Home > Playing with Fire(3)

Playing with Fire(3)
Author: L.J. Shen

My heavy coat of makeup was dripping down my FILA shoes in orange spurts. Good thing we closed five minutes ago. I hated hanging outside the house with less than two thick layers of foundation caked on my face.

I was planning on a cold shower, hot food, and setting the air-con on blast.

“Four,” Karlie counted in the background as I scribbled a want ad. My body was angled to the window, in case late-night customers trickled in.

Karlie was officially cutting back on her shifts, something her mom and owner of the food truck, Mrs. Contreras, wasn’t thrilled about. Obviously, I was sad I wouldn’t be working with her as often anymore. Karlie had been my best friend since we’d both wobbled about in diapers in each other’s backyards. There was even a picture of us somewhere—probably Mrs. Contreras’ living room—sitting on matching purple pots, butt naked, grinning at the camera like we’d just unfurled the great secrets of the universe.

I was worried whoever was going to replace Karlie—Karl to me—wasn’t going to appreciate my sarcastic nature and surly approach to life. But I also completely understood why she had to cut back. Karl’s class load was insane. And that was without all the extra internships she’d picked up to decorate her CV with work experience in journalism.

“Three. There’s only one correct answer, and our friendship is in jeopardy, Shaw.”

I capped the Sharpie with my teeth and leaned out the window, sticking the sign on the side of the open window.

That Taco Truck is HIRING!

Help Needed.

Four times a week.

Weekends included.

$16 per hour plus tips.

If interested please speak to manager.


I opened my mouth to answer Karlie at the same time I lifted my gaze. My body froze, every inch of it seized with a mix of dread and alertness.


A herd of Sheridan University VIPs ambled toward the truck. Eight in total. It wasn’t the fact that they went to my college that sucked. No, I was used to serving my peers.

It was who they were in Sheridan University that made me break out in hives.

These guys were high commodity seniors. The cream of the popularity crop.

There was Easton Braun, Sheridan University’s hotter-than-Hades quarterback, dragging his fingers through his wheat-hued hair in slow-mo, like in an anti-dandruff shampoo commercial. He looked sickeningly perfect. Like those chiseled guys who lived in Pinterest Land and have arm veins as thick as hot dogs.

Reign De La Salle, the linebacker with soft, tar curls and pouty lips. A Sig Ep member, who reportedly slept with anyone with a pulse (and even that wasn’t mandatory, provided he was hammered enough).

Then there was West St. Claire, a completely different species from Braun and De La Salle. A myth at Sher U. He was in a league of his own.

He wasn’t an athlete, but he was by far the most infamous out of the three. Best known for being a hotheaded bully who dominated the local underground fight ring unchallenged. Rude, crass, and flat-out unresponsive to people who weren’t in his tight circle.

Even I, who wasn’t particularly privy to town gossip anymore, knew nobody messed with St. Claire.

Not his peers.

Not the townsfolk.

Not his professors, nor his friends.

It didn’t help that West St. Claire had ticked every sex god cliché box on the list.

His dark hair was always messy, and his emerald eyes had that dangerous glint that promised you your life would never be the same after a ride on his motorcycle. Six feet, four inches of golden skin and corded muscles. Broad, athletic, and unfairly gorgeous with thick, dramatic eyebrows, eyelashes most starlets would kill for, and narrow lips pressed into a hard, formidable line. He wore dirty Diesel jeans, faded shirts worn inside out, dusty Blundstone boots, and always had a green apple candy stick wedged in the corner of his mouth, like a cigarette.

He was widely known as Sher U’s biggest catch, only no one had ever caught him—and not for lack of trying.

The girls with them were familiar, too. One of them was even a semi-friend of mine—Tess, a raven-haired beauty with more curves than a barrel of snakes. She majored in theater and arts, like me.

“Two! I would like an answer now, Shaw.” Karlie waved an imaginary microphone in my face, but I couldn’t find my voice, stuck in a weird trance.

“One. The correct answer was curtain bangs, Grace. Curtain. Bangs. I mean, hi, Kate Moss circa 1998. Fashion icon.”

They were all heading toward the food truck from Sheridan Plaza, a deserted mall across the street. The so-called mall was a naked cement frame a bunch of bigwigs started building five years ago before realizing they weren’t going to make any money. Everybody shopped online, especially students. The two refineries that were supposed to open nearby had decided to relocate to Asia, so the mass migration into Sheridan they were counting on hadn’t happened.

Now we had a monstrous structure in the middle of town, sitting empty.

Only it wasn’t technically empty. The college students used it for raves, an underground fighting arena, and hookup spots, rent-free.

These folks were probably getting back from a fight.

Tess laughed, tossing her hair to one shoulder and jumping on Reign’s back, looping her arms around his shoulders.

“Gummy bears? In a slushie? That’s, like, bananas.”

“That’s, like, orgasmic,” Easton volleyed back, his palm shoved into the back pocket of some blonde’s Daisy Dukes. “I can’t believe I’ve never hit this place before.”

“The locals swear by it. Even Bradley, who’s a total taco purist, goes here,” another girl chimed in. I tucked my chin down, putting my thumb ring to my lips, mouthing a prayer.

I hated when people looked directly at my face.

Especially people my age.

Especially people like Easton Braun, Reign De La Salle, and West St. Claire.

Especially when I knew they were going to have two possible reactions: they’d be grossed out by the gory scar under my makeup, or worse … they’d pity me.

Though it was probably going to be a mixture of both.

I tugged my ball cap lower. Their voices grew louder. The air around me rattled with rusty laughter and gauzy female screeches. The fine hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

“Oh, snap,” Reign hiccupped, giving Tess a piggyback ride without breaking a sweat. “Before I forget. When we get to the truck, check out the chick who takes your order. Gail or Gill or whatever-the-fuck. The entire left side of her face is disfigured. Purple as a grape. Got a nice Rice Krispy complexion, too. Like, you can’t really see all of it because she puts hella makeup on, but it’s there. Apparently, people ’round here call her Toastie.”

Reign didn’t mean for me to hear it. He was clearly trashed. Not that it mattered. Bile rose up my throat. The sour taste filled my mouth. I was facing another take-the-bandages-off moment, and I wasn’t ready.

Tess slapped the back of his head. “Her name’s Grace, you moron, and she is super nice.”

Easton glared at Reign. “Seriously? What’s wrong with you, jackass?”

“He’s right, though.” Tess dropped her voice, forgetting the echo the vastness of the nothing around us created. “We have the same major, so I see her all the time. It’s sad, because otherwise, she is so pretty. Like, imagine what it feels like to almost have it all. She can’t even do any of the practical theater stuff, she is so ashamed of her face.”

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