February 5 was an especially hard day for Wayne McKnight. It was his wife Rachel's death anniversary. It had been two years since she passed on and Wayne thought each year would get easier. It didn't, and it probably won't. After picking their 7-year-old son Glenn up from school after work and dropping him off at his parents, Wayne went straight home to pack. He had gotten a call from one of his college buddies, Tristan, the week before. Tristan didn't say where he was taking him. It was going to be a surprise. He was only told to pack winter clothes and his skis.
As Wayne neared his house, he pressed the button on his garage door opener and watched as his garage door rose to welcome him home. As he pulled into his messy garage, he couldn't help but chuckle and shake his head at the sight. Rachel had been nagging him to organize the garage but he just never found the time to do it. But he promised her that he would. Someday. And maybe it was time to fulfill that promise. But now, he had to pack. Tristan was on his way and would arrive any minute. He killed the engine, locked the steering wheel, got out of the car, and locked it. Then he entered through the kitchen door and looked for snacks to bring on their road trip. He grabbed some potato chips, trail mix, bottled water, a couple of soft drinks, and some granola bars. After he put those in a cooler, he went upstairs and started packing. He rummaged through his closet and drawers for the appropriate winter clothes—day clothes, sleepwear, and underwear—and dumped them all in a duffel bag. When he couldn't find something, he would call out.
"Babe?" Wayne hollered. "Have you seen my— Right. Never mind."
Rachel's ghost still lingered in that house. Or was it the ghost of her memory? He looked at the bed and smiled sadly at it, tears stinging his eyes. During the three happiest years of their marriage, before Rachel's cancer took over their lives and ultimately took her away from him, there were multiple occasions when they made love while waiting for Wayne's ride to the airport, just before he left for a business trip. Rachel had called it "delaying the inevitable." The same thing would happen when Rachel had to leave for a business trip. She would pack, they would make love, she would get dressed—again, and her taxi would arrive just in time. Then there was the teary goodbye kiss at the door and the promise to come back. It felt so real, almost as if it were happening all over again. He could even hear the honking of the taxi driver's horn, until Wayne realized that it wasn't part of a memory. The sound was coming from outside. He ran to the window and peered through the slats on the blinds to see who it was. A shiny black Durango was parked in front of his house. On the roof were a pair of skis and ski poles. Tristan. Tristan had arrived.
Wayne slung his duffle bag over his shoulder and ran down the stairs to a patiently waiting Tristan. After depositing his bag in the back, he went back inside the house to retrieve his skis and his pole. After securing it to the rack with Tristan's help, he hopped into the front passenger's seat and buckled up.
"Where are we off to?" Wayne asked.
"Big Bear," Tristan said. "For some much needed break and skiing. But first, to the airport! He that hath steerage of my course, direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!"
"Okay, Shakespeare," Wayne said with a chuckle. "So tell me why we're going to the airport when our destination is Big Bear? Shouldn't we be going the other way?"
"There's someone else joining us this weekend," Tristan answered.
"Who?" Wayne asked. "Who else is joining us on this trip?"
"A friend," Tristan said, cryptically. "He's flying in from Boston."
"Who do we know who's from Boston?" Wayne thought out loud. "Oh, Hell no! Please tell me you didn't invite Satan."
"You do know he's a priest, right?" Tristan said, raising an eyebrow. "Hell, he was the one who married me and Isabelle. Or did you forget that?"
"Doesn't mean he's not Satan," Wayne said. "What was it they said about disguising as an angel of light?"
"I invited Lance on this trip so you two could patch it up already," Tristan said with an exasperated sigh. "It's time you two buried the hatchet."
"Where?" Wayne asked. "In the back of his head?"
"Wayne," Tristan said, giving Wayne a sideways glance.
"Alright, alright," Wayne said. "I'll try to play nice. No promises though."
"Thank you," Tristan said. "That's all I ask. Play nice. This is supposed to be a fun, relaxing weekend. You need a break—and the company. I need a break, Lance needs a break; priests are just human like the rest of us, after all."
"I said I'll try, didn't I?" Wayne said.
"Good," Tristan said with a nod, carrying on with his driving. "Now let's get going before we're late to the airport. You know how much I hate being late to anything."
"Yeah," Wayne said with a smirk. "Who could forget your five alarms?"
"I remember you threw one of them," Tristan said, laughing at the memory. "Let me tell you—not only did that old clock stop ringing, it also stopped moving. Completely."
"Hey, you asked for it," Wayne said in his own defense, making him and Tristan laugh.
There was a little bit of traffic but they were right on time, as Lance's plane had just touched down—4:15PM. Tristan eagerly searched for him among the sea of newly-disembarked passengers, looking left and right for any sign of him.
"Are you sure he's on this flight?" Wayne asked. "He didn't back out, did he?"
"He'll be here, I promise," Tristan said. "I'm sure of it. He gave me his word."
"What good is his word?" Wayne asked, a little miffed. "He's a good-for-nothing, weaselly little backstabbing Judas."
"Are you forgetting your half-brother Morgan who murdered Archie in cold blood?" Tristan asked. "I'm sorry, but if anything, he's the real traitor in this saga."
"Morgan deserved what he got," Wayne said. "I'm not arguing that fact. But Garry and Garth didn't. Lance had no right to put them in a coma!"
As they argued, people started staring in their direction and Tristan had to shut Wayne up—fast. Lance was a good friend. He was arrogant and annoying at first—the kind of person who would grab the last slice of pizza before you even got it, but once you got to know him and he warmed up to you, he was the kind of friend you'd want by your side in any situation. He was more than a good friend. Some would even consider him a great friend. In fact, when Tristan's jealous childhood friend Marcus stalked him and his girlfriend Isabelle, Lance—already a priest by then—sent them plane tickets to Boston and hid the couple at the rectory. He didn't condemn them for living together outside of marriage. He welcomed and accepted them as they were. But he had one other flaw that tarnished his near-loyalty. He was a bit of a Don Juan.
The three of them had been friends with their dorm's RA and with his girlfriend Gwen. Now, Gwen was special to them, but she was special most of all to Lance. They had a secret relationship for three and a half years in college. That's what started the feud between Lance and Wayne. When their whole affair was exposed, Wayne's brothers, Garry and Garth sided with Archie, and in his blind rage, Lance put them both in the hospital. Wayne had hated Lance since that day, and this trip was Tristan's attempt to mediate things between them—to try to patch things up. So far, it wasn't working.
Finally, after a long time of waiting and searching, Tristan spotted Lance and pointed him out to Wayne. He wore the typical uniform of the Catholic Church—black slacks, black shoes, black jacket, and a black shirt with a white clerical collar. He dragged his suitcase behind him and made his way toward the two friends.
"Speak of the Devil and he doth appear," Wayne said. Tristan elbowed him in the side as if to say remember, you promised to behave.
"Hey! Lance!" Tristan said, giving Lance a bear hug.
"Hey," Wayne said. "Good to see you again, Lance. Or do you go by Father Lake now?"
"I'm still Lance to my friends," Lance said with an amiable smile.
"Are we friends?" Wayne asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course, we are!" Tristan said, positioning himself between the two former friends and placing his arms around each of their shoulders. "Now, come on. I don't wanna be stuck in LA traffic. I want to check in at the lodge and find our cabin before dark. I heard the place is haunted."
"Are you serious?" Lance asked.
"That's what the rumors say, anyway," Tristan answered.
"Then it's a good thing we have a priest on our side," Wayne joked half-heartedly. "Let's go."
Tristan, Wayne, and Lance walked to the parking structure where Tristan parked and looked for his Dodge. As soon as they found it, Tristan opened the back and put Lance's luggage in with the rest of their things.
"You didn't bring your skis or your snowboard?" Tristan asked, noticing the lack of snow equipment among Lance's things.
"My parishioners keep me busy," Lance said. "I haven't had time for a break in years. I haven't snowboarded in years. It's a good thing the Bishop agreed I needed a vacation."
"Oh, I'm sure they keep you quite busy," Wayne said with a chuckle and a smirk. Lance ignored his comment and tried not to bristle at it.
"Alright, that's enough of that now," Tristan said. "Let's go, chop, chop!"
With that, the three men got in the vehicle and buckled up, with Wayne calling shotgun. Lance sat in the back, behind Tristan. They then drove off to their destination—Big Bear Lake. On their way, they argued about who should pick the music and what kind. It was decided that since Wayne had called shotgun, he had music selection rights. He chose Queen and he and Tristan rocked out to Queen songs. Their love and enthusiasm for the band was so infectious that even a Catholic priest like Father Lance Lake, who had sworn off such worldly music, couldn't help but sing—and scream—along with them.
"Pressure! Pushing down on me, pressing down on you," Tristan, Wayne, and Lance sang out loud, banging their heads like rock stars on a stage. "No man asked for. Under pressure, that burns a building down, splits a family in two! Puts people on streets."
In that moment, in that truck, it seemed they were all friends again. They were all college buddies and roommates again, and the animosity between Wayne and Lance was soon forgotten. They sang, they talked, they joked and laughed, and then they sang some more. Lance never forgot his Queen and his Beatles. Soon, however, sleep took over and before they knew it, they were knocked out cold, with Wayne's mouth hanging open and saliva dripping down the side like a rushing waterfall. Lance smiled a serene smile as he slept. He looked like a dead saint. Only Tristan was awake. He had to be.
This scene went on for almost an hour, when suddenly, Wayne and Lance were physically jolted out of their sleep as a blue-and-silver Suzuki raced past Tristan's Durango, speeding down the highway at nearly 100 miles per hour. The vehicle shook like a small boat rocked by a giant whale when it shoots up out of the water and dives back down again. Wayne grabbed onto the Jesus handle above the car door, gripping it so tight his knuckles turned as white as a sheet, and Lance crossed himself.
"Hey! Whoa! What the Hell, man?" Tristan shouted, honking his horn. The motorcyclist paid him no heed. Instead, he continued to race on as though he were on the circuit, ignoring the angry honks from Tristan and the other motorists. All too soon, the racer's joyride came to an end, and with it, his life. He slammed into a car, moving it and the driver inside, 15 feet. The car also rotated 90 degrees. The force of the collision caused the motorbike's gas tank to leak and erupt, creating an almost blinding and brilliant red, orange, and yellow fireball, burning the woman in the car to a crisp, and sending shockwaves through the surrounding area. It looked and sounded like a bomb had just gone off. It was like some director or other were filming an action scene for a movie. But this was no movie. This was real. Thick black smoke, embers, and the sound of blaring car alarms filled the air.
"Jesus Christ!" Wayne blurted out in shock, his mouth and eyes wide with terror.
Without thinking twice about it, Lance quickly unbuckled his seatbelt, unlocked his door, and ran along the freeway to the scene of the accident. Tristan and Wayne couldn't believe their eyes.
"Lance, where are you going?" Tristan shouted through the open window.
"Lance, get back here!" Wayne added.
Out on the road, Lance fished for his phone and dialed 911 as he ran, giving the operator the details of the accident and their location, I-605. After that, he helped the other motorists and passengers put out the fire and get the poor woman out. Together, they pulled her out of the car, carried her, and laid her down gently on the side of the road while waiting for EMTs to arrive. Then he knelt down beside her and began administering Last Rites. He reasoned there was no more time. She could die any minute now. She was in danger of death and he had to act quickly for her soul's safety. He asked one of the bystanders to run and retrieve his stole and host box from his luggage in the back of Tristan's Durango. He would have retrieved it himself but he did not want to leave the dying woman. When the young man returned with the purple stole and the host box, he put it on and asked the people to turn away or step aside. Confession was a very private thing and he would hear her confession as privately as possible. With confession done, Lance took a drop of oil and smeared it on the woman's forehead in the shape of a cross. Her skin and flesh came off, revealing her skull beneath as he did so. Some people watching in the background gagged at the sight of it.
"Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit," Lance prayed. "May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."
Unbeknownst to him, Tristan and Wayne were watching all of this unfold inside the vehicle from some feet away. Wayne could not help but notice the tenderness and compassion with which Lance performed the sacraments. The scene melted his heart little by little.
"Maybe he really has changed," Wayne thought out loud.
"He has changed, Wayne. Trust me, I've seen it," Tristan said. "I think Archie's murder and Gwen breaking up with him for good was an eyeopener. It was the catalyst."
A tear rolled down Wayne's left cheek, but he didn't bother to wipe it. He let it fall and nodded. They watched as the paramedics arrived and saw Lance stand up to make way for the EMTs. They resumed their journey in silence, and for a long time, no one spoke. Only when they neared the ski resort did Wayne finally speak. His voice shook with emotion.
"So… What happened to the biker?" Wayne asked. "Did you administer Last Rites for him?"
"No," Lance said, shaking his head. "There was nothing I could do about him. There was nothing the EMTs could do about him, either. He was killed on impact."
"Bloody Hell," Wayne whispered.
"Bloody Hell, indeed," Lance said quietly, crossing himself.
"I hope the rest of our weekend is peaceful," Tristan said. "Fingers crossed. Unless you two decide to kill each other."
"No, we're good," Lance and Wayne said in unison. "Jinx!"
The three men got out of the car and trudged through the snow to the ski resort's main building to register at the front desk. After checking in and receiving the keys, they went back to the truck to retrieve their things and looked for their cabin. One by one, they carried the items inside—Tristan's backpack, groceries they'd picked up along the way, Wayne's duffel bag, snacks and drinks, and Lance's suitcase. Then Tristan and Wayne went back to the truck to get their skis and poles. Once inside, Tristan headed straight to the kitchen to fix the three of them some dinner, while Wayne went straight to his bedroom to unpack, and Lance marched upstairs to the bathroom to wash up.
In the bathroom, Lance shut the door and locked it, then he proceeded to turn on the tap and let the cold water run over his trembling bloody hands, making sure to soap them well, watching as ribbons of crimson curled and slipped down the sink and into the drain. He yanked the white tab from his collar after drying his hands and undid his shirt. With a roll of his shoulders, he shrugged off the black shirt and let it sail carelessly down to the bathroom's icy tile floor—tile floors that felt as frigid as Death's boney hands.
Removing his glasses and placing them on the sink countertop, he splashed his face and hair with water. After a couple of seconds, he turned the water off, ran his hands over his face, and let out a breath. As a priest, he'd seen so many accidents, had heard so many deathbed confessions, been to so many hospitals, and administered Last Rites to so many of his flock and anyone requesting it, and yet he still wasn't used to that part of the ministry. He hated that part of the job and it still haunted him. One death in particular would haunt him for the rest of his life—that of Mother Mary Agnes. Those were the hardest Last Rites he'd ever had to administer. He wept for days on end after that and he never fully recovered.
As Lance continued to stare blankly at his face in the mirror, he couldn't help but wonder who the old man was. He was only 37—all three of them were—and yet he already had crow feet around the corners of his eyes. He had eyebags too, and his forehead looked creased. He looked haggard and felt tired. Sometimes he wondered if he really was 37 because he looked ten years older and felt twenty years older, even though it is said that redheads tend to age more slowly than others. The years had not been kind to him, and although he loved God and his parishioners, the priesthood was taking its toll. He still had a full head of curls and his red hair hadn't turned grey yet, which he was very thankful for, but his hairline was beginning to recede. It was clear from the front and he felt it in the back.
He breathed in and out, trying to calm his nerves, and stared at the mirror before him for far longer than he had intended. He would have remained in his stupor had it not been for the smells of Tristan's cooking wafting up into the second floor from the kitchen below. As he came down the stairs, the smells of their coming feast grew stronger and stronger. Wayne, too, smelled the food from his room and came out to the kitchen. He heard the sizzling of beef in the pan and the incessant bubbling of boiling water in the pot. The smell of ground beef, tomatoes, sugar, onions, hotdogs, and one ingredient they couldn't quite place filled the cabin's kitchen.
"Is this seat taken?" Lance asked, taking a seat on the stool beside Wayne at the bar.
"Please, sit," Wayne said, motioning to the barstool. "Help yourself."
"Thanks," Lance said, turning to Wayne and then to Tristan. "What's cooking, chef?"
"Yeah," Wayne said. "It smells so good! What is that?"
"Filipino spaghetti," Tristan said with a smile, while mixing the sauce together and straining the pasta.
Lance swallowed audibly and tried not to think of the blood and burnt skin and flesh on his hands earlier as he glanced at the red sauce. He wasn't about to ruin this intimate moment with friends—friends he hadn't seen in a very long time. Friends he had a lot of catching up with to do.
"Where'd you learn to cook Filipino spaghetti?" Wayne asked.
"When we moved to our first house a couple of years ago, a neighbor welcomed us to the community by bringing some over," Tristan recalled. "Isabelle and I loved it so much that I asked him for the recipe, which he gladly gave us."
After straining the pasta, Tristan transferred it into a bowl, poured the sauce, and mixed it well. Then he sprinkled shredded cheese over the whole thing. They moved from the kitchen to the dining room, where the table had already been set. When they were all seated, Lance clasped his hands together and said Grace, crossing himself before and after the prayer.
"Bless us, oh Lord, and these Thy gifts," he prayed. "Which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen."
"Amen," Tristan and Wayne said in unison.
"Alright, you guys," Tristan said, motioning to the food. "Dig in!"
"Gladly," Lance said, putting a serving of spaghetti on his plate.
"Let's see what this thing is made of," Wayne said, twirling strands of spaghetti around his fork and sampling the dish. "Why is it sweet? What's in it."
"The secret ingredient is banana ketchup," Tristan said with a grin. "And sugar."
"Surprisingly, it works well," Lance said. "This is brilliant!"
"I've never heard of banana ketchup before," Wayne said. "I always thought ketchup was made of tomatoes."
"It's a Filipino thing," Tristan said.
"Does Isabelle know how to cook this too?" Wayne asked.
"Oh, yeah," Tristan said. "We learned it together. Made it together for our anniversary."
"Speaking of Isabelle," Lance interjected. "How is she these days?"
"Well, we have good news," Tristan said with a smile. "After seven years of trying and failing, and then finally giving up, a miracle happened."
Wayne and Lance laughed with joy and excitement at Tristan's revelation.
"That's great!" Wayne exclaimed, clapping once. "Congratulations, you two! Finally! How far along is she?"
"She just passed the first trimester," Tristan answered. "It's twins."
"Hahaha! Now the only one without a kid here is Lance," Wayne teased with a laugh. "Looks like we're leaving you in our dust, bud."
"I wouldn't be too cocky if I were you," Lance retorted. "My parishioners are my children. They call me father. Besides, I do have a son."
"A priest? With a son?" Wayne asked, incredulous. "How are you still a priest? Was it with a parishioner? Does the Bishop know?"
"The Bishop has actually met my son," Lance said. "His name is Galen. He and I have an agreement. Our story is that he's my nephew, the son of my deceased sister, and I'm his only uncle."
"But you don't have a sister, if I recall correctly," Tristan said. "I know you have a half-brother, Hector. And cousins named Boris and Leon."
"Exactly," Lance said with a cryptic close-lipped smile.
"In other words, you lied," Wayne said, nodding. "Typical Lance."
"Sometimes you have to do what you must," Lance said. "And if that one thing you must do is lie, then so be it."
"Who's the mother?" Wayne asked. "Please don't tell me it's Gwen."
"No," Lance said, shaking his head. "It's Elaine."
"Which Elaine?" Tristan asked. "You dated two girls named Elaine. Elaine Corben and Elaine Ashton?"
"Well, obviously, it's Elaine Corben," Lance answered. "Elaine Ashton was long distance and we never…did it, even when she would visit. Let's get back to the food, shall we? I'd love to get the recipe for this."
"No, let's get back to the part where you have a son," Wayne insisted. Tristan glared daggers at him to get him to drop it.
"Lots of priests have sons—" Lance started to say before Wayne cut him off again.
"My problem isn't with you having a son," Wayne said. "You're right. Lots of priests have sons. And daughters. My problem is that you lied to save your skin. Was it really necessary? Was it worth it? Pray, tell!"
"Okay, that's enough now, you two," Tristan said, intervening.
"If you knew the Bishop, you'd understand," Lance countered. "He's very old school, very traditional. And strict. He's never fathered any children himself and he holds every priest in the Diocese to the highest of standards. If he knew Galen was my son, he'd have my head on a silver platter! If I'm lucky, that would be the end of it. I'd just get defrocked. Worst case scenario, he excommunicates me!"
That answer seemed to pacify Wayne and he nodded understandingly. They passed the rest of the meal pleasantly—eating, talking, laughing, and reminiscing about their wild college days.
"You remember that time when other students were complaining about the cafeteria food?" Tristan asked, reminiscing.
"And the annoyed cooks decided to punish us by serving nothing but beans for two months?" Lance recalled.
"Boy, did we set off some explosions that time," Wayne said, throwing his head back in laughter. "I'm sure glad people learned their lesson. They stopped complaining after that."
"What about that one Saturday morning when we came to the cafeteria early for breakfast?" Lance asked. "And we found out that the plates and utensils hadn't been washed because they ran out of soap?"
"Then I suggested we go to either IHOP or Denny's," Tristan said. "We ended up at IHOP and Archie paid for all our food. Sitting at that round table we always sat at when we would go to IHOP…"
At the mention of Archie's name, a sad stillness filled the room and their smiles turned into frowns. The air in the cabin suddenly felt as heavy and as oppressive as the weight of the world on Atlas's shoulders. It was deafening and suffocating. Lance, most of all, felt as though he were being crushed by a gigantic hydraulic press.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean—" Tristan said.
"It's okay," Wayne said, raising a hand to stop Tristan. "We know."
"I understand," Lance added, standing up. "I'll clear the table and wash the dishes."
While Lance busied himself in the kitchen, Tristan and Wayne moved to the living room, glasses of red wine in their hands. Tristan set his glass down on the coffee table and walked over to the fireplace to light it.
"Hey, look, there's a piano," Wayne suddenly blurted out, pointing to the grand piano in the corner of the living room. "You should play us something, Tris."
"Sure," Tristan said, rising from his kneeling position after lighting the fireplace. "Any requests?"
"What could be more perfect than White Winter Hymnal?" Wayne suggested.
"Your wish is my command," Tristan said, lifting the heavy piano lid and sitting down on the bench.
He played the requested song with fluid grace, his nimble minstrel's fingers dancing on the ivory keyboard like ballerinas on the stage, or like figure skaters on an ice rink. Wayne couldn't help but sing along to Tristan's playing.
"I was following the, I was following the…I was following the," Wayne sang. "I was following the…I was following the, I was following the…I was following the, I was following the…"
"I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats," Lance sang from the kitchen. "With scarves of red tied round their throats."
"To keep their little heads from falling in the snow," Wayne continued. "I turn 'round and there you go."
"And, Michael, you would fall," Lance added. "And turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime…"
As Tristan winded down to the last notes of the song, Lance finished up in the kitchen. As soon as he had put all the plates on the rack to dry, he joined his two friends in the living room.
"Bravo!" he said, clapping. "Encore! Encore! Bravo!"
Tristan stood and bowed like a concert pianist.
"Thank you, thank you," he said. "Any other requests?"
"Whatever you feel like playing," Lance said.
"Or play us Isabelle's favorite song," Wayne suggested.
"Oh, yeah," Lance agreed. "You could do that too."
"I'll try my best," Tristan said, sitting back down. "But I don't know if I could ever hold a candle to the great Tom Waits."
Then he proceeded to play the Tom Waits classic, The Briar & the Rose, singing as he played.
"I fell asleep down by a stream," Tristan sang. "And there I had the strangest dream. And down by Brennan's Glenn there grows a briar and a rose."
As Tristan played and sang, Lance couldn't help but shed a tear and they fell freely down his cheeks like a torrent of summer rain. Wayne's lower lip and chin trembled as well as he thought of Rachel at that moment.
"I tried to tear them both apart," Tristan continued as the song went on. "I felt a bullet through my heart. And all dressed up in spring's new clothes, a briar and a rose."
Lance wiped his cheeks and sniffled softly, almost inaudibly.
"And when I'm buried and in my grave," he joined Tristan on the last few stanzas. "Tell me so I may know. Your tears may fall to make love grow. The briar and the rose."
"And when I'm buried and in my grave," Tristan and Lance sang in unison. "Tell me so I may know. Your tears may fall to make love grow. The briar and the rose. Your tears may fall to make love grow. The briar and the rose. The briar and…the rose."
"Thank you," Wayne said, blowing his nose. "That was beautiful. You moved me."
"You moved us," Lance added. "Thank you. By the way, if you don't mind, I'd like to play a song."
"Be my guest," Tristan said, standing and offering the bench to Lance.
Lance sat on the bench and gingerly placed his fingers on the keys, playing a beautifully heartbreaking melody. He sang too, a song that Wayne and Tristan didn't recognize. They'd never heard it before.
"Sleep my tarnished silver," the priest sang with closed eyes and a trembling voice. "Let me dull you once again, and let our battle end. Sleep my snowless winter. Let me warm you once before I go…"
As he continued to play and sing, snow began to fall lazily. One snowflake drifted to the ground and then another, and then another. Soon, there was a gentle snowfall dusting the ski lodge, coating pine trees and the roofs of cabins with a glorious white. They were reminiscent of angels' wings in the silvery moonlight.
"It's snowing," Tristan pointed out to Wayne as they listened to Lance's song. "You know, it was once believed that raindrops were the tears of angels. And what is snow if not frozen rain?"
"In that case, he's even better than you if he can move Heaven," Wayne teased. "You moved mortals. Our Catholic friend here can move gods and angels. Turns out he's more of a master minstrel than you are."
"Hey, he must increase while I must decrease," Tristan said with a chuckle before returning his attention to Lance's playing.
"Time's been kind to you, my love," Lance sang. "As the world has never been. Kinder than to me. Strange the things that we regret. You wanted me to leave. I found enough to give you that. Sleep my darkened chapel. Let me kneel before you now as then, unworthy as I am…"
Wayne swallowed. They could feel Lance's breaking heart through the song. No matter what Lance had done in the past, no matter how evil in the sight of God and man, he didn't deserve the heartbreak that life had dealt him. Maybe he didn't even deserve the hatred that Wayne felt towards him. The stone sarcophagus that entombed his cold dead heart finally crumbled to dust.
"Who was that dedicated to?" Tristan asked when Lance had finally stopped playing and singing.
"That was for Gwen," Lance answered with a heavy sigh. "She… She's gone."
"Gone?" Wayne asked in shock and confusion. "Gone where? What do you mean she's 'gone'?"
"She's with Archie now," Lance said with an audible swallow. "Looking down at us from above. I administered Last Rites for her."
"Oh," Tristan said as realization began to set in. "Oh, God."
"When?" Wayne asked, mouth agape.
"Last year," Lance said. "I had a dream about a dying nun who needed my help. The next day, I received an email from a nun in a convent an hour away. It said that the Mother Abbess was dying and they needed a priest to administer Last Rites. They found my name online. Drove to the convent, and there she was, lying on her deathbed surrounded by flickering candles. Gwen—I mean Mother Mary Agnes."
"She became a nun?" Wayne asked.
"It's why I dropped out and went to seminary to enter the priesthood," Lance said. "She said she was going to be a nun to pay for her sins. I became a priest, along with eight other guys from our dorm, including Hector."
Another silence fell over the cabin like a weighted blanket for a second time that night after Lance finished his sorry tale. It was a full five minutes before Wayne broke the silence and cleared his throat.
"I think this calls for a toast," Wayne said, filling each of their glasses with wine. It sparkled like rubies in the firelight. "To absent friends."
"To absent friends!" Wayne, Lance, and Tristan said in unison, raising their glasses and drinking.
"To Archie and Gwen," Lance said, raising his glass. "May they be happy now, wherever they are."
"Hear, hear!" Tristan responded, raising his.
"Now that we're done moping around," Wayne suddenly said, getting up. "It's time we had a snowball fight. Don't you think?"
"Last one outside is a rotten egg," Lance said with a smile.
"Says the arthritic old priest," Tristan said, cocking an eyebrow. That got a laugh out of Wayne. The three friends grabbed their jackets and rushed out into the snow-covered landscape. Suddenly, without warning, Lance was hit with a snowball from behind, making him fall face first into the snow.
"That's for Gary!" Wayne teased.
Lance felt around for his glasses in the snow, wiped them, then put them on again. No sooner had he recovered and gotten back up when a second snowball hit him square in the face, causing him to lose his glasses once more.
"That's for Garth!" Wayne added, laughing. There was no hatred in his words now, only ribbing.
"And this is for putting that dead snake in my bed when you knew I was terrified of snakes," Tristan said, pulling Lance's shirt collar and dumping a fistful of snow down his back.
"What is this?" Lance said with a yelp, flailing and shivering from the assault. "Gang Up On Father Lance Day?"
"Yes," Tristan said with a wicked smile, dumping snow on Lance's head.
"Yes," Wayne added, sending another snowball his way. "It is."
He punctuated that last part with another snowball for emphasis.
"Oh, now, you've asked for it," Lance said, scooping up snow with his gloved hands and throwing it at Wayne. Then he made another snowball and chucked it at Tristan. "You've just declared war."
For the next half hour, the three friends threw snowballs at each other, tobogganed down the snowy hill, made snow forts, snowmen, and snow angels, oblivious to the fact that the snow was falling faster now. The amount of snowflakes drifting down towards them was also increasing. It was no longer the magical lazy snowfall that had welcomed them earlier. A snowstorm was brewing.
"Looks like we've got a blizzard on our hands, boys!" Lance shouted through the din of the howling wind. "We'd better get inside!"
"Good call!" Wayne shouted back. "Let's get out of here!"
Tristan, Wayne, and Lance trudged back inside to escape the howling wind and blinding snow. Once within the safety of their rented cabin's screened porch, Tristan fumbled for his keys with trembling hands and struggled to insert the key in the lock.
"Hurry up!" Wayne said impatiently.
"If you're so good, why don't you try it then?" Tristan shot back.
"Allow me," Lance said, taking the key from Tristan and unlocking the door in two seconds.
"Showoff," Tristan and Wayne said in chorus, as all three friends pushed against the door to close and lock it.
"We should probably talk about that…thing…out there," Lance said, motioning to the building storm outside. "Boston has had its fair share of snowstorms, and I can tell you right now, it isn't fun. People get trapped inside their houses for days."
"Since when did you become a Debby Downer?" Wayne asked.
"I'm not a Debby Downer," Lance said. "Just telling it how it is. And thinking practically. What's our action plan in case we get trapped here?"
"We have more than enough food to last us a week," Tristan pointed out.
"And if we get snowed in for more than a week and we run out of supplies?" Lance asked.
"We could always pull a Donner Party," Wayne joked.
"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" Lance said, holding up a hand to stop Wayne's train of thought. "Nobody is eating anybody. Alright?"
"Why not?" Tristan asked, joining in the banter. "Desperate times call for desperate measures. I vote we eat Wayne first. He has more meat. After all, he was our star quarterback."
"Aw, heck no! I vote we eat Father Lance here, first," Wayne said.
"Hold on! If you eat me first, who's going to bury you two?" Lance asked, finally cracking up and letting loose. "I propose Tris eats you, I eat him, and then perform Mass and bury both your bones in the deep snow, where you will be found come next spring. I'll be back in Boston by then and no one would be the wiser."
"You scare me sometimes, Lance," Tristan said. "And I don't scare easily."
"That is dark right there," Wayne said.
"Hey, you started it," Lance said with a shrug. "But seriously, though? What do we do if we get stuck here? I have a flight to catch and a parish to get back to."
"Relax," Tristan assured him. "This snowstorm would probably just last a night and then the snow will melt in two or three days. We'd be on our way home by then. We won't be stuck here for long."
"Besides," Wayne asked. "Aren't there multiple priests in your parish? Don't you have a substitute?"
"Yes, I have two substitutes," Lance answered. "And they both live with me in the parish house and are more than capable of handling problems in our parish and performing Mass and giving a homily."
"Then what's the problem?" Wayne asked.
"I love my flock too much to be away from them for too long," Lance said.
"Have faith," Tristan said, putting a hand on Lance's shoulder. "You'll be home before you know it. In the meantime, let's enjoy this much-needed break and the company. We haven't been together like this in a very long time."
"If only the present company was pleasurable," Wayne joked. Tristan and Lance laughed.
"We should probably get some sleep," Tristan said with a yawn. "We'll figure things out tomorrow."
"One last toast for the night?" Wayne suggested, refilling their glasses. "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due."
"Hear, hear!" Tristan said, raising his glass and tossing his head back to finish his drink. "Of all the money that e'er I've had, I spent it in good company. And all the harm that e'er I've done, alas it was to none but me."
"And all I've done for want of wit," Lance said, picking up the song. "To memory now I can't recall. So fill to me the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all."
"So fill to me the parting glass and drink a health whate'er befall," Wayne sang. "Then gently rise and softly call goodnight and joy be to you all."
"Of all the comrades that e'er I've had they're sorry for my going away," Tristan sang.
"And all the sweethearts that e'er I've had," Lance continued. "They'd wish me one more day to stay."
"But since it fell onto my lot that I should rise and you should not," all three of them sang, raising their glasses. "I'll gently rise and softly call goodnight and joy be to you all!"
With the singing and last toast done, the three men each departed for their own rooms. Wayne picked the bedroom downstairs, while Tristan and Lance picked the two bedrooms upstairs. On their way up, Wayne wished them a good night and peaceful dreams. But none of them slept soundly that night—not fully, at least. Tristan dreamed of his Isabelle and slept peacefully for a moment, but none of them could ignore the sounds of the night. The howling wind outside sounded like the moaning of ghosts and the shrieking of lost souls in Purgatory, and Lance could swear he heard a pack of wolves baying at the moon in the distance. The banging of the shutters against the windowpane sounded eerily like a poltergeist throwing things around the cabin. The piano was not quiet either. Twice, Wayne awoke to the sound of someone playing the piano. When he checked to see if it was either of his friends playing a prank on him, he was shocked to find no one in the living room. Other than the incident with the ghostly pianist, however, no other strange occurrences happened through the night.
In the morning, Wayne awoke to the smells of fried bacon, eggs, freshly brewed coffee, the sounds of clattering utensils as Tristan set the table, and an incessant tickling on the soles of his feet. That was the way that Lance woke his roommates up when either of them had overslept and were late to class back in the day.
"Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey," Lance said, wiggling his fingers lightly against Wayne's bare feet. He was standing at the foot of the bed wearing jeans and a green turtleneck sweater, not the typical garb of a priest.
"Leave me alone," Wayne said, jerking his feet away from his friend's hands and turning over on his stomach. "It's too early. Wake me up at 10:00."
"I hate to break it to you, but it is 10:00," Lance said. "Come on! Up and at 'em! I made us some breakfast."
"What?" Wayne said, confused and bleary-eyed. "What are you talking about? The Hell do you mean it's 10:00? Why is it so dark? I'm pretty sure it's 5:00 or 6:00. Certainly not 10:00."
"Look outside," Lance said, pulling the curtains apart. Despite the parted curtains, however, no light filtered in through the window.
"What the—?" Wayne said, springing out of bed like a jack in the box, and rushing to the blocked window. In front of him was a massive white wall. "We're snowed in?"
"We're snowed in," Lance said, nodding. "Now look who's panicking."
"I'm not panicking," Wayne said in his defense. "It's just the initial shock. And slight annoyance. Shouldn't have brought my skis since we have nowhere to go. How are you not panicking like you were last night?"
"I'm not sure panicking is the right word," Lance said. "It was more of a…concern. I was worried about my congregation. Like I said, I don't want to be away from them for long. Plus, I wasn't sure if we'd brought enough supplies with us."
"Fair enough," Wayne said, nodding.
"So? Are you coming to breakfast?" Lance asked. "Wouldn't want it to get colder than a dog's nose now, would we?"
"Give me a sec," Wayne said. "I'll be right out."
"We'll be in the dining room," Lance said, turning to go.
"By the way," Wayne asked before Lance could exit the room. "Were you playing the piano last night after we all went to bed?"
"No," Lance said, recalling last night's events. "Must've been Tristan. I was fast asleep. Well, it did take me awhile to fall asleep at first, but when I did, I was pretty much out like a light."
"Huh. That's weird," Wayne said. "I'll have to ask him later."
Outside in the dining room, Tristan finished setting up the table for breakfast. The food consisted of six fried eggs—four over easy and two over medium. Lance remembered how Tristan liked his eggs over medium and not too runny. There was also a heaping pile of steaming bacon, fried to a delicious crisp, some toast, a tub of butter, an assortment of jams and jellies provided by the lodge, and a mason jar filled with beautiful gooey honey that glowed like transparent molten gold under the light of the chandelier overhead. There were also three cups of coffee on the table, and each cup was tailored to each man's preference. Lance always liked his coffee with cream and sugar, while Wayne preferred his black with two teaspoons of sugar. Tristan used to drink his coffee the way Lance drank his, but as time went on, he transitioned into drinking pure black coffee—no cream, no sugar, bitter and acidic as all hell. At the same time that Tristan put the finishing touches on the table setting, Wayne emerged from his room.
"There he is!" Tristan teased. "Look who finally decided to join us from the realm of the dead!"
"Don't even joke about that," Wayne said with a sigh. "I didn't get enough sleep last night. Did you, by any chance, come downstairs to play the piano at midnight, and then at 2AM?"
"No," Tristan said. "The only time I got up was when I went to pee. I never went downstairs. I used the shared bathroom upstairs. Why?"
"I swear, someone was playing the piano last night," Wayne said, shaking his head. "Twice. I thought maybe you and Lance were playing a prank on me or something."
"It would've been fun," Tristan said with a chuckle. "But no. We were in bed by then. Although, now that you mentioned it, I heard a little girl laughing and running through the house being chased by her mother."
"Are you serious?" Wayne asked, almost dropping his mug in shock.
"No, I'm kidding!" Tristan said with a laugh. "Ha! I wish I had my camera with me. You should've seen your face! Aw, man, that was priceless."
Lance spit out his coffee and coughed.
"There goes Smart Alec and his Smart Alec pal again!" Wayne exclaimed, shaking his head.
"In all seriousness, though," Tristan said. "You were probably just imagining things last night. I know I did for a while. I thought there was some poltergeist activity going on. Turns out it was just the shutters banging against the windowpane because of the wind. Or it could've been hypnagogic hallucination. Who knows?"
"Could be," Wayne acknowledged with a shrug.
"Out of curiosity," Lance asked. "What did the song sound like?"
"It sounded like… Hang on a sec," Wayne said, fidgeting with his phone. He typed Romance by James Bastien in the search bar, found it, and pressed play.
"Oh, wow," Tristan said. "That doesn't sound eerie at all."
"It sounds beautiful," Lance added, not picking up on Tristan's sarcasm. "And sad at the same time. What's it called?"
"It's called 'Romance' by James Bastien," Wayne said. "How many more days are we staying here? Because I'm not sure how much more of that I can take."
"Relax, will you?" Tristan assured Wayne. "Like I said, it was probably just your imagination. Or a half-awake, half-asleep thing."
"I hope you're right," Wayne said, taking a nervous sip of his coffee. "I hope this place isn't haunted. That thing last night unnerved me."
"You don't really believe that, do you?" Tristan asked. "That doesn't sound like you, brother. I mean, you answered that guy's challenge. Remember that one party we had before we all went home for winter break?"
"You mean that weird-ass guy dressed all in green who crashed our dorm's Christmas party and challenged me to punch him?" Wayne asked, remembering. "Then he asked me to find him a year later so he could punch me back?"
"Yeah, that guy," Lance said. "Who was that weirdo, anyway?"
"It was Maureen's idea," Wayne said, shaking his head with a sigh.
"Archie's sister Maureen?" Lance asked in surprise.
"They were accomplices. She thought it'd be really funny and wanted to freak Gwen out. Some elaborate prank that was!"
"But you did answer his challenge," Tristan said. "When none of us dared move an inch, not even Archie. And then you fulfilled your end of the bargain by looking for him the following year and letting him punch you. After that, everyone in the dorm wore green in your honor."
"See? You've always been brave," Lance said. "But if this thing really scares you, then I can bless the cabin before we leave."
"Good thing we have a priest with us, no?" Tristan said.
"Maybe hold off on the blessing," Wayne said. "Tristan's right. It may have just been my imagination. I mean, we were tired from our trip and Tristan mentioned the cabin was haunted."
"Hey, that's what the guy told me when I booked the cabin," Tristan said with a shrug. "Just passing it on to you guys. Not my fault you believed it!"
"Who said anything about believing it?" Wayne protested with a loud guffaw. That was Wayne McKnight for you—hiding his apparent fear even among the most intimate of friends.
"It's okay, Wayne," Tristan teased with a grin. "We know you're scared. We got you."
"Enough about the ghost," Wayne said, a little peeved. "Aren't we going to talk about the elephant in the room here?"
"Which is?" Lance asked.
"Which is…this," Wayne answered, motioning all around the cabin to the blocked windows and doors covered by a thick white wall of ice. "All of this. How are we going to get out of this mess?"
"There's nothing we can do until this storm stops," Tristan said. "We don't know when that will happen."
"Until then, we pray," Lance said. "Or play games. I saw some board games in the living room last night. Or we could watch TV."
At Lance's suggestion of watching TV, the lights flickered and then went out. So much for that idea.
"Well, that's out," Wayne said. "So what do we do? Cross our fingers and sing Kumbaya by the fire? Roast some s'mores, hmm?"
"It's too early to be suffering from cabin fever, Wayne," Lance said. "Just…relax. Everything will turn out alright, you'll see. This too shall pass, as they say. We came here to unwind, so let's unwind. Stop worrying about things too much."
"Unwind? Unwind?" Wayne asked, his voice rising a little. "There is no unwind! How can we unwind in this weather? The doors and windows are frozen shut by a solid wall of packed snow, there's a storm raging outside, and now the power's out! We can't ski, we can't snowboard. I shouldn't have brought my skis and poles with me if I knew this would happen!"
"There are other ways to unwind," Tristan reminded Wayne. "There are books here. And board games—as Lance so astutely pointed out."
"I saw a really interesting one," Lance said. "It's called King of the Castle. I think you'll love it. You too, Tris."
"Do tell," Wayne said, perking up. "You've caught my attention. How does it go?"
"I just took a look at the box," Lance answered. "All I know is that it's medieval themed."
"Brilliant!" Tristan said. "We'll have to read the instructions when we play later. If you're game."
"I'm game," Wayne said, raising his hand, sounding genuinely enthusiastic. This was the first time he'd felt happy since Rachel's death. He hoped it would last.
After breakfast and after taking long hot showers and brushing their teeth, the three friends moved to the living room where a warm roaring fire was waiting for them, lit earlier by Lance. They sat around the coffee table and Wayne set up the board game. The board showed an outline of a castle and its rooms, much like Clue, except the rooms were Great Hall, Royal Bedchamber, Solar, Chapel, Kitchens, Barracks, Stables, Armoury, and Dungeon. In addition, there were two outdoor areas on the map—the Gardens and the Courtyard. The game included tiny little knights and men-at-arms of varying colors, some on horseback, some with lances, and some carrying battering rams.
"So according to the rules," Tristan said, reading, "The player who scores the highest gets to go first and has first dibs on any room of the castle that they want. They get to choose first."
"Sweet," Wayne said, throwing down his die and rolling a five. "Yes! In your face!"
"Which area of the castle do you want?" Tristan asked.
"I'll start outside," Wayne said. "In the Courtyard. I'll be the invading force."
"Cool," Tristan said, as he and Lance rolled next. He rolled a one, while Lance rolled a four. "Also, when your army lands in an occupied room of the castle, battle ensues and you can either eliminate your opponent's army or capture them to make it your own, thus growing your army."
"But that's just if you roll high, right?" Lance added for clarification. "And if my army is equal to or greater in size than my opponent's?"
"Exactly," Tristan confirmed. "If you get a low dice score or your army is small, your opponent eliminates or conquers your army and you're done for. Says here you have choose wisely."
"So I could either send all my forces to attack or I could attack with half my numbers and leave half to defend my position and other castle rooms I've conquered?" Wayne asked.
"You could also choose to stay put and bide your time," Tristan said.
"And once your opponent is eliminated or captured," Lance added. "And most of the rooms occupied by your forces…"
"I win and am declared King of the Castle?" Wayne asked.
"Bingo!" Lance said with a grin.
Tristan selected to defend the Royal Bedchamber while Lance positioned his army in the Chapel. The game was on—each man vowing to win. Tristan and Lance vowing to defend the castle while eliminating the other in the process, and Wayne vowing to take the castle and destroying both forces in his way, friendships be damned. This was a competition and he would win it at any cost. The three men went round after round, stopping only for lunch, some snacks, and dinner. They were having so much fun that they all agreed they could play the game for hours.
After playing one more round, which Tristan finally won, they cleared the coffee table and lounged or sat on the couches, drinking wine and eating popcorn. Lance was lying on his stomach by the fire, legs back and crossed at the ankles like a preteen girl writing in her diary on the bed. His wineglass was on the hearthstone beside him and his book in front of him. His glasses dangled precariously on the tip of his nose.
"What is that, Lance?" Tristan asked. "What are you reading?"
"The Lord of the Rings," Lance said without looking up and continuing on with his reading. "The Two Towers. Did you guys know that Tolkien based Treebeard after C.S. Lewis?"
"Huh, I did not know that," Wayne said sarcastically with a roll of his eyes and a smirk. "Thank you for that riveting lesson in classical literature, Father Lake."
Tristan gave Wayne an amused look and a smirk that meant play nice.
"You know, I'm surprised you never got into Lord of the Rings, Wayne," Lance said, finally looking up after a long time. "It has knights, horses, swords, good and evil wizards…"
"That's medieval fantasy," Wayne said. "I'm more of a medieval history kind of guy. Fantasy bores me. I want to know how people lived—peasants and kings, monks, knights—what their daily lives were like, how wars were fought, laws made, medicines of the era. I guess I prefer medieval reality. Although I wouldn't want to live it."
"Huh… That makes sense," Lance said, nodding. "No wonder you were killing it at King of the Castle."
"Nah, you guys just suck," Wayne teased, laughing. Tristan and Lance laughed too and threw popcorn at him.
"Especially Tristan here," Lance joked.
"Yeah, I've never seen anyone play so poorly," Wayne added.
"What is this? Gang Up On Tristan Day?" Tristan asked.
"Yes!" Wayne and Lance said, flicking popcorn at Tristan. "It is!"
"Hey, I had my moments," Tristan protested. "I had you cornered in the dungeon where you made your pathetic last stand. Remember that part, Father?"
"That was actually fun to watch," Wayne admitted. "I was almost tempted to cheer for Tristan."
"I decimated your army," Tristan said with a smile. "It was a bloodbath with singing sword and thunder."
"I also remember slaughtering your men in the great hall," Wayne said, throwing a kernel at Lance. "That would've been quite a statement from a conquering king. To have slaughtered the enemy right in the very heart of his castle—man! That would've been an insult."
"Oh, I can imagine," Lance said. "That would have been humiliating. And then to take the enemy king's crown and put it on your own head, oh boy."
"And then going up the steps of the dais and sitting smugly on the throne while you wipe the blood off your sword," Tristan thought out loud.
"Exactly," Wayne said, nodding. "With enemy soldiers either dead or kneeling before you."
"You would've made a fearsome villain, Wayne," Tristan said. "I'd be quaking in my boots."
"Me, a villain?" Wayne said. "Nah! No chance in Hell! My brother Morgan would make a great villain, not me. You wouldn't know it, though, because he'd hide it behind a friendly smile."
The room fell silent as all three friends were reminded of the way Morgan murdered Archie in cold blood during a fight in one of the school's parking lots, in front of Callahan Building, to be exact.
"Sorry," Wayne said. "I didn't mean—"
"It's okay," Tristan said. "We know."
"No worries," Lance added.
After another spell of silence, Tristan yawned, unable to stop it. He yawned twice.
"Sleepy?" Wayne asked.
"Yeah," Tristan said. "I'm off to bed. I'll see you guys in the morning."
"See ya," Lance and Wayne said in chorus.
A few minutes later, Wayne followed, entering his room, while Lance headed to the kitchen to wash their wineglasses. In the darkness of the kitchen he thought he saw a familiar figure. He dropped the glasses in fright and crossed himself.
"Gwen?" Lance asked, his voice shaking.
The nun slowly turned to face him with a smile. The last thing Lance remembered was the faint sound of his body hitting the tiled kitchen floor as he fainted.