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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Winner Take All

Laurie Devore




I can’t stop staring at the back of Jackson Hart’s head.

Trust me, it’s something that most of the girls (and I’m sure some of the boys) at Cedar Woods Preparatory Academy would admit to—in fact, a few have probably made it a pastime. But I have very little interest in the back of Jackson Hart’s head or much else about him. I’m not staring because he is six foot two with hair so dark it might as well be black, or because of his pretty blue eyes and tanned skin, altogether making him look like a beautiful boy raised on the river. I couldn’t care less that he’s amazing at baseball or can talk any girl out of her dress faster than you can say skinny-dipping. And you’d never catch me saying Jackson Hart is charming, though I might admit he’s too smart for his own good.

I’m staring because what’s coming out of his mouth right now is so ridiculous, I can’t believe it’s real.

“I mean, at its heart, isn’t The Scarlet Letter really about our worst impulses as a society?” Jackson is saying. “Puritanical viewpoints controlling female sexuality? We always seek out what’s forbidden. Alcohol. Sex. Sin. And then we condemn those who want it. Commit violence in the name of hypocrisy. One could argue it’s a historical dystopia.”

“That’s an interesting point, Jackson,” Mrs. Wesley says.

I raise my hand.

The thing is, I can’t let something so utterly, immensely wrong go unchallenged. And no one knows that better than Jackson Hart.

“Yes, Miss Becker,” Mrs. Wesley says.

“On a fundamental level,” I say, and the class’s eyes turn to me, “calling The Scarlet Letter a historical dystopia doesn’t make any sense, since that’s how things were in the past. Most times in history would be considered dystopias by today’s standards.”

“Well, of course the struggle of these characters doesn’t feel as reality-based for Nell, but consider reading this in conjunction with something like The Handmaid’s Tale and examining it from that angle. As for Nell, she’s so perfect that she doesn’t experience temptation,” Jackson says, and the class laughs. I bite the inside of my cheek. “Which is, of course, an admirable quality, but maybe limits her ability to relate to the point I’m making—”

“I understand the point just fine.” I cut him off. “And yes, I agree that Hester Prynne is asked to bear the sins of a puritanical society, with its secrets and hypocrisy—but your reducing the entire thing to ‘keeping female sexuality down’ and equating that with all of society’s worst impulses is so completely intellectually lazy, especially in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale. What about Hester’s own agency? She chose to have sex, and she lives with that decision. Look at the way she isn’t afraid of these men who are so terrified of her. She’s not ashamed. She bears the brunt of what she and Dimmesdale did and what all the men around her have done. And that’s why you’re fundamentally wrong.”

Jackson looks back and grins with all of his white, white teeth, his thick dark hair effortlessly messy on his head. He’s always purposely baiting me in this class. His whole face comes to life when he sees a chance to refute me—just last month, we had it out over the role of imperialism in the absolutely wretched Heart of Darkness. He enjoys it: the way our classmates always turn on me, the fact that he can pull any ridiculous interpretation out of his ass and everyone—even the teachers—will be mesmerized by his words. The way I can’t ignore him.

I won’t stop until I win. It’s my fatal flaw, and Jackson Hart reads me like a book.

He’s a monster.

“I just think if Nell were to take a step back and see things from, I don’t know, my perspective,” he continues now, “she could see why this still feels so relevant and hits home in an environment like Prep.”

“Yes, let’s hear how the twenty-first-century rich boy relates to the nineteenth-century man writing about feminism through the lens of male pain. Spare me.”

“The isolation Hester suffers for her actions—”

“Is just a punishment for having sex and being a woman, you said that already,” I tell him. “I know. We all know. Seriously, Jackson, no one believes you read the book.”

I appeal to Mrs. Wesley as Jackson turns away from me in his seat, looking, if anything, more pleased than when we began the conversation. “Surely you can’t buy this.”

I can feel the rest of the class laughing at me. Know-it-all Nell Becker. Boring, perfect Nell Becker who wears her school uniform exactly as per regulations. Whose mom is head of school and whose family is hilariously middle class.

Boring, perfect Nell Becker doesn’t even belong here.

Mrs. Wesley is looking at me as if I’m the one making a mockery of the English canon. “Mr. Hart is making a solid analysis, Nell. To presume he didn’t read the book because he disagreed with you is not scholarly and not acceptable in this classroom.”

One of Jackson’s best friends, Doug Rivera, is laughing behind his hand because he knows the same thing we all do. Jackson couldn’t give a shit about The Scarlet Letter and he certainly wouldn’t waste his valuable time reading it. Not when he could be playing the part of a Quintessential Rich Kid, drinking and getting laid and being his typical giving-zero-fucks self.

Jackson somehow manages to stay right behind me in the class rankings, sleepwalking through every subject with perfect grades. Sometimes I swear he does it just to annoy me, too.

“I think you need to apologize,” Mrs. Wesley says.

I sit back in my seat, waiting.


I almost laugh. She can’t be serious. “You think I need to apologize?”

“Yes, to Jackson.”

I do laugh.

“It’s fine, Mrs. Wesley,” he has the nerve to say. “Don’t worry about it.”

Nell?” she repeats.

The only thing I can’t stand more than the idea of Jackson getting away with the world’s most absurd faux-feminist nonreading of The Scarlet Letter is the idea that I might be the one to get in trouble because of it. I bite back the thrum of anger coursing through my veins as I say, “My apologies, Jackson. Your reading of the book is certainly just as … valid as mine, if somewhat shallow.” A piece of auburn hair has escaped my long, messy ponytail and I moodily attempt to shove it back into place.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Wesley says. I feel the happiness radiating off the class. Perfect, know-it-all Nell Becker got what was coming to her.

“Clearly this book has inspired passion in some of you, which is all I could ever really ask for as an English teacher.” As Mrs. Wesley turns to walk to the front of the room, spouting nonsense, Jackson looks over his shoulder one last time and winks at me.

The bell rings ten minutes later and I shove my used copy of The Scarlet Letter into my worn-out book bag, stalking out the door before anyone else can say something preposterous to me. I stop at my locker halfway down the hall and switch the book out for my precalc and biology textbooks.

A smooth voice comes from my right. “You know, it’s really simple, actually.” Jackson is leaning into the locker next to mine, watching me. “In the environment of The Scarlet Letter, a man could show half the mental fortitude and bravery of a woman—if any at all—and would be praised for it. A society that praises male voices over female ones. I was only testing the text in a modern setting.”

I slam my locker door. “Are you seriously trying to make me believe you were being a jackass as some kind of clever meta statement on society?”

“I thought it was a compliment,” Jackson tells me with a shrug. “The patriarchy is keeping you down, Nell. I didn’t even read the CliffsNotes.”

“Really? Were those above your reading level, too?”

“Oh, come on, Becker,” Jackson says. “I’m one measly hundredth of a GPA point behind you.”

I decide to exit the conversation, marching away from him down the hall, my fingertips skimming the edge of my navy plaid uniform skirt. He tails me like some sort of megalomaniacal puppy. He’s got two inches on me tops, so I take the steps two at a time to make sure he has to work a little to keep up. “Do you want something?”

“You shouldn’t let me get to you.”

I stop so fast he almost walks right past me. I face him. “You honestly think you get to me?” I can feel the heat building, my fair skin turning red.

He grins. “I know it.”

“You’re delusional. We both know I’m the best, and deep down, you can’t stand it.”

“You can’t stop arguing with me, can you?” he asks as if he’s genuinely excited by the prospect. “You want to feel like you’re somehow superior to me even though we both know that I’m enjoying life in a way you can’t even imagine. Someday I’ll look back and have interesting stories to tell, and all you’ll be able to talk about is when you were stressing over my fake interpretation of The Scarlet Letter. That’s kindergarten-level jealousy, Becker.”

It is physically painful to stop myself from arguing again, but I have to let it go. It’s a psychological game: If I don’t let him have the last word, I’ll be proving him right.

Instead, I roll my eyes, walking around him to my class. My skin is practically vibrating with irritation against the textbook I’m holding, as if the book itself is holding me together. And I realize that, by not getting the last word, he still got me—I can’t win.


I glance behind me to see he’s already engaged in something else, his arm thrown around one of his friends as they walk away, talking animatedly, as if whatever he’s saying is the best thing anyone’s ever said.

I hate everything about him.

Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Devore