"Would it matter?" I mumble as I pick up a tortilla. I look up, trying to gauge her reaction.

Her back is to me as she cleans dishes in the sink. "No."

"Alex wants to pretend he's white," Carlos chimes in. "You can change your name, bro, but nobody'd mistake you for anythin' other than Mexicano."

"Carlos, collate la boca," I warn. I don't want to be white. I just don't want to be associated with my father.

"Por favor, you two," our mother pleads. "Enough fighting for one day."

"Mojado," Carlos sings, egging me on by calling me a wetback.

I've had enough of Carlos's mouth; he's gone too far. I stand, my chair scraping the floor. Carlos follows and steps in front of me, closing the space between us. He knows I could kick his ass. His overblown ego is gonna get him in trouble with the wrong person one of these days.

"Carlos, sit down," mi'ama orders.

"Dirty beaner," Carlos drawls at me in a fake deep accent. "Better yet, es un Ganguero."

"Carlos!" mi'ama reprimands sharply as she comes forward, but I get in between them and grab my brother's collar.

"Yeah, that's all anyone will ever think of me," I tell him. "But you keep talkin' trash and they'll think that of you, too."

"Brother, they'll think that of me anyway. Whether I want them to or not."

I release him. "You're wrong, Carlos. You can do better, be better."

"Than you?"

"Yeah, better than me and you know it," I say. "Now apologize to mi'ama for talkin' smack in front of her."

One look in my eyes and Carlos knows I'm not kidding around. "Sorry, Ma," he says, then sits back down. I don't miss his glare, though, as his ego got knocked down a peg.

Mi'amd turns and opens the fridge, trying to hide her tears. Damn it, she's worried about Carlos. He's a sophomore and the next two years are either going to make him or break him.

I pull on my black leather jacket, needing to get out of here. I give mi'ama a peck on the cheek with an apology for ruining her breakfast, then walk outside wondering how I'm going to keep Carlos and Luis away from my path while steering them toward a better one. Oh, the fucking irony of it all.

On the street, guys in the same color bandannas flag the Latino Blood signal: right hand tapping twice on their left arm while their ring finger is bent. My veins fire up as I flag right back before straddling my motorcycle. They want a tough-as-nails gang member, they got one. I put on a hell of a show to the outside world; sometimes I even surprise myself.

"Alex, wait up," a familiar female voice calls out.

Carmen Sanchez, my neighbor and ex-girlfriend, runs up to me.

"Hey, Carmen," I mutter.

"How about giving me a ride to school?"

Her short black skirt shows off her incredible legs, and her shirt is tight, accentuating her small but perky chichis. Once I would have done anything for her, but that was before I caught her in another guy's bed over the summer. Or car, as it was.

"Come on, Alex. I promise not to bite . . . unless you want me to."

Carmen is my Latino Blood homegirl. Whether we're a couple or not, we still have each other's backs. It's the code we live by. "Get on," I say.

Carmen hops on my motorcycle and deliberately places her hands on my thighs while pressing against my backside. It doesn't have the effect she was probably hoping for. What does she think, that I'll forget the past? No way. My history defines who I am.

I try to focus on starting my senior year at Fairfield, the here and now. It's damn difficult because, unfortunately, after graduation my future will likely be as screwed up as my past.

CHAPTER 3 Brittany

"My hair gets all frizzy in this car, Sierra. Every time I put the top down, my hair looks like I've walked through a tornado," I say to my best friend as I drive on Vine Street toward Fairfield High in my new silver convertible.

"Outward appearances mean everything." My parents taught me the motto that rules my life. It's the sole reason I didn't comment about the BMW when my dad gave me the extravagant birthday present two weeks ago.

"We live a half hour from the Windy City," Sierra says, holding her hand in the wind as we drive. "Chicago isn't exactly known for its calm weather. Besides, you look like a blond, Grecian goddess with wild hair, Brit. You're just nervous about seeing Colin again."

My gaze wanders to the heart-shaped picture of me and Colin taped to my dashboard. "A summer apart changes people."

"Distance makes the heart grow fonder," Sierra throws back. "You're the captain of the pom squad and he's captain of the varsity football team. You two have to date or the solar system would go out of alignment."

Colin called a few times during the summer from his family's cabin, where he was hanging out with his buddies, but I don't know where our relationship stands now. He just got back last night.

"I love those jeans," Sierra says, eyeing my faded Brazilian pants. "I'll be borrowing them before you know it."

"My mom hates them," I tell her, smoothing my hair at a stoplight, trying to tame my blond frizzies. "She says it looks like I got them at a used clothing store."

"Did you tell her vintage is in?"

"Yeah, like she'd even listen. She was hardly paying attention when I asked her about the new caretaker."

No one understands what it's like at my house. Luckily, I have Sierra. She might not understand, but she knows enough to listen and keep my home life confidential. Besides Colin, Sierra is the only one who's met my sister.

Sierra flips open my CD case. "What happened to the last caretaker?"

"Shelley pulled a chunk of her hair out."


I drive into the high school parking lot with my mind more on my sister than on the road. My wheels screech to a stop when I almost hit a guy and girl on a motorcycle. I thought it was an empty parking space.

"Watch it, bitch," Carmen Sanchez, the girl on the back of the motorcycle, says as she flips me the finger.

She obviously missed the Road Rage lecture in Driver's Ed.

"Sorry," I say loudly so I can be heard over the roar of the motorcycle. "It didn't look like anyone was in this spot."

Then I realize whose motorcycle I almost hit. The driver turns around. Angry dark eyes. Red and black bandanna. I sink down into the driver's seat as far as I can.

"Oh, shit. It's Alex Fuentes," I say, wincing.

"Jesus, Brit," Sierra says, her voice low. "I'd like to live to see graduation. Get outta here before he decides to kill us both."

Alex is staring at me with his devil eyes while putting the kickstand down on his motorcycle. Is he going to confront me?

I search for reverse, frantically moving the stick back and forth. Of course it's no surprise my dad bought me a car with a stick shift without taking the time to teach me how to master driving the thing.

Alex takes a step toward my car. My instincts tell me to abandon the car and flee, as if I was stuck on railroad tracks with a train heading straight for me. I glance at Sierra, who's desperately searching through her purse for something. Is she kidding me?

"I can't get this damn car in reverse. I need help. What are you looking for?" I ask.

"Like . . . nothing. I'm trying not to make eye contact with those Latino Bloods. Get a move on, will ya?" Sierra responds through gritted teeth. "Besides, I only know how to drive an automatic."

Finally grinding into reverse, my wheels screech loud and hard as I maneuver backward and search for another parking spot.

After parking in the west lot, far from a certain gang member with a reputation that could scare off even the toughest Fairfield football players, Sierra and I walk up the front steps of Fairfield High. Unfortunately, Alex Fuentes and the rest of his gang friends are hanging by the front doors.

"Walk right past them," Sierra mutters. "Whatever you do, don't look in their eyes."

It's pretty hard not to when Alex Fuentes steps right in front of me and blocks my path.

What's that prayer you're supposed to say right before you know you're going to die?

"You're a lousy driver," Alex says with his slight Latino accent and full-blown I-AM-THE-MAN stance.

The guy might look like an Abercrombie model with his ripped bod and flawless face, but his picture is more likely to be taken for a mug shot.

The kids from the north side don't really mix with kids from the south side. It's not that we think we're better than them, we're just different. We've grown up in the same town, but on totally opposite sides. We live in big houses on Lake Michigan and they live next to the train tracks. We look, talk, act, and dress different. I'm not saying it's good or bad; it's just the way it is in Fairfield. And, to be honest, most of the south side girls treat me like Carmen Sanchez does . . . they hate me because of who I am.

Or, rather, who they think I am.

Alex's gaze slowly moves down my body, traveling the length of me before moving back up. It's not the first time a guy has checked me out, it's just that I never had a guy like Alex do it so blatantly . . . and so up-close. I can feel my face getting hot.

"Next time, watch where you're goin'," he says, his voice cool and controlled.

He's trying to bully me. He's a pro at this. I won't let him get to me and win his little game of intimidation, even if my stomach feels like I'm doing one hundred cartwheels in a row. I square my shoulders and sneer at him, the same sneer I use to push people away. "Thanks for the tip."

"If you ever need a real man to teach you how to drive, I can give you lessons."

Catcalls and whistles from his buddies set my blood boiling.

"If you were a real man, you'd open the door for me instead of blocking my way," I say, admiring my own comeback even as my knees threaten to buckle.

Alex steps back, pulls the door open, and bows like he's my butler. He's totally mocking me, he knows it and I know it. Everyone knows it. I catch a glimpse of Sierra, still desperately searching for nothing in her purse. She's clueless.

"Get a life," I tell him.

"Like yours? Cabrona, let me tell you somethin'," Alex says harshly. "Your life isn't reality, it's fake. Just like you."

"It's better than living my life as a loser," I lash out, hoping my words sting as much as his words did. "Just like you."

Grabbing Sierra's arm, I pull her toward the open door. Catcalls and comments follow us as we walk into the school.

I finally let out the breath I must have been holding, then turn to Sierra.

My best friend is staring at me, all bug-eyed. "Holy shit, Brit! You got a death wish or something?"

"What gives Alex Fuentes the right to bully everyone in his path?"

"Uh, maybe the gun he has hidden in his pants or the gang colors he wears," Sierra says, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"He's not stupid enough to carry a gun to school," I reason. "And I refuse to be bullied, by him or anyone else." At school, at least. School is the one place I can keep up my "perfect" facade; everyone at school buys it. Suddenly pumped about starting my last year at Fairfield, I shake Sierra's shoulders. "We're seniors now," I say with the same enthusiasm I use for pom-pom routines during football games.