Perfect Chemistry (Perfect Chemistry #1)(28) by Simone Elkeles

One day I hope to live in a place where I don't have to worry about neighbors gossiping. "Fine," I tell her.

"Can't you change partners?"

"No."

"Did you try?"

"Yes, Mom. I did. Mrs. Peterson refuses to reassign partners."

"Maybe you didn't try hard enough. I'll call the school on Monday and make them--"

I whip my attention to her, ignoring the stinging, throbbing pain in the back of my head from where my sister ripped out the chunk of hair. "Mom, I'll handle it. I don't need you calling the school and making me feel like a two-year-old."

"Did that boy Alex teach you how to talk to your mother without respect? All of a sudden you can open a mouth to me because you're partnered with that boy?"

"Mom--"

I wish my dad was here to intervene. But he went directly to his study to check his e-mails right after coming home. I wish he'd act as a referee instead of sitting on the sidelines.

"Because if you start hanging out with trash like that, people will consider you trash. That's not how your father and I have brought you up."

Oh, no. Here comes the lecture. I'd rather eat live fish, scales and all, than hear this right now. I know the meaning behind her words. Shelley's not perfect, so I have to be.

I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself. "Mom, I get it. I'm sorry."

"I'm only trying to protect you," she says. "And you throw it back in my face."

"I know. I'm sorry. What did Dr. Meir say about Shelley?"

"He wants her to come twice a week for some evaluations. I'm going to need your help taking her."

I don't talk to her about Ms. Small's policy about missing pom practice, because there's no use in having both of us stressed. Besides, I want to know why Shelley is lashing out just as much as she does ... if not more.

Thankfully, the phone rings and my mom turns to answer it. I hurry into my sister's room before my mom can call me back for more discussions. Shelley is sitting by her personalized computer in her room, tapping at the keyboard.

"Hi," I say.

Shelley looks up. She's not smiling.

I want her to know I'm not upset with her, because I know she didn't mean to hurt me. Shelley might not even understand her own motivations for doing things. "Want to play checkers?"

She shakes her head.

"Watch television?"

Another shake.

"I want you to know I'm not mad at you." I go closer, careful not to get my hair within reach, and rub her back. "I love you, you know."

No answer, no head nodding, no verbal approximation. Nothing.

I sit on the edge of her bed and watch as she plays with her computer. Every once in a while I make comments, so she knows I'm here. She might not need me now, but I wish she did. Because I know a time will come when she does need me and I won't be there for her. That scares me.

A little while later I leave my sister and head for my room. I search my Fairfield High student directory for Alex's phone number.

Flipping open my cell, I dial his number.

"Hello?" a boy's voice answers.

I take a deep breath. "Hi," I say. "Is Alex there?"

"He's out."

"Quienes?" I hear his mom asking in the background.

"Who is this?" the boy asks me.

I realize I'm chipping my nail polish off as I'm talking. "Brittany Ellis. I'm, uh, a friend of Alex's from school."

"It's Brittany Ellis, a friend of Alex's from school," the boy relates to his mom.

"Toma el mensaje," I hear her say.

"Are you his new girlfriend?" the boy asks.

I hear a thump and an "Ow!" and then he says, "Can I take a message?"

"Tell him Brittany called. Here's my number ..."

CHAPTER 18 Alex

Right now I'm standing inside the warehouse where the Latino Blood hang every night. I just finished my second or third cigarette--I've stopped counting.

"Drink some beer and stop lookin' depressed," Paco says, throwing me a Corona. I told him about Brittany blowing me off this morning and all he's done is shake his head at me as if I should have known better than to go to the north side.

I catch the can in one hand, but toss it right back. "No, thanks."

"Quetienes, ese? This stuff not good enough for you?" It's Javier, probably the stupidest Latino Blood. El buey can control his liquor about as well as he controls his drug use, which isn't much.

I challenge him without saying a word.

"Just kiddin', man," a drunken Javier slurs.

Nobody wants to get into it with me. During my first year as a member of the Latino Blood, in a clash with a rival gang, I proved my worth.

As a little kid, I thought I could save the world ... or at least save my family. I'll never be in a gang, I told myself when I was old enough to join one. I'll protect mi familia with my two hands. On the south side of

Fairfield, you're either in a gang or against them. I had dreams of a future then; deluded dreams that I could stay away from gangs and still protect my family. But those dreams died along with my future the night my father was shot twenty feet from my six-year-old face.

When I stood over his body, all I could see was this red spot spreading on the front of his shirt. It reminded me of a bull's-eye, except the target kept getting larger and larger. The next thing I knew, he gasped and that was it.