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Ken Fowler | Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sam wandered out of bed, awoken to the fourth straight day of shouting.

“I am too taking the car tomorrow,” screamed Claire, Sam’s older daughter.

“No, you’re not, and you know you’re not,” snickered Claire’s brother, Howie, the youngest of Sam’s three kids. “That’s Ethie’s time.”

Claire was tall and full and green, and she used to take the family car almost every weekend afternoon and brought back seats full of friends home at night. She was a good daughter. Ethie was meek and shy and brown, sitting home with her bread in front of the TV every night. She was a despondent girl.

Things had been like that for a while, and Sam knew he was part of a problem. After years of favoring his more industrious daughter, he began to pity Ethie and her jealousy. But what to do? Then it came to him.

Howie had just turned 14, Ethie was 16 and just got her license, and Claire was 18.

“No need for me to make the decision,” Sam thought. “Howie’s fairer than I could ever be. Why don’t I let him decide?”

“Easy, Dad,” Howie said. “You work late on Fridays. Let Ethie have the car on Saturday and Claire have the car on Sunday. No swaps, no trades, no nothing. Everyone can plan accordingly.”

Sam immediately accepted and properly promulgated the law. Quickly, Ethie grew. She went to the mall, she found friends, she mingled, she drove people places, she had a life – and people cared about her. She took the car to the gas station, had it washed and changed the oil.

Claire changed. She fought with her parents, fought with Ethie and, most of all, fought with Howie. He put the rules in place, and now she had a speck of the social life that she used to.

That’s the way it was until Tuesday, when a delegation of Claire’s friends asked if she could drive them on early Saturday morning to the big hall an hour away to watch a special showing of “The Day of Reckoning.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime type thing. Claire peeked to see if anyone was around. She said sure: She would just wake up early, break the rules and take the car before anyone got up.

When she hung up, she turned and saw Howie’s face: “No you won’t.”

For three days, the shouts went back and forth. Ethie didn’t like what Claire was doing – it was a threat to her newfound social status – but she didn’t say much; the screeches came from Howie and Claire. By Friday night, Claire figured she would simply quiet down and call Howie’s bluff.

She tiptoed to the kitchen Saturday morning, snatched the keys off the counter and slowly turned the door to avoid the squeaks. She opened the driver’s door, and it seemed like no one was watching and no one cared.

Claire inserted the key into the ignition and waited for the turn to start the car. She couldn’t make a full rotation.

She tried again. Nothing. When she quietly lifted the hood, she knew something was missing.

“Dad!” she screamed. “Someone stole the car battery!”

Out came Howie.

“That would be me,” he said flatly. “You knew the rules and you tried to break them. How would it be fair to Ethie if I let you break the rules you both have to live by?”

Claire found a certain sanctimony with which to respond.

“The rules weren’t fair to begin with.”