Christmas Parties (story)

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    Christmas Parties

    Burke Electrical Supply usually held its Christmas party on December fifteenth, partly because the week before Christmas tended to be busy, but mostly because Mr. Burke wanted to hand out his Christmas bonuses in good time. If the fifteenth fell on a weekend, Mr. Burke would shift the party by a day, but in 1955, December 15th fell on a Wednesday.

    “Merry Christmas, Rob,” Mr. Burke said. He looked ‘Italian’ despite his name, with a Roman nose, tiny moustache, and black hair streaked with gray. He handed a white envelope to his youngest full-time employee. “Go ahead and peek.”

    “Thank you, Mr. Burke,” Robert Counter said. He peeked. “Thank you very much!”

    “You earned it,” Mr. Burke said. “You still have some wet behind your ears, of course, but you’re hard working, and you’ve ‘fessed up a couple of times when you needed to. It could have been expensive for us if you hadn’t. So go have some eggnog, or another cup of Hartman’s punch, and send Kent in when you see him.”

    Rob tucked away his bonus envelope as he headed toward the punchbowl. He had turned twenty-one just that summer, and was filled with a young man’s determination to make a place for himself in the world. Electrical work suited him, especially with the new psi-activated switches becoming more common. More and more homes these days had psi-sensitive wall switches, allowing lights to be turned on and off with a simple mental probe. Rob wasn’t particularly bookish, but he was set on becoming a practical expert on that technology.

    At the punchbowl, Rob fortified himself with a cup of Brian Hartman’s spiked punch, and filled his cup a second time. Kent Briggs stood a short distance away, with Mary beside him in her slave collar and hobble-heels. Rob pushed down his embarrassment as he crossed over to them.

    Mary Eliza was Rob’s sister as well as Kent’s house slave. Like many twenty-one year olds, Rob felt embarrassed by this, even if his older sister no longer shared that embarrassment.

    In another world, where psychic abilities manifested less strongly, there might have been a world-wide wave of female suffrage around 1920. In this world, there was a wave of universal female Demancipation instead. Jane Willamina Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln had created a psychic shock felt around the world, and in the decades that followed, psychic powers were proven to be real, with women having stronger abilities than men. There had been panics over mad feminist witches abusing their powers, and more serious warnings from Freud, Jung, and others about a looming psychic catastrophe. Finally, after the slaughter of men on the battlefields of the First World War, a consensus formed that it was the turn of women to sacrifice and accept Demancipation. In the United States, Demancipation took the form of the Nineteenth Amendment, which made all women, regardless of race or color, into the chattel property of their menfolk.

    As Rob joined his sister and her owner, Kent nodded a greeting. He stood an inch taller and a handful of years older than Rob, and had a pleasant face accented by a nose that had been broken at least once before.

    “How did it go with the boss?” Kent asked.

    Rob thought for a moment before deciding on, “Well enough.” He added, “Mr. Burke wants to see you now.”

    “I’d better go, then,” Kent said. He gave Mary a quick caress and departed.

    A silence fell. It grew longer and more awkward. Rob took a deliberately measured sip of well-spiked punch, and asked. “You’ve been doing well?”

    “Splendidly,” Mary answered with a big smile.

    “That’s good,” Rob said.

    Like most girls born after Demancipation, Mary had looked forward to wearing a real slave collar, rather than a child’s collar with an age-medallion attached. She’d looked forward to having the Mark of Sheba tattooed on the back of her left hand, marking her as a grown-up woman fit for the slave dealers. Rob found it hard to imagine her looking forward to being stripped and inspected before being sold, but he couldn’t say she hadn’t. She certainly was pleased by Kent’s ownership of her.

    Mary ended a second awkward pause by asking, “And how are you doing?”

    “Well enough,” Rob answered. “Very well, actually. Mr. Burke has been handing out the Christmas bonuses.”

    “And did you get a big one?” Mary asked.

    “He certainly did,” Sally said as she joined them.

    Rob took a second measured sip of spiked punch and tried to decide whether the second slave woman made him feel more embarrassed or less. Sally was a bond witch, with a glass bauble in her collar to mark her greater psychic ability. She worked as the receptionist and general Girl Friday of Burke Electrical Supplies, and Rob knew that she was sixty or more, like her owner Mr. Hartman. But she looked half that age, due to her regular use of beauty cream.

    Sally gave Rob an approving smirk, looking up at him through the round lenses of her old-style glasses. “You’ve done very well this year, Mr. Counter. You ought to be making your own purchase now.”

    Rob deliberately misinterpreted her. “I suppose I could get a Christmas tree for my apartment,” he said. “A small tree. But it seems kind of pointless. I’m not a kid anymore.”

    “Exactly my point.” Sally nodded vigorously. “You’re not a kid, and you should stop being a bachelor. Of course Christmas trees aren’t just for kids; they’re also for couples. There’s a woman out there who needs you to own her. You should bring her home, and a Christmas tree too.”

    Mary nodded her own approval. Rob drained his spiked punch. Sally had definitely made him feel more embarrassed. Still… between his Christmas bonus, his savings, and the money he’d won in the World Series betting pool, he did have the price of a slave woman of his own.


    After leaving the Christmas party, Rob went directly to Mike Barron’s Bound Maidens. He’d been at that dealer before. The day after his twenty-first birthday, he’d rented Pearl from them, keeping her for a couple of educational months.

    Pearl had been a sweet young woman, just a month older than Rob. But dull. Dumb, even, although Rob would hesitate to use that word. So he had ignored the hints that he might convert her rental into a purchase. He returned her, instead, and went back to the bachelor life.

    Now Rob walked around the five display platforms again, looking at the slave women dressed in bra-and-panties. And collars of course – slave women always wore steel collars, as a woman without a collar had to be considered dangerously mad. The women smiled at him, and he smiled back, politely. Their heavy makeup made a jarring contrast to their minimal clothing.

    One of the dealers came up; a sports coat wearing salesman who might or might not be thirty. “Good evening! I see that you’re interested in Nettie Nicole here, and I’m sure you’d be much more interested once you see her file. She’s…” The salesman went on about Nicole’s accomplishments and desirability while Rob waited for a chance to get in the proverbial word edgewise.

    “Thank you,” Rob said at last, “But what I’d really like is to look at your catalog.”

    “Certainly certainly! This way sir. Be sure to look up Marissa here. I’m sure you’d like her. She’s…”

    Rob followed, ignoring the salesman’s patter and noticing instead that the floor needed mopping. Well, it was the end of the day in a Michigan December. They eventually arrived at the catalog desk. The catalogs were loose-leaf binders containing photos of the women here, those in the back as well as those currently on display. Each slave woman had a nude full body photo, a head-only portrait, and a profile view. Accompanying these photos were abridged dossiers, giving name, age, slave number and a sketch of the slave’s personal history.

    A few of the women, Rob noticed as he paged through the catalog, were only nineteen or twenty. They’d been given adult collars by special license, and sold to directly to Mike Barron without going through a finishing estate. A few others were thirty or more, with three or four previous sales each.

    That left the rest of them in their twenties. As Rob finished paging through the loose-leaf catalog, he decided that he didn’t want a closer look at any of them. He was sure they were sweet enough, but they all seemed dull. Not as slow as Pearl, judging from what was there, but… dull.

    He’d try a different dealership, tomorrow evening.


    As it turned out, Rob didn’t get to that other dealer until Friday. On Thursday he used his lunch hour to deposit his Christmas bonus at the bank, worked late due to a customer’s Christmas lighting problem, and discovered that Jake Higgins Collaring and Sales closed early on Thursdays.

    On Fridays, however, Jake Higgins was open until eight. Rob arrived with his checkbook tucked away out of sight and started browsing. Six nude women stood, sat, and knelt on the display platforms. Two more women, barefoot and looking rather Christmassy in red knee-length smocks, were mopping the floor. Rob remembered his brother Jim mentioning something about how low-end dealers displayed slave women in underwear, high end dealers displayed them in sheer, see-through shifts, and mid-range dealers displayed their female merchandise unclothed.

    Two other customers were looking at the displays, each accompanied by salesman. A third salesman walked up to Rob and introduced himself as Eric. “Are you looking for anything in particular sir?” he asked.

    “Yes I am,” Rob answered. “I’m just not sure how to describe her.”

    “That’s very common. I’ll introduce you to the ladyslaves here” – Eric indicated the platforms – “and that will give you an idea of what we have to offer.”

    “I’d also like to look at your catalog, after.”

    “Of course. Let’s start with Sharon Dana here…”

    In the end, Eric showed Rob seven women on the six platforms. They all were shackled by one ankle or wrist, more for appearances than actual security, according to what Jim had told Rob. Eric offered a slightly different explanation, as they watched Sharon Dana being replaced by the seventh woman. A keyboy unlocked Sharon and handed her a robe. She headed to the back while the new woman hopped onto the platform let the keyboy ankle-fetter her in place.

    “Our ladyslaves won’t try to run away, of course,” Eric said. “But if they’re not kept in place then some of them will hop down and wander around the showroom. Very confusing. Now let me introduce you to Jocelyn…”

    Rob didn’t expect to buy a woman from a display platform. It was much more likely that he’d find his ‘ladyslave’ in the dealer’s catalog. He did want to ask about the two slave women who were finishing their mopping, but he also didn’t want to embarrass himself. Those two might not be for sale.

    The loose-leaf dealer’s catalog of Jake Higgins Collaring and Sales closely resembled that of Mike Barron’s Bound Maidens. Perhaps it gave a bit more detail. Rob leafed through it quickly, returned to the beginning, and started again, lingering over entries he’d noted on his first run through. He had a hunch that his very own house slave was here. Men were allowed to have hunches, even if women had stronger psychic abilities. And while the slave women here didn’t remind Rob of his sister (thankfully, he told himself) they did remind him of Mary’s classmates.

    Helen Isabelle. She was one of the two mopping ‘ladyslaves.’ Age 29, although she looked younger. Almost all women used beauty cream these days, and its psychosomatic effects kept them looking like their early twenties, all the way to their late forties. Rob turned several more pages.

    Nancy Ann. She was the other mopping ladyslave. Age 21. Rob lingered, turned to the entry for the next slave woman in the catalog, continued to the end, and turned back to Nancy Ann’s entry.

    <b>Age</b> 21 (born 30-Oct-1934). <b>Slave number</b> SWB-728-211.
    <b>Measurements</b> Height 63 inches, weight 120 pounds, collar 14, bra 33B, wrists 5.5, waist 28, ankles 7.5.
    <b>Schooling: </b>
    Bluefoot Sophium (Sunville, Ohio) 1949-1952,
    Kate Douglass Finishing Estate (Adrian, Michigan) 1952-1955, rank 49/87.
    <b>Rhine score:</b> 15

    That Rhine score was about average for a woman these days. Below it were a few paragraphs of notes. The first was an evaluation from the Bluefoot Sophium, the next couple were from the finishing estate, and the last paragraph was dealer’s puffery.

    Rob looked up over his shoulder, and Eric came from where he’d been chatting with the manager.

    “I’d like a closer look at this Nancy Ann,” Rob said. “She’s SWB-728-211.”

    “Of course sir,” Eric said. “If you will follow me?” He led Rob to a private display room, stopping by the files to pull out Nancy’s full set of papers. Rob looked the papers over as he waited in the empty room; there actually wasn’t much there beyond what he’d seen in the catalog.

    Eric returned with Nancy Ann a few minutes later. She smiled and held out her left hand, so that Rob and Eric could inspect the Mark of Sheba tattooed on its back and confirm that she was the Nancy Ann of her papers (SWB-728-211) and not some other woman. Still smiling, she pulled off the red smock she still wore, and stepped up on the display platform. She held up her arms and turned slowly, letting Rob get a good look at her. Her papers hadn’t lied about her height and size, and she was young and healthy. Pretty rather than beautiful, she wore the plain collar of a house slave around her neck. Above the collar, her face was heart shaped and lively, almost foxy, with light brown hair that Rob would want her to grow out. She wore a touch of perfume, but no other makeup. The smile on her face reached her amber eyes as she looked back at Rob.

    Rob hesitated. His older brother Jim had purchased well, several years back, his older sister Mary had been purchased well by Kent, and his hunch still told him that this would be a good purchase. But what if he were wrong? And now he realized that Eric hadn’t introduced him to Nancy; he was still a nameless potential buyer to her. What did that mean?

    Eric hadn’t offered a sales pitch while Nancy displayed herself either. Now he silently handed Nancy her smock, followed by a set of the rubber-coated leg irons favored by slave dealers. Nancy dressed, hobbled herself, and handed back the key Turning, she placed her hands behind her to be locked in a pair of matching rubber-coated handcuffs. Rob watched, feeling as if he were frozen in place.

    Eric spoke at last, to introduce Rob at last. “Nancy, this is Mr. Robert Counter. He has a few questions for you.”

    Nancy smiled at Rob again, and again the smile reached her amber eyes. “I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, Mr. Counter.”

    “Thank you,” Rob managed to say. He sat down on the platform beside Nancy, and Eric retreated to the door of the display room, where he could watch without overhearing.

    Being a young man, Rob had heard his share of advice about buying slave women. There had even been lessons in high school about it. He considered Nancy again: Collared, wearing nothing but that knee-length smock, hobbled and handcuffed, and her left hand marked with legal proof that she was the property of men. Well, now that he’d inspected her body, maybe he should inspect her mind. He considered the various pieces of advice he’d been given, and picked one.

    “Tell me about some of the little things, Nancy. About things you like, and things you hate.”

    “Christmas trees!” Nancy said. “I like having a Christmas tree each year, Mr. Counter. That’s something I’ve missed, living in the dorms. The finishing estate has a big tree in the front hall each year, but that’s more of a public display. It’s not the same thing. As for something I hate, well, not hate exactly, but something I really dislike is…”


    Instead of the traditional paper dress, Nancy Ann still wore the red smock when Rob carried her into his apartment. Traditionally, the paper dress was torn off – like unwrapping an early Christmas present. Rob wasn’t going to rip the smock, but he was going to follow the rest of the ritual, for luck.

    Rob didn’t own a crop, but a pencil would work just as well. Using the eraser end, he gently tapped Nancy’s soles thirty-nine times, as called for by the ritual bastinado. Nancy giggled.

    “Now stay here,” Rob said as he tapped the rubber-coated ankle cuff and set the pencil aside. “I’ll bring in the loot.”

    “Yes, master,” Nancy said.

    Nancy’s wrists were still cuffed behind her. Rob considered refastening them in front. Nancy gave him a tiny shake of her head. She still felt comfortable as she was. Rob rose and headed out to his rattletrap Ford.

    Rob hadn’t objected to the price that the dealership had asked for Nancy. Instead he used a trick learned from Mr. Burke, and had asked for more extras to be included with Nancy’s sale. That bargaining trick had worked, leaving him with a pair or shopping bags holding toiletries and a basic wardrobe for Nancy, including both a pair of hobble-heels and a pair of domestic hobbles – slippers with a connecting leather thong. Nothing fancy or formal, of course, just a starter-set that would keep her decent without having to make any emergency purchases.

    Rob brought the two bags in and returned to Nancy on the couch. He unlocked her ankles and wrists, and took her into his arms. With her arms now released, she clung to him in a most satisfying way. She felt good. She smelled good. When he kissed her, she was good.

    After they came up for air, Rob said. “I give you the tour, in a bit.” He nodded at an empty corner of the living room. “We’ll put a Christmas tree there. A small one. We’ll go out for it tomorrow morning.” He kissed Nancy again.

    Once he finished, Nancy asked, “Master, can you send me grocery shopping tomorrow too?”

    “Yes. That too,” Rob agreed. “If you’re to be my house slave, you’ll need supplies to house-slave with. But tonight I’m too tired to even heat up a frozen dinner. That’s why I stopped by the A&W.” He nodded at one of the shopping bags. A smaller bag from the drive-in was nestled at the top. He hadn’t wanted to stop to eat before bringing Nancy home, but now…

    “Now, master?” Nancy asked.

    Rob grinned. “Now.”

    The hot dogs and fries had grown cold, and the root beer had grown warm, but they were both hungry.


    The first thing Rob did the next morning was to unlock the bunny-cuff on Nancy’s ankle. He had installed it at the foot of his bed on renting Pearl, and hadn’t bothered removing it after returning her. The cuff itself, at the end of its chain, had found its way under the bed and so had needed wiping to remove the dust. It did fit Nancy, however, so Rob wasn’t going to replace it.

    After a cold breakfast of corn flakes, Rob drove Nancy to the local Hollywood Supermarket. “Do you have your grocery list?” he asked.

    “Yes master.” Nancy held up the envelope containing her list, the money Rob had provided, and an old-fashioned note authorizing her to spend it. That note wasn’t needed anymore, in the mid-fifties, but Rob felt that he’d be glad to have written such a note once, even if he never did so again.

    “I’ll do my very best, master,” Nancy promised as she turned toward the supermarket entrance. Rob watched her enter, an old coat worn over her dress and blouse against the Michigan December, and her steps cut short by the hobble-heels she wore. Just like the steps of all the other slave women grocery shopping today.

    This might be Nancy’s first time grocery shopping, Rob realized. Real grocery shopping, rather than a finishing estate exercise. No, not “might be.” It certainly was her first time shopping for her very own personal master.

    Rob decided to leave the old Ford parked where it was, and walked to the nearby hardware store. He found a steel Christmas tree stand, painted green and red, and set it on the counter. After a minute’s consideration, he added a small drop-cloth to put under the stand. He didn’t see any Christmas tree ornaments or lights; they were all sold out.

    He killed time by looking at the tools and other manly things a hardware store sold. This was a small store, and Rob found himself looking at tools a second time. Then he visited the house slaves’ corner. This section had brooms and dustpans, buckets and mops, scrub-brushes and kitchen twine. It also had a small display of sewing notions. That was an extra he’d conceded when dickering with the dealer last night. He’d told himself he could pick them up later – and now here they were. He selected a sewing kit with needles, pins, and thread, and added a larger spool of button thread, bringing them to the counter to set beside the tree stand and the drop cloth.

    The cashier at the counter was a slave woman who appeared to be thirty, and so was likely twice that age. She looked at the sewing notions, and Rob found himself explaining, “For my new house slave. I just purchased her yesterday.”

    She smiled. “Congratulations, sir! I’m sure you’ll make her very happy.”

    “Thank you,” Rob managed.

    Some women old enough to remember Demancipation being ratified still begrudged the need for it. Others, like Sally and this cashier didn’t, and even at the time many women had embraced Demancipation enthusiastically. Rob didn’t think he’d ever really understand that, but he was still grateful for women being what they were.

    Rob returned to the Ford to stow his purchases, and sat inside for a few minutes. He knew how long it took for him to grocery shop, which left him with only a rough guess as to how long it would take Nancy. She had a longer list than he usually did, and she was slowed by her hobble-heels. (That was the purpose of hobbling, after all.) He decided to go in and check on Nancy. Then he changed his mind. He’d give her another fifteen minutes, and then go in.

    It turned out to be good timing. Nancy was just finishing at the checkout when Rob entered the supermarket. They loaded the groceries into the Ford and Rob drove them back to the apartment.

    “Find everything?” Rob asked.

    “Yes master,” Nancy said. “I also bought a package of popcorn. It was an indulgence; I thought we might make popcorn garlands. Do you have a sewing kit at the apartment?”

    “Not at the apartment, but I just bought one along with the tree stand. So that’s good luck. And popcorn garlands are a good idea:The hardware store didn’t have any lights or Christmas ornaments.”


    After putting away the groceries, they headed out for a Christmas tree. Rob thought the local YMCA would be the best place to find one, and so it proved.

    “I’m afraid we only have little trees left,” the YMCA man said.

    “That’s all right,” Rob answered. “A little tree is what we’re looking for.”

    A few snowflakes started floating down as Rob and Nancy walked down the row of remaining Christmas trees. Most of them where five feet or a little under. None reached six feet. All were baled with twine, to make them easier to transport.

    There were two other couples there looking at trees. They exchanged greetings.

    Rob and Nancy reached the end of the row and started back. “How about this one, master?”

    “Um, maybe not, it’s got a big gap in its side. Or it will, when unwrapped. How about this one?”

    “Um,” Nancy said in turn.

    Rob grinned at her. “That should be ‘Um, master.’”

    “Yes, master.” Nancy grinned back.

    They moved a little further back up the row.

    “That one,” Rob said.

    “Yes, master. That one,” Nancy agreed. She frowned. “Will it fit in the trunk?”

    “We’ll tie the trunk lid down.”

    They did need to tie the trunk lid down, for the drive back to the apartment. The tree stuck half-way out of the trunk. Once in the apartment, Rob folded the drop cloth into quarters and set the stand in the middle. He then took scissors to the bailing twine.

    “Eww,” Nancy said.

    The tree had the remains of a wasp nest in it. Most of the nest had been broken away before the tree had been bailed, but a dozen dead wasps fell to the floor.

    “The broom and dustpan are in the closet by the front door,” Rob said as Nancy retreated. “And aren’t you glad that you’re wearing your domestic hobbles?” He nodded at the women’s slippers, with their connecting thong.

    Yes master,” Nancy answered fervently.

    Rob used the scissors to snip out the last bits of wasp nest and to hunt out the last few dead wasps. Nancy came in with the broom and dustpan to gingerly sweep up.

    After disposing of the wasps, Nancy brought a pail of water. “Master, we’re suppose to set a Christmas tree in water, right away.”

    “We’re also suppose to cut off an inch,” Rob said. “But I don’t have a saw.” He tried to fit the stand over the base of the trunk. “I’ll need to go out and get a saw. The trunk is crooked, right at the base.” He motioned Nancy to set the pail down next to the wall and set the tree in it. “I’ll go. You stay here. Will I need to lock you in a barefoot hobble?”

    Nancy shook her head. “No master.” Then she smiled and nodded. “Yes master, I think you’d better.”

    “Ha!” Rob grinned back and hunted up the rubber-padded leg irons. After locking them on Nancy, he caressed her hair, kissed her, and left.


    Rob took the Ford to a hardware store that was both larger and closer than the one by the Hollywood Supermarket. It too had sold out of Christmas ornaments, but it did have a few boxes of lights left. It also had a better selection of hand saws than the smaller store. Rob picked out a saw, took it to the cashier along with a box of Christmas tree lights, and silently congratulated himself for having made this a quick trip.

    On arriving back at the apartment, Rob encountered a faint haze of smoke and a burnt smell. Nancy was in the kitchen, scrubbing out a pot.

    “I’m sorry, master,” she said. “I tried to make popcorn, and I burnt it.”

    “All of it?”

    “No, master, just a quarter cup.”

    “That’s all right then. You’ve learned something and can try again.” Rob almost went on to describe what had happened when he last tried to make popcorn. He decided save that story for later, and returned to the living room to trim the tree-trunk with his new saw.

    When he finished, the Christmas tree was closer to four feet tall than five. A minor struggle with the stand got the tree upright and added a few inches back. The sounds of popcorn popping in the kitchen accompanied this struggle, and ended as Rob used water from the pail to fill the stand’s water-dish.

    Nancy came in from the kitchen, still barefoot and hobbled, carrying a big bowl of popcorn. “No burnt popcorn this time, master!” she said triumphantly. She sat with the new sewing kit and began to sew a popcorn garland, while Rob arranged the lights.

    By evening they had their own Christmas tree, decorated with lights, popcorn garlands, and little bits of aluminum foil cut into clever shapes. On top was the paper star that Rob had learned how to fold as a kid. They sat on the couch, admiring it. Rob sent a mental probe to the wall switch, then another, harder one. That wall switch was newer than the apartment, but still old – and cheap. It supposedly would respond to a man’s probe, but more often than not Rob had to flip it with his fingers. Nancy sent her own probe now, stronger than anything Rob could produce, and the room lights went out, leaving only the colored glow from the Christmas tree.

    “Ha!” Rob said. “Show off.” He bent down to unlock Nancy’s ankles, the better to pull her feet up onto the couch and the rest of her into his lap.

    Nancy snuggled against him. “Thank you, master.” Rob returned a squeeze, before taking Nancy by the shoulders to look into her amber eyes. “Don’t thank me yet. I still have one more ordeal to put you through.” He ran a finger down her nose, the way he’d seen movie heroes do to their slave women.

    Nancy looked a question.

    “Sometime this next week, I’ll need to host a small party for my friends and family. I’ll be putting you to work preparing for it, and then I’ll be putting you through the wringer of introducing you.” Rob released her, and she pressed against him again.

    “Thank you, master,” she repeated.


    Rob and Nancy held their party on the evening of the twenty-second – the Wednesday before Christmas that year. Rob worked late on Monday and Tuesday, due to the ‘unexpected’ emergencies that Burke Electrical Supply had learned to expect around Christmastime. Nancy fed him when he got home with something better than frozen dinners. She also baked lots of cookies for the party. They’d decided on paper plates of decorated cookies to hand out as presents.

    Rob’s parents couldn’t come. They lived in Grand Rapids, on the far side of Michigan, and that was too long a trip. Instead, a second Christmas card arrived with Wednesday’s mail to welcome Nancy. They must have sent it out first thing on Monday morning.

    A pile of hobble-heels grew by the door as the guests arrived. As Nancy was barefoot, the other slave women shed their shoes as well, before taking their masters’ coats along with their own and laying them on the bed in the apartment’s single bedroom.

    Nancy didn’t have any brothers, but she did have an older sister: Margaret Joyce. Her Master Scott – Mr. Scott Griffith – was indulging her with this visit to her sister. Nancy embraced Joyce without any signs of embarrassment. But then Rob never felt awkward when he met with his brother Jim, and Mary no longer showed any signs of awkwardness when she met with either of her brothers.

    Scott didn’t know anyone else here. However, he quickly fell into conversation with Sally, and seemed to be holding his own. “No, I haven’t had any frozen dinners for a long while now. Joyce is a good cook and begs me to keep them off the grocery list.”

    “Good for her!” the older bond witch said. “Those dinners are a huge waste of money, unless you’re a bachelor, and maybe even then.”

    Mr. Burke and Mr. Hartman stood together talking hockey. Mr. Burke’s Vicky stayed close to her master, rather than circulating the way Mr. Hartman’s Sally was doing. Both of the older men had warned that they would be “leaving early,” but Rob understood them to be using “early” as a flexible term. Mr. Hartman had also promised not to spike the punch. He did, however, leave a suspiciously bottle-shaped gift under the tree.

    Mary gave Nancy a welcoming hug and offered sisterly greetings to Rob. Kent shook Rob’s hand, congratulating him on his purchase of Nancy. Rob felt his awkwardness lifting.

    Jim and his Terry arrived with Kent and Mary. Like Sally, Terry wore the glass gem of a bond witch on her collar. Jim always claimed that he hadn’t set out to buy a bond witch; it had just happened. Rob introduced Nancy to his brother and his brother’s slave woman, and again he saw his Nancy receive a welcoming hug while Jim shook his hand in congratulations.

    Paper cups of punch were passed around, and people helped themselves to the crackers, dip, and hot-dog bites on toothpicks that Nancy had set out. Nancy was now having a friendly discussion with Mary and Terry, and Rob nodded to himself in approval. It was good for slave women to have female friends.

    Jim and Kent drew Rob into a discussion that started in occupied Germany, wandered to Christmas trees in the last century, and ended up at the Christmas tree currently standing in the living room. It had been gathering gifts from the party guests. Their three slave women joined them, and the group broke into three couples.

    Sally had pulled Vicky away from Mr. Burke’s side, and the two of them now joined Kent and Mary. Rob found himself talking with Scott and Joyce. Scott was saying, “Two first names isn’t the law. It’s is just a custom that’s become more common over time. That’s good for Joyce because she hates both ‘Margaret’ and ‘Meg,’” – Joyce nodded enthusiastic agreement –and having Joyce as one of her first names lets her avoid them.”

    “Having two first names also makes up for us women not having family names any more,” Joyce said. “Not even as old-style maiden names.”

    “We still have to keep track of family ties,” Rob pointed out, “because of the purchase laws.” These were the post-Demancipation version of the laws against incest, prohibitions against men buying females who were close blood relations.

    “But master,” Nancy said, “ranting about maiden names makes such a good hobby horse for the Southern Abolitionists.”

    “For the Communists too,” Scott said.

    “Hypocrites,” Joyce said. “They claim that women are ‘free’ in Russia, but they’re treated worse than dogs. And now it’s happening in Red China as well.”

    Rob didn’t disagree, but he also didn’t want to listen to a rant. He wondered how he could tactfully change the subject. Nancy, knowing her sister better than he did, just plunged in. “What’s happened to the Christmas tree?” she asked.

    The tree lights were blinking. Someone had put in a flasher plug into the wall outlet.

    “Oooh,” Joyce said. “It has a psi-switch!”

    Rob sensed Joyce’s mental probe. And Nancy’s. And those of all the other slave women in the room, as their minds reached out to play with the flasher plug. The Christmas tree lights blinked quickly, then slowly, then very quickly, and then slowly again as the women kept thinking adjustments at the flasher plug.

    After a few minutes, Mr. Burke said, “If I may have your attention.I would like to propose a toast to our hosts of this evening.” He raised his paper cup of punch. “To Mr. Robert Counter and his Nancy Ann. May they enjoy many more Christmases together to come!”

    A general cheer followed, and all the eyes in the room turned to Rob. Even Nancy’s. The Christmas tree lights now blinked at a steady rate of once every two seconds or so.

    “Ah,” Rob said. He was not good at this sort of speechifying. But he had to say something. “Thank you, Mr. Burke. And I thank all of you for your friendship and, and generosity. Especially for your friendship and generosity to my Nancy Ann, as well as too me.” Now what? Proposing a toast of his own might be the quickest way out. “Let me now propose a toast – even if Mr. Hartman hasn’t spiked the punch.” That raised a laugh.

    “I can fix that!” Mr. Hartman called out. Another laugh.

    Rob drew a deep breath and said, “I would like to propose a toast” – he raised his paper cup toward the tree and its blinking lights – “to the Christmas tree!”

    Everyone chorused, “To the Christmas tree!”
    (the end)

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