Letting my sister choose her own path was hard, but I did it. And I didn't freak out. Knowing it was Shelley's choice made me feel so much better.
But now I'm alone. Alex took a piece of my heart with him when he left. I'm guarding what I have left with a vengeance. I've come to the conclusion that the only life I'm going to control is my own. Alex chose his path. It didn't include me.
I ignore Alex's friends at school, and they ignore me. We all pretend the beginning of senior year didn't actually happen. Except Isabel. We talk sometimes, but it's painful. We have a silent understanding between us, and it's helped make me feel like I have someone going through the same sort of pain I'm dealing with.
Opening my locker before chemistry class in May, I notice a pair of hand warmers hanging on the hooks inside. The worst night of my life comes crashing back to me full force.
Has Alex been here? Did he place the hand warmers in the locker himself?
As much as I want to forget him, I can't. I read that goldfish have a memory of five seconds. I envy them. My memory of Alex, my love for him, will last my lifetime.
I clutch the soft hand warmers to my chest and kneel beside my locker, crying. Ugh. I'm a shell of a person.
Sierra stands at my feet. "Brit, what's wrong?"
I'm unable to move. Unable to pull myself together.
"Come on," Sierra says, pulling me up. "Everybody's watching."
Darlene walks by us. "Seriously, isn't it time you got over your gang-banger boyfriend who dumped you? You're starting to look pathetic," she says, making sure the crowd gathering around us hears her.
Colin appears beside Darlene. He scowls at me. "Alex deserved what he got," he hisses.
Whether it's right or wrong, fight for what you believe in. My hands are already in fists when I swing at him. He dodges the punch, then grabs my wrist and twists it behind my back.
Doug steps forward. "Let her go, Colin."
"Stay out of this, Thompson."
"Dude, humiliating her because she dumped you for another guy is plain lame."
Colin pushes me aside and pulls up his sleeves.
I can't allow Doug to fight my battle. "If you want to fight him, you'll have to get past me first," I say.
To my surprise, Isabel steps in front of me. "And you'll have to get past me to get to her."
Sierra takes a place beside Isabel. "And me, too."
A Mexican guy named Sam pushes Gary Frankel next to Isabel. "This guy can break your arm with one snap, asshole. Get out of my sight before I sic him on you," Sam says.
Gary, who's wearing a coral shirt and white pants, growls to look tough. It doesn't work.
Colin looks left and right for support but can't find any.
I blink in disbelief. Maybe the universe was in disarray before, but now it's back in alignment.
"Come on, Colin," Darlene orders. "We don't need these pathetic lame-o's anyway." They walk off together. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.
"I'm so proud of you, Douggie," Sierra says, throwing herself on him. They start making out immediately, not caring who's watching or about Fairfield's PDA policy.
"I love you," Doug says when they come up for air.
"I love you, too," Sierra coos in a baby voice.
"Get a room," another classmate calls out.
But they keep kissing until music plays from the loudspeakers. The crowd disperses. I'm still clutching the hand warmers.
Isabel kneels next to me. "I never told Paco how I felt, you know. I never took the risk, and now it's too late."
"I'm so sorry, Isa. I took the risk and lost Alex anyway, so maybe you're better off."
She shrugs, and I know she's trying to keep it together so she doesn't break down at school. "I suppose I'll get over it one day. It's not likely, but I can hope, can't I?" She straightens her shoulders and stands, putting on a brave front. I watch as she walks to class, wondering if she talks about it with her other friends or if she confides only in me.
"Come on," Sierra says, unlocking herself from Doug's embrace and pulling me toward the school exit. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and sit on the curb beside Sierra's car, not caring that I'm ditching class. "I'm fine, Sierra. Really."
"No, you're not fine. Brit, I'm your best friend. I'll be here before and after your boyfriends. So spill your guts. I'm all ears."
"I loved him."
"No shit, Sherlock. Tell me something I don't know."
"He used me. He had sex with me to win a bet. And I still love him. Sierra, I am pathetic."
"You had sex and didn't tell me? I mean, I thought it was a rumor. You know, of the untrue kind."
I lean my head in my hands in frustration.
"I'm just kidding. I don't even want to know. Okay, I do, but only if you want to tell me," Sierra says. "Forget about that now. I saw the way Alex always looked at you, Brit. That's why I laid off you for liking him. There was no way he was acting. I don't know who told you about a supposed bet--"
I look up. "He did. And his friends confirmed it. Why can't I let him go?"
Sierra shakes her head, as if erasing the words I've said. "First things first." She grabs my chin and forces me to look at her. 'Alex had feelings for you, whether he admitted it to you or not, whether there was a bet or not. You know that, Brit, or you wouldn't be clutching those hand warmers like that. Second of all, Alex is out of your life and you owe it to yourself, to his goofy friend Paco, and to me to keep plugging along even if it's not easy."
"I can't help but think he pushed me away on purpose. If I could only talk to him, I can get answers."
"Maybe he doesn't have the answers. That's why he left. If he wants to give up on life, to ignore what's right in front of him, so be it. But you show him that you're stronger than that."
Sierra is right. For the first time I feel I can make it through the rest of senior year. Alex took a piece of my heart that night we made love, and he'll forever hold it. But that doesn't mean my life has to be on hold indefinitely. I can't run after ghosts.
I'm stronger now. At least, I hope I am.
Two weeks later I'm the last one in the locker room to change for gym. The click of heels makes me look up. It's Carmen Sanchez. I don't freak out. Instead, I stand and look right at her.
"He was back in Fairfield, you know," she tells me.
"I know," I say, remembering the hand warmers in my locker. But he left. Like a whisper, he was there and then disappeared.
She looks almost nervous, vulnerable. "You know those giant stuffed-animal prizes at the carnival? The kind practically nobody wins, except the lucky few? I've never won one."
"Yeah. I've never won one, either."
"Alex was my giant prize. I hated you for taking him away," she admits.
I shrug. "Yeah, well, stop hating me. I don't have him, either."
"I don't hate you anymore," she says. "I've moved on."
I swallow and then say, "Me, too."
Carmen chuckles. Then, just as she walks out of the room, I hear her mumble, "Alex sure as hell hasn't."
What's that supposed to mean?
Brittany Five Months Later
The smell of August in Colorado is definitely different from the smell in Illinois. I shake out my new, short hairstyle, not even bothering to smooth the frizzies down as I attempt to unpack boxes in my dorm room at the university.
My roommate, Lexie, is from Arkansas. She's like a little pixie, short and sweet; she could definitely pass for one of Tinkerbell's descendents. I swear I've never seen her frown. Sierra, at the University of Illinois, wasn't so lucky with her roommate, Dara. The girl has divided the closet and room into separate quarters and gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day (even weekends) to work out in their dorm room. Sierra is miserable, but she's spending most of her time in Doug's dorm room so it's not too bad.
"Ya sure you don't want t'go with us?" Lexie asks me, her Southern drawl flowing from each word. She's going with a bunch of other freshman girls to the quad, where there's some kind of welcome party.
"I've got to finish unpacking, then I'm going to see my sister. I promised her I'd visit as soon as I unpacked."
"Okay," Lexie says, pulling out and trying on clothes to get the "perfect look" for tonight. When she finds an outfit, she fixes her hair and touches up her makeup. It makes me think of the old me, the one who tried so hard to meet everyone's expectations.
When Lexie leaves a half hour later, I sit on my bed and pull out my cell phone. Flipping it open, I stare at the picture of Alex and me. I hate myself for having the urge to look at it. So many times I've tried to force myself to delete the pictures, erase the past. But I can't.
I reach into my desk drawer and pull out Alex's bandanna, fresh and clean and folded up neatly into a square. I touch the smooth material, remembering when Alex gave it to me. To me, it doesn't represent the Latino Blood. It represents Alex.
My cell rings, bringing me back to the present. It's someone from Sunny Acres. When I answer it, a woman's voice is on the other end of the line.
"Is this Brittany Ellis?"
"This is Georgia Jackson, from Sunny Acres. Everything is just fine with Shelley, but she wanted to know if you'd be here before or after dinner."
I look at my watch. It's four thirty. "Tell her I'll be there in fifteen minutes. I'm leaving now."
After I hang up, I place the bandanna back in my desk drawer and shove the phone into my purse.
Taking the bus to the other side of town doesn't take long, and before I know it I'm walking toward the lounge at Sunny Acres where the receptionist said my sister was.
I spot Georgia Jackson first. She's been the link between Shelley and me when I call to ask about her every few days. Her friendly and warm welcome greets me.
"Where's Shelley?" I ask, scanning the room.
"Playing checkers, as usual," Georgia says, pointing to the corner. Shelley isn't facing me, but I recognize the back of her head and her wheelchair.
She's squealing, a hint that she won the game.
As I get closer to her, I catch a glimpse of who's playing against her. The dark hair should have been a clue that my life is about to be turned upside down, but it doesn't fully register. I freeze.
It can't be. My imagination must be going berserk.
But when he turns around and those familiar dark eyes pierce mine, reality zings up my spine like a lightning bolt.
Alex is here. Ten steps away from me. Oh, God, every feeling I've ever had for him comes rushing back like a tidal wave. I don't know what to do or say. I turn back to Georgia, wondering if she knew Alex was here. One look at her hopeful face tells me she did.
"Brittany's here," I hear him tell Shelley before he stands and carefully turns her wheelchair around so she can face me.
Like a robot, I walk toward my sister and wrap her in a hug. When I release her, Alex is standing in front of me, wearing khaki chinos and a blue-checkered button-down shirt. I can only stare at him, my stomach doing weird flip-flops, making me queasy. The world recedes at the edges, and all I can see is him.
I finally find my voice. "A-Alex . . . ? W-what are you doing here?" I ask, all tongue-tied.
He shrugs. "I promised Shelley a rematch, didn't I?"