Updated: Mar 24
Here's a short story that I have been working on for a couple of months. When I was writing, I was thinking about what happens to found-families when they have to split up.
The story is about three young criminals trying to balance the weight of their friendship and the weight of their job. A series of extenuating circumstances challenge their dependency on each other and the plans they have for themselves.
Honestly, I started with the January audio prompt from Susan Dennard's Story a Month Challenge which was the sound of crashing waves and a creaking ship. The ship idea was abandoned early on and I think I just loosely included the crashing waves, but the prompt was a good starting point! A few people have told me that this could also function as a first chapter, so maybe I'll come back to these characters someday.
Here's the story! Hope you enjoy it,
by Miranda Nayak
Haisley had the whole world in her hands and twenty-seven counts of theft on her conscience.
Twenty-seven crimes that the condescending police officer on the phone was currently reciting to her.
Mateo and Jason, her partners in crime and best friends, sat in the back of the van that Haisley was driving through a hurricane. They stared at the device on the soft gray seat between them like it was one of the questionable inventions on the side of a grocery store aisle.
"The last one was a gun- an antique gun belonging to a Mr. Hawthorne. Mr. Hawthorne called us a few hours ago and he was adamant about getting his gun back. It was a family heirloom,” the man on the phone finished.
The gun in question was tucked into Haisley’s waistband, hidden partially under her loose T-shirt. Of course, it was a family heirloom! she thought unenthusiastically. Their boss had told them that Mr. Hawthorne had plans to murder his ex-wife with “the might of his father before him.”
And that’s exactly what Mateo was attempting to make clear to the man on the phone. “Why do you think that Mr. Hawthorne cares about an old gun? Why? Oh, probably because he was going to use it to murder-”
“You can stop right there,” the man on the phone interrupted. He paused for a beat before continuing, “We have your location. I’m about five minutes away from getting in my car and driving to you. Listen, you sound like well-intentioned kids. Why don’t you drive over here, return the gun, and we can talk about your situation.”
The blood had drained out of Haisley’s face about fifteen minutes ago when Mateo had answered his buzzing phone, paled, and mouthed cops. By now, she was staring numbly at the road in front of her, dread pooling in her stomach. She gripped the steering wheel until her hands turned white.
Haisley felt like she was in control of her life. Before this job, before these friends, control was something she didn’t have. Now, she had everything to lose. She was not going back to having nothing unless the fates ensured that she wouldn’t ever have to see the people who knew her before again. Maybe if they paid her fifty million on the spot that would help too. Stealing wasn’t an honest way to make a living. Maybe each step was bringing her closer to a horrible afterlife, but she didn’t want to think about death. In moments of doubt, she thought about before, and anything was better than that half-life.
“How do you even have my phone number? Isn’t that-” Mateo blurted.
The officer scoffed. Mateo couldn’t fathom why this man was acting like they- three young people who’d accomplished twenty-seven robberies- were the stupid ones.
“We have twenty-seven people calling our phone every single day to ask about the valuables you stole from them. I don’t know what your game is or who you’re working for...”
Jason snorted in the backseat. His knee was bouncing uncontrollably, but other than that he appeared relaxed. The inside of his mind was a crowded bookshelf that was constantly threatening to tip over and spill into his fragile life. Haisley and Mateo thought he was composed and calm, but he did not have his life together. If he got caught and his mother found out that he wasn’t working at the local library she would probably hate him. She’d already thrown him out once. If thoughts had taste, this one would be bitter.
Cringing, Jason snatched the phone from Mateo who was stuttering in a way that sounded like a two-year-old trying to pronounce the letter “A.”
“Listen, man. We’re not going to drive over there and turn ourselves in. I know you think we’re eighth-graders taking a joy ride and stealing shit for fun, but-” Mateo kicked Jason in the shin. “That is exactly what we are! We will be turning ourselves in immediately. So just stay right there, sir, and we will be arriving in your parking lot very soon.”
He promptly hung up the phone and threw it into the trunk for effect.
After a beat of shocked silence, Haisley let out a long, incredulous laugh. “What the f-“ she started, whacking the steering wheel. She couldn’t lose this job. Maybe it was more sketchy than what she had before, but she had friends now. She had money. She had a home. She cared about people and she (mostly) wasn’t afraid anymore.
“Smooth, Jason. Are we just turning ourselves in then? What was your plan there, man?” Mateo asked, half yelling. “Also, did you seriously throw my phone into the trunk? I told you not to do that-“
“Ok, listen. Now that this guy thinks we’re coming over there, there’s no way he’s gonna drive all the way up here until he’s sure that we aren’t coming. I just bought us like, five minutes. You should be grateful,” Jason said, nodding to himself.
“Jason, you idiot, what’re we going to do? Drive off into the sunset? We have to get our stuff out of the house. Five minutes is not enough.”
“Hey, it’s better than nothing. Also, I’m pretty sure the only thing you contributed, Mateo, was your panic-stuttering. That clearly did not help.”
Mateo frowned. He did not like this plan. He hated it. Having a backup plan was the only real way to ensure that one’s future would remain intact. Especially when one stole valued antique items for a living. Sure, he loved his friends; Jason and Haisley had been his whole world for the past three years. But, rationality was also his friend. Even if Haisley and Jason thought he was acting like a fake, sophisticated idiot, he knew that this call with the police was going to bring an end to something they had been holding onto for a long time.
Rationality told him that Haisley and Jason wouldn’t be his whole world forever. He had a backup plan. He had places to go and people to see. If something happened, he told himself he would be able to get away with no trouble.
The van pulled off the empty road and into a greenish-brown field of beach grass and sand. An elongated silence fell over their car as Mateo pulled his rain jacket on over his hoodie. It was pouring outside.
In fact, it was flooding.
“Shit,” he muttered. With a start, he jumped out of the car and ran to the small, shack-like house that was sitting lower on the beach. Haisley and Jason watched him run, oblivious to his cause.
Haisley turned to her friend, pushing her shaking hands deep into her pockets. “What’re we gonna do? Run?” The anxiety crowding her thoughts was going to make her head explode.
Jason tilted his head in the direction of the house and they jogged toward it together. “If we do, we’re gonna have to find a place to store our stuff. Also,” he added, turning around and running backward to face Haisley, “how the hell did the police have our location?”
“A tracker on one of our things- It has to be that. There’s no one around here for miles to tell them where our house is. Maybe someone got our license plate?”
“But we change it all the time.”
On a scale from good to completely despicable, they weren’t anywhere near the worst criminals to walk the face of the Earth. Their boss knew that they didn’t live in an Indiana Jones movie; their type of stealing was illegal and they could face harsh punishment, even if they had good intentions. She said that they could never be too careful.
Haisley shook her head and turned her thoughts to the cold water lapping at her ankles. It got deeper and deeper the closer they got to the house.
She blinked. The water was up to her ankles. The realization hit Jason at the same time as it hit her.
The hurricane was flooding the lower beach area.
Their house was on the lower beach.
Haisley’s stomach sank along with any hope she had before. If it wasn’t clear already, it was now: there was no clean or clear way to get out of this mess they were in.
They pulled to a harsh stop a few feet in front of the house. A foot of water reached up the chipped wooden front door. Without another word to Jason, Haisley yanked open the door and splashed into the flooded front room.
This was, Haisley decided, a disaster. The ache in the back of her head built and she pushed back the stinging in her eyes. There was no time for a break-down. With a quick glance around the nearly-empty living room, she lifted her knees and ran down a short hallway. Flinging open the door to the basement, she threw herself down the stairs, Jason chasing after her.
The sight that met her eyes was a long-dreaded one. Despair seeped through her shaking body.
Functioning as a storage facility, the basement was filled with old cabinets, dressers, “haunted” chandeliers, broken mirrors, and an arsenal of almost-murder-weapons. When they rescued something from the hands of someone who was going to do wrong with it, they threw it into the basement (carefully) until someone affiliated with their boss came to pick it up. Mateo, Haisley, and Jason hadn’t stolen enough to fill the basement, but whichever crews had used this house before surely had.
It seemed self-explanatory that ninety-percent of the antiques in the basement were not waterproof. There were pieces of fabric floating in the water, crumbled remains of chipped paint from various old pieces of furniture, and fraying ropes that tangled in the handlebars of old dressers.
Mateo was scrambling around the crowded basement, stuffing objects into duffel bags. When his eyes met Haisley’s, he yelled, “Leave the furniture! Just grab the weapons and whatever you can fit into the bags. Hurry.”
Recognizing the rare panic showing in Mateo’s usually-clear eyes, Haisley didn’t hesitate.
Jason jumped into the shin-deep water from the stairs, swearing violently as he assessed the damage. “Mateo, what’re we going to do? The police-”
“We have to split up. There’s no way we can get out of this all together in the van,” Mateo said, not looking up. There was a moment of tense silence as his words registered, not only in his friends’ minds but also in his own. He shivered.
The cold tone to his voice and the frigid water soaking through her loose jeans made it all the worse as the words sank into Haisley. “Split up?” She repeated numbly.
Jason gaped at him. “The prized possessions of like, a hundred people are being sacrificed to the God of Fucking Up Our Lives, the police are coming after us, our home is flooding, and you think the best idea is to split up?”
“Yeah,” Mateo nearly whispered, “yeah, I do.”
Mateo’s mind was forcefully clear. He knew that splitting up wouldn’t be fun, but it was the only realistic course of action. There was no way he was going to let them drive off into the sunset together, pretending like they were invincible because of their found-family.
If anything, going through shit together and forming a bond should make them more cautious. And they had been through shit. Years of stealing. Years of figuring out how they worked together. Years of nearly being killed by the angry or insane victims of their theft. Years of mirrors, dressers, and weapons that were stored in their tiny, isolated house on the beach.
Mateo gazed around the basement, seeing their past laid out before his eyes.
“This is a horrible plan,” Jason said quietly as he rushed around the small room. His mind was straying to the future, conjuring up images of being tossed out of his home again. He was on the ground, suddenly so small, his family looking down at him with lips pressed into tight lines. “What’re we supposed to do? Go back to our old lives?”
Mateo said nothing, clenching his jaw. He glanced back at Haisley. Her eyes were frozen and dim as she started to zip up a full duffel, shoving it over her shoulder and starting on another one. The water level was rising. The rain was pounding outside. The police were probably on their way. Time seemed to be slipping out from under their feet.
“Let’s just get out of here and then we can figure it out,” Jason intoned after a tense moment. His shoulders were scrunched and he was giving his friends a firm look.
Shaking his head, Mateo pulled his phone from his back pocket. He scrolled to the last text their boss had sent him: a list of items that could not be lost under any circumstance. He checked his duffel bags, crossed off the items he had in them, then held the phone out to Jason. He glanced up into his friend’s brown eyes, saying, “No. We are going to split up because I don’t want us to get hurt when the police come after us. They’re going to catch us either way, ok?”
“We’re not splitting up,” Haisley said quietly, leaving no room for uncertainty. Her expression was guarded, but her best friends could see the fear that was bursting inside of her.
Pulling his eyes back to the task at hand, Jason scanned his bag for items, checking them off. “You think you’re being rational, Mateo, but tell me where Haisley’s gonna go? I’m going home, you’ve got your plans, but what is she gonna do?”
Haisley looked up slowly and Mateo stared at Jason, his hands curling into fists. When Mateo didn’t answer, Jason yelled, “There’s no easy answer, I know. But we can’t leave her behind. How is that rational?”
The water was at their knees now. Millions of dollars were going to be lost to the water.
Haisley didn’t look up at Jason as she grabbed the phone from his hands to check the list.
Mateo blew out a breath, trying to release the tension in his body. “You think I’m selfish?” Mateo asked, turning to his friend. “But who’s the first one running at every close call? Who’s the one who lied to the police without even consulting with the rest of us?” Mateo took a step closer to Jason, his feet dragging under the cold water.
Jason blanched. “I never said you were selfish.”
Mateo shook his head, eyebrows raised. “I know your family would hate you,” he said, “but do you think the rest of us have nothing to lose?”
“What would you have told the police, then? Did you want me to lie? Did you want us to actually turn ourselves in?” Jason yelled at Mateo, aggressively slinging a bag over his shoulder.
“I mean, it honestly wouldn’t have been the worst idea.”
“Are you kidding?”
Haisley had had enough. The anxiety was ebbing away into anger and frustration. Her voice was cold as she stepped forward and shoved her friends away from each other. “Will you shut up for a second? Let’s just get out of here. We have to get this stuff into the van. Mateo, check the list again.”
Her tone was enough to startle some sense into the boys. Mateo ran his eyes over the list of strange items, his body shaking.
Velvet-handled dagger, check.
Golden tiara, check.
Small dinosaur fossils of some kind, check.
Suspicious chest, check.
Haunted lightbulb, check.
Cursed black-and-white image of a small child, check.
Mateo glanced at Haisley’s waistband. Psycho gun, check. He started to turn around, but he jerked his gaze back up, eyes catching on the gun again.
“Haisley,” he said quietly, trying to contain his sudden panic, “how long has that light on the gun been flashing red?”
Yanking the gun out, Haisley blinked at the flashing red light near the end of the barrel. “Shit,” she muttered. “I don’t know. It wasn’t flashing when I grabbed it.”
Jason ran his hands back through his hair in distress. “It’s a tracker,” he said, voicing Mateo’s thoughts. That’s probably how the police had their location; the gun had been tracking them ever since they’d stolen it from Mr. Hawthorne this afternoon.
The three of them stood there in a puddle of panic and shock. Ninety percent of the basement’s contents were ruined, they were running out of time, and suddenly none of them knew what they wanted.
A thought circulated through all of their minds: had they been so distracted with themselves that they missed a flashing red light?
Mateo wondered if that was a sign. If they had such different ideas of their futures, then maybe splitting up was the best idea anyway.
Haisley squeezed her eyes shut and took a steadying breath. Friends are supposed to fight; they are supposed to be honest. That’s what that this was. That’s why they missed the light. Fear prickled in the corners of her mind. Who would she be if they split up?
“We can’t split up,” she whispered. “After all we’ve been through, we can’t split up.”
Mateo looked at the flooded house around them, his head pulsing with Haisley’s words. After all we’ve been through. The fruit of twenty-seven robberies floated in the water around them. Twenty-seven times he’d realized how much he trusted his friends. Twenty-seven crimes washed away in the flood.
“There’s nothing left for us here,” he said softly, gesturing around them. “We can’t dwell on what we had because there’s not a safe way for us to have that anymore. I don’t want to split up, trust me. But we have to.”
When he looked up and met Haisley’s eyes, when he met Jason’s, he knew that they understood. Haisley’s face was frozen and her eyes were cold, and Jason looked like he wanted to strangle something.
But they understood.
Something clicked inside of him. He had backup plans, notebooks full of maps, and detailed steps for what he would do when he inevitably lost this job, these friends, this everything.
Why hadn’t he ever considered that the absence of everything would hurt?
Mateo and Haisley went back to pulling bags out of the cold water, their faces solemn, their hands steady. Jason couldn’t stop thinking about the sort of trouble he would be in when the police caught them. There would be no getting out of this. They were guilty of every single crime they were accused of. Their boss had fifty people working for her and wouldn’t want to be anywhere near this. She wasn’t going to get them out of this.
Just one thing kept catching at Jason’s thoughts. It took him a while to put words to it. “How did the police get a tracker into the gun before we stole it?” He blurted.
It was then that a door burst open somewhere upstairs and the startling sound of a gunshot sent the three of them scrambling. Mateo stepped in front of Jason, who was nearest to him, and Haisley instinctively covered her head with her hands, kneeling in the water.
“Oh my god,” Jason whispered, shaking. Haisley drew the stolen gun out as she moved to hide behind a cabinet, her jeans stiff and heavy from the water. Mateo grabbed Jason’s elbow, knocking down a dresser and ducking down behind it. Someone was upstairs and they were not happy.
The police? Mateo thought, his mind spinning. No, it couldn’t be. It had barely been fifteen minutes and it took at least thirty to get to the house from the police station. Their boss was in France last time he checked so it couldn’t be her.
No one else knew their location.
Unless someone else had a tracker on them.
As if on cue, an old white man wearing a rumpled suit came crashing down the stairs, gun raised.
Jason squinted at him as he slowly stepped into the water, cringing at the cold. The corners of his mouth were raised slightly, a smirk forming on his cracked lips.
Old man, cheap suit, snobby demeanor, crazed look in his eyes. When the old man turned his face in Jason’s direction it clicked. The memory of turning his head back over his shoulder as he ran from the old house came back to him.
“Is that-” he started, gripping Mateo’s arm.
“I know someone is down here. Get out. I know you have my gun,” the man yelled, pointing the gun he did have straight ahead as he spun slowly, scanning the room.
He wanted the antique gun so that he could murder his ex-wife.
The man who was in their basement was Mr. Hawthorne, the owner of the antique weapon that they had stolen this morning. Jason’s eyes widened, his fears confirmed. It was that face he’d seen this morning, red with anger and shouting at them as they’d ran to the van.
“Holy shit,” Haisley whispered to herself. She ducked her head against her chest, trying to catch her breath. Mateo’s eyes widened and he glanced over at her, holding an arm out to keep Jason from lunging toward her.
The gun that the man wanted was clutched tightly in Haisley’s trembling hands.
Glancing over at her friends, Haisley took a deep breath, let the gun fall quietly into the water, and then stood up. Jason swore under his breath, shifting to look over the side of the dresser. Mr. Hawthorne jerked to face Haisley, his gun pointed right at her head. “Where’s my gun?”
“I don’t know,” Haisley lied, forcing herself not to glance down at the weapon now sinking through the water near her feet.
“And where are the others?”
“It’s just me.”
“You’re lying. I saw three of you running from my house.”
Haisley smirked and the old man flinched, his grip tightening on the trigger. “You saw three of us? I knew you were crazy but it seems you’re also delusional.”
The man went still. “Give me the gun.”
“What? So you can murder your ex-wife. Why can’t you just use the one that you have?”
“That gun belonged to my father and his father before him. That woman deserves to feel the might of my family when I kill her. I will not do it with this,” he said, waving his gun slightly.
Haisley cringed at his insane explanation.
The man shifted on his feet, his hairline damp with sweat. “I will shoot,” he growled. Haisley swallowed. She couldn’t let him have the gun for too many reasons to count. If she gave him the gun, he would use it as a murder-weapon. Somehow more than that, if she gave him the gun, she would have to move beyond this moment.
Even though there was a gun pointed at her head and a crazy man on the other side of it, some part of her didn’t want to face what they were going to have to do.
“Then shoot,” Haisley whispered.
Shuddering, Jason pushed back the stinging in his eyes. It was taking significant effort to not leap in front of his friend. She had it under control. He wasn’t her bodyguard. But fear was a tangible feeling breaking through every instinct that told him to run away from this.
Mateo couldn’t stop his drifting thoughts, his hands numb from the cold.
Haisley stared down the barrel of the gun and decided that she’d rather die than split up with them. Jason, who was always concerned about what would happen if they ever got caught, was shielding Mateo with his body.
The wind was blasting outside and water was splashing against their legs. They weren’t in the eye of the hurricane, but the stillness of this moment felt like the smallest reprieve from the chaos that raged around them and inside of them.
Mateo saw his friends breaking every one of their own rules. They were edging closer to a dark precipice. There was such a thing as going too far to save something that was already doomed. Mateo’s backup plans provided a safety net, but there would be nothing to stop his friends from falling into the dark. If they all fell together, the crash would hurt even more.
Mateo squeezed his eyes closed.
How could he ever leave them?
How could he ever stay with them?
They had history, but only the present mattered now.
Haisley felt nothing. A moment of overwhelming quiet. She saw the tops of her friends’ heads and felt herself drifting. Why wouldn’t she risk everything for her friends? She had everything. If she never had to lose it, that would hurt less.
Mr. Hawthorne asked for the gun once more, his face flushed with frustration.
Jason stared at the weapon by his friend’s feet, his chest moving up and down quickly. His brows furrowed and he kicked Mateo’s knee to get his attention. “If the tracker is Mr. Hawthorne’s then how did the police know where we were?”
Mateo stared at him. “It must be something else. Another tracker.”
Just a little bit too loud.
Mr. Hawthorne spun. In that moment, Haisley ducked down, grabbed the man’s gun, and stepped forward. Shakily, she put the barrel to his head.
“That’s my gun,” he exclaimed, trying to turn. When he glimpsed her finger on the trigger, he froze. He knew the gun was loaded; she saw it in the fear that glowed in his eyes. That was all she needed.
“Put your gun down,” she ordered.
“Get on your knees.”
She swung the gun at his head once. Twice. Mr. Hawthorne fell forward onto the overturned furniture that Mateo and Jason were hiding behind. Haisley shivered as she grabbed the back of his collar to pull his head out of the water. His face dropped onto the dry side of the old dresser.
“Damn,” Mateo whispered, pulling himself out of the heavy water. Jason stared at the unconscious man and looped his arm through Haisley’s. The knee-deep water was crashing against their bodies, raging like the indecision floating between them.
The sound of police sirens outside startled them out of their stupor. Jason, Haisley, and Mateo looked up at each other, their eyes locking. A wave of fragile understanding passed through them. They didn’t pick up the duffel bags or call their boss.
None of them said a word as they darted out the back door, leaving everything behind.
There was banging inside the house as the police tromped down the stairs to the basement and waded into the water. One police lady's eyes caught on Mr. Hawthorne and she sucked in a tight breath. She grabbed his arms and put cuffs around his wrists, hauling his limp form up with her.
“Damn,” said a man standing by the door, opening it for her as she shoved the unconscious man through the water, “we were really working with that guy, huh, Captain?”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” muttered a man surveying the basement in its wrecked state. The man from the phone. “He called us, we made a deal to share the tracking, he proved himself guilty of what his ex accused him of, and now we’ve got him.”
“But not the criminals.”
“Apparently not. Search the house.”
But by that time, the three thieves were already in their van, a mile down the road. A pink and orange evening sky didn’t shine on their beat-up van; they were driving through a hurricane. Rain pelted the windows and wind roared in their ears.
They drove away, knowing the police were on their tail. They drove into the storm, knowing their boss was going to fire them.
They drove away, leaving their history to the rising water.
Because who could stay?