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One Year Later – Epilogue

The Summer of Broken Rules

The pies came out at 2:00 p.m. It was a beautiful July afternoon, the sky bright blue with white clouds that looked as puffy as pastries. After finishing my shift at the bookstore, I checked my phone and found a text:

What time should I be there?

I rolled my eyes and replied: You’ve done this before! 1:50!

Just teasing, he wrote back as I hopped on my bike. Calm down.

It was 1:53 by the time I turned off the bike path and Morning Glory came into view—the endless acres of green fields and the rambling cedar-shingled farmhouse surrounded by wildflowers, gardens, children, and packed picnic tables. Sweat dripped down my back from the ride, and my pulse pounded. I hoped he was inside already; today there would be serious competition.

But of course he wasn’t.

“Michael!” I called, stomping across the gravel parking lot. “What the hell?”

He was busy showing off his car. It was a 1973 International Harvester Scout, the ultimate beach cruiser. “Our island car,” he called it. He shook hands with the car’s newest fans before jogging over to me. I all but dragged him up the path and into the house, where sure enough, customers circulated for groceries while cutting their eyes at the still-empty pie display. “I don’t understand why we need to do this,” he said as I positioned

his football-player frame to block the inevitable stampede. “I thought one of the benefits was—”

“Only if there are leftovers,” I said, tilting my head to admire my handiwork. “Which is never the case with pies.”

He nodded, then raised his arms and cracked his knuckles. The bakers were putting the pies out now, the sweet smell of sugar and berries wafting over to us. Clusters of people moved in on the display shelves, predators eyeing their prey. “Do your thing,” he muttered.

“And you do yours,” I said before dropping down to my knees. “Excuse me!” I crawled through the customers in front of me. “Excuse me, but I think I dropped an earring! My grandmother gave it to me for my birthday. It’s a family heirloom.”

Michael whistled when I surfaced with a whopping four pies: blueberry, apple, peach, and of course, strawberry rhubarb. Then we meandered around the store, collecting other necessities for Wink and Honey’s annual family dinner tonight. Two dozen ears of corn, fresh lettuce, massive tomatoes, bell peppers, red onions, mozzarella cheese, and zucchini bread (my dad had finished our loaf this morning).

“Can I drive home?” I asked as we joined the line for the registers. “Sure,” Michael said. “If you promise not to go at light speed.”

I gave him a look. “Michael, it was five miles over the speed limit.” “Meredith, the speeding ticket said fifteen.”

“I wasn’t the one driving!”

He shrugged. “You were an accomplice.”

I smiled to myself. Pravika, Jake, and I had taken Mad Martha’s orders a few weeks ago and had to race home so everyone’s sundaes wouldn’t melt. A policeman had caught us right before we’d turned onto The Farm road. Never having been stopped by a cop, Pravika swallowed her tongue while Jake handed over his license and I got the insurance out of the glove compartment.

Wink had lectured us later.

“Look, that car is my baby,” Michael said.

I snorted. “Don’t let Sarah hear you say that.”

“She knows what I mean…” he said, but the rest went by the wayside.

We’d finally turned the corner in line, and my heart swooped.

Then soared.

“Stephen!” I shouted, and the cashier stationed behind register two looked up at me. Mop of sandy hair, shining turquoise eyes, sun-kissed skin, and that goddamn crooked grin.

Michael sighed as he headed for his stepbrother’s register. “I swear I will never get used to that. Nobody—and I do mean nobody—except you calls him that.”

“And nobody should.” I laughed. My special nickname for Stephen wasn’t a nickname at all.

“So this is a thing now?” he’d asked so many months ago. “I’m no longer Wit?”

“Who’s Wit?” I’d responded. We were in Vermont, five days before he was leaving for New Zealand.

He’d started tickling me on his family room couch. “Fine,” he said as I giggled. “Fine.” His fingers had sparked against my side. “But only for you, Killer.”

“What are you doing in here?” I asked now, watching him scan our stuff. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on his blue Morning Glory T-shirt. Usually Stephen worked outside in the fields.

“Someone called out sick,” he replied, “so they needed an extra hand inside during the rush…oh, nice!” His eyes lit up. “Four pies!”

“That you could’ve easily set aside and brought home yourself,” Michael said dryly.

“That’s against the rules.”

“It really shouldn’t be,” Michael grumbled.

I helped bag up our food, and even with Stephen’s employee discount, I thought of Wink’s famous saying: It’s impossible to leave Morning Glory with pies and a bill under a hundred dollars!

“Wait,” Stephen said before we left. “You forgot something.”

“Nah, I have the receipt,” Michael said, but I smiled and shoved my bags into his arms so I give Stephen a hug goodbye.

“You’re very affectionate,” he murmured after I stretched to give his cheek three quick kisses. I didn’t know why, but it was always three times. Once just wasn’t enough.

“Yes, I know,” I said lightly, sliding an arm around his waist. “Someone once made that observation.”

Michael coughed. “Not professional, Witty.”

Stephen released me, then winked. “I’ll be very affectionate later.” I winked back. “You know where to find me.”

* * *

Michael did let me drive home. We loaded my bike into the back, and to show him how serious I was, I pulled my hair into a ponytail and dramatically slipped on Wink’s left-behind aviator sunglasses. “Let’s blow this farm stand!” I said.

He chuckled. “You are such a knucklehead.”

I adjusted my Hamilton baseball cap before turning over the ignition and carefully backing out of our parking spot. I’d just finished my freshman year. When I’d caught Stephen on last summer’s ferry, somehow it had all clicked. He was raring to go and ready for an adventure, but I was not. At least not yet. Going to another continent wouldn’t solve my problems; I knew I needed to work through them at home, with my parents close by if I needed them. Did I need to stay close for college? Or did I want to stay close for college?

Both, I’d decided. My parents looked relieved when I suggested we go shopping for dorm supplies, and of course, Wink and Honey stood firmly behind my decision.

I loved Hamilton. I really, really loved it. My orientation group had continued eating together long after orientation had ended, becoming a tight-knit friend group. A few of them had spent time on the Vineyard last month. “Yes, Luli!” they’d said when she and I had picked them up from the ferry, remembering her Hamilton visit in April. “So happy to see you!”

There were perks to being just up the hill from my parents, too. If I needed to do laundry, I could forgo the communal machines and walk home, and my friends loved coming to my house for a home-cooked meal every now and then. My mom was always excited to cook for a bunch of people. I’m trying a new lasagna recipe tonight, she would text me. Let me know if

anyone’s interested!

I had very few complaints.

Except that I missed Stephen. I missed Stephen a lot. “You’re not going,” I’d said during our final goodbye in Vermont. We were standing by the Raptor, my head buried in his shirt. “You’re not going. You’re coming to Clinton next weekend, preferably with maple sugar candies.”

He’d laughed. “Are you going to tell yourself that for the next nine months?”

I knocked my head against his chest. “I’m going to damn well try.”

Long distance was even harder than I’d thought. We’d communicated every way possible, but it sometimes felt impossible. I’d sit in my dorm’s common room until 8:00 a.m. FaceTiming him and then cry my eyes out in the shower before leaving for breakfast. “She’s in a Stephen Slump,” my roommates had said on those days.

But there were Stephen Surprises, too. Without any warning, packages arrived in the mail with my name scribbled in all capitals. His handwriting had the power to stop my heart. My favorites included little souvenirs from

his travels, a leather journal that always contained a new letter to me, and either a faded T-shirt or long-sleeved flannel that smelled like him: his orange shampoo, soap, sweat, and some new scent he’d picked up Down Under. I always wore the T-shirt to bed and the flannel around campus until they smelled like me, then sent them back with my own entry in the journal. We’d ended up filling multiple notebooks—letters, drawings, stickers,

song lyrics, poorly written poems. I told him I loved him for the first time in a notebook.

I love you, Stephen. I adore you, but I love you even more.

“I love you, too, Killer,” he’d said one night on the phone, and I grinned, knowing he’d finally gotten the notebook back. “I adore you, but I love you even more.”

Nothing was better than spring break, though. Hamilton gave us two weeks off, and I’d spent them exploring Australia with him. We’d been apart seven months by that time. Stephen had laughed as I’d scrambled into his arms at the airport and tangled my hands in his hair. He hugged me tight. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you climbing all over me.”

Then we’d proceeded to be everyone’s most annoying Instagram couple, taking pictures together around Australia and its lush landscapes. Never any captions, just #HitchMeToWitry.

Oh god… @mpdNOLA had commented on the first photo. It’s back. Hell yeah, it’s back! @Sarah_Jane had replied. And better than ever!

When it was time for me to leave, neither of us would let go of the other, and I’d promised to be at the New Orleans airport when he flew back in May. Because that city was another fear I had conquered—Sarah and Michael had hosted Thanksgiving, and I’d loved it.

“Okay, good.” Stephen had sagged in relief. “Ugh,” he groaned. “Now I have to go back to Meredith Missings…”

Goose bumps had broken out on the back of my neck. “Wait a second,” I’d said, pulling away to look at him. “What are Meredith Missings?”

* * *

I put the pies on the Annex’s kitchen counter and then changed into a bikini I’d bought in Australia. The rest of my friends were still at work, so I packed a tote bag and headed to Secret Beach. Loki, Clarabelle, and a few other barking dogs ran across my path, tracking the scent of something.

Of course, Paqua Pond was deserted. I unrolled my towel and lathered on sunscreen before settling down and pulling a journal out of my bag. This one wasn’t full of letters between Stephen and me; this one held only my handwriting. He had inspired me—if I could write letters to him, I could write letters to anyone.

Claire had treasured her collection of fountain pens, so I used only those, marking the date in deep blue ink. Dear Claire, I wrote.

For some reason, today made me think of all the Paqua scavenger hunts we used to go on when we were little. Remember how Wink would create the clues? And The Farm map we drew together? I’ll never forget that one summer when…

I didn’t write to her every day, just when I missed her most. My therapist back home had helped me understand that no matter where Claire now read her books, she would always be my sister. Nothing could ever truly part us. Each letter was a memory, whatever came to mind in the moment, and I always signed them:

Sending my love anywhere and everywhere,

Mer

Afterward, I tucked the journal back into my bag and swam out to the pond’s float. The worn wood planks were warm from the sun, so I stretched

out and shut my eyes. It felt like I’d been asleep for only five minutes when I felt water being flicked onto my toes. I wriggled them but didn’t fully wake up. Then I felt it again…and again…and again.

“Stephen!” I sat up, only to see that I was alone. “Nice try,” I said, rolling onto my stomach to army crawl to the edge of the float. “I know you’re here.”

I still screamed when he broke the pond’s surface, head popping up out of the water. He laughed at me, my fists raised as if ready to punch him. “Scared you,” he said. “Didn’t I?”

“How are you back already?” I asked.

Stephen’s brow furrowed. “Work’s long over,” he said and glanced at the sky, at the slowly sinking sun. “Everyone’s finished for the day.”

Oh…so I had fallen asleep for longer than five minutes. My stomach began to twist, and Stephen kept a hand on my knee while treading water. “I wrote to Claire,” I told him, running a few fingers through his slick hair. “Earlier—I wrote her a letter in my journal.”

He nodded. “I wondered if you would, given what tonight is…” He trailed off and flipped his hand over. I took it and laced our fingers together.

We stayed silent until the sun had noticeably lowered in the sky. I raised our entwined hands and kissed his knuckles. “We better go,” I said, slipping into the cool water beside him. “We’re expected.”

“Yeah,” he said. “But first…”

I ducked underwater before he could kiss me, bubbles of laughter fluttering to the surface when he dipped under, too, and hugged me to him. Then I escaped his clutches and beat him back to shore. “Hurry!” I shouted. “If we’re late, we’ll have to do the dishes!”

* * *

The kitchen was crammed, so I took the baby outside. One of Honey’s quilts was already spread out on the lawn, and I sat down to rock her in my

arms. We smiled at each other—she was a very smiley baby. “I’m going to teach you everything,” I told her. “I’m going to teach you everything there is to know about The Farm, and we’ll have such fun together.”

Only a minute passed before we heard her mother’s voice. “Oh my god, where is she?” Sarah screeched from inside the house. Most of the windows were open to the evening breeze. “Where is Claire?”

“I believe my bride has her outside,” Stephen said.

“Wit, sweetie, that’s not how it works,” Honey told him.

“Why not?” he asked. “Meredith is Claire’s godmother, and I’m Claire’s godfather—we’re her godparents. It seems logical to me.” A pause. “Plus, Mer’s called me her groom once or twice.”

“It was in a dream!” I shouted to him as everyone laughed. “It was one time, one dream!”

“Either way,” Stephen said, “wouldn’t you love to have me as a grandson, Honey?”

I blushed, and I could picture my grandmother blushing, too—she had such a crush on Stephen. He was living in the Big House this summer, and she cooked him breakfast every morning while merely mentioning to Wink that the coffee was ready.

“Oh, good!” Sarah joined me on the quilt and kissed her daughter’s forehead. “I was wondering where you were, my little love.”

The dinner table was covered in platters of delicious summertime food, surrounded by its usual mishmash of chairs. Uncle Brad and Aunt Christine boasted about their couples tubing victory that afternoon—my parents agreed to disagree—while I gave Aunt Rachel all the details about Eli’s new boyfriend. Michael was holding Claire, and Sarah gazed adoringly at them, snapping pictures. And sitting high on his stool, Stephen talked to Aunt Julia about how he hoped to start an herb and vegetable garden somewhere on The Farm. “Moor House, ideally,” he said. “I’m thinking that lawn is the most fertile.”

Eventually, once the pies had been sliced and served with scoops of ice cream plopped on top, Wink rose from his chair, and the table quieted. “Tonight is a special night,” he began, then backtracked. “Well, that’s not entirely true. Every night with you”—he gestured around the table—“my family, is special. I cherish every beach day and every twilight tractor ride. Honey and I feel so lucky that we get to live here and watch our children grow and their children grow.”

As if on cue, Claire gurgled.

Everyone chuckled. “Yes, Miss Dupré,” Wink said, “and we’re lucky to watch even their children grow.” He smiled, the laugh lines around his eyes deepening. “But tonight is a special occasion,” he continued, “because it marks the inauguration of a new chapter on The Farm.” He nodded at Honey. “Darling, if you could…”

My grandmother disappeared into the house, and everyone gasped when she returned with a gleaming gold trophy. I reached for Stephen’s hand under the table, my eyes stinging. I had already guessed what this meant, but I squinted at the elegant inscriptions as Honey passed the trophy off to my grandfather. My sister’s name was inscribed over and over again, followed by Stephen’s.

“The Claire Fox Cup,” Wink told us, “will now be awarded to each summer’s Assassin winner. I know you all appreciated those plastic medals, but this…” He trailed off and glanced down at the trophy, hand shaking a little. “Last summer, we played in memory of Claire, and from now on, we will always play in memory of Claire.”

“Our Assassin goddess,” Honey concluded. “Her legacy will live on forever.”

The entire table applauded in solidarity. I squeezed Stephen’s hand and then got up to hug my parents. My mom wiped away my tears and kissed my cheek.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Wink said several minutes later, casually serving himself a third slice of peach pie. “Your targets will be assigned at midnight!”

* * *

I slipped out of bed when I knew my parents were asleep, even though I also knew I would wake them up when I left. The screen door and its rusty hinges hadn’t lost their magic touch. “Not too late, Meredith,” my mom called dreamily when it squeaked shut behind me.

The wind whipped as I crossed the field in my sweatshirt and pajama bottoms, and I laughed for no reason once I reached the Big House’s driveway before crouching to pick up bits and pieces of crushed seashells.

Then I snuck around to the front of the house to throw them at Stephen’s window. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel!” I whisper-yelled. “Get your ass down here!”

His window squeaked open. “Only if you promise to protect me!” Stephen whisper-yelled back. “Do you happen to have a knife?”

I giggled. Yes, my pocketknife was now at Paqua instead of hiding useless in a box at home. “Of course,” I said. “Anyone who crosses our path is doomed.”

Stephen laughed and climbed onto the porch’s roof, effortlessly navigating it. He’d become practiced since his rooftop assassination last summer. After all, we did this every night. Some nights we met here, others at the Annex, but every night, we went on rambling walks together. “Okay,” he said once he’d shimmied down a column onto the ground. “Ready?”

I offered him my hand; he took it and twirled me into his arms so we could kiss. “Ready,” I said afterward.

And we set off.

We talked about anything on these walks. We talked about everything. We talked about the future. Stephen was transferring from Tulane to University

of Vermont, and he was excited to teach me to ski this winter. Meanwhile, I was excited we would be on the same coast, let alone the same continent.

I still insisted on my Stephen Surprises, though. I didn’t care if it was just an autumn leaf or a UVM newspaper. When his packages arrived, when I saw his handwriting…

Well, it made me melt and my whole day better.

“Okay,” he’d agreed, “just as long as I get my Meredith Missiles in return.”

Tonight, we discussed Assassin. “Look at them!” Uncle Brad had accused at dinner, seeing us whispering to each other. “They’re already plotting!”

“Actually, we’re not,” Stephen replied. “I was telling Mer how lovely she looks tonight.”

It took everything for me not to laugh. We’d so been plotting.

“Who do you have?” I asked now. “Who do you have?” he answered. I whispered a name in his ear.

He whispered a name back and then, “Should we make a new pact?”

“No.” I shook my head. “You know we already have one.” I climbed up his warm body and wrapped my legs around his waist, slinging my arms around his neck to run a hand through his hair. “Because I adore you, Stephen,” I murmured. “I adore you, but I love you even more.”

“As much as I love you, Killer?” he asked, grinning at me in the moonlight, his smile so crooked and perfect.

I didn’t answer. I just kissed him, and then he just kissed me.

* * *

After sneaking out of Stephen’s room early the next morning, I visited the old oak tree at the edge of the Annex’s lawn and ran my fingers over Claire’s notches in the trunk while imagining the inscriptions on her trophy.

“I’m going to win,” I whispered once I reached the final mark. “This year, I’m going to win.”

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