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Authors: Michèle Phoenix

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In Broken Places

BOOK: In Broken Places

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In Broken Places

Copyright © 2013 by Michèle Phoenix. All rights reserved.

Previously published as
Shards of Shell
by Dog Ear Publishing, LLC, under ISBN 978-1598583601.

In Broken Places
first published in 2013 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Cover photograph copyright © Nilsson, Huett, Ulf/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

Designed by Beth Sparkman

Edited by Kathryn S. Olson

Published in association with the literary and marketing agency of C. Grant & Company,

Quotations from
reproduced by permission of The Agency (London) Ltd, © William Nicholson, first published by Samuel French, 1989. All rights reserved and enquiries to The Agency (London) Ltd, 24 Pottery Lane, London W11 4LZ,
[email protected]

In Broken Places
is a work of fiction. Where real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales appear, they are used fictitiously. All other elements of the novel are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Phoenix, Michèle.

In Broken Places / Michèle Phoenix.

pages cm

“Previously published as Shards of Shell by Dog Ear Publishing.”

ISBN 978-1-4143-6841-2 (sc)

1. Self-realization in women—Fiction. 2. Christian fiction. I. Title.

PS3616.H65I5 2013

813'.6—dc23 2012045960

ISBN 978-1-4143-8587-7 (ePub); ISBN 978-1-4143-8387-3 (Kindle); ISBN 978-1-4143-8588-4 (Apple)

Build: 2013-04-08 10:09:49

For Mom.

You taught me to love words.

These are my gratitude.



Aaron, for your profound Seth-ness.

Grayson, for your exuberant Trey-ness.

Jane, for your nurturing Bev-ness.

Mari Ellen, for your instructive Miss Reeser-ness.

Kandern, for your enchanting and exasperating

My students at Black Forest Academy, fascinating amalgams of innocence and world-weariness, fragility and fearlessness. You were both my vocation and my reward. In many ways, my healing too. I love each one of you.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.



between a German and a primate is his ability to read the label on his beer can,” Bonnie said.

I’d spent a lifetime wondering what purgatory might be like and I’d found it here, at thirty-five thousand feet, confined in this garishly upholstered space between a sleeping child and a ranting parrot of a woman. Her voice was loud—as sharp as the bones jutting out of her seventysomething body—and ill-fitting dentures did nothing to soften her staccato consonants and shrilling vowels.

“Of course, they can’t help it,” the occupant of 41-C continued, oblivious to the silence coming from 41-B. “It’s cultural. Like wearing those lederhosen getups and dipping their fries in mayonnaise. I’d bet money their waistbands are as tight as their arteries.” She punctuated her sentence with a derisive snort and reached for her drink.

I counted off the seconds as she sipped orange juice from her plastic cup, relishing the silence while pleading with the gods of conversational relief that the sleeping pills Bonnie had taken minutes ago would kick in before I died of murder by monologue. I had predicted, when she’d entertained Frankfurt-bound passengers in the departure hall with a ruckus about her overweight carry-on luggage, that this diminutive woman would spell transatlantic discomfort for her seat companions. And fate had placed her next to me. My only consolation was in imagining how ugly the scene might have gotten if this Germanophobe had been seated near a native of the country to which we were flying.

Bonnie replaced her cup in the indentation on the tray in front of her and took a deep breath. I held mine, dreading the next chapter in Bonnie’s Defamation of the German Culture, but it never came. With a weary “I think I’ll rest my eyes for a few minutes,” Bonnie let out a long, pesto-scented breath and deflated into silence.

My hand drifted over the head of soft blonde curls resting in my lap. The gesture had been foreign to me only months before, and it struck me, as I looped a curl around my finger and watched it unravel, that the concept of
was quickly becoming familiar. Shayla stirred and I pulled her airline blanket higher on her shoulders, amazed that she could sleep, contorted as she was around the seat belt the attendant had suggested we leave fastened. She coughed and opened one eye, squinting at the geometric pattern on the seat in front of hers, then craning her neck back to get a look at me. Apparently satisfied that I hadn’t morphed into any of the “bad people” from her Disney cartoons, she closed her one eye and coiled back into sleep.

I considered it a compliment that the sight of me hadn’t sent her into horrified hysterics. There were multiple reasons why it should
have, the greatest of which was the physical ravages inflicted on me by six months of utter shock in which twelve weeks of disbelief had yielded to twelve more weeks of second-guessing, all culminating in the past seventy-two hours of rabid, nerve-numbing packing.

I was the poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder. My skin was dirty-eggshell pale, my hair had all the stylish flair of a brown Brillo pad, and my eyes, I was pretty sure, screamed a hazel shade of terror that churned with utter confusion. Post-traumatic Shelby was not a pretty picture. At all.

I looked out the window at cotton-candy clouds and the first pale hues of another day. There was a large foreign object—perhaps a boulder—lodged in my throat, and for months, nothing I attempted had succeeded in dislodging it. None of the crying or raging or peacemaking I’d done had put a dent in it. And I was pretty sure, as I gazed out at the day dawning on the horizon, that the rock was there to stay. At least for a while. I contemplated carving something pertinent like “Let me off this ride!” on it and making it a permanent feature of my emotional landscape. It would feel right at home among the bits of barbed wire, chunks of fortified wall, and steel-reinforced doors torn from their hinges that had washed up on the same shore during previous existential storms. They formed a panoply of failed self-protection I wasn’t ready to dispose of quite yet. I figured broken barriers were better than none at all. At least they showed intent.



“She’s beautiful, Shelby.”

I stared at the social worker’s face and wondered what
had to do with the present circumstances. There were other words that described my dilemma.
Completely and horrifically out of control?
Absolutely. But
No—it was not an adjective that belonged in this particular conversation, no matter how accurate it might be.

“Dana,” I began, shaking my head and raising my hands in utter dismay, “I can’t . . . I mean . . . Seriously? You’re being serious here?”

This was only the second time Dana and I had met, but given the circumstances, we’d abandoned the formalities and gone straight to first names. She was old enough to be my mother, and there had been a frantic moment during that first meeting when all I’d wanted to do was curl up in her well-padded lap and have her shush me into oblivion as my mom had done when I was a child, but the official nature of our encounter had kept my instincts in check and my pride intact. Besides, I was sure not even the competent and sympathetic Dana would have known what to do with a thirty-five-year-old woman trying to crawl onto her knees.

Weeks later, I didn’t remember many of the details of our first meeting. Only the general gist of the conversation and the mystification that had plagued me every day since then. My dilemma had done for my prayer life what trans-fat-free fries had done for my fast-food consumption. I was cranking out prayers as fervently as I was shoveling in fries, and though my decision hadn’t gotten any simpler to make, my ability to use a drive-through window without guilt had vastly improved. But I hadn’t given up on my praying. Not yet. This impassable imbroglio had proven two important facts to me. Firstly, I was helpless. A lifetime of learning to be strong and independent had left me more debilitated than I’d ever felt before. And secondly, my praying had gotten rusty. The first few times I’d tried to utter something profound, I’d sounded
like a glossary of antiquated King James clichés. I was pretty sure God laughed at my initial attempts, but I figured he could use the entertainment as much as I could use the practice.

“I need you to make a decision,” Dana now said, reaching across the gray Formica tabletop to press warm fingers around my frozen disbelief. Her oversize gold rings sparkled in the morning sunlight, somehow incongruous with the muddiness in my mind. “The paperwork is drawn up, and we can get this procedure started just as soon as you give us the go-ahead.”

The go-ahead.
Such an innocuous term. But in this case, it carried life-altering ramifications I couldn’t even fathom. I grasped the edge of the kitchen table and found comfort in its realness. It was solid and predictable, scarred by time and use, but it was there—measurable and palpable and familiar. It seemed at that moment that everything else in my life had catapulted off a cliff, exploded like a clay pigeon into thousands of jagged fragments, and fallen scattered and unrecognizable into the dark abyss below. Giving anyone or anything the “go-ahead” while the pieces of my life were still settling in the muck of incredulity seemed about as wise as diving into a piranha-infested lake with pork chops strapped to each limb.

“Dana . . .”

“I know it’s frightening,” she said, tightening her grip on my hand, “and I know you have no point of reference for making this decision.”

“It’s just . . .” I searched her eyes for answers. “How did this happen? I mean, a month ago my life was . . . and now it’s—”

“Kaboom,” Dana said matter-of-factly.

“Exactly.” I sighed and retrieved my hand to rub at my eyes and rake at my hair. Dana returned my gaze, unflinching, and I tried to absorb some of her calm as it wafted across the table toward
me like the fragrance of cinnamon or freshly cut grass or White Shoulders on my mother’s chenille robe.

“Will you at least come to meet her?”

The word shot out like a reflex.

“I’ll stay with you.”


“We won’t even tell her who you are.”

“I can’t.”

“Shelby.” Her expression was compassionate, but her eyes scolded my cowardice. “There’s more at stake here than just you. I know it’s overwhelming and I know you’re still reeling, but think outside yourself for just a moment.”

I laughed at that, mostly because that response seemed preferable to curling into a fetal position under my mom’s old kitchen table and praying to God for the Rapture to come quickly. This was a choice of cataclysmic consequences, and I was known to get stumped by a Dunkin’ Donuts display. How was I supposed to decide this so soon when glazed versus frosted could keep my brain in a knot for days?

“She needs a mom,” Dana persisted.

“I’m not her mom.”

“But you can learn. Even if you’re not her real mom, someone’s got to raise her.”

“No.” I shook my head as if the gesture would rid me of the excruciating decision. “I’m not mom material. He made sure of that.”

“And yet it’s you he wanted to take care of his daughter. No one else.”

I laughed again, though the sound was completely devoid of humor. “He doesn’t even know who I am.”

“But he chose you.”

“I can’t do it.”

“What other option do we have, Shelby?” Her voice was soft, but her words slammed a vise across my lungs that threatened my ability to breathe. “What other option does Shayla have?” She leaned across the table, her eyes seeking my averted gaze. “Take a deep breath, Shelby.” She waited while I obeyed. After a few moments, she smiled and added, “If you don’t let it back out, you’re going to pass out.”

I expelled the breath in a rush of frustration and helplessness and fear, tears stinging my eyes. “I feel like I don’t really have a choice at all.”

“Sure you do. Technically. But if you’re feeling like there’s only one
choice, I think that might be true.” She fished a Kleenex out of her giant purse and handed it to me as if she’d done it a thousand times before, which she probably had. “I suggest you and I go for a little ride. We’ll drop in and see her—just as casually as you’d like—and then maybe you’ll be able to wrap your mind around all of this.” She pushed her chair away from the table and rose.

“I’m not sure I can do this.” I swallowed past the boulder in my throat and bit my bottom lip to steady it.

“I believe you. But you still need to.”

“I’m scared, Dana. What if . . . ? What if . . . ?”

“You don’t have to decide today. Maybe seeing her will help you, though.”

“Help me what?”

“Help you to know.”

“You won’t tell her who I am?”

“It’ll be our little secret.”

“And you’ll stay with me?”

Dana nodded and hung her purse over her shoulder. “You ready?”

“No.” My laughter only
masked my terror.

“You’ll be fine,” Dana assured me, coming around the table to squeeze my shoulder as I stood. “I’ll be with you—and we’ll take it nice and slow.”

“I need to brush my hair.”

“I was hoping you would.”

“Don’t insult me. I might change my mind.”

“Then you’re absolutely beautiful,” Dana said sweetly.

“And you’re a lousy liar.”

“Hey, if it gets you to the car . . .”

“I need a donut.”

“There are three Dunkin’ Donuts between here and Dream Acres.”

“Good,” I said bravely. “We’ll stop at all three.”

Bonnie’s sleeping pill was still going strong when the captain informed us that we were beginning our descent. She’d slept through a breakfast sadly devoid of donuts, waking only enough to mutter, “Leave me alone,” when a solicitous attendant had fastened her seat belt. The captain’s announcement had done nothing to rouse her from her drug-induced nap.

“You okay?” I asked Shayla, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

She twisted away and gazed in rapt fascination out the window again. There were Shayla-size noseprints on the glass and fresh smears of strawberry jam and chocolate milk below them. How she’d managed to eat her entire breakfast without taking her eyes off the clouds was a mystery to me. It was the first time she had flown, and after her initial nervousness at takeoff, matched closely
by my own, she had either slept or been enchanted by the skyscape for the remainder of the flight. It was nearing midnight in the time zone we had left behind, but a lengthy nap and her innate enthusiasm had Shayla virtually hopping with excitement.

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