Alex studies the picture of his dad. "At the time, you're numb and try to block it out. I mean, you know he's gone and all, but it's like you're in this fog. Then life kind of gets into a routine and you follow it." He shrugs. "Eventually you stop thinkin' about it so much and move on. There's no other choice."

"It's kind of like a test." I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I absently run my fingers through my hair.

"You're always doin' that."

"Doing what?"

"Fixin' your hair or makeup."

"So, what's wrong with trying to look good?"

"Nothin', unless it becomes an obsession."

I put my hands down, wishing I could superglue them to my sides. "I'm not obsessed."

He shrugs. "Is it so important that people think you're beautiful?"

"I don't care what people think," I lie.

" 'Cause you are . . . beautiful, I mean. But it shouldn't matter so much."

I know that. But expectations mean a lot where I come from. Speaking of expectations . . . "What did Mrs. Peterson say to you after class?"

"Oh, the usual. That if I don't take her class seriously she'll make my life miserable."

I swallow, not knowing if I should reveal my plan. "I'm going to tell her you switched the tests."

"Don't do that," he says, stepping away from me.

"Why not?"

"Because it doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does. You need good grades to get into . . ."

"What? A good college? Give me a fuckin' break. I'm not goin' to college and you know it. You rich kids worry about your GPA as if it's a symbol of your worth. I don't need it, so don't do me any favors. I'll get by with a C in that class. Just make sure those hand warmers kick ass."

If I have anything to do about it, we'll get an A+ on the project.

"Where's your room?" I ask, changing the subject. I drop my book bag on the living room floor. "A bedroom tells a lot about a person."

He gestures to a doorway off to one side. Three beds take up most of the small space, with enough room for one small dresser. I walk around the small room.

"I share it with my two brothers," he states. "Not a lot of privacy here."

"Let me guess which bed is yours," I say, smiling.

I scan the areas around each bed. A small picture of a pretty Hispanic girl is taped to one wall. "Hmmm . . . ," I murmur, glancing at Alex and wondering if the girl staring back at me is his ideal.

I slowly walk around him and examine the next bed. Pictures of soccer players are taped above it. The bed is messy, and clothes are strewn from the pillow to the foot of the bed.

Nothing adorns the wall by the third bed, as if the person who sleeps here is a visitor. It's almost sad, the first two walls saying so much about the people who sleep below them and this one totally bare.

I sit on Alex's bed, the hopeless and empty one, and my eyes meet his. "Your bed says a lot about you."

"Yeah? What does it say?"

"I wonder why you don't think you'll stay here long," I say. "Unless it's because you really do want to go to college."

He leans on the door frame. "I'm not leavin' Fairfield. Ever."

"Don't you want a degree?"

"Now you sound like the damn career counselor at school."

"You don't want to get away and start living your own life? Away from your past?"

"You see goin' to college as an escape," he says.

"Escape? Alex, you have no clue. I'm going to a college that's close to my sister. First it was Northwestern, now it's the University of Colorado. My life is dictated by the whims of my parents and where they want to send my sister. You want the easy way out, so you stay here."

"You think it's a breeze being the man of the house? Shit, makin' sure my mama doesn't get mixed up with some loser or that my brothers don't start shootin' shit up their arms or smokin' crack is enough to keep me here."

"I'm sorry."

"I warned you never to pity me."

"No," I say, my eyes moving up to meet his. "You feel such a family connection, yet you don't place anything permanent beside your bed, as if you're going to leave at any moment. I feel sorry for you about that."

He steps back, shutting me out. "You done with the psychoanalysis?" he says.

I follow him into the family room, still wondering what Alex wants for his future. It seems the guy is ready to leave this house ... or this earth. Could it be in some way Alex is preparing for his death by not placing anything permanent beside him? That he's destined to end up like his father?

Is that what he meant by his demons?

For the next two hours, we sit on his family room couch and hatch a plan for our hand warmers. He's a lot smarter than I'd realized; that A on his test wasn't a fluke. He has a lot of ideas about how we can research online and get information from the library on how to construct the hand warmers and various uses for them to incorporate into our paper. We need the chemicals Mrs. Peterson will provide, Ziploc bags to enclose the chemicals, and to get extra brownie points we've decided to encase the Ziploc bags in material we'll pick out at the fabric store. I purposely keep the discussion on chemistry, careful not to touch on any subject too personal.

As I close my chemistry book, out of the corner of my eye I see Alex run his hand through his hair. "Listen, I didn't mean to be rude to you before."

"That's okay. I got too nosy."

"You're right."

I stand, feeling uncomfortable. He grabs my arm and urges me back down.

"No," he says, "I mean you're right about me. I don't place anything permanent here."


"My dad," Alex says, staring at the picture on the opposite wall. He squeezes his eyes shut. "God, there was so much blood." He opens his eyes and captures my gaze. "If there's one thing I learned, it's that nobody is here forever. You have to live for the moment, each and every day . . . the here, the now."

"And what do you want right now?" Right now I itch to heal his wounds and forget my own.

He touches my cheek with the tips of his fingers.

My breath hitches. "Do you want to kiss me, Alex?" I whisper.

"Dios mio, I want to kiss you ... to taste your lips, your tongue." He gently traces my lips with the tips of his fingers. "Do you want me to kiss you? Nobody else would know but the two of us."


Brittany's tongue snakes out to wet her perfect heart-shaped lips, which are now shiny and oh, so inviting.

"Don't tease me like that," I groan, my lips inches from hers.

Her books hit the carpet. Her eyes follow, but if I lose her attention, I may never get this moment back. My fingers move to her chin, gently urging her to look at me.

She looks up at me with those vulnerable eyes. "What if it means something?" she asks.

"What if it does?"

"Promise me it won't mean anything."

I lean my head back on the couch. "It won't mean anythin'." Aren't I supposed to be the guy in this scenario, laying down the no-commitment rules?

"And no tongue," she adds.

"Mi vida, if I kiss you, I guarantee there's gonna be tongue."

She hesitates.

"I promise it won't mean anythin'," I assure her again.

I really don't expect her to do it. I think she's teasing me, testing to see how much I can take before I crack. But as her eyelids close and she leans closer, I realize it's going to happen. This girl of my dreams, this girl who is more like me than anyone I've ever met, wants to kiss me.

I take over control as soon as she tilts her head. Our lips touch for the briefest moment before I lace my fingers in her hair and keep kissing her soft and gentle. I cup her cheek in my palm, feeling her baby-soft skin against my rough fingers. My body urges me to take advantage of the situation, but my brain (the one inside my head) keeps me in check.

A satisfied sigh escapes Brittany's mouth, as if she's content to stay in my arms forever.

I brush the tip of my tongue against her lips, enticing her to open her mouth. She tentatively meets my tongue with her own. Our mouths and tongues mingle in a slow, erotic dance until the sound of the front door opening makes her jerk away.

Damn. I'm pissed off. First, for losing myself in Brittany's kiss. Second, for wanting that moment to last forever. Last, I'm pissed at mi'ama and brothers for coming home at the most awful time.

I watch Brittany trying to look busy as she bends down and picks up her books. My mother and brothers are standing in the doorway with their eyes bugged out.

"Hey, Ma," I say, more flustered than I should be.

From the stern look on mi'ama's face, I know she's not pleased at catching us making out like there was a promise of more to come.

"Luis and Carlos, go to your bedroom," she orders, stepping into the room and composing herself. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend, Alejandro?"

Brittany stands, books in hand. "Hi, I'm Brittany." Even with her sun-kissed hair mussed from my fingers and the motorcycle ride, she's still kick-ass beautiful. Brittany extends her hand in greeting. "Alex and I were studying chemistry."

"What I saw wasn't studying," my ma says, ignoring her hand.

Brittany winces.

"Mama, leave her alone," I say roughly.

"My home is not a whorehouse."

"Por favor, Mama," I say, exasperated. "We were only kissin'."

"Kissing leads to making ninos, Alejandro."

"Let's get out of here," I say, totally embarrassed. I whip my jacket off the couch and shrug into it.

"I'm sorry if I disrespected you in any way, Mrs. Fuentes," Brittany says, visibly upset.

My mother takes the groceries she's carrying, ignoring the apology as she walks into the kitchen.

When we're outside, I hear Brittany take a deep breath. I swear it sounds as if she's holding herself together by a thin thread. Not the way it's supposed to go down: bring girl home, kiss girl, mom insults girl, girl leaves crying.

"Don't sweat it. She's just not used to me bringin' girls in the house."

Brittany's expressive blue eyes appear remote and cold. "That shouldn't have happened," she says, throwing back her shoulders in a stance as stiff as a statue's.

"What? The kiss or you likin' it so much?"

"I have a boyfriend," she says as she fidgets with the strap on her designer book bag.

"You tryin' to convince me, or yourself?" I ask her.

"Don't turn this around. I don't want to upset my friends. I don't want to upset my mom. And Colin . . . I'm just really confused right now."

I hold out my hands and raise my voice, something I usually avoid because like Paco says, it means I actually care. I don't care. Why should I? My mind says to shut the fuck up at the same time words spout from my mouth. "I don't get it. He treats you like you're his damn prize."

"You don't even know what it's like with me and Colin. . . ."

"Tell me, dammit," I say, unable to hide the edge to my voice. Initially I hold myself back from what I really want to say, but I can't resist and tell it to her straight up. " 'Cause that kiss back there ... it meant somethin'. You know it as well as I do. I dare you to tell me bein' with Colin is better than that."