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Perfect Chemistry Book 1

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A fresh, urban twist on the classic tale of star-crossed lovers. When Brittany Ellis walks into chemistry class on the first day of senior year, she has no clue that her carefully created “perfect” life is about to unravel before her eyes. She’s forced to be lab partners with Alex Fuentes, a gang member from the other side of town, and he is about to threaten everything she's worked so hard for—her flawless reputation, her relationship with her boyfriend, and the secret that her home life is anything but perfect. Alex is a bad boy and he knows it. So when he makes a bet with his friends to lure Brittany into his life, he thinks nothing of it. But soon Alex realizes Brittany is a real person with real problems, and suddenly the bet he made in arrogance turns into something much more.  In a passionate story about looking beneath the surface, Simone Elkeles breaks through the stereotypes and barriers that threaten to keep Brittany and Alex apart.
Categories:
Year:
2009
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Language:
english
ISBN 10:
0802798233
ISBN 13:
9780802798237
Series:
Perfect Chemistry Book 1
File:
EPUB, 524 KB
Download (epub, 524 KB)

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9 comments
 
Matt
Ohh man I love this site. Thank you very much
21 April 2019 (10:03) 
Angie
This is one of the best romance novels ever! If you are a sucker for young love this is a must!
17 September 2020 (06:21) 
Addcue
Thanks for everything
21 October 2020 (16:29) 
Kaylah
Loved this novel. A modern day, realistic take on Romeo and Juliet. A love born from the collision of two completely different worlds. <3
20 April 2021 (03:41) 
dammika
Beautiful piece of writing
17 June 2021 (20:50) 
m
I’m not sure what’s the problem but every word hat has a double L appears like this: “cal “ instead of “call”; a space instead of another letter L
03 August 2021 (07:43) 
anon

- there are incomplete sentences, the letter L is missing in some words in the PDF version - I am not sure about the other versions. (e.g., where it is meant to say 'pulling' it says 'pul ing'
- the book lacks description (e.g, this is a sentence from page 9 "Was privacy too much to ask for? I take my pil ow and chuck it across the room. It's a direct hit. The water splashes al over him.")
- it feels like this book came straight from wattpad
- the book doesn't have a contents page

02 November 2021 (13:38) 
Lmfao123
if you want a wattpad kinda romance this book is the right choice. The storyline is a lil cliché. If you love romance books then go for it otherwise dont
11 November 2021 (11:58) 
Itscalledkarma
@anon loosen up jeeezzzz im sorry the story wasn't written to your standards babe
17 November 2021 (09:40) 

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Year:
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Language:
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File:
EPUB, 896 KB
5.0 / 0
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Language:
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Perfect Chemistry

Simone Elkeles

For Moshe, who gave up so much for me



CHAPTER 1 Brittany

Everyone  knows  I'm  perfect.  My  life  is  perfect.  My  clothes are  perfect.  Even  my  family  is  perfect. And  although  it's  a complete  lie,  I've  worked  my  butt  off  to  keep  up  the appearance that I have it al . The truth, if it were to come out, would destroy my entire picture-perfect image. 

Standing in front of my bathroom mirror while music blares from  my  speakers,  I  wipe  away  the  third  crooked  line  I've drawn  beneath  my  eye.  My  hands  are  shaking,  damn  it. 

Starting senior year of high school and seeing my boyfriend after a summer apart shouldn't be so nerve-racking, but I've gotten off to a disastrous start. First, my curling iron sent up smoke signals and died. Then the button on my favorite shirt popped  off.  Now,  my  eyeliner  decides  it  has  a  mind  of  its own.  If  I  had  any  choice  in  the  matter,  I'd  stay  in  my  comfy bed and eat warm chocolate chip cookies al  day. 

"Brit,  come  down,"  I  faintly  hear  my  mom  yel ing  from  the foyer. 

My  first  instinct  is  to  ignore  her,  but  that  never  gets  me anything but arguments, headaches, and more yel ing. 

"I'l   be  there  in  a  sec,"  I  cal   down,  hoping  I  can  get  this eyeliner to go on straight and be done with it. 

2

Final y getting it right, I toss the eyeliner tube on the counter, double  and  triple  check  myself  in  the  mirror,  turn  off  my stereo, and hurry down the hal way. 

My  mom  is  standing  at  the  bottom  of  our  grand  staircase, scanning my outfit. I straighten. I know, I know. I'm eighteen and  shouldn't  care  what  my  mom  thinks.  But  you  haven't lived  in  the  El is  house.  My  mom  has  anxiety.  Not  the  kind easily  control ed  with  little  blue  pil s. And  when  my  mom  is stressed,  everyone  living  with  her  suffers.  I  think  that's  why my dad goes to work before she gets up in the morning, so he doe; sn't have to deal with, wel , her. 

"Hate the pants, love the belt," Mom says, pointing her index finger  at  each  item.  "And  that  noise  you  cal   music  was giving me a headache. Thank goodness it's off." 

"Good  morning  to  you,  too,  Mother,"  I  say  before  walking down  the  stairs  and  giving  her  a  peck  on  the  cheek.  The smel   of  my  mom's  strong  perfume  stings  my  nostrils  the closer  I  get.  She  already  looks  like  a  mil ion  bucks  in  her Ralph Lauren Blue Label tennis dress. No one can point a finger and criticize her outfit, that's for sure. 

"I bought your favorite muffin for the first day of school," Mom



"I bought your favorite muffin for the first day of school," Mom says, pul ing out a bag from behind her back. 

"No,  thanks,"  I  say,  looking  around  for  my  sister.  "Where's Shel ey?" 

"In the kitchen." 

"Is her new caretaker here yet?" 

"Her name is Baghda, and no. She's coming in an hour." 

"Did you tel  her wool irritates Shel ey's skin? And that she pul s  hair?"  She's  always  let  it  be  known  in  her  nonverbal cues  she  gets  irritated  by  the  feeling  of  wool  on  her  skin. 

Pul ing  hair  is  her  new  thing,  and  it  has  caused  a  few disasters.  Disasters  in  my  house  are  about  as  pretty  as  a car wreck, so avoiding them is crucial. 

3

"Yes.  And  yes.  I  gave  your  sister  an  earful  this  morning, Brittany.  If  she  keeps  acting  up,  we'l   find  ourselves  out  of another caretaker." 

I walk into the kitchen, not wanting to hear my mother go on and on about her theories of why Shel ey lashes out. Shel ey is  sitting  at  the  table  in  her  wheelchair,  busily  eating  her special y blended food because, even at the age of twenty, my sister doesn't have the ability to chew and swal ow like people  without  her  physical  limitations. As  usual,  the  food has found its way onto her chin, lips, and cheeks. 

"Hey, Shel -bel ," I say, leaning over her and wiping her face with a napkin. "It's the first day of school. Wish me luck." 



Shel ey holds jerky arms out and gives me a lopsided smile. 

I love that smile. 

"You want to give me a hug?" I ask her, knowing she does. 

The doctors always tel  us the more interaction Shel ey gets, the better off she'l  be. 

Shel ey nods. I fold myself in her arms, careful to keep her hands  away  from  my  hair.  When  I  straighten,  my  mom gasps.  It  sounds  to  me  like  a  referee's  whistle,  halting  my life. "Brit, you can't go to school like that." 

"Like what?" 

She shakes her head and sighs in frustration. "Look at your shirt." 

Glancing  down,  I  see  a  large  wet  spot  on  the  front  of  my white Calvin Klein shirt. Oops. Shel ey's drool. One look at my sister's drawn face tel s me what she can't easily put into words.  Shelley  is  sorry.  Shelley  didn't  mean  to  mess  up my outfit. 

"It's no biggie," I tel  her, although in the back of my mind I know it screws up my "perfect" look. 

Frowning, my mom wets a paper towel at the sink and dabs at the spot. It makes me feel like a two-year-old. 

4

"Go upstairs and change." 

"Mom, it was just peaches," I say, treading careful y so this doesn't  turn  into  a  ful -blown  yel ing  match.  The  last  thing  I want to do is make my sister feel bad. 

"Peaches  stain.  You  don't  want  people  thinking  you  don't care about your appearance." 

"Fine." I wish this was one of my mom's good days, the days she doesn't bug me about stuff. 

I give my sister a kiss on the top of her head, making sure she doesn't think her drool bothers me in the least. "I'l  see ya  after  school,"  I  say,  attempting  to  keep  the  morning cheerful. "To finish our checker tournament." 

I run back up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. When I get to my bedroom, I check my watch. Oh, no. It's ten after seven. My best friend, Sierra, is gonna freak out if I'm late picking her up. Grabbing a light blue scarf out of my closet, I pray it'l  work. Maybe nobody wil  notice the drool spot if I tie it just right. 

When I come back down the stairs, my mother is standing in the foyer, scanning my appearance again. "Love the scarf." 

Phew. 

As I pass her, she shoves the muffin into my hand. "Eat it on the way." 

I  take  the  muffin.  Walking  to  my  car,  I  absently  bite  into  it. 

Unfortunately  it  isn't  blueberry,  my  favorite.  It's  banana  nut, and  the  bananas  are  overdone.  It  reminds  me  of  myself--

seemingly perfect on the outside, but the inside is al  mush. 

5





CHAPTER 2 Alex

"Get up, Alex." 

I scowl at my little brother and bury my head under my pil ow. 

Since  I  share  a  room  with  my  eleven-  and  fifteen-year-old brothers,  there's  no  escape  except  the  little  privacy  a  lone pil ow can give. 

"Leave me alone, Luis," I say roughly through the pil ow.  "No estes chingando." 

"I'm not fuckin' with you.  Mama  told me to wake you so you won't be late for school." 

Senior year. I should be proud I'l  be the first family member in the Fuentes household to graduate high school. But after graduation, real life wil  start. Col ege is just a dream. Senior year for me is like a retirement party for a sixty-five-year-old. 

You  know  you  can  do  more,  but  everyone  expects  you  to quit. 

"I'm al  dressed in my new clothes," Luis's proud but muffled voice comes through the pil ow. "The  nenas  won't be able to resist this Latino stud." 

"Good for you," I mumble. 

 "Mama  said I should pour this pitcher of water on you if you don't get up." 

6

Was privacy too much to ask for? I take my pil ow and chuck it  across  the  room.  It's  a  direct  hit.  The  water  splashes  al over him. 

 "Culero!"  he  screams  at  me.  "These  are  the  only  new clothes I got." 

A  fit  of  laughter  is  coming  through  the  bedroom  door. 

Carlos,  my  other  brother,  is  laughing  like  a  frickin'  hyena. 

That  is,  until  Luis  jumps  him.  I  watch  the  fight  spiral  out  of control as my younger brothers punch and kick each other. 

 They're good fighters,  I think proudly as I watch them duke it out. But as the oldest male in the house, it's my duty to break it up. I grab the col ar of Garlos's shirt but trip on Luis's leg and land on the floor with them. 

Before I can regain my balance, icy cold water is poured on my  back.  Turning  quickly,  I  catch   mi'ama  dousing  us  al ,  a bucket poised in her fist above us while she's wearing her work uniform. She works as a checker for the local grocery store a couple blocks from our house. It doesn't pay a whole heck of a lot, but we don't need much. 

"Get up," she orders, her fiery attitude out in ful  force. 

"Shit, Ma," Carlos says, standing. 

 Mi'amd  takes what's left in her bucket, sticks her fingers in the icy water, and flicks the liquid in Carlos's face. 



Luis  laughs  and  before  he  knows  it,  he  gets  flicked  with water as wel . Wil  they ever learn? 

"Any more attitude, Luis?" she asks. 

"No, ma'am," Luis says, standing as straight as a soldier. 

"You have any more filthy words to come out of that  boca  of yours,  Carlos?"  She  dips  her  hand  in  the  water  as  a warning. 

"No, ma'am," echoes soldier number two. 

"And what about you, Alejandro?" Her eyes narrow into slits as she focuses on me. 

"What? I was tryin' to break it up," I say innocently, giving her my you-can't-resist-me smile. 

7

She  flicks  water  in  my  face.  "That's  for  not  breaking  it  up sooner.  Now  get  dressed,  al   of  you,  and  come  eat breakfast before school." 

So  much  for  my  you-can't-resist-me  smile.  "You  know  you love us," I cal  after her as she leaves our room. 

After  a  quick  shower,  I  walk  back  to  my  bedroom  with  a towel  wrapped  around  my  waist.  I  catch  sight  of  Luis  with one  of  my  bandannas  on  his  head  and  my  gut  tightens.  I yank it off him. "Don't ever touch this, Luis." 

"Why not?" he asks, his deep brown eyes al  innocent. 



To Luis, it's a bandanna. To me, it's a symbol of what is and wil  never be. How the hel  am I supposed to explain it to an eleven-year-old kid? He knows what I am. It's no secret the bandanna  has  the  Latino  Blood  colors  on  it.  Payback  and revenge  got  me  in  and  now  there's  no  way  out.  But  I'l   die before I let one of my brothers get sucked in. 

I  bal   the  bandanna  in  my  fist.  "Luis,  don't  touch  my  shit. 

Especial y my Blood stuff." 

"I like red and black." 

That's the last thing I need to hear. "If I ever catch you wearin' 

it again, you'l  be sportin'  black and blue,"  I tel  him. "Got it, little brother?" 

He shrugs. "Yeah. I got it." 

As he leaves the room with a spring in his step, I wonder if he  real y  does  get  it.  I  stop  myself  from  thinking  too  hard about it as I grab a black T-shirt from my dresser and pul  on worn,  faded  jeans.  When  I  tie  my  bandanna  around  my head, I hear  mi'ama's  voice bel owing from the kitchen. 

"Alejandro,  come  eat  before  the  food  gets  cold.  De  prisa, hurry up." 

"I'm  comin',"  I  cal   back.  I'l   never  understand  why  food  is such an important part of her life. 

8

My  brothers  are  already  busy  chowing  down  on  their breakfast  when  I  enter  the  kitchen.  I  open  the  refrigerator and scan its contents. 



"Sit down." 

"Ma, I'l  just grab--" 

"You'l  grab nothing, Alejandro. Sit. We're a family and we're going to eat like one." 

I  sigh,  close  the  refrigerator  door,  and  sit  beside  Carlos. 

Sometimes  being  a  member  of  a  close  family  has  its disadvantages.  Mi'ama  places  a  heaping  plate  of  huevos and  tortillas  in front of me. 

"Why can't you cal  me Alex?" I ask, my head down while I stare at the food in front of me. 

"If I wanted to cal  you Alex, I wouldn't have bothered to name you Alejandro. Don't you like your given name?" 

My  muscles  tense.  I  was  named  after  a  father  who  is  no longer  alive,  leaving  me  the  responsibility  of  being  the designated  man  of  the  house.  Alejandro,  Alejandro  Jr., Junior . . . it's al  the same to me. 

"Would it matter?" I mumble as I pick up a tortil a. I look up, trying to gauge her reaction. 

Her back is to me as she cleans dishes in the sink. "No." 

"Alex wants to pretend he's white," Carlos chimes in. "You can  change  your  name,  bro,  but  nobody'd  mistake  you  for anythin' other than  Mexicano." 

"Carlos,  collate  la  boca,"  I  warn.  I  don't  want  to  be  white.  I just don't want to be associated with my father. 



 "Por favor,  you two," our mother pleads. "Enough fighting for one day." 

 "Mojado,"  Carlos  sings,  egging  me  on  by  cal ing  me  a wetback. 

I've had enough of Carlos's mouth; he's gone too far. I stand, my chair scraping the floor. Carlos fol ows and steps in front of me, 

9

closing  the  space  between  us.  He  knows  I  could  kick  his ass. His overblown ego is gonna get him in trouble with the wrong person one of these days. 

"Carlos, sit down,"  mi'ama  orders. 

"Dirty beaner," Carlos drawls at me in a fake deep accent. 

"Better yet,  es un Ganguero." 

"C arlos! "  m i ' am a  reprimands  sharply  as  she  comes forward,  but  I  get  in  between  them  and  grab  my  brother's col ar. 

"Yeah, that's al  anyone wil  ever think of me," I tel  him. "But you keep talkin' trash and they'l  think that of you, too." 

"Brother, they'l  think that of me anyway. Whether I want them to or not." 

I release him. "You're wrong, Carlos. You can do better, be better." 

"Than you?" 



"Yeah,  better  than  me  and  you  know  it,"  I  say.  "Now apologize to  mi'ama  for talkin' smack in front of her." 

One  look  in  my  eyes  and  Carlos  knows  I'm  not  kidding around.  "Sorry,  Ma,"  he  says,  then  sits  back  down.  I  don't miss his glare, though, as his ego got knocked down a peg. 

 Mi'amd  turns and opens the fridge, trying to hide her tears. 

Damn it, she's worried about Carlos. He's a sophomore and the  next  two  years  are  either  going  to  make  him  or  break him. 

I pul  on my black leather jacket, needing to get out of here. I give  mi'ama  a peck on the cheek with an apology for ruining her breakfast, then walk outside wondering how I'm going to keep  Carlos  and  Luis  away  from  my  path  while  steering them toward a better one. Oh, the fucking irony of it al . 

On  the  street,  guys  in  the  same  color  bandannas  flag  the Latino  Blood  signal:  right  hand  tapping  twice  on  their  left arm while their ring

10

finger  is  bent.  My  veins  fire  up  as  I  flag  right  back  before straddling my motorcycle. They want a tough-as-nails gang member,  they  got  one.  I  put  on  a  hel   of  a  show  to  the outside world; sometimes I even surprise myself. 

"Alex, wait up," a familiar female voice cal s out. 

Carmen Sanchez, my neighbor and ex-girlfriend, runs up to me. 



"Hey, Carmen," I mutter. 

"How about giving me a ride to school?" 

Her short black skirt shows off her incredible legs, and her shirt is tight, accentuating her smal  but perky  chichis.  Once I would  have  done  anything  for  her,  but  that  was  before  I caught her in another guy's bed over the summer. Or car, as it was. 

"Come on, Alex. I promise not to bite . . . unless you want me to." 

Carmen  is  my  Latino  Blood  homegirl.  Whether  we're  a couple or not, we stil  have each other's backs. It's the code we live by. "Get on," I say. 

Carmen hops on my motorcycle and deliberately places her hands on my thighs while pressing against my backside. It doesn't have the effect she was probably hoping for. What does she think, that I'l  forget the past? No way. My history defines who I am. 

I try to focus on starting my senior year at Fairfield, the here and  now.  It's  damn  difficult  because,  unfortunately,  after graduation my future wil  likely be as screwed up as my past. 

11



CHAPTER 3 Brittany

"My hair gets al  frizzy in this car, Sierra. Every time I put the top down, my hair looks like I've walked through a tornado," I say  to  my  best  friend  as  I  drive  on  Vine  Street  toward Fairfield High in my new silver convertible. 

"Outward appearances mean everything." My parents taught me  the  motto  that  rules  my  life.  It's  the  sole  reason  I  didn't comment  about  the  BMW  when  my  dad  gave  me  the extravagant birthday present two weeks ago. 

"We  live  a  half  hour  from  the  Windy  City,"  Sierra  says, holding  her  hand  in  the  wind  as  we  drive.  "Chicago  isn't exactly known for its calm weather. Besides, you look like a blond,  Grecian  goddess  with  wild  hair,  Brit.  You're  just nervous about seeing Colin again." 

My  gaze  wanders  to  the  heart-shaped  picture  of  me  and Colin  taped  to  my  dashboard.  "A  summer  apart  changes people." 

"Distance  makes  the  heart  grow  fonder,"  Sierra  throws back. "You're the captain of the pom squad and he's captain of the varsity footbal  team. You two have to date or the solar system would go out of alignment." 

12

Colin cal ed a few times during the summer from his family's cabin, where he was hanging out with his buddies, but I don't know  where  our  relationship  stands  now.  He  just  got  back last night. 

"I love those jeans," Sierra says, eyeing my faded Brazilian pants. "I'l  be borrowing them before you know it." 



"My  mom  hates  them,"  I  tel   her,  smoothing  my  hair  at  a stoplight, trying to tame my blond frizzies. "She says it looks like I got them at a used clothing store." 

"Did you tel  her vintage is in?" 

"Yeah,  like  she'd  even  listen.  She  was  hardly  paying attention when I asked her about the new caretaker." 

No  one  understands  what  it's  like  at  my  house.  Luckily,  I have  Sierra.  She  might  not  understand,  but  she  knows enough  to  listen  and  keep  my  home  life  confidential. 

Besides Colin, Sierra is the only one who's met my sister. 

Sierra flips open my CD case. "What happened to the last caretaker?" 

"Shel ey pul ed a chunk of her hair out." 

"Ouch." 

I drive into the high school parking lot with my mind more on my  sister  than  on  the  road.  My  wheels  screech  to  a  stop when I almost hit a guy and girl on a motorcycle. I thought it was an empty parking space. 

"Watch  it,  bitch,"  Carmen  Sanchez,  the  girl  on  the  back  of the motorcycle, says as she flips me the finger. 

She obviously missed the Road Rage lecture in Driver's Ed. 

"Sorry,"  I  say  loudly  so  I  can  be  heard  over  the  roar  of  the motorcycle. "It didn't look like anyone was in this spot." 

Then I realize whose motorcycle I almost hit. The driver turns 13

around. Angry  dark  eyes.  Red  and  black  bandanna.  I  sink down into the driver's seat as far as I can. 

"Oh, shit. It's Alex Fuentes," I say, wincing. 

"Jesus,  Brit,"  Sierra  says,  her  voice  low.  "I'd  like  to  live  to see graduation. Get outta here before he decides to kil  us both." 

Alex  is  staring  at  me  with  his  devil  eyes  while  putting  the kickstand  down  on  his  motorcycle.  Is  he  going  to  confront me? 

I  search  for  reverse,  frantical y  moving  the  stick  back  and forth. Of course it's no surprise my dad bought me a car with a  stick  shift  without  taking  the  time  to  teach  me  how  to master driving the thing. 

Alex  takes  a  step  toward  my  car.  My  instincts  tel   me  to abandon the car and flee, as if I was stuck on railroad tracks with a train heading straight for me. I glance at Sierra, who's desperately  searching  through  her  purse  for  something.  Is she kidding me? 

"I can't get this damn car in reverse. I need help. What are you looking for?" I ask. 

"Like  .  .  .  nothing.  I'm  trying  not  to  make  eye  contact  with those  Latino  Bloods.  Get  a  move  on,  wil   ya?"  Sierra responds through gritted teeth. "Besides, I only know how to drive an automatic." 



Final y  grinding  into  reverse,  my  wheels  screech  loud  and hard  as  I  maneuver  backward  and  search  for  another parking spot. 

After parking in the west lot, far from a certain gang member with  a  reputation  that  could  scare  off  even  the  toughest Fairfield footbal  players, Sierra and I walk up the front steps of Fairfield High. Unfortunately, Alex Fuentes and the rest of his gang friends are hanging by the front doors. 

"Walk  right  past  them,"  Sierra  mutters.  "Whatever  you  do, don't look in their eyes." 

It's pretty hard not to when Alex Fuentes steps right in front of me and blocks my path. 

14

What's that prayer you're supposed to say right before you know you're going to die? 

"You're  a  lousy  driver,"  Alex  says  with  his  slight  Latino accent and ful -blown I-AM-THE-MAN stance. 

The  guy  might  look  like  an  Abercrombie  model  with  his ripped bod and flawless face, but his picture is more likely to be taken for a mug shot. 

The kids from the north side don't real y mix with kids from the south side. It's not that we think we're better than them, we're just different. We've grown up in the same town, but on total y  opposite  sides.  We  live  in  big  houses  on  Lake Michigan and they live next to the train tracks. We look, talk, act, and dress different. I'm not saying it's good or bad; it's just the way it is in Fairfield. And, to be honest, most of the just the way it is in Fairfield. And, to be honest, most of the south side girls treat me like Carmen Sanchez does . . . they hate me because of who I am. 

Or, rather, who they  think  I am. 

Alex's gaze slowly moves down my body, traveling the length of me before moving back up. It's not the first time a guy has checked me out, it's just that I never had a guy like Alex do it so blatantly . . . and so up-close. I can feel my face getting hot. 

"Next  time,  watch  where  you're  goin',"  he  says,  his  voice cool and control ed. 

He's trying to bul y me. He's a pro at this. I won't let him get to  me  and  win  his  little  game  of  intimidation,  even  if  my stomach  feels  like  I'm  doing  one  hundred  cartwheels  in  a row.  I  square  my  shoulders  and  sneer  at  him,  the  same sneer I use to push people away. "Thanks for the tip." 

"If you ever need a real man to teach you how to drive, I can give you lessons." 

Catcal s and whistles from his buddies set my blood boiling. 

15

"If  you  were  a real man, you'd open the door for me instead of  blocking  my  way,"  I  say,  admiring  my  own  comeback even as my knees threaten to buckle. 

Alex steps back, pul s the door open, and bows like he's my butler.  He's  total y  mocking  me,  he  knows  it  and  I  know  it. 

Everyone  knows  it.  I  catch  a  glimpse  of  Sierra,  stil desperately  searching  for  nothing  in  her  purse.  She's clueless. 

"Get a life," I tel  him. 

"Like  yours?  Cabrona,  let me tel  you somethin'," Alex says harshly. "Your life isn't reality, it's fake. Just like you." 

"It's better than living my life as a loser," I lash out, hoping my words sting as much as his words did. "Just like you." 

Grabbing  Sierra's  arm,  I  pul   her  toward  the  open  door. 

Catcal s and comments fol ow us as we walk into the school. 

I final y let out the breath I must have been holding, then turn to Sierra. 

My best friend is staring at me, al  bug-eyed. "Holy shit, Brit! 

You got a death wish or something?" 

"What gives Alex Fuentes the right to bul y everyone in his path?" 

"Uh, maybe the gun he has hidden in his pants or the gang colors he wears," Sierra says, sarcasm dripping from every word. 

"He's not stupid enough to carry a gun to school," I reason. 

"And  I  refuse  to  be  bul ied,  by  him  or  anyone  else."  At school, at least. School is the one place I can keep up my

"perfect"  facade;  everyone  at  school  buys  it.  Suddenly pumped  about  starting  my  last  year  at  Fairfield,  I  shake Sierra's shoulders. "We're seniors now," I say with the same enthusiasm  I  use  for  pom-pom  routines  during  footbal games. 



"So?" 

"So, starting right now everything is going to be p-e-r-f-e-c-t." 

16

The  bel   rings,  which  is  not  exactly  a  bel   because  the student  body  voted  last  year  to  replace  bel s  with  music between classes. Right now they're playing "Summer Lovin'" 

from  Grease.  Sierra starts walking down the hal . "I'l  make sure  you  have  ap-e-r-f-e-c-t  funeral.  With  flowers  and everything." 

"Who died?" a voice from behind me asks. 

I  turn  around.  It's  Colin,  blond  hair  bleached  from  the summer sun and a grin so large it takes up almost his whole face. I wish I had a mirror to see if my makeup is smudged. 

But surely Colin wil  date me even if it is, won't he? I run up and give him the biggest hug. 

He  holds  me  tight,  kisses  me  lightly  on  the  lips,  and  pul s back. "Who died?" he asks again. 

"Nobody,"  I  answer.  "Forget  about  it.  Forget  everything except being with me." 

"It's  easy  when  you  look  so  damn  hot."  Colin  kisses  me again.  "Sorry  I  haven't  cal ed.  It's  been  so  crazy  unpacking and everything." 

I smile up at him, glad our summer apart hasn't changed our relationship. The solar system is safe, at least for now. 



Colin  drapes  his  arm  around  my  shoulders  as  the  front doors to the school open. Alex and his friends burst through as if they're here to hijack the school. 

"Why do they even come to school?" Colin mutters low so only I can hear. "Half of them'l  probably drop out before the year is over, anyway." 

My  gaze  briefly  meets  Alex's  and  a  shiver  runs  down  my spine. 

"I  almost  hit Alex  Fuentes's  motorcycle  this  morning,"  I  tel Colin once Alex is out of hearing range. 

"You should have." 

"Colin," I chide. 

17

"At least it would have been an exciting first day. This school is boring as shit." 

Boring? I almost got in a car accident, was flipped off by a girl from the south side, and was harassed by a dangerous gang  member  outside  the  school's  front  doors.  If  that  was any indication of the rest of senior year, this school wil  be anything  but  boring. 

18



CHAPTER 4 Alex

I  knew  I'd  be  cal ed  into  the  new  principal's  office  at  some point during the year, but I didn't expect it to be on the first day of school. I heard Dr. Aguirre was hired because of his hard-ass  personality  at  some  high  school  in  Milwaukee. 

Someone must have pegged me as a ringleader, 'cause it's my ass sitting here instead of another Latino Blood's. 

So here I am, pul ed out of gym so Aguirre can puff up his chest and ramble on about tougher school rules. I detect him feeling me out, wondering how I'l  react, as he threatens me, 

".  .  .  and  this  year  I've  hired  two  ful -time  armed  security guards, Alejandro." 

His eyes focus on me, trying to intimidate. Yeah, right. I can tel   right  off  that  while  Aguirre  might  be  Latino,  he  knows nothing  about  how  our  streets  work.  The  next  thing  I  know he'l  be talking about how he grew up poor, just like me. He's probably never even driven through my side of town. Maybe I should offer to give him a tour. 

He stands in front of me. "I promised the superintendent as wel   as  the  school  board  I'd  personal y  be  responsible  for rooting  out  the  violence  that  has  plagued  this  school  for years.  I  won't  hesitate  to  suspend  anyone  who  ignores school rules." 

19

I  haven't  done  anything  besides  have  a  little  fun  with  the pom-pom  diva  and  already  this  guy  is  talking  suspension. 

Maybe  he  heard  about  my  suspension  last  year.  That  little incident got me kicked out for three days. It wasn't my fault. . 

.  entirely.  Paco  had  this  crazy  theory  about  cold  water affecting  white  guys'  dicks  differently  than  Latinos'.  I  was arguing with him in the boiler room after he'd shut down the hot water heaters when we were caught. 

I had nothing to do with it but got blamed al  the same. Paco attempted  to  tel   the  truth,  but  our  old  principal  wouldn't listen.  Maybe  if  I  fought  more  he  would  have  listened.  But what's the use in fighting for a lost cause? 

It's  clear  Brittany  El is  is  responsible  for  me  being  in  here today. You think her jerk of a boyfriend'l  ever get cal ed into Aguirre's  office?  No  way.  The  dude  is  an  idolized  footbal player.  He  can  ditch  class  and  start  fights  and Aguirre  wil probably  stil   kiss  his  ass.  Colin Adams  is  always  pushing me, knowing he can get away with it. Every time I've been about  to  retaliate,  he's  found  a  way  to  escape  or  rush  to where teachers were in abundance . . . teachers who were just waiting for me to fuck up. 

One of these days. . . . 

I look up at Aguirre. "I'm not startin' any fights." I might finish one, though. 

"That's  good,"  Aguirre  says.  "But  I  heard  about  you harassing a female student in the parking lot today." 

Almost getting run over by Brittany El is's shiny new Beemer is  my  fault? For the past three years I've managed to avoid the  rich  bitch.  I  heard  last  year  she  got  a  C  on  her  report card  but  a  little  cal   to  the  school  from  her  parents  got  it changed to an A. 



 It would hurt her chances of getting into a good college. 

Screw that shit. If I got a C,  mi'ama  would smack me upside the

20

head and nag me to study twice as hard. I've worked my ass off to get good grades, even though I've gotten interrogated more often than not about my means of getting the answers. 

As  if  I'd  cheat.  It's  not  about  getting  into  col ege.  It's  about proving I  could  get in ... if my world was different. 

The  south  siders  might  be  seen  as  dumber  than  the  north siders, but that's bul shit. So we're not as rich or obsessed with  material  possessions  or  getting  into  the  most expensive  and  prestigious  universities.  We're  in  survival mode most of the time, always having to watch our backs. 

Probably  the  hardest  part  of  Brittany  El is's  life  is  deciding which  restaurant  to  dine  at  each  night.  The  girl  uses  her smokin' bod to manipulate everyone who comes in contact with her. 

"Care to share with me what happened in the parking lot? I'd like to hear your side," Aguirre says. 

Not  happening.  I  learned  long  ago  that  my  side  doesn't matter. "The thing this mornin' . . . total misunderstandin'," I tel  him.  Brittany Ellis's misunderstanding that two vehicles can't fit in one spot. 

Aguirre stands and leans over his polished, spotless desk. 

"Let's  try  not  making  misunderstandings  a  habit,  okay, Alejandro?" 

"Alex." 

"Huh?" 

"I  go  by  Alex,"  I  say.  What  he  knows  about  me  is  in  my school file, a file so biased it's probably ten inches thick. 

Aguirre gives me a nod. "Al  right, Alex. Get ready for sixth period. But I have eyes at this school, and I'm watching your every move. I don't want to see you back in my office." Just as  I  get  up,  he  puts  a  hand  on  my  shoulder.  "Just  so  you know, my goal is for every student in this school to succeed. 

 Every  student, Alex. Including you, so whatever 21

biases  you  have  about  me  you  can  throw  them  out  the window.  Me entiendes?" 

 "Si.  Entiendo,"  I  say,  wondering  how  much  I  can  believe him. In the hal way, a sea of students are rushing to their next class. I have no clue where I'm supposed to be and I'm stil  in my gym clothes. 

In  the  locker  room  after  I  change,  a  song  plays  on  the loudspeaker  indicating  it's  now  sixth  period.  I  pul   the schedule  out  of  my  back  pocket.  Chemistry  with  Mrs. 

Peterson. Great, another hard-ass to deal with. 

22





CHAPTER 5 Brittany

I turn on my cel  and cal  home before chemistry to see how my sister is doing. Baghda isn't too happy because Shel ey was freaking out about the way her lunch tasted. Apparently Shel ey swiped her bowl of yogurt onto the floor in protest. 

Was it too much to hope that my mom would take a day off from  hanging  out  at  the  country  club  to  transition  Baghda? 

Summer  is  official y  over  and  I  can't  be  there  to  pick  up where the caretakers usual y leave off. 

I should be focusing on school. Getting into my dad's alma mater,  Northwestern,  is  my  main  goal  so  I  can  go  to  a col ege  close  to  home  and  be  there  for  my  sister.  After giving  Baghda  some  suggestions  I  take  a  deep  breath, paste on a smile, and walk into class. 

"Hey, babe. I saved you a seat." Colin motions to the stool next to him. 

The room is arranged with rows of high lab tables for two. 

This means I'l  sit next to Colin for the rest of the year and we'l   do  the  dreaded  senior  chemistry  project  together. 

Feeling foolish for thinking things wouldn't be okay between us, I slip onto the stool and pul  out my heavy chem book. 

23

 "Hey,  look. Fuentes is in our class!" a guy cal s out from the back of the room. "Alex, over here,  venpa'ca." 



I try not to stare as Alex greets his friends with pats on the back and handshakes too complicated to reproduce. They al   say  "ese"  to  each  other,  whatever  that  means.  Alex's presence catches every eye in the classroom. 

"I  hear  he  was  arrested  last  weekend  for  possession  of meth," Colin whispers to me. 

"No way." 

He nods and his eyebrows go up. "Way." 

Wel ,  the  information  shouldn't  surprise  me.  I  hear  most weekends Alex  spends  drugged  out,  passed  out,  or  doing some other il egal activity. 

Mrs. Peterson closes the door to the classroom with a bang and  al   eyes  move  from  the  back  of  the  room,  where Alex and his friends are sitting, to the front where Mrs. Peterson is standing. She has light brown hair pul ed back into a tight ponytail. The woman is probably in her late twenties, but her glasses and perpetual stern expression make her look way older. I hear she's tough now because her first year teaching the  students  made  her  cry.  They  didn't  respect  a  teacher who was young enough to be their older sister. 

"Good  afternoon  and  welcome  to  senior  chemistry."  She sits  on  the  edge  of  her  desk  and  opens  a  folder.  "I appreciate  you  picking  your  own  seats,  but  I  make  the seating arrangements . . . alphabetical y." 

I  groan  along  with  the  rest  of  the  class,  but  Mrs.  Peterson doesn't miss a beat. She stands in front of the first lab table and says, "Colin Adams, take the first seat. Your partner is Darlene Boehm." 

Darlene Boehm is co-captain of the varsity pom squad with me. She flashes me an apologetic look as she slides onto the stool next to my boyfriend. 

24

Down  the  list  Mrs.  Peterson  goes,  students  reluctantly moving to their assigned seats. 

"Brittany  El is,"  Mrs.  Peterson  says,  pointing  to  the  table behind  Colin.  I  unenthusiastical y  sit  on  the  stool  at  my assigned place. 

"Alejandro  Fuentes,"  Mrs.  Peterson  says,  pointing  to  the stool next to me. 

Oh  my God. Alex . . .  my chemistry partner? For my entire senior  year!  No  way,  no  how,  S O  not  okay.  I  give  Colin  a

"help  me"  look  as  I  try  to  avoid  a  panic  attack.  I  definitely should  have  stayed  at  home.  In  bed.  Under  the  covers. 

Forget not being intimidated. 

"Cal  me Alex." 

Mrs. Peterson looks up from her class list and regards Alex above  the  glasses  on  her  nose.  'Alex  Fuentes,"  she  says, before changing his name on her list. "Mr. Fuentes, take off that bandanna. I have a zero tolerance policy in my class. No gang-related  accessories  are  al owed  to  enter  this  room. 

Unfortunately,  Alex,  your  reputation  precedes  you.  Dr. 

Aguirre backs my zero tolerance policy one hundred percent

... do I make myself clear?" 



Alex  stares  her  down  before  sliding  the  bandanna  off  his head, exposing raven hair that matches his eyes. 

"It's to cover up the lice," Colin mutters to Darlene, but I hear him and Alex does, too. 

 "Vete a la verga,"  Alex says to Colin, his hard eyes blazing. 

 "Collate el hocico." 

"Whatever,  dude,"  Colin  says,  then  turns  around.  "He  can't even speak English." 

"That's  enough,  Colin. Alex,  sit  down."  Mrs.  Peterson  eyes the rest of the class. "That goes for the rest of you, as wel . I can't  control  what  you  do  outside  of  this  room,  but  in  my class  I'm  the  boss."  She  turns  back  to  Alex.  "Do  I  make myself clear?" 

25

 "Si, senora,"  Alex says, deliberately slow. 

Mrs.  Peterson  goes  down  the  rest  of  the  list  while  I  do everything in my power not to make eye contact with the guy sitting next to me. It's too bad I left my purse in my locker or I could pretend to look for nothing like Sierra did this morning. 

"This sucks," Alex mumbles to himself. His voice is dark and husky. Does he make it that way on purpose? 

How  am  I  going  to  explain  to  my  mother  I  have  to  partner with Alex Fuentes? Oh, God, I hope she doesn't blame me somehow for screwing this up. 

I glance at my boyfriend, deep in conversation with Darlene. 



I'm so jealous. Why couldn't my last name be Al is instead of El is so I could sit next to him? 

It'd be cool if God gave everyone a Do Over Day and you could  yel   "Do  Over!"  and  the  day  would  start  new.  This would definitely qualify for a DOD. 

Does Mrs. Peterson actual y think it's reasonable to pair the captain of the pom-pom squad with the most dangerous guy in school? The woman is delusional. 

Mrs. Delusional final y finishes assigning seats. "I know you seniors think you know everything. But never think of yourself as a success until you can help treat diseases that plague mankind or make the earth a safer place to live. The field of chemistry  plays  a  crucial  role  in  developing  medicines, radiation treatments for cancer patients, petroleum uses, the ozone--" 

Alex raises his hand. 

"Alex," the teacher says. "Do you have a question?" 

"Uh, Mrs. Peterson, are you sayin' the president of the U.S. 

isn't a success?" 

"What I'm saying is . . . money and status aren't everything. 

Use

26

your brain and do something for mankind or the planet you live  on.  Then  you're  a  success. And  you'l   have  earned  my respect,  which  not  many  people  in  this  world  can  boast about." 



"I got things I can boast about, Mrs. P.," Alex says, obviously amusing himself. 

Mrs.  Peterson  holds  up  a  hand.  "Please  spare  us  the details, Alex." 

I shake my head. If Alex thinks antagonizing the teacher wil get us a good grade, he's sadly mistaken. It's obvious Mrs. 

Peterson doesn't like smart-asses and my partner is already on her radar. 

"Now," Mrs. Delusional says, "look at the person sitting next to you." 

 Anything but that.  But I don't have a choice. I glance over at Colin  again,  who  seems  pretty  content  with  his  assigned partner. Darlene already has a boyfriend or I seriously would be  questioning  why  she's  leaning  a  bit  too  close  to  Colin and  flipping  her  hair  back  too  many  times.  I  tel   myself  I'm being paranoid. 

"You  don't  have  to  like  your  partner,"  Mrs.  Peterson  says, 

"but you're stuck together for the next ten months. Take five minutes  to  get  to  know  each  other,  then  each  of  you  wil introduce your partner to the class. Talk about what you did over the summer, what hobbies you have, or anything else interesting or unique your classmates might not know about you. Your five minutes start now." 

I take out my notebook, flip to the first page, and shove it at Alex.  "Why  don't  you  write  down  stuff  about  yourself  in  my notebook and I'l  do the same in yours." It's better than trying to have a conversation with him. 



Alex nods in agreement, although I think I caught the corners of  his  mouth  twitch  as  he  hands  me  his  notebook.  Did  I imagine  that  twitch  or  did  it  real y  happen?  Taking  a  deep breath, I wipe that thought from my

27

mind  and  write  diligently  until  Mrs.  Peterson  instructs  us  to stop and listen to each other's introductions. 

"This  is  Darlene  Boehm,"  Colin  begins,  being  the  first  to speak. 

But I don't hear the rest of Colin's speech about Darlene and her  trip  to  Italy  and  her  experience  at  dance  camp  this summer. Instead, I glance down at the notebook given back to me by Alex and stare at the words on the page with my mouth open. 

28



CHAPTER 6 Alex

Okay, so I shouldn't have fucked with her on the introduction thing.  Writing  nothing  except,  Saturday  night.  You  and  me. 

 Driving  lessons  and  hot  sex  ...  in  her  notebook  probably wasn't  the  smartest  move.  But  I  was  itching  to  make  Little M i s s  Perfecta  stumble  in  her  introduction  of  me.  And stumbling she is. 

"Miss El is?" 



I  watch  in  amusement  as  Perfection  herself  looks  up  at Peterson. Oh, she's good. This partner of mine knows how to hide her true emotions, something I recognize because I do it al  the time. 

"Yes?"  Brittany  says,  tilting  her  head  and  smiling  like  a beauty queen. 

I wonder if that smile has ever gotten her out of a speeding ticket. 

"It's your turn. Introduce Alex to the class." 

I lean an elbow on the lab table, waiting for an introduction she has to either make up or fess up she knows less than crap about me. She glances at my comfortable position and I  can  tel   from  her  deer-in-the-headlights  look  I've  stumped her. 

"This  is  Alejandro  Fuentes,"  she  starts,  her  voice  hitching the

29

slightest  bit.  My  temper  flares  at  the  mention  of  my  given name,  but  I  keep  a  cool  facade  as  she  continues  with  a made-up  introduction.  "When  he  wasn't  hanging  out  on street corners and harassing innocent people this summer, he toured the inside of jails around the city,  if you know what I  mean.  And  he  has  a  secret  desire  nobody  would  ever guess." 

The  room  suddenly  becomes  quiet.  Even  Peterson straightens  to  attention.  Hel ,  even  I'm  listening  like  the words  coming  out  of  Brittany's  lying,  pink-frosted  lips  are gospel. 

"His secret desire," she continues, "is to go to col ege and become a chemistry teacher, like you, Mrs. Peterson." 

Yeah, right. I look over at my friend Isa, who seems amused that a white girl isn't afraid of giving me smack in front of the entire class. 

Brittany  flashes  me  a  triumphant  smile,  thinking  she's  won this round.  Guess again, gringa. 

I sit up in my chair while the class remains silent. 

"This  is  Brittany  El is,"  I  say,  al   eyes  now  focused  on  me. 

"This summer she went to the mal , bought new clothes so she  could  expand  her  wardrobe,  and  spent  her  daddy's money on plastic surgery to enhance her,  ahem,  assets." 

It  might  not  be  what  she  wrote,  but  it's  probably  close enough to the truth. Unlike her introduction of me. 

Chuckles  come  from  mis  cuates  in  the  back  of  the  class, and Brittany is as stiff as a board beside me, as if my words hurt  her  precious  ego.  Brittany  El is  is  used  to  people fawning al  over her and she could use a little wake-up cal . 

I'm  actual y  doing  her  a  favor.  Little  does  she  know  I'm  not finished with her intro. 

 "Her  secret desire," I add, getting the same reaction as she did  during  her  introduction,  "is  to  date  a  Mexicano  before she graduates." 



30

As  expected,  my  words  are  met  by  comments  and  low whistles from the back of the room. 

"Way to go, Fuentes," my friend Lucky barks out. 

"I'l  date you,  mamacita,"  another says. 

I  give  a  high  five  to  another  Latino  Blood  named  Marcus sitting behind me just as I catch Isa shaking her head as if I did something wrong. What? I'm just having a little fun with a rich girl from the north side. 

Brittany's  gaze  shifts  from  Colin  to  me.  I  take  one  look  at Colin  and  with  my  eyes  tel   him  game  on.  Colin's  face instantly turns bright red, resembling a chile pepper. I have definitely invaded his territory. Good. 

"Quiet  down,  class,"  Peterson  says  sternly.  "Thank  you  for those very creative and . . . enlightening introductions. Miss El is and Mr. Fuentes, please see me after class." 

"Your  introductions  were  not  only  appal ing,  they  were disrespectful  to  me  and  the  rest  of  your  classmates," 

Peterson says after class as Brittany and I stand in front of her  desk.  "You  have  a  choice."  Our  teacher  holds  out  two blue detention slips in one hand and two pieces of notebook paper  in  the  other.  "You  can  either  serve  detention  today after school or write a five-hundred-word essay on 'respect' 

to hand in tomorrow. Which is it?" 

I reach over and grab the detention slip. Brittany reaches out for the notebook paper. Figures. 



"Do  either  of  you  have  a  problem  with  the  way  I  assign chemistry partners?" Peterson asks. 

Brittany says, "Yes," at the same time I say, "Nope." 

Peterson  sets  her  glasses  on  her  desk.  "Listen,  you  two better work

31

out  your  differences  before  this  year  is  up.  Brittany,  I  won't be assigning you a different partner. You're both seniors and wil  have to deal with a plethora of people and personalities after you graduate. If you don't want to go to summer school for flunking my class, I suggest you work together instead of against each other. Now hurry to your next class." 

With that, I fol ow my little chem partner out of the room and down the hal . 

"Stop fol owing me," she snaps, looking over her shoulder to check how many people are watching us walk down the hal together. 

As if I'm  el diablo  himself. 

"Wear long sleeves on Saturday night," I tel  her, knowing ful wel  she's reaching the end of her sanity rope. I usual y don't try to get under the skin of white chicks, but this one is fun to rattle.  This  one,  the  most  popular  and  coveted  one  of  al , actual y  cares.  "It  gets  pretty  cold  on  the  back  of  my motorcycle." 

"Listen,  Alex,"  she  says,  whipping  herself  around  and tossing  that  sun-kissed  hair  over  her  shoulder.  She  faces me with clear eyes made of ice. "I don't date guys in gangs, and I don't use drugs." 

"I don't date guys in gangs, either," I say, stepping closer to her. "And I'm no user." 

"Yeah, right. I'm surprised you're not in rehab or some juvie boot camp." 

"You think you know me?" 

"I know enough." She folds her arms across her chest, but then  looks  down  as  if  she  realizes  her  stance  makes  her chichis  stand out, and drops her hands to her sides. 

I'm doing my best not to focus on those  chichis  as I take a step forward. "Did you report me to Aguirre?" 

She takes a step back. "What if I did?" 

32

 "Mujer,  you're afraid of me." It's not a question. I just want to hear from her own lips what her reason is. 

"Most  people  at  this  school  are  scared  that  if  they  look  at you wrong, you'l  gun them down." 

"Then my gun should be smokin' by now, shouldn't it? Why aren't you runnin' away from the badass  Mexicano,  huh?" 

"Give me half a chance, I wil ." 

I've had enough of dancing around this little bitch. It's time to fluff up those feathers to make sure I end up with the upper hand.  I  close  the  distance  between  us  and  whisper  in  her ear, "Face the facts. Your life is too perfect. You probably lie awake  at  night,  fantasizing  about  spicin'  up  al   that  lily whiteness  you  live  in."  But  damn  it,  I  get  a  whiff  of  vanil a from her perfume or lotion. It reminds me of cookies. I love cookies,  so  this  is  not  good  at  al .  "Gettin'  near  the  fire, chica,  doesn't necessarily mean you'l  get burned." 

"You  touch  her  and  you'l   regret  it,  Fuentes,"  Colin's  voice rings out. He resembles a burro, with his big white teeth and ears sticking out from his buzz cut. "Get the hel  away from her." 

"Colin," Brittany says. "It's okay. I can handle this." 

Burro Face brought reinforcements: three other pasty white dudes, standing behind him for backup. I size up Burro Face and his friends to see if I can take them al  on, and decide I could give al  four a run for their money. "When you're strong enough to play in the big leagues, jock boy, then I'l  listen to the  mierda  flyin' out of your mouth," I say. 

Other students are gathering around us, leaving room for a fight that is sure to be fast, furious, and bloody. Little do they know  Burro  Face  is  a  runner.  This  time  he's  got  backup, though,  so  maybe  he'l   stay  to  duke  it  out.  I'm  always prepared for a fight, been in more of 'em than I can count on my fingers and toes. I've got the scars to prove it. 

33

"Colin, he's not worth it," Brittany says. 



 Thanks, mamacita. Right back at ya. 

"You  threatening  me,  Fuentes?"  Colin  barks,  ignoring  his girlfriend. 

"No, asshole," I say, staring him down. "Little dicks like you make threats." 

Brittany parks her body in front of Colin and puts her hand on his chest. "Don't listen to him," she says. 

"I'm not afraid of you. My dad's a lawyer," Colin brags, then puts his arm around Brittany. "She's mine. Don't ever forget that." 

"Then  keep  a  leash  on  her,"  I  advise.  "Or  she  might  be tempted to find a new owner." 

My friend Paco comes up beside me.  "Andas bien,  Alex?" 

"Yeah,  Paco,"  I  tel   him,  then  watch  as  two  teachers  walk down the hal  escorted by a guy in a police uniform. This is what Adams wants, perfectly planned to get my ass kicked out  of  school.  I'm  not  fal ing  into  his  trap  only  to  end  up  on Aguirre's  hit  list.  "Si,  everything's  bien."  I  turn  to  Brittany. 

"Catch 

ya 

later,  mamaci ta.  I'm  looking  forward  to researching our chemistry." 

Before  I  leave  and  save  myself  from  suspension  on  top  of my  detention,  Brittany  sticks  that  perky  nose  of  hers  in  the air as if I'm the scum of the earth. 

34





CHAPTER 7 Brittany

After  school  I'm  at  my  locker  when  my  friends  Morgan, Madison, and Megan come up to me. Sierra cal s them the Fairfield M-factor. 

Morgan  hugs  me.  "Oh  my  God,  are  you  okay?"  she  asks, pul ing away and examining me. 

"I heard Colin protected you. He's amazing. You're so lucky, Brit," Madison says, her signature curls bouncing with each word. 

"It wasn't a big deal," I say, wondering what the rumor is in contrast to what real y happened. 

"What  exactly  did Alex  say?"  Megan  asks.  "Caitlin  took  a picture  on  her  cel   of  Alex  and  Colin  in  the  hal way,  but  I couldn't make out what was going on." 

"You guys better not be late for practice," Darlene yel s from the end of the hal way. Just as quickly as Darlene appeared, she's gone. 

Megan opens her locker, which is next to mine, and pul s out her poms. "I hate the way Darlene kisses Ms. Smal 's butt," 

she says under her breath. 

I  close  my  locker  and  we  walk  toward  the  practice  field.  "I think  she's  trying  to  focus  on  dance  instead  of  obsessing about Tyler going back to col ege." 



35

Morgan  rol s  her  eyes.  "Whatever.  I  don't  even  have  a boyfriend so she gets zero sympathy from me." 

"No  sympathy  from  my  end,  either.  Seriously,  when  is  that girl  not  dating someone?" Madison asks. 

When we reach the practice field, our entire squad is sitting on the grass waiting for Ms. Smal . Phew, we're not late. 

"I stil  can't believe you got stuck with Alex Fuentes," Darlene says quietly to me as I find an open spot beside her. 

"Wanna  switch  partners?"  I  ask,  although  Mrs.  Peterson would never al ow it. She made that crystal clear. 

Darlene  sticks  her  tongue  out  in  ful   gross-out  mode  and whispers, "No way. I never go slumming on the south side. 

Mixing  with  that  crowd'l   get  you  nothing  but  trouble. 

Remember last year when Alyssa McDaniel dated that one guy . . . what was his name?" 

"Jason Avila?" I say in a low voice. 

Darlene  does  a  little  shiver.  "In  a  matter  of  weeks Alyssa went  from  being  cool  to  being  an  outcast.  The  south  side girls hated her for taking one of their guys and she stopped hanging with us. The confused little couple was on an island al  alone. Thank God Alyssa broke up with him." 

Ms. Smal  walks toward us with her CD player, complaining about someone moving it from her usual spot and that's why she's late. 



When  Ms.  Smal   tel s  us  to  stretch,  Sierra  nudges  Darlene over so she can talk to me. 

"You are in big trouble, girl," Sierra says. 

"Why?" 

Sierra  has  "super"  eyes  and  ears;  she  knows  everything going on at Fairfield. 

My  best  friend  says,  "Rumor  has  it  Carmen  Sanchez  is looking for you." 

36

Oh, no. Carmen is Alex's girlfriend. I'm trying not to freak out and  think  the  worst,  but  Carmen  is  tough,  from  her  red-painted  fingernails  al   the  way  down  to  her  black,  stiletto-heeled  boots.  Is  she  jealous  I'm  Alex's  chem  partner,  or does  she  think  I  reported  her  boyfriend  to  the  principal today? 

The truth is I didn't report him. I got cal ed into Dr. Aguirre's office  because  someone  who'd  seen  the  parking  incident and  witnessed  our  confrontation  on  the  steps  this  morning reported  it.  Which  was  ridiculous  because  nothing happened. 

Aguirre didn't believe me. He thought I was too scared to tel him the truth. I wasn't scared then. 

But I am now. 

Carmen Sanchez can kick my butt any day of the week. She probably  practices  with  weapons,  and  the  only  weapon  I know how to use is, wel , my pom-poms. Cal  me crazy but somehow I doubt my poms wil  scare off a girl like Carmen. 

Maybe  in  a  word  war  I  would  make  a  good  showing,  but definitely  not  in  a  fistfight.  Guys  fight  because  of  some primal,  innate  gene  that  makes  them  prove  themselves physical y. 

Maybe Carmen wants to prove something to me, but there is seriously no need. I'm no threat, but how do I let her know that?  It's  not  like  I'm  going  to  go  up  to  her  and  say,  "Hey, Carmen,  I'm  not  going  to  make  a  move  on  your  boyfriend and I never reported him to Dr. Aguirre." Or maybe I should. 

. . . 

Most  people  think  nothing  bothers  me.  I'm  not  going  to  let them know something does. I've worked too long and hard to  keep  up  this  facade  and  I'm  not  about  to  lose  it  al because some gang member and his girlfriend are testing me. 

"I'm not worrying about it," I tel  Sierra. 

37

My  best  friend  shakes  her  head.  "I  know  you,  Brit.  You're stressing," she whispers. 

Now  that  statement  worries  me  more  than  the  idea  of Carmen  looking  for  me.  Because  I  try  real y  hard  to  keep everyone at a distance . . . not real y knowing what it's truly like to be me or what it's like to live at my house. But I've let Sierra know more about me than everyone else. I wonder if I should  back  off  from  our  friendship  sometimes,  to  make sure she's kept at arm's length. 

Logical y,  I  know  I'm  paranoid.  Sierra  is  a  true  friend;  she was  even  there  when  I  cried  last  year  about  my  mom's nervous breakdown but never revealed the reason. She let me cry it out, even when I refused to give her details. 

I don't want to end up like my mom. That's my biggest fear in life. 

Ms.  Smal   has  us  get  in  formation,  then  plays  the  custom music made for our squad by the music department while I count off. It's a mixture of hip-hop and rap music, special y mixed  for  our  routine.  We've  titled  our  routine  "Big,  Bad Bul dogs" because our team mascot is the bul dog. My body hums to the beat. That's what I love about being part of the squad. It's the music that pul s me in and makes me forget about my problems at home. Music is my drug, the one thing that makes me numb. 

"Ms.  Smal ,  can  we  try  starting  in  the  broken  T  position instead of the T position like we previously practiced?" I say. 

"Then  go  into  the  low  V  and  high  V  combos  with  Morgan, Isabel,  and  Caitlin  moving  to  the  front.  I  think  it'l   look cleaner." 

Ms.  Smal   smiles,  obviously  pleased  with  my  suggestion. 

"Good idea, Brittany. Let's try it. We'l  start in the broken T

position,  elbows  bent.  During  the  transition  I  want  Morgan, Isabel, and Caitlin in the front row. Remember to keep your shoulders  down.  Sierra,  please  make  your  wrists  an extension of your arms instead of bending them." 

38



"Yes, ma'am," Sierra says from behind me. 

Ms.  Smal   plays  the  music  again.  The  beat,  the  lyrics,  the instruments . . . they al  seep into my veins and lift me up no matter how low I feel. As I dance in sync with the other girls, I forget about Carmen and Alex and my mom and everything else. 

The song is over too quickly. I stil  want to move to the beat and the lyrics when Ms. Smal  turns off her CD player. The second time around is better, but our formation needs work and some of the new girls are having a hard time with the steps. 

"Brittany,  you  teach  the  basic  moves  to  the  new  girls  and then we'l  try it as a group again. Darlene, you lead the rest of the squad in reviewing the steps," Ms. Smal  instructs as she hands me the CD player. 

Isabel is in my group. She kneels down to take a drink from her  water  bottle.  "Don't  worry  about  Carmen,"  she  says. 

"Most of the time her bark is worse than her bite." 

"Thanks," I say. Isabel looks tough, with her red Latino Blood bandanna, three eyebrow rings, and hands always folded on her  chest  when  she's  not  doing  the  routines.  But  she  has kind  eyes.  And  smiles  a  lot.  Her  smile  softens  her  harsh appearance,  although  if  she  put  a  pink  bow  in  her  hair instead of a red Latino Blood bandanna I bet she'd actual y look girly. "You're in my chemistry class, aren't you?" I ask. 

She nods. 

"And you know Alex Fuentes?" 



She nods again. 

"Are the rumors about him true?" I ask careful y, not knowing how  she's  going  to  react  to  my  prying.  If  I'm  not  careful,  I'l have a long list of people who are out to get me. 

Isabel's long brown hair moves as she talks. "Depends on which ones you're referring to." 

39

As  I'm  about  to  rattle  off  the  list  of  rumors  outlining Alex's drug use and police arrests, Isabel stands. "Listen, Brittany," 

she says. "You and me, we'l  never be friends. But I have to tel  you, no matter how much of a jerk Alex was to you today, he's not as bad as the rumors. He's even not as bad as  he'd like to think he is." 

Before  I  can  ask  another  question,  Isabel  is  back  in formation. 

An  hour  and  a  half  later,  when  we're  al   exhausted  and crabby  and  even  I've  had  enough,  we're  dismissed  from practice. I make a point of walking over to a sweating Isabel and tel ing her what a good job she did today on the routine. 

"Real y?" she asks, looking surprised. 

"You're a fast learner," I tel  her. It's true. For a girl who never tried out for poms the first three years of high school, she's caught on to the routine real y fast. "That's why we put you on the front line." 

While  Isabel's  mouth  is  stil   open  in  shock,  I  wonder  if  she believes  the  rumors  she's  heard  about  me.  No,  we'l   never be friends. But I can tel  we'l  never be enemies, either. 

After practice I walk to my car with Sierra, who's busy texting her boyfriend, Doug, on her cel . 

A  piece  of  paper  is  tucked  under  one  of  my  windshield wipers. I pul  it off. It's Alex's blue detention slip. Crumpling it up, I shove it into my book bag. 

"What was that?" Sierra asks. 

"Nothing," I say, hoping she gets the hint that I don't want to talk about it. 

"Guys, wait up!" Darlene yel s, running up to us. "I saw Colin on the footbal  field. He said to wait for him." 

I look at my watch. It's almost six and I want to get home to help Baghda make my sister's dinner. "I can't." 

40

"Doug  texted  me  back,"  Sierra  says,  "He's  invited  us  for pizza at his house." 

"I  can  come,"  Darlene  says.  "I've  been  so  bored  now  that Tyler  is  back  at  Purdue  and  I  probably  won't  see  him  for weeks." 

Sierra  is  stil   texting  away.  "I  thought  you  were  gonna  visit him next weekend." 

Darlene stands with her hands on her hips. "Wel , that was until he cal ed and said al  the pledges in the fraternity had to sleep  at  the  frat  house  for  some  crazy  initiation  thing.  As long as Tyler's penis is intact when it's al  over, I'm happy." 

At the mention of "penis," I search for my keys in my purse. 

When Darlene gets to talking about penises and sex, stand back  because  she  never  stops.  And  since  I'm  not  one  to share  my  sexual  experiences  (or  lack  thereof),  I'm  out  of here. A perfect time to escape. 

As I dangle my keys on my fingers, Sierra tel s me she'l  get a ride from Doug, so I'm alone during the drive home. I like being alone. Nobody to put on an act for. I can even blast the music if I want. 

Enjoying  the  music  is  short-lived,  though,  when  I  feel  my phone  vibrate.  I  pul   my  cel   out  of  my  pocket.  Two  voice messages and one text message. Al  from Colin. 

I cal  him on his cel . "Brit, where are you?" he asks. 

"On my way home." 

"Come over to Doug's." 

"My sister has a new caretaker," I explain. "I have to help her out." 

"Are you stil  pissed because I threatened your gangbanger chemistry partner?" 

"I'm not pissed. I'm annoyed. I told you I could handle it and you total y ignored me. And you caused a whole scene in the hal way. You know I didn't ask to be partners with him," I tel Colin. 



41

 "I  know, Brit. I just hate that guy. Don't be mad." "I'm not," I say.  "I  just  hate  seeing  you  get  al   riled  up  for  no  reason." 

"And I hated seeing that guy whispering in your ear." I feel a headache coming on, ful  force. I don't need Colin to make a scene every time a guy so much as talks to me. He's never done that before and it left me open for more scrutiny and gossip, something I never want to happen. "Let's just forget it ever happened." 

"Fine by me. Cal  me tonight," he says. "But if you can get out early and can come to Doug's, I'l  be there." 

When  I  get  home,  Baghda  is  in  Shel ey's  room  on  the  first floor.  She's  attempting  to  change  her  special  leak-proof undergarments,  but  she  has  Shel ey  in  the  wrong  position. 

Her head is usual y where her feet are, one leg is dangling off  the  bed  .  .  .  it's  a  disaster  and  Baghda  is  huffing  and puffing as if it's the most difficult task she's ever attempted. 

Did my mom check her credentials? 

"I'l  do it," I tel  Baghda, pushing her aside and taking over. 

I've changed my sister's underwear since we were kids. It's not fun changing the undergarments of a person who weighs more than you do, but if you do it right it doesn't take long and it doesn't become a big, drawn-out deal. 

My  sister  smiles  wide  when  she  sees  me.  "Bwiee!"  My sister  can't  enunciate  words,  but  she  uses  verbal approximations. "Bwiee" means "Brittany," and I smile back while  situating  her  better  on  her  bed.  "Hey,  girlie  girl.  You hungry for dinner?" I ask as I pul  wipes from the container and try not to think about the task I'm doing. 

As I slip new leak-proof underwear on her and slide her legs into  a  fresh  pair  of  sweats,  Baghda  watches  from  the sidelines.  I  try  explaining  while  doing  the  task,  but  one glance at Baghda and I can tel  she's not listening. 

42

"Your mother said I can leave when you got home," Baghda says. 

"That's fine," I say as I wash my hands, and before I know it Baghda has Houdini'd on me. 

I wheel Shel ey into the kitchen. Our usual y pristine kitchen is  a  disaster.  Baghda  hasn't  cleaned  up  the  dishes,  which are now piled in the sink, and she didn't do such a hot job of wiping the floor after Shel ey's earlier mess. 

I prepare Shel ey's dinner and wipe up the mess. 

Shel ey  drawls  out  the  word  "school,"  which  real y  sounds like "cool," but I know what she means. 

"Yeah, it was my first day back," I tel  her as I blend her food and  set  it  on  the  table.  I  spoon  soupy  food  into  her  mouth while  I  keep  talking.  "And  my  new  chemistry  teacher,  Mrs. 

Peterson,  should  be  a  boot  camp  instructor.  I  scanned  the syl abus. The woman can't go a week without scheduling a test or a quiz. This year isn't going to be easy." 

My  sister  looks  at  me,  decoding  what  I've  told  her.  Her intense  expression  says  she's  giving  me  support  and understanding  without  having  to  say  the  words.  Because every  word  that  comes  out  of  her  mouth  is  a  struggle. 

Sometimes I want to say the words for her because I feel her frustration as if it's my own. 

"You didn't like Baghda?" I ask quietly. 

My  sister  shakes  her  head.  And  she  doesn't  want  to  talk about it; I can tel  by the way she tenses her mouth. 

"Be patient with her," I tel  her. "It's not easy coming into a new house and not knowing what to do." 

When Shel ey finishes eating, I bring her magazines so she can scan them. My sister loves magazines. While she's busy flipping  pages,  I  stick  some  cheese  between  two  slices  of bread  for  my  own  dinner  then  sit  at  the  table  to  start  my homework while I eat. 

43

I hear the garage door open just as I pul  out the notebook paper Mrs. Peterson gave me to write my "respect" paper. 

"Brit, where are you?" my mom yel s from the foyer. 

"In the kitchen," I cal  out. 

My  mom  saunters  into  the  kitchen  with  a  Neiman  Marcus bag on her arm. "Here, this is for you." 

I  reach  in  the  bag  and  pul   out  a  light  blue  Geren  Ford designer top. "Thanks," I say, not making a big deal about it in front of Shel ey, who didn't get anything from my mom. Not that  my  sister  cares.  She's  too  focused  on  the  best-  and worst-dressed  pictures  of  celebrities  and  al   their  shiny jewelry. 

"It'l  go with those dark denims I bought you last week," she says  as  she  pul s  out  frozen  steaks  from  the  freezer  and starts  defrosting  them  in  the  microwave.  "So  .  .  .  how  was everything with Baghda when you got home?" 

"Not the best," I tel  her. "You real y need to train her." I'm not surprised she doesn't respond. 

My  dad  walks  through  the  door  a  minute  later,  grumbling about  work.  He  owns  a  computer  chip  manufacturing company and has prepped us that this is a lean year, but my mom stil  goes out and buys stuff and my dad stil  bought me a BMW for my birthday. 

"What's for dinner?" my dad asks as he loosens his tie. He looks tired and worn, as usual. 

My mom glances at the microwave. "Steak." 

"I'm  not  in  the  mood  for  heavy  food,"  he  says.  "Just something light." 

My  mom  turns  off  the  microwave  in  a  huff.  "Eggs? 

Spaghetti?" she says, listing suggestions to deaf ears. 

My dad walks out of the kitchen. Even when he's physical y here, his mind is stil  on the job. "Whatever. Just something light," he cal s out. 

44

It's times like these I feel sorry for my mom. She doesn't get much  attention  from  my  dad.  He's  either  working  or  on  a business  trip  or  just  plain  doesn't  want  to  deal  with  us.  "I'l make a salad," I tel  her as I pul  lettuce out of the fridge. 

She seems thankful, if her smal  smile is any indication, for the  help.  We  work  side-by-side  in  silence.  I  set  the  table while my mom brings the salad, scrambled eggs, and toast to  the  table.  She  mumbles  complaints  about  not  being appreciated, but I figure she wants me to listen and not say anything.  Shel ey  is  stil   busy  looking  at  her  magazines, oblivious to the tension between my parents. 

"I'm  going  to  China  on  Friday  for  two  weeks,"  my  dad announces as he comes back to the kitchen in sweatpants and a T-shirt. He plops himself down at his usual spot at the head  of  the  table  and  spoons  eggs  onto  his  plate.  "Our supplier there is shipping defective material and I've got to find out what the deal is." 

"What about the DeMaio wedding? It's this weekend and we already RSVP'd." 

My dad drops his fork and looks at my mom. "Yeah, I'm sure the DeMaios' kid's wedding is more important than keeping my business afloat." 

"Bil , I didn't insinuate your business is less important," she says, dropping her own fork on her plate. It's a wonder our plates don't have permanent chips in them. "It's just rude to cancel these things at the last minute." 

"You can go by yourself." 

"And  have  rumors  start  because  you're  not  accompanying me? No thank you." 

This is typical El is dinner conversation. My dad saying how hard  work  is,  my  mom  trying  to  keep  up  the  facade  that we're a happy-go-lucky family, and me and Shel ey quiet on the sidelines. 

45

"How was school?" my mom final y asks me. 

"Okay," I say, omitting the fact that I got stuck with Alex as a partner. "I got a real y tough teacher for chemistry." 

"You  probably  shouldn't  have  taken  chemistry,"  my  dad chimes  in.  "If  you  don't  get  an  A,  your  GPA'l   go  down. 

Northwestern  is  a  tough  school  to  get  into,  and  they  won't give you a break just because it's my alma mater." 

"I  got  it,  Dad,"  I  say,  total y  depressed  now.  If  Alex  isn't serious about our project, how am I going to get an A on it? 

"Shel ey had a new caretaker start today," my mom informs him. "Remember?" 

He  shrugs  because  the  last  time  a  caretaker  quit,  he insisted  Shel ey  should  live  in  some  facility  instead  of  at home. I never remember screaming so much as I did then, because  I'm  never  letting  them  send  Shel ey  to  a  place where  they'l   neglect  my  sister  and  not  understand  her.  I need to keep an eye on her. That's why it's so important for me to get into Northwestern. If I'm close to home, then I can live here and make sure my parents don't send her away. 

At nine Megan cal s to complain about Darlene. She thinks Dar-lene changed over the summer and now has a big ego because  she's  dating  a  col ege  guy. At  nine  thirty  Darlene cal s to say she suspects Megan is jealous because she's dating a guy in col ege. At nine forty-five Sierra cal s to tel me she talked to both Megan and Darlene tonight and she doesn't  want  to  get  in  the  middle  of  it.  I  agree,  although  I think we already are. 

It's  ten  forty-five  before  I  final y  finish  the  respect  paper  for Mrs. Peterson and help my mom put Shel ey to bed. I'm so exhausted my head feels as if it's about to fal  off. 

Sliding into bed after I've changed into my pj's, I dial Colin's number. 

46

"Hey, babe," he says. "What're you up to?" 

"Not much. I'm in bed. Did you have fun at Doug's?" 

"Not as much fun as I would've had if you were there." 

"When did you get back?" 

"About an hour ago. I'm  so  glad you cal ed." 

I pul  my big pink comforter up to my chin and sink my head into  my  fluffy  down  pil ow.  "Oh,  real y?"  I  say,  fishing  for  a compliment and speaking with my flirty voice. "Why?" 

He hasn't told me he loves me in a long time. I know he's not the  most  affectionate  person  in  the  world.  My  dad  isn't, either. I need to hear it from Colin. I want to hear he loves me. I want to hear he missed me. I want to hear him say I'm the girl of his dreams. 

Colin clears his throat. "We've never had phone sex." 

Okay,  those  so  aren't  the  words  I  expected.  I  shouldn't  be disappointed or surprised. He's a teenage guy and I know guys are focused on sex and fooling around. This afternoon I pushed  away  the  feeling  in  the  pit  of  my  stomach  when  I read Alex's words about having hot sex. Little does he know I'm a virgin. 

Colin and I have never had sex, period. Phone sex or real sex.  We  got  close  in  April  last  year  at  the  beach  behind Sierra's house, but I chickened out. I wasn't ready. 

"Phone sex?" 

"Yeah.  Touch  yourself,  Brit.  And  then  tel   me  what  you're doing. It'l  total y turn me on." 

"While I'm touching myself, what'l  you be doing?" I ask him. 

"Choking  the  gopher.  What'd  you  think  I'd  do,  my homework?" 

I laugh. Mostly it's a nervous laugh because we haven't seen each other in a couple of months, we haven't talked al  that much, and now he wants to go from "hi, nice to see you after a summer apart" to

47

"touch  yourself  while  I  choke  the  gopher"  in  one  day.  I  feel like I'm in the middle of a Pat McCurdy song. 



"Come on, Brit," Colin says. "Think of it as practice before we do the real thing. Take off your shirt and touch yourself." 

"Colin . . . ," I say. 

"What?" 

"Sorry, but I'm not into it. Not now, at least." 

"You sure?" 

"Yeah. You mad?" 

"No,"  he  says.  "I  thought  it'd  be  fun  to  spice  up  our relationship." 

"I didn't know we were boring." 

"School . . . footbal  practice . . . hanging out. I guess after a summer  away  I'm  sick  of  the  same  old  routine.  The  entire summer  I've  been  waterskiing,  wakeboarding,  and  off-roading.  Things  that  get  your  heart  racing  and  blood pumping, you know? Pure adrenaline rush." 

"Sounds awesome." 

"It was. Brit?" 

"Yeah." 

"I'm ready for that adrenaline rush . . . with you." 

48





CHAPTER 8 Alex

I push the guy up against a sweet, shiny black Camaro, one that  probably  cost  more  than  my  mom  makes  in  a  year. 

"Here's the deal, Blake," I say. "You either pay up now, or I break  somethin'  of  yours.  Not  a  piece  of  furniture  or  your fuckin' car . . . somethin' you're permanently attached to. Get it?" 

Blake,  skinnier  than  a  telephone  pole  and  as  pale  as  a ghost,  is  looking  at  me  as  if  I  just  handed  him  his  death sentence. He should have thought about that before he took the Big 8 and bounced without paying up. 

As if Hector would ever let that happen. 

As if I would ever let that happen. 

When Hector sends me to col ect, I do it. I may not like doing it, but I do it. He knows I won't do drug deals or break into people's homes or businesses to steal shit. But I'm good at col ecting  .  .  .  debts,  mostly.  Sometimes  it's  people,  but those  get  to  be  messy  affairs,  especial y  because  I  know what's gonna happen to them once I haul them back to the warehouse  to  face  Chuy.  Nobody  wants  to  face  Chuy.  It's way  worse  than  facing  me.  Blake  should  feel  lucky  I'm  the one assigned to look for him. 

To say I don't live a squeaky-clean life is an understatement. 

I try

49



not to dwel  on it, the dirty job I'm doing for the Blood. And I'm good at it. Scaring people into paying us what's ours is my job. Technical y my hands are clean of drugs. Okay, so drug money does touch my hands quite frequently, but I just hand it over to Hector. I don't use it, I just col ect it. 

It makes me a pawn, I know. As long as my family is safe, I don't care. Besides, I'm good at fighting. You can't imagine how many people break down with the threat of their bones breaking.  Blake  is  no  different  than  the  other  guys  I've threatened, I can tel  by the way he's trying to act cool while his spindly hands are shaking uncontrol ably. 

You'd  think  Peterson  would  be  afraid  of  me,  too,  but  that teacher wouldn't fear me even if I shoved a live grenade into her hands. 

"I don't got the money," Blake blurts out. 

"That answer ain't gonna cut it, man," Paco chimes in from the  sidelines.  He  likes  coming  with  me.  He  thinks  of  it  as playing  good  cop/  bad  cop.  Except  we  play  bad  gang member/worse gang member. 

"Which limb you want me to break first?" I ask. "I'l  be nice and let you choose." 

"Just  smoke  his  sorry  ass,  Alex,  and  get  this  over  with," 

Paco says lazily. 

"No!" Blake shouts. "I'l  get it. I promise. Tomorrow." 

I  shove  him  against  the  car,  my  forearm  pressing  on  his throat just enough to scare him. "As if I'm gonna take your word for it. You think we're stupid? I need col ateral." 

Blake doesn't answer. 

I eye his car. 

"Not the car, Alex.  Please." 

I take my gun out. I'm not going to shoot him. No matter who I am  and  what  I've  become,  I'd  never  kil   anyone.  Or  shoot anyone. Blake doesn't have to know this, though. 

50

At  the  first  glance  of  my  Glock,  Blake  holds  out  his  keys. 

"Oh, God. Please, no." 

I snatch the keys out of his hand. "Tomorrow, Blake. Seven o'clock behind the old tracks on Fourth and Vine. Now get outta here," I say, waving my gun in the air for him to run off on foot. 

"I've  always  wanted  a  Camaro,"  Paco  says  after  Blake  is out of sight. 

I toss the keys to him. "It's yours--until tomorrow." 

"You real y think he'l  come up with four G's in a day?" 

"Yeah," I tel  him, total y confident. " 'Cause that car is worth way more than four G's." 

Back at the warehouse, we give Hector the update. He's not happy  we  haven't  col ected,  but  he  knows  it'l   happen.  I always come through. 



At night, I'm in my room unable to sleep because of my little brother  Luis's  snoring.  By  the  way  he  sleeps  so  soundly, you'd think he didn't have a care in the world. As much as I don't mind threatening loser drug dealers like Blake, I wish to hel  I was fighting for things worth fighting for. 

A week later I'm sitting on the grass in the school courtyard eating lunch by a tree. Most of the students at Fairfield eat outside until late October, when the Il inois winter forces us to  sit  in  the  cafeteria  during  lunch  period.  Right  now  we're soaking  up  every  minute  of  sun  and  fresh  air  while  it's  stil decent outside. 

My friend Lucky, with his oversized red shirt and black jeans, slaps me on the back as he parks his butt next to me with a cafeteria tray balanced on his hand. "You geared up for next period, Alex? I swear Brittany El is hates you like the plague, man. It's hilarious watchin' her move her stool as far as she can from you." 

51

"Lucky," I say. "She might be a   mamacita,  but she ain't got nothin' on this  hombre."  I point to myself. 

"Tel   your  mama  that,"  Lucky  says,  laughing.  "Or  Colin Adams." 

I lean back against the tree and cross my arms. "I had phys. 

ed. with Adams last year. Believe me, he's got   nada  to brag about." 

"You stil  pissed off 'cause he trashed your locker freshman year after you smoked him in the relay in front of the entire school?" 

Hel ,  yeah,  I'm  stil   pissed.  That  one  incident  cost  me  a shitload  of  money  having  to  buy  new  books.  "Yesterday's news," I tel  Lucky, keeping up the cool facade I always do. 

"  'Yesterdays  news'  is  sittin'  right  over  there  with  his  hot girlfriend." 

One  look  at  Little  Miss  Perfecta  and  my  defenses  go  up. 

She  thinks  I'm  a  drugged-out  user.  Every  day  I've  dreaded having  to  deal  with  her  in  chem  class.  "That  chick  has  a head ful  of air, man," I say. 

"I heard that  ho  was dissin' you to her friends," a guy named Pedro says as he and a bunch of other guys join us carrying either  trays  from  the  cafeteria  or  food  they  brought  from home. 

I  shake  my  head,  wondering  what  Brittany  said  and  how much damage control I'l  have to do. "Maybe she wants me and doesn't know any other way to get my attention." 

Lucky laughs so hard everyone within a few yards stares at us. "There's no way Brittany El is would get within two feet of you on her own free wil ,  giley,  let alone date you," he says. 

"She's  so  rich  the  scarf  around  her  neck  last  week  pro'bly cost as much as everythin' in  tu casa." 

That  scarf.  As  if  the  designer  jeans  and  top  weren't fashionable  enough,  she'd  probably  added  the  scarf  to showcase  how  rich  and  untouchable  she  is.  Knowing  her, she had it professional y dyed to match the exact shade of her sapphire eyes. 



52

"Hel , I bet you my RX-7 you can't get into her panties before Thanksgiving  break,"  Lucky  chal enges  me,  breaking  my wayward thoughts. 

"Who'd  want  those  panties?"  I  say.  They're  probably designer, too, with her initials embroidered on the front. 

"Every single dude in this school." 

Do I need to state the obvious? "She's a snow girl." I'm not into white chicks, or spoiled chicks, or chicks whose idea of hard labor is painting their long fingernails a different color each day to match their designer outfits. 

I  pul   a  cigarette  from  my  pocket  and  light  it,  ignoring Fairfield's no-smoking policy. I've been smoking a lot lately. 

Paco pointed it out yesterday night when we hung out. 

"So what if she's white? Come on, Alex. Don't be an idiot. 

 Look  at her." 

I take a glance. I admit she's got it goin' on. Long, shiny hair, aristocratic nose, slightly tanned arms with a hint of muscle in her biceps to make you wonder if she works out, ful  lips that  when  she  smiles  you  think  world  peace  is  possible  if everyone had her smile. 

I shove those thoughts from my mind. So what if she's hot? 

She's a first-degree bitch. "Too skinny," I blurt out. 

"You want her," Lucky says, leaning back on the grass. "You just know, like the rest of us  Mexicanos  from the south side, that you can't have her." 



Something  inside  me  clicks  on.  Cal   it  my  defense mechanism.  Cal   it  cockiness.  Before  I  can  switch  it  off,  I say, "In two months I could have a piece of that ass. If you real y wanna bet your RX-7, I'm in." 

"You're  trippin',  man."  When  I  don't  answer,  Lucky  frowns. 

"You serious, Alex?" 

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The  guy  wil   back  down,  he  loves  his  car  more  than  his mama. "Sure." 

"If you lose, I get Julio," Lucky says, his frown turning into a wicked grin. 

Julio  is  my  most  prized  possession,  an  old  Honda Nighthawk  750  motorcycle.  I  rescued  it  from  a  dump  and turned  it  into  a  sleek  ride.  Rebuilding  the  bike  took  me forever. It's the only thing in my life I've made better instead of destroying. 

Lucky is not backing down. Time to either back down myself or play the game. The problem is, I've never backed down . . 

. not once in my life. 

The  most  popular  white  chick  at  school  would  sure  as  hel learn  a  lot  by  hanging  with  me.  Little  Miss  Perfecta  said she'd never date a gang member, but I bet no Latino Blood ever tried to get into those designer pants. 

Easy as a fight between Folks and People--rival gangs on a Saturday night. 



I bet al  it'l  take for Brittany to come around is a bit of flirting. 

You  know,  that  give-and-take  wordplay  that  heightens  your awareness of the opposite sex. I can kil  two birds with one stone:  get  back  at  Burro  Face  by  taking  his  girl  and  get back at Brittany El is for having me cal ed into the principal's office and dissin' me in front of her friends. 

Might even be fun. 

I  imagine  the  entire  school  witnessing  the  pristine  white chick  drooling  over  the  Mexicano  she  vowed  to  hate.  I wonder how hard she'l  fal  on that tight white ass when I'm done with her. 

I hold out my hand. "Deal." 

"You gotta show proof." 

54

I  take  another  drag  of  my  cigarette.  "Lucky,  what  do  you want me to do? Pluck out one of her fuckin' pubes?" 

"How'd we know it's hers?" Lucky responds. "Maybe she's not  a  real  blond.  Besides,  she  pro'bly  gets  one  of  those Brazilian wax jobs. You know, where every thin' is--" 

"Take a picture," Pedro suggests. "Or video. I bet we could make  muchos billetes  on that thing. We can title it  Brittany Goes South of the Border." 

It's trash-talkin' times like these that give us a bad rep. Not that rich kids don't talk trash, I'm sure they do. But when my friends go at it, it's no-holds-barred. To be honest, I think my friends  are  damn  entertaining  when  they're  ragging  on someone  else.  When  they're  ragging  on  me,  I  don't  find  it half as funny. 

"What'cha talkin' about?" Paco asks, joining us with a plate of food from the cafeteria. 

"I bet Alex my car for his motorcycle he can't get into Brittany El is's pants by Thanksgiving." 

"You  loco,  Alex?"  Paco  says.  "Makin  a  bet  like  that  is suicide." 

"Lay  off,  Paco,"  I  warn.  It  isn't  suicide.  Stupid,  maybe.  But not  suicide.  If  I  could  handle  hot  Carmen  Sanchez,  I  can handle vanil a cookie Brittany El is. 

"Brittany El is is out of your league,  amigo.  You might be a pretty  boy,  but  you're  one  hundred  percent  Mexicano  and she's as white as Wonder Bread." 

A junior named Leticia Gonzalez walks by us. "Hi, Alex," she says,  flashing  me  a  smile  before  sitting  with  her  friends. 

While  the  other  guys  drool  over  Leticia  and  talk  to  her friends, Paco and I are left alone by the tree. 

Paco  nudges  me.  "Now  she's  a   bonita  Mexicana,  and definitely in your league." 

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My eye isn't on Leticia, it's on Brittany. Now that the game's on, I'm focusing on the prize. It's time to start flirting, but no bul shit  come-on  lines  wil   work  with  her.  Somehow  I  think she's used to those from her boyfriend and other assholes trying to get into her pants. 



I decide on a new tactic, one she won't expect. I'm going to keep riffling her feathers until I'm al  she thinks about. And I'l start next period when she's forced to sit next to me. Nothing like a little foreplay in chemistry class to spark things up. 

 "Carajo!"  Paco  says,  throwing  down  his  lunch.  "They  think they can buy a U-shaped shel , stuff it, and cal  it a taco, but those  cafeteria  workers  wouldn't  know  taco  meat  from  a piece of shit. That's what this tastes like, Alex." 

"You're makin' me sick, man," I tel  him. 

I  stare  uncomfortably  at  the  food  I  brought  from  home. 

Thanks  to  Paco  everything  looks  like  m i e r d a  now. 

Disgusted,  I  shove  what's  left  of  my  lunch  into  my  brown paper bag. 

"Want some of it?" Paco says with a grin as he holds out the shitty taco to me. 

"Bring  that  one  inch  closer  to  me  and  you'l   be  sorry,"  I threaten. 

"I'm shakin' in my pants." 

Paco  wiggles  the  offending  taco,  goading  me.  He  should seriously know better. 

"If any of that gets on me--" 

"What'cha  gonna  do,  kick  my  ass?"  Paco  sings sarcastical y,  stil   shaking  the  taco.  Maybe  I  should  punch him in the face, knocking him out so I won't have to deal with him right now. 

As I have that thought, I feel something drop on my pants. I look down even though I know what I'l  see. Yes, a big blob of wet, gloppy stuff passing as taco meat lands right on the crotch of my faded jeans. 

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"Fuck," Paco says, his face quickly turning from amusement to shock. "Want me to clean it off for you?" 

"If  your  fingers  get  anywhere  close  to  my  dick,  I'm  gonna personal y  shoot  you  in  the  huevos,"  I  growl  through clenched teeth. 

I  flick  the  mystery  meat  off  my  crotch. A  big,  greasy  stain lingers. I turn back to Paco. "You got ten minutes to get me a new pair of pants." 

"How the hel  am I s'posed to do that?" 

"Be creative." 

"Take  mine."  Paco  stands  and  brings  his  fingers  to  the waistband of his jeans, unbuttoning right in the middle of the courtyard. 

"Maybe I wasn't specific enough," I tel  him, wondering how I'm going to act like the cool guy in chem class when it looks like  I've  peed  in  my  pants.  "I  meant,  get  me  a  new  pair  of pants  that  wil   fit  me,  pendejo.  You're  so  short  you  could audition to be one of Santa Claus's elves." 



"I'm toleratin' your insults because we're like brothers." 

"Nine minutes and thirty seconds." 

It doesn't take Paco more than that to start running toward the school parking lot. 

I seriously don't give a crap how I get the pants; just that I get

'em  before  my  next  class.  A  wet  crotch  is  not  the  way  to show Brittany I'm a stud. 

I  wait  at  the  tree  while  other  kids  throw  away  their  lunches and head back inside. Before I know it, music starts playing through  the  loudspeakers  and  Paco  is  nowhere  in  sight. 

Great.  Now  I  have  five  minutes  to  get  to  Peterson's  class. 

Gritting  my  teeth,  I  walk  to  chemistry  with  my  books strategical y placed in front of my crotch, with two minutes to spare. I slide onto the stool and push it as close to the lab table as possible, hiding the stain. 

Brittany walks into the room, her sunshine hair fal ing down the

57

front  of  her  chest,  ending  in  perfect  little  curls  that  bounce when she walks. Instead of that perfection turning me on, it makes me want to mess it al  up. 

I  wink  at  her  when  she  glances  at  me.  She  huffs  and  pul s her stool as far away from me as possible. 

Remembering Mrs. Peterson's zero-tolerance rule, I pul  my bandanna off and place it in my lap directly over the stain. 

Then I turn to the pom-pom chick sitting next to me. "You're gonna have to talk to me at some point." 

"So  your  girlfriend  can  have  a  reason  to  beat  me  up?  No thanks, Alex. I'd rather keep my face the way it is." 

"I  don't  have  a  girlfriend.  You  want  to  interview  for  the position?"  I  scan  her  from  top  to  bottom,  focusing  on  the parts she relies on so heavily. 

She curls her pink-frosted top lip and sneers at me. "Not on your life." 

 "Muj er,  you  wouldn't  know  what  to  do  with  al   this testosterone if you had it in your hands." 

 That's it, Alex. Tease her into wanting you. She'll take the bait. 

She turns away from me. "You're disgusting." 

"What if I said we'd make a great couple?" 

"I'd say you were an idiot." 

58



CHAPTER 9 Brittany

Right after I cal  Alex an idiot, Mrs. Peterson cal s the class to  attention.  "You  and  your  partner  wil   pick  a  project  from this  hat,"  she  announces.  "They  are  al   equal y  chal enging and wil  require meeting with your partner outside of class." 

"What about footbal ?" Colin interjects. "No way I'm missing practice." 

"Or  poms,"  Darlene  chimes  in  before  I  can  say  the  same thing. 

"Schoolwork  comes  first.  It's  up  to  you  and  your  partner  to find a time that works for both of you," Mrs. Peterson says as she stands in front of our table and holds out the hat. 

"Yo, Mrs. P. ... is one of them a cure for multiple sclerosis?" 

Alex asks with his cocky attitude that's setting my nerves on edge. " 'Cause I don't think there's enough time in the school year to complete that project." 

I  can  see  that  big  D  on  my  report  card  right  now.  The Northwestern  admissions  counselor  won't  care  that  it  was my chemistry partner who wanted to make a joke out of our project. The guy doesn't care about his own life, why should he  care  about  chemistry  class?  The  thought  of  Alex control ing the grade I receive in this class is 59

overwhelming me. Grades to my parents are a reflection of your  worth.  Needless  to  say,  a  C  or  D  means  you're worthless. 

I reach into the hat and pul  out a little white slip of paper. I open it slowly while I bite my lower lip in anticipation. In bold letters I read HAND WARMERS. 

"Hand warmers?" I question. 



Alex  leans  over  and  reads  the  paper  with  a  confused  look on his face. "What the fuck are hand warmers?" 

Mrs. Peterson shoots Alex a warning glare. "If you'd like to stay  after  school,  I  have  another  blue  detention  slip  on  my desk  with  your  name  already  on  it.  Now,  either  ask  the question again without using foul language or join me after school." 

"That'd be cool to hang with you, Mrs. P., but I'd rather spend the time studyin' with my chem partner," Alex responds, then has the nerve to wink at Colin, "so I'l  rephrase the question. 

What exactly are hand warmers?" 

"Thermal chemistry, Mr. Fuentes. We use them to warm our hands." 

Alex has this big, cocky grin as he turns to me. "I'm sure we can find other things to warm." 

"I hate you," I say loud enough for Colin and the rest of the class to hear. If I sit here and let him get the best of me, I'l probably hear my mom tsk'ing in my head about reputations meaning everything. 

I know the class is watching our interaction, even Isabel, who thinks Alex isn't as bad as everyone thinks he is. Can't she see him for what he is, or is she blinded by his chiseled face and popular status among their friends? 

Alex  whispers,  "There's  a  thin  line  between  love  and  hate. 

Maybe you're confusing your emotions." 

I scoot away from him. "I wouldn't bet on it." 



60

"I would." 

Alex's gaze turns toward the door to the classroom. Through the  window,  his  friend  is  waving  to  him.  They're  probably going to ditch class. 

Alex grabs his books and stands. 

Mrs. Peterson turns around. "Alex, sit down." 

"I got to piss." 

The  teacher's  eyebrows  furrow  and  her  hand  goes  to  her hip. "Watch your language. And the last time I checked, you don't  need  your  books  in  order  to  go  to  the  restroom.  Put them back on the lab table." 

Alex's  lips  are  tight,  but  he  places  the  books  back  on  the table. 

"I told you no gang-related items in my class," Mrs. Peterson says,  staring  at  the  bandanna  he's  holding  in  front  of  him. 

She holds out her hand. "Hand it over." 

He glances at the door, then faces Mrs. Peterson. "What if I refuse?" 

"Alex,  don't  test  me.  Zero  tolerance.  You  want  a suspension?" She wiggles her fingers, signaling to hand the bandanna over immediately or else. 

Scowling, he slowly places the bandanna in her hand. 



Mrs.  Peterson  sucks  in  her  breath  when  she  snatches  the bandanna from his fingers. 

I  screech,  "Ohmygod!"  at  the  sight  of  the  big  stain  on  his crotch. 

The students, one by one, start laughing. 

Colin laughs the loudest. "Don't sweat it, Fuentes. My great-grandma has the same problem. Nothing a diaper won't fix." 

Now that hits home because at the mention of adult diapers, I  immediately  think  of  my  sister.  Making  fun  of  adults  who can't help themselves isn't funny because Shel ey is one of those people. 

61

Alex  sports  a  big,  cocky  grin  and  says  to  Colin,  "Your girlfriend couldn't keep her hands out of my pants. She was showin'  me  a  whole  new  definition  of  hand  warmers, compa." 

This time he's gone too far. I stand up, my stool scraping the floor. 

"You wish," I say. 

Alex is about to say something to me when Mrs. Peterson yel s, "Alex!" She clears her throat. "Go to the nurse and ... 

fix  yourself.  Take  your  books,  because  afterward  you'l   be seeing Dr. Aguirre. I'l  meet you in his office with your friends Colin and Brittany." 

Alex swipes his books off the table and exits the classroom while  I  ease  back  onto  my  stool.  While  Mrs.  Peterson  is trying  to  calm  the  rest  of  the  class,  I  think  about  my  short-lived success in avoiding Carmen Sanchez. 

If  she  thinks  I'm  a  threat  to  her  relationship  with  Alex,  the rumors that are sure to spread today could prove deadly. 

62



CHAPTER 10 Alex

Oh,  this  is  rich.  Peterson  and  Aguirre  on  one  side  of Aguirre's  office,  Little  Miss  Perfecta  and  her  dickhead boyfriend  on  the  other  ...  and  me  standing  by  myself. 

Nobody on my side, that's for sure. 

Aguirre  clears  his  throat.  "Alex,  this  is  the  second  time  in two weeks you're in my office." 

Yep, that about sums it up. The guy is an absolute genius. 

"Sir," I say, playing the game because I'm sick of Little Miss Perfecta  and  her  boyfriend  control ing  the  entire  fucking school.  "There  was  a  little  mishap  during  lunch  involving grease and my pants. Instead of missin' class, I had a friend get  me  these  as  a  replacement."  I  gesture  to  my  current jeans  Paco  managed  to  snatch  from  my  house.  "Mrs. 

Peterson," I say, turning to my chem teacher, "I wouldn't let a little stain keep me from your  brilliant  lecture." 

"Don't  placate  me, Alex,"  Peterson  says  with  a  snort.  "I've had  it  up  to  here  with  your  antics,"  she  says,  her  hand waving above her head. She glares at Brittany and Colin. I think she's going to let them bitch at me until I hear her say, 

"And don't think you two are any better." 

Brittany  seems  stunned  at  the  scolding.  Oh,  but  she  was perfectly content watching Mrs. P. bitch me out. 

63

"I can't be partners with him," Little Miss  Perfecta  blurts out. 

Colin  steps  forward.  "She  can  partner  up  with  me  and Darlene." 

I almost smile when Mrs. P.'s eyebrows rise so high I think they're  about  to  run  up  her  forehead  and  never  stop.  "And what  makes  you  two  so  special  you  think  you  can  change my class structure?" 

Go, Peterson! 

"Nadine, I'l  take it from here," Aguirre says to Mrs. P., then points  to  a  picture  of  our  school  framed  on  the  wal .  He doesn't  let  the  two  north  siders  answer  Mrs.  P.'s  question before  he  says,  "Our  motto  at  Fairfield  High  is  Diversity Breeds Knowledge, guys. If you ever forget, it's etched into the stones at the front entrance, so the next time you pass by it take a minute to think about what those words mean. Let me  assure  you  as  your  new  principal  my  goal  is  to  bridge any gap in the school culture that negates that motto." 

Okay,  so  diversity  breeds  knowledge.  But  I've  also  seen  it breed hatred and ignorance. I'm not about to taint Aguirre's rosy picture of our motto, because I'm starting to believe our rosy picture of our motto, because I'm starting to believe our principal actual y believes the crap he's spouting. 

"Dr. Aguirre and I are on the same page. In light of that . . ." 

Peterson  fires  me  a  fierce  look--one  so  convincing  she probably practices it in front of a mirror. "Alex, stop goading Brittany."  She  fires  the  same  look  to  the  two  on  the  other side of the room. "Brittany, stop acting like a diva. And Colin

... I don't even know what you have to do with this." 

"I'm her boyfriend." 

"I'd  appreciate  it  if  you'd  keep  your  relationship  out  of  my classroom." 

"But--," Colin starts. 

Peterson  cuts  him  off  with  a  wave  of  her  hand.  "Enough. 

We're done here and so are al  of you." 

Colin  grabs  the  diva's  hand  and  they  both  file  out  of  the room. 

64

After I walk out of Aguirre's office, Peterson puts a hand on my elbow. "Alex?" 

I  stop  and  look  at  her.  Into  her  eyes,  which  have  sympathy written al  over them. It doesn't sit wel  in my gut. "Yeah?" 

"I see right through you, you know." 

I  need  to  wipe  that  sympathy  off  her  face.  The  last  time  a teacher looked at me like that, it was in first grade right after my dad was shot. "It's the second week of school,  Nadine. 



You might want to wait a month or two before you make a statement like that." 

She  chuckles  and  says,  "I  haven't  been  teaching  that  long, but I've already seen more Alex Fuenteses in my classroom than a lot of teachers wil  see in a lifetime." 

"And I thought I was unique." I put my hands over my heart. 

"You wound me, Nadine." 

"You want to make yourself unique, Alex? Finish school and graduate without dropping out." 

"That's the plan," I tel  her, although I've never admitted it to anyone before. I know my mom wants me to graduate, but we've never discussed it. And, to be honest, I don't know if she actual y expects it. 

"I'm told they al  say that at first." She opens her purse and pul s out my bandanna. "Don't let your life outside of school dictate your future," she says, getting al  serious on me. 

I shove the bandanna into my back pocket. She has no clue how much my life outside of school leaks into the life I lead inside of school. A redbrick building can't shield me from the outside world. Hel , I couldn't hide in here even if I wanted to. 

"I  know  what  you're  gonna  say  next.  .  .  if you ever need a friend, Alex, I'm here." 

"Wrong. I'm not your friend. If I were, you wouldn't be a gang member. But I've seen your test scores. You're a smart kid who can succeed if you take school seriously." 

65



Succeed. Success. It's al  relative, now, isn't it? "Can I go to class now?" I ask, because I have no comeback to that. I'm ready  to  accept  that  my  chem  teacher  and  new  principal might not be on my side . . . but I'm not sure they're on the other side, either. Kinda blows my theories out of the water. 

"Yeah, go to class, Alex." 

I'm  stil   thinking  about  what  Peterson  said  when  I  hear  her cal  after me, "And if you cal  me Nadine again, you'l  have the pleasure of getting another detention slip  and  writing an essay on respect. Remember, I'm not your friend." 

As I walk into the hal way, I smile to myself. That woman sure does wield those blue detention slips and threats of essays like weapons. 

66



CHAPTER 11 Brittany

There's only a half hour left in gym. As I change into my gym clothes, I think of what happened in Dr. Aguirre's office. Mrs. 

Peterson was blaming me as much as she blamed Alex. 

Alex  Fuentes  is  already  ruining  my  senior  year,  and  it's hardly even begun. 

As I pul  up my gym shorts, the sound of tap-tap-tapping on the  hard  cement  floor  alerts  me  that  I'm  not  alone  in  the locker  room.  I  clutch  my  gym  shirt  to  my  chest  as  Carmen Sanchez comes into view. 

Oh no. 

"It  must  be  my  lucky  day,"  she  says,  staring  me  down  and looking  very  much  like  a  cougar  ready  to  attack. Although cougars don't have long, straight brown hair . . . they sure do have claws. And Carmen's claws are painted bright red. 

She steps closer. 

I want to step back. Actual y, I