Back when Raleigh Harmon made her debut in The Stones Cry Out, one reviewer caught my attention: C.J. Darlington. Known as a tough but fair book reviewer, C.J. became one of Raleigh Harmon’s biggest cheerleaders.She “got” Raleigh.
But C.J. was also working on her own first novel. And within a year of Stones being published, C.J.’s novelist career was launched into the stratosphere with Running on Empty.
Rather than steal her thunder, I’ll let C.J. tell you what happened. She’s also given me permission to post the first chapter of Running on Empty. Read it, and you’ll want to read more.
Now here’s C.J.:
I want to brag on you, C.J., but I’ll let the facts speak. You won a really prestigious writing contest . . . Will you tell us about it?
I’m still honored that Thicker than Blood won the Jerry Jenkins Operation First Novel contest back in 2008. It was an amazing, humbling experience. I had no idea then that Thicker than Blood would become the first in a series or that five years later my family’s publishing company, Mountainview Books, would end up publishing the 2014 Operation First Novel winners. What an exciting ride!
Your family’s really tight-knit and loving. Yet you write about dysfunctional families, and young women fighting alone for survival. Why?
I think some of it comes down to writing what I enjoy reading. Who wants to read about a perfect world with perfect characters who have their lives completely together? I don’t. But I also don’t enjoy reading books that are so dark they have no hope. Perhaps I write about these sort of flawed people and families because when I do eventually write about light and hope in my stories, it’s easier to see the contrast between light and dark.
What was your favorite part of writing Running on Empty?
From the get-go I wanted the crux of this story to be about the relationship between a down-on-her-luck young woman and her much younger half sister. Callie (who is eight) exudes the child-like innocence my character Del has lost. Through their journey together, I realized Running on Empty was about a lot more than that too, but I loved developing their bond.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the beginning stages of the sequel to my novel Jupiter Winds, a YA space adventure. It’s going to be called Jupiter Fire, and right now I’m asking myself this question about the plot: what does it take to redeem a traitor?
Thanks, C.J.! We’ll check in after Jupiter Fire is published.
Now here’s the first chapter of Running on Empty.
FIRST CHAPTER of Running on Empty
Elk Valley, Colorado
Del Mangini recounted the wrinkled bills in her wallet as if the act could multiply them. Nineteen dollars. That had to be enough.
She approached the shortest of the checkout lines behind a tanned, fortyish woman in pink running gear. Del eyed the mountain of fresh vegetables, bags of fruit, and huge pack of T-bones the woman loaded onto the conveyer belt.
Her stomach growled, and by the woman’s surreptitious glance she knew she wasn’t the only one who heard it. Del stared down at her Goodwill-bought sneakers with the knot-repaired laces, embarrassment rising up her neck. She’d skipped breakfast and lunch to put three gallons in her ancient Chevy Malibu.
A bag of raw, organic almonds landed on Del’s foot. She slowly picked it up.
“Excuse me, but those are mine.” The woman snatched the nuts from her and tossed them on the belt.
Del tried to pretend she didn’t care, but it had been months since she’d eaten anything that didn’t come out of a can or box, and the proof lay in her grocery basket: loaf of Wonder bread, two boxes of spaghetti, quart of 2% milk, store-brand cornflakes, crunchy peanut butter, and her one splurge—a jar of pesto marinara sauce. If she added a little water, she could stretch it to last a week.
The teenage checker’s scanner beeped like a pulse monitor, and when it was finally Del’s turn, she lifted her basket onto the belt and watched as each price flashed on the screen.
“Total’s twenty three seventeen.” The checker popped her gum.
“But . . . I thought the pasta was on sale.”
“Are you sure?”
“I can check.” The teen reached for the phone receiver beside the register.
Del glanced at the fidgeting line behind her, clearly imagining their unvoiced thoughts about the sorry-looking young woman quibbling about a fifty-cent savings. She shook her head and pushed the marinara sauce to the side. “It’s okay. I’ll just come back for this later.”
The clerk shrugged, and with a punch of a few buttons brought the total down. Del handed over her bills and escaped from the grocery store knowing she wouldn’t be back. Couldn’t be, actually. She headed across the parking lot. A flash of pink caught her eye, and she spotted the woman in the running suit loading her groceries into a shiny Escalade. Her back was turned, her cart unattended. One quick sprint and Del knew she could grab one of those bags before the woman would catch her.
She walked closer.
The woman swung around, and Del spun on her heels. What was she doing? She should be mapping out the next business to ask for a job, not thinking about stealing someone’s groceries. But how was she going to get through the month on nineteen dollars’ worth of food?
She climbed into her rusted car. If she sold it she might get a couple hundred to keep her floating, but then where would she be? She couldn’t walk everywhere.
Closing her eyes, desperation built in her chest as it had every day she watched her meager cash supply dwindle and every job opportunity slip through her fingers. She should’ve just slept with Eric.
Del blew air through her lips in frustration. It had been three months since she caught him swiping cash from the bank deposit at It’s Only Natural Foods where they both worked. He swore he’d tell the owner, who happened to be his grandmother, that it was Del if she didn’t give him what he really wanted. She refused, and the next day she was fired. Del tried to tell her side of the story and convince the owner she’d done nothing wrong, but she didn’t believe Del.
In a town the size of Elk Valley, word spread like the wildfires that swept up the west slope of the Spanish Peaks last year, and no one in town would hire her. But even without her tarnished reputation, she didn’t have much chance anyway. Her resume consisted of random fast food jobs and a stint helping a now-dead old cowboy break mustangs.
As she reached to start the engine, the Chevy’s passenger door opened and a man climbed into her car, sat down, and slammed the door shut.
“Hey!” She pulled back her fist to punch him with all she had.
He raised his hands. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I should’ve knocked.”
“Get out of my car!”
The man kept his hands up as if in surrender. He wore dark jeans, a red Rockies T-shirt, and a ball cap with a bill so frayed she could see the cardboard along its edge.
“I said get out!”
“Please just listen to me.”
Did he have a gun? Was this a carjacking? She should get out and run. But something about him made her pause. If he wanted the car, wouldn’t he have demanded that already?
“I’m going to reach into my shirt pocket,” he said, pulling out a business card then slowly lowering his hand. “Are you Del Mangini?”
She stared at the man. With a ruddy complexion and graying stubble on his chin he looked like he was probably pushing fifty. “Who are you?”
“So I was right.”
“You’ve got ten seconds to tell me what this is about before you’re going to regret you set foot in my car.”
He gave her a hesitant smile. “Right. I’m David Kirsch. A PI.”
“I know what PI—”
“I’ve been trying to find you for a month.”
Great. Like she didn’t have enough on her plate. She gripped her door handle hard. This guy was probably packing, but would he dare threaten her during business hours at a grocery store? Maybe, maybe not. Daylight hadn’t stopped those thugs the cops picked up in Walsenburg a few months ago when they’d shot and nearly killed a woman for her purse.
“You’ve been trying to find me?”
“Not the easiest thing.”
Maybe she should run after all.
“Why?” Del asked, scanning the parking lot. The lady in pink was gone. A guy her age was gathering up the shopping carts and pushing a huge line of them toward the entrance. If she screamed he would hear.
“I need to find your mother.”
Del swung toward this strange man who’d violated her privacy. Kirsch tried to hand her the business card. She didn’t take it.
She laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
Kirsch’s head tilted ever so slightly, and his expression remained serious. Okay, so he wasn’t kidding.
“And why do you need to find her?” Del asked.
“Who hired you?”
“I think you got your wires a little mixed up.”
A faint smile played on Kirsch’s lips again. “I’m good at what I do.”
Yet it took him a month to find her. Somehow she found satisfaction in that. She had intended to drop off the radar from her old life in Pennsylvania, and apparently it worked.
“Not that good, because I’m your dead end.” Del fingered her keys. Her stomach still gnawed for food.
Kirsch leaned forward, trying to catch her eye again. “Come on.”
“Okay, you got me. I’ll tell you where she is.”
The PI stared at her, like he was trying to figure out if she was bluffing. “I’d appreciate it.”
Kirsch blinked. She wondered if his ego was crushed for being so far off.
“At a place called Green Meadows,” Del said.
Kirsch pulled out a smartphone and started tapping notes into it. “Thank you.”
“Cemetery,” Del said.
He looked up.
“I meant a literal dead end. My mother’s buried there.”
Clearing his throat, Kirsch paused with his finger hovering over the phone. “I’m sorry, but—”
“Time to leave, Sherlock. Now.”
“I obviously can’t help you.”
“Your biological mother.”
It was Del’s turn to stare.
“I know your adoptive parents passed away.” Kirsch’s expression was sympathetic. “Apologies for not being clear on that, but I’m trying to find your birth mother.”
“My birth mother is buried in that cemetery.”
“Are you sure?”
“What do you mean am I sure?”
“What was her name?”
“Listen, I don’t know what game you’re—”
“They didn’t tell you, did they?”
The air in the car suddenly seemed to thin, and Del felt like she was on the summit of Mount Everest struggling for oxygen. She knew what he was implying, but she didn’t want to entertain it. Her parents loved her, meant the world to her, and had died heroes.
Kirsch tapped again on his phone then turned it toward her. A woman’s photo stared back, and Del had to do a double-take. The woman’s dark blonde hair was wilder than her own, which she kept at shoulder length, but even she couldn’t deny the resemblance.
“Her name’s Natalie,” Kirsch said.
“You’re pulling my leg, right?”
“I think you know I’m not.”
Del paged through memory after memory of her parents, a cognitive slideshow. Had they ever mentioned something, anything, to mean they weren’t her real parents? She came up empty. So she didn’t look like them. That was no big deal, right? She’d always assumed she took after some distant relative to explain why she’d ended up five foot two with parents who both played basketball in college. Or why two Mediterranean beauties had ended up with a towhead child.
Kirsch set his business card on the console between them. Embossed with silver lettering, probably on purpose to make himself look more legit. But any lug could buy cards online. This could bee one big con. But what would be the purpose in that?
“Are you sure you have the right girl?” Del asked.
He slipped his phone into his shirt pocket. “Like I said, I’m good.”
“Get out of my car.”
Kirsch gave one nod, as if he knew their conversation really was over, and exited as quickly as he entered. She watched him walk across the parking lot and climb into a black pickup. He touched the bill of his cap then drove away.
She flipped the locks and sat frozen in her seat.
Running on Empty by CJ Darlington