I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself. "Mom, I get it. I'm sorry.""I'm only trying to protect you," she says. "And you throw it back in my face.""I know. I'm sorry. What did Dr. Meir say about Shelley?""He wants her to come twice a week for some evaluations. I'm going to need your help taking her."I don't talk to her about Ms. Small's policy about missing pom practice, because there's no use in having both of us stressed. Besides, I want to know why Shelley is lashing out just as much as she does ... if not more.Thankfully, the phone rings and my mom turns to answer it. I hurry into my sister's room before my mom can call me back for more discussions. Shelley is sitting by her personalized computer in her room, tapping at the keyboard."Hi," I say.Shelley looks up. She's not smiling.I want her to know I'm not upset with her, because I know she didn't mean to hurt me. Shelley might not even understand her own motivations for doing things. "Want to play checkers?"She shakes her head."Watch television?"Another shake."I want you to know I'm not mad at you." I go closer, careful not to get my hair within reach, and rub her back. "I love you, you know."No answer, no head nodding, no verbal approximation. Nothing.I sit on the edge of her bed and watch as she plays with her computer. Every once in a while I make comments, so she knows I'm here. She might not need me now, but I wish she did. Because I know a time will come when she does need me and I won't be there for her. That scares me.A little while later I leave my sister and head for my room. I search my Fairfield High student directory for Alex's phone number.Flipping open my cell, I dial his number."Hello?" a boy's voice answers.I take a deep breath. "Hi," I say. "Is Alex there?""He's out.""Quienes?" I hear his mom asking in the background."Who is this?" the boy asks me.I realize I'm chipping my nail polish off as I'm talking. "Brittany Ellis. I'm, uh, a friend of Alex's from school.""It's Brittany Ellis, a friend of Alex's from school," the boy relates to his mom."Toma el mensaje," I hear her say."Are you his new girlfriend?" the boy asks.I hear a thump and an "Ow!" and then he says, "Can I take a message?""Tell him Brittany called. Here's my number ..."CHAPTER 18 AlexRight now I'm standing inside the warehouse where the Latino Blood hang every night. I just finished my second or third cigarette--I've stopped counting."Drink some beer and stop lookin' depressed," Paco says, throwing me a Corona. I told him about Brittany blowing me off this morning and all he's done is shake his head at me as if I should have known better than to go to the north side.I catch the can in one hand, but toss it right back. "No, thanks.""Quetienes, ese? This stuff not good enough for you?" It's Javier, probably the stupidest Latino Blood. El buey can control his liquor about as well as he controls his drug use, which isn't much.I challenge him without saying a word."Just kiddin', man," a drunken Javier slurs.Nobody wants to get into it with me. During my first year as a member of the Latino Blood, in a clash with a rival gang, I proved my worth.As a little kid, I thought I could save the world ... or at least save my family. I'll never be in a gang, I told myself when I was old enough to join one. I'll protect mi familia with my two hands. On the south side ofFairfield, you're either in a gang or against them. I had dreams of a future then; deluded dreams that I could stay away from gangs and still protect my family. But those dreams died along with my future the night my father was shot twenty feet from my six-year-old face.When I stood over his body, all I could see was this red spot spreading on the front of his shirt. It reminded me of a bull's-eye, except the target kept getting larger and larger. The next thing I knew, he gasped and that was it.My dad was dead.I never held him or touched him. I was too afraid. In the days that followed, I didn't say a word. Even when the police questioned me, I couldn't speak. They said I'd been in shock and my brain didn't know how to process what happened. They were right. I don't even remember what the guy looked like who shot him. I've never been able to seek revenge for my father's murder, even though every night I replay the shooting in my head trying to put the pieces together. If I could only remember, the fucker would pay.My memory of today is clear, though. Being stood up by Brittany, her mother scowling at me . . . things I want to forget are stuck in my brain like glue.Paco downs half his beer in one gulp, not even caring when it dribbles down the sides of his mouth and onto his shirt. When Javier is talking to other guys, Paco says to me, "Carmen really screwed you up, you know.""And how's that?""You don't trust chicks. Take Brittany Ellis--"I curse under my breath. "Paco, on second thought toss that Corona over here." After I catch it, I down the beer and crush the can against the wall after it's empty."You may not want to listen, Alex. But you're gonna hear me out no matter if you're drunk or not. Your loose-talkin', hickey-makin', sexy Latina ex-girlfriend Carmen stabbed you in the back. So you're makin' a complete U-turn by stabbin' Brittany in the back."I'm reluctantly listening to Paco as I grab another beer. "You callin' my chem partner a U-turn?""Yeah. But it's gonna backfire big-time, man, 'cause you actually like the girl. Admit it."I don't want to admit it. "I only want her for the bet."Paco laughs so hard he stumbles and ends up sitting on the warehouse floor. He points to me with the beer still in his hand. "You, my friend, are so good at lyin' to yourself you're actually startin' to believe the bullshit comin' out of your mouth. Those two girls are total oppo-sites, man."I grab another beer. As I flip the top open, I think about the differences between Carmen and Brittany. Carmen's got sexy, dark, mysterious eyes. Brittany's got seemingly innocent, light blue ones you can practically see through. Will they be that way when I make love to her?Shit. Make love? What the hell possessed me to think about Brittany and love in the same sentence? I am seriously losing it.I spend the next half hour ingesting as much beer as possible. I'm feeling good enough to not think . . . about anything.A familiar female voice cuts through the numbness. "Wanna party at Danwood Beach?" she asks.I'm staring into chocolate eyes. Although my brain is clouded and I'm dizzy, I know enough to register that chocolate is the opposite of blue. I don't want blue. Blue confuses me too much. Chocolate is straightforward, easier to deal with.There's something not right here, but I can't pinpoint it. And when Chocolate's lips are on mine, I don't care about anything except wiping Blue from my mind. Even if I remember Chocolate as being bitter."Si," I say when my lips separate from hers. "Let's party. Vamos a gozar!"An hour later, I'm standing in water up to my waist. It makes me long to be a pirate and sail the lonely seas. Of course in the back of my hazy mind I know I'm gazing across Lake Michigan and not an ocean. But right now I'm not thinking clearly, and being a pirate seems like a damn good option. No family, no worries, nobody with blond hair and blue eyes glaring at me.Arms like tentacles wrap around my stomach. "What're you thinkin' about, novio?""Becoming a pirate," I murmur to the octopus who just called me her boyfriend.The octopus's suction cups are kissing my back and moving their way around to my face. Instead of scaring me, it feels good. I know this octopus, these tentacles."You be a pirate, I'll be a mermaid. You can rescue me."Somehow I think I'm the one who needs rescuing because I feel like she's drowning me with her kisses. "Carmen," I say to the brown-eyed octopus-turned-sexy mermaid, suddenly aware that I'm drunk, naked, and standing in water up to my waist in Lake Michigan."Shh, let go and enjoy."Carmen knows me well enough to make me forget about real life and help me focus on the fantasy. Her hands and body wrap around me. She feels weightless in the water. My hands go to the places I've been before and my body presses against familiar territory, but the fantasy doesn't come. And when I look back at the shore, the sounds of my rowdy friends remind me we have an audience. My octopus/mermaid loves an audience.I don't.Grabbing my mermaid's hand, I start walking back to shore.Ignoring the comments from my friends, I tell my mermaid to get dressed as I pull on my jeans. When we're dressed, I take her hand once again and we weave through the crowd until we find a vacant space to sit among our friends.I lean against a big rock and stretch out my legs. My ex-girlfriend straddles me, as if we'd never broken up and she'd never cheated on me. I feel trapped, caught.She takes a drag of something stronger than a cigarette and passes it to me. I look at the small, wrapped joint."This ain't amped, is it?" I ask. I'm wasted, but the last thing I need is narcs in my system on top of the marijuana and beer. My goal is to be numb, not dead.She puts it to my lips. "It's just Acapulco gold, novio."Maybe it'll work to wipe out my memory for good and make me forget shootings and ex-girlfriends and bets of having hot sex with a girl who thinks I'm the scum of the earth.I take the joint from her and inhale.My mermaid's hands move up my chest. "I can make you happy, Alex," she whispers, so close I can smell the alcohol and mota on her breath. Or it might be mine, I'm not sure. "Give me another chance."Being high and drunk makes me confused. And when the image of Brittany and Colin with their arms around each other at school yesterday forms in my head, I pull Carmen's body closer.I don't need a girl like Brittany.I need hot and spicy Carmen, my lying little mermaid.CHAPTER 19 BrittanyI convinced Sierra, Doug, Colin, Shane, and Darlene to go to Club Mystique tonight, the club Megan told me about. It was in Highland Grove, on the beach. Colin doesn't like to dance, so I ended up dancing with the rest of the gang and even this one guy named Troy, who was an amazing dancer. I think I picked up some moves I can introduce to our pom squad.Now we're at Sierra's, headed for the private beach behind her house. My mom knows I'm sleeping at Sierra's tonight, so I don't have to worry about checking in. While Sierra and I are setting up blankets on the sand, Darlene is lagging behind with the guys, who are unloading stashed beer and bottles of wine from the back of Colin's car."Doug and I had sex last weekend," Sierra blurts out."Seriously?""Yeah. I know I wanted to wait until we were in college, but it just happened. His parents were out of town, and I went over to his place and one thing led to another and we just did it.""Wow. So, how was it?""I don't know. To be honest it was kinda weird. But he was really sweet afterward, asking me over and over if I was okay. And at night he came to my house and brought me three dozen red roses. I had to lie to my parents and say they were for our anniversary. I couldn't very well say the flowers were in celebration of his taking my virginity. What about you and Colin?"