We're about a month away from the release of my latest novel, Fragmented, and I couldn't be more excited. I've teased here on the blog what the new book is about, but I'm posting the Prologue and Chapter One today to give you a larger sample.
I've always thought that good playlist is the ultimate Muse. Music has provided the mood and emotion behind some of my favorite scenes, and every couple from Sydney and Zabe to Elle and Hunter, and most recently Cassidy and Julia, have had their own song. If you're curious as to what I've been listening to lately, I'm giving you access to some of the songs on my writing playlist via Soundcloud.
If I had known what I know now, Memphis would have been in my rearview mirror the moment I learned how to drive.
Dinner was burning on the stove. The kitchen smoke alarm wasn’t going off yet, but, left unattended, the macaroni and cheese had coagulated at the bottom of the saucepan. There had been a time when I looked forward to family dinners as a moment to relax and discuss the events of the day. My mom would ask me how school had been and what I’d learned. That night was not one of those nights.
I hadn’t seen my brother Damien in weeks. It wasn’t unusual; he was ten years older than me, and now in his sophomore year at the University of Memphis, he’d lost himself to college life. But he was back that night, and he can’t come home alone.
The yelling was too loud, and it filled my head until I couldn’t think about anything else. I escaped to my bedroom and hid in the back of my closet. Among the jackets and shirts and hung up pants, I slinked down the closet wall and curled into a tight ball. I pressed my hands against my ears to muffle out the noise; I couldn’t completely shut them out, but it was better than before.
I was nine when they took my mother away. But she had been gone long before that.
“Sasha! Not too high, okay?”
The little girl scrambled lower on the jungle gym and looked at me with a small smile. “Is this okay, Harper?”
I nodded from my seat at the park picnic table. “Much better, kiddo.” I returned my attention to the textbook in front of me while flicking my eyes in the direction of the playing children every few seconds. If given the chance, Sasha would have climbed a ladder to the moon. She was fearless in the way young children who didn’t know any better were.
“I thought school didn’t start for a few more days,” a male voice observed.
I finished the sentence I was currently reading and looked across the table to my friend Marco. We weren’t really close friends—more like nannies whose charges played together at the small inner-city playground—but there was camaraderie between us babysitters and aux pairs that I enjoyed.
“It doesn’t, but I like to be prepared.”
He grabbed my book and began flipping through its glossy pages. My protest died on my lips. It felt like the time Michelle Dobson had stolen my favorite lunchbox, and I’d given her a bloody nose to get it back. I’d learned to resolve conflict in a more civilized way since then.
“Reading the textbooks before the semester even starts.” Marco chuckled and shook his head. “I don’t know how you do it—how you make time for school and sitting for the Henderson’s.”
Balancing my course load and babysitting admittedly made for a full schedule. I generally had classes in the mornings, and this semester, one in the afternoon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. At the end of my school day, I hustled to the “L” in order to pick up Sasha from school on time and entertained her until her father got off of work. Then it was back on the train and back to my apartment in Hyde Park to start my homework.
Squeezing in a social life was difficult, but I was determined to make it work. My tuition was paid for because of an academic scholarship, but babysitting for the Henderson’s helped me tackle my other bills. Plus, it was more flexible than a traditional part-time job, and Sasha, the five-year-old I’d been in charge of for a little over a year, was pretty charming as far as kids went.
“Really, Harper,” Marco continued in his light Mediterranean accent. “You should say something; they ask far too much of you. When’s the last time you went on a date?” His dark eyes stared deep into mine.
I felt a light blush color my cheeks, and I turned my stare away from Marco’s penetrating gaze and back over at my young charge, who was aggressively swinging on a tire swing as though her life depended on how high she could go. “I date,” I murmured, unconvincingly.
He smiled mischievously. “Well, if you go out so much, Miss Harper, how come you’ve never thrown a date in your boy Marco’s direction?”
Feeling myself becoming more and more flustered, my mouth opened and closed like a feeding fish, but no words came out. The Italian-born man had always flirted with me, but he’d never asked me out on a date before.
A flash of dark blue caught my eye, and I was relieved to see Sergeant Henderson, Sasha’s father, striding purposefully towards us.
“Mr. Henderson!” I chirped enthusiastically, relieved to have a reason to avoid Marco’s poorly veiled request. “Off of work early today? I can get Sasha ready to go home if you want; just give me a minute.”
“It was a little slow today,” he said, “but I have another reason for coming over early.” He frowned and looked disapprovingly at Marco. “Can I talk to you alone for a minute?”
I glanced at Marco, who shrugged. “Sure, Mr. H.” I forgot about the textbook Marco had commandeered and stood up from the picnic table to follow the uniformed man a few feet away from the playground.
“What’s up?” Mr. Henderson’s uniformed presence always made me a little nervous. I frantically racked my brain as to why he would need to talk to me in private. Did I have unpaid parking tickets? Had someone caught me speeding? Had I gone through a yellow light at one of those intersections with the sneaky, ninja cameras?
“We got a call this afternoon at the station to file a missing person’s report,” he started slowly. “That missing person was you.”
“What?” My voice cracked. “I-I don’t understand. I’m right here.”
Mr. Henderson smoothed his moustache with his fingers. “I can see that.” His tone was even and low. It was probably his official police voice that he used to keep people from freaking out. “The thing is, the call was from someone who claimed to be your mother.”
I put my hand over my mouth. No.
“I thought she was dead, Harper,” he noted with a small frown. “Isn’t that what you told us?”
I looked down at my feet and kicked a small rock with the tip of my shoe. I watched as it tumbled away. “She, uh, she’s not technically dead,” I struggled. I sucked in a sharp breath. “We just aren’t on very good speaking terms, I guess. We haven’t been for a while.”
“I didn’t file a report; it’s a good thing that it was me who answered the phone though.” He sighed, looking too tired to be in his early thirties. “You really should call your mother to let her know you’re alright.”
I bit my lower lip and looked up at Sasha’s father. His dark eyes continued to gaze at me, but not unkindly. “I will,” I softly promised.
Mr. Henderson still looked troubled. “We’re not … we’re not expecting too much of you, are we?” He stuck his hands deep in the pockets of his police-issued leather jacket.
“No, no! You and Mrs. Henderson and Sasha are great,” I insisted. “And really, it’s no big deal. I can handle juggling school and watching Sash.”
“Life’s more than work and school though, Harper. I mean, do you have time to go out with friends? Do you date?” he probed. “You’ve got to have a balance.”
“Why is everyone so concerned about my social life today?” I muttered under my breath.
I didn’t intend for him to hear me, but he had, and he looked slightly flushed and uncomfortable by my reaction. “Listen, I’m sorry,” he rushed. “It’s not my business, I know. Just promise me that you’re taking care of yourself, okay?” His thick, bushy eyebrows rose on his forehead. “And don’t forget to call your mother.”
I flashed a brief smile. “I’ll call. I promise.”
He nodded curtly. “Okay, good,” he said, returning to his usual stoical visage. “See you on Monday. Have a nice weekend.”
Mr. Henderson walked away to collect Sasha and bring her home. I watched them as they played together on the jungle gym. For being an imposing Chicago police officer, Mr. Henderson definitely had a soft side when it came to interactions with his young daughter. I hoped Sasha would remember these moments when she got older.
A hand on my hip pulled me away from the father-daughter bonding moment. “Ready to motor?”
I turned to look into the pale blue eyes of my girlfriend, Jenn.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Let’s go.”
+ + +
I fumbled with the key to my apartment before I used my shoulder to push open the door of my rented room. Summer was waning into fall, but seasonal humidity had caused the wooden doorjamb to swell. I tossed my keys on a small wooden table in the front foyer and removed my shoes, setting them in a straight row with the rest of my footwear. Jenn followed closely behind and closed the front door.
I bypassed the rest of the modest apartment—the small living room, the eat-in kitchen—and traveled the short distance to the bedroom, not really a separate room, eager to shed my clothes from the day and pour myself into pajamas. My apartment was basically one big room, but it suited me. I could have saved money if I had lived on campus, but I’d done dorm life for two years and I couldn’t wait to have a space of my own, away from nosy floormates and resident assistants.
Jenn kissed me briefly on the lips. “I missed you all day,” she murmured.
I wrapped my arms around her waist and smiled. “You too. I’m excited to spend some time together this weekend, just the two of us.”
Now that school would be starting with the new semester, I knew our time together would be curtailed. We were both full-time students—me a senior at the University of Chicago and she in her junior year at DePaul.
I went to embrace my girlfriend again, hoping for a longer, more lingering kiss, but Jenn wiggled out of my eager grasp.
“I need to brush my teeth,” she laughed, holding her hand in front of her mouth. “I had coffee this afternoon and my mouth tastes gross.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re ridiculous.”
She didn’t stick around to defend herself. “I’ll be right back.”
My eyes followed Jenn as she walked away and disappeared behind the bathroom door. I knew she would be gone for a while between brushing, flossing, and rinsing, but it still didn’t leave me much time to make the phone call I’d been dreading ever since Mr. Henderson had approached me earlier that afternoon.
I searched through the second drawer of my desk. I shoveled through a pile of unorganized papers, looking for the blue notebook where I vaguely remembered having written down a telephone number. When I found what I was looking for, I pulled it out of the drawer and quickly flipped through the college-ruled notebook. I hadn’t called the number enough to have it committed to memory and I didn’t dare save it to my phone’s contacts.
I fished my cell phone out of my back pocket, dialed the ten-digit number, and held my breath.
“Riverside Estates,” a pleasant enough voice answered on the other line.
I cleared my throat. “Ah, yes. I’d like to talk to one of your patients?” I didn’t even know if this was allowed. “Uhm, her name is Bonnie Dawkins.”
“One moment please,” the female receptionist replied, putting the call on hold.
I chewed nervously on my bottom lip and glanced toward the closed bathroom door. I hoped I could get through this phone call without Jenn coming back.
I heard a perceptible click and the muffled sound of someone struggling with the telephone. “Hello?” came a cautious voice.
“Mama?” I stated with equal hesitation. “It’s me.”
“Harper!” she exclaimed. “I was so worried about you!”
“Mama,” I sighed, “ya know you shouldn’t do that.” I easily slipped back into the Southern drawl I had worked so hard to neutralize upon moving to the Midwest. It had set me apart from the other students—made me stick out—and all I had wanted to do was blend in. Be normal. It had taken me years to shake the lazy drawl that I had thought made me sound less intelligent than the other students my classes, but like all bad habits, it was easy to regress.
“What have you been up to?” she asked in an interested voice. “I haven’t heard from you in such a long time.”
I ran my fingers through my hair and flicked my eyes once more toward the bathroom door. I knew I had to make this quick. Jenn would be out any minute now.
“Nothing much, Mama. I just got back from Hawaii,” I said. “I won a gold medal in the Olympics for surfing.”
“Really? Well, isn’t that something.”
“Uh huh,” I noted absently. “So that’s why I haven’t called ya in a while. Been busy with that, ya know.”
“Oh, I understand how that is,” she murmured. “I just hadn’t heard from you in a while, so I wanted to check in.”
“Don’t worry about me, Mama,” I sighed again. “You know I always land on my feet.”
“I know you do, baby. But I still worry.”
I heard the faucet turn on and off in the bathroom. “I gotta go,” I abruptly cut the call short. “The Ambassador to Spain is coming over for dinner, and I need to do some grocery shopping.”
Okay, darlin’. You take care, you.”
“I will,” I promised. “Bye, Mama.”
The bathroom door opened and Jenn walked out just as I ended the call. “Who was that?” she asked around her floss. She had a penchant for dental hygiene and took pride in her bright, perfect smile. “I didn’t hear the phone ring.”
I felt mildly flustered by the phone call, but I was able to formulate another easy lie. “It was nothing. Just the Henderson’s.”
Jenn frowned. “Of course it would be them,” she muttered with annoyance. “Not like it would be anyone else. Not like you would actually have any friends calling you.”
Now it was my turn to be annoyed. “Everyone’s so worried today that I don’t have any friends,” I complained.
Jenn turned around to face me. She brushed her hair out of her piercing blue eyes. “Well, do you, Harper?” she pressed. “We’ve been dating for nearly four months now, and you haven’t brought any of them around.”
I stuck out my bottom lip in a well-practiced pout. “You’re my friend.”
“I didn’t realize we were friends,” she grumbled, her features troubled.
“The very best of friends,” I replied with a sly grin.
“I don’t know,” Jenn started with a playful grin of her own, “do friends do this?” She leaned in and pressed her full lips against my still pouting mouth.
“Best friends might.”
Jenn was tall, long limbed, and angular like a marionette puppet. Her hair was a shock of yellow and her ears featured numerous piercings. She’d recently gotten the sides of her head shaved, but the hair on top remained long. It was a little crazy-Miley Cyrus for me, but I couldn’t very well tell my girlfriend that I hated her haircut. It had happened to me with a previous girlfriend, too. She’d gone back to her folks’ for Christmas break, and when I’d picked her up from Chicago O’Hare at the start of the new year, she’d shaved off her ponytail and only a short buzzcut remained. What was it about me that made girls want to chop off their hair?
I wished she had more hair so I could wind my fingers around soft, loose tendrils at the base of her neck. Instead, I settled for scratching my nails down her neck. She surged forward and pressed her lips against mine. Her tongue darted into my mouth and ran across the front of my teeth. I raked my fingers through the hair that remained and tugged on it. It was just hair, I told myself. It would grow back.
She pulled away from the kiss and her mouth curved into a frown. “You’re messing it up,” she whined.
“Babe, you’ve got so much product in there, not even a hurricane could mess it up.”
“It’s Chicago,” she defended. “It might as well be hurricane winds.” Her hands went to the place I’d disturbed, and she expertly returned every hair to its original place.
“Did you know that the phrase ‘Windy City’ doesn’t actually refer to weather? It’s actually to imply that Chicagoans are braggarts—or at least that’s one theory.”
I puffed out a deep breath. Jenn had never been a fan of my history lessons. “What do you want to do this weekend?”
We’d made no elaborate plans, and I was content to order in and spend our time together watching movies in bed. It was my last weekend of freedom before classes began for fall semester. Over the summer we’d seen each other most nights, but between course work and babysitting for the Henderson’s, I anticipated we soon wouldn’t have much free time together.
Jenn grinned broadly and forgot about her hair. “You.” Her hands fell to my hips and she pulled me close until our pelvic bones bumped together.
“I’m a who, not a what.”
“Stop being so smart all the time,” she said, making a face. “Give your brain a rest.”
My bed wasn’t too far from the front door. Nothing in my apartment was far from the door. I let Jenn waltz me to the mattress where she promptly climbed on top of me. When we’d first started dating she had been inexperienced, but enthusiastic and eager to please. In our handful of months together she’d taken note of my likes and dislikes in bed and had put that knowledge to good use.
She straddled my body beneath her own, kissing me, and never breaking contact as she shrugged out of her form-fitting jean jacket. Her hands fell to the bottom hem of my v-neck shirt and she began to pull up. When the first of my abdomen became exposed, she pressed her mouth against my naked flesh.
“I love your body,” she murmured. “I wish I was as fit as you.”
Jenn wasn’t only preoccupied with her gums and teeth. The need to be perfect spilled into other areas, even our sex life. She was borderline stone butch and rarely let me have my way with her unless we’d both had a few beers and she didn’t let her body self-consciousness get in the way. It was mildly neurotic, but I certainly couldn’t judge her for that; my family tree was full of nuts.
“I had an ex who was obsessed with my belly button,” I observed while Jenn continued to pepper kisses across my stomach.
She hummed into my skin and tugged the t-shirt higher until the demi-cups of my bra appeared. Her mouth remained latched to my abs while her fingers ran over the tops of my breasts.
“She could never get my bra off either,” I mused. I slipped my hands beneath my head in place of a pillow. “It was like she’d never seen one before.”
Jenn’s attentions stilled, and she hovered above me, holding herself up on her forearms as if in a frozen pushup.
“Think you can not talk about ex-girlfriends right now?” she stated seriously, cocking her head to the side.
“I know. I’m sorry. Shutting up now,” I said with an apologetic smile. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”
Jenn rolled off of me.
“Where are you going?” I pouted again.
She sat on the edge of the mattress. “You talk a lot during sex, Harp. It’s kind of a turn off.”
I frowned. “I’ll keep the stories to myself from now on.” I tugged my shirt back into place and hopped out of bed.
“Where are you going now?” she complained.
“I’ll be right back,” I excused myself. “I need to wash my face. I feel like I brought half of the dirt from the playground home with me.”
I closed the bathroom door behind me and turned on both the hot and cold faucets. The sound of the bursting water rushing down the sink filled my ears. I stared at myself for a few moments in the mirror over the sink before opening the medicine cabinet located behind the glass pane.
My eyes were greeted with the familiar sight of toothbrush, contact solution, and toothpaste. I kept few items in the medicine cabinet; the majority of my morning rituals were in the linen closet to the right of the sink. Unhooking a hidden, secondary hinge, the false front to the medicine cabinet swung open to reveal small shelves lined with an assortment of medicine bottles.
Outside of the bathroom I heard Jenn cuing up music on my laptop, and I recognized the first song—Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” I had become a big fan of Bird’s music in high school partly because I could empathize with his turbulent and curtailed life. He’d written the song after a stint at Camarillo State Hospital in the summer of 1946 after he’d set fire to his Los Angeles hotel room and had run naked through the lobby. He’d spent the next six months at Camarillo detoxifying, playing in the hospital band, and tending to a lettuce patch. He had been twenty-six at the time, only a few years older than I currently was.
I reached for a bottle and opened it and removed two small, white pills. I’d become obsessed with everything dealing with my mother’s condition starting in high school. I’d come short of self-medicating, however, only because other prescription drugs were more readily available than antipsychotics. But even though I’d never taken them, I was far more familiar with their names and side effects than any healthy, hale, twenty-something should have been.
I stared at the circular medicine in the palm of my hand and, hesitating, put them back into the translucent orange pill bottle like I’d done each time before. I closed both doors to the medicine cabinet—the secondary door, as well as the main mirrored front. The tears that pricked the corners of my eyes were a surprise, and I struggled to suppress the sudden sense of sorrow and despair that had wallowed up my throat, choking me like a goiter.