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Chapter no 3

The Summer of Broken Rules

I told myself he didn’t recognize me, that he couldn’t recognize me. It was impossible—I’d been disguised, wearing a hat and sunglasses. “This is Wit,” Honey told me. “He’s one of the groomsmen, Michael’s brother.”

Brother? I thought, because this guy looked nothing like Michael. Wit was wiry, no taller than five foot ten, and had a mop of sandy blond hair that needed a little smoothing back right now.

“Technically stepbrother,” Wit said without a hint of a Southern accent. “He’s my stepbrother.”

“Oh.” I nodded. “Gotcha.”

“His mom and my dad got married when I was sixteen,” he explained. “I’m from Vermont.”

“Sounds freezing,” I commented, suddenly aware that I was double-fisting ice cream sandwiches like a little kid. How awkward. I hid my hands behind my back to drop them, hoping I could be subtle about it.

“Freezing?” Wit tilted his head to give me a look. “Aren’t you from upstate New York?”

My spine straightened. “How do you know that?”

He gestured at my grandparents, who had silently disappeared and now were heading toward the deck, where Sarah and Michael were whispering to each other. Their announcement, I wondered again. When is it?

“What else did they tell you?” I asked Wit in a harsher voice than I’d intended. It just sounded like he’d been briefed or something, and though I

loved her, I wouldn’t put it past Honey to spill the whole story about Ben.

“Relax, Officer,” he said, putting up his hands. “Not much. You’re Meredith Fox, you’re eighteen, you’ll be a freshman at Hamilton College this fall. Just the bare bones basics.” He smiled. “That okay?”

I didn’t respond, instead turning away so that my body wasn’t angled directly toward his. My stomach swooped, a feeling so unfamiliar and uneasy. Because his grin was the type of imperfect crooked grin that made you want to grin back, and his eyes…if you looked past the dark bruise, they were straight out of one of the fantasy novels that Claire and I loved so much. The eye color of an alluring stranger you weren’t sure you should trust but soon had to share a bed with for whatever reason on the quest you were on, then eventually fell so irrevocably in love with that you would die for each other. Basically, an eye color that wasn’t supposed to exist in real life: deep turquoise with gold rings around them.

I’m not kidding, Claire, I thought. Turquoise!

“How old are you?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Nineteen,” Wit answered, crossing his, too. Like we were in a standoff or something.

Was he mimicking me? “So you’re in college?”

A nod. “I just finished my first year at Tulane.”

“God, what is with that school?” I mumbled to myself. Sarah, Michael, Wit, and if everything hadn’t happened, my sister.

“Repeat that?” Wit said.

“No, um, nothing.” The back of my neck prickled. “It seems like everyone loves that place.”

Wit was quiet for a moment. “Most people think it’s great.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “But it all depends—”

“Hey, everyone!” Sarah’s voice cut him off, light and lively. We turned to see her standing on one of the deck’s wood benches, Michael at her side. “If

you’d all gather around…”

The party migrated over, surrounding Sarah and her fiancé like they were onstage. I didn’t try to stick with Wit, and he didn’t try to stick with me, so I wedged myself between Eli and Pravika. Luli and Jake were there, too. “Who was that guy you were talking to?” Pravika asked.

“No one,” I answered. “A groomsman.”

“Michael’s stepbrother,” Eli said at the same time, of course having all the information. “The one who basically got his ass kicked on the ferry.” He chuckled. “You saw the bruise, right? Half his face is blue!” He elbowed me. “Did he tell you who did it?”

“He doesn’t know,” I said quickly, praying that was true. My neck flamed. “Apparently the person was wearing sunglasses.”

The other two nodded, and we refocused on Sarah. “Michael and I are so happy you could join us this week,” she was saying, “to celebrate family, friends, and our marriage.” She laughed when everyone clapped, and then her expression fell a little. “But there is someone very special who wasn’t able to make it. My cousin Claire.” Her voice quavered, and Michael took her hand.

Just like someone took mine.

“It’s okay,” Eli whispered. “It’s all right.”

I nodded and squeezed back as hard as I could.

“This week is not only about us,” Sarah said. “It’s also about honoring Claire’s memory.” She smiled—or tried her best to smile. “And I believe I speak for the entire Fox family when I say there is only one way to pay tribute to her.”

Wait, I thought, heart speeding up. What is she talking about?

“Do y’all remember filling out your RSVPs?” Michael asked after exchanging an almost-imperceptible nod with Sarah. “Checking those boring boxes?”

“Well, the last one wasn’t boring,” Sarah said, playfully slapping his chest. “I thought it was intriguing!” She was now genuinely grinning. “Do you guys remember that one?”

Having RSVP’d months ago, no one offered up even a nod, but I nearly gasped, the riddle suddenly solved. DO YOU WANT TO PLAY? the silver-edged card had asked, and I checked YES without thinking twice. Neither my parents nor I knew what it meant, but I didn’t want to find myself left out of anything. I wanted to be all in at this wedding.

“Assassin,” I murmured to myself just as Sarah voiced the word to everyone else. We had unknowingly signed up to play Assassin. had unknowingly signed up to play Assassin.

My heart sank at the thought. It was a Paqua Farm tradition. Every summer, we played a Farm-wide game of Assassin, where players used water guns to eliminate one another and become the last active killer. Each person was assigned an initial target, and when they successfully “took care of” said target, they inherited their victim’s. For the couple of weeks we played, the paranoia on The Farm was unparalleled. People hesitated before going on kayak rides together, spied on their targets from the dunes, and even formed secret alliances. It was a ton of fun, and Assassin lore lived on forever.

“Michael and I will not be playing,” Sarah said as Michael good-humoredly pouted. “We have too many other obligations.” She poked him in the cheek. “But we can’t wait to see you guys battle it out to make Claire proud!”

My sister had been the undisputed Assassin queen, our most decorated champion. She had taken Assassin so seriously that she had multiple weapons: a water handgun, a Super Soaker, and some jetpack-looking high-pressure soaker with pump action and multiple nozzles.

As I shifted from one foot to the other, Sarah and Michael handed off the torch to our “Assassin Commissioners,” Wink and Honey. Of course, I

realized. That’s why they knew everything ahead of time.

My grandparents had retired from being active assassins several years ago and now oversaw the entire game as officials. They made the initial assignments, and whenever you eliminated someone, you reported the kill to them. Any disputes between competitors? Any close calls? The commissioners made the final judgment.

“For those of you who are new to the game,” Honey said, “there are only three rules.” She held up three fingers for emphasis. “Number one: game play is twenty-four hours a day.”

“Twenty-four hours?” I heard someone say. “When are we supposed to sleep?”

Naturally, Wink and Honey ignored this. “Number two,” Wink said, “game play only occurs outdoors.”

Michael’s sister raised her hand, and when my grandfather pointed at her, she asked, “What constitutes outdoors? Porches? Decks? A patio?”

“Ten feet away from a door,” Wink said, smirking. “Minimum.”

“And number three,” Honey said, also smirking—they loved this. “Nothing is to interfere with official wedding events.”

“I object!” Sarah called out at the same time Aunt Christine went, “Absolutely nothing!”

The wedding party roared with laughter.

* * *

I thought about all Claire’s iconic takedowns as I lay in bed that night, eyes wide open. It wasn’t Dad’s snoring that was keeping me awake or Loki whining in his sleep or even the kitchen sink’s dripping faucet. No, I could sleep through those.

But I couldn’t sleep here, in the Annex’s bunk room, without my sister. It’d always felt so small for two people, but now it seemed too big for only

me. Way too big…and lonely. “Claire,” I whispered, and when she didn’t answer, I pushed back my quilt and slid down to the floor.

“Meredith?” I heard my mom call from the other room, half asleep. I’d landed on a creaking floorboard. “That you?”

“Bathroom,” I quietly called back, then slipped on flip-flops and a sweatshirt. The Vineyard’s temperature dipped at night. But instead of going through the back door toward the woods and the outhouse, I switched on my phone flashlight and crept out the front.

I didn’t know where I was going, really. Just on a walk. There was a sweet-and-salty breeze tonight, so I inhaled deeply and tipped my head back to gaze up at the stars. They were luminous.

Maybe I’ll go to the Big House, I thought. Sleep in Honey’s hammock? Except for Claire’s, every bed on the Farm was taken for the wedding. Jake and Luli’s family had moved out of Moor House to make room for the Duprés. Their parents had squeezed into the Camp with Aunt Julia and Aunt Rachel, while Jake and Luli were spending the week in a circle of tents with Pravika, Eli, and other cousins and friends. The Nylon Condo Complex, Eli had dubbed it. Thankfully, no one had mentioned anything about sleeping in Claire’s bed.

I wandered along the well-worn sandy roads, keeping my flashlight pointed at the ground so I didn’t come across any night critters. Nothing had ever happened to me, but everyone had heard Sarah scream bloody murder the time she got skunked on her way back from a beach bonfire with her brothers.

A few minutes later, though, I heard a rustling noise. Tree branches swaying, I assumed, until the rustling turned into clear footsteps crunching over bits of broken seashells. I picked up my pace but was unable to tell which direction the person was coming from. All I knew was he or she was walking toward me.

Blood pulsed in my ears. I’d never been scared on The Farm before; I didn’t know how to react. My first impulse was to scream, but it was like my mouth had been sewn shut. Then I considered running off into the night, skunks be damned, but my body had gone rigid.

So what I settled on was stopping in my tracks, swallowing hard, and saying in what I hoped was a threatening tone, “I have a knife.”

“Really?” a male voice called back. Familiar, but one I couldn’t place after meeting so many people today. “You have a knife?”

“Yeah,” I lied. “I do.” “What kind?”

“Swiss Army,” I said, thinking of a Netflix documentary I’d watched with Ben once, all about the history of the knife company. It was random and far from romantic, but I’d found the intricate design and construction process interesting.

“Hmm, a Swiss Army knife.” A low whistle. “Impressive.”

I didn’t say anything. The voice sounded closer now, and it was almost unnerving how melodious it was. My toes curled in my flip-flops. Who was I talking to?

“So I suppose this afternoon wasn’t enough,” the guy continued. “You gotta maul my face even more?”

My breath caught in my throat. Crap.

Wit appeared in front of me like magic, the starlight shining on his wicked bruise. I couldn’t tell if it looked better or worse. “Oh, um,” I fumbled. “You, uh, know it was, mmm, me?”

“Yes.”

I winced. “How?”

“The hat-and-sunglasses routine only works on TV, Killer.”

“I’m sorry,” I blurted. “It was an accident. I wasn’t paying attention.” I sighed. “And I’d just been on the phone with—”

“Your shithead ex,” Wit finished for me, grinning his crooked grin. “If I’m quoting correctly.”

“You heard that, too?” No response.

“Well, that’s great,” I mumbled, feeling my neck prickle—partially out of embarrassment but also because he was still smiling. Smiling with his blond hair mussed and falling across his forehead, and wearing a fraying sweatshirt like mine. My stomach did that strange swooping thing. “What are you doing out here?” I asked, hoping it would stop.

Wit shrugged. “Exploring.” “At night?”

“Yeah, I wanted to see the stars. There’s no light pollution like in the city.” He paused. “I also wanted to escape the best man and maid of honor banging in the next room.”

“Ugh,” I said. “Really?”

“Yep.” Wit nodded. “I mean, you know how people get at weddings.”

“Yeah.” I nodded, too, Pravika’s words from earlier coming to mind:

They’re perfect for a fling.

But not for me, I thought. Family and friends. It’s all about family and friends.

The ocean drowned out whatever Wit said next, waves crashing hard on the beach. I hadn’t noticed how close to the dunes we were, so I shined my flashlight and motioned for him to follow me so we could find a nook away from the noise. My flip-flops slapped against the sand, and Wit’s half-tied sneakers scuffed like he had a habit of not picking up his feet when he walked.

“So what are you doing out here?” he asked once we sat down, tall grass swishing around us but safe from the wind.

“Oh,” I said, hiding my hands in my sweatshirt pocket. “Just thinking.”

Wit was silent for a second, pulling up the hood of his own sweatshirt. I thought it was more than obvious what I was thinking about, but he didn’t say Claire’s name, and I was grateful for it. “Assassin, right?” he eventually guessed. “Gearing up for tomorrow?”

“Perhaps,” I replied, an attempt at coyness. Wit didn’t need to know how hesitant I was to play. That I hadn’t even opened my envelope yet to find out my first target—they’d been left in each house’s mailbox earlier. MEREDITH FOX, one was labeled, and inside would be a laminated slip of paper with a single name on it.

“The rules seem simple enough,” Wit commented, and I nodded. “But strategy…there must be a ton of strategy involved. Type of water weapon, if you want to play offense or defense, that kind of thing.” He shifted so that his leg brushed mine, his striped pajama bottoms against my floral-patterned ones. Was it on purpose? “Also alliances,” he added as goose bumps blossomed under the thin fabric. “I bet a ton of alliances form.”

I stayed silent, realizing where he was going with this. Almost immediately after the announcement had been made, Luli had created a group chat that included Eli, Pravika, Jake, and me. Tubing on the Oyster Pond tomorrow, she’d texted. Noon. Tell no one, invite no one. Business to discuss.

Whether I liked it or not, it appeared that I was part of an alliance.

Wit let a beat pass. “I’m assuming you have one already,” he said. “Being a skilled veteran and all—”

“I wouldn’t call myself ‘skilled,’” I cut in, turning toward him. Our knees knocked again. “The best I’ve ever done is five days, and most of that was spent in hiding. My cousin Peter followed me to the old tractor yard one day and shot me before I made it through the barn door.” I shrugged. “I always take a defensive stance.”

“Seriously?” Wit said. “I would’ve thought the opposite.” I snorted. “Why’s that?”

He laughed, lyrical like his voice. “Because you threatened to pull a knife on me?”

“Well, you shouldn’t have snuck up on me like that!” I said, flustered. My cheeks heated. “You should’ve announced yourself!”

“Okay, yes, I should’ve said something,” he conceded, “but swinging back to alliances—”

“I can’t betray mine,” I told him, because focusing on my friends this week involved staying loyal to them. If Luli needed me to lead her target into a trap, I would do it. I’d been MIA for over a year, blown off my friends’ concerned texts and calls, and the fact that they seemed willing to forgive and forget…I couldn’t mess with that.

“I wasn’t asking you to,” Wit replied. “But I was wondering…” He casually flicked some sand at me, and I flicked some back. “…if you’d be interested in forming a pact.”

My ears pricked up.

A pact?

“Think about it,” Wit said. “We could really help each other. You’re on the bride’s side, and I’m on the groom’s—there are so many people I don’t know that you do and vice versa.”

A lump formed in my throat. It was dawning on me that Wit was approaching Assassin exactly like Claire—offensively and astutely, already planning and plotting. He wouldn’t be searching The Farm for a good hiding spot anytime soon.

“So instead of you sniffing around and asking everyone and their mother who Michael’s uncle’s daughter is,” he continued, “I’d be your go-to source.”

“And instead of solving the mystery of Honey’s brother’s third wife,” I said, liking this more and more, “I’d lay out her entire schedule for you, tell you her favorite Pilates studio in Vineyard Haven.”

“Exactly,” Wit said. “We’d keep the information between us, so no rumors about betrayals would flare up—we wouldn’t tip anyone off.” He released a deep breath. “What do you say?”

My stomach stirred with excitement. “I think it’s brilliant.”

“Excellent.” He smiled and held out his hand. “Now we shake on it.”

“Wait,” I said before we did, hands hovering inches apart. I could feel the warmth radiating off Wit’s skin. “One more thing.”

“Go.”

“If we hear each other’s names going around, we’ll let the other person know.”

Wit considered for a moment, then nodded. “Deal.” I nodded back. “Deal.”

And so we shook.

* * *

Before sneaking back into the Annex that night, I visited the ancient oak tree on the edge of the lawn and ran my fingers over the notches carved into the trunk. Summer after summer, Claire used an ax to keep track of her victories. “I’m going to win,” I whispered once I’d reached the final mark. “I’m going to win this thing.”

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