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Authors: J.M. Kelly

Speed of Life

BOOK: Speed of Life

Copyright © 2016 by J. M. Kelly


All rights reserved.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to
[email protected]
or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.


Cover illustration © by Peter Strain




Names: Kelly, J. M., 1968– author.
Title: Speed of life / by J. M. Kelly.

Description: Boston ; New York : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, [2016] | Summary: Crystal must choose between her dream of becoming the first college student in her family, or keeping a promise to her twin sister, Amber, to raise together the baby one had in high school.

Identifiers: LCCN 2015037010 | ISBN 9780544747821 (hardback)

Subjects: | CYAC: Twins—Fiction. | Sisters—Fiction. | Babies—Fiction. | Conduct of life—Fiction. | Automobiles—Maintenance and repair—Fiction. | Family life—Fiction. | BISAC: JUVENILE FICTION / Social Issues / Pregnancy. | JUVENILE FICTION / Family / Siblings. | JUVENILE FICTION /    Social Issues / Homelessness & Poverty. | JUVENILE FICTION / Family / New Baby. | JUVENILE FICTION / Transportation / Cars & Trucks. | JUVENILE FICTION / Girls & Women.

Classification: LCC PZ7.1.K454 Spe 2016 | DDC [Fic]—dc23 LC record available at


eISBN 978-0-544-86821-2


Permissions to use epigraph: “Dear Old Dad” written by Victor Anthony, Commercial-free Music, SESAC

This book is dedicated to Papa for passing on the old-car gene. Love, J. M.

Cars today all look the same; they all look like orthopedic shoes.

—​“Dear Old Dad” by Victor Anthony

Chapter 1

“Take her.”


“Hold her for a minute.”

“I don't want to.”

“She needs you.”

“Please, find her a family. They said there's lots of people waiting.”

“But she's yours.”

“I don't want her.”

“You will when you're feeling better.”

“I never wanted her. Please let me sleep. Don't do this to me. Please? Please? If you love me . . .”

“We're keeping her because I love you. So you don't hate us both later.”

“I want to sleep.”

In the silence the blackness comes again. And then . . . relentlessly . . . “I'll help you. We'll raise her together. Fifty-fifty. Just like always.”

“If I say yes, will you let me sleep?”

“For a while.”

“Okay. Yes.”

Chapter 2

I push a button on the iron and a little cloud of steam poofs out, sending up a whiff of clean-laundry smell, temporarily blocking the kitchen's usual odors—​stale coffee, dirty diapers, and the sour tang of empty beer cans. As I press my work shirt, Amber squeezes between me and the archway, heading through the living room to our bedroom. She's got her long hair in a bushy ponytail, and it brushes my face as she goes by, almost making me sneeze.

“What time will you be done tonight?” I ask her.

“It'll be at least eleven,” she answers. The dump we live in's so small I can hear her in the other room.

“I'll be there by quarter after,” I say. “If you're not finished, I'll help.”

“Cool. Thanks. Can I wear your old jeans?”

“Yeah, sure.”

You hear about sisters swapping clothes all the time, but we don't do it very much. Amber's job is hot and sweaty, though, and most of my stuff's grease-stained from working on cars, so my jeans are perfect for her to wear to work because they're crappy already. Usually she dresses to show off her body, and I use clothes to hide mine. Not that I'm a dog or anything. Guys think Amber's a babe—​small, decent boobs, sexy red curls—​which technically means I could be hot too, since we're identical twins. But I'm not interested in dressing to impress—​not in this lifetime, thanks.

I hear Mom's bedroom door open, and then the bathroom one closes. The toilet flushes a minute later, and she comes schlumping down the short hallway, her slippers slapping on the bare plywood floor.

“Oh, good,” she says, seeing the ironing board. “Can you do my uniform, too?”

I'm already late. Plus, Mom's shirt is . . . well . . . huge, and it takes forever to iron. I don't know why she bothers. She works the graveyard shift. No one cares. “Sorry, can't do it,” I say. “I'm supposed to start at five. But I'll leave the ironing board up.”

She doesn't answer, just picks up the pot with the dregs of the coffee I made before school, which means it's about ten hours old, and sniffs, trying to decide whether to reheat it or not. In the end, she tosses the leftovers into the sink. That's probably why the drain's always clogged. The box of filters is empty, and she scoops the last of the Folgers into a used one. I make a mental note to get both after school tomorrow.

Amber comes back into the kitchen, lugging Natalie in the car seat we got from our cousin. My sister's wearing my oldest jeans and a sweatshirt I don't recognize, probably from a guy she doesn't remember. “Crystal? Can we get a ride all the way to work?” she asks.

Amber washes dishes at a tavern called the Glass Slipper, and tonight I'm supposed to drop her off at the bus because I start work earlier than her. But I know it's a pain in the ass when she has to take Natalie along, and Amber pays half the car insurance. It will mean I'll be fifteen minutes late, but it's not like I'm gonna get fired or anything.

“If you're ready to go right now,” I say.

“I just have to find Nat's diaper bag.”

“Couch,” Mom mumbles, spluttering coffee cake all over her crossword.

“Hey, Am?” I say as she goes to get it. “I put the dog in the car after school 'cause it was raining so hard. Can you get him chained up while I change?”

“If you bring Natalie with you.”

“There's pizza,” my stepdad, Gil, says as I go through the living room. He's spread out on the couch, a case of beer next to him and a pipe in his hand.


Gil works at Big Apple Pizza when he can drag his ass in there. Either way, he still gets paid because he kind of owns the place. He and his brother inherited it a few years ago, and he signed over his share in exchange for a weekly paycheck, whether he shows up or not. I think sometimes his brother pays him to stay away.

“It's better to lose my money once a week instead of all at once,” Gil always says with a laugh.

Sound logic if you're him. In the bedroom, I hurriedly take off my flannel and put on my gray work pants and blue striped uniform shirt. Our room used to be a single-car garage until Gil padlocked the overhead door shut so we (Amber) couldn't sneak out at night. Then he cut a hole in the living room wall and built a weird little connecting hallway out of found plywood between the living room and the side door of the garage. There's no insulation or windows, so it's freezing in the winter and stifling in the summer, but we have a room of our own now. At least until Natalie came along four and a half months ago. Now the three of us are crammed in here together. But it's still better than the pull-out couch in the living room, which is where me and Amber used to sleep.

The landlord had been royally pissed when he'd come around to collect the late rent, but Gil, always a charmer, pointed out that the house was now a two-bedroom and offered him twenty bucks a month more, which he took without another word.

Usually I go out the front instead of the side door when Mom's in the kitchen—​in case she asks me for money for bingo—​but I want the pizza, plus I have to grab the baby, so I take my chances. Mom's abandoned the crossword and is doing a word-search puzzle while eating a flattened jelly doughnut she brought home from work. She doesn't even look up when I come through.

I swing Natalie off the table in her carrier, making her squeal, which is a new thing for her. I can't help smiling. I'll take that high-pitched happy scream over whimpering and crying any day. The pizza box is open and there're only two slices left, so I grab the whole thing and go.

When I get outside, Amber's hooking Bonehead to his chain. “I'm gonna give this slice of pepperoni to the dog unless you want to pick off the meat,” I say. “We can share the cheese one.”

“That's okay, you eat it. I'll get something at work.”


She takes the baby from me, and I toss the dog the pepperoni pizza. He swallows it whole. “Don't choke,” I tell him. “I need you.” I nudge him affectionately with my foot because I don't want dog smell all over my hands while I eat, and he whimpers at being left behind.

While Amber buckles Natalie into the back seat, I slide in on the driver's side, and when I switch on the ignition, the radio blasts, making me jump. Amber laughs and Nat starts crying. I turn the knob down a couple notches. “Are you ever gonna get tired of that joke?” I ask her.

“Probably not,” she says.

About the twentieth time she did it, I considered disconnecting the after-market stereo I installed back when we had spare cash, before Natalie, but having music is too good, so I left it. On our way to the Glass Slipper, I eat while I drive, and Amber winds her long red curls up into a tight knot on the top of her head. Kitchen regulations. No one there cares that she's breaking the law by working for cash, but the cook's a freak for hygiene. At least at the gas station I can get away with a ponytail under my baseball cap.

“Do you see my hat in the back?”

Amber leans over the seat, digging through Bonehead's blankets. “Here it is. I think the dog might've chewed on it a little.”

While I'm stopped at a light, I pull on the mangled black hat. In white letters, it says
Jimmy's Gas and Auto Repair
in fancy script, and I tug at the brim, trying to make it look more presentable. Tonight I'll be working the lottery counter when I'm not pumping gas, so I have to face the public. Jimmy usually only lets me work in the repair shop on the weekends, and today's Wednesday. Three more days before I get to do the good stuff.

I drop off Amber and Natalie, and as soon as I pull out onto Eighty-Second Avenue, I hit the gas hard, feeling the power of the motor. It keeps surging, which reminds me I need to ask Jimmy about it. I don't get very far before I come to a red light, and I sit there, revving the engine, listening. Next to me, some guys in a souped-up rice burner are blasting rap music and checking out my car. The Mustang doesn't look like much yet. It's coated with primer instead of painted, and I still need to do some body work, but under the hood is a V8 that will leave them in the dust.

When the light changes, I floor it, shooting off down the street in a squeal of burning rubber. Not so good for my tires, but it's worth it because the dudes in the other car are eating my exhaust. Unfortunately, before I can really get going, I'm already at Jimmy's.

From the street, it looks like any other gas station/convenience store—​brightly lit with Coke and beer ads in the windows, a couple of pumps out front, a place to get air and propane, and there's even an old phone booth that actually works over by the three customer parking spots. The real magic happens in the restoration shop behind the station. I pull into the parking lot and drive around back.

On a separate lot is Jimmy's four-bay workshop. There's no sign announcing this—​we don't want to advertise what we're doing back here, because some of the cars we fix are worth a fortune. The people who need a stellar car guy already know Jimmy and where to find him. The shop's got a small parking lot with razor wire, and for years there was a watch dog, but it died of old age and Jimmy's wife talked him into an alarm to replace it. An alarm doesn't eat or rack up bills at the vet.

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