BOOK EXCERPT


Mr. Barter took me to his car, parked out in the parking lot in front of the school. It was an all black coupe, a Mazda from the looks of it. It looked pretty nice, but it was a little beat up from years of wear and tear. And were those bullet holes on the door? I couldn't tell, and I didn't ask. I was just happy to be getting in the car and riding off with Mr. Barter.

Once we were on the road, he smirked, and looked back at me.

"Hey, I'm hungry. Are you hungry?" I was so busy talking to Calvin at lunchtime, I didn't eat very much, so I nodded. "Do you like McDonald‚s?" He asked. Of course, I nodded. I mean, who doesn't like McDonald's? Well, my Aunt Terri doesn't, but she's extra picky about where she eats anyway, so she doesn't count.

He smiled at me and asked, "Your parents wouldn't mind if we stopped to get a bite to eat, would they?" I shook my head. I didn't think they'd mind. After all, it was my teacher, and he was nice enough to give me a ride home from school, so it shouldn't have been a very big deal, right? "Good," he said, "Let's go to this one down the street, my treat. Okay?" I emphatically nodded. McDonald's is always good to eat, especially if someone else if paying for it.

We pulled up into a combination McDonald's and gas station at the corner of Carpenter Road and Saginaw Street. It used to be an old, run down Amoco until some Middle Eastern guys bought up the area and renovated it. My Grandma had an issue with that, mainly because some black people tried two times before to buy the property, but they got denied both times. My Grandma thinks it's a conspiracy. I don't know enough about what went on to judge either way.

We parked, went inside and ordered our food. I had a double cheeseburger, a small Sprite with no ice and a small order of French fries. I told them to hold the tomatoes and onions. I don't like either of them. It's something I inherited from my Mom. He ordered a double quarter pounder meal, with extra fries, a vanilla milkshake and two apple pies. I guess he must have been used to super-sizing until McDonald's phased that out. I never understood what the big fuss was all about. Daddy told me they phased it out because people were threatening to sue them over their obesity. I think it's sad that people aren't taking responsibility for themselves, and are blaming the food companies for making them fat. The food companies made the food and advertised the food, but didn't all of those fat people have the option to not buy the super-size fries? It's not like anybody put a gun to their head and ordered them to pig out all of the time, and it's not like they were addicted to the food, like it was some sort of drug. Those people are just fat, lazy and irresponsible. I'm smarter than that, though. I know I have a big appetite, I got that from my Dad. But I've been trying to control my diet, and I exercise a lot from being on the track team. In another year or two I expect to look something like Serena Williams. After all, she's got a big nose, too.

We sat at a table towards the front of the restaurant. Mr. Barter insisted we sit near one of the doors, because "You never know what can happen." He sounded a little paranoid, but I just chalked that up to people's eccentricities. As we ate, he didn't talk much. He just dove right into his food. He ate so fast, it was like he was inhaling it. I used to eat like that, but both Mom and Dad told me not to. Mom said it was "rude and uncouth" to eat like that, and Dad said that if you eat fast, you're more likely to get fatter. Dad's reason resonated more with me than Mom's, partly because I was young, and at the time I didn't know what "uncouth" meant.

While he was gorging himself on his food, I occasionally heard Mr. Barter mumble to himself between big mouthfuls. He muttered stuff like, "Oh yeah, that's the spot right there," and, "I missed this so much..." I was starting to wonder what he missed so much about McDonald's. I mean, there's one everywhere, right?

He must have seen the face I was making, because he then said, "You just don't understand, Miss Missy. When you're away for a long time and on a fixed diet, you start to really miss things like a simple McDonald's double quarter pounder meal with extra fries and a vanilla milkshake with two apple pies. I want to enjoy every bite of this as much as I can." He then took another hunk out of his sandwich and chewed with ecstasy, gleefully humming a McDonald's commercial song I recognized from when I was about six years old. I was still a little unsure what he was talking about, but I didn't press the matter. He had called me "Miss Missy," and I liked it when he called me that.

Just as we were finishing our meal, I heard a tune coming from Mr. Barter's direction. If I remember correctly, it was "Jailhouse Rock," by Elvis Presley. I was surprised. I didn't know Mr. Barter liked Elvis.

He reached down near his waist and pulled up his cellphone. It was definitely a Motorola. One of the new ones, too, with the color screen you can play video games on. My Aunt Terri has one like it, but it's a Nokia.

The minute he turned that phone on, it was like I wasn't even in the same building as him.

"Yeah, what?" he said, his voice becoming harder than I was used to hearing from him, "Have you scoped the spot out yet?" a pause, and his face scrunched up, "What do you mean, you couldn't get around to it? What is so important that you couldn't take five minutes to scope the spot out?" another pause, "Look, I don't care one iota about your baby mama drama. I will not be denied this. Do you hear me?" another pause, "Good. I'm going to go ahead and scope out the spot myself. You just make sure you have the equipment ready." He made a move to turn off his phone, but stopped, and said into it, "And DON'T mess this up!" he hung up, and I was astonished. I had never heard him that forceful before. It was actually kind of cool to hear him be that authoritative. It reminded me of Daddy when he's coaching peewee football on Saturdays in the summer.

As soon as he put the phone away, he looked back at me with a warm smile and asked, "So, you ready to go?" I smiled back and nodded.

On the way to the car, Mr. Barter looked back at me and said, "If you don't mind, Ashlynn, I'd like to take one more, small detour. I won't be long."

I didn't see any harm in it, so I said, "sure."

He grinned and said, "Thank you. I just want to check something out."

A minute later we were in his car and on our way. I noticed we were going away from the highway Mom normally takes toward my house, and going back in the direction of the school. I was wondering where he was taking me, but I wasn't too worried. After all, this was Mr. Barter, my English teacher, not one of those random psychos you see in the educational videos warning kids not to talk to strangers. I trusted him completely.

We got back on Carpenter Road, but as we approached Powers high school, he turned down Dupont Street. We rode down Dupont for a while, until we reached a huge area of trees, about as long as five city blocks. He slowed the car and pulled into a patch of dirt right in front of the trees. He got out of the car, and I followed him. From our vantage point, it seemed as if the rows and rows of maples, birchwoods and oaks went on forever in every direction. It would be a strange sight to anyone unfamiliar with the area: a large wooded area of pure nature in the midst of the cold, manmade city. But I knew this place well: it was Forest Park.

"Just give me a minute," Mr. Barter said. He walked back in forth in front of the park. From the look on his face and the expressions he was making with his hands, I assumed he was taking mental notes for some reason. He did a lot of nodding, and a lot of wiping his left hand across his chin, like he was doing some mental calculations. After a few minutes of this, he walked back to me, a satisfied look on his face.

"Yes," he was saying, "This will do. This will do nicely."

"This is your first time at Forest Park?" I asked him, "My family had a family reunion here a few years back. It's a pretty cool place to hang out at, I guess. My mom doesn't like this park, though." That's when I remembered Mom telling me I should never go near this park alone. Ever. She was really emphatic about it, too. I felt kind of bad, but then I figured I wasn't there alone. I did have Mr. Barter with me, right? I was sure he wouldn't let anything bad happen to me while I was here with him.

"No, Miss Missy," he said, "I've never been here before. I do like the park, though, especially that part over there." He pointed to a clearing of nothing but tall weeds.

"That's the marsh," I told him, "My Daddy says it's a wildlife conservatory, and not a lot of people are allowed access there."

He grinned, and mumbled, "Perfect." Then he just stood there for a while, staring at the marsh. It was a little creepy watching him stand there silent like that.

Then, without warning, he turned to me with a smile and asked, "Ashlynn, have you ever been double crossed?"

Now it was really creepy.