Tonight changed him, whether he wants to face that fact or not.I've changed, too.I walk into Sierra's house. Sierra is sitting on her living room couch. My father and mother are sitting across from her."This looks suspiciously like an intervention," I tell them.Sierra says, "Not an intervention, Brit. A talk.""Why?""Isn't it obvious?" my dad says. "You're not living at home."I stand in front of both my parents, wondering how we got to this point. My mother is in a black pants suit and her hair is in a bun, as if she's dressed for a funeral. My dad is wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and his eyes are bloodshot. He's been up all night, I can tell. And maybe my mom has, too, but she'd never show it. She'd put in Visine to mask it all."I can't play the perfect daughter anymore. I'm not perfect," I say calmly and evenly. "Can you accept that?"My dad's eyebrows come together, as if he's struggling to keep his composure. "We don't want you to be perfect. Patricia, tell her how you feel."My mom shakes her head, as if she can't comprehend why I'm making a big deal about this. "Brit, this has gone on long enough. Stop pouting, stop rebelling, stop being selfish. Your father and I don't want you to be perfect. We want you to be the best you can be, that's all.""Because Shelley, no matter how hard she tries, can't possibly live up to your expectations?""Don't bring Shelley into this," my dad says. "It's not fair.""Why not? This is all about Shelley." I'm feeling defeated, like no matter how many words come out of my mouth to try and explain it, it'll never come out right. I plop myself down in one of the plush, velvet chairs in front of them. "For the record, I didn't run away. I'm staying at my best friend's house."My mom brushes away a piece of lint on her thigh. "Thank goodness for her. She's been telling us what's been going on with you, giving us daily reports."I look over at my best friend, still sitting in the corner as a witness to the Ellises' meltdown. Sierra puts her hands up guiltily as she heads for the door to hand out candy to late trick-or-treaters who just rang the bell.My mom sits up straight on the edge of the couch. "What will it take for you to come home?"I want so much from my parents, probably more than they're capable of giving. "I don't know."My dad puts his hand on his forehead, as if he has a headache. "Is it that bad at home?""Yeah. Well, not bad. But stressful. Mom, you stress me out. And Dad, I hate it when you come and go like the house is your hotel. We're all strangers living in the house. I love you both, but I don't want to always be 'the best I can be.' I just want to be me. I want to be free to make my own decisions and learn from my mistakes without freaking out, feeling guilty, or worrying that I'm not living up to your expectations." I choke back tears. "I don't want to let you two down. I know Shelley can't be like me. I'm so sorry . . . please don't send her away because of me."My dad kneels beside me. "Don't be sorry, Brit. We're not sending her away because of you. Shelley's disability isn't your fault. It's nobody's fault."My mom is silent and still, staring at the wall as if she's in a trance. "It's my fault," she says.Everyone focuses on my mom because those are the last words we expected to come out of her mouth."Patricia?" my dad says, trying to get her attention."Mom, what are you talking about?" I ask.She's looking straight ahead. "All these years I've blamed myself.""Patricia, it's not your fault.""When I had Shelley, I took her to playgroups," my mom says in a soft voice as if she's talking to herself. "I admit I envied the other moms with the normal kids who could keep their heads up on their own and grasp things. Most of the time I got the pity stares. I hated that. I became obsessed with thinking I could've prevented her from being disabled by eating more vegetables and exercising more--I blamed myself for her condition even when your father insisted it wasn't my fault." She looks at me and smiles wistfully. "Then you came along. My blond-haired, blue-eyed princess.""Mom, I'm no princess and Shelley's not someone to pity. I'm not always going to date the guy you want me to date, I'm not always going to dress the way you want me to dress, and I'm definitely not always going to act the way you want. Shelley isn't going to live up to your expectations either.""I know.""Will you ever be okay with it?""Probably not.""You're so critical. Oh, God, I'd do anything for you to stop blaming me for every little thing that goes wrong. Love me for who I am. Love Shelley for who she is. Stop focusing on the bad stuff because life is just too damn short.""You don't want me being concerned because you've decided to date a gang member?" she asks."No. Yes. I don't know. If I didn't feel like you'd be judgmental, I'd share it with you. If you could meet him . . . he's just sooo much more than people see on the outside. If you want me to sneak around just so I can be with him, I'll do it.""He's a gang member," my mom says dryly."His name is Alex."My dad leans back. "Knowing his name doesn't change the fact that he's in a gang, Brittany.""No, it doesn't. It's a step in the right direction, though. Would you rather have me be truthful, or sneaking around?"It took us an hour until my mom agreed to try and stop hovering so much. And for my dad to agree to come home twice a week from work before six.I agreed to have Alex come by the house so they could meet him. And to tell them where I'm going and who I'm going with. They haven't agreed to approve or like my choice in boyfriends, but it's a start. I want to try making things right because picking up the pieces is way better than leaving them the way they are.CHAPTER 54 AlexThe deal is supposed to happen here, at the forest preserve in Busse Woods.The parking lot and area beyond are dark, with a sliver of moonlight to guide me. The place is deserted, except for a blue sedan with its lights on. I walk farther into the woods and catch a glimpse of a dark figure lying on the ground.I run while dread washes over me. I recognize my jacket the closer I get. It's like seeing my own death in front of me.Kneeling on the ground, I slowly turn the body over.Paco."Oh, shit," I cry as I feel his hot, wet blood soak my hands.Paco's eyes are glazed, but he moves his hand slowly and grabs onto my arm. "I fucked up."I rest Paco's head on my thighs. "I told you to stop interferin' with my life. Don't die on me, you better not die on me," I choke out. "Holy shit, you're bleedin' all over."Bright red blood streams out of his mouth."I'm scared," he whispers, then winces in pain."Don't leave me. Hold on and it'll be fine." I hold Paco tightly, knowing I just lied to him. My best friend is dying. There's no going back. I feel his pain as if it's my own."Lookie here, it's pretend Alex and his sidekick, the real Alex. Some Halloween night, ain't it?"I turn to the sound of Hector's voice."It's too bad I couldn't tell it was Paco I was shooting at," he continues. "Man, you two look so different in daylight. I guess I should get my eyes checked." He pulls a gun on me.I'm not scared. I'm angry. And I need answers. "Why did you do this?""If you must know, it's your father's fault. He wanted out of the Blood. But there is no out, Alex. He was the best we had, your padre. Right before he died, he tried to quit. That last drug deal was his challenge, Alex. Father-son drug deal. You both make it out alive, he wins." He laughs, a cackling sound reverberating in my ears. "The stupid motherfucker never had a chance. You're too much like your old man. I thought I could train you to take his place as a great drug and gun dealer. But no, you really are like your old man. A quitter ... un rajado."I look down at Paco. He's hardly breathing, the air barely making it out of his lungs. Looking down at his blood-stained chest, the growing red bull's-eye reminds me of my papa. This time, though, I'm not six years old. Everything is crystal clear.My eyes meet Paco's for an intense second."The Latino Blood betrayed us both, man," are the last words Paco says before his eyes glaze over and he falls limp in my arms."Put him down, already! He's dead, Alex. Just like your old man. Get up and face me!" Hector yells, waving his gun in the air like a lunatic.I gently lay Paco's lifeless body on the ground and stand, ready to fight."Put your hands on your head so I can see 'em. You know, when I killed el viejo you cried like an escuincle, a baby, Alex. You cried in my arms, the guy who killed him. Ironic, huh?"I was only six. If I'd known it was Hector, I wouldn't have joined the Blood. "Why'd you do it, Hector?""Boy, you'll never learn, will you? You see, tu papa thought he was better than me. I showed him, didn't I? He bragged that the south side of Fairfield was a cut above since the high school was in a rich hood. Said in Fairfield there were no gangs. I changed that, Alex. Got my guys to go in and make every household belong to me. It was either come to me, or lose everything. That, my boy, is what makes me el jefe.""It makes you a madman.""Madman. Genius. Same thing." Hector pushes me with the gun. "Now get on your knees. I think this is a good place for you to die. Right here in the woods, like an animal. You want to die like an animal, Alex?""You're the animal, asshole. You could at least look me in the eye when you murder me, like you did to my father."When Hector walks around me, I finally have a chance. Grabbing Hector's wrist, I force him to the ground.Hector swears and is fast to his feet, the gun still in his hand. I use his disorientation to my advantage and kick him in the side. Whirling around, Hector knocks the side of my head with the butt of his gun. I fall on my knees, cursing the fact that I'm not invincible.Thoughts of mi papa and Paco give me the strength to fight back through the blur. I'm all too aware Hector is trying to get a good shot at me.When I kick Hector back, I scramble to my feet. Hector's Clock is pointed directly at my chest."This is the Arlington Heights police! Drop your weapons and put your hands in the air where we can see them!"Through the woods and the haze, I can barely see red and blue lights flashing in the distance.I raise my hands. "Drop it, Hector. The game is over."Hector holds the gun steady, aimed at my chest."Put the gun down," the police call out. "Now!"Hector's eyes are wild. I feel his rage from the five feet separating us._I know he's going to do it. Es un cabron.He's going to pull the trigger."You're wrong, Alex," he says. "The game has just begun."The whole thing happens fast. I move to the right as the shots ring out.Pop. Pop. Pop.Stumbling backward, I know I'm hit. The bullet burns through my skin as if someone is pouring Tabasco on it.Then my world goes black.