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Friday: Chapter no 17

The Summer of Broken Rules

“Hey, there you are,” Aunt Rachel said when I unrolled my purple yoga mat and sat down next to her. “I’ve missed you the last couple of days.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, “somebody tipped me off that Ian’s been keeping you company.”

Wit had thought I was taking too big a risk by coming over to the Camp this morning, but I’d covered his mouth midprotest and told him I needed to do this. I needed to calm and center myself…and if that wasn’t possible, I needed to think.

“You assumed we sided with him, didn’t you?” Aunt Rachel asked. “Pledged our allegiance?”

I gave her a look. “Aunt Julia announced over a megaphone that I was leaving the beach!”

“Oh, Julia.” My aunt laughed. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but it was all part of her master plan—” She dropped off, took my hand, and pressed it to her belly. “The baby…”

“He’s kicking,” I breathed, feeling the little punting. “Like a baby bronco.”

She groaned. “I’m so done with being pregnant.”

“What were you going to say?” I asked a minute later. “Before? About Aunt Julia’s master plan?”

Aunt Rachel smiled. “Ian’s been assassinated,” she told me. “Julia assassinated him last night. We invited him over to bake cookies with the

kids, and when he left, she followed him back to the Cabin.” I gasped. “But he’s her godson!”

“I know.” She nodded. “That’s why she didn’t pursue him earlier. She said it was ‘mutually beneficial’ to leave him in the game—the more people he picked off, the closer she was to the showdown.” She sighed. “But he wasn’t making any progress.”

So Aunt Julia and I think alike, I thought. The same strategy, except one of us pulled the trigger, and the other…

I needed to do it.

I needed to be like Aunt Julia. I needed to kill Wit.

The thought made my stomach squirm.

“Although here’s the twist,” Aunt Rachel continued. “Ian never had you, Mer.”

My eyes widened. “What?”

“It was a ruse so you’d focus on him and feel secure with everyone else.”

A classic Claire Fox stratagem, I realized. Spreading false information around The Farm—after watching her win so many times, my cousin had caught on and learned something. Perhaps my alliance had failed this year, but Ian had played well.

“I don’t know who he’s working with,” Aunt Rachel said before I could ask. “I just know the name on Julia’s new slip isn’t yours.”

I released a deep breath.

“And on that note…” She smiled. “Shall we begin?” “Yes.” I smiled back. “We shall.”

But when we closed our eyes, Luli came to mind. You’ve been thinking about yourself and only yourself.

I mean, she wasn’t wrong there. Now that Wit and I were spending so much time together, our pact had become stronger than my alliance with my

friends. It was an alliance in itself. I hadn’t meant for it to happen, but it had. It was hard for it not to when we fell asleep together every night.

I couldn’t find that vital balance between friends and boyfriend. Ben had been all I needed after Claire’s death. I didn’t need to go shopping or get coffee or just hang out with my friends. I should’ve, but I didn’t. School, bagel shop job, and Ben—that was all I could handle. When Claire had died, fun died with her. It was like I was walking through a thick fog and needed to cling to someone so I didn’t get lost.

Wit was different, though, right? I wasn’t clinging to him; it was more like we were tangled together, an invisible string connecting us. He was my friend, my partner in crime, the person who made me laugh so hard before lulling me to sleep with his heartbeat and adorable mouth breathing.

I’m going to try, I wanted to tell Luli. I’ve made so many mistakes, but I’m going to try my best to do better. We’ve been friends forever—I want to stay friends forever.

By the time Aunt Rachel and I wrapped up our session, I’d decided that I would talk with Luli. Her hurtful comments still stung, but I regretted not saying more, not trying harder.

“Where’re you headed next?” Aunt Rachel asked as we rolled up our mats, and I said I was going on a hike.

Because the Nylon Condo Complex was exactly that.

* * *

After leaving the Camp, I set off across the lawn, only to encounter Michael walking down the Pond House’s road wearing last night’s clothes: the same black sweatshirt with the Saints’ gold fleur-de-lis logo, the same jeans. I sped up, quick and quiet steps, and soon was at his side. “Good morning,” I said casually and laughed when he flinched with surprise. “You get some good sleep?”

“Yes, as a matter of a fact,” he said, fully owning his walk of shame. “I did finally.” He yawned, then smiled to himself. “I never sleep well when we’re apart.”

A lump formed in my throat.

“Speaking of,” Michael said, “where’s Witty?”

“As far as I know,” I told him, “he’s still in bed.”

“Great.” He clapped his hands together. “I’m in the mood for a run.”

All was silent at the Nylon Condo Complex when I arrived. It was early enough that most people were still sleeping, but some had probably gotten up and dragged themselves over to Moor House for breakfast with the Dupré clan. That kitchen could hold an army, and Jeannie was more than capable of feeding one. “Yeah, the woman can cook,” Eli had said after I’d raved about the gumbo. “You should try her spin on eggs Benedict.”

I’ll go over for breakfast, I decided before circling the tents until I found the magenta one, the tent Luli was sharing with Pravika and her sister. They were both early risers, but not Luli. Her longest sleep was sixteen hours straight.

Heart racing, I attempted to knock on the nylon. Of course we’d grown up not needing to knock on the house doors, but this was a tent, and I felt like I had to now. “Hello?” I said when my knuckles just slid down the thin fabric. “Luli?”

There was no response at first, but soon someone unzipped the tent’s front flap. Luli’s dark bedhead looked like a nest around her face. “Meredith,” she said, voice a grumble. “Hi.”

We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then I blinked and pretended my pulse wasn’t pounding so hard. “Can we talk?” I asked. “I have something to tell you.”

Luli grandly gestured inside. “Welcome.”

Her tent was much messier than Eli and Jake’s. I glanced around to see an air mattress, sleeping bag, and pillow arranged in each person’s corner, but

there were also exploding duffel bags and backpacks. Various clothes and shoes and towels were strewn across the floor, and sand had inevitably been tracked in from the beach. I suddenly felt guilty for not offering up Claire’s bunk in the Annex—and, since I technically hadn’t slept there, mine as well.

“Not exactly Moor House,” Luli commented. “Or any house.” “But it’s fun, right?” I said tentatively. “You’re having fun?”

“Yes,” she said. “The Nylon Condo Complex has seen plenty of fun.” I nodded back, and again, things went silent between us.

Luli broke it this time. “So you said you had something to tell me.” She crossed her arms over her oversize T-shirt. “What is it?”

“Oh,” I said, inviting myself to sit down. Luli stayed standing. “It’s about Assassin. I have some news for you.”

“From Wit?”

“No.” I shook my head. “Aunt Rachel.” Luli arched an eyebrow.

I took that as my cue, telling her all about Aunt Julia and what had gone down between her and Ian last night. Her original strategy, the cookies, the delayed elimination—

“But how does this involve me?” Luli asked before I could finish. “Ian was your assassin, so now Aunt Julia has you. I have no part in this.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “It was all a cover-up. Ian took Claire’s false intel tactic to the next level, actually acting like he had me. Showing up at Aunt Rachel’s morning meditations, tracking me in the Varsity Room.” I shook my head. “It was a farce. Someone in his secret alliance has me, not him—and not Aunt Julia.”

Luli sighed. “How do you know for sure?”

“Because I have this,” I said, pulling up a photo on my phone: a laminated piece of paper with Luli’s name on it. She stiffened. “It’s Aunt Julia’s,” I

continued. “Aunt Rachel snuck into their bedroom while she was still sleeping and brought it out to show me.”

Don’t spread this around, my aunt had said. Use it wisely.

I’d say I was using it as wisely as I knew how.

Luli stared at the photo, rubbed her eyes, then stared at it again. I kept quiet. “Thank you,” she eventually whispered. “For the heads-up.”

“You’re welcome,” I said and added, “I’ve always got your back.”

Luli’s face twisted into something I couldn’t read, but I took my chance anyway—I apologized. I apologized for the last eighteen months. “You were the best,” I told her, “reaching out so often, but I just couldn’t respond most of the time.” My eyes welled up. “I tried to, but I physically couldn’t do it. My fingers would shake, my throat would thicken, or I would literally start crying.” Tears trickled down my face now, too. “Being in my house was a constant reminder that she was gone. I mean, for a while, I tried to convince myself that she was just away at college, but I felt like talking about it with you would make things worse. Each text, each FaceTime, each Snapchat was another reminder that she’s gone.” I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I should’ve handled it differently. You didn’t deserve to be ignored.”

“No, I didn’t,” Luli said numbly and turned away from me. “All I wanted was to be there for you, to be a good friend—a good cousin.”

“You are a good cousin,” I said. “You are so special.”

Luli considered, her back still facing me. “Could you please leave, Meredith?” she asked after a few frantic heartbeats. “I need some space.”

“Oh…okay, sure.” I scrambled up from the ground and wiped away my tears, even though I felt another rush coming. “I’ll see you later?”

By way of an answer, Luli nodded.

* * *

The wedding reception’s white tent looked like a billowing cloud in the beyond-blue sky, and as I got closer to the Big House, I noticed Aunt

Christine supervising the tent’s construction while Honey also hovered on the lawn. But instead of eagle-eyeing the crew, she was offering the builders glasses of her homemade iced tea and chocolate chip cookies.

The Big House is truly perfect, I thought. Truly perfect for a wedding.

Apparently, there had been some back-and-forth about where on The Farm the reception should be held, but in the end, Wink and Honey’s home trumped all. “It has the best view,” Sarah had said. “The ocean, the ponds, the stars—you can see everything, and I want that night to be everything.”

Wink was relaxing on the front porch, reading a book. “Morning, Mer,” he said as I collapsed on the hammock. “Any updates?”

I closed my eyes. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m in a food coma from breakfast at Moor House. Jeannie made me her eggs Benedict. You know she adds fried green tomatoes and grilled red tomatoes?” I sighed. “It’s delicious.”

“Mmm, yes,” my grandfather agreed. “When Honey and I went to visit Sarah and Michael this winter, she and Oscar invited us over for brunch. Tomatoes are a very Creole fruit, you know.”

“She mentioned that,” I said, then swallowed hard. I’d texted Pravika that I was coming for breakfast, so she, Eli, and Jake had saved me a seat at the long kitchen table, but their faces when they saw me…

I knew that they knew about Luli’s and my fight. She must’ve told them yesterday. “She didn’t mean any of it,” Pravika said once I sat down and picked up my utensils. “Not a word.”

“Did she tell you that?” I asked. “No,” Pravika said, “but—”

Eli cut her off. “Meredith, I wouldn’t say she didn’t mean it.” I waited for him to say more.

He didn’t, so Jake sighed and stepped in. “You ghosting her really bummed her out, Mer. I mean, it really bummed all of us out”—he glanced around the table, and the others nodded—“but her the most. She’s always

thought of you and Claire as sisters…so after Claire…” He paused. “She wanted to be there for you, but she also needed you to be there for her.”

I winced. He was right, and I was an idiot. I’d never thought of it that way before, that Luli wanted to be both comforting and comforted.

“Give her time to process,” Eli said after I told them about my apology. He put an arm around me. “She’s upset. It’ll take her some time to calm down, but it’ll happen.” He gave me a look. “Okay?”

I bit my lip. “Okay.”

It was silent for a minute, and then Pravika spoke up. “New topic?” she suggested. “Fun topic?”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” she said, giggling. “Your hot-and-heavy wedding hookup?”

Now, in the Big House’s hammock, my heart sank. “Well, do you think you’re going to be able to do it?” Wink said.

I blinked. “Huh?”

My grandfather closed his book. “Do you think you’re going to be able to do it?” he asked again.

All I could do was gape at him. He knew?

Wink nodded. “You started out so strong, Mer…Rachel and her meditation, Daniel in Edgartown—and from the Jeep, no less!—Oscar during bocce, and Sarah’s odious friend Vivian.” He leaned forward in his Adirondack chair. “But I’ve been watching you. You’ve been carrying around your Super Soaker”—he pointed his book at the water gun, propped up against a porch column—“for two days now yet have nothing to show for it.” He leaned back in his chair. “So tell me, does he know?”

I sighed. “He guessed.”

Wink whistled. “His nickname is apt.”

“But I lied,” I admitted, covering my face with my hands. “I lied to him and said I had Luli instead.”

“Ah.”

“I should’ve told him the truth,” I said anxiously. “I should’ve been honest, and we could’ve made some sort of deal.”

“But you didn’t,” my grandfather said, “and you’re worried that if you come clean now, he’ll feel betrayed.”

I nodded.

Tell me what to do, I thought. Please.

“Hmm,” was all Wink said before opening his book again. He wasn’t going to tell me anything. And why would he? Yes, he was my grandfather, but he was also the Assassin commissioner! He couldn’t advise or show any favoritism.

I stood up to leave.

His voice stopped me. “Keep in mind, Meredith,” he said, “that only one person can win.”

* * *

Even though the wedding ceremony rehearsal was this afternoon, Wit had been more than game when I told him about driving out to Beach Road and jumping off the Jaws Bridge. It was the borderline between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, but the landmark’s true claim to fame was its appearance in the movie Jaws, which had been filmed on the Vineyard in the 1970s. “You have to do it,” I’d said. “It’s pretty much a rite of passage for tourists.”

The bridge sat twelve or fifteen feet above the water, and there were signs that read KEEP OFF BRIDGE RAIL! and NO JUMPING OR DIVING

FROM BRIDGE! but everyone ignored those. Claire and I first made the great jump when we were thirteen and twelve. We jumped holding hands, and six launches later, we were doing swan dives and flips (with a few belly flops mixed in).

“Oh, I’m so down,” Wit said once I’d explained the tradition, nodding quickly. “So down.”

We agreed to meet at the Annex, so after slipping into a swimsuit, I sat down on the front steps to wait. All set, I DMed @sowitty17.

And then I just scrolled through Instagram, eventually finding myself on Sarah’s account. Her latest post was from Back Door Donuts, a video I’d filmed of her double-fisting Boston cream donuts. “Watch it, cuz,” I heard myself say. “You might not fit in your dress.”

“Oh, I’ll fit,” she said through a big bite. “I might not be able to breathe, but I’ll fit!”

#HurrayShesADupré.

Sarah doesn’t have many videos, I realized, so I continued to scroll past pictures of her brunching with friends, on the sidelines of a Saints’ game, at a Mardi Gras celebration, and posing with the Dupré family during her engagement party. Sarah had her hand on Michael’s chest, her gigantic ring glittering in the light. Her smile was a mile wide.

But eventually, there one was—another video, buried deep among the photos. My heart stopped, immediately recognizing the person in the thumbnail. At first glance, it could’ve been Sarah, with the cascading auburn hair and glasses…but the off-the-shoulder blouse she wore?

It was mine. Claire had asked if she could borrow it when packing for her trip.

That was my sister, right there.

Don’t watch it, I thought. Don’t even think about—

I tapped the video. It didn’t have a caption, but the location tag was Basin Seafood and Spirits Restaurant. My face prickled.

Claire’s last night.

When I tapped the video to turn on the sound, Sarah was speaking. It was difficult to hear in the humming restaurant, but I did my best. “Watch her,” she said. “Watch what’s happening over there.” She zoomed in on Claire and her salad, which she was enthusiastically rearranging with her knife and fork. “She hasn’t taken a single bite.”

“And I don’t think he’s noticed,” Michael chimed in. “Do you?”

Sarah giggled. “I think he has,” she said, tilting up to Claire’s face. She literally could not keep her mouth shut; it was moving as fast as her utensils. “I think he’s being sweet, polite—oh, look! His eyes just dropped down to her plate. He’s on to her.”

My spine straightened, because I suddenly had a feeling I knew who they were talking about…and when Sarah moved her camera again, there he was next to my sister.

Wit.

“Hey!” he shouted from across the table. “Are you filming us?”

He looked the same but different. His sandy hair was a bit shorter, and of course his face was unblemished. No bruise, no sunburn.

“I don’t remember signing a waiver,” he said. “Do you, Claire?”

My sister laughed, and just like that, my fingers began trembling, my phone shaking. I hadn’t listened to Claire’s laugh in over a year. Her gorgeous, dazzling laugh. The world felt so quiet without it.

I let my phone drop lifelessly to the grass, but I snatched it right back up once I heard Wit’s voice in real life. “I’m ready!” he called out, walking toward me in striped trunks with a towel thrown over his shoulder. “Are you ready?”

He grinned and tried to kiss me after I rose from the deck’s steps, but I twisted away from him. I held up my phone and managed to choke out, “What the hell is this?”

Wit’s eyebrows furrowed. “Uh, your phone?”

“Oh.” I realized I’d locked it, the screen now dark. “Hang on.” I quickly entered my passcode and queued up the video, sound and all. “What,” I repeated, “is this?”

I watched his face fall as the video played, my eyes pooling at Claire’s laughter. “Listen,” he murmured, “I can explain—”

“You knew Claire?” I interrupted, my voice shrill. “You knew my sister?”

A beat of hesitation, and then a nod.

Needles pricked the back of my neck. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” I said. “I can’t believe…” I trailed off, unsure how to continue. My vision blurred with oncoming tears.

“Please let me explain,” Wit said, putting a light hand on my arm. I shook it off and brushed past him into the open field. Part of me wanted him to tell me everything, but the rest didn’t want to hear a word. “Meredith!” Wit caught up to me, matched his pace to mine. “I tried to tell you,” he said. “I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“When?” I snapped.

“Yesterday,” he replied. “While we were hiking. You said it was like I knew her?”

I stopped walking. We were in the tall grass, both looking out at the dunes. You sound like you knew her, I’d said after Wit had complimented Loki’s water bottle drinking abilities, but I hadn’t thought much of it, chalking it up to me talking about Claire so much. But then, yes, something had shifted, and he’d looked away from me. Meredith, I vaguely remembered him saying, I think I need to clear something up…

Then thunder had cracked.

“Well you should’ve tried harder,” I told him now, not caring how loud my voice sounded. “You should’ve told me on the way home, or before gumbo, or later that day!”

Wit scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I thought you knew,” he said softly. “You cut me off so abruptly, saying we had to run back to the car.”

“No, the thunder cut you off,” I countered, heart hammering. “We did

have to run back!”

“Meredith, it was one rumble. I thought you knew what I was about to say and didn’t want to hear it.” He swallowed. “I wanted to respect that.”

There was a weird crunching noise in the tall grass behind us, but I was too frustrated to look. It was probably Loki or Clarabelle or one of the other

dogs.

I clenched my teeth. “So is that also why you didn’t say anything on Monday?” I asked as another clue came to mind from Wink and Honey’s dinner, where Sarah had told the story about the salad. She’d said she’d forgotten who Claire was sitting with at Basin—maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t, I didn’t really care—and Wit had kept shifting on Claire’s stool. “When we were talking about her?”

Wit was quiet. Again, I heard that crunching noise, but all I could focus on was waiting for him to speak. “You were shivering,” he murmured. “It was warm out, but you were shivering.” My arms were crossed over my chest, but a few of his fingers began brushing through my hair, subtly and smoothly, like they had that night. I resisted the urge to close my eyes and let myself cry. “I never would’ve done that to you.”

“But you still kept it a secret,” I said. “You kept it a secret for way too long. I mean, were you ever going to tell me?” I stepped away from him. “I gave you every opportunity—talking about her, telling all those stories.” I shook my head. “Maybe if—”

I couldn’t finish the sentence, because a surge of something hit me square in the back.

Well, not a surge of something. A surge of water.

Wait, what? I thought as Wit and I turned to see Uncle Brad grinning like the most cunning of foxes. It took a second for things to sink in, but once they did…

I was speechless.

You’ve been assassinated, I told myself. You’ve blown it.

My stomach dropped. I was supposed to do this for Claire. I was supposed to win for her.

“Cough it up,” Uncle Brad said, gesturing toward my shorts pocket with his water gun. “Tight schedule today, with the ceremony rehearsal and

dinner and all.”

“Yeah.” My throat was dry. “Okay.” I slid my hand into my pocket for my Assassin slip, but slowly, so I could throw a quick look Wit’s way. “Run,” I muttered to him.

Uncle Brad still had his gun raised, and my anger at Wit aside, I did not want my uncle knocking off two targets within a mere minute of each other.

Wit narrowed his eyes. “What?” “Any day now, Mer…”

“Run,” I mumbled again.

“No,” Wit said as I tugged my target slip from my pocket. I held it facedown, name pressed against my chest. “We aren’t finished talking. Just hand it over”—he motioned to Uncle Brad—“so we can work this out. I’m not leaving.”

Body angled away from Uncle Brad, I flipped the paper over so Wit could see his name on it. His turquoise eyes widened while the rest of his face went slack. “Stephen,” I said firmly. “Run.”

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