The noise rose above the usual feeding-time-at-the-zoo level and Martin Cruz looked up from his desk with a glare that had no perceivable effect. He folded the note he’d just finished writing and sourly regarded the nineteen behavioral problems he sarcastically referred to as students. Not one was doing anything remotely resembling learning. When he’d come here in 1988 with his degree in sociology, he’d thought he’d make a difference in the lives of some misunderstood kids, the kids none of the other schools would take. After twelve years, he’d come to realize that he was the only one here who cared about education; Nuestra Senora Providencia Escuela para Niños—Our Lady of Providence School for Boys—in Los Angeles wasn’t much more than a warehouse for misfits, drones, and the underprivileged. Nowadays, he came to work on time, kept his head down for eight hours, and went home at the end of the day to a house whose payments he could barely afford in a neighborhood that was relatively quiet. He called roll, handed out assignments, and gave tests in the sure knowledge that none of it mattered. Except for the handful of problem children from wealthy homes, not one of these boys was going anywhere but out onto the streets and into a dead end job. Junior gangsters and future minimum wage slaves every one of them.
Mr. Cruz sighed and tried to choose one of them to do an errand. His gaze skipped over the quartet with close-cropped hair, visible piercings, and school uniform trousers tucked into combat boots. He likewise ignored the three with the makeup and rainbow hair colors as well as the skater boy contingent with their ubiquitous skull motif. On the verge of choosing from the largest group, the ones he thought of as the sheep, his eye fell on the still figure of Alvaro Torres at the back of the room.
As always, Alvaro was flanked by Enrique “Kiki” Viera and Leo Lazaro, the school’s odd couple. Mr. Cruz didn’t think of the trio as a gang, more like a pack. They didn’t start trouble simply to relieve their boredom or because they’d fabricated a rivalry with another group, but if they felt attacked, their response was fierce and united. The teacher’s gaze lingered with disapproval on their clothing. Though each wore the standard white Oxford shirt, Kiki had added ostentatious cuff links and an ascot with a stickpin. The sleeves of Leo’s gray jacket were pushed up to reveal bare forearms with tribal tattoos. Alvaro’s shirt was untucked and his jacket hung over the back of his chair. Instead of the required black gabardine trousers, all three were wearing blue jeans festooned with chains hanging from the belt loops. For some reason, the personal touches they added to their uniforms bothered Mr. Cruz more than the all-out costumes of the skinheads, the Goths, and the others he labeled conforming non-conformists. Alvaro’s friends were true individuals, unconcerned with what anyone else thought of their taste, and that —in Mr. Cruz’s estimation—was much more dangerous than an army of leather-clad self-proclaimed rebels. The teacher sighed again; at least Alvaro’s posse wasn’t the usual loud, attention-seeking type that roamed the campus. In fact, they shunned contact with anyone outside their circle. In a prime example of how life loved irony, their wish to be left alone made them more rather than less attractive. They couldn’t rightly be called popular, but they were certainly the most imitated, which translated—in high school as in the rest of life—as cool.
“Alvaro!” Mr. Cruz pitched his voice to cut through the racket.
Alvaro didn’t look up from the ink pen tattoo that Kiki was drawing on the inside of his wrist. Kiki paused as he glanced away from his work, his eyes flicking from Alvaro’s downcast gaze to Leo. Leo met Kiki’s eyes briefly, just long enough to affirm solidarity before he looked back down at the half-finished Mayan design like the ones he sported.
“Alvaro Torres!” Mr. Cruz repeated, almost shouting. “I need you to take a message to the main office.”
“What will you give me?” Alvaro responded.
“What will I give you?” Mr. Cruz repeated incredulously.
“I can’t do something for nothing,” Alvaro said as Leo and Kiki smirked. “You have to make it worth my while.”
The teacher had expected anything from sullen compliance to sullen refusal, but asking for payment was a new tack, and it threw him off balance. Before he could form a reply, the door opened and a young man in a mismatched uniform slouched in. Stopping in front of Mr. Cruz’s desk, the newcomer stood with his head down and waited. “Well, who are you?” Mr. Cruz asked, irritated that the student hadn’t knocked. The new boy’s reply was nearly inaudible as he handed Mr. Cruz a piece of paper. The teacher looked at the transfer form and verified that he had a new student. “Candelario Carlisle,” Mr. Cruz said. “That’s not a name we see often, and it’s very irregular, transferring so near the end of the year.”
The boy shrugged.
“Do you prefer being called Cande, or by your full name?”
The new kid shrugged again, and Mr. Cruz made a note in his grade book.
“Whoa!” Kiki said under his breath as Candelario Carlisle half-turned toward the classroom. “The new kid’s really pretty!”
Alvaro glanced up as if he hadn’t been stealing looks at the new kid since the door had opened. Even under the wan fluorescent lighting, Cande’s golden brown hair had a rich reddish gloss that drew the eye. His finely carved features were shadowed by thick bangs that made it impossible to determine the color of his eyes, but his most prominent feature was a pair of perfect lips that looked permanently poised for a kiss. “He’s pretty,” Alvaro said with a shrug and made a joke. “If you like that type.”
Leo grinned and tousled Kiki’s loose, dark curls. “Is the new kid your type?” he teased.
Kiki flicked Leo’s hand away and straightened his subtly patterned silk scarf. “What business is it of yours?” he inquired. “Unless you’re looking for a date.”
Alvaro looked down to hide his smile, and when he looked up again, he caught Cande looking at him. Their eyes met, and for a space of time that couldn’t be quantified by things like clocks or reality, they were like two people who’ve grabbed hold of the same high voltage wire. Mr. Cruz said Cande’s name and the spell was broken; Alvaro turned quickly away, facing backward in his chair.
“I reserve the desks in the two front rows for proven troublemakers,” Mr. Cruz said. “There’s an empty chair in the back left corner. You can sit there for now.”
Cande didn’t respond by as much as a nod. He plodded to the back of the room and set his backpack on the desk. Taking out a notebook, he sat and started doodling on a page marked by music staffs. In moments, he was in his own world, blocking out the chaos around him.
“Well, I guess our company isn’t good enough for the princess,” Kiki said wryly.
“He’s wearing a public school jacket that’s too small and….” Leo looked to Kiki. “What school wears navy trousers?”
“How would I know?”
“You’re the fashion expert.”
“School uniforms aren’t fashion.” Kiki looked over at Alvaro, expecting him to chime in, but Alvaro was watching Cande from the corners of his eyes. Smacking Alvaro’s shoulder, Kiki got his attention. “What’s the fascination?”
“You’re staring at the new kid.”
“No I’m not.”
“Not now you’re not, but you were.”
“That’s crap.” Alvaro glanced up at the clock and pulled his jacket on in anticipation of the lunch bell. “Anyone got extra money today?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Kiki said. “I’ve got you covered.”
Alvaro nodded his thanks. “I’ll pay you back on Monday.”
“Didn’t I just say not to worry about it?” Kiki looked up at Leo. “Can I buy you lunch, too, you sexy thing?”
“As long as you don’t expect me to put out,” Leo answered.
“Woo!” Kiki grinned and held up his hand for a high-five. “Leo shoots and scores!”
“He scored on you,” Alvaro pointed out.
Kiki shrugged. “I appreciate a good return, even if it’s aimed at me.”
The bell rang and nineteen young men jumped to their feet with the clatter of chair legs on a wooden floor and an upsurge of conversation. Alvaro threw an arm around Kiki’s neck and pulled him in close. “I love your sense of humor,” he said.
“What about me?” Leo asked as he fell into step with his friends.
“You want some of this?” Alvaro put his other arm around Leo. “Come on, bitches,” he said, taking the hallway that led to the cafeteria. “Let’s roll.”
Cande didn’t rise from his seat until the room was empty except for Mr. Cruz. Under the teacher’s impatient eye, he fastened the buckle on his backpack and trudged out the door.
“I haveto leave early today,” Alvaro said as he balled up his cardboard food tray. Barely turning his head, he tossed the piece of trash into a bin about fifteen feet away.
Kiki nodded. “I’ll get your geography homework and drop it by on my way home.” He stretched out his legs on the grass and leaned back on his hands, turning his face to the sky. “I wish we could have class outside.”
Leo nodded vehement agreement. “On the baseball field would be good.”
Kiki smiled. “You’re such a jock,” he said as Alvaro got to his feet.
“See you later, Kiki,” Alvaro said. “And Leo, don’t forget to put your jacket back on before you go to class. If you get in trouble one more time, you’ll get expelled.”
“It’s a nice look for him though, don’t you think?” Kiki asked, plucking at the fringe where Leo had ripped the sleeves from his button-down shirt.
“Looking good; shows off your muscles,” Alvaro said. “Just don’t forget your jacket.” Flashing his friends a peace sign, he walked away.
“Hey, maricon, give me a cigarette.” Chuy Alvarez stopped in front of Kiki, his shadow falling over the other young man.
“It’s the year 2000; nobody smokes anymore,” Kiki said as Leo got to his feet. “Haven’t you heard, cabron? Cigarettes are for losers,”
“Are you calling me a loser?” Chuy’s pride was as prickly as his spiked crewcut.
“Why don’t you go try your tough guy act on someone else, punk?” Leo said, bumping chests with Chuy. “No one here is impressed.”
Chuy’s pals took a step forward, but Leo’s eyes stayed locked on Chuy. The punk saw nothing in Leo’s unwavering gaze that said Leo would back down an inch. “If you don’t have cigarettes, give me some money to buy some,” Chuy said. “You’re rich, Viera. Give us some money.”
“My parents are rich,” Kiki said. “But they don’t like me. If they did, why would they send me here?”
“Ha ha.” Chuy shoved at Leo, stepping back at the same time. “You fairies aren’t worth the time it would take to kick your asses.”
“You sound like busy guys,” Kiki said, accepting Leo’s offer of a hand as he stood up. “You probably have somewhere else you need to be.”
“Come on.” Chuy gestured to his gang. “Let’s ditch these losers and go find somebody with money.”
Kiki rolled his eyes as the four young men swaggered off. “Who are they kidding?”
“None of them would last five minutes on the street,” Leo said. “I hate those little Nazi wannabes.”
“Really? I couldn’t tell by the way you were looking at Chuy.” Kiki chuckled as they headed for the main building. They were starting up the steps when he laughed again. “Seriously, I know you’re badass, but you’ve really gotten good at looking badass. I thought Chuy was going to piss his pants when you stood up to him.”
Leo shrugged off the praise. “Speaking of pants pissing….” He focused on something over Kiki’s right shoulder. “What do you want? I don’t have time to change your diaper.”
Kiki turned, knowing he’d see Eligio Domingo. The second-year student idolized Alvaro and—by extension—Alvaro’s friends. “Why are you pestering us in public?” Kiki asked. “You know the rules.”
“We can’t be seen with you,” Leo clarified, making a shooing gesture at beanpole Eligio. “Run along, nerd, before a strong wind comes and blows you away.” Leo puffed out his cheeks.
“I’m looking for Alvaro,” Eligio said.
“I never would have guessed,” Kiki said. “Alvaro had to leave early today. You missed him by about five minutes. Hey!” Kiki frowned as Eligio took off running. “What’s up his butt?” he wondered aloud.
“Kids are jumpy these days. Not like when I first came here.”
Kiki chuckled. “Tell me about the olden days, grandfather,” he said as they walked toward their next class.
“Alvaro!” Eligio yelled. “Alvaro, wait!”
Alvaro stopped jogging at the edge of the school parking lot and looked back to see Eligio on a rattletrap bicycle. “Where’d you get that piece of shit?”
Eligio ignored the question. “You have to come with me,” he panted.
“No I don’t. I have to go home.”
“Please. Someone needs help.”
“Kiki!” Alvaro said under his breath as he started back down the street.
“No, not Kiki. It’s the new kid. Chuy’s bullying him.”
Alvaro stopped. “Why are you bothering me with this? All Chuy wants is his lunch money.”
“That’s how it started,” Eligio said. “But the new kid wouldn’t give him anything.”
“Then he’ll take a couple of punches. Big deal.”
“Alvaro, please. They’re really going to hurt him.”
“Chingada! I don’t have time for this.”
Eligio looked at the ground. “Remember last year when Chuy was bothering me every day? Remember what I told you? What he tried to make me do?”
“Of course. I kicked his ass behind the arcade the next Saturday.”
“He’s trying the same thing with the new kid.”
“Aiy,” Alvaro groaned again. “Give me your bike.”
“Climb on behind,” Eligio said.
Alvaro put his feet on the extended rear axle, grabbed onto Eligio’s shoulders, and Eligio put his long legs to work pedaling them over to the gymnasium. As they rounded the corner of the big building, they saw a group of young men near the air-conditioning unit. Motioning to Eligio to take off, Alvaro moved stealthily along the wall until he was within earshot.
“Are you ready to give me what I want?” Chuy asked his latest victim.
Two of Chuy’s gang held Cande with his arms twisted behind his back. Cande’s delicate features were tense with strain, but none of the pain he was feeling showed in his soft voice when he answered. “No, I need another minute to think about it.”
Alvaro suppressed a smile; he appreciated Cande’s attitude, but this was about to get even uglier. The new kid already had a split lower lip, and the fourth member of Chuy’s group was pawing through his backpack. If the punks didn’t find anything they considered worthwhile, they were apt to give Cande a real beating for smarting off to them. New students didn’t have friends yet, and jerks like Chuy felt safe messing with them. Normally, Chuy would be right, but today Alvaro didn’t feel like minding his own business. He was about to step away from the concealment of the vertical duct when Chuy started talking again.
“You seriously don’t want to fuck around with me.”
“You said that already,” Cande told him.
“He isn’t hiding any money in here,” said the thug rifling the backpack. “Just books and junk.”
“So you don’t have any smokes and you don’t have any food and you don’t have any money,” Chuy said grabbing the front of Cande’s shirt. “What good are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You look like a girl.”
“You said that already too.”
“Did I say blow me?”
“Not in so many words, but I figured you’d get around to it eventually, you big closet case.”
“What?” Chuy looked confused, which was not necessarily a good thing. When he didn’t know what to do, he fell back on violence. “Are you calling me queer?”
“It sounded like you asked me to blow you. That’s kind of queer, isn’t it?”
Alvaro bit back a chuckle. The new kid was practically begging for an ass-kicking, but he was doing it with style, a quality Alvaro appreciated. Style was free to some, and others couldn’t buy it for any amount of money. Being stylish was something Alvaro could do as well as the richest kid in school, and that was important to him.
“You’re about to be very sorry,” Chuy told Cande. “First, I’m going to kick your ass, and then you’re going to blow me.” He pulled back his fist, and his friends tightened their grip on Cande’s arms. Alvaro got ready to intervene when one of the gang pulled a piece of cloth from the backpack, and the new boy began to thrash like a landed trout.
“Put it back!” Cande shouted, twisting and flailing. His elbow connected with the ribs of one of the boys holding him, and the punk let go with a cry of pain. Lunging toward the one holding the cloth, Cande nearly wrenched his other captor’s arm out of the socket. Chuy moved to block him, and Alvaro came out of hiding.
“Not so fast,” he said, stepping into Chuy’s path. “Let the boy go and let’s see what happens.”
“Are you crazy?” Chuy said. “It’s still four against two.”
“Yeah, but we both know you’re a coward,” Alvaro said. “Call your assholes off and give Carlisle his backpack.”
“Sounds like you want me to give you something for nothing,” Chuy sneered.
Cande swung at one of the punks as another slammed into his back. As he turned to throw a punch with his left, someone grabbed his other arm. Alvaro shook his head, gesturing at the uneven fight with one hand to draw Chuy’s attention as he hit him in the side with the other. As the gang leader doubled over, breathless from the sucker punch, Alvaro took three long strides and kicked the guy restraining Cande’s right arm. The thug went to the ground, rolling around as he clutched his knee. One of the other two turned to face Alvaro. Alvaro ducked a punch and head-butted the other young man in the stomach. The punk reeled back and collided with his friend, bouncing off into Alvaro’s roundhouse kick. Cande caught the other one on the rebound and slung him away in the direction of the wall. Scooping up his backpack, Cande started to take off.
“Hey, new kid!” Alvaro called out as Chuy and his bullies regrouped. “It’s not over.”
“Damn right it isn’t,” Chuy said. “I think you broke one of my ribs.”
“Hey!” Alvaro called to Cande again. “Come back! We’re not out of trouble yet.”
“You are now,” Leo said as he arrived with Kiki and Eligio. “Step aside and let me take care of your light work for you.”
Alvaro looked at Chuy. “It looks like there are five of us and four of you. Is it over now?”
“Yo, Chuy Alvarez,” Kiki said. “You can count, right?”
“He can count,” Leo said as Chuy and his gang slunk away with muttered threats and rude gestures. “What a bunch of punks.”
Kiki put a hand on Alvaro’s shoulder and looked into his face. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Lost a little skin on my knuckles. Hey, Carlisle, are you all right?”
Cande looked up from stuffing the piece of cloth in his backpack. He nodded as he hefted the bag to his shoulder and started to shuffle off.
“Hang on,” Alvaro said. “Come here for a minute. Look at you. You’re a mess.”
“A bloody mess,” Kiki elaborated. “You should go to the school nurse.”
“I can’t get in trouble on my first day,” Cande said. “I’ll wash up in the bathroom.”
Alvaro shook his head. “That won’t be good enough. You need more than soap and water. You’d better come home with me.” He turned to Kiki. “I really have to run. See you around four.” After taking a few steps, he looked at Cande over his shoulder. “Let’s go,” he said in a tone that brooked no arguments.
Cande followed Alvaro, keeping pace as the tall boy steadily increased his speed to a run. When they stopped at a storefront grocery, Alvaro looked at Cande with a little more respect. “You’re in decent shape,” he said as he opened a gate onto an alley between the shops. “Do you play a sport?”
Cande shook his head as he followed Alvaro up a flight of stairs on the outside of the building.
“No? I’m into kickboxing right now.” Alvaro demonstrated one of the martial art’s circular kicks as they reached the second story landing. When Cande dodged back against the railing, Alvaro grabbed his forearm and pulled him back. “That wood’s rotten,” he said, loosening his grip, his fingers sliding down to curl around Cande’s wrist. Cande pulled his hand free and stuck it in his pocket. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Alvaro opened the door, and they entered a tiny apartment.
“It’s me, Mama,” Alvaro called out before steering Cande into a miniature kitchen. “Make some tea,” he said. “You know how to make tea, right? I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Cande found everything he needed among the sparse supplies, boiled some water, and added the tea. When Alvaro hadn’t returned by the time the tea had steeped, Cande ventured into the narrow hall. Through an open door at the end, he saw a woman sitting up in bed with her long hair loose on her shoulders. As he watched, Alvaro leaned forward into his field of vision and took the woman’s hand. She continued to stare straight ahead, and Alvaro stood up. Cande spun around and tripped over his own feet. By the time he recovered and hurried into the kitchen, he knew Alvaro had seen him. “I’m sorry,” he said, when Alvaro joined him. “I didn’t mean to spy.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I hope I didn’t disturb your mother.”
“She didn’t even know you were there.”
“Is she sick?”
“Sort of. Basically, she just stopped caring about anything after my dad left.”
“Oh.” Cande looked away from Alvaro. “The tea’s ready.”
“Yeah, smells good. Why don’t you have a cup while I take some to Mama, and then I’ll get you cleaned up?” Alvaro carried a cup into the bedroom and came back a few minutes later. “Come on,” he said and led the way to a small bathroom. “Have a seat on the toilet.” Cande sat down while Alvaro set out a few things. The sharp smell of alcohol permeated the air as Alvaro swabbed the dried blood from Cande’s face. Alvaro knew the alcohol stung like fire, but Cande sat without flinching until the clean up was done. “Good man,” he said absently as he began to inspect the damage. “You’ve got a split on your lower lip and one over your left eye. The nosebleed has stopped, and I don’t think your nose is broken. You’re going to have some impressive bruises, though.” Alvaro turned Cande’s head toward the light again. “I can put a couple of stitches in the cut on your brow bone, if you want.”
“No thanks!” Cande tried to stand, but Alvaro stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Okay, no stitches, but I need to put some antibiotic salve on the cuts and some butterfly closures at least.”
“You have those?”
“Mama was a nurse before she lost interest in everything.”
“Thanks, but it’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Okay.” Cande looked down at his hands as Alvaro deftly applied a couple of small butterfly bandages to the cut over his eye. “Thanks for keeping those guys from, you know, doing freaky things to me.”
“Well, you know, sexual things. I can take a beating but… anyway, thanks.”
“You might want to reserve your thanks if you think gays are freaks.”
“I might be gay for all you know.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Cande said. “I don’t care if you’re gay. I just don’t want to be forced to do anything.”
“I didn’t say I was gay.” Alvaro paused. “And I understand about not wanting to be forced into something.”
After several seconds of silence, Cande mumbled, “I sort of like guys.”
“What? Why would you tell me something like that when you don’t know me?”
“You brought it up when you said you might be gay for all I knew. I thought you were hinting around. I’ll shut up now.”
Alvaro smiled. “What are you really saying? You’re gay if I am?”
Cande’s gaze brushed Alvaro’s before dropping to his hands again. “Something like that. Can we talk about something else now?”
“Sure.” Gently, Alvaro touched Cande’s bottom lip. “Does it hurt much?”
“It hurts a lot.”
“It’ll hurt worse tomorrow and you’ll look terrible.”
Cande sighed. “My first day and I’ve already been in a fight and skipped my last two classes.”
“A real delicuendo.” Alvaro grinned. “Come on back in the kitchen and I’ll heat something up.”
“Didn’t you just have lunch?” Cande asked as he followed.
“Yeah, but kicking ass on punks like Chuy Alvarez gives me an appetite. If you’re not hungry, you can watch me eat… unless you have to get home.”