"Tell me the truth, Alex."
He tucks a loose strand of hair that's fallen in my face behind my ear. "Mujer, this isn't Latino Blood turf. It's the Fremont 5's territory, a rival of the Latino Blood. Your friend Troy is one of them."
What? When I suggested we come here, I never thought about territory or gang affiliation. I just wanted to dance. "Oh, God. Alex, I put you in danger. Let's get out of here!" I say frantically.
Alex pulls me close and whispers in my ear, "You only live once, isn't that what you said? Dance with me again."
He cuts me off with a kiss so powerful I forgot what I was supposed to be upset about. And as soon as I come to my senses, we're back on the dance floor.
We beat the odds and dance dangerously close to the sharks, but come out without a scratch. The danger lurking around ends up heightening our awareness of each other.
In the girls' restroom, Darlene is fixing her makeup in the mirror. I see her. She sees me.
"Hi," I say.
Darlene walks past me without a word. It's a taste of what it's like to be a north sider outcast, but I don't care.
At the end of the night, as Alex is walking me to my car, I take his hand in mine and look up at the stars. "If you could wish on a star right now, what would you wish for?" I ask him.
"For time to stop."
He shrugs. " 'Cause I could live forever at this moment. What would you wish for?"
"That we'd go to college together. While you want to stop the future from happening, I look forward to it. Wouldn't it be great if we went to the same school? I mean it, Alex."
He pulls away from me. "For someone who wanted to take things slow, you sure are plannin' far in advance."
"I know. I'm sorry. I can't help it. I applied early decision to the University of Colorado to be close to my sister. That place my parents are sending her is a few miles away from the campus. It wouldn't hurt to apply, would it?"
"I guess not."
He squeezes my hand. "Anything to make you smile like that."
CHAPTER 46 Alex
"I need an update on the Brittany situation," Lucky says while I'm hanging outside the warehouse. "Guys are makin' side bets, and most of them are bettin' on you. They know somethin' I don't?"
I shrug, then look over at Julio, shiny from my wash earlier. If my motorcycle could talk, he'd beg me to save him from Lucky. But I'm not about to spill any info about Brittany. Not yet, at least.
Hector walks up to us and waves Lucky away. "We need to talk, Fuentes," Hector says in a tone that means business, "about that favor we were talking about. On Halloween night, you'll take a rental car, drive it to the drop-off, and exchange the goods for the green. Think you can handle that?"
My brother is right. I do have my papa's blood running through my veins. By doing the drug deal, I'll secure my future in the Blood, which is my birthright. Other kids inherit money or a family business from their parents. I inherited the Latino Blood.
"There's nothin' I can't handle," I tell Hector, even as I feel the pit of my stomach lurch. I knowingly lied to Brittany. Her face lit up when she talked about possibly going to college together. I couldn't tell her the truth, that not only am I staying in the Latino Blood, I'm about to exchange goods for the green.
Hector pats me on the back. "That's my loyal brother. I knew the Blood would come before your fear. Somos hermanos, c'no?"
"!Seguro!" I answer so he knows I'm loyal to him and the Blood. It isn't the drug deal I fear. It's that the drug deal signifies the end of any dreams I had. By doing it, I'll cross over the line. Like my papa.
Paco is standing a few feet away. I hadn't even noticed Hector left.
"I need your help, compa," Paco says.
He gives me that I-am-Paco-and-I-am-exasperated look. "Just take a ride with me."
Three minutes later I'm in the passenger seat of a borrowed red Camaro.
I sigh. "You gonna tell me what you want help with or are you keepin' me in suspense?"
"Actually, I'm gonna keep you in suspense."
I read the WELCOME TO sign on the side of the road. "Winnetka?" What does Paco want in this wealthy suburban town?
"Trust," Paco says.
"Best friends need to trust each other."
I lean back, totally aware I'm brooding like one of those guys in a bad Western movie. I agreed to do a drug deal and now I'm heading into upper-class suburbia for apparently no reason.
"Ah, here it is," Paco says.
I look up at the sign. "You've got to be kiddin'."
"If you're plannin' to rob the place, I'll stay in the car."
Paco rolls his eyes. "We're not here to rob a bunch of golfers."
"Then why drag me all the way out here?"
"My golf swing. Come on, get off your ass and help."
"It's fifty-five degrees outside and the middle of October, Paco."
"It's all a matter of priority and perception."
I sit in the car, contemplating how to get home. Walking will take too long. I don't know where the closest bus stop is and . . . and . . . and I'm going to kick Paco's ass for bringing me to a fuckin' golf range.
I stalk over to where Paco is setting down a basket of balls. Man, there are probably a hundred of them.
"Where'd you get that club?" I ask.
Paco swings it in the air like a propeller. "From the guy who rents the balls. You want one so you can hit a few?"
Paco points the end of the golf club at a green wooden bench situated behind him. "Then sit over there."
As I sit, my gaze wanders to the other guys hitting balls in their little sections, warily eyeing us out of the corners of their eyes. I'm all too aware Paco and I look and dress drastically different from the rest of the guys at the range. Jeans, T-shirts, tattoos, and bandannas on our heads make us stick out while most of the golfers are wearing long-sleeve golf shirts, Dockers, and no distinguishing marks on their skin.
I don't normally care, but after the talk with Hector, I want to go home, not be a spectacle. I rest my elbows on my knees, watching Paco make a complete fool of himself.
Paco takes a little white golf ball and places it on top of a rubber circle inserted into the fake grass. When he swings the golf club, I wince.
The club misses the ball and connects with the fake grass instead. Paco swears. The guy next to Paco takes one look at him and moves to another section.
Paco tries again. This time the club connects, but his ball only rolls along the grass in front of him. He keeps trying, but each time Paco swings, he makes a complete ass out of himself. Does he think he's hitting a hockey puck?
"You done?" I ask once he's gone through half the basket.
"Alex," Paco says, leaning on the golf club like it's a cane. "Do ya think I was meant to play golf?"
Looking Paco straight in the eye, I answer, "No."
"I heard you talkin' to Hector. I don't think you were meant to deal, either."
"Is that why we're here? You're tryin' to make a point?"
"Hear me out," Paco insists. "I've got the keys to the car in my pocket and I'm not goin' nowhere until I finish hittin' all of these balls, so you might as well listen. I'm not smart like you. I don't have choices in life, but you, you're smart enough to go to college and be a doctor or computer geek or somethin' like that. Just like I wasn't meant to hit golf balls, you weren't meant to deal drugs. Let me do the drop for you."
"No way, man. I appreciate you makin' an ass out of yourself to prove a point, but I know what I need to do," I tell him.
Paco sets up a new ball, swings, and yet again the ball rolls away from him. "That Brittany sure is hot. She goin' to college?"
I know what Paco is doing; unfortunately my best friend is nothing less than obvious. "Yep. In Colorado." To be close to her sister, the person she cares for more than herself.
Paco whistles. "I'm sure she'll meet a lot of guys in Colorado. You know, real guys with cowboy hats."
My muscles tense. I don't want to think about it. I ignore Paco until we're back in the car. "When are you going to stop stickin' your ass into my business?" I ask him.
He chuckles. "Never."
"Then I guess you won't mind me bargin' into yours. What happened between you and Isa, huh?"
"We fooled around. It's over."
"You might think it's over, but I don't think she does."
"Yeah, well, that's her problem." Paco turns the radio on and blasts the music loud.
He's never dated anyone because he's scared of getting close to someone. Even Isa isn't aware of all the abuses he's endured at home. Believe me, I understand the reasons behind his keeping a distance from a girl he cares about. Because the truth is, sometimes getting close to the fire does actually burn you.
CHAPTER 47 Brittany
"Paco, what are you doing here?" The last person I expected to see at my house is Alex's best friend.
"I kinda need to talk to you."
"Want to come in?"
"You sure it's okay?" he asks nervously.
"Of course." Well, it probably isn't okay with my parents, but it is to me. It's not like my parents will suddenly decide not to send Shelley away. I'm tired of pretending, of being afraid of my mom's wrath. This guy is Alex's best friend, and he accepts me. I'm sure it wasn't easy for him to come here. Opening the door wide, I let Paco in. If he asks me about Isabel, what do I say? She swore me to secrecy.
"Who's at the door, Brit?"
"This is Paco," I explain to my mom. "He's a friend of mine from school."
"Dinner's on the table," my mother hints not too subtly. "Tell your friend it's not polite to visit during dinner hours."
I turn to Paco. "Want to eat over?" I'm being rebellious and it feels good. Cathartic.
I hear my mom's footsteps stomping to the kitchen.
"Uh, no thanks," Paco says, stifling a laugh. "I thought maybe we could talk, you know, about Alex."
I don't know if I'm relieved he's not asking what I know about Isabel, or nervous because if Paco came here it's serious.
I lead Paco through the house. We pass Shelley in the family room looking at some magazine. "Shelley, this is Paco. He's Alex's friend. Paco, this is my sister, Shelley."
At the mention of Alex's name, Shelley gives a happy squeal.
"Hey, Shelley," Paco says.
Shelley smiles wide.
"Shell-bell, I need you to do me a favor." Shelley bobs her head in response as I whisper, "I need you to keep Mom occupied while I talk to Paco."
Shelley grins, and I know my sister will come through for me.
My mother pops into the room, ignoring me and Paco as she wheels Shelley into the kitchen.
I look at Paco warily as I lead him outside so we can have privacy from eavesdropping mothers. "What's up?"
"Alex needs help. He won't listen to me. A big drug deal is goin' down and Alex is the elmero mero, the key guy runnin' the show."
"Alex wouldn't do a drug deal. He promised me."