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“I can’t wait till y’all see this place,” said Kevin eagerly, leaning forward to look out the window as Brian passed a large sign that said,

Welcome to
est. December 25, 1799
3 miles to village

“I can’t wait to get out of this car,” added Howie, side-eyeing the back of Nick’s seat. AJ and Kevin laughed. Nick and Brian had driven them nuts singing the full dozen verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to help “get them into the spirit.” It would have been bad enough if they had actually known the lyrics, but they’d spent half the song arguing about what came next, “geese a-laying” or “maids a-milking,” and wondering what on earth the true love’s gift was on the twelfth day. “It’s ‘DRUMMERS DRUMMING!’” Howie had finally exploded, in a last-ditch effort to get them to finish the damn song already.

“Drummers drumming?” Brian repeated, frowning into the rearview mirror. “That doesn’t sound right.”

“Trust me, it’s right. My kids love that song almost as much as the two of you do; they torture me with it every December,” said Howie with a shudder. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that, Mr. Drummer Boy,” he added, nudging the back of Nick’s seat with his knee.

“Ooh, ‘The Little Drummer Boy’!” exclaimed Nick. “That’s a good one, too!” Howie couldn’t tell if he was being serious or just trying to annoy him more. He never knew with Nick these days. When he saw how Nick was with his wife and kids, Howie’s heart swelled with a sort of big-brotherly pride at the mature family man his friend had become. But put Nick in a situation like this, and he seemed to regress right back to his old role of the pesky little brother. Kicking the passenger seat as hard as he could in time to Nick’s “rum pa pa pums” only seemed to encourage him.

“Hey, look,” said Brian, pointing out another sign on the outskirts of the small town. “Bethlehem: Poetry Capital of New Hampshire. Pretty cool!”

Nick snorted. “Since when are you into poetry, Brian?”

“Uh, since I started writing songs?” Brian gave Nick an incredulous glance, his eyebrows raised. “You realize lyrics are just poems set to music, right?”

“Oh… right.” Nick’s ears reddened.

AJ snickered. “Dumbass. You’re a poet, and you don’t know it!”

The others joined him in laughing at Nick’s expense. Normally, Howie might have come to his defense, knowing what he had meant, but after his obnoxious caroling, Nick deserved to be ridiculed.

They drove slowly through town. There wasn’t much to it - along the quaint main street, they saw a library, a school, a few little shops and cafes, several churches, and a couple of bed and breakfasts. “Think there’s any room for us in the inn?” Brian joked, tipping his head toward one.

“I thought Kevin already booked us a cabin,” said Nick. Howie and AJ looked at each other, both wondering if he was acting like an idiot on purpose. Sometimes Nick liked to play up the whole “dumb blond” persona, but he had proven himself to be a lot more intelligent than people gave him credit for. Usually.

“I did,” replied Kevin flatly. “That was a Bible reference, Nick. You know, that book that tells the story that inspired the holiday we’re gonna be singing songs about? You might wanna read it sometime.”

The way he said this, with the air of a grown-up patiently explaining something to a toddler, got the rest of the group cracking up again.

“I’ve heard of the Bible, Kevin; I’m not a total heathen,” Nick retorted, triggering another round of laughter.

“Aww, c’mon, now, Nick knows some Bible characters. There’s Jesus… Frosty… Santa… Rudolph… The Grinch…” Howie ticked them off in his fingers, trying to make the same squinty-eyed face Nick made when he was thinking hard.

Nick laughed good-naturedly along with the others, but afterwards, Howie felt bad. They all knew Nick hadn’t necessarily had the same happy childhood the other four guys took for granted. Howie doubted Nick’s dad had read him the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke every Christmas Eve, like his own father had. He didn’t think Nick’s mother had gotten the kids all dressed up in nice, new clothes for mass on Christmas morning the way Mama D had done either. From what Nick had told them in the past, his parents usually spent the holidays getting drunk, while he and his siblings fought over their presents. It was no wonder he worked so hard to be a better father to his own children. At least he could make some happy new memories with them.

“Hey, there’s a grocery store up ahead,” said Brian. “Should we stop and pick up some food and supplies before we go to the cabin?”

Nick nodded. “Good idea.”

As Brian signaled and turned into the parking lot in front of the small supermarket, Kevin said, “Now I know we’ve all been trying our best to stay in shape, so let’s keep it mostly healthy and not just get a bunch of junk, okay?”

Howie looked around guiltily. Aside from swimming in his pool and walking on the beach with his wife, he hadn’t made much of an effort to stay in shape during the quarantine. Was he the only one? He knew AJ had been dieting and working out, and Brian had started some kind of thirty-day fitness challenge that he may or may not have finished. Kevin was always hiking or doing something outdoors with his kids. Poor Nick had the hardest time keeping weight off; he looked like he had packed on a few pounds since Howie had last seen him, but Howie knew Nick still tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It wasn’t easy, especially with two young children to take care of.

“Remember, Nick’s eating gluten-free now, so try to find stuff he can have too,” Kevin went on. “And no alcohol.”

“No alcohol?” Howie repeated, raising his eyebrows. “Why not?”

“Because... we’re here to work, not party. I don’t think we should be drinking on the job. Some of us shouldn’t be drinking, period.” Kevin looked pointedly from Nick to AJ.

“I don’t mind if you guys drink,” said AJ with a shrug. “I’m not gonna give up six months of sobriety just because there’s booze in the house.” No one said it, but the fact that he had last fallen off the wagon just six months ago suggested otherwise. AJ’s twenty-year fight with alcoholism had turned out to be less a battle and more like an ongoing war.

Kevin clapped him on the shoulder. “We’re proud of you, bro. And because we’re proud of you, and we support you, we’re not gonna buy alcohol.”

As they climbed out of the SUV, Brian caught Howie’s eye and rolled his own behind Kevin’s back. Howie smiled and shook his head. Just as Nick had naturally regressed to his role as the annoying little brother, Kevin was back to being the big brother. He couldn’t help himself. Howie knew he only had AJ and Nick’s best interests at heart, though, so he didn’t push the alcohol issue. He did add plenty of junk food to the cart, partly to spite Kevin and partly because if they weren’t going to drink, they at least deserved some decent snacks to eat.

The back of the Range Rover was piled so high, Brian could barely see out the rear windshield as he pulled back onto the road. He followed the directions recited by the GPS, which took them out of town and onto a rural road that wound its way up the nearest mountainside. The road narrowed as they climbed, the mailboxes belonging to houses hidden behind the trees becoming fewer and farther between. “I sure wouldn’t wanna drive this route in the winter,” Brian said with a nervous laugh, gripping the wheel with both hands as he guided them around a particularly sharp curve.

Looking out his window, Howie swallowed hard when he saw how steep the dropoff was on the left side of the road. It looked like it went straight down the mountain. There was no shoulder or guardrail, nothing to keep a car from going over the edge and crashing into the trees and boulders below.

“You okay, cous?” Kevin asked, leaning forward.

Brian nodded. “It reminds me of the crazy road up to Cathedral Domain.”

Kevin smiled. “It does, doesn’t it?” He had been behind the wheel that day, during the filming of their documentary, when they had driven through the hills of backwoods Kentucky to get to the camp where he had grown up. Even after three decades, he had navigated the narrow, winding road with no problem, one hand on the wheel while the other waved around, pointing out places he remembered from his childhood. He had never been to the White Mountains before, but he already seemed right at home.

Howie, on the other hand, had started to wish they would have booked a beach cottage on a tropical island somewhere in the Caribbean instead. Why hadn’t he suggested that? They had written and recorded songs for Black & Blue in the Bahamas; it would have been fun to go back there, twenty years later. But it was too late for that now.

“Hey, look, Brian, it’s one of your kind,” said Kevin, pointing out his window as they drove past a ramshackle wooden house with a confederate flag hanging in the front window and a TRUMP 2020 sign prominently displayed in the overgrown yard.

“Shut up,” Brian retorted, shaking his head. Howie saw his hands clench even tighter around the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white.

“I didn’t realize they had Republicans in this part of the country,” said AJ, frowning. Howie couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not. “Do they not know New Hampshire was in the Union, not the Confederacy?”

“Actually, I think New Hampshire is one of the more conservative states in this region,” replied Howie, who had spent more time in the Northeast than the rest of them. He had visited his in-laws in New Jersey at least twice a year for as long as he and Leigh had been together.

“Guys, can we please not talk politics?” Nick spoke up from the front seat, glancing over at Brian.

“Fine with me,” Howie agreed, grateful to him for saying it first. He hated when the other guys ganged up on Brian for his conservative beliefs. Never discuss politics or religion - that was what his father had taught him, a piece of advice he tried to abide by.

“Works for me too,” said AJ. “I’m sure we could all use a break from the political bullshit.”

“Bullshit is right,” muttered Kevin, rolling his eyes at the back of Brian’s seat.

Howie had a feeling he knew what Kevin was referring to. Brian’s wife Leighanne had been on a roll lately with the right-wing political posts she’d been sharing on her social media pages. It had caused a rift in the fanbase, with many fans accusing her of racism and transphobia, while others defended her right to free speech. So far, Brian had remained silent on the matter, which Howie felt was the best course of action for the time being. Poor Brian was between a rock and a hard place: if he spoke out against his wife, he would be in hot water at home, but if he backed her up, he would be called a bigot, too. Howie wished Leighanne would make her pages private or stop posting altogether, but he wasn’t about to bring it up with Brian. Like the others, he fell silent, ignoring the proverbial elephant in the Range Rover as they continued up the mountain road.

After the Trump dump, they didn’t see another house for several more miles. Just when Howie was beginning to wonder if they were lost, Brian made another turn onto a long, gravel lane, which led to the cabin Kevin had rented.

“Wow,” said Nick in awe, as the boys in the back seat leaned forward for a better look.

Howie had been picturing a quaint little log cabin, but this place looked more like a private mountain lodge. It was two stories tall with a steeply-pitched, A-frame roof and a wrap-around wooden deck, its rustic timber siding accented by a towering stone chimney. He let out the breath he had been holding and immediately felt better about their decision to come here.

“You done good, dude,” Brian told Kevin approvingly as he parked in the driveway. “This place is perfect.”

Kevin smiled. “Wait till you see the inside.”

They all scrambled out of the SUV, leaving their groceries and luggage in the trunk for the time being. Kevin retrieved a key to the cabin from a lockbox left on the porch, unlocked the front door, and led them in.

The interior was as beautiful and spacious as the exterior, with cathedral ceilings, gleaming hardwood floors, and a tasteful blend of shiplap and plaster on the walls. The back wall offered a breathtaking view through a set of picture windows, while one of the adjacent walls featured a handsome stone hearth. A flatscreen TV was mounted over the mantle, and a huge sectional sofa wrapped around a plush piece of carpet in front of the fireplace, along with a pair of cozy armchairs. The wide open floor plan connected the large living area with a modern kitchen and dining room, while a spiral staircase wound its way up to the second floor loft.

Beneath the loft lay a room that had been turned into their temporary recording studio. Rented audio equipment lined the walls, which had been hung with tapestries to help absorb sound. A large keyboard and drum set sat on an oriental rug in the middle of the room.

“Pretty impressive,” said AJ, looking around.

Kevin perched on the piano bench in front of the keyboard and played a few notes before giving a nod of approval. “It’ll be perfect for an acoustic album. No frills, nothing fancy, just a few instruments and our five voices.”

“That’s all we need,” Nick agreed.

Next to the makeshift studio was the master bedroom, which Kevin quickly claimed. Since he had been the one to book the cabin, the others let him have it.

“How many bedrooms are there?” Howie asked, as they trouped upstairs to take a look.

“Four, but since one’s being used as the recording studio, the rest of you will have to share,” said Kevin apologetically.

No one complained. They were used to sharing, having done so with hotel rooms, tour buses, and sometimes even beds during the early days on tour. It would be like old times. The sleeping arrangements were still better than the bunk beds Howie had been envisioning. At least each bedroom had its own bathroom, so they wouldn’t have to fight over showers.

Brian and AJ liked the large loft, which had two more beds, leaving Nick and Howie to take the last room.

“Where is the other bedroom?” Nick wondered when they went back downstairs, looking around in confusion. “I thought you said there were four.”

“Must be in the basement,” replied Kevin, reaching for the knob of a closed door off the kitchen, which Howie had assumed was some sort of pantry or storage closet. Instead, he opened it to reveal another set of stairs heading down.

Howie hadn’t realized the house even had a basement. He wasn’t happy about sleeping in it, until he followed Kevin downstairs and found himself in a beautifully finished walk-out basement that was a far cry from the dark, creepy cellar he had been imagining.

“Whoa, check it out!” cried Nick, pointing to a pool table. It sat in front of a pair of sliding glass doors, which opened to a large patio overlooking the mountainside. “We got us the party suite, D!”

“Sweet!” exclaimed Howie, running his hand across the smooth mahogany bar installed on one side of the room. He snuck a quick peek inside the mini fridge behind it, but it was empty. Suddenly, he regretted not buying any alcohol at the grocery store. He would have liked having a late-night drink with Nick at this little bar or out on the patio before they went to bed.

Their bedroom was located behind a door on the other side of the basement, along with a bathroom. It was sparsely furnished, but at least there were two separate beds.

Nick plopped down on one of them. “This place is freaking awesome!” he declared, bouncing on the springy mattress. “Great idea, Kev.”

“Yeah, this is gonna be fun,” added AJ with a grin, as Howie and Brian nodded in agreement.

“Glad you guys like it,” Kevin replied, looking pleased with himself. “We’re gonna do great things here. I can feel it.”

And on that first day, the others shared his optimism. They had a huge cabin all to themselves, plenty of food, all the equipment they needed, and no distractions except for the gorgeous scenery outside. Most of all, they had each other. As Kevin had said, there was a certain kind of magic created by the five of them singing together. Here, they could finally rekindle that magic.