The little girl climbed up into Santa’s lap and carefully smoothed her skirt over her knees.
   “I know you aren’t really Santa Claus,” she whispered into Santa’s ear.
   Lt. James “Mac” MacAlister leaned back and peered down at the girl from under the bushy white eyebrows someone had stuck on over his own sandy brows. This was not an accusation he’d been prepared for when he signed on to do this gig with the Toys for Tots program.
   Mac gave the thin young shoulders a hug and confided, “I’m one of Santa’s elves. Santa Claus can’t be everywhere at once and right now he’s busy at the North Pole. So he sent me to find out what all the good boys and girls wanted him to put on his list.”
  “Is that why your suit doesn’t fit so well?”
  “What gave me away?” He chuckled in his best Santa imitation.
  “You feel like my daddy used to,” she said poking at Mac’s muscular, very unSanta-like belly.
  Mac wondered if her father was a fellow Marine, or perhaps just liked to work out. Either way, she made it sound as if the man was no longer with the family.
  “What would you like Santa to bring you?” he asked, trying to redirect the conversation.
 “I don’t need anything. Not really . . .” she trailed off wistfully. “But my brother wants one of these.” She pulled a tattered page from a toy catalog out of her pocket and spread it out for him to see. It featured a Tonka Dessert Fox SUV.  “He’s still too little, and he doesn’t understand why Daddy can’t come home. And Mommy says Santa Claus isn’t coming to our house this year, either.”
  Tears prickled unexpectedly in Mac’s eyes. He blinked them away and gave the little girl another hug. “Surely there must be something you would like?”
  The girl folded the page from the catalog and pressed it into Mac’s hand. “Just the truck for Sammy. Even Santa Claus can’t bring my daddy back in time for my dance recital, and that’s all I wanted. Except maybe—” she paused, then added in a hurried, hushed little voice, “maybe a new pair of ballet shoes.”
  Mac produced two Tootsie Pops from his voluminous pocket. “One for you and one for your brother. And I’ll be sure that Santa Claus gets your message, but I need to know your name so he’ll be sure to deliver the truck to the right house.”
  “It’s Maggie,” the girl chirped as she slid off Mac’s lap. “Maggie Reynolds.”


   The Dessert Fox SUV was easy. Finding out where Maggie Reynolds lived wasn't hard either. Discovering the whereabouts and status of Maggie's father was the challenge. But Mac wasn't in Intelligence for nothing. 
It turned out that Sergeant Don Reynolds was stationed in the Middle East, seven months into a year-long tour. His wife was pregnant with their third child who was due in less than a month, and money was tight.
   Mac did some more recon to discover what Maggie’s mother needed most in the way of assistance. He sent his own Marine elf, aka Sergeant Trisha Burke, out to find the SUV for Sammy and a new car seat for the coming infant. He got another buddy to promise a total overhaul of the family’s aging vehicle and paid a local nursery to deliver a tree to the Reynolds home. Toys for Tots would put a few things under the tree, but there was one other surprise Mac had in the works. He hoped he could pull it off. Perhaps he could change Maggie’s mind about the scope of Santa’s powers.


 Maggie hurried to her spot. She fluffed the spangled tutu and peered over the ruffles to gaze yet again at the brand new ballet shoes that had appeared on her doorstep just that morning. They were exactly the right size, and they had ribbons that matched her tutu perfectly. How had Santa Claus known?
   If only Daddy could have seen her dance tonight, then her Christmas would have been the best ever.
   As the curtains began to part, the music started. Maggie quickly placed her feet in the correct position and raised her arms into an arch above her head. She lifted her chin, determined to smile and pretend that Daddy was sitting in the front row like he’d promised. The curtains parted, and she pointed her toe to begin the dance.
   Then she hesitated. Her heart thumped in her chest, and tears slipped down her cheeks. There, in the front row, holding Mommy’s hand sat a Marine in his best blue uniform clutching an enormous bouquet of pink roses.
   Santa Claus had brought Daddy home in time after all.

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