In our town, the Candlelight Christmas Eve Service is a very big deal. Around Thanksgiving they hang a banner across Main Street from Mason's Hardware to the police station, and then you start hearing the talk. Everywhere. People wondering where we'll get the tree, how the church is going to look and what'll be different this year. Of course, nobody knows, 'cause it's all a secret -- we're in charge. From putting up the tree to hanging wreaths and lighting candles to the service, we kids at the high school do everything.
Usually I could care less about being in church, but the Christmas Eve service is different. I love the sweet smell of pine, and how people's faces look warm and kind in all that candlelight. I love the hymns, the silly manger scene in front of the church and the way little kids yawn 'cause it's so late at night. Everything seems special at Christmas Eve.
Of course, I've been through about a zillion of them. Without even looking at the program I know what's going to happen and when: stand up, sing, pray, choir, sing, shake hands, skit, sing, bells, bells, then my part: "Christmas Medley, a Trumpet Solo by Jake Rhinehart." My part's at the end, right before we walk to the field.
Bryan and I had planned to hook up before the service at the usual spot: side of the church, around the corner, behind the bushes. What we wanted was a safe place to be alone. What we got was a cobwebby corner that was dank and dark and cold as shit. But it was hidden, and if you leaned around the corner just so, you had a good view of the sidewalk, which sort of made it safe.
In our town you've got to be careful about certain things. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's a great place. The kind of place where just about everybody in town can expect to see a smiling picture of themselves in the weekly paper at least once a year. People want to know the good stuff you're doing. They want to be proud of you here. But unfortunately, it's just not the kind of place where guys go around hooking up with other guys. They don't understand that here. And that's just the way it is.
Actually, it's amazing that Bryan and I ever hooked up at all -- he's so shy! Ask any kid in my school who he is and they'll probably say, "Bryan who?" He's got this blond hair that hangs down onto these big brown eyes -- it's sort of like he's hiding back there. Most kids don't even see him. And, boy, can he blush -- just like that, in a flash. I tease him about it all the time.
Anyway, I was huddled up against the wall of the church and shivering my ass off when I peeked around the corner. It was quiet out; there wasn't a car on the street. Just then I saw Bryan coming up the sidewalk. Finally. Moments later he poked his head around the corner and whispered, "Jake?"
"You're late," I said.
He stepped around the corner and pulled down his hood. "Yeah, I had to change. My little sister spit up on my shirt. Did you bring it?"
I reached around and pulled out a magazine I'd stuffed behind my belt.
Bryan smiled, "Yesss."
We scooched down the wall, sat next to each other, then propped the magazine open on our legs. Bryan twisted on a little flashlight and aimed. In the bright glare we stared: boys, beautiful boys. Page after page of smooth-bodied, underweared and tight-muscled boys. Boys our age, who looked just like us -- or mostly like us. We laughed at this macho dude in tiger-print underwear. I hate that beefcakey shit.
I don't know how long we sat there flipping pages like that, but after a while things got quiet between us. Bryan's leg felt warm next to mine. I wondered if he was thinking what I was thinking. I was this close, this close to leaning over and kissing him, when headlights swept over us.
"Shit!" We fumbled all over ourselves frantically stuffing the magazine under a cinderblock. "The light! Goddamn, get the light!"
My heart was pounding like all hell and I felt like I couldn't catch my breath. Just a few feet away a car sat idling. Through the bushes I could see chrome and exhaust clouding over the taillights like some kind of devilish red smoke.
Bryan and I hunkered into the corner low as we could, pulled our knees up to our chests and waited.
Meanwhile, the engine stopped. We heard car doors opening, the jingle of keys and people stepping onto the sidewalk. We heard voices, old ones and young ones, and one that I recognized: Mike Michaelson. They stood there a moment talking and then they walked down the sidewalk and into the church.
I let out a deep sigh and looked at Bryan. He had his head down on his knees. I whispered, "We better wait 'til later."
He mumbled, "Yeah, I know."
I hated this. I hated that just about the time things got steamy, something always happened. I hated how we were always looking around corners and making out in bathroom stalls and whispering. And I hated Mike Michaelson, that chesty bastard. How he swaggered down the halls of our school holding hands with his cheerleader girlfriend. How they kissed each other before class -- every class. Ugh! God, how I hated Mike Michaelson!
I stood up, then reached down for Bryan's hand and pulled him up, too. Then I helped him brush off the dead leaves and dirt that clung to his jacket and pants. Damned dirty-assed corner. Then I stopped and just looked at Bryan. "Want to hook up during the service?"
"Yeah, right," he said sarcastically.
"No, really," I said. "My part's at the end. Until then, I don't even have to be there. I could say I was practicing. And you could sneak out, couldn't you?"
Bryan looked at me like I was crazy.
"C'mon," I said. "There's this room just off the foyer, you know the one?"
Bryan shook his head. "I dunno, Jake."
Okay, so it was a little crazy -- when you're in high school you think of shit like this. But the more we talked about it, the more convinced we became. Everybody would be in the sanctuary, we could hang out until my part. And maybe, just for a little while, we could be alone.
Then there I was, in the foyer of the Hartsfield United Methodist Church. People were everywhere, floating in through the doors, shaking off the cold, laughing or at least smiling. Somebody shouted, "Eloise, Eloise, wait up!" There were Santa Claus ties and light-up tree pins, and the air was thick with sweet perfume. Everybody was there, from Mrs. Watts, my Honor Club coach, to Mr. G., who always wears a veteran's hat, to Ms. Trumbull, the Mayor -- they all came.
Then Dr. Billy, our principal, hustled down the center aisle with a program rolled up in his hand, "All right, people," he shouted. "It's time."
The organ started playing and we formed a line. Then the congregation turned around in their seats to watch all of us march into the candlelit church -- all except me. I hung back and disappeared through a dark brown door.
Everybody knew it as The Kings' Room. And though I thought I'd never been in here before, it felt familiar, like I had. Even though it was dark I knew that right in front of me was a row of red-cushioned pews, that to my right was this giant altar carved out of dark wood, and on the far wall were these towering stained-glass windows that during the day showered bits of colored light over the entire room.
I dug in my pocket, lit a match, and slipped down the length of a pew to the windowsill, where I began lighting candles. As the light grew, I started seeing these inscriptions that had been set into the bottom of every stained-glass window:
In memory of Jayson Gruber,
d. October 4, 1938.
To our departed brother,
deceased June 12, 1941.
died May 4th, 1954.
Missed by all.
I began to think about these guys and wonder who they were, when I happened to glance up and see this giant stained-glass King staring down at me. I just about freaked! Then I saw another and another -- six Kings in all, one to a window, looming over me and the room.
One King was sitting on a rock with a gold crown and staff. Another had long, flowing robes. One King was mysteriously holding up three fingers, and another, a giant crystal ball. I must've looked like some kind of bozo gawking up at these guys, but I couldn't take my eyes off them. They were just so big!
Just then the door creaked open and I jumped -- but it was only Bryan. He whispered, "Hey."
I turned back to the windows to light more candles. Something felt wrong. Just like that. A switch went off in me and I felt, I dunno, pissed and angry. Disgusted. A minute ago I couldn't wait to get my hands on Bryan and now, for some reason, I didn't even want to look at him. I mean I really didn't want to look at him. I felt like if I did he'd know what I was thinking.
Bryan sauntered across the room with his hands in his pockets. He leaned against the sill, fiddled with some holly, looked at me, and just waited.
Then he blew a candle out.
"Don't do that," I said. I lit it again.
Then Bryan got this shit-eating grin on his face and, without missing a beat, he blew it out again.
"GODDAMN IT," I yelled. "STOP IT!"
Instantly my eyes shot to the door -- I thought for sure we'd be caught. When I looked at Bryan, he had this look on his face -- I'll never forget it -- it was like I'd betrayed him. He didn't say a word. He just kind of hung his head low and walked to the back pew and sat down.
Suddenly I wasn't so hot to light any more candles.
After awhile I went over and sat next to him. I didn't know what to say and Bryan stayed quiet, so we just sat there for the longest time listening to the muted sounds coming from the sanctuary.
Then Bryan started digging in his pocket and pulled out this crumpled wad of green tissue paper, the kind of thing you might see laying on the floor after a birthday party. He laid it on my leg.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Open it up."
I began uncrumpling it. Inside, nestled at the center, I found this little jade horse carved out of stone. I held it in my hand and just stared at it. It was beautiful.
"It's for, you know, Christmas," he said. I was blown away. "Bryan it's... it's a perfect thing."
And it was. Really.
So you'd think I'd do something nice for him, right? Like lean over and kiss him or pull a present out of my pocket. Well, nothing like that happened. Out in the sanctuary, the bell ringers had begun.
Bryan said, "You'd better go."
"Yeah, I know."
I slipped the horse in my pocket, took the trumpet out of its case, walked to the door, then hesitated. I looked back at Bryan. "See you later?"
"Yeah," he said kind of low.
I felt like I wanted to say something, only I didn't know what it was.
As I walked through the double doors at the back of the sanctuary, the bell ringers were just wrapping up. When they finished, I took a deep breath and began striding down the center aisle toward the stage. Other than a few coughs, it was quiet.
My trumpet solo is important. It's the part of the service where people begin lighting their own candles, the part where they file out of the church and down onto the field to sing hymns around a fire. The part most people say they like best.
I walked up the steps to the stage, strode to the center and glanced around at all those faces staring up at me. Then I looked down at my feet, set a good stance, wet my lips, and held up the trumpet. It was dead quiet. Everybody was waiting.
Then my eyes fixed on the double doors at the back of the sanctuary and I just froze. My chest tightened -- it felt like I was suffocating. I couldn't catch my breath. Don't think about him. Just play! But I couldn't -- there wasn't any air. I brought the trumpet down, gasped for breath, stepped back and said, "Sorry."
Everybody was waiting.
Once more I stepped forward, found my footing, and brought the trumpet up to my mouth. I looked out at all those people staring up at me... all those people.
Suddenly I felt all hot-faced, teary-eyed and shaky. My chest felt like it was caving in. I closed my eyes and just stood there, tight-lipped and trembling, trying to hold back this other thing that felt like it was going to burst out everywhere.
That's when I lost it.
I dropped the trumpet to my waist and held my hand up to my brow like I was trying to shield my eyes from the light -- only I wasn't. I didn't want anybody to see me! I looked over at the organist. She had her hand up to her mouth in an "Oh, no!" kind of way. I had to get out of there.
I stumbled off the stage and ran up the aisle. I didn't look at anybody -- no way! I burst through the double doors and they hit the wall with a loud crack. Behind me they swung back and forth with a whump-whump, whump-whump as I made a beeline for the dark brown door.
The Kings' Room was dark again, candle smoke hanging in the air. I stood at the opened door wiping my eyes and whispering loudly, "Bryan? Bryan?" only to hear nothing.
I ran outside and started searching for him everywhere -- side of the church, front yard, backyard, parking lot. I ran up streets at random, calling and calling for him. Still nothing. Then I ran back to the church, hoping that I'd missed him there.
Out of breath and panting like a mad man, I stood at the back of the sanctuary where, not 20 or 30 minutes ago, I'd waited to go onstage. Now the church was empty; all the fluorescent lights were on, the Christmas lights off. Gone were the warm lights of the candles, the tree, and a star we'd hung over the center of the stage.
It was then I knew that Bryan had gone home.
I could've sat in the back pew and balled my eyes out, but I didn't. My solo had been enough embarrassment for one night. Now I just wanted to go home. So I scooped up my trumpet and coat, and headed out the door to the parking lot. That's when I heard people singing.
I sat on the guardrail at the edge of the parking lot and looked out onto the field. I'd totally forgotten about the rest of the service, but there they were, everybody from the church, holding lit candles, huddled around a bonfire and singing "Silent Night." Everybody was close, holding hands and stuff like that. It looked kind of pretty. I shoved my hands into my coat pockets and just sat there watching them for a while.
Then someone behind me said, "Hey!"
I just about jumped out of my skin. It was Bryan. "Shit, man, you scared the hell out of me!" I said.
He just stared at me.
"What?" I said.
"No, I'm not!" I wiped my eyes and started to laugh. "Just a little." I looked up at him. "Where were you?"
He swung his leg over the guardrail and sat next to me. He was blushing, and I mean really blushing.
"What?" I said.
"My, uh, my Mom's going to her boyfriend's tonight."
I was, like, "...eeyeah?"
"And, I mean, I still have to watch my little sister and all, but, you want to spend the night?"
I think I laughed a little. "Um, Bryan, there's this thing called my Mom."
"It's arranged. I went back to my house. My Mom can be pretty cool sometimes. She called your Mom and everything."
I had to sit there a few seconds just to let it all sink in. Did he just say what I think he said?
"C'mon," he said, walking backwards away from me. "Let's go!"
"Wait, wait," I said. "Before we go anywhere I, like, really need to apologize--"
He interrupted, "You can tell me later. C'mon, let's go."
"But I was a jerk--"
"Tell me later! C'mon!"
"I love the horse--"
I looked out over the field at all those flickering lights and then back at Bryan weaving his way through parked cars. I caught up to him and we started walking -- no, running like hell -- out of the parking lot and down the street toward his house. In a few minutes we were there, inside where it was warm, padding quietly up the stairs so as not to wake Bryan's little sister. Then we stopped in front of a closed door. He whispered, "This is my room. Come on in."