"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."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'll take it from here," Aguirre says to Mrs. P., then points to a picture of our school framed on the wall. 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 principal actually 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 all of you."Colin grabs the diva's hand and they both file out of the room.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 all over them. It doesn't sit well 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 will 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 tell 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 actually expects it."I'm told they all say that at first." She opens her purse and pulls out my bandanna. "Don't let your life outside of school dictate your future," she says, getting all 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. Hell, 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."Succeed. Success. It's all 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 still thinking about what Peterson said when I hear her call after me, "And if you call me Nadine again, you'll 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 hallway, I smile to myself. That woman sure does wield those blue detention slips and threats of essays like weapons.CHAPTER 11 BrittanyThere'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 pull 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. Actually, I want to run. But I don't, mainly because she'd probably follow."You know," she says, her mouth quirked in a wicked grin. "I always wondered what color bra Brittany Ellis wore. Pink. How fitting. I bet it was as expensive as your dye job.""You don't want to talk about bras and dye jobs, Carmen," I tell her while I pull my gym shirt over my head. I swallow hard before I add, "You want to kick my ass.""When a ho moves in on my man, I get territorial.""I don't want your man, Carmen. I have my own.""Oh, please. Girls like you want every guy to like them, just so you can have them when you decide you want them." As she's talking, she's getting more riled up. I'm in trouble. "I heard you talkin' shit about me. You think you're all that, Miss High and Mighty. Let's see what you look like with a busted lip and a big, black eye. Would you come to school with a garbage bag over your head? Or would you stay holed up in your big house and never come out?"I look at Carmen as she walks toward me. Really look at her. She knows deep down how much importance I put on controlling the image I portray, while she doesn't care if she's suspended ... or expelled."Answer me!" she yells, then shoves my shoulder. It collides with the locker behind me.I guess I wasn't listening because I don't know what I'm supposed to answer. The consequences of me coming home bruised and having been in a fight are insurmountable. My mom will be furious and blame the entire thing on me for not preventing it from happening. I hope to God she doesn't start talking about sending Shelley away again. When stressful stuff happens, my parents talk about sending Shelley away. As if magically all of the Ellises' external problems will be solved if Shelley disappeared."Don't you think Coach Bautista will come here looking for me? You want to be suspended?" I know, lame questions. But I'm trying to buy time here.She chuckles. "You think I give a shit about being suspended?"Not really, but it was worth a try.Instead of cowering next to my locker, I stand tall. Carmen tries again to push my shoulder, but this time I manage to swat her arm away.I'm about to get into my first fight. A fight I'm bound to lose. My heart feels like it's going to burst out of my chest. My whole life I've avoided situations like these, but this time I have no choice. I wonder if I can pull the fire alarm to avoid this, like I've seen in the movies. But of course I don't see one of those little red boxes anywhere near me."Carmen, leave her alone."We both turn to the sound of a girl's voice. It's Isabel. A nonfriend. A nonfriend who just might save my face from getting bashed in."Isa, stay out of my business," Carmen growls.Isabel comes toward us, her dark brown hair in a high ponytail that sways when she walks. "No chingues con ella, Carmen.""Por que no?" Carmen asks. "Because you think you're BFFs with blondie here now that you both wave stupid-ass pom-poms together?"Isa puts her hands on her hips. "You're mad at Alex, Carmen. That's why you're acting like a perm."At the mention of Alex, Carmen goes rigid. "Shut up, Isa. You don't know anything."Carmen turns her fury on Isabel and yells at her in Spanish. Isabel doesn't back off, she stands tall in front of Carmen and spouts Spanish right back at her. Isabel is a short girl and probably weighs less than I do, so I'm shocked she's standing up to Carmen. But she's holding her own. I can tell by the way her words make Carmen back off.Coach Bautista appears behind Carmen. "You three having a party and didn't invite the rest of the class?""We were having a little chat," Carmen says, not missing a beat and acting as if we're all friends hanging out."Well, then, I suggest you chat after school instead of during class. Miss Ellis and Miss Avila, join the rest of your classmates in the gym. Miss Sanchez, go to where you're supposed to be."Carmen points her red-painted fingernail at me. "Later," she says, then walks out of the locker room, but not before making Isabel move out of the way for her to pass."Thanks," I say softly to Isabel.Her answer is a nod.CHAPTER 12 Alex"You almost done with the Honda? It's time to close up," my cousin Enrique says to me. I work at his auto body shop every day after school ... to help my family put food on our table, to get away from the Latino Blood for a few hours, and because I'm damn good at fixing cars.Covered in grease and oil from working on the Civic, I roll out from under the car. "It'll be done in a sec.""Good. The guy's been on my ass to have it fixed for three days now."I tighten the last bolt and walk over to Enrique as he wipes his dirty hands on a shop cloth. "Can I ask you somethin'?""Shoot.""Can I have a day off next week? There's this chem project at school," I explain, thinking of the topic assigned to us today, "and we're supposed to meet with--""Peterson's class. Yeah, I remember those days. She's a real hard-ass." My cousin shudders."You had her?" I ask, amused. I wonder if her parents are parole officers. That woman sure likes discipline."How can I forget? You're not a success unless you develop a treatment for a disease or save the earth," Enrique says, doing a pretty decent imitation of Mrs. P. "You don't forget a nightmare like Peterson. But I'm sure havin' Brittany Ellis as a partner--""How'd you know?""Marcus came by and told me 'bout her, says he's in class with you guys. He's jealous you got a hot partner with long legs and big . . ." Enrique moves his hands in the air, mock feeling her chest. "Well, you know."Yeah, I know.I shift my weight from one foot to the other. "What about takin' time off Thursday?"