Eleven-year-old Jennifer Bricker of Hardinville, Ill., was born without legs. But she's never let that stop her.
It's 6 o'clock on a chilly October evening, and Jennifer Bricker is buzzing around the yard at her birthday party. She leads a swarm of 10- and 11-year-olds through the front door of the house and out the back, from the fish pond to the trampoline. "Watch this, you guys," Jennifer shouts. Her big brother Brad jumps on one side of the trampoline, launching her 2-foot-4-inch frame into the air again and again.
The swarm stops. All eyes turn to Jen. She's laughing as she bounces, her thick brown hair flying even higher than her tiny body. She finishes with a flourish, a flip-flop whip - two backward somersaults, the second without using her hands.
As soon as Jen stops and Brad jumps off the trampoline, a dozen kids pile on, slipping, sliding and skittering on the slick surface. Jen clambers out of the way, over to the side by her friend and tumbling teammate, Lorrisa Neeley.
The girls are dressed like twins for the party, patterned sweater vests, cream-colored turtlenecks and jeans. The only difference in the outfits is that Jen's jeans stop an inch or two below her trunk.
The girls put their heads together, whispering about the BIG plans for the night - which girl is going to dance with which boy. It's the first boy-girl party for Jen, and for months, Brian Pinkston at St. Louis' Shriners Hospital for Children has been tweaking her prosthetic legs for a night of dancing, a lifetime of liberty.
The prostheses are perhaps the 10th version of the first pair Jen got there when she was 6 months old. She has worn some of the legs, mostly for special occasions or to go to church.
Usually, she finds, they just get in the way. A tidy 60 pounds without them - 73 with - Jen's prostheses transform her into a tottering 4-foot-8 tower. She has to use a walker or lean on someone when she wears them. Take them off and Jen moves lickety-split, swinging up and down stairs on her hands and her bottom quicker than her two-legged classmates.
But for a girl who hasn't let legs stand in her way, Jen wants a pair to stand on now. She wants to dance at her 11th birthday party. She wants to look her friends in the eyes. She wants, someday, to be asked out on dates.
NAVIGATING THE WORLD
The Brickers - Jen and her parents, Sharon and Gerald, and her three brothers - live in Hardinville, Ill., population 80. The town is a few miles south of Robinson and Oblong and about 15 miles west of the Indiana border. Families here are hard-working, tightly knit and close to their rural roots. Many of the Brickers' neighbors are laborers.
The men fish in the nearby Embarras River (pronounced Em-braw) and hunt for deer and small game in the surrounding woods. The women are schooled in the traditional homemaking skills of cooking, sewing and crafts. Many of them still can the vegetables they raise in their own backyards.
Some families have known hard times, losing farms and jobs to corporate mergers and takeovers. Before Sharon was born, her parents lost two children in a single day to whooping cough and pneumonia. Another brother died when he was 20 in a car accident. Gerald was the youngest of 11 kids.
Endurance is tightly woven into the Brickers' fiber. They hope that someday Jen will be able to navigate in the world on her own. For her, they have made the 300-mile round trip to Shriners Hospital scores of times. They don't insist that Jen use the legs Pinkston makes for her. They figure when Jen's ready, she'll use them.
Pinkston, 41, a slim man with a long ponytail, has known Jen since she was nearly 2. In his 19 years as a technician at Shriners, he has made prosthetic devices for thousands of patients. But Jen is the only one whose picture he keeps tucked in the corner of his bedroom mirror.
Pinkston feels like he understands Jen. When he was 10, he lost his left leg to cancer. It started with a limp that his baseball coach noticed. It ended three months later when he woke up after surgery and saw a flat spot under the hospital sheets where his leg should have been.
Sometimes as he's driving 60 miles into work from his home in Gillespie, Ill., Pinkston puzzles over how he can make Jen's legs do more, how he can make them so good Jen will want to use them.
THE DAUGHTER OF HER DREAMS
When Gerald and Sharon adopted Jen in 1987, their family was already well-established.
Gerald, then 42, and Sharon, 39, were raising three sons of their own in a simple, frame house, the same house where Sharon and her four brothers and sisters were raised. Gerald was a pumper - the man who checks the wells - for Marathon Oil Co. Sharon was a homemaker.
Sharon adored her sons, Greg, 14, Brian, 12 and Brad, 10. Gerald also had a daughter, Marleah Jo, 15, from a former marriage. But Sharon longed for a daughter of her own - a girl she could dress in frilly clothes and whose hair she could braid.
Sharon prayed for someone who needed a home as badly as she wanted a daughter. Then she heard about Jen from a friend who was on an adoption waiting list. The Brickers applied to adopt Jen sight unseen.
When Gerald and Sharon picked Jen up for the first time she was three months old and 13 1/2 inches tall. To them, she was perfect.
"How would you feel introducing your girlfriends to Jen?" Sharon asked the boys before they met Jen.
"If I had a girlfriend and she couldn't accept Jen, I wouldn't want to date her anyway," said the eldest son, Greg.
As Jen grew older, she began to ask questions about her biological parents.
"Did they give me up because I don't have legs?" Jen once asked.
"It doesn't matter why they gave you up, because we wanted you," Sharon told Jen. "I don't know how your parents did it, but I am just tickled that they did."
Jen was born without legs because of a birth defect; a uterine band prevented blood from getting to her lower limbs. She had feet - of a sort. The Brickers called them "flippers." They were at her hips and were removed when she was 2. A bone was removed from her hip when she was 4.
Jen developed like other kids. She pulled herself up in her crib and crawled before she was a year. At first, she "just drug her little butt, like a lizard, " Gerald says.
At 18 months, the family drove to California to visit relatives. At a rest stop north of Chula Vista, Jen crawled around, leaving a trail of shredded Pamper parts. "It looked like it was snowing behind her," her dad laughs.
By the time Jen started kindergarten at Oblong Elementary School, she was already a familiar sight to many of the 570 students. They had seen her around town, shopping, visiting relatives, going out to dinner.
Teachers and administrators weren't sure what to make of her, however. They offered to install an elevator in the 86-year-old, three-story building. She told them, "No, thanks."
"Can we put in a chair lift for her?" an administrator asked Sharon and Gerald.
"Well you can, but she won't use it," Sharon answered.
They hired an aide, Pam Winters, to help Jen at school. But Jen seldom requires assistance. Winters' main job is to push Jen's wheelchair across the playground and over to the school bus at the end of the day. Except for a brief trek from the bus into school in the morning, the chair sits idle.
Jen motors around on her hands, part-scooting and part-swinging her body. Her hands are powerful, thick and muscular. Her fingernails are well-groomed and polished with Clueless' Magenta. Sometimes she paints them blue and yellow, in honor of the Oblong High School Panthers.
Her biceps measure 13 inches around, and she's proud that she can arm-wrestle her brother, Brad (15-inch biceps) to a draw. Jen taught herself to swim and dive in the family's 3-foot-deep, backyard pool.
When she was 6, she asked Pinkston if he could make her some prostheses that would enable her to rollerskate. No can do, he told her. So she slipped her hands into her cousin Lance's roller skates and taught herself to skate on grandma Ruth Waldrop's driveway.
Two skinned elbows and a couple of hours later, Gerald and Sharon were at Wal-Mart buying Jen her own pair of hot-pink skates.
She joined the Pioneer Labels softball team when she was 7 and has played catcher and in the field. At 10, she took up tumbling. Greg and Brad taught her how to do a back flip on the trampoline and Brian - or Bubba, as he's called by the family - taught her how to do a front flip.
A straight-A student, Jen aims to be class valedictorian. She wants to be a cheerleader at Oblong High and has already attended cheerleading camp. On a rainy day at camp, she jumped and clapped and flailed her arms while nearly up to her waist in a puddle of muddy water.
'YOU WON'T BELIEVE THIS...'
Sitting with her family watching videotapes of her tumbling meets, Jen complains that she's never placed first in competition. Jen won fourth place in the Amateur Athletic Union's Junior Olympics in August in Hampton, Va.
"Look, Chelsea didn't stick that one too good, and she got first," Jen says about the girl from her team who usually wins their competitions.
The tape also shows the way some girls react to Jen. Girls from other tumbling teams nudge one another and cast sidelong glances at her. Jen seems oblivious.
Another tape shows Jen accepting the U.S. Tumbling Association's 1998 inspiration award, a 2-foot-tall trophy with an eagle on top and an inscription that reads, "Jennifer Bricker. You Gave Us a Reason to Live."
As the president of the tumbling association reads the announcement, she gets choked up and mumbles into the microphone. Her blond bouffant trembles. As she spots Jen making her way to the stage, the woman stoops low and grabs hold of Jen to hoist her onto her hip. Jen smiles brilliantly.
As he watches the tape, Gerald recalls overhearing a man in the bleachers behind him. "You won't believe this," the man said to a friend. "There's this little girl here who does this without legs." Then the man noticed that Gerald was listening and asked if he'd ever seen the girl.
"Yes, I've seen her," Gerald answered. "I brought her here. She's my little girl."
The man's eyes widened, and he asked Gerald if he would mind if he took pictures of Jen so he could show them to his own kids when they started complaining about things they couldn't do.
"Yeah, go ahead and take her picture, " Gerald said.
ADMIRATION AND ENVY
Alex Harmon, 11, breaks into a wide grin when asked whether his parents ever hold Jen up as an example to him. Alex is blond and wears wire-rimmed glasses that enhance his smart-kid image. His parents own the only drugstore in Oblong, which is the source of one of the most sought-after items in their fifth-grade class - Beanie Babies.
"Yeah," he says, "My parents sometimes say to me, 'If Jen can do something, and she hasn't got any legs, then you can do it.'"
Keshia Haines, 10, is another friend and classmate of Jen's. Keshia says her parents, too, like to use Jen as an example. But Keshia adds that she doesn't need her parents' reminder.
"She's a good friend," says Keshia, nodding her blond, dutchboy haircut for emphasis. "She's friendly, and nice and always there when you need her. She's real funny. And she makes us think that we can do anything we put our minds to."
Sometimes, though, the admiration gives way to jealousy.
Her good friend, Lorrisa Neeley, 10, and Cayla Coulter, 13, both t umbling teammates, hem and haw when asked what they think of Jen's tumbling skills. Cayla starts fidgeting in her seat, and Lorrisa looks down at the blue notebook in her hands.
Finally, Cayla blurts out that the other girls on the team (there are 36) try just as hard as Jen and don't get nearly as much recognition. Besides, she points out, one of the hardest parts of tumbling is trying to get your legs where they belong and getting them to stay put once you're finished.
Beth Allen, owner of the Power Tumbling studio in Oblong and the team coach, acknowledges that Jen enjoys some advantages. But she notes that the judges focus a lot of attention on her arms, and when she falters with them, it costs her.
Allen finds the biggest difference between the girls is Jen's heart. Jen is willing to take risks with her tumbling other children won't. That, plus her outgoing personality, win her a lot of points.
HEARTBREAK AT HOLIDAY WORLD
Jen first met discrimination last summer. She was on a family trip to Holiday World, an amusement park in Santa Claus, Ind. It was Aug. 23, Gerald's 53rd birthday.
Jen took a friend, Kara Waggoner, and the girls had planned their progression through the park in advance. They were going to start by riding the Banshee, a gently moving platform and move on to the roller coasters and end up at a water park.
The Brickers paid their $64 to get in but never got past the Banshee. The girl operating the ride told them Jen didn't meet the height requirement and wouldn't let her board.
Sharon and Gerald tried to persuade the attendant that Jen was not a baby and that she knew enough to hang on to the bar that went across her lap. They said they'd assume full responsibility if anything were to go wrong and offered to make any concessions the park might want.
But the attendant wouldn't budge and called a manager who backed her up. There were no more arguments to make.
They left with Kara embarrassed, Gerald's birthday in tatters and Jen in tears.
"I can't believe this " Jen kept repeating. "I can't believe they won't let me on."
Pinkston knows Jen's prostheses have limits. But he also knows she is on the margins of womanhood. Six months shy of turning 11, Jen mused about wanting to dance at her birthday party.
How, Pinkston wondered, can he make her legs dance?
How can he make her legs run? How can he make them climb stairs? Pinkston feels at once inspired and inadequate.
Inspired because of the prosthesis he got at Shriners when he was a boy and because of the vitality and spirit he sees in Jen. Inadequate because Pinkston wonders about keeping up with Jen. And sometimes, though he tries, he can't.
"I don't know if I can fill the bill. I'm not God," Pinkston says. "We're not God. Nothing can compete with what the good Lord gives you. All we can do is come close."
Jen's legs are made of two plastic carriers, or liners, that form a bucket for her torso. The inner liner is pliable and punctured with air-conditioning holes. The outside liner is rigid for support. Switches on each hip work cables that allow her to sit down or to lock the legs at her hips when she stands.
The legs themselves are made of skinny metal tubes with self-locking knees. They are shrouded in cosmetic, skin-tone foam. Two stainless steel cables criss-crossing the liner bucket pull one leg forward as Jen pushes off on the other.
Her feet are made of a dense foam rubber. Running end to end inside of them are plastic pieces that function like springs. The rubber gives her support, and the springs allow her to push off on the balls of her feet while walking.
Pinkston made Jen's legs for about $2,500. The Brickers get them for free. If they weren't made at Shriners Hospital, they would have cost between $15,000 and $20,000, and the Brickers couldn't have afforded them.
The day before Jen's birthday on Oct. 1, Pinkston does a final fitting at Shriners Hospital. He immediately spots how her left foot has turned in a little. After Jen takes off the prostheses, he lays them out on the exam table and pulls down the jeans and foam around the metal leg rods.
Pinkston tightens the screws with the Allen wrenches in the pocket of his smock. He snips the frayed ends from a belt on the bucket of the legs. He makes a mental note of the rubbed spots on the liner, telltale signs t hat Jen has been using her legs, rather than leaving them on the sidelines. He is pleased.
He leads her around the hospital room in a slow dance. Jen sways like a bird on a swing when she's strapped into the slender metal frame Pinkston has refined to waltz her into her teen-age years.
He hands Jen a pair of crutches with arm cuffs. As she stuffs her arms down into them and gets ready to walk, Pinkston and Gerald involuntarily reach out - just in case. But Jen doesn't fall. She barely even walks. She can hardly wait to take the prostheses off.
Shriners has arranged for the Brickers to get a free overnight stay in a suite at the Union Station Hyatt Regency, and Jen is eager to get there.
"When can we go shopping?" she keeps asking. "Can we go to that place next door? Can we go to Union Station? When can we go?"
Sharon is reminded of the first day Jen took these legs home for a tryout in August. She fussed at the family until her father stopped the car in Effingham, Ill., to buy her new shoes and socks.
Jen slips on those very socks and shoes for this final fitting. The socks are white with a gray Nike swoosh symbol. The shoes are a slick-looking pair of navy blue Nikes, pristine in their cleanliness. No scuff marks, no worn rubber, no run-over heels.
"The funny thing was that even when she didn't wear her legs she was crazy about shoes," Sharon laughs.
THE BIG DANCE
Kids are getting dropped off in the Brickers' front yard like gumballs shooting from a slot. Sharon's stashed a huge white birthday cake decorated with a ghostly theme on top of the microwave.
Jen had wanted her first dance to be with her boyfriend, Seth Bayless. But he's not coming. Seth, a jug-eared, freckle-faced 10-year-old, is home celebrating his grandparents' wedding anniversary.
The 25 kids at the party run around together for hours and then split into divergent groups of boys and girls. Someone cranks up the CD player, and the kids eye one another warily, sending out occasional sentries to see what the other side is cooking up.
Finally, one of the girls, Brittney, runs up to the deck where Sharon, Gerald and assorted friends and relatives are watching.
"Jen says she'll dance if all the adults go inside," Brittney announces. "She says you can watch if you want, but from inside."
"Well, I guess we'll go inside then," Sharon says good-naturedly.
"C'mon," she adds to the assembled adults. "Let's go in the kitchen and turn the lights out. Then we can spy on them."
Everyone in the kitchen is giggling and laughing, stumbling around in the dark trying to get near the window to see what the kids are doing. Slowly twosomes start to form. First it's Nikki and Jason. Then it's Keshia and Thomas. Then Brittney and Alex, Elizabeth and Joey. Finally, it's Alex, the druggist's son, who asks Jen to dance.
She rests her arms around his shoulders while she moves her walker aside. The two of them sway together to a dance tune by the Backstreet Boys.
"Oh, look, look," Sharon says. "There she is. She's dancing with the Harmon boy. Oh, Alex, don't move too far away. She'll fall over."
The song ends, and the adults stop laughing for a minute, waiting to see what happens next. Jen grabs her walker and stands in the circle of girls. Slowly, a tall, dark-haired boy approaches. The music starts up.
"Oh, she's dancing again," Sharon whispers to no one in particular. "At least I think she's dancing. The walker's there by itself so I guess she's dancing. Does anyone know who she's dancing with?"
"That's Anthony," answers Christy Neeley, Lorissa's mother.
"Who's Anthony?" Sharon asks.
"Well, who's Anthony Atkins? I can't believe she's dancing. I think I'm going to cry."
Lorraine Kee of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this story.