This is how I always start:
“My name is Will Shea. You can probably tell that I’m not from around here.”
It’s 11:07 a.m. and I’m looking out on a classroom of eighteen faces, their expressions ranging from curious to indifferent to the flat-out glassy-eyed stare that you see only in closed-head-injury victims. Somewhere off to my right, Mr. Bodkins, my English Lit teacher, leans back in his swivel chair with his arms crossed. He’s dressed in a charcoal suit and skinny tie, his hip-in-the-’90s haystack-style haircut going gray around the temples, and I’m guessing he probably has a trunk full of unpublished novels stretching back into his undergraduate years. Steam from his Connaughton Academy coffee cup floats above his head like an empty thought bubble.
From the back, somebody coughs, and I realize the silence has gone on too long. Glancing over my shoulder at the wall behind me, I can feel the heat rising in my face, flushing into my cheeks and making the tips of my ears turn red.
“I was born in a part of the world most of you probably have never heard of,” I say, “a tiny island called Ebeye. It’s out in the middle of the Pacific, about two thousand miles southwest of Hawaii.”
“Island living,” somebody from the back mutters. “Sounds pretty sweet,” and there’s a vague murmur of disinterested laughter that Mr. Bodkins chooses to ignore.
“It’s a very small country,” I say. “My parents were missionaries there, but . . .”
Somebody giggles, and I falter, letting the rest of the sentence hang there, and glance over at Mr. Bodkins, but he just nods.
“It’s all right, Mr. Shea. Take your time.”
I draw in a breath, feeling the knot of tension tightening in the room, a kind of silent impatience that you find only in the uppermost echelons of American wealth. These are the children of the elite. Row upon row of entitled faces framed by generations of flawless breeding, exquisite genetics, perfect teeth—future masters of the universe gathered here to prepare for their college years and a lifetime of the best of everything.
Connaughton Academy is consistently ranked among the top five private schools in the nation, which easily puts it in the top ten worldwide. They all wear designer uniforms at Connaughton—tailored suits for the boys, skirts for the girls—but mine wasn’t ready when I got here, so I’m still wearing the jeans and off-brand hoodie that I arrived in this morning. Somewhere outside the arched floor-to-ceiling windows, the great oaks and maples of Connaughton’s campus blaze with the oranges, reds, and yellows of New England fall.
“I’m here on a scholarship.” The words come out of me in an angular lump, like I’ve coughed up a wooden alphabet block. “After my parents died, the people from our church put together a fund to send me here . . .”
In the back row, somebody starts to snore, absurdly loud. I can see the snorer from here, a lanky blond kid with perfect skin and Abercrombie bone structure, sprawled out behind his desk with both legs stuck straight out in the aisle and his head flung back. Everybody around him erupts into laughter, and the kid sits up, shrugging one shoulder and blinking innocent blue eyes. I glance back at Mr. Bodkins, who tries to speak over the roars and hoots.
“That’s enough, Mr. Rush,” he says, but his voice is so tentative that I can barely hear it. He nods at me. “Go ahead, Mr. Shea. Please finish.”
I draw in another breath. If I have to stand up here much longer, my face is going to burst into flames.
That’s when I notice the girl.
She’s sitting three rows back with her hands under her desk, and I realize that she’s texting without looking down at the screen. She’s pretty in a way that I haven’t seen before, like a Jazz Age flapper in the post-Twilight era, jet-black hair swept away from her forehead in a smooth, precise wave, and very dark, full eyes. Skin as pale as milk. Up until this moment she’s been paying zero attention to me, but now I see her slipping the iPhone into the pocket of her skirt so that she can give me one hundred percent of her focus. Her lips are very red, almost shiny, and there’s something in her unblinking stare I can’t read.
“Continue, Mr. Shea,” Mr. Bodkins drones from behind his coffee cup, and now even he sounds like he’s drifting off. “You’re doing fine.”
I swallow hard. “I know that I’m lucky just to be here at Connaughton,” I say. “I mean . . . I just hope . . .” I shake my head. On the opposite wall, the hands of the antique clock seem to have frozen in place. “That’s it.”
Mr. Bodkins nods one more time, a mercy killing if ever there was one.
I make my way back to my seat through stony silence.
In the dining hall that evening, she walks right over to me—the dark-haired girl from class.
“It’s Will, right?” She sits down close enough that I can smell her perfume, something faint and musky, with a hint of creaminess, like vanilla. It mixes well with her body chemistry, the natural scent of her skin, as she offers her hand. “I’m Andrea Dufresne.”
“Oh,” I say, and look up, smiling, and we shake. Her grip is cool, smooth, and firm, with scarlet fingernails. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” she says, and for a second we just sit there across from each other, neither of us saying anything while the rest of the students chatter around us, largely ignoring their food. According to the material that the admissions office sends out, Connaughton offers a half-dozen dining options every meal, with vegan and dietary-specific choices. There’s a farmers’ market on Saturdays, featuring locally grown produce, along with luaus in the spring and fall, and gourmet representations of all different nationalities throughout the year, “spotlighting our culture of diversity,” although the only diversifying that’s going on here is in stock portfolios. It’s the only boarding school in the country that routinely poaches its chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Paris, and Hong Kong. Picking up my fork, I look down at the thin-cut prime rib arranged on my plate along with fresh asparagus and new potatoes, spear a piece of everything together, and pop it into my mouth. It tastes so good that for a second my tongue doesn’t know what to do with it, like a foreign language composed exclusively of deliciousness.
“Not a talker,” Andrea says after a moment. “That’s cool.” She’s got some kind of complicated salad in front of her, something involving grilled salmon and slivered avocado, but for the moment she doesn’t seem particularly interested in it. “So what do you think of Connaughton so far?”