They called me a cheater. They said no way that I could have done it by myself, and that I shouldn’t win first place. I wanted to punch her father in the face.
I had recreated a UHF radio from scratch, using only items I found in or around the house. Elizabeth’s dad was furious, only because he did the project for her. Everyone knew—she’d bragged about it every day that week.
“What’d you do, son? Hire an engineer?” His plump face was bright red, sweat starting to form at his brow.
“It’s all me, sir,” I said, holding my fists tightly. “My dad didn’t do it for me.”
I’d thought he would take offense to that, and I was right.
“That’s not fair to my daughter!” he huffed. “She worked her tail off on her project, only to be won out by a damn cheat!”
“Mr. Robbins, please calm down. The judging is final.” Mrs. Dupest held her hands up as she spoke, voice placating. “Elizabeth’s project is good, as well.”
“The best!” he yelled. “I’m going to have this decision reevaluated!” The man stormed out of the room, his daughter close behind him.
“Don’t worry,” she said, grabbing my shoulder, “he won’t.”
I didn’t care either way—what turned my stomach was that he’d called me a cheater. I worked my ass off on that project. Radios were my specialty, and to have someone mad because I was smarter than them really got under my skin.
I walked home from school that day, still seething at the man in my head. Contemplating what I should have said to completely humiliate him. It’s always too late though.
I walked through the school doors the next morning and got a few looks I couldn’t put my finger on. I was sort of used to looks, though, so I just kept walking. I thought nothing of it until Mrs. Dupest rounded the corner and stopped on her heels, expression full of disappointment. My project had been disqualified.
“They have proof that you didn’t make the radio, Marcus,” she told me. Her voice was soft, pitying. That made it worse.
“Fucking how?” I cried—I was in the middle of the hallway, making a scene, but I didn’t care.
Apparently, Mr. Robbins had found a blueprint of the exact radio I created, which wasn’t hard; the concept is universal. The catch was that he’d also found a website where you can order them handmade. I was dubbed a cheater and my project was withdrawn from the competition. The school re-judged the submissions, and Elizabeth had to do a live demonstration on how her power-generating alternator worked. Her father stood on the sidelines coaching her the entire time. The sight made me sick.
When it didn’t work, her father pushed through the crowd of onlooking parents and tried to show her—it still wouldn’t work. After another three attempts, her father, in a rage, slammed the device to the floor; it shattered into pieces, bits skidding on the floor.
Elizabeth didn’t win, either.
A bittersweet smile on my face, I collected my project after everyone had left. Mrs. Dupest entered the cafeteria just as I entered.
“It really was a good project,” she said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
She patted my back and slipped an envelope into the cardboard box that held my project. “Have a good weekend, Marcus.”
It was a long drive home. I just wanted to throw everything away by the time I parked—I plopped the box next to the trash bin outside unceremoniously. The letter fell out the side, landing address-side-up, and I could read Mrs. Dupest’s curly handwriting spelling out my name. Shaking the dirt and gravel off, I took it from the ground and opened it.
Inside, I found a $500 gift card and the letter of acknowledgement awarded to the first-place winner.