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Authors: Don Aker

Running on Empty

BOOK: Running on Empty
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Running on Empty

DON AKER

For my parents,
Leslie and Muriel Aker,
no strangers to challenge and sacrifice

Chapter 1

“Bet you twenty bucks,” said Seth.

“That I can’t make it in ten minutes?” Ethan asked. “You’re on.” He floored the Volvo S80 and the tires spun momentarily on the blacktop before grabbing hold, pressing all four teenagers against their leather seats.


Give
‘er!” Rico howled from the back beside Seth, his fist pounding the door frame. Pete, in the front passenger seat, grimaced and held on.

They rapidly pulled up on a Chrysler minivan with a “Baby on Board” sign in the rear window—something that never failed to piss Ethan off. It was like a middle-finger salute to the rest of the world while you poked along at ten clicks below the speed limit. He laid on the horn and, despite the no-passing zone, whipped the S80 around the minivan, pulling back into his lane just before an oncoming semi rumbled past.

“Jeez, Ethan,” breathed Pete, “I’ll give you the twenty bucks myself, okay?”

“Pussy,” Rico taunted. “No guts, no glory.”

“It’s my guts I’m worried about,” Pete countered. “
Keeping
them.”

“I got this covered,” Ethan assured him. He pushed the pedal to the floor again, racing through the next intersection a heartbeat after the yellow light turned red. He glanced over at Pete and grinned at the sight of his friend’s whitening knuckles. “Hey, you only live once, buddy,” he said.

“I’d settle for the once,” muttered Pete, his eyes never wavering from the windshield.

A Jeep Laredo rolled through a stop sign on a side street just ahead of them, clearly intent on merging into their lane. Ethan accelerated and the Laredo seesawed as the driver braked hard, blaring his horn when they blew past.

Pete shook his head. “Look, Ethan, it’s no problem if we miss a few minutes of the game. Really.”

“Not gonna happen,” said Ethan.

The buildings blurred by them, and Rico turned to Seth. “Better get that twenty out,” he said.

“Just keep an eye on your watch,” Seth replied. “Isn’t over ‘til it’s over.”

As if his words had summoned it, a Halifax Metro Police car came into view, parked at the curb. Fortunately, the cruiser was facing in the same direction they were headed. Ethan doubted the cop gave them a second glance as the S80 slowed and drove past at exactly the posted speed limit. Once beyond it, though, he hit the gas again.

Three blocks later, Rico now counting down the time remaining, they approached Cathedral Estates. A sign to the right of the subdivision’s ornate stone entrance declared the neighbourhood to be “A Traffic Calmed Community.” Ethan cut a hard right, and the S80 fishtailed through the gate onto Monastery Road, the tires making
whup-whup
sounds on interlocking paving stones designed to make the McMansion-lined street look like it had been there for a hundred years.

“Twenty seconds,” said Rico.

No sooner had he spoken than the Volvo hit a speed bump and all four friends bounced upward, their bodies slamming against their seat belts.

“Cripes!” Pete shouted. “You’ll wreck the suspension!”

In the back, Rico and Seth cackled like lunatics.

“Ten seconds!” yelled Rico. “Nine. Eight. Seven—”

Ethan cursed as he steered onto Seminary Lane, the Volvo’s
Michelins squealing through the turn. But he didn’t give a damn if the sound drew the neighbours to their windows, and he pushed the S80 forward, speed bumps jolting them like grenades in the undercarriage. He whipped the wheel right and swung the car into his driveway just as Rico called, “One!”


Yes!
” he yelled, pumping the air with his fist.

“Ethan!” shouted Pete.

Despite Ethan’s foot on the brake, the garage was still approaching, and he yanked the wheel left to avoid a full-on collision with the door. But the front fender clipped the corner of the garage with a
whoomp!
as they tore by, and the Volvo came to a bone-rattling stop.

All four sat for a few speechless seconds before Rico finally drawled, “Looks like you owe the guy twenty bucks, Seth.”

Seth grinned. “Worth every penny if I’m around when Ethan’s old man gets home. I’ve paid more to watch fights at the Forum.”

Chapter 2

Ethan poured himself a glass of orange juice, preparing for the lecture he knew his father would launch into the second he came down to breakfast. He’d already heard him go out to the driveway to re-examine the Volvo’s fender and the corner of the garage that had crumpled it. Had he expected the damage would disappear overnight? Christ.

It turned out that Seth wasn’t there when his old man finally got home. In fact, none of his buddies were. The game on pay-per-view had sucked, even with a case of beer and takeout from Mama Rouzolli’s, and they’d eventually gone out to play some two-on-two in the driveway instead. But the splintered siding and ruined fender kept drawing their eyes from the hoop, and then Rico had gotten a call from his girlfriend, Ashley, who drove over and picked him up, taking Seth with them. Pete had hung around a while longer until Ethan let him off the hook, telling him he had homework to do. Like he’d actually do it. By the time Ethan’s father got home from a function at his firm, Ethan had gone to bed, grateful for the reprieve.

Ethan’s younger sister, Raye, shuffled into the kitchen, her slitted eyes filled with sleep, blue hair flaring wildly in all directions. Still in her pyjamas—an oversized Montreal Canadiens jersey and an old pair of Puma soccer shorts—she scuffed bare feet across the porcelain tiles to the high-tech German coffee maker perched on the polished granite countertop. She watched as the dark liquid filled the cup, then
sloshed some milk into it, carried it to the table, and eased into a chair. Spooning sugar into the coffee from the bowl on the table, she yawned tremendously, revealing two metal studs in her tongue, and took a sip. Grimacing, she added more sugar.

The sudden rattle overhead told them their father had just turned off the shower. Despite the fact that the house was new, their pipes often clanked and groaned, something Jack Palmer continually grumbled about but repeated visits by the plumber couldn’t seem to fix. Ethan, on the other hand, actually liked the laboured sounds their pipes generated. They made the house seem like a living, wheezing thing, another occupant at 37 Seminary Lane that could piss off his old man nearly as often as Ethan did. Not that his father needed anything
else
to annoy him. When he’d come back inside after looking at the damage again, Ethan could tell by his footsteps on the stairs that he was plenty pissed already.

Nodding toward the ceiling, Raye asked, “He said anything to you about it?”

Ethan shook his head. “Haven’t seen him yet.” Which was intentional. Ethan had waited until he’d heard his father return to the master bedroom before he’d gotten up himself.

They could hear from their father’s ensuite the faint
clack
of the heavy glass shower door being closed, then his solid footsteps on the bathroom floor above them, the only sounds he would make as he got ready. Ethan wondered if there really were fathers who whistled or sang in the morning or if those were just Family Channel fabrications. If such parents existed, actually lived and breathed somewhere on the planet, Jack Palmer certainly wasn’t one of them.

Ethan took his orange juice to the table and sat down. “All that sugar in your coffee’ll rot your molars,” he said.

Raye rolled her eyes, slurped loudly, and let the coffee run through bared teeth back into the cup. Some of it dribbled down
her chin and onto the table, which she swiped with her hand and then rubbed on her shorts.

“You’re disgusting,” he told her, but he had to grin. At thirteen, Raye was unlike any of his buddies’ kid sisters. Most of them ran around trying to mould themselves into mirror images of whoever happened to be on the covers of those dumb magazines they pored over constantly. Raye couldn’t care less about that stuff, or about what anyone thought of her. Ethan would never admit this to his buddies—or to Raye, either, for that matter—but he thought she was okay. For a kid sister.

“You are
so
gonna be grounded,” Raye said.

He shrugged. “You better hope I’m not,” he said. “Today’s Thursday.”

He was, after all, the one who usually picked Raye up after her guitar lessons on that day. She had announced one morning a couple of months earlier that her greatest goal in life was to play bass guitar for any rock band that would have her, and she’d been taking lessons ever since from a guy named Winnipeg Joe, the owner of a tiny music store in downtown Halifax. The guy looked fried whenever Ethan saw him, his eyes always half-closed, his head bobbing to music that no one else could hear, but Raye thought he could walk on water. She didn’t have her own guitar because their father considered her interest in music a phase and he had “no intention of laying out good money for something else that will just wind up in the back of a closet.” But that hadn’t stopped her. Winnipeg Joe had loaned her a second-hand bass to practise on, and he gave her a deal on the lessons, which she was paying for out of her babysitting money. Raye always had plenty of sitting gigs, the result of being the only teenaged girl living in a new subdivision where most of the kids were preschoolers. The street sign on their corner might read “Seminary Lane”—which Seth always shortened to “Semen
Lane”—but Ethan figured “Sesame Street” was more like it. Ankle-biters everywhere you looked.

Raye was characteristically unfazed by his comment. “I can take the bus.”

Ethan snorted. “Public transit’s for losers.”

Raye ignored this and spooned more sugar into her coffee.

There was more movement above them and then they heard their father’s footsteps on the staircase. A few moments later, he entered the kitchen wearing black slacks with a knife-edge crease, a crisp blue shirt, and a new Ralph Lauren tie that, of course, picked up the shade of the shirt perfectly. An Armani suit coat was draped over the briefcase he carried, the name of the law firm he worked for—Fisher, McBurney, and Hicks—embossed in gold script on the rich ebony leather.

Ethan’s fingers tightened around his juice glass and he braced himself for the explosion.

“Hey, Dad,” said Raye.

“Morning,” their father replied. He set his briefcase on the floor, hung the suit coat over the back of a chair, then opened the side door and returned with the newspaper in his hands, its headline declaring yet another armed robbery downtown. Unfolding the paper, he scanned the front page then took out the business section, laid the rest on the kitchen table, and pressed the single-serving feature on the coffee maker, each movement slow and deliberate. His eyes never left the newspaper as the coffee maker finished its cycle and he brought the cup to his lips.

Ethan waited, but his old man merely sipped his coffee—black, no sugar—his eyes lasering through a financial page.

So
that’s
how he’s going to play it
, thought Ethan: drawing out the moment, something he probably did for effect in the courtroom. Ethan looked at Raye, who did the coffee-through-the-teeth thing again, but this time he didn’t grin.

The three of them made a silent triangle in the kitchen: reading, sipping, waiting.

Tiny starbursts suddenly danced across the walls as a five-carat diamond ring caught sunlight from the window and bounced it around the room.

“Hey, Jillian,” said Raye.

Ethan frowned. Although his old man had been seeing Jillian Robicheau for more than a year and proposed to her over a month ago, Ethan still refused to mask his resentment of her.

He’d only been eight and Raye nearly four when the car driven by their mother, Olivia Cameron-Palmer, had left the road and rolled twice, killing her. Their parents had separated months before that and their mother was bringing their dad just-signed divorce papers when it happened. “An early Christmas present,” she’d told his old man on the phone before she left, Ethan listening in on the extension in the hallway. He hadn’t heard his father’s reply, wasn’t even sure he’d responded since his mother had hung up so quickly. Outside, the first snow of the season had just begun to fall.

Jillian had met their father on a blind date set up by a mutual friend, although she was always telling people, “I really didn’t need a man in my life.” That comment never failed to activate Ethan’s gag reflex because Jillian Robicheau, a former model, clearly enjoyed the considerable attention she always got from men.

Ethan seldom acknowledged the woman with anything more than a pronoun:
she
or
her
or, more rarely,
you
. He’d disliked her the moment they’d met, and his original opinion of her—
pure plastic
, he’d told his buddies—had only been reinforced since the engagement. Even her name grated on him, and he especially hated hearing people combine it with his father’s:
Jack and Jillian
made them sound weirdly like fugitives from a nursery rhyme. Or, as Seth once observed, “characters in a
porno.” And, given Seth Wheaton’s extensive experience with online porn, he’d know.

“Give her a break,” Raye’d said more than once when Jillian first started coming around. Ethan had mocked his sister, accused her of being a suck-up, but she’d just shrugged. Raye wasn’t someone you could coax or even bully into something she’d already made up her mind about.

“Morning, Raye,” Jillian said, gently touching his sister’s shoulder, and Ethan could almost see the woman force herself not to smooth down errant wisps of Raye’s blue hair. “Morning, Ethan,” she said as she moved past him. Ethan remembered the time she’d casually placed her hand on his own shoulder. She’d never tried it again.

Ethan watched her turn to the refrigerator, a huge stainless steel built-in with doors only a linebacker could open on the first pull. Bracing herself, she managed to open it on the second try, took out a bottle of unsweetened cranberry juice, then poured herself a tall glass and took a sip. He could almost feel his own lips curl back from his gums as she did it—he’d tasted that stuff and discovered that “unsweetened” was just advertiser-speak for “bitter as hell”—but apparently cranberry juice was an important part of the new diet she was on. Diets were like religion for Jillian Robicheau, her church the Tabernacle of Two More Pounds.

Ethan wanted out of there—Jillian always had that effect on him. “So,” he said to his father. “We gonna do this or what?”

His old man laid the business section on the counter and took another sip of his coffee, staring at Ethan as he swallowed.

Ethan, in turn, stared at the single white hair in his father’s left eyebrow, something he did during every confrontation because it proved his old man wasn’t perfect after all, despite what he liked to have everyone believe. The guy didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t even swear. It was like living with the goddamn
pope. If, that is, the pope wore designer suits and drove a BMW.

Finally, his father set his cup on the granite countertop. “What do you have to say for yourself, Ethan?”

Ethan, of course, was prepared for this question. Whenever he screwed up, his old man always asked him the same thing, always made him feel like he was on a witness stand and he’d better have his story straight because his father would try to poke holes in it. “It was an accident,” said Ethan.

“Accidents are unintentional acts.”

“You think I ran into the garage on purpose?”

“Ben Cleveland came over to see me when I got home last night,” said his father.

Big Ben
, thought Ethan, picturing the fat guy who lived in the Georgian Colonial next door, a brick and clapboard monstrosity with columns along the front that made it look like it had been plucked from a Mississippi plantation.
Yeah
,
I bet that walking heart attack couldn’t
wait
to waddle right over
. “And what did Big Ben have to say?”

“That you were driving far too fast and you barrelled into the driveway practically on two wheels. Norm Elliott confirmed it.”

“If Norm Elliott had
his
way,” Ethan sneered about their neighbour across the street, “the cops would be ticketing people in wheelchairs.”

His father ignored the comment. “As I said, accidents are unintentional acts. When you drive a vehicle with no regard for the law or your own safety, mishaps aren’t accidents. And since you can’t be trusted to operate a vehicle safely, I’m suspending your driving privileges.”

Suspending. Like he was a principal kicking him out of school for a few days. “For how long?”

“Indefinitely.”

Ethan felt his face flush, but he tried not to give in to the sudden pulse of anger that ground his jaws together, knowing it
wouldn’t get him anywhere. Besides, in two more days, none of this would matter anyway.

“And you’ll be paying for the damage you caused,” his father added.

Ethan winced. “How much is the deductible?”

“I’m not putting it through my insurance.”

Ethan’s eyes widened. “Why not?”

“My policy allows me one fender-bender every five years. Any more than that and my premium skyrockets.”

“So? You haven’t had any accidents.”

“That’s not the point. I have no intention of giving up my freebie to pay for your carelessness.”

Ethan felt the heat on his face work its way down his neck, felt it burn red beneath the collar of his Hilfiger shirt. But he kept his voice even. “So how much do you think this’ll cost me?”

His father shrugged. “I won’t know for sure about the car until I take it to a repair shop, but I imagine you’re looking at thirty-five hundred minimum. Probably closer to four thousand.”

“For a
fender?

“They’ll do more than replace the fender, Ethan. They’ll have to repaint the whole front end. And it could cost you a lot more than that if there’s any damage to the frame. Repairs to the garage will probably run you eight or nine hundred. Less if the carpenter doesn’t have a problem matching the siding, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

“That’s almost five thousand bucks!”

“Plus tax,” said his father.

Ethan struggled to keep his voice even. “Look, I have fifty-three hundred in the bank, but I’m saving that for—”

“I don’t care what you were saving it for. It’ll be paying for the repairs.”

BOOK: Running on Empty
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