“Three Kings”

Fiction by Diana Gallagher

    I spend eight God-awful hours a day, six days a week, lugging lumber as mosquitoes whine around my head. I didn’t sign on for babysitting. Especially not on Father’s Day.
    My 10-year-old brother, Rob, rambles about his morning. I concentrate on last night’s leftovers, dragging a slice of Italian bread through the spaghetti sauce.
    “How’s the internship, Pete?” Mom says.
    Heinous. Craptastic. “Pretty terrible,” I say. The sauce warms my mouth. “I signed on for preservation, not manual labor.”
    Mom nods.
    “I should probably drop out of school if that’s my future.” Across the table, Rob scoops a meatball onto his plate. His tongue sticks out in concentration. Meanwhile Nick, who’s two years younger than me but carries on like he’s 50, looks like he’s ready to grab the meatball off the spoon and eat it. But since he’s Nick, he’ll do nothing.
    “You always made really cool things out of Legos,” Rob says.
    “You could always go into education,” Mom says with a significant lift of her eyebrows.
     Great idea. Since I love kids so much. “I know.”
    And I do know. I’ve heard it from everyone who asks, “What are you going to do with an art degree?” I thought it each night before a committee review, rethinking every flaw in every piece. Before my senior review — that was the worst. I almost called Mom to say, “The jig is up. I’m outta here. Forget this artist thing.”
     But I always had a plan: first, the undergraduate degree in fine arts, and now the master’s degree from San Diego with a career path — preferably working behind the scenes at a museum, restoring old paintings to new life, sitting in a corner where no one can bother me. Mom’s not so fond of that plan, either.
     “Going anywhere today?” Mom asks.
    Yes is my default answer. My best friend invited me to his family’s Father’s Day celebration. “We do it the German way,” he said. I didn’t realize there was such a way. “Your cup will overfloweth.” Tempting. But I’m not up for celebrating such a holiday.
    “Up in the air right now,” I say instead.
    That’s when Mom gives Nick a significant look, then shoots me the same. “The three of you should do something together.”
    I almost laugh.
    Rob lifts his head mid-meatball bite, eyes wide.
    Nick, damn him, says, “Like what?” He doesn’t even look annoyed.
    “We could go to the movies,” Rob says through a mouthful of meatball. “There’s this really cool movie that’s based on the game . . .”
    “A movie about a video game? Please.”
    Nick gives me the “don’t be a jerk” look. Okay, Nick, like you want to spend two hours of your life watching men in costumes say, “We must unlock the witching spell. To the guild we go.”
    Rob stares at me. I’d go so far as to call it “withering.” Didn’t know my little brother had it in him. “What do you want to do, Pete?”
    Sleep. My arms ache. Bruises line my shins from tripping up and down stairs. Instead I lie in bed scratching the infinite mosquito bites on my ankles, knees, stomach, knowing that sleep won’t come.
    Mom’s eyes on me, too. I can’t escape.
    “Let’s go on an adventure,” Nick says.
    “Where?” Rob keeps looking at me, like I’ll get up from the table and run if he breaks eye contact.
    “A destination to be determined.” Clearly Nick has no idea.
    “Like the time you got a flat tire?”
    “Nick took you on an adventure and he got a flat tire?” I say.
    Rob giggles. “Yeah. It was pretty funny.”
    With that, I feel destiny pulse through me, summoning my strength. Time to be the cool brother. “Then we’re going on a better one tonight.”
    Father’s Day in Mosaic Lake chokes Main Street with minivans. All those families drive back and forth, before sitting down to dinner.
     I honk at a woman pushing a stroller across the street.
    “Dude. That’s a twin stroller. Calm down,” Nick says.
    She doesn’t react to the honk. Just moves slowly, her large hips swaying from side to side. Like I have all day to sit and watch her.
    “How do you handle living here?” I say.
    Nick shrugs. “Trying to figure that out.”
    “Liar. You love it here.”
    “No.” Nick watches as I speed around the woman. “I get frustrated, too.”
    “Frustration is the least of it. If you really wanted out, you’d already be gone.” Okay, so sometimes I try to bait Nick. I’ve tried to since childhood. It’s maddening, the way he never reacts. His face scrunches for a second and then flattens. I wait for the zinger. It never arrives. You could call it passive-aggressive except there’s no aggression. It’s unnatural, that’s what it is.
    “Where is Dad buried?” Rob asks.
    “Uh. What?” Nick and I look at each other and then out the window at the gray tombstones of St. Paul’s Cemetery, almost hidden behind the mayhem of Main Street. “Where did that come from?” I say.
    Rob’s face is serious in the mirror. “I’ve never been to his grave.”
    Nick can handle this conversation. Not me. But his hands and eyes dart to the radio. What a great brother.
I clear my throat. “Dad was cremated.”
    “Where are the ashes?” Rob stares at me in mirror, leaning forward.
    “Lake Ontario,” Nick says. “He grew up in Toronto and he loved anything that had to do with water.”
    “Is Lake Ontario far?”
    “It’s a good few hours,” I say. Too far or not far enough, I don’t know.
    “Oh.” Rob’s eyes are thoughtful. “Maybe we can go there one day.”
    “We could,” Nick says. “It’s really beautiful.”
    “Okay.” Rob nods and leans back, as if that’s all the confirmation he needs.
    I push up the volume and now some ’90s song that I’d never listen to fills the car. “Why do you volunteer me for these things?” I hiss.
    “What things?” Nick says.
    “Lake Ontario! I don’t want to go back there.”
    “Maybe it would be good to take him eventually, though. I can do it.” Of course he’d say that.
    I remember the scratchiness of my collared shirt (Dad never would have made me wear one, though Mom insisted), the dryness of my throat though the breeze was thick with humidity. I remember the music. One of Dad’s friends strummed “Amazing Grace” on the guitar. In the days and months after, the memory of soft chords came to me as I tried to fall asleep. Painful or beautiful, I could never tell. The night I dropped the guitar was the first and only time I’d tried to play the song. It was late and I was sleepless and somehow thought it would be a lullaby. A whole lot of good that did me.

    I remember the brisk breeze even though it was April. The smoke stacks from Oswego blurred to gray by early fog, the wide expanse of so much water that was like an ocean. The look on Mom’s face — gray and cold as the lake — that I couldn’t stand to look at. I had worked so hard to not cry.
    “Where are we going?” Pete breaks the silence.
    “How about ice cream?” Rob says.
    “Lactose-intolerant. Sorry.”
    “Since when?” I say.
    “Well, I had cheese a few weeks ago and then all these bumps appeared on my arm.”
    “Did you eat cheese after that?”
    “I don’t remember,” Pete mutters.
    I roll my eyes. “Any better ideas?”
    “What, me breaking out in hives is a good idea?”
    “Mini golf? Bowling?” Rob says.
    “Too many mosquitoes. And my arms hurt.”
    “No offense, Pete, but you’re lame,” Rob says.
    Pete doesn’t respond. Just drives faster.
    Back in the day Pete would have been the first one out the door. “C’mon, Ma, let’s go,” he’d say as Mom zipped up Rob’s jacket.
    “The mountain’s not going anywhere,” Mom would say.
    But Pete’s foot bounced against the floor, urging us out of the house and into the car and up the winding gold-and-red-leaf-lined road to the clearing on Farrow’s Mountain, where we stepped as close to the edge as we dared and looked over the valley. Ripples of orange, red, yellow rolling down the mountain. Whispers of smoke from unseen chimneys. Mosaic Lake so tiny, so pristine that it no longer looked like ours. “We are the kings,” Pete always said. Then he’d nod at Mom. “And the queen.”
    Those were the good times. The old feeling. I’m not certain when the old feeling ended but I know for certain when it returns, soft as a ghost and just as fleeting. It comes back on nights when Pete tells me about San Diego. It comes back when the four of us laugh together at the dinner table. Or when Pete and I both understand a joke or thought that goes over our friends’ heads, and we look at each other significantly. But most of the time the feeling seems to have fled elsewhere. Very far elsewhere.
    “I have an idea,” I say as we approach the flashing red. “Go left.”
    Rob sits up straighter. “We’re actually going somewhere?”
    “That’s right.”
* * *
    In third grade Mrs. Rakowski lowered her reading glasses as she called attendance, as if she couldn’t trust what she saw. “Nick Galveston.”
“Here,” I said.
“Brother of Pete?”
    She sighed.
    While Pete picked fights on the back of the bus as a fifth-grader, I spent third grade clearing the Galveston name. My spelling tests returned with “Stellar!” and gold stars. My map of Canada still hangs in the Seven Village Elementary School. Now Rob has no “Brother of Pete?” reputation to fight against.
    That was how it went: Pete ranted and rumbled and ultimately handed in just enough homework to pass. I came through two years after and cleaned up the mess. Pete has the opinions. I have the memories.
* * *
    “This is a waste of gas,” Pete says under his breath as the car crawls behind an R.V. on Farrow’s Mountain Path. “You and your aimless driving.”
    “It’s not aimless. I gave you a direction,” I say. Pete rolls his eyes.
    “Ooh,” Rob says. “I love this song.”
    “What is it?” I can barely make out a noise from the speakers.
    “Bon Jovi. Mom listens to him all the time.”
    “Mom listens to Bon Jovi?” I glance at Pete. My brother raises the volume just as J.B.J. sings about how only the names will change.
    “You and Mom rock out?” A small smile on Pete’s face. “Who does vocals?”
    Rob looks back and forth between us in the rearview mirror. I can tell he’s torn. Betray Mom with this potentially embarrassing information? Or divulge so that his older brothers can share in the secret?
    “We take turns,” Rob says finally. “But she really likes ‘Living On A Prayer.’ This one’s my favorite.”
    We listen to the guitar. My fingers start beating against the dashboard in time with the drums. Pete swings over the dotted yellow and passes the RV, head nodding the whole way. Eyes closed with his blond hair swinging across his forehead, Rob sings in his best rock star impersonation. It’s solid for a prepubescent kid, I think, or maybe I’m just carried away by my drumming skills.
    We hit the scenic overlook parking lot at full speed, windows open. Children with parents skipping down the sidewalk, ice cream dripping to the pavement, barefoot girls with arms around boyfriends, all of their heads turning to the dark blue car that flies up next to the guardrail, Mosaic Lake shimmering below us, all of them hearing the three of us shout, “I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve ROCKED them all!”
    We have regained the throne.

    Diana Gallagher earned a master’s of fine arts degree in writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton. She teaches fiction, essay, poetry, and playwriting through the Young American Writers Project. “Three Kings” is an excerpt from her novel, “Mexico,” which follows the lives of three brothers in upstate New York.