CHAPTER 55 Brittany

At five in the morning, my ringing cell phone wakes me up. It's Isabel, probably wanting advice about Paco.

"Do you know what time it is?" I ask when I answer the call.

"He's dead, Brittany. He's gone."

"Who?" I ask frantically.

"Paco. And ... I didn't know if I should call you, but you'll find out eventually that Alex was there also and--"

My fingers tighten on the phone. "Where's Alex? Is he okay? Please tell me he's okay. I beg of you, Isa. Please."

"He was shot."

For a second, I wait for her to say the dreaded words. He's dead. But she doesn't. "He's in surgery at Lakeshore Hospital."

Before she finishes the sentence, I'm ripping off my pj's and frantically throwing on clothes. Grabbing my keys, I head out the door still holding my cell phone tight as Isabel relays all of the details she knows.

The drug deal went bad and Paco and Hector are dead. Alex was shot, and is in surgery. That's all she knows.

"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," I chant throughout the ride to the hospital after I hang up with Isabel. When I spent the evening with Alex last night, I was sure he would choose me over the drug deal. He might have betrayed our love, but I can't.

Deep sobs rack me. Paco assured me yesterday he was going to make sure Alex didn't do the drug deal but . . . oh, God. Paco took Alex's place and ended up dead. Poor, sweet Paco.

I'm trying to drown out the images of Alex not making it through the surgery. A part of me will die with him.

I ask the hospital receptionist where I should wait for updates on Alex's condition.

The lady asks me to spell his name, then types it on her keyboard. The sound is making me crazy. She's taking so long I want to grab her shoulders and shake her into going faster.

The woman looks at me with curious eyes. 'Are you family?"

"Yes."

"Relation?"

"Sister."

The lady shakes her head in disbelief, then shrugs. "Alejandro Fuentes was brought in with a gunshot wound."

"He's going to be okay, right?" I cry.

The lady punches her keyboard again. "It looks like he's been in surgery all morning, Miss Fuentes. The waiting room is the orange room down the hall on the right. The doctor will inform you of your brother's prognosis after surgery."

I clutch the counter. "Thank you."

At the waiting room, I freeze as soon as I see Alex's mother and two brothers huddled in the corner, sitting on orange-colored hospital chairs. His mother looks up first. Her eyes are bloodshot and tears stream down her face.

My hand goes to my mouth and I can't help a sob from escaping; I can't hold it in. Tears well in my eyes, and through the blurriness I see Mrs. Fuentes open her arms to me.

Overwhelmed with emotion, I run into her embrace.

His hand twitched.

I lift my head from Alex's hospital bed. I've sat beside him through the night waiting for him to wake up. His mother and brothers haven't left his side, either.

The doctor said it could be hours before he's conscious.

I wet a paper towel from the hospital room sink and touch it to Alex's forehead. I've done this throughout the night as he sweated and thrashed in a restless sleep.

His eyes flutter. I can tell he's fighting the sedation as he forces them open. "Where am I?" His voice is scratchy and faint.

"The hospital," his mom says as she rushes to his side.

"You were shot," Carlos adds, his voice full of agony.

Alex's brows draw together in confusion. "Paco . . . ," he says, his voice hitching.

"Don't think about that right now," I say, trying to hold my emotion in with little success. I need to be strong for him now and I won't let him down.

I think he's about to reach for my hand, but a pained expression crosses his face and he pulls back. I have so much to tell him, so much to say. I wish I could have a Do Over Day and change the past. I wish I could have saved Paco and Alex from their fates.

His eyes are still glassy from drowsiness when he looks at me and says, "Why are you here?"

I watch as his mom rubs his arm, trying to lend him comfort. "Brittany stayed all night, Alex. She's worried about you."

"Let me talk to her. Alone," he says weakly.

His brothers and mother exit the room, giving us privacy.

When we're alone, he winces in pain as he adjusts his position. Then he glares at me. "I want you to leave."

"You don't mean that," I say, reaching for his hand. He can't mean it.

He jerks his hand away, as if my touch burned him. "Yes. I do."

"Alex, we'll get through this. I love you."

He turns his head and focuses on the floor. He swallows and clears his throat. "I fucked you because of a bet, Brittany," he says softly, but his words come out crystal clear. "It didn't mean anythin' to me. You don't mean anythin' to me."

I step back as Alex's hurtful words seep into my brain. "No," I whisper.

"You and me ... it was a game. I bet Lucky his RX-7 that I could fuck you before Thanksgiving."

When Alex referred to our lovemaking as a "fuck," I cringed. Galling it sex would have left a bitter taste in my mouth. Calling it a "fuck" makes my stomach churn. I keep my hands limp at my sides. I want to make him take back his words. "You're lying."

He turns his gaze from the floor and looks right into my eyes. Oh, God. There's no emotion there. His eyes are as steely as his words. "You're pathetic if you think this thing between us was real."

I shake my head violently. "Don't hurt me, Alex. Not you. Not now." My lips are trembling as I mouth a silent but pleading, "Please." When he doesn't respond I take another step back, almost stumbling as I think about me, the real me only Alex knows. In a pitiful whisper I tell him, "I trusted you."

"That was your mistake, not mine."

He touches his left shoulder and winces in pain before a group of his friends file into the room. They offer him condolences and sympathy while I stand frozen in the corner, completely unnoticed.

"Was it all for the bet?" I say above the commotion.

The six or so people in the room stare at me. Even Alex. Isabel steps toward me, but I hold up a hand and stop her.

"Is it true? Did Alex make a bet to have sex with me?" I say, because I still can't wrap my brain around Alex's hurtful words. It can't be true.

All eyes drift to him, but Alex's eyes penetrate my own.

"Tell her," Alex orders.

A guy named Sam lifts his head up. "Well, uh, yeah. He won Lucky's RX-7."

I back up to the hospital room door, trying to hold my head high. A cold, hard expression settles on Alex's face.

My throat threatens to close as I say, "Congratulations, Alex. You win. I hope you like your new car."

As I grab the door handle to leave, Alex's steely glare turns to relief. I calmly walk out of the room. I hear Isabel come up behind me when I'm in the hallway, but I run away from her, the hospital, and Alex. Unfortunately, I can't run from my heart. It hurts, deep inside my body. And I know I'll never be the same.

CHAPTER 56 Alex

I've been in the hospital a week. I hate nurses, doctors, needles, tests . . . and especially hospital gowns. I think the longer I've been in this place, the crabbier I've gotten. Okay, so I probably shouldn't have sworn at the nurse who took out my catheter. It was her cheery disposition that pissed me off.

I don't want to see anyone. I don't want to talk to anyone. The less people involved in my life, the better. I shoved Brittany away and it killed me to hurt her. But I had no choice. The closer she got to me, the more her life was in danger. I couldn't let what happened to Paco happen to the girl I . . .

Stop thinking about her, I tell myself.

The people I care about die, it's as simple as that. My dad. Now Paco. I was an idiot to think I could have it all.

When there's a knock at my door, I scream, "Go away!"

The knock gets more persistent.

"Fuckin' leave me alone!"

As the door creaks open, I hurl a cup at the door. The cup doesn't hit a hospital employee; it hits Mrs. P. squarely in the chest.

"Oh, shit. Not you," I say.

Mrs. P.'s got new glasses, with rhinestones on them. "That's not exactly the greeting I expected, Alex," she says. "I can still give you a detention for cussing, you know."

I turn on my side so I don't have to look at her. "Did you come here to give me detention slips? 'Cause if you did, you can forget it. I'm not goin' back to school. Thanks for visitin'. Sorry you have to leave so soon."

"I'm not going anywhere until you hear me out."

Oh, please no. Anything except having to listen to her lecture. I push the button that calls the nurse.

"Can we help you, Alex?" a voice bellows through the speaker.

"I'm bein' tortured."

"I beg your pardon?"

Mrs. P. walks over to me and pulls the speaker out of my hand. "He's joking. Sorry to bother you." She puts the remote speaker on the nightstand, deliberately out of my reach. "Don't they give you happy pills in this place?"

"I don't want to be happy."

Mrs. P. leans forward, her straight bangs brushing the top of her glasses. "Alex, I'm sorry about what happened to Paco. He wasn't a student of mine, but I heard how close you two were."

I look out the window to avoid her. I don't want to talk about Paco. I don't want to talk about anything. "Why'd you come here?"

I hear the rustling as she pulls something from her bag. "I brought you some work to do, to catch up until you come back to class."

"I'm not comin' back. I already told you, I'm droppin' out. It shouldn't surprise you, Mrs. P. I'm a gang member, remember?"

She walks around the bed, coming into my line of vision. "I guess I was wrong about you. I would have bet you'd be the one to break the mold."

"Yeah, well, maybe that was before my best friend got shot. It was supposed to be me, you know." I'm looking at the chemistry book in her hand. All it does is remind me of what was, and what can never be. "He wasn't supposed to die, dammit! I was!" I yell.

Mrs. P. doesn't flinch. "But you didn't. You think you're doing Paco a favor by quitting school and giving up? Consider it a gift he gave you, Alex, instead of a curse. Paco isn't coming back. You can." Mrs. P. places the chem book on the window ledge. "I've had more students die than I ever thought possible. My husband urges me to quit Fairfield and teach at some school without gang members who live their lives only to die or end up as drug dealers."

Sitting on the edge of my bed, she looks down at her hands. "I stay at Fairfield hoping I can make a difference, be a role model. Dr. Aguirre believes we can bridge the gaps, and so do I. If I can just change one of my students' lives, I can--"

"Change the world?" I interject.

"Maybe."

"You can't. It is what it is."

She looks up at me, totally undefeated. "Oh, Alex. You're so wrong. It is what you make it. If you think you can't change the world, then go on and follow the path already carved out for you. But there are other roads to choose, they're just harder to trudge through. Changing the world isn't easy, but I sure as hell am going to keep trying. Are you?"

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