Originally published in Below the Surface 5, 1992

Tell Me a Story

 

January, 1988

 

Kneeling beside the bathtub, Lynn Morton wearily lifted her two-year-old son Michael from the bathtub and held him up to her husband, who stood next to her holding a big fluffy towel, ready to dry the little boy. "And thatís the last one, thank the dear sweet Lord," she said.

"Come here, Sport," Chip Morton said to his son, reaching down to take him from Lynn..

"Da!" Michael yelled, lunging at him. Then he chortled, throwing his wet little arms around his fatherís neck in an enthusiastic, if somewhat damp, hug. "Ďnother bath?" he asked, looking over Chipís shoulder and back down at the draining tub.

"Not tonight, Sport," Chip said, rubbing one end of the towel on his sonís light blonde hair. "Tomorrow." He turned to Lynn. "Heís as big a water rat as you are."

"Itís genetic," Lynn said, rising from her position on the bathmat and moving to sit on the towel hamper. She leaned back against the cool of the tile wall, marveling once again at the incredible resemblance between father and son. Little Michael was the image of his father, from his mischievous bright blue eyes and blond hair right down to his chipmunk cheeks, as she so fondly termed them. Chipís heart-stopping smile was still an engaging little-boy grin in Michael, and would be for quite some time yet, but she knew her son would leave a trail of broken hearts behind him when he was older. Mothers, hide your daughters, she thought.

From her perch on the hamper, Lynn favored her husband and son with a weary smile. She didnít know what had hit her -- her entire body ached, she was ready to drop, but not even bathing three small children one right after the other should have made her feel like that. Bathtime was usually fun for all of them. "All of a sudden, I donít feel so hot," she said.

Chip stopped drying Mikeyís hair and looked at Lynn closely. Her face was flushed, her eyes glassy. He frowned; she hadnít looked like that at supper. Easily shifting the laughing Michael to one side, he reached out and touched her cheek with the back of his hand. She felt warm, too. "I think youíre running a fever. Youíre probably coming down with something."

"But I never get sick," she complained.

"You look sick to me," Chip said. "I think you just ruined your perfect record,"

"Chip, Iím as healthy as a horse," she persisted. Then she sneezed three times in rapid succession. Sniffling, she shot Chip her own version of his Ďshut up nowí look.

He ignored it. "Lynn, even horses get sick from time to time," he reminded her gently. "You probably picked it up from one of the kids. Theyíre always giving me colds."

"Oh, terrific. Just what I need," she said, rubbing her eyes. "Weíre too busy at the Institute -- Iíve got three reports due, Seaviewís new dolphins to evaluate.... I canít get sick now."

"I donít think you have any choice," Chip said dryly, and rubbed her shoulder in a circular motion. "Go on in and lie down. Iíll finish putting Mikey to bed and then Iíll get the girls settled."

"I think Iíll take you up on that." Lynn gave him a tired smile. "The gallant knight in shining armor comes to the rescue."

Chip raised an eyebrow. "I thought you didnít need a knight in shining armor to come to your rescue," he said dryly.

"I never thought I needed one," Lynn answered. "But I just changed my mind -- and you fit the image so well." She rose and stretched out the kinks in her back.

Chip kissed her cheek. "Hey, what can I say? Iím wonderful."

"It must be tough being perfect," Lynn called over her shoulder as she left the bathroom.

"Go to sleep," Chip called after her.

Michael, already tired and half-asleep after his bath, was no problem to put to bed. Chip diapered him, then dressed him in his Spiderman pajamas. Michael was asleep as soon as his little head touched the pillow. "Sleep tight, Sport," he whispered and kissed his sonís forehead. "Love you."

The girls, however, were another story. Theyíd had their baths earlier, and were already in their pajamas, playing quietly in their room waiting for him and Lynn to come in and say goodnight.

"Bedtime, girls. Time to hit the rack."

"Whereís Mommy?" Shawn questioned, looking past him into the hall.

"She went to bed," he said, gesturing for the girls to get into their beds.

"Already?" Shawn asked. "Sheís too old to go to bed this early."

"Why?" Andrea asked suspiciously, her blue eyes narrowing.

"Because she doesnít feel very well," Chip said patiently, yet raising an eyebrow at the question. He was used to fielding a barrage of questions from Shawn, but Andrea usually accepted whatever she was told.

"No, Daddy, mommies donít ever get sick," Shawn stated, shaking her head emphatically.

"Who told you that?" Chip asked skeptically.

"Mommy," Shawn said, as if he should have already known such a thing. "She says daddies can get sick, and kids and babies can get sick, but mommies arenít allowed to get sick, so they just donít."

"Well, Mommy was wrong," Chip said, shrugging. "Now, into bed, both of you. Itís getting late."

"Mommyís never wrong," Andrea piped up in defense of Lynn, with a defiance Chip had never heard from the quiet little girl before.

"Well, this time I guess she made a mistake," Chip explained gently. "Thereís always a first time for everything."

"But sheís supposed to put us to bed, too!" complained Shawn. "How can we go to bed if sheís not here?" she demanded, her hands on her hips.

"Youíll have to settle for just me tonight," Chip told them gently. "Okay?"

The two girls looked at each other, then broke to either side of their father and ran down the hall to the master bedroom. Callahan, the familyís German Shepherd, loped along in their wake, his tongue lolling and black tail waving from side to side.

After an initial moment of astonishment, Chip followed, hoping to prevent them from disturbing Lynn. But he was too late. When he reached the master bedroom, Shawn and Andrea were already standing beside the bed, frowning at Lynn, who stared at them in sleepy puzzlement. Rags, her little Jack Russell Terrier, lay snuggled tight against her hip, wagging his stubby little tail in greeting.

"Daddy says youíre sick. Are you really sick, Mommy?" Shawn asked.

"Mommy, dontícha feel good?" Andrea asked.

"Not really," Lynn said, looking at her daughters through bleary eyes. "Arenít you two supposed to be in bed by now?"

"We hadda say goodnight to you first," Shawn informed her seriously.

"We canít go to bed if we donít say goodnight to you," Andrea added, climbing up on the bed next to Lynn, patting her motherís hand to comfort her. "Thatís how it works."

"Yeah. Thatís how it works," Shawn repeated, leaning against the mattress. "Thatís the program."

Lynn looked at Chip, then smiled at the girls. "Okay. I guess youíre right. Well, goodnight. I love you guys."

"Ďnight, Mommy," they chorused.

Chip plucked Andrea from the bed and set her on her feet next to Shawn. "Okay, thatís it. Now letís go to bed and leave Mommy alone. She doesnít feel good, and she needs to go to sleep so she can get better." He took them by their small hands and started to lead them from the room.

But Shawn was not so easily dissuaded. She pulled away from Chip and darted back to the bed. "While weíre here," she asked Lynn, "do you want us to hear your prayers?"

Lynn tried to hide her smile. "I said them already."

"All by yourself?" Shawn sounded shocked.

"All by myself," Lynn confirmed.

Then it was Andreaís turn to pull away from Chip. "But what happens if you forget the words like I do?" she asked, wide-eyed.

"Then I start all over again," Lynn said, biting her lip to hide the grin that wanted to bloom on her face.

"Can you do that?" Shawn asked incredulously.

"I guess so," Lynn said.

Unfortunately, that wasnít the right answer. "Daddy, can Mommy really do that?" Shawn persisted.

Realizing that a definite answer was the only solution, Chip said "Yes," and attempted to shepherd both girls out of the bedroom. "Go to your room and Iíll be right in."

But Shawn still wasnít satisfied. "But we didnít kiss Mommy goodnight," she protested.

"No way," Lynn said firmly, extending one hand in a warding-off gesture and pulling the sheet up to her eyes. "No -- no kisses. I donít want you guys to get sick, too."

"But we hafta kiss you," Andrea said, tears beginning to well up in her big blue eyes. "We do."

"Yeah, Mommy," Shawn put in. "We gotta kiss ya. Thatís the drill."

Chip moved to forestall a minor disaster. "You can blow kisses to Mommy."

That seemed to satisfy the girls, and after blowing a dozen or more kisses apiece to their mother -- Shawnís technique was considerably more dramatic than Andreaís -- they left for their own room.

"Iíll be right in," Chip repeated, then shut the door behind them and sat on the bed next to Lynn. "Iím sorry they woke you," he said pushing her bangs out of her eyes.

"No problem. The whole episode made me feel loved," Lynn said, smiling tiredly.

"Didnít you know that already?" he asked gently.

She yawned widely. "Ďscuse me. Sure I knew. But itís always nice to be shown."

"Iíll keep that in mind," he said, kissing her hair.

"Iíll hold you to that," Lynn said and closed her eyes.

Chip laid the back of his hand against Lynnís forehead. "Youíre still pretty warm. Can I bring you anything when Iím done with the girls?"

Lynn opened her eyes and smiled. "Just you. Then again, a glass of juice would be nice. And a coupla aspirin." Her smile took on an impish quality. "And maybe a little bit of a cuddle to go with it," she said, burrowing under the covers until nothing but the top of her head showed. "Or maybe a big cuddle."

"Maybe youíre not as sick as I thought. Iíll be back soon," Chip said, and shut the door behind him.

** ** **

The girls were already waiting patiently in their beds when Chip entered their room. He heard their prayers, prompting Andrea where necessary, then hugged and kissed each one goodnight.

He was halfway to the door when Shawn called out, "But arentícha gonna tell us a story, Daddy?"

"Do you really need one tonight?" he asked, wanting to get back to Lynn in case she wanted something. He hoped that Shawn would say `noí, but somehow he knew that wasnít the answer heíd receive.

The girls didnít disappoint him. "Yes," they chorused as one.

Chip turned back to the beds. "Okay. A quick one, because I have to go take care of Mommy."

"We could take real good care of Mommy for ya. We always do when youíre not here. Want us to come help ya?" Shawn offered.

"You can help by going to sleep when Iím through telling you the story so I only have to worry about Mommy, and not about two little girls being awake long past their bedtime," Chip said, walking across the room to stand beside Shawnís bed. He crossed his arms across his chest and looked down sternly at his oldest child.

The glare didnít work; Lynn had apparently passed her own immunity to it onto their oldest offspring. "Okay," Shawn said agreeably, obviously unfazed by his expression. "What story are you gonna tell us?"

"How about The Three Bears?" Chip suggested.

"Cheese and crackers, Daddy," Shawn complained. "You always tell us stuff like that. That stuff is soooo boring."

"Boring?" Chip repeated. What does a not-quite-six-year-old know about `boringí, he wondered.

"Yeah, boooooring," Shawn asserted. "Canítcha tell us somethiní diffírent?"

"Something different? Like what?" Chip asked.

"I dunno. Mommy always tells us about whales and dolphins and famous racehorses and all sortsa neat stuff like that," Shawn said eagerly. From her bed on the other side of the room, Andrea nodded silent assent.

"Thatís because Mommyís a marine biologist and breeds racehorses. She knows all about whales and dolphins and famous racehorses and neat stuff like that. Itís her job," Chip explained patiently.

"Well, what kinda neat stuff do you know all about in your job, Daddy?" Shawn asked, sitting up in bed and leaning forward. "Thereís gotta be somethiní!"

Electrical and propulsion systems and navigation, he thought, but you canít make a bedtime story out of any of them. As Chip looked into his older daughterís dancing blue eyes, an idea came to him, sparked by Lynnís `knight in shining armorí remark earlier. Every knight needed to have a princess.... What if he turned one of their cruises on Seaview into a story? But which one?

Then inspiration struck. What if he turned the time they had worked to cure the sick bottlenose dolphins of the bacterial infection that was killing them? Lynn had worked magic then -- and had worked it on him right along with the ailing dolphins. He grinned at his daughters. "How would you like to hear a story about a magical princess?"

"Yeah!" Shawn said excitedly.

"Was she beautiful?" Andrea asked shyly.

"Of course she was beautiful, Andy," Shawn said confidently.

"Hey, this is my story," Chip said, stifling a laugh. "How do you know she was beautiful?"

"All magical princesses are beautiful, Daddy," Shawn replied. "Everybody knows that."

"Oh," Chip said, nodding sagely. "Thatís right. I forgot. But this one was especially beautiful," he said, thinking of Lynn, who, he hoped, was now sound asleep down the hall.

"Was she a fairy princess?" Shawn asked.

It would be difficult to call Lynn fairy-like, by any stretch of the imagination, Chip thought, and sheíd probably kill him if he tried, so he hedged. "Well...kind of."

"No, Daddy. You canít be kind of a fairy," Shawn explained patiently. "Either yíare or yíarenít. Thereís nothiní in-between."

Chip regarded his daughter with amusement. There was more of her mother in her than heíd thought. "Then she was a fairy princess, okay?" he said, deciding that discretion sometimes was the better part of valor -- especially against an opponent this determined.

"The Irish kind?" Shawn persisted. " ĎCause theyíre more special than any of the others."

If the shoe fits.... "Definitely the Irish kind," he said. "Now, are you ready to listen?"

"Iíve been listening," Shawn informed him.

"No, Miss, youíve been asking questions," he rebutted.

"Oh. Well, okay, now Iím listening."

"Then get comfortable," Chip said, picking Andrea up and carrying her over to Shawnís bed, where he sat propped up against the headboard, settling Andy in his lap.

Shawn pushed herself up against the headboard, leaned over and hugged him, then giggled.

"Whatís so funny?" Chip asked.

"You are, Daddy," Shawn said, looking up at him. "You always say that when ya tell us a story."

Chip put his free arm around her and tickled her. "And you always tell me I always say that."

"I know," Shawn said in between giggles. "But you do!"

"Are you ready to listen yet?" Chip asked in mock exasperation.

"Iíll be quiet," Shawn promised.

"Finally. Thank God," Chip muttered.

"No, Daddy, youíre síposed to say thank God and little fishies for small favors," Shawn informed him.

"Shawn...." Chip let his voice trail off in warning.

"Shawn, be quiet so Daddy can tell us the story and go take care of Mommy," Andrea scolded with uncharacteristic firmness.

"Okay," Shawn said, chastened. "But Mommy says thank God and little fishies alla time!"

"All right," Chip said, and snuggled the two girls close to him, reveling in their sweet, little-girl smell. "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," he began, imagining what Lynn would have to say if she had heard his choice of introduction, "there was a fairy princess named Princess Ashleen."

"A beautiful fairy princess," corrected Shawn.

Chip sighed. He should have known Shawn wouldnít let that get past her. "Right. A beautiful fairy princess named Princess Ashleen," he conceded. "She lived in an enchanted forest -- ."

"Whatís Ďchanted, Daddy?" Andrea asked.

"It means the forest was magic, Sweetheart," Chip explained.

"Oh," Andrea said, nodding solemnly.

"I knew that," Shawn said proudly.

"Sometimes I think you know everything," Chip said.

"Yeah, Mommy says Ďat, too," Shawn told him, nodding.

"Mommyís right. Now, do you want to hear this story or not?"

"Uh-huh," Shawn said, nodding emphatically, her blond bangs falling into her eyes. Automatically, Chip pushed them aside, and she smiled up at him in thanks.

"All right. Now, Princess Ashleen lived in an enchanted forest, and she took care of all the animals who lived there."

"What did she look like?" Shawn asked.

Good question, Chip thought, and pursed his lips. "She had long strawberry blonde hair -- ."

"What color is that?" Andrea wanted to know.

"Itís not red, and itís not blond, but itís in between," Chip said patiently. Sometimes he had to remind himself that Andrea was only two months away from her fifth birthday, not the forty-year-old she occasionally seemed to be.

"Sorta like Mommyís?" Shawn asked.

"Yes," Chip replied. "Sort of like Mommyís. May I continue?"

"Okay," Shawn said agreeably.

"Thank you," Chip said patiently.

"Yíwelcome. What color were her eyes?" Shawn asked.

"They were green," Chip said sternly.

"As green as Mommyís eyes?" Shawn persisted.

"Yes, they were," Chip said, nodding.

"Are you sure?" Shawn sounded doubtful. " ĎCause Mommyís eyes are awful green."

"They were just as green as Mommyís eyes," Chip reiterated.

That answer seemed to satisfy Shawn. "Okay."

"Did she look like Mommy?" Andrea piped up.

"No, silly," Shawn said, before Chip could answer. "Mommy doesnít have long hair. Itís that same not-red and not-blonde color, but itís not long."

"Oh. Yeah. Okay," Andrea said, as agreeable as usual.

Chip looked from one daughter to another. "Are you two through?" The girls both nodded. "Good. For your information, she looked a lot like Mommy."

"She did?" Andrea asked.

"Except that her hair was long," Shawn put in.

"Yeah, Mommyís hair is short," Andrea nodded.

"And curly," Shawn reminded her. "Was the Princesseses hair curly too, Daddy?"

Chip bit the insides of his cheeks to keep from laughing. He was sorry Lynn was already in bed. She would have loved seeing him at the mercy of their two little girls. Too late, he thought of the cassette recorder on the bookcase. It was only a toy, but it would have done the job. Next time, he promised himself.

"Was it, Daddy?" Shawn persisted.

"Was it what?" Chip asked, restraining his laughter with some difficulty.

"Was it curly?" Shawn asked impatiently.

"Yes, it was. It was long and curly."

"Oh. Was it curly because she had a pernament like Mommy?"

Chipís laughter threatened to choke him. When he was able to speak, he looked at Shawn seriously. "No. It was naturally curly."

"Oh. Thatís nice. Itís a lot easier, too. "Ďmember when you took us to the place where Mommy gets her hair done and Mommy had her hair up in those things and that stuff they put on her hair stunk?"

"Yeeeessss," Chip replied slowly.

"Mommy really hates the way that stuff makes her hair smell," Shawn confided.

"I know," Chip told her.

"Do you like the way it smells, Daddy?" Shawn asked.

"Not particularly," he said dryly. It smelled like a combination of ammonia and rotten eggs, and he had no idea how Lynn could tolerate it once, let alone every few months.

"Me neither," Shawn said. "It makes me cry, even when Iím not sad. Okay -- you can go on with the story now," she pronounced.

"Can I? Now I canít remember where I was before we got off on a tangent," Chip grumbled.

"Whatís a tangent?" Shawn asked.

Faced with yet another definition, Chip groaned inwardly.

Andrea came to his rescue. "Princess Ashleen was takiní care of the animals," she put in helpfully.

"How come?" Shawn asked, momentarily diverted.

"Because they couldnít take care of themselves," Chip explained.

"That makes sense," Shawn agreed. "Mommy has to take care of Callahan and Rags and all her dolphins at the Institute Ďcause they canít take care of themselves, so I guess the Princess would hafta do the same thing."

"Iím glad you agree," Chip said, hiding another smile. "Now, can we get back to the story?"

"Sure," Shawn said, snuggling against him.

"One day the animals started to get sick, and the princess didnít know why. Then along came a handsome knight -- ."

"What was his name?" Andrea asked.

"His name? Um...Sir Christopher," he said nonchalantly, gambling that his daughters wouldnít recognize his given name any more than theyíd recognized that of their mother earlier.

"Thatís a nice name," Andrea said softly.

"Yes," Chip agreed. "It is a nice name. Itís like Christine, your middle name."

"And what did he look like, Daddy?" Shawn asked impatiently. "Ya canít leave any of the details out -- Mommy never does."

Chip pursed his lips before answering. "The Princess couldnít tell," he finally replied.

"Why not?" Andrea asked.

"She couldnít see his face because he had his helmet on," Chip said, sighing. At this rate, he might be done by midnight.

"Why?" Shawn asked.

Well, if he was going to turn Lynn into a princess and himself into a brave knight, he might as well go all the way and turn the Flying Sub into something else, too. "Because he was riding his flying horse," Chip replied. A little exaggeration never hurt.

Shawn looked at him with all the disgust a not-quite-six-year-old could muster. "Daddy. Horses donít fly."

"This one could," Chip said, amazed at the way a childís frank disbelief could burst your balloon.

"Why?"

" ĎCause he was Ďchanted too, right, Daddy?" Andrea asked.

Chip gently tucked an errant strand of light blond hair behind one ear. Sweet little Andy to the rescue, he thought. "Right. He was enchanted too. So the handsome knight -- ."

"If he had his helmet on, how díya know he was handsome?" Shawn asked.

This one was born to be a trial lawyer, Chip thought. "The princess was beautiful, so the knight had to be handsome. Thatís one of the rules."

"What rules?"

Chip closed his eyes briefly. "All fairy tales have rules."

"Oh," Shawn said, considering his answer.

"Any more questions? Can I go on now?" Chip asked.

"Sure," Shawn said agreeably.

"Thank you. So the handsome knight took the princess on his flying horse -- ."

"Did he have wings?" Andrea asked.

Chip thought for a moment. The Flying Sub didnít, so.... "No."

"How could he fly if he didnít have wings?" Shawn asked suspiciously.

" ĎCause he was Ďchanted, Shawn," Andrea put in. "Right, Daddy?"

"Right, Andy. Because he was Ďchanted," Chip agreed.

"Oh. I guess that makes sense," Shawn said, though she sounded doubtful.

"Yes, I guess it does," Chip told her.

"What color was he?" Shawn asked.

Chip groaned in frustration. "What color was who, Shawn?"

"The horse," Shawn said, shaking her head.

"He was white, Shawn." Okay, so FS-1 was yellow, but an enchanted horse had to be white, didnít it?

"With a big long mane and tail?" Shawn persisted.

"Exactly," Chip confirmed.

"What color were they?"

Chip took a deep breath. "They were white, too."

"Oh. Okay." She nodded approval. "That sounds good."

"Iím glad you think so. So the knight and the princess flew to the most magical part of the forest, and the knight helped the princess with a magic spell that made all the animals well again. And the princess was so happy she kissed the knight -- ."

"On his helmet?" Shawn asked, amazed.

Chip shook his head. "No, he took it off so she could kiss him."

"Then what did he look like?" Shawn demanded.

Chip looked her straight in the eye. "He had blue eyes and blond hair."

"Like us?" Shawn asked in a delighted squeal.

" ĎN Mikey?" Andrea asked, just as delighted, but several decibels lower.

"Just like you and Mikey," Chip confirmed.

" Ďn you too, Daddy," Andrea reminded him, patting his hand.

Chip cleared his throat. "Yes, Andy. Like me, too."

"Then what happened?" Shawn asked.

"Then the princess kissed the knight and she fell in love with him and they lived happily ever after."

"Did they have any kids?" Shawn asked.

Unfortunately, Chip said to himself. To Shawn he said, "Yes, they had half a dozen." Well, it was a fairy taleÖ.

"How many is that?" Andrea asked.

"Six," Chip said, pushing back a lock of her hair that, like Lynnís, kept falling into her eyes.

"Uncle Jack and Aunt Ikey have seven kids," Shawn reminded him.

"More power to them," Chip said dryly. He had his hands full with three!

"Huh?" Shawn asked.

Chip shook his head. "Never mind. How did you like the story?"

Shawn nodded her approval. "That was a good one. Lots better than those silly old Three Bears. They do the same thing every time you tell us that story."

"Yeah," Andrea said softly. "Lots better."

"Good. Iím glad you both liked it. And now itís bedtime. Scoot down," he said to Shawn.

"One more hug and a kiss, Daddy," Shawn insisted, and Chip was more than happy to oblige. Then he carried Andrea to her bed, receiving another hug and kiss in return.

"Now, go to sleep," he admonished them gently, and left to get Lynn the juice he had promised her earlier, wondering if sheíd be interested in a bedtime story, too.

 

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