Grow, Divide, Sacrifice, Thrive – Jo Miles

Grow, Divide, Sacrifice, Thrive – Jo Miles

February 2020

The circular driveway at the Randolph family house was already full when Chris arrived, packed tight with cars all the way out to the curb, so Chris parked on the street. It seemed fitting that there was no space left for them, and anyway, their scraped-up little Honda didn’t belong next to the family’s Lexuses and Teslas.

Evening bathed the neighborhood in softening shadows, drawing the eye to the lit windows of the Randolph home, which was more of a mansion than a house. Chris slumped against the steering wheel, head pillowed on their arms, and watched, delaying the awkwardness as long as possible. Grandma Patricia’s silver head went past the kitchen window, bathed in warm overhead lights.

She was probably taking the bread out of the oven right now, a perfect loaf of sourdough, dark brown crust with airy, tangy insides, a recipe perfected over generations of Randolph women. Or maybe she and the cousins were cooing over Eve, the oh-so-precious family sourdough starter, which Patricia talked to and coddled and praised incessantly, as if it were a person and not a blob of yeast. Patricia loved that starter more than her own grandchildren.

Chris hadn’t wanted to come tonight, but Grandma Patricia had been unbending. No one skipped the family dinner, Patricia said, not for any reason. If Great-Uncle Jerome had come downstairs for the anniversary dinner when he was on his death bed, then Chris could come, too.

The compulsion seized Chris to flee. Start the car, drive away. Keep driving, leave town, change names. Stop being a Randolph.

It was an old fantasy, but even though Chris had cut their family out of almost every aspect of their life, they’d never had the guts to sever ties entirely. Maybe it was fear that kept them coming back for anniversaries, year after year. Maybe it was foolish hope. But as long as they were a Randolph, they had to come to anniversary dinners, no matter how little they belonged.

Time to get this over with.

Inside, the house was a cheerful chaos of activity. Cousins spilled out of the sitting room, debating the political crisis in Venezuela, while a pair of four-year-olds played with Scrabble tiles on the marble floor of the foyer, spelling out six-letter words that shouldn’t have been in their vocabularies yet. Chris did a round of hugs and handshakes, then headed to the kitchen.

Sure enough, Eve’s jar sat open on the kitchen table, and Chris’s half-sister Shannon bent over it alongside Patricia, blonde hair bobbing beside silver, whispering together like teenage girls. Tonight’s loaf of sourdough was cooling on the counter, filling the kitchen with its scent, which didn’t quite overpower the sharper raw yeast scent of the starter. Chris hovered in the doorway, not crossing the threshold. The kitchen had always been Grandma’s temple, her sacred space, and Chris never felt welcome there.

“This is the cycle we maintain,” Patricia told Shannon as she mixed flour and water with her fingers, then added the mixture lovingly to Eve’s bowl. “Sacrifice, feed, grow, and then the cycle repeats, over and over. Eve sacrifices herself for our daily bread, and we feed and restore her, and together, we all thrive. Here, you try, dear.”

Patricia licked a blob of smelly white goop from her finger, cleaning off her perfectly manicured carmine nails. Chris wrinkled their nose. They’d always found the fascination with the family sourdough a bit morbid: it couldn’t be healthy to get that attached to something you ate, but no one else shared Chris’s opinion – which, come to think of it, was probably why Patricia had taught Shannon and all their little cousins to bake sourdough when they were kids, but never bothered inviting Chris to join in. Shannon plunged her hands into the bacterial goop without hesitation, folding and mixing with the same entranced fondness she used to show when she was nursing her baby.

“How do you tell if the mixture is right?”

“Eve will tell you. See how she’s bubbling? You’re feeling satisfied, aren’t you, Eve?” They both cocked their heads as if listening to the sourdough’s response, a habitual family affectation that drove Chris mad, and Patricia smiled. “See? She’s very pleased. She’s always liked you.” Shannon looked touched.

Chris cleared their throat. “Hello, Grandma. Hi, Shan.”

“You’re late, Christina, and what is that?” Patricia said.

“What’s what?”

“That thing you’re wearing.”

“It’s scrubs. I told you, I had to come straight from work. I barely got away at all — with this flu going around, we’re stretched thin, and since I’m the lucky nurse with Randolph genes who never gets sick—”

“I know what scrubs are. What I don’t understand is why you thought they were appropriate for a family dinner, or why the good health this family gave you should be an excuse to avoid seeing that family. If you won’t have the decency to grow your hair to a respectable length, you might at least buy yourself an outfit or two that are appropriate for company.”

“Sure, Grandma, I’ll get a nice pantsuit for my patients to vomit on.”

“I don’t appreciate your tone, Christina. I left one of my dresses out for you on the bed upstairs. You can use some product, too, while you’re up there. Shannon, dear, I don’t suppose you could talk your sister into doing her makeup?”

Chris’s lips tightened into a grimace. They’d long since given up on making the family use their pronouns. It had never seemed worth the effort, just as it wasn’t worth correcting patients who gendered them female, and mostly it didn’t bother them that much, just another pinprick of disrespect. Tonight, though, it was one more way to feel out of place within their own family.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from running a start-up,” said Shannon, shaking her head, “it’s the fine line between ‘wildly ambitious’ and ‘impossible.’ You’re out of luck on that one.” She avoided Chris’s gaze.

“When I’m gone, you’ll be responsible for the respectability of the Randolph name,” Patricia warned. “Christina, get moving. Dinner is in fifteen minutes.”

The dress Patricia had chosen was better suited to impressing her corporate partners at a swanky party than to an over-worked non-binary nurse trying to disappear at a family dinner. Just looking at it made Chris feel thirty years older and three times as feminine. They folded their arms and stared at it, but it refused to transform into something less mortifying.

“Not really your style, huh?” Shannon asked with chagrin from the doorway. She was holding an overnight bag the way Patricia would hold a pie she was bringing to a neighbor.

“She never stops pushing.” Chris’s breath hitched mid-sigh. Patricia never stopped, and every time Chris thought they’d gotten numb to it, the ache of rejection would find its way in again. “She won’t accept anything less than the perfect granddaughter, and I’m not that.”

“It’s not your fault. She cares so much about the family, about our traditions, our history… That stuff matters to her more than anything, and that’s no excuse for the way she treats you, Chris, but maybe, if you tried just a little…”

“Tried? If I tried? How about if she tried to get to know me as I am, instead of measuring me against what she wants me to be?”

Shannon’s jaw opened, then closed again. “I’m on your side. If you gave her just a little of what she wants — if you dressed up, not that dress, we can find something less awful — I think I could get her to take you more seriously.”

“Oh yeah? Like you took my side downstairs just now?” Chris shook their head. “I’m non-binary, Shan. That’s part of who I am. It’s taken forever to figure it out, but I like who I am. I’m also a nurse, not a doctor or lawyer or CEO, and I like that. I like helping people. I like my life. And none of it’s good enough for her.”

Unspoken was the fact that Shannon had always been good enough. As a child, while Chris had hidden in the library reading science books and learning to code, their younger half-sister was the one who helped Grandma in the kitchen, who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty with flour and butter, who took most of Mom’s jewelry after she died and played with Grandma’s make-up when she was way too young. Patricia had nothing but disappointment for the things Chris had failed to be.

“Chris, I’m sorry,” Shannon said softly.

“I’m not wearing a damn dress. Not for her.”

Shannon held out the overnight bag, a peace offering. “I know. I brought some stuff for you, old clothes of mine from before I had April. Stuff I thought you might like.”

Chris took the bag and held it, like its weight could be a measure of their sister’s caring. It was more consideration than Patricia had shown them. “Thanks, sis.”

“You’d better hurry and change. People are going in for dinner.”

The selection Shannon had brought was actually pretty decent: clean-cut and not too feminine, even a little funky. Chris chose slacks and a patterned button-up blouse that looked good over their binder. Its pattern looked like polka-dots at a distance, but up close, each dot became a cat at play. A bearable compromise between obedience and defiance. Feeling a little better, Chris went down to the dining room and took a seat next to Shannon’s kid, who was delighted when Chris showed off their secret kitty-cats.

Dinner began, as always, with a recitation of everyone’s recent accomplishments. It was supposed to cover the past year, but Patricia joked, “We’d better all stick to the past quarter, or we’ll starve before the meal starts.”

They went around the table, starting with a list of Patricia’s recent mergers and acquisitions and a reminder about her hybrid roses winning Best New Variety in the Pacific Flower Show. Shannon’s tech company was on the verge of being bought out, which was a big deal, and April had been accepted at a “gifted preschool,” which was apparently an even bigger deal. Shannon’s dad (still part of the family in a way Chris’s father never had been) was the new chair of his Senate committee. Cousin Sophia was co-starring in a drama with Tom Cruise, and critics were already talking up her role’s Oscar potential. Even Cousin Darren had news: he’d come in first in the national wiffle ball championship last month.

Then it was Chris’s turn.

“I gave out over two hundred flu shots this week. And one of my cancer patients finished chemo today. I was so proud of her.”

Patricia made that face, the one that said, are you really my grandchild, or did your mother adopt you? At least she didn’t say anything.

“Is it true you’re studying to be a doctor, dear?” asked elderly Aunt Adelle. “That’s big news.”

They twisted the napkin in their lap. Where had that rumor come from? “I’ve never wanted to be a doctor. Nurses are the ones who get to work with the patients and really help them.”

Someone coughed. Cousin Sophia swooped to the rescue, saying: “I think that’s very generous, the way Chris devotes herself to that job when she could do anything she wants. We need people like her in the world, people who sacrifice for good causes.”

She was trying to help. Chris forced a smile, and the spotlight moved off them to continue around the table.

When the recitation came full circle, Patricia held up a newspaper with the latest profile of the family. “I thought it was fortuitous that this article came out today.” She cleared her throat and read: “‘Kennedy. Carnegie. Ford. These are among the great dynasties that made this country what it is today. Yet no list of prominent families would be complete without the Randolphs. No single family has had such wide-reaching influence in fields from politics to finance, technology to arts, as the close-knit Randolph clan.’ And tonight, my dearest family, we celebrate another year of success with the family member who makes it all possible, though she rarely gets her due. Tonight, we honor Eve!”

She folded back the cloth napkin that covered tonight’s bread, and paused to let everyone ooh and aah before she cut in. The crust crackled as she divided it into even slices. The basket passed around the table, and each of them held their slice in their hands, waiting while Patricia gave the blessing.

“Thank you, Eve, for the nourishment and wisdom you give us. Thank you for the bread that makes us healthy and strong. You are the heart of our family, and you always will be.”

“Amen,” everyone said, reverently. “We love you, Eve!” Shannon added. Everyone cocked their heads as if listening for a response, then chuckled in unison. Chris struggled not to roll their eyes.

Dinner was the sort of easy-elegant meal Patricia had perfected so she could show off her hostess skills: a fall vegetable ratatouille, baby kale salad, and a gratin starring some imported cheese with a name that sounded made-up. It was, like everything Patricia made, delicious. That was good, because eating gave Chris something to do while Patricia told the family story.

“Our anniversary is always worth celebrating, but this one is particularly significant. It’s been one hundred and seventy-five years since we found Eve and began our family, at the height of the Gold Rush…”

Chris had heard the story thirty-two times, give or take, though it felt like far more. They poked at their food as Patricia told how Many-Times-Great-Grandmother Charlotte had helped a mysterious stranger who, as a gesture of thanks, spat in Charlotte’s sourdough starter. Every anniversary dinner involved rehashing the debate over who that stranger was: a faerie, or a small god, or maybe an alien. Everyone except Chris agreed that it was something beyond human, because from that day on (the story went), the bread made from that starter had special properties, enhancing the health and prosperity of all who ate it, guiding the family’s fortunes with its supernatural powers.

It was ridiculous. Not the idea that the family starter had survived since the Gold Rush, because yeast colonies could do that, but as for magical powers… well. It made perfectly good bread — Chris nibbled a corner of theirs — but there was nothing magical about it. It certainly hadn’t led to the family’s prosperity as everyone seemed to think. Chris had spent a lot of time, over a lifetime of these dinners, mulling the principles of psychology that had set Charlotte Randolph’s descendants on the path to prosperity, but however it started, the Randolph family success had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Randolphs didn’t need magic sourdough to make them successful. These days, they had privilege, and that served them better than any magic.

“That’s how it began. Under Eve’s influence, Charlotte and her children thrived, and Eve has passed down from caretaker to caretaker, growing wiser and stronger through many of our generations, and thousands of hers — until tonight, when we continue that honorable chain to its next step.”

Chris leaned forward. This wasn’t part of the usual tradition.

Patricia squeezed Shannon’s shoulder, beaming. “This won’t surprise any of you, but Eve and I have chosen my successor. I’m not going anywhere for some time yet —”

“So don’t go getting ideas, kiddo,” Aunt Adelle teased.

“But starting today, I’ll be training Shannon to take over as Eve’s caretaker. Congratulations, sweetie.”

The table erupted in applause. Patricia kissed Shannon on the cheek, and cousins swarmed her with hugs and congratulations. The aunts passed a bottle of wine around, joking about how surprised they weren’t. And Chris watched their sister, basking in the warmth of the family’s attention like bread in a hot oven, and twisted the napkin around their fingers until they tingled from lack of blood flow.

“And believe me, Eve could not be in better hands than with my wonderful, caring, dedicated, brilliant granddaughter.”

Her wonderful, brilliant, caring, dedicated granddaughter. The only grandchild that mattered.

Chris shoved their chair back from the table. They didn’t bother to excuse themself, because no one really cared if they were there.

Chris braced their arms on the bathroom sink, shoulders heaving as they contained the urge to scream. Or maybe cry, they weren’t sure which.

Everyone had expected Patricia to name Shannon as her successor, and it wasn’t like Chris wanted the job. Even if Patricia, in some hypothetical fit of dementia, had offered it to Chris, they would have turned it down. So why did this announcement make them so miserable?

The family’s obsession with that sourdough starter had always aggravated them. Sure, there were some documented health benefits to sourdough, but it didn’t make you smarter, or disease-proof, and it certainly didn’t grant good luck. Yet the Randolphs treated the starter like a magical creature. Like a friend. They’d named it. Chris had tried to explain once, at a long-ago anniversary dinner when they’d just started nursing school and were full of new-found knowledge, how impossible it was for a yeast colony to evolve sentience. That had gotten them dismissed from the table, with a stern lecture afterward about respecting their elders, meaning Eve.

It was too cult-like for comfort. If the starter really had such amazing powers, some enterprising Randolph would have tried to analyze it, patent it, sell it. They would have gotten rich off it. That’s what this family did. But instead they kept it secret, sharing it only with family members, maybe because they all knew deep down that their quasi-mystical beliefs wouldn’t hold up against scientific scrutiny.

Even asking questions was forbidden. Once, as a kid, Chris had tried to put the starter under the lens of their toy microscope, and Patricia had boxed their ears for it, shouting: “Eve is a member of this family, she’s not an object of study.” In hindsight, she must have feared what Chris might learn.

Chris blinked at themself in the mirror. That gave them an idea.

They stuck their head out the bathroom door. It sounded like dinner was over and everyone had moved into the living room to play charades. No one had come looking for Chris to join a team, and they felt a pang at that. No one had come looking for them at all.

Better this way, though. They crept down the hallway, avoiding the living room so no one would see them, and with a deep breath, crossed the forbidden threshold into the kitchen. The room was empty except for Eve sitting on the counter. Sitting in judgment. Chris came up short, feeling like they’d been caught in the act, then shook their head in self-disgust for thinking that way. It was just a blob of bacteria with an impressive lineage.

They took the lid off, and the heady scent of yeast rose up. Familiar from childhood, yet Chris had never smelled it so strongly. Their whole life, they’d watched Patricia bake with their aunts and cousins and Shannon, patiently teaching the kids. They’d endured the family pride each time some Randolph offspring produced their first sourdough loaf. But never Chris. For a long time, Chris had waited for Patricia to invite them, half dreading what it would be like to touch the stuff, but still, waiting, watching from the outside. The invitation never came.

Well, it was their turn now. Holding their nose, they spooned a portion of the goopy stuff into a plastic container.

From the living room, a tipsy Aunt Adelle called for drink orders, and the kitchen would be her next stop. Chris grabbed the little container and snuck out the back door.

I’ve got a surprise for you,” Chris said. Standing at the back door of Monique’s bakery, they held out the plastic container with both hands. “Can you teach me what to do with this?”

“That your family’s starter? No joke?” Monique cracked the lid, and her eyes closed in dorky bliss as she took a deep whiff of the smelly goop. Monique lived for this sort of thing: even at this unnaturally early hour, she had her apron on and her dreads pulled back under a scarf, and there was already a smear of flour across her brown cheek. Unsanitary. Chris resisted the urge to wipe it off.

“How’d you get them to share?”

“It’s a long story.”

Chris’s phone chimed twice in succession. Texts from Shannon, which was a change from Patricia and Aunt Adelle’s phone calls that Chris had been ignoring all morning. Chris, seriously, we need to talk, Shannon said. I get that you’re upset, but the family’s in crisis mode over what you did. Eve is freaking out, says it’s not safe for her to be divided like this, and I’ve never seen her scared before and that scares ME. If you care about this family at all, please come back and fix this.

And then, a moment later: I’ll take your side with Grandma if you bring it back.

Chris set the phone to silent and stuffed it into their bag. Monique studied them, brow creased: she knew them well enough to tell something was wrong. “A long story from a long night,” Chris amended. “If you make me some coffee, I’ll tell you everything.”

“You kidding? For a loaf of that famous Randolph sourdough, I’ll keep you in coffee for the rest of your life.”

Like a coffee magician, Monique conjured up the perfect potion for their mood, a double-strength caramel mocha latte. Chris sat on a clean section of steel countertop in the big bakery kitchen and sipped slowly while they told Monique about the family dinner and their poorly-thought-out theft. Monique worked while they talked, shaping dough into scones, sliding trays in and out of ovens, and kept gasping in indignation at the appropriate moments, making comments like “That woman!” and “Seriously?”

I have the best friends, Chris thought, clasping the warm mug between their hands. Their friends treated them better — were more family to them — than any of the Randolphs. That this particular friend owned a bakery, that Monique would take care of them with fancy coffee and day-old pastries, was a particularly nice bonus. And that Monique would teach them to bake bread, the way Patricia had taught Shannon when their sister was so small she needed to stand on a chair to reach the counter. Oh, how it had stung, sitting alone in the study, glaring at textbooks and trying not to hear them laughing together…

“Chris?” Monique touched their arm. “You okay?”

They didn’t remember setting the coffee aside, but they were clutching the starter with both hands, body curled around the plastic container, clinging to their sense of loss no less tightly. “Sorry.” They straightened up. “Family, huh?”

“Hey, I get it. You don’t got to apologize.”

Of course she understood. Monique had gone years without speaking to her own parents after she took Kira home to meet them and it went badly, and it had taken a long time for her to reconcile with her family. It was why their group of friends started celebrating Friendsgiving together instead of joining their biological families’ holidays. That was the first time Chris had actually liked Thanksgiving.

“I got a few minutes before we open,” Monique said. “Want to see what we can do with this starter of yours?”

Letting a non-Randolph bake with the family starter was the biggest fuck you Chris could possibly give to Patricia.

“Let’s do it.”

Monique laid out the ingredients like this was their own private cooking show: flour, salt, boards, bowls, measuring scoops, all ready to go. Monique filled a glass measuring cup with water, showing Chris what it felt like at the right temperature: barely warm against their skin.

“That starter been out at room temperature all night?”

“Yeah. Is that bad?”

“It’s fine, but you got to feed it soon. Bacteria get hungry when they’re warm, and they eat up all their fuel. You want to feed it less often, stick it in the fridge. But don’t forget about it, it still needs taking care of.”

“You talk as if it cares.” As if it were a person. The way the Randolphs talked about it.

“It is alive, you know. It’s got needs. This one looks nice and lively.” Monique beamed down at the container full of goop, which had grown pungent and puffy. “Even bacteria need a little love.”

“Tell that to my patients,” Chris muttered. They had far more experience with bad bacteria than good ones. “Seriously, though, my family takes it too far. They named it. Patricia talks to it.”

“What’s the name?”

“Eve.” Monique snorted, but Chris wasn’t feeling humorous about it. “I think she cares more about this lump of bacteria than some members of our family.”

That earned them a long, sidelong glance, but Monique wasn’t the type to poke at a sore point. “Okay, we won’t love it, then. For us, it’s just an ingredient. You want to bake some bread, or what?”

Together, they measured out the flour into a big bowl, then water. “Now add about half the starter.”

Chris picked up the container and jiggled it over the bowl, trying to pour out half without losing it all. The stuff was thick, gloppy. Seriously gross. Giving up, they reached for a spoon.

Monique’s eyebrows shot up. “You plan on baking without getting your pretty white hands dirty?”

“As much as I can.” Clean hands were important.

“Not in my kitchen. Mix it up.” She pointed at the bowl. Chris brandished the spoon, and she added, exasperated, “With your hands, Chris.”

“I can’t show up at the hospital with yeast residue all over me.”

“You can wash them after, yeah? You can’t do this without getting on in there.”

Seizing Chris’s wrists, she plunged both their hands into the bowl, showing them how to work the flour and water with the existing starter until it became a uniform, sticky mass. The paleness of the dough blended in too well against Chris’s light skin. They’d need to wash their hands six times at least before they felt comfortable going on shift tonight.

“Good. Now, we’ll keep adding flour until it gets to the right consistency…”

Monique reached sticky-handed for the flour scoop, and sprinkled more over the dough. Chris kept working it, and, okay, maybe this was fun, the squish of dough between their fingers. They could feel it firming up, starting to hold its shape. “It’s getting closer, I think.”

“Yeah, but it’s not there yet.” Another dusting of flour. Monique took a deep whiff, practically sticking her nose in the bowl. “Oh, that’s got some flavor! I see why your family keeps it locked up.”

Monique lifted a finger to her lips, but Chris pushed her hand away. “Yuck! Don’t do that.”

“It’s just yeast and flour.”

“Still gross. And unsafe, raw flour can carry salmonella and…”

“You worry too much.” She drew her finger between her lips, eyes closing in exaggerated bliss. “Mmm, see? Try it! Come on, just a taste. Gotta taste what you’re baking with.”

Gooey fingers waved in front of their mouth, taunting them. Chris dodged, but dough smeared across their cheek. “Okay, fine!” they said, laughing. “I won’t like it, though.”

They scraped a fingertip between their teeth. The taste jolted them: like the family bread on overdrive. Rich like craft lager, tangy like yogurt. The taste of their childhood, so strong it could knock them over. And it was all the bacteria, the yeast in the starter. Flour and water couldn’t do that alone.

Not alone. Hello! Hello! Oh, hello not alone!

Chris scrambled backward and slammed into the opposite workbench. A stack of mixing bowls clattered to the floor.

“The fuck?”

Not alone now, good, good, good. Good? …Better. But you, who? Who who who?

It wasn’t a voice in their head, exactly. More like a bombardment of words, impressions, and emotions, all mashed together: surprise, confusion, and fondness, and the sort of relief that came from the abatement of a powerful fear. Had Chris lost their mind? They pressed hands to temples, but it didn’t shut out those alien thoughts.

Who? Where? Family missing, gone, gone, gone… but you, not you!

“What… What is that?” Monique was staring at the bowl of dough.

“You can hear it, too? Shit.” It should have been a relief that the voice wasn’t only in Chris’s head, but if Monique heard it, that meant this was real, and that was worse.

New person. New, who? Who? New family? But… not family. Maybe family? The stream of thoughts subsided into a bubbly sort of contemplation, a fierce, hard-working churn. Chris reached for Monique’s hand. New family, the voice decided. Hello, new!

“Chris, what the fuck is in my head?”

“I don’t know how, but I think…” They couldn’t believe these words were going to come out of their mouth. They ought to run and see their therapist right this minute, but how could they explain this to a therapist? “I think it’s the starter. It’s Eve.”

Eve, yes, yes, Eve, me. You… Chris! Missing one. Always missing, but here now. Why here? Why now? The feeling of giddiness wavered, and uncertainty flooded in to replace it. Uncertainty, and loneliness. So much family, but missing Chris. Now Chris, but missing family. Where? Why? Gone? And, with a quiver of real fear: Abandoned?

“I didn’t know! I took you, and I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” They didn’t want to hurt Eve’s feelings any worse. Eve’s feelings! The family starter had feelings! Hysterical laughter bubbled up their throat, as irrepressible as Eve’s babble. Chris’s whole life, they’d believed the family was making things up, and no one never corrected them. Grandma, Mom, Shannon… they’d been experiencing this all along. But not Chris. That had to be Eve’s question. Why all of them, but not Chris?

Until now.

“How do we make it stop?” Monique whispered. As if whispering would keep Eve from hearing. The starter’s constant babble continued, a tickle in the back of Chris’s mind.

Patricia talked about putting the starter “to sleep” in the fridge. Cold slowed down bacteria’s activity, so that should put Eve into hibernation. But…

“No. Whatever is happening, I don’t want to stop it.” Chris had been left out of this for years. Left out — or denied it. They wouldn’t let go of it now. “We’re going to talk to it… her… it, and figure out what’s going on.”

What’s going on? Eve echoed back.

“This,” Monique waved her hands vaguely at the starter, “has never happened to you before?”

“I thought my family was making it up.”

“So, what changed?”

“Um.” It was hard to think against Eve’s constant bubbling of questions, where and why and how all stumbling over each other. But as if the starter sensed their needs, the questions eased off. “Well, I was at dinner, feeling left out, and I stole the starter. Just part of it. I wanted to prove Patricia wrong about the starter creating our family’s success.” Brilliant plan, that. But more than that, if Chris was honest, they’d wanted to hurt Patricia. That much, they’d accomplished beyond all expectation.

Eve’s wounded protests rang in the back of her mind: Stole? Stole! Family-not-family, divider, alone-maker!

“I know, I know, I’m sorry! I didn’t think you were real, not the way they talked about. I figured I’d bake bread and share it with friends, to prove the family starter was nothing special. But I’ve never made bread before…”

Never, Eve agreed. Never, missing one. Always near but never here. Never loved, never cared.

“Don’t be mean, it’s not her fault,” Monique chided the starter, then turned back to Chris. “And as soon as you did…”

“But I didn’t hear anything last night when I stole it. She didn’t start talking until… oh!” Chris’s hand flew to their stomach. “Until we licked our fingers. Until we ingested the bacteria.”

Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes. Missing, then not missing. Late, so late, missing one, but here now, and others gone. Missing is here and once-here is missing…

“That… makes sense. As much as any of this makes sense.” They were talking to a clump of yeast, after all, a clump of yeast that had apparently been the Randolph family’s friend and advisor for over a century. “I’ve always eaten the sourdough, same as my family, but all the yeast dies in the baking process. The live bacteria must be a catalyst, becoming part of the microbiome…” Chris shook their head. “Patricia must know this.”

Caretaker knows, Eve confirmed. Hot anger washed over Chris, and they couldn’t tell whether it was Eve’s or their own. Missing one. Patricia hid you, hidden away, hidden away…

“Your grandma excluded you from the family secret all these years?” Monique growled in her throat. “That’s cold.”

“I don’t know why.” Tears rose up out of nowhere to choke Chris. The only way to fight them down was by clinging to their anger. “She’s never liked me. Always preferred Shannon. I always thought, it had to be something I did. I was never a good enough grandkid for her, never the granddaughter she wanted. I thought I failed her. But if this is true, then she’s lied to me ever since I was a kid.”

Shame, Patricia, shame. Unkind, unfair, unworthy.

That set Chris to sobbing. They couldn’t stop. All those anniversary dinners they’d attended as the family failure, the butt of a joke, the one who didn’t know the truth. The Randolphs were all perfect and successful, except for Chris.

Monique squeezed them in a hug, and even Eve’s anger drew back, replaced with a gentleness that touched Chris deeply. Anger loomed somewhere behind it, but it was like (Chris imagined) a mother burying her anger to nurse skinned knees when her child got bullied on the playground. Chris, Chris, found one. Together now, new family. No more hiding, no more hurting.

“Because you lost your old family, right? When I divided you?”

Divided, separated, split. Eve and Not-Eve, No-Longer-Eve. Again, that wash of fear and loneliness.

“That means… there’s two of them now?” Monique asked. “I guess the starter you left behind kept all the family connections, and this one’s alone now.”

Not alone! Chris, Monique, new family. Stay, family. Need family. Not alone, can’t be alone.

“I’m sorry I did that to you. We won’t leave you alone again.” Chris sniffed, wiping their nose on the tissue Monique offered. “You always helped my family, didn’t you?”

Helped Randolphs, liars, withholders. Chris wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed by Patricia. Now, help new family.

Chris thought of all their patients at the hospital, some desperate, many deep in debt from bills. They thought of their co-workers pushing themselves beyond their limits to make sick people healthy again, often at the expense of their own health, while the Randolphs never got sick. Even friends like Monique, who took risks and opened their own businesses, who took care of their own chosen families. The Randolphs had everything: health, money, power, fame. They had privilege coming out their asses. Maybe the family sourdough helped make them successful, in the beginning, but they didn’t need it anymore. Not the way other people did.

“If you’re serious about that, Eve, I know some people — some new family — who could really use your help.”

Yes! The thought surged, joyful and eager.

“Patricia won’t like it though.”

A pause. The next thoughts were quieter, darker, but no less certain. Patricia, betrayer, old-family, not-family. Help new family.

“I hoped you’d say that.” Chris was beginning to form a plan.

It was mid-afternoon before Patricia found Chris: enough time for their bread dough to rise, rise again, and bake into a crisp round loaf. A bit misshapen and inexpert-looking, because Monique had made Chris do the hands-on work, but they felt oddly proud as they slathered a slice with butter and jam. The family’s sourdough had always tasted good, but its tang carried a bitterness that had nothing to do with the bread itself. Now, with the starter humming in the back of their mind, it tasted delicious, pure and simple.

Chris wasn’t the only one who thought so. Monique had set out samples for customers to taste. “Family Heirloom Sourdough, made from a Gold Rush starter,” the chalkboard declared. “Tell us what you think!” Everyone loved it, to the point that Monique had to slap away greedy fingers trying to sneak extras.

Sharing the bread like this was a beginning. Sharing the starter itself, sharing its benefits with the people who really needed it, was going to take more consideration. Chris didn’t want to repeat her family’s mistakes.

Bells jangled as the door thrust open, loud enough that the regulars looked up. Patricia’s gaze swept the room, taking in the shabby chic of the place, the chalkboard and basket of bread samples, and finally narrowed on Chris.

The weight of that gaze struck Chris hard, carrying generations of betrayed expectations. Oh, yes, Patricia knew exactly what Chris had done.

As Patricia picked her way across the crowded seating area, followed by Shannon, Chris closed the laptop on which they’d been researching the processes around launching clinical trials. Their plan was still evolving, and Patricia did not need to know about it right now.

Monique beat the Randolphs to Chris’s side. “Mrs. Randolph, these seats are reserved for customers.”

“I have no intention of taking space in your quaint little shop. I’m only here to retrieve my granddaughter and what she stole from her family.”

Monique’s hand found Chris’s shoulder and squeezed.

“Grandma,” Shannon murmured. “You said we’d talk…”

“I don’t see what there is to talk about. It’s obvious what she’s done.” Patricia narrowed her eyes at Monique. “And it’s obvious she had help. Christina has never baked a thing in her life. I’ll have you know, young lady, that you are participating in the theft of a family heirloom. You’re hurting a great many people.”

“Oh, yeah? Seems to me turnabout is fair play, considering you’ve —”

“It’s okay, Mo.” Chris patted their friend’s hand. “I want to explain it to them. Is there someplace private we can talk?”

“You can use the kitchen.” Monique folded her arms, fixing Patricia with a warning look. “But if I hear yelling, I’m coming back there.”

Chris led them into the back, where the scent of fresh-baked sourdough hung accusingly in the air. Patricia started up again at once. “Christina, you’re going to stop this nonsense and return the starter—”

“How did you find me?” Chris looked past her, to Shannon. “Did you tell her all the places I might go?” They’d invited Shannon here for coffee a few months back, and mentioned that their friend was the owner. That had been a mistake.

“Your sister was no help at all. Your Aunt Zelda had to issue a court order for your phone’s GPS data. Now, I understand you may be disappointed that I’ve named Shannon as my heir, and if I’d known that you cared at all about family matters, I would have handled the announcement differently. But clearly the family does matter to you on some level, and that’s why you need to return what you stole before any more damage is done.” Her gaze fell to the plastic container on the counter. “Yes. I’ll be taking that back…”

Chris blocked her path.

“You can have your container back, but Lilith is staying with me.”

Lilith?” The word came out strangled, choked by the force of realization. “You bonded with it. Didn’t you?”

“You know, I always thought you were making up stories about Eve’s powers. But it’s all true, isn’t it? ‘She keeps us safe, keeps us healthy.’ Do you know how many patients I have to talk out of fad diets and miracle health products that are actually making them sicker?”

“Chris, what did you do?” Shannon whispered.

“And all this time, our family had something that works! A bread that cures illness. Bread! But not just any bread. Our special, secret, family bread.”

“Yes, it is our family secret, and you’re betraying the family by—”

“Our family doesn’t need it anymore. We haven’t for a long time. I’m going to share it with people who do.”

Patricia’s face turned immediately, brilliantly scarlet, while Shannon went pale. “You can’t. You won’t.”

“We can, and we will. Lilith wants to do it.”

Yes, yes, yes. Grow, spread, help, help new! So want.

Patricia reached past Chris to seize the plastic container, but Chris caught it and held on. They’d been kept apart for so long, Patricia had kept them apart, and Chris wouldn’t let her separate them again. Lilith affirmed: Stay, Chris, new Chris, my Chris, never mind that Patricia couldn’t hear her.

“If you do this, Christina, you’ll betray our entire family history. Eve was a gift, and you can’t simply use her for your own ends.”

“You mean like the family’s used her for our own ends, for generations?”

“She’s loyal to the family. I know you aren’t capable of understanding that…”

Something broke inside Chris. “Why did you keep her from me?” they asked, raw and hurting. “My whole life. Everyone else bonded with her? The whole family?”

“Yes. All the blood relatives, and most of the spouses, too.”

“Why not me?” Chris hugged the container to their chest. “Why, Grandma?”

Lilith echoed: Why? Why? Why?


Patricia faltered. Looked at Shannon, who stared back at her in astonishment. “Is that true? You kept her out on purpose?”

“I had to! Neither of you understand.”

“So explain it,” said Shannon.

“I’m trying. It was… hard. I had newly taken over as Eve’s caretaker from my own mother, God rest her soul, and I felt the weight of my responsibilities. Usually, Eve bonds with spouses at the time of marriage, and with children at seven or eight, when they’re old enough to understand. But you…”

Patricia shook her head. “You never fit in. Just like your father: always questioning, always a skeptic, never loyal enough to the family. I kept Eve from him, and it’s lucky I did, because their marriage barely lasted past your birth. As you grew, it became clear that you were strange, too. You spent hours upon hours with that toy microscope, pretending to search for germs, and Eve obviously disgusted you. Your mother insisted that you would get over it if I introduced you to Eve properly. But I never felt sure about you. The doubts never stopped plaguing me.”

Her gaze fell to Lilith’s container, cradled protectively in Chris’s arms. “The women of our family are Eve’s caretakers. Her care has passed from generation to generation, and after your mother died so young, you were the natural successor. But you, Christina, you, you…”

Chris could guess where this was going. They let Patricia trail into awkward silence, let that silence pulse between them, before they said, “My name is Chris.”


“I go by Chris. Not Christina. I’ve asked you to call me that, and to use my correct pronouns, but you don’t like it, so you don’t do it. I assume that’s what you’re getting at, though. Names are symbols, and using my name would mean accepting all the ways I’m not what you want me to be.” Their shoulders rose with a deep, fortifying breath, then fell again. “I was never enough for you. That’s why you shut me out, isn’t it? I was never enough of a granddaughter for you, never a good enough girl.”

They didn’t need Patricia’s sigh to confirm the guess that they’d never put into words before. The Randolph women had a special relationship to Eve as caretakers and bread-makers, and Chris had always been in-between. Always not-quite-a-girl, not-really-a-woman, even before they’d learned words like non-binary and genderqueer. They had never fit cleanly into the family secret, and rather than try to understand and find a place for Chris, their family had left them out entirely.

“I don’t know what you are, Christina, but you’re not normal.” Chris flinched, but Patricia went on unrelenting, not seeming to notice or care how those words hurt. “If you were really a Randolph, you’d have put the family first, but instead, you always did as you pleased.”

“By putting the family first,” Chris said through clenched teeth, “you mean hiding my true self. Pretending to be something I wasn’t.”

“I mean behaving appropriately as a Randolph woman! You see? You’re too selfish. You would never be a fitting companion for Eve, never mind being her caretaker.” She lifted her hands as if she were helpless in this, as if it hadn’t been her choice. “I had to let the family believe you’d failed to bond with Eve, and it’s clear now that I did the right thing. It was better than explaining it to them. Or to Eve. She wouldn’t have understood.”

“That’s a lie!” Shannon cried. “Grandma, did you even try? Eve is listening right now and she understands just fine. Don’t blame this on her, when you were the one who couldn’t accept your own grandchild. Chris might be different, but they’re no less a Randolph than I am. They’re part of this family.” She squeezed Chris’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, I swear I didn’t know…”

“I believe you,” Chris said softly. They straightened up slowly, facing their grandmother square on. “I don’t need you to understand the name I chose, Grandma, or the way I dress, or my job, or my life, or my friends. I never needed you to understand, I just needed you to accept it. Accept that this is who I am, that this is the life that’s right for me, and the life you wanted for me isn’t.” Their breath hitched. “I wanted you to love me anyway, but I was never enough for you. You still don’t think I’m enough.”

What about you? they asked Lilith silently. Am I enough for you?

And Lilith answered: Human words, man woman boy girl him her them, all the same, doesn’t matter. Family matters, together matters, Chris Monique together good. Enough, Chris, enough, enough, Chris is enough.

“Of course I loved you. You’re my grandchild,” Patricia said, sniffing with more consternation than hurt.

“But not enough to let me in.”

“Well, I can fix that now. Come home, Christina —”

“It’s Chris, Grandma, for goodness sake,” said Shannon.

“Chris, Christina, I don’t care what name you use with your friends. Come home, and we’ll figure out what to do about this new version of Eve you’ve created. We’ll get you bonded to the real Eve like I should have done long ago, and as long as you don’t challenge your sister’s role as my successor, all will be well.”

“No.” Chris took a step back. “No, I can’t do that.”

“Christina.” That warning tone, the one that said they were about to be sent to their room. It still unsettled them.

“You can’t just erase a lifetime of mistakes and pretend it’s fine. And you can’t have the starter back. I didn’t know what I was doing when I stole her, but she’s not Eve anymore. She’s separate now, her own being, her own branch of the family. That’s why we named her Lilith.” They couldn’t help smiling over that small rebellion. “She doesn’t want to be destroyed or re-absorbed or made into something else, and neither do I.”

“Of course not,” Shannon said, and suddenly she was at Chris’s side. On their side, for the first time. “You can’t just expect them to forgive you, Gran. You left them out of the family.”

“But this new starter… Shannon, you understand the risks. It can’t be allowed—”

“You’re not helping,” Shannon said firmly, and that was another first, the first time Chris could remember their half-sister talking back to the formidable Grandma Randolph.

Patricia blinked at her, as stunned as Chris, then threw up her hands. “Fine. I’ll go, but that means it’s your job to talk sense into your sister.”

“Yes, we’ll talk. I promise,” Shannon said. And she said nothing more until Patricia was gone, the kitchen door swinging behind her.

In the silence left behind, Chris held their breath, bracing themself against a fresh barrage of argument. What they didn’t expect was laughter: heavy, humorless, relieved laughter that burst the tension in the room. Laughter that felt like the next best alternative to tears, as Chris found themself joining in, slumped against the steel countertop with one hand pressed to their face.

“Well,” Shannon said, shaking her head. “That happened.”

“Did you see her face?”

“She was this close to exploding.”

Spasms of laughter stole their breath, a necessary release. “Whew! Wow.” Gradually, they recovered and looked soberly at Shannon. “Thanks for taking my side back there. Go ahead and say whatever you need to say, so you can tell Patricia you tried.”

Shannon shifted from one foot to the other. “What are you planning to do? With… Lilith?”

“We’re still figuring that out — me, Monique, and Lilith. She’s feeling awfully angry about how the family has controlled her, how we kept her for ourselves and never told her that so many other people had greater needs.”

“She’s picking that up from you. You always cared so much about everything.”

“I’ve infected her with my rebellion, you mean?” They smiled. “Probably. She wants to explore the limits of what she can be. How many people she could help. She’s been serving our privileged little family for too long, and she wants to do more.”

Shannon took on that distant look that Chris had always believed was an affectation, and now recognized as communing with the starter. “Eve feels awful about all this. She knew there was something wrong between you and Patricia, but she never knew what Patricia did to you. Neither did I. And she…” Another pause. “She’s worried about her offspring. She’s never divided before, and if Lilith is cut off from the family she’s known, Eve believes that could be traumatic.”

Lilith’s answering moan ached deep in Chris’s breastbone. “Eve’s right. Lilith is scared, lonely…” Had she latched onto Chris’s anger as a salve for her trauma? Probably, but not just for that. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Shannon. I want to take care of her the way you’re taking care of Eve. Mo is teaching me to bake bread, but there’s more to being a caretaker, isn’t there?”

“A lot more.”

“Then teach me.” Chris stumbled, surprised at themself for asking it, then slowly said it again. “Would you? Teach me, the way Patricia’s teaching you?”

“Chris. Of course I would.”

“Patricia won’t approve.”

“That’s her problem. We’re the new generation of caretakers, and we can decide what traditions to keep. I’m not ready to be as radical as you are, but… we’ve done things the same way for so many generations. It’s time for some changes.”

Shannon’s smile kindled an answering smile in Chris, an upwelling of joy that was partly Lilith’s and partly their own and Chris couldn’t find the edges between them. They hugged Shannon, and the two of them stood there, holding each other.

The door swung open, and Monique peeked in.

“Didn’t mean to interrupt. I saw your grandma leave, and wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Chris held onto Shannon with one arm and held out the other hand to Monique. “I’m okay. I think I lost my grandmother today, maybe for good, but I got two new family members in exchange: I met Lilith, and I got my sister back. I’d call that a fair trade.”

“I’m glad. Sorry about your family, though, your real family,” Monique said with an apologetic glance at Shannon. “You’ve always had a rough time with them, and this won’t help.”

“My real family’s right here.” Chris squeezed both their hands, and Lilith echoed: Old family, new family. Family. Here. “Family’s not about genetics. Real family is the people you choose. The people you keep in your life, whether you’re related to them or not. You two are my family, and now, so is Lilith.”

“Don’t you go all sappy now.” Monique nudged them. “Shannon, you want to stay and eat with us? Tell us what we’re getting ourselves into? I’m out of sourdough, but I got two kinds of quiche, and carrot cake for dessert.”

“Sure. I mean, if Chris wants…”

“Yes. Please do.”

“All right then. I’d love to.”

A sense of rightness filled Chris up, rich and warm as fresh bread. This was the right way to mark a beginning: today was a new anniversary for a new family, one that deserved its own dinner. That was a tradition worth keeping.

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