We three kings
CN&R’s annual holiday fiction by Zu Vincent
This was my first day on the job. I took it over from my brother, John, who was supposed to do odd jobs for Drum over Christmas break. Only John was always staying up too late at night and hadn’t gotten up this morning, so I asked Drum if I could help out instead. “Get in the car then,” Drum had said. And I went because I wanted the money. Even if I did hate being alone with Drum, I needed things other kids had, like a phone and a college fund.
I wished I knew where we were going, but Drum was the kind of guy you couldn’t ask questions of, so I kept my mouth shut. He turned off the highway onto a lonely road winding along the river. Here the water gleamed and disappeared, gleamed and disappeared, like a big sulky thing. Even though it was December, waves of grass grew tall by the bank and bent in the breeze. I liked seeing that. And the winter cottonwoods shaggy against silvered water.
Drum was Mom’s sort-of boyfriend, who I thought was all wrong for her, but Mom said I couldn’t possibly know enough about men to make that judgment—I was only fifteen—and to give him a chance. I stole a glance at him. He drove left-handed, his right arm on the seat between us. He spread his palm to prop himself up, had a glass stuck between his legs, Jack and Coke. He drove too fast and stared at the road from his pig eyes and his skin oozed like he’d swallowed oil. On the radio, Alvin and his Chipmunks giggled about what they wanted for Christmas, and I made a joke to myself about Drum being a wasted Santa Claus, with his white beard starting and his belly flopped down over his belt buckle, his red car big and loose as a sleigh.
We passed a sign shaped like a house, its roof and door framed in Christmas lights, with crooked letters offering CABINS FOR RENT, and I thought about that, living on the river in a cabin. How nice it would be. I’d put up my own Christmas tree and invite my friends, like I couldn’t do at home anymore.
“What’s the matter with that brother of yours, anyway?” Drum’s too-cheery voice made me jump. “Can’t even keep a job. At seventeen. When I was his age, I quit school to work. Look what I got now.” About all I knew he had was The Come On Inn, the bar where Mom worked. He didn’t even have a place to sleep except our house, now that his wife had kicked him out of his. “Kids these days. Don’t know the value of a dollar.” Drum one-handed his Jack and Coke, slid his pig eyes at me and took a swig. “What about you?”
“I can keep a job,” I said. “I’m not a quitter.”
He squinted into his Jack and Coke. “Good,” he said.
I’d promised, but I didn’t even know what my job was yet. Out the window a black swarm of crows flew in, cussing at the sky. The road kept winding, and I was getting worried about how far we’d come. I didn’t have any way back if he decided to try something funny. Mom swore he was trustworthy, but her judgment wasn’t always the best since Dad died.
Dolly Parton was singing now. “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
“We Three Kings of Oil and Tar,” Drum mimicked. His fingers widened on the seat between us. “You like Christmas?”
“I hate it.” Drum’s cheeks were so raw they were red. “But I’m not a kid.”
“I’m not a kid, either.”
“That so?” His fingers curled up and he punched the radio off. He swung the car onto a dirt road and drove reckless, limbs and vines leaning out to slap the windshield. Where was he taking me? The car bounced and jolted, driving farther in. That’s how I thought of it, we were going in somewhere. A jungle or a maze where I’d be trapped. I took hold of the door handle.
Drum finally stopped in the middle of some trees. The crows had settled their black shapes in the limbs, and between the limbs sun scrabbled bright on the water. Inside the car was too warm and quiet. We could hear the motor tick. Drum’s arm went along the seat back. I could jump out now and run and he’d never catch me. He was too slow and fat. But where would I run to?
This is how girls get caught, not being able to decide. Being stupid.
“Stay quiet.” Drum unlatched his door and levered out, waving for me to follow. He still fisted his Jack and Coke. We clomped through the grass and trees toward the river. The river gleam made me squint and blink and I tripped over some old metal junk sticking up in the grass. He didn’t seem to notice and wheezed on ahead of me.
The river air felt damp. When we got close, Drum stopped and swung his arm and fear looped up in me. This was it. He’d knock me down and do bad things to me. But Drum was only pointing toward an old pink and white Ford station wagon half hidden in the tall grass. “That’s a classic car,” he said.
It didn’t look classic to me. It looked worn out. Dead leaves and twigs were stuck on the hood. He lumbered over and brushed them away. He grunted trying to open the door, the grass was so thick and tall. He sat with one leg in the car and the other hanging out and felt around under the dash until he fished out a key.
A slumped shack sat a ways off. Not a cabin with Christmas lights, just a shack. I thought I heard sharp voices. A white van was parked beside the shack. Drum glared toward it and lifted his Jack and Coke and drank it down. He didn’t say anything at first.
“We’re taking this,” he finally said. “They’re gonna come out but you just drive.”
This was the job?
“I don’t have my license.”
“You can drive, can’t you? Your mom said you knew how.”
“Okay.” He got back out of the car and handed me the key. “Get in.”
The station wagon was long and low. I got in. I touched a silver knob and it fell off in my hand. I looked back the way we’d come. “But how do I get out of here?”
He waved through the trees. “Just drive. Get back to the highway and take it to The Come On Inn.” I was afraid I’d ruin the car doing this but I didn’t say anything. If he wanted me to drive across the weeds and rocks and junk, I would. I started to drag the door shut but he stuck his hand out to hold it open. “Don’t kick it over until I tell you. Then you floor it and don’t stop, hear me?” I nodded and he threw his glass off into some weeds.
I watched him wade through the grass toward the shack. The car was stuffy. It was so old it still had crank windows. I rolled them down for air. Drum reached the shack. He looked back at me and twisted his hand like a key turning, then disappeared. My breath went fast. I looked all over the steering wheel but I couldn’t find the ignition. I poked and poked. He forgot to tell me how to find the ignition!
I got really scared then. Where was Drum? What if we were stealing this car? What if whoever was in the shack came out and tried to stop me?
I stared at the dash. There was a slot that looked like it would fit a key. I stuck it in. Turned it. The engine cranked and whined. I pumped the gas. Black smoke belched out the back so I heard both noises at the same time. The engine and on top of that, a gunshot. I was sure of it. They had shot old Drum!
My heart yammered. The crows flapped up from the trees. What was I going to do? I stared at the shack. Nobody came out. Just the grass bending in the breeze, and the river flowing behind it. He said don’t stop. He said that.
I pushed down on the shift and watched the arrow flop to drive. I mashed the brakes by mistake and then hit the gas. The car creaked and moaned, lurching forward. The steering wheel felt frozen when I tried to turn. A cracked voice popped from the radio and my fingers tingled holding the wheel.
I skidded across the grass and slammed into a hole. Jerked out again. Swerved and cratered through the grass and almost into a tree. I swerved again, flew up and sideways and down, rammed my chin and jolted backward. But I finally made the dirt road and it was easier then. Winding back through the slapping trees, the crow noises looped in the open window and flew off swallowed by rushing air.
When I pulled onto the paved road, the shoulder scraped the Ford’s belly and I had to hold the wheel tight. I stared straight ahead. I’d never driven alone on the highway before. John was always with me, or mom. I thought about my brother’s only real advice to me, to brake into the curves and accelerate out, but I didn’t want to brake. I wanted to go even faster. A hundred miles an hour. I skimmed around curves and stepped on it for the straight stretches, waiting for the Ford to die or a cop to catch me without my license.
A horn blared and I jerked my eyes to the rearview mirror. A car was rushing up fast. Not a car, the van that had been parked beside the shack. With two guys inside.
My legs went rubbery. My ribcage filled hard as clay. They’d killed Drum and now I was going to die. I wouldn’t even make it to Christmas. I wished for a cop now. I wished I’d never heard of Drum and The Come On Inn. The van loomed bigger and bigger in the mirror and the guy on the passenger side pulled himself half out the window.
A loud pop and the wheel shuddered and the Ford yanked right. They were shooting at the car! I yanked the steering wheel left but couldn’t hold it. They must have shot the tire. The Ford swerved and bucked and a loud screeching started up. Sparks danced across the back window. I remembered in Driver’s Ed how you were supposed to tap the brakes if you lost a tire. So I tapped the breaks, over and over like crazy until the car finally slowed, and limped to the side of the road.
The van shot ahead and screeched to a halt in front of me. I wanted to jump out but I got this thin as paper feeling and couldn’t move. Like maybe I’d get out and be blown away in the wind.
The van just sat there. I couldn’t see what was happening inside. I thought maybe I should run—if they wanted the car they could have it. But I had promised Drum I wasn’t like my brother. I wasn’t a quitter. My job was to take this old Ford to The Come On Inn and that’s what I was going to do. I felt kind of fascinated, watching what would happen next, like this was me and it wasn’t me. The van doors opened.
Cold sun swelled in the windows. I smelled pepper grass and leaf mold. I looked away from the van to the river smattered through the trees. All of a sudden I wasn’t in the car anymore, but floating from it. I wasn’t thinking about dying before my next Christmas. Instead, I was out there by the water, with my dad, the way we used to be.
Back then we lived in a subdivision near the river. There were always lots of birds, not just crows, and trees tight up to the water, with paths weaving through. You could ride your bike forever along the paths. On my last Christmas break before Dad died, he took me and Mom and my friend Dalia for the longest bike ride I’d ever been on. The ride was so Dalia and I could raise money for cancer research. We wanted to ride twenty miles so we could each earn five dollars a mile. Dad said if we made the bridge we’d have made twenty miles. I have pictures of us when we made the bridge. In the pictures Dad looks thin and determined. His jacket is open and his ribs show under his white T-shirt.
Mom was worried about him taking the ride with us because he was already sick, and I remember he didn’t always keep up. Still, whenever I looked back, there he was, bringing up the rear. I was so proud that he came. Dalia’s dad said he was too busy to do something like a charity bike ride. She was a tag-along kid and her dad was always too busy for her. He’d already raised her older brother and sister who were off at college. But my dad was different. He did things with us, like camping and planting a garden and helping with charity rides.
The river air was chilly that day, too. Mom and Dalia’s cheeks were bright pink. My hands were white and cold on the bike handles, but inside my jacket I was warm. Mom told me to wear my hoodie, but I wouldn’t. I loved how the wind went loose through my hair. The smell of pepper grass and dank leaf mold. The freedom. And having Mom and Dad to myself was great. I usually had to share them with my brother. But not this time.
A big blue heron swooped along the water with its legs dangling. Dad called us to stop and watch. He was always noticing things like that. He’s the one who taught me how to harvest oysters in the sand and showed me how to deep-fry frog legs. He just knew stuff about wildlife most people didn’t. Just like he knew taking me on that bike ride was the best, last Christmas present ever.
All this remembering happened so fast, like time halted, thinking back to that day on the river with Dad. The van doors were opening now. The guys climbed out. Maybe I got the memory like that because I knew I’d never be in this kind of trouble if he were still alive. He would have kept us safe. I wouldn’t even know Drum or drive underage or steal a car for him. And I wished I could tell those guys they better watch out. That if they laid a hand on me my dad would come after them. Instead, it was just me, with old Drum probably lying dead back in that shack. And maybe my life really was over now, too, and all the raising up in the world hadn’t prepared me for this moment, the last moment of my life.
One guy wore a flappy T-shirt as if he’d forgotten it was cold. The other guy had a billed cap pushed low. They got a look between them like they hated to have to pull legs off a poor spider, but when it came time they’d do it anyway. I hunched down in the seat until the steering wheel chopped them in half. But pretty soon the whole of them appeared over the top of it.
A hand came down hard on the hood.
“You Drum’s kid?” The guy in the flappy T-shirt glared at me through the windshield.
I shook my head.
“I bet she’s Drum’s kid.” He slapped the car hood again. The guy in the cap nodded. “Come on out, kid.”
I didn’t move. My breath broke like my ribs had split.
“You want us to come in after you?”
I should have run. It was too late now, but I should have run.
I pulled the car handle back. Cracked the door open. Slid out and stood up. Stopped.
A truck was coming up the road. I heard its approach and turned to watch it. Maybe this was my chance. I could run now. Take off as the truck went by. If I could get to the river I’d jump in and swim so fast they’d never catch me.
I was about to hightail it when the truck pulled to a stop behind the Ford. I stared at the driver, who was staring at the three of us. His look said he meant business, whatever that business was.
The man in the truck kept watching us with that bad look. He opened his truck door. He got out of the truck and the one with the flappy T-shirt lifted his hands, palms up.
“Damn.” He sucked air between his teeth.
“Let’s go,” his friend said. “It ain’t worth it, man.”
In another minute they’d backed up and headed for the van. When they got there they jumped in, slammed their doors and squealed off.
The man from the truck smiled now. He looked older, not ancient like Drum, but Dad’s age. He wore a soft brown jacket and a billed cap. And he might have scared off those two guys but his voice was kind when he walked up. “You blow a tire?”
“Got a spare?”
“I don’t know. Where would it be if I have one?”
“Probably in back.”
The rear door swung out sideways. I opened it and looked under the floor mat. “Here it is.” I tugged at the tire.
“You want some help?”
I did and I didn’t. “Can you show me what to do?”
“All right. This is the jack.” He pulled it out. “You use it like so to lift the tire off the ground.” I did what he showed me to do and it wasn’t so hard, jacking up the rear end.
“Now the lug nuts,” he said. “Use the tire iron.”
I pulled it out, cranked at a lug nut. It was stuck. “Here.” He took hold and loosened it easily.
“I’ll do the rest,” I said, taking the tire iron back.
“How old are you?”
He smiled. “Old enough, I guess.”
Old enough. I thought that was probably right. I went after the rest of the lug nuts.
“You got to pull the tire off and set the spare on.” He stood back so I could give it a try. “There you go. You got it.”
He nodded. Helped me lift it. “Now make sure those lug nuts are tight or you’ll lose the tire.”
I cranked the tire iron hard. Then handed it to him. “Will you check?”
He knelt and cinched the nuts tighter. When he was satisfied, he stood up. “There you go. Just put your tire in back and have it fixed when you get to town. And drive slow,” he added.
“I will,” I promised. He got back in his pickup and I waved when he took off. But I didn’t head to town. As soon as he’d disappeared down the road I turned around and went back to the river. I guessed I couldn’t leave old Drum there. He might be shot. He might be bleeding to death. Nobody deserved to bleed to death. Not even Drum. Besides, if he died, Mom and I would both be out of a job right before Christmas.
Only Drum wasn’t dead. He’d come back to his sleigh car and was just sitting there, staring out at the river. Rubbing at his Santa belly falling over his belt buckle.
“I told you keep on driving!” Drum griped when I pulled into the field and stopped beside his car.
“Did they shoot you?” He didn’t look hurt. He looked kind of happy. His pig eyes gleamed. He didn’t ask about me and those guys chasing me and what might have happened. And I didn’t tell him.
“That what you thought? That they shot me?” he laughed. “Those fools? They’re not smart enough.”
“But I heard gunshots.”
“Those weren’t gunshots. That old Ford backfires.”
I wasn’t satisfied, though. “Why are you stealing it anyway?”
“I’m just repossessing it.” He corrected me. “They owe me money.”
“Now follow me to my place.” And he shut his car door and drove off.
I sat there for a while before I followed him. I thought about how that memory of my dad had come to me so whole and real in half a second. I thought about how I still had that day we took the bike ride, safe inside. How much I loved him and the things he taught me. Like about watching for blue herons and keeping on riding even if all you can do is take up the rear. And I guessed Mom was wrong, that even though I was only fifteen, I’d already learned all there was to know about men in life. That some are angels and some are pig eyed and some are fools. And to get by, you just have to be able to judge which is which.