Bateman Family series, Book 1
Previously 'Nobody Hugs Rod Green'
It was the brightest birthday Clare had ever had.
She blinked as her sleepy eyes registered what she was seeing. Candles. They surrounded her bed.
‘Wakey, wakey, happy birthday,’ a sing-song voice called through the door.
She sat up and looked around. More candles. They took up every spare surface of her bedroom. 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 from each one, 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. Biting back a smile, she shook her head. 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, you’re in for it now!’
Her laugh was cut off by the shrill scream of the smoke alarm. Then her mother’s voice joined in. ‘Who set that off? Dan! Clare! Where are you?’
What was Mum doing home? She always worked on Clare’s birthday. 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.
Clare 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 birthday.
But today she was determined to ask for what she really wanted. Her ticket to independence and freedom.
She came down the stairs a few minutes later to find Dan looking 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 making herself a cup of coffee. She looked 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. She remembered when Tim had gone for his license two years ago. Mum’s tirade had gone on for half an hour. She 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. Clare understood Mum’s fear, but was tired of being trapped by it.
Mum said nothing for a moment. When she looked up, Clare was surprised by the softness in her expression. ‘I know. Grandpa told me you’ve been studying for the test. I can take you in an hour.’
Clare gaped, her eyes shooting to Dan. He shrugged, and pulled a face.
Well, that was unexpectedly easy. She’d have to thank Grandpa later. Right now she had to skim over her book of road rules one last time. She had no doubt she would pass. But that was only the first hurdle. Getting Mum to take her driving would be a completely different matter.
By afternoon, Clare’s dreams had come true. The tenth anniversary of Dad’s death would be the day the past ceased to control her future and keep her trapped in a cage. She was free. Well, almost. 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. She focused on the steering wheel. 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. She’d broken the unspoken family rule and mentioned Dad. It was just a quiet, resigned murmur—‘I wish Dad was still alive so he could teach me to drive,’—but it did the job.
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 on her mother’s advice 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 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. ‘Brake, brake, put your foot on the brake!’
She stomped on the pedal, then ground her foot down. Any cockroach lurking under there was officially exterminated.
‘Yes,’ Mum was saying into her phone. ‘He did? Oh, I’ll need to get that sorted right away. Yes, I’ll be there in a few minutes.’
Clare stared at her mother, knowing 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 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 a long time ago to hold herself back from any feeling and today she’d let 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.
Dan. 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.
Dan came to her side, laughing. ‘Couldn’t even trust you to get the car safely out of the driveway, could she?’
‘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 sighed. ‘I know I can drive, Dan, but she didn’t even give me a chance. Work called her in.’
Dan’s eyes took on 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 abandoned on the letterbox. ‘If you really can drive, you don’t need Mum beside you. Show her what you can do. Back the car back down the driveway for her.’
‘No way. I’m not stupid.’
‘I dare you.’
‘Hah! Remember what happened with your last dare?’
He quirked his 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 had been priceless when she first 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 younger. 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 happen.
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 scooped the keys from the letterbox. 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. 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 Clare 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 lined her up with her siblings and told them Dad had died. And like in that moment, she gave up and disconnected. She shut her eyes and let fate take over.
What will be will be. Or what was that stupid saying the girls at school were using?
It is what it is.
The bang was so loud it deafened her, shook her insides, and became a silent splintering of molecules. Her head flew forward. Glass shattered, bricks crumbled. The air tasted like dust. Her eyes shot open.
Her first coherent thought was that the back of the car was right beside the kitchen sink. Then a high pitched, terrified scream broke through the air.
Beth! Had she hit her little sister? Everything was going fuzzy. She swallowed hard, needing to vomit. Her neck hurt.
Someone scrambled through the rubble and the car door was wrenched open. Clare forced herself to look up into Dan’s wide eyes.
His voice shook. ‘Well, that’s one way to get the car down the drive.’
She tried to focus on his face but couldn’t quite manage. Shock gave way to anger that built up so fast she was sure she would explode.
She ground her teeth. ‘Don’t you ever, ever dare me to do anything again!’
Dan stepped back, palms up. ‘Don’t blame me. I would’ve got the car in first go. Next year I’ll prove it to you.’
Someone ran from the house. Mum. And Beth. Alive and in one piece. Clare let out a shaky sigh of relief as her vision cleared.
But Mum looked terrible. Her face was blotchy, her feet bare, her hair hanging haphazardly down her shoulders, her shirt all twisted like a cyclone had tried to sweep her up. She must have been in the middle of getting changed.
Mum held out a shaking finger as though she wanted to speak, but nothing came out. Then her shoulders slumped and her eyes filled with tears.
And Clare watched her perfectly controlled mother collapse onto the paved driveway and sob.
What should she do? If only Mum would yell. Or better, use that low, controlled, dangerous voice. Anything but this.
Her eyes darted to Dan. He bit his lip and shrugged. Then Beth’s quiet cries joined Mum’s.
Tim’s car pulled in the driveway. He jumped out and stared.
Come on, Tim, now is the time to take on your big-brother role. Come and yell at me. Tell me what an idiot I am.
He blinked a few times before sprinted to her. She flinched, until she saw the concern on his face. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘Are you numb anywhere?’
His hands reached out and felt along her collarbone. What was he doing? She didn’t need him to try his new-found vet knowledge on her. He could save it for the animals when he finished Uni.
She shook his hands off and his eyes widened. ‘You are hurt?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
She closed her eyes, trying to block it all out. She was vaguely aware of Tim now crouched beside her, speaking in a low, calm voice, asking ridiculous questions. She didn’t want to move, didn’t want to think. He wanted to know her name, her age, the day, the date. The one date she would never forget.
He eased her out of the car and for the first time she saw the extent of the damage. The back of the vehicle was a crumpled mess. How had she survived that? The kitchen window no longer existed and the supporting wall was a pile of rubble and crumbled, half broken bricks.
I’m in big trouble.
Tim reached a hand and helped Mum to her feet. She still looked dazed, but managed to dry her tears and stand tall, looking like the formidable CEO she was. Clare felt an odd sense of pride. Her mother must be the only woman in the world who could make a twisted shirt look magnificent.
‘Should I call the ambulance?’ Beth asked, her voice shaking and her pale face streaked with tears.
Tim shook his head. ‘No, no need for that. We can go to Grandpa’s for the night and I know what to look out for. At the first sign of any dizziness, vomiting, excess lethargy or neck pain I’ll take Clare to the hospital.’
Clare looked up to see Dan holding his phone, taking pictures.
‘Dan, you’re not putting this on Facebook.’
He lowered his phone and grinned, completely over his scare.
‘Come on Clare, I’ve been bored all holidays. Now something exciting has finally happened. Cooper needs to know.’
Cooper did not need to know. No one needed to know. Especially not Dan’s loud-mouthed idiot friend.
Concerned by Clare’s groan, Tim returned his attention to her, but Clare wrenched herself from his grasp.
‘My phone!’ She had thrown it in her bag in the back seat of the car. She dove toward the wreckage only to find herself hauled back.
Tim’s voice spat in her ear. ‘What are you doing? Didn’t you hear them say it’s not safe?’
She wriggled away and spun to glare at him, fighting the buzzing in her head. ‘My phone’s in there.’
‘Then it will be as trashed as the car. Seriously Clare, did turning sixteen kill all your brain cells?’
He looked so self-assured standing there acting like he was her father, all previous concern and compassion gone. Well, no one could take Dad’s place. Ever. Especially not her bossy big brother.
She snatched her arm from his grasp and turned to see that Mum had pulled herself together. She was speaking on the phone to Grandpa, her tone slightly shaky. Then she snapped her phone cover shut and turned.
‘You have a few minutes to get some things together. We’re going to Grandpa’s for the night. Beth, you grab some things for Clare. She needs to take it easy. Then Tim, you take Dan and Beth in your car. Grandpa will drive over and collect Clare and I.’
They headed toward the house with Mum calling after them. ‘Only grab what you need. And remember the kitchen and dining room are out of bounds.’
Out of bounds? She sounded like a primary school teacher. But Clare had to admit it was comforting to have the professional, all-together Mum back in place.
Mum avoided Clare’s eyes as she stood there in the middle of her beautifully maintained front lawn.
‘Any nausea?’ she asked through pinched lips.
Clare shook her head, not willing to admit she felt sick. Not just nauseated but deeply, painfully heart sick.
Happy sixteenth birthday, Clare.
THIS BOOK IS CURRENTLY BEING EDITED BY THE PUBLISHER