We stand here, staring at each other, some invisible force keeping me from looking away. "You came all the way to Colorado to play checkers with my sister?"
"Well, that's not the only reason. I'm goin' to college here. Mrs. P. and Dr. Aguirre helped me get a GED after I quit the Blood. I sold Julio. I'm workin' at the student union and takin' out loans."
Alex? In college? His shirtsleeves, neatly buttoned at his wrists, hide most of his Latino Blood tattoos. "You quit? I thought you said it was too dangerous to quit, Alex. You said people who try to get out die."
"I almost did. If it weren't for Gary Frankel, I probably wouldn't have made it. . . ."
"Gary Frankel?" The nicest, geekiest guy in school? For the first time I scan Alex's face and see a faint, new scar above his eye and nasty ones by his ear and neck. "Oh, God! W-what did they d-do to you?"
He takes my hand and places it on his chest. His eyes are intense and dark, like they were the first time I noticed him in the parking lot that first day of school senior year. "It took me a long time to realize I needed to fix everything The choices I made. The gang. Bein' beaten to within an inch of my life and branded like cattle was nothin' compared to losin' you. If I could take back every word I said in the hospital, I would. I thought if I pushed you away, I'd be protectin' you from what happened to Paco and my dad." He looks up and his eyes pierce mine. "I'll never push you away again, Brittany. Ever. I swear."
Beaten? Branded? I'm feeling sick to my stomach and tears sting my eyes.
"Shh." He puts his arms around me, rubbing his hands across my back. "It's all right. I'm okay," he chants over and over again, his voice catching.
He feels good. This feels good.
He rests his forehead against mine. "You need to know somethin'. I agreed to the bet because deep down I knew that if I got emotionally involved, it'd kill me. And it nearly did. You were the one girl who made me risk everythin' for a future worth havin'." He straightens and takes one step back to look me in the eye. "I'm so sorry. Mujer, tell me what you want and I'll give it to you. If it'll make you happy for me to leave you alone for the rest of your life, say the word. But if you still want me, I'll do my best to be this. . . ." He gestures to his clothes. "How can I prove to you I've changed?"
"I've changed, too," I tell him. "I'm not the girl I was before. And I'm sorry, but those clothes . . . they're not you."
"It's what you want."
"You're wrong, Alex. I want you. Not a fake image. I definitely prefer you in jeans and a T-shirt, because that's who you are."
He looks down at his attire and chuckles. "You're right." He looks back up at me. "You once said you loved me. Do you still?"
My sister is watching this exchange between us. She smiles warmly at me, giving me the strength to tell him the truth. "I never stopped loving you. Even when I tried desperately to forget you, I couldn't."
He lets out a long, slow breath and rubs his forehead in relief. His eyes look glassy, filled with emotion. I feel my own eyes welling up again and I gather a handful of his shirt in my fist. "I don't want to fight all the time, Alex. Dating should be fun. Love should be good." I'm pulling him toward me. I want his lips on mine. "W-will it ever be good for us?"
Our lips almost touch before he pulls away from me, but then he--
Oh. My. God.
He kneels on one knee before me, holds my hands in his, and my heart skips more than a few beats. "Brittany Ellis, I'm goin' to prove to you I'm the guy you believed in ten months ago, and I'm gonna be the successful man you dreamed I could be. My plan is to ask you to marry me four years from now, the day we graduate." He cocks his head as his voice takes on a more playful tone. 'And I guarantee you a lifetime of fun, probably one with no lack of fightin', for you are one passionate mamacita . . . but I definitely look forward to some great make-up sessions. Maybe one day we can even go back to Fairfield and help make it the place my dad always hoped it would be. You, me, and Shelley. And any other Fuentes or Ellis family member who wants to be a part of our lives. We'll be one big, crazy Mexican-American family. What do you think? Mujer, you own my soul."
I can't help but smile as I swipe a lone tear trailing down my cheek. How can I not be crazy in love with this guy? Time away from him didn't change anything. I can't deny him another chance. That would be denying myself.
Time to take the risk, to trust once again.
"Shelley, you think she'll take me back?" Alex asks her, his hair dangerously close to her fingers. She doesn't pull his hair . . . just pats his head gently. I feel the tears running down my cheeks at full speed.
"Yeah!" Shelley yells with a goofy, gummy grin. She looks happier and more content than she's been in a long time. Both of my favorite people are with me right here; what more could I ask for?
"What's your major?" I ask.
Alex flashes me his you-can't-resist-me smile. "Chemistry. And yours?"
"Chemistry." I wrap my arms around his neck. "Kiss me so we can see if we still have it. 'Cause you own my heart, my soul, and everything else in between."
His lips finally sear mine, more powerful than ever before.
Wow. The solar system is finally in alignment, and I got my Do Over without even asking for it.
Twenty-Three Years Later
Mrs. Peterson closes the door to her classroom. "Good afternoon and welcome to senior chemistry." She walks to her desk, leans on the edge, and opens her class folder. "I appreciate you picking your own seats, but since this is my class, I make the seating arrangements . . . alphabetically."
Groans erupt from the students, the same sound that has greeted her on the first day of school for over thirty years at Fairfield High.
"Mary Alcott, take the first seat. Your partner is Andrew Carson." Down the list Mrs. Peterson goes, students reluctantly sitting in their assigned seats next to their chemistry partners.
"Paco Fuentes," Mrs. Peterson says, pointing to the table behind Mary.
The handsome young man with pale blue eyes like his mother's and smoky black hair like his father's takes his assigned seat.
Mrs. Peterson regards her new student over the glasses perched on her nose. "Mr. Fuentes, don't think this class will be a piece of cake because your parents got lucky and developed a medication to halt the progression of Alzheimer's. Your father never did finish my class and he flunked one of my tests, although I have a feeling your mother was the one who should have failed. But that just means I'll expect extra from you."
Mrs. Peterson looks down at her notebook. "Julianna Gallagher, please take your seat next to Mr. Fuentes."
Mrs. Peterson notices Julianna's blush as she sits on her stool and Paco's cocky grin beside her. Maybe the tide was starting to shift after thirty years of teaching, but she wasn't taking any chances.
"And for those of you who want to start any trouble, I have a zero tolerance policy. . . ."