For fans of Becky Albertalli and Morgan Matson comes a funny, heartfelt novel about feuding exes running for class president and the scandal that makes the previously boring school election the newest trending hashtag.
At Acedia High, student council has always been a joke. Nobody pays attention. Nobody cares.
But that changes when someone plasters the halls with Photoshopped images of three “perfect tens”—composites of scantily clad girls made from real photos of female students at the school. Quickly dubbed the “Frankengirls,” the scandal rocks the student body. And the two presidential candidates, budding influencer Angeline Quinn and charming jock Leo Torres, jump on the opportunity to propose their solutions and secure votes. Fresh from a messy public breakup, Angeline and Leo fight to win, and their battle both mesmerizes and divides the school.
The election fills the pages of The Red and Blue, the school newspaper run by Angeline’s sister, Cat. The Quinn sisters share a room and a grade but little else, and unlike her more sensationalist sister, Cat prides herself on reporting the facts. So when a rival newspaper pops up—written by an anonymous source and the epitome of “fake news”—Cat’s journalistic buttons are pushed. Rumors fly, secrets are leaked, and the previously mundane student election becomes anything but boring.
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The assault on Cat’s nose was quick and painful.
“Manure,” she said, buckling herself into the passenger seat.
“I know.” Angeline sighed. “First day of school makes me want to curse too, though less like a farmer.”
“I mean the smell. In my car.”
“Gramps gave it to me last year.”
“With the intention of sharing it with me this year.”
Angeline finished the last over, under, over of her long braid and secured it with a black elastic, nearly the same color as her roots and Cat’s blunt bob. Twenty minutes it had taken Cat to flatten her light-socket cowlicks, and yet her sister perfected the black to brown to honey to gold ribbons of her ombre side braid while behind the wheel of the silver hatchback that had been their grandfather’s until the eye chart said otherwise.
Cat nuzzled into the familiar leather, slippery and smooth from wear. “Well, the car—”
“Our car.” Angeline turned the key, and the hatchback sputtered to life. She backed out of their apartment building’s assigned parking spot with the barest of glances in the rearview mirror. She’d had her license for all of five minutes, but already she was a more confident and skilled driver than Cat, who’d had her license for nearly a year.
“Fine.” Cat wrinkled her pale nose. “But it smells.”
“That unscented lotion you insist on using isn’t so much unscented as reeking of antiseptic. Seriously, Cat, a little mango-lime wouldn’t kill you.”
“It’s not me.” Cat swiveled her neck, spying first her sister’s tanned thighs peeking out of her dress-code-violating skirt and then something gold and shimmery on the floor of the back seat.
“Another one of your freebies?” Cat said. “Don’t tell me. It’s some lipstick—”
“Yoga pants or corset revival—”
Right. Cat reached behind the seat and picked up the gold bag. Another half-baked test product from some “women- empowering”—definition loosely applied—startup. The single demeaning word “better” was written in minuscule lowercase letters across the front and inside—
“My God!” Cat flinched at the stench. “I think I’m going blind.” She gingerly removed the gray cylindrical package, stamped with “bigger is better” in the same tiny font whose irony she’d bet had been lost on the perky female founders. “What is this?”
“Facial rejuvenator. Says it works best when heated naturally by the warmth of the sun.”
“So you’re leaving it in my car?”
“Which now smells like a rest stop on 95 during an August heat wave.”
“They added essential oils.” Angeline extended her long neck and sniffed. “Don’t you get the lavender?”
“No. The only essential I get is shi—”
“Night soil,” Angeline corrected.
Cat dropped the cylinder. “As in . . . ?”
“Waste matter. Recycled.”
“That you put on your face?” Cat rubbed her fingers on the side of her khaki cargo skirt—two inches below the knee, one more than required by the student handbook. “Please tell me it’s not human.”
Angeline rolled her eyes. “Obviously.”
“Right. Of course. Obviously.” Cat tied the bag shut. She held it between two fingers and eyed the open window.
“Don’t even think about it,” Angeline said.
“Your funeral, which is a very real possibility if you use that.” Cat tossed the bag behind her seat and zipped open her backpack. She squirted half the container of hand sanitizer into her palm.
“It’s approved . . . ish,” Angeline said. “Elephant mostly, I think.”
Cat groaned as she smeared hand sanitizer on her nose. “Because ‘bigger is better.’ That’s disgusting. You really have no line.”
“What I have are two hundred thousand subscribers and the chance to turn that into two million. Ten times my current ad revenue. Ten. Mom could retire. Let Dad suck on that.”
“Sure. Thanks to YouTube voyeuristic weirdos, who you cater to.”
Angeline shifted her hazel eyes from the road to Cat. “Have you even watched recently? Seen the likes from Evelyn’s Epic Everyday? Read the comments?”
“Do you want me to?”
Angeline faced front again and shrugged with the grace of a princess bending in her thousandth curtsey. A shoulder lift and fall that Cat knew every muscle twitch of. She and her sister shared a room and a grade but little else.
Cat twisted toward the open window, breathing in air heavy with the smell of the ocean and donuts from the lone chain store in town. Angeline had taken the scenic route, chauffeuring them from their apartment complex at one end of the five-block stretch of the harbor to the other. Since their unit faced the back, they didn’t get a glimpse of the deep blue waters along Frontage Street that defined the town and everyone in it.
They passed the aging grocery, well-stocked hardware store, and two-screen movie theater with gum from the seventies cemented to the seats. Sprinkled in between were more ice cream stands than a stretch of real estate this small could normally sustain, though half would shutter before the first frost, hibernating until spring. The requisite Irish bar and hipster gastropub nestled in among the year-round clothing, home decor, and accessories shops that, like the harbor itself, somehow managed to fall on the right side of cute versus cheesy—a rarity in towns that wouldn’t be towns without the ocean drawing people to them. All these businesses were potential advertisers for The Red and Blue. Cat had made her pitch to most of them over the past couple of weeks.
She glanced at her white plastic digital watch, and Angeline huffed.
“What?” Cat said.
“We’re not late. And if we were, it’d be your fault not mine. I was the one waiting in the car for you.”
Because you hit stop instead of snooze on my phone’s alarm so you could drive.
Cat took a steadying breath. “I just wanted a chance to stop by—”
“The newsroom, I know. Your second home.”
She said it as if it shouldn’t be. As if the time Cat spent there could be better allocated elsewhere. As if it didn’t matter. Which, by extension, meant neither did Cat.
They drove in silence up from the harbor, the landscape shifting from boats, docks, and sand to towering oak, birch, and maple trees. Lush green leaves lined the winding streets where clapboard homes from the 1700s mixed with mini McMansions in subdivisions. This town wasn’t exactly small, but being in it beside Angeline made it feel like a coffin.
Only two traffic lights guarded intersections along their seven-minute ride. At the second one, Angeline flicked the blinker to take the next left into Acedia Charter School’s parking lot.
Three stories high with rows of slender windows lining thered-brick front, Acedia gave the optical illusion of being narrower than it actually was, like its architect had implemented one of Angeline’s “Five Closet Tricks That Shed Pounds Instantly!”
Angeline paused and glanced at Cat. “Be different with them gone . . . Stavros and June.”
Cat swallowed. “Jen.”
“That’s what I meant.”
“Mmm . . . sure.” Stavros and Jen had graduated last year, leaving Cat as the sole remaining editorial member of The Red and Blue and with a friendship count of zero. She’d been too embarrassed to tell Gramps that the empty masthead was how she’d nabbed the editor in chief role.
“So, yeah,” Angeline said, “you can sit with us at lunch if you want.”
“Us? You and Leo are back together?”
“No.” Angeline bristled. “I meant us—Maxine, Sonya, and Riley, you know.”
“I’ll probably be in the newsroom.”
“Well, that’s done then.”
“Done? Wait, did you promise Mom you’d extend a pity invite to your pathetic older sister?”
“Gramps, and the wording was different but close enough.”
Cat clamped her jaw shut. She barely waited for Angeline to put her hatchback into park before escaping it. Lately, Angeline had been pushing Cat’s buttons more frequently, and the sensation of her head about to explode was becoming all too familiar.
She eased the clench on her backpack, preparing to start her senior year alongside the classmates she barely knew.
Out of the corner of her eye, Cat caught sight of a distinctive lime-green sweatshirt. On anyone else the bright zip-up would’ve looked silly, but the combination of Leo’s tawny skin, thick black hair, and unwavering confidence made it work. He loved that sweatshirt almost as much as he loved Angeline—though presumably it got top billing now.
Cat remembered the first time she’d seen him in it, freshman year when Gramps had insisted on meeting the boy stealing away his granddaughter. He’d arrived with a loaded beach tote: flowers for their mom, a potted pink beach rose for Angeline, and chocolates filled with hazelnuts that his grandmother had brought from Venezuela on her last visit to the States. Leo’s parents were both Venezuelan, first-generation, and though Leo lacked a sweet tooth, the rest of his family—and now Gramps—couldn’t get enough of that Toronto candy. But Leo also had something for Cat: a spiral-bound notebook with Editor in Chief handwritten on the cover. She still had it. She’d waited, as if opening it before the role was hers would jinx it.
They’d had to use Cat and Angeline’s desk chair as the fifth seat at the dining room table, but Leo fit in instantly. He’d watch the Red Sox with Gramps, listen more attentively than either Cat or Angeline when their mom delved into stories from the law firm where she worked, and came ready with a new obscure fact to every dinner—he was obsessed with this podcast that uncovered the unusual in everyday things. Over the past three years, he’d become an everyday thing for the Quinns. He’d become family.
And Angeline being Angeline meant he no longer was.
Leo met Cat’s eye, and she smiled weakly at seeing his left shoulder cradled in a sling, hoping he wasn’t hovering on the fringes of the parking lot just to get a glimpse of his ex, especially after what she’d done to him.
It was their breakup that had made her sister more antagonistic than usual. At least, Cat suspected as much. She and Angeline didn’t talk about that stuff. Angeline had her friends. And Cat, well, Cat didn’t need to talk about that stuff because Cat never had time for that stuff. School and homework and studying for the SATs took Cat double the time it took Angeline. Leo ending things with Angeline was the first time in her sister’s life that things hadn’t gone her way.
Cat hit the path that wound around the side and to the front entrance of the school. Most everyone else opted for the shortcut across the lawn, under the WELCOME BACK, ACEDIA! marquee and past the concrete island with the statue of town founder Major Mushing that attracted the pigeons and doves and feathery beasts that kept Cat far away. Her classmates’ heavy, shuffling feet would grind down the pristine blades, leaving nothing but a muddy trail come October, same as every year.