In Broken Places
Author:Michele Phoenix

In Broken Places - By Michele Phoenix



1




“THE ONLY DIFFERENCE 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 foreign 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.

Right?



SEVEN MONTHS EARLIER

“She’s beautiful, Shelby.”

I stared at the social worker’s face and wondered what beautiful had to do with the present circumstances. There were other words that described my dilemma. Strange? Yes. Disconcerting? Yes. Completely and horrifically out of control? Absolutely. But beautiful? 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?”

“No.” The word shot out like a reflex.

“I’ll stay with you.”

“No.”

“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 right 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 almost 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.

An airline attendant collected our trays and commented on Shayla’s riot of blonde curls.

“They’re only cute until I need to brush them,” I replied, trying to finger-comb them as I spoke. “Then they become the opening salvo of World War III.”

The attendant smiled and stowed the trays. “Well, she’s a beauty. And a great little traveler.”

“Thanks,” I answered, a little proud in spite of myself. That Shayla was beautiful had nothing to do with me, and yet . . . she was mine. There were times when the thought sent me whirling into a jumble of panic and amazement. I hadn’t wanted any of this—I’d resisted it with all the fury of my fears, if truth be told—but Shayla had woven herself into the fabric of my life with wide, forget-me-not eyes, timid smiles, and satin-soft hands that had tugged at my resolve as surely as they now tugged at my sleeve.

“Hey, hey, hey!” She brought me out of my reverie with her trademark threefold plea.

“What, what, what?” I answered, taking her small hand from my sleeve to kiss her fingers.

“Look!” Shayla snatched her hand back, swiveled in her seat, and came up on her knees to lean as far into the window as she could. Through a gap in the clouds, she could see the random, irregular shapes of German fields, the crisscross of roads where tiny headlights strained to pierce the morning gloom, and the clustered homes and barns of farming villages scattered here and there across the hills. “Look!” she said again in her cute-as-can-be little-girl accent, pointing this time. “Look at Djoh-many!”

She reached behind her without taking her eyes from the window, grabbed a fistful of my shirt, and pulled me closer. “You see?”

Two thoughts simultaneously struck me. The first was that her seat belt couldn’t be fastened tightly enough if she was able to kneel in it. The second was that there was no turning back now. That bank of light approaching like a luminescent storm front was not merely a pretty sight to get excited about as we descended toward Frankfurt. It was a reality so stark and final that it tore a gaping hole in the armor of my bravado. Germany was no longer a distant destination or a temporary lapse in sanity. As streetlights blinked off far below and the outline of a modern city emerged out of the early-morning gray, Germany became as real as the seat belt cutting me in half as I leaned toward the window and gazed at the beginning of my future.

There was a small town called Kandern nestled somewhere in those hills. And in that town was the American school for missionaries’ kids where I was going to teach. The apartment where Shayla and I would live. The new life I would build—we would build together. I swallowed around the boulder and took a calming breath. There was nothing predictable about what waited for us in Kandern, and though I’d done as much Internet research as I could in recent days, I knew I was still sorely unprepared.

“Her seat belt should be tighter.” The attendant’s hand on my shoulder was a welcome distraction.

“Yes. Of course.” I smiled, trying to tighten Shayla’s seat belt while she strained away from me. “Shay? You’ve got to sit down, honey. We need to get your belt tighter.”

“Look!” she said again, this time mesmerized by the outline of mountains in the distance.

“Can you sit down, Shayla?”

“No,” she declared, ignoring my futile attempts to peacefully get her to sit. I hadn’t had much experience with four-year-olds, but my time with Shayla had taught me that their attention span was not only limited—it was also selective. “Look! Look!”

I didn’t take the time to follow her pointing finger. Grasping her arm and turning her toward me, I marveled at her ability to swivel her body without removing her nose from the streaked surface of the airplane’s window. “Shayla, sit down!” I tugged a little harder and her nose came unglued from the double-paned glass.

“But I want to look!” She pushed the seat belt lower on her hips so she could rise toward the window again.

“Not right now.”

“I want to see!”

“We’re going to be landing soon and then you can look and look and look, but you’ve got to keep your seat belt tight until we’re on the ground.”

“But why?”

“Because,” I answered firmly. Six months of parenthood had rid me of my original distaste for the pat answer. As much as I’d despised it when my parents had used it on me, I realized now that the only reasonable response to some questions was simply “Because.” Why did she have to go to bed? Because. Why couldn’t she have another piece of cake? Because. Why did the other kids get to stay at home while she had to go to Djoh-many? Because. Why did I want to be a missionary and not a normal person anymore? Because. “Because” was my new best friend. It was not, however, Shayla’s. I fastened her seat belt as tightly as possible, unfazed by the squirming bundle of “I don’t want to” fighting the process, then I pointed out the window with relief and said, “See, Shay? You can still see the mountains.” And there they were, right outside the window. By any other standards, they were merely large hills. But having lived in the plains of Illinois all our combined lives, they might as well have been the Swiss Alps to Shayla and me.



SEVEN MONTHS EARLIER

“What are you drawing, Shayla?” Dana asked. She overflowed a child-size chair next to the small desk where Shayla bent over a brownish piece of paper, her brow furrowed in concentration. She hadn’t looked up when we entered. She hadn’t stopped drawing.

“Mountains,” she now said, quite unnecessarily. On her paper, the dark outline of mountain ridges split the space between earth and sky. She’d started to fill in the lines with greens and browns and blues, sometimes coloring just outside the edges of the shapes in a rush of creative zeal.

“Have you ever seen a mountain?” Dana asked gently, her face just inches from Shayla’s. I stood at a safe distance, feeling tall in this miniature space where furniture seemed shrunken and pictures hung just above waist level on the walls. It was a room designed to make children feel safe. It had an entirely different effect on discombobulated grown-ups like me, whose inner world was suddenly unrecognizably askew.

I’d hesitated for a long time before entering Dream Acres, a small, family-owned farm that doubled as a foster home for children needing temporary housing. I’d lingered on the front steps, ignoring Dana’s prompting. This was a pivotal and irrevocable moment in my life. Whatever happened after I passed through the wide, welcoming front doors would be largely out of my control. And control was a critical issue for me. It always had been. I’d discarded my violin when it had proved too hard to master. I’d given up on being a ballerina when teachers had started planning my career. And I’d declared myself a dedicated single when romantic relationships, most of them imagined, had exhausted my limited supply of optimism.

So, facing a moment of overwhelmingly human proportions in which any form of control and predictability was impossible, I’d stood on the steps before my encounter with Shayla and briefly but frantically considered fleeing from the unmanageable.

“I saw them in Heidi,” Shayla answered Dana’s question, drawing me back to the present with a voice fluffy and soft as rabbit’s fur. “When she’s living with her grandpa in the wood house on the mountain.”

Dana looked up at me as if inviting me to join in their fledgling conversation. I shook my head and took a small step back, inexplicably unbalanced by the too-low paintings on the walls and the too-small artist entering my too-full life.

Dana was a natural. She coaxed answer after answer from Shayla, affirming her talent and revealing her heart.

“You’re very good at drawing, Shayla.”

Her button nose went up and down as she nodded.

“Would you like to see real mountains someday?”

“Yes.” She sounded like she’d been taught never to say yeah.

“And what mountains would you like to see?”

“Volcanoes.”

“Volcanoes!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why do you want to see volcanoes?”

“Because they’re big and have the fi-yoh stuff that comes out of them.”

“The fire stuff? Like lava?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Is that a volcano you’re drawing now?”

“No.” The word stupid was implied in Shayla’s tone of voice. “I told you. It’s Heidi’s mountain.”

“Oh,” Dana said with a smile. “I should have remembered that.”

“My dad taught me how.”

“He taught you how to draw mountains?”

The honey-blonde curls, like a wheat field in the wind, bobbed as Shayla nodded. “Uh-huh.” She looked at Dana for the first time, her blue crayon poised above the sky. “He’s not here anymore.”

Dana nodded and smiled gently. “Do you miss him?”

Shayla went back to her coloring with renewed focus. She nodded and took in a quick, clenched breath. “He’s not coming back.”

I looked around the room for an escape route and wished Shayla’s mountain were real. What I wouldn’t have given to lose myself in the dense foliage of the trees covering its flanks. But in this warm sitting room where the sun and surfaces danced golden rays over drawings and toys and brightly colored books, the only plausible direction to go seemed downward. So, feeling the bottom drop out of my life as my stomach churned and my throat clenched, I took three tentative steps to Dana’s side and sank onto the carpet next to the child who would unravel life as I knew it.

“This is a friend of mine. Her name is Shelby.”

Shayla looked suspiciously at Dana. “I had a dog called Shelby. My dad gave her to me.”

I felt the oxygen whoosh out of the room.

“Really?” Dana asked.

“Did you alweady know?” Shayla didn’t like the coincidence. She picked up a pink crayon and started on a cloud.

“I promise I didn’t.”

“She wan away.”

“Shelby?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m sorry, Shayla. That must have been sad for you.”

“Uh-huh.” Another cloud took shape in Shayla’s sky.

I cleared my throat and tried to sound natural. “Hi, Shayla. How are you?” Given the gravel-meets-phlegm texture of my voice, I half expected the beautiful child to grab her mountain and run.

Instead, she turned two of the largest blue eyes I’d ever seen on me and pursed her mouth in disapproval. “That’s a wee-ohd voice,” she said.

Dana covered a smile while I grasped at conversational straws.

“It’s not . . .” I cleared my throat, attempted a sound, then loudly cleared my throat again. “It’s not usually this bad. My voice, I mean.”

The blue gaze was still focused on me, though her eyes scanned my face without ever truly making contact with mine. She turned back to the stack of crayons next to her drawing and picked just the right shade of yellow for the sun.

“You don’t look like my dog,” she said seriously.

“Oh—well. That’s good, I guess. Isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh.”

Dana pushed up from her chair and arched her back. “I’m going to get some coffee, Shayla. Is it okay if I leave you here with Shelby for a few minutes?”

Absolute panic burned up my neck. “But . . .”

Shayla nodded, and Dana patted my shoulder as she walked rather stiffly toward the other end of the room. “You’ll be fine,” she said softly, closing the door behind her.

If “fine” meant dizziness, nausea, and mental paralysis, I was indeed going to be fine. I took a calming breath and instructed my heart to stop its nonsense. I think it laughed at me. Seriously. But I might have been hallucinating from all the “fine” going on, so I couldn’t be sure.

“Are you going to ask me a question?” Shayla asked.

I was stunned into silence.

“People always ask me questions,” she continued, extending yellow rays from the sun’s center. “Like my favowite color and my middle name and silly stuff like that.”

I attempted a casual laugh. “Those are rather stupid questions, aren’t they,” I said, trying desperately to come up with questions that involved neither colors nor middle names.

This time her gaze did meet mine, and so directly that I thought I heard an audible thunk as my future settled into place. That was all it took. One direct gaze from strangely familiar eyes and a reproachful “You shouldn’t say stupid. It’s naughty.”

As someone who had spent most of my adult life proclaiming that having children was a stupid idea, I realized I had a lot to learn.