"No hay problema." Enrique clears his throat. "You know, Hector was lookin' for you yesterday."

Hector. Hector Martinez, the guy who runs the Latino Blood from behind the scenes. "Sometimes I hate . . . you know."

"You're stuck in the Blood," Enrique says. "Like the rest of us. Never let Hector hear you question your commitment to the Blood. If he suspects you're disloyal you'll become the enemy so fast your head'll spin. You're a smart kid, Alex. Play it safe."

Enrique is an OG--an Original Gangster--because he'd proven himself to the Latino Blood a long time ago. He paid his dues, so now he can sit back while the younger LB members are on the front lines. According to him, I've just gotten my feet wet and have a long time to go before my friends and I get OG status.

"Smart? I bet my motorcycle I could get Brittany Ellis to sleep with me," I tell him.

"Scratch what I said." Enrique points to me with a smirk on his face. "You're a dumbass. And you'll soon be a dumbass without a ride. Girls like that don't look at guys like us."

I'm beginning to think he's right. How the hell did I ever think I could lure the very beautiful, very rich, and very white Brittany Ellis into my very poor, very Mexican, and very dark life?

Diego Vasquez, a guy from school, was born on the north side of Fairfield. Of course, my friends consider him a white guy even though his skin is darker than mine. They also think Mike Burns, a white guy who lives on the south side, is Mexican even though he doesn't have any Mexican blood in his body. Or Latino blood, for that matter. Yet he's considered one of us. In Fairfield, where you were born defines who you are.

A horn beeps loudly in front of the garage.

Enrique presses the button to raise the large garage door.

Javier Moreno's car screeches inside. "Close the door, Enrique," Javier orders breathlessly. "La policia are lookin' for us."

My cousin slams his fist on the button again and turns off the lights to the shop. "What the hell did you guys do?"

Carmen is in the backseat, her eyes bloodshot from either drugs or alcohol; I can't tell which. And she's been messing around with whoever is back there with her, because I know all too well what Carmen looks like when she's been messing around.

"Raul tried to smoke a Satin Hood," Carmen slurs, sticking her head out of the car window. "But he's got lousy aim."

Raul turns to her and yells at her from the front passenger seat, "Puta, you try and shoot a movin' target while Javier's driving."

I roll my eyes as Javier steps out of the car. "You dissin' my driving, Raul?" he says. " 'Cause if you are, I have a fist here that I'll ram into your face."

Raul steps out of the car. "You want a piece of me, culero?"

I step in front of Raul and hold him back.

"Shit, guys. La policia are right outside." These are the first words out of Sam, the guy who Carmen must have been with tonight.

Everyone in the garage ducks as the police shine their flashlights through the windows. I crouch behind a large tool drawer, holding my breath. The last thing I need is attempted murder on my record. I've miraculously avoided getting arrested, but one day my luck is bound to run out.

A gang member rarely avoids the cops. Or jail time.

Enrique's face shows what he's thinking. He finally saved enough to open this shop, and now four high school punks could ruin his dream if anyone makes a sound. The cops will take my cousin, with his old LB tattoos on the back of his neck, in right along with the rest of us.

And he'll be out of business within a week.

The door to the shop jiggles. I wince and pray please be locked.

The cops give up on the door, then shine their flashlights in the garage again. I wonder who tipped them off--nobody in this neighborhood would narc. A secret code of silence and affiliation keeps families safe.

After what seems like forever, the cops drive away.

"Shit, that was close," Javier says.

"Too close," Enrique agrees. "Wait ten minutes, then get outta here."

Carmen steps out of the car--actually, trips out. "Hiya, Alex. I missed you tonight."

My gaze rests on Sam. "Yeah, I see how much you missed me."

"Sam? Oh, I don't really like him," she coos, coming close. I can smell the mota radiating off her. "I'm waiting for you to come back to me."

"Not gonna happen."

"Is it because of your stupid chemistry partner?" She grabs ray chin, trying to force me to look at her, her long nails digging into my skin.

I grab both her wrists and pull them aside, all the time wondering how my tough-as-nails ex-girlfriend turned into a tough-as-nails bitch. "Brittany has nothin' to do with you and me. I hear you've been talkin' shit to her."

"Did Isa tell you that?" she asks, her eyes narrowed into slits.

"Just back off," I say, ignoring her question, "or you'll have a lot more to deal with than a bitter ex-boyfriend."

"Are you bitter, Alex? Because you don't act bitter. You act like you don't give a shit."

She's right. After I found her sleeping around, it took me a while to get over it, get over her. I wondered what other guys were giving her that I couldn't.

"I used to give a shit," I tell her. "I don't now."

Carmen slaps me. "Fuck you, Alex."

"Lovers' quarrel?" Javier drawls from the hood of the car.

"Collate," Carmen and I say simultaneously.

Carmen whips around, stalks back to the car, and slides into the backseat. I watch as she pulls Sam's head toward her. The sounds of heavy kissing and moaning fill the auto shop.

Javier calls out, "Enrique, open the door. We're outta here."

Raul, who'd taken a leak in the bathroom, asks me, "Alex, you comin'? We need you, man. Paco and this Satin Hood are gonna fight at Gilson Park tonight. The Hood never fight fair, you know."

Paco didn't tell me about the fight, probably because he knew I'd try to talk him out of it. Sometimes my best friend gets into situations he can't get out of.

And sometimes he exposes me to situations I can't help but get into.

"I'm in," I say, then jump into the front seat so Raul is stuck in back with the two lovebirds.

We slow down a block before we reach the park. The tension in the air is thick, I can feel it in my bones. Where is Paco? Is he getting the shit kicked out of him in the back of an alley?

It's dark. Shadows move, making my hair stand on end. Everything looks menacing, even the trees blowing in the wind. During the day, Gilson Park resembles any other suburban park . . . except for the LB graffiti on the buildings surrounding the park. This is our territory. We've marked it.

We're in the Chicago suburbs, ruling our 'hood and the streets that lead here. It's a street war, where other suburban gangs fight us for territory. Three blocks away are mansions and million-dollar houses. Right here, in the real world, the street war rages on. The people in the million-dollar houses don't even realize a battle is about to begin less than a half mile from their backyards.

"There he is," I say, pointing to two silhouettes standing a few feet away from the park swings. The streetlights shining on the park are out, but I can tell which one is Paco right away because of his short body and trademark stance resembling that of a wrestler about to start a match.

As one silhouette pushes the other, I jump out of the car even though it's still moving. Because walking down the street are five more Hoods. Ready to fight with my best friend, I push away thoughts that this confrontation could end with all of us in the morgue. If I go into a fight with confidence and fire, without thinking of the consequences, I win. If I think too much about it, it'll be my doom.

I rush toward Paco and the Satin Hood before the rest of his friends reach them. Paco is putting up a good fight, but the other guy is like a worm, squirming away from Paco's grasp. I roughly grab the Hood's shirt and pull him up, then my fists do the rest.

Before he's able to stand and face me, I glare at Paco.

"I can take him, Alex," Paco says as he wipes blood off his lip.

"Yeah, but what about them?" I say, my gaze focused on the five Hoods behind him.

Now that I have a closer look, I realize these guys are all fresh. New members, full of piss and vinegar and not much else. New members I can take. But new members who pack heat are dangerous.

Javier, Carmen, Sam, and Raul stand next to me. I have to admit we're an intimidating bunch, even Carmen. Our homegirl can hold her own in a fight, and her fingernails are downright deadly.

The guy I pulled off Paco stands up and points to me. "You're dead."

"Listen, enano," I say. Little guys hate when you make fun of their height and I can't resist. "Go back to your own turf and leave this shit-hole to us."

Enano points to Paco. "He stole my steerin' wheel, man."

I look over at Paco, knowing it's just like him to taunt a Satin Hood by stealing something so stupid. When I glance back at Enano, I notice he's now wielding a switchblade in his hand. And he's aiming it right at me.

Oh, man. After I fight these Hoods, I'm gonna kill my best friend.

CHAPTER 13 Brittany

My chemistry partner hasn't been in school since we received our projects. A week later he finally struts into class. It pisses me off, because no matter how bad my home life is, I come to school.

"Nice of you to show up," I say.

"Nice of you to notice," he says as he pulls off his bandanna.

Mrs. Peterson walks into class. When she sees Alex, I think she seems relieved. Squaring her shoulders, she says, "I was going to give you a pop quiz today. But instead I'll have you work with your partners in the library. Rough outlines are due in two weeks."

Colin and I hold hands as we walk to the library. Alex is behind us somewhere, talking with his friends in Spanish.

Colin squeezes my hand. "Wanna get together after practice?"

"I can't. After poms I have to go home."

Baghda quit on Saturday and my mom freaked out. Until she hires someone else I have to help out more.

He stops and pulls his hand from mine. "Shit, Brit. You gonna make some time for me, or what?"

"You can come over," I offer.

"So I can watch you take care of your sister? No thanks. Not to be a prick, but I want alone time . . . just you and me."

"I know. I do, too."

"What about Friday?"

I should be with Shelley, but my relationship with Colin is rocky and I can't let him think I don't want to be with him. "Friday works for me."

Before we seal our plans with a kiss, Alex clears his throat in front of us. "No PDA. School rules. Besides, she's my partner, dickhead. Not yours."

"Shut up, Fuentes," Colin mutters, then joins Darlene.

I put my hand on my hip and glare at Alex. "Since when are you so concerned with school rules?"

"Since you became my chem partner. Outside chemistry, you're his. In chemistry, you're mine."

"Want to find your club and pull me by my hair into the library?"

"I'm not a Neanderthal. Your boyfriend is the ape, not me."

"Then stop acting like one." All of the work tables in the library are taken, so we're forced to find a corner in the back of the library in the secluded nonfiction section and sit on the carpet. I set my books down and realize Alex is staring at me, almost as if he stares long enough he might be able to see the real me. No chance of that because I hide my true self from everyone.

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