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The Trouble with Max
By Patricia H. Rushford, Cheryl Dunlop
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2007 Patricia H. Rushford
All rights reserved.
"Look at those guys, Jess." Max skidded to a stop, and I almost piled into her.
"What?" I managed to stop my bike and get off. The guys she was talking about were half a block away. I cringed. One had an open leather vest that revealed a tattoo. He had biceps the size of watermelons. Definitely not the kind of person you'd want to meet in a dark alley. The tall, skinny one was smoking a cigarette, his face scrunched up like he was in pain.
"Can you believe it?" she said through gritted teeth. "Dealing drugs right here in the open—in a public park. Let's get them."
I'd never seen her that upset before, and it scared me."C'mon, Max. We need to get out of here." My heart was thumping faster than a rabbit running from a fox. We'd been riding our bikes and had taken a shortcut through Centennial Park. I was ready to go home for more reasons than one. "M-maybe it's not drugs. Maybe they're just ..."
"Yeah, right. I can spot a druggie a mile away."
I frowned, wondering how she could tell, but thought it best not to ask. "We should call the police." I turned my bike toward home.
"Quit being such a girl."
"I am a girl."
"Shh." Max held a finger to her lips. "They'll hear us."
"Relax, Jess. They don't know we're onto them. We'll just get the proof we need on my camera and turn them in to the police. No problem." Max dug into her backpack and brought the camera to her face. She snapped a couple of pictures and dropped the camera back into her pack.
Not a problem for her maybe, but I, being the practical type, wanted to turn these characters over to the police the minute we saw them make the drug deal. Not Max. Max was the kind of person who'd run straight into an icy lake. Even in a heated pool I had to edge in an inch at a time.
"They're getting away." She leaned her bike against a maple tree. "Let's follow them."
"No. Let's report them to the police." I dropped the kickstand on my own bike and settled it next to Max's, still hoping to talk her out of going after the men.
"Humph. The cops will never believe us," Max insisted. "We need hard evidence."
I tried to hold her back, but keeping Max from doing something she'd set her mind on was like trying to hold back the Chenoa River during our rainy season. So, I did the only thing I could—I followed her while she followed them into an old fishing cannery by the docks. We ducked inside the dilapidated building and scrunched down behind barrels and boxes as we crept toward the voices. When Max finally stopped, I hunkered down, squeezed my eyes shut, and prayed we'd make it out of the place alive.
"I can barely hear them." Max nudged me. "We need to get a little closer."
I gulped back the hysteria clogging my throat. "No, we don't. Please, Max, let's go home."
My pleading ended when I heard a shuffle behind me and felt a heavy hand come down on my shoulder.CHAPTER 2
I knew the day we met that Max Hunter would be trouble. What I didn't know was that her troubles would also become mine.
I'm not sure why, but I liked Max from the minute I saw her, looking all wild and freaky in her baggy clothes and crazy hairdo. Max isn't at all like me, but we have two things in common. One, the other kids steer clear of both of us. It isn't because they don't like us, exactly. I think they're afraid of us, but for different reasons. And, two, we're both fairly new to the school. Max had just moved into the neighborhood. I've lived in the town of Chenoa Lake my entire life, but had been homeschooled until this year.
Max started coming to our school right after the holidays. I'd already been there for four miserable months. Max Hunter walked into the classroom the day we returned from Christmas break and everyone, including me, turned and stared. She wore baggy army-green pants with about ten pockets, and a long-sleeved red flannel shirt over a black tank top. I guess the style could have been grunge, but to me it looked more like thrift-store-reject. What stood out most about Max was her hair. That day she was wearing it spiked with colored stripes of maroon, black, and pink.
Her don't-mess-with-me gaze drifted over the room, settling on each of the twelve sixth-graders as though daring them to say or do anything that might show disapproval. No one did. She looked at me last, probably because I was farthest back where people were least likely to notice me. Her gaze fastened on me and stayed longer than it had on the others—like she was checking me out. Her look wasn't mean or even curious—just assessing. I caught something in her eyes that day—respect, maybe. I wasn't really sure.
Max kept to herself at first, like I usually did. Once in a while I'd catch her watching me. Or she'd catch me watching her. I'd smile at her, but she never smiled back. She didn't fit in any more than I did, but with Max it was like she didn't really want to. She was smart, and the two of us usually ended up with the highest test grades in our classes. And that was probably another reason the others didn't seem to want to hang around us.
Spring trickled in and our PE teacher decided it was time for softball. I dreaded having to play on a team, but didn't try to get out of it. Then one day an amazing thing happened. Max was great at sports, and she volunteered to be the captain of one of our teams. Her first responsibility was to pick her players. Out of all the kids in that sixth-grade PE class, Max picked me first, not last, like I usually am.
To say I was surprised would have been the understatement of the year. I'm not your usual sports type of person. I'm short and skinny with about as much muscle as overcooked asparagus. That comes on account of having had leukemia and being in chemotherapy since I was about six years old. I'm in remission now, which means the doctors can't find any cancer right now. But I could get worse at any time and maybe die. So when Max pointed at me, my jaw dropped and I just stood there.
Cooper Smally, the big guy standing next to me, whomped me on the shoulder and pushed me forward. "Get out there, dork."
It hurt in more ways than one when Cooper picked on me, which he often did. But for once I was grateful. He saved me from standing there like an idiot when I should have been loping to the other side of home plate to stand beside my new friend. At least I hoped she'd be my friend. I didn't have all that many. No surprise there. Having leukemia and a bald head makes a lot of people nervous. Mom says it's because they don't know what to say. Some people actually think they're going to catch the disease if they get too close. Some people are just weird.
Max put me on third base, and I did okay. At one point, a ball came right to me and I scooped it up. Of course, I fumbled but managed to keep the ball in the borrowed glove—which in itself was a miracle seeing as how my hand could have fit in it at least three times.
Anyway, I snatched the ball with my right hand and threw it as hard as I could to the first baseman, who happened to be Cooper Smally. The ball fell short and Cooper missed his chance to tag the hitter out. Cooper tore off his baseball cap and nearly stomped it into the ground. Then he came after me.
He pushed at my shoulders, which probably wouldn't have affected most kids, but being the weakling that I am, I stumbled backward and hit the ground with a thud.
That's when Max showed up. She yanked him up by the back of his shirt. "You pull something like that again, Cooper, and you're off my team."
Cooper's face was red and round as a beach ball, and I thought for a second he was going to cry. "You can't do that. Mr. Davis won't let you."
"I can do anything I want, Cooper Smally, and don't you forget it." She said his last name in a drawled-out way like she intended to make a point.
I cringed, not wanting the attention a fight would bring.
Cooper backed down then. I'd never have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. He backed down to Max, who was not only a girl, but about half his size. Actually, they were close to the same height—Cooper was just big all the way around.
Right then and there, whether she deemed herself my friend or not, Max was my hero.
Mr. Davis looked up from his papers and shouted from the bleachers. "What's going on out there?" He must not have been paying much attention or he would have known.
Max glanced at him, then at Cooper. "Nothing, sir. Just a misunderstanding." She looked down at me. "You okay, Jess?"
"Yeah." I rolled onto my stomach and wiped tears from my eyes, hoping she hadn't noticed. When I got to my knees, Max held out her hand to help me up. I took it, glad for the assistance, because to tell the truth, I'm not sure I could have made it up on my own. "Good catch, by the way." Max grinned at me, then went back to her place on the pitcher's mound.
I dusted off my clothes and then went back to my position.
Three outs later, no thanks to me, I walked with the others to the batter's cage. I couldn't hit the ball any better than I could throw it, but that didn't seem to matter to Max. I struck out and she cheered me on like she did the others. We won the game—I should say Max won the game for us. Her pitching and batting were far superior to anyone—even Cooper.
I never did find out why Cooper was so mad at me. Guess it could have been because the ball only went about twenty feet when I threw it to him, but that was a pretty good throw for me.
My parents tell me that winning isn't everything so it doesn't matter if you're great at the game or not. What matters is that you do your best and have fun. Mr. Davis apparently agrees, because he gave me an excellent score for sportsmanship. I guess Cooper never got that message. Max did, though, and I loved her for it.
From that day on, Max and I have been friends. At first I didn't understand why she'd want to hang out with me. I'm not the most fun person to be around. For a while I thought maybe she felt sorry for me. I asked her about it one time and she laughed. "You really think that?"
"Well," I said, "I can't think of any other reason you'd want to be my friend."
"You're nice, Jessie Miller," she said. "You have the qualities I like in a person. And you've never once, not even when I first came to school, treated me like I don't belong."
I could have said the same about Max. She never looked at me like the others did—like I was some sort of space alien. Not that I blamed people for thinking that. I really do look a lot like the Asgard on Stargate—small, skinny, big eyes, and a bald head. About the only difference is that I don't run around naked.
I was surprised by her answer though—about being treated like she didn't belong. I'd always thought of Max as being the kind of person who didn't care what other kids thought. I liked hanging out with Max, except when she got into her adventurous mode. Like now.
So anyway, here we were, in this dark warehouse, inching forward so Max could get a closer look at the bad guys. Then I felt this heavy hand on my shoulder and I thought, Uhoh, we're dead. My heart jumped into my throat. I whipped around.
The guy was huge and mean-looking in a friendly sort of way. He put a finger to his lips so I wouldn't yell. I looked from the gun in his hand to the sour look on his face. Max still hadn't seen him. She turned around about that time and started to scream. I put my hand over her mouth. She swatted my arm away and gave me a withering look, like I'd told on her or something.
I figured the guy was probably an undercover cop, so I relaxed a little. He hunkered down beside us and put a hand on each of our shoulders. "Listen close, kids. I want you to stay low and go outside. Get as far away from the building as you can."
"Why?" Max whispered.
"Because in about two minutes this place is going to be swarming with cops. And trust me—you don't want to be in the middle of it."
Max nodded. "They're drug dealers, aren't they? Jess and I saw them in the park downtown and followed them."
He sighed. "We'll talk about that later. Now go."
I wasn't about to argue. I grabbed Max's hand and turned around. My shoulder connected with one of the barrels and it clattered to the floor.
I froze. My heart stopped. Terror rolled over me like a tidal wave.
"What was that?" One of the bad guys raised a gun and looked our way.CHAPTER 3
The guy who'd warned us to get away swore under his breath and pulled us down. "Get on the floor and don't move." He brought his lapel mike close to his mouth. "Now!"
I didn't need to be told twice. I flattened out, my arms over my head and my cheek pressing into the cold concrete. The place smelled of gas and oil and grease and all the other putrid stuff you find in warehouses. Now I had another reason to worry. With my immune system being so weak, a place like this could be deadly. I tried not to think about all the germs flying into my nostrils or attaching themselves to my skin. Not that I had time to think too much about all that. The doors burst open and, like the guy said, the place was swarming with cops.
After all the shooting stopped, the big cop ushered us out of the building and over to a uniformed officer. "Kids, I'm Detective Allen Johnson. Officer Dean here is going to escort you to the police station."
"The police station?" I gasped. "You're going to arrest us?"
"I should." Detective Johnson gave us a smoldering look.
"On what charge?" Max started talking in this weird tough-guy accent—like the mobsters in the Godfather movies. "You got nothin' on us."
"How about obstructing justice for starters?" Despite his anger, I saw the corner of his mouth twitch as though he was trying not to smile.
"You want me to put them in a holding cell, Detective?" Officer Dean grabbed our arms and led us over to his squad car.
Detective Johnson set his hands on his hips."Not yet.Just have them wait in my office."
"Okay, kids, get in the backseat." Officer Dean opened the back door. "Better cooperate or I'll have to cuff you."
"So cuff me." Max held out her arms in front of her like it was all some kind of game.
I sort of thought the officer was joking, but I wasn't about to call his bluff. I scrambled into the backseat and scooted to the far side, leaving plenty of room for Max.
"Just get in." Officer Dean was getting annoyed.
"Come on, Max," I pleaded. "Quit fooling around."
Max lowered her arms and climbed in beside me. "I've never worn handcuffs before. I wanted to see what it was like."
I rolled my eyes.
"Relax, Jess. We're not in any kind of trouble. They'll just get our statements and release us."
"They'll call our parents. My mom and dad will freak out." I didn't tell her what I feared most—that my parents would tell me I couldn't hang out with Max anymore. Mom was already paranoid about our friendship. Max was too active and a little too adventuresome to suit her. Fortunately, my father wanted me to live as normal a life as possible despite the cancer. Not that I consider having Max as a friend normal.
Max frowned. "They won't need to call anyone." Under her breath she said, "I hope." For the first time since our crazy adventure started, Max actually looked worried.
As Officer Dean pulled away from the docks, I twisted around in my seat and looked back. The tall, skinny guy, the one we'd seen dealing drugs in the park, captured my gaze. His cold hard stare sent shivers up my back and gave me goose bumps. Maybe I'd watched too many cop shows, but I had the feeling the man would kill me if he ever got me alone. I turned around, hoping he stayed in jail for a very long time.
We waited about an hour for Detective Johnson, who eventually took our statements before lecturing us about the dangers of playing detective. "You kids could have been killed in there. The guns we use are real."
"We were only trying to help," Max said. "We didn't know you were already on to them."
"Well, we were, and you kids nearly messed up the bust." His gaze softened as he looked at my bald head and then met my eyes. "You're Jessie Miller."
I nodded and looked away.
"I know your father. Um—should you be ...?"
"I'm in remission," I blurted out. Sometimes it seems like everybody in town knows who I am. It's pretty hard to hide when you're like the town's poster child. A lot of people have donated money to help our family pay for my medical bills.
Excerpted from The Trouble with Max by Patricia H. Rushford, Cheryl Dunlop. Copyright © 2007 Patricia H. Rushford. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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