Beautiful Burn

By: Jamie McGuire

CHAPTER ONE

When I was a child, I’d sit for what seemed like an eternity, staring into an open flame. My family thought it was a peculiar pastime, but almost twenty years later, I was gazing at the end of my cigarette, the ashes as long as my finger, the end burning orange as the fire climbed the paper.

The house was crowded, so full of sweaty, stumbling drunks and debauchery that a deep breath wouldn’t matter; all the oxygen had been sucked from the room. My bones were saturated with the sounds of the bass drum, yelling, and cackling girls, most too young to buy a can of beer much less be on the verge of puking the six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade they’d just consumed.

I sat back in Mother’s favorite overstuffed imported chair, taking in the chaos and feeling at home.

Daddy was convinced I was a good girl, so it was easy to be a witness to bad behavior without guilt, even if I occasionally participated.

A pompadoured beauty with glitter lotion and a purple dye job held out a roach—just an inch of magic grass encased in twisted paper—and I gazed into her eyes for less than a second to assess if the joint was laced before accepting. I exhaled toward the ceiling, watching as the smoke wafting above joined the white cloud already hovering the span of vast space that was our gallery, meant for après ski, wine, and sophisticated guests, not the drunken blue-collar locals who were rubbing against paintings and knocking over vases.

I immediately relaxed, letting my head fall back against the sofa cushion. As recreational cannabis goes, Colorado was one of three states that qualified as my top favorite places to be during a holiday. The fact that my parents kept a vacation home in Estes Park made it my number one.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

I turned to face her cherubic splendor, unsurprised that she was at a packed party without knowing the host. “Ellie,” I said, barely paying attention to her sleepy, red-rimmed eyes.

“Ellie Edson? Are you Ellison’s sister?”

I sighed. This wasn’t the conversation I felt like having. “I’m Ellison.”

Her eyebrows turned in as confusion shadowed her face. “But … Ellison’s a dude, right? The guy who owns this house?” She giggled and rested her cheek on her arm. “Are you like … twins or something?”

I leaned back, grinning as she spontaneously ran her fingers through my long, dark hair. One of her arms had been inked with various sizes of black-lined skulls and bright blue roses; the other was a blank canvas.

“No, I’m Ellison, the dude who owns this house.”

She giggled loudly at my joke, and then kneeled on the floor in front of my chair. “I’m Paige.”

“How long have you lived here?”

“What makes you think I’m a local?” she asked.

She was focused on my every word, the one-sided attraction making me feel a strange combination of exhilaration and tedium. Paige was more than just beautiful; she wore hope the way she carried her sad stories—out in the open, for everyone to see, vulnerable even when her heart had been broken too many times to repair.

I held out the roach. “Your eyes are absent of a lifetime of failed expectations and the guilt of wasting limitless resources.”

She giggled. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Exactly.”

“Is that painting of your parents?” she asked, pointing her short, chipped nails at the portrait across the room.

I sighed. “That’s them—attempting to buy immortality.”

“They don’t look so bad. They gave you all of this.”

“No, it’s still theirs. I’m just borrowing it. People like us learn early to quit giving things away for free.”

“People like you?” she asked, amused. “As in, people who own a gazillion-square-foot house?”

“Several of them,” I said.

Her eyebrows rose, and her mouth curved up into a sweet grin.

Some might perceive my comment as bragging, but there was purposeful disdain in my voice I knew Paige wouldn’t recognize. She was still smiling. I could probably mention my mother had admitted to me during a Xanax binge that she loved my sister Finley more, or how I deliberately totaled the Ferrari my father had bought me for my sixteenth birthday (mostly as an apology that he’d missed it), or even the time my roommate, Kennedy—also an heiress—brought a Ziploc bag full of her miscarriage along on a women’s rights march at Berkeley. Paige would still gaze up at me as if I were professing my love for her instead of detailing seven levels of fucked up.

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