I realized it’s been a long time since I posted any of my actual writing on my blog. I am a writer, just like most of my readers, so I thought it might be nice to post something of mine. This is the first chapter to a YA novel I wrote last year, titled SHATTERED. It is a 77,000 word contemporary, realistic young adult novel. Fair warning: I’ve been told it’s dark and there is some profanity in it as well.
Blurb for SHATTERED:
Ever since Leah’s alcoholic mom ran off to pursue her dream of becoming a Hollywood starlet, Leah has spent her whole life trying to keep the rest of her family together, and her best friend and boyfriend, Cody, safe from his own alcoholic and abusive parent.
But when Leah’s brother, Brandon, comes home from a photography assignment in Iraq with his legs broken into a million pieces by a roadside bomb, Leah’s safe and tidy world begins to unravel.
Leah can only watch as the people she loves skid out of control, as she begins to understand that she can’t convince someone to want to live, or that their life has value. But somehow, she’ll have to find a way, or else watch helplessly as two of the people she loves more than anything else in the world slip away from her.
When your alcoholic mom takes off for Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a famous actress, you pretty much kiss a normal childhood goodbye. If you’re the only girl raised in a family of guys, and then you suddenly realize that it’s your life’s dream to design haute couture for the runway, you know that you’re going to be a little misunderstood. That’s okay, I dealt with that.
But when your brother, your only brother, the one who held your whole family together after your mom left, decides to take a photography job in Iraq, nothing can stop the worry, or the fear. And when that same brother has his legs shattered into a million pieces by a roadside bomb, you know that things are never going to be the same again. Then again, you don’t expect your entire world to unravel into one long, hopelessly tangled knot, either. If I had known how bad it was going to be, I don’t know if I would have had the strength to keep going, to step into that airport.
It was snowing when we arrived. One of those wet, stinging, painful-pellets-of-snow types of storms; the kind of storm that slaps you upside the head with the fact that you are dead-smack in the middle of winter. I trailed along after my dad, fiddling with the black satin ribbon wrapped around my wrist as I walked. Just watching him move through the crowd hurt me; the way he held his spine so stiffly, the way his hands were crunched into fists at his side, even the lines around his mouth had deepened overnight.
I hoped I was pretending better than he was. After all, I knew all about hiding fear, about control. I had my hands in fists, too. Otherwise, everyone would have seen the way my fingers were shaking. I couldn’t do anything about the sticky ball of sickness lodged in my belly, though.
When the flight attendant wheeled my brother up to us, for a split second I thought there had been a mistake; this couldn’t be Brandon. He was in a wheelchair, with both of his legs in casts that must have once been white, but were now covered with the grime of international travel. Brandon’s eyes were sunken into their sockets and surrounded by midnight colored flesh. He looked exhausted, strung out.
Brandon didn’t look like Brandon, but worse, he wasn’t acting like himself either. He looked everywhere but at my dad and me, his lips pressed together so hard that they had disappeared. I remembered him doing that all the time as a kid, usually when he was trying not to cry. Brandon was messed up, and it wasn’t from the long flight, or from the weeks he had spent in an Iraqi hospital. It was something else; something eating away at the core of him, his very soul. He was broken, in every way a person could be broken.
I reached out to touch him, to make sure he was real, but my fingers were shaking so badly that I snatched them back before Brandon could see. His homecoming was hard enough without me making it worse and doing the whole hysterical-female thing. I knew neither he nor my dad would appreciate that.
“Hey, Brandon.” Dad reached down and hugged him, his chin banging hard enough against Brandon’s head that he flinched. “I thought you’d never get home.”
“Yeah, for a while there, I thought the only way I’d make it back was in a body bag.” His voice was muffled, lost somewhere in his shirt as he stared down at his lap, clicking one thumbnail against the other, over and over.
He looked up at me for a second and I wished he hadn’t. The stark fear that tightened his jaw, the agony in his eyes, was much worse than when he wouldn’t meet my gaze. This was my brother, the only person who’d been there for me when mom had taken off, after dad had cracked. The same brother who made burned macaroni and cheese for me, who had washed my clothes, then carefully put away my shrunken shirts so I’d have something to wear, who had hugged me when I cried late at night. He was broken and I had to fix him. It was as simple as that.
I slapped a smile across the brittle expanse of my face. I knew it looked fake, but since nothing splintered or broke off, I figured it was good enough. “Hey, Brandon. So you’ve decided you’ve had enough of being the big-shot photographer, huh?” I squeezed his shoulder lightly, afraid that I might crack something in there. “It hasn’t been the same without you.”
“Thanks, Leah. What’s with that get-up you’re wearing?” The words sounded like something he might say, but it wasn’t right. His voice was wrong, flat, empty. But if he could pretend, then I sure as hell could too.
“What, this?” I did a twirl for him, tripping slightly as the toe of one of my boots caught on the heel of another. The short, full skirt of my fuchsia mini-dress belled out around me, before settling back around my legs. “Just a little something I whipped up.”
“You look like a red tulip with a pink stem.”
That had been his favorite insult as a kid, to call me a tulip, or sometimes a lollipop, because of my tall, stick-like body and big bundle of bright red hair that made my head look more huge than it already was. But he’d always been laughing when he said it before. Now his lips were just a flat slash between the two sunken hollows of his cheeks.
I managed to work up a sneer for him before I grabbed the rubber handles of the wheelchair, pushed him slowly and carefully toward the glass doors. It was a relief to be behind him, to not have to worry about keeping my face stretched into lines of happiness. “Yeah, well, your hair is as red as mine!” I didn’t say the rest; that he was just as skinny as me now, that he looked like he’d been in a concentration camp, not recovering in a hospital. I’d always been tall and way too thin, but Brandon had been tall and well-muscled, easily able to tote the heavy bags of his photography equipment through desert, jungle, or war-torn countries. Now it looked like he’d barely be able lift my purse.
I glanced over at my dad and saw that the same worry that was making my palms sweat was stitched into the lines radiating from the corners of his eyes.
“So,” Dad said, his voice hearty in a ‘cheer up the patient’ kind of way, “What do you want to do now that you’re home?”
Brandon’s head drooped forward, making the tendons in the back of his neck stand out like ropes. “Right now, I’d just like a hot shower and bed.”
I let Dad take the handles of the wheelchair so I could shrug into my big, bright blue puffer jacket. So not fashionable, but a necessary evil during a Wisconsin winter. I followed them out into the shadows of an early twilight, where the smallest of snowflakes drifted out of the sky to settle onto the black asphalt, only to be mixed into a dirty soup as car tires crushed the beauty out of them.
Dad bumped the wheelchair roughly over the curb and swore quietly before heading for the parking lot. “We should be able to manage the shower just fine. We got you a nice, plastic seat to put in there, and the doctor said as long as we put garbage bags over your casts, it shouldn’t be a problem.” Dad wheeled him over to where the car was parked in a spot that was clearly marked handicapped. Brandon flushed, his fingers twisting in the material of his basketball shorts, the knuckles turning a lifeless grey. When Dad scooped him up like a child and deposited him in the front seat, Brandon’s face went the same grey color, but with pain.
“Sorry, B.” Dad’s voice was rough and oddly metallic sounding. “Didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Brandon grunted. I looked at him, waiting for him to laugh it off, to curse Dad out, anything. But he just sat there, small balls of sweat shining on his forehead, his eyes glassy. I knew that it wasn’t the pain that was making him freak out. And I swear I felt it, the thick, slippery skid of my life, my family, sliding out of my grasp, and spinning relentlessly out of my control.
My breath curled around me, as fine and delicate as the lightest chiffon, while I slowly rocked the porch swing in the cold and the dark. Up and down the street, light spilled from windows, framing the happy lives that were being lived in those houses. Lives that I wasn’t a part of.
Cody, my next door neighbor and best friend beside Brandon, materialized out of the darkness. He vaulted over the porch rail; the dark sweep of his hair swinging against his jaw, then stuffed his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. His golden skin seemed like the only warm, alive thing for miles. He sat next to me, close enough for the heat of his body to seep into mine. “Brandon is back?”
I shifted, uncomfortable that I would even his body, his heat. But I had. I’d been noticing it for a few months now. “Yeah. He’s back.” I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t want to acknowledge that something was drastically wrong with my brother. I didn’t want to talk about the bomb that had splintered his leg bones so badly that he might never walk again. I didn’t want to talk about how enraged I was that a photographer could be suffering from a wound that should only affect a soldier. And I definitely didn’t want to talk about the sheer terror I could feel shivering off him every time I got close to him, and the pure, agonizing helplessness that ripped though me, knowing that there was nothing I could do, no way for me to force things to get better.
Cody must have sensed what was going on inside of me, because he draped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me snug against his side. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. It was enough that he was there.
I let my head rest against his chest. I shut my eyes as his scent invaded my lungs, spicy and male, with just the slightest hint of cigarettes, which meant he’d either been practicing with his band or his dad was home. It was a scent I’d smelled for a long, long time. It should have been comforting. Instead, it curled through my body, winding its way through my chest, tightening and tugging as if it could scoop my heart out of my body and deposit it in Cody’s hands. Cody, who’d always been there for me, always been my best friend. Cody, who should be like a brother to me. Except, suddenly he wasn’t. And no matter how much I tried to tell myself that was all he was, every time he got close, I knew I was lying to myself. But I also knew that I would keep lying. No way was I going to tell him and open myself up to that kind of hurt.
So I sat back, laid my head on his shoulder, and ignored everything inside of me. We rocked for over an hour, as I sat, listening to the steady thump of his heart, and pretended my own wasn’t racing in response.
A howl jerked me awake in the night. For a split second, I thought a dog had been hit by a car. Then I realized it came from inside the house. I was out of the bed and fighting the tangle of the sheets before I managed to shake off the fog of heavy sleep. I didn’t even grab my robe, just ran down the icy hall in my tank top and shorts.
Light spilled from my brother’s room, along with a sound I’d never heard before; a man sobbing. I stood in the shadows just outside the door and watched as my dad rocked Brandon back and forth, his own tears running unnoticed down his face.
“There’s blood, so much blood.” My brother’s voice shook and cracked.
“I know. Shhh. You’re safe now. Everything’s fine.”
“But they’re not. All those people, the kids, they’re not.” He sobbed again, his breath ripping through his throat.
I walked into the room, made a move toward the bed, but Dad stopped me with a shake of his head. I stepped back, crept into the hall, and slid down the wall until my head was pushed against my knees. Even with my hands pressed against my ears, I could still hear him; still hear the agony burning through my brother. I rocked back and forth in time with my dad’s quiet murmurs, my body growing colder and colder as the night slipped by.
The chilly, grey light of morning was lightening the black squares of the windows before he finally fell asleep. My knees nearly bucked from the lack of blood flow when I stood and peeked in the room. Dad covered him with the blanket, then sank to the floor, his head pressed to the mattress next to the heavy weight of Brandon’s casts. I hadn’t realized until that moment that what had happened to Brandon, what had broken Brandon, might break us all.
Later, when the watery sunlight of a winter morning spilled through the hallway window, I went to find Brandon. I walked through the puddle the sunlight made, but it was fake, with not a shred of warmth clinging to the light. In fact, it almost felt like it was sucking my body heat out into the icy sky.
“Brandon?” I stood in his bedroom door. Brandon lay on his bed, his encased legs stretched out in front of him while he stared at the ceiling. His left eye twitched slightly when I said his name, but that was it. “Brandon?” I said it a little more loudly, and this time, his head turned toward me.
“What?” He looked at me, but his eyes never really focused. He blinked so slowly, I wasn’t sure he would even open them again.
“Do you need anything?”
I took a step into the room. “Brandon. I…” I didn’t know what to say, what to do. I wanted to help so badly. Brandon needed me, needed us. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me in.
“I’m fine, Leah. I just want to be left alone.”
“B. I can’t do that.” I took a deep breath, aligning each vertebra in my spine, then walked over to the bed. “What if you had left me alone when Mom left? I’m sure I told you to. But you didn’t, did you? I wouldn’t have made it without you.” I sat on the bed, placing my face directly in his line of vision.
“This isn’t the same.” Brandon turned his head away from me. His hair was tangled into knots, his face almost as pale as the pillow below it.
“Maybe not. But I still think you need me and Dad. You need to ask for help. I want you to get better. Whatever you need, whatever you want, you need to tell me so I can get it for you.” I put my hand on his cheek and felt several days’ worth of stubble catch at my skin. “It hurts me to see you this way.”
Brandon shut his eyes. Two tears seeped from beneath his lids. I watched them slowly trickle over his freckled skin, until they disappeared into his hair. “You can’t help me.”
Pain crawled along in the space behind my eyes. “Maybe not. But there’s someone out there who can. As much as it hurts, there are other people who have gone through similar things, maybe even worse things. And they’ve gotten through it. You need some counseling or something.”
A laugh jerked out of his mouth. “Really, Leah? That’s going to fix everything? Sit in some room with a fucking stranger and spill my guts and everything will be better?”
Each space between my ribs filled with ice as Brandon’s harsh words spilled over me, but I kept going. “Maybe. Maybe not right away, but I’m sure eventually.”
“Just go away, Leah.”
I grabbed Brandon’s fingers, cradling them in my own. They were so cold, I almost dropped them. In the split second that my grip loosened, Brandon pulled away.
He opened his eyes. Red blood spilled beneath the surface of his skin, pooling in two slashes across his cheekbones. “I said get the fuck out!”
His voice ripped through the room and I stumbled to my feet. Brandon was screaming now. He’d never screamed at me in his life. I stared at him, my heart jumping in scared leaps in my chest as Brandon swore at me.
Dad burst into the room. “What’s wrong?”
I kept my voice pitched low, under the loud stream of curses pouring out of Brandon’s mouth. “I was just trying to talk to him, help him.” I jumped as Brandon’s pillow slammed against the wall inches from my head. The lamp fell off his desk, its glass shade shattering into jagged shards at my feet.
Dad sighed. “Maybe it’d be best if you just left.”
Brandon’s shouts suddenly turned to ugly sobs that tore at my ears.
“Just go, Leah.” Dad walked over to Brandon’s bed. As he looked down at my brother, Dad’s big, muscular frame suddenly seemed as fragile as the lamp that lay broken on the floor. I could feel something clawing at my throat, trying to tear its way out of me. I pressed my hand to my neck, keeping it in, holding myself together.
Brandon started to shake, the feet of his bed thumping against his floor with every shudder.
“Go!” Dad shouted as he wrapped his arms around his shattered boy.