ROYAL(4)

By: Winter Renshaw



Royal’s hand grips mine as his truck roars to life.

“This is first gear,” he says as our hands move forward. He pulls the knob down, my hand trapped under his, and it feels looser now. “This is neutral.” He wiggles it back and forth so I can see, and then he brings the stick toward us. “This is second.”

He goes through all the gears with me two more times, then makes me show him on my own.

“Okay. I get it now,” I say.

“Shift into first,” he says. “Carefully take your right foot off the brake and move it to the gas. Let the clutch out slow—”

The clutch is springy. The second I let up on it, it pops all the way out and his truck goes lurching forward. It bounces to a stop and the engine dies.

“Damn it.” I pound my fist on the steering wheel and curse Derek under my breath. Why’d he have to go and get mono right now?

“Demi, it’s fine. Let’s try again. Shift into neutral. Stick your left on the clutch and your right on the brake and start it up again.”

It only takes four tries before we’re barreling down the side street that runs past my neighborhood. In the distance, a red octagon comes into view.

“I don’t know how to stop. How do I stop? Royal? What do I do?” I white-knuckle the steering wheel like no one’s business.

He laughs. I’d slap him, but I’m busy holding on like my life depends on it.

“Left on the clutch, right foot gentle on the brake. Give yourself plenty of time. Come to a slow stop.”

He reaches for the radio, and I momentarily release my grip on the wheel to swat his hand.

“I don’t want music yet. I’m not ready.” I realize that I sound like a baby, but I’m driving this two-ton, stick-shift, beast of a truck, and I don’t think I’m to the place where I can sit back and listen to music like we’re on some kind of joy ride.

Royal lifts his hands. “All right. No worries. Just trying to get you to relax.”

I follow his directions and bring us to an easy stop. We’re at a highway intersection now. A semi barrels from the east.

“Where should I go?” I ask.

“Anywhere you want.” He lowers his window, and a burst of mild summer air flows through. I didn’t realize how stuffy it was in here until now, so I do the same.

I take a deep breath, shift into first, and concentrate on not popping the clutch so we don’t become road kill.

He’s so patient with me. And he trusts me with his truck. I don’t know many guys at school who’d be this cool about letting me learn with their only mode of transportation.

Every high-schooler in Rixton Falls knows that vehicles equal freedom.

I could easily wreck this thing, and Royal doesn’t make enough money doing seasonal landscaping to be able to replace it. His current foster family doesn’t have the means either, not that they’d be obligated.

“Thanks for trusting me with this,” I say, releasing the clutch and pressing my toes against the gas pedal. This might be the only time in my fifteen years that I’ve ever thanked Royal Lockhart for anything.

We ease forward, crossing the four lane highway and heading north.

“Demi, watch out . . .” Royal grabs the steering wheel and jerks it in his direction as a fuel truck whirs past us so fast that it shakes the cab.

I jam my foot hard into the clutch and brake and bring us to a violent stop in a cloud of dust on the side of the highway.

“I’m sorry. I . . . I didn’t see it coming.” My words shake, and two fat tears drip down my cheeks. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Demi.”

Ignoring him, I pull on the door lever and climb out. He meets me halfway, at the tailgate. I cross my arms. He’s going to try and talk me out of it, but my mind’s made up.

“I don’t like stick shifts,” I say. “I’ll just wait until my parents get back. Mom can teach me in the Suburban.”

My chin trembles. He stares at me. I’m not sure how he stays this calm when two minutes ago, I almost got us killed.

I squeeze my eyelids so tightly they hurt. I wish I could crawl into a hole and never come out. I wish Royal never would’ve offered to teach me how to drive. I wish—

The warmth of his hands encapsulates mine, and I pull in a startled breath, opening my eyes.

“Demi, it’s okay. Everyone has to learn somehow. You master this beast? You can drive anything. Automatics are for pussies and fraidy-cats. You’re fearless. I know you are. I’ve seen it.”

His hands leave mine and slide up my arms, leaving a trail of tingles. I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry.

“Remember when we were kids, and we were playing in that creek, and Delilah got bitten by that snake?” he asks.

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