How to Start a Fire: Excerpt

Excerpt from Part 1 of How to Start a Fire:

1993 — Santa Cruz, California

"Eighteen is the age of emancipation. Now you're free to do whatever you want except rent a car, run for president, and drink legally, but that's what fake IDs are for," Anna Fury said.

She was lying flat on a dewy lawn, staring up at a starless sky. Soon the moisture from the grass would seep through her thick pea coat and she'd announce that it was time to go. When she was uncomfortable.

Kate Smirnoff, next to her, clutching her legs in a shivering ball, was al- ready uncomfortable. But she liked the challenge of seeing what she could endure. She had on an old man's suit coat. Her father's coat, which she wore less out of sentimentality and more for reasons of cost and comfort. Most of Kate's wardrobe had previously been inhabited by other souls. Her fa- ther's coat, unlike Anna's navy-surplus purchase, was far too big and made Kate look even younger than she was. At midnight she'd turned eighteen, but she still looked fifteen. Much of it you could blame on her small frame, just over five feet and barely ninety pounds. But the pageboy haircut and the giant blue toddler eyes didn't help. Neither did clothes that needed to be belted or pinned to stay on—they made her look like a child playing a very drab game of dress-up.

Anna looked like an intellectual in a French art film—a boyish silhouette offset by long, neglected brown hair. She'd take a scissors to it only when she encountered a stubborn tangle. Anna was pretty in a plain way, the kind of pretty that had been thought beautiful in the seventies, but not anymore. Her features were all too standard. Except her eyes, which slanted downward and always gave the subjects of her gaze the sense that they were being studied.

Nirvana's In Utero was blasting on a loop in the rundown Craftsman house on Storey Street. That's why they'd left. Kate was afraid overexposure would cause her to loathe something she loved. So they'd taken their pints and retired to a neighbor's lawn, where Anna was now pontificating about the age of emancipation.

"How does it feel to be free?" Anna asked.

"I don't feel any different," Kate said.

"Now I'm cold," Anna said, jumping to her feet and shaking the wet grass from her coat. Next to Kate, Anna felt like a giant, even though she was just a scrape more than five four.

They walked along the lit side of the road at Kate's behest. Clothed all in black, they wouldn't stand a chance if a car careened around the corner. Kate thought of such things; Anna didn't.

"Nobody can tell you what to do anymore," Anna said.

About four months earlier, when Anna had turned eighteen, she'd stopped at a gas station, bought a pack of cigarettes, and smoked one on the porch while her mother barked her disapproval. Anna didn't smoke, but she had to deliver the message loud and clear: I'm free. Although she'd soon realized she wasn't.

"Turning eighteen was the happiest day of my life," Anna continued. "I bet twenty-one will be pretty good too."

"Do you see that?" Kate asked.

Across the street a woman was sleeping under a willow tree. It was the light flesh of her thigh set against the dark landscape that caught Kate's eye. They approached. The motionless woman was wearing a short black dress hiked up high on her almost comically long, well-toned legs. The smell of vomit was in the vicinity. Her only source of warmth was a short denim jacket.

"What do you think she's doing out here?" Kate asked.

"I think she got tanked at the party and went outside to barf," Anna said authoritatively.

"It's forty degrees out. Why would she wear something like that?"

Anna knelt down and tried to shake the woman awake.

"Wake up! It's time to go home."

"I'm sleeping," the woman slurred.

"I know her," said Kate. "She's in my biology class. I think she's on the women's basketball team. She's always wearing sweats and coming in with wet hair after practice. Plus, she's really tall."

Anna shook the woman more vigorously, but each time, she got little more than garbled words and an adjustment in sleep posture.

"Maybe we can carry her," Anna said.

"No," said Kate. "You can't carry dead weight. You see it in movies all the time, but it's almost impossible. For once, I'd like to see a film that accurately reflects that challenge."

"We're not leaving her," Anna said.