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Broken Pieces

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Here Among Us by Maggie Harryman (Excerpt 1)

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Genre – Literary Fiction

Rating – R (Strong language, adult themes)

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November, 2007

Chapter One

“I know that ma’am. I apologize.”

“I understand but do you understand what I’m saying?” she had asked, managing to avoid the tiny voice in the back of her head that chirped, “why do you care?” It was obvious that the driver didn’t care. He had grinned wide, directed a third apology to Didi and placed her bag directly into her hands. Flynn’s was left in the street. Didi, already a beauty at sixteen—even if Flynn wasn’t quite sure what she thought of the pierced nose and brow business—had returned a radiant smile, calmly taken her things and walked off as though she were traveling alone, inwardly tsk, tsking her mother for her complete inability to let anything go. Of course Didi was right. And when Flynn tipped the driver and hurried to follow her through the terminal doors, trying to keep her daughter’s vibrant red hair in her sights, not for the first time she thought of the joke that God had played sixteen years ago by making her the mother and Didi the child. She made a silent vow to try harder.

She kept that vow for all of twenty seconds, annoyed next to the point of near spontaneous combustion with her raincoat. She had wanted to buy a new coat but instead opted to save the money, making do with the drab beige Macintosh, a gift from her mother at least ten Christmases ago. Finally located in the bowels of the under staircase closet, besides two torn pockets, it bore the distinctive marking of their old dog, Fudge’s, incontinent bladder near the hem. Another solid hour had been spent trying to clean it, although she imagined now that she smelled of ammonia and hydrogen peroxide and the acrid comingling of scents that wafted up brought to mind the injustice of it all—how could she find herself unemployed and so strapped for cash that she hesitated to invest in a proper winter coat? At her age, with her education and talents? It was infuriating.

Catching up to Didi on the check-in line and parking the suitcase she’d haphazardly stuffed with what seemed like every article of clothing she owned, Flynn imagined things could be worse, although she couldn’t think how. Even her suitcase zipper looked strained and angry. Next to her, Didi smiled sweetly as an elderly couple blathered on about their excitement at visiting New York. The wife was still beautiful and fully made up for her trip. Her husband, bent and rough shaven, hung on her every word like a besotted school boy. Flynn found his devotion annoying and the moment the couple was called to the counter, she tapped Didi’s shoulder. Some bitter, albeit justified complaining about being dragged to New Jersey for the long Thanksgiving weekend would definitely hit the spot.

“All I’m saying is why can’t we talk about it over the phone? Why do I have to go all the way to New Jersey?”

The ticket agent at the counter yelled, “Next,” and Didi marched up, lifting hers and then her mother’s bag onto the scale.

“Maybe Aunt Maeve’s right,” Didi said. “Something could be up with Nanny.” She turned then and whispered under her breath, “whether you want to admit it or not.” The agent looked up.

“E-x-c-u-s-e me?” she said.

“Nothing,” Didi answered, suddenly flustered. The woman was a giant with dreadlocks pulled back into a thick ponytail and perfect honey skin. She wore a plastic turkey on her vest with red, white and blue airline wings. “Did anyone pack your bags for you?” she asked. Her tone dared them to answer yes.

“No,” Flynn said, before turning to Didi to defend herself. “Really Deeds? Is that fair? You know I have no problem admitting things. And I know one thing—your grandmother is a battleaxe. Sure, maybe she forgets a bit, but who doesn’t? She’s seventy-four for Christ’s sake. Does that mean I have to spend five days with Maeve to discuss it? Because the Queen claps her hands and says bring on the dancing girls?”

Didi sighed, accepting the boarding passes from the agent who yelled, “Next,” even before they had collected their things.

“What’s the sigh for?” Flynn asked, following Didi onto the security line.

“Nothing,” Didi said, offering up her passport. “Everything is as it should be.”

A small man with thick glasses waited while Flynn produced her driver’s license and then shoved it into her pocket. The line shifted but went nowhere and Flynn eyed Didi, taking in a few fading freckles that peppered the perfect slant of her nose and the red ringlets that fell around her neck. It pained Flynn to remember that not so long ago, she would not have hesitated to kiss that neck. Now, Didi was drifting away, spending more and more time with friends and talking incessantly about going away to college. Recently she’d returned from a trip to India with her father, Flynn’s ex-husband, Roger. She’d changed on that trip, although Flynn had yet to put her finger on the essence of that change.

Flynn grabbed a grey bin and handed one to Didi. Everything is as it should be? Bullshit, Flynn thought but monitoring herself said, “What should be is me finding a firm that will hire me for what I was making—more in fact—not spending money I don’t have to fly to New Jersey. Did I mention the three brutal snow storms due in the next five days?”

Didi ignored her mother, took off her boots and threw them into the bin. Down the concourse, Flynn recognized a chain of wine bars she used to frequent all the years she had taken evening flights to LA. A few 5 o’clock chardonnays before a flight had always been just what the doctor ordered to deal with the enormous egos of her professional athlete clients. But big as they were, not a one was any match for her sister, Maeve. Oh how she thirsted for a crisp chardonnay. Too bad it was barely ten, a little early for a glass of wine—even for her. Flynn walked through the security scanner behind Didi and when the alarm bell sounded, she stepped back and calmly began to empty her pockets. At least there was some good news. Once the plane hit cruising altitude, it would be happy hour in the friendly skies.

On board, Flynn took the window seat. The captain had already announced that a storm in the Midwest was heading east and although he sounded confident they could outrun it, Flynn felt more in control if she could see the giant engines were still spinning. There was another reason too, one that she had never admitted to a living soul, not even Didi. Ever since she was a girl, she’d taken the window seat, imagining that her father was out there in the clouds. Where she’d gotten such a strange notion, she had no idea only that it had become a habit so ingrained in her psyche she might as well have been born searching the white nothing of 30,000 feet. But regardless of the futility, in hundreds of flights since her eighth grade trip to DC, she’d never stopped looking, had never seen him again since the night he’d died when she was seven. Despite psychics and channelers and all sorts of crazies who told her he was there, watching over her, he had never so much as appeared in a dream.

When they’d completed their ascent, she checked her Blackberry, hoping for word from the headhunter. Nothing but a brief voice mail from Harvey Brick, the managing partner at the law firm where she’d practiced the past eleven years. It was Harvey who had sprung the guillotine. “We’ve been fired, too,” he said, explaining that the firm’s largest client, a global entertainment conglomerate for which Flynn had handled professional and college level coaches and athletes had dropped their firm. Cry me a fucking river, she’d thought, tuning the rest out. One thing was for sure. Getting fired had been the single most devastating moment of her adult life. Six months later she still had no job to speak of and old, bald Harvey wondered how she was? Delete.

She closed her eyes. A baby cried two seats ahead and she remembered all the early years of traveling east with Didi and all the painful ears and accompanying tears as the plane climbed into the sky. She watched as a man in the seat in front of her summoned the flight attendant and asked if there was anything that could be done to silence the child. What an asshole, Flynn thought and kicked his seat the moment the attendant disappeared and then smiled sweetly when he turned to offer her an evil glare. The plane shuddered and she pulled out her book and opened it to keep from imagining the worst. Then, unable to read, put down the book and closed her eyes again, reaching for Didi’s hand. The soft pad of her palm was instantly available and Flynn thought again of her words.

“Everything is as it should be?” Flynn repeated aloud. “What does that actually mean?”

Still holding her hand, Didi pulled her earplugs. She looked at her mother and smiled that angelic smile that always made Flynn wonder how she and Roger, two fairly standard issue humans, had produced such exquisite beauty.

“It means that the universe will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness.”

Flynn would have laughed had the plane not lurched forward and the fasten seat belt sign, only off briefly in the first hour, flashed on. She’d never even considered unfastening her belt. Instead, her mind flew immediately to that painful place where it most frequently dwelled: six months of pounding the pavement and hundreds of resumes later and still no work.

“Anybody ever get the wrong experience?” she asked and then, not waiting for the answer, “because it would be my luck to get the wrong experience. You know like those old jokes about how God was giving out noses and you thought he said hoses…” her voice trailed off. “Well I can’t remember the rest, but you get the drift.”

Didi’s smile widened. At least sometimes she still thought her mother was funny, or more likely just pathetically out of touch. Like tweeting and sexting and when Fergie joined the Black Eyed Peas, it was just another chasm of life experiences impossible to cross. Of course Didi was entirely too good to draw attention to the gap.

“I understand why you might think that, but it’s not possible. That’s just not how the universe works.”

Again the plane bucked, this time dropping precipitously and a general gasp went out through the cabin.

“Oh really?” Flynn said. “Why don’t you tell me how it does work then?”

Flynn hadn’t intended to sound so angry but it was too late. Didi pulled her hand away. “The universe only gives us exactly what we need,” she said, already reaching to replace her earphones. “This is the experience you’re having at this moment. The one you need in order to evolve. You have to trust that.”

Trust. The only thing Flynn trusted these days was the check she received every month from her 17% ownership in her family’s restaurant business. Over the years, it had grown into a nice chunk of change and since Flynn was a saver, for most of those years the money from the three restaurants her mother still owned in New Jersey had been put away for Didi’s education. Lately she’d been waiting by the mail like a hungry bear, cashing every check to live on. Even without the new house and the remodel, San Francisco was impossibly expensive and if she didn’t find work soon, she’d have no choice but to dip into Didi’s college fund.

The plane jolted hard again and Flynn held her breath. She hated snow—driving in it, walking in it or even looking at it—and worried about the two storms that were due in the next seventy-two hours and then the final one coming on their heels for the weekend and decided it would be good old fashioned luck, more than trust in the elusive universe that would put them safely on the ground before the first storm hit. Luck was bringing something else too. Despite the jumbling about of the aircraft, she spied the drinks cart heading down the aisle, hardly so much as a tinkling coming from the tiny glass bottles nestled in its sturdy metal frame. Maybe Didi was on to something and the universe was giving Flynn exactly what she needed. Her first of what might be two or three large and lovely glasses of wine.

“Oh my God, they have GOT to be kidding.”

If Flynn had been groggy exiting the plane, she was fully awake now and only too aware of being the last passenger waiting for luggage. When the carousel finally stopped she had been forced to acknowledge an increasing sense of dread, as every bag that was spit unceremoniously from the gaping hole at the top of the belt had fallen effortlessly into the hands of some other happy holiday traveler. Hers was not forthcoming.

“I can’t believe this bullshit. It’s just too much.” She knew her voice was rising but didn’t care. Almost her entire wardrobe was in that bag.

Didi looked around. A security guard eyed them ominously. “Mom, please.”

“Please what? You have your bag. So does everyone else. I’m the only person without a bag, Didi. The only goddamn one.”

“I’m not denying that,” Didi said. “But it’s a minor inconvenience. Let’s head to the airline office and see what we can find out.”

Flynn turned on her heels and began walking briskly toward the escalator. “Minor inconvenience?” she said, turning on the bottom stair to face her daughter. “Minor is a hang nail or a run in your stocking. This is major. What am I supposed to do?”

Didi tried to hide a smile and Flynn recognized something she’d known for some time; like Roger, Didi was amused by her mother’s overreactions. “You can borrow Aunt Maeve’s clothes. Pretend you’re a suburban socialite for a few days.”

In no mood for sarcasm, Flynn turned away so as not to expose her daughter to the level of disgust that bubbled up inside of her at the thought of relying on her sister for anything. And then, not waiting for Didi, at the top of the escalator she rushed ahead to the office marked, “Customer Service.” Through the glass Flynn could see bags lined up in neat rows waiting to be claimed by their owners. She pushed through the door and raised her index finger at the middle-aged man behind the counter, who from the look of benign disregard on his face, had suffered through a long day of crazed middle aged women out for blood. “You better not have lost my bio-identical hormone cream,” she called across the room, and knew from years of experience that coming next, regardless of her own best efforts to control herself, was not a threat but a promise that heads would roll.

This was all Maeve’s fault Flynn thought, throwing Didi’s bag onto the flimsy metal cart she’d just overpaid for the privilege of using to cross the airport. Fucking airport prices.

Fucking Maeve.

“It’s obvious,” Didi said, winding a colorful scarf she’d pulled from her bag around her neck, “that your aggression is due to an unresolved conflict with Aunt Maeve.”

Four Air Train stops later, standing on the long line at Rent-A-Heap, Didi had started out trying to make the hassle of her mother’s lost bag somehow more palatable. She had moved on to suggesting that Flynn consider meditation as a way of settling her mind. When that hadn’t worked, she’d finished with a plea for self-control.

“It’s just not right to take your negative feelings about your sister out on absolutely everyone you encounter on this trip.”

Flynn had a long list of perfectly good reasons for her feelings of animosity toward her sister but there wasn’t much sense in getting into it now. “I’ve been nice to everyone with the exception of that awful man in the customer service department, which by the way is inappropriately named.”

“What about the shuttle driver?”

“I was only trying to point out…”

“And that nice old couple on the line at the airport? Look, there’s the husband over there.” Didi waved but the old man was transfixed on his wife who was entering a shuttle bus that would drop her at their rental car. “You gave them such a look on the line when they started talking to me, like you’d caught them trying to eat me. It was embarrassing.”

“Look,” Flynn said, “I’m sorry if I embarrass you but I’m tough, I’m a fighter. I got it from your grandfather. If the luggage guy—or anyone else—doesn’t like who I am, they’ll just have to get over it.”

“That’s not who you are,” Didi said, wrenching her bag out of her mother’s grasp. “You’ve just told yourself that story so many times, that’s who you think you are.”

Flynn wondered how it was that no matter how tough she claimed to be, her daughter could level her with just a few words. She tried to temper her tone, but the moment she opened her mouth, she knew she’d failed. “Who I think I am? What’s that supposed to mean? Jesus, Didi, you’ve changed. Was it the trip? Never mind, God forbid you’d tell me anything about it. But I know you’re different. Something happened to you in India that you’re not telling me.”

Didi turned around. “Something did happen to me,” she said. “I raised my consciousness. You should try it sometime.”

Flynn wanted to tell her daughter that she was fairly sure the enlightened rarely threw their own higher consciousness in the faces of those less fortunate. But she bit her tongue and instead, seized the opportunity to make Didi laugh. “Consciousness my ass. I’m plenty conscious. And believe me, most of the time, I’d rather not be.” She thought about adding that she just wasn’t raised to go deep, but left it at that.

Rather than smile, Didi huffed and turned away and Flynn realized she’d accomplished something rather difficult—pissing off her sweet, even-tempered daughter. She decided to shut up and while the line moved with maddening indolence, she scanned the room, settling on the old man they’d traveled with since San Francisco, now snoozing in a chair just inside the door. She guessed he was about her father’s age, although she had a much harder time imagining her father at seventy-five. To her, Paddy O’Shea was forever young, forever vibrant and handsome and, although she knew it was ridiculous to remember him this way, perfect. The thought of what her life would have been like if he hadn’t died had plagued her since she was old enough to think such thoughts and only a crisis like her split with Roger or losing her job were enough to push the longing aside, even momentarily.

Now as she watched the old man drift into a peaceful nap, she thought of all the sleepless nights she’d suffered since losing her job and she envied him. “I wish I could find that sort of peace,” she said to Didi, realizing too late that she hadn’t intended to show the chink in her armor. Didi moved to the counter and the clerk looked up. He was handsome, and his button down shirt gave him a boyish charm she rarely saw these days.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said to Flynn, smiling ear to ear and handing her the keys to the car. “Van’ll be up in a minute ma’am. And of course, thanks for your business.”

Returning with the car, Flynn parked in front of the office just in time to see an ambulance pull away from the curb. Didi came through the door looking shaken.

“Sorry it took so long but the heap of crap they gave me was parked in the back forty,” Flynn said. “The goddamn shuttle driver let everyone off…” then she stopped. Didi’s eyes spilled over with tears.

“What’s the matter? Sweetheart, what happened?” Her first thought was that someone had harmed her daughter and she felt the dark impulse of motherhood that made her entirely capable of murder. “Please tell me what’s wrong.” She brushed back Didi’s hair and pressed an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close.

“You know that sweet old man from the plane who looked so peaceful sleeping in the chair?”


“There was a reason he looked so peaceful.”


“He was dead.”


“Yeah right after your van drove off, he slumped over. The guy behind the desk tried to revive him while I called 911. The ambulance arrived in about three minutes but he was already gone. That fast. Gone.” Then she fell in a heap on her bag and through her tears asked her mother, “How does that happen?”

How indeed? In one way or another, Flynn had pondered that same question her entire life and a familiar sense of powerlessness washed over her. How does that happen? She was the very last person in the world who could answer the question and resigning herself to failing her beloved child for the hundredth time that day, Flynn shuffled Didi and her lone bag into the Rent-A-Heap and headed for Maeve’s.


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