"He didn't make me lie, Mom," I say, exasperated. "Give me a little credit, would you? I did it all on my own."
Her anger is in full swing, I can tell by the way her eyes are blazing and her hands are shaking. "If I ever . . . EVER find you were out with that boy again, I'll have no problem convincing your father that you should be sent to boarding school the rest of your senior year. Don't you think I have enough to worry about with Shelley? Promise me you'll have no other contact with him outside of school."
I promise, then run to my room and call Sierra.
"What's up?" she says.
"Sierra, I need a best friend right now."
"And you chose me? Gee, I'm flattered," she says dryly.
"Okay, I lied to you. I like Alex. Big-time."
"Sierra, are you there? Or are you ignoring me?"
"I'm not ignoring you, Brit. I'm just wondering why you chose to tell me now."
"Because I need to talk about it. With you. Do you hate me?"
"You're my best friend," she says.
"And you're mine."
"Best friends are still best friends even though one decides to abandon all reason and date a gangbanger. Right?"
"I hope so."
"Brit, don't lie to me ever again."
"I won't. And you can share the info with Doug as long as he promises to keep it to himself."
"Thanks for trusting me, Brit. You may not think it means a lot, but it does."
After I finish the entire story and I hang up with Sierra feeling really good that things are back to normal with her, my phone rings. It's Isabel.
"I have to talk to you," Isabel says when I answer.
"What is it?"
"Did you see Paco today?"
Umm ... so much for secrets. "Yeah."
"Did you mention me?"
"No. Why? Did you want me to?"
"No. Yes. Oh, I don't know. I'm so confused."
"Isabel, just tell him how you feel. It worked for me with Alex."
"Yeah, but you're Brittany Ellis."
"You want to know what it's like being Brittany Ellis? I'll tell you. I'm insecure, just like anyone else. And have more pressure on me to put on an act, so people's image of me isn't shattered and they don't see that I'm really just like anyone else. And that makes me more vulnerable, and more scrutinized, and more susceptible to gossip."
"So I guess you probably won't be happy about the rumors spreading about you and Alex within my group of friends. Do you want to know what they are?"
"Yeah. If you consider yourself my friend, don't tell me."
Because if I know the rumors, I'll feel like I have to confront them. And right this second I want to live in ignorant bliss.
CHAPTER 42 Alex
After having Brittany speed out of the body shop to get away from me, I'm not feeling like talking and hope to avoid mi'ama when I get home. But one glance at the living room sofa puts that wish to rest.
The television is off, the lights are low, and my brothers have probably been sent to our bedroom.
"Alejandro," she starts. "I didn't want this life for us."
"I hope Brittany doesn't put ideas in your head that shouldn't be there."
I shrug. "Like what? That she hates I'm in a gang? You may not have chosen this life for me, but you sure as hell didn't protest when I got jumped in."
"Don't talk like that, Alejandro."
"Because the truth is too painful? I'm in a gang to protect you and my brothers, Mama. You know that, even though we don't talk about it," I say, my voice getting louder to match my frustration. "It's a choice I made a long time ago. You can pretend you didn't encourage me, but," I pull off my shirt, revealing my Latino Blood tattoos, "look at me real good. I'm a gangbanger, just like Papa. You want me to deal drugs, too?"
Tears stream down her face. "If I thought there was another way--"
"You were too scared to leave this shithole, and now we're stuck. Don't put your guilt on me, or my girl."
"That's not fair," she says, rising.
"What's not fair is you livin' like a widow in perpetual mourning since Papa died. Why don't we move back to Mexico? Tell Uncle Julio he wasted his life's savings sendin' us to America. Or are you afraid to go back to Mexico and tell your family that you failed here?"
"We are not having this discussion."
"Open your eyes." I stretch my arms out wide. "What do you have here worth stayin' for? Your sons? 'Cause that's a copout. Is this the image of the American Dream to you?" I point to the shrine of my father. "He was a gangbanger, not a saint."
"He had no choice," she cries. "He protected us."
"And now I'm protectin' us. You gonna have a shrine of me when I get whacked? And Carlos? Because he's next in line, you know. And Luis after him."
Mi'ama slaps me hard, then backs away. Dios mio, I hate that I upset her. I reach out to her, my fingers wrapping around her arm to hug her and apologize, but she winces. "Mama?" I question, wondering what's wrong. I wasn't rough with her, but she's acting like I was.
She wrenches herself out of my grasp and turns away, but I can't let it go. I step forward and lift up the sleeve of her dress. To my horror I find a nasty bruise on her upper arm. Its purple, black, and blue hues stare back at me, and my mind rushes back to the wedding when I saw my mom and Hector in a private discussion.
"Hector did this to you?" I question softly.
"You have to stop asking questions about your papa," she tells me, quickly pulling down her sleeve to cover the bruise.
Rage rumbles in my gut and spreads as I realize mi'ama got bruised as a warning to me. "Why? Who is Hector trying to protect?" Is he protecting someone in the LB, or another gang member affiliated with the LB? I wish I could just ask Hector. Even more, I'd like to retaliate and kick his ass for hurting my mom, but Hector is untouchable. We all know if I challenge Hector, it'll be as if I'm turning on the Blood.
She glares at me. "Don't question me on this. There are things you don't know, Alejandro. Things you should never know. Just let it go."
"You think living in ignorance is a good thing? Papa was a gang member who dealt drugs. I'm not afraid of the truth, dammit. Why is everyone around me covering up the truth?"
My hands feel clammy as I hold them stiffly at my sides. A sound from the hallway catches my attention. I turn to see my two brothers, their eyes wide in confusion.
As soon as she sees Luis and Carlos, she sucks in a breath. I'd do anything to take the hurt away from her.
I step toward her and put my hand gently on her shoulder. "Perdon, Mama."
She swipes my hand away as she suppresses a sob and runs to her room, slamming the door behind her.
"Is it true?" Carlos asks, his voice as tight as a noose.
I nod. "Yeah."
Luis shakes his head and furrows his brows in confusion. "What are you two saying? I don't understand. I thought Papa was a good man. Mama always said he was a good man."
I walk over to my little brother and pull his head into my chest.
"It's all lies!" Carlos blurts out. "You, him. It's all lies. !Mentiras!"
"Carlos . . . ," I say, releasing Luis and grabbing Carlos's arm.
Carlos looks at my hand in disgust, his temper seething. "And all along I thought you joined the Latino Blood to protect us. But you're just following in Papa's footsteps. Screw being a hero. You like being an LB, but you forbid me to join. Isn't that a bit hypocritical, brother?"
"You're a disgrace to this family, you know that, don't you?"
As soon as I lessen my grip on him, Carlos punches open the back door and storms out.
Luis's quiet voice breaks the silence. "Sometimes good men need to do things that aren't good. Right?"
I ruffle his hair. Luis is way more innocent than I was at his age. "You know, I think you're gonna be the smartest Fuentes yet, little bro. Now go to bed and let me talk to Carlos."
I find Carlos sitting on our back stoop, which faces our neighbor's yard.
"Is that how he died?" he asks as I sit beside him. "In a drug deal?"
"He took you along?"
"You were only six years old, the bastard." Carlos cynically blows out a breath. "You know, I saw Hector today at the basketball courts on Main Street."
"Stay away from him. Truth is, I had no choice after Papa died, and now I'm stuck. If you think I'm in the LB 'cause I like it, guess again. I don't want you jumped in."
I give him a stern look like our mother used to give me when I put tennis balls in her panty hose and flung them to see how high they'd fly. "Listen to me, Carlos, and listen good. Concentrate on school so you can go to college. Make somethin' of yourself." Unlike me.
There's a long silence.
"Destiny doesn't want me to join, either. She wants to go to some university and get a nursing degree." He chuckles. "She said it would be great if we went to the same university." I listen, because he needs me to stop giving advice and let him figure the rest out on his own. "I like Brittany, you know," he says.
"Me, too." I think of earlier, when we were in the car. I got carried away, big-time. I hope I haven't screwed everything up with her, too.
"I saw Brittany talkin' to Mama at the wedding. She held her own."
"To tell you the truth, she kind of had a meltdown in the bathroom."
"For someone so smart, you're loco if you think you can handle everything."
"I'm tough," I tell Carlos. "And always prepared for danger."
Carlos pats my back. "Somehow, brother, I think dating a girl from the north side is tougher than being in a gang."
It's the perfect opening to tell my brother the truth. "Carlos, you see guys in the LB who talk of brotherhood and honor and loyalty and it sounds great. But they're not family, you know. And the brotherhood lasts only as long as you're willing to do what they want you to do."
My mom opens the door and looks down at us. She looks so sad. I wish I could change her life and take the hurt away, but I know I can't.
"Carlos, let me talk to Alejandro alone."
When Carlos is inside the house, out of hearing range, my mom sits beside me. She has a cigarette in her hand, the first one I've seen her smoke in a long time.
I'm waiting for her to talk first. I've said enough tonight.
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, Alejandro," she says as she blows cigarette smoke up at the moon. "And some of them can't be undone no matter how much I pray to the Lord above." She reaches out and tucks my hair behind my ears. "You're a teenager who has the responsibilities of a man. I know it's not fair to you."
"No, it's not. I grew up too fast, too. I didn't even graduate high school because I got pregnant with you." She looks at me, as if seeing herself as a teenager not that long ago. "Oh, I wanted a baby so bad. Your father wanted to wait until after high school, but I was going to make it happen sooner. All I wanted in this world was to be a mom."