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First pages

One

On the morning of her thirteenth birthday, Hanna Driscoll decided it was time to learn if she was a woman yet.

She eased out of bed and tiptoed to her bedroom door. She gingerly opened it to avoid making it creak. The house was silent, no noise from the kitchen, meaning her parents were still in bed. She closed the door as gingerly as she had cracked it open. Time to move quickly now.

Hanna swept an arm between the bed’s mattress and box spring. She located by feel a slender pink cardboard box. Then she tiptoed across the carpeted hallway to the bathroom, box in hand. There she peed, feeling a bit queasy. The room tilted as she sat on the toilet, then righted itself. She washed her face and drank warm water, which she’d learned helped reduce the sick feeling in her head and stomach. She drank more, then gargled out the remaining sticky saltiness in her mouth. She returned to her room with the pink cardboard box and softly closed the door once more, checking it was latched.

A stack of books stood on Hanna’s bed stand, along with a squat reading lamp and a lavender alarm clock. All of the books regarded flowers and floristry and flower arranging. Her bookshelf held more books on the subject, as well as a dictionary and a children’s encyclopedia set, along with other books her mother assigned in her homeschooling. One of her books was not on the bed stand or the shelf. She’d stashed it between the mattress and the box spring, the same place she’d hidden the slender pink cardboard box.

It was a children’s book. Rather, it was a book written for children but stocked in the bookstore’s Parenting section, Mother & Baby by Margaret Millard, M.D., Ph.D.

Mother & Baby was below Hanna’s reading level, written in simple language and illustrated with chalk-colored drawings of a family similar to Hanna’s own. The book’s family had a five year-old son, whereas Hanna was the only daughter. And the pregnant mother was Hanna’s mother’s age, not thirteen years old, like Hanna's friends Alondra and Cheryl. This did not concern Hanna, who knew girls of all ages could become pregnant, thirteen and up.

Mother & Baby had enlightened Hanna on many points of reproduction, as Hanna’s parents had not discussed sex with her at all, either informally or in their homeschooling. Yes, Mother & Baby confirmed, a man is necessary to make a woman pregnant. Men possessed different equipment for that very reason. With each page showing the mother’s tummy growing, a calendar in the bottom corner counted the advancing weeks. Six months after conception, the mother gave birth to a baby girl.

During the pregnancy, the father and son helped out around the house as best they could, especially later, when the mother’s belly was engorged. The father’s and son’s attempts were inevitably comedic, such as when they burned dinner, or when they couldn’t figure out how to operate the washing machine. The mother, practically bursting out of her maternity dress in the fifth month of pregnancy, had to show them which buttons to press. Then they all laughed.

In between these family moments, Hanna gleaned the information of the most concern to her. For one, the mother in the book stopped menstruating when she conceived. Hanna knew something about menstruation. Her mother subscribed to a number of women’s magazines. Hanna would steal peeks at their columns and articles, curious what lay ahead for her in womanhood. She gleaned that most girls began menstruating at age eleven or twelve. Hanna was almost thirteen—no, she was thirteen, as of that morning—and, be it God or Nature, she was not menstruating.

The book was also clear that pregnancy started with laying in bed with a man. Whatever procedure the father and mother actually performed in bed, she was positive she’d not done it. She’d not even held a boy’s hand. How could she, with her parents hovering over her every moment?

If she wasn’t pregnant, how then could she explain the queasiness every morning? At that moment, looking through the children’s book, the thick, salty taste had returned to her mouth even though she’d gargled it out minutes earlier. Worse, she recently started growing hot and flushed at odd times of the day. Sometimes her stomach tied itself in a knot and she would lose her appetite, even if she had been famished minutes earlier. At that moment, re-reading Mother & Baby for the nth time, she lacked any hunger pangs even though she’d eaten only a dollop of casserole the night before. The thought of orange juice for breakfast made her slightly ill. Lately orange juice tasted like sour milk.

In Mother & Baby, the mother had a husband. So how did Hanna’s friend Alondra get pregnant? She was thirteen when she began showing. Or her friend Cheryl Vannberg, who was about to turn fourteen and so big she looked the baby might pop out at any moment? Neither had a husband, not even a boyfriend—unless they were keeping secrets.

Hanna set aside Mother & Baby. Did she want to have a baby? People seemed to think having a baby was a gift. Hanna watched adults shower their affection and support on Cheryl when she became pregnant, but Hanna didn’t crave those things. When she thought about growing up she thought of college and studying flowers and maybe even becoming a scientist. She never saw a baby in her future. But pregnancy would explain so much, such as why she wasn’t menstruating yet.

Inside the pink cardboard box was an instruction sheet folded in a tight paper wad. It said to urinate on the stick and wait ten minutes. Hanna had peed on the stick in the bathroom, but now the ten minutes were taking an eternity. The possibilities had consumed her for weeks, a dozen medical reasons she imagined for not menstruating, and her curiosity grew excruciating waiting for the test results.

She’d stolen the kit from the pharmacy where her mother picked up prescriptions and analgesics. Hanna was not the sort of girl to shoplift, but she saw no other option. She couldn’t imagine asking her mother for help on this matter. Her mother turned off the television when the late-night comedians began using bawdy language and double entendres. Why would she give a straight answer to Hanna’s questions, let alone purchase a pregnancy test for her?

The instructions said much more than to urinate on the stick and wait. Hanna found the finely-printed sheet numbingly detailed and lawyerly about each step of the process. She was to unwrap the tube with care, and to avoid touching the felt stick protruding from its end. If she touched the felt stick, she was to discard the tainted test and wash her hands thoroughly in warm soapy water to remove the chemicals from her skin. When she urinated, she was to let the initial liquid flow, then dip the felt stick into the stream, to prevent contamination. The instructions also included a long list of drugs and medications that, if consumed forty-eight hours prior to administering the test, would corrupt the results. Hanna even held her breath while peeing on the stick, worried bacteria in her mouth might somehow affect the chemicals soaked into the felt strip. The process seemed so complicated and the question so simple, she wondered if she could expect to receive a straight answer at all.

Hanna’s appetite returned, and she looked forward to eating. The ten minutes were not quite up, but the tube’s window was already displaying colored lines. Hanna searched the instruction sheet to decode the results. One red line on the right indicated a negative result, no pregnancy. One purple line on the left indicated a positive result. Hanna held the plastic tube under the bed stand light for an accurate look.

Twin purple lines were distinctly visible across the white felt stick. One line on the right, one on the left. Purple lines, positive.

She checked the instruction sheet once again. It said one line, not two. But they were purple, so yes, she was pregnant? She reread the “Test Results” section, careful to consider each step and warning. Nothing seemed amiss.

Then she spotted something she’d previously overlooked, a faint asterisk no larger than a pinhead. Hanna’s eyes dropped to the bottom of the sheet:

Two purple lines indicate viviparous hemotrophism. Contact your legal guardian or medical professional.

Viviparous hemotrophism sounded like a rare disease: incurable, perhaps painful, most likely fatal. She went to the slender bookcase on the opposite wall of her bedroom and took down her dictionary, one compiled for grade schoolers. It offered no definition for viviparous, but Hanna wondered if the word vivid was related. Hemotrophism was also missing, but Hanna took some comfort from the entry for hemo–, defined as “of or relating to blood.”

She waited five more minutes hoping one of the lines would fade off and the other would color-shift to red. The twin purple pillars remained fast. Perhaps this was the good news she craved. The test might indicate her first menstruation was on its way. That would explain the lightheaded queasiness, she told herself, the sticky saltiness in her mouth every morning, and her random lack of appetite. Her period may even arrive today, her thirteenth birthday, a trumpet fanfare of her first step toward womanhood.

The illustration on the last page of Mother & Baby depicted the mother laying in a hospital bed cradling her newborn girl. Around the bed stood her husband and son and a gray-haired doctor holding a stethoscope. Printed at the bottom of the page in cursive script:

With their beautiful bridge daughter now a part of their family, Sam & Laurie & Timmy had years of joy to look forward to until the finality.

The back cover advised the reader to purchase the next book in the series, Mother & Bridge Daughter.

Hanna, relieved and delighted, returned the plastic tube to its cardboard box. She slipped it and the book back under the mattress. Before this morning, she’d planned to ask her mother for a trip to the bookstore so she could secretly search for Mother & Bridge Daughter. Now with the gift of the matching purple lines—vivid blood on the way—she happily told herself she did not need it, that she had all the answers she wanted. She went to her closet and dressed, eager to sit down to her mother’s Saturday morning pancake breakfast, only to discover she’d lost her appetite once again.

Two

After breakfast, Hanna and her mother drove to a downtown family-run bakery that specialized in decorated sheet cakes. Inside, rows of iced cakes stood under glass like exquisitely wrapped gifts waiting to be opened. The bakery made their own doughnuts too. Their fried richness mixed with the aroma of chocolate and vanilla made the bakery heavenly for Hanna, now finally hungry.

Some customers eyed the cake and bread displays. Others stood off to the side with numbered tickets waiting to be called to the order window. Hanna’s mother tugged one free from the ticket dispenser. The electronic wall display read 46 but her ticket read 60. She retreated to the rear standing counters where customers ate and sipped coffee, Hanna close behind her.

“We should have come earlier,” her mother said. “We hit the lunch rush.” The bakery also sold soup and made-to-order sandwiches.

Hanna stood close to her mother, back upright and her chin level with the ground. She kept her hands at the small of her back and her ankles together. Her public posture was as her mother had taught her since she was young. The other girls here, they wandered freely about the store and talked among themselves or with the boys. A few pressed their faces to the display glass to ogle the racks of cupcakes organized by color, a tempting sugary rainbow. Hanna remained mute and upright behind her mother, as she’d been raised.

Then Hanna noticed Cheryl Vannberg on the other side of the bakery. Cheryl was thirteen, Hanna’s age. Like Hanna, Cheryl stood behind her mother, back erect and chin level, her posture even more exemplary than Hanna’s own. Cheryl’s thick blond hair cascaded in waves down past her shoulders. She always wore clothes Hanna never saw other girls their age wear, designer blouses and brand-name tops, skirts that flared at the knees and dresses with jazzy or delicate prints. At the bakery, Cheryl wore a dark blue maternity dress hemmed just above her knees with satin embroidery along the neckline. Cheryl’s belly made the dress bulge. Cheryl rested her hands on the top of the bulge, occasionally massaging it while her mother transacted business at the counter.

Hanna knew why everyone thought Cheryl was so charming. Be it God or Nature, Cheryl enjoyed the gift of a dainty exquisite face and high-boned sun-kissed cheeks. Her mother allowed Cheryl to use lip gloss and eyeliner, and they often went together to department stores for makeovers. In the center of Cheryl’s face was a perfectly proportioned nose that danced like a bee when she laughed. Her smile revealed smooth, straight teeth, and Cheryl always smiled. Both were thirteen, but it felt like Cheryl was twenty-one and glamorous and on the covers of magazines.

Although Hanna didn’t go to school, every weekday Hanna’s mother taught her math and reading and penmanship at the kitchen table. Cheryl was similarly excused from school, but she and her mother took day trips to the department stores in Union Square and spent weekends at Napa Valley spas and boutiques. Cheryl had been to Disneyland three times, whereas Hanna had only seen the park on television. It was all just so unfair.

Hanna chanced to peer down at herself. A plain brown sweater balding at the elbows. A pair of blue jeans she’d worn since she was eleven. Sneakers curled at the toes thanks to runs through the dryer after rainy days. Plain clipped fingernails, nothing as elegant as Cheryl’s nails, all ten of them manicured and polished turquoise to accent her blond mane. Even Hanna’s mousy auburn hair made her self-conscious. Hanna’s father still took her to his barber, an elderly man named Ray who stocked men’s magazines in the waiting area and knew only one cut for girls.

“Did you get my invitation?” Cheryl said, face glowing. “We mailed them on Monday.”

Hanna, lost in thought, did not notice Cheryl’s approach until she was before her. “I don’t know,” Hanna said softly.

“I’m sure you’ll receive it soon,” Cheryl said. “We’re having a bridge party!”

“I don’t know how to play bridge,” Hanna said, still gathering herself.

Hanna’s mother was not particularly tall, but she stood over the two thirteen year-olds like a totem pole. “I received your mother’s invitation yesterday,” Hanna’s mother said to Cheryl. “I don’t believe Hanna will be able to attend.”

“It’s not a bridge party,” Cheryl said to Hanna. She laughed imperiously, her petite nose dancing. “We’re not playing cards.”

“I know what a bridge party is,” Hanna’s mother said. “Hanna will not be able to make it. Thank you for the invitation. Say hello to your mother for me.”

“All right,” Cheryl said, shrugging. She rejoined her mother on the other side of the bakery and said something to her. They exited smiling and shaking their heads.

When they were gone, Hanna asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You’re not going to their little…bridge party.”

“Why not?” Hanna said.

Hanna’s mother turned her back to Hanna. She peered up at the electronic display over the cash register. It read 58, meaning their number would be called soon.

“Does Cheryl have a boyfriend?” Hanna asked softly. Her mother appeared not to hear her, or else was ignoring the question.

“I want to go to Cheryl’s bridge party,” Hanna said firmly under her breath.

Hanna’s mother twisted her neck to peer down at Hanna behind her. “Do you know what a bridge party is for?”

“Yes,” Hanna lied.

Hanna’s mother studied Hanna’s face, trying to read her. Finally she looked straight ahead. “Let me think about it.” Their number was called.

*

Hanna had a vague idea about bridge parties. She’d heard the term many times. She knew it didn’t involve cards, that was a nervous slip on her part. She also knew a bridge party was for adults and not children. In particular, it was not for the bridge daughter, at least in the sense that the bridge daughter did not participate in it.

Family television shows often featured episodes about bridge parties. Hanna never understood the fuss. The bridge daughter would sit off to the side staring into the camera, pregnant and mute, as she always did in these TV shows. Family and neighbors arrived at the house with food, flowers, and wine. Every so often, the bridge daughter would rise from her isolated chair and go about the party gathering dirty plates and discarded wrapping paper. If the party went late, the bridge daughter would be sent to her bedroom while the revelry continued.

Often in these television shows some major dramatic moment would occur. The family doctor, Scotch-and-soda in hand, would let slip he’d diagnosed the father with cancer. Or the eldest sister would announce she’d been accepted to a prestigious university like Harvard or Stanford. The bridge daughter never spoke, of course. On television, everything important happened to other people, never the bridge daughter.

Hanna never quite understood why they were called “bridge parties.” The bridge daughter had little to do in these TV shows. She stood to one side while the rest of the family went through their weekly crises and upheavals. The bridge daughter served dinner and cleaned the house and answered the door when the bell rang. On shows set in the costumed past, she darned socks and tended the sheep pen and threw logs on the fire when the flames drew low. Even that afternoon at the bakery, a few bridge daughters were helping their mother with the day’s errands. Mute and deferential, clad in neutral-color dresses and soft-soled shoes, they were easily overlooked, but not by Hanna.

On the drive home, Hanna asked her mother, “Is Cheryl a bridge daughter?”

Hanna’s mother considered her answer. “Bridge daughters are supposed to stay home and take care of the family, not get their hair done and go to Napa for spa weekends.”

“Like Erica,” Hanna said. Erica Grimond was the eldest daughter of the family across the street. They’d moved into the neighborhood a month earlier.

“That’s right,” her mother said. “Erica’s a bridge daughter.”

“Will she have a bridge party?” Hanna asked.

“I doubt the Grimonds will invite us to it,” Hanna’s mother said. “They’re traditional people. They’ll only invite their family.”

Hanna thought some more. “Is that why you don’t want me going to Cheryl’s bridge party?” she asked. “Because we’re not their family?”

They reached a stoplight. Hanna’s mother set the car’s left turn signal blinking, click-click-click. “What Cheryl Vannberg’s mother is doing isn’t right. It’s not fair to Cheryl.”

“But—“

“You are not going to the party,” her mother said. “That’s final.”

Hanna pushed back in the seat, frustrated. She considered pleading. It had worked before. She had begged her way to attending Cheryl’s extravagant birthday parties, she could try it again for her bridge party. Cheryl’s parties were more spectacular than any of the hum-drum birthday parties Hanna’s parents had arranged for her. They were worth the indignity.

One year, Cheryl’s mother rented a pony. All the children got ride tickets in their goodie bags. The pony was saddled and muzzled and tethered to a metal pole. It walked a circular path of hay all afternoon with bouncy children on its back. Cheryl’s mother had contacted the city for permission to put the pony ride in the street before their house, a quiet road that dead-ended half a block away.

When it was Hanna’s turn, a man in black denim and a floppy cowboy hat lifted her by the armpits and set her in the saddle. Hanna wove her fingers into the pony’s fine, soft mane, silky as down. She patted and rubbed the side of its neck. The pony demonstrated no appreciation of her caresses and merely plodded along its hay-lined track.

Hanna wondered how the cowboy treated the pony at the stable. Was it allowed to run free in a field or was it locked in a pen? Was this the only life it knew, muzzled and saddled and restricted by blinders? She suspected she could cut the tether and the pony would continue walking the monotonous circle, unaware it could bolt and be free.

After the ride, she dug out the remaining pony tickets from her goodie bag. She could trade them for more candy or bubble-gum-flavored lip gloss. But those tickets meant more circles for the pony, so Hanna stuffed them to the bottom of her bag. No one could use them. She wished she could buy the entire roll of tickets and set the pony free, but Hanna knew the animal would merely sidle up to its owner and wait for the next command.

*

Hanna’s mother pulled the car up the inclined driveway of their house. She would get the sheet cake from the trunk and Hanna would take the bags of groceries in the back seat.

Bags in hand, Hanna chanced to look across the street at the Grimond house. The Driscolls and the Grimonds lived in stock suburban one-stories with oval front yards and attached garages. Unlike the Driscolls’ mauve exterior, the Grimond house was painted flat white with gray trim with a double-door entrance on their front stoop. Their first week of residence, Mr. Grimond installed oversized brass knockers on both of them, although Hanna had never seen anyone prefer them to the doorbell.

A wide picture window faced the street. When the drapes were open, as they were now, Hanna could see straight into the living room. As Hanna’s eyes adjusted, she realized someone was standing in the picture window. Grocery bags in each hand, Hanna took one step down the driveway to get a better look, then took another. She wondered who of the Grimond family it may be. They had three children, twin sons and their bridge daughter Erica. Realizing it had to be one of the children, Hanna did her best to wave, the full bags weighing down her attempt.

Clock-clock-clock. The silhouette in the window rapped the glass three times.

Hanna took one more step down the driveway to the sidewalk. Head cocked, she tried to wave again, bags in each hand. She wondered if it was Erica. She’d never talked with her, or even met her. Erica seemed pent-up in the Grimonds’ house all day, every day.

Clock-clock-clock, the silhouette knocked harder this time. The figure raised a shadowy open hand as way of greeting. Or beckoning.

Then, startled, the figure at the window wheeled about to face Mrs. Grimond, who was marching across the room. Now Hanna could identify the silhouette. It was Erica, the Grimonds’ bridge daughter. Mrs. Grimond pulled Erica from the window scolding her, although Hanna couldn’t hear a word. Then Mrs. Grimond stared disapprovingly across the street at Hanna. With two sharp tugs of the curtain cord, she drew the drapes closed.

Hanna’s mother called from the front door to hurry inside. Hanna shouted she was coming and waddled up the driveway, the grocery bags weighing her down with each unsteady step.

Three

The doorbell rang at ten after twelve. Hanna yelled I got it! and rushed to the front door. Without hesitating, she flung it open and ran into the waiting arms of Uncle Rick.

“Hey squirt,” Uncle Rick said into her hair, hugging her back. His grin stretched his full auburn beard wide. “Happy birthday.”

“Happy birthday,” Aunt Azami said as well.

Hanna’s mother appeared at the doorway in a half-apron with her hands buried in a kitchen towel. “Ritchie,” she greeted Uncle Rick. She was the only one who could call him that. To Aunt Azami she offered a “Hello.”

Uncle Rick was wide and beefy, bearded and hairy-armed, a grinning teddy bear of a man. Aunt Azami was his physical opposite. Thin and composed of straight lines, with little womanly figure to speak of, Azami had fine dark hair cut evenly around her head. Her bangs framed the black rectangular glasses on her narrow face. Hanna thought her glasses were very, very cool. She wished she needed corrective lenses just so she could wear the same ones. Aunt Azami also never wore makeup, which Hanna also secretly admired.

Uncle Rick presented Hanna a scuffed-up plastic bucket. He gripped it the way a bricklayer would carry a bucket of grout. “Let’s see what I got this time.” He considered the mismatched assortment of flowers standing in the bucket’s water. “Freesia, white roses, a couple of sunflowers, daffs, some carnations—“

“Well, don’t get any water on my floors,” Hanna’s mother warned.

Hanna couldn’t believe the assortment he’d brought. The bucket was packed so tight the flowers seemed to be craning for air. It was like he brought her a starter’s kit for a sidewalk florist shop. Her mind began formulating bouquets and arrangements she could assemble with this raw materiel.

“Tell you what,” he said to Hanna, “this is dripping, so let’s leave it here.” He set the bucket on the porch beside the front door, in the shade.

“Thank you so much,” Hanna said and hugged him again. She kneeled before the bucket and began selecting the best of the lot for her first arrangement.

“What’s going on, Dee,” Uncle Rick said to Hanna’s mother. He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “Sorry we’re late.”

“Someone slept in,” Aunt Azami said. Uncle Rick grinned sheepishly through his beard.

They followed Hanna’s mother inside. Hanna took her time on the porch, choosing blossoms with an eye for color and shape. When she’d selected eight or nine of the best from the bucket, she joined them in the kitchen.

Uncle Rick already had a can of beer open. He stood off to the side and watched the women at work. Hanna’s mother was at the sink flattening and rounding meat patties for the hamburgers. Hanna’s father was still at the hardware store. When he returned he would light the backyard grill and cook them up.

Aunt Azami produced from a muslin tote bag a wood bowl with a fastened lid. She opened it to reveal a dark, leafy green salad with roasted sesame seeds and strange star-shaped vegetables with pinkish centers. She also produced from the tote a glass jar of loose tea leaves. “I thought we could make a pot after lunch.”

“We have coffee,” Hanna’s mother said.

“Tea might be nice as well,” Aunt Azami said.

“I don’t have a kettle.”

“I brought a tea ball. I can make it on the stove.”

Hanna’s mother, busy pressing patties, forced a small smile.

The tension wasn’t thick, there was never anything vindictive between Azami and Hanna’s mother, but the tension was present whenever they visited. Hanna so wished it could be mended, but she didn’t even know what was broken. Her mother just seemed to dislike Aunt Azami, and Hanna couldn’t fathom why.

Uncle Rick wandered into the adjacent room, where everyone would be eating soon. “Hey, Dee,” he called through the doorway, “where’d you get these blooms?”

Uncle Rick was evaluating the vase of tulips Hanna’s mother had placed on the dining room table. He rubbed their petals between his thumb and forefinger the way a tailor would evaluate a bolt of bargain polyester.

“Did you go to that shopping mall florist again?” he called to her.

“Don’t start, Richie,” Hanna’s mother called back. “I like them.”

“Bah,” he said. “Greenhouse tu’s picked early.”

“I wouldn’t have bought them If I thought you would bring me tulips,” she called back. “But you never do.”

“Greenhouse tu’s, a fern sprig, a little dry gyp,” he said, evaluating the bouquet’s elements in the industry parlance Hanna so loved to hear.

Uncle Rick returned to the kitchen. “Tell you what,” he confided to Hanna, pretending to be covert, “you put together your arrangement and we’ll ditch this tulip crap. Deal?”

“Watch the language,” Hanna’s mother singsonged while smacking a patty.

From the bucket Hanna had selected three brilliant red freesia, a white rose with an elegant petal display, and a clutch of carnations of varying pastels. She took the morning paper’s auto section and spread it open on the kitchen table. She asked permission to use her mother’s good scissors, which was refused, so she fetched the hand shears from the garage. While Uncle Rick and her mother had verbally jabbed at each other, Hanna’s deft little hands stripped the flowers’ green leaves and snipped the stems so each was a different height, the carnations the shortest and the white rose the tallest. She cut the stems at a diagonal, to maximize the amount of water they could draw in.

Then Hanna fetched from her room a slender ceramic vase and a bag of colored glass marbles. Her mother kept a box of powdered water conditioner under the kitchen sink. She filled the vase halfway with cold water, added two shakes of the powder, and swirled it until dissolved. Then she added marbles until there were three layers of them in the boot of the vase. She inserted the flowers one at a time, making the silken ivory rose the centerpiece and the surrounding colorful flowers its complement. So devoted to her work, she failed to notice the women had retired to the couches in the living room. Hanna’s father was late.

“Perfect-o,” Uncle Rick said behind her. He’d opened the highest cabinet in the kitchen, the small boxy one over the refrigerator. Standing on his tiptoes to reach in, he rooted around with one hand while the other gripped his can of beer.

“Did I do it right?” she said to him.

“That arrangement’s a pro job if I ever saw one.”

His hand emerged from the cabinet holding a bottle of bourbon. Hanna’s parents kept their liquor collection up there. They only brought it out for guests they intended to impress, which did not include Uncle Rick. Putting a finger over his lips for silence, he unscrewed the whiskey’s top and poured a generous amount into the can of beer. Then he capped the bottle and returned it to its place.

“Next time you’re in the city you should come by the Mart,” he said.

Uncle Rick worked at the San Francisco Flower Mart loading and unloading pallets five days a week, from five-thirty in the morning to two in the afternoon. The bucket of flowers he brought Hanna would normally run well over three hundred dollars, but the picks were at the end of their bloom and doomed for fertilizer, so he could take them away at no cost.

Aunt Azami entered the kitchen. “That’s beautiful,” she said of the arrangement. She procured from the refrigerator the bottle of Chardonnay they’d brought from the city. She eyed Uncle Rick’s can of beer. “Only one more after this,” she warned.

He tipped the can of beer at her to acknowledge who was the boss. Hanna knew he wouldn’t stop until he’d finished at least four more, and most of the remaining whiskey as well.

Hanna’s stomach knotted again. Pressure swelled around her eyes. The walls seemed to be squeezing in on her, like a tin submarine descending the ocean’s depths.

Uncle Rick picked up Hanna’s arrangement and admired it. “Let’s move those junk tulips out of the way and get this on the table.”

Hanna was falling, falling away from the flowers, falling away from him.

“Squirt?” It was Uncle Rick’s voice. “Squirt—“

Darkness washed up and over Hanna, and then there was nothing at all.

*

“—maybe she’s dehydrated—” Hanna heard a woman say.

“—been so excited about the party—” Her mother’s voice, Hanna thought.

“—make room, give her some air—” Definitely Uncle Rick.

Hanna lay on the kitchen linoleum with her legs stretched out. Someone had pillowed her head with a couch cushion. Uncle Rick and Aunt Azami leaned over her, their faces filling Hanna’s field of vision. A gentle soothing hand massaged her forehead. Hanna peered up and saw, upside-down, her mother kneeling on the floor tending to her. Worry-lines had made her mother’s stern face even more granite-like.

“What happened?” Hanna said.

“Passed out, squirt,” Uncle Rick said. “You okay?”

Hanna took a deep breath. The salty stickiness had returned to her mouth. “I’m thirsty.”

“Let’s see if she can sit up,” Hanna’s mother said.

The three of them helped her up. Uncle Rick drew a glass of water from the kitchen tap. She drank it greedily, offering him a breathless Thank you when she finally withdrew the glass from her lips.

“Should we take her to the emergency room?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” Hanna’s mother said. She took Hanna’s free hand and rubbed it. “She just needs to lie down and close her eyes.”

“I want cake,” Hanna said automatically.

Uncle Rick laughed. “Later,” Hanna’s mother said.

The knotting in her stomach had returned. She pushed on her belly, just under her navel. Something hard and tender was under the skin. She’d noticed it for about a week, but now it was throbbing, making its presence known to Hanna.

“I know what happened.” Hanna whispered to her mother that she didn’t want Uncle Rick to hear. A big confused, she asked her brother to step outside. Uncle Rick shrugged, said “No problem,” and left the kitchen.

Hanna waited until she heard the sliding glass door shut, meaning Uncle Rick was in the backyard. She wanted Aunt Azami to hear this too. It was exciting, like procuring the final approval stamp on a club membership application.

She said to the women, “It’s finally happening.” She needed a moment to recall the terminology. “Viviparous hemotrophism.” She looked to them for approval or a hug.

Aunt Azami straightened up. She gave Hanna’s mother a concerned look.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Jim Nelson’s fiction has appeared in North American Review, Confrontation, Switchback, and other fine venues. His books include A Concordance of One’s Life, Everywhere Man, and Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. He lives in San Francisco.

Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Bridge Daughter's suspense occurs in quiet living rooms, where children keep secrets from parents. I was inspired by Patricia Highsmith and her ability to craft taut thrillers from domestic life. Graham Greene's concise prose also inspired me to focus my writing on Hanna’s grit and determination.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Writing a book about a 13 year-old girl was certainly a challenge, but I'm lucky to have four great nieces who've gifted me with inspiration and guidance. Every time I wondered what Hanna would do in a situation, I recalled how they handled the pressures and challenges they've faced so far in life.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Bridge Daughter is the first of a planned three-part series about Hanna’s family. The series will span generations, from Hanna’s stubbornly independent grandmother in the 1950s to the bridge daughters in the 21st century facing their own mortality under a new set of rules.

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