“Way to go, Fletcher!” Joey Behring called. “Too bad it had to be with the Troll.”
Did I mention my nickname? Yeah. My physical appearance wasn’t unnoticed by my peers. Did I have some good features? Who cared at that age?
“She’s okay,” Luke said, and my face burned hotter from the gallant defense.
Sullivan Fletcher paused at my desk as homeroom let out. “Good job, Nora,” he said.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
And so went high school. Study, savor every second my academic achievement let me have with Luke. More than college, more than the urge to do well, his presence was my motivation.
The summer between freshman and sophomore years, I got a summer job at the Scupper Island Clam Shack, which meant I deep-fried a lot of seafood. Ate a lot of seafood, too. Working there was a relief; most of the customers were the summer nuisance, and I tried to be cheerful and sunny and pretend I wasn’t fat when I waited on them. I gave my mother my paychecks—money was always tight—and she told me I was a good kid.
Sullivan Fletcher worked at the Clam Shack as well as at his father’s boatyard. He was not as blessed athletically as his twin, not particularly brainy, though not dumb, either. He wasn’t mean, didn’t talk much, and I might’ve liked him, had he not dated Amy Beckman, one of the beautiful Cheetos, one of Lily’s pack. Amy went out of her way to mock me, and Lily pretended not to notice (or didn’t mind).
Lily...sharp-tongued, model thin, blue-eyed and graceful, carelessly sexual, an expert at conveying everything with a look. Her grades were in the toilet, but she didn’t care. When Mom suggested I tutor her, Lily made a face of such disgust that tears came to my eyes.
Worst of all, we still shared a room. Our little house only had two bedrooms. Every day, Lily would dress in front of me, totally unselfconscious about her body, her ribs striating through her skin, her vertebrae rippling as she pulled on pants. She was tiny and perfect, still so beautiful to me, as she had been when she was little. I tried not to look, but her body fascinated me. What would it be like to bend over and not have a stomach bulge? To not have to wear a bra? To have arms as long and slim as a ballerina’s, an ass that was both round and shapely but still fit into size 00 jeans?
At night, I’d cry sometimes, fully embracing my misery like any teenager worth her salty tears. I lacked my mother’s ironclad pragmatism, lacked Lily’s sense of self-preservation. Instead, I wrapped myself in melancholy, remembering when my sister and I were little, when we were close, when we were happy. I missed my father and hated him and loved him and hated him some more for ruining everything. Tears would slip into my ears as I listened to Lily breathe.
Or listened to her sneak out, slipping open the window, out onto the roof, down onto the lawn, as light and silent and beautiful as a dragonfly.
I missed her so much my bones hurt with it. The fact was, my sister had become a bitch, and it would’ve served me well to tell her that and show some gumption, as my mother would say...but that was the gift of hindsight. As it was, I yearned for her love, the friendship that I had never once questioned before our father left. “When will you be done in there?” was about the lengthiest conversation we had in years.
So Luke Fletcher was my heaven and hell. Any excitement in my life came from occasionally being paired with Luke in school. Every time was a mixed bag—we’d do a calculus problem on the board, extra credit going to the person who finished first; me acutely aware that my arms jiggled as I wrote, that the whole class was pulling for Luke.
But either way, if he won or I won, he’d smile at me, and it was everything.
Until senior year, that was.
Twenty years before I started high school, Scupper Island had produced a super genius named Pedro Perez, son of a fisherman, who was off-the-charts brilliant. He went to Tufts, then Harvard, then Oxford, then Stanford, and before he was thirty, he had three PhDs and had invented a computer algorithm that tracked consumer data and changed marketing forevermore. He had seventy-nine patents on all sorts of things, from agricultural tools to advanced rocket engines (and time-travel machines, if you listened to the rumors). Like any good billionaire hermit, he owned a ranch in Montana and moved his family out with him.
But once a year, Dr. Perez came back to Scupper to show his appreciation to his hometown by sending the kid with the highest GPA to Tufts. This Scupper Island slot at the university may or may not have had something to do with the fact that Dr. Perez had given the school tens of millions of dollars. It might simply have been a testament to our good public schools, funded by the tax dollars of our summer residents. But each year, a Scupper Island kid went off to Medford, Massachusetts and never looked back.
The scholarship covered everything. Tuition, room, board, books, a generous allowance that, rumor had it, covered everything from dorm-room furnishings to eating out. Dr. Perez’s only requirement was that the recipient finish college; dropouts would have to repay him.
No one ever dropped out.
Scupper Island was so grateful they renamed a street after him—Maple Street became Perez Avenue, and every year at the start of the second semester, Dr. Perez left Montana, returned to the island and announced the winner. He asked that grades not be posted after December midterms, so the winner could be kept a secret until the first week of January, when the entire school assembled to see who the lucky senior would be.
Most years, it was obvious who’d win, but occasionally, it would be suspenseful.
Going into our senior year, Luke and I were neck and neck. I had a 4.115 GPA, thanks to the weighted grades from my AP classes (an A in those meant a 5.0, not a 4.0).
Luke’s GPA was 4.142, because he got A-pluses in gym... And every year, for that miserable semester, as if changing in the locker room in front of my slender female classmates wasn’t punishment enough, I got an A-minus.
I tried, I was a good sport, cheering on my classmates even if they ignored me. I sweat and ran and played volleyball, diving for balls, trying my best, and I still got an A-minus. I wondered if that had been deliberate; the gym teacher was also the soccer coach. If Luke went to Tufts, he’d almost certainly play soccer, which would be a feather in Coach’s cap.
“An A-minus is a good grade,” Coach said when I meekly approached him freshman year and asked what I had to do to bump that grade up. His eyes scanned me. “For a girl with your physique, I’d say it’s a very generous grade. You work hard. You’re doing fine.” The implication was clear. Only the really fit kids got As.
Luke, of course, was a god.
In the spring of my junior year, my mother sat me down and told me if I wanted to go to college, I’d have to get there myself, a fact I already knew. She didn’t want me to get my hopes up that there was money “lying around for that.”
If I won the Perez Scholarship, I’d go for free. To Tufts! The name itself was beautiful, light and sunny, full of promise.
Only 0.027 of a grade point average stood between Luke and me.
And so, shit got serious...at least, for me. Luke and I took the same AP classes. If I could get even half a grade higher than Luke, I could erase my deficit.
He didn’t seem concerned. Luke was gifted at English and history; I had to sweat over those subjects to get my grades. But I had an edge in science, and it was a weighted class. AP bio was my chance.
I pictured going to Tufts. I sent away for information, and Luke’s mother, who ran the post office, snarled at me when I collected the fat catalog, knowing full well why I wanted it. She ignored me when I thanked her, but I barely cared, inhaling the sharp, rich scent of the catalog before going to the park bench to pore over the pictures and course descriptions.