‘She puts the worm in her mouth. She swallows it whole. It doesn’t wriggle. Too late now’—Read an excerpt from Lauren Beukes’s new novel, Bridge

The JRB presents an excerpt from Bridge, the new novel from Editorial Advisory Panel member Lauren Beukes.

Lauren Beukes
Penguin Random House SA, 2023

No Undo

Bridge rouses from the sweet dark depths of sleep at ungodly o’clock. It’s her body punishing her for drinking too much, pinging her brain: Yo, wake up, you poisoned us, now you have to suffer too. The whole damn bottle of tequila, she thinks with great regret, and glances over to where Dom is cocooned in all the blankets, snoring softly on the other side of Jo’s modest Ikea double bed.

She lies there with her eyes closed, willing herself back to sleep. But it’s gone. Poisoned! her body complains, her throat burning with dehydration. Yeah, yeah, okay. She checks her phone. Six eighteen in the A dot M.

There’s a glass of water and an aspirin on the bedside table next to a note in the professional font of Dom’s handwriting with an illustration of a happy little glass beaming rays of sunshine. Eat me! Drink me! Thank your guardian angel of hangovers later.

She really doesn’t deserve them.

And then the loss kicks in all over again, and she has to shove it down deep where she can’t feel it—or at least pretend she doesn’t. Focus on the hangover. On what they accomplished yesterday: two whole rooms.

Dom stuck up poster-size sheets of paper in the living room with various to-do lists and started piling movable objects beneath their respective categories: Things to Sell, Keep, Donate, Chuck, Get Professionally Valued. A lot of manual labor, sorting, and studiously avoiding talking more about her mom or the stupid fucking dreamworm. 

She was grateful Dom didn’t press the subject. They ordered in Thai and talked about everything but. Dom held forth about internet esoterica, like the sheer number of serial killers in Oregon, for example, and how ninjas wear black because that’s how stagehands dressed in Japanese theater, and one day, one ingenious playwright had a stagehand (who was literally part of the furniture, or, rather, the mechanic who moved the furniture, but the point is, everyone agreed he was invisible) step forward and commit the murder, which blew the audience’s mind. The conversation segued into Victorian kinks and a horrifying ye olde treatment of applying leeches to the cervix, and Dom said maybe the dreamworm was a leech and had they tried to feed it blood yet? She playfully punched their arm, but with the half-hearted strike of the desperately tired, and Dom hauled her up and shoved her down the book-cramped hallway to her mom’s bed.

Now, Bridge swallows the store-brand pill (because ‘Big Pharma is a sack of dicks’) and a whole damn pint of water.

She lies back down, but her head is in some kind of hell vise, and her brain is whirring through the fog, and let’s face it, there is zero chance of her going back to sleep. Reluctantly, she gets up and pads through the hushed rooms of the house on bare feet. It’s somehow less haunted at six a.m. In the gray dawn, it becomes anyhouse. Like the acetaminophen: generic.

The Tupperware is still sitting on the kitchen table. She considers tossing the ugly useless thing inside it, shoving it down the disposal unit, grinding it to dust. But maybe it’s the apotheosis of her mom’s work. She could get it tested.

One of the grad students, a colleague? She’ll need to find someone, slip it in here while she’s asking about what to do with her mom’s papers. Hey, know anything about her research on the dreamworm? Totally fake, waste of time, but I thought maybe I could dump it on you just in case?

It felt so real. The grass under her bare feet. A scar on her arm. Not magical. No unicorns or dragons or kingdoms in the clouds. Perfectly normal; banal, even. Monica helped her realize these were false memories, maybe even suggestions her mom had made so she’d be able to imagine a different life, prepping her for the divorce and how things could change. A kind of hypnosis, using the zoetrope and the sitar.

That tracks, she hates to admit it. She remembers pretending she was somewhere else, somewhere nice, with a big house and toys and a huge garden and a pool in Florida where her dad’s folks live, and there was a party one time, and her parents were her parents but also not. Or she was standing on a beach, looking out over fir-topped coastal islands, the wind rippling the grasses, and her mom holding her hand and saying, Isn’t this lovely? She imagined bad times too. Her parents yelling worse than they ever did in real life, smashing things. Her mom and her living in a car, snuggled up on the back seat among all their worldly possessions. Part of her processing, according to Monica.

Bridge pours herself another glass of water and goes to her mom’s desk. Might as well try to be productive. Taking a note from Dom’s mad organizational skills, she creates five new folders on the laptop: Mom’s Work, Personal Shit, Admin to Sort Out Now, Admin to Sort Out Later, and WhateventhefuckdoIdowiththis, and abandons them all to comb through her mom’s photo albums. There’s a folder labeled TO PRINT, which she obviously never got around to, because whoever does? 

Here are Jo and Stasia, happy and swaddled up on a frozen pier on vacation in Copenhagen, their cheeks red from the cold. Jo with her students in front of the lab, fresh-faced science babies, one of them, a girl with soft pink hair and glasses, performing fire poi. A portrait of Stasia curled up in the window seat reading, caught as she’s looking up at the camera, features curved in tender surprise.

She quick-scrolls through the others, pauses on a shot of a skull painted red nestled in a sculpture of plastic dolls and tangled with wood and wires, which is fucking weird.

Jo standing next to a motorcycle on a hilltop, squinting into the sun and holding out a small battered tobacco tin like a prize. Was that Haiti? Everyone told her she’d been lucky not to get kidnapped. An unsmiling Black man with dreadlocks and Ray-Bans leaning on a filigreed balcony. What was Jo even doing there?

Back further. A photograph of Bridge at her high-school graduation standing between Jo and her dad, one of the few post-divorce occasions they’d managed to tolerate each other, all of them smiling too hard. Sixteen-year-old babygoth Bridge with purple hair, phone dangling from one hand, slouching in a long-sleeved black shirt and jeans in front of piles of rocks at Chiricahua because the Grand Canyon was too misty for them to see anything. Only pretending to hate it, because hiking was the one activity where she and Jo seemed to relax around each other.

Bridge goofing around in drama club, dressed in black again (like Dom’s ninjas); at fourteen, heading off to Bible camp, acting so devout to hide that she was full of hormones and turmoil. At eleven, at a Katy Perry concert with her best friend, Maya, both of them losing their minds; at nine or ten, her mouth smeared with marshmallow and chocolate, camping in Deception Pass with her mom, who was trying too hard to make up for how busy she was with her PhD, all the times she wasn’t there. At eight years old at the Big Fun theme park, where she started crying after the first roller coaster and wanted to go home. Jo was furious because she’d spent so much money on their entry tickets, called her ‘a little scaredy-cat’. Nice, Mom. But Bridge remembers being illogically terrified of falling out. No, more than that—of falling away and never being able to find her way home and losing her mom forever and ever.

She stops prowling through the pictures and, against her better judgment, clicks on the ‘hidden’ folder. Someone has to scrub her mom’s sex tapes from the Cloud, and it might as well be her. There are a bunch of videos with cryptic names, all variations of numbers and letters, like FJ_Key4h, and ominous black thumbnails. They fill her with a different kind of dread—a squicky slurry rather than concrete.

She could ask Dom to do this, especially after the New Year’s Eve incident. The pair of them skipped the parties and were mainlining gin and tonics and episodes of The Golden Girls on her roommate’s ridiculously expensive white couch, which didn’t even make sense to have in a shared student house, and Dom abruptly declared they were going to hurl, and Bridge … caught it in her cupped hands. On the exchange rate of friends-saving-the-day-no-questions asked, a double-handed couch-saving puke catch has to be worth skimming through DIY Mom porn. But even though she knows Dom would handle it with stoic efficiency and never speak of it again, she can’t do that to Jo.

Bridge cowgirls up and clicks on the first one, labelled ZC_12M. The video begins with bands of color, like a test signal, and then a familiar zoetrope pattern starts, the horses running, and the sultry notes of a sitar but stranger, somehow. She pauses it. Glances over at the bed, where Dom is dead to the world, starfished across the mattress. 

Absurd to feel guilty but she does as she tiptoes into the kitchen, where it’s waiting for her. She pries the lid of the Tupperware, looks down at the dreamworm, which is pale and iridescent. She should wake Dom, let them know she’s doing this. That would be the responsible and considerate thing to do. And then Dom would considerately and responsibly talk her right out of it.

Bridge breaks off a spaghetti-like thread and carries it back, lightly cupped in her palm. It’s only her imagination that it’s warm. She sits down in front of the laptop, takes another look at Dom, who has rolled over, cocooned in the covers, so she couldn’t abandon this and get back into bed even if she wanted to. But they’ll be right there if anything goes wrong …

Bridge untangles the headphones with one hand and plugs them into the laptop. The snag of dreamworm in her palm has curled up; from her body temperature, obviously, like one of those fortune-telling fish you get in party crackers. It’s not magic. It’s not alive. It’s not going to give her brain cancer. Her mouth is dry as an Arizona desert thanks to the hangover and the anticipation. She takes a swig of water and holds it so she doesn’t have to feel the slimy texture, the sweet beetroot-y-taste of dirt, as she puts the worm in her mouth. She swallows it whole. It doesn’t wriggle. Too late now. Before she can hesitate, she leans over to press Play on the video.

The music swells through the headphones, the strange familiar sound of the sitar, and the black-and-white animation loop goes faster and faster, the zoetrope horses running and running until they are a blur, no longer individuals but a centipede of stallions, and there are colors, a whole damn Pantone catalog in kaleidoscope, swirling fractals, and a whooshing rushes up to fill her head and there’s a terrible pressure and then …


  • Lauren Beukes is the award-winning and internationally bestselling author of The Shining Girls, which has been adapted by AppleTV+, as well as Zoo City, Moxyland, Broken Monsters and Afterland. Her novels have been published in twenty-four countries, and she’s also a screenwriter, comics writer, journalist and award-winning documentary maker. She lives in London with two trouble cats and her daughter.


Publisher information

In infinite parallel universes, there’s a version of you who already has everything you’ve ever wanted. But 24-year-old drop-out Bridge is paralysed, by all the other lives she could have lived, the choices she could have made, and now, whoever she’s supposed to be in the wake of her mother’s premature death.

They always had a complicated relationship. Jo was the teenage runaway turned maverick neuroscientist who threw everything away chasing after an impossibility—a mysterious artefact—the dreamworm—that allows you to switch between realities. And now she’s dead and any chance of reconciliation with her is gone.

But is Jo really gone … or only in this universe? When Bridge and her best friend Dom stumble on the dreamworm,which does indeed open the doors to other worlds, otherselves, she becomes convinced her mom is lost out there. But the dreamworm is more dangerous than she can imagine, and she’s not the only one hunting across time and space.

Page-turning and ambitious, Bridge is a dazzlingly inventive speculative thriller with an unforgettable cast of characters, and the work of a novelist at the height of her powers.

Author photo: Tabitha Guy/Composite: The JRB

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