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Beth and I played rock-paper-scissors to see which of us would have to take the Christmas stocking in to our daughter Lisa's room this year. As usual, Beth was paper, and I was rock. Dang! We knew each other well after twelve years of marriage, yet I always expected Beth to choose something new, so I stuck to the same strategy, and always lost.

Beth put a big candy cane into the red stocking and handed me the bulky thing. “Good luck, Will.” She kissed me. She grabbed the green stocking, the one we'd put together for nine-year-old Tim.

Tim was our easy child.

I glanced around the master bedroom, which, on normal days, was a clash of Beth's and my versions of clutter amidst white-and-green bamboo print wallpaper. Tonight's clutter was clutter on top of clutter. Wrapping paper, ribbon, tape, and wrapped gifts lay scattered across the bed. The closet door gaped: there were still a few gifts on the upper shelves to wrap, but we needed a break.

I suspected Lisa had been in our room in the weeks leading up to Christmas, snooping through the closet, and nothing we had gotten her would surprise her. Had she wrecked Christmas for Tim? Had she told him what she had found? I considered. Lisa was in one of her hate-Tim phases. Was she Machiavellian enough to know that she could spoil Christmas by telling Tim about the bike, or was she petty enough to enjoy knowing without telling? I prayed for petty.

“Don't forget the costume,” Beth said.

I wasn't fat enough to make a good Santa, and neither was Beth. We had an elf outfit that would fit either of us, though the red velvet pants only came down to my knees.

We'd had a theological argument about whether elves ever went on the sleigh to help Santa. Canon said No. Convenience and sense of being less ridiculous dressed as an elf than dressed as Santa said maybe. Beth had insisted we buy the costume after Halloween when there were tons of costumes for sale at half price, because last year, when I chose rock and had to take the stocking into Lisa's room, I had gone as myself, and Lisa had been awake. I hid the stocking behind my back before she saw it, and escaped by convincing her I was sleepwalking to the bathroom. Then I waited outside her door for two more hours, and finally went in while she slept. I spent Christmas in a state of unpleasant exhaustion, even though the kids were happy.

But Lisa was ten now, a whole year more sophisticated than she had been last year, and a year more powerful. The costume, Beth's brainstorm, was supposed to protect me from discovery; if Lisa saw me and thought “Santa's Helper,” so what? I could place the stocking and get out, leaving us enough time to finish wrapping the presents and decorating the tree.

That was the plan, anyway.

I changed into the red velvet pants, pulled up red-and-white striped stockings, put on curl-toed slippers with bells at the toes, and donned the red velvet doublet. I finished up with the fur-trimmed red velvet cap with a white furry ball at the dangling end, which dropped halfway to my waist. I felt almost as stupid as I had in my sixth grade play, when I had to dress up as broccoli and deliver doggerel about the benefits of vegetables in a healthy diet.

“Come on, honey. Sit here. There's more to do.” Beth made me sit at her vanity table. She got out spirit gum and a black beard and mustache. She smiled fiendishly while she stuck fake hair to my face. “You're devilishly cute,” she said. “I'd kiss you, but I don't want to end up with the mustache.”

I glanced in the mirror and saw a me I didn't recognize. “Ho, ho,” I said. My voice lacked Santa authority; I was too unnerved by my transformation. I hadn't realized I could change so much without Lisa having anything to do with it.

“It ought to confuse her, anyway,” said Beth. She kissed my cheek, while I tried not to scratch my face; the spirit gum made my upper lip itch.

I stood. “Okay, let's get this over with so we can get at least four hours' sleep.”

Beth saluted and grabbed Tim's stocking. We left the master bedroom and headed our separate ways.

Lisa's room was toward the front of the house, a mistake whose magnitude we had only lately come to recognize. She looked out her window a lot, and if she saw things she didn't like, or saw things she liked too well, well. . . . It would have been safer if she had Tim's room, which looked out over the back yard, a region that belonged to us—but she was stubborn. She liked her room and didn't want to change it.

The bells on my toes were ringing. It irritated me. I had hoped Lisa would be asleep when I got there, a vain hope, I knew, but still a tiny hope. She was a light sleeper. The bells would wake her up for sure.

I eased her door open anyway, as if I were really a sneaky Christmas Elf. I crept across the carpet toward her bed, jingling softly. I hoped she hadn't redecorated the room since the afternoon; I didn't want to trip over anything. When she'd gone through her swamp phase, Tim had actually been bitten by a poisonous snake in here.

It was close to Christmas; Lisa had been acting Good for more than a week, a relief to everyone. If she'd changed her room around, it should still be friendly.

The bedside light snapped on. Lisa was sitting up, blankets bunched in both fists under her chin. She stared at me.

My daughter had the loveliest soft dark hair; it clouded around her head like glory. Her face was oval, her cheeks rosy, her dark eyes wide and brilliant. She sucked on her lower lip.

As my eyes adjusted to the onslaught of light, the first thing I felt was a rush of love for my daughter. The fear took a couple seconds to kick in.

“Wow,” she said. “Wow! You—”

Her shifter power flooded through me. For the first time I realized what a dumb idea the costume had been.

“You're an elf!” cried my daughter.

Why did they call them elves when they were obviously dwarves? I wondered, as I dwindled down to the height of a five-year-old child. My ears pulled up into points, and my muscles bunched and tightened as my arms and legs and torso contracted. The outfit shrank with me. The beard and mustache rooted into my face, and my hair, usually short, sprouted into dark curls that tumbled down around my now-compacted shoulders.

The good thing about the change was that it was almost painless. Some previous shifts Lisa had put on me hurt. One or two of them were even life-threatening, but that turned out to be a good thing, though I didn't think so at the time. My being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance had convinced Lisa not to throw her power around carelessly.

“Yes,” I said. My voice sounded different, deep and gruff. Dwarf, I thought. An elf's voice should sound like singing. Oh, well; my daughter and I were fishing different myth streams. I would find out firsthand what she thought of elves now.

My new shape didn't hurt, but there were warm spots in my chest and forehead I didn't understand. Was I going to sprout horns? My costume was now spangled with small gold balls. Were they real gold? Why did my tongue taste peppermint?

Something flowed into me, something warm and strong and scary. It flowed into the spots on my chest and forehead, then spread through me, rushing out to the tips of my fingers and toes, crackling like static in my new wealth of hair. Some of it flowed out of my hands and into the stocking I held. The bumps in the stocking shifted, some shrinking, some expanding. I remembered what Beth and I had put inside it, but I was pretty sure that wasn't what was in it now. This was the shiftiest shift Lisa had ever cast on me. “Yes,” I repeated in my new voice. “I'm an elf. What are you doing awake, little girl? You're supposed to be asleep.”

“I wanted to see magic,” she said in a half-swallowed voice.

“Christmas magic happens while you're sleeping,” I said. My voice reminded me of frog croaks.

A tear trickled down one of Lisa's flushed cheeks. “I know,” she said. “The magic other people believe in happens while they're sleeping. I'm the only one magic happens to while I'm awake. I just thought. . . .”

“All right, all right. Now you've seen me.” I walked to her bed and set the stocking down on the foot. Something moved inside the red velvet, squirmed toward the opening; the stocking looked longer, more ornate, with a gold-embroidered star on it; the white fur around the opening looked like rabbit fur. “You take a peek in here.” I patted the squirming part of the stocking, wondering what kind of food we'd need to get for it. It had better be able to eat human food for at least a day. The pet stores would be closed on Christmas. “Take care of what needs care, but then close your eyes and settle down till morning. It'll take me a little while to prepare the rest of your Christmas, now that you've delayed me.”

“I'm sorry, Mr. Elf.” She sniffled.

“It's all right, honey.” I patted her hand. “Oh, one more thing. You be nice to Tim today.”

She nodded.

Jingling, I left the room. The door closed silently behind me before I had a chance to pull it shut, and my hands prickled.

The upstairs hall was lit by a nightlight so the kids could see their way to the bathroom, or sleep with their doors ajar for comfort. In that dim light, I stared at my new hands. Squat and sturdy and strange, different from the long-fingered hands I used to play guitar. Something prickled under the skin. I rubbed my hands together, trying to ease the itch. When I pulled them apart, sparkling flecks of light flew out, red and green, blue and lavender, danced in the air, then flattened in glowing snowflake patterns on the wall.

“Will?” Beth murmured. She stood just outside of Tim's room. “What?”

I strode toward her. My head was waist height to her now. I grabbed her hand—so big!—and pulled her into our bedroom.

She dropped to her knees on the carpet by our bed, so our heads were level. “Oh, Will, I didn't know—”

“It's all right.” I shrugged. “She wanted to see an elf, and the costume clinched it.”

“What were those lights that came from your hands?”

“Good question.” I looked at the chaos of our room, mid-wrap, and the heat in my chest burned hotter. “I'm a Christmas elf,” I said. I pressed my new, short hand against my chest. The warmth still flowed into me, moved up my arms and buzzed in my fingers. “So I might as well use what she gave me—” I gestured, and the other presents wrapped themselves in paper we hadn't had before. Bows in red and gold foil frothed up from the tops of gifts. Things flew out of the closet and wrapped themselves before I could see what they were. Small, already wrapped gifts appeared out of the air. The presents stacked themselves on the bed, a lovely pile of loot. Brightly colored cards fluttered from nowhere to land like paper butterflies on the gifts.

Beth knelt beside me, her eyes wide. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, no. Oh, wow.”

“Now the tree.”

She followed me downstairs. While I poured warmth toward the tree and watched the energy manifest as spun glass ornaments, filigrees of tinsel, gilded nuts, giant iridescent bubbles, Beth wandered into the kitchen. She came back with two mugs of cocoa with marshmallows; I could tell by the smell.

“Wow,” she said.

I gestured, and the presents we had wrapped upstairs flocked down through the air and stacked themselves around the base of the tree.

I flicked a finger at the tree lights, and on they went, a blinking multitude of colors that sparkled through the clear ornaments and glittered reflections off the opaque ones.

I could get used to this, being able to remote-control everything by lifting a finger. I had had really good dreams like this.

I looked at my wife. She stood there with steaming mugs, her expression a mixture of pole-axed and irritated.

“What?” I said.

“I thought we were going to put the family ornaments on the tree. Together.” She turned and sat on the couch facing the tree.

I went to the couch and climbed up next to Beth. She handed me a mug of cocoa. We sipped in silence.

“There's still room for our other ornaments,” I said. I felt an edge of an ache in my chest that had nothing to do with Christmas elf magic. Beth was right. Our Christmas Eve preparations were something we had shared with each other since before the kids were born.

“Oh, come on. It's perfect. You don't want to add old junk to something that's perfect.”

“Beth.” I put my hand on her thigh. Warmth pooled under my palm. She was a big, solid presence beside me; she smelled like lilies and gingerbread, and she looked like the woman I had loved all my life, even before I met her.

Beth set down her mug and put her hand over mine on her leg. She leaned over. Her mouth tasted like cocoa.

Something passed between us, flavored with desperation and excitement. We went upstairs to bed.

Tim woke us in the morning by pounding on the locked door. “Hey!” he called through the wood. “It's Christmas! Come on!”

Beth's blonde head was resting on my chest, her arm across me. Her brow furrowed, and she snorted. I raised my hand to stroke her hair and saw I'd gotten my guitar-playing fingers back.

Lisa's shifts could last an hour, a day, a week, or forever. I was glad this one had been short.

“Will?” Beth mumbled.

I sat up, gripping her shoulders so she wouldn't fall. “We'll be right there,” I yelled to Tim, “after we shower and dress.”

“Do it later!” he yelled back. “Santa came! We have to see what's here!”

“We sure do,” Beth muttered to me. “Do you even know?”

“Lisa has a new pet. I don't know what kind.”

“A new pet?” Beth frowned as I handed her a robe. “We decided against that six times, didn't we?”

“You and I did, but the elf—”

“Oh, come on, Will. That was you.”

“Not entirely.” As I spoke, I knew I was being ridiculous. Who else could the elf have been?

The contents of Lisa's stocking had changed in my stubby hands before I knew what I was capable of doing. Something had made decisions about what I was giving Lisa, and it hadn't felt like I was the one in charge.

Once, Lisa had changed me into Say Yes Dad. Whatever she asked me, I said yes. Yes, I would take her to the ice cream parlor and watch, smiling, as she ate the biggest sundae on the menu. Yes, I would buy her that expensive doll with huge wardrobe and dream house she'd been lusting after for two months. Yes, I would sit on the floor with her and play dolls. Thank goodness Beth came home before I said Yes to anything worse. Beth had talked Lisa into turning me back into myself.

One of Lisa's rules was that she could only experiment on one parent at a time, and she had to obey the other parent. When she'd started shifting us, about the time she was four, and we couldn't stop it from happening, we'd drummed that rule into her. She was going to break it, probably someday soon. The teen years were coming. All we knew how to do in advance was lay a groundwork of love, discipline, and hope.

While I was Say Yes Dad, I hadn't realized I was someone other than myself. Every Yes I said felt like the right choice. Maybe the elf had had elements of some Not-Will person in him. He had known how to do magical things, something with which I had no experience.

What could we do now but go forward? “I'm sorry, Beth. Lisa has a new pet.” I shook my head and tied the belt of my robe.

Beth brushed her hair and sighed. “All right. Somehow we'll make it all right. We always have so far.”

“An elf came last night,” Lisa told us when we opened the bedroom door. Tim was already racing for the stairs.

“Really?” Beth asked.

“Really and truly. He brought my stocking. Look, Mom. He gave me a kitten.”

“A kitten,” Beth said. She glanced at me, her eyes narrowed.

“It's just what I always wanted,” said Lisa.

The kitten was adorable, in a big-pawed, lavender-eyed, lilac-furred way, with darker points at nose, ears, and tail, like a designer version of a Siamese. Lavender eyes? Lilac fur? It rode Lisa's shoulder, and its eyes looked too intelligent. “His name's Singer,” Lisa said. The kitten let out a musical meow.

“Lisa, you know you're not supposed to shift animals,” Beth said.

“I didn't shift him, Mom, honest I didn't. This is what he looked like when he came out of my Christmas stocking. I know I'm not allowed to shift living things without permission.”

I hooked my arm around Beth's neck, drew her close so I could whisper in her ear, “We did put a stuffed animal in the stocking, and it was those colors.” Like a fool, I had thought maybe a plush animal would satisfy Lisa's eternal hunger for a kitten. In a way it had.

“Damned elf,” muttered Beth.

I let her go and squatted in front of Lisa. “Well, Merry Christmas, honey. Hello, Singer. Welcome to our house.” I held out my hand, and the kitten deigned to sniff it. He meowed a musical question and pressed his paw on my hand.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don't speak song.” I looked at Lisa, who shook her head.

“Mrrp,” said Singer.

“Mom! Dad! Lisa!” Tim yelled from downstairs. “If you don't get down here right now, I'm going to open something without waiting for you!”

Beth hurried toward the stairs. I straightened. Lisa tugged me back down.

“Singer's the best present in the world,” she whispered. “I don't care what else I get. I'm already happy, Daddy.”

I lifted her in my arms, even though she was too big for that. I prayed I wouldn't throw my back out. She put her arms around my neck; Singer clung to both of us without breaking the skin, and I managed to walk downstairs carrying all three of us without tripping. I wanted to stretch any sweet moments Lisa offered as long as I could.

“Come on, Dad,” Tim said. He jumped up and down by the tree. “Look at it! Look at it!”

I set Lisa down and sat on the couch beside Beth to stare at the tree. Had the ornaments lasted after I lost my power? They had. Beth and I had never gotten around to putting up the family ornaments. The tree was beautiful, almost unearthly—and unhinged from tradition. I took Beth's hand, and she squeezed mine.

“Oh, Daddy,” Lisa whispered.

I swallowed. “Who wants to play Santa?”

“I'll do it!” Tim cried. That surprised me. Whoever played Santa had to hand a gift to everybody before he got to open his first one. We did the present opening in cycles. One gift for everybody, a wild ripping of wrapping paper, and everybody got to admire each other's gifts before we moved on to the next round. Tim had always been too impatient to play Santa.

Tim handed Beth a medium-sized present, me a small present I didn't recognize, and Lisa a medium present before rushing to the bike, which he had obviously scouted before he came upstairs to wake us. “Ready?” he cried. He tore paper before anyone else got a chance to answer. In seconds the green ten-speed stood revealed. “Oh, boy!” Tim cried. “Oh, boy! Oh, boy! I want to try it now!”

“Tim, calm down. You're not the only one who got a present,” said Beth.

Tim hugged his bike, then turned to see what we had gotten. Beth held up a glazed clay handprint Tim had made her at school. I showed off my new red and purple tie from Lisa. Lisa held up a book by one of her favorite authors; I couldn't remember if Beth or I had gotten it for her. We all thanked each other and Santa. Singer watched from Lisa's shoulder.

“Next round,” Beth said. Tim gave his bike another hug, then distributed more presents.

We had bought the kids more presents than we got for each other, so the distribution network broke down before the end of the present opening. Tim gave Beth and me small unfamiliar gifts wrapped in cellophane last, before he and Lisa plunged into an orgy of what-else-is-there.

Lisa's big present was art supplies—tubes of acrylic paint in many colors, with special emphasis on reds, oranges, and earth tones, her favorites; brushes with tips from broad to narrow; a palette, a fancy paint box with compartments for everything, and some pre-stretched canvases.

Beth and I had debated about the paints. Lisa had done some paintings at school with poster paint, and we both thought they were promising, but there was no guarantee she wanted to do more. Was she happy with the gift? I didn't know. We had given her a bike last year. There was no way for us to give the kids equal gifts, their interests were so different. Was she going to be mad that Tim got something more spectacular than she had this year? If she got mad, how would that manifest?

I saw Singer on Lisa's shoulder, remembered she had said that Singer was a good enough gift. She looked happy. Tim was still in bike heaven.

My final present had a note on it, one of the butterfly cards, and it was wrapped in red cellophane that crinkled as I untied the golden bow.

“Read the card, Will,” Beth murmured.

I did. It said: “Don't try one until you're alone.” It was signed ELF. Inside was a round brown tin the size of my palm with a red spot on the lid. I touched the spot. It felt hot. The lid popped up. An array of small ruby hard candies lay inside, glowing with light of their own. I lifted the box to sniff and smelled cinnamon and peppermint. A blue snowflake drifted out of the box and melted on my chest, and for a second I felt the return of elf energy. I closed the tin and tucked it in my pocket.

“Oh, boy!” Tim cried. He waved the card from a small gift wrapped in blue cellophane. “It's a spell, Dad! My first spell.” He ripped off the cellophane, opened a jewelry box, took a silver ring out, slipped it onto his left middle finger. He held up his left hand, middle finger extended. The ring gleamed. “It's called Turnback. Just try anything on me now, Lisa. Just you try.”

“What? I'm not allowed to shift you, Tim.”

“Like that ever stops you. Come on. Turn me into a dog.”

Lisa glanced at me. “Daddy?”

I looked at Beth.

“Turnback? A spell?” Beth asked.

I shrugged. “News to me.”

“Special permission, Lisa,” Beth said. “One small, short-term shift that doesn't hurt.”

Lisa's smile was blinding. She set Singer on the couch, rubbed her hands, and sent shifter energy at Tim.

His new ring flared with blue light. He laughed as Lisa dwindled down into a chihuahua. Singer darted up the back of the couch, lavender eyes glowing as he watched the small dog. Lisa barked and raced around, trapping herself in wrapping paper. Her barks rose in pitch and frequency. She was scaring herself.

I lunged forward and caught her. “Hey, honey.” I sat on the couch, cradling her in my arms. Her trembling rocked me. After a minute or two it slowed. She looked up at me with large black eyes and licked my nose.

“It works. It so works!” Tim cried. He hugged himself, then ran around the room flapping his elbows like chicken wings and crowing. “I am so gonna celebrate!”

Lisa shifted from dog to herself on my lap. I still had my arms around her. She sat with her back to my front, watching Tim. “Daddy,” she whispered. She turned her head so I could see her profile.

“It will change things,” I said, “but maybe that's better.” We worked hard to keep her from mistreating Tim, but we couldn't watch them all the time. Something in her seemed to restrain her from doing things that would really hurt him; she had been fascinated by him when they were both babies, before her powers manifested, and perhaps that affection had transformed into a guardian mindset. Beth and I hoped so, anyway. We knew Tim's life was haunted by strange changes coming over him at odd times, and we weren't sure how to take care of him. We picked up the pieces after every shift we knew about and tried to sort them out. There weren't any manuals for this that we could find. Tim had friends, and spent a lot of time with them instead of Lisa. He was boisterous and happy most of the time. He seemed well adjusted, but who could tell?

The ring would definitely change the way he and Lisa related.

Lisa sighed. She had two friends of her own, but the need for secrecy about her skills meant she held a large part of herself back from her friendships. Tim was the one person close to her age who knew everything. She depended on him more than she knew.

Tim, crowing, raced up to us and waved his beringed finger in Lisa's face, then ran away again. I wished he'd put the ring on a different finger, but for all I knew, there were instructions included in the note that specified the middle finger; we'd probably have to apologize for him in public until we got him tamed down. “Mom, can I have some cookies?” Tim yelled.

“Not until you've had a normal breakfast,” Beth said. “You're hyper enough as it is.” She held a small yellow jewelry box in her hand, the orange cellophane it had been wrapped in folded neatly on her lap. She tucked the box in her bathrobe's pocket. Curiosity bit me. What had the elf given Beth for Christmas? For that matter, what had he given me? I guessed I'd have to wait to find out. Christmas morning was kids' time; parents would have the afternoon, while the kids broke or got tired of their presents.

“It's Christmas,” Tim said. “Today, everything's different. I vote we have cookies for breakfast!”

“I vote we don't,” Beth said. In our household, a grown-up's vote counted twice as much as a child's vote, one of the things Lisa kept trying to adjust before we convinced her to stop that. “Will? Lisa?”

“Cookies,” Lisa said.

“Pancakes,” I said. Everybody liked those, though not as much as cookies. The sugar-free syrup tasted okay and didn't make the kids quite so crazy.

“I change my vote to pancakes,” said Beth.

“Awww,” Tim said. He grabbed the handlebars of his bike, ready to push it outside for a try.

I set Lisa on the couch beside me and stood up. “I'll make the batter. Beth, you watch Tim try the bike, okay?”

“Can Singer go outside?” Lisa asked.

“Will he stay with you and not run away?”

Lisa reached up to the back of the couch, where Singer crouched. She stroked the kitten's head. “Will you stay with me? Not be a wild thing?”

Singer meowed a short snatch of melody. Lisa looked at me, and I shrugged. “I bet he'll be a wild thing no matter what. Just ask him to stay. I wish I knew what he eats. I hope we've got something we can feed him.”

“Daddy, can I do a special-permission shift again?”

“What kind?” I asked. Beth, who was holding the front door open for Tim and his bike, paused before following him outside.

“I want to understand Singer.”

I checked with Beth, who nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Let's give it a shot. Don't make it permanent until you know you like it, though; maybe he's saying things you don't want to know. What if he's not really communicating at all? Put a provision in about not forcing you to understand if there's nothing there.” Mental shifts were even trickier than physical ones; unexpected side effects abounded.

“Okay.” Lisa sat with Singer in her lap, closed her eyes, frowned. She cocked her head. The furrow between her brows deepened, and then prickles of shifter energy needled my face and scalp.

“Hey!” I said.

Lisa opened her eyes. She rubbed her forehead and frowned.

“Did it work?” asked Singer.

Lisa and I stared at each other. We both nodded.

Beth said, “What did you do? Lisa, did you shift your father?”

“Yes,” Lisa said in a small voice.

“What have we told you?”

“No shifting other people without asking. He said, ‘let's give it a shot.'”

“Lisa. You know he didn't mean it that way.”

“I know,” Lisa whispered.

“One hour of alone time,” Beth said, “but you don't have to pay until tomorrow.” She went outside, letting the door slam behind her.

“What's that about?” Singer asked.

“That's my punishment for shifting Daddy without permission,” Lisa said. “I hate being alone worse than anything.”

“Let's go to the kitchen,” I said.

“Is it okay if I carry you?” Lisa asked Singer.

“Better than okay, gifta,” Singer said. “Let me up on your shoulder. I love your head. It's got woosa around it.”

“What's woosa?” Lisa asked.

“Delicious,” said Singer as we crossed the dining room. I held the kitchen door for Lisa, then followed her in.

“Singer, what are you?” I asked. I got out a bowl, ran water in it, and set it on the floor.

“What am I? You should know.” The kitten blinked both lavender eyes.

Uh-oh. Don't go there. Maybe Lisa knew I had been the elf, and maybe she didn't. She usually knew when she shifted something or someone, though she had occasionally done a shift in her sleep before she got her powers under control. Fortunately, that was before she had the oomph she had now, and the shifts had usually been short-term and minor.

Shifting me into an elf was a big one, but she might have done it in a sleepy state, without noticing. She had really wanted to see an elf. She might have mistaken shifting for longing.

I didn't want to find out what the elf had done to bring the kitten to life, not until Lisa was out of the room.

“But I don't know.” Whatever Singer was, I hoped he could take a hint. “Are you really a kitten?” I asked.

“I have the body for it.” Singer broke into a melodic purr. “Woo!” he said above his own purring, “you should try this. It's like being massaged on the inside.”

I got the feeling Singer wasn't really a kitten.

“What do you eat?” Lisa asked. I got out the Bisquick and a mixing bowl, milk, eggs, the eggbeater.

“I'm not sure,” Singer said. “I think I'd like . . . meat. Any kind of meat.”

Lisa went to the fridge, opened the door. “Daddy, can I give him some turkey?” We'd had a big feast over at my mother's house last night, and Mom sent us home with loads of leftovers. She made a giant turkey and gave us leftovers for almost every holiday, convinced that Beth was a terrible cook and nobody in our family got enough to eat. Beth didn't mind. Much. It was true Mom made excellent turkey, and Beth loved turkey as much as I did.

“Sure. Put some on a plate on the floor. Singer, whatever you are, you're going to have to act like an animal while you're in that body. You're odd enough already to give the neighbors things to talk about.”

“We'll see,” said Singer.

Lisa forked some turkey onto a plate and set it on the floor next to the water bowl. Singer jumped off her shoulder and stuck his nose into the turkey. “Heaven,” he said, and ate.

I whipped up pancake batter and pondered the kitten. I had liked him better before I understood him. Now I didn't know who he was, or whether he was a safe companion for my daughter.

She knelt on the floor next to him and stroked his back, and he purred and ate—for the moment, a perfect picture, if you could get used to a purple kitten.

“If I take you outside, you won't run away, will you?” Lisa asked Singer.

“Are you kidding? Leave you, gifta? Never.” He rubbed his head against her hip, then returned to the turkey.

Beth and Tim came in through the kitchen door, Tim hauling his bike right into the kitchen. I knew I had forgotten something: a bike lock. Well, the bike could live in the robbery-safe garage, but for now, Tim wasn't letting it out of his sight. Should make for an interesting bedtime.

“How'd it go?” I asked. I set the skillet on the stove and turned on a burner.

“This is the greatest bike in the world,” Tim said. “I rode around the block and saw Ricky Davis on his new bike. Mine's much better. These racing stripes. And the Turnback ring. This is the best Christmas ever!”

“Glad you're enjoying it.” I dolloped pancake batter into hot oil in my skillet. “Lisa? How you doing?”

She sat back on her heels and picked up the kitten, hugged him. “Thanks, Daddy. Thanks, Mama. It's my best Christmas, too.”

Beth knelt and kissed Lisa's cheek. Lisa set Singer down and reached up to hug her mother.

I dished up pancakes, and we all ate. Afterward it was time to clean up all the wrapping paper. As the four of us wadded paper, threw the wads toward wastebaskets, and high fived if we scored, I found some purple cellophane near where Lisa had been sitting when she opened her gifts. The kids had already stacked their gifts and carried some up to their rooms. Under the tree, there were only a few presents left—for the grandparents and other relatives. “Lisa? Honey, what came in this wrapping paper?” I asked.

“It's a present I don't understand,” she said. “I thought maybe it was a joke.”

We all stopped cleanup and gathered to look at Lisa's mystery present, which she pulled out of the middle of her stack of books, art supplies, clothes, stuffed animals, and board games. magic kit, it said on the brightly colored tin box. amaze your friends! confound your enemies! A magician in a turban waved a wand on the box top; a rabbit was emerging from a puff of smoke in front of him.

“Wow, is that ever a dumb present for you,” Tim said. “Like you need stupid tricks! Who gave it to you?”

“What did the note say, honey?” Beth asked.

Lisa unstuck the note from the gift and handed it to her. “Use this to build your reputation as a magician,” Beth read aloud. “Signed, Elf.”

“I get it,” I said. “I think I get it. You practice doing tricks from this box, Lisa. They'll look like other magicians' tricks. Everybody knows those are just tricks. You tell people you're studying magic, and show them some tricks, and then if they see you do other things they can't explain—”

“Oh, yeah,” said Beth. “I love that elf!” She beamed.

“I tell people I'm a magician?” Lisa said slowly. “I tell people I'm a magician. But I'm not supposed to tell anybody anything.”

“This would be okay to tell,” I said. We'd had to change Lisa's school several times to cover up mistakes she'd made. These days I drove her six miles across town to Hillside Elementary, where she hadn't messed up yet. She'd only been going there since mid-October. If she decided to be a magician now, maybe she could stay all the way through sixth grade. “You have to teach yourself the tricks the hard way, though. No real magic, just imitation magic.”

“That's weird, Daddy,” she said.

“Can I try?” Tim asked.

“No!” Lisa said. She hugged the box.

“Why not? You don't want it.”

“Yes, I do.” She stared at the floor, her arms tight around the magic kit, then looked up at Tim and relaxed. “Okay. You can try. We'll both learn it.”


She opened the clasp and raised the lid. Inside was a manual with a magician on the cover. She lifted it out. Beneath it was a compartmentalized box with all kinds of tricks—a deck of cards; shell game shells; red and yellow juggling balls; steel rings; a traditional magic wand—black, with a white cap at either end; a bouquet of feather flowers; a collapsing top hat.

I get to try them first. It's my kit,” Lisa said.

“Well, hurry up and try something, so I can try it next,” said Tim.

Beth and I rose, finished cleanup without any more scoring, and retreated to the kitchen.

“What was your elf present?” she asked.

“I don't know,” I said. I showed her the candy tin and note. “What was yours?”

She got out the yellow jewelry box, handed me the note. “This ring's name is Bendshift. Love, Elf.” She opened the box to display a slender silvery band nesting in yellow velvet. She took out the ring and slid it onto her ring finger, where it dropped into place above her wedding ring without being noticeable. “Bendshift,” she said.

“Sounds promising.” If she could bend Lisa's shift power, the way Tim could now turn it back—

We'd spent all of Lisa's life trying to get her to respect other people enough to leave them alone. If she wasn't such a good kid to start with, one of us would probably be dead by now. With the new ring powers, maybe everybody could relax.

“I love that elf,” Beth said again. She gave me a kiss.

“I'm not—it wasn't—I didn't—I don't remember putting these gifts together,” I said.

“Well, I love you more, Will, but I love the elf anyway. This is going to change things for all of us.”

“I wonder if you can bend a shift that's already taken place,” I said.

“Which one? Lisa's been so good today.”

I took Beth's hand and led her to the kitchen table, where we sat facing each other. “I don't know about the kitten, Beth. He's not originally a kitten.”

“She loves him. We can't take away something she loves.” Her eyes looked hollow. We'd had some very difficult fights with Lisa in the past about things she loved that were bad for her. Lisa was better about such things now; she listened instead of throwing tantrums, and we didn't end up in the hospital after the fights. There were other kinds of scars, though.

“Not take him away,” I said. “Understand him. She gave me the power to understand him; I wonder if you could extend that to you.”

She consulted the note from her present, frowned. “It didn't come with instructions. I thought it would work like Tim's, protect me when she was shifting me. Let me see. Where did you feel the shift?”

“Face and the top of my head.”

Beth laid her hands on my face; they felt warm. I smelled Christmas perfume I'd bought her on her wrists, something by Givenchy I'd noticed her trying more than once when we went to the department store. It carried a different kind of warmth, full-bodied and enticing. I wondered how soon we'd be able to get some real time alone. Probably not until after the kids went to bed.

“Oh,” she said. “There's kind of a—” She moved her hands over my face, across my scalp. My skin prickled in the wake of her touch. “—a tingling. Ring, bend this shift so it touches me, too.”

My face and scalp went pins and needles. Beth gasped. She sat back, her hands dropping from my head. Her face turned red; the color faded.

“Are you all right?” I grabbed her hands.

She took a deep breath, let it out, nodded. “That was just—so strange. Will. I did magic. I did magic. Oh, my, god.”

“Let's see if it worked.” We stood together and went back to the living room.

“Alakazam,” Lisa said, and tapped the wand on one of the three yellow shells she had set on a table. “Your penny!” She lifted the shell and showed Tim a penny.

“Hey, how did you do that? It wasn't there a minute ago.”

Lisa laughed and handed him the manual. He studied it, then turned the shell over, discovered the fake inside shell. “What a gyp!”

Singer was curled up on the couch beside Lisa, purring.

“Singer?” I said.

The kitten stretched, rolled over, looked up with half-lidded eyes. “Will?” he said.

“This is Beth.”

“I know.”

I checked with Beth, who nodded, her smile small. “He's kind of snotty,” I told her.

“Oh,” said Singer. “That was a formal introduction? Excuse me.” He stood up and walked over to us, his fluffy tail hooked at the end. Beth stooped and held out a hand, and Singer smelled it. “I don't know why I feel compelled to do that. You smell very nice.”

“Thanks,” said Beth. She stroked his head, and he purred.

“Mom?” Lisa jumped up, scattering plate-sized steel rings and rubber balls. “Can you understand him? I didn't shift you, honest I didn't.”

“I know, honey. I got a spell for Christmas, too. I can bend the shifts now. I bent Daddy's Singer-talk spell to me.”

“Wow. Everybody got magic for Christmas? Wow! Daddy, what did you get?”

“I don't know yet.”

“Everybody can understand the kitten but me?” Tim said. “That's not fair. Lisa, shift me too.”

She looked at us. “May I?”

“You remember what you did last time?” I asked.

“Of course, Daddy.”

I exchanged glances with Beth, something we did a lot of. “Well, Tim gave you permission, and we do too,” Beth said.

Lisa closed her eyes and concentrated, then sent a shift at Tim. His ring flared blue and the shift bounced back, enveloping Lisa, who blinked in confusion.

“Oh, I forgot,” Tim said. He pulled off his ring and set it on the table. “Do it again, Lisa. Please.”

She rubbed her eyes, wrinkled her forehead, and focused again. She sent the shift.

“Ouch,” said Tim. “Oh. Kitty, do you really talk?”

“Sure,” said Singer. “Do you understand me now?”

“Oh. Yeah. Wild. Thanks, Lisa. Hey, can I try a card trick next?”

They started squabbling about things in the magic kit again. Beth nudged me toward the door. “Go try one of your elf presents,” she whispered. “Find out what they do. I'll keep track of the kids.”

I slipped out of the living room and went up to the master bedroom, shut the door, and locked it.

I sat on the bed and opened my tin of Christmas candies. They were small—I counted, and there were thirty of them. Maybe I should save them for emergencies. But heck, if I didn't even know what they did, how would I know which emergencies to use them for?

I took one out and put it in my mouth.

Flavor exploded across my tongue, peppermint, cinnamon, sugar, ozone. Heat wrapped around me. I felt again the flowing inrush of energy, and the contraction of my muscles and bones. My ears pinched and pulled, and my beard and mustache grew. Hair pushed out of my head to tumble in dark curls around my shoulders.

I wasn't wearing the costume this time. My bathrobe didn't shrink; I was lost in its folds by the time the transformation finished. I fought my way free and did what I had been too busy to do the night before. I looked carefully at this alternate self in a mirror.

Stocky. Muscular. Small. My head was big in proportion to the rest of my body; my face looked nothing like the clean-shaven, taller Will. If I didn't know it was me inside, what would I think of this person?

I turned my head, pushed hair aside, revealed my ears. Foxy points. I leaned forward, stared into my eyes. When I was tall Will, my eyes were dark brown; as Elf, I had tawny eyes under heavy brow ridges.

“Why did I give myself this gift?” I asked out loud, my voice gruff.

I felt tides of power shift under my skin. “Remember,” said my new voice.

We had always wondered where Lisa's powers came from, once we got over the shock of their appearance when she was about four. At first Beth and I had not been able to believe what was happening. Stuffed animals and cookies flew to her from across the room. Deal with it. Lock up anything Lisa shouldn't have, and if she shifted one of us through the air toward her, try to land without cracking a shinbone or breaking a finger. The awareness snuck up on us in increments, even as we learned all kinds of defenses. For a couple of years, we only showed her off to the relatives when she was asleep. Daycare was impossible; Beth and I adjusted our jobs so one of us would always be home with her. We didn't put her in school until first grade, and even then, we'd had home school discussions; it might come down to home school if she messed up at Hillside. Beth and I wondered why us, but we never got any answers.

“Remember,” I said again.

I'd seen a face like the elf's before. Old Uncle Darius, a short-statured man, who had lived in the attic of the house where I grew up. He had his own staircase to the outside world, and kept to himself most of the time, but once in a while I climbed up on the roof and he came out too, and we watched the stars together, he smoking some fragrant tobacco in a small pipe. He wasn't a very conversational person. “There's hope for you, young Will,” he told me once, “though the rest of the family has gone water weak.” I never knew what he meant.

Uncle Darius died when I was fifteen; he had grown more taciturn as time went on. Now I couldn't ask him my questions.

My sister Vicki had seventeen volumes of our grandmother's journals from the nineteen twenties and thirties. She liked them because Grandmother had a taste for expensive gilded Florentine leather book bindings. I wondered if there were any family secrets inside. Maybe Grandmother wrote about the family before it went water weak. I didn't think Vicki had ever read them.


I closed my eyes and tapped into the power flowing through me. Help me remember, I thought, and then the answers came.

Not so long ago, powers ran through my family—not as strong as Lisa's, but a little in everyone. Something about the twentieth century had driven them all underground, as though someone had set a mimic curse on us to help us blend with the people around us. I remembered, though I didn't know how, that Beth's great-grandmother was from a different lineage of power, healers or harmers depending on their natures; shifters. Though neither Beth nor I had manifested any powers, they lay latent inside us. Lisa's elf-shift had finally forged a link from her invading power to my own source, opening gates that had been closed all my life.

“Do I have to shrink to use this knowledge?” I asked, and laughed, then realized that being short did put me closer to the source. Once I grew again, my powers would retreat to somewhere I couldn't touch them.

The elf had given me magic candy. How long did one hit last? I had fallen asleep last night before the shift ended, so it might be hours. On the other hand, with the powers I had in this form, I could shift myself back to tall Will right now. I would lose my powers, though.

A knock sounded on the door. “Will?” Beth called.

I was going to ask if she was alone, but my voice had changed. I didn't want the kids seeing me like this. I grabbed the robe and shrank it to fit me with a thought. I put my short-fingered hand against the door and felt outward through the house. The kids were in their rooms, putting away their presents.

I unlocked and opened the door.

“Oh,” she said. She smiled, knelt, and hugged me.

Beth kicked the door shut behind her. “So this is what happens when you eat those candies?”


“Can you give magic presents now?”

“Do you need something?”

“No, I was just wondering.”

“I get the feeling I could whip up a lot of mischief, yes.”

Beth grinned. Then frowned. “Can you explain the cat to me?”

“Where did that cat come from?” I asked myself.

“He's a helpful spirit,” the elf voice answered.

“What?” asked Beth.

“Lisa needs some extra help,” said the elf. “That was everybody's Christmas wish. I brought my friend here—Singer—he's probably laughing about that name—to watch out for her. If Bendshift and Turnback don't work, Singer can help.”

“But who is he?” asked Beth.

I waited for an answer. We both did. Finally I said, “I guess we'll find out by talking to him. Beth, I've got something else to tell you. I was asking myself questions before you got here, and I found a few answers. We both come from magical families. Your great-grandmother was a healer.”

“Sure, Granny Nightshade. She died when I was ten. How did you know about her?”

“I don't know.” I placed my hands on her shoulders, closed my eyes, and looked inside her for the hidden spring of her lineage. Barely a trickle, but there. I primed it with some of the magic I could draw in this form, strengthened it. “Do you feel that?”

“What? Oh. Yes.” She stroked a hand down her front. “What is it, Will?”

“It's your power. I have some, too, but I can't get to it unless I'm in this form. Lisa got her magic from us.”

She placed a palm on my chest. I felt a flow of warmth there that didn't come from me. “Will?” she said, fear and wonder in her voice. “Will?”

This didn't feel like Lisa's shifter power, a rain of pins and needles directed toward whatever part of me Lisa wanted to shift. It was more like a warm bath, being enveloped in pleasure. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I had returned to my large self, the person Beth had married. She stared down at her open palm, then up at me. “Oh, Will,” she said, and hugged me.

Christmas night, Beth and I took turns saying goodnight to the kids. While she was in with Tim, I sat on the edge of Lisa's bed, patting Singer, who, when he wasn't talking, did a passable imitation of a kitten. Lisa's art supplies covered a desk she had made larger to accommodate them. Some of the brushes stood upright in a jar of water, and some colors sat in three-dee oodles on the palette: red, blue, white, purple. She'd started painting on one of the canvases, outlined and half colored in a shape that might be a cat.

“You never told me what your elf gift was,” Lisa said. “Did he give you magic, Daddy?”

“Yeah. Mine's different from Tim's and your mom's—it doesn't work all the time—but it's pretty good.”

She sighed and snuggled deeper under her covers, her smile wide. “Now everybody has magic I can see in the daytime. This is the best Christmas.”

I kissed her cheek.

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