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Authors: Lisa Lutz

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How to Start a Fire

BOOK: How to Start a Fire
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Title Page














































About the Author

Copyright © 2015 by Spellman Enterprises, Inc.


All rights reserved


For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.


The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:

Lutz, Lisa.
How to start a fire / Lisa Lutz.

pages ; cm

978-0-544-41163-0 (hardcover)—
978-0-544-40964-4 (ebook)

1. Female friendship—Fiction. 2. Life change events—Fiction. 3. Chick lit. I. Title.

69 2015




Jacket design by Michaela Sullivan


Excerpt from “Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission.


Excerpt from “The New Music” by Donald Barthelme. Copyright © 1981, 1982 by Donald Barthelme, currently collected in
Sixty Stories
, used by permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC.


“Earth People,” Words and Music by Daniel Nakamura and Keith Thornton © 1997 Oct Music (ASCAP)/Reservoir Media Music (ASCAP). Administered by Reservoir Media Management, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission of Alfred Music.




To my two favorite Julies:

Julie Shiroishi


Julie Ulmer


All good things are wild and free.

—Henry David Thoreau


Lincoln, Nebraska


“Are you lost?” the man asked.

“No,” she said.

“Where are you headed?”

“Don’t know.”

“Seat taken?” he asked.

“As you can see, it’s empty,” she said.

He sat down across the table. A road map of the lower forty-eight states separated the man and woman. It also joined them in a way.

“Wasn’t an invitation,” she said, not pleasantly. Not unpleasantly.

He ignored the comment. He ate lunch in this diner every day at noon. It felt kind of like home. He didn’t need an invitation to sit down in his own dining room.

“So, let me get this straight. You don’t know where you’re going, but you’re not lost.”

“That’s the gist of it.”

“On a road trip?”

“Something like that.”

“You picked a good place to begin a journey. We’re practically smack in the middle of the country.”

“And the middle of nowhere,” she said.

He couldn’t argue with that and nodded in agreement. “My name’s Bill.”

“Hello, Bill.”

“You got a name?”

“Everyone has a name.”

Bill waited. He was expecting a name. She wasn’t sure which one to use.

“Kate,” she said. It felt odd saying her real name again.

“That’s a nice, simple name.”

“I guess so.”

“You should be careful, Kate. A woman alone on the road. Never a great idea,” Bill said.

“I can take care of myself,” she said.

“Some people, you just don’t know. You don’t know what they’re capable of.”

“I think I do.”

“I’ve been around awhile,” Bill said.

She couldn’t argue with him about that. The lines were etched deep on his forehead like a maze of estuaries, with his hair running from the shore. He’d managed to avoid the middle-aged spread, but his gut still seemed a little soft. She knew he meant well. She also knew he’d keep talking because he was tired of hanging on to all that wisdom.

“I’m sure you have. Can I get the check, please?” she asked the waitress.

“A woman shouldn’t be traveling alone,” Bill continued. “Especially if she’s got no particular destination. I know you think I’m just an old man prattling on and I should mind my own business. But I got a daughter about your age and I would tell her the same thing.”

“Has your daughter ever killed a man?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

Kate leaned in and spoke in a whisper so as not to disturb the other patrons. “Has your daughter ever killed a man?”

“Of course not,” Bill said.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did.”

Kate said it to silence him. She was surprised how well it worked. It slipped off her tongue so easily this time. She wondered why that was.

Bill placed his hands on the map and traced the Continental Divide.

Kate paid the check and carefully folded up the map. She smiled warmly at Bill, just to ease the tension.

“Excuse me. I have to be somewhere.”


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 already 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 father’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.

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.


“How did I get here?” the tall woman asked.

“We brought you here last night,” Kate said.

“Where am I?” she said.

“Porter College. Where do you live?”

“Stevenson,” the tall woman said.

Kate held her tongue. There were subcultures in the UC Santa Cruz residential colleges, and it was well known that Stevenson was where all the Republicans lived—not that there were many of them at the decidedly left-wing university.

The room was disconcertingly familiar to the tall woman, as if someone had redecorated badly while she’d been sleeping. The walls were the same dirty beige, and the bland chipboard furniture was battered similarly, just in different places. There were two of everything: two twin beds that contained storage compartments beneath, two four-drawer dressers with mirrors on top, two wardrobe closets. The red velvet comforter was most definitely not hers. In her eye line was a poster of a malnourished-looking man holding a microphone. His jeans were partially undone.

“Who are you?” the tall woman asked.

“Kate Smirnoff. Like the vodka.” Kate extended her hand in a formal businesslike gesture.

“Hi,” the confused guest said, accepting the handshake.

“And you’re Georgianna Leoni,” Kate said, tripping a bit over the name.

“How do you know?”

Kate handed her guest a small clutch purse. “We found this under your body. Your ID was inside. Should I call you Georgianna?”


“Good. That’s better in an emergency. ‘George, call 911,’ as opposed to ‘Georgianna, call 911.’”

“What happened?” George asked.

“We were at a party on Storey Street last night. You were probably at the same one. We found you passed out under a willow tree. After you’d vomited, most likely. We decided we’d better move you because there were lots of really drunk men at the party. Do you want some water?”

BOOK: How to Start a Fire
3.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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