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First pages

Rouen, France
January 31, 1933

Any other day midmorning, the shutters over the doctor’s office windows would have been open to announce he was taking patients. Today the shutters were secured closed and warning people away. The entry light was off and the door was locked. The gefyriatrician was accepting no patients that snowy January day.

Inside the waiting room, the lights off, Dr. Victor Blanchard stood smoking a cigarette. His fingers made the cigarette tremble, and the cigarette trembled when it was between his lips. The pot-bellied stove in the corner was unlit and the waiting room was bitingly cold.

Dr. Blanchard stubbed out the remainder of his Gauloises in the ashtray. He paced back to the waiting room’s rear exit, which led to the examination room and the rest of his home. He thought he might have a small glass of port, then decided against it. He dug his hands in the pockets of his trousers, first the right, then the left, then found his package of cigarettes in his breast pocket. As the tongue of the match’s flame touched the tip of his Gauloises, two quick knocks sounded from the waiting room door.

“Victor,” called a familiar voice through the door. The bolt rattled. “C’est moi.” Grateful, Dr. Blanchard threw back the bolt and swung the door open.

The snow had fallen all morning. The street cobblestones were dusted white. A man hurried inside with a teenaged girl trailing behind him. Both were bundled in layers of fleece and cotton with snow powder in the folds and crevices, as though they’d been dusted with sugar. In with the pair came a numbing blast of wind and flakes.

Dr. Blanchard slammed and bolted the door. He assisted as they unwound themselves from their scarves and mufflers and long coats. Soon, a ruddy-faced man with bulbous cheeks and a mushroom-shaped nose stood before Victor Blanchard. Short in stature, the colorfully-dressed man had to lift his chin to look Dr. Blanchard in the eye. The man adjusted his tie and jacket and slapped the last bits of snow off his shirt cuffs. He turned to the girl behind him and said sharply, “Dites bonjour au Docteur Blanchard.

Bonjour,” emerged from the side of the girl’s petite mouth.

The girl wore clothes markedly plainer than her father’s, a man who fancied himself a bit of a bohemian. Her brown dress had no lace or embroidery; none of the finery a girl her age would normally gravitate toward. The dress hung to her ankles and its sleeves ran to her wrists. She wore black rubber boots suitable for the clime and a cream-white bonnet on her head, again, one lacking lace or embroidery.

Bonjour, passerelle,” Dr. Blanchard said to the girl. He leaned down to brush a clump of snow from her hair. “Merci de votre aide.

Denis Doisneau shook hands with Dr. Blanchard. “Of course Paige will be happy to assist,” he said in French. “We are here to help you.”

Dr. Blanchard grasped Denis by one shoulder while clenching hands. “If you wish to back out, I understand—no, stop, listen,” he said over Denis’ protests. “I would not be offended if you could not go through with this.”

“Victor,” Denis said with a broad smile. “We are both here to help any way we can. Isn’t that right?” he said to the girl.

Paige Doisneau nodded her head once. She stood behind her father, just as she’d been trained since childhood to present herself, back erect and shoulders up, hands clasped at her sternum and elbows straight out.

Dr. Blanchard went to the waiting room’s rear door and called into the house. “Violette! Come greet Monsieur Doisneau.”

After a moment, a thirteen-year-old girl appeared in the doorway drying her hands with a kitchen towel. Her hair was held in a lavender charwoman’s bandana. She wore a dark blue apron over her royal-blue dress, its cut similar to Paige’s dress. Unlike Paige, Violette was well into her pons anno. Her dress bulged egg-shaped at her midsection. “Bonjour, Monsieur Doisneau,” she said.

“Four weeks remain, I would say.” Dr. Blanchard placed a hand spread wide on Violette’s distended belly. “The finality will arrive before you know it. There will be no turning back.”

Denis could not tell if his friend was speaking to him, to Violette, or to himself.

“I take it you’ve not eaten?” Dr. Blanchard said to Denis.

“Spent the morning standing in lines at the Place Saint Marc,” Denis said. “If it’s no trouble—”

“None at all,” Dr. Blanchard said. “Violette, if you would.”

Without a word of instruction, Paige broke away from her father to assist Violette in the preparation and serving of an early lunch.

Denis accepted a cigarette and a light from Dr. Blanchard. Together they strode to the rear of the Blanchard household.

They stopped in the examination room. A pot-bellied stove stood in the room’s corner, a twin of the one in the waiting room. Dr. Blanchard lit a small fire of kindling and added two wood splits. Once the wood was smoking, he closed the stove door, adjusted the flue, and led his friend to the dining room.

Denis’ bridge daughter brought a bottle of red wine and twin amber goblets to the table. Dr. Blanchard poured healthy amounts for each of them. Paige returned with a half-loaf of bread sliced into strips and piled into a woven basket. A jar of cherry preserves and a pot of salted butter always stood on the Blanchard table alongside the salt and pepper. The men ate and drank while the bridges prepared the remainder of the luncheon.

“I must apologize,” Dr. Blanchard said to Denis. “I’m afraid Violette did not have time to plan a better meal for us. I’ve kept her busy all morning readying for the procedure.”

“It’s nothing,” Denis said. He refilled his glass. He held the bottle’s spout over Dr. Blanchard’s glass. “You?”

Dr. Blanchard waved it off. “Just this one.”

More food began arriving at the table. Denis ate with gusto, welcoming each plate as it landed. Madame Doisneau had taught Paige to prepare healthful meals, plenty of fresh vegetables and small portions of lean white meat. Dr. Blanchard, on the other hand, did not instruct Violette at all in the kitchen, or in any household task or responsibility, and so her meals tended to be less considered.

Without time to reach the market that morning, Violette assembled a meal from leftovers and odds-and-ends from the larder. She and Paige presented the men a cold lunch of cut meats and cheeses, sliced cucumbers, chopped apples, and sugared prunes. Incongruously, Violette brought out a jar of peanut butter, a delicacy Dr. Blanchard developed a taste for while traveling in the United States three years earlier.

Feeling a bachelor once more, Denis made sandwiches ad hoc from the bounty before him. He waved off his friend’s repeated apologies for the unrefined meal.

“Madame Doisneau would never let me eat so at home,” he said with a full mouth.

As he was eating his second sandwich, Denis stopped. Dr. Blanchard had barely touched his bread and peanut butter, merely swirling a puddle of wine about in his cup.

“Eat,” Denis instructed him. “You will need your focus.”

“I will go to prison for this,” Dr. Blanchard said.

“You are doing what you think is right,” Denis said.

“What I think is right.” Dr. Blanchard shook his head disdainfully.

“You are making history,” Denis insisted.

“This is not for posterity,” Dr. Blanchard said. “It’s for my daughter.” He hung his head. “Or is it for myself?”

Denis leaned back in his chair and peered into the kitchen. The bridge daughters worked together, washing dishes, hanging wet linen on a rack beside the kitchen fire, and so on. A bridge’s work is never finished.

Years earlier Dr. Blanchard pointed out to Denis the naturalness of bridge daughters as teams. Dr. Blanchard admired the way they worked wordlessly side-by-side, one bridge starting a task and handing it off for another to complete without instruction or explanation.

“They are special,” Dr. Blanchard told Denis. “Bridge daughters represent the best of us all. They are more human than we are, than we ever will be.”

Violette was due to give birth in a month. When the cord linking her to the child was cut, Violette would die, leaving Dr. Blanchard with an infant who would grow to be Violette’s twin. The finality completed the bridge cycle, the circle of life and death defining reproduction for humankind.

Paige had turned thirteen a few days earlier. She did not appear pregnant yet, although she was born bearing her parents’ child. Dr. Blanchard was Paige’s gefyriatrician. A week before, he’d informed Denis and Madame Doisneau that Paige had crossed into pons anno. Her pregnancy would grow visible in six to eight weeks. In eight months, Paige would produce for Denis and Madame Doisneau a new infant to raise; Eloise if it was a girl, Renaud if a boy. Like Violette, Paige would expire after childbirth, the natural outcome of all bridge daughters.

As Denis peered into the kitchen, his eyes caught Violette’s. Her hair was tied back and a smear of brown grime ran down her right cheek. She paused her work to stare back at him with hard, unforgiving eyes, as blue as the icicles hanging from the eaves beyond the windows.

“She’s a beautiful passerelle,” he told Dr. Blanchard. “Her mother would have been proud.”

“Yes, she would have,” Dr. Blanchard said absently.

Denis returned to his lunch, eating noisily, as was his wont. Denis only utilized a napkin at the conclusion of a meal, allowing crumbs to accumulate in the corners of his mouth and across his shirt collar. Dr. Blanchard did not mind this about his friend, a pleasant man who seemed comfortable wherever he landed, no matter the circumstances. He preferred Denis’ company to that of the well-bred Rouennais, their lineages and family histories, and especially their damnable games of one-upmanship, an American word he found characteristically apt and frank.

Dr. Blanchard said, “Madame Doisneau does not know, I take it.”

“She does not,” Denis said, lips smacking. “Madame Doisneau would not approve.”

“No one will approve,” Dr. Blanchard said. “You’re certain Paige will not tell her mother?”

“I’ve not told her everything yet,” Denis said. “Don’t worry. She’s an obedient bridge daughter.”

“I’m afraid she’ll see me a monster after today. And Violette a freak.” For eleven years he’d examined and cared for Paige. “She will not want to be near me again.”

Denis forked up two slices of cold roast beef. “She’s made of tough stuff. She’ll surprise you.” He chuckled. “She sometimes even surprises me.”

Dr. Blanchard took a delicate bite of his peanut butter sandwich. He pushed the remainder away. He lit another Gauloises. He smoked and watched his friend eat.

“I love my daughter,” Dr. Blanchard said.

“You do not have to tell me,” Denis said.

“There will be people who say by allowing Violette to live, I killed my child.”

“You have always treated Violette as your child,” Denis said.

Violette cleared the dishes on the table. Dr. Blanchard smoked.

“Will I regret this?” he said.

Denis grew a touch cross at his friend’s uncharacteristic lack of resolve. He poured a healthy splash of red wine into Dr. Blanchard’s goblet and ordered him to drink. “Le vin c’est la vie, Docteur Blanchard.

 

The photograph showed the profile of a young girl, pretty but plain, wearing a flat unadorned dress of the style thirty years before. With a Mona Lisa smile on her face, she dipped her nose in a bouquet of flowers she held at her chest. The mysterious smile withheld many secrets. It was all the more mysterious as four weeks after the photograph was taken the girl would be dead.

The two girls in the back seat of the Audi stretched against their seatbelts to view the photograph at the same time. The smaller of the two held the smartphone in both hands. The other, larger girl used her fingers to magnify the photo and move it about the glass screen in a vain attempt to discover more information about the girl in the photograph.

“This is mama’s bridge mother,” Ruby, the smaller of the two, said.

“Give it to me,” Cynthia said.

Ruby held the phone beyond her sister’s reach. “I’m not finished looking yet.”

“No fighting with the phone,” their mother said from the driver’s seat. She alternately watched the road and watched the two squabble in the rearview mirror.

“What was your bridge mother like?” Ruby said to her.

“She died giving birth to mom,” Cynthia said.

“I know that,” Ruby said. “But what was she like?”

In the rearview, the mother saw Cynthia snatch the phone from Ruby’s grasp. Ruby cried out and called for their mother to intervene.

“We’re going to her old house right now,” the mother said. “She grew up there.”

“You grew up there too, right?” Ruby asked.

The mother watched Cynthia via the rearview mirror. The larger of the two, more muscular, more physically present, she hunched over the phone and tapped its screen. She was too engaged with the device to be looking at photos.

“No Internet,” the mother called to her.

“I’m not,” Cynthia murmured, mesmerized by the phone.

“Give it here,” the mother demanded as they arrived at their destination.

The house on Iris Way had been on the market for three weeks now. Fixer-upper! ran the copy on the realtor web site. Plenty of 1970s charm and classic styling printed beneath photos of avocado-green kitchen appliances and lemon-yellow cabinetry.

This Sunday in particular, the third Sunday of the month, the front door of the house on Iris Way was wide open. The front lawn had been cut earlier that day. Sticky green wheel marks ran across the sidewalk where the lawnmower had been pivoted to begin cutting another direction. The only unkempt patch of grass was about the base of the real estate sign where the lawnmower’s blades could not reach. A bright red OPEN HOUSE sandwich board on the sidewalk directed the curious and the interested inside.

Standing on the sidewalk at the end of the driveway, Hanna Driscoll drew in a deep breath. It was a necessary moment to prepare herself for what lay inside this house—the home her parents once tried to make a family in. Old memories, buried memories, ugly memories.

“Were you poor?” thirteen-year-old Cynthia asked Hanna.

“The neighborhood’s gone down since we lived here,” Hanna told her.

“You and Grandmother lived here?” thirteen-year-old Ruby asked.

“Grandmother and Grandpa,” Hanna said. “Until I was seven. Then me and Grandmother moved away.”

The girls nodded. Their mouths hung open, an indication of the awe within them at the moment. They’d never visited their mother’s old house before. It is always difficult for a child to imagine their parents as children.

Hanna led her bridge daughters up the vacant driveway. Islands of gritty mechanic’s absorbent covered the driveway’s oil stains. Hanna knew the texture of the driveway’s poured concrete from memory. She knew the feel of the cement scraping her bare knees when she fell running. She knew the burn of the concrete baking hot from the summer sun when she sat on it. She made chalk drawings on the cement of worlds where airplanes flew upside-down and cacti grew on the surface of the margarine-yellow sun.

The three of them stepped through the open front door and into the cool entry hallway. A realtor emerged from the kitchen. She wore a navy blazer over a long patterned dress that ran down to a pair of black high heels. She welcomed them inside with a sing-song greeting and directed Hanna to the guest sheet. Hanna signed her name but skipped over the blanks for phone and email. This was purely to satisfy Cynthia’s and Ruby’s curiosity, as well as to indulge in a little nostalgia herself.

Judging from the open house guest sheet, only two other people had dropped by so far. It was nearing four o’clock and the open house would soon come to an end. Shame, Hanna thought. The house was of sturdy construction and laid out with a practical eye. It was a great starter home for a nuclear family, no doubt about it, a one-story with enough space for a mother and a father and one or two children.

The sellers of the house had not hired a stager to come in and make the place sparkle. This was the owner’s furniture, Hanna could see, their couches and stereo equipment and beds and pillows. This was their dust on the cabinet shelves, their toothpaste droppings in the sink, their curled flip-flops on the backyard patio. Two children lived in Hanna’s old bedroom now, one with a comic book hero bedspread and the other with a checkerboard quilt of naval battleships. Two sons, Hanna guessed.

The self-guided tour of the house produced a wash of childhood memories within Hanna. Good memories of time with her parents. Acidic memories of her parents yelling at one another across the table or in the bedroom, followed by doors slamming and her father roaring out of the driveway in the family car. Her mother never cried, at least not in front of her, but often, after he’d stormed out, she’d come into Hanna’s bedroom and hold her, even lie with her in bed, whispering how much she loved her.

Her parents’ marriage began breaking down when Hanna was six. It continued to smash apart when she was seven. She was still too young to understand she was sleeping in another girl’s bed. The first Hanna Driscoll slept there first, her bridge mother, the thirteen-year-old who gave birth to her and for whom she was named. Hanna looked exactly like the first Hanna Driscoll, a perfect genetic duplicate. She wore the first Hanna’s bedclothes and curled up under the first Hanna’s bedspreads.

Hanna’s parents, like most parents, saved the first Hanna’s baby clothes and toys and linens. Once the first Hanna passed, they dug out the old things to clothe and care for the new baby Hanna. It was not a matter of thrift; it was time-honored tradition. Even British royalty delighted the world by dressing their infants in the dated baby fashions their bridge princesses wore thirteen years earlier.

“Was this your room?” Cynthia asked Hanna.

“My desk was here and my bed was over there, beneath the window,” Hanna said. “It was my little world.”

“Did you have sleepovers?” Ruby asked.

“Some,” Hanna said. Later, after she and her mother moved to the farm, Hanna had few friends. She couldn’t recall a single sleepover on the farm in the Marin redwoods.

“Did you have pets?” Ruby asked.

“Oh, your grandmother doesn’t like pets,” Hanna said.

“Why not?”

“She didn’t like having animals around the house,” Hanna said. She touched the girls’ backs to guide them toward the bedroom door.

The realtor greeted them in the living room. “Isn’t it adorable? Perfect for a new family.” Looking over the two girls, she said to Hanna, “Have you seen the bridge room?”

“What bridge room?” Hanna said. There was no bridge room when she lived here with her parents.

“It’s behind the kitchen,” the realtor said. “Like most homes.”

Hanna followed the realtor, a touch confused and wondering if another owner had added the room after her parents sold the place. Certainly her parents never had a need for a bridge room. Hanna’s mother was dead-set against such archaisms. She taught her bridge daughter to read and write, to wear normal clothes, how to handle money, and more.

The real estate agent led them to the rear of the kitchen. She twisted the knob on a slender door, revealing darkness beyond. She flipped up a light switch on the wall next to the refrigerator. Fluorescent light shimmered up, revealing a tight bald room of dark corners and bare sheetrock. A deep sink and a toilet stood in the far corner with a floor drain nearby. Otherwise, the room was unfurnished, as the family no longer raised a bridge daughter.

Hanna needed a moment to remember this was the laundry room when she was growing up. Her parents kept the washer and dryer in here. The deep sink was for scrubbing persistent stains out by hand or to let delicates soak in cold water. She remembered the latch on the door, although her parents never used it. Today a loose padlock hung on it to signal to potential buyers the bridge daughter could be secured inside at night.

It was a bridge room and had been all along. Her parents had refashioned it as a statement. They insisted their bridge daughter lived in a real child’s bedroom and not a servant’s. Bridge rooms were designed to lock a young girl inside and ensure she did not run off at night. They were usually located behind the kitchen because it was the bridge daughter’s duty to cook, clean, and mind the larder. In traditional homes, the kitchen would be cut off from the rest of the house by a heavy swinging door so the rest of the family was not inconvenienced by the bridge daughter’s preparations. This kitchen, however, opened onto the entry hall and the dining room.

“It’s small,” Cynthia said of the room.

“Smells funny,” Ruby added, scrunching her button nose.

The realtor peered down at the girls disapprovingly. They were used to speaking without permission.

“Mind yourselves,” Hanna said to them both.

“I know it’s not the fashion anymore,” the realtor said, meaning the bridge room. “Parents say they don’t want a room like this, but you know what?” The realtor sidled close to Hanna and lowered her voice. “Most parents I’ve sold houses to want the peace of mind that a bridge room brings. It provides…” She searched for the word. “Definition. Security.” She glanced to Ruby and Cynthia. “I know it’s a small room for two bridge daughters, but with a little imagination, they could both fit in here comfortably—”

“That’s fine,” Hanna said. “I think we’re to be going.”

As she directed her daughters out of the bridge room and through the kitchen, the realtor continued. “Can I give you my card?” She hurried ahead of them to the side table in the entry hall. She offered a card and a sell sheet. “Do you have an agent yet?”

Hanna halted at the kitchen entry. She ran her fingers down both sides of the jamb until she found what she sought, a painted-over depression in the wood where hinges once were screwed in. Dad removed the door, she thought, further proof her parents didn’t treat their bridge daughter like the help.

“It could be a great utility room,” the realtor said. “I think a previous owner used it for the laundry.”

Ruby tugged on Hanna’s shirt sleeve. Hanna leaned down and Ruby whispered a request into her ear.

Hanna asked the realtor, “Could my bridge use the restroom?”

The realtor pointed the way. Ruby hurried in and shut and locked the door. Cynthia remained off to the side, brooding and suspicious of what she’d seen so far.

“Your bridges are lovely,” the realtor said. “They seem so close in age.”

“Twins,” Hanna said, aware that most people thought Ruby a year or two younger than Cynthia.

“I would never have guessed.” The realtor nodded to Cynthia. “She’s so much more rugged than the other one. And the little one is just darling.”

Cynthia bristled at asking to speak to adults, but she minded her manners and whispered to Hanna for permission to speak. “I’m carrying a boy,” Cynthia told the realtor. “My sister is carrying a girl.”

Ruby emerged from the bathroom with bright eyes and sparkling cherry-tipped cheeks. She’d washed her face and fixed her hair. Her percolating hormones and the hormones of the female gemmelius within her made a potent potion. The mixture bestowed a fresh youthfulness she would enjoy until her death seven weeks later, when she gave birth to Hanna’s daughter. Beaming, Ruby bounded across the living room and twirled into position behind Hanna, her dress flaring up.

Hanna thanked the realtor for her time. She was tempted to ask to see the backyard before they left, to see if her mother’s flower garden was still tended by the current owners, but Hanna let it drop. She doubted there was much in the way of good news to be found at this house.

Hanna led the girls to the car. She hoped they might have time to do a little shopping on the way home. The shopping mall by the highway had a Gap Bridge. She could pick up some socks and maternity wear for the girls.

“Your bridge mother lived in that room,” Cynthia said a tad accusingly. Although Cynthia and Ruby were the same age, Cynthia had a bold way about her that Ruby lacked. Cynthia could puff herself up and broaden her shoulders the way a schoolyard boy might.

“Your grandmother would never have done that,” Hanna said.

“Did she live in your bedroom?” Ruby asked.

“I believe she did.” Hanna unlocked the car doors and helped the girls inside. “I wore her clothes growing up. I even found in the closet a bag of origami cranes she’d made.”

“Origami?” Cynthia said.

“Paper birds,” Ruby explained.

“I know,” Cynthia said to her.

“I like making origami,” Ruby said. “We did that last year in school.”

Hanna made sure they were buckled up before climbing into the driver’s seat. She preferred the girls to sit in the back together. If one sat up front, the other would complain it was unfair. Besides, with the extended rearview mirror she’d had installed, she could watch them both at once while driving.

“Her name was Hanna,” Ruby told Cynthia. “Mom is named after her bridge mother.”

“Duh,” Cynthia said. “Everyone is named after their bridge mother.”

“Except boys,” Ruby said.

Hanna, hand on the ignition, wondered what really had drawn her out to Concord this Sunday afternoon. Scrolling down the Concord real estate listings felt like searching for childhood friends on Facebook, or looking up an old high school crush on a dating web site. Hanna left the house when she was seven, and yet there was a sense of unfinished business as she stepped from room to room. She was searching the real estate web site for a Berkeley townhouse or duplex, not a three-bedroom ranch-style in a town forty miles away. With Cynthia’s and Ruby’s finalities coming soon and two infants on the way, Hanna looked forward to moving from the house they lived in to a more affordable place. Her budget was stretched tight. This was an opportunity to get on top of money matters, get out of the red and into the black.

“Did your bridge mother write a letter to you?” Cynthia asked from the backseat.

Hanna turned over the engine but hesitated to put the car in gear. “No. She never wrote me a letter.”

“I want to do that,” Ruby said. “I want to write a letter to Ruby Jo,” her latest name for the child inside her.

“Me too,” Cynthia said.

“I’ll help you both,” Hanna said. “We’ll do it when the time comes.”

Clock-clock-clock. A figure rapped the window three times.

Startled, Hanna swiveled and peered up at the woman standing outside the car. She was about Hanna’s age, with bold black hair that fell in waves about her shoulders. Smiling, she waved at Hanna.

Hanna, confused, rolled down the window. “I’m sorry?”

“Is your name Hanna?”

“Yes,” Hanna said.

The woman leaned down. “Do you remember me?” she asked. Her wide grin was thickened by a generous application of mauve lipstick. “I’m Erica Grimond.”

 

Hanna cut the engine. The name was familiar but not the face. “I’m sorry, I don’t—”

“I grew up across the street.” Erica indicated the house facing Hanna’s old home.

Hanna nodded carefully, feeling embarrassed. “I remember you now,” she lied. “It’s been how long?”

“You moved away when we were little,” Erica said. “We never really played or anything.” Erica peered inside to the backseat. “Are those your girls?” Piecing it together, she corrected herself. “Your bridge daughters.”

“We’re here for the open house,” Hanna said. “I wanted to show them where I grew up. They thought it would be fun to see how Mommy lived when she was little.”

“I’m about to make some lunch,” Erica said. “I’d be happy to have you join me.”

“Oh, we have some shopping to do and I need to get them home.” She was going to add that it was a school night but wasn’t sure how Erica would respond. Hanna didn’t remember Erica but did recall the Grimonds as being conservative people. Their bridge daughters probably couldn’t even read or write. They might view schooling bridge daughters as a failing or a sin.

“Do you have five minutes to spare?” Erica asked. “I have something you should know about.” When Hanna began to ask, Erica said, “You should come over. It’s just easier to explain that way.”

The Grimond house smelled thickly of some earlier unappetizing, greasy meal. The paint on the wall was an unappealing gray color broken up by old-fashioned prints of autumnal New England farms. Hanna led the girls inside, intent to keep them close by so they could quickly conclude whatever odd business Erica intended to share.

The living room was deathly quiet. It took a few moments for Hanna to realize another woman was present. She reclined in a burgundy Barcalounger, footrest extended, this older woman, gray and wrinkled and motionless. Thick macramé quilts were layered over her. Only her slippers and face were exposed.

“Mother,” Erica shouted. She went to the woman and yelled into her ear. “This is Hanna Driscoll. She used to live across the street! When I was a little girl!”

No response at all from the woman. Her eyes were watery and empty. A thread of white spittle hung from the tip of her bottom lip to a washcloth tucked in around her neck.

Erica patted her mother’s shoulder and stood erect. “I thank God every day my father didn’t have to go like this,” she said.

“What’s wrong with her?” Ruby said, forgetting bridge etiquette. Cynthia hushed her.

“Her mind is going,” Erica said with a wistful little smile.

“Will she be okay?” Ruby asked, and Cynthia hushed her again.

“Come here,” Erica said, offering her hand to Ruby.

Ruby, shy and perhaps a bit scared, moved behind Hanna. She took hold of Hanna’s pants legs with the clenched fingers of her right hand. Hanna, sensing a learning opportunity, led Ruby to the Barcalounger. Erica told Ruby it was okay to touch her mother’s hand, to see it was warm and that she was alive.

“Is she asleep?” Ruby whispered.

“No,” Erica said, “but I’m afraid she’ll never wake up either.”

Cynthia approached, curious. She tugged on Vivian Grimond’s ring finger. No response. She tugged again.

“Why don’t you sit down?” Hanna said to her. “Watch Ruby while I talk to Ms. Grimond.”

Erica led Hanna through the kitchen and to the back of the house. “Your bridges are precious,” Erica said. “Are they twins?”

“They are,” Hanna said, surprised Erica had surmised it. Although the girls were identical when they were young, the children they bore had changed them dramatically over the past two years.

“The taller one’s going to have a boy, isn’t she?” She meant the aloof Cynthia, who stood a full six inches over the sweeter Ruby. “It’s not just her height, it’s her facial structure. Her cheekbones are more pronounced. I see it in her shoulders too. You’re going to have a handsome boy.”

Cynthia had a way about her, the way she carried herself and the directness of her tone. Cynthia could be so forceful sometimes it gave Hanna pause. Cynthia was once as sweet and girlish as Ruby. She only developed her more masculine qualities shortly before she entered pons anno. At its earliest stages, her hands enlarged and her voice deepened. She even developed a slight Adam’s apple, the pea-sized bulge eagerly pushing itself from her throat. The male infant inside her, her genetic uniform, exerted itself at an early stage, giving Cynthia her own unique cocktail of hormones to navigate.

The rear corridor of the Grimond house was lined with cardboard moving boxes. Thick felt-tip pen scribbles across each indicated their contents. Through a set of dingy brown windows, Hanna could see an untended backyard with a bone-dry concrete fountain in the rear corner.

The corridor led to a bridge room, although no bridge daughter lived there now. Moving boxes were stacked halfway to its ceiling. An adjoining bathroom housed a shower head but no tub, just a floor drain, and a toilet with water-lime stains in the bowl. No door to the bathroom, but the door to the bridge room itself bore two sturdy locks, both on the outside to keep the expecting girl within.

“I don’t think my bridge mother was a very happy little girl,” Erica said.

I’m sure that didn’t matter to the woman lying on that chair, Hanna thought, then scolded herself. It was an ungenerous habit she’d learned from her own mother.

“I would never raise my bridge daughters like this,” Erica said, although Hanna suspected she was posturing, presenting herself as a modern mother.

Quit being your mother, Hanna scolded herself.

“You’re selling?” Hanna said, indicating the boxes.

“We found a nice home for my mother in El Cerrito.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Jim Nelson's most recent book is Bridge Daughter, published in 2016 by Kindle Press. A California native, Jim lives in San Francisco.

Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
In my alternate universe, mothers produce “bridge daughters,” girls born pregnant. The girls give birth at age 13 and die, leaving the real child for the parents. My series follows three generations of an unconventional Northern California family and how they cope with this devastating reality.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Hagar's Mother is set in a world uncannily like our own. I want the presence of bridge daughters in familiar circumstances to jar the reader and reveal our culture from a new perspective. I love fiction that upends assumptions in surprising ways, and I sought to do that in this series.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Today we face new questions about sexuality, gender, reproduction—how we respect life and how we respect others. The Internet has opened and flattened our world in many ways. I wanted to write a modern thriller about life and death in a world filled with tensions between tradition and progress.

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