"Colin wants to have sex," I tell her.

"Every guy over the age of fourteen wants to have sex," she says. "It's their job to want to do it."

"I just. . . don't want to. At least, not now."

"Then it's your job to say no," she says, as if it's that easy. Sierra isn't a virgin anymore, she'd said yes. Why is it so hard for me to say yes, too?

"How will I know when it's the right time?"

"You sure as hell won't be asking me about it. I guess when you're totally ready you'll want to do it with no reservations or questions. We know they want to have sex. It's up to you to make it happen. Or not. Listen, the first time wasn't fun or easy. It was kind of sloppy and most of the time I felt stupid. Opening yourself up to making mistakes and being vulnerable is what makes it beautiful and special with the person you love."

Is that why I haven't wanted to do it with Colin? Maybe deep down I don't love him as much as I thought. Am I even capable of loving someone so much that I open myself up to being vulnerable? I really don't know.

"Tyler broke up with Darlene today," Sierra whispers to me. "He started dating a girl in his dorm."

If I didn't feel sorry for Darlene before, now I do. Especially because she thrives on attention from guys. It fuels her self-esteem. It's no wonder she was totally all over Shane tonight.

I watch as the rest of the guys and Darlene come into view and set blankets down on the beach. Darlene grabs Shane's shirt and pulls him aside. "Let's go make out," she tells him. Shane is all too ready to honor her request.

Pulling her away from him, I lean close and say so only she can hear, "Don't fool around with Shane."

"Why not?"

"Because you don't like him like that. Don't use him. Or let him use you."

Darlene pushes me away. "You seriously have a demented view of reality, Brit. Or maybe you want to point out everyone else's imperfections so you stay the Queen of Perfect."

That's not fair. I don't want to point out her flaws, but if I see her going on a self-destructive path, isn't it up to me as her friend to stop her?

Maybe not. We're friends, but not super-close friends. The only one I let close enough is Sierra. How dare I give Darlene advice when she can't reciprocate?

Sierra, Doug, Colin, and I sit on blankets and talk about the last football game in front of a bonfire we make with sticks and old pieces of wood.

We laugh, remembering the missed plays and imitating the football coach who yelled at the players from the sidelines. His face gets all red and when he's really upset spit flies out of his mouth as he yells. Players get out of the way so they don't get sprayed. Doug does a hilarious imitation of him.

It feels good sitting here with my friends and Colin, and for a while I forget about my chemistry partner, who's been occupying my thoughts lately.

After a while, Sierra and Doug go for a walk and I'm leaning against Colin in front of the fire, the light giving the sand around us a bright glow. Darlene and Shane have hooked up for the night despite my advice against it and aren't back yet.

I grab the bottle of Chardonnay the guys brought. The boys have been drinking beer and the girls have been drinking wine because Sierra hates the taste of beer. I bring the bottle to my lips and finish it off. I'm feeling buzzed, but I probably need to drink an entire bottle myself in order to feel completely carefree.

"Did you miss me this summer?" I ask, leaning into Colin as he smoothes down my hair. It's probably a mess. I wish I was drunk enough not to care.

Colin takes my hand in his and leads it to his crotch. He lets out a slow, moaning breath.

"Yeah," he says into my neck. "Lots."

When I take my hand back, his arms snake around to my front. He squeezes my boobs like they're water balloons. I've never minded Colin's touch before, but now I'm annoyed and creeped out by his roving hands. I shrug out of his grasp.

"What's wrong, Brit?"

"I don't know." I really don't know. Things with Colin seem strained since school started. And thoughts of Alex keep invading my head, which is annoying me more than anything. I reach over and grab a beer. "It feels forced," I tell my boyfriend as I open the can and take a sip. "Can't we sit here without fooling around?"

Colin lets out a long, dramatic deep breath. "Brit, I want to do it."

I try and down the entire can in one gulp, but end up spewing out some of it. "You mean now?" Where our friends can see us if they turn around?

"Why not? We've waited long enough."

"I don't know, Colin," I say, really scared to be having this conversation although I knew it was coming. "I guess ... I guess I thought it would happen naturally."

"What can be more natural than doing it outside, in the sand?"

"What about condoms?"

"I'll pull out."

That doesn't sound romantic at all. I'll be freaking out the entire time and worrying about getting pregnant. Not how I want my first time to be. "Making love means a lot to me."

"To me, too. So let's do it already."

"I feel like this summer changed you."

"Maybe it did," he says defensively. "Maybe I realized our relationship has to be more. Geez, Brit. Whoever heard of a senior being a fucking virgin? Everyone thinks we've done it, why don't we just do it? Shit, you even let that guy Fuentes think he can get into your pants."

My heart slams into my chest. "You think I'd rather sleep with Alex than you?" I ask, my eyes getting watery. I don't know if it's the alcohol making me emotional or if it's because his words hit the target. My thoughts are on my chem partner. I hate myself for having these thoughts, and hate Colin right now for pointing it out.

"What about Darlene?" I throw back. I look around, making sure Darlene is out of hearing range. "You two are like one cozy couple in chemistry class."

"Get off it, Brit. So some girl pays attention to me in chemistry. Obviously you don't because you're too busy arguing with Fuentes. Everyone knows it's all foreplay."

"That's not fair, Colin."

"What's going on?" Sierra says, walking up with Doug from behind a large boulder.

"Nothing," I tell her. I stand up, my sandals in hand. "I'm going home."

Sierra grabs her purse. "I'll go with you."

"No." I'm finally feeling light-headed. It's like I'm having an out-of-body experience and I want to go through it it all by myself. "I don't want or need anyone. I'll walk."

"She's drunk," Doug says, eyeing the empty bottle and beer can beside me.

"Am not," I tell them. I snatch another beer and open it as I walk down the beach. Alone. By myself. Which is how it should be.

Sierra says, "I don't want you going alone."

"I just want to be by myself right now. I need to sort things out."

"Brit, come back here," Colin says, but doesn't get up.

I ignore him.

"Don't go past the fourth pier," Sierra warns. "It's not safe."

Safe shmafe. So what if something happens to me, anyway? Colin doesn't care. Or my parents, for that matter.

Closing my eyes as the sand sinks between my toes, I breathe in the scent of the fresh, cool Lake Michigan breeze washing over my face and drink more beer. Forgetting everything except the sand and my beer, I continue walking, pausing only to look out over the dark water with moonlight shining across it like a line splitting the water in two.

I've passed two piers. Or maybe three. Anyway, it's not a long walk home. Less than a mile. When I get to the next beach entrance, I'll walk up the street and head home. It's not like I haven't done it before.

But the sand feels so good beneath my feet, like one of those squishy bean bag pillows you sink into. And I hear music up ahead. I love music. Closing my eyes, my body moves to the unfamiliar song.

I haven't realized how far I've walked and danced until the sound of laughing and voices in Spanish make me freeze. People wearing red and black bandannas in front of me are a clue I've gone past the fourth pier.

"Look everybody, it's Brittany Ellis, Fairfield High's sexiest pompom girl," a guy says. "Come here, mamacita. Dance with me."

I scan the crowd desperately for a familiar or friendly face. Alex, lie's here. Sitting in his lap facing him is Carmen Sanchez.

A sobering picture.

Another guy advances on me. "Don't you know this side of the beach is for Mexicanos only?" he says, moving closer. "Or maybe you've come sniffin' for some dark meat. You know what they say, baby--dark meat's the juiciest."

"Leave me alone." My words are slurred.

"You think you're too good for me?" He moves toward me, his eyes full of anger. The music stops.

I stagger backward. I'm not too drunk to know I'm in danger.

"Javier, lay off." Alex's voice is low--it's an order.

Alex is caressing Carmen's shoulder, his lips mere inches from it. I sway. This is a nightmare and I need to get away, fast.

I start running, the gang members' laughter ringing in my ears. I can't run fast enough and feel like I'm in a dream where my feet are moving but I'm not going anywhere.

"Brittany, wait!" a voice calls from behind me.

I turn around and am face-to-face with the guy who's haunting my dreams . . . daydreams and night dreams.


The guy who I hate.

The guy who I can't get out of my mind, no matter how drunk I am.

"Ignore Javier," Alex says. "Sometimes he gets carried away tryin' to be a badass." I'm stunned when he steps closer and wipes away a tear from my cheek. "Don't cry. I wouldn't let him hurt you."

Should I tell him I'm not afraid of being hurt? I'm afraid of not being in control.

Though I haven't run far, it's far enough from Alex's friends. They can't see me or hear me.

"Why do you like Carmen?" I ask as the world tilts and I stumble in the sand. "She's mean."

He holds out his hands to help me but I flinch, so he stuffs his hands in his pockets. "What the fuck do you care, anyway? You stood me up."

"I had stuff going on."

"Like washin' your hair or gettin' a manicure?"

Or having my hair ripped out by my sister and getting reamed out by my mom? I jab my finger into his chest. "You're an asshole."

"And you're a bitch," he says. "A bitch with a kick-ass smile and eyes that can seriously screw with a guy's head." He winces, as if the words slipped out and he wants to take them back.

I was expecting him to say a lot of things, but not that. Especially not that. I notice his bloodshot eyes. "You're high, Alex."

"Yeah, well you don't look too sober yourself. Maybe now's a good time to give me that kiss you owe me."

"No way."

"Por que no? Afraid you'll like it so much you'll forget your boyfriend?"

Kiss Alex? Never. Although I've been thinking about it. A lot. More than I should. His lips are full and inviting. Oh, boy, he's right. I am drunk. And I'm definitely not feeling right. I'm past numbness and going on delirium, because I'm thinking things I have no business thinking. Like how I want to know what his lips feel like against mine.

"Fine. Kiss me, Alex," I say, stepping forward and leaning into him. "Then we'll be even."