The following is the second-place entry for our Third Annual Dickens Christmas Contest. The winner will appear on Thursday, December 24.
“Just Some Company” by Joe Johnston
“Hold your noise!” cried the father, as a man started up from among the fleet parked at the side of the Oil City Public Schools bus garage. Father and daughter froze alongside Bus 32, which serviced Robert Frost High School, but it was too late. The man they’d stirred spoke, invisible in the moonlight.
“Who goes there? Who disturbs this knight and his castle?”
The father whispered, This is your fault! and his daughter replied, I hate you, Dad! and the man’s footsteps echoed among the rusting yellow Blue Birds.
He was getting closer.
Father and daughter capitulated to ruining their expensive clothes and crawled into the oil-blackened snowmelt under the bus. They bickered in hushed tones about being late for midnight mass and how neither one of them liked going in the first place because it was just a fashion show and how they were probably going to jail and who was going to call her mother to explain, when suddenly a military surplus flashlight pierced their retinas and shut them the hell up.
“You must be the Magi. Visitors from the East. I was expecting three, but whaddya got?”
With the voice of a timid waiter, the father spoke. “Sir, I’m so sorry to bother you, but my daughter left her Prada boots on the school bus before break and we’re late for church and–”
“Whaddya got, I sez. You’re supposed to be bearing gifts. From the East. That’s how this works. So I repeat, whaddya got?”
The father removed a phone from his black topcoat. “I don’t really carry cash anymore, but I can buy you whatever you want on Amazon. Please just let us get her boots and leave.”
“Oh, no. Uh-uh. That’s no gift. Get out from under there and follow me.”
They walked to the bus garage. A burn barrel was smoldering near the door and it smelled of chestnuts and cheap whiskey.
The man told the father and daughter to wait outside and he disappeared into the garage and returned with three milk crates, two logs, and a harmonica. He arranged the crates around the barrel for them to sit, told them to sit, and they did. He tossed the logs into the barrel and then splashed whiskey from his hip flask on the fire like a priest sprinkling holy water on a statue of Saint Mary. Flames rose up and illuminated the man for the first time — the deep lines in his forehead and a dirty beard and a smile that could stop clocks. He sat on his milk crate.
“My name is Wenceslas. I’m the mechanic. I’ll get your boots.”
“What do you want from us?”
“Just some company. It’s Christmas Eve.” He took a long pull from his flask and handed it to the father.
The father took a deep breath and a long pull himself. He smiled. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Wenceslas.”
He handed the flask to his daughter and said she could take a small sip. He told her to swallow fast before she tasted anything and he told her not tell her mother. She coughed and stamped her foot and giggled at the moon.
Five hours later the sun was coming up. If a list of the most beautiful renditions of “Silver Bells” were ever to be compiled it would be incomplete without the version sung that morning by a school bus mechanic and a father and daughter who never made it to church.
Wenceslas put the harmonica in his breast pocket. Christmas bells were ringing.