Originally published in Below the Surface 2, May 1990

Once Upon a Time



Late April, 1988

It had been a long, hectic day for Lynn Murtagh Morton -- getting Shawn off to kindergarten, Andrea off to preschool, Michael off to her sister-in-law at San Sarita, seeing Chip and Seaview off on a two-week cruise, all before starting her own full day of work, which had culminated with the arrival of an unexpected Congressional delegation who'd just had to visit the much-vaunted and highly publicized dolphin program at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research – and who had persisted in referring to her ever-increasing numbers of dolphins as ‘those big grey fish over there’, to Lynn’s annoyance. And since Congress – unfortunately – supplied a good deal of the Institute’s funding, she’d gritted her teeth, kept on smiling the way she knew she had to, and continued the impromptu tour, wishing all the while she could just hand the visitors over to one of her assistants and be done with it. But the buck stopped with her, so she played tour guide, hating every second of it, and dying to get back to doing work that actually mattered.

Home once again, the necessary shopping done and the three children all collected from their various locations and happily amusing themselves, she’d thought her troubles were over – but when she’d rounded the kids up for dinner, she’d found Shawn and Andy busily playing ‘Silent Service’ on the computer in her study – a brand-new, state-of-the-art machine she hadn’t thought they even knew how to turn on, much less access the hard disk, maneuver through several menu levels, and call up programs!

"What are you guys doing?" she asked them in as calm a voice as possible. Don’t lose your cool, she cautioned herself. They’re only little kids. Still, it had been extremely unnerving to find Shawn and Andrea sitting at her computer – well, kneeling on her chair so they could reach the keyboard – calmly playing as if it were something they did every day.

Shawn, just turned six and the older of the two girls by eleven months, turned to face her, a bright smile on her face. "We’re playin’ subs, Mommy!"

"We’re tryin’," five-year-old Andrea corrected without turning around, busily tapping away at the keyboard.

"Oh yeah?" Lynn countered. "And who gave you permission to use my computer?"

"Nobody," Shawn had admitted in a small voice.

Lynn couldn’t leave it at that. "Don’t you think you should have asked me first?"

"But you were too busy makin’ supper," Andrea explained. "We didn’t want to bother you."

"And we don’t ask if we can use the VCR," Shawn pointed out.

"Mommy’s computer isn’t a VCR," Lynn said sternly."It’s much more complicated. I have a lot of important work on that. If you ruined it, I would have to do it all over again."

"But don’t’cha make backups?" Shawn wanted to know. "You’re s’posed to, y’know. They’re very important."

Lynn stared at her. "What do you know about backups?"

"Uncle Jack talks about them alla’ time." Shawn blithely informed her, with Andrea silently nodding agreement. "He says they’re real important. I thought you knew that."

Good old Uncle Jack, Lynn thought to herself. It figures. "Yeah, I know about backups. I didn’t know you did. Is that how you figured out how to get into my computer?" she asked. "By talking to Uncle Jack?"

"Nope," Andy answered. "We watched you and Daddy. We watch you alla time – you don’t even know we’re lookin’. You’re lotsa fun."

" ’Cept when you do that goopy kissin’ stuff," Shawn put in.

Lynn blanched at that. "That’s just dandy," she said dryly. God only knows what else they’ve seen us doing, she said to herself, realizing she didn’t want to know the answer.

Lynn scooped the girls off the chair and set them on their feet, then shut down the computer. "Okay. Dinner. Kitchen," she said, and the girls ran off ahead of her.

The girls were already in the kitchen when Lynn arrived with Michael. She settled him into his highchair, got the girls settled in their booster seats, then served leftover roast turkey and the trimmings from the night before. She always made a big dinner the night before Chip left on a cruise – it helped to take the girls’ minds off the fact that Daddy was leaving again, and it occupied her own mind so she didn’t have to think about Chip’s impending absence for a while – and it supplied leftovers for several more meals.

"Okay," Lynn said as the girls and Michael tucked into their dinner. "No more touching Mommy’s computer. Got it?"

Solemn expressions on their faces, the girls nodded. "Okay, Mommy," Shawn agreed.

"Good. But when Daddy gets home, we’ll go shopping for a computer the two of you can share, okay?

"Really?" Shawn asked. "One of our very own?"

Lynn smiled at the delight on her daughter’s little face. "Really. And we’ll get you plenty of games and educational programs, too."

"Oh, boy," Andy said.

"But will you play the games with us?" Shawn asked.

"Yes, we will."

"Silent Service, too?" Shawn pressed.

"I don’t know about that one, Shawn. We’ll see. But you’ll have plenty of games of your own – you won’t need to play ours."

With all three kids bathed and finally in bed, Lynn took herself off to her own bed for a relaxing evening. She thought she’d resolved the problem nicely – in fact, she was quite proud of the way she’d managed to hold onto her temper, considering the amount of valuable data stored on the hard disk, as well as her latest children’s book on Secretariat, which was due at the publisher’s in less than a month. And with her home system equipped with the necessary hardware and software to enable it to network with the Cray at the Institute – she didn’t want to think of the potential havoc two curious little girls could have wreaked there on the unclassified data! At least now they knew not to even think about touching her computer. And the password protection program she resolved to install on her machine the second she could get a copy from Jack would be an additional layer of protection.

Yes, it had been a busy day. And now, two-and-a-half months pregnant and more tired than she really wanted to be, she was looking forward to a quiet evening, relaxing with the latest issue of The Blood Horse. Lynn had just gotten involved in an in-depth article about the Kentucky Derby contenders when the door to the master bedroom unexpectedly swung open. Shawn and Andrea stood in the doorway, identical somber expressions on their young faces. Callahan, the family’s German Shepherd, stood between them, his black tail slowly waving back and forth in a sweeping arc.

Uh-oh, something's up, Lynn thought, and removed her reading glasses, laying the magazine down across her not-quite-flat stomach. "Hi, guys. What's the matter? You two having bad dreams?" she asked solicitously.

It came as no surprise -- both girls, though moreso Shawn, a daddy's little girl if she'd ever seen one, were disconcerted by their father's frequent absences, and Lynn tried to hide her own unhappiness at Chip's absences for their sakes. But at times like these, she wondered just how well the facade deceived them.

Shawn, just turned six and the older of the girls by eleven months, answered her. "We know how much you hate bein' alone when Daddy's gone, so we came to take care of you."

Andrea, very sweet and very serious at age five, nodded solemnly, tears brimming in her big blue eyes. "Don' want you to be sad, Mommy."

And there goes the game, Lynn thought, and beckoned to her daughters. And you thought you were bein’ so clever. They clambered eagerly onto the bed. Callahan settled sleepily on the rug alongside the bed, while Rags, Lynn's Jack Russell Terrier, scooted up from his post at Lynn's feet to shower each of the girls with eager kisses before settling back down in his accustomed position.

Lynn moved to the center of the bed and pulled the two girls close to either side. "I won't be sad as long as I have you two to take care of me," she said, kissing each one on top of their shining pale blond hair.

"An' Michael, too," Andrea reminded her.

"Mikey's too little to take care of Mommy, silly," Shawn told her younger sister. "He still can't even take care of himself. Right?" Shawn asked, looking to her mother for confirmation.

Lynn sighed. Shawn was right in a way, but there was no need for her to lord it over Andrea. They were of vastly differing personalities – Shawn was all sunshine and open doors, bright and outgoing, while Andrea, every bit as bright, was quiet and thoughtful, like a peaceful, shady wood. But where Shawn was carefree, seemingly hurt by nothing, Andrea was sensitive and took everything to heart, feeling more deeply than her older sister. There was a vulnerability about the younger girl, so reminiscent of his younger sister Kate, which always made Chip want to fight her battles and protect her from the hurts inflicted on sensitive children by an insensitive world. He always felt so helpless in the face of his younger daughter’s pain, and Lynn hurt for him because of it.

Despite their differences, the girls were extremely close, and the only time friction of any sort occurred between them was when Chip was away. It was a reaction to his absence, and usually minor, but Lynn always made sure to stop it before it could go too far. When things hurt Andy, they hurt her deeply, and the last thing Lynn wanted was for Andy to feel she’d been hurt by her sister, however unintentionally it might happen. "Andy's not silly, Shawn," Lynn said gently. "Mikey does take care of me, in his own way."

"He does?" Shawn asked, surprised. "How? He's so little! He's not even housebroken yet!"

Lynn choked back a laugh and resolved to have a nice, long, serious talk with her older brother Jack on the undue influence he was having on his very impressionable goddaughter. But now, she merely addressed Shawn's question. "He loves me, that's how. That means as much to me as the way you two take care of me," she said softly.

"Oh. Well, when you put it that way, I guess it makes sense," Shawn conceded grandly.

Lynn raised an eyebrow. "I'm glad you think so, Miss," she said dryly, knowing the irony would be lost on the little girl. "Well, I’m feeling a lot better. How about if you guys go back to bed now?" she suggested gently. "I'm okay, and it's getting pretty late for you two to be up. You should have been asleep a long time ago. You have school tomorrow, remember?"

Andrea shook her head emphatically. "Oh, no, Mommy, we can't. We hafta tell you a story first."

"You do?" Lynn asked her, trying to hide a smile at the oh-so-serious expression on her younger daughter's face. Sometimes she thought Andrea had inherited every gene for seriousness that she or Chip had to offer, while Shawn had inherited their all self-confidence, determination, and gregariousness – times two.

Shawn nodded. "We do. So get comftable. Did I sound like Daddy that time?" she asked quickly.

That was what Chip always said to them when he told them a story, and Lynn didn't hide her smile this time. "Yes, you did."

Shawn’s face lit up. "Goody! Let me know when you’re ready, okay? But first ya gotta smoosh your pillow. "That’s important."

"Okay," Lynn agreed, and reached behind her to plump her pillow.

The girls sat up straighter, eagerness shining from their blue eyes. "Ready?" Shawn asked, squirming around so she sat facing her mother.

"I’m ready," Lynn affirmed.

"Okay. Now, once upon a time -- " Shawn began.

"No, Shawn," Andrea whispered across Lynn. "That's not how you start it."

"It's not?" Shawn asked, frowning as she leaned across Lynn toward her sister.

"No, remember?" Andrea insisted, moving into a position similar to Shawn’s..

Shawn frowned momentarily, then brightened. "Oh yeah. Wait a minnit, Mommy. I gotta start again. Are you still comftable?"

"Very comfortable, thank you," Lynn said. She bit her tongue and looked away towards the seascape on the far wall, unable to look at either one of her daughters for fear of breaking into giggles.

"Okay. Stay that way," Shawn instructed. "Now, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- "

"That's better," Andrea said.

"Shhh, quiet, " Shawn told her sister. "You'll make me forget."

"Sorry," Andy said softly. Lynn gently patted her knee, smiling at her in reassurance, and the smaller girl beamed up at her.

"Okay. Alongtimeagoinagalaxyfarfaraway," Shawn said quickly, "there was a be-yoo-tee-ful fairy princess named Princess Ashleen, an' she lived in a great big ol' forest. She had the biggest green eyes and long curly hair that wasn't red an' it wasn't blond, but it was kinda someplace in between -- "

"She sounds like you, Mommy," Andrea whispered, "only your hair is short. But it’s the same color as yours."

"Andy, will you let me tell the story!" Shawn complained. "This was my idea, remember?"

"I know, but she does, Shawn," Andrea protested softly. "Even Daddy said so."

"Mommy!" Shawn beseeched, turning back to Lynn. "Puh-leeze! She has to be quiet or I can't finish!"

Lynn sighed. This had to stop, and stop now. "Okay, both of you be quiet and listen to me," Lynn instructed. "Andy, we'll talk about the story when Shawn's done. Shawn, Andy helped you with the beginning, so don't yell at her."

"Okay, Mommy," the girls chorused, frowning slightly at each other across their mother’s stomach.

Lynn looked dubiously from one to the other. "Okay. No more arguing. Go on, Shawn," Lynn encouraged.

"Thank you," Shawn said brightly. "Now where was I? Oh yeah. Anyway, the fairy princess could do magic, an' all the animals of the forest loved her, an' they'd do anything for her. The birds sang for her whenever she wanted ’em to, an’ the bunnies used to pick flowers to give to her, and the squirrels used to bring her nuts so she could have breakfast with ’em. She rode this biiiiig ol' red horse with a real long mane and tail that were the same color as her hair, and he could do almost anything 'cept fly." Shawn paused, her face screwed up in concentration. "Uh-oh," she said, looking worried.

"S'matter, Shawn?" Andrea whispered, leaning across Lynn again.

"I forget what part comes next," Shawn whispered a little frantically.

"The part about the tiger with the big teeth," Andrea whispered back. "Remember?"

Shawn released a long, theatrical sigh. "Oh, thank goodness. Now, this is the scary part, Mommy, but we'll protect ya," she assured Lynn, blue eyes bright and innocent. "Well, one day the princess went for a walk in the forest an' she walked real far, an' she got lost, an’ the forest was real dark ‘cause it was all big ol’ trees, and none of her animal friends were with her. Well, she got all upset and she started lookin’ for the way to get home, only she just got more lost. Then suddenly, a big ol' nassssty tiger with reeeeeal big sharp teeth," and here Shawn grimaced, baring her teeth to illustrate, came out of the woods, an' he wanted to eat the princess all up! An' her magic didn't work, 'cause she was in a new part of the forest, an' the princess thought she was a goner. Then suddenly," and here Shawn paused for emphasis, "a brave knight in really shiny armor on a big ol' white horse who could do almost anything 'cept fly -- "

"This is the one that could fly, Shawn," Andrea whispered.

Shawn’s eyes widened and she nodded. "Oh, yeah, right! He was! Anyway, a really brave knight on a big ol' horse that could fly -- but he wasn't flyin' this time -- came gallopin' up and killed that mean ol' tiger dead just before he could have the princess for lunch. And the princess was so happy he saved her, she made him take his helmet off an' she kissed him right there. And then the princess fell in love with him 'cause he was so handsome. An' they flew away on the big white horse an' they got married an' they lived happily ever after, an’ they had a buncha kids, too. And you know what?"

"What?" Lynn asked in a whisper.

"The knight was named Sir Christopher, and he had blue eyes and blond hair, just like Daddy!" Shawn said proudly.

"And like us, too," Andrea put in.

"Did he now?" asked Lynn, grinning. What a coincidence, she thought. A fairy princess who looked like her, and a brave knight who looked like Chip, both of whom had their given names. These kids have some imaginations, she thought indulgently.

"Yeah, just like everybody 'cept you, Mommy," Shawn added.

"Well, we can't all be perfect," Lynn told her.

"But you're perfect, Mommy," Andrea insisted loyally. "You're just wonderful."

"I'm glad you think so, Puss. Do me a favor and tell that to your father when he gets home, okay?" Lynn requested.

"Okay!" Andrea agreed. "But he prob'ly already thinks you’re perfect."

"Sometimes I wonder, Puss," Lynn told her with a chuckle.

"And the princess looked like you, Mommy," Andrea said, not understanding her mother’s last comment and choosing to ignore it. "Remember?"

"Oh, I’ll remember," Lynn assured her.

"Did you like our story, Mommy?" Shawn asked brightly. "Didja?"

"I did," Lynn told her. "I loved your story. And I'm very impressed, too. You made up a very good story."

Shawn shook her head. "Oh, no, Mommy. We didn't make it up. It's one of the ones Daddy told us when you were sick that time."

Lynn blinked in surprise, not sure if she'd heard right. Chip had told them this story? Her Chip? Commander Christopher Michael Morton, USNR? Her very down-to-earth, supremely pragmatic, supposedly unimaginative -- a theory to which Lynn had never subscribed, knowing firsthand just how imaginative he could be when he was so inclined! -- husband had made the two of them the stars of a fairy tale? "Daddy told you this story?"Lynn asked, looking quickly from one little blond girl to the other.

Both nodded emphatically. "Uh-huh. But I remembered it," Shawn told her, tossing her head.

Lynn recovered quickly. "With a little help from Andy," she reminded her oldest child. "Maybe you'd better thank her for her help?" she prompted gently.

"Oh, yeah. Thanks, Andy," Shawn said brightly.

"Y'welcome. It's my very favorite one," the younger girl said softly.

"I think it would be my very favorite, too," Lynn said, trying to hide the grin that threatened to bloom on her face. It wouldn’t do to have the girls think she was laughing at them, but this was so funny! Fairy princesses, bouquet-bearing bunnies, and brave knights? It was a great white shark, not a tiger. And forget about the knight riding to the rescue – if it hadn’t been for my dolphins, that big sucker would have had both of us for lunch! Wait until I get a hold of you, Chip Morton!

"An’ we have more t’tell you, too," Andy said softly.

"Yeah – lots more. "We’ll tell ya one tomorrow night, okay?"

"You have more?" Lynn asked. "More like this one?"

"Oh, yeah!" Shawn assured her. "Daddy tells us lots of great stories. "

"An’ they’re all about Princess Ashleen and Sir Christopher," Andrea supplied.

Lynn bit her lip hard to keep from guffawing. "Well then," she said when she could speak, "I have a lot to look forward to." She hugged and kissed each little girl. "Thank you for the story, but now we all have to go to sleep. I have a busy day at the Institute tomorrow, and you two have school. Off to bed with you, now."

"Mommy, do you think we could we sleep in here with you tonight instead of goin’ back to bed?" Andrea asked hopefully. "You’ll be all alone in here without us."

"Yeah, Mommy, can we? Huh?" Shawn asked eagerly. "There’s plenty of room for us inna bed, y’know, even with ol’ Rags sleepin’ here. He doesn’t take up too much room."

The little terrier whuffed and wagged his stubby little tail in acknowledgment of his name, and Lynn smiled. They’d slept with her many times in the past when Chip was away, or with her and Chip when they’d been sick, or awakened by a particularly bad dream, and the offer was tempting. But they were getting too old for that, and with the new baby coming.… She made a mental note to tell them about the new baby once Chip got home, then turned back to the subject at hand. "You’ll both sleep better in your own beds."

"But we could stay here and take care of you like Daddy does," Shawn pressed.

Lynn smiled. "Um...that's a very nice thought, but nobody else can take care of me like Daddy does. And you'll both sleep better in your own beds."

"Will you tuck us in?" Andrea asked.

"Mommy always tucks us in when Daddy's not home," Shawn said, an oddly mature expression on her face. "Somebody’s gotta do it, right?"

"Of course I'll tuck you in," Lynn assured Andrea. "I did it once already tonight, remember? Let's go."

"Do we hafta say our prayers again?" Shawn asked.

Lynn licked her lips and considered. She'd heard the girls' prayers once already that evening, and she was pretty tired. "Why don't you just say them to yourselves?" she suggested. "I think that would be okay."

That suggestion met with the girls' approval, and all three walked down the hall to the large bedroom the girls shared, with Callahan yawning along behind them. Lynn tucked the girls in, hugging and kissing each one, then made sure the nightlight was on. She left the door to their room halfway open so she could hear them if they needed her during the night. Crossing the hall, she checked on two-and-a-half year old Michael, found him -- thankfully -- sound asleep, and snoring softly, to boot, then padded back to the master bedroom.

Halfway down the hall, she convulsed in silent laughter. Fairy princesses and handsome knights, indeed! She couldn't wait until Chip got home so she could drop this one on him. He'd never live this one down!


Hit Counter