Perfect Chemistry / Page 24

Page 24



I nod.

After Alex is out of sight, Sierra says, "What was that all about?"

"Chemistry," I mumble.

Morgan's mouth is open in shock.

"Were you guys doing it?" Darlene asks. " 'Cause we've been friends for ten years and I can count on one hand how many times I've been invited inside your house."

"He's my chemistry partner."

"He's a gang member, Brit. Don't ever forget that," Darlene says.

Sierra shakes her head and says, "Are you crushing on someone other than your boyfriend? Colin told Doug you've been acting strange lately. As your friends, we're here to talk some sense into you."

I sit on the front stoop and listen to them rant about reputations and boyfriends and loyalty for a half hour. They make sense.

"Promise us there's nothing going on between you and Alex," Sierra says to me alone while Morgan and Darlene are waiting in the car for her.

"There's nothing going on between me and Alex," I assure her. "I swear."

CHAPTER 30 Alex

I'm sitting in calculus when the security guard knocks on the door and tells the teacher I need to be escorted out of class. Rolling my eyes, I grab my books and let the guy have his kicks by humiliating me in front of an audience.

"What now?" I ask. Yesterday I was pulled out of class for starting a food fight in the courtyard. I didn't start it. I might have participated, but I didn't start it.

"We're taking a little trip to the basketball courts." I follow the guy to the courts. "Alejandro, vandalism to school property is very serious business."

"I didn't vandalize anything," I tell him.

"I got a tip that you did."

A tip? You know the phrase "whoever smelt it, dealt it"? Well, whoever snitched probably did it, "Where is it?"

The guard points to the gym floor, where someone spray painted a very poor replica of the Latino Blood symbol. "Can you explain this?"

"No," I say.

Another security guard joins us. "We should check his locker," he says.

"Great idea." All they'll find is a leather jacket and books.

I'm turning the combination lock when Mrs. P. passes us.

"What's the problem?" she asks them.

"Vandalism. On the basketball court."

I open my locker and stand back to let them inspect it.

"Aha," the security guy says, reaching inside and pulling out a can of black spray paint from the top shelf. He holds it out to me. "Are you still going to plead innocent?"

"I'm bein' set up." I turn to Mrs. P., who's looking at me like I killed her cat. "I didn't do it," I tell her. "Mrs. P., you've got to believe me." I can see me now, being hauled to jail because of something an idiot did.

She shakes her head. "Alex, the evidence is right there. I want to believe you, but it's really hard." The officers are on either side of me, and I know what's coming next. Mrs. P. holds up her hand, stopping them. "Alex. Help me."

I'm tempted not to explain, to let them all think I was the one who defaced school property. They probably won't listen, anyway. But Mrs. P. is looking at me like a teenage rebel who wants to prove everyone wrong.

"The symbol is all wrong," I tell her. I show her my forearm. "This is the Latino Blood symbol. It's a five-point star with two pitchforks coming out the top and LB in the middle. The one on the floor had a six-point star with two arrows. Nobody in the Blood would make that mistake."

She says to the officers, "Where's Dr. Aguirre?"

"In a meeting with the superintendent. His secretary said he doesn't want to be disturbed."

Peterson checks her watch. "I've got a class in fifteen minutes. Joe, radio Dr. Aguirre on your walkie-talkie."

Joe the security guy isn't too happy. "Ma'am, this is the sort of thing we were hired for."

"I know. But Alex is my student, and believe me when I say he can't miss class today."

Joe shrugs, then radios for Dr. Aguirre to meet him in L hall. When his secretary asks if it's an emergency, Mrs. P. takes the walkie-talkie from Joe and says she's considering it her personal emergency and Dr. Aguirre should get down to L hall right away.

Two minutes later, Aguirre with a stern look on his face comes into view. "What's this all about?"

"Vandalism in the gym," Officer Joe informs him.

Aguirre stiffens. "Dammit, Fuentes. Not you again."

"I didn't do it," I tell him.

"Then who did?"

I shrug.

"Dr. Aguirre, he's telling the truth," Peterson says. "You can fire me if I'm wrong."

He shakes his head, then turns to the security guy. "Get Chuck to the gym and see what he can do to clean that stuff off." He points the spray paint can at me. "But I warn you, Alex. If I find out it was you, you'll be not only suspended but arrested. Got it?"

When the officers leave, Aguirre says, "Alex, I didn't tell you this before, but I'm telling you now. I thought the world was my enemy when I was in high school. I wasn't that much different than you, you know. It took me a damn long time to learn that I was my own enemy. When I realized that, I turned my life around. Mrs. Peterson and I, we're not the enemy."

"I know that," I say, and actually believe it's the truth.

"Good. Now I happen to be in the middle of an important meeting. If you'll excuse me, I'll be in my office."

"Thanks for believing me," I say to Mrs. P. once he's gone.

"Do you know who vandalized the gym?" she asks.

I look her straight in the eye and tell her the truth. "I've got no idea. I'm pretty confident it's not one of my friends."

She sighs. "If you weren't in a gang, Alex, you wouldn't get yourself into these messes."

"Yeah, but I'd be in other ones."

CHAPTER 31 Brittany

"It looks like some of you don't think my class is important," Mrs. Peterson says. She starts handing out the test from yesterday.

As Mrs. Peterson heads toward my and Alex's shared table, I sink down in my chair. The last thing I need is Mrs. Peterson's wrath.

"Nice job," the woman says as she places my paper facedown in front of me. Then the woman turns to Alex. "For someone who aspires to be a chemistry teacher, you're off to a very poor start, Mr. Fuentes. Maybe I'll think twice about sticking up for you if you don't come prepared to my class."

She drops Alex's test in front of him with her index finger and thumb, as if the paper is too disgusting to touch with the rest of her fingers. "See me after class," she tells him before passing out the rest of the tests.

I can't understand why Mrs. Peterson didn't rip me a new one. I turn my paper over to find an A on the top of it. I rub my palms over my eyes and readjust them. There must be some mistake. It takes me less than a second to realize who was responsible for my grade. The truth hits me like a hammer to my gut. I look over at Alex, tucking his flunked test into his book.

"Why did you do it?" I wait until Mrs. Peterson finishes her after-class discussion with Alex before approaching him. I'm standing beside his locker, where he's paying little, if any, attention to me. I'm ignoring the stares burning into the back of my head.

"I don't know what you're talkin' about," he says.

Duh! "You switched our tests."

Alex slams his locker shut. "Listen, it was no big deal."

Yes, it is. He walks away, as if expecting me to leave it at that. I'd watched him work diligently on his test, but when I glanced at the big red F on the front of his paper, I recognized my own test.

After school, I hurry out the front doors to catch him. He's on his motorcycle, getting ready to leave.

"Alex, wait!"

Feeling fidgety, I curl my hair behind my ears.

"Hop on," he orders.

"What?"

"Hop on. If you want to thank me for savin' your ass in Mrs. P.'s class, come home with me. I wasn't kiddin' yesterday. You showed me a glimpse into your life, I'm gonna show you a glimpse of mine. It's only fair, right?"

I scan the parking lot. Some people are looking our way, probably ready to spread the gossip that I'm talking to Alex. If I actually leave with him, rumors will fly.

The sound of Alex revving his motorcycle brings my attention back to him. "Don't be afraid of what they think."

I take in the sight of him, from his ripped jeans and leather jacket to the red and black bandanna he just tied on top of his head. His gang colors.

I should be terrified. Then I remember how he was with Shelley yesterday.

To hell with it.

I shift my book bag around to my back and straddle his motorcycle.

"Hold on tight," he says, pulling my hands around his waist. The simple feel of his strong hands resting on top of mine is intensely intimate. I wonder if he's feeling these emotions, too, but dismiss the thought. Alex Fuentes is a hard guy. Experienced. The mere touch of hands isn't going to make his stomach flutter.

He deliberately brushes the tips of his fingers over mine before reaching for the handlebars. Oh. My. God. What am I getting myself into?

As we speed away from the school parking lot, I grab Alex's rock-hard abs tighter. The speed of the motorcycle scares me. I feel light-headed, like I'm riding a roller coaster with no lap bar.

The motorcycle stops at a red light. I lean back.

I hear him chuckle when he guns the engine once more as the light turns green. I clutch his waist and bury my face in his back.

When he finally stops and puts the kickstand down, I survey my surroundings. I've never been on his street. The homes are so . . . small. Most are one level. A cat can't fit in the space between them. As hard as I try to fight it, sorrow settles in the pit of my stomach.

My house is at least seven, maybe even eight or nine times Alex's home's size. I know this side of town is poor, but . . .

"This was a mistake," Alex says. "I'll take you home."

"Why?"

"Among other things, the look of disgust on your face."

"I'm not disgusted. I guess I feel sorry--"

"Don't ever pity me," he warns. "I'm poor, not homeless."

"Then are you going to invite me in? The guys across the street are gawking at the white girl."

"Actually, around here you're a 'snow girl.'"

"I hate snow," I say.

His lips quirk up into a grin. "Not for the weather, querida. For your snow-white skin. Just follow me and don't stare at the neighbors, even if they stare at you."

I sense his wariness as he leads me inside. "Well, this is it," he says, motioning inside.

The living room might be smaller than any room in my house, but it feels warm and cozy. There are two afghans lying on the sofa I'd love to have on top of me on cold nights. We don't have any afghans at my house. We have comforters . . . custom-designed ones to match the decor.

I walk around Alex's house, gliding my fingers over the furniture. A shelf with half-melted candles sits below a picture of a handsome man. I feel Alex's warmth as he stands behind me. "Your dad?" I ask.

He nods.

"I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to lose my dad." Even though he's not around much, I know he's a permanent fixture in my life. I always want more out of my parents. Should I feel lucky just having them around?


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