SUBJECT: The Game Begins
I am ready to kill or be killed. This email serves as the official notice that I, [NAME HERE], am entering this year’s round of Assassins. I understand that I must send this email before midnight Wednesday and that I will receive the rules, my team members’ names, and my target’s name Friday at 12:00 p.m.
The game begins Friday at 5:00 p.m.
Wish me luck,
“This is it,” Lia said. She added her name to the email and read it over one last time. “Think we’ll be the first?”
“I didn’t wake up at five to not be.” Gem launched themself off the bathroom counter and peered over Lia’s shoulder. “It’s simpler than I thought it would be.”
“Dramatic, though.” Lia nudged Gem in the side. “Do yours. We’ll send them together.”
Every March, in the anxiety-ridden weeks before colleges sent out acceptance decisions, the seniors of Lincoln High went to war. The game was the last great equalizer before the seniors went their separate ways.
And Lia--who had been planning her Assassins strategy since ninth grade, who had color-coded it red in her planner, and who had never been the best at anything--had already hung on her closet door a practical pair of running shoes, a black T-shirt she only mostly cared about, and a pair of leggings that wouldn’t feel like sandpaper if they got wet.
Not that they would. She just liked to be prepared.
“Gem Hastings reporting for murder.” Gem took a step back and raised their phone.
This year, the invitation to play was taped to the back of the bathroom doors. Few teachers ever ventured into these bathrooms, and even if one did, every bathroom was the same. Powder soap dusted the damp counters and inspirational posters decorated the dented stall doors. The invitation was a large poster of the white Lincoln High lion overlaid with three concentric circles in blood red. At their center was a QR code.
Assassins wasn’t a school-approved event, but it was tradition. Anyone who wanted to play would know what this poster meant.
“Scanned,” Gem said. The email opened, and they filled it out. “Three.”
“Two,” Lia said, thumb hovering over the send button.
It was only a game, but it was the game. It was hunting season for seniors. It was permission to stay out late with friends and teammates. It was the last chance for Lia to be good at something instead of being stuck in the shadow of her older brother.
“One,” they both said.
The emails sent.
“I hope we’re on the same team,” Lia said, “or else we had better get used to murdering each other.”
Gem snorted. “Should I not have already gotten used to that?”
Lia and Gem had been best friends since third grade--after an incident with the school-issued square pizza and May Barnard’s face--and had been inseparable ever since, even though Gem’s loathing for May had shifted to a crush this last year.
“Look at us!” Gem spun Lia to the mirror and rested their chin atop her head. “We’re going to win.”
A crack in the mirror split Lia’s long face in half and made her green eyes uneven. Behind her, Gem’s tall, muscled form was split and squished.
Their phones dinged with the same message:
Hello, Lia Prince & Gem Hastings.
Welcome to the game and happy hunting.
“Think this means we’re on the same team?” Gem asked.
“Maybe.” Lia shook her head, rubbed the back of her neck, and picked up her backpack. “It means that whoever the Council is knows us well enough to assume we’re together right now.”
“You know,” Gem said, turning away, “even if we don’t win, it’ll be a good way to spend time together before next year.”
“We’ll win.” Lia shook her head at her shattered image in the mirror. Gem won lots of things--best grades, theater tournaments, and test score competitions. The only award Lia had ever gotten was for attendance. “I just wish the Council told us everything up front.”
No one knew who the Council was or how they were chosen, but the rumor was that it was three seniors handpicked by the previous year’s Council. Everyone in Lincoln knew each other and their deepest secrets, so Lia had always assumed that rumor was true. The town was too small to keep such a mystery for so long.
“I bet it’s Gabo,” Gem said. “He loves stuff like this.”
Gabriel Gutierrez, math genius and theater nerd, was one of Lia’s guesses for the Council, too. His older brother had won Assassins seven years ago and had given him all his old notes. Gabriel even had a hand-me-down tricked-out water gun.
Mark, Lia’s older brother, had placed third but had never told her anything helpful.
“Don’t worry,” Lia said. “The Council always teams up friends, families, and crushes to keep the real fighting to a minimum.”
In the years before the Council became anonymous and focused more on the teammate and target assignments, friendships had been ruined and relationships dashed due to Assassins.
“I hope we get May as a target,” Gem said as they joined the crush of students in the hall.
Seniors opened bathroom doors and tugged their friends inside. Lia kept an eye on the ones who vanished inside for only a minute, noting their names or descriptions. There were 317 seniors, and Lia had spent all last year figuring out who would play. She had been left with fifty definites.
She had documented their daily schedules and which classrooms they were in this semester. Her journal was filled to the edges with names, maps, and by-the-minute timetables. Lia clutched it to her chest and wound her way upstairs to the biology lab with Gem.
Gem opened the door. “Stalking everyone?”
Lia waved her journal. “Not everyone, and it’s all stuff they say aloud. It’s not like I’m following them home. Stalking makes it sound weird and illegal.”
Once the game was on and Lia had her first target, she would be following them home, but even she knew that sounded creepy.
A student snorted behind Lia, and she turned. Faith Franklin was frowning at her, her eyes going from Lia’s muddy shoes to the soda-stained journal in her hands.
“Not illegal, Prince,” Faith said. She was always immaculate from her pin-straight brown hair to her pure white tennis shoes. “Definitely weird, though.”
Lia hadn’t bothered documenting Faith; the girl hated games as much as she hated mess. Faith sat at the first bench in the biology lab and pulled out a bullet journal bursting with stickers and notes. Hannah, who sat behind her, pulled out some new calligraphy pen to show her. Lia dropped her journal and half-chewed pen onto a bench next to Gem.
“She’s so organized,” Lia said. “I bet her closet is gorgeous.”
“Don’t worry.” Gem pulled out their work and grinned. “Once we win the game, nothing will be able to hold us back. We’ll be unrivaled.”
Lia laughed. “I don’t think they give scholarships out for fake-murdering classmates.”
In class, Lia had always been very, very rivaled.
With AP exams looming and their fates soon to arrive in admission portals, everyone took to the lab with as much liveliness as the day-old sheep eyeballs they were dissecting. At the next table, Devon Diaz, Lia’s oblivious crush since seventh grade, was the only one really following the steps of the lab and not just cutting the eye into tiny pieces. His fingers curled around the handle of his scalpel as if it were his violin bow, steady and sure of every move. He blew his black hair, a touch too long and curling at the ends, out of his eyes and rolled his shoulders back. Devon was sharper than any note he ever played, always wearing button-down shirts and dark jeans. He was put together and knew exactly what he wanted--all A’s, pre-med, and no distractions. Like dating.
Specifically, like dating Lia.
Near the end of class, Gem leaned over and whispered, “If Devon’s our target, will you be able to kill him?”
“Of course I could kill him,” Lia said, already calculating how hard she would have to pull the trigger to let loose the least amount of water. “But he’s not playing.”
“Did you ask him?” Gem asked. “You never talk to him.”
This was a lie. Lia hadn’t asked him. She’d just watched him for months. They moved in similar but distant circles, and he liked talking about music and how math touched everything. Lia could listen to him talk for hours, and sometimes did when she happened upon him talking to someone else and she could listen from the other side of a corner or bookshelf. He had no interest in what she could talk about--escape rooms, games, and sometimes art--but he was always kind enough to listen to her anyway. He would nod and smile, nudging her to keep talking. He was too nice.
And he always laughed at her jokes no matter how goofy they were.
“I never thought you’d have the nerve,” Gem whispered.
Lia held up the small Nerf pistol--accuracy over deluge--she had started carrying in her bag Monday to get used to the weight. She didn’t want any surprises come Friday. She sprayed Gem once, only lightly on the shoe, and a few drops of water splattered across the floor. Abby looked up from the book in her lap across the aisle.
Lia shrugged and mouthed, “Sorry.”
Abby covered her laughter with the book as Ms. Christie gathered their worksheets and took them across the hall to the classroom.
“I could hear you talking about me, you know,” Devon said, turning around. He spun his scalpel across his knuckles like a pen. “If I was playing, I would take you out first.”
“That’s not how the game works,” Lia said through her embarrassment. Being so well prepared for Assassins gave her the courage she needed to talk to him. She knew him enough to know the smirk meant he was joking, but still. “If you were playing, I would put you out of your misery quickly.”
“How kind of you,” Devon said.
“Consider it your last chance to rub elbows with the trash people not in the top ten percent of the class,” Lia said. “Your last chance to screw around before you find out about college.”
Lia had no clue what she would do after graduation. Everything about Lia was average--mediocre grades, boring hobbies. Assassins was her last chance to prove she knew what she was doing.
“I already found out,” he said. His mouth twitched, and he moved as if to run a hand through his hair before remembering he was wearing eyeball-soaked gloves and holding a scalpel. “I got a Governor’s Scholarship. I’m taking the full ride to Hendrix.”
Governor’s Scholarships were coveted and a point of pride for parents. They more than covered tuition cost at the University of Arkansas, and Hendrix covered the rest of tuition for any student who received the scholarship and enrolled with them. In reality, it was just a desperate attempt to keep kids in Arkansas. Or that was what Mark had said when he turned his down two years ago.
“Really?” Lia nearly shouted.
“What?” Faith sliced her eye straight through the sclera. “What did you get on the ACT? Who else got one?”
Lia wasn’t the best student, but she was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to bisect the whole eye.
“Thirty-six,” mumbled Devon. He stripped off his gloves and glanced at Lia. “Who gets them is private, so you’d have to ask around.”
“I definitely didn’t,” Lia said. She’d gotten a 27 and a talking-to about not taking things as seriously as her older brother. Mark had gotten a 32, but he had played basketball. Lia played no sports and had no excuses for scoring lower than him. “That’s amazing!”
Devon grinned. “Thanks.”
“Of course you scored perfectly,” Faith muttered. Her face was blank, but she stripped off her gloves, doused her hands in hand sanitizer, and picked at her jagged nails until a little crescent peeled away. “The rest of us heathens will have to wait for our letters.”
“I’m sure you’re fine,” Lia said.
Faith loved competition, especially the easy sort that showed she was better--wearing hundred-dollar sweatpants to public school, eating lunch with a full set of miniature metal silverware, and suggesting that the rest of them get tutors like her whenever they talked about testing nerves.
“With a thirty-two and a fifteen-ten, I had better be.” Faith went back to her eyeball. “I did everything right. I’m not sure why I didn’t get higher. What did you get, Prince? I was sure you’d miss it because you were stalking us for Assassins or something.”
Lia rolled her lips together and couldn’t even bring herself to answer.
“No one cares about those scores as much as you,” Devon said. “Here--what do I need to do to sign up?”
He held out his phone to Lia. She pulled up the email she had sent to the Council and typed it word for word for him.
He leaned over her arm to read what she typed. “I don’t have a water gun, and I’m not ready to be killed.”
“You can borrow one of mine,” she said. “Dear Council, I, Devon Diaz, would love to lose Assassins.”
The bell for the end of first block rang. Devon hit send, and Lia got up, knocking over her open backpack, pens rolling away. He laughed and helped her pick them up.
“You should be more light-footed, master assassin,” he said. “I’ll text you to get that water gun.”
“Finally getting that date, master assassin,” Gem whispered.
Lia knocked her shoulder against theirs. “Shut up.”
They wove their way through the halls to their next class, Lia noting every senior she knew leaving the bathroom with their phone in hand. As they sat down in their next class, Gem leaned against the window.
Outside, May Barnard and the other soccer girls sprinted across the lawn. They spent every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday first block at the gym down the street with the other varsity teams, and Lia was sure all of them would play Assassins. May was in the lead, her bright red hair streaming out behind her, and she threw her head back with laughter. She was pretty and perfect, and seemed to glow instead of sweat. Gem stared, mouth slightly open.
“This is serious. No romantic distractions.” Lia rolled her eyes and took her seat. “And she’s the reason you had in-school suspension for a week.”
“Growth and change are important aspects of life, and she did apologize.” Gem sighed and dropped their elbows to the sill, folding in on themselves like a dead spider’s legs. “She does that thing where she rolls up her sleeves, so it’s not like I could not like her. Look.”