Chain reaction, p.9
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       Chain Reaction, p.9

         Part #3 of Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles
Page 9


  At school, Kendall is waiting for me by our lockers. At the end of junior year we got to pick any locker in the senior hallway for the next year, so Kendall and I made sure our lockers were right next to each other. That was before she started dating Derek. The two of them have been inseparable since the last day of school, when he showed up at her house with a dozen roses and a song he’d written about her.

  I don’t trust Derek. I know he likes Kendall, but I also know a lot of girls flirt with him and he flirts back. In a moment of male weakness, he can crush Kendall’s trusting heart.

  “Just an FYI,” Kendall says, wincing as if she’s about to share some bad news. “Marco’s locker is right across from ours. ”

  A wave of anxiety rushes through me. “Please tell me you’re lying. ”

  “I wish I was. ”

  After we broke up, Marco got in really deep with the Latino Blood. I know he’s been selling drugs and getting in fights a lot. Something happened last year to the guy who ran the gang, and the LB presence in the south side of Fairfield got broken up. I heard Marco started hanging out with other gangs besides the LB. He’s gotten meaner and tougher. I used to think he had a hard exterior but was sweet once you really got to know him. Marco is anything but sweet now.

  Derek is walking down the hall, heading straight for us. Of course he’s stopped by practically everyone who calls out his name. Girls are enamored with him because he’s ridiculously gorgeous with blond hair, a model’s face, and a very chiseled body. Guys like him because he’s a major athlete. As a sophomore, he made it to the state championships in tennis. When he hurt his shoulder before junior year, he decided he didn’t want to play tennis and instead went out for the soccer team. He was voted MVP last year at the end of the season, which surprised nobody.

  Derek stands beside Kendall, but she turns her back and pretends to be interested in something in her locker.

  “I can’t believe you’re still mad,” Derek says.

  Kendall shoves books in her locker. “I’m not mad. You can go to college wherever you want, Derek. You don’t have to get permission from me to apply out east. ”

  He puts his hand on the small of her back and leans toward her. “Why won’t you even look at Ivy League schools?”

  “Because they’re not in the Midwest,” she tells him. “You want to go far from home, fine. I can’t. ”

  Kendall isn’t saying it, but she’s committed to staying near Fairfield for college because her mother got diagnosed with cancer last year. She’s gone through chemo and the doctors say she’s in remission, but Kendall doesn’t want to be far away.

  “What are you saying, that if I go to school out east it’s over between us?” Derek asks.

  “I don’t know. ”

  I decide to put my two cents in the discussion for a reality check. “The percentage of couples who stay together after high school is, like, less than five percent, you guys. ”

  “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Nikki,” Derek says sarcastically.

  “Just being real,” I tell him. “No need to have you guys living in Fantasy Land. ”

  “I hope you never go to Disney World,” Derek says to me. “You’ll probably tell all the little kids there that Mickey Mouse is just a guy in a costume. ”

  “Probably,” I tell him.

  Kendall sighs. “Derek, leave Nikki alone. She’s just protecting me. ”

  Derek shakes his head, frustrated. “Dammit, Kendall. When are you gonna realize you don’t need protection from me. ”

  “Nikki’s my best friend. ”

  “And I’m supposed to be your boyfriend. ” Derek walks away with a bitter look on his face.

  Kendall leans her head against her locker. I know she’s scared. She was scared of losing her mom, and now she’s scared of losing Derek. I know about being scared, which is why I tell it like it is. Yes, Derek might leave her for another girl. Or go to a college far away and forget about how much he loves her. Or maybe he’s been lying to her about how much he cares about her. That’s reality. Derek might even think he’s being sincere … but how long will that last?

  “He hates me,” I tell her.

  “No, he doesn’t. ” She turns to me. “He just thinks you’re overly cynical. ”

  As soon as she says the word cynical, I hear an old familiar voice speaking in Spanish echoing from across the hall. Marco. Just hearing the deep rumble of his voice used to make me grin from ear to ear. Now his voice is like nails on a chalkboard.

  I look over at Kendall. She touches my forearm sympathetically.

  “Ignore him,” she advises.

  Of course I’ll ignore him, just like I’ve done the past two years. He’s changed way too much, and so have I. I pretend to scratch my chin with my shoulder as I peek across the hall at his locker. Marco is talking to some guy who looks familiar …



  Second …

  No, it can’t be.

  It’s Luis Fuentes, the guy whose clothes I hid when his brother got married years ago. The last time I saw him, he was naked. That was so long ago, I bet he doesn’t remember me. I remember him, though. He’s the boy who reminded me that I was vulnerable. The night I met him I became cynical. I glance again.

  Oh, no.

  He’s staring right at me.



  Exotic eyes. Wavy brown hair. An attitude a mile long. Older, but she’s still got that unique “angel with an edge” aura about her.

  I’d know that girl anywhere. I could pick her out of a crowd of a thousand girls. She denied her Mexican blood, danced like a robot, and dissed me all in the same night.

  “That’s Nikki Cruz, ¿verdad?” I ask Marco, a friend of mine from grade school. It’s kind of weird how it’s like I never left. I never realized how deep my roots are in this town, even though I’ve been gone from Fairfield for almost six years. I came to school early this morning and got my schedule from the front office. As soon as I walked to my locker, I was recognized by a bunch of old friends I used to hang out with.

  Marco glances at the girl, then nods. “How do you know Nik?”

  “Had a run-in with her a couple years ago at my brother’s weddin’. ” No need to go into detail about how she hid my clothes and left me to fend off the overly aggressive girl I’d been skinny-dipping with that night. “¿Cuál es su historia?” I ask him.

  “Her story is that she’s filthy rich and has a body made for fuckin’ around,” Marco says. “She’s a puta. Keep your ass far away from that pocha if you want to stay sane. ”

  I look her way and our eyes meet. Does she remember me?

  While Marco talks to a couple guys, I keep my eyes on Nikki. She quickly turns her gaze away, says something privately to the tall blond girl standing next to her, then tosses her hair back and they both strut down the hall without a backward glance.

  I fly through my first two classes; it’s cool to see old friends that I thought I’d never see again. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Marco is hanging with the big boys outside of school. Nobody has to talk about his gang affiliation—it’s obvious. Most of the families who lived in my ’hood were connected. Some still are.

  The south side of Fairfield might not be overflowing with active gang members anymore, but we’re still the poor kids at school. The elementary and middle schools weren’t integrated, but the high school merged all the schools from both sides of Fairfield into one multicultural melting pot.

  The first time I realize how different things are here than in Boulder is when we have to change for gym class.

  “You’re sitting in my spot, Mex,” some beefy white guy says to me as I sit on a bench in the locker room after being handed my gym uniform. “Move. ”

  I can’t help the laugh that escapes my mouth. “Mex? Did you just call me Mex?”

  “You heard me. Now go sit your dirty immigrant ass somewhe
re else. ”

  Unlike my brothers, I don’t like to fight and I’m not looking to start one now.

  I casually take off my shoes and remind myself that this guy isn’t worth getting kicked out of school. I’m not gonna let him bully me, though.

  “Sorry to break the news to you, gringo,” I tell him. “But I ain’t movin’. It’s the first day of school. You don’t have a ‘spot’ yet. ”

  Other guys start piling in the locker room. Gringo slams his fist hard on the locker right above my head, causing everyone to look our way.

  “I’m warning you,” he growls through clenched teeth, then kicks my shoes across the room.

  I roll my eyes. He wants me to throw the first punch so I’m the one who gets in trouble. He has no clue that I have the patience of a saint. At least that’s what Carlos says, although that isn’t saying much, considering his fuse is about as short as an eyelash.

  Pedro, a guy who lived across the street from me since before we moved, motions to the back of the locker room. “Ah, dejalo y mueveté,” he says to me.

  In other words, avoid the conflict.

  “Listen to your friend,” Gringo says, then grabs my T-shirt and attempts to push me away from his precious spot.

  Not happening.

  I push back. He doesn’t expect it, because his body slams against the lockers hard. He loses his balance and lands on his ass with a thud.

  “I’m gonna fuckin’ kick your ass!” he screams.

  He’s about to charge his full weight against me when one of his friends stands between us. “Dougan, chill out. Seriously, man, it’s not worth getting kicked off the team. ”

  Dougan stares me down before turning his back and walking to another row of lockers with his friends following behind him. I sit and take a deep breath. I’m not in Boulder anymore, that’s for damn sure.

  Everyone who has fourth-period lunch ditches the cafeteria and instead chooses to eat outside. The courtyard is filled with students. The south siders sit under the trees, while the north siders have flocked to the picnic tables as if they were personally made for them. I notice Nikki sitting with a bunch of jocks, all vying for her attention. She smiles at them and laughs at their jokes, but I can tell she’s being fake. None of them are holding her attention for long.

  I sit next to my old friends under a big maple tree.

  “So what you been up to, Fuentes?” Pedro asks as he reaches into a brown paper bag and pulls out his lunch. “Besides pissin’ off Dougan in the locker room. ”

  I shrug. “Lived in Mexico for a while. Then moved to Colorado. ”

  “What made you come back to this shithole?” Marco Delgado asks. He sits across from me and I catch a glimpse of a pocketknife peeking out of his sock.

  “Familia brought me back,” I tell them.

  “Speaking of familia,” Marco says. “Your brother Alex used to be a Blood, didn’t he?”

  I nod.

  I’d be an idiot not to think that subject would come up sooner or later. My brother was an active member of the Latino Blood, until Hector Martinez betrayed him.

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