An original story written by me for us headbangers to get into the spirit the holidays. Merry Christmas to all! – HOM
Luke Hooper slogged through the wet snow and slush towards the office where he worked on a chilly Friday morning in December. On his feet were heavy black boots, on his body was business casual khakis and a green collared shirt, on his head of short brown hair a black wool hat to keep in the heat from his scalp.
He trudged away from the main staircase of the subway, feeling the sting of damp, cold air on his face. Cars honked as they tiptoed through the mire of his city’s busy streets, sirens were already sounding, and commuters bumped into each other as they watched where they put their feet. Many of them swung large shopping bags, cell phones, or laptop bags as they walked.
On Luke’s face was a pair of thick sunglasses to protect his brown eyes from the glare of the harsh winter sunlight, in his work bag was his contribution to his team’s workplace Secret Santa, and in his ears was blasting his favorite heavy metal band.
Winters Bane they were called, and Luke had enjoyed their music since he was an energetic teenager looking for something to do during those lazy summer days off from school. They had been one of the first metal bands Luke had ever enjoyed, and his love for the genre had only grown since then. Though he had come to appreciate many other groups, Winters Bane held a truly special place in his heart.
Though he later learned that many others classified them as “progressive metal,” the truth to him was that Winters Bane were simply loud, melodic, wonderful music for any and all seasons.
As Luke dodged a passerby who was too engrossed in his phone to look where he was headed, the young headbanger wondered if everyone else on the street was listening to Christmas music today. He didn’t mind Christmas music at all, but he didn’t exactly love it either.
Finally, he reached his office lobby and stamped his feet free of snow, leaving his earbuds in with Winters Bane cranking all the way through the walk to his desk. One of his favorite guitar solos was on, and it took him all the way back to the joyous, hot days over ten years ago. He was so engrossed he only vaguely noticed the white, twinkling Christmas lights and tinsel that his colleagues had strung all around their open-format floor. The concrete pillars here and there were enrobed with red ribbon and gold stars, and on the far side of the floor someone had a small portable radio playing Christmas tunes at low volume.
Luke arrived at his desk, turned on his computer, and took off his hat, coat, and sunglasses, leaving the earbuds in to finish up the song. Through the metal in his ears he heard a muffled human voice that sounded like a greeting plus a question.
“Morning Luke, what are you listening to?” it came a second time as the earbuds left their proper place.
It came from Justine, who sat next to him across the divider between open cubes. Her area was lavishly decorated, her computer monitor trimmed with red and gold tinsel, her desk boundary marked with white lights, and a tiny Christmas tree parked next to her keyboard.
“Winters Bane,” Luke told her, handing her his music player so she could have a look. He watched her blue eyes scan the screen, devoid of any recognition of the band but nevertheless bright with interest. Between the blue light of the player, the computer and the Christmas lights, Justine’s pale skin and loose black ponytail took on a different shade of light than Luke was used to seeing.
“Never heard of them. Are they good?” Luke’s colleague handed him his music player back, her fingers gently brushing his.
“They’re my all-time favorite!” he told her. “Going to their show tonight at Caligula’s, actually.”
“Nice! I think you’ll have a great time.”
“How do you know that, if you don’t know their music?” he teased. Not that anyone else in the office really knew of Winters Bane, either—but Justine at least was interested, instead of the head shaking he often got from his other colleagues.
Justine gave him a pretty smirk. “I just have a gut feeling.”
“Welp,” Luke sat down and pulled out his wrapped Secret Santa gift, “just my luck, I drew the boss this year in the Secret Santa pool, so hopefully he needs a new set of scotch glasses.” The green-wrapped box went onto his desk with a gentle, glassy thud.
When the two of them were joined by their dozen or so other colleagues in the office, the team gathered in a conference room first thing in the morning to hand out the gifts.
Luke was happy that his boss seemed satisfied with the secret gift of scotch glasses. “Are you guys trying to tell me something here?” he laughed through his beard and adjusted his Santa hat.
Luke didn’t know what to think when he found a parcel about the size of a jewelry box with his name on it in the pile on the conference room table. It felt light but solid, and as he tore it open Luke saw he had been treated to the smooth steel of an engraved lighter with the word “heavy” on one side and “metal” on the other.
“Cool!” he exclaimed, flipping it open and lighting it once for effect. This wasn’t a cheap plastic lighter you picked up at the corner deli.
Justine raised her hand. “You’re welcome!” she said. “I noticed you’re always listening to that stuff in the morning, so I thought you’d like it. Use it at the show tonight!” she did an impression of waving a lighter over her head in a stadium.
“That’s very thoughtful, thank you,” he told her with sincerity, turning it over and over in his hand.
The rest of the Friday workday thankfully flew by with the weight of Luke’s secret Santa gift in his jacket pocket. Concert day was always an event for him, so when Justine asked him around 4pm whether he was excited, Luke just looked at her and said, “You have no idea. Winters Bane has been around for over twenty years, and every other year around this time they go on tour. Like clockwork. It’s my first time seeing them, actually!”
His coworker smiled. “Sweet!”
Luke raised his hand in farewell a couple of hours later, changing into his Winters Bane band t-shirt and black jeans in the ground floor bathroom and taking the subway downtown to Caligula’s bar.
Caligula’s was not only a rock solid neighborhood bar, it also had a small space attached to it where visiting bands could play. Ever since it opened, the owners had made it an especially welcome place for heavy metal fans and acts, because they themselves were “one of them” too. The main barroom was long and narrow, and if you were standing facing the bar itself there was enough room for perhaps three more people behind you before your back was at the wall.
Black was the dominant color of the bar—black tap handles, black wood on the bar, and the chairs would have been black too if there were any. But Caligula’s, which was usually lit up with red lights for metal concert night, looked decidedly cheerier than usual as tinsel and white lights wound together all down the bar, hung in loops from the ceiling like festive rafters, and marked the walls leading to the back of the building.
All the way down at the end of the room was a double-wide open door leading into the standing-room only performance area with its small stage and enough room for a hundred fifty fans or so. Winters Bane was not a hugely popular band, but they had enough of a cult following that they could comfortably fill the space.
Caligula’s was packed as usual for Winters Bane. Headbangers were stacked three and four deep at the bar, chatting and drinking golden elixir from bright glasses. Their long hair and black leather jackets were shining from the Christmas lights as they mingled, shouted drink orders to the busy bartenders, and got ready for showtime. Only a few minutes after Luke had acquired his first beer and set to work it, his cell phone vibrated to reveal his boss’ number from the office. He quickly drained the last of his brew and stepped outside from the loud, busy bar to take the call.
As he told his boss exactly where he had saved a certain file, Luke looked up and down the dark, snowy street. Luckily the wind had died down, and the local downtown shops selling everything from liquor to guitars were lit up for the season in a variety of colors. A large cache of fresh Christmas trees, ready to be smelled, bought, taken home and decorated, flanked a section of the street near the local pharmacy.
Luke took a few steps down the block to cut down on the background noise from Caligula’s. Once he had found a quieter, unpopulated place on the sidewalk to talk, the call was over within a few minutes, his boss apologizing for calling on a Friday night after hours and telling Luke to have a pleasant evening.
He had barely said, “Thanks, you too,” and hung up before he saw someone out of the corner of his eye approach him and ask for a light.
“Sorry, I don’t smo—“ Luke turned to the asker and stopped his reply right away. He saw a face he recognized from many interviews he had watched over the years. It was Rick Hanley, the lead singer of Winters Bane. He wore a thick black knit hat over his great head of dirty blond headbanger hair and stood at about Luke’s height. He wore no jacket despite the cold, content with a black sweatshirt, jeans and worn black leather boots.
“No worries man, sorry to have bothered you,” Rick said before starting to move on his way.
Luke was still realizing what was happening, and about halfway through his brain telling him, “Your favorite singer just asked you for a light,” his hand patted his left jacket pocket containing Justine’s secret Santa gift.
“H-hey, wait! Actually I do, my bad,” he stammered, walking after Rick and holding out his “heavy metal” lighter.
“Thanks man,” said Rick gratefully, who cupped his weathered hands around the little flame to light his cigarette.
Luke looked at him in silence as he took his first couple of puffs.
“Hey, do you mind if I see that lighter again for a second?” Rick asked, who turned it over in his hand to read the engraving. He chuckled as he read “Heavy” on one side and “Metal” on the other.
“This is great,” Rick told Luke, who was still wordless. “I’ve seen some cool merch over the years, but I’ve never seen this. I ought to get them made for the band store!”
Luke loosened his tongue finally. “Y-yeah, it was a good gift.” He tried very hard to keep his voice calm, though he knew that if the fourteen-year-old Luke knew he was talking to Rick Hanley one on one, he’d be freaking out.
“Are you excited for the show?” Rick asked as he blew smoke downwind from the two of them, back towards the crowded Caligula’s.
“Yeah, it’s actually my first time seeing you–your band, I mean–what about yourself?”
“Absolutely, yeah. I love coming to this city around this time of year,” Rick looked around the Christmas street. “Every time we do, it gets harder to leave.”
It was a surreal but all-too-quick few minutes while Luke made small talk with the cult heavy metal legend. As Rick’s cigarette shrunk with use, Luke grew more comfortable. They chatted briefly about their Christmas plans and whether they had listened to anything good lately. Luke enjoyed the fact that Rick seemed genuinely interested in the conversation, looking him in the eye and listening to him talk.
After those quick few minutes had ended with a cigarette stamp-out, a hearty handshake and shoulder clap, and an “Enjoy the show!” Luke was back in the bar, starting on his second beer in silence, smiling and letting that friendly encounter sink in.
Luke’s first Winters Bane show was everything he could have hoped for. There he was only a few feet from that small stage, surrounded by at least a hundred other fans and letting out a huge roar as the band came on, Rick Hanley last onstage and shouting, “Good evening my friends!” while they kicked in with the same first song they had opened every show with since their inception.
The next two hours flew by as quickly as those few minutes outside. Hair, sweat, bodies, and beer flew around in a celebratory din. Luke was a teenager again, playing air guitar as he had so many times in the past, only now he was looking at Winters Bane’s lead guitarist playing it instead of imagining it from his stereo. Rick Hanley was a force of nature, reaching out his hand to the audience, pointing, smiling and winking at everyone, and leading his crowd in the epic, melodic choruses, all of which Luke knew in his bones from past times both happy and sad, cold and warm, alone and with company. His body and throat would be mighty sore the next day, but he was having too much fun to care.
There was an inevitable encore, and only Rick Hanley and his lead guitarist with a twelve-string acoustic guitar walked back out, surrounded by multicolored Christmas lights that draped the stage, their gear, and the amps.
As the guitarist gently strummed away on a few open chords to set the mood, Rick raised his arms and talked to the audience, breathing heavily from his recent exertion.
“Okay guys, this really is our final song now, but before we do that I just want to thank you all for being such a fantastic audience!” He lowered his arms while the Winters Bane fans cheered.
“And in all seriousness, one of the reasons we love coming here and going on tour so much is that this city—this city, right here—feels more like our second home than any other!”
The audience was cheering gratefully again, but Rick continued talking while that went on: “Every time—every time we come here, we have total strangers treat us like family, and that’s something we’re never gonna forget now that Christmas is around the corner now! So this is our last song, dedicated to you all, because you really embody the spirit of this special time of year.”
A suspended chord hung in the air before he started to sing:
“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”
Luke was transfixed as he watched and listened to Rick Hanley’s worn voice, the voice he knew so well as a fan from so many other songs, crackle through this Christmas standard, and heard the loud voices of the many people in the room who also knew it by heart join him in song. It felt like a natural extension of all the singing they had done together as an audience for the last two hours.
A couple of moments later, their metal caroling was at an end, the acoustic guitar scrubbing quickly for the final line:
“And tidings of comfort…aaaaaaand joooooyyyyyy……..thank you very much! Good night! Merry Christmas to you all!”
And until next year when they (and Luke) would surely be back again, Winters Bane gracefully bowed and left the stage at Caligula’s to thunderous applause.
As he made his way home close to midnight, Luke took out the lighter again and looked at it fondly. Silently he thanked Justine for her thoughtful gift and decided that when he walked in on Monday, he would ask for her number and thank her in some other way…
Written by Matt P