Home > Playing with Fire

Playing with Fire
Author: L.J. Shen


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.



To Chele and Lulu.



“It is never too late to be what you might have been”—George Eliot



My Chemical Romance—“Helena”

Bikini Kill—“Rebel Girl”


Sufjan Stevens—“Mystery of Love”

Rag’n’Bone Man—“Human”


Powfu—“Death Bed”





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, 2015

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.



Sort of.

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.

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