She rolls her eyes. "Oh, please. You know it, even if you don't want to admit it."

"For someone who says they'll never be friends with me, you sure are sharing a lot this morning."

"I have to admit I kinda wish you were the bitch some people say you are," she says.

"Why?"

"Because it's easy to hate someone who has it all."

A short, cynical laugh escapes from my mouth. I'm not about to tell her the truth--that my life is crumbling beneath my toes just like that sand was last night. "I've got to get home. Where's my cell?" I ask, patting my back pocket.

"Alex has it, I think."

So sneaking out without talking to him isn't an option. I struggle to keep the Oompa Loompas at bay as I stagger out of the bedroom, searching for Alex.

It's not hard to find him, the house is smaller than Sierra's pool house. Alex is lying on an old sofa, wearing jeans. Nothing else. His eyes are open, but they're bloodshot and glazed with sleep.

"Hey," he says warmly while stretching.

Oh, God. I'm in big trouble. Because I'm staring. I can't keep my eyes from ogling his chiseled triceps and biceps and every other "eps ' he has. The butterflies in my stomach have just multiplied tenfold as my wandering gaze meets his.

"Hey." I swallow, hard. "I, urn, guess I should thank you for taking me here instead of leaving me passed out on the beach."

His gaze doesn't falter. "Last night I realized somethin'. You and I, we're not so different. You play the game just like I do. You use your looks, your bod, and your brains to make sure you're always in control."

"I'm hungover, Alex. I can't even think straight and you're getting all philosophical on me."

"See, you're playin' a game right now. Be real with me, mamacita. I dare you."

Is he kidding? Be real? I can't. Because then I'll start crying, and maybe freak out enough to blurt the truth--that I create a perfect image so I can hide behind it. "I better get home."

"Before you do that, you should probably go to the bathroom," he says.

Before I ask why, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror hanging on the wall. "Oh, shit!" I shriek. Black mascara is caked under my eyes and streaky lines of it are running down my cheeks.

I resemble a corpse. Hurrying past him, I find the hall bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror. My hair is a stringy bird's nest. If the mascara marring my cheeks wasn't bad enough, the rest of me is as pale as my aunt Dolores without her makeup. I have puffy bags under my eyes as if I'm storing water for the winter months.

All in all, not a pretty sight. By anyone's standards.

I wet toilet paper and rub under my eyes and on my cheeks until the streaks are gone. Okay, so I need my eye-makeup remover in order to get it completely off. And my mom warned me that rubbing under my eyes will stretch out my skin and I'll be subject to premature wrinkles. But desperate circumstances call for desperate measures. After the mascara streaks are unnoticeable, I dab cold water on my eye bags.

I'm fully aware that this is damage control. I can only bandage the imperfections and hope nobody else sees me in this condition. I use my fingers as a comb, with little results. Then I poof my hair up, hoping the poof look will be better than the ratty-nest look.

I rinse my mouth with water and rub my teeth with some toothpaste, hoping to get the worst of the night of puking and sleeping and drunkenness from my mouth until I get home.

If only I had lip gloss with me. . . .

But, alas, I don't. Squaring my shoulders and keeping my head held high, I open the door and walk back to the living room to find Isabel walking to her room and Alex standing when he sees me.

"Where's my cell phone?" I ask. "And please put a shirt on."

He reaches down and grabs my phone off the floor. "Why?"

"The reason I need my cell," I say as I take it from him, "is to call a cab and the reason I want you to put a shirt on is, well, because, urn . . ."

"You've never seen a guy with his shirt off?"

"Ha, ha. Very funny. Believe me, you don't have anything I haven't seen before."

"Wanna bet?" he says, then moves his hands to the button on his jeans and pops it open.

Isabel walks in at that exact moment. "Whoa, Alex. Please keep your pants on."

When she looks over at me I put my hands up. "Don't look at me. I was just about to call a cab when he--"

Shaking her head while Alex buttons back up, she walks to her purse and picks up a set of keys. "Forget the cab. I'll drive you home."

"I'll drive her," Alex cuts in.

Isabel seems exhausted dealing with us, similar to how Mrs. Peterson looks during chemistry class. "Would you rather me drive you, or Alex?" she asks.

I have a boyfriend. Okay, so I admit every time I catch Alex looking at me a warmth spreads through my body. But it's normal. We're two teenagers with obvious sexual tension passing between us. As long as I never act on it, everything will be just fine.

Because if I ever did act on it, the consequences would be disastrous. I'd lose Colin. I'd lose my friends. I'd lose the control I have over my life.

Most of all, I'd lose what's left of my mother's love.

If I'm not seen as perfect, what happened yesterday with my mom would seem tame. Being perfect to the outside world equates to how my mom treats me. If any of her country club friends see me out with Alex, my mom might as well be an outcast too. If she's shunned by her friends, I'll be shunned by her. I can't take that chance. This is as real as I can afford to get.

"Isabel, take me home," I say, then look at Alex.

He gives a small shake of his head, grabs his shirt and keys, and storms out the front door without another word.

I silently follow Isabel to her car.

"You like Alex more than as a friend, don't you?" I ask.

"More like a brother. We've known each other since we were kids."

I give her directions to my house. Is she telling me the truth? "You don't think he's hot?"

"I've known him since he cried like a baby when his ice cream fell on the street when we were four years old. I was there when, well . . . just leave it at the fact that we've been through a lot of stuff together."

"Stuff? Want to elaborate?"

"Not with you."

I could almost see the invisible wall going up between us. "So our friendship ends here?"

She looks at me sideways. "Our friendship just began, Brittany. Don't push it."

We're coming up to my house. "It's the third one on the right," I say.

"I know." She stops her car in front of my house, not bothering to pull into the driveway. I look at her. She looks at me. Does she expect me to ask her in? I don't even let good friends come into my house.

"Well, thanks for the ride," I say. "And for letting me crash at your place."

Isabel flashes me a weak smile. "No problem."

I cling to the door handle. "I won't let anything happen between me and Alex. Okay?" Even if there's something going on below the surface.

"Good. Because if something does, it's going to blow up in your faces."

The Oompa Loompas start knocking again, so I can't think too hard about her warning.

In the house, my mother and father are sitting at the kitchen table. It's quiet. Too quiet. There are papers in front of them. Brochures or something. They quickly straighten, like little kids caught doing something wrong.

"I ... I thought you were st--still ... at Sierra's," my mom says. My senses pick up. My mom never stutters. And she's not giving me shit about the way I look. This is not good.

"I was, but I got a killer headache," I say, walking forward and focusing on the suspicious brochures my parents are so interested in.

Sunny Acres Home for Special People.

"What are you guys doing?"

"Discussing our options," my dad says.

"Options? Didn't we all agree that sending Shelley away was a bad idea?"

My mom turns to me. "No. You decided sending her away was a bad idea. We were still discussing it."

"I'm going to Northwestern next year so I can live at home and help."

"Next year you'll have to concentrate on your studies, not your sister. Brittany, listen," my dad says, standing. "We have to look into this option. After what she did to you yesterday--"

"I don't want to hear it," I tell him, cutting him off. "There is absolutely no way I'm letting you send my sister away." I snatch the brochures off the table. Shelley needs to be with her family, not in a facility with some strangers. I tear the brochures in two, toss them into the garbage can, then run to my bedroom.

"Open the door, Brit," my mom says, jiggling my bedroom doorknob a minute later.

I sit on the edge of my bed, my mind whirling with the image of Shelley being sent away. No, it can't happen. The thought makes me sick. "You didn't even train Baghda. It's like you wanted to send Shelley away all along."

"Don't be ridiculous," my mom's muffled voice comes through the door. "There's a new facility being built in Colorado. If you'd open this door we can have a civilized discussion about it."

I'll never let it happen. I'll do everything in my power to keep my sister at home.

"I don't want to have a civilized discussion. My parents want to send my sister to a facility behind my back and my head feels like it's about to split open. Leave me alone, okay?"

Something is sticking out of my pocket. It's Alex's bandanna. Isabel isn't a friend, yet she helped me. And Alex, a boy who cared about me last night more than my own boyfriend did, acted as my hero and is urging me to be real. Do I even know how to be real?

I clutch the bandanna to my chest.

And I allow myself to cry.

CHAPTER 22 Alex

She called me. If it weren't for the ripped piece of paper with her name and number scribbled on it by my brother Luis, I'd never believe Brittany actually dialed my number. Grilling Luis hadn't helped because the kid has the memory of a flea and hardly remembered taking the call. The only info I got was that she wanted me to call her back.

That was yesterday afternoon, before she puked her guts out on my shoe and passed out in my arms.

When I told her to be real, I could see the fear in her eyes. I wonder what she's afraid of. Breaking down her "perfection" wall is going to be my goal. I know there's more to her than blond streaks and a killer bod. Secrets she'll take to the grave and secrets she's dying to share. Oh, man. She's like a mystery, and all I can think about is unraveling the clues.

When I told her we're similar, I wasn't bullshitting. This connection we have isn't going away, it's only getting stronger. Because the more I spend time with her, the closer I want to be.

I have the urge to call Brittany just to hear her voice, even if it's filled with venom. Flipping open my cell as I sit on the sofa in my living room, I enter her number into memory.

"Who ya' callin'?" Paco asks, barging into my house without ringing or knocking. Isa files in behind him.

I click my phone shut. "Nadie."

"Then get your ass off that couch and come play soccer."

Playing soccer is a helluva lot better than sitting here thinking about Brittany and her secrets, even if I'm still feeling the effects of last night's partying. We head to the park where a bunch of guys are already warming up.

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