A pulse-pounding psychological thriller based on the popular Dutch tradition of blindfolding and dropping teens and pre-teens in the middle of a forest — and what happens when it goes horribly wrong. Twelve-year old Karin is blindfolded and dropped into the Hoge Veluwe National Forest with three other children. With nothing but a few basic supplies and emergency food, the children are tasked with working together to navigate one of the Netherlands' most beautiful and wild locations and return to where their families are anxiously waiting. Karin quickly finds herself at odds with two of the older teens, and suddenly looks up to see that the other children have vanished. As Karin struggles against the elements to find her way back, she soon realizes that something far more sinister lurks in the woods. Grace, Karin’s mother and an American married to a Dutch husband, has been nervous about this practice from the start. At first she tells herself the space is good for her daughter, but as the hours begin to tick by and the children fail to arrive at their designated campsite, she becomes certain something has gone horribly wrong. As Karin fights for survival, and Grace hastens to find her daughter, the night culminates in the reveal of a deadly secret—and a shocking confrontation—that will push each of them to her edge.
Release date: March 23, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 320
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You'll Thank Me for This
They handed her a blindfold. She looked at it, turning it over in her hands. It was black, made of a thick fabric, with extra flaps on the sides to make sure no light seeped in at the edges of her vision. It reminded Karin of the blindfolds her mother would wear when they took an international overnight flight from the US back to the Netherlands. She knew that this object would handicap her, taking away her favorite sense, one she relied on pretty heavily. She paused, for just a moment. “Put it on, all of you,” he said, with a harsh urgency that startled her. Goodbye, sight.
Karin lifted it to her face, pulled the straps over her crown, and instinctively closed her eyes. When she opened them, she tried to see what she could see. It wasn’t exactly nothing. There were tiny specks of light, some of them white, some yellowish blue. A little bit of light shining in, like particles of dust. That was it. Had she thought that she’d see shadows or shapes beyond the fabric? Maybe. But no, it was dark enough that she was, essentially, blinded.
After that they all were led by their shoulders to the car, told to step up, to lean forward, to sit back. Confusing instructions when you’re still trying to make sense of the blindness. The hands that moved her were rough, not gentle. Hers seemed to be a man’s, and he seemed to be in a rush. The hands reached over her body and she could feel his hot breath on her face, hear a little grunting as he pressed her seat belt into its buckle with a resounding click. Then he announced to all of them, “Absolutely no talking,” and the doors were slammed shut, clunk, clunk, clunk.
She knew that she was in the back seat of a car, not the front, because she could feel the door at her left elbow. What else could she figure out, with her current handicap? She tried to think of it as a game, a sensory experiment, to calm her nerves. And realized that the strongest sensation she had at the moment was the vibration of her own body. Her heart was pounding. She raised a hand to her chest and then put her other hand on top of the first, astonished at the luxury of that other powerful sense: touch.
Had she known that she’d be this terrified? What was making her so scared? Knowing that they’d all be dropped out in the woods, forced to find their way to their campsite without GPS, in darkness? Or was it—and of course it more likely was—the fact that they were heading to the place where she’d last seen her father alive, a place that had so many positive memories of being with him, but also that would remind her, in so many little ways, of his death? It had been her choice to join the Scouts in Ede, so her dropping would be in the Hoge Veluwe Park. All the other options in the country had seemed too small and too tame—the Veluwe was a real national park where it would actually feel like going on safari, a place where you could actually get lost.
Her mom had asked her about a million times if this was really a good idea, but Karin had just insisted. She knew it so well, she had told her mom, and she needed to feel comfortable there, of all places, the place her father had treated like their own backyard. After a while, she’d heard her mom boasting to people that Karin was really “resilient”—that was the word parents used when they wanted to compliment you for not falling to pieces after your father died. Closer to the truth? She needed to prove to herself that she wasn’t afraid. She could, she would, get over it.
But secretly, and now without her trusty vision and surrounded by basically strangers, she was afraid that maybe she couldn’t, maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe going out to that place, unaccompanied by adults, at night, was the worst possible idea she’d ever come up with. Her heart beat even faster when she thought these thoughts. Her head began to spin. She took a deep, deep breath in, trying to get her head back. Yeah, she thought, what a really stupid idea.
Ugh, why did her mom let her be so dumb? She was only twelve. She didn’t know how to make decisions for herself. Okay, her head could stop spinning now. Time to focus on something else. Back to the task at hand: what could her senses tell her, without sight?
There were three of them in the back seat and one in the front passenger seat, of that much she was sure. She felt a leg beside her leg that was thin and soft, not muscular like a boy’s. She got a whiff of perfume, the smell of rose water and cotton candy. That was a scent that came in a bottle in the shape of a ballerina or a swan. Karin really didn’t like the smell of rose water. It was supposed to be a nice smell, she knew, but it reminded her of old ladies and bathrooms. But she definitely knew who that perfume belonged to, because she’d smelled it all summer: Margot.
Dirk, the only boy in their group, would then be on the other side of Margot, by the right back door. He was maybe even trying to cop a feel of Margot while they both sat there in the made-up dark. She tried to hear if anything was happening between them, but there was no tittering or giggling, and it made her feel a little icky about herself to even be wondering about the two of them. She tried to brush the images of them out of her mind. If Dirk wasn’t next to Margot, then he was in the front passenger seat. But she had a feeling it was Lotte up there. No idea why.
Before they got the blindfolds, they had been forced to hand over their smartphones. One of the leaders held out this black velvet bag and they had to drop them in there, like they were robbery victims handing off their diamonds to the thieves. Then the adults had gone through their backpacks to make sure they weren’t carrying anything forbidden—an extra phone or a GPS or an electronic compass, or what, even?—and to make sure that none of them was smuggling beer or weed or any other contraband out into the woods. Some Scouts had been caught doing that before, and they’d been sent home immediately and the whole dropping cancelled. Karin hoped that none of the kids in her group would be that stupid, but she didn’t know any of them all that well. So, yeah, they’d basically been fleeced of all their valuables by a bunch of adults, including her mother, and that felt weird.
Her own zebra-pattern backpack, which she’d packed with an extra set of dry clothes, her mess kit, her key chain with her mini flashlight, her compass, her water bottle, a yellow emergency rain poncho, a tinder kit, a pocket knife, some coins, dry noodles and oats (in case of emergency), and lots of “healthy” candy bars made of dates or tempeh or whatever, was then put in the trunk of the car.
Then they had made them all put on fluorescent-orange vests over their camel-colored Scout shirts and their fall jackets. This was a precaution so they wouldn’t get hit by cars while they were stumbling around aimlessly, blindfolded. Some other kid had been hit by a car before the dropping had even started in exactly that scenario, a while ago, and everyone had been talking about that at the Scout Clubhouse.
Her mom, nodding, had said that she’d read that in the newspaper too. Her mom always knew the disaster stories in any potential scenario—she had to give her that. A few weeks ago Karin’s mom had read aloud to her a story in the paper about how a kid had gotten shot in the forest by some hunters who saw something moving in the bushes and thought this twelve-year-old kid was an elk.
And all summer long her mom had been updating Karin on the progress of this lone wolf that had somehow made his way from Germany and ended up in the Veluwe forest. He had somehow met a mate there—even though there weren’t supposed to be any wolves in the Netherlands anymore—and they had mated and now there were pups. So she had that to look out for. There were plenty of things to freak out about if you wanted to freak out about stuff, according to her mom.
Karin had a quick thought about the wolf, wondering about those pups, and her hands instinctively moved to find her phone so she could Google their latest movements. Oh, right. She didn’t have that anymore. No way to Snapchat with her friends, to make funny faces and share selfies, no TikTok for watching videos of random people doing random dances. Not even color-by-number Sandbox. Of course calling her mother would not be allowed. It was strictly verboten under dropping rules. Which was kind of dumb. Because, yeah, what if?
No phone was almost like being naked. Her thumbs kind of throbbed with pointlessness. She imagined this must be like what Buddhist monks do. Nothing at all, just sitting there, Ommmmm, letting their minds drift from one random thing to another. It must be a lot harder than she knew to be a monk, though, like real mental torture. How long was this ride going to be anyway? And why wasn’t the car even moving yet?
As if answering her thought, the driver-side door opened, someone climbed in, and the car tilted almost imperceptibly. There was a moment while the driver adjusted his seat and probably checked the rearview mirror. It had to be a he—maybe one of the dads, she thought—because his movements were abrupt and masculine in some undefinable way, definitely not like a mom’s movements. It could be the man who had put on her seat belt, which might be worrying.
“Okay, kids, we’re about to set off,” he said. “It’ll be thirty to forty minutes before we get to the drop point.” He had a dry, deep voice, speaking louder than he needed to, as if wearing blindfolds made them deaf as well as blind, she thought. It definitely wasn’t the voice of Karl, who had been their leader all summer and who was supposed to be the Scout guide on this dropping. Was he one of the parent volunteers? “I’m Rutger and I’ll be driving you. Unfortunately, two Scout leaders from another group got sick and so some of the supervisors have been switched around, but we’ll be fine. Just settle in and try to see if you can figure out where we’re going. But don’t take off the masks, and obviously no talking.”
Karin tried to imagine what Rutger looked like, and the first picture that came into her head was Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, that completely freaky movie Frank had made her watch a part of that one time. That white-blond villain with the terrifying blue eyes, shirtless, creepily muscular. Yeah, basically if that guy was driving them, they were all doomed.
“Give me a second to set the car’s GPS,” he said. “I’m going to put in my earbuds so I can listen to the driving directions and you won’t hear them. Just so you know.”
He turned on the engine, put the car in gear, and started off. But he didn’t get very far before it slowed. She felt it turn to the right and then suddenly jerk into reverse, heard the wheels crunching along gravel, backward. With her eyes covered, this felt more violent than it would if she had been able to see, she told herself. Within a moment, she heard the clutch move and the car jolt forward again.
She could hear the quiet ticking of the turn signal, and then the car swung to the left. They went a little distance before Rutger stopped and shifted into reverse. They rolled backward slowly, then jolted forward again. Was he lost or was he just a terrible driver? Karin knew that sometimes the leaders did this—made fake turns to disorient the kids so they wouldn’t know exactly where they were headed.
What the heck? She literally had no idea how to have a sense of direction when she was blindfolded anyway. She turned her face to the window and inclined her temple toward it, feeling the draft coming through the open slit at the top of the glass, which hissed quietly, like a garden snake. Sssssssssh.
Was it unusual that neither of the Scout leaders they’d trained with over the summer, Karl and Ilvy, was coming with them? Her stepdad and the other guide, whoever that was going to be, were supposed to follow in another car, filled with all the camping gear and cooking supplies for the overnight. She listened for the sound of that second car behind them but didn’t hear it. She had the instinct to turn around and look but realized that with the blindfold on it would be useless.
When Karin’s forehead touched the cold glass of the car window, her thoughts began to drift in a new direction. She thought of how she’d woken up that morning, at home in her bed, in the house she now shared with her mom and her stepdad, Martijn, and her two stepbrothers, who were only there sometimes.
The feeling she’d had that morning came back to her, lying there in bed and listening to the sounds downstairs of them fighting. They fought a lot these days—over what, Karin had no idea. Then she remembered what had finally roused her from her bed: the sound of something crashing in the kitchen downstairs. The sound of her stepfather cursing. And that strange sound after that—a very loud thud—that somehow had rippled through her entire body and made it convulse. That thud was no good, and then that eerie silence.
Grace and Martijn stood arm in arm in front of the Scout Clubhouse, waving the kids off, even though that made no real sense. None of them could see anything. As soon as the car was out of sight, they let go and looked at one another, sizing each other up as one might a sparring partner. Then Grace silently picked up the rest of Karin’s equipment, sleeping bag, pillow, and rain tarp, and placed it in the back of the second car, an old Volkswagen.
Martijn would soon get into that car with Riekje, the sporty blond Scout leader, all of nineteen, who would be driving both of them to the camp, while Grace headed back to their house to have a much-needed night to herself. Glancing at the young woman, she felt only the quickest stab of jealous concern but almost immediately decided that if Martijn was into that whole scene, so be it. What she needed was a long bath and some time to catch up on the phone with her friends.
Grace gave the girl a wan smile, which was returned with an energetic leap in her direction and the sudden pumping of her hand.
“She’s going to love it,” Riekje said, perhaps misreading Grace’s weak smile as attachment anxiety. “The ones who are especially nervous on the way out always end up having the most fun. I promise you that,” she quickly added.
Grace considered this a moment, wondering if Karin had appeared especially nervous at the send-off. If she had, had Grace failed to notice? Had she let her daughter go off on this adventure, what was supposed to be a kind of coming-of-age ritual, without her whole and undivided attention? After all, this was a particularly strange undertaking for Karin—spending the night in a forest that had, for all intents and purposes, belonged to her father.
She glanced over at Martijn to see if he had somehow picked up on Karin’s emotional frequencies, but she doubted it. He was a good-enough stepdad but not really empathic in those kinds of ways. Still, she was pleased he had volunteered to go along on the trip as a parental supervisor. It wasn’t his kid who was heading off into the forest, and his own children had done their droppings elsewhere. But it showed initiative that he’d taken the time to go along. She read it as an attempt to show that he cared about bonding with Karin. She liked that. Maybe, eventually, their families would blend.
“Thanks for your concern, but I don’t have any doubt she’ll be fine,” Grace said to the Scout leader, and then wondered if she had sounded overly officious. But she couldn’t tell her that she doubted Karin had even an ounce of nervousness. “I mean, I’m sure you’re right,” she added. “She’ll love it.”
Would she love it? Karin wasn’t exactly a novice camper, since she’d had a lot of outdoor adventures with her father. The idea of the dropping was that she’d be out there with her peers, kids as uncertain and wobbly about the world and themselves as she was, and they’d have to rely on one another to find their way to the finish. Grace liked that aspect of this Dutch rite of passage; it was so unlike the American culture in which she’d grown up. The Americans talked a lot about self-reliance, but the Dutch put it into practice at an early age, by basically leaving their children alone and letting them figure things out.
Of course, the parents and the Scouts would never be far away. They would be there at the front end and at the back end. And if something went awry, they’d never be out of shouting distance.
The Scout Clubhouse was just outside Ede proper, in a low-lying white brick building built a half-century ago that looked like a vintage schoolhouse. It was surrounded by tall, thin birches, resembling high fence posts, that made it all seem very orderly. There was some playground equipment and a small pebbly beach that bordered a sizable lake, now deserted because the season was over.
Karin had lurched out of their car as soon as they pulled into the parking lot, running over to the other kids, her fellow Scouts, obviously pleased to escape the vehicle, where there had been a low hum of tension between Grace and Martijn throughout the ride down. They’d had a fight earlier that day. Grace, watching her go, had felt the guilt of not resolving the fight before getting into the car, and making her daughter stew in it. She and Martijn still had to learn how to let go and move on, not to carry around an argument after it was basically over. This was part of the challenge of trying to build a new marriage, to blend two wholly different families, while she also felt the tug of losing her daughter to the world.
That loss was happening now—not little by little, as it had when she was a small child waddling off with uncertain giggles into the freedom of the untethered world, but in leaps and bounds as Karin found greater satisfaction in places outside the home than she did in the loving arms of her mother. Grace had tried to prepare herself mentally for this transition, since like all parents she knew it was the way with adolescents, but somehow all that internalized mental coaching didn’t make it hurt any less. Could it be that her stress about that loss was actually making her testy with Martijn? Was that it? And nothing to do with him at all?
Karin’s group was not the only group at the Scout Clubhouse. There were a few other droppings scheduled to begin this evening, in different parks. . .
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