Shanna handed Dean the card, and he immediately handed it to me before he even had a chance to read it. I flushed at that casual gesture that seemed so completely uneasy to me, and my face turned bright red. I flipped over the note and gave (what I hoped was) a casual laugh. “He knows I’m impatient.”
No one else laughed. Awkward.
With that, I began to read aloud. “Roses are red, violets are blue, keep your team in the lead, don’t be number two. The sky is blue, the grass is green, there can be only one winner from the chosen team.” I flipped the card over to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. Nada. “That’s, uh, interesting.”
“Any thoughts?” Alys asked me.
“They need to hire better writers for this show,” I said. “They rhymed ‘team’ with ‘green.’”
“She meant the challenge, you egghead,” Lana said and pinched my arm, a little hard.
“Ow! And I know she meant the challenge,” I said, trying not to sulk. Great, now my arm throbbed in addition to my ankle. “Obviously they’re going to split us into teams, right? And I guess whichever team advances, only one person gets to win?”
“That’s kind of what we thought too,” someone else admitted.
The conversation spiraled out from there, and soon everyone forgot about the awkwardness between Dean and me, and Heather seemed nonchalant. Only Lana watched me with hawk-like eyes as the group discussed if teams would be picked or randomly chosen.
“What if it’s a running challenge?” someone said, and immediately all eyes swung back to me.
I forced myself to smile in a lighthearted manner. “I guess if it is I won’t be much competition, will I?”
Several smiled at that. Dean didn’t, but he didn’t frown, either. Instead, he took the note from my hands and read it thoughtfully again, saying nothing.
I had no idea what was going on in his mind.
Luck must have been smiling on me, because when we got to the challenge, I saw chairs instead of an obstacle course. That was a good sign.
“You’ll be divided into two teams for this challenge,” Chip said, as if we hadn’t already guessed as much. “The first round will be trivia—how much do you know about this show?” He paused to let that sink in, and then continued. “The next round will be for the winning team alone—you will compete individually in an endurance challenge.”
My heart fell at that. So much for hoping my ankle wouldn’t be a liability.
Team captains were randomly selected—Lana was one, and to my surprise, Dean was the second. Lana had first choice and she selected Riley, the strongest remaining guy. No surprise there.
“Dean, select a female player,” Chip reminded him.
“I pick Abby,” he said and glanced over at me.
“Interesting choice,” Chip said. “Care to explain it?”
“Abby’s smart,” Dean said with a shrug. “And we work well together.”
I hobbled over to his side and looked out at the remaining players. It could be seen as a strategic move, really—I was too hurt to compete in the second half of the competition. Providing our team got past the first round, it’d be a smart move and I wondered if the others saw it that way.
Didn’t seem like it. As I glanced over at Heather, she made a kissy face and giggled, which caused me to flush. So much for strategy.
The rest of the teams were picked accordingly. Leon ended up with Lana, and we had Will, Alys, and Heather in addition to myself and Dean. After teams were selected, we moved to the designated playing area. Two benches had been left—one for each team, with a slate for each team to write their answer. I sat on the end of our bench as Dean took up the chalk opposite Lana, who stood at the chalkboard for her team.
“First team to get ten points for correct answers will move on to the next round,” Chip said. “First question…”
The trivia questions were random things about the islands—the history of the native people of the Islands, the explorers that found them, and a few questions scattered here and there about the game and players that had been voted off. It was clear from the get-go that Lana’s team was lacking in the history department. As for me, since my day job was to retain useless bits of trivia and pepper them into magazine articles and book reviews, well, we did really well. By the time Dean put down the chalk and our team hit ten points, I’d been responsible for half of them. My shoulders ached from so many vigorous slaps on the back. We were winning, and it was exciting.
“Let’s move on to round two,” Chip said, and everyone stood but me. “The endurance part of the challenge.” He gestured to the nearby edge of the water. “Do you see the poles out there in the distance?”
Five poles jutted from the water a good deal out from shore. Each one was colored a separate color, and I had to raise my hand to my eyes and squint to make them out. More like a sprint than endurance, but it didn’t matter because I wouldn’t be able to do either.
“Your job is to run out, swim across and get to the top of your pole. At the top of your pole is a lever you can release. Doing so will shoot your flag into the air. The person that releases their flag first wins immunity and will be safe at our first Judgment.”
The others lined up at the designated starting line. Chip glanced over at me at my spot on the bench. “Going to participate, Abby?”
I could practically hear the smirk in his voice. Bastard. He liked seeing me suffer. “I’m going to sit this one out, unfortunately. Sorry.” I was tempted to hold out my injured foot and wiggle it, but drawing more attention to it than I already had would be a bad idea.
I held my breath as Dean surged forward, his muscles flexing and golden in the sunlight. He was beautiful and lean and strong, and the others stood no chance against him. Within moments, Dean had cut through the water, swimming twice as fast as his closest competition. His flag shot into the air a shortly after that, and Dean punctuated this with a yell of enthusiasm and pumping his fist. From my spot on the bench, I clapped excitedly, exhilarated at his win.
The others looked markedly less enthusiastic. I couldn’t blame them—Dean was making the rest of us look like amateurs.
“So who are we voting for tonight?” I limped toward the Judgment campfire, a few steps behind Lana. Camp had been noisy with everyone congratulating Dean on his win and chattering about Judgment that night. I’d thought the tribe would be pensive after realizing we’d have to get rid of someone, but they seemed buoyant. Everyone hung around camp and talked and laughed, and Dean was the center of attention. Shanna seemed to be paying a lot of attention to him as well, and that irritated me, but I said nothing. After all, Dean was sleeping with me. We had plans for a Final Two and who knew where it would go from there?
I didn’t have a chance to talk to Dean, either—people were constantly around and I was avoiding walking because of my ankle. I had waited all day to try and get a few moments alone with him, but the only time he’d left camp was to go get water with Lana. When they came back, she’d given me a thumbs-up that made me feel better. Even if I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Dean, she had my back.
Still, I was going into the vote with no clue who to vote for. And when we lined up, Dean was at the front of the line because he had immunity. I pulled up the rear because I couldn’t walk fast, thanks to my bad ankle. Lana loitered at the back near me and I slowed down, pretending to catch my breath.
“So who are we voting for?” I leaned heavily on my makeshift crutch and put my other hand to my ribs, pretending to catch my breath.
She paused as well, waiting for me. Her hands were on her hips, and she flicked a glance back to the front of the line. “Riley. He’s strong and we need to get rid of him.”
Made sense. I gave her a thumbs-up and we began to catch up with the others.
“I’ll read the first vote,” Chip said at the front of the room. He held up the first slate and I glanced at it with mild interest, more interested in Dean as he sat there with the immunity belt around his waist. He hadn’t come over to talk to me today, and I wondered if his feelings were changing now that we were around the others. Maybe he wasn’t interested in me anymore.
Of course, that was silly, I told myself as he glanced down at me and winked. One day wasn’t enough to change a guy’s mind about a girl… was it?
I didn’t recognize the handwriting, but I wasn’t surprised. If we had more immunity challenges that involved teaming up, I’d be a liability. Someone was bound to write my name down, but my alliance had my back.
The next vote was my own handwriting. “Riley,” Chip said, holding up the slate for all of us to see.
The next: “Will.” That was random. I idly wondered who had bothered to vote for Will. He was a sweet guy and not exactly kicking anyone’s butt in challenges.
Lost in my musing, I almost missed the next vote. “Abby.”
I frowned, sitting up a little straighter.
Chip turned around the next slate with great relish. “Abby.” And the next. “Abby.”
Four for me. My pulse was pounding in my veins so loud that I could barely hear Chip over the roaring in my ears. “Fifth vote—Abby. That’s enough. You have been exiled from Endurance Island.”
I sat in my seat, numb, before instinct kicked in and I got to my feet, leaning on my crutch. Hands patted me on the back and my tribemates murmured that they were sad to see me go.
Big fat liars.
I moved forward to the Exile Archway and glanced back at Dean. Poor guy—I wondered what he was thinking at the moment. Was he upset? Angry?
But when I glanced back, Dean wasn’t looking at me. His head was bent close to Lana’s and they were both whispering furiously.
A cold pit settled in my stomach. What was going on?
“Time to go, Abby,” Chip said impatiently and put a hand to the small of my back. “You’ve been exiled.”
“I’m going, I’m going.” I hobbled my way through the archway and down the wooden steps. In the background, I could hear the others leaving the council area, and I felt a pang of loss as I stared at the empty darkness ahead of me.
What had just happened?
“There you are,” cried one of the production assistants, and she rushed forward on the sandy path to help me walk forward. “You ready to go?”
“Where are we going?” I stared at her dumbly—she was so clean and fresh. I, well, wasn’t.
“To the Exile camp. You’re the first person in our jury and we’ve got special plans for you.”
“Yay, me,” I said warily, but allowed her to lead the way. Sure enough, she led me out to a dock and we boarded a small boat that took us to a nearby island. I could see the lights and the windows of a cabin in the distance. I should have been excited to see it, because I knew what was coming up—a real bed that I didn’t have to share. A shower. Clean clothing. No bugs eating me alive. All the food I could possibly want.