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Authors: J.M. Kelly

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BOOK: Speed of Life
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I'm in line with my friends Shenice and Han. Shenice is a school friend—​we don't really party together or hang out after hours. Han is harder to shake.

“You skip first period?” Shenice asks because I didn't show in the cafeteria for the free cinnamon rolls.

“Nope. I was typing a paper.”

“For Amber?”

I shrug. For some reason it really annoys Shenice when I do Amber's homework. I don't know why—​it's not like it hurts her. Luckily, I'm saved from the usual lecture when a bald guy the size of a truck growls, “Meat or bean?” from behind the glass-enclosed lunch counter. With that voice and the scar down his left cheek, he could be in a prison movie. He's one scary dude.

“Bean,” I manage to say. I hear Shenice and Han laugh at the squeak in my voice.

“Good choice.” The guy drops a greasy burrito onto a plate and gives me a wide smile that lights up his whole face. It changes everything about him, and he strikes me as the kind of guy who'd be good to have on your side. He winks and piles on extra Tater Tots, some limp salad, and a scarred orange, and then hands it over. I slide my tray toward the cashier and palm the meal ticket when I give it to her so no one sees it. Habit.

We take our food over to the garbage cans, dump the brown lettuce, and leave the trays behind, and then we go outside to the woods behind the school to eat, even though it's freezing.

“Woods” is a fancy name for dead grass, a couple of logs to sit on, and garbage blowing around, but there's a little bit of shelter behind some scraggly trees and, more importantly, no jocks or annoying drama freaks. We head for our usual oak. I kick a few cigarette butts out of the way and we plop down, sitting on our backpacks.

There are only a few die-hard rockers, stoners, and lunchroom losers out here with us, and while I don't put us into any of those groups, we do sort of look like them. Shenice is wearing her usual faded jeans, a long-underwear top, and a ratty plaid shirt she stole from one of her brothers. She's got her black curly hair in a low ponytail, and a stocking cap pulled down over her ears. Right now I look more like her twin than Amber's. Except I stole my flannel from Gil since I'm lucky enough not to have any brothers. Also, I don't wear glasses, and if I did, they wouldn't be blue cat-eye thrift-store ones that have a glob of glue on one side from a sketchy repair job.

Han has his usual “Death to . . .” T-shirt on and no coat, which makes him look like one of the rockers. He's got a whole collection of death shirts, and today it's the one he wears the most: “Death to Han Solo.” He wants the world to know he isn't some nerdy Star Wars geek.

Han narrows his eyes, looking at me. “What's up with you? Did you have coffee? Or maybe something better?”

“Nothing's up,” I say. “I'm eating, same as you.”

“You've been tapping your foot the whole time,” Han says. “And scoping everything out. Are you looking for someone better to eat lunch with?”

“No.” I honestly don't know what he's talking about. Well, I kind of do, but I'm not going to admit it. I make myself chew and swallow, but I've got that nervous stomach thing going on.

“She's having baby withdrawals,” Shenice says.

“Shut up.” How'd she know?

“You and Amber are both like that, every day, man,” she says. “You guys
say
you hate doing the daycare lunch, but when you don't go, you freak out.”

I roll my eyes. It's weird, but it
is
hard to leave Nat all day with strangers. You'd think me and Amber would need a break from her, and we kind of do, but Amber told me she feels the same way I do. The thing is, Natalie counts on us, and even if it's a pain in the ass most of the time, we're getting used to being needed.

“You're practically dying to wipe my face,” Shenice says. “Or stick your hands down Han's pants to see if he needs to be changed.”

“I'm up for it if you are,” Han says, and we all laugh. “Seriously.” He stands up and starts unbuttoning his jeans.

“Sit down, dude,” I tell him, and he does.

“Say the word and I'll drop my pants for you anytime.”

We all laugh again, but this time it's a little uncomfortable. His crush is so obvious. The first two years of high school, he was in love with Amber, but she totally blew him off, and so last year his lust unfortunately moved over to me. Like he thought we were the same person, and if he couldn't get one of us, he'd have the other. He's nice, but he's definitely not my type. Tall, scrawny blonds with peach fuzz don't do it for me. Plus, I know him too well.

I figure it might help if I cut him down fast, so I say, “I met a really hot guy.”

“Which class?” Shenice asks.

“He doesn't go here. He's Jimmy's nephew.”

While it's true that David's pretty hot, I would never, ever in a million years be seen with him. Not that he'd want to go anywhere with me, either. But if I can make Han think there's some guy at work, and maybe he sees him when he drops by Jimmy's, things might go back to normal with us.

Han slumps against the tree while I tell Shenice about David and his car, which, honestly, I'm a lot more interested in. I don't mention that I pretty much hate the guy for stealing my job. After a while, I see how pathetic Han looks hearing about David, so I change the subject to video games, and he perks up.

After school, I'm at my locker when he comes bouncing up to me, clearly recovered from his disappointment at lunch. “Can we go get my smokes?”

“I can't. Amber has to stay after to make up a test, and I gotta get Natalie and go to the bank.”

“I'm dying for a cig,” he says, following me. “I'll go with you, and then we can get them.”

“Tomorrow. You'll have to bum one off your mom tonight.”

Me and Amber repeated first grade because we missed so much school. Mom wasn't working then, and she should've taken care of us, but she was only in her early twenties and not that responsible. Usually all three of us slept right through the alarm. Ever since we turned eighteen last March and became legal, Han relies on us to buy his cigarettes. I hate doing it. When we found out about Nat coming, me and Amber both quit, and every time I buy them for him it reminds me how much I miss smoking. It kills me to hand them over to someone else once I've paid for them.

Han shoves money at me even though I said no, and I pocket it and tell him, “Fine. We'll get them. But you're buying me a pop.”

“Deal.”

Twenty minutes later, the three of us are in the Mustang heading for Safeway. I need to get the coffee and filters and some other stuff, and the cashiers there aren't as pissy to me as at the convenience store. If 7-Eleven hates selling to teenagers so much, why open a store right by the high school?

“I'll carry Nat,” Han offers when we get there.

“In the Snugli?”

“Sure.”

I roll my eyes. He's so weird. “Go for it.”

He can't figure out how to get it on, and I finally stop laughing long enough to help him, directing his skinny chicken arms through the straps and lifting it over his head. Then I slip Natalie into it, and she settles against his concave chest, looking up at him.

“Man,” he says. “I can't believe how big she is.”

“I know. Twelve pounds already.”

“Hi, baby,” he says in his regular voice. He always talks to her like she gets what he's saying.

She starts to whimper.

“Don't take it personally,” I tell him. “She's teething.”

He jiggles her around a little as we walk inside, and I actually hear her laugh. Thank God. People always give me and Nat the dirtiest looks when she screams in the grocery store, like I'm torturing her on purpose.

What I
wish
I could buy requires a cart, but what I can afford will fit in a little red basket, so I grab one of those. In the baby aisle, I pick up two containers of formula and a box of cereal with a baby's face on the front. They told us at daycare to start mixing a little cereal with formula and give it to her with a spoon because she's hungry all the time now. They said she'll mostly spit it out at first, but will supposedly get the hang of it eventually. I see the gel teething rings and pick one up to check it out. I choke on the price, though, and put it back. I bet my cousin Jade has an extra one.

Jade's ex was a dealer before he was killed last year in a drive-by, and he used to give her tons of money for their kids. She used the cash to put herself through beauty school, but she also bought a shitload of baby stuff, mostly from thrift stores and garage sales. Whenever we need something, we kiss her ass, saying how cute Lapis and Onyx are, and she'll usually give us her castoffs.

“Does Nat need one of those?” Han asks me.

I shake my head. “I was just looking. You know Mei-Zhen, at the daycare? She told us it would help. You stick it in the freezer, and then the baby chews on it and her gums go numb or whatever. But Jade probably has one she'll give us.”

If me and Amber ever want to get out of the dump we live in and into our own apartment, we have to save every penny we don't spend on necessities like food and diapers. Nat can live without a teething ring. I grab some bananas in produce. That's another thing they told us to feed Natalie, and if you get the brownish ones, they're cheap. Then I swing by the coffee aisle and grab the no-name filters and a small can of Folgers. The last thing I get is a case of vegetable ramen. Luckily, it's on sale. Also, it's the one food we don't have to hide from Mom and Gil. They both hate it. Not that me and Amber love it, but it's dinner.

When I'm ready to check out, I head to the customer service counter to get the cigarettes and pay for everything together. Han looks about twelve, so I send him and Natalie outside. The cashier knows me from shopping here, but she checks my ID about fifty times before handing over the pack of Marlboros and giving me my change.

As she bags my stuff, she makes a big point out of the fact that I've got baby food and cigarettes, which pisses me off. It's not any of her business. I can't help myself—​I open the smokes and flip one into my mouth to freak her out. Her face turns a little purple, and I laugh as I walk away. I wish I hadn't done it, though. Now I want to keep one and smoke it later. Han won't care, but Amber would kill me.

When I get out to the car, Han is standing there talking to Nat about a computer game he's really awesome at. I drop him off at home before going to the bank, and as he gets out of the car, he hands me a teething ring and a package of Orajel.

“For Nat,” he says. “No one wants to chew on a used one.”

“Thanks.” I don't ask if he stole it. I don't want to know.

“See you, baby,” he says to Nat, and she smiles.

If I'm lucky, he'll fall in love with her and forget all about crushing on me. But really, when am I ever lucky?

Chapter 6

The red Chevelle is taking up two spaces again when I get to Jimmy's on Friday night, and I have to resist the urge to key it as I walk by. I'm actually early for once because Amber had to help Aunt Ruby with the books before her shift, so I go inside and make myself some nachos, piling on the hot peppers. I give Rosa my money, and she looks the other way while I fill a plastic cup with pop from the dispenser. It's cool with Jimmy if we drink for free, but his wife's a tightwad, so we're kind of supposed to pay for it. No one does, though.

I sit on one of the stools behind the counter, next to Rosa. Most of the people who buy gas here know Jimmy from the custom car circuit. He likes to offer extra services so they'll keep coming back. We wash windshields and check the oil, and we'll even have a look at tire pressure if someone asks, so there's always at least one person outside doing customer service. Out at the pumps, Dirk, the day guy, is running around with David following behind him.

“Is he working tonight?” I ask.

“Yep. Training,” Rosa says.

“Oh, joy.” I try to keep the bitterness out of my voice, but it's there like an oil slick on a puddle. I lick the last of the orange goop off my fingers. My lips are burning from the jalapeños. “Jimmy in the shop?”

“Yeah.”

I might as well plead my case.

When I go in, I see he's got a 1955 Chev on the lift. He's standing underneath, looking up at the rear axle.

“Hey, Jimmy.”

“Crystal.”

“So am I ever gonna get my hours back, or is what's-his-name squeezing me out?”

“David.”

“Jimmy . . .” I'm trying not to whine, but my eyes are burning like I might do something stupid like cry. I can't break down in front of him. It won't get me anywhere.

“I only got so many shifts to fill,” he says.

“Come on, man. I've busted my ass here for four years. More than that. Haven't I earned it?”

“By being late all the time?”

I kick my steel-toed boot against the concrete wall. We both know Jimmy doesn't give a shit about me being late. He's using that as an excuse.

“He's my nephew,” he says. “My balls are to the wall.”

“What about next summer?”

“That's a long ways off.”

“Jimmy, I'm graduating. I gotta know if I should be looking for another job or if you're gonna take me on full-time.”

He finally drags his eyes off the axle, which he hasn't actually been fixing anyway, and wipes his hands on an oily red rag. “Look, I'll always have a job for you, and probably next summer it'll be full-time if you want it, but I can't guarantee work in the shop. It might only be the pumps.”

The grimy clock above the workbench says five o'clock on the dot. I shake my head, my ponytail swaying. “Yeah, all right.”

“Hey, Crystal?” Jimmy says as I'm on my way out.

“What?”

“I need you to train David tonight.”

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