Home > Playing with Fire(2)

Playing with Fire(2)
Author: L.J. Shen

He didn’t offer me any words of encouragement as I watched the long, cream ribbon twirling before my eyes, becoming longer. Dr. Sheffield removed my hopes and dreams along with the fabric. I felt my breath fading with each twist of his hand.

I tried to swallow down the lump of tears in my throat, my eyes drifting to Grandmomma, searching for comfort. She was by my side, holding my hand with her back ramrod straight, her chin up.

I searched for clues in her expression.

As the bandages curled into a pile on the floor, her face warped in horror, pain, and pity. By the time parts of my face were exposed, she looked like she wanted to shrivel into herself and vanish. I wanted to do the same. Tears prickled my eyes. I fought them out of instinct, telling myself it didn’t matter. Beauty was a seasonal friend; it always walked away from you eventually—and never returned when you truly needed it.

“Say somethin’.” My voice was thick, low, unbearably raw. “Please, Grandmomma. Tell me.”

I’d enjoyed the perks of my looks since I was born. Sheridan High was all about Grace Shaw. Modeling scouts stopped Grams and me when we visited Austin. I was the most prominent actress in school plays and a member of the cheer team. It had been obvious, if not expected, that the splendor of my looks would pave a path for me. With hair rich and gold as the Tuscan sun, a pert nose, and luscious lips, I knew my looks were my one-way ticket out of this town.

“Her mother wasn’t worth spit, but luckily Grace inherited her beauty,” I once heard Mrs. Phillips telling Mrs. Contreras at the grocery store. “Let’s just hope she fares better than the little hussy.”

Grams looked away. Was it really that bad? The bandages were completely gone now. Dr. Sheffield tilted his head back, inspecting my face.

“I would like to preface this by saying you are a very lucky girl, Miss Shaw. What you went through two weeks ago … many people would have died. In fact, I am amazed you are still with us.”

Two weeks? I’d been in this bed for fourteen days?

I stared at him blankly, not knowing what he was looking at.

“The infected areas are still raw. Keep in mind that as your skin heals, it will become less agitated, and there’s an array of possibilities we can explore down the line in terms of plastic surgery, so please do not be disheartened. Now, would you like to look at your face?”

I gave him half a nod. I needed to get it over with. See what I was dealing with.

He stood up and walked over to the other side of the room, plucking a small mirror from a cabinet, while my grandmomma collapsed on top of my chest, her shoulders quaking with a sob that ripped through her scrawny body. Her clammy hand gripped mine like a vise.

“What am I to do, Gracie-Mae? Oh my lord.”

For the first time since I was born, a rush of anger flooded me. It was my tragedy, my life. My face. I needed to be consoled. Not her.

With each step Dr. Sheffield took, my heart sank a little lower. By the time he reached my bed, it was somewhere at my feet, pounding dully.

He handed me the mirror.

I put it up to my face, closed my eyes, counted to three, then let my eyelids flutter open.

I didn’t gasp.

I didn’t cry.

In fact, I didn’t make a sound.

I simply stared back at the person in front of me—a stranger I didn’t know and, frankly, would probably never befriend—watching as fate laughed in my face.

Here was the ugly, uncomfortable truth: my mother died of an overdose when I was three.

She didn’t have the rebirth she’d longed for. She never did rise from her own ashes.

And, looking at my new face, I knew with certainty that neither would I.





November 17th, 2015.

Seventeen years old.


The best opportunity to kill myself presented itself on that dark road.

It was pitch-black. A thin layer of ice coated the road. I was driving back from my Aunt Carrie’s, sucking on a green candy cane. Aunt Carrie sent my parents food, groceries, and prayers on a weekly basis. It felt crap to admit it, but both my folks couldn’t drag themselves out of bed—with or without her religious praying.

Pine trees lined the winding road to our farm, rolling over a steep hill that made the engine groan with effort.

I knew it would look like the perfect accident.

No one would assume any differently.

Just a terrible coincidence, so close to the other tragedy that had struck the St. Claire household.

I could practically envision the headline tomorrow morning in the local newspaper.

Boy, 17, hits deer on Willow Pass Road. Dies immediately.

The deer was standing right there, in the middle of the road, idly staring at my vehicle as I approached at an escalating speed.

I didn’t flash my headlights. I didn’t pump the brakes.

The deer continued staring as I floored it, my knuckles white as I choked the steering wheel.

The car zipped through the ice so fast it shook from the speed, skidding forward. I could no longer control it. The wheel was not in sync with the tires.

Come on, come on, come on.

I squeezed my eyes shut and let it happen, my teeth slamming together.

The car began to cough, slowing down, even as I pressed my foot harder onto the gas pedal. I popped my eyes open.


The car was decelerating, each inch it ate slower than the previous one.

No, no, no, no, no.

The pickup died three feet away from the deer, coming to a full stop.

The dumb animal finally decided to blink and amble away from the road, its hooves snapping against the ice with gentle clicks.

Stupid fucking deer.

Stupid fucking car.

Stupid fucking me, for not hurling myself out of the goddamn pickup when I still had the chance, right off the cliff.

It was quiet for a few minutes. Just me and the deceased pickup and my beating heart, before a scream tore from my throat.


I punched the steering wheel. Once, twice … three times before my knuckles started bleeding. I braced my foot over the console and ripped the steering wheel out of the pickup, dumping it on the passenger seat and raking my fingers down my face.

My lungs burned and my blood dripped all over the seats as I tore everything inside the pickup. I ripped the radio from its hub, throwing it out the window. I smashed the windshield with my foot. Broke the glove compartment. I wrecked the pickup like the deer couldn’t.

And yet, I was still alive.

My heart was still beating.

My phone rang, its cheerful tune taunting me.

It rang again and again and fucking again.

I tore it from my pocket and checked who it was. A miracle? A heavenly intervention? An unlikely savior who actually gave a fuck? Who could it be?

Scam Likely


Of course.

No one gave half a fuck, even when they said they did. I boomeranged my cell into the woods then got out of the vehicle and started my ten-mile walk back to my parents’ farm.

Truly fucking hoping I’d bump into a bear and let it finish the goddamn job.






“Best nineties invention: curtain bangs versus slap-bracelets. You have five seconds to decide. Five.”

Karlie sucked on her margarita slushie, eyeballing her phone. Damp clouds of heat sailed over the food truck’s ceiling. Sweat soaked through my pink hoodie. We were in the midst of a Texan heatwave, even though we were a few months shy of summer.

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