Imagine being unaware of a deadly virus raging outside and then being abandoned by your caretakers. Author Marieke Nijkamp‘s next book, At the End of Everything, tells the story of teens exiled at the Hope Juvenile Treatment Center. The world mostly ignores them anyway, but it goes to another level when guards abandon the teens as an infectious disease spreads. Soldiers won’t let them leave. They’re on their own. And Nerdist is excited to exclusively reveal the cover for At the End of Everything.
The bicycle on its side on the cover says so much. It evokes the feeling of being left behind and of youth. The teens at Hope have to quickly decide what to do about supplies and who to trust. The circumstances force them to learn how to survive. It’s about resilience, hope, and found family.
And yes, we have more. In addition to the cover, we have an excerpt from the first chapter of At the End of Everything.
We are the last ones.
Leah and I squeeze into the hallway just in time for movement line. There’s eight of us to a wing, and the six others are already standing in front of their doors underneath the fluorescent light, all in various stages of awake. Thankfully, there are no guards in sight yet.
Next to me, Leah yawns. “So early,” she whispers.
I elbow her. It’s always early.
Life at the Hope Juvenile Treatment Center follows a routine. That’s a good thing. Lights go on at six. The day starts at seven with movement line, a head count, and breakfast. Our cohort—the east and the south wings—starts school at eight, while the other two wings have school in the afternoon. Lunch is at noon. Half an hour of recreation time. Twice a week, it’s followed by PE. And therapy or group therapy or work in the communal garden.
Then another count. Dinner. Recreation. Lights out at nine.
It’s the schedule Leah and I were given when we got here nine months ago. It’s never changed.
Leah runs her fingers through her brown hair and braids it so she won’t get in trouble for not following dress code. Her hair is darker than mine, but not by much. Her hazel eyes are lighter, but they mostly look red and tired now. We’re not identical. Not quite. But she is still the other half of me.
I don’t know how to exist without her.
“All I’m saying is, some days, I wish we could sleep in,” she grumbles.
I roll my eyes and straighten her scratchy blazer. Our brains are wired differently, she once told me. She can’t read well, but I can. I don’t talk, but she does. And I like routine. It’s reassuring. Every morning, I know when I get to eat. Every night, I have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. We may not be comfortable here, but it’s better than before.
Across the hallway, Nia Miller stifles a yawn. Underneath her bangs, she gives me a tired grin and waves. She’s my age, Black, with her hair tied back in a curly ponytail, and ink stains on her sleeves. She has a few crumpled pages stuffed in the pockets of her pants. I gesture at her to push the paper deeper so the guards won’t see it, and she does.
“Thanks,” she mouths.
I smile. I like Nia. She’s always drawing, though I don’t think anyone’s ever seen the work. That’s okay. She shouldn’t have to share if she doesn’t want to.
Leah nudges me. “Eyes down.”
Warden Davis and two of the guards show up at our wing. The warden stalks past, a clipboard in hand, staring at every single one of us like he’s looking for something. I glance at him through my lashes. He wears a dark suit and an angry frown, and he towers over us.
Josie Watson, the white girl in the room next to ours, doesn’t seem fazed by his presence. She meets his gaze. She has brown hair cropped past her ears, and her eyes are cold. When she sees me looking, she doesn’t smile or wave, and I quickly look away. She scares me. She stabbed another girl, and I wouldn’t put it past her to do it again.
“What is he doing?” I sign at Leah, when the warden reaches the other side of the hallway and marks something down.
Leah hushes me. “Not now.”
She’ll figure it out. And if not my sister, someone else will know. Or Warden Davis will tell us in one of his endless speeches about rules and good behavior. He believes everything is a teachable moment.
It’s one of the reasons we all hold our breath until he’s gone again, and the guards get us moving toward breakfast. That’s what movement line is. Everything we do is controlled and supervised by the guards.
The rest of our wing falls in line around us.
Isabella Gonzales leads the way to breakfast. She’s a Mexican American girl who got into a fight with her one of her teachers and got arrested for assault. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve met. She’s the only one aside from my sister who shares her dessert with me.
Chloe Hughes and Riley Jackson are next, following Isabella. The new kid, Emerson, brings up the rear. I don’t know their last name. They’re white and nonbinary. They got sent here three weeks ago, and the only thing I know is that they were allowed to bring a violin, but they aren’t allowed to play it. They tried, once, after lights-out, and ended up in solitary for a full two days.
It’s cruel, Leah said. But there is little here that isn’t cruel.
I wish I could have a violin, even though I can’t play. I wish I could have something that belongs to me.
When I said that to Leah, she replied, “I belong to you.”
I shook my head. “That’s not the same thing.”
“It still matters.”
She reaches out to squeeze my hand now and starts pulling me toward the cafeteria.
Mrs. Harris stands at the door, counting us in. She coughs when we approach her and raises an eyebrow at the two of us holding hands, but she doesn’t say anything. I like her. She knows how much it matters to me.
“Thank you,” Leah whispers.
Mrs. Harris shakes her head, and something like sadness flashes across her face. It’s there and gone again, so maybe I didn’t see right. Or maybe I imagined it.
Leah leans into me. “I saw it too.” She may not always be able to concentrate well on what’s happening around her, but she’s always aware of me. “Do you think she’s okay?”
I hope so.
I don’t even have to say or sign it for Leah to know how I feel. “I hope so too. She’s good people, like Granddad would say.”
We grab our trays and line up to get our food. Today’s breakfast menu is an apple, unidentifiable fruit juice, coffee, half a cup of cereal with milk, and two burned pancakes. The smell of sizzling-hot oil clogs my nostrils.
“At least we’ve finished up the leftover turkey,” Leah mutters.
That’s true. Three days of the same meal is more than enough for me.
A commotion near the door causes the breakfast line to grind to a halt, and I turn to figure out what’s going on.
Two guards have pulled Emerson aside and have marched them up against the wall. One of the guards grabs the sleeve of Emerson’s blazer, and it tears at the seams. “This is a disgrace.”
Leah says they give us uniforms to wear here because they think it gives us a sense of pride. But the scratchy fabric makes my skin crawl. Some of the clothes are threadbare, and all of them are uncomfortable. And Emerson’s uniform doesn’t fit at all.
“Keep quiet,” Leah hisses, when Emerson argues.
The sentiment is echoed by several people around us.
“If you act up, that dress code violation is going to be the least of your problems,” the guard promises.
Every eye in the cafeteria is trained on Emerson and the guards now. Everyone wants to see what the new kid will do. Only the people at the table closest to the guards keep their head down and pretend to be focused on their food. In the farthest corner of the cafeteria, the boys from the west wing have huddled together. Their leader—Hunter—is standing on his seat to get a better look at what’s happening.
He smiles thinly and mumbles something to his friend Reid, who laughs.
I nudge Leah, and when she sees what I’m looking at, she shakes her head. “New kid’s going to get a reminder of who owns these hallways too.”
I frown. Technically, the state does. Or Better Futures, the private company that controls Hope. It’s where the none-too-subtle name comes from too. Hope for Better Futures. But if you ignore that, it’s Hunter and his friends. And they have hungry smiles.
I hate it.
I take a step closer to Leah, and she reaches for my hand again, her fingers brushing mine. “Keep your head down,” she whispers.
This is a part of the routine too. The guards flexing their muscles. Hunter and his friends showing theirs. Leah told me the best thing anyone here can do is not draw attention to themselves.
Eventually, the guards release Emerson, and the tension in the cafeteria fades slightly. Everyone is ready to return to breakfast, until one of the guards throws a last comment in Emerson’s direction, and Emerson flinches.
A girl a few places in line behind us sighs heavily. “They are nonbinary, and their pronouns are they and them.” Her voice echoes in the quiet room.
When I turn, I see it’s Grace Richardson, from the south wing. She rolls her eyes and picks up her tray again, though she must know what’s coming. She is at Hope for aggravated assault. I believe she did it too. She’s been here longer than Leah and me, longer than pretty much anyone, and she intimidates me.
Leah groans. “Come on, I want to eat.”
A moment later, Grace’s tray clatters on the floor when the guards grab her and pull her out of the line. Emerson stands forgotten, and they do the smartest thing they can—they fade into the background.
One of the guards who grabbed Grace shoves the line forward to get us all moving again, and I nearly get pushed off my feet. “Eyes forward!” he says. “You won’t get any extra time to eat.”
That’s enough of a threat to get everyone focused on breakfast again, but I wish I could ignore the sounds of the struggle going on behind me. Grace’s tray as it screeches across the floor. The guards’ angry grunts when Grace struggles—and her muffled compliance once they’ve cuffed her. By the time Leah and I have gathered our breakfast, the guards have dragged Grace out of the cafeteria.
“She tried to help,” I sign at Leah, once we’ve sat at our table. “She didn’t do anything. She corrected them.”
Leah stabs at her pancakes. “The guards don’t like making mistakes. And they like it even less when someone points those mistakes out to them.”
I take a bite of chewy cereal. I don’t like the texture but being hungry is worse. “It makes no sense.”
She shrugs. “I know.”
“Are you like, psychic or something?” The voice comes from close behind me, and I swirl around.
Elias Thompson towers over me. He holds an empty tray, and he’s munching on his apple core. He’s pale, with hair so blond, it’s almost white. He got arrested selling meth out of his high school’s basement, and he’s the type of person who walks around with mocking contempt for everything and everyone.
“Well?” He reaches over my shoulder and grabs my apple too.
Leah raises her eyebrows. Her hands are curled to fists. “I pay attention. Try it sometime.”
“Cute.” He smirks.
“I am,” Leah says, without missing a beat. “You should put that back. It’s my sister’s.”
Elias tilts his head. He stares my sister down and dares her to force him.
It only takes a beat. Reid and Maverick from Hunter’s table notice that Elias is challenging us, and they get up and walk our way. Their soles squeak on the linoleum, and every conversation around us hushes. It always happens. A silent beat whenever Hunter or any of his friends are around. Elias realizes what’s happening. He drops the apple on the table and turns on his heels. Reid follows him, and Maverick lingers near us.
Leah told me I shouldn’t scowl. Instead, I try to look grateful. I reach for the bruised apple and polish it on my sleeve.
“Yeah, thanks,” Leah says. “He wasn’t doing anything, just being his annoying self.”
Maverick rolls his shoulders. “We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Leah’s smile is tight-lipped. When Maverick reaches out to tousle my hair like I’m a kid or a pet, she very carefully shakes her head. Don’t anger them. Play along.
I freeze and let him touch me.
Hunter took pity on us when we first arrived. He slung an arm around Leah’s shoulders and told her: “I have a sister who’s special too. I know how hard it is, but I’ll make sure nothing happens to you while you’re here.”
She had to step on my foot to keep me from punching him, and we fought about it when we got to our room. I hate the word special. I hate his belief that I’m a burden—or anyone’s precious possession. I hate the idea that I should be protected. I may not speak or think the same way Leah does, but that doesn’t mean I’m less human than she is, and I can take care of myself.
It took Leah almost a week to convince me it wasn’t about any of that—except the protection, maybe.
“Life is different here than it was back home,” she said. “For better and for worse. Do you remember what Granddad used to tell us? There are good people who will help you, but there are also wolves in disguise. Hunter is a wolf.”
“We have to be careful with him and his crew, and I’d rather he eats others than that he tries to eat us.”
“I’d rather he doesn’t eat anyone at all.” They all scared me.
“Also that, of course.” She winced. “But…I can’t protect you here. Not on my own. Not from everyone. He can.”
So I learned to bite my lip when Hunter and his friends find ways to “help” us. I learned to accept it when they treat me like a porcelain doll that might break.
I like being human better, but when I spy Emerson huddled up in a corner and Grace’s empty seat at her table, I know no one is quite human here.
At the End of Everything arrives on January 4, 2022. You can place a pre-order now.