Rules of attraction, p.16
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       Rules of Attraction, p.16

         Part #2 of Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles
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Page 16


  “I’m Justin,” the kid to my right says.

  Justin has his long hair dyed green in front. The front is so long, it’s like he’s got a curtain in front of his eyes.

  “Hey, man,” I say. “What’re you in for? Drugs? Petty theft? Grand larceny? Murder?” I say as if crimes are things you can order at a restaurant.

  Berger puts her hand up. “Carlos, it’s REACH policy not to ask those questions. ”

  Oops, I must have been daydreaming during that portion of The Lecture. “Why not?” I ask. “I say lay it all on the table. ”

  “Auto theft,” Justin blurts out to our surprise. I think even Justin is surprised he shared his little secret.

  After everyone introduces themselves, I come to the conclusion that I’ve just been assigned the Group from Hell. To my left is a white chick named Zana who could easily be cast if they ever decide to make a reality show called Colorado Sluts. Next is Quinn— I can’t tell if Quinn is a he or a she. There are two other Latinos—a guy named Keno and a hot Mexican chica named Carmela with chocolate brown eyes and honey brown skin. She reminds me of my ex, Destiny, except Carmela’s got a troublemaking glint in her eye that Destiny never had.

  Berger puts down her pen and says to me, “Before you joined us, Justin was sharing the fact that he punches his fist into walls sometimes when he’s frustrated, so he can feel pain. We were talking about other outlets for frustration that are less destructive. ”

  It’s a little ironic that Justin will hit a wall because he’s desperate to feel something, anything, even pain . . . I’m just the opposite. I do anything and everything in my power not to feel anything. My goal most times is to be numb.

  Hmm, maybe I should write that one down on my goal sheet. Carlos Fuentes’s goal #1: To be numb and stay numb. I don’t think that’ll go over too well, but it’s the truth.

  “So how was your first day?”

  After Alex picked me up from REACH at five thirty, he took me to what I assume is downtown Boulder— a place called Pearl Street Mall. To the delight of Mrs. Westford, we stopped at her Hospitali-Tea store/café for a drink and sit at one of the tables on the outdoor patio. Tea is not the kind of drink I had in mind, but as usual I don’t have much choice.

  Mrs. Westford puts down two specialty teas she made “on the house, just for us” and heads back inside to take orders from other customers.

  I look at my brother as he sits across from me, totally relaxed.

  “They’re a bunch of fuckin’ misfits at that REACH thing, Alex,” I tell him quietly so Mrs. W. doesn’t hear. “One is worse than the next. ”

  “Come on, it can’t be that bad. ”

  “Don’t say that until you see ’em. And they made me sign this stupid-ass agreement that I’ll abide by their rules. Remember back in Fairfield when we had no rules, Alex? After school it was just you, me, and Luis. ”

  “We had rules,” Alex says, then picks up his drink. “We just didn’t follow ’em. Miamá was workin’ so much, she wasn’t around to keep an eye on us. ”

  We didn’t live like kings back in Illinois, but we sure did have family and friends . . . and a life. “I want to go back. ”

  He shakes his head. “There’s nothin’ left there for us. ”

  “Elena and Jorge are there with little JJ. You’ve never even seen the kid, Alex. My friends are there. I’ve got less than nothin’ here. ”

  “I’m not sayin’ I don’t want to go back,” my brother says. “We just can’t go back now. It’s not safe. ”

  “Since when did you become afraid? Man, you’ve changed. I remember when you’d tell the entire world to fuck off and do whatever you wanted without thinking. ”

  “I’m not scared. I care about bein’ here for Brittany. There’s a point when you have to stop fightin’ the whole world. I reached that point two years ago. Look around, Carlos. There are other girls besides Destiny. ”

  “I don’t want Destiny. Not anymore. If you’re talkin’ about Kiara, forget it. I’m not datin’ a chick who wants to control my life and cares whether I’m dealin’ drugs or in a gang. Look at us, Alex. We’re sittin’ at a fuckin’ teahouse next to rich white people who don’t have a clue what it’s like outside this fake reality they call life. You’ve become a chido. ”

  Alex leans forward. “Let me tell you somethin’, little brother. I like not havin’ to watch my back every time I walk down the street. I like that I have a novia who thinks I’m the shit. And I sure as hell don’t regret givin’ up the drugs and the Latino Blood for a chance at a future worth livin’. ”

  “You gonna bleach your skin so you can look like a gringo, too?” I ask. “Man, I hope your kids are as pale as Brittany so you don’t have to sell ’em on the black market. ”

  My brother is gettin’ pissed off, I can tell by the way the muscle in his jaw is twitching. “Being Mexican doesn’t mean being poor,” he says. “Goin’ to college doesn’t mean I’m turnin’ my back on my people. Maybe you’re turnin’ your back on our people by perpetuatin’ the Mexican stereotype. ”

  I moan and throw my head back. “Perpetuatin’? Perpetuatin’? Hell, Alex, our people don’t even know the meanin’ of that word. ”

  “Fuck you,” Alex growls. He shoves back his chair and walks away.

  “That’s the old Alex I used to know! I understand that language loud and clear,” I call after him.

  He tosses his cup in a garbage bin and keeps walking. I admit he doesn’t walk like a gringo yet and still looks like he could kick anyone’s ass who gets in his way. But just give it time. He’ll look like he’s got a pole up his ass any day now.

  Mrs. Westford is soon back at the table, gazing into my untouched cup. “You didn’t like your tea?”

  “It’s fine,” I tell her.

  She notices the now-empty seat. “What happened to Alex?”

  “He left. ”

  “Oh,” she says, then pulls up his empty chair and sits next to me. “You want to talk about it?”

  “Nope. ”

  “Want my advice?”

  “Nope. ” What am I going to do, tell her that tomorrow I’m going to sneak into Nick’s locker to see if I can find evidence that he set me up? While I’m at it, I might as well rummage through Madison’s locker too. Since she was so intent on having me and Nick meet, maybe she knows something. I’m not sharing my suspicions with anyone.

  “Okay, but if you do, just let me know. Wait here. ” She takes my untouched cup and disappears inside. That was a shocker. Miamá is the opposite of Mrs. Westford. If my ma wants to give me advice, you can be damn well sure she’s gonna dish it out whether I want to listen or not.

  Mrs. Westford comes back a minute later and sets down another cup full of tea.

  “Just try it,” she says. “It’s got calming herbs like chamomile, rose hips, elderberries, lemon balm, and Siberian ginseng. ”

  “I’d rather smoke weed,” I joke.

  She doesn’t laugh. “I know smoking pot isn’t a big deal to some people, but at this point it’s illegal. ” She slides the cup further toward me. “I guarantee this will calm you,” she says. As she walks back inside to wait on other customers she adds, “And it won’t get you in a heap of trouble. ”

  I look down into the cup filled with light green liquid. It doesn’t look like herbs, it just looks like tea from a cheap ol’ teabag. I look left and right, makin’ sure nobody is watching, as I bring the cup to my face and breathe in the steam.

  Okay, this is no ordinary tea from a cheap teabag. It smells like fruit and flowers and somethin’ else I can’t place all rolled into one. And while the smell is unfamiliar, it makes my mouth water.

  I look up and see Tuck walking toward me. Kiara is beside him, but her attention is on a guy in the middle of the outdoor mall playing the accordion. She pulls a dollar from her purse and kneels down to put it in his case.

  While she stops to watch the guy play, Tuck pulls over a c
hair from another table and sits across from me. “I wouldn’t have pegged you as a tea guy,” Tuck says. “You look like more of a tequila and rum guy. ”

  “Don’t you have other people to annoy?” I ask.

  “No. ” The dude, who I don’t think has cut his hair in at least nine months, reaches out and pokes at the tattoo on my forearm. “What does that mean?”

  I flick his hand away. “It means if you touch me again I’m gonna kick your ass. ”

  Kiara is now standing behind Tuck’s chair. She doesn’t look happy.

  “Speaking of kicking ass, how was your first day at REACH?” Tuck asks, with a grin that makes me want to tip over his chair.

  Kiara grabs his sleeve and yanks him away from the table. He falls off the chair. “Kiara has to ask you something, Carlos. ”

  “No. No, I don’t,” Kiara chokes out, then grabs him again and starts pulling him into the store.

  “Yes, you do. Ask him,” he says before they both stumble into the store and out of my view.



  I push Tuck inside. “Stop it,” I whisper.

  We’re at the back of the store now, where nobody else can hear us.

  “Why?” Tuck asks. “You need a guy to stand in front of old people with you, and he needs something to do besides sit around and count his tattoos all day. It’s a perfect idea. ”

  “No, it’s not. ”

  My mom shimmies her way next to us and hugs Tuck. “What’s up?”

  “I can’t help Kiara with her painting class on Friday, so she wants to ask Carlos to take my place,” Tuck says.

  A big smile crosses my mom’s lips. “Oh, honey, that’s so nice of you to include him in your activities. You’re so special. ” She squeezes me in a huge bear hug. “Isn’t my daughter the best?”

  “Definitely, Mrs. Westford. The best. ”

  Tuck is such a suck-up when it comes to my parents.

  “Kiara, when you and Tuck are done here, take Carlos home. He was with Alex, but I think they had a disagreement or something. I’ll be leaving in about an hour, but I need to pick up Brandon from his friend’s house and your father is making dinner. Oh, and once you get home, you might want to supervise so there’s something edible for us. ”

  After my mom makes us tea, I find Carlos outside drinking what I suspect is one of my mother’s special blends. He seems to like it, although I can’t be sure because his face is an emotionless mask.

  “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Tuck says, saluting me with his paper cup.

  “What did you want to ask me?” Carlos asks. He sounds annoyed.

  Will you dress up as a cowboy on Friday night and model in front of old people? “Nothing. ” I just can’t get the words out.

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