“It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the...”
“What do you want?”
The little group of young carolers, bundled in coats, scarves and woolly hats, stopped singing raggedly. Some stopped mid-sentence; others continued awkwardly to the end of the phrase. They huddled together, eyes fixed on the door. Perhaps their parents had warned them about people who didn’t like Christmas carols. Perhaps they thought the harsh-voiced woman behind the door was one of those.
But Eloise did like Christmas carols. She just didn’t want to hear that particular carol–not tonight, not ever again.
It had played over the hospital intercom on the Christmas morning she had held a small, swaddled bundle and looked into a tiny face. And she had remembered another verse of the hymn, one that carolers never sang:
“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low...”
“She’s beautiful,” Eloise’s mother had said, brushing back a furtive tear. “Beautiful, and this is the right decision...”
“Who toil along the climbing way...”
Yes, it had seemed the right decision when she had first spoken with the social worker. She couldn’t take care of a baby at sixteen. It had been easy to sign the paperwork, sign away all rights to the growing life within her.
“With painful steps and slow...”
But it had not seemed so simple on the Christmas morning when she held her daughter for the first and last time.
The carolers were still standing on the porch, whispering about what to do. Most of them wanted to go.
“But maybe it’s someone who needs our help,” said one timid voice, a girl’s.
“Come on, Carol, she doesn’t want us here...”
Eloise pulled back the door abruptly. They stared at her, puzzled, and she knew that they had expected an old woman, not one in her early thirties.
“I don’t hate Christmas carols,” she said, managing a faint smile. “It’s just... that one brings back some memories. But you sound... very good.”
“No we don’t,” said one young man, with cheerful honesty. “Most of the time, we’re out of tune.”
“So are you just spreading Christmas cheer to the neighborhood? Or do you want money?”
She tried to sound more amused than cynical, and almost succeeded.
A couple of the young people tried to hide the cans they were holding. But a young woman near the back–the one with the timid voice–said quietly,
“It’s for disaster relief. Our church is collecting for the people who lost homes in the flood last month.”
“Well, come in, then,” said Eloise, and held open the door. “I’ll find something for you.”
The young people crowded into the foyer, while Eloise went upstairs to get her purse. She didn’t mind visitors. Her house looked liked a photo spread from a design magazine, and there wasn’t anyone else around to spoil its perfect order. She’d dated, but never liked anyone quite as well as Ricky–Ricky, the high school sweetheart who had wanted her to have an abortion, and stopped speaking to her when she made another choice.
When she came downstairs, she found that the young people hadn’t moved out of their huddle. But Eloise still spotted the quiet-voiced girl, the one who had told her about the disaster-relief project. She could barely see the girl’s face, swaddled as it was in a thick red scarf, but there was something about her eyes...
Eloise handed the girl a twenty-dollar bill, and the girl grinned,
“Thank you, ma’am, thanks very much.”
“Your name’s ‘Carol,’ isn’t it? I heard one of your friends say that. Were you born on Christmas?”
“Christmas morning,” said the girl. “I’m adopted, so my parents call me their ‘Christmas gift...’”
Her eyes... Ricky’s eyes? Eloise swallowed.
“Do you... mind much? Being adopted?”
“No, not really. My parents are great, and my real mom... I’m sure she had a good reason for giving me up.”
“I’m sure she did,” Eloise echoed hoarsely.
She wanted to ask something else, say something else, but she didn’t. It was enough.
The young people tumbled out the door, waving backwards, whispering unsubtly,
“Wow, twenty bucks! Best we’ve gotten tonight!”
Eloise closed the door, and leaned against it. She listened as the song faded away, and heard the words without pain for the first time in fifteen years:
“O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing...”
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