Excerpt: The Degrees of Barley Lick by Susan Flanagan

The following excerpt is from Chapter 17 of Susan Flanagan’s The Degrees of Barley Lick (for readers 12 and up). Barley’s ex-girlfriend and competitor in the geocaching competition shows up unannounced at his house one evening after Barley had disappeared from the competition. Phyllis has no idea Barley has agreed to help his mother’s new boyfriend, an RCMP Special Crimes investigator, find clues left by a kidnapper to locate a nine-year-old boy.

Barley is particularly disappointed in this turn of events because:

  1. He wanted to win the geocaching competition for his deceased father
  2. He would sooner stick pins in his eyes that see Phyllis win
  3. He despises his mother’s new boyfriend

He initially refuses to help until he learns a boy’s life is in danger.

“As the Mercedes pulled away from the curb, Barley noticed there was someone on the porch. It couldn’t be his mother; when Newton called her to say they were on the way, she confirmed she wouldn’t be home for at least another hour. Plus, it wasn’t her shape. But definitely female. The person stood up, but her face was partially obscured by one of his mother’s hanging plants. He wondered who could be lurking on his porch at almost 9 p.m.; it was the legs that gave her away. Shapely and tanned. Shoot, he didn’t have to look at the long brown hair with blonde streaks to recognize her: Phyllis Henderson. What was she doing here? Come to rub his nose in the fact that he had screwed up GeoFind and that she would win?

Barley gulped. This was the first time she’d been at his house in eight months, the first time since Hallowe’en weekend.

Phyllis was wearing khaki shorts and a plain black top covered by a Reebok jacket. Barley realized he’d never seen her wear pants. He wondered how he could still find her attractive, after what she did to him.

“Hi, Barley. What’s up?”

Barley felt a light sweat building under his arms. “Nothing much.” Thoughts of hair and baseball caps flitted through his mind.

“I didn’t know you had a dog. I saw him in the car when I passed you in Hope.”

Yes, a dog to replace my dead father, Barley thought. He had forgotten all about the fact his mother had brought home a Great Dane. That seemed like a lifetime ago. Barley could see his big hairy face in an upstairs window. A loud woof sounded from above, followed by an unmistakable four-footed thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, as Stanley whipped down the stairs. Poor dog. How long had he been locked indoors? He must be about to burst.

“Barley, I think he’s got to pee.” Phyllis indicated to Stanley’s big mug in the living room window.

Stanley’s massive head disappeared and reappeared in the window in the front door. He whined and rubbed his nose against the glass. He didn’t look like he could last much longer.

Phyllis crouched down and began calmly cooing to him through the beveled glass. “Hurry. He’s in a frenzy.”

Stanley responded with another guttural woof.

“He’s all right.” Barley knew full well he wasn’t, but he was afraid Phyllis might invite herself in.

“He is not all right, Barley Lick. Let the poor animal out, or I’ll report you to the Humane Society.”

Barley looked from the dog who had magically appeared in his life to Phyllis who had disappeared out of it, and debated what to do.

Reluctantly he made a move towards the doorknob. Stanley was beside himself with anticipation. I will die if you don’t let me out soon, he whined. Barley opened the door and Stanley barrelled through like a hurricane. The sheer momentum of two hundred plus pounds of beige fur knocked Phyllis off balance. Stanley beat his way to a rhododendron and relieved himself.

“Holy hankies,” she said, getting up and brushing herself off. “What’s his name?”

Before the word “Stanley” was out of Barley’s mouth, Phyllis had proceeded up the steps and into the house. By the time he caught up with her, she was hanging her jacket on the back of a chair. Stanley seemed disappointed to be going back in so soon. He looked at Barley, lifted a rear leg a second time, this time over the wooden grizzly carving’s feet.

“You can’t pee on Clover?” said Barley. The dog gave him a guilty stare, then resignedly followed him up the steps and back into the house.

Panic turned the juices in Barley’s stomach to acid at the thought of Phyllis Henderson inside his house. He looked at the hardwood floor and wished he had swept it like his mother always pestered him to do. Popcorn kernels were visible under the couch. At least it was better than the orange shag carpet that used to cover the floor back in October. Barley’s father had always threatened to pull up the carpet and expose the hardwood underneath. In January his mother had called some contractors to come in and do just that. She had been given grief time from work. She couldn’t concentrate on reading, so she started to renovate with a vengeance. What a mess it was when the contractors exposed the floor. What his mother assumed would be gleaming intact hardwood was really four- and five-foot square patches of dirty maple covered with the sticky gum of underlay glue. The contractors had to rip up everything and re-lay the whole surface. It had cost a fortune.

Phyllis was talking. “Earth to Barley. I asked you what his name was.”

Barley blinked. “Oh, he’s Stanley.”

“You’ve changed things,” she said, moving past Stanley whose rudder-like tail sent the black floor lamp dancing. Barley steadied the lamp with one hand and removed a pair of grey socks hanging off the rim with the other, praying Phyllis hadn’t noticed. He felt a flush in his cheeks.

“It looks good… looks a lot bigger than the last time I was here,” she said, as if her last visit had been a pleasant evening. She was right about the space though. When Barley’s mother renovated, she hadn’t stopped at the floors. She had the guys take out a few walls to open up the kitchen and living areas. Barley thought the whole ceiling was going to come toppling down, but they must have known what they were doing, because that hadn’t happened yet. For a month that winter, their house was a construction zone. With so much chaos at home, Barley was happy to go to school. The change was amazing though. It hardly looked like the same house. The new living room/kitchen was off-white with dark wood accents and a marble island.

Phyllis stopped in front of Barley’s computer. A framed topo map of the Lower Mainland hung on the wall behind the screen. She examined it before sitting down. He was happy to note that he was a few inches taller than her now. He hadn’t realized how much he’d grown since last year.

She picked up a can of SPAM from next to the monitor and began to read the ingredients. Before Barley could protest, she had pulled the tab, removed the little key and started twisting off the lid. Liquid fat began oozing out. “Got a spoon?” she said.

“You can’t eat that.” Barley looked at her suntanned face. It was always a creamy colour and had tanned to a deep brown in only a couple of days. Her teeth looked amazing without braces, and he wondered what she would do if he kissed her right now. Get that thought out of your mind, Barley. Always remember that Phyllis Henderson is a she-devil.

“Why not?” she asked, moving to choose a small spoon from a jam jar standing on the counter next to the toaster.


“Because why?” It was always like this with Phyllis. He was so intimidated in her presence his mind didn’t work properly.

“I dunno.” He did know. His father had given him the SPAM as a joke about a month before he died.

“Well, I’m half-starved. Tell you what. I’ll pay you for it.” She stepped around Stanley, who had followed her to the computer and moved to the kitchen. She dumped a pocketful of change on the counter and, moving one coin at a time with her finger, counted out $3.50. “That should be enough to get another tin.” She put the rest of the coins back in her pocket, moved to the sink, and poured the fatty liquid down the drain, before installing herself on a stool at the island.

Barley was incensed. He straightened his back and tried to calm his mind. He had forgotten his own hunger. All he wanted was to be alone and eat whatever leftovers he could find. What could he do to get Phyllis out of his house?

Stanley sat at attention in front of Phyllis while she wolfed down the meat. Desperate to get at whatever yummy pork by-products were in that tin, he began intermittently flinging up a front paw.

“Can I give him some?” she said, about to feed Stanley from her spoon.

“No,” Barley almost shouted. “That stuff would make him sick. He’s got a very sensitive digestive system.” Barley knew nothing about Stanley’s digestive system. What he did know was that he did not want Stanley eating his father’s SPAM. Barley couldn’t explain why? It hurt his head to think about it.

Determined not to show Phyllis how upset he was, Barley went to the propane fireplace and flipped the switch. The artificial logs crackled to life. He patted the huge doggy bed his mother had bought. But Stanley wouldn’t budge from Phyllis’s side; a glob of gelatin had fallen on the floor and the huge canine licked it up with his eager tongue.

Phyllis began rubbing her bare feet back and forth on Stanley’s back as she polished off the rest. Stanley tipped over sideways to optimize the foot massage.

Barley’s breath was coming in short spurts. He had to sit down. He made his way across the room to the couch. “Phyllis, what are you doing here?”

Phyllis followed, speaking between mouthfuls. “After I saw you in Hope, you didn’t show up at Colossus to get your next clue.”

“How do you know?”

She paused. “I asked Mr. C. when I checked at the end of the day. He said he had no idea where you were. No one else knew what had happened either. So, I called your mother and she said you were geocaching.”


“Well, how could you be geocaching if you didn’t check in at Colossus for your second clue?”

“What’s it to ya?”

“I was worried.”

“Worried? You weren’t worried. You were just keeping tabs on me.”

“I admit I keep tabs on you, just like you keep tabs on me.”

“I don’t keep tabs on you.” Of course, it was a lie. He always kept tabs on her. Stanley looked at him as if to say fess up. There was no way Barley would admit any interest in Phyllis Henderson. “Is that all you came here to say, Syphilis?”

Slowly she laid the SPAM tin on the coffee table and stood up to face him. “I told you to never call me that.”

“Well, Syphilis, I didn’t listen.”

The fist that hit Barley’s nose was as hard as a boxer’s. Barley couldn’t believe it belonged to a girl. It sent him sprawling. Blood poured out, as if from a hose, all over his shirt and pants. Tears spring to his eyes making it difficult to focus. Stanley woofed three times in a row and stood protectively over him.

“You broke my nose!” Barley gagged on the blood running down the back of his throat. He ran to the stove and grabbed a hand towel off the front. He sat on the stool Phyllis had vacated, put his head back, and pinched to stop the flow of blood.

“I’ll break more than that if you ever disrespect me again. Now, tell me why you didn’t go back to Colossus.”

“Grief, geocaching, broken hearts, kidnapping and a Great Dane all combine to make The Degrees of Barley Lick a dizzying helicopter ride through a few extraordinary days in a teenager’s life. … Flanagan has perfectly captured the inner life of a teenage boy in emotional turmoil, bursting with hormones, resentments, and bad decisions. Barley acts first and thinks later. This is an adventure book with a very human hero at its heart, who is navigating an inner landscape that is even more challenging than the wilderness where the geocaches lie hidden.”-– Charis Cotter, author of The Ghost Road and Screech!

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Running the Goat (Sept. 28 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 248 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1927917409
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1927917404