We named Marieke Nijkamp’s astonishing debut, This is Where it Ends, one of the best Young Adult novels of 2016—and with good reason. It’s a harrowing tale that plunges readers into a setting too horrifying to imagine: a school shooting. Shifting perspectives from students trapped inside to those outside the horror, it made for one of the most riveting reads of the year.
So we’re dying to check out Nijkamp’s second novel, Before I Let Go. Set in Alaska, the YA mystery/thriller’s plot sounds like a page-turner:
Corey and her best friend, Kyra, are inseparable. Corey is the only person who understands Kyra’s high-highs and low-lows. So when Corey’s family moves away from their Alaskan town, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winters and wait for her return. Except Kyra doesn’t.
Two days before Corey is to visit, Kyra is found floating underneath the ice. While everyone in Lost Creek deems Kyra’s death a suicide, Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. The town is keeping secrets—chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to Kyra may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter.
Can’t wait until the book’s release on January 23rd, 2018? You can read an exclusive excerpt and view the cover below, courtesy of Nijkamp’s publisher Sourcebooks Fire.
STRANGERS, TRAITORS, GHOSTS
I open the door and jump out of the plane as soon as we land on the narrow strip. The concrete shocks my knees and I stretch in the freezing cold air. I expect to find Mr. Henderson’s 4×4 waiting for me, or Sheriff Flynn, maybe. Instead, a lone figure stands against the rising sun. With the light at her back, I can only see her silhouette—a tall, gangly figure whose long hair dances in the wind. She raises a hesitant hand.
My heart skips a beat. Kyra. Without thinking, I start toward her, her name on the tip of my tongue.
Then the light clears. Her nose is smaller. Her hair lighter.
And the shout of recognition dies in my throat.
I forgot. Now I ache to forget again.
Behind me, the pilot disembarks. He grabs my backpack and hands it to me. “Your return flight is booked. Be here on time. See you in five days.”
So little time, but it has to be enough. “I’ll make sure of it. Thank you.”
The man hesitates, then says, “Be careful in Lost Creek. Not everything is as it seems here.”
Before I can reply with a simple, I know. We’ve always gone our own way, he turns on his heels with military precision and stalks back to the plane. I head toward Piper, who smirks. Plenty of people don’t understand our closed community, our way of living. We’re all used to odd comments like these.
Piper wraps her arms around me. She’s never done so before, but I cling to her. She’s strong and familiar. She smells of winter and home. “Hey, big city girl.”
“How was your flight?”
“It was good. Quiet. Early.” Strange.
“I can only imagine.” Her smile fades. “Mr. H has a business meeting, so he asked me to pick you up. We’re glad you’re here. Kyra would’ve liked that.”
That’s new. These last few years, Piper never considered Kyra’s feelings, and now that she’s dead doesn’t seem like the right time to start.
I sling my backpack over my shoulders, wondering how to phrase this question without sounding accusatory. “What can I expect here, Piper? I know Kyra wasn’t exactly…loved.”
Piper stiffens, as if I’d slapped her. Then she flicks a wayward lock of hair out of her face. “Do you think us so cold that we wouldn’t mourn her?”
“Things changed after you left.”
“Nothing ever changes in Lost Creek,” I say, out of habit. The only way to mark the passage of time here is by the aging of the children. They grow older, as they’re meant to, every birthday the start of a new year. The adults somehow appear to stop aging, and the elderly stop counting the years altogether.
Piper’s mouth quirks up, twisting her face into a harsh grimace. “Never mind. You’ll come to understand.”
“Understand what?” I ask, but Piper has already turned away from me.
“We take care of our own here. You ought to know that.”
I trek after her and regret not changing into my bunny boots. My sneakers are fit for traveling, but not for withstanding miles of snow. The cold bites.
At least I’ve arrived with the sun. When Piper and I turn away from the airstrip, toward Lost, bright light peeks out over the horizon. Anticipation takes over and the churning in my stomach settles. I breathe. This is home. The zingy smell of ice in the air. The snow, layered over the permafrost, that crunches beneath our feet.
Amid the gentle hills and pine—tree forests lies the town of Lost Creek. Our small, private universe. From our vantage point, it looks tiny, like a collection of dollhouses rather than a place where people live.
But it is home.
Piper leads me, as if I didn’t know my way around. We walk along the single road toward Main Street, one of a grand total of five streets in Lost Creek. It’s also the town’s busiest street.
On any given day of the week, Main would be crowded. Even in the middle of winter, this is the day when gossip gets shared and the grocery store and the physician’s pharmacy are stocked, when fishermen return from their camps along the creek with their catch.
But today is different.
The grocery store is closed. The street is abandoned. Well-cared-for houses are the only assurance that people actually live here. Fresh paint makes the town look newer than I’ve ever seen it. When I left, the houses were weather-worn and lived-through, perennially smudged with sleet and mud. Today, they are pristine. A dash of color sidles up the wall of the old post office, though from this angle, I can’t make out the design. It’s as if, with Kyra gone, Lost had painted over all its cracks and creases.
“What happened here?” I ask.
“Hope,” Piper says, quietly. She reverently touches a ribbon that’s tied around a gate. “And remembrance.”
I raise my eyebrows. “What does that mean?”
Piper doesn’t answer, but now I notice that the ribbons are everywhere, tied around every flagpole and every door handle. Bows in magenta and black—Kyra’s favorite color and the color of mourning. It’s like Lost is demonstrating its sorrow. But we’ve never made our grief public, beyond funeral gatherings. When Kyra’s grandfather passed away, the town honored him with a somber service. And he was liked by everyone.
It must be a coincidence.
“Look, I’m sorry if you thought I was being harsh before,” I try. “I just want to understand what happened to Kyra.”
Piper shakes her head. Her gaze searches Main. I have no idea what she’s looking for, but I glance surreptitiously over my own shoulder. We’re as alone as we were the moment we stepped into town. The street is empty, but the sunlight isn’t as bright here. The shadows are longer and darker.
“You’ll find out,” Piper says. “Someday, you’ll understand.”
The wind picks up, weaving around the houses and whispering.
The words float in the same tune as the girl’s at the airport, soft and out of reach. I swirl around, but no one’s there.
I pull at the straps of my backpack to cinch it closer and fall into step with Piper, who keeps a firm pace. She doesn’t seem to mind the wind. Or maybe she doesn’t hear it.
At the turn that leads to my old house, I pause. Piper grabs my hand and pulls me in the other direction. “I promised Mrs. Henderson I would take you to her as soon as you arrived, but once you’ve settled in, you should walk over.” Her voice is neutral.
We follow a side street until we reach a large, nineteenth—century townhouse on the edge of the creek. It’s the biggest plot of land in Lost, barring the spa outside the town’s borders. When settlers arrived in Lost Creek, Mr. Henderson’s great-grandfather was the first to find gold here—and his grandfather, the last. Over the years, the Henderson family had built a legacy of industry and investment. And although Mr. Henderson hasn’t been able to reopen our mine, it’s only right that their house reflects their status.
But while the house may appear imposing to outsiders, to Kyra and me, it was home. And now it’s in mourning. I drop my backpack and gape.
The gate and flagpole are covered with black ribbons. On either side of the driveway, small flowers lie strewn across the snow. Bright pink salmonberry flowers. They’re the same flowers the girl at the airport held. They’re the same flowers Kyra used to scatter around town.
I squint. No, not blossoms, but flowers made of magenta ribbons, like the ones that hang on Main Street. They remind me of Kyra’s paintings from her manic periods—not quite real enough, but still too close for comfort.
Maybe, just maybe, life is still a little unpredictable here.
“He was right, you know.” Piper’s words are so soft, they don’t immediately register.
“Who?” I ask.
“The pilot. Not everything is as it seems. I’ll see you at the service, if I don’t see you before then. Come find me if you have questions.” She starts back toward Main.
She pauses and turns. “Yes?”
My stomach roils. Wait. Don’t leave me. I can’t face Kyra’s absence yet. Let me cling for one more moment to the world I used to know.
I hesitate. “Tell Tobias that Luke said hi?”
At this, Piper smiles again, but I know it’s not for me. “Of course.”
Although Piper and I were friendly, we were never as close as our brothers. When Mom spent long days in Fairbanks and the surrounding towns seeing patients, I would often stay with Kyra, and Luke with Tobias. Luke had been furious when he found out that I’d made plans to come back to Lost to see Kyra without him. To see Kyra.
She knew I was coming. How could she not wait for me?
NOTE FROM KYRA TO COREY
Can you see the stars at your new school? I can’t imagine that the night sky there is as clear as it is in Lost. When you’re back, let’s go camping near the springs. Just you and me and a campfire and the northern lights. We’ll build a bridge. A bridge between us. I miss you, Corey.
I push open the gate, which squeaks against the cold, and hesitate.
The steps leading up to the Hendersons’ front door are the same steps where Kyra used to wait for Mr. H when he came home from his business trips. Where she would wait for me those rare times when Mom, Luke, and I would go visit my uncle in Nome. She would sit on a stair, with a book or a notepad, which she’d drop as soon as she saw us, racing to meet us at the gate.
I want Kyra to run out to greet me, to tackle-hug me. But she doesn’t. She isn’t…
I am at Kyra’s house, and Kyra’s not here. I am home, and Kyra’s not. The weight of grief crashes over me like an avalanche.
The Hendersons’ door opens. Mrs. Henderson steps onto the porch and folds her hands in front of her. Her black dress makes her face gaunt. A bewildered look haunts her eyes.
I launch myself at her, and she pulls me close. When she disentangles, she puts her hands on my arms and peers up at me. “Look at you, you’ve grown taller. We missed you. Joe is at a business meeting, but he’ll be along shortly. Come, it’s cold today and you must be hungry.”
She steps aside to let me in. “You can stay in the guest room, if you want. Kyra’s room is still there too, of course, but it’s locked. We’d rather no one disturb it.”
“I understand,” I say. “Thank you for having me.”
Mrs. Henderson keeps talking. Kyra used to ramble whenever she was upset too. “If you’d prefer to stay somewhere else, I’m sure we can arrange that. The Mordens have a spare bedroom. And Mrs. Robinson would accommodate you too, I’m sure.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. H. I’m fine.”
It’s a lie. I’m not fine. I want to turn and run, but I stand in the foyer. The house is silent. It feels wrong. I drop my bag near the coatrack and shrug off my coat. Mrs. H is already heading toward the living room, but I linger in the hallway.
The Hendersons never had pictures on their walls, and growing up surrounded by Mom’s photo albums, that was always odd to me. But now, pictures of Kyra hang everywhere. I wrap my arms around my waist and take in each one. Pictures of her as a small girl, of her growing up. Pictures of her drawing with charcoal, swimming in the hot springs, running around in costume. I remember each of those days.
I remember them. I was there. I was here.
But I’m not in any of the photos. They’re all of Kyra. One frame draws my attention. A young Kyra in oversize fishing gear. It was the spring we both turned ten, and school had given us a work-experience assignment. We had to shadow someone at their day job, and Kyra decided we’d go fishing. We borrowed gear from the tourist center and joined Piper’s father along the lakeshore. Five minutes in, Kyra decided that she hated sitting around waiting for fish to bite, but I loved it, so she stuck around. She caught a fish big enough for a meal and then some, and she was so proud that she posed with her catch. This isn’t that photo, though. This is the one where we were sitting side by side, arms around each other’s shoulders.
Except, I’m nowhere to be seen. Kyra is smiling alone.
Did Mrs. Henderson edit this? Do I just not remember this photo?
I take a step closer and reach for the frame when someone tuts. I turn toward the sound, but the hall is empty.
I back into the living room, but that has changed in a thousand small ways too. There’s a new couch. A lamp has been moved to a table on the other side of the room. But most glaring are the half-dozen bouquets of wildflowers with condolence cards. Kyra abhorred grief. When her grandfather died, she refused to go to the service, and she talked me into doing the same. She didn’t want to mourn him; she wanted to celebrate him. But Lost didn’t share that sentiment. They wanted their traditional, somber service.
Mrs. Henderson carries in a plate of her specialty sourdough muffins from the kitchen. They smell of yeast and sugar and comfort, potent reminders of all the times Kyra and I snuck freshly baked cookies and tablespoons of icing. My hands tingle as I remember the playful swat of Mrs. Henderson’s spatula across our knuckles when she tried to scare us away. Suddenly my eyes burn, and I can’t swallow back a sob.
Mrs. H sets the plate on the coffee table and pulls me into another hug. “Oh, Corey.”
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. H,” I whisper. “I wish I had come sooner.” I can’t articulate what I really want to say. That I left Kyra. That I should’ve paid more attention to her letters. That because of my absence and silence, her death is partially my fault. “I should have been here for her.”
“It wasn’t your choice, sweetheart,” Mrs. H says as we sit down on the couch. “I’m sure Kyra understood. She was happy, you know. Near the end.”
“How could she have possibly been happy?” That’s something you say about someone old who has died, someone who lived a century. Not about a seventeen-year-old girl whose body was found floating under the ice after she cut her own life short. She didn’t sound happy.
Mrs. Henderson gives a fragile smile. “She came home to us. I wish you could’ve seen how much she’d changed these last few months. She found her place here.”
I blink. “She did?” She never wrote about that to me. She still seemed to be struggling. Did I misunderstand? How much did she leave out? “Oh. So they helped her in Fairbanks?”
“Oh no, she never went. We decided it would be better for her here.”
Rowanne, Kyra’s therapist, traveled between patients in various towns, just like Mom did as a physiotherapist. “But I thought Rowanne recom—”
“Rowanne stopped coming to Lost Creek shortly after your family left,” Mrs. Henderson snaps. Her mouth thins and her eyes flash. I scoot back a little on the couch. “She abandoned Kyra.”
I wince. “Then what changed? Did you find her another therapist? Better medication?”
Mrs. H looks at me as if I’ve grown two heads or started speaking in tongues. “Corey, after you left, Kyra finally understood that the community loved her too, that she belonged here. That was what made her happy. You can see it in her recent paintings, in her art. Lost gave her purpose. It set her heart and mind alight.”
Alight. A shiver runs down my spine when I hear that word again.
“Lost Creek never accepted her like that.”
Like Piper, Mrs. H’s smile slips and she withdraws. “The town embraced her.”
This was what Kyra wanted—to be accepted. “I didn’t think she’d find that in Lost,” I say very carefully.
“Well, she did, Corey. You weren’t here.”
I pick up one of the cups of tea Mrs. H set out for us. I let it warm my hands before I ask, “Then why did she leave? If she was so happy, why didn’t she wait for me? She knew I was coming.”
“No star can burn forever, Corey. You’ve always had a head for science, you must know that. It was Kyra’s time to let go,” she says, with almost religious reverence. Then she nods behind me. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
I shift to see a painting resting on the floor behind the couch. The canvas is surrounded by bouquets, candles, and ribbons. Blood roars in my ears. The tea cup tumbles from my hands.
I recognize it as one of Kyra’s. The painting is so detailed, it’s like looking at a photograph. A circle of blossoms is spread out over snow and ice. The flowers look so real it’s as if they’ve been placed on top of the canvas itself.
The constellation of Orion reflects in the surface. The brightest red star—Betelgeuse—shines like the supernova it’s turning into, and it lights up the painting. It lights up the ice.
It lights up the body beneath it.
Kyra had painted herself floating under the translucent ice. Her brown hair is spread out around her, and her hazel eyes are opened wide. Even as she sinks into the dark abyss of the lake, she smiles.
And I’m numb.
Before I Let Go will be released by Sourcebooks Fire on January 23rd, 2018.