- Pages: 416 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Viking Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9781984835888
An Excerpt From
What's Not to Love
I hold my head high, sitting up straight in the passenger seat of my mom’s SUV. Whatever happens, I will not
vomit in the next hour.
Mom eyes me suspiciously, like she’s reading my mind and formulating the questions she would for one of her witnesses. I stare forward, focusing intently on the sedan in front of us in the drop--off zone for my high school. In hopes of resolving my expression into one evincing no intestinal distress, I rehearse the key facts for this morning’s Shakespeare exam. Thirty--seven plays, not including works of disputed origin. Seventeen comedies. Ten histories. Ten tragedies. I try to picture the timeline I created listing each of them in order, which of course reminds me that I left the study guide next to the toilet in my bathroom between two and three in the morning. The thought brings on a new wave of nausea.
“You sure you’re feeling okay, Alison?” Mom’s voice is wary. “You look a little off.”
I check my reflection in the window. It could definitely be worse. My glasses, which I’m only wearing because I was too sick to put in my contacts, do a commendable job of hiding the dark circles under my eyes. My skin is a little paler than usual, but nothing out of character for someone who spends most of her time indoors studying, and though I didn’t have time to wash my hair, I pulled it into a respectable if lopsided bun. Instead of wearing the cozy Harvard sweatshirt I wanted to leave the house in, I put on a lightly wrinkled button--down blouse. But my mom’s not wrong. There’s a slick sheen of sweat on my forehead, my hair, typically a shiny dirty blond, is flat and unwashed, and my sallow cheeks don’t give the strongest impression of health and well--being.
“I’m fine,” I say. I’m lying.
The drop--off line crawls forward. Our car doesn’t budge. I glance over and find Mom’s hand inching in my direction. Realizing what she’s doing, I reach for my seat belt.
I’m too late. Mom’s hand finds my sweaty forehead.
“You have a fever,” she says, sounding worried.
I don’t give her the chance to finish her diagnosis. Unbuckling my seat belt, I jump out of the car. The cool morning hits my skin refreshingly, soothing the dull headache I’d been fighting to ignore.
The relief is short--lived. When I grab my bag, I catch my mom’s expression. Irritation has replaced whatever motherly concern her face held. I pause, knowing not to ignore her outright.
My mom is fifty--seven years old, older than every one of my friends’ parents. Not that she acts her age. Unless she’s in court, defending multimillion--dollar corporations like she’s done for thirty years, she’s remarkably unfiltered. “We’re not doing this again,” she says sternly. “What is it this time? You have a gov exam today?”
“Nope.” I fling my bag over my shoulder.
In my defense, I don’t have a gov exam. I have a Shakespeare exam. In ten minutes. It’s completely different.
“I feel great, and I just want to go to school like a normal person.” Despite Mom’s grimace, I pack confidence into my voice.
The car behind Mom’s honks, which she ignores. “You’re a smart kid,” she says, “but I’m not convinced you understand the concept of normal.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” I say with a smile, not entirely joking. It’s true she fits in on paper with my classmates’ parents. Her lucrative career, her SUV hardly three years out of the dealership, her frequent SoulCycle attendance. Having spent seventeen years with her, however, I’ve learned she’s outspoken, easygoing, and the furthest thing possible from a helicopter parent. I don’t know if it’s because she has ten years on the other moms and she’s over the whole parenting thing, or if it’s just the way she is.
“Alison Sanger,” she says, leaning over the center console. “I am not picking you up in the middle of the day.”
“Great,” I reply. “You won’t have to. I’m not sick.” I shut the door in one swift motion, hoping it will feel like a punctuation mark.
I immediately hear Mom rolling down the window. I wanted punctuation, and she’s given me a semicolon. “If you had your license—-”
“Bye, Mom,” I interrupt her, waving behind me and heading for the locker hall. I know every inch of the Fairview High School campus—-every bench useful for last--minute studying, every shortcut so I’m never late to class, everywhere people hang out, which is helpful when I need to hunt them down for quotes for the newspaper. I’ve walked up the stairs leading to the locker hall hundreds of times, and I could recite the names of the teachers in every classroom just like I could Shakespeare’s seventeen comedies.
It’s 6:52 in the morning, and the heavy fog coming in off the ocean hovers over everything, coating the campus in dew. Droplets cling to the needles of the pine trees outside the front gate. San Mateo is thirty minutes from San Francisco and ten from the water, and even in the first week of March we’re fending off the Northern California winter of forty--eight--degree mornings and seawater--scented clouds.
It’s zero period, and right now the only people here are those like me who needed an early extra hour to fit every class they wanted into their schedule. The half--empty locker hall echoes with the squeak of sneakers on linoleum, the clang of closing locker doors, and the mumbled conversations of Monday mornings.
I head directly for my locker, where I unload my physics and government books and pull the plastic bottle of Tums from my backpack. I chew and swallow down four.
There’s no way I’m letting the events of last night interfere with this English exam. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have gone out on a Sunday night. When Dylan invited me to sushi with her and Nick Caufman, I wanted to say no. I only went because she begged me, and because Dylan is the only person in the known universe for whom I’d forsake a few hours of important test prep. Nick had invited Dylan to dinner, and she didn’t know if she wanted the night to be a date. I was brought to third--wheel.
Of course, fifteen minutes in I could feel the dinner veering decidedly into date territory. While Dylan flirted and probably played footsie under the table, I prodded my hamachi with chopsticks. Dylan and Nick shared California rolls. Three hours later, I ended up hunched over the toilet, puking my guts out.
On the upside, I did plenty of studying between trips to the bathroom. I’m not the type to pull all--nighters before exams—-I’m usually prepared by then, and I prefer to be well rested. While conditions weren’t ideal, I made it work.
I close my locker, my stomach cramping ominously. Ignoring the pain, I head for class, rehearsing the history plays to distract myself. Henry VI. Richard III. Richard II. Whatever happens, there’s nothing I’m letting keep me from this exam. Not even explosive vomiting.
The reason I’m not home recuperating is waiting outside the door when I reach English.
“Hello, Sanger,” Ethan says casually. He doesn’t look up.
“Molloy,” I reply.
I wish there was a word worse than nemesis I could use just for Ethan. He’s an un--popped blister. The splinter in your shoe from walking on woodchips. Your printer running out of toner when you’re finishing your twenty--page final paper on the Hundred Years’ War. He’s your Kindle dying in the first hour of your flight to Boston, even though you’re pretty certain you charged it, leaving you to sit through a random in--flight movie you never wanted to see. If this was the last time I ever had to look at Ethan’s overly coiffed blond hair and obnoxiously piercing green eyes, I’d feel like the luckiest person on earth.
Unfortunately, it’s not the last time. I have every class with Ethan, the regrettable effect of us both taking every AP Fairview offers and the same electives. It’s been this way for two years. Every class, every study group, every extracurricular event. Ethan, Ethan, Ethan. I just have to endure the rest of our final semester of senior year. Then Ethan’s out of my life.
Unless, of course, we both get into Harvard. It’s not a possibility I permit myself to consider. Two students from the same California public school getting into Harvard would be exceedingly rare. I’ve studied Fairview’s Harvard admissions history, and it’s rare we have even one accepted student per year. Yet another reason for me to outdo him in every way I can.
I ignore the way he’s leaning casually on the wall next to the door, not glancing up, reading his phone’s screen. We stand in icy silence. Ethan is Kennedyesque via California. High cheekbones, sharp nose. The next generation of young white guys who vaguely expect to rule the world. He’s rolled up the sleeves of the white button--down he’s wearing under his forest green sweater, which, combined with the leather shoulder bag he uses instead of a backpack, gives him the look of a prep--school boy who’s wandered off his high--hedged campus and onto Fairview’s. I hate the effort he puts into his clothes, his hair, his everything. I hate how he does it to spite me, to show me he’s not only prepared for this test, but he had the extra time to look “good.”
Not that I’m attracted to him. Ethan’s just objectively good--looking. His nearly constant stream of short--lived relationships proves his conventional desirability. I’m mature enough to admit it, although it gives me no personal pleasure to do so.
I resent the fact I’ve had to lay eyes on him this morning while he’s not even spared me a glance. It’s an upper hand, if barely. With Ethan, every loss counts. Even the infinitesimal ones.
Consequently, it’s one I’m determined to rectify. “You’re going to have to work late on the paper today,” I inform the top of his head while he reads his damn phone. “Your piece on the gym funding was poorly organized, per usual.”
I feel a rush of victory when finally he looks up, eyebrows furrowing. Point: Alison.
His story wasn’t poorly organized, truthfully. They never are. I, however, will never forego the chance to exert the dominance I hold over Ethan in the student newspaper. I’m editor in chief of the Fairview Chronicle, and Ethan’s one of our strongest reporters, not that I’d ever tell him that. Consequently he’s the writer most often assigned to exposés and complicated pieces. The one he’s preparing on the construction of Fairview’s new gym will undoubtedly be prominent in our upcoming issue, which I will be submitting for the National Student Press Club Awards at the end of the month. I want it to be perfect.
“Poorly organized?” he repeats. I hear the note of protest in his voice. “Honestly, Sanger,” he drawls, “your ploys to get me to spend time with you have grown thinner and thinner.”
I roll my eyes. Around us, our classmates have started to congregate. Everyone’s concentrated on flashcards or notebooks, hoping to fit in a little cramming in the final minutes before Mr. Pham opens the door. Not Ethan and me. We’re the only ones who look calm and collected.
“I wish you were a good enough writer we didn’t need hours of in--person edits. I’m the victim here. You—-” I clamp my mouth shut, the retort half finished. My stomach lurches uncomfortably. Not now.
He arches an eyebrow, no doubt surprised by my sudden silence. “Did—-did you just nearly throw up on me?” Pocketing his phone, he smirks, his confusion fading. “Don’t you think you’re taking your revulsion act a little far?”
“It’s no act,” I reply, ignoring the rising wave of nausea in me. For a moment, I wonder what would happen if I just puked directly on Ethan, spattering his stupid sweater and his repugnant leather oxfords. I kind of wish I could, just to watch horror fracture the impassivity in his eyes. Except then, Mr. Pham would definitely send me home before the exam.
Instead, I lean on the wall, hoping the posture projects confidence, not light--headedness.
Ethan scrutinizes me. “You’re sick.” There’s no small measure of glee in his voice.
“No, I’m not.”
“Your skin is unusually blotchy, even for you,” he says, smiling now. “You know, Mr. Pham would let you make up the exam if you need to go home.” It’s not a well--intentioned suggestion, I know. It’s a taunt. An I win. Which he will, if I retreat to the nurse’s office now.
Ethan and I compete on every exam for the highest score. It started out informally—-me peeking over his shoulder to check his grade, his intolerably smug face when he knew he’d done better. In sophomore chemistry, we made the competition official. Whoever scores worse on each exam does an unpleasant task of the winner’s choosing, whatever comes up in the newspaper or Associated Student Government, where we’re co–-vice presidents. Fixing the printer in the newsroom, meeting with Principal Williams, picking up the work the student government president forgot or decided not to do.
If you miss a test, you forfeit on the grounds that makeup exams offer extra time for reviewing. Hence my coming to school with food poisoning.
“I’m fine,” I say firmly.
“Sanger, seriously.” Ethan is faux sympathetic, enjoying every minute of this. “If you have the flu, don’t force yourself to be here. It’s okay to forfeit. Self--care is important.”
I glare. Self--care? Please. I’ve had a “sleep is an inadequate substitute for caffeine” coffee mug since I was fourteen. Ethan’s crossing his arms, facing me. The feet separating us feel painfully insufficient for the size of his enormous ego. Pushing myself up from the wall, I match his nonchalance. “You’re pretty eager for me to concede. What, not feeling prepared this morning?”
“Oh, I’m prepared.” Ethan doesn’t flinch.
“Good,” I reply. The words fly out of my mouth like vomit. “I call a blitz.”
Ethan’s eyes widen. Point: Alison.
“Yeah, right,” he ventures. “You won’t get ten minutes into the exam before blowing chunks.”
My stomach rolls over. I swallow hard, willing the ominous roiling to settle. “You don’t have to accept.” Of course, Ethan not accepting would be as good as surrendering.
The blitz is the most extreme twist on our competition. When either of us invokes it, the contest becomes one of speed. Whoever turns their test in first wins, regardless of score. However, since neither of us would forsake even a point of our perfect GPAs by turning in sloppy work, we both balance accuracy with the time pressure. It has a devious beauty.
“Nice try,” Ethan fires back. He’s no longer smiling. With the gradual crowding of our classmates, we’ve ended up closer together. Only a foot between us. “I’m calling your bluff,” he declares. “Blitz.”
Right then, Mr. Pham opens his door. “You’ll find your exams face down on your desks,” he says while everyone files in. He looks bored, and it’s not even seven. “Please have your pens and pencils ready and wait for the bell.”
I push past Ethan in the doorway, not minding when my bag hits his shoulder. The room is organized with half the desks on one side of the room, facing the other half. Finding my seat, I wait while Ethan sits down in his, which is directly opposite mine.
Clammy sweat coats my forehead, and I reassure myself I have nothing left to expel. Despite my vigorous mental efforts, my stomach gurgles loudly enough for Ethan to hear. He looks straight into my eyes and winks. I vow I won’t give him the satisfaction, not of winning the blitz and definitely not of seeing me vomit in English.
The bell rings.