Beauty in the Breakdown

"We can't hide like this forever, Josh. How did we even get into this mess?"

Family. Money. Run. Three things that Josh Ray and Clara Roberts have their entire life based around. It's an endless loop of get away from family, get money and get running.

After a few months of what feels like stability, Josh and Clara have to start the cycle all over again until everything finally comes to an end.

There was something beautiful in the way that things broke down.

// This version is severely unedited.

// Now available on Amazon.

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2. 1 ➵ Thursday 23 October

“We can't hide like this forever, Josh.”

 

I feel the gentle thud of Clara walking across the flat roof and sitting down beside me, dangling her legs over the edge. I also have my legs over the edge but I'm not sitting: I'm laying down with one arm draped across my eyes. Clara knows when I don't want to talk but she'll come over anyway, prodding and poking until she pierces a tiny hole in my walls of stone. She’d think she's finally gotten through to me and would then return to the house, leaving me to repair the hole until there was no evidence of its existence. Today is one of those days.

 

“We don't have enough money to live here anymore, Josh. We'll be homeless. We'll have to go home.”

 

I sigh and sit up, my hands in my lap as I stare at the sun creeping over the horizon, sending an array of pastel pink and yellow and blue across the early morning sky. It is the end of October and the winter chill swept through the air early this year. I never minded the cold but Clara does, meaning it was the perfect time of day to climb onto the roof of our small bungalow and worry about our problems in peace. I hadn't wanted to worry Clara, especially about the money. I wanted to protect her. That was before she read the letter which someone had slipped through the front door a few days back. She holds the letter in her hands now.

 

“Dear Mr Ray,” she reads. I have already read the letter so many times that the words are imprinted on my mind, the edges of the expensive, waxy paper crinkled and worn from my hands.

 

“I am sorry to inform you that you have not been keeping up with the payments for 135 Haydons Avenue. If this continues and the payments are not completed by Thursday 6 November, 2014, you will be evicted from the residence.”

 

The letter goes into detail – too much detail – about the payments we’ve been missed, how much each one was meant to have costed us and when they were supposed to have been paid by. I calculate the amount of money in my head as Clara begins to recite the details of the eviction and how Mr J Stones from the housing agency shows 'much regret and sympathy about the inconvenience'.

 

I owe the company almost five thousand dollars – and it has to be paid in two weeks’ time.

 

When she finishes reading the letter, she folds it and tucks it back inside the envelope, torn from when she opened it. I sit in silence, still staring at the way the rising sun appears much brighter at this time of day.

 

“Josh, how did we even get into this mess?”

 

She intends for it to be a rhetorical question but we’ve answered it so many times already in our short lives together. We both knew exactly how we ended up in this situation.


***


At the start of the year, I was desperate for money to move out of my family home. It was claustrophobic in there, the atmosphere set off by my arguing and intoxicated parents making it impossible to breathe. I had to get out. I was eighteen and naive. The only quick way I could think of to get money was to steal it.

 

I spent a few days near the end of January patrolling through the streets where the wealthier families in town lived, making a mental list of good targets. I wasn't just looking for the richest people, I was searching for the ones who would be easiest to get the money from. Old couples. Young teenagers who were home alone. Babysitters watching toddlers while the parents went out for a drink or two. I had lived in there long enough to know who was going to kick the bucket soon, who was left home alone for the weekend and who always had a babysitter.

 

During the days, I narrowed my options down to two definite targets. The first was an old couple called Mr and Mrs Spencer. They always went to bed early and ate their dinner while watching family game shows which were usually only viewed by parents with young children or the elderly. My other target was Clara Roberts, a baby-faced seventeen year old whose father cleared off recently with a younger, pretty woman. Her mother was often lying face down on her bed, drunk out of her mind, when she wasn’t working at a firm dedicated to locating lost people.

 

Clara Roberts was what most people would have considered to be a nerd in school. I was in hardly any of her classes but I was told she never raised her hand and only spoke to a girl named Beth, someone she was only friends with because no one else was. She dressed conservatively, tied back her hair and wore minimal makeup. Past Clara was a complete contrast to Present Clara.

 

Getting into Clara's house – one which always flaunted money rather than taste after each renovation – was easy: her mother left the back door unlocked before herself and her daughter retreated to their bedrooms for the evening. I was quite happily counting out coins from a stash pot hidden in a kitchen cupboard until I heard Clara enter the room to get a drink.

 

She didn't scream. She didn't shout for her mother. She didn't run back to the safety of her room or try to attack me. She simply dragged a chair across the floor to help her onto the kitchen counter, took a pot from where it was stored on top of the cupboard and handed it to me.

 

“Take it. It's my mother's booze money. She won't sober up enough to notice it's gone.”

 

Shocked, I simply thanked her and began walking towards the back door. As I reached out to open it, Clara shoved her way between me and my exit and looked me dead in the eye.

 

“I wasn't finished. You can take it as long as you make me a promise.”

 

“Sure, whatever,” I had replied before I was aware of what I was being asked to do. I was desperate for the money and needed to get to the Spencer house before it started to get light outside.

 

Her hands tangled with the hem of her shirt as her eyes drifted down to a crack in a tile of the kitchen, one worthy of being displayed in showrooms. She mumbled a couple of times, stumbling on her words, before regaining her composure and finally spitting out her request.

 

“If you're leaving town, take me with you.”
 

***
 

A few weeks later nearing the middle of February, I had enough money to rent a house in a town up north for a couple of months. It would last until I got a job and had the money to find a better place to live, maybe even settle down a bit. I had my bags packed and pulled out of the driveway in my parents’ old car. It was an old Ford Escort which didn’t start more often than it did and was coated with chipped mud-colored paint. They wouldn't care that it was gone. In fact, they would probably be glad. I was driving down the main road, prepared to spend some time down south before I could move into my new house when I remembered the reason I was enough money to leave so soon.

 

Clara.

 

My hands slammed down on the steering wheel, narrowly missing the horn. As much as bringing her along would ruin my overly planned life, I believed I was a reasonably honest man with some sort of a code. I never broke a promise.

 

“Now or never,” I said to myself, turning the car around and driving to her house.

 

She stepped out onto the porch as soon as I arrived and dropped her minimal bags onto the back-seat. It turned out that she had been waiting there every night, wondering if I was going to hold up my end of our badly planned deal.

 

That was how we ended up in our little situation. Scrap that, our giant-crater-in-the-surface-of-Saturn sized situation.

 

***
 

"What are we going to do, Josh?" Clara murmurs, her head resting on my chest. Her arms are around my waist and mine are around her trembling shoulders, holding her frail form tight against my body. "If we get evicted, we'll have to go home."

 

"We won't, Clara. I can't really promise you much right now but I can tell you that we will not be going home."

 

"How can you be so sure? We have no money left!"

 

"I'll find a way."

 

She laughs and sits up, smoothing down her dishwater blond hair. When I first met her, I didn't acknowledge her appearance, only her general clothing style and reputation. She was just another person who I stole money from even though she technically handed it to me on a silver platter.

 

"It sounds so… weird hearing you say that. You sound like a guy from an action movie, one of the ones where the trailer shows loads of gun fights and cars exploding but those are the only good bits of the film. It's just mainly this dumb girl who can't look after herself and a guy who promises her the world."

 

"I thought you loved those movies."

 

"I do. I do! I just hate how a guy promises a girl something that he can't give her."

 

Her pale blue eyes begin to water and she looks down, her unruly hair forming a curtain around her face that blocks her from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, I am a guy who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the concept of privacy so I reach across the small gap between us and cup her face with my hands, running my thumbs across the faint constellations of freckles spattered across her cheekbones. I can't help noticing how thin she has got since we ran.

 

"Clara, I'm promising that you won't have to go home. I don't care what it takes but I will make that happen."

 

Her smile is sad and her nod is on the edge of being reluctant. Her eyes drift towards the trees, a thick burst of them sprouting out of the fields at the outskirts of our neighborhood.

 

I can recount our small collection of memories from the time we spent exploring through those trees, running carelessly as if we were children again. I can easily remember the fallen tree serving as a bridge over the stream, the one that we both hung upside down from and felt all of the blood rush to our heads. I would give anything to regain that childlike sense of innocence we shared in our sparse moments of escaping from our problems. Unfortunately, they crept back as soon as the trees were fading into the horizon and the front door shut behind us.

 

"Okay," Clara replies in a quiet voice when she’s managed to compose herself, a voice practically dripping with uncertainty.

 

I drape my arm around her and pull her into a quick hug before tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ear. "Now, you go inside and do something while I stay out here and do something else."

 

She grins, walking over to the lowest part of the roof, the spot right above the compost bins that we’ve never attempted to put to use. She turns back and looks at me before hanging over the edge of the roof.

 

"Josh, don't do anything stupid."

 

"No promises."

 

***

 

It is a few minutes past two in the morning when I eventually crawl out of bed. It's not really a bed, just an old mattress taking up a majority of the floor that I scrounged from a skip somewhere. Clara is still asleep and has wrapped herself in a threadbare blanket that does little to block out the late October chill. I remind myself to find some newer blankets while I'm out, possibly a warm coat or jacket. One of the worst things that can happen in our situation is someone falling ill and being admitted to hospital. They call your family. They take your money. They send you home. We've been trying to avoid that for the past eight months.

           

Our house is almost a perfect square in shape and split into a series of rectangles. The front door is in the middle and a narrow hallway leads to an empty living room that takes up the rear half of the building. The side on the left of the hallway is split into a small bathroom with no windows as well as a kitchen and dining area complete with cracked countertops and dented doors on the cupboards. The side on the right of the hallway is our bedroom.

           

My toes curl instinctively as they come into contact with the cold tiles of the kitchen floor and then snap back as breakneck speed as my heel brushes against the crack. There are so many cracks across the tiles that the entire floor has started to look like a chessboard.

           

On the counter nearest to the side door, there is a flashlight caked with mud, left that way from where I dropped it beside the stream while on one of my late night moments of peace in the woods. I take it and brush off a couple of mud flakes into the sink before stuffing it into the front pocket of my sweatshirt and then inside of an old black backpack I remember being given for my thirteenth birthday. A few other items – none of them holding particular value to the situation – accompany the torch inside of the bag.

           

“Josh?”

           

I jump suddenly at the sound, not even flinching when my big toe is sent deep into a crack in the tiles. Clara’s stood in the doorway and smiles slightly as I turn around to face her. Right now, she could be fully accepted as a member of the living dead.

           

“What’s up, Clary?” I ask, coating my own voice with sugar.

           

“Nothing,” she replies, leaning on the doorframe, her head lightly knocking against the wood in the process. She doesn't show any signs of noticing. “Nothing, nothing.”

           

She stands there and carefully examines the tiles while I double check that everything I could possibly need is with me, tapping her nose as I walk past her. She crinkles it and lopes into the bedroom without asking any questions at all.

           

I sigh happily. If she wasn’t about to be consumed by sleep, she would be desperate to find out every detail of what I was doing, more concerned about my safety in one night then I would be in my entire life.

 

“Night, Clary.”

 

***

 

When I finally leave, I rummage for a key in my pockets and lock the door, quickly checking that Clara has returned to bed through the window of our bedroom. Usually, I don’t bother: no one around here does since hardly anyone has anything worth taking.

 

Clara's borrowed bicycle leans against the side of the house because there are no walls or fences separating any of the identical properties in this neighborhood. I say 'borrowed' since the boy she took it from was drunk when she offered to ride it home for him. We aren’t aware of where he lives to return it but we doubt he remembers anything from that night. Clara made sure of it with the help of an extra tequila shot.

 

I ride the bike to the nearest town, only a few miles away, and prop it against the wall of a bar. If I am right, closing time is soon and a few drunk girls will be tottering out in their too-high heels and expensive scraps of clothing. Since they always come dressed in such miniature garments, most of them have a thick winter coat tucked under one arm. The one who walks out and almost falls into my arms is one of those girls.

 

"Hello," I say, putting my hands on her shoulders to stabilize her. "Would you like me to call a cab to get you home?"

 

Being polite never hurt anyone.

 

She stares at me, her eyes glassy, before nodding. She places her bag and coat on the sidewalk and hands me her mobile phone. It's a nice phone, expensive too, but I can't take it. Phones can be tracked.

 

I dial the only cab number I know with many mistakes and recite what the rough address is. The Cross Hands, Thompson Street. It should be easy enough to find. The person who answers the phone says that it will only be five minutes. I say thanks, hang up and return the phone to the girl.

 

While we wait for the cab, I talk to the girl a bit. She doesn't seem to be in the mood for a conversation but being the pushy guy I am, I talk to her anywhere and accept her monotone answers. I don't give her any answers in case she does remember me in the morning and wonders who picked up her bag and coat that she left on the sidewalk. Or maybe she could have left them in the bar? What if she didn't even take them? She won't remember when she wakes up with a wicked hangover.

 

"What's your name?"

 

If the girl didn’t look as if she was seconds away from emptying the contents of her stomach across the ground, I would think that she was pretty. Her brown hair is messed up from a night of drinking and dancing and her eyes are blue, glazed over from her lack of sobriety. She quivers slightly, just like a leaf, when the wind hits her exposed arms. I eye up the jacket, one that is quilted on the outside and looks as if it could be lined with fur, which is stranded carelessly on the ground.

 

"My name is Kiera."

 

"Really?” I say, desperate to keep her talking for a short amount of time. “That's my sister's name."

 

I don't have a sister – or a brother, for that matter – but that information isn’t necessary.

 

"Yeah."

 

The silence is one that could be expected, one that is awkward and just waiting for someone to blurt out something stupid simply to break it.

 

"Do you live near here?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Whereabouts?"

 

"Near Gulliver's."

 

I don't live in this town and it isn’t one of the places that I choose to visit regularly so I don't know what Gulliver's is, whether it is the name of a street or building, or anywhere around that area. I scan Kiera from head to toe and try to predict things about her, passing time until the cab arrives.

 

"Oh, cool. Have you been to Quentin's, by any chance?"

 

"Yeah." She pauses, tucking the tip of her thumb between her lips and gnawing on the skin around the edge of the neon pink nail. "Why?"

 

I smile at her. "You look like the type of girl who would go to Quentin's."

 

I pick up her bag and coat, get on the bike and leave Kiera vomiting in the gutter beside the cab, much to the dismay of the driver.
 

***


When I am home, it's around five in the morning and Clara is wandering around the kitchen, grumbling with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. I sit down at the table and take a look inside of the bag.

 

"Josh, what's that?"

 

I empty the contents of the bag over the table. A round mirror. Car keys. A plastic watch. Lip gloss. A small bottle of aspirin. Oh, and money. A whole load of money, almost two grand. There's credit and debit cards, too. Who would carry around this much money?

 

"What's what?"

 

"This."

 

Clara picks up the plastic watch and waves it in front of my face. The item is something that I’ve never seem before so I grab it from her flailing hands to examine closer.

 

"I have a feeling that you know exactly what that is."

 

She sighs. "I do. My mom put one of these on me when I was thirteen. She gets a load of them for free from work, not like she’s ever sober enough to use them. We had an argument about my dad and she thought I would run away to find him."

 

Clara explains everything to me with her voice on the verge of breaking between every couple of words, passing on the information she received from experience. The plastic watch is a tracking device. An identical one would be somewhere on Kiera, around her ankle or on her wrist, hidden under jewelry or clothing. When the tracking device in the bag and the one on Kiera become over a certain distance apart, a signal is sent to the nearest police department to inform them that the bag is stolen. Kiera must be the child or relative of some important person to have her bag tracked at all times, especially with the amount of money she has stashed in there.

 

By now, Clara is sobbing. "What do we do, Josh? What do we do?"

 

If the police received the signal as soon as I left Kiera at the bar, they would be close. If they were following the signal to see if it moved instead of going to the last known location, they would be traveling slowly.

 

"Clara, trust me. I need you to trust me."

 

Grabbing both of her hands in one of mine, I place the other on her cheek, half shielding her eyes from the device on the table, forcing her to look at me.

 

She nods frantically. She's desperate. At this moment, we both are.

 

I run into the bedroom and shove our limited possessions into Kiera's mock-designer handbag, crushing the tracking device beneath the heel of my boot on the way. Clara copies me but stuffs food and bottled drinks into a plastic bag. It doesn't take us long to pack. I carry the bags out to the car and climb into the driver's seat. There's only half a tank of petrol, still left over from when we arrived at this place. We only used the bike to save paying for the fuel.

 

"Josh, what are we doing?"

 

I start the engine and pull out of the driveway.

 

"We're going to run."

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