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Coventry Carol

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It would have been easier in any other place. Other places, Christmas was nothing special, once you were too old to throw yourself into it. For adults, it meant getting socks and eating too much, with relatives you never saw the rest of the year and didn't want to see at all.

But like so many other things, Christmas was different in Astro City. Decorations that would have looked tawdry on other streets sparkled. People wished each other happy holidays as if they actually meant it. The December air was pleasantly crisp, and now on the 23rd delicate snow-flakes were beginning to fall, like icing sugar sprinkled on a cake. On the corner in front of her, the Cross Breed were singing carols instead of proselytizing, and the shoppers paused to listen to them for a change. Watching TV the night before, she had seen Jack-In-The-Box handing out toys to children in poor neighbourhoods, and Crackerjack hogging the camera at a soup kitchen. Everywhere in Astro City, everyone was smiling.

Everyone but her. As she weaved through the crowd, head down, clutching shopping bags filled with perfunctory gifts for the remains of her family, she thought that this was how the Grinch must feel, or Scrooge.

If he had lived, she might have been reading him either of those books.

If he'd lived, he would have just turned nine. Too old for Doctor Seuss, but maybe old enough for his first taste of Charles Dickens. He might have complained about having a birthday so close to Christmas, about having to share his celebration with the whole world. Or perhaps, here in Astro City, he would have been happy too.

She stared hungrily into the store windows, wondering which of the expensive, breakable, violent toys he would have demanded if he'd been with her, clutching her hand. Or would have wanted something impossible? A pony, a dinosaur, a trip to the moon? It was so hard to know, when he'd never spoken a whole sentence, when she couldn't even imagine the sound of his voice.

Outside one store, there was a moment of discomfort that contrasted almost artistically with the prevailing peace and goodwill. A girl threw a spectacular tantrum, her furious misery sending a ripping of disquiet through the crowd, touching her mother with embarrassment and the other shoppers with sanctimonious disapproval. Yet even that she envied them. The child's screams filled her with a black jealously she hadn't believed herself capable of ten years before.

Back then, she had been one of them: the un-bereft. If a woman had come up to her on the street and told her to be grateful for her baby's tears, to put them in a bottle and hide them away like precious jewels, she would have . . . backed away? laughed? been afraid? She wouldn't have understood, she wouldn't have spoken the right language. Then, she hadn't looked at live children and wondered how it was that people forgot the dead ones. She never forgot them now, although it was worse at this time of year, with so many anniversaries shadowing one another. Birth days and death days together, and no-one to read stories to, or to put out milk and cookies with.

Locked away in her annual grief, she didn't turn her head or begin to clap and cheer with the rest of the crowed when the miracle started overhead. It was not their sounds that made her look up, but something far softer that cut through the noise to arrive in her ears instantly. As if she had been straining to hear it, the way she used to when she was a child herself. Sleigh bells.

She'd seen this on TV, of course, everyone had, and was dimly aware that there was a camera somewhere here to capture this year's action too. But the gap between seeing Santa Claus on a flat screen and standing beneath flying reindeer as they passed overhead was as wide as the gulf that separated her from the other people looking up. She had never realised how big they were, and that their antlers and hooves were disturbingly sharp when seen from this angle.

Their breath steamed as they made a low pass over the crowd, and to her at least the small parcels that began to rain down from the sleigh looked more like bombs than gifts. Even so, some long dormant instinct made her stretch out her hand to catch one as it plummeted past. Startled, she looked up again, and further up, at the figure clad in the perfectly acceptable Coca-Cola designed suit that he managed to lend some ancient dignity, one hand on the reins, the other dipping into the sack. And he looked down at her.

In his eyes, that were impossibly old and appallingly kind, she saw that he *wasn't* jolly, today or any day. There was someone else on the street who hadn't forgotten about the dead children. She knew then that he visited them, and wondered what kind of gifts he gave, and what kind of gifts they gave back.

"Are you all right?" said someone behind her. She realised that she was crying in public for the first time in years, her tears warm in the chilly wind. He had gone already, and left her gasping with awe.

She turned, and saw that one of the Cross Breed, the woman with the wings. Like the reindeer, her wings were larger up close, the feathers like those of an eagle, but her sweet soprano voice seemed to balance them out. The miraculous being handed her a Kleenex, and she remembered that the angel's name was Mary.

"Not really," she found herself replying, "but I think I will be. Thanks."

"It was no trouble. God bless you."

She noticed that He had given Mary a present too, and wondered what angels got for Christmas. More to the point, what did *she* have for Christmas?

Eager to know for the first time in years, she opened her package, tearing the plain brown paper with nimble fingers. She laughed, with the tears still on her face when she saw that he had given her socks. They were long, and made of wool, and they had reindeer (tiny ones this time) all over them, and little pine trees. She knew right then that she loved them far too much to wear them on any day other than Christmas, and that somehow they were the best present anyone had ever given her.

Frowning, she looked down at her shopping bags, which were full of presents that were definitely *not* the best ones she had ever given. It occurred to her that her husband and parents and nephews and nieces and siblings might appreciate some of the feeling flowing through her now, and that their current contents wasn't going to do the trick. Perhaps somewhere out there, on the other side of a charity bin, there was someone who would be grateful for the ties and chocolate-coated peanuts and cheap action figures she had bought already.

With - no, not happiness, never happiness on these days, but maybe something better - a new sense of purpose, she went to do her Christmas shopping all over again, adding one extra gift to her newly forming mental list. And carrots for the reindeer.