Home > Playing with Fire(6)

Playing with Fire(6)
Author: L.J. Shen

That was two years ago. She hadn’t agreed to go back since.

I shoveled a chunk of the cherry pie into my mouth. As soon as the pie hit the back of my throat, it clogged up and shot a message to my brain:

Abort mission.

She’d done it again.

Mistaken salt for sugar. Prunes for cherries. And—who knows?—maybe rat poison for flour, too.

“Fine as cream gravy, huh?” She leaned forward, resting her chin on her knuckles. I nodded, reaching for the glass of water next to my plate, chugging it down in one go. I glanced at my phone on the table. It flashed with a message.

Marla: Fair warning: Your gram’s pie is particularly bad today.

My eyes watered.

“I knew you’d like it. Cherry pie is your favorite.”

It wasn’t. It was Courtney’s, but I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

I swallowed every bite without tasting it, down to the last crumb, pushing through the discomfort. Then I played a board game with her, answering questions about people I didn’t know who Courtney had been associated with, tucked Grams to bed, and kissed her goodnight. She held my wrist before I got up to leave, her eyes like fireflies dancing in the dark.

“Courtney. You sweet child of mine.”

The only person who loved me thought I was someone else.





The next morning, I arrived at the food truck early to prep ahead of opening hour. Sheridan’s Farmers’ Market was open on Saturdays, which meant more competition, more food trucks, more human interaction and its byproduct—more war paint. I put so much makeup on my face on Saturdays, I gave party clowns a run for their money.

Silver lining: it wasn’t rodeo day. I refused to do the rodeo shift. Not since a customer had compared my face to a horse and explained the stud would win in the beauty department.

Karlie was late, which wasn’t out of the ordinary. Even though she was one of the most laser-focused, hard-working people I’d known, she could sleep through anything, a World War included. I didn’t mind her slacking as much as I probably should. The Contrerases paid me well, provided flexible shifts, and Karlie had proven to be an amazing friend in the past four years.

I washed and cut fish, sliced vegetables, made the frozen margaritas, and rewrote and hung the wanted sign on the truck. My best friend stumbled inside at quarter to nine. She wore big pink headphones and a tank top with Bart Simpson on it.

“Hola. Everything good?” She popped her watermelon gum in my face, taking off her headphones. “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill blasted through them before she turned off her music app. I shoved the tongs into her hands.

“Woke up feelin’ somethin’ bad is going to happen today.”

That wasn’t a lie. Waking up today, I’d noticed the flame ring on my thumb had finally succumbed to its old age, and half the flame had broken, leaving just the hoop and part of the flame.

It was a hundred and twelve degrees outside—so hot you could fry an egg on the concrete—and probably ten degrees hotter in the truck. Something about today felt different. Monumental, somehow. Like my future had been suspended over my head, threatening to thunder down on me.

“Today’s going to be fine.” She dropped her backpack on the floor, snapping the tongs in my face. “Fine, but busy. There’s already a line outside. Better get your ass to your window, Juliet.”

“If Romeo eats fish tacos at nine a.m., I’d rather stay single.” I laughed, feeling a little more like myself again and a little less like the pitiful girl West St. Claire had made me feel I was last night.

Mrs. Contreras insisted on serving her special recipe fish tacos only. No Tex Mex in this food truck. We only did one type of taco, but we were the best at it.

“Ah, that’s the angle Shakespeare didn’t expand on. Romeo died of Juliet’s fish taco breath, not poison.”

“And Juliet’s dagger?” I tossed Karlie an amused look. She pretended to shove the tongs into her gut like it was a sword, holding her neck as she fake-choked.

“Tongs can be deadly, too.”

I opened the truck window with a smile, determined to push last night away from my mind.

“Good mornin’ and welcome to That Taco Truck! How may I hel—”

The last word clogged up in my throat when I saw his face. A line of people trailed behind him.

West St. Claire.

My smile dissolved.

Why was he back?

“Is this about the tip Tess left yesterday? Because you can have it. Maybe buy some manners.” My gut clenched, my mouth faster than my brain.

Why did I insist on getting socially murdered? Was I subconsciously suicidal? Either way, I didn’t regret what I’d said. I doubted West wanted tacos or a civilized conversation. I knew going toe-to-toe with a guy like him was a bad idea, but he’d been cold and mean yesterday, and I couldn’t help but call him out on that.

West looked like he hadn’t slept all night. He was still wearing the same jeans and faded shirt combo, his steadfast, bored gaze making me feel like dirt. His eyes were bloodshot.

Wordlessly, West handed me a ball of paper. I immediately recognized it. My face clouded as I unfolded it. It was the ad he’d ripped from the truck yesterday.

“Already made a new one,” I clipped, dunking the paper into the trashcan under my feet. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“Get the manager,” he clipped.

It took me by surprise. First of all that he spoke at all. I’d never heard him talk before. His voice matched his looks. Low, smoky, and depraved. Second, it shocked me that he spoke to me. But most of all, I was surprised he had the audacity to boss me around.

“I beg your pardon?” I lifted an eyebrow. My good, right eyebrow. The left one didn’t exist anymore. I penciled it in, though, and since I always wore my gray ball cap, people could hardly tell. The customers behind him lost their patience, shaking their heads, bouncing on their feet. Of course, no one actually said anything to West St. Claire. God forbid someone called him out on his BS.

“Manager. Also known as the person in charge of this truck. You slow?”

“No, I’m disgusted.”

“Well, hurry up and get me off your hands, then. Call your supervisor.”

His eyes were dead on mine. Up close, they weren’t exactly green. They were a wild mixture of sage and blue, rimmed by dark jade.

He and his friends had had fun guessing what happened to my face last night. West had examined me like I was a circus freak. I’d felt like a caged three-headed animal. Desperate to bend the bars, pounce forth, and rip them to shreds with my pointy claws.

Back in reality, I smoothed the clinging nylon wrap sealing the guac in the toppings bar.

“Excuse me for being blunt, but the chances of you wantin’ to work in this food truck are akin to the chances of my joinin’ the Bolshoi. Now get on with your order or move along. I have customers waitin’.”

“Manager. Now,” he repeated, ignoring my words. I felt my nostrils flaring with frustration. I’d heard he was intense, but experiencing it firsthand made me feel like someone had put my heart in a blender and forced me to watch it minced into a puree.

Karlie’s face popped from behind me. She yelped in surprise when she saw him. “Oh my God. I mean, hi. West, right?”

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