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Thursday: Chapter no 14

The Summer of Broken Rules

Wit and I woke up early to go hiking but not early enough to avoid Michael stretching pre-workout. “Good morning,” was all he said as I bowed my head, Wit’s hands on my shoulders.

“Um, yeah, good morning,” I stammered back.

“Are you embarrassed to be seen with me?” Wit whispered. I smiled and shook him off. “More like mortified.”

We stopped by the Annex so I could change into hiking clothes, fill up a water bottle, and grab the Raptor’s keys. My parents were asleep, their bedroom door shut, but Loki was wide awake and bouncing around the cottage. The Jack Russell could barely contain himself when I clipped his leash onto his collar, knowing it was time for a walk.

The Menemsha Hills Reservation Trail was up-island in Chilmark, and Wit was almost as excited as Loki by the time I parked the truck. “It’s one big loop,” I told him and glanced up at the overcast sky. Hopefully, we’d beat the forecasted downpour. “Claire knew it better than me.” I paused. “I’m not the best with directions.”

“Well, lucky for us, I am,” Wit said, pulling a map out of the nearby hutch. He unfolded it, scanned it for a few seconds. “Onward?”

I nodded. The cool thing about this trail was that it was woodsy but then out of nowhere, you’d pop out of the trees and have your breath taken away by the view. My favorite part overlooked the ocean with its wide-open beaches and rolling cliffs.

“I love this,” Wit said once we got into a groove, our sneakers covered in the dusty sand we were kicking up. “This is exactly the type of thing I want to do in New Zealand.”

New Zealand—I wished the thought didn’t make my stomach turn so much.

“Tell me about when you were younger,” I randomly said. Wit raised an eyebrow. “When I was younger?”

“Yeah, like when you were in high school.” “So barely two years ago?”

I was thankful Loki jerked me ahead so Wit didn’t see me blush.

“There’s not much to tell,” Wit said. “I lived in Vermont with my mom, I went to school—I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it—and I skied as much as possible on the weekends in the winter.”

“What about your friends?” I asked. “Did they ski, too? Or snowboard?”

Wit hesitated for a moment. “To be honest,” he said, “I only have a couple of good friends—Kevin and Caleb and I have known each other since kindergarten. But I’m always cool doing my own thing, too. There were people I hung out with from time to time and studied with, but not a huge group of friends.” He shrugged and chuckled to avoid any awkwardness. “I guess that’s why Michael and Sarah take me out with them in New Orleans. Since it’s kind of the same way at Tulane. I’m not great at making friends.”

“And I’m not great at keeping them,” I found myself saying, reining Loki in—he’d caught a whiff of something and was trying to crawl under the path’s split-rail fence.

“What do you mean?” Wit asked. “I bet you have plenty of friends.

You’re incredible.”

My heart twisted. “I did have friends,” I told him. “But somewhere along the way…” I trailed off and cleared my throat. “Somewhere along the way, I stopped paying attention to them. Everything became about Ben… especially after Claire died. I was so sad and checked out that I clung to the

person closest to me and didn’t let go. I shut out everyone else and didn’t ever open the door again. Because Ben loved protecting me. He loved that I needed him, until he decided that he didn’t need me anymore.”

“Ben?” Wit asked. “What happened to Shithead?”

We reached another overlook and sat down on its bench, built from three slabs of stone. I quickly told Wit about Ben’s drunken 2:00 a.m. voicemail and what I’d said when I’d called him back. “So he’s just Ben again,” I finished. “But in the sense that I don’t care—he’s beneath my consideration. I blocked his number.”

Wit leaned over and kissed the top of my head, leaving an arm slung over my shoulder. It was freckled from the sun. “Good for you, Killer.”

I shut my eyes. Killer. There it was—not one of our ever-changing terms of endearment but my special, sweet, inside-joke nickname.

Now, did I have one for Wit? That was more complicated.

Are we meant to last more than a week? I wondered, wishing I could ask Claire to consult her astrology charts and tarot cards.

“What about you?” I asked. “Have you ever had a girlfriend?” “Yeah,” he answered. “For a little while in high school.”

I elbowed him.

He laughed. “What?” “More details, please.” “Why?”

“Because it’s important. Girls care about this stuff.”

Wit sighed. “Her name was Brianna. We were in the same math class and agreed to go to junior prom together. It escalated from there.”

“When did you break up?”

“Winter senior year, because apparently I didn’t give her enough attention.”

“That doesn’t sound like you,” I said.

His lips quirked. “What do you mean?” I swallowed. “Oh, just that…”

You are affectionate without even thinking about it. You let me talk for hours, and you listen for hours. You make me feel absolutely golden.

But I couldn’t say any of that, so I kissed him. “What about Tulane?” I asked afterward. “Any love interests there?”

“Really? Love interests?” I gave him a look.

He shrugged. “Some girls, yes…but they weren’t real relationships or anything. We would hang out a couple of times, and then…”

“Hook up,” I finished for him. “You hooked up, and that was it.”

Wit ran a hand through his hair, face flushed. “Meredith, why are we talking about this?”

Because, I thought. Because I want to know if things…if things were different…

“I don’t know,” I said quickly. “Sorry, I’m being stupid.” I leaned forward to grab my water bottle from my backpack’s side pocket. “Loki!” I coaxed him over, then squirted a stream into his mouth. He gulped and gulped.

“Neat trick,” Wit commented. “Claire taught him,” I said.

He nodded thoughtfully. “Seems like something she’d do.” I laughed. “You sound like you knew her.”

“Well,” he said, shifting on the bench, “actually…”

“I talk about her a lot,” I said. “I know.” I gestured around us. “Every piece of this island is her to me, so I can’t help it. She would’ve liked you.” Wit gave me a gentle smile. “Sarah said that, too,” he said. “She thought we would be really good friends.” He paused, not exactly looking at me, gazing at the horizon instead. His fingers were folded on his lap. “Meredith,

I think I need to clear something up—”

The sudden crack of thunder drowned out whatever he was going to say.

“Crap!” I said and shot up off the bench. Finding the car and driving home in the rain was daunting. “Let’s make a run for it!”

But I didn’t know which path to take. Multiple trails led to our overlook. Wit’s hand found mine. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I know the way.”

* * *

Our clothes were drenched by the time we reached the Raptor, and I gladly tossed Wit the keys when he offered to drive. I swung myself up into shotgun, a soaking-wet Loki settling on my lap. It was too bad I didn’t have a beach towel to wrap him in, because his first inclination was to shake himself dry. Perfect, I thought, now also covered mud. Just perfect.

Wit didn’t laugh; instead, he resumed our conversation from earlier. “I’m sorry for being weird about the girls,” he said, coughing. “It’s not something I’m proud of, and Michael’s already chewed me out a bunch of times.”

“You tell Michael about that stuff?” I asked. “Yes.”

I nodded but didn’t say anything, remembering how Claire constantly told me I deserved more than Ben, that someone better for me was out there. “I don’t know when it’s gonna happen,” she’d said once, after I came home from a fight with him. She and I were curled up together in her bed—her the big spoon, me the little. “But someday, somewhere…”

And then she’d murmured something in my ear.

It had stopped my sobbing for a second and made me smile.

“You’re prettier than all of them anyway,” Wit added as he turned the Raptor’s windshield wipers up to full speed. “By far.”

I squeezed Loki to my chest. “Don’t say that.”

“But it’s true.” He took a hand off the wheel so he could lick his thumb, then reached over and wiped some mud from my cheek.

My chest tightened. “I don’t care if it’s true,” I said. “Please don’t call me pretty.”

Why not? I expected him to ask, but he didn’t. Instead, Wit flipped the blinker before pulling the truck over to the side of the road. He threw on the hazard lights, then turned to me. And I could see it in his eyes, in their gold rings, that he remembered yesterday morning, us fooling around together. Don’t call me pretty, I’d been quick to say, and then I’d managed to leave his room without an explanation.

“Okay,” Wit said slowly, both hands still on the steering wheel but not breaking eye contact. My pulse raced. “What’s the deal? Tell me, please.”

I waited a heartbeat…then two…then three. Wit’s hands dropped from the wheel.

“Everyone says I’m pretty,” I murmured.

“Well, they’re right,” Wit replied. “You are undeniably—”

Ben called me pretty,” I cut in. “Ben called me babe, Ben called me cute, Ben called me pretty.” My eyes prickled. “He almost never acknowledged that I had something more to offer than my looks.” I blinked away tears. “And I can’t hear it anymore. I can’t handle it.” I paused. “Especially from you.”

Wit was silent.

“I don’t want to be ‘pretty’ to you,” I tried again. “It means nothing. It’s sanitized and superficial.” I reached for one of his hands and squeezed it tight. “You pay me the most wonderful compliments. You say such interesting things no one has ever said before, like how affectionate I am, and smart and clever…and I can’t even tell you how good that makes me feel.” I kissed his fingers, which were warm despite the downpour. “Hearing those things make me so happy.” I started kissing his palm, along his love line.

“Okay,” Wit said after a minute. “I won’t say you’re pretty.” He sighed. “But am I still allowed to think it? Because if not”—his eyes flicked up and

down my body, all wet and splattered with mud—“that’d be a huge ask.” “A huge ask?”

“An impossible ask.”

I laughed. “Even when I look like this?”

“Uh-huh,” he said, leaning over to mess up my hair. “Even when you look like this.”

* * *

Michael texted me just as we pulled onto The Farm road. I don’t know where you two rogues are, it said, but everyone’s invited to Moor House for board games and gumbo.

Wit groaned when I read the message aloud. “What?” I asked. “Do you have something against gumbo?”

“Not at all,” he said. “Jeannie’s gumbo is the best gumbo in New Orleans.” He paused. “It’s just, you know, with everyone in one house… like the whole Varsity Room situation?”

I nodded, catching his drift. “A massacre.”

Because while Wit and I had fled early, so many people had been unable to escape elimination when the Varsity Room’s party officially ended. According to Pravika, at least ten players were assassinated.

“We’ll have to be creative, then,” I told Wit. “Climb through some windows or something.”

Hopefully Ian wouldn’t consider that possibility, and if Jeannie’s gumbo was as delicious as Wit claimed, then I’d happily wait out my cousin all afternoon.

“By the way,” Wit said, “did you ever text Sarah about getting in touch with Viv? For your target?”

My heart scrambled up into my throat. “Oh.” I could barely speak. “I… um, don’t need to anymore.” I bit my lip. “Viv…delivered it right after you left last night.”

“Wait, she did?” Wit swerved a little but righted the Raptor quickly. His hand went to my knee, but for once, I didn’t want it there. “Why didn’t you tell me in my room?”

“Because I was too busy seducing you,” I joked. “With my sweat-soaked T-shirt and such.”

“Ah, yes…” Wit said but trailed off as if also thinking about me sobbing in my sleep—crying over Claire. “I’m an idiot.”

“But a handsome one,” I said.

“Handsome?” He gave me an incredulous look. “You can call me

handsome, but I can’t call you—”

“You like being called handsome,” I said. “Yesterday morning, you pouted like a little boy when I said I wouldn’t call you handsome.”

Wit straightened up in his seat.

I tried to turn the subject back to him. “I’m guessing you’re going to try to get your target today, right?”

“Try?”

I rolled my eyes. “Asshole.”

“But a handsome asshole, right?”

“Yes, although handsome assholes do not compare to handsome idiots.”

Wit laughed and nodded. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I’m going to give it my best shot.”

“Cool,” I said, then went silent, wishing this ride could be over. I knew who Wit’s next target was, and while it would probably be an easy execution, the repercussions would be difficult.

For me, not him.

“Speaking of,” I found myself saying, “I think I’m going to take a step back.”

He raised an eyebrow. “A step back?”

“Uh-huh.” I nodded. “With Ian on the prowl, I’m going to play more defensively for a while. He’s getting under my skin, and I want to be on my

guard.”

“But you are on your guard,” Wit said. “You even know Ian’s your assassin.” He sighed. “I don’t know who mine is, and that’s really freaking me out, but I’m not letting it stop me.”

“Wit,” I said, his name now difficult to say. “You have so many people freaked out that I think even your assassin is freaked out. You can afford to be a bandanna-wearing bandit.” I took a breath, rehearsing what I needed to say next. “Besides, there’s an advantage to me switching to defense.”

His voice was deadpan. “Enlighten me.”

“Well, while I avoid Ian, my target will be doing most of the work.” “Most of the work?”

“Yeah,” I told him. “Sure, they’ll be out there having fun, but the more people they take out, the fewer people I’ll have to deal with when the time comes.”

Wit kept his eyes on the road, but I could almost hear the gears going in his head and see the scenarios he was envisioning.

Please, I thought, stomach stirring. Please believe me. Get on board. This is how it needs to be…

“Who is it?” he asked.

Blood pumped through my ears. “Who’s your next mark?”

I hugged Loki so hard he let out a bark.

“Fuck,” Wit murmured. “It’s me, isn’t it?”

“No!” I said quickly, watching him run a hand through his hair. “No, oh my god, Wit”—I forced a laugh—“it’s not you. Don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s not you!”

His jaw tightened. “Then why did I have to ask twice?”

Words—I needed words, and fast. “Because even though it’s not you,” I answered, “it’s still someone I’m close with.” I mentally ran through the names of who was left, soon landing on one. “Someone I’m aligned with.” I

took a deep breath and hoped this wouldn’t come back to bite me. “Luli—I have Luli.”

He gave me a look. “Luli?” I nodded. “Luli.”

“Not me?”

“Not you.” Silence.

“That sounds like solid logic, then,” Wit eventually said. “Focus on outwitting Ian, and let Luli have her fun.”

“Yes.” I looped my pinkie around his and locked them together. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

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