Mario, a guy in my class whose brother died in a drive-by last year, slaps me on the back. "Wanna play goalie, Alex?"

"No." I have what you call an offensive personality. In soccer, and in life.

"Paco, what about you?"

Paco agrees and takes his position, which is sitting on his ass in front of the goal line. As usual, my lazy friend sits until the ball rolls to his side of the field.

Most of the guys playing are from my neighborhood. We've grown up together . . . played on this playground since we were kids and even got initiated into the Latino Blood at the same time. Before I was jumped in I remember Lucky telling us how being in a gang was like having a second family ... a family who would be there for you when your own family wasn't. They would offer protection and security. It sounded perfect to a kid who'd lost his father.

Over the years, I've learned to block out the bad stuff. The beatings, the dirty drug deals, the shootings. And I'm not just talking about guys on the other side. I know of guys who tried to get out, guys who were found dead or beaten so badly by their own gang they probably wished they were dead.

To be honest, I block it out 'cause it scares the shit out of me. I'm supposed to be tough enough not to care, but I do.

We take our positions on the field. I imagine the ball holds a jackpot. If I keep it away from everyone else and kick it into the goal, I'll magically transform into a rich and powerful guy who can take my family (and Paco) away from this hellhole neighborhood.

There's a lot of good players on each team. The other side has an advantage because we have Paco as our goalie, scratching his balls on the other end of the field.

"Yo, Paco. Stop playin' with yourself!" Mario yells.

Paco's answer is making a huge point of grabbing his balls and juggling them in his hands. Chris shoots the ball right past him and scores.

Mario picks up the ball from inside the goal and chucks it at Paco. "If you were as interested in the game as you are in your huevos, they wouldn't have scored."

"I can't help it if they itch, man. Your girlfriend must have given me crabs last night."

Mario laughs, not believing for a second his girlfriend would cheat on him. Paco tosses the ball to Mario, who passes to Lucky. Lucky brings the ball downfield. He passes it to me and I have my chance. I dribble down the makeshift field, pausing only to gauge how far I have to go before I kick it into the goal.

Faking to the left, I pass to Mario and he passes it back. With one swift kick, the ball soars right and we've scored.

"Goooaaaallll," our team sings as Mario gives me a high five.

Our celebration is short-lived, though. A blue Escalade is creeping suspiciously down the street.

"Recognize it?" Mario asks, tensing.

The game stops as guys realize there's something not cool. "Maybe it's retaliation," I say.

My eyes never leave the car window. When the car stops, we're all waiting for a glimpse of either someone or something to emerge from the car. When it does, we'll be ready.

But I'm not. My brother Carlos steps out of the car with a guy named Wil. Wil's ma is in the Blood and recruits new members. My brother better not be one of those recruits. I've worked too damn hard making sure he knows I'm in the Blood so he doesn't have to be. If one family member is in, the rest are protected. I'm in. Carlos and Luis aren't, and I'll do anything to make sure they stay that way.

I put on a game face and walk over to Wil, soccer completely forgotten. "New car?" I ask him, eyeing his wheels.

"It's my mom's."

"Nice." I turn to my brother. "Where have you guys been hangin'?"

Carlos leans against the car, as if hanging with Wil is no big deal. Wil got initiated recently and now he thinks he's the shit. "At the mall. They've got this cool new guitar store. Hector met us there and--"

Did I hear right? "Hector?" The last thing I want is my brother hanging around Hector.

Wil, with his big shirt hanging over his pants, whacks Carlos on the shoulder to shut him up. My brother closes his mouth as if something was about to fly in it. I swear I'll kick his ass from here to Mexico if he even thinks about joining the Blood.

"Fuentes, you in or out?" someone yells from the field.

Keeping my anger hidden, I turn to my brother and his friend, who's capable of luring him to the dark side. "Wanna play?"

"Nah. We're gonna hang at my house," Wil says.

I shrug nonchalantly, not feeling the least bit nonchalant. Que me importa!

I walk to the field, even if I have the urge to grab Carlos by the ear and drag him home. I can't afford to cause a scene that might get back to Hector, who might start questioning my loyalty.

Sometimes I feel my life is one big lie.

Carlos leaves with Wil. That, combined with the fact that I can't get Brittany out of my mind, is driving me nuts. On the field, when the game starts back up, I'm restless. Suddenly, it's like the players on the other team aren't guys I know, but enemies in the way of everything I want. I charge the ball.

"Foul!" a cousin of one of my friends yells at me when I slam into him.

I put up my hands. "That was not a foul."

"You pushed me."

"Don't be a panocha," I say, knowing I'm blowing it out of proportion.

I want to get in a fight. I'm asking for it. He knows it. The guy is about my height, my weight. My adrenaline is running high.

"You want a piece of me, pendejo?" he says, holding his arms out wide like a bird in flight.

Intimidation doesn't work with me. "Come and get it."

Paco runs in between us. "Alex, cool down, man."

"Either fight or play!" someone shouts.

"He said I made a foul," I tell Paco, my veins pumping.

Paco shrugs casually. "You did."

Okay, now when my own best friend doesn't back me up, I know I've lost it. I look around. Everyone is waiting to see what I'm going to do. My adrenaline is in overdrive, matching their heightened anticipation. Do I want to fight? Yeah, if only to get this raw energy out of my body. And to forget, even for a minute, that my chem partner's number is cued up in my cell. And my brother is on the Blood radar to be recruited.

My best friend shoves me away from the guy wanting to rip my head off and pushes me to the side of the field. He calls out for subs to take our place in the game.

"What'd you do that for?" I ask.

"To save your hide, man. Alex, you've lost it. Completely."

"I can take that guy."

Paco looks straight at me and says, "You're the one actin' like a panocha."

I shrug his hands off my shirt and stalk off not knowing how, in the matter of a few weeks, I've gotten my life screwed up so badly. I need to fix it. I'll deal with Carlos when he comes home tonight. He's gonna get an earful from me. And Brittany . . .

She didn't want me to drive her home from Isa's house because she didn't want to be seen with me. Fuck that shit. Carlos isn't the only one who deserves an earful from me.

I flip open my cell and cue Brittany's number.


"It's Alex," I tell her, although she has caller ID and knows damn well it's me. "Meet me at the library. Now."

"I can't."

This is not the Brittany Ellis Show. It's the Alex Fuentes Show now. "Here's the deal, mamacita," I say as I reach my house and straddle my motorcycle. "You either show up at the library in fifteen minutes or I'm bringin' five friends to your house and we're campin' out on your front lawn tonight."

"How dare you--" she starts to say, but I close the phone before she can finish her sentence.

Revving the engine to block out thoughts of last night when she snuggled into my lap, I realize I don't have a game plan.

I wonder if the Alex Fuentes Show will end up being a comedy or, more likely, a tragedy. Either way, it'll be a reality show worth not missing.

CHAPTER 23 Brittany

I'm steaming mad as I pull into the library parking lot and park next to the woods at the far end of the lot. The last thing on my mind is our chemistry project.

Alex is waiting for me, leaning against his motorcycle. I take the keys out of the ignition and storm over to him. "How dare you order me around!" I yell. My entire life is full of people trying to control me. My mom . . . Colin. And now Alex. I'm done with it. "If you think you can threaten me into--"

Without saying anything Alex snatches my keys out of my hand and sits in the driver's seat of my Beemer.

"Alex, what do you think you're doing?"

"Get in."

The engine roars. He's going to drive off and leave me stranded in the library parking lot.

Clenching my fists, I stomp to the passenger side. When I'm in, Alex revs the engine.

"Where's my picture of Colin?" I ask, eyeing my dashboard. It was taped up there a minute ago.

"Don't worry, you'll get it back. I don't have the stomach to look at it while I'm drivin'."

"Do you even know how to drive a stick?" I bark out.

Without blinking or looking down, he puts the car into first gear and the car screeches out of the lot. My Beemer follows his lead as if the car and Alex are completely in sync.

"This is carjacking, you know." Silence. "And kidnapping," I add.

We're stopped at a light. I look at the cars around us, glad the top is up so no one can see us.

"Mira, you got in on your own free will," he says.

"It's my car. What if someone sees us?"

My words really piss him off, because the tires screech angrily when the light turns green. He's purposely ruining my car.

"Stop it!" I order. "Take me back to the library."

But he doesn't. He's silent as he winds my car through unknown towns and deserted roads, just like people do in the movies when they drive to meet dangerous drug dealers.

Great. I'm going on my first drug deal. If I get arrested, will my parents come bail me out? I wonder how my mom's going to explain that one to her friends. Maybe they'll send me away to some military boot camp for delinquents. I bet they'd like that. . . making Shelley go to a facility and me to boot camp.

My life would suck even more.

I will not be a part of anything illegal. I am the ruler of my destiny, not Alex. I grab the handle to the door. "Let me out of here or I swear I'm jumping out."

"You're wearin' a seatbelt." He rolls his eyes. "Relax. We'll be there in two minutes." He shifts into a lower gear and slows the car as we enter an old, deserted airport. "Okay, we're here," he says as he pulls up the parking brake.

"Yeah, okay. But where is here? I hate to tell you but the last inhabited place was, like, three miles back. I'm not getting out of the car, Alex. You can do your drug deals on your own."

"If I had any doubts you were a true blond, you've squelched them," he says. "As if I'd take you on a drug deal. Get out of the car."

"Give me one good reason why I should?"

"Because if you don't, I'm gonna drag you out. Trust me, mujer."

He puts my keys in his back pocket and steps out of my car. Seeing no other options, I follow him. "Listen, if you wanted to discuss our hand warmers we could have done it over the phone."

He meets me around the back of my car. We're standing, toe to toe, in the middle of nowhere.