(Set in 1964, this portion in the Kahiki, Columbus, Ohio). Hannah speaks:
She leaned across her placemat toward Noah and whispered, “This place probably costs a lot. I can give you my dollar in secret.”
Noah scowled and shook his head. After glancing at the menu, he leaned toward Hannah. “Next time we’ll eat at the McDonalds. You can buy me a couple hamburgers, fries and a coke. I hear they even have cherry pies, though likely not nearly as good as yours.”
Hannah felt better and smiled. Would there really be a next time? How could he stand her?
Hannah felt completely over her head when the only words she recognized on the menu were pork, beef and chicken. The prices made her squint.
A few minutes later, she took her first sip of bird nest soup. She’d had him order it for her because she’d been afraid to try.
“Chicken,” she said. “Ginger.”
He shrugged and sipped his own. “I wonder if they really use bird nests, like it says on the menu?”
“It really said that?”
“I’m not tasting any twigs. What about you?”
“The cook is upset, more than likely with his wife. I’d be better at telling, but there’s pecking and fidgeting and lots of fluttering going on in the soup. More than likely because of the bird wanting her nest back.”
Noah shook his head. “Do you do tea leaves, too?”
Hannah nodded. “Mattie’s the best with tea leaves. I’m a morning chicken, even if I’m second, she used to tell me.” When she saw his dire expression, she added, “Most folks don’t take much stock in the lesser arts of telling from tea, given it’s looking and not so much doing in nature.”
“Like farming. You can make a pig out of nothing but table scraps. Still, it’s a pig you didn’t have the night prior. I look in the tea and see a litter of pigs are coming in a couple months, but that’s not all that important unless I need to split out a new fence to make room in the sty.”
“You can bamboozle people with those readings, I hear.”
“Yes you can.”
“You ever do that?”
Hannah shook her head. “Maddie said she did in a carnival, for a few years before she quit and came back home. Mostly she read cards, though, because they’re flashier and tell a story. People like stories a good deal more than staring into a cold cup of tea that doesn’t even have pictures. How do they know if you’re just making it up?”
“I don’t put much stock in any of it.”
“That’s alright. But, it was Maddie, doing a reading when I was six, who told me I had to go to school or I’d die before my thirteenth birthday. Maybe I’ll be a scientist or doctor someday because of what she saw in her tea.”
Hannah glared into the bird nest soup, now down to only a few stems near the bottom. The stems swam and formed tiny patterns that spoke to Hannah, even as she struggled to look away to her date. She’d not even asked the bird nest a question, so it only meant it was eager to give an answer, assuming she let it goad her like it was obviously trying to do.
“Some good came of it, then. I’m glad you’re interested in the higher arts.”
Hannah loved the way his words made her feel. She nodded so hard her hair fell in lumps. “Oh, no!” She grabbed the hair, and tried to straighten it by feel, ultimately scooting her chair back to run for the ladies room.
“Sit. I’ll fix it.” Noah slid out of the seat opposite hers and took one next door. “Turn my way a bit.” He held onto the side of her hair and pulled out a bobby pin. All of his concentration went to the top of her head as he fussed over straightening it and rearranging the pins.
“I’m a disaster.” Her eyes wandered about, trying not to stare at him, now that he leaned so close. “Dates aren’t supposed to have to rearrange a girl’s hair.”
“How do you know? You’ve never been on a date,” he said, terribly close to her ear, and while holding his head sideways so he could better see and untangle a dangled pin.
“Well, it’s just I should at least look presentable.” She felt her face start to blush, likely bringing out more than a few of those rosy spots that Aunt Haydee used to call her hidden freckles. When her eyes wandered to the table, the bits of bird nest were swirling around and around, making a tornado in her soup. She casually placed her napkin over top.
Noah apparently hadn’t noticed it. He’d turned his full attention to Hannah’s face, which hovered only a foot away from his nose.
His breath smelled of Bazooka Bubblegum. Since it’d been three hours since he’d picked her up, he might have been chewing a whole pack, just prior, hoping to make his breath smell strawberry for her.
He said, “The worst that can happen is it all falls down. That’d only make you prettier.”
Now her secret freckles were coming out, for sure. Her whole face felt warm. She stopped trying to look away and stared into his eyes, totally forgetting the dangerous omens she’d read in her sister’s horrible grimoire. “My hair’s a failure,” she said because her whole brain had gone numb, and saying something stupidly late was the best she could do. She might as well have drooled.
The waiter came and started to put their tray full of meals down on a cart a few feet away. Hannah had never seen round metal lids over plates before, but she only glanced because of nerves born from how close Noah was leaning.
“The only thing failing now is that magical spell you’ve been using to keep the competition away.” He scooted back, but dragged his plate over to the closer placemat. “I’m a man of science, and used to catching tricky details. That’s likely why the voodoo isn’t working on me.”
“Do you think it works that way?” Hannah asked, genuinely curious about the possibility. If Momma couldn’t touch him because of his belief in science, it’d be wonderful.
The waiter parked a plate of shrimp in green onions and flat pea pods in front of her. Everything swam in blonde sauce. She tried to figure out how it was made, by smell.
Noah was having thin slices of beef in broccoli with a brown sauce.
“Oh my goodness. How did you know what was good?” she asked.
“I didn’t have any idea.” Noah dabbed a finger into the brown sauce and tasted it. “I asked George, down at the firehouse. He also said people share Asian food, so they can figure out what they like.”
“Good. I want a taste of yours.” She poked the smallest piece of beef with her fork and put it on her plate. A second later, she held her shrimp plate over his unused coffee dish. She scooped some off until the coffee plate was full.
After Noah ate a couple bites of each, she felt safe to try it, too. The peapods didn’t seem done like the peas back home, but the sauce made them taste amazing, anyway. Also, the chef was still upset with someone, likely his wife.