What Child Is This

Submitted into Contest #123 in response to: Start your story looking down from a stage.... view prompt

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Christmas Contemporary Fiction

For the last song of the Christmas Eve service, twenty beaming six-year-old girls dressed as elves stood on the steps of the altar and, smack dab in the middle of them, a single boy with arms folded tight and a face scrunched up even tighter. He wore a Santa coat and hat that stood out like a spotlight against the girls’ velvet green dresses.

Beth had planned on placing the stubborn, young man in the back to minimize distraction, but his mother insisted he be put front and center. Weeks earlier, she had demanded that little Doug be given a solo part, thinking how cute it would be to have the girls as background singers. There really were no solo parts in any of the Christmas hymns but Beth saved a few lines for him anyway. She would have the girls hum during his part, so at least there would be sound. Little Doug had not sung in any of the practice sessions and only spent his time pulling on the girls’ pony tails when he got bored.

Beth still had faith that she could get the boy to sing. She had no choice. Ms. Darling was the longest standing member of the selection committee at church and the only one to vote no for the new pastor. When their choir director retired, Beth had volunteered to fill in until the committee could found someone to take the position permanently. Beth loved music. Loved her church. And wanted the job badly. She couldn’t see herself spending another year as a bookkeeper for her uncle’s law firm.

Everyone in the adult choir unanimously agreed she should be the next musical director. All the parents of the children’s choir wanted her to get the position as well. And the two moms who brought their boys to practice on the first day thought Beth would be perfect for the job, even though Beth had not been able to get their sports-minded boys to come back.

Little Doug didn’t have the excuse of something better to do. He didn’t play sports. Didn’t do much of anything with other kids after school. So Ms. Darling dragged him to choir practice every Monday afternoon and insisted he sing.

“Use your creative charms to get him interested in music. You know, the way Julie Andrews did it with those kids in The Sound of Music.” The woman ran the scales when she spoke but she had a smile you couldn’t trust.

For the first practice Beth met with each child to help them with their vocal range, playing a note on the piano and having them sing it back. The girls instinctively sang, “aahhh” to each note. Little Doug sang, “bop” or “beep” or “boop,” but he sang the notes correctly so she didn’t correct her only tenor. The following weeks, she tried musical games and funny songs like Bumblebee to warm them up but Doug refused to participate. Julie Andrews’ Maria had it much easier. The Von Trapp children already had a musical background from their strict, but kind father.

Beth’s parents agreed to attend her church that evening and sat in the front pew. Her father got his start as a musical director of their church in Davis before he became a university professor. And her mother still taught music at a nearby high school.

When Beth came out with the kids, her face turned beet red. Ms. Darling had sat herself right next to her parents. She seemed preoccupied getting little Doug’s attention but would certainly notice if Beth waved to her parents. Beth couldn’t risk her parents offering up innocent information about her that Ms. Darling would somehow use against her. Or have Ms. Darling mumble some criticism about her that her parents would hear. For now, they sat like strangers. In order to keep it that way, Beth focused on arranging the children and did not acknowledge her parents.

When the kids were set, the organist played the introduction to Away in a Manger. The girls swayed back and forth in anticipation. Little Doug remained fixed like stone. Only his red, chubby cheeks gave away he was not an angry, cherub statue. When the girls began to sing, little Doug remained quiet.

Earlier in the evening while waiting in the choir room, Beth found a corner to talk to Doug, to reason with him or beg, whichever worked. But the boy squeezed his fists and repeated, “I’m not singing,” shaking his head to make his point. He repeated it faster until he went pale and his body started to convulse. With fifteen minutes before they would go out, little Doug was about to throw up. Beth acted quickly, shielding him so the girls couldn’t see and saving the carpet, grabbing the first bag she could find. While she cleaned him up in the washroom, little Doug stared at the floor and apologized. He said he felt much better. He said he would go out with the girls. But he never said if he would sing. Beth gently rubbed his back until his breathing slowed down and his shoulders relaxed. It almost worked. But when they walked out to the altar and he saw his mother in the front, his posture went rigid again.

Little Doug’s solo was approaching and his face became pale. He opened his mouth in another convulsion. Beth went pale herself. The boy was going to vomit in front of the entire congregation. Her mind raced for a plan and in a split second she decided she would tell the girls to continue singing and rush Doug off the stage. She would sacrifice her favorite dress if she had to.

But then the boy started to sing. A wonderful, angelic voice. He followed her direction as she raised her hand for the notes to go up. He had been paying attention in practice. The girls then joined him with surprise and pleasure on their face. At the end of the song, one girl pinched his cheek, another punched him lightly in the arm. And he glowed with pride.

The children left the steps to sit with their parents. Ms. Darling took Doug by the hand and walked him out to the narthex. No surprise. Ms. Darling had been suggesting the committee interview people outside the congregation for someone with more experience. Little Doug was part of her plan to make Beth look bad.

 “I hope you get the job.” Doug shook Beth’s hand after the service. He looked back at his mom with a frown. “I don’t want to come here if my mom’s friend gets the job.” He cupped his mouth and whispered, “She has bad breath.”

Beth blushed. “I hope to see you every week then. But you have sing in practice too.”

Little Doug put his hand over his heart and promised he would.

From across the narthex, Ms. Darling gave Beth a curt nod. Her husband, Big Doug, greeted Beth with a big smile. “I don’t know what miracle you worked but you trained my son well.” His deep voice had a slight twang to it. “I didn’t think he had it in him.”

His great hands shook both of Beth’s gently.

“Thank you, Mr. Darling.” Beth craned her neck to look up at him.” I hope I haven’t upset your wife.”

“Oh, don’t worry about her. She likes to meddle. I’m sure she’ll find someone else to pester after Christmas.” Big Doug chuckled and his whole body shook. “By January, she’ll be showing off the video of Little Doug’s solo and trying to get him into a singing contest.”

Beth promised to meet her parents later and stayed around to help close up. When everyone had left, she emptied the contents of her purse in the washroom and cleaned what she could. Credit cards, driver’s license, makeup case. Tissues and breath mints got thrown out. She cleaned her bag the best she could but realized she couldn’t use it and it wouldn’t be nice to donate something so soiled and smelly, so she threw it out. Maybe, who knows, she would get a new one for Christmas tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be a miracle.

She turned off the lights in the narthex where the kids had put together a Christmas nativity scene. The baby Jesus was a doll much larger than the figures of Joseph and Mary who had once been Ken and Barbie. Stuffed animals surrounded them and action figures dressed as wisemen waited outside the manger.

The evening was silent, peaceful. She sang Oh Holy Night on the way to her car.

December 10, 2021 23:16

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4 comments

22:00 Jan 02, 2022

A wonderful story Craig, the drama of working with children comes through clearly, as does the director's love of them and music. Thanks for sharing your talent!

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Craig Westmore
14:24 Jan 07, 2022

Thanks Maureen!

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Nathan Landrum
21:46 Dec 16, 2021

This story does a great job of capturing and vividly describing the concers through the eyes and concerns of Beth, and using the petty curch politics to fill in a believable world beyond the scene.

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Craig Westmore
18:48 Dec 18, 2021

Thanks, Nathan!

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