Welcome to #ReadWithMC (opens in new tab)—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In August, we're reading Andrea Bartz's We Were Never Here (opens in new tab) (out August 3), a page-turning thriller about two best friends whose annual reunion trip goes wrong—one of them may or may not have "accidentally" killed a fellow backpacker!—transforming their friendship as they once knew it. Read an excerpt from the novel below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club here (opens in new tab). (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
Kristen trotted to the patio’s edge and crouched, long arm outstretched. Her fingers groped along a vine, lifting leaves, exposing the tender stalks beneath. I pictured her tipping over and tumbling off, there and then not there, the afterimage of her silhouette still hanging in my vision. I don’t know why. For a wild moment, I pictured pushing her.
Instead I half stood from the table. “Kristen, don’t,” I called. The wooden patio perched on stilts above the vines below and we were alone, as we had been almost everywhere we’d stopped this week. Empty restaurants, empty markets, empty tourist information centers. An occasional cluster of other visitors standing or sitting nearby despite everyone having all the space in the world.
A snapping sound and Kristen stood, holding up a blob of green grapes. She popped one into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Not bad. Catch.”
I missed the toss and the grapes bounced onto the glass tabletop. I glanced around, then tried one—it burst bright and tart on my tongue.
“He said their yield sucks this year. You didn’t need to take an entire bunch.”
She sank into her chair and lifted her pisco sour, lime green and frothy. “I’ll leave ’em a few extra pesos on the way out. I was hungry.” She nudged her glass against mine. “You’d rather see me steal some grapes than get low blood sugar, right?”
“Fair point.” Hangry Kristen could cut to the core.
A man with a bandanna looped around his head was watching us from far out in the fields, just before the grapevines bumped up against a row of bushy trees. Beyond that, braided hills cut a jagged horizon. Kristen waved at the worker and he nodded.
I let the last of my drink linger on my tongue. We’d been sipping these daily: lime juice, powdered sugar, and the yellowish brandy the Chileans swore predated Peruvian pisco. I felt the swell of yet another one of those well-isn’t-this-nice moments, one blissfully free from the fear that’d prickled my brain nonstop for the last thirteen months. Here I was, on the trip of a lifetime: seven nights in South America, exploring the rough mountains and the ripe valleys between with my best friend of more than a decade. A cocktail so bracing and sweet, it tasted like stepping into the surf. And we still had two nights to go.
Kristen made everything better, her confidence like a bell jar of security in a strange and gnarled world. When we’d hugged at the airport almost a week ago, tears of relief had coated my eyes. I hadn’t seen her in a year—a year pockmarked by panic attacks, nightmares, and screaming into my pillow or the shower or occasionally my fist. But in Santiago, as we’d picked up our rental car and driven north on barren highways, Kristen was her usual boisterous self. She whooped when the Pacific came into view; she honked at a clump of plush alpacas by the side of the road. She pointed and gasped at roadside fruit stands, rippling cornfields with laser-straight rows, fat fields of vegetables growing bushy in the sun. And sky, sky, so much blue sky, almost crackling in its crispness, the way it shot down into the ocean on one side and the crinkled peaks on the other. Her presence was like a calming scent, aerosolized Xanax, and I allowed myself to relax.
We spent the first night in La Serena, where we carried leaky ice-cream cones around a leafy town square and stayed in a hotel with bright colors on the walls, where paintings of saints watched us as we slept. Too touristy, we decided, and the next morning we drove inland. In Pisco Elqui we took a yoga class from a woman with bowed knees and hip-length hair; as we stood in Mountain Pose, our chests puffed out, she announced, “Your smile powers your corazón, your heart.” On the second night there, three college-age guys from Germany cornered us in a bar, and the panic came roaring back like a panther lying in wait. Kristen had taken the lead—she was charming, could talk to anybody—and when she’d noticed the fear in my eyes, she politely disentangled us from the cocky trio and led me back into the night.
“It’s okay, it’s me, I’m here,” she kept murmuring as we walked the dark streets back to our hotel. “Kristen’s here.” Her voice was a balm; her words a weighted blanket. We’d packed up and left the following day.
And this morning we arrived here, in Quiteria. At first, I’d been alarmed by its emptiness. We’d parked in a lot and wandered the hilly streets, our suitcases trailing behind us like dejected toddlers, for what felt like hours before we found an open hotel. There I scored the keys to a small suite, the duvet damp despite the dry mountain air. The sun was sinking, and I realized the city’s vacancy would be an asset: fewer men to bother us, two women walking the streets at night. You know what they say about women traveling alone.
From the book We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz. Copyright © 2021 by Andrea Bartz. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved.
If audio is more your thing, you can listen to the excerpt below, and read the rest of the book on Audible (opens in new tab).
©2021 Andrea Bartz (P)2021 Random House Audio
Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.
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