From 'Daring Clare'
Book 1 in the Bateman Family Novels, released December 2019
It began as the brightest birthday Clare had ever had.
She blinked, sleepy eyed as her mind registered the flickering of flames on her bedside table. Candles?
A muffled, sing song voice filtered through the door. 'Wakey, wakey, happy birthday.'
She jerked upright, shoved off her sheet and looked around. More candles. Covering every spare surface of her bedroom. It was definitely overkill. No question who was responsible.
Her brother's footsteps quickened down the hallway and she held her breath. What was he up to now?
The candles began to sizzle. Sparks rose up and she shielded her eyes from the brilliance. Then Bang! A loud explosion hit her ears. Then another followed by another until every last candle was left with nothing more than a wisp of smoke and the smell of burnt wicks.
Clare looked around, heart still racing. She bit back a smile. Where had Dan found the exploding candles? She wouldn't let him get away with this one.
She jumped out of bed, wide awake. Right Dan, Dan,’ she laughed, ‘You're in for it now!
She was cut off by the shrill scream of the smoke alarm. Then her mother’s voice joined in from somewhere downstairs. ‘Who set that off? Dan! Clare! Where are you?Who set that off? Dan! Clare! Where are you?’
What was Mum doing home? Mum worked every day. Especially this one. But now she and the smoke alarm shrieked out for all the world to hear that Clare Bateman was not likely to have a happy birthday. Again.
She sighed and reached up to turn off the alarm in the hall outside her door. Was it really too much to ask that her family think of her today? She was tired of the sombre, depressing mood. No party, no cake, no celebration, just a couple of gifts given without ceremony. Only Dan ever made an effort to brighten her day.
But today she was determined to get what she really wanted. Her ticket to independence and freedom.
She came down the stairs a few minutes later and looked straight at Dan. He was gazing way too intently into his cereal bowl as though the answers to life lay in there. His brown hair was tousled and he held a spoon in front of his mouth to hide the trace of a smile.
As if she didn’t know he set up the candles.
Clare looked to her mother. She stood at the kitchen bench pouring milk into her coffee, surprisingly relaxed despite her reaction to the smoke alarm only a few minutes ago. Now was as good a time as any. Taking a deep breath, Clare approached, forcing herself to stand tall and not wring her hands.
‘Mum, if you’re not busy, well, what I’’d really like today is to go for my driver’s license.’ She held her breath, waiting. Tim had gone for his license two years ago and Mum’s tirade had gone on for half an hour. Clare remembered words like, No need to rush, cars are weapons, remember your father was killed in a car, Grandpa and I can drive you where you need to go, you could catch public transport …
How much more would Mum react today, of all days? The tenth anniversary of Dad’s tragic accident. Mum’s fear was understandable, but Clare was tired of being trapped by it.
Mum said nothing for a moment. When she looked up, there was surprising softness in her expression. ‘I know. Grandpa told me you’ve been studying for the test. I stayed home so I can take you.’
Clare gaped in surprise, her eyes shooting to Dan. He shrugged and pulled a face.
Well, that was unexpectedly easy.
By afternoon, Clare’s dreams had come true. She ran a hand through her short, dark hair, exulting in the thrill of being in the driver’s seat of her mother's expensive car. Her new Learner’s Licence was tucked neatly inside her phone case. Today was the day the past ceased to control her future. She was no longer trapped in a cage. She was free. Well, almost. She focused on the steering wheel, breathing in the scent of leather mixed with vanilla air freshener. Excitement bubbled. If she could drive, she could fly. She could be anything she wanted to be.
A sliver of guilt pricked her conscience. She shouldn’t have manipulated Mum into the passenger seat. Mentioning Dad had broken the unspoken family rule they all lived by. It was just a quiet, resigned murmur—’I wish Dad was still alive so he could teach me to drive,’—but it worked.
Now Mum sat beside her giving terse instructions. She had that look on her face like when Dan put soap on her toothbrush.
Clare tried to concentrate as she looked through the spotless windscreen to the street at the end of the driveway. The whole world was waiting for her.
The first movement of the car was delightful. Smooth and easy.
‘Keep Keep the car moving.the car moving.’ Mum sounded anxious. ‘Push your foot harder on the accelerator to keep it going up the slope.'
‘Relax, Mum. I’ve got this.’
Mum didn’t look convinced. ‘Ease off the accelerator as we reach the road.’
Clare smiled and glanced in the rear vision mirror. Were Dan and Beth watching? Soon she’d be driving her younger siblings around the city.
She was startled by the ring of her mother’s phone. Mum snatched it up from the console. ‘Brake, brake, put your foot on the brake!’’
Clare stomped on the pedal, then ground her foot down. Any cockroach lurking under there was officially exterminated.
‘Yes,’ Mum was saying into her phone as she reached over and put the car into park and pulled on the handbrake. ‘He did? Oh, II’ll need to get that sorted right away. Yes, I’ll be there in a few minutes.’
Clare’s heart sank. She knew what was coming.
‘I’m sorry Clare, but I have to go into work. It’s an emergency.’
It always was. Without a word, Clare switched off the ignition and shoved her door open. Did nothing ever change? Tears stung her eyes but she refused to let them fall. She should never have allowed herself to hope. To feel, to care. She was a fool. She’d learned d learned a long time ago to hold herself back from any feeling and today she’d let the walllet the walls down and this was the result.
Mum clip-clopped carefully down the driveway in her heels, no doubt to change into her work clothes.
He stood on the front lawn, arms crossed, smirking. She refused to look at him.
‘Freaked out on you, did she?’
Maybe if she ignored him he would go away.
Not likely. He was coming closer.
She yanked the keys from the ignition and flung them at him. He caught them neatly and laughed.
‘Couldn’t even trust you to get the car safely out of the driveway, could she?’
‘Go away, Dan.Go away, Dan.’
He poked her. ‘Come on, Clare, what are brothers for?’
‘To prepare me for the worst that life might bring?’
‘You got it.’
She tried to ignore her burning throat. ‘I know I can drive, Dan, but she didn’t even give me a chance. Work called her in.’
Dan’s eyes softened in sympathy before they sparked with a familiar, dangerous glint. He looked from the car, down the curve of the driveway to the still-open garage and back to Clare. Then his gaze locked on the keys in his hands. ‘If you really can drive, you don’t need Mum beside you. Show her what you can do. Back the car into the garage for her.’’
‘No way. I’m not stupid.’
‘I dare you.’
‘Hah! Remember what happened with your last dare?’
He quirked a brow. ‘What? You look heaps better now.’
She reached a hand to her hair. The stylist did an impressive repair job after Dan cut chunks out. And the look on Mum’s face was priceless when she saw the boy-style he’d created. Strange, how instead of making her look like Dan’s twin it made her look like Dad when he was young. She had that same heart--shaped, animated face with dimples that gave her a mischievous look.
Dan resorted to his puppy dog eyes.
‘Come on Clare, we’ve had some very successful dares. What about the casserole?’
He had a point. Mum still puzzled over the missing beef casserole that lay buried deep in the back yard. But that was harmless.
Driving down the driveway on the other hand … anything could
But isn’t that the point of the dare? To go out of my comfort zone and test my courage?
More to the point, did she want to taste that freedom?
She stared at Dan, irritated by the expression on his face. Like an expert fisherman reeling in his catch.
She looked from the car to the garage and back again. The day was ruined. What did she have to lose?
Dan read her every expression and held out the keys. He dropped them into her waiting palm. They felt cold. Weighty. Powerful.
Her heart pounded. This was the point of no return. Her eyes slid shut as she opened the driver’s door and lowered herself into the seat. Sweat beaded her forehead. Backing the car down would be way harder than driving up.
Just breathe. She opened her eyes and glanced in the rear-view mirror. Okay, this was it.
She was sick of her birthday being all about Dad. Sick of the sombre atmosphere that always dampened her spirits. Sick of Mum’s work always coming first.
It’s my birthday and it should be celebrated. I am important, I am capable and I will show Mum. I will show them all.
She turned the key and the engine started with its beautiful, quiet hum. She glanced down at the gear lever and replayed Mum’s brisk instructions in her mind.
Keep your foot on the brake.
Carefully move the car into gear.
Check all your mirrors.
Twisting to look behind, she grimaced as the seat belt cut in. The neatly trimmed hedge along the curved driveway blocked her view of the garage. Even with the mirrors she would be driving blind. she would be driving blind. Where was Dan?
There on the lawn. He gave a little wave.
‘Hurry up. I’m watching the grass grow here, Clare.'
Sweat dripped down her back.
Mum’s voice continued in her head. Gently, slowly, take your foot off the brake.
The car lurched backward much faster than she expected. She slammed her foot down. With a sudden roar, it hurtled toward the house. She swore. That was the accelerator, not the brake! The world rushed past in a blur and blood pounded in her ears. She was no longer on the driveway and the kitchen window was looming.
And in that moment Clare saw her father’s face. Just a brief flash but clearer than she had seen it for ten years.
‘Dad,’ she whimpered.
She was going to die on the anniversary of his death. Her birthday.
God, help me. What have I done?
Everything went into slow motion. She despised this helpless feeling, this knowing life was out of control and nothing would be the same again. She’d felt it when Mum told her Dad had been in a terrible accident and couldn’t be home for her birthday party; that he was in heaven and never coming home again. Her little girl heart had broken and given up. And like in that moment when she had let her eyes slide shut and disconnected, she shut her eyes and let fate take over.