Release Date: September 15, 2020
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A broken boy on the path to destruction.
A scarred girl without direction.
A love story carved in secrets, inked with pain and sealed with a lie.
Grace Shaw and West St. Claire are arctic opposites.
She is the strange girl from the food truck.
He is the mysterious underground fighter who stormed into her sleepy Texan college town on his motorcycle one day, and has been wreaking havoc since.
She is invisible to the world.
He is the town’s beloved bad boy.
She is a reject.
He is trouble.
When West thrusts himself into Grace’s quiet life, she scrambles to figure out if he is her happily-ever-after or tragic ending. But the harder she pushes him away, the more he pulls her out of her shell.
Grace doesn’t know much about anything beyond her town’s limits, but she does know this:
She is falling in love with the hottest guy in Sheridan U.
And when you play with fire—you ought to get burned.
The only thing to remain completely untarnished after the fire was my late momma’s flame ring.
It was a cheap-looking ring. The type you get in a plastic egg when you shove a dollar into a machine at the mall. Grandma Savvy said Momma always wanted me to have it.
Fire symbolized beauty, fury, and rebirth, she explained. Too bad in my case, it symbolized nothing but my demise.
Grams told me bedtime stories about phoenixes rising from their own ashes. She said that was what Momma wanted for herself—to rise above her circumstances and prevail.
My momma wanted to die and start over.
She only got one out of the two.
But me? I got both.
November 17th, 2017
Sixteen years old.
The first time I woke up in a hospital bed, I’d asked the nurse to help me put the ring back on my finger. I brought the ring to my lips and mouthed a wish, like Grandmomma had taught me.
I didn’t wish for the insurance money to kick in quickly, or to end world poverty.
I asked for my beauty back.
I passed out shortly after, exhausted by my sheer existence. Asleep, I caught specks of conversations as visitors flooded my room.
“…prettiest girl in Sheridan. Elegant little nose. Pert lips. Blonde, blue-eyed. Crying shame, Heather.”
“Might as well been a model.”
“Poor thing doesn’t know what she’s wakin’ up to.”
“She ain’t in Kansas no more.”
I treaded out of the induced coma slowly, not sure what was waiting for me on the other side. It felt like swimming against crushed glass. Even the slightest movement ached. Visitors—classmates, my best friend Karlie, and boyfriend Tucker—came and went, patting, cooing, and gasping while my eyes were closed.
Oblivious to my consciousness, I heard them crying, shrieking, stuttering.
My old life—school plays, cheer practice, and stealing hasty kisses with Tucker under the bleachers—felt untouchable, unreal. A sweetly cruel spell I’d been under that evaporated.
I didn’t want to face reality, so I didn’t open my eyes, even when I could.
Until the very last minute.
Until Tucker walked into my hospital room and slipped a letter between my limp fingers resting on the sheet.
“Sorry,” he croaked. It was the first time I’d heard him frazzled, insecure. “I can’t do this anymore, and I don’t know when you’ll wake up. It’s not fair to me. I’m too young for …” He trailed off, and his chair scraped the floor as he shot up to his feet. “I’m just sorry, okay?”
I wanted to tell him to stop.
To confess I was awake.
That I was buying time, because I didn’t want to deal with the new me.
In the end I kept my eyes closed and heard him leave.
Minutes after the door clicked shut, I opened my eyes and let myself cry.
The day after Tucker broke up with me in a letter, I decided to face the music.
A nurse skulked into my room like a mouse, her movements hurried and efficient. She eyed me with a mixture of wariness and curiosity, like I was a monster shackled to the bedrails. By the promptness in which she appeared, I gathered they’d been waiting for me to open my eyes.
“Good mornin’, Grace. We’ve been waitin’ for you. Sleep well?”
I tried to nod, regretting the ambitious movement immediately. My head swam. It felt swollen and feverish. My face was fully wrapped and bandaged, something I’d noticed the first time I came to. There were tiny gaps in the bandages for my nostrils, eyes, and mouth. I probably looked like a mummy.
“Why, I’ll take that little nod as a yes! Are you hungry by any chance? We’d love to take the tube out and feed you. I can send someone over to get you some real food. I believe we’re servin’ beef patties with rice and banana cake. Would you like that, hon?”
Determined to rise from my own ashes, I mustered all the physical and mental strength I possessed to answer, “That’d be real nice, ma’am.”
“It’ll be here right quick. And I’ve got more good news for ya. Today is the day. Doctor Sheffield is finally gonna take them bandages off!” She tried to inject false enthusiasm into her words.
I flipped the ring on my thumb absentmindedly. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to see the new me. Nonetheless, it was time. I was conscious, lucid, and had to face the music.
The nurse filled out her chart and dashed out. An hour later, Dr. Sheffield and Grams came in. Grams looked like hell. Gaunt, wrinkled, and sleep-deprived, even in her Sunday dress. I knew she’d been living in a hotel since the fire and was in a full-blown war with our insurance company. I hated that she’d been going through this alone. Normally, I was the one doing the talking whenever we needed to get things done.
Grams took my hand in hers and pressed it to her chest. Her heart was beating wildly against her ribcage.
“Whatever happens”—she wiped her tears with leathery, shaky fingers—“I’m here for you. You hear that, Gracie-Mae?”
Her fingers froze on my ring.
“You put it back.” Her mouth fell open.
I nodded. I was afraid if I opened my mouth, I’d start crying.
“Rebirth,” I answered simply. I hadn’t died like Momma, but I did need to rise from my own ashes.
Dr. Sheffield cleared his throat, standing between us.
“Ready?” He flashed me an apologetic smile.
I gave him a thumbs-up.
Here’s to the beginning of the rest of my life …
He removed the bandages slowly. Methodically. His breath fanned across my face, smelling of coffee and bacon and mint and that clinical, hospital scent of plastic gloves and sanitizers. His expression did not betray his feelings, though I doubted he had any. To him, I was just another patient.
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, 2017.
Seventeen years old.
The best opportunity to kill myself presented itself four months after my seventeenth birthday.
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?
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.
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!
Four times a week.
$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.”
Tess was referring to that time I walked into an audition freshman year, and broke down in front of the director when he asked me to do my lines. It was very public, very embarrassing, and very much the talk of town for that semester.
“Aww,” Blondie, next to Easton, put a hand to her heart. “That’s so sad, Tessy. You’re givin’ me goose bumps.”
“I wonder what happened to her,” another girl murmured.
“Ground control to Major Shaw? Are you with me?” Karlie poked her head behind my shoulder to see what had turned me into a salt statue.
They stopped in front of us. I trained my face to appear calm, bored, but my heart was thrashing so violently inside my chest, I thought it was going to blast through my bones, cracking its cage in half.
I pinched Karlie’s wrist under the window, signaling, they’re too late, praying she’d let me send them away.
Karlie slapped a hand over her mouth, like the entire Kardashian clan had stopped by.
“Bro, we’re serving ’em. We have plenty of ingredients left. You know Momma Contreras doesn’t play when it comes to leftovers. Besides”—she pinched me back— “it’s them!”
We lived in a small college town, where everyone knew everyone, our D1 football team was worshipped like a religion, game days were church, Easton Braun and Reign De La Salle were holy saints, and West St. Claire was God. We couldn’t refuse them, even if they arrived at three in the morning and paid in human hair.
“Howdy, Grace!” Tess unloaded herself from Reign, drum-rolling the neon-teal truck as she scanned the menu under the window.
“Hi, Tess. Y’all havin’ a good night?”
“Fab, thanks. Reign here says you have margarita slushies with gummy bears. This true?”
So many customers were disappointed by the fact we called them margaritas when there was no tequila inside. “Sure do. Virgin, though.”
“Wouldn’t expect anything else from you,” Reign deadpanned, hiccupping again. The girls burst out in laughter. For the sake of keeping my job—and my butt out of jail—I ignored his jab.
Tess punched his arm. “Don’t mind him. Can we have ten to go? And twenty tacos, por favor.” She gave her shiny hair another toss. “Oh, hi, Charlie.”
Karlie waved at Tess behind me, not bothering to correct her. I hated being the one working the front window, but Mrs. Contreras and Karlie insisted on it. They wanted me to get out of my shell, face the world, yada, yada.
“Soft or crunchy shell?” I asked.
“Half and half.”
I got to work, snapping and popping a pair of black elastic gloves. I started with the crunchy shells first. They were harder to work with. They kept breaking all the time, so I liked getting them out of the way. Grandmomma always said people were like tacos—the harder they were, the easier they broke. Being soft meant being adaptive, more flexible.
“When you’re soft, you can contain more. And if you contain more, the world can’t break you.”
I felt everyone’s eyes on my face as I shoved shredded lettuce, cream cheese, and Mrs. Contreras’ homemade guac into the tacos’ tiny mouths. Karlie flipped fish on the grill, bouncing on the soles of her feet excitedly.
In my periphery, I could see Reign shoving his elbow into some girl’s side, jerking his head toward me.
“Psst. Domestic violence?”
“Arson,” the girl suggested, trying to figure out how I got the scar.
“Bad plastic surgery,” a third coughed into her fist. They all snickered.
Heat rose up the back of my neck.
Five more minutes and you’re done. You went through physiotherapy, surgeries, and rehabilitation. You can survive these idiots.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, West St. Claire finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. He took a step closer to the truck. His eyes zeroed in on the left side of my face, noticing my existence for the first time in the two years we’d attended the same college, even though we shared three classes. I swallowed, trying to push down the baseball-sized ball of puke in my throat.
I finished the crunchy tacos and started on the soft ones. West took another step, not bothering to conceal his open fascination with my scar. I felt naked and raw under his gaze and almost sighed in relief when his eyes tore away from my cheek, landing on the wanted sign. I chanced a quick glance at him. If he’d fought tonight, I couldn’t tell. He looked relaxed and quiet. Tranquil, almost.
“Looking for a job?” Reign snickered.
“Seriously, Reign, zip it,” Easton, who was probably the nicest of the three, barked.
West plucked the paper from the truck, balling it in his fist and tucking it into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Savage,” Reign tutted, inching backward on a cackle, his face tilted up to the sky.
“Way harsh, West.” Tess’ voice lacked that same punishing bite she reserved for Reign. “Why would you do that?”
West ignored them both, turning his head to look directly at me. He rolled the candy stick in his mouth like a toothpick, giving me a look that crammed a loaded question into it.
Whatcha gonna do about it, Toastie?
I poured the margarita slushies in record time and tallied up the bill for Tess while Reign, Easton, and the rest of the girls scurried toward the edge of the parking lot to tuck into the food. West stayed by Tess’ side, his eyes still stuck on my scar.
I braced myself for an insult, my shell hardening like a taco.
“So, I wanted to ask,” Tess purred, taking his wrist and flipping it palm up so his inner bicep was on full display. “What does your tattoo mean? What does A stand for?”
My eyes betrayed me, and I stole a quick look to what she was talking about. It was a simple tattoo of the letter A. No special font or a design. Just one letter, in Times New Roman.
“Probably asshole,” I muttered under my breath.
Both their gazes flew up to me.
Lord. I’d said it aloud. A soon-to-be dead idiot. What was I thinking?
You were thinking that he is an asshole. Because he is.
“Grace.” Tess slapped her mouth. “For shame.”
West spat the candy out on the ground, his slanted, fierce eyes on me. My head was dangerously close to exploding from all the blood rushing into it. After a long stretch of silence, he finally slapped two Benjamins into Tess’ open palm, turned around, and walked away in catlike grace, paying for everyone’s food and drinks. Tess rolled her eyes, handing me the money.
“Sorry about the want ad. West’s got a bit of a mean streak. He’s my work in progress.”
“Ain’t your fault.”
I peeled the plastic gloves off and handed Tess the change. She grabbed my hand and gasped. Her unexpected skin-to-skin contact made me shiver. I wasn’t used to being touched.
“Cool ring! Where’d you get it?”
“It was my momma’s. Here’s your change.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow. That was one hell of a tip.
“Screw him for acting the way he did. You know, West really gets a bad rep, but honestly, he is a big softie. He can be, like, super sweet when he wants to be.”
I wasn’t sold on West being anything other than a raging psychopath, but this was not a conversation I was eager to pursue. I wanted to get out of here, erase tonight from my memory bank, and binge-watch Friends reruns until my faith in humanity was sufficiently restored.
“All righty,” I said robotically. “Thanks for stoppin’ by and shoppin’ at That Taco Truck.”
Tess flashed me a dazzling smile and turned around, running toward her friends.
I followed her with my eyes. She cut between the golden dunes framing the parking lot, straight to her popular friends. They clinked their slushies together, laughing, talking, and eating. My gut twisted.
I could have been Tess.
Correction: I was Tess.
I guess that was the part I hated most about my life. I was once a Tess. Showing off my legs in tiny cut-offs. Hanging out with the likes of West, Easton, and Reign. Sitting on the back of their motorcycles as they did wheelies on the old dirt road at the edge of town by the water tower. Explaining to lowly mortals how the mind and soul of West St. Claire worked, letting them in on some exotic top secret.
I rolled down the food truck’s window. When I turned around, Karlie squealed, barely containing her excitement. She high-fived me. My best friend was five feet tall on a good day. Tan and curvy, she had a round, gorgeous face laced with a constellation of freckles stretching from cheek to cheek. Once upon a time, when I was the designated Queen Bee of our school, I let her in with the cool kids. But that was four years ago. I could no longer offer her this perk.
“Easton Braun and Reign De La Salle, man. I’d like to be the pastrami between their buns.” She fanned herself. “But West St. Claire was the cheddar on the taco. I think he fought today.”
“He didn’t look too beat up to me.” I turned off the grill, taking out the cleaning products from the cabinet next to the fridge.
“That’s because he wipes the floor with these guys. Though, I hear sometimes he lets them throw in a punch or two, just so people will bet on someone else. God help me, his eyes.” Karlie sucked on the remainder of her slushie, before dropping it in the trash. “They’re, like, radioactive green. And you can forge metal with his cheekbones. Seriously, he could destroy my life, and I would literally say thank you.”
I grunted, throwing water over the grill. It spat fumes in my face.
“C’mon. Give me the tea. The grill was too loud for me to hear anything. Did they say anything interesting? Any gossip?” She nudged me.
They said I was a freak.
“They were pretty tanked, so not much coherent conversation was going on. But they went gaga for the margarita slushies.” I scrubbed the grill.
“Wow. Totally riveting.” She rolled her eyes. “Do you think Tess and West are hooking up?”
“Probably. They’ll make a corny couple, though. Their names rhyme, for crying out loud.”
“Couple? Tess can dream on. West only does one-night stands. That’s a known fact.”
I offered a shrug. Karlie gave me an exasperated shove.
“God, you’re the worst gossip ever. I don’t even know why I bother. Last question: therapeutically-speaking, would you rather internet-stalk all the people in Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video and freak out about how old they are today, or give Barbie a Joe Exotic mullet?”
“The latter,” I mustered with a tired smirk, realizing how much I was going to miss her once she found a new employee to take most of her shifts. “I’d give Barbie a mullet, then dress her up as a cowgirl, put her in her Glam Convertible, and TikTok a video of her singin’ Bratz Dolls Ate My Pet.”
Karlie threw her head back and laughed. I peeked in her pocket mirror, which was sitting on the windowsill, checking my makeup.
The scar was mostly hidden.
I let out a relieved sigh.
The crunchy taco survives another day. Cracked, but not broken.