"That's your prerogative. I'm going to keep trying anyway." She pauses, then says, "Do you want to know how your chemistry partner is holding up?"

I shake my head. "Nope. Don't care." The words almost get stuck in my throat.

She sighs in frustration, then walks over to the window ledge and picks up the chemistry book. "Should I take this back with me, or leave it here?"

I don't answer.

She puts the book back on the ledge and heads for the door.

"I wish I'd chosen biology instead of chemistry," I say as she opens the door to leave.

She winks at me knowingly. "No, you don't. And just so you know, Dr. Aguirre will be coming to visit later today. I'd advise against throwing things at him as he walks through the door."

When I got out of the hospital after two weeks, my mom took us to Mexico. A month later I got a job as a valet at a hotel in San Miguel de Allende, near my family's house. A nice hotel, with whitewashed walls and pillars in the front entrance. I acted as an interpreter when needed, since my English was better than most of the employees'. When I went out with the guys after work, they tried to set me up with Mexican girls. The girls were beautiful, sexy, and definitely knew how to tempt a guy. The problem was, they weren't Brittany.

I needed to get her out of my head. And fast.

I tried. One night an American girl staying at the hotel brought me up to her room. At first I thought it would take having sex with another blond girl to erase that one night I had with Brittany. But once I was about to do it, I froze.

I realized then that Brittany had ruined every other girl for me.

It's not Brittany's face, not her smile, not even her eyes. All of that surface stuff made the world see her as beautiful, but it was the deeper stuff that made her different. It was the gentle way she wiped her sister's face, the way she took chemistry so seriously, the way she showed her love even when she knew what and who I was. I was about to do a drug deal, something she was adamantly against, and she still loved me.

So now, three months after the shooting, I'm back in Fairfield about to face what Mrs. P. would call my greatest fear.

Enrique is sitting at his desk at the auto body shop, shaking his head. We talked about Halloween night and I forgave him for whatever involvement he'd had in letting Lucky know I'd been with Brittany.

Enrique lets out a long, slow breath after I tell him what I'm going to do. "You could die," he says, looking up at me.

I nod. "I know."

"I won't be able to help you. None of your friends in the Blood can help you. Reconsider, Alex. Go back to Mexico and enjoy the rest of your life."

I've made my choice and have no intention of backing down. "I'm not gonna be a coward. I need to do this. I need to quit the Blood."

"For her?"

"Yeah." And for my papa. And for Paco. And for me and my family.

"What good is quitting the Blood if you end up dead?" Enrique asks. "Your jumping in will seem like a holiday party compared to this. They'll even make OG's participate."

Instead of answering, I hand him a piece of paper with a phone number on it. "If anythin' happens to me, call this guy. He's the only friend I've got who's not connected." Not connected to the Blood, or Brittany.

That night I'm facing a warehouse full of people who consider me a traitor. I've been called a bunch of other things tonight, too. An hour ago I told Chuy, who'd taken over Hector's position, I wanted out--a clean break from the Latino Blood. Just one little hitch ... in order to do that I need to survive their gauntlet--a 360 violation.

Chuy, stiff and stern, steps forward with a Latino Blood bandanna. I scan the onlookers. My friend Pedro is standing in the back, his eyes averted. Javier and Lucky are there, too, their eyes blazing with excitement. Javier is a crazy motherfucker and Lucky is not happy he lost the bet even though I never collected. Both will enjoy being able to beat the shit out of me while I can't fight back.

Enrique, my cousin, is leaning against the wall in the corner of the warehouse. He'll be expected to participate in the challenge, to aid in breaking whatever bones possible until I pass out. Loyalty and commitment mean everything to the LB. You break that loyalty, you break that commitment. . . you're as good as an enemy in their eyes. Worse even, because you were one of them. If Enrique steps forward to protect me, he's toast.

I stand proud while Chuy covers my eyes with the bandanna. I can do this. If it brings me to Brittany in the end, it's all worth it. I'm not gonna even think about the other option.

After my hands are bound behind my back, I'm led to a car and pushed into the backseat while two people flank me. I have no clue where we're headed. Since Chuy is in charge now, anything is possible.

A note. I never wrote a note. What if I die and Brittany never knows how I feel about her? Maybe it's a good thing. She'll be able to get on with her life easier thinking I'm a prick who betrayed her and never looked back.

Forty-five minutes later the car is off-road. I can tell by the gravel crunching under the tires. Maybe knowing where I am would take the edge off, but I can't see a damn thing. I'm not nervous. More like anxious to know if I'll be one of the lucky ones to survive. And even if I do survive, will someone find me? Or will I die alone in some barn, warehouse, or abandoned building? Maybe they're not going to beat me. Maybe they'll take me to the roof of a building and just push me off. Se acabo.

Nah, Chuy wouldn't like that. He likes to hear the screaming and pleas of strong guys brought down to their knees.

I'm not going to give him the satisfaction.

I'm led out of the car. From the sound of my feet against gravel and stones, we're in the middle of nowhere. I hear more cars parking, more feet following behind us. A cow moos in the distance.

A warning moo? Truth is, I want to do this. If it's interrupted, it will postpone the inevitable. I'm willing. I'm ready. Let's get it on.

I wonder if I'll be hung by my hands to a branch of a tree, strung up like a whipping boy.

Oh, man, I hate the unknown. Estoy perdido.

"Stay here," I'm instructed.

As if I have anywhere to go.

Someone is walking toward me. I can hear the gravel crunch with each step. "You are a disgrace to this brotherhood, Alejandro. We protected you and your family, and you've decided to turn your back on us. Is that right?"

I wish my life was a John Grisham novel. His heroes always seem to be one step away from death but come up with a brilliant plan. It usually includes hiding information that will ruin the bad guy, and if the hero ends up dead, the bad guy will be ruined for life. Unfortunately, real life can't be wrapped up with a nice little bow.

"Hector was the one who betrayed the Blood," I respond. "El traidor."

The response to my calling Hector a traitor is a hard fist to my jaw. Shit, I wasn't ready for that because I can't see a fucking thing with this blindfold on. I try not to wince.

"You understand the consequences of leaving the Blood?"

I work my jaw back and forth. "Yes."

I hear crunching stones as a circle of people close in. I'm the bull's-eye this time.

An eerie silence settles over the crowd. Nobody laughs; nobody makes a sound. Some of the guys surrounding me have been my friends all my life. Like Enrique, they're waging a war inside themselves. I don't blame them. The lucky ones haven't been chosen to fight today.

Without warning, I get punched in my face. Attempting to keep myself upright is hard, especially because I know more hits are coming. It's one thing to be in a fight you could possibly win, but it's another to know you've got zero chance.

Something sharp slashes my back.

Then I get punched in the ribs.

Each blow is connecting with my upper body--no inch is left untouched. A slice here, a fist there. I stagger a few times, only to be pulled upright and slammed into another hard fist.

I've got a gash in my back and it stings as if flames are licking at my skin. I can tell Enrique's punches because they don't pack as much fury as the others.

Memories of Brittany keep me from crying out in pain. I'm going to be strong for her . . . for us. I'm not going to let them control whether I live or die. I'm in charge of my destiny, not the Blood.

I have no clue how much time goes by. A half hour? An hour? My body is weakening. I'm having trouble standing. I smell smoke. Are they going to push me into a fire? The bandanna is still secured over my eyes, but it doesn't matter because I'm pretty sure my eyes are swollen shut.

I feel like caving and falling to the ground but force myself to stand tall.

I'm probably unrecognizable now, hot blood streaming from gashes in my face and body. I can feel my shirt being ripped open and it's falling off in pieces, exposing the scar where Hector shot me. A fist punches me right there. It's too much pain.

I slump to the ground, my face scraping the gravel.

At this point, I'm not sure I can make it. Brittany. Brittany. Brittany. As long as I repeat the mantra in my head, I know I'm still alive. Brittany. Brittany. Brittany.

Is the smell of smoke real, or is it the smell of death?

Through the thick haze in my mind I think I hear someone saying, "Don't you think he's had enough?"

I hear a distant but distinct "No."

Protests follow. If I could move, I would. Brittany. Brittany. Brittany.

More protests. Nobody protests during these challenges. It's not allowed. What's happening? What's next? It must be worse than the beating, because I hear a lot of arguing.

"Hold him facedown," Chuy's voice rings out. "Nobody betrays the Latino Blood on my watch. Let this be a lesson to anyone else who tries to betray us. Alejandro Fuentes's body will always be marked, a reminder of his betrayal."

The burning smell gets closer. I have no clue what's about to happen until my upper back is touched with what feels like hot coals.

I think I groaned. Or growled. Or screamed. I don't know anymore. I don't know anything anymore. I can't think. All I can do is feel. They might as well have thrown me into the fire, this is a torture worse than anything I could have imagined. The smell of burning skin sears my nostrils as I realize the coals aren't coals at all. The bastard is branding me. El dolor, el dolor . . . Brittany. Brittany. Brittany.

CHAPTER 57 Brittany

It's April first. I haven't seen Alex in five months, since the day after the shooting. The gossip about Paco and Alex finally died down and the extra psychologists and social workers have left the school.

Last week I told the school social worker I slept more than five hours, but that was a lie. Since the shooting I've had trouble sleeping, always waking in the middle of the night because my mind won't stop analyzing that awful conversation Alex and I had in the hospital. The social worker said it'll take a long time to let go of my feelings of betrayal.

The problem is, I don't feel betrayed. More like sad and deflated. After all this time, I still go to bed staring at the pictures of him in my cell phone from the night we went to Club Mystique.

After being released from the hospital, he quit school and disappeared. He may be out of my life physically, but he'll always be a part of me. I can't let go even if I wanted to.

One positive thing that came from all of the craziness is that my family took Shelley to Colorado to see Sunny Acres, and my sister really liked it. They have activities every day, play sports, and even have celebrities visit every three months. When Shelley heard they have famous people come visit and do concerts and benefits, if she hadn't been strapped in she would have fallen out of her wheelchair.