Excerpt: The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris

17166248The Pieces We Keep
By: Kristina McMorris
Publisher: Kensington
Release Date: Nov. 26, 2013
Genre: Historical Women’s Fiction

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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.

 

 
Excerpt

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 seven-year-old 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. Her son 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.

Strike one.

“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 Jack was released 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 escort her and Jack with their belongings.

“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.

 

author4384611

Kristina McMorris is the recipient of more than twenty national literary awards. A host of weekly TV shows since age nine, including an Emmy® Award-winning program, she penned her debut novel, Letters from Home (Kensington Books, Avon/HarperCollins UK), based on inspiration from her grandparents’ wartime courtship. This critically praised book was declared a must-read by Woman’s Day magazine and achieved additional acclaim as a Reader’s Digest Select Editions feature, a Doubleday/Literary Guild selection, and a 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards semifinalist for Best Historical Fiction.

Kristina’s second novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, was named a 2013 nominee for the prestigious RITA® Award and is frequently an official reading selection among book clubs, universities, and libraries throughout the country. Most recently, her novella, “The Christmas Collector,” appeared in the New York Times and USA Today bestselling anthology A Winter Wonderland. Her novelette, “The Reunion,” will be featured in the forthcoming anthology titled Grand Central (Berkley/Penguin, July 2014).

Named one of Portland’s “40 Under 40” by The Business Journal, Kristina lives with her husband and two sons in the Pacific Northwest. The Pieces We Keep is her third full-length novel.

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