No one was home. Aunt Carmella had dragged Timothy away for a haircut, and even Platinum was at the vet for his seasonal heart replacement. Olivia ordered a pizza for dinner, and when it arrived in the chute, she took it to the backyard side of the wrap-around porch. From here, she had a view of the spare cars. There were two black ones, a purple, a blue, a red, and two green. Aligned like chess pieces, their solar panels soaked up the evening sun.
There was still a space, like a gap tooth, where one car was missing. Every time Olivia came out here, it was still missing. Almost four years, and her father had never come back.
He had promised to teach her to drive. She had even picked out her car from the dealership, breathlessly anticipating her seventeenth birthday when she would finally be independent. Her birthday passed, and the car sat there now, at the farthest end of the row. Unused, unblemished by the barrage of dust, rocks, and insects; its pale violet paint shone brighter than any other car.
Olivia took another slice of pizza, and exclaimed in surprise. This was the last piece. Poking her stomach in concern, she left it in Platinum’s bowl and walked to one of the green cars. It was Timothy’s old car. Once he started dating Isabella and gotten her to drive him around everywhere, he had stopped driving. She knew he would not like her to touch it, but the poor thing had not contained a human soul for months. She ran her fingers over the glossy roof.
“Olivia Kearne,” she told the car as she took a seat.
“Identification authorized,” it replied. “Welcome. Retrieving personal data.”
She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, waiting. The car smelled faintly of her brother – alcohol, sweat, and cologne. He had set the interior of the car to black, and she changed it to pink. The emergency steering wheel and the seat belts she made red. She noticed a piece of paper stuck beside the passenger seat.
“Personal data verified. Learner’s permit settings applied. Are you ready, Olivia?”
The car always talked funny. Funnier than most electronics, in any case. “Yes, I’m ready. Back out, please.”
“Command denied. There appears to be a tree obstructing this path of motion.”
Turning around, she saw that the car was right. “Alright. Let’s go forward then.”
“Command denied. Please disengage the ‘reverse’ gear and press ‘DRIVE.’”
Right. Duh. She leaned forward and pressed the D on the gear panel.
“Command denied. Please do up your seat belt.”
“For crying out loud! Why didn’t you say that before?” she demanded, slamming her seat belt into place.
“Remember, the best way to become a good driver is to be a patient driver,” the car reminded her in its monotonous voice.
“Whatever. Drive out.”
The car rumbled to life and took her out the back gate to the driveway. At the edge of the road, it stopped. “Take a left,” she issued.
“Command – ”
“What? What’s wrong now?”
“Command accepted, please wait for passing traffic,” it finished. Olivia pretended that it sounded annoyed, just so that she felt less alone in her irritation. When the way was clear, the car pulled out onto the quiet neighbourhood road. “Let’s go to the ice cream shop,” she suggested to it.
“Command denied,” it replied solemnly. “Total autopilot restricted for learners. Please give directional instructions only.” They sailed past the ice cream shop.
“Fine. Signal, lane change right. We’re going to the mall.”
“Command denied. Please give directional instructions only.”
She gritted her teeth. “I know that. Just drive, buddy.”
It shut up for a moment, and changed lanes like she had told it to. When they were about five minutes from the mall, however, a warning light came on the dash. “Five-kilometre radial limit approaching. Please give remedial instructions before override is initiated.”
“What? The what?”
“The radial limit is the boundary set by – ”
“I know what it is! Gah! Just, um, lane change right and take a right at the next light.” She jabbed the phone button.
“Command denied. Extravehicular communication prohibited for learners.”
You spouting piece of scrap metal. She crossed her arms and threw herself back in the seat, ignoring the car’s instructions to keep her hands on the wheel in case of an emergency. She was a learner. The car wasn’t allowed to let her have an accident. She pulled the piece of paper she had seen from between the seats. It was folded in three, and it was labelled TIMOTHY.
“Take this next left,” she instructed the car, and unfolded the letter. Though the label was typewritten, the inside was handwritten in her father’s familiar script.
I don’t know whether you’re reading these letters or not, but I still want to write them anyway. Just an update. Xander started sixth grade today, and asked about you and Olivia when I told Ilane about your first day of school.
As for Ilane and me, we’re going on another honeymoon, to Old Zealand. I know you and Olivia always wanted to go there, so is there something you’d like for me to bring back?
I really hope you two get over your problem. Kids don’t punish their parents.
I love you both,
She stared at the letter, and then suddenly, the car slammed to a stop. “What in the world – !”
“Obstruction identified. Collision avoided.” The car announced proudly. There was a German shepherd shadowed in the road. She rolled down the window. “Platinum?” she called. The dog loped off.
“Take this left,” she said with a sigh. The car turned into the driveway, past the front entrance, and into the backyard. Carmella and Timothy stood there, illuminated in porch light. Olivia pressed the park button and slunk out of the car.
They were calling for Platinum, but Timothy turned his attention to her when she marched up to him. His new haircut looked good, she admitted. He had been in desperate need of one. His pants were also all the way on today. Her brother cleaned up good with a little prodding.
“How was your drive, sweetheart?” Carmella asked. She was back to her old amicable self, except when she was cracking the whip. Olivia stuck out her lip.
“It’s too hard, Auntie,” she wailed. “The car was so mean to me. I can’t do this! And my mom set a five-kilometre learners’ radial! I can’t believe it.”
“What were you doing with my car?” Timothy demanded, his scowl ruining his haircut. Cocking a hip, Olivia didn’t say anything. “You have no right borrowing my stuff without asking!” She crossed her arms, making a crinkling sound. “Aunt Carmella! Tell her she’s got to stop being such a brat!”
She shot him a look. “That’s not respectful,” she snapped. She went around to the other side of the house, calling for Platinum.
He clenched his jaw. “Olivia, sweet sister, I apologize. What I meant to say, you darling sibling, is that if you ever lay your filthy fingers on my car again I will skin you from your head to your – ”
She shoved the letter into his chest, and he fell into one of the beams holding the porch up.
“The heck!” he yelled.
“Why didn’t you tell me that dad has been writing?” She slammed a hand into his shoulder, and he fell into the grass. “They went on their second honeymoon fourteen months ago!”
“Olivia, what – ”
“And poor little Xander! Our brother has wanted to see us, and you never said anything!”
“That thing is not our brother.” Timothy tried to climb to his feet, but she shoved him back down.
“How dare you!” she shrieked. “Of all the low-life, selfish things – well, I guess no one should expect anything less from you. But this is our family!”
He got up, smacking her hand away when she tried to keep him down. “Olivia, he left us. He cheated on us, and he left us. He and Ilane and Xander, they are not your family. I am. Mom is. Auntie is. That kid isn’t even their – ”
“You shut up!”
“Haven’t you ever wondered why he never writes to you?”
She spun around, hiding the sudden upwelling of tears. She wanted to scream at him, hit him again. But her throat was suddenly three sizes too small. She couldn’t even react when she felt her brother’s arms around her.
“Olivia, I’m sorry. I just don’t want him to hurt you again. Don’t you remember how you were when he left?”
She shook her head, refusing to recall it. He hugged her tighter, then, let go. “Why don’t you go help Auntie find Platinum? Something scared him when we got home, and he took off.”
She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Taking this baby for a real spin!” he called over his shoulder as he jogged to the car.
“Timothy, you get back here! It’s your turn for dishes, and I’m not doing them for you again!”
The only answer was the green car roaring away. Timothy was such a pain.
The letter was resting on the ground, twitching in the breeze. She caught it as it broke free of the grass. Her brother was right, though, she admitted. Not about Xander, but about their father.
I hope you two get over your problem.
Sure thing, dad, she thought as she ripped the letter into tiny pieces for the wind to carry away. But she decided that later, when Carmella was in bed, she would call her father and speak to Xander. She had to make sure her other brother wasn’t a jerk, like this one. Maybe she would even talk to her stepmother. She tried not to smile as she joined her aunt in the front yard.