Marla Mason spent the afternoon of her sixteenth birthday with a pyromaniac named Jenny Click.They sat shoulder-to-shoulder against the support pillar of an overpass, trying to stay out of the late spring rain, and discussed their options.
"The thing is, maybe I should follow my passion," Jenny said. She wore a transparent raincoat over an increasingly ratty sweater and a rapidly-disintegrating pair of jeans.
"Which passion?" Marla said. "Sex, drugs, or setting fires?" They hadn't known one another very long, but spending time together on the street helped you learn a lot about the essentials of a person.
"Well, any of them," Jenny said, scratching her long nose absently. She had thin blonde hair, big blue eyes, lots of little burn scars on her hands, and a general air of jittery craziness that made Marla feel calm and grounded by comparison. "But being a hooker means getting a pimp, or getting beat up, and even with a pimp you get beat up half the time anyway, I hear. Still, it's an option."
Marla made a noncommittal grunting sound. She'd run away from her home back in Indiana for a lot of reasons, but one of them was the way her mother's drunken boyfriends -- or one-night-stand bar pickups -- had leered and grabbed and groped at her. She wasn't going to submit to such things, and worse, now that she was on her own. Which did limit her options, admittedly.
"Or drugs, there aren't a lot of girl dealers, but maybe that's, like, a market I could exploit?" Jenny fished a cigarette from a cavernous pocket and lit it with her nicest possession, a Zippo she'd stolen from her dad, inscribed with the initials "JWC" -- her dad's initials, and close enough, she said, to hers. She spun up the fire and stared at the flame for a long moment, eyes intense with concentration, until Marla snapped her fingers.
Jenny blinked, lit her cigarette, inhaled, snapped shut the lighter, and nodded. "Right. Sorry. But I mean maybe girls would be more comfortable buying whatever from another girl?"
"I don't know if any of the gangs would, uh, hire you. And even if you knew a dealer you could buy from, you'd need money to get started." Privately, Marla figured Jenny would consume any drugs she acquired before she could sell them -- as far as Marla knew Jenny would try anything -- and that would just end up getting her killed, or turned out, or something otherwise bad.
"Okay, so that leaves fire. My dad always said 'find what you love and do it for life,' but he sold fucking insurance, so who was he fooling? Maybe I could get a job as an arsonist. You know, burn places down for insurance money? I could join the... mob or whatever. I mean, I set fires anyway. Might as well get paid for it."
Marla liked hanging out with Jenny because she had a reputation as an utter lunatic -- she'd once torched an unattended mail truck, the story went, because she wanted a fire to keep her warm -- and people tended to give her, and anyone she was with, a wide berth. Marla could fight a little, her brother had taught her some dirty tricks, but it was smarter and easier to avoid conflict altogether, so that was the advantage of hanging out with Jenny.
The disadvantage was having to listen to the ridiculous crap that came out of her mouth.
"The problem, as I see it," Marla said carefully, "is that, if you set a fire for the insurance money, you'd probably want to stand there and watch it burn, maybe even until the cops got there."
Jenny waved her cigarette dismissively, and Marla leaned back to avoid being scorched. "I can work around it. Fires always attract a crowd. I can just... melt into the crowd. Nah, it'll work. It's good. Having a plan is good."
"Not sure how you get into a business like that," Marla said.
"There's a bar, on the other side of the river near the east bridge, I hear there's a guy there. Like a crime boss guy. Heard my dealer talking to his dealer about it, he's the guy they buy from, supposed to be a big deal. Maybe I'll go down there and, sort of, apply for a job?"
"Just go up to him and say, 'Hi, I like to start fires, you have any openings?'" Marla shook her head. "Best case, you get laughed at. Worst case, they call the cops."
Jenny tossed her cigarette aside, and was quiet for a long moment. "Your problem, Marla," she said at last, "is you just find excuses to tear stuff down instead of actually doing anything." Jenny rose and walked off into the rain.
"Is that my problem," Marla said, to the empty air. "I've been wondering."
Maybe it was a problem. Maybe she should do something about it.
After spending several months in Felport, Marla didn't quite have a comfortable routine, but she had a series of strategies that covered her basic necessities.There were a few places she could sleep safely, though fewer than there had been in spring and summer -- competition for relatively dry indoor places got fierce as the temperatures dropped along with the leaves from the trees.
Her days were spent mostly in the big public library downtown, reading whatever caught her eye -- American history, Sun Tzu, mystery novels, popular science, first-person accounts of bear attacks, mythology, memoirs from formerly homeless and drug-addicted people, some of them even genuine.
For food she mostly dumpster-dived, having met some enterprising freegans her first month in town, who'd shown her the prime places to scavenge. She'd also learned a few hustles from her brother, who was the prince of the small-town con men, but most of them were no good to her -- it was hard to find people to play cards with a teenage girl, and a lot of the better scams required confederates or access to bars, two things it was tricky for her to acquire. Jenny had been too unreliable for such work, and once she vanished to pursue her career as an arsonist, Marla made it a point not to get close to anyone else. She had to learn to live on her own. Still, she knew enough short cons to keep her in pocket money, and she could use her youth and female-ness to her advantage, since people didn't expect to get ripped off by someone like her.
Living outside or in squats made you stinky and disreputable, though, and that was a problem, and pretty quickly. Back home maybe she'd be able to steal clothes off the line in somebody's back yard, but things were different in the city. Shoplifting new clothes was no good, because she soon looked ratty enough that store security started following her as soon as she walked in the door.
But then, in early summer, she made a life-changing score.
Marla was hanging out in a little park in an upscale neighborhood north of the river, sitting on a picnic table watching some people do tai-chi and wondering if the slow deliberate movements could translate into actual ass-kicking. It must have been a genuinely martial martial art at some point, right?
A young, blonde mother pushing a stroller and talking on a cell phone parked her baby carriage at the table next to Marla's. Marla glanced over to see if she had anything worth stealing -- distracted moms in parks sometimes wandered away from their possessions, though usually when chasing toddlers, and this kid was both younger than that and asleep. Nothing caught her eye, but the mother started digging through an overstuffed diaper bag that apparently doubled as a purse, trying to pull out a hardcover Danielle Steele novel while continuing her phone conversation -- a stream of invective aimed at the baby's father and, by extension, all men everywhere.
She liberated the book, but knocked over the bag in the process, and a rain of lipstick tubes and tattered receipts and pacifiers and her wallet and its contents pattered onto the ground.
Just then the baby started screaming, and the mother simply froze, phone in one hand, book in the other, apparently overwhelmed by the sensory assault.
Ever one to turn another's distraction to her advantage, Marla said, "Let me help you with that," and began picking up the make-up and baby accoutrements from the ground.
"Oh, thank you," the mom said, still distracted, and bent to tend to the wailing baby, clucking and cooing and making nonsense soothing noises.
Marla was hoping to find a wad of cash -- credit cards weren't much good to her, everyone wanted to see ID, because Marla was so grungy -- but beyond a few loose coins, there was no money in the mess. A library card, a Triple-A card, a car insurance card, useless, useless -- but when she saw the white-and-red YMCA card, she palmed it and slipped it in her pocket, just in case. "Here you go," Marla said, putting the last of the dropped items in the diaper bag, and the mother nodded and mumbled more thanks while picking up the baby. She didn't notice the theft, and had never even looked at Marla's face.
Marla sauntered off around a corner. She'd walked past the uptown Y a few times, and it wasn't too far. If the people at the desk were attentive she'd never get in, but maybe...
She walked half a dozen blocks, then went up the steps and through the automatic doors. The Y was pretty pleasant, clean and bustling even at midday, and the lobby smelled faintly of chlorine from the pool downstairs. The people at the desk looked promisingly bored. Marla pretended to read the big row of plaques on the wall honoring various donors while she watched people go in and out. The setup was better than she'd hoped.
Nobody bothered to look at your ID, you just held up the card to the little electric eye by the turnstile and pushed on through. Since you didn't have to use the card to get out, she'd be fine even if the card's rightful owner went in while Marla was there. Distracted-mommy could get a replacement card -- it would be an inconvenience, sure, but this barely qualified as a crime by Marla's standards. As long as mommy kept her membership, Marla should be able to come as often as she liked. She owned a pair of shorts and a grimy t-shirt that would pass as gym clothes until she could acquire something better.
The Y became her second home, a paradise she visited daily, even though it was a few miles from her preferred squat. The place was worth the walk, though -- once inside, she could shower, swim, use the exercise machines, sit in the sauna, use the hot tub, even take a bunch of classes for free, not that she did; the appeal of being yelled at by a woman in a leotard escaped her.
She was often tempted to break into lockers to see what she could find, but it would mean trouble if she were caught. She did snatch the occasional unattended deodorant, bottle of lotion, or other useful little things.
With regular access to a shower -- and after stealing a perfectly nice sundress off a rack during one of the summer sidewalk sales, running like hell from a persistent saleswoman who pursued her for blocks, despite the disadvantage of her high heels -- Marla was in business. She could get cleaned up and go to any store in the mall and take whatever she could fit in her bag and her pockets. She had a great sense for when the store detectives were taking a special interest in her -- acquired during all those years of watchfulness at home -- and she never got caught, though she had some close moments. Between the stuff she could pawn and the stuff she could wear, autumn was shaping up nicely, despite the drafty walls in the abandoned building where she was living.
Marla was in the process of stealing some new underwear from a swanky lingerie store when she next saw Jenny Click.
Jenny looked... good. Almost unrecognizably so. She was dressed in a decidedly non-ratty chocolate-brown sweater, tight white jeans, and a white denim jacket. Her hair was teased and hairsprayed, her make-up somehow simultaneously complex and discreet, and she was less thin and strung-out looking -- though still a long way from fat. Moreover, the way she walked was totally different, without the tightly-wound watchfulness that took in every possible threat from every possible direction. She had the kind of pleased, faraway look that she usually only got from looking at fire.
Jenny had clearly passed into some other world, and Marla was instantly suspicious, and jealous, and resentful, and felt comparatively filthy and ill-fed; her instinct was to withdraw and slink away.
But she was also curious. That was, perhaps, her dominant trait. So she said, as nonchalantly as she could, "Hi, Jenny."
Jenny turned her head, saw Marla, and smiled widely. She glided over and embraced her and clasped Marla's hands in her own and made effusive noises. Marla noticed that Jenny's fingers weren't burn-scarred anymore; how had that happened? Could you get plastic surgery on your hands?
"Come, let me buy you something to eat," Jenny said, and Marla allowed herself to be led to the food court, the usual multi-ethnic array of fried rice and pizza and hamburgers and breaded chicken, all fundamentally tasting like cardboard. Marla bought as much as she could carry -- she usually only got this food once it was cold and discarded -- and sat down with a tottering pile of french fries and burgers and disgusting little hot apple pies that tasted like pastry filled with sweet glue; but they were filling.
Jenny had a salad. Which meant her concern was worrying about her weight instead of maximizing caloric intake. Which seemed, Marla realized, practically the mindset of an alien creature at this point. To have that kind of luxury, that kind of unconcern... However she got where she is, Marla thought, I'm going to get there too.
"Marla," Jenny said. "Are you still living... like we used to?"
"Living by my wits," Marla said, having encountered the phrase recently at the library and enjoying the opportunity to use it.
"I can help you. I think. If you want."
"Charity is always appreciated. Cash only, though, I can't take credit cards."
Jenny laughed and shook her head. "I could help you that way, but it's better if I help you help yourself. My -- a friend of mine taught me that. How would you like a job?"
"Waitressing. Probably. To start. But there's room for advancement."
Marla snorted around a mouthful of french fries. After swallowing, she said, "I've never waited tables. Who's going to hire me? I don't even have a phone or a home address. I can't even fill out an application."
"Just go down to the Bau Bau Room," Jenny said, writing down an address -- with an eyebrow pencil! -- on a napkin. "Go to the bar and ask for Rollo. Tell him I sent you." She grinned -- a very uncharacteristic look for Jenny. Though maybe not for this Jenny. "Just go easy on him. You know you can overwhelm people when you really turn on the charm."
"That's always been a problem for me." Marla picked up the napkin. "I guess I'll give it a try. Is the money good? I mean, is this what you do?"
"It's what I started out doing," Jenny said. "Now I do... other things."
Marla wrinkled her nose. "You're not hooking, are you? If this guy Rollo's your pimp, I'm not interested."
"It's not like that." She stood up, slinging her stylish purse over her arm. "Though, when you get there... well. Just remember. It's not hooking. I swear."
"Ohh-kay. Hey, before you go. What happened to your hands? They used to be all scarred up, now they're not." Marla had heard of tact, subtlety, and decorum, but had seldom seen the point in using them.
Jenny held out her hands, palms facing away from her, as if examining her manicure. "Like I said. I learned to help myself. Go see Rollo. Maybe you'll learn something too." She waved and strolled into the depths of the mall.
Marla pocketed the napkin with the address. Then she ate the rest of her food. Then she ate the remains of Jenny's salad.
Then she went and shoplifted some underwear, because regardless of what tomorrow might bring, she still needed to look after today.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 1.