse, and brown knee-length skirt approached Mrs. Hart, took some of the tinsel, and began hanging it on the tree. "Is this a celebration of some sort, Mrs. Hart?" asked Linda, carefully.
The headmistress of Midvale Orphanage did a double-take, then regretted it. She plastered on a soothing smile. "You really don't know about Christmas? I'm sorry, Linda."
Linda bit her lip. She'd made another mistake. Kal would have given her one of those looks. "Um. I'm sorry, Mrs. Hart. My memory, it's kind of jumbled up sometimes."
"Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown," sang Tommy, wickedly, hanging a blue glass ball on a limb.
"Tommy, stop that, at once," demanded Mrs. Hart. Then she put an arm around Linda's shoulders. "It's all right, dear. Memories can be that way sometimes. And then, when you least expect it, they return, and you know where you put your glasses or your book, or how sweet your mother's gingerbread smelled, and all that. You'll learn what you've forgotten, Linda. We'll help you."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hart," said Linda. Why did she have to mention her mother? She remembered her, all right. And Daddy. Like she could ever forget them.
Like they weren't dead, alongside all the other people in Argo City. All the people she knew. Dead.
Here she was, on a strange planet, in a strange country, speaking in a language not her own, and trying to learn how to be an Earth girl without letting anyone know she was a Kryptonian.
"Do you remember anything from our Sunday school classes, Linda?" asked Mrs. Hart. "About Jesus, and how he died for our sins?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do," admitted Linda. Sometimes, Mrs. Hart talked to her like she was an eight-year-old. She had gone to various churches in the area with older folk who came to get the kids for Sunday morning services. She had heard about Jesus Christ, who was a man and then a god. No...that wasn't right, he was God. She had liked hearing about him, but thought that the way he died was a horror story. The other kids didn't even seem disturbed by it. She didn't like seeing the bloodied figure on the crucifix. But she was glad to know he came back after being killed.
They said he was killed by the Jews and Romans. She wondered if the crucifix figure in the Roman Catholic church she had gone to meant that they were ashamed of doing that to him, or proud of it. There weren't many Jews in Midvale, so she didn't know what they said about Jesus.
There was so much to learn.
"Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus's birthday, Linda," Mrs. Hart was saying. "We give gifts to each other, like the three wise men gave gifts to Jesus. We have a big dinner, sing hymns, and open the presents on Christmas morning. December 25th."
"Was he really born then?" Linda thought that winter would be a tough time to have a baby, no matter where you were.
Mrs. Hart said, "We don't know, dear, but that's when we celebrate it. To let everyone know how glad we are to have a Savior. Next year, you'll be able to celebrate Easter. You got here a little too late for that, this year."
Linda had hung most of the tinsel on the tree. Some of the other
orphans were telling each other about her, sotto voce. She could
hear them, easily. "She don't even remember Chris'mas!" "Yeah,
I'm surprised she even remembers how to go to the bathroom!" "Maybe
"Check her undies." "You first!"
Mrs. Hart silenced the boys with a look. Then she turned back to Linda. "You poor thing, you don't even remember your first Christmas, do you? Not even Santa Claus?"
"No," said Linda, choking back what was within her.
"Or even your mother?"
She hesitated, then said what Kal would have wanted her to say.
"No," she said, and burst out crying.
Dick Wilson sat down with her at the breakfast table after she'd come back from the bathroom with Mrs. Hart. The headmistress gave him a meaningful look, so he knew not to even try teasing her. But he didn't have that in mind.
"Okay if I sit here, Linda?" he asked.
"Ah, yeah, Dick, I guess it's all right," she said. They'd both been through the line, gotten hotcakes, bacon, and eggs. It didn't have the tang of Kryptonian food, but she was getting used to it.
"Thirty minutes to class, remember, you two," said Mrs. Hart. Then she got up, left, and did whatever she did in the interval before breakfast and teaching.
Dick, looking at her eating, proceeded carefully. "It's tough not having a family at Christmas," he said.
"It's tough not having a family any time," she replied, spearing pancake. "Why's it supposed to be any different then?"
He studied Linda before he formed a reply. He liked looking at her. Sure, there was the fact that she was one of the prettiest girls at the whole orphanage, or would be, if she'd get rid of those damn braids. She dressed like Suzy Homemaker. It made him think that her fashion sense was as impaired as her memory. Cripes, if anything, she reminded him of Angela Cartwright on Lost In Space, that I'm-only-a-girl look. But, despite it all, there was some strength in her, and that was what turned him on about her. Among other things.
Dick was going to major in psych when he graduated. Maybe he'd better perfect a couchside manner with Linda.
"Linda, its like this," he said. "Christmas is the big time of the year when everybody's supposed to be happy. Santa Claus is comin' to town, ho-ho-ho, all the candy canes and stuff under the tree and Sears catalogs and people freezin' their rear ends off out caroling. So everybody's supposed to love each other and all those good vibes just floating around. But sometimes, if you don't feel the good vibes, that makes it so much worse. Depression increases at Christmas. The fact that it's near the shortest day of the year doesn't help much. Suicides go up. You know what I'm sayin'?"
Linda drew in a breath and smiled. "Look, Dick, you don't have to worry. I'm not going to kill myself. See? Smile. I'm happy. I'm tough. I can make it. Even through Christmas."
He looked at her again, finishing up his pancakes. "There's 14 shopping days till Christmas, Linda," he said. "I know you go for long walks after class. All the time. Just don't forget to come back afterwards, okay? I'd kinda miss you."
She didn't say anything. On Argo, she'd been going out with a guy for less than a year. Now that guy was just green, putrescent meat in space.
Just like her parents.
A wave of nausea hit her, but she fought it back down. He thought she had gas or something. She smiled again. "Dick, thanks, you're very sweet. See you in class."
She hesitated, one hand taking her sweater off the back of her chair.
"There's a Woody Allen show at the walk-in. I could spring for a couple of hamburgers, too."
Linda looked at him, appraisingly. It might be fun. Dick was a cute guy, an athlete with an ego not too far out of control. Still, Kal had said that, until she got her role-playing down perfect, getting too close to a guy would be dangerous. Ergo: no dating. Until he said so, it was implied.
"Thanks, Dick," she said. "But I can't. Gotta study. See you in class."
She hoped there was an escape clause for the sin of lying, if the lie was important enough.
And so, a week passed, while Linda, in her off-time, did a little reading on the customs and lore of Christmas.
She resolved to ask Kal about it.
Clark Kent was working on wearing out his third Underwood Olivetti. It was getting close enough to deadline time for Perry to start walking the aisles. Getting close enough to going-home time for Clark to wonder if he should bother to fix dinner himself or say to Sheol with it and grab something from the deli. A Superman he might be, and he could eat his own cooking, but he would never rank with the great chefs of Europe. Or even with Ma Kent's country cuisine.
"How much longer, Kent?" asked Perry. From the tone of it, he could tell his editor was still a few rows behind him. The sound of the Planet pressroom near deadline time was that of a million metal crickets banging their legs against a cylinder in a mating dance. Nobody was using a typewriter near Clark at the moment.
Hunching over the Olivetti, Clark's fingers sped across the keys faster than Van Cliburn on a piano. A smell of heated metal came from the machine, and he blew on the keys to keep them from warping out of shape. As the last page reeled out, he blew on it to keep it from burning up. The last page of a five-page story about city tax reform joined its fellows in a metal bin at the side of his desk with a final "30" at the bottom.
He looked up and back at the approaching editor. "All right here, Perry," he said, with a tight smile.
"You never missed one yet," grumbled White, taking the pages out for a quick once-over. "Lucky for you." He took the ever-present blue pencil out of his shirt pocket and went through the copy with practiced speed and a gimlet eye. Clark, his tie a bit askew, sat back in his swivel chair with both legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, awaiting verdict.
White made a few markings--Clark was careful to misspell a word here and there, or structure a sentence in such a way as to make Perry correct it, so that he'd be happy--and put his pencil back. "Good enough. Just good enough. Okay, hit the headlines and you can go."
"Thanks, Perry." He stood up, stretched a bit, and ambled over to the long desk where Jimmy and Lois and Frank Potts were working on the hundred or so headlines that would have to go on the Planet's next edition. Jimmy was tired. He'd been on an overnight call and didn't have a chance to catch any winks yet, and he'd just about worn trails in the carpet between his seat, the coffeepot, and the men's room. Lois looked great, but she always did.
"H'lo, Clark," murmured Jimmy, his chin almost meeting the table as he scrawled words on a sheet of scrap paper. "I got 13 spaces for the bomb threat story. Bomb, space, threat, that's 11 and a half. Think it'll do?"
"Jimmy," said Lois, disapprovingly. "That stinks. It doesn't say anything about the bomb threat. Wanna go to work for the Enquirer?"
"If they let me sleep, " he said. "How ‘bout--"
"‘Bomb a Hoax,'" said Clark. "Try that, Jimmy. Should be 12 spaces."
"Bomb, a, Hoax. Hey, you're right, Clark. Thanks a bunch. You ought to do this for a living." As Jimmy's arm moved to write the magic phrase, his elbow made contact with the coffee cup nearby him, the one with the magic-markered JIMMY'S CUP legend on it, and noodged it gently towards Frank Potts's lap.
The coffee fell through an icy blast of superbreath from Clark and spattered Potts's brown pants without scalding him.
"Olsen, you twit," snapped Frank, standing up with a puddle of wetness in an embarrassing place. "Get outta here and go to bed, why don'tcha, and stop putting your lousy cold coffee in my crotch."
Jimmy sprang up. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, Mr. Potts, I'm really, really sorry. This was, like, a total accident, and I can't imagine how I did that, let me help wipe it off--" He took some blank pages and started forward.
Potts held him back with one hand against his head. "Ol-sen! Bad enough I gotta go home to my wife of twenty-five years, during twenty-two of which her service was worse than Con Metro's. Don't come near me. I'm going to devote the rest of my life to wiping your image from my brain. Unless I need a really good nightmare. Please, don't be here when I get outta the john. Go." With that, Potts gently pushed Jimmy back into his seat, and went to the men's room.
Lois and just about everybody else in the room were cracking up. Jimmy was sitting in his seat, like a crumpled paper lunch bag, with both hands in his lap.
"Go home, Jim," said Clark, gently. "I'll cover for you."
"You won't tell the fan club about this, Clark?" Jimmy looked up at him, pleadingly. He had an image to consider. Lois's head was buried on the desktop, and her shoulders were shaking mightily.
"Not a word, Jim. Go. Dream of the Pulitzer Prize and Lucy Lane."
Jimmy sleepwalked out the door.
Clark set about the task of double-timing through 25 headlines while Lois had herself the best howl she'd had in a week.
He had to get this done promptly, he mused. After all, he did have a meeting with Kara.
Linda shared a room with two other girls at the orphanage. They were used to her long abscences, after classes, chores, and dinner. But she was a pleasant enough roomie, if a bit odd at times. She'd started out with a strange accent, and within a couple of weeks was speaking standard American as well as anyone there.
Once, Jennifer had said to Kate, "Wonder if she's a Commie spy?" She looked so serious when she said it that Kate had almost cracked up.
"Jen, for cry-yi, Superman brought her in here," said Kate, a short and dumpy brunette. "You don't think he's swift enough to know if she's a spy or not? I mean, my gawd."
Jennifer fumed. "I didn't say she was one, I just said I wondered. I mean, she had that twang in her voice. Not like from anyplace I know. Then she gets rid of it. Doesn't that sound kind of spyey to you?"
"She ain't no spy," grumbled Kate. "What would anyone have to spy on out here?"
"Maybe it ain't out here she's spyin'," said Jennifer. "Haven't you read anyting except Tiger Beat? Sometimes the Commies put people here for years ahead of time, I mean, years before they're supposed to do anything. That's just to get our guards down. Then, when it comes the time, wham! They steal something real important, and there we are. All because we were too dumb to see ‘em when we had ‘em right in front of us."
Kate looked up from her algebra book. "You cannot be serious about this."
Jennifer looked at Kate and paused a long time before she said, "You ever seen where she goes, when she takes those long walks?"
They looked at each other. Then Kate sighed, got up, and went to the closet.
"Where you goin', all of a sudden?" asked Jennifer.
Kate opened the closet door, pulled her sweater off a wire hanger, and threw Jennifer's sweater at her. "We're gonna get our merit bages in Linda tracking," she said. "Come on."
It was 7:00 at night and Linda was already in the woods beside Midvale Orphanage. She always did a quick survey of the area with her X-ray vision, and used her super-hearing as well, before she changed clothes. She also remembered to do that at super-speed. It wouldn't do for someone to see Linda Lee stripping to her underwear and then taking a small, compressed wafer from her pocket and unfolding it into a female version of Superman's uniform, then donning it. Anyone attempting to watch her, if she had missed them, would have seen the merest blur they could possibly perceive.
She hated having to crumple up her dress and compress it into a pea-sized ball. But that was what Clark Kent did with his clothes when he switched to Superman. Her shoes folded up and were stored, with the compressed dress, in a pocket on the underside of her cape. It was fastened by a super-strong form of velcro. There was no way that Linda could wear her costume under her clothes at the orphanage. Living with so many other kids and teenagers there, it was too darn risky.
The wig was the hardest thing to do anything with. Unlike her clothes, it wouldn't compress well. It had lines along which it could be folded, but it came out looking like hell when she did that. But Kal said she needed something to visually differentiate her from Supergirl, whenever Supergirl would make her public debut at last, whenever that would happen...if it would. And she didn't want to wear glasses like Clark, so he got her a wig and treated it to make it friction-resistant.
Right now she was listening in a higher register than most humans were capable of. She heard her name being called. "Kara."
She had just tucked in her cape, put on her boots, folded up her shoes and tucked them in the cape pouch. The wig. What could she do with the wig? Fold it up again and look like she'd combed it with an electric iron?
The fake oak where she kept the Linda Lee robot was elsewhere in the forest. She kicked herself mentally for not going there to change. Well, something had to be done with the wig.
Time to let fate ride, as the Earthians put it.
She grasped one side of the wig and sailed it like a Frisbee onto the crotch of two branches midway up a tall tree. It was getting dark, and there wasn't any snow around that night to make it stand out against the white. If anybody saw it, they'd probably think it was a bird's nest.
She hoped no bird would use it for that before she got back.
"Kara, can you hear me?"
She sighed. "Coming, Kal," said Supergirl, as she crouched, launched herself into the air, and flew.
Flying. She was flying.
Rao, she loved to fly. Both hands stuck out in front of her balled in fists, air scraping into her face so fast she could feel its heat, smell its sizzle, hear its roar in her long-since-popped ears, the cape flapping behind her like a flag in a high wind, it felt triumphant, she felt triumphant. Not just some lame bird trying to play a role in a house of parentless children, but an unbeatable goddess (dare she think that? Not a real goddess, just a mythical one) with the speed of lightning and the force of a tornado on overtime.
She wanted to shriek in joy, but Kal had told her not to. Somehow, somewhere, someone might hear it. So she just grinned and rocketed into the night sky.
She was Supergirl. The only female on the planet who could do such things. Not even Wonder Woman had her powers--god, she hoped Kal would introduce her to the Amazon soon, when she had proved herself; she so wanted to talk to a super-person of her own sex. Not even the Flash could fly.
There was a tap on her wrist.
She looked to her right. Kal was still pacing her, doing it so effortlessly. He had a telepathic plug from his Legion days in one ear and had given Kara its mate. Outside of sign language or lip-reading, it was the only way they could communicate at these speeds.
<You didn't vibrate when you reached Mach One, Kara,> he said. <You made a sonic boom.>
<Oh,> she said. <I'm sorry, Kalior. They don't like sonic booms down there?>
He gave her a friendly but reproving look. <That isn't the point, Kara. Most of the time you won't want to advertise your presence when you're flying. If you hit the correct vibrational frequency before you reach Mach, you'll cancel out the boom. Here. Put your hand on my arm.>
She did so. Kal's arm was very muscular, she noted with satisfaction. He usually had his Kent clothes cut to minimize his physique. Too bad he was a relative. She smiled, stifling a giggle, and even he looked at her for a second in perplexity.
He vibrated like a tuning fork, and she felt the proper pitch of it, attempted to match it herself. Shake it but don't break it, whole lotta shakin' goin' on, she thought. But she could gauge the precise rate of his vibes--her ability to percieve things thus, with her super-senses, sometimes scared her--and she attuned herself to them. He nudged her hand away from his arm.
<Maintain that frequency, Kara,> he sent. <For just ten seconds longer.>
She sighed, plastered a smile on her face, and did so. Rao, flying was fun. Why did he have to make it so complicated?
<Okay, Kara, stop the vibrations. Now.> Kal watched her, and she obeyed.
<Now, I want you to slow to sub-Mach speed, and then try it again. You'll get it right, don't worry.>
The blue-and-red-clad girl slacked her speed, glad that Superman knew so much about the flight lanes of Earth that he could keep them out of view of passing pilots. Not too many of them would believe they'd seen two flying figures, anyway. They'd just be convinced they saw Superman, period.
<Is this all right, Kal?>, she asked, hopefully.
<You're doing fine, Kara. Try it again.>
She thrust herself forward confidently, building speed with joy, started her vibrations, and realized, even as she'd done it, that it was going to be a smidgen too late.
Supergirl slackened speed once again. Kal was pacing her. He gave her his patient look, this time.
<Try it again, Kara.>
Jennifer and Kate had clambered out of the window and into the woods and were cursing themselves now for only bringing sweaters, instead of something more substantial. It was cold in these darned woods after nightfall. They'd debated the wisdom of turning on their flashlights yet, since the sun had just now set and a bit of light still remained. But Kate had taken a header over an old log, and she was playing it on the ground in front of her now. If Linda were up to something secret, they'd already have advertised their presence.
"What if she's not into something Communist?" asked Jennifer. "What if, like, she's just meeting a guy out here? You think they're gonna want us catching ‘em if they're..."
"Jennifer, be real," said Kate, in a huff. "It's December. You think anybody in their right mind is going to be doing something like that in the woods this time of year? It's too cold. And besides, this is Linda we're talking about. Little Miss Akela Scout, you know?"
"If she was a scout," said Jennifer. "If she's really an American."
The two pressed on, fairly sure (they hoped) that they could find their way out of the woods when they needed to. It wasn't that big an area, after all. But it was fun to come down here when the weather was warmer, or when they'd dressed properly for it, and feel the acorns and leaves crunch under their feet, or make a big leaf pile and lie down on it and watch the skies.
Kate was beginning to think that her lifelong ambition of becoming Nancy Drew was going to be thwarted. That was bad news. She didn't want to be a receptionist.
She heard a skittering in the leaves before her.
"Jennifer," she warned, standing still. She played the flashlight beam in front of her, holding her breath. She didn't think there were any snakes in this area. But she wasn't willing to become a test case.
She saw a very small figure in front of her, which flashed two bright eyes and then turned quickly to display its nether end.
"Skunk!" shouted Kate. "Skunk, skunk, skunk! Run for it!"
They both ran. But for Kate, it was a little too late to avoid things.
After two more tries, Kara had gotten the sonic boom trick down. Superman had made her do it five more times, just to make sure she learned. Then he had them both fly to a mountain in the next state which was free of habitants and remote enough for them not to be seen too easily at its peak. They'd come there before after her training sessions, and would again. Mostly, the peak was bare rock. The two of them came down upon it with slight crunches. She smoothed her cape out under her as she sat down and grabbed one bent knee.
Kal stood there, hands on hips, looking at her appraisingly. He turned off the telepathic plug. "You're doing well, Kara," he said. "It may not seem like it at times. But trust me. Super-powers are something you have to take time to learn, just like playing a synthorgan or riding a self-powered wheeler."
She looked up at him, neutrally, glad he was using Kryptonian terms for his metaphors. "On Earth, those would be a piano or a bicycle, right?"
"More or less," he said, sitting beside her. "You're having to learn a lot, but it'll take awhile. I had to take five years--"
"I know, Kal, I know," she said. "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean it like that." She hugged both knees to her chest. Gods, she sounded like a teenager sometimes. She was one, but she didn't particularly like sounding like one.
"Well, Kara, do you really think I could let you go out on your own, just like that?" He was giving her a hard look now. "You're one of the most powerful beings on Earth. Besides me, you may be the most powerful. If you miscalculate by a fraction while you're performing, or, worse, lose control--" He threw up his hands. "They know what a nuclear bomb can do. They exploded two of them two years before I was born. The damage we could wreak in a second could surpass that many times over. We have got to know how to use our powers well, Kara. And I've got to be able to know, when I leave you with things, that you'll be able to perform properly."
She threw a pebble down the mountainside. "I know, Kal. It's just...well, so much is being thrown at me in one big clump. I have to pretend I'm somebody I'm not, back there. I can't be...well, a Kryptonian girl anymore. Now, I find myself with all this power--and I love it!--but I can't let anybody know about it. Can't let anybody know I exist. It hurts sometimes, Kal. A lot."
He placed a hand on her arm, gently. "I know, Kara. More than anybody else on this world, I know how lonely it is to be Kryptonian. I--"
Supergirl said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure. Ask me anything. What?"
"Do you believe in God?"
"God? Yes. Absolutely. This world, any world, is too complex to have just happened. You can see any machine man can create, and know that it just didn't spring up out of nothingness. It's much too complex. But a flower, an insect, an animal, Man...they're so much more complex than that. Yes, I believe in God. Do you?"
Kara shifted on the rock face. "Yes. I mean, not exactly like everybody else at the Orphanage. But He's so real to Mrs. Hart, and to most of the kids. And sometimes what I read in their book is so much like stories. But we're so incredible, by their standards. There have to be things beyond even us, I mean, Kal. So some of that stuff, changing water into wine, turning back the sea, it could have happened, even if I don't know how. Kal?"
"When you've gone back in time, have you ever met Jesus?"
He laughed. "Kara! Believe it or not, there are times I can't get to. Times even the Legion can't get to. They're called Discontinuities. I don't know why, or even where they all are, but it's something like the Iron Curtain of Time that we came up against, when I was a boy, fighting the Time-Trapper. I think he may have used some of what he learned of Discontinuities to make the Curtain. There was a time when Mon-El, Ultra Boy and I made a flying wedge of ourselves and just banged up against it head-on. It darned near put us in comas. We didn't even dent it." He chuckled. "We took care of him, in time...pun definitely intended. But I still can't go back to part of the first century A.D. Or some other times. So no, I've never met Jesus. But the Kents were Christian, and they raised me that way, and it's a good religion."
She looked at him intently. "Yes. But there are a lot of good religions, I know. And I like it too...but I'm always going to be Raotian, on the inside."
"Fine. Maybe we're Kryptonian Marranos. Those were Jews who pretended to be Christians outwardly, so that they wouldn't be persecuted."
Kara sat up straighter. "Persecuted? You mean Christians hurt Jews?"
He nodded, seriously. "All religions have been persecuted, at times, and persecuted others. It still happens, though not so often, over here...at least, not openly."
"But that's terrible!"
"Yes, it is. But don't you think there haven't been wars over religion on Krypton, too? Conflicting interpretations over the will of Rao? They shed blood back there too, cousin."
Kara said, "I know. I remember that crazy guy, Jer-Em, the one that turned Argo City's rocket tubes around to put us back under a red sun. He said Rao didn't intend for men to fly on their own, that it was a sin. That was what put us under that meteor shower. That--oh, my--"
"Kara." He quickly put his arms around her. "Don't think about it, honey, not right now."
"Oh, I cuhcan't help it," she said, and sobbed, purging out pain for her mother, her father, her friends, and everything she had known for fifteen years, wiped out in a single week. She buried her head in his chest and wet his S-shield with her tears.
There were few times when Superman felt so powerless as he did when Kara was crying.
After some minutes, he said, "Kara, we've got to go back."
She snivelled. "I know. But we've got a few more minutes, don't we?" She wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
"Not too many more. If you don't make bed check, people will be suspicious."
"Oh, I know. I can't wait till I'm a grownup and I can get my own room. Even if it's in the Fortress. I'm sorry for bawling, Kal."
"Don't be. You've got a perfect right to, Kara. I know how hard it is on you. I've been there. That's how I can be here for you."
She threw her arms around him and hugged him like a little girl. "Big brother Kal. Even if you aren't one. Can I ask you about something else?"
"Sure, but right after that, we go."
"What is Christmas like? You had it when you were younger, didn't you?"
He laughed again. "Sure, I had it. I still do. Let's see." He stretched his legs out in front of him, relaxing, and encircled Kara with one arm as she lay her head against him. "When I was just a young shaver, as they called us in those parts, Ma Kent made sure I was raised in the teachings of the Church, which was Presbyterian in our case. I'd been raised a Raotian. But I heard about Jesus, and how He was born, and how God was His Father. All those words in Capital Letters, and she meant it. I didn't know about everything, but I thought that might be how Rao handled things on this world. And I loved the story, you know, about Mary, and Joseph, and the manger, and Jesus's birth, and the star and the wise men and all of that. I couldn't figure out why somebody would go out and have a baby in a horse stable like that...I mean, I had to tend old Bessie on some bad nights out at the farm, and I wouldn't've wanted to sleep out there!" Kara giggled.
"But I thought it was just great, about the baby being so important that a star, or something that looked like it, hung over the place he was born so that three scholars could come give him presents. Mom and Dad never told me about anything like that on Krypton, and I remember wishing that I could have told ‘em about it." He sobered for a minute. "Don't think you're the first person that ever cried for parents, Kara. I did, too. But we're talking about Earth. I remember asking Ma Kent, ‘Rao did that?' And she said, ‘God did that, Clark.' And I told her, ‘Yeah, I thought I said that.'" He grinned.
"But there was a lot of love in that little farmhouse, and it just seemed to increase by a factor of twelve around Christmas. I remember Mom fixing the turkey and pumpkin pies, and trying to make them even better than she did at Thanksgiving, which was one tough task, let me tell you. And Dad'd bring a pine tree home, and I flew out and brought it inside like he told me to. Then they got out the boxes of ornaments, and hung them all around it, which I thought was neat. I flew all around that tree, hanging up tinsel, ‘cause I was so clumsy back then sometimes I'd break the ornaments. But I did get to hang the star on top of the tree, and I was careful, very, very careful, not to break that. I held my mouth just right, like we used to say back then. I got it on just right, and Pa Kent congratulated me, and roughed up my hair, and I was so glad I had ‘em for parents. They weren't Mom and Dad, but they were the best second parents I could have asked for. And you'll get a pair just as good, Kara, when it's time."
"Think so?" she said, nestling cozily against him.
"Know so," he said. "I'll make sure of it. But that first Christmas, I didn't know anything about presents. They had to store them at a relative's, because they were afraid I'd use my X-ray vision and see ‘em. So I went to bed, and slept, because I didn't have anything to stay awake worrying about. Then I got up the next morning, and wow...all under the tree...all that stuff. I mean, I got Mom and Dad out of bed, and dragged ‘em over to the tree, just about as fast as I could drag Dad, and told ‘em, ‘Mom! Dad! Look! Somebody left all their stuff right under our indoor tree!'"
She cracked up. Kal was a great mimic when he wanted to be, and she just knew that was how he sounded when he was a three-year-old.
"And all the stuff I got, let me tell you. A Lionel electric train, a sled, a Lone Ranger coloring book, a stick horse...it was just simple stuff, but I couldn't believe all that stuff was for me. From some guy they told me was called Santa Claus. And I figured Rao had to be tied up with him, too, which made it even neater. I mean...it was unbelievable. I asked how long I could play with it before Santa wanted it back. They laughed, and they told me it was mine now. I asked how could I thank Santa for all that stuff, and Mom started to tell me about the North Pole, but Dad stopped her, because you know me...I might've actually gone up to the North Pole. He just said Santa did this once a year. So I just yelled out, ‘Thank you, Santa Claus!', so loud I darned near made the windows shatter. And Ma said, ‘Not so loud, dear. He can hear you just fine.' I didn't know where I was from back then, but I figured that Santa must have come from some place like me."
Kara shook her head. The thought of that big, fat guy in the red suit and white beard, whom she'd seen in displays all around the town square, coming in a rocket from Krypton...well, at least it'd explain how he got those reindeer and himself into the sky.
"The next year, when I could be trusted to keep my powers a little more secret, they had some aunts and uncles and their kids over, and we all had a fine old time. I could always tell where the presents were, but I never unwrapped them. I always was careful about that. It was part of the ritual.
"But in between there, they took me to church, and we were taught about Jesus when he got a bit older. And on Easter, I found out just what had happened to Him. I--well, it scared me. I didn't like to think about somebody getting born like Jesus happened to be, and then nailed up on two pieces of wood, somebody actually driving nails through his wrists and feet. I wanted to run right out of there. But Ma just hugged me and told me to sit still, it'd be over in a minute. Then I found out from the minister that Jesus didn't stay dead. That three days afterward, wham, the stone rolled away and there was nobody in the tomb. I could do a lot of things, but I was pretty sure I couldn't do that."
"He wasn't from Krypton," murmured Kara. "They'd have never gotten the nails through His hands and feet."
"No. No, they wouldn't have," said Kal. "Maybe that's why He wasn't." He sighed. "Christmas. We need to go back, Kara."
"Uh huh. Thank you, Kal."
"Thank you, Kara."
They rose to their feet and rose into the night sky.
Kara wondered which of the stars above them had been the one Kal said was over the manger.
Kate and Jennifer were on separate branches of the same tree, about ten feet off the ground. Both were panting and gasping for breath.
Jennifer was gasping for breath that came in a direction other than Kate. Cripes, she could taste the stink on her.
"I don't, wanna see, Mrs. Hart, for a week," Kate got out between gulps of air.
"She doesn't, need to see you," said Jennifer. "She can, smell you. For a week."
Kate glowered at her. Jennifer still had her flashlight with her and was playing it around the ground, around the upper branches of the tree they sat in (she thought she saw a bird's nest above), and then on the branches of other trees nearby. Considering what they'd gotten into, she wanted to be forewarned of any animals in the area.
"We're gonna go back," said Kate. "We've gotta. Bed check in an hour or two."
Jennifer looked at her and said, as honestly as she could, "Kate, I'm sorry."
Kate glared at her. "Uh huh. Next time you get suspicious about somebody, you can call the Man From UNCLE."
"Hey, it was you who wanted to go out looking."
"It was your idea she might be some kind of secret person or something. Maybe even an agent of THRUSH. Bet that's what you thought."
"This is the first time that the rest of you has smelled worse than your breath."
"You are gonna die for that one when I'm fumigated."
"Kate," Jennifer said, changing her tone and looking past her roomie. "Don't move. Something on the tree back of us."
"What?" Kate stiffened. "A boa constrictor?"
"Oh, get real," murmured Jennifer. She played her flashlight beam on the crotch between two branches. She studied the object she saw there.
"Look at that."
Kate sneered. "A bird's nest. Big deal."
"Kate. I don't think so." Jennifer hesitated. "I think this bird nest's got pigtails."
"What?" Kate forgot her stink for the moment. "What are you talking about?"
"Look there." Jennifer held the light steady as she could with one hand holding it and her other arm wrapped about the trunk of the tree she was in. "Those two things dangling from it. Doesn't that look something like ribbons on the ends?"
Kate was silent.
Jennifer said, "Think we can get it down from there?"
Kate replied, "I think that thing's gonna make this whole trip worthwhile."
Both of them scrambled down the tree, quite unheeding of any skunks that might be in the area, and started looking for rocks to throw up at the wig.
Kara waved goodbye to Kal and veered off for the woods. Sometimes he really put a kink in her works with all the training he wanted her to do. But most of the time, she was just so glad he was there.
She was still moving at super-speed, too fast to be detected by the human eye. All she had to do was get her wig out of the tree, get dressed again, and get back to her room by bed check. Actually, she wanted some time before that so that she could get some studying done. She'd already read all of her textbooks all the way through the day she got them, but it looked suspicious if she didn't study.
It was no big trick to keep track of what tree she had thrown the wig into. She headed for it, scanned ahead with her super-vision.
She stopped breathing, almost stopped moving.
The wig wasn't where she'd left it.
"Sheol," she whispered, and hoped Kal hadn't heard her.
Flitting in, being careful not to strike any branches, Kara combed the area, using her vision to check out every inch of the woods. She also used her hearing powers, but detected no human sound in the area other than herself.
And she saw no wig. Not anywhere.
She took a deep breath. Calm down, Kara, she told herself. An animal must have gotten it. Some kind of ferret or ground-dwelling scavenger or...
Supergirl smelled that all over the place. She mentally whapped herself for concentrating so much on what she saw and heard that she didn't use the other senses Rao had given her. Somebody had gotten a royal hosing from a polecat.
Could that be related to the missing wig?
She looked at the tree, and below it, with microscopic and infra-red vision, since it was too dark to use regular sight. There were footprints, broken leaves, all the signs that someone...no, two someones...had been there. Kara wasn't Sherlock Holmes, but she knew that the prints were from girls' shoes. A clump of dirt bore a Keds imprint. No one without super-vision could have picked it out.
There were enough acorns around the base of the oak tree in which she had hid the wig to indicate that the two parties involved had knocked them loose trying to get the thing down. Some rocks nearby, dug up from the ground and still dirty, were what they had used. There were a lot of them, and it would have taken a decent amount of tries to knock the wig loose by throwing rocks at it.
I don't have time for this, thought Kara. I have to get back to the orphanage.
But she could follow the trail of footprints now that she knew from where to start. Both girls had left a nearby tree, milled about the wig-hiding tree, picking up rocks and throwing them, then headed out...in the general direction of the orphanage.
Supergirl swooped above the woods, trusting the night and speed to hide her, and aimed her x-ray vision at the building she called home. She didn't like spying on people, but this time it was a necessity.
She combed the rooms there until she saw whose desk the wig was on, and who was looking at it.
Immediately, she flew after Superman, hoping she could catch him at his Clinton Street apartment.
And she prayed that he'd be in a good mood.
Kate had let Jennifer go in first, sneaking in the wig under her sweater. If both of them came in together, with Kate in her post-skunk condition, they would be hard-pressed to conceal what they'd found. Kate followed, about five minutes later. Her smell preceded her.
Mr. Dixon, the director of the orphanage, was still consulting with Mrs. Hart about something, and came out of the office with a ruler in his hand. "Where is it?" he called, glancing at Kate and sweeping the floor with his gaze.
"Where is what?" asked Kate, tiredly. "I mean, where is what, sir?"
"The skunk. Did you let it in?"
She sighed, very tiredly, knowing that people were going to start pouring out of their dorms any moment now, and they didn't disappoint her.
"Mr. Dixon, you're smelling me," she admitted. "May I be excused? I need to take a shower."
The balding, bespectacled, 43-year-old administrator held his left hand over his face. "Miss Davis, put whatever you're wearing in a box and have your roommate give it to Mrs. Hart. I'm afraid we'll have to burn your clothes."
Dick and Tommy and Susan and Oliver and Melinda and several others were already poking their heads out of doors or just appearing from God knew where, attracted by the scent-beacon, holding their noses, and getting ready to make her the laughing stock of the whole place for the next few days.
Kate clenched her hands. If Linda wasn't bald under that wig, she was going to rip her ever-loving hair out.
Superman shook his head sadly. "What were you thinking of, Kara? You should have chosen a better hiding place than that."
"Like where?" She was frantic as only a 16-year-old can be. "Where should I have put it? I couldn't just bury it."
"You might have slipped it into the back of your shirt," said Kal. "Nobody would have seen us up there, and it wouldn't have fallen out, even at those speeds. You've got to learn to be more careful with these things, Kara. Never leave your clothes or anything you're carrying where anyone can find them. See why you need training?"
He was acting just like a parent, or the kind of big brother you really don't want around at the time.
The worst part was, he was right and she knew it.
"Well, I don't care that I need training," snapped Kara. "I know that. You know that. But right now, I've got to get my wig back, and do something about them. What am I going to do? Kal, hasn't this ever happened to you before?"
"Lots of times," said Superman, standing in uniform in the Clinton Street apartment. (The curtains and blinds were drawn, and Superman had overlaid the inner wall with a reflective substance that would distort any X-ray device beamed towards his room.) "But I've usually had time, and experience, to cook up something that would throw the other party off track. We don't have time for that right now. I'm going to get some amnesium from the Fortress. When I come back, we'll both go to the orphanage and you can point those two out. Then we'll give them a treatment and they won't remember a thing of it."
"What if the whole school knows?" said Kara, in a voice hardly above a whisper.
He leaned closer to her. "Then we'll just have to do the whole school, won't we? I'll be back in a bit."
Kal opened the curtains and blinds and flew out so quickly the human eye couldn't see him. Kara drew them closed behind him, taking care to stay out of sight. She sat on his lounger in front of the TV set, which was turned off, and clenched her fists in frustration.
Blast Cousin Kal and his superiority, even though he was superior in this matter. He'd almost had his identity exposed dozens of times, but he'd always managed to convince whoever had the goods on him that he wasn't Clark Kent at all.
If she were Superman, she'd know what to do. Blast him, he always knew what to do.
And in her mind, Kara Zor-El did a double-take. She sat up straight, and thought in a different mode. A problem-solving mode. A very simple thought, which now filled her mind:
What would Superman do?
At 9:50, which was ten minutes to bed-check time, the door to Linda's dorm room swung open. Kate, who was still trying to scrub her hair in the sink, looked up in anger, and said "You!" at the same instant Jennifer cried, "Linda!"
She looked very, very tired. "Hi, gang. Look, I'm pretty bushed. Okay with you if I go ahead and hit it?"
"Hit it? I oughtta hit you!" Kate raged. "On account of you, I had to burn my favorite dress, and my cashmere--"
Jennifer stepped between them. She saw Linda's eyes widen, and her hand go to her nose. "Ugh. What've you been into? Two out of three falls with a polecat?"
"I'm gonna kill her!" hollered Kate. Jennifer held her back.
"Linda, um, we've got a problem here," said Jennifer. To Kate, she said, "Ease up, or the Old Lady's gonna hear and you'll be in real trouble." Barely, Kate subsided.
The brown-haired figure said, "Well, what's the problem?"
"This," said Jennifer, and reached into a brown paper grocery bag. She pulled out the wig. She displayed it to Linda. "What're you doing with a wig that looks just like your real hair?"
"If it is your real hair!" snapped Kate, still in her robe and underwear, and wearing an entire bottleful of perfume over the skunk-scent, futilely. She grabbed one of Linda's ponytails and pulled, firmly.
"Ouch!" Linda slapped her hand away. Kate's eyes went wide. What she pulled was firmly attached to Linda's head. Her face was apology cubed.
"Oh, gosh, oh, Linda, I'm sorry, I thought you were playing a, I mean, I thought you weren't really, I thought your hair," said Kate, grabbing Linda's upper arms and talking as fast as a broadcaster at a ball game. "I mean, like..."
"All right, all right," said Linda, laying a hand calmingly on Kate's chest. "Okay. You found my wig. Can you both keep a secret?"
"Sure," said Jennifer, still holding the wig.
"Oh, yeah," said Kate.
"Can you wait till tomorrow after class?"
"We sure can," said Kate. Jennifer nodded, uncertainly.
"Then keep this a secret till then, and I'll show you what I've been doing. Now, I'm going to bed. Okay?" She held out her hand towards Jennifer. Her roommate handed over the wig.
Kate and Jennifer looked at each other. The door to the bedroom, just off the living room / study room / everything-else room, closed behind Linda.
"I hope she isn't a spy," whispered Jennifer.
"At this point, I hope she is," muttered Kate.
And the Linda Lee robot undressed, got into one of her mistress's nighties, turned out the light, and lay motionless in bed for the next eight hours.
Superman rocketed back into his apartment, lifting and lowering the window so quickly he had to cool the friction with super-breath. Tucked under one of his arms was a lead box with a sample of a strange radiant alloy from another solar system which, thanks for its ability to allow him to selectively erase data from human brains, he called Amnesium.
Kara wasn't there. He looked around swiftly, saw a note she had taped to the television. She'd written it in Kryptonese. She's learning, he grudgingly admitted.
After he read it, he set his jaw. What she had planned had better work out. He'd be at work tomorrow when she was going to try and pull it off. Of course, he could manage to work around it. The glass stomach of Clark Kent was legendary at the Planet newsroom. He could always manage 15 minutes to a half-hour out on that, when he needed to. Or he could use a robot.
But Kara was going to have to learn how to handle things herself. Maybe this bit was going to work.
Still, he didn't intend to take the Amnesium back to the Fortress. Not just yet.
All that night, Supergirl worked overtime.
She gathered materials from various places, breaking and entering when she had to, but leaving locks and alarm systems intact behind her, along with payment in freshly-mined gold or freshly-squeezed diamonds. The merchants in Metropolis, Gotham, Smallville, and the other cities she flitted to looked at the notes which listed what had been taken, left with something of far more value than the burglar had taken, had the payment appraised, then individually shook their heads and decided they could do with more burglars of this stripe.
She studied instruction books from the library at hyperspeed, reading them with her super-vision. She did things over and over until she didn't screw them up anymore, and ended up with a presentable result.
And all through the night she kept her super-hearing trained to make certain no one neared her work site, and worked in near-total darkness. Her infra-red vision made that a cinch.
That was the only easy thing about the entire operation.
Before daybreak she lit a small lantern she had taken, took off her shirt, folded it and lay it down, then used a whole bottle of color on her hair and looked in a pocket mirror to make sure she got it right. Afterward, she braided it into two pigtails, rubber-banded the ends, decompressed her Linda clothes, ironed them against the floor of her workshop with the pressure of her hand, and put them on.
Then she spoke at a certain frequency to which her robot's ear-receptors were always tuned. "Return to tree after first period today," she said. "Follow route 7. Keep aural sensors at high, do not proceed if you are being followed. Out."
The real Linda Lee and the robot Linda Lee passed each other that morning in the woods. Linda took her notebook and textbooks from her double. The robot continued on to an artificial tree Superman had constructed and planted. At a touch of its hand, a sensor device popped open a large section of the trunk. It stepped into the hollow cylinder within, and touched its feet and head against plates which charged its power-source like a battery.
The door-section closed, and it was just a tree again.
It was 10 in the morning. She didn't need to sleep, and she didn't need to eat. But she liked doing both. They helped tie her to normality. Or at least to Terra's version of it.
She trudged the distance from the woods to the orphanage. The sky was grey and overcast. The wind was blowing at a decent clip, at least 25 miles an hour, and the chill factor was dragging the thermometer's indication down at least five degrees. But she loved it, loved the smell of the winter air, loved crunching the oak leaves under her flats. It was almost enough to make her forget what she had to do that afternoon.
Linda caught up to Jennifer in American History 101 and sat her books down on her regular desk, a row to the right and two seats up from her. She ventured a look back at Jennifer. The girl was pushing a note to her with her shoe. She put her own foot on it and scooped it up, picking it up without getting seen by the instructor. It read:
Hope you aren't too wigged out later on.
She wrote under that in number 2 pencil and passed it back along the floor. Jennifer picked it up and read it.
Wait and see,
Kate had to be excused from two classes until she finally got the aroma of her evening encounter sufficiently off of her skin. She glared at anyone who was within ten feet of her, mentally dared them to make one joke about it, and knew that they were cracking up behind her back, no matter how quickly she turned.
When the bell rang to end the last class for the day, Kate vectored straight for the door, stopping only once to bang a laughing guy's head against a locker. He might not have been laughing at her, but it was best not to take chances. She scurried out before an instructor could take notice.
Jennifer was already standing beside Linda, both of them in fairly heavy coats. She stomped up to them, not in any mood to be mollified. In fact, she felt like taking Linda and trying out some moves she'd seen Mrs. Peel do on The Avengers on her.
"Well?" she snapped, five feet away from her object of hatred.
"Well," said Linda, easily, "come with me. I'll show you what I've been doing."
Jennifer laid a hand on Kate's shoulder, placatingly, and got it struck off. She left Kate's side and walked beside Linda. She felt a lot safer that way.
To Linda, she whispered, "You'd better have something good. Kate's acting like she wants to yank your braids out by the roots."
Linda smirked and said, "Well, at least she knows they're mine now."
The shack was not far from the woods, but its windows had been boarded up for years. Nobody knew why it was there anymore, except to give the occasional hobo a place to sleep out of the weather.
Kate noticed that the windows, though still boarded, had whole panes of glass in them now. She could have sworn that they were broken a month before.
"You've been out here?" said Jennifer, astonished that anyone would come to this godforsaken outpost without being paid to.
"Yep," said Linda, smiling her ingratiating and, to Kate, irritating smile. She took a key from her purse and opened a lock that looked fairly new. Then she threw open the door, stood to the side, and made a grand gesture with her arm.
The two others looked inside.
There was barely room for a human being to sit or walk inside.
The rest of it was filled with the handiwork of Linda Lee.
A row of handcarved, handpainted elves. A fairly decent foot-high painted and glazed sculpture of Santa Claus. Handmade wreaths of evergreen trees, with red bows and pine cones dangling. Handwoven garments, including a sweater that, to Kate's numbed eyes, looked just her size. A chair and desk, both of them cut and nailed together by hand, in fairly professional manner. Even a small, painted creche, with minutely detailed painting of the features on the faces of the holy family. Tiny Christmas trees, built of small, shaped pine branches stuck in drilled wooden bases and hung with tiny wooden ornaments. There was even, astonishingly, a small wooden replica of Midvale Orphanage. Wood shavings littered the floor, and a double row of paint buckets lined one wall, with paint brushes of various sizes softening in buckets of paint remover.
All of that, on tables or hung from shelves or hooks on the wall, plus the weaver's loom she had used to make the clothes, leftover wool and cloth, and the various tools she had used to work the wood. (The early attempts that hadn't looked so good, she had quietly buried outside.)
But what held their attention most, after all that, was seeing the 12 wigs on an upper shelf, hung on white styrofoam heads.
Kate and Jennifer finally ratcheted their heads back to Linda. They both had a look of wonder. "You made--all this?", Kate said, finally.
Linda, her hands behind her back, nodded.
"I made all that," she said.
Kate gingerly handled one of the wooden elves. "I thought you didn't know about Christmas," she said, suspiciously.
"Oh, I've learned a lot in a week," she lied, crossing her fingers. "And I've seen the displays around town. It was kind of fun to copy them."
"These aren't copies," said Jennifer, slowly, picking her way through the shack's contents. "These are good."
"Thanks," said Linda. She picked up the sweater that Kate had noticed, and held it out to her. "Here, I made this for you."
Kate shrank back. "Oh, Linda. I mean, I can't. This is too good. You should keep this for yourself."
"It's not my size, Kate. I made it for you. Now it can be a Christmas gift. And anyway, after that skunk--"
Kate cut her off by taking the sweater and then wrapping her arms around her in a big hug and lifting her a couple of inches off the ground.
Linda, facing Jennifer, pointed to a white blouse and black woven vest which were Jen's size, lying on the big table. Jennifer picked up a sleeve, pointed wonderingly to herself. Linda nodded, make the okay sign with her thumb and finger. Kate let Linda back down.
"Oh, my gawd," said Kate, beaming. "This is worth getting sprayed by a skunk for. Almost!"
Linda gently disengaged Kate's arms. She stepped back, and took the time to savor the smiles of her two roommates. To see that, it was almost worth having to go through all of this. Then she took a breath, and launched her next lie.
"I do this a lot, just on my own. It makes me feel kind of better about myself. And I like to fool around with making wigs. Heh...guess my mom might have been a beautician or something. The first one I made that was any good, I made to look just like my style. I was gonna wear it back home and see if you guys could tell it wasn't my real hair. But that was when we had the big wind around Halloween, remember? It blew the darn thing off my head and I wasn't ever able to find it. How the heck it got up in the tree, you tell me, but I'm glad you found it. Here." She took a red wig off and plopped it on Jennifer's head. "Think she looks great in a Prince Valiant, Kate?"
Kate dropped her eyes to the floor for a moment, then looked back up. "Roommate, I'm sorry. I thought you were...well, never mind about that. If I could do this kind of stuff...well, I'd be able to do this kind of stuff, that's all. You are so all right, Linda." She started forward.
Linda said, "Please don't hug me again, Kate," and Jennifer laughed. Linda continued: "I want to keep all this stuff a secret. But if we can get it into the building before Christmas night, and leave it where they can find it..."
Jennifer jumped up, still holding the blouse and vest draped over one arm. "Say no more, Linda. You've just enlisted us in the Secret Santa Squad."
So it was that, the next morning, the orphans and staff of the Midvale Orphanage awoke and found a bunch of new, handmade, wooden Christmas figurines standing guard around the tree, with a note affixed to the Santa figure by tape. It read:
Created and distributed
The Secret Santa Squadron
Mrs. Hart, drop-jawed for a moment, removed the note, examined it, and handed it to Mr. Dixon. "Well, what do you think?" she asked.
The headmaster bent to examine the elves, the creche, the Santa, and all the rest. It gave him time to think, and time to admire the handiwork. He could tell the stuff wasn't store-bought, or store-stolen.
"I think somebody around here does very, very good work," he said.
The children and teens milled about, touching the handiwork gingerly, admiring it, and wondering aloud who the heck could have put all this stuff here overnight.
Linda, Jennifer, and Kate were, to all outward appearances, among the most astonished.
After class, Linda gave the girls another secret mission, to round up a bunch of wrapping paper, ribbons, and labels from the local five-and-dimes. She also bade them not to come to the shack anymore, for fear they'd give her away.
Over the next five days, new packages turned up under the tree. Nobody quite caught a glimpse of the culprits in the act, but the new gifts, all labelled with the name of the intended recipient, kept piling up. Linda was careful to limit her output to only that which a non-super girl could turn out in the given time. Even so, Jennifer and Kate were awed by her production rate.
For a girl who didn't know anything about Christmas less than two weeks before, they agreed that she was picking things up right quickly.
Dick Wilson made a point of grilling her at lunch on the fifth day. "Linda," he said, a wicked half-smile on his face, "you've been holding out on us."
"Oh?", she asked carefully, midway through a salmon patty.
"They say that you're the one supplying all that new stuff under the tree."
"I doubt it, Dick," she said. "Remember, I didn't even know about Christmas till two weeks ago."
"They also say that you're the one who carved all that neat stuff under the tree."
"Well, Dick, you're going to have to define ‘they' before I can make any kind of response." She grinned, enjoying her time with Dick but remaining noncommittal.
The crewcut kid tented his own hands over his cafeteria plate. "‘They' is the general gossipmongers around the school. ‘They' also say they've seen two gals that look suspiciously like your roomies at times, dropping packages under the tree when they think they won't be seen. I don't think anybody's opened one of those new presents yet, but they're really anticipating something big."
"Wow," Linda said, in between gulps of milk. "And what does Mrs. Hart have to say about all this?"
"Mrs. Hart says she's really started to believe in Santa Claus again."
"There's something else," Dick said. She waited.
"The rumor is that you've got a secret workshop somewhere out there in the woods, and that a couple of punks might get it in their heads to vandalize it."
"Oh," she said. "You mean Willy and Henry?"
Dick said, "You didn't hear it from me, and I didn't mention any names." There were creeps in every school or gathering of young people, and Will McCracken and Henry Bowles were two of the resident punks of Midvale.
Linda picked at her fried potatoes, then stood up. "Thanks, Dick. It's been a great conversation. See you around."
"Any chance of that movie date, Linda?", he asked, hopefully.
She stood up, took the tray in her hands, and gave him sort of a wistful look. "You never know," she said, and walked away.
The first thing anybody knew about the debacle was when Willy and Henry
walked back in that evening, swearing, covered in several different colors
of paint. It was mostly red, yellow, and blue. Mr. Dixon stopped
them before they'd gotten very far, made them undress in the tool shed,
and gave them both robes to put on while he sent them to the shower.
He stood outside the shower room while both boys tried to get as much of
the three-color blend out of their hair and off their bodies as they could.
Then he marched them both down to their rooms, made them get dressed in
new clothes, and put them to work cleaning up the paint they'd dripped
on the floor where they came in.
After that, he had them come to his office and took their confessions. Both had been out to the shed by the woods, in hopes, they said, of getting a look at that "Santa shop" somebody was supposed to have out there.
"And?" asked Mr. Dixon, not changing his expression.
Henry and Willy allowed that there wasn't anything in the shack, or any lock on the door. But somebody had rigged up a pretty clever pulley system connecting three overhead paint buckets, hung by their handles from hooks in the roof, to three lines of stout twine that were tied to the inside doorknob. They found out all about it once they'd opened the door wide enough.
Hank said that he saw part of what was coming, and tried to back out just as Willy was getting his paint job. But a strong gust of wind struck him in the back, and he flew forward and got a worse dowsing than Willy.
Mr. Dixon was great at concealing his inner smiles.
"Detention for two weeks," he said. "And you'll work the cafeteria line and do clean-up afterwards, on Christmas Eve. And, boys?"
"Yessir?" they both said, slightly out of sync.
"From here on in, don't ever mess with Santa Claus."
Superman, making his rounds in Metropolis, did another checkup on Midvale with his super-vision and hearing powers. He had been keeping tabs on things there over the last week, but found he didn't need to check things at the orphanage with as great a frequency as before.
He allowed himself an ease of tension, and determined to take the Amnesium back to the Fortress the next chance he got.
And Christmas Eve came, and with it the great dinner of turkey, ham,
and all the trimmings, the listening to Firestone Christmas albums, the
contingent of kids who went on a two-hour caroling tour, the supervision
of Mrs. Hart and Mr. Dixon to make sure those kisses under the mistletoe
didn't go too far, a visit by quite a few of the youths to the Christmas
services going on in various churches that night, and, finally, the reassembling
of the entire group for the opening of presents.
There would be, as per Mrs. Hart's schedule, a reading of the Biblical story of Jesus's birth afterward.
But the biggest hit of the evening was the opening of the fourteen mystery packages, each of which was individually addressed to one of the 14 pre-teen kids on hand there, and each of which produced a cleverly-woven garment, usually a sweater or vest, in a couple of cases a parka sweatshirt, all of which had different colors and patterns of wool woven into them, all of which would have done credit to one of the major clothing store chains, but each of which came from the cunning hands of only one sixteen-year-old girl.
This was followed by the same fourteen kids tackling Linda and holding her down on the floor for a big hug, one after the other. "Hey, c'mon!" she laughed. "What are you hugging me for? Those things didn't have my labels on ‘em!"
"Aw, come off it, Linda, we know it's you," said Billy Rink, one rambunctious 7-year-old. Her only answer was a grin.
"That's enough, kids," said Dick Wilson, helping pull some of Linda's well-wishers off of her besieged body. "If you smother her, she'll never make another sweater. Or even a pair of socks." He offered her a hand up. She took it, and let herself be pulled up. She noticed a question in his eyes, but elected not to answer it with her own.
Jennifer and Kate weighed in with their own gifts to her. For Jen it was a Polaroid camera. For Kate, it was a diary, inscribed with the note,
Maybe this'll help you with some new memories. Your pal
(DESPITE THE SKUNK!!!)
Dick handed over a sizeable box, which Linda slit open along one edge with a long thumbnail. She opened it to find...books. Winesburg, Ohio. Something Wicked This Way Comes. In Dubious Battle. Stranger In a Strange Land. Steppenwolf. The Catcher In the Rye. And, not to be left out, The Big Sleep.
"I'm not exactly sure that they're chick books, y'know, but you could use some fiction in your diet," he said, and braced himself for whatever was to come.
Linda put her plaid-bloused, midi-skirted form against him in a big hug and gave him a peck on the cheek, and Kate was lucky enough to get a snap of his expression with her own Polaroid. When he came back to himself, he said, "I want a print!"
"So pay for the developing," said Kate, with a smirk.
Mrs. Hart said, "I think we've already chosen who will read the Christmas story this year. Now, if all of you will make a space for yourself on the floor here, and try not to make any noise during the reading, or you'll find out what it's like to get your ear yanked on Christmas Eve. So? Good. Now, Linda." She handed over a Bible, with a ribbon markerin the early part of the New Testament.
Linda hesitated. "Me, Mrs. Hart?"
"You, Linda. St. Luke, Chapter 1, verse 26, through chapter 2, verse 20. Go ahead. Read."
She took the book. Thankfully, she thought, it was a Revised Standard Version, with modern language.
Help me out on this, she silently sent. Then she took a deep breath, and began to read, where Mrs. Hart had marked:
"‘In the sixth months the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary,'" she read, in a voice she strove to keep clear and level. Another breath.
"‘And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you."'"
On the next morning there was snow. The weatherman had predicted the white stuff was going to pass them by again. But he hadn't reckoned with the super-breath and cloud-seeding of a man in blue and red, who was unseen by all his beneficiaries in the act. It snowed three inches and the kids awoke the older kids with their talking as soon as the first of them to rise made the discovery. Then there were warm clothes donned and an assault made on the white blanket, which was rapidly formed into snowballs or three separate snowmen, or rolled in, or cut in double tracks by sleds.
Linda Lee ate breakfast with the rest, heard her Kryptonian name whispered in her ear, and, after the meal, changed into her Supergirl outfit and soared away, a blur again, to meet her cousin on their mountain peak meeting place.
His arms were folded as he stood there, and he was giving her a tight smile.
She landed before him, bouncing up a couple of inches with recoil. "Hello, Kal," she said. "There's no class today. But they'll miss me if I don't show up for dinner."
"And I'd miss you if I didn't show up right now," he replied. He stepped aside, and revealed a box behind him which he'd been hiding with his feet and cape. "Go on, pick it up."
She looked at him, then stooped, picked it up, and opened the top flap.
Within were several things. On a white-metal chain, a gold pendant,
round, with the two L's of her name inscribed on it.
She popped it open, and saw her "S" shield on the surface within, formed of chips of ruby.
"It'll only open for your touch, or mine," said Superman. "The chain I made from a bit of your spacecraft. I hope you don't mind."
"Mind?" she breathed
She was already picking up and sifting through the rest of the box. Kryptonese scrolls, famous books from her homeworld. Many of the titles which she had told him she loved.
"I had the Kandorians display some of their texts for me," he explained. "I used micro-vision. My calliagraphy isn't the greatest in the world, but--"
"‘Great Krypton lay in savage night, / Astride a line of Rao's own demarcation,'" Kara read aloud. The first two lines of The Kryptoniad, their greatest epic. For a moment, a most delicious moment, she was an eight-year-old again, reading the poem in unison with her classmates at school. "Oh, Kal," she whispered. "Kal, I can't believe it."
"There's more," he said.
And so there was. A photograph album. She opened it, not daring to cheat by using her X-ray vision.
The first page held a large photograph of her parents, sitting with Jor-El and Lara and--could it be?--baby Kal, taken long before Zor-El and Allura were married, when all of them were together and a world that, to her mind, never should have died had not yet died.
She paged through more of the album. There were other pictures, of her grandfather Jor-El I and his wife Nimda, of her uncle Nim, his son Don at age five and in a police uniform in Kandor when fully grown, of her cousin Van-Zee, still living in Krypton and a dead ringer for Kal, even of her grandfather In-Ze and his wife Issa.
Kara looked up at him in wonderment. "A family album," she said.
"I've got some pretty good photoscanning equipment at the Fortress," said Kal. "Even when the photos are microscopic in size and viewed through a bottle. Uncle Nim, Van, and the historical archives in Kandor helped out. Don't worry, I've got a copy, too."
She put the album carefully in the box and, leaping to him, hugged him very tightly, her feet nowhere near the ground.
He returned her embrace. "I don't think I'll have to worry too much about your secret identity, if you keep doing this well," he murmured, his head pressed alongside hers.
Then another thought struck her, and she stiffened. "Kal?"
"You're going to think I'm a side-whelp of a babootch for it. But I didn't get you anything for Christmas. I didn't even think of it. I, I was so busy and I didn't even know what it was before two weeks ago, and..."
He laughed and set her down on her feet again. "Kara, listen. This year I've been given the two greatest gifts I've had in many a year. Except for Krypto, I was the only survivor of our world on Earth. Then, earlier this year, I found the city of Kandor. And just last May, I found you. I've finally found my own kind again. I've finally found part of my own family again. And that's the greatest gift Rao could ever have blessed me with, on Christmas or any other holiday. So don't you ever worry about a gift, Kara. You're the greatest Christmas gift I ever could have had."
She held him very close and said, "If I say more than two more words back to you, I'm going to start bawling again. You know what those two words are, Kal?"
"Uh huh," he said. And they said them together.
And after that, he said, "Now are you ready for another training session?"
She grinned and kissed his cheek. "Even if it means racing a big guy in a red suit with eight Kryptonian reindeer," she said.
"Only eight? You're leaving out Rudolph."
"There are some things you'll have to tell me about this holiday, Kal," she said as she let go of him.
And the two of them catapulted upward into the morning sky, and filled the rest of the afternoon with themselves.
And with flying.
And with Christmas.
Superman, Supergirl, and other characters in this story are property of DC Comics. No money is being made from this story and no infringements are intended.