—The Boston Globe
In this richly emotional novel, Kristina McMorris evokes the depth of a mother’s bond with her child, and the power of personal histories to echo through generations . . .
Two years have done little to ease veterinarian Audra Hughes’s grief over her husband’s untimely death. Eager for a fresh start, Audra plans to leave Portland for a new job in Philadelphia. Her seven-year-old son, Jack, seems apprehensive about flying—but it’s just the beginning of an anxiety that grows to consume him.
As Jack’s fears continue to surface in recurring and violent nightmares, Audra hardly recognizes the introverted boy he has become. Desperate, she traces snippets of information unearthed in Jack’s dreams, leading her to Sean Malloy, a struggling US Army veteran wounded in Afghanistan. Together they unravel a mystery dating back to World War II, and uncover old family secrets that still have the strength to wound—and perhaps, at last, to heal.
Intricate and beautifully written, The Pieces We Keep illuminates those moments when life asks us to reach beyond what we know and embrace what was once unthinkable. Deftly weaving together past and present, herein lies a story that is at once poignant and thought-provoking, and as unpredictable as the human heart.
“Gripped me from the first page and didn't let go.”
—Alyson Richman, bestselling author of The Lost Wife
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The Pieces We Keep
By Kristina McMorris
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Kristina McMorris
All rights reserved.
Mid-May 2012 Portland, OR
The sound of her name, in that deep familiar timbre, swept through Audra like a winter gale. Her lungs pulled a sharp breath. Her forearms prickled. In line at the airport gate, she clutched the shoulder strap of her carry-on, a makeshift lifeline, and turned toward the voice.
"Babe, you want anything else?" the man in a floral-print shirt hollered from the coffee stand. "Andrea?"
Andrea. Not Audra.
And the man wasn't Devon.
"Just the vanilla latte," a woman replied from a nearby table, then resumed chatting on her phone.
For an eternal moment Audra Hughes remained frozen. She braced against the aftershock of hope, like the rush of a near car collision, when blood rages in your ears and every pore yawns open. Even now, two years after her husband's death, she hadn't conquered the reflex, nor the guilt. But in time she would, and today's trip would serve as a major step, regardless of others' opinions.
"Ma'am?" The male attendant stood at the door of the Jetway. "Are the two of you boarding?"
Audra and her son were suddenly the only passengers at the gate. She would usually make a quip, about the plane not coming to them, but her senses were still recovering. "Sorry," she said, striding forward. "Not enough coffee."
Truthfully, she didn't drink the stuff; too hard on the teeth and heart. But the excuse flowed out, plausible for any Northwest native, the caffeine kings of the world. A person couldn't walk the length of five gates at Portland Airport without hearing the turbo blast of an espresso machine.
The man scanned her boarding passes. Beep. Beep.
"Enjoy the flight."
Audra was about to continue through the doorway when she noticed Jack hadn't followed. The seven-year-old stood several yards away, the rolled cuffs of his jeans hanging uneven from dressing himself. Beneath his Captain America backpack and favorite gray hoodie, his hunched shoulders downplayed his sturdy form. His attention remained on a window dotted by Thursday-morning rain. The sight of their idle plane widened his slate-blue eyes, same shade and shape as Devon's. Their hair, too, had been a perfect match, the color of sweet molasses.
If it weren't for that rounded nose and chin, Devon's father used to jest, you'd never know who his mom was. It was actually a fitting claim in more ways than one. And every day Jack looked more and more like Devon. Or less and less like Audra, depending on the choice of view.
"Buddy, time to scoot," she told him.
Still entranced, he stroked his little toy plane, its silver paint worn thin from the habit. He'd been awed by aircrafts since the age of three, when Devon gave him a 747, stuffed and plush with cockpit eyes and a propeller nose.
He snapped his head toward her.
"Let's get onboard."
She expected dazed excitement to fill his eyes; what she caught was a flash of dread. Not the common kind among kids at the dentist's or on the day of a quiz, but the type she'd witnessed a hundred times over, from animals being led into surgery or about to be put down. A look saying they knew what was coming.
Could it be Jack sensed something wrong with the flight?
"Mom," he said in a hush. It was the way he often spoke these days. But this time, the plea in the word leapt out and cinched Audra's chest.
"Ma'am," the attendant repeated, "we have to close the doors."
If Audra missed this flight, there would be no final job interview. She was currently the top pick according to her contact, who encouraged her to bring Jack along. A smart idea. The transition would be easier if he was involved in the process. Together they'd scout out houses with plenty of acreage and top-rated schools near the brand-new animal hospital. At the facility just outside Philadelphia, everything would be shiny and flawless and unused. An empty slate.
She assessed the plane, a strong and trusted transport. Flying ranked safer than driving according to statistics.
This had become her method of reasoning: the tangible, the provable; X-rays and blood tests. Any faith in the spiritual realm—airplane premonitions included—had been buried along with Devon.
"Jack, let's go," she told him. "Now."
The command prodded him forward, though only increased the pursing of his lips. She clasped his hand to hurry him onto the jet bridge. The gate door sealed, dimming the snaking tunnel. Jack tightened his hold, so snug she could feel waves of apprehension pulsing through his body.
Instinct implored her to pick him up, yet her own lecture slammed back. Let them walk on their own. It was the instruction she gave any clients whose coddling, albeit well intentioned, stunted the confidence of their Chihuahuas, Yorkies, any number of small breeds. Treat them like big dogs and they'll believe they are.
Whenever applied, the lesson proved reliable, swelling Audra with pride. A stark contrast to this moment.
If Devon were here, what would he say? What magical phrase would rid the stiffness from Jack's steps? There was a huge difference between nurturing animals and children. It was her husband who excelled at the latter.
Audra rubbed the crown of Jack's head, the airplane now in sight. His hair smelled of green apple, from a shampoo that claimed to prevent tears. "Nothing to worry about, buddy. I told you, this is going to be fun."
"Good morning," a uniformed woman said from the plane's entryway. An ash-blond updo topped her petite form.
Audra was about to return the greeting when something yanked her arm. Jack had concreted himself a few inches from the door. His eyes went wide, not blinking.
The flight attendant leaned down to his level. "Is this your first plane ride, cutie?"
Jack didn't answer.
Audra explained, "He flew a few times when he was a baby. But this is the first time he'd be old enough to remember."
"Well, in that case," she told Jack, "I'll have to make this flight extra special. How about you take your seat, and I'll see if I can scrounge up some pilot wings. What do you say?"
Jack perked ever so slightly. After a moment, he gave a nod and inched onto the plane. The red lights on his sneakers flashed like a warning.
Thank you, Audra mouthed.
She followed Jack's shuffling into First Class, through wafts of a Bloody Mary and champagne from mimosas. Business travelers flanked them in suits and polished shoes and perfect layers of makeup. Audra, with her cushioned sandals and faded khakis, winced from the heat of her neon sign: Coach Class Passenger.
She tucked away stragglers of her bound black hair, a looped ponytail parading as a bun. For a moment she had the urge to overhaul her trademark look. But as she continued down the aisle, a smattering of baseball caps and windbreakers reinforced her practical nature.
Their assigned row waited empty near the rear. It was the usual quarantined section for those with children, of which today there were few. She encouraged Jack to take the window, a coveted seat for any kid.
He craned his neck to peer under the half-raised shade. Seeing where they were going would alleviate his worry.
But Jack shook his head.
The blond flight attendant announced over the intercom, "We'll need all passengers to take their seats at this time." By all passengers, she meant Audra and Jack. Pressure mounted around them from people anxious for departure.
"All right, you take the middle," Audra sighed. She slid into the row, stowed their carry-ons, and buckled their seat belts. Surely, before their layover in Chicago, Jack's nerves would morph into a thrill over their adventure. And maybe, just maybe, the excitement would resuscitate even half the innocence he'd lost.
Soon they were pulling away from the gate. Lights dinged, engines groaned, overhead compartments were clicked closed. A dark-haired flight attendant demonstrated the use of life vests and oxygen masks, the audience more interested in their conversations and magazines. Not long ago Audra, too, would have paid little mind. Now, solely responsible for the human beside her, she hung on every word, fending off doubts about a thin, aged seat cushion as a reliable floatation device.
When the emergency charades ended, she realized she wasn't the only one absorbing the worst-case scenarios. Jack had latched onto the armrests. His knuckles were white, the toy plane glued to his palm.
"Everything's going to be fine," she said, trying simultaneously to convince herself.
His face had gone pale.
"Jack, really, it's okay." She layered her hand on his. And then it hit her.
This was how Devon had held Audra's hand the day they met. They were strangers seated on a flight together, bound for various conferences, when a winter storm lashed out at their plane. Once back on the ground, passengers burst into prayers and applause, not a single complaint of connections being canceled. Supplied with vouchers for a meal and hotel, Audra and Devon shared a booth at a local diner, chatting nonstop until closing. She'd never been one to trust easily, but there was a kindness in his eyes, sincerity in his smile. Somehow everything about him made her feel safe. She had realized this in the hotel hallway as they lingered in a handshake before going their separate ways. Then a week later Devon tracked her down, and by the end of their date they joined in a kiss that ultimately led to an aisle lined with pews and candles and promises.
This had been their story. A suburbanite fairy tale. Eight years ago, during a toast beside their wedding cake, Devon had regaled their guests with the turbulence, the fates, that had brought them together. Later he would repeat this to their son, soothing him at bedtime with a happily ever after—not foreseeing how quickly Jack would learn such an ending didn't exist.
No wonder the kid was frightened. The guarantee of safe flights would be lumped into a pile of Easter bunnies and Christmas elves. Deceptions, like kindling, worthy of a match.
She squeezed his small hand, scouring her mind for a solution. A distraction. "Do you want me to get a notepad out? We could play Tic-Tac-Toe."
He shook his head stiffly.
"It's kinda fun, missing school today, isn't it? I bet all your friends are jealous." The words, once out, cracked and withered. He rarely socialized with classmates anymore.
A second strike.
"Hey, how about some food? Are you hungry?"
She reached into her bag. Amid her just-in-case travel supplies—Tylenol, Tums, and Pepto, all for Jack—she found a granola bar. She offered the snack, to no response, so put it away as the plane launched down the tarmac.
The wheels bumped and rumbled as they picked up speed. Jack's breaths shortened to choppy bursts, reflected in the pumping of his chest. Crinkles deepened on his brow. Tension condensed in their arched confinement.
At the sensation of going airborne, a smooth release from the weathered runway, Audra glanced out the window. In the sky, on the ground, tragedies happened every minute of every day with no rhyme or reason. The thought closed in around her.
She used both hands to lift the stubborn shade that ultimately yielded. They were at treetop level and climbing. Before long, the cars and buildings would all shrink to a size fit for an ant. This was something she could point out, to calm Jack down. Everything seemed safer, less real, when viewed from a distance.
"Jack, look. It's like they're all toys down there." She gestured to the window and turned for his reaction.
Aside from his little gray plane, the seat was empty.
"Jack?" A blade of panic whisked through her.
Across the aisle, a plump woman gawked toward the front, where a din of yells erupted.
"Let me outta here!" a voice screamed. "We're gonna crash! We're gonna crash!"
Audra fumbled to release her buckle. She dashed down the aisle that stretched out for miles and struggled to comprehend the scene. The flight attendants were both on their feet, attempting to restrain Jack. He flung his arms fiercely, a wild beast battling captors.
"We're all gonna die!" He lunged for the handle of the cabin door. "We have to get out!"
Almost there, Audra tripped on the strap of a purse. Her knees hammered the ground and her forehead rammed an armrest. Dazed, she grabbed the back of a chair to rise, just as three passengers sprang to help the crew. Their bodies created obstacles denying her passage.
"I'm his mother. Let me through!" In spite of her trim build, she was no longer the athlete she once was, and she suddenly regretted this.
"Nooo," Jack shrieked in a muffled tone. A husky man had wrapped Jack's mouth and chest from behind and wrenched him away from the door.
"Stop it," Audra roared. "You're hurting him." Logic told her they were doing the right thing for all aboard, including Jack, but primal instinct dictated she claw at this person who could be strangling her child.
By the time she'd wrestled her way to the front, two male passengers had secured Jack to the floor, facedown, by his wrists and ankles.
She folded onto her throbbing knees. Through the tangle of limbs, she placed a shaking hand on his back. "It's okay, Jack. Everything's okay."
His gaze met hers, and his squirming body went limp. Confusion swirled in his features. "Mama?"
The endearing address, for the keeper of wisdom, the provider of all answers, delivered a punch to her gut. She replied with the single truth in her grasp. "I'm here now, baby. I'm right here."
The captain made an announcement that Audra barely registered.
When they guided Jack to stand, he flew into her arms. He clung to her shirt, convulsing with sobs. She swooped him up, her adrenaline rendering him weightless.
They were led down the aisle like prisoners to a cell. The silence was deafening, the stares nearly blinding. She wished her arms were wide as sails to fully blanket her son.
The plane tilted and lowered in a U-turn for the airport.
At the very last row Jack was directed to the window seat. This time he didn't resist. Audra assumed the middle, the cushion warm from a shuffled passenger. She cradled Jack's head to her chest, his trembling lessening with their steady descent.
A flight attendant took up post nearby. Spectators stole glances through gaps between seats. What a story they would tell. The online posts, the e-mails and texts.
Once parked at the gate, Audra waited for officials to help gather her and Jack's belongings and escort them off.
"Look outside," she told Jack. "See that? We're safe now. We're safe." She offered the assurance twice, hoping through repetition to believe her own lie.
Early August 1939 London, England
Light flickered over his face, a mask of shadows in the darkened room. Vivian James edged closer in the velvety seat beside him. Once more she exaggerated a sigh.
Alas, Isaak's gaze remained glued to the screen. In black-and-white glory, a squadron of Spitfires roared off the runway. British military had become a standard of these newsreels, a flexing of royal muscle, a pep talk for patriots. From Isaak's rapt interest few would guess he was actually an American, the same as Vivian. Before each picture show the RAF propellers would appear, and on cue his spine would straighten, eyes wider than a full moon over the Thames.
So easily she could see him as a child, even without the projector's softening beam. Youthful curls defied hair tonic in his thick golden hair, and a light dimple marked his chin. His entire face had a striking boyishness, save for his gray-blue eyes that reminded Vivian of the locked file cabinet in her father's den: prohibitive and full of mystery. A good reason, in fact, to have kept her distance from the start. After only three months of their clandestine courtship, her yearning to be with him, her fear of losing him, had grown to a point she despised.
Was Isaak aware of the power he held? She wondered this now, studying the profile of his handsome lips. His unbuttoned collar pulled her focus to his medium-framed chest and down the series of buttons. She forbade her gaze from wandering on.
Determined to balance the scales, she brushed aside finger waves of her long brown hair. The motion freed a waft of the perfume he had given her, Evening in Paris. Raising her chin, she exposed her neck, the slender, bare area he had declared irresistible.
A claim now proven false.
She recalled Jean Harlow, the elegance of her feline moves. Brazenly, Vivian arched her back as if stretching for comfort. Against constraints of a girdle, she showcased the curves of her trim, belted dress. She parted her full lips, painted deep cherry red, to complete the sensuous pose.
Excerpted from The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris. Copyright © 2013 Kristina McMorris. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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