There's been something nagging at me all day. As long as I'm here with him, I might as well ask. "Did we kiss last night?"
"Well, it wasn't memorable because I have no recollection of it."
He laughs. "I was kiddin'. We didn't kiss." He leans in. "When we kiss you'll remember it. Forever."
Oh, God. I wish his words didn't leave my knees weak. I know I should be scared, alone with a gang member in a deserted place talking about kissing. But I'm not. Deep in my soul I know he wouldn't intentionally hurt me or force me to do anything.
"Why did you kidnap me?" I ask.
He grabs my hand and leads me to the driver's side. "Get in."
"I'm teachin' you how to drive this car properly, before the engine falls out from abuse."
"I thought you were mad at me. Why are you helping me?"
"Because I want to."
Oh. I wasn't expecting that at all. My heart is starting to thaw, because it's been a long time since someone cared enough to do something just to help me. Although . . . "This isn't because you want me to pay you back with favors, is it?"
He shakes his head.
"And you're not mad at me because of anything I said or did?"
"I'm frustrated, Brittany. About you. About my brother. About a lot of shit."
"Then why take me here?"
"Don't ask questions you're not ready to hear the answer to. Cool?"
"Cool." I slide into the driver's seat and wait for him to sit beside me.
"You ready?" he asks when he's settled and buckled in the passenger seat.
He leans over and puts the keys in the ignition. When I release the parking brake and start the car, it dies.
"You didn't put it in neutral. If you don't have your foot on the clutch, it's gonna die if you're in gear."
"I knew that," I say, feeling totally stupid. "You're just making me nervous."
He puts the stick into neutral for me. "Put your left foot on the clutch, your right foot on the brake, and go into first," he instructs.
Putting my foot on the gas and letting up on the clutch, the car jerks forward.
He braces himself with his hand on the dash. "Stop."
I stop the car and put it in neutral.
"You've got to find the sweet spot."
I look at him. "The sweet spot?"
"Yeah. You know, when the clutch catches." He's using his hands when he talks, pretending his hands are the pedals. "You release it too fast. Get that balance and stay there . . . feel it out. Try again."
I put the car in first again and let up on the clutch as I press on the gas.
"Hold it . . . ," he says. "Feel the sweet spot. Linger there."
I let out the clutch and hold down the gas pedal but don't push down on it all the way. "I think I got it."
"Let go of the clutch now, but don't gun the gas."
I try, but the car jerks, then stalls.
"You popped the clutch. Don't release the clutch too fast. Try again," he says, totally unfazed. He's not upset, frustrated, or itching to give up. "You needed to give it more gas. Don't gun it, but give it enough juice to start movin'."
I do the same steps, but this time the car moves forward without jerking. We're on the runway, moving up to ten miles an hour.
"Press in the clutch," he instructs, then puts his hand over mine on the stick and helps me shift into second. I try to ignore his gentle touch and the warmth of his hand, so contradictory to his personality, and attempt to focus on the task.
He's very patient as he instructs in detail how to downshift until we've come to a stop at the end of the runway. His fingers are still wrapped around mine.
"Lesson over?" I ask.
Alex clears his throat. "Um, yeah." He takes his hand off mine, then weaves his fingers through his black mane, strands falling loosely across his forehead.
"Thanks," I say.
"Yeah, well, my ears were bleedin' every time I heard your engine rev in the lot at school. I didn't do it to be a good guy."
I cock my head to the side and try and get him to look at me. He doesn't. "Why is it so important that you're perceived as a bad boy, huh? Tell me."
CHAPTER 24 Alex
For the first time we're having a civilized discussion. Now I've got to come up with something to break that defensive wall of hers.
Oh, man. I need to reveal something that makes me vulnerable. If she sees me as vulnerable instead of an asshole, maybe I can make some headway with her. And somehow I know she'll be able to tell if I'm bullshitting.
I'm not sure if I'm doing this for the bet, for the chemistry project, or for me. In fact, I'm totally cool with not analyzing that part of what's happening here.
"My dad was murdered in front of me when I was six," I tell her.
Her eyes go wide. "Really?"
I nod. I don't like talking about it, not sure I can even if I want to.
Her manicured hands cover her mouth. "I didn't know that. Oh, God, I'm so sorry. That must have been horrible."
"Yep." It feels good to let it out, to make myself talk about it out loud. My dad's nervous smile turning into shock right before he was shot.
Wow, I can't believe I remembered the expression on his face. Why would his smile be replaced by shock? That detail was totally forgotten until now. I'm still confused as I turn to Brittany. "If I care too much about shit and it's taken away, I'll feel like I did the day my dad died. I never want to feel that way, so instead I make myself care about nothin'."
Her face is full of regret, sorrow, and sympathy. I can tell it's not an act.
Her brow is still furrowed when she says, "Thanks for, you know, telling me. But I can't imagine you can actually make yourself care about nothing. You can't program yourself like that."
"Wanna bet?" Suddenly I'm desperate to change the subject. "Your turn to share."
She looks away. I don't push her to say anything for fear she'll come to her senses and want to leave.
Could it be harder for her to share even a glimpse into her world? My life has been so fucked up, it's damn hard to believe her life could possibly be any worse. I watch as a lone tear escapes from her eye and she quickly wipes it away.
"My sister--," she starts. "My sister has cerebral palsy. And is mentally delayed. 'Retarded' is the term most people use. She can't walk, she uses what's called verbal approximations and nonverbal cues instead of words because she can't talk. . . ." With that, another tear escapes. This time she lets it fall without wiping it away. I have the urge to wipe them for her but sense she needs to be left untouched. She takes a deep breath. "And she's been angry about something, but I don't know what. She started pulling hair, and yesterday she pulled mine so hard a clump came out. My head was bleeding and my mom was freaking out on me."
So that's where the mysterious patch of baldness came from. Not a drug test.
For the first time, though, I feel sorry for her. I imagined her life as a fairy tale; the worst thing that could possibly happen would be a pea under her mattress keeping her up at night.
I guess that's not the case.
Something is happening. I sense a change in the wind ... a mutual understanding of each other. I haven't felt this way in forever. I clear my throat, then say, "Your mom probably blows up at you the most because she knows you can take it."
"Yeah. You're probably right. Better me than my sister."
"It's no excuse, though." I'm being real now, and hope she is, too. "Listen, I don't want to be an asshole to you," I say. So much for the Alex Fuentes Show.
"I know. It's your image, what Alex Fuentes is all about. It's your brand, your logo . . . dangerous, deadly, hot and sexy Mexican. I wrote the book on creating an image. I wasn't exactly aiming for the blond bimbo look, though. More like the perfect, untouchable look."
Whoa. Rewind. Brittany called me hot and sexy. I was not expecting that at all. Maybe I have a chance of winning that stupid bet. "You do realize you called me hot."
"As if you didn't know."
I didn't know Brittany Ellis considered me hot. "For the record, I thought you were untouchable. But now that I know you think I'm a hot, sexy, Mexican god ..."
"I never said the word 'god.'"
I put my finger to my lips. "Shh, let me enjoy the fantasy for one minute." I close my eyes. Brittany laughs, this sweet sound that echoes in my ears.
"In some deranged way, Alex, I think I understand you. Although I'm really pissed off at you for being such a Neanderthal." When I open my eyes, I find her watching me. "Don't tell anyone about my sister," she says. "I don't like people knowing anything about me."
"We're actors in our lives, pretendin' to be who we want people to think we are."
"So you understand why I'd freak out if my parents find out we're . . . friends."
"You'd get in trouble? Shit, you're eighteen. Don't you think you can be friends with who you want to by now? The umbilical cord's been cut, you know."
"You don't understand."
"Why do you want to know so much?"
"Aren't chem partners supposed to know a lot about each other?"
She gives a short laugh. "I hope not."
Truth is, this girl isn't what I thought she'd be. From the moment I told her about my dad, it was as if her entire body sighed in relief. As if someone else's misery comforted her, made her feel as if she wasn't alone. I still can't understand why she cares so much, why she chooses the Tam-flawless facade to show the world.
Looming over my head is The Bet. I have to get this girl to fall for me. And while my body says go for it, the rest of me is thinking You're a complete bastard because she's vulnerable.
"1 want the same things out of life you do," I admit. "I just go about them in a different way. You adapt to your environment, I adapt to mine." I put my hand back on hers. "Let me show you I'm different. Oye, would you ever date a guy who couldn't afford to take you to expensive restaurants and buy you gold and diamonds?"
"Absolutely." She slips her hand out from under mine. "But I have a boyfriend."
"If you didn't, would you give this Mexicano a chance?"
Her face turns a deep shade of pink. I wonder if Colin ever makes her blush like that. "I'm not answering that," she says.
"Why not? It's a simple question."
"Oh, please. Nothing about you is simple, Alex. Let's not even go there." She puts the car in first gear. "Can we go now?"
"Si, if you want. Are we cool?"
"I think so."
I hold my hand out for her to shake. She eyes the tattoos on my fingers, then extends her hand toward mine and shakes it, her enthusiasm apparent. "To hand warmers," she says with a smile on her lips.
"To hand warmers," I agree. And sex, I add silently.
"Do you want to drive back? I don't know the way."
I drive her back in comfortable silence while the sun sets. Our truce brings me closer to my goals: graduating, the bet. . . and something else I'm not ready to admit.