There were three priests in the lineup at St. Stephen's.
First, of course, was Father Lewis - the pastor; a towering, jovial man who you didn't want to cross (he was even the boss of Principal Triceratops, which hardly seemed possible). Father Lewis lived on the church property in a two-story farmhouse.
Next up, Father Rick - the "cool", young priest who was somehow the same age as Will's parents (maybe even younger?). Did he live in the same house as Father Lewis? No one knew. He was often away from St. Stephen's, probably converting and healing people and whatnot.
Finally, you had Father Longspeak - the cute grandpa-like priest who probably still wanted to do the Mass in Latin. You grimaced (and then felt bad about it) whenever you rolled in for 8:30 AM Mass and saw Father Longspeak out there in front, shaking hands with both of his (why do priests always do the double hand-clasp thing?), because now you knew you were never going to beat the rush at The Bagel Station after Mass.
Side note - the real pros went to 7 AM Mass. The 7 AM-er was an austere, speedy 35 minutes - no music, no frills, and a short, warmup homily from whoever was on deck for the big show at 8:30 AM and 10 AM.
Now, as a curveball, homily-wise, there were also two deacons of St. Stephen's: Bullet Bill - who spent half the year in Florida playing golf and the other half weaving the NY Giants into his homilies, and the Almost-Deacon, who was, almost, a deacon, and wanted everyone to know it.
But, for the important stuff at St. Stephen's, they always rolled out the big guns. Father Lewis ran the Stations of the Cross, the kindergarten and 8th grade graduations, and even the insane Bring-Your-Pet-to-School-Day on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, where all the kids marched their pets around the baseball diamond and Father Lewis would sprinkle them with holy water when they crossed home plate. Will's dad made him a traveling case for his tree frog out of a clear plastic pretzel barrel for the occasion, and Will remembered being very concerned that the holy water never actually struck his frog.
Which, by the way, raised a question for Will: what was holy water and where did it come from? Was there a holy well somewhere in Galilee or Bethlehem, or maybe near where they found Our Lady of Guadalupe? Or maybe the priests could make normal tap water holy, the way they did with bread and wine? Two years later, in fourth grade, when Will became an altar server, he saw the little plastic bags where the host wafers came from. They were just like bags of Cheez-Its or Wheat Thins. Now, he knew that, once they were consecrated, these discs were precious and lived in that box near the candle that never goes out (like the Olympic torch), but it was still a shock to see. He also knew that you had to quickly consume any host that fell on the ground, which sometimes happened, especially when the old folks wanted to take their communion directly into their mouths.
It was something you dreaded as an altar server. Will had made the rookie mistake of trying to insert the host into their mouths like a debit card at an ATM machine, but that led to a lot of slobbery lips nibbling at his fingers. His dad suggested a NERF disc shooter might help. Then an older altar server gave him a tip - the back-hand serve.
"Flip over your hand, palm up, then wait for their tongues to slither out, and then let go. The host will catch on their tongue -- trust me."
Will tried it and it worked perfectly.
Overall, Will liked being an altar server. It gave him something active to do during the back half of Mass. He liked being on-stage and feeling important. Also, the best part, he'd occasionally get called out of class to go "work a funeral". Along with the super-fun task of lighting -- and then burying outside -- the incense, you also got $5 bucks of cold hard cash afterwards, for your troubles.
At the moment, it was two years before Will would become an altar server, but he was about to participate in another of St. Stephen's hallowed traditions.
Second grade was a big deal at St. Stephen's, sacrament-wise. You obviously had First Confession in the fall and then First Communion in the spring. Which was cool, other than trying to come up something to confess, and then the fact that the host did taste kinda bland when you finally tried it.
But the thing Will was most excited about was All Saint's Day - the day after Halloween - when, for homework, every kid would decorate a pumpkin like their favorite saint and then bring it in to school for, you guessed it, a blessing with holy water. There was not a single parent who shared in their kid's excitement for this ceremony.
Will's mom had to drop him and Alice off at school that morning (making her late for work), instead of them of taking the bus, because no one trusted Will's ability not to drop his pumpkin-saint on the bus. The high-schoolers in the back would have seen to that, ensured it.
When they arrived out front, Will thanked his mom and then carefully removed Saint Denis from the trunk. He saw that a bunch of his classmates had taken similar school-bus precautions, and Will raced up towards them with Saint Denis cradled in his arms.
"Who'd you make?", asked Matt Reeves.
"Saint James," said Chris Pomorant, displaying his cotton-ball bearded saint. "He was Jesus's brother, so he's the most important saint of them all."
"What are you talking about? Jesus didn't have a brother," said Matt, turning away. "How about you, Will?"
"Oh, just Saint Denis," said Will.
"Who was he?"
"He was a... saint. And he was beheaded."
"Woah, cool," said Matt.
"Yeah," said Will. "Then he carried his head around in his hands and kept on walking, doing saint-stuff."
"Awesome!" said Chris. "Like the Headless Horseman!"
"Exactly!" replied Will, delighted that his friends liked his choice. "I even painted some red blood around the bottom, for his bloody neck."
"Cool," said Chris. "Who did you do, Matt? And why does it look exactly like Santa Clause?"
Matt smirked. "Cause it is Santa Clause!"
They reached the entrance and Mrs. Conroy, one of the latchkey teachers, held open the door for them.
"You can't do Santa Clause!" cried Chris.
"And why not?" asked Matt.
"Cause he's not a saint!"
"He is! Jolly old St. Nicholas!"
Will kept silent during this part of the debate, but he felt Matt made a very good point right there.
Still, Chris kept pressing. "But where's his halo? You never see Santa with a halo!"
"Why does that matter?" asked Matt.
"Cause all saints have halos," said Chris. "That's how you know they're a saint."
"I don't care what you say, Santa's a saint, and he's my favorite, and he's better than your saint," said Matt, pushing past Chris into their classroom. But Chris pushed back with his shoulder, causing Matt to stumble backwards into Will.
"Stop!" yelled Will, but they didn't stop and then Will slipped, and they all went down, pumpkins and all.
It was an orange blood bath.
None of the saints survived, even Santa Clause.
Will felt like was going to cry and then realized he was crying.
Mrs. Conroy came rushing over, and then called Wade - their janitor - to help clean up the guts. There was no salvaging Saint Denis, Saint James, or Santa at this point. Will wasn't going to get a pumpkin blessing. It was a devastating blow.
"Can I keep the seeds?" he finally said.
Mrs. Conroy nodded, and found a ziploc bag for him in the teacher's lounge. Will scooped up as many as he could from the holy remains and put them in his backpack so his mom could roast them that night and he could eat the remains of Saint Denis while watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The three boys finally walked into their homeroom, which was buzzing with saintly cotton-balled pumpkins and their ecstatic owners. They took their seats in silence, ignoring questions from others about what happened to their saints. Mrs. Conroy slipped in and whispered something to Mrs. Jayne, their homeroom teacher, before heading back to the hallway.
Will laid down his head on his desk and closed his eyes. He felt a tap on his shoulder.
"I heard you might be needing this," said Mrs. Jayne. She was holding a tiny pumpkin gourd. "I've got some construction paper and markers, if you want to make another saint."
In the next ten minutes, he made the best teeny pumpkin-saint he could. Chris and Matt did the same, although Will knew his was definitely the best of the tiny gourds.
After morning announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, everyone put on their coats and marched outside to the parking lot with their saints. Father Lewis was waiting there, his vestments flowing in the cold November wind, and they went up to him, one by one, with their pumpkins.
"And which saint do we have here?" he'd ask each of them.
Will had been so prepared for and committed to his Saint Denis creation that he hadn't even considered who his new teeny pumpkin was supposed to be. It obviously wasn't Saint Denis. Saint Denis could never be recreated.
"Uhhh..." stammered Will. "Saint... Pumpkinhead."
Father Lewis raised an eyebrow at Will. Will flushed red in his neck and cheeks. But then Father Lewis shrugged and gave Will and St. Pumpkinhead their blessing with the holy water.
When Will got back in line, he popped St. Pumpkinhead into the pocket of his Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket and thought about Nintendo for the rest of the ceremony.