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 all. 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 all day.

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

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

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

Finally 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 hallway.

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 Ellis house. My mom has anxiety. Not the kind easily controlled with little blue pills. 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 doesn't have to deal with, well, her.

"Hate the pants, love the belt," Mom says, pointing her index finger at each item. "And that noise you call 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 smell of my mom's strong perfume stings my nostrils the closer I get. She already looks like a million 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 says, pulling out a bag from behind her back.

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

"In the kitchen."

"Is her new caretaker here yet?"

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

"Did you tell her wool irritates Shelley's skin? And that she pulls hair?" She's always let it be known in her nonverbal cues she gets irritated by the feeling of wool on her skin. Pulling 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.

"Yes. And yes. I gave your sister an earful this morning, Brittany. If she keeps acting up, we'll 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 Shelley lashes out. Shelley is sitting at the table in her wheelchair, busily eating her specially blended food because, even at the age of twenty, my sister doesn't have the ability to chew and swallow like people without her physical limitations. As usual, the food has found its way onto her chin, lips, and cheeks.

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

Shelley 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 tell us the more interaction Shelley gets, the better off she'll be.

Shelley 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. Shelley's drool. One look at my sister's drawn face tells 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 tell 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.

"Go upstairs and change."

"Mom, it was just peaches," I say, treading carefully so this doesn't turn into a full-blown yelling 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'll 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'll work. Maybe nobody will 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."


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 all mush.


"Get up, Alex."

I scowl at my little brother and bury my head under my pillow. Since I share a room with my eleven- and fifteen-year-old brothers, there's no escape except the little privacy a lone pillow can give.

"Leave me alone, Luis," I say roughly through the pillow. "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'll be the first family member in the Fuentes household to graduate high school. But after graduation, real life will start. College 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 all dressed in my new clothes," Luis's proud but muffled voice comes through the pillow. "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."

Was privacy too much to ask for? I take my pillow and chuck it across the room. It's a direct hit. The water splashes all 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 collar 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 all, 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 full 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 well. Will 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.

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

So much for my you-can't-resist-me smile. "You know you love us," I call 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 all innocent.

To Luis, it's a bandanna. To me, it's a symbol of what is and will never be. How the hell 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'll die before I let one of my brothers get sucked in.

I ball the bandanna in my fist. "Luis, don't touch my shit. Especially 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'll be sportin' black and blue," I tell 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 really does get it. I stop myself from thinking too hard about it as I grab a black T-shirt from my dresser and pull on worn, faded jeans. When I tie my bandanna around my head, I hear mi'ama's voice bellowing from the kitchen.

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

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

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'll just grab--"

"You'll 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 call me Alex?" I ask, my head down while I stare at the food in front of me.

"If I wanted to call 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 all the same to me.