In Broken Places
Author:Michele Phoenix


OUR SECOND PERFORMANCE wasn’t quite as clean as our first. With the excitement from the first night still pumping scattered energy through their minds, the actors made a few small mistakes, none of which the audience probably noticed. I walked around in the dark, mobile cocoon of backstage shadows and spoke in soothing whispers to the actors as they entered and exited the stage. There was something magical about the convergence of effort, inspiration, and accomplishment, a magic amplified by the presence of spectators who laughed, gasped, and cried on cue. I felt the performance like a constant hum in my marrow, a low-key intensity of purpose and emotion that was at once galvanizing and calming. I stood in the wings and absorbed it all until I felt swollen with the warmth of achievement and the overflow of gratitude. But my thankfulness was for more than the play. It was for the plenitude of God’s love for me, displayed in human form under the spotlights and in the audience beyond the stage.

When Seth ended his final monologue as transparently and movingly as he had the night before, I felt a sunset-warm fullness I’d seldom experienced before. But the serenity of the moment was short-lived. After their second curtain call, Seth and Kate stepped into the wings, each taking one of my arms, and dragged me into the spotlight with them. I didn’t want to be there. Backstage was my comfort zone. But there was little I could do to quell the surge of their post-performance elation. Seth stepped to the front of the stage and, in the warm-chocolate voice I’d come to love, simply said, “This is Shelby. She believed in us and inspired us, and we want to thank her.”

Kate gave me a bouquet and a long, hard hug, and I did a little half bow, extending my arm toward a cast that had, in many ways, altered my life. They smiled at me with emotions I knew I didn’t deserve, and I hoped my love for them was evident on my face.

Nearly an hour later, when the audience had filtered out of the room and the actors had started to realize that their journey together was truly over, I heard a commotion by the auditorium door and saw Trey, my wonderful, pseudo-French brother, rolling a pièce montée into the room on a metal cart, sparklers pointing out of it like glowing porcupine quills. As much as I loved cheesecake, I loved this French tradition more. Nothing said celebration like a pièce montée.

“Trey . . .” There was such happiness in my throat that I didn’t know how to continue. The actors scattered around the room approached the tall tower made of stacked cream puffs and drizzled with hardened caramel, their appetites suddenly outweighing their melancholy.

Trey wheeled the cart up to me and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “I figured your finale warranted something special.”

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, my thoughts flashing back to the mushrooms he’d prepared for me earlier that day. I reached around a sparkler to pull off the top cream puff, the brittle caramel around it snapping loudly, and sank my teeth into the decadent treat. I heard someone clear his throat behind me but paid no attention to it. There was a tower of culinary fascination in front of me that had the full focus of my calorie-addicted brain. It was possibly because of my absorption in the pièce montée that I didn’t immediately sense what was going on around me or register the animated silence that fell the second time that same someone cleared his throat.

Someone, as it turned out, was Scott, but it wasn’t until I heard Shayla’s earnest “Are you going to eat it all, Mom?” that I turned and found him standing there, my daughter in his arms.

I didn’t know whether to be delighted or outraged. “Scott, what are . . . ?” Shayla was wearing her Cinderella pajamas and a mile-wide grin. I felt my heart do a cartwheel. Then my mom reflexes kicked in. “What is Shayla doing here?” I said to Scott. “She’s five and it’s going on midnight. Do you see anything wrong with this scenario?”

Trey stepped in to take Shayla from Scott, saying, “She kinda had to be here for this.” He winked at me and moved to stand by Gus and Bev, both of whom had somehow materialized out of nowhere. Kenny was there too. And Simon, my clumsy props guy. Thomas, the epitome of British decorum even at the age of fifteen. And Meagan with her dancing eyes. Seth—solemn, peaceful Seth—standing just a tad too close to his feisty, untamable Kate. All my actors were present, lined up and waiting, exchanging the kinds of knowing glances that convinced me that I was the only one in the dark about what was going on here.

“Scott,” I whispered, though in the hushed room, my words reached to the balcony. “What are you doing?”

“Giving you certainty, I hope.” He paused, arresting my thoughts with the temerity of his gaze. “And storming the barricades. I’m multitasking.” He cast my actors a conspiratorial half smile.

I glanced at my daughter, up way past her bedtime, and all I could think of was that she’d be a monster tomorrow. But when I looked from Shayla to my brother, I saw a family there that took my breath away. Trey, the defender to whom I owed my life in so many ways, and Shayla, the daughter of the bitter, violent man who had devastated my childhood but gifted me with the miracle of motherhood.

Scott’s hand on my arm brought my attention back to him. He stood in front of me with so much earnestness and determination on his face that I felt a giggle bubbling to the surface. “What—are you going to make a speech or something?” I asked, distracted from my gratitude by a sense of impending significance. He nodded, and I felt the air constrict a little around us. “Really?”

When he spoke, his voice was soft and uncharacteristically unsteady. “I’m not sure if this is the right way to do this, Shelby,” he said. “I mean, I know you’re a pretty private person, but the private approach hasn’t been working, so I thought . . . I thought maybe I’d . . . storm the barricades with a little public humiliation.”

“For you or for me?”

“Probably for me.” He smiled a little crookedly and added, “I’m the guy with a killer case of stage fright who’s trying to come up with the right words and pretty sure he’ll fail. And all you have to do is stand there and watch me suffer.”

“Sounds equitable to me,” I said. Something weird was going on with my lungs.

He cleared his throat—again—and looked down, gathering his thoughts. “Here’s the deal,” he finally said, his eyes rising to connect with mine, capturing my mind with their bold and gentle intensity. “I am convinced that nothing in our lives happens by chance and that the best things in life require taking a risk. So this . . . this is me taking that risk.”

I glanced at Trey, my Huddle Hut chef, and began to suspect a conspiracy.

But Scott wasn’t done yet. He took my hands in his and pulled me closer, linking his gaze with mine. There was a muscle working in his jaw and a sheen of sweat on his forehead. My skin felt electrified with apprehension. I tried to think happy thoughts of cows coming in from pastures and dolphins frolicking in the waves to calm my nerves and still my fear. But the cows ended up herding themselves over a cliff and the dolphins, in their enthusiasm, beached themselves on a rugged shore, so neither was exactly helping.

“On the first day I met you,” Scott said, nodding toward Gus and Bev, who waved when I caught their eyes, “Gus introduced you as my future wife. I didn’t take it too seriously, as he’s a bit of a . . . how should I put it? A creative thinker.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” came Bev’s happy voice. She did a high five with Shayla and there was a little laughter from our audience, quickly hushed by anticipation.

“Scott . . .” There was fear in my voice as a burning panic moved from my stomach to my throat.

Concern flashed across his face. “This isn’t what you’re thinking,” he said, holding my hands a little more tightly.

“It isn’t?”

“It’s not a proposal. You know that’s what I want—sometime—but not yet. Not until we’ve gotten this other thing straight.”

“And thank your lucky stars for that,” Kate said with the certainty of experience. “This guy proposes like a hippo does ballet.”

Scott shrugged and smiled. “So I’m not an actor.”

“No, but you’re turning into quite the public speaker,” I said a little hoarsely, unaccountably disappointed that this wasn’t the proposal I so desperately feared.

“As I was saying,” Scott continued, leveling a well-aimed look at Kate to quell any further interruptions, “this isn’t a proposal. But it’s equally important to me. Something I promised you I’d keep trying to get right.” He took a deep breath and smirked at his own nervousness. “And I’m hoping that doing this in front of all these friends comes close to that.”

Meagan giggled and clapped a hand over her mouth, and Seth met my gaze with a warmth and affection that made me want to weep. Kenny lifted a gaping Shayla out of Trey’s arms to whisper something in her ear as Scott took a moment to look around at our friends and students. His eyes stopped on my daughter. “Is it okay if I do this now, Lady Shay?”

Shayla nodded and beamed him a glowing smile, throwing an arm around Kenny’s neck and yelling, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Scott took another deep breath and smiled at his mesmerized audience. I could tell his nerves were getting to him. “You all know Shelby,” he said, addressing them but staring at me, “so you may be surprised to hear that she’s not very good at believing people love her.” He glanced at Trey. “And I have it on good authority that this isn’t a recent thing either.” I tried to roll my eyes at my interfering brother, but they stayed anchored to Scott’s.

“We love you, Miss Davis,” Meagan singsonged. Seth hushed her with a hand on the top of her head.

“Exactly,” Scott continued. “And you’re not alone, Meagan. That’s why I find it so hard to understand how a person as well-loved as Shelby can be so unconvinced of . . . well, of her lovableness.”

The students voiced their agreement with murmurs, nods, and smiles, while Gus let out a hearty chuckle and gave Scott a thumbs-up. Our audience was clearly warming to the Scott Taylor Show.

“Is lovableness a real word?” I whispered to Scott, emotion constricting my throat.

“I don’t know,” he whispered back, smiling. “Give a coach a break, will you?”

There were tears in his eyes, and he blinked at them as he continued. “Shelby,” he said, his fingers holding mine with so much gentleness that I feared I might forget, in months and years, just how they felt, “I need you to know, in front of the people who mean the most to you, how I feel about you.”

“Scott . . .”

“This isn’t a passing or casual thing. It’s not something I need to wait and think about some more. And it’s not something I’ve ever said with this degree of conviction or hope before. It’s something I know—and I’m so sure of it that I want everyone here to know it too.” He took a deep breath while Shayla scrambled out of Kenny’s arms and came to stand right next to me, looking up with wide, ecstatic eyes, her arms hugging my legs.

“Am I doing this right?” Scott asked, his insecurity endearing.

I laughed a little raggedly. “You’re doing great.”

“I love you, Shelby Davis,” he said softly.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, leaving a dizzying void behind, a buoyant space that brimmed with unimaginable promise.

“And I don’t need you to feel the same way I do,” Scott continued, a tremor in his voice, “and I certainly don’t expect this to make Gus’s prediction come true. This isn’t about bribing you or pressuring you. I know you’re still dealing with a lot of stuff, and that’s for you and God to wrestle with. So for now—” he brought my hand to his lips and kissed it, eliciting a high-pitched “awwww” from Meagan—“for now, all I want is to present you with my love in a way I hope you’ll believe, in front of all these people who know you and love you too, so you’ll have this memory to come back to the next time you have trouble accepting what I’ve said.”

He sighed heavily, a smile softening his eyes and seeping through my reserve into my most protected weakness. “I wouldn’t be saying this with so many witnesses if I weren’t sure of myself. I’m for real, Shelby. I’ll probably mess up and disappoint you and fail in multiple ways, but my love is real. And I’m not going anywhere. So—” he wiped a tear from my cheek with his thumb—“please, please believe me.”

I blinked. Twice. Then I reminded myself to breathe. There was a convergence in my mind of so many images that dizziness made me reach for Scott’s arms and hold tightly to his strength.

He saw me, I knew, in all my healing imperfection. He saw me as I was and somehow—by some miracle—still wanted me. He was the living, breathing, nurturing expression of God’s love for me. So was Shayla. So was Trey. So were the students and friends bolstering my weakness with their comfort and support. They were God’s rescue from my pain.

I could feel a surge of joy growing out of the ashes of my past as a peaceful certainty clicked into place like a missing puzzle piece. No need for cows and dolphins. No need for zingers and barbs. No need for fear of the unknown. My only need was for boldness to enter the battlefield and for courage to face the risks head-on. Every particle in the room turned golden and converged in a burst of sudden, luminous clarity. The Davis genes, above all else, were cowardly. And I refused to give them the power to determine my future. I looked at Trey—he smiled at me. He knew. My courage was God’s answer to the mushroomness of fear.

In that moment, I saw the fullness of my life like a crystalline mosaic in which shards of rejection and survival and despair and love and horror and redemption swirled into the luminescent revelation of God’s abiding love. I saw it all—I embraced it all. And with my eyes riveted to the sureness of Scott’s gaze, I nodded through my tears and whispered, “I believe you.”

A Note from the Author

SOMETIMES AN AUTHOR sits around for weeks charting plotlines and developing characters before beginning to write. And sometimes an author is engaging in the glamorous task of vacuuming her apartment when the freckle-dusted face of a four-year-old pops into her mind. I was still living in Germany when Shayla’s soulful eyes first distracted me from my chores. I can remember the exact section of ratty carpeting I was working on when her gaze flashed across my consciousness with a hint of complex history. I turned off the vacuum and gave the apparition a moment’s thought, then shook my head at my flight of fancy and resumed the job at hand. But not for long.

Minutes later, the vacuum stood abandoned in the living room while I curled up in my bed with my laptop and began to type. I had no idea, at that moment, of the zigzagging path the story would take between present and past, nor did I foresee the characters who would come to flesh it out. But as Shelby appeared and stole the spotlight from Shayla, as Gus and Bev ushered Scott into her life, and as present-day muddlehood led back to darker huddlehoods, I realized that Shayla’s face might have been more than merely an excuse to stop Saturday chores.

For the better part of the following nine days, I let myself be guided by the characters—watching them evolve as they suffered, dreamed, and overcame. The Huddle Hut emerged out of Shelby’s and Trey’s minds, not mine, as did Geronimo, swinging chins, and that crazy Vira Snurdly. Trey himself was unplanned, yet he wove his way into the fabric of the narrative. He started out as “Kerr,” but my fingers kept typing “Trey,” so I gave in to the story’s wishes and dutifully made the change. Even now, with the novel approaching publication, I feel it as a creation that breathes in spite of me, and the process that birthed it remains in great part a mystery.

But I hope In Broken Places is much more than a tale of huts, hurdles, and the power to overcome. Child abuse is a destructive force. It slithers and marches; it whispers and roars. It either weakens or hardens its victims, but it never leaves them unscathed. If you or someone you know is being victimized, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.

My sincerest prayer is that the pages of this book will shed a compassionate light on the ravages of child abuse, its soul-crippling tyranny and deep-rooted legacy. Pain need not win. There is life beyond bleeding. There is love beyond fearing. There is hope beyond despairing. I should know . . .

I am a survivor.

Discussion Questions

Why does Shelby feel the need to move to Germany with Shayla?

Is the relationship between Shelby and Trey healthy or unhealthy? What evidence do you see in the story?

In what ways did Shelby’s abuse influence her in adulthood? Can you think of at least three examples?

Faced with the chance to take in your abusive father’s daughter, would you do what Shelby did? Why or why not?

Should Scott have walked away from Shelby after so many early rejections? Was his persistence a sign of weakness or strength?

What could/should Shelby’s mother have done differently? Can her choices be forgiven? What responsibility does she share with her abusive husband?

What role does the Huddle Hut play in both Shelby’s and Trey’s survival? Can you think of a place or ritual in your life that fulfills a similar role?

Can you recall three or four places where the book refers to a bird? What is its symbolism?

What do you foresee happening in Trey’s future? What is the trajectory for his life emotionally? Professionally? Spiritually?

Can Shelby and Scott have a healthy relationship that leads to a strong marriage? Why or why not? What steps might they take to increase the chances of a “happy ending”?

About the Author

BORN IN FRANCE to an American mother and a Canadian father, Michèle Phoenix is an international writer with multicultural sensitivities. A graduate of Wheaton College, she spent twenty years teaching at Black Forest Academy, a school in Germany for missionaries’ children.

Michèle fought two different forms of cancer in 2008, a challenge that caused her to reevaluate the direction of her life. In 2010, armed with a desire to broaden the imprint of her remaining years, she returned to the States to launch a new ministry for and about missionaries’ kids (MKs).

Now living in Illinois, Michèle serves with Global Outreach Mission as an MK advocate, speaking, writing, and educating the North American church about the unique strengths and struggles of missionaries’ children.

Her first book, Tangled Ashes, was released in 2012. Visit for more information.