Today, we have an excerpt from Marieke Nijkamp’s latest novel, Even If We Break. First, here’s the synopsis:
A group of friends go to a cabin to play a murder mystery game… only to have the game turned against them.
FIVE friends go to a cabin.
FOUR of them are hiding secrets.
THREE years of history bind them.
TWO are doomed from the start.
ONE person wants to end this.
NO ONE IS SAFE.
For five friends, this was supposed to be one last getaway before going their separate ways — a chance to say goodbye to each other, and to the game they’ve been playing for the past three years. But they’re all dealing with their own demons, and they’re all hiding secrets.
Finn doesn’t trust anyone since he was attacked a few months ago. Popular girl Liva saw it happen and did nothing to stop it. Maddy was in an accident that destroyed her sports career. Carter is drowning under the weight of his family’s expectations. Ever wants to keep the game going for as long as they can, at all costs.
When the lines between game and reality start to blend with deadly consequences, it’s a race against time before it’s game over — forever.
Are you ready to play?
We’re leaving the world behind.
The narrow mountain road creeps higher, and with every step, Flagstaff and our small suburb of Stardust disappear a little farther into the distance. With every step, we’re more alone. It’s just the five of us.
It’s not a comfortable walk — the straps of my backpack dig into my shoulders, my binder is sweaty, and my crutches keep slipping on loose rocks — but it’s a beautiful one. The muddy road first winds around a dark and ghostly lava field, then nestles between a whispering pine forest and steep cliffs.
If only I could relax enough to appreciate it. But I keep my eyes on the ground. It’s safer that way — and less painful too.
“Are you okay?” Carter falls into step with me, the two of us lagging behind the other three. Carter’s the only one lugging a suitcase up this mountain, and it makes his pace more irregular than mine. His face is almost as red as his shirt, and he’s sweating. The sun won’t let us forget that it’s summer.
“Please tell me you wore sunscreen,” I say.
He rolls his eyes. “Yes, dad.”
“You like me a whole lot more than you like your dad,” I joke, and immediately realize how mean it sounded.
Carter flinches, then takes a deep breath and looks at me with something that’s far too much like pity. And underneath is a gentleness that I haven’t seen in years, reminding me of the exuberant gamer he was our freshman year, before he became the son his parents wanted him to be. “I’m glad you’re here, dude. It’s been a while.”
I’m not sure that I’m glad. A weariness has settled in my bones and my joints and it refuses to come out. At least this is the last time we’ll come together as a group.
Too much has changed. Some friendships aren’t meant to last. We’ve outgrown each other. There is too much hurt and history between us.
But Ever wants us to try one last time, and for Ever, I’ll do anything.
Even if it means pretending everything’s okay and putting costumes and characters over the cracks between us.
Even if it’ll break me.
Even if it’ll break all of us.
I glance toward the front of the group, where Ever navigates the road. They’re with Liva, and the sight of her perfectly styled hair and flawless smile makes me tense up. Pain stabs at my legs, filling me whole. If Ever’s why I’m here, Liva’s why I wouldn’t be.
Carter is unperturbed by my silence. “So what do you think Ever prepared? I mean, we all know this game will be another murder mystery. Our characters are only good at solving murders. But this is our last weekend together. It must be something special. Do you think it’ll be our boss fight? Take down the BBEG? They’ve been secretive for weeks.”
Although so much of me doesn’t want to be here, I can’t help getting drawn back into our game, into the world of Gonfalon. I missed this. But I continue my silence, trying desperately not to care.
Carter keeps talking. “We have the perfect location for it. Have you heard the ghost stories about this mountain? Apparently they go back for decades. Centuries. Do you think Ever will weave some of that into our story? You know, for full immersion? It would definitely make this weekend memorable.”
I can’t help myself. “Ghost stories, huh?” This doesn’t seem like a haunted place. The mountain is green and blossoming under the summer sun. The foliage still smells of rain and the aftereffects of a storm. Birds chirp, eagles call, and every part of it is so tranquil it chafes. Only the road itself is imperfect, scarred by a year of minor quakes.
“Mass murderers. Disappearances. Strange music coming from the shadows. The last thing the murderer’s victims heard before he killed them was a music box melody.” He looks up at the mountain and grins. “People die on this mountain, Finn.”
“You sound way too excited about that. Besides, if people died, how did anyone know the music box was the last thing they heard?”
“Wouldn’t it be fun to play through the night and then meet actual ghosts?”
“…no?” This is exactly why Fatima, my therapist, says white people die in haunted houses. We have no nose for danger whatsoever.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”
I roll my eyes. “Where’s your sense of self-preservation?”
“Aw, c’mon. You don’t think anything would actually happen?”
Underneath my crutch, a small pebble skids off the path and I take a second to reposition myself. “No, I don’t think anyone actually believes in ghosts. Not even nerds like you who go to the library to dig up local haunts.”
Carter smirks. He’s your average pasty white all-American boy, with sparkling blue eyes and curly blond hair. “I’ll have you know, I will always take nerd as a compliment, and in this case, I didn’t go to the library. Liva mentioned it the other day when we were — oh.”
He must’ve seen how my face fell at those words, because his face falls too.
Carter has never tried to talk about what happened. Maddy sort of brought it up once, asking how I was doing, but she was deeply uncomfortable. Ever faced it head on, but they approach everything that way. And even then, I couldn’t tell them all of it.
This is why I don’t want to be here. It’s not just what happened between Liva and me. The group fell apart after I got into that fight. We’d barely gotten used to Zac leaving. We were picking up the pieces. And instead of heading back into the game, I led us straight to an awkward three-month hiatus that everyone’s pretending didn’t happen.
So I can’t help but think I don’t belong here anymore. No matter how much I used to, once upon a time. No matter how much I’d give to belong once more.
“It’s okay,” I lie. “We’re all together and that’s what matters, right?”
We have to try. Or at least pretend. After all, isn’t that what the whole weekend is about? Pretending?
We’re only here to fall apart again.
Carter tugs at a strand of his sand-colored hair. He doesn’t meet my eye. “I’m sorry, dude.”
Yeah. “Me too.”
Maddy glances back, her lips set in a worried line, but Ever and Liva haven’t heard us and forge on ahead. One day, Liva and I will have the conversation we need to have. But it won’t be today, and I won’t be the one to instigate it.
“I meant to ask — are you looking forward to college?” Just like that, Carter has changed the topic, and something has subtly shifted in his face. He’s bottled his vulnerability, put his mask back on. We all have our secrets, of course. Carter’s is that beneath it all, he actually used to be a decent person.
“You’re going east, right?” Carter’s father taught him to be in control of conversations, to always have the last word. This version of Carter never quite knows how or when to shut up, and this conversation is just another reminder of everything that’s changed between us. Once, we were close enough that he wouldn’t have had to ask this.
“Mm-hm.” Drexel University. One of the best game development programs in the country, and the one that offered me an almost full-ride scholarship. Plus, it’s about as far as I can possibly get.
I want to be safe, and here isn’t safe anymore.
Carter huffs with the effort of dragging his ludicrous bag. Poor guy. He couldn’t possibly have anticipated that we’d have to abandon our cars on the private drive because of a blockage, but he looks ridiculous. “I’m headed in the opposite direction. USC. I can’t wait to get out of here. This town — this state — is getting too small for me. I want something that challenges me.”
“Somewhere you can prove yourself?” My tone is harsher than I intended. This version of Carter — a bragging blow-hard — brings out the worst in me. I take my eyes off the path and glance up at him.
He shrugs. “Yeah, I want to prove myself. Something wrong with that? Having ambition isn’t a bad thing, is it? I want something more. Something better than all of this.”
“Can’t argue with that.”