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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 11


  “But,” said Louis brightly, “things are about to change.”

  I glanced up at the hillside. For some reason, that flag didn’t seem to be getting any closer. It must’ve been farther away than we’d thought.

  “You can have my night,” I said. “That’s two out of every four.”

  “You can have my night,” said Audrey. “Three out of four.”

  “You can definitely have my night!” said Kate. “And sleep every night!”

  “Not fair,” said Louis. “No way I’m taking your awesome air mattress nights.”

  “If you don’t take mine,” said Kate, “I’m filling your bag with fire ants while you sleep.”

  “I don’t sleep,” pointed out Louis.

  “Then I’ll do it while you’re awake!” said Kate. “Take the air mattress!”

  “Okay,” said Louis. “Sheesh. Bullies. Now what will I worry about? Warthogs?”

  “They’re javelinas, not warthogs,” I pointed out.

  “Then I guess I have to scratch them off the list too,” joked Louis, shaking his head. “How about . . . foot-long millipedes!”

  “Those you can worry about.” Audrey shuddered.

  Kate giggled.

  Louis laughed. He’d stopped chewing on his fingernails. He wasn’t cringing like he thought a safe was about to fall on him from the sky. In fact, he was grinning. Louis was actually a funny guy when he wasn’t freaking out.

  The desert quiet fell over us again. A rhythm set in. Our footsteps. Our breathing. Our rattling cookware. It was nice. Soothing. Like a lullaby. One you enjoy while walking under a burning sun wearing a fifty-pound pack while the temperature rises ten degrees every hour.

  But I didn’t mind the heat, because I felt strong. We all did. I could tell just by the sound of everybody’s boots on the trail. I saw why it was taking so long to get to the flag. Our trail had taken a wide swing to go around a boulder field as big as a small town. But we didn’t care. We dropped into a dry creek bed, which was a long, smooth, undulating sheet of rock slithering between two cliffs made of laminated red-stone outcroppings. We came to a bowl as big as a hot tub. The creek, when it ran, had scoured out the bowl with sand and gravel, and its side curved and bulged and swelled and heaved like billows of cloud set in stone. Layers of color swirled through it all, red, yellow, blue, green, and black. At the bottom lay three feet of crystal-clear water.

  We scrambled around, because this water was for wild animals, not for boots, although I did jot down its location on my mental map in case we needed it later, when we had the flag and weren’t in such a hurry.

  And now we were so close, we could hear the flag flapping on the other side of the streambank. The trail led up and over.

  The climb was steep, and hard, and a lot longer than I’d have thought. Carrying a fifty-pound pack didn’t help. But after I took a few sharp steps upward, my heart stopped pounding and settled into a steady beat, and I filled my lungs with clean air, and my thigh muscles quit burning, and it felt great! We made it nearly to the top of the bank and paused in its shadow to gaze back down at the green pool sparkling like an emerald amid the red rocks.

  Louis was the first to talk. “That’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. His words echoed faintly, the last bits bouncing off everything like the final chime of a tiny handbell.

  —een —een —een

  He stood up straight. Louis was nearly six feet tall.

  “Louis,” I said, looking around us, “maybe this is your red wheelbarrow. Maybe it’s your white chickens.”

  “Chickens?” repeated Louis.

  “I mean,” I said, “you know, how so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens?”

  “I, um,” said Louis. “What?”

  “I mean—I mean—” I stammered. And for a second, in the quiet, while the colored rocks from millions of years ago shimmered in the rising heat, I thought I knew what William Carlos Williams wanted to say, and I thought I knew what I wanted to say, and I thought maybe I could tell Louis and Audrey and Kate before they concluded I was a complete lunatic. “I just think . . . ,” I said, motioning toward all the beauty and peace. But I had to stop. Because I didn’t know what I thought.

  Everybody stared at me. They were trying. Really trying. Trying to understand me. But I didn’t even understand me. Time ground to a halt and silence fell and the whole thing turned into a disaster.

  Finally a redwing blackbird whistled a song. “Listen,” whispered Kate. It was beautiful.

  “Wait. What’s that?” asked Louis when the song was done. He cocked his head curiously and turned to look behind us. And then he was lying on his back in the trail.

  Randolph had smashed into him from the rear and was sprinting up the trail, Daphne hot on his heels. They’d sneaked up on us while I was yammering about wheelbarrows. Daphne shoved Audrey down as she and Randolph disappeared up over the edge of the creek bank. For someone who tromped around in boots as big as Frankenstein’s, she could move fast.

  “Come on!” cried Kate. “We have to catch them!” The sun beat down. All the strength I’d felt half an hour before was gone. My thigh muscles twisted into knots.

  By the time we got to the flag, Randolph had yanked it out of the ground and was waving it in both hands. Audrey tried to tear it away, and Daphne struggled to pry her off Randolph. I did my best to peel Daphne loose from Audrey, but Edie and Cyrus panted up the hillside at that moment, carrying their packs and Daphne’s and Randolph’s, and they dropped the packs and each of them grabbed one of my arms. Just as Kate and Louis laid hold of them, Randolph gave a huge heave and tore the flag out of Audrey’s hands. Holding it above his head, he sang, “We are the champions, my friend!”

  Atrociously.

  Louis covered his ears.

  Daphne rolled her eyes.

  “What?” Randolph asked her. “We got the flag!”

  “It’s not fair!” cried Kate. “We were in the lead all the way. We figured out all the clues. We did all the work. We won it!”

  “Nevertheless,” said Daphne, “we have it.”

  “But we have to have it,” I said. “I mean, we really really have to have it.”

  “Shut up, Memory Boy,” snarled Randolph.

  “No. Wait a minute. Hold on, Randolph,” Daphne said. She looked at me with interest. “Memory Boy has something to say. I think we should listen.”

  Randolph’s eyes just about popped out of their sockets. He ground his teeth so hard, I thought they would shoot sparks.

  I glanced at Louis. He sat in a dusty patch where nothing grew. He looked at me, shrugged, and pulled his hat brim over his eyes. “We need it for Louis,” I blurted.

  “Aaron, don’t—” said Audrey, glaring at Daphne.

  “Daphne really wants to hear this, Audrey,” I said.

  “I really want to hear this, Audrey,” Daphne said sincerely.

  So I told her. I told her how hard it was for Louis out here, how he didn’t sleep. Kate jumped in to tell her how we’d volunteered to give Louis the air mattress on our nights, so he’d have it all the time. Audrey didn’t say anything during this. She just stared at Daphne, and once in a while, she shook her head.

  “Amazing,” marveled Daphne.

  “Thanks,” Kate and I said. Wow. We’d had Daphne all wrong.

  “Just plain astonishing,” Daphne said. “What are the chances, Randolph?”

  “What are what chances?” he said sulkily.

  “That of all the stupid survival camps in all the lame deserts in the entire world, the four biggest losers on the planet end up right here, on the same team, losing to me?”

  “Yaaaaahaaahaaa!” brayed Randolph like a delighted donkey when he realized what Daphne had been up to. “I don’t know, Daphne. I don’t know!”

  “Had you going, didn’t I, Memory Boy?” Daphne smirked. “You’ve sure given me a lot to think about while I relax on my air mattress.”

 
; “What?” I said. “I mean—I thought you were—”

  “It’s not enough to win.” Daphne snarled. “The other guy has to lose. And you, my friend, are the other guy. And so is she and so is he and so is she,” she added, glancing at Kate, Louis, and Audrey.

  “Hah!” crowed Randolph.

  Daphne’s group shouldered their packs and started back the way they’d come.

  “Daphne, you forgot the last clue,” piped up Cyrus timidly.

  “What?” barked Daphne.

  “‘By turning, turning we come out right,’” he said.

  At the word “turn,” I saw Audrey glance over my shoulder. A look of disbelief appeared in her eyes.

  I looked too, and right behind me jutted—Caesar’s Nose? I peeked at the trail under our feet, and I realized that the shadows were falling in the same direction as when we’d started the day before.

  “No way,” I whispered.

  “Did he really do that?” murmured Kate.

  It looked like Jare had hiked us around in a great big circle with all those peculiar clues of his. Sure enough, through the scrubby trees on the hillside below, I could see the sun glimmer off pots and pans beside the campfire, and the orange water cooler glinting in the tree.

  “Shhh,” I hissed quietly, because Daphne hadn’t figured it out yet.

  “Shouldn’t we use the last clue, Daphne?” persisted Cyrus.

  “No, Ant Brain,” snapped Daphne. “We already have the flag, don’t we?” And she took off in the wrong direction.

  As he shouldered past Louis, Randolph fished something out of his pocket, wound up, and pitched it at Louis’s face. Louis flinched, but just before it hit him, the bat unfurled its leathery wings and flew away.

  Louis yelped and collapsed in a heap, and Randolph laughed.

  “I’m going to kill you,” muttered Kate, lunging for Randolph. Audrey and I managed to grab her. She thrashed like crazy, but she was tired, so we managed to keep our grip.

  “I’m a licensed cage fighter,” chortled Randolph. “I’d like to see you try.”

  “What you are is a liar,” said Audrey.

  “I’m not a liar!” cried Randolph.

  “You’re not a licensed cage fighter, and you don’t hate your mom, and your mom didn’t make you work on your birthday,” said Audrey slowly. “You just said all that to impress Daphne.”

  “What—I—how do you—you were spying?” stammered Randolph. “Cheaters!” He turned to Daphne. “Daphne,” he whined, “they’re cheaters! They were spying on us!”

  Daphne didn’t seem too upset at this news. In fact, she looked like spying was the only thing we’d done since she’d met us that she actually admired.

  “And let me be the first to inform you, Randolph,” Audrey went on, “Daphne is not impressed by your wild stories.”

  It was true. Daphne didn’t look impressed with Randolph. She looked disgusted.

  Randolph charged at Audrey. Kate managed to yank one arm free in time to grab my water bottle and squirt it in his face.

  “Well now, what have we here?” said Jare, who’d hiked up the hill just in time to catch her. “You weren’t wasting water in the desert, were you?”

  It only took about three minutes to walk to camp, because Jare had hiked us around in a giant circle, which meant that even though we’d trekked ten miles, we’d never been more than three miles from where we started. This was his way of keeping track of us. “Hey, Little Miss Sunshine,” he said to Kate as soon as we got back. He picked up a ten-pound railroad spike from beside the abandoned tracks. “Come over here and turn around.” Kate did. Jare unzipped her pack and dumped in the spike. Now Kate’s pack probably did weigh as much as she did. Audrey had to catch her as she stumbled backward, and help her stand up straight.

  “What’s that for?” cried Kate.

  “To carry,” said Jare.

  “Carry where?” asked Kate.

  “Everywhere,” said Jare.

  “Why?” asked Kate.

  “’Cause you need to learn a lesson,” said Jare.

  “What lesson?” asked Kate.

  “Don’t waste water in the desert,” said Jare.

  “How long do I have to carry it?” moaned Kate.

  “Till your lesson is learned,” said Jare.

  The only bright spot in the whole episode was that even though we didn’t win the air mattress, Daphne’s team didn’t either. Jare wasn’t too happy with the way Randolph had treated that poor bat. So he kept the mattress for himself.

  That night, when the fire was nothing but embers far dimmer than the stars, and the other groups had wandered off to sleep, and Daphne crouched in the brush staring daggers into the dark for reasons she didn’t bother to explain, and Randolph hid in the shadows watching her, I told Louis I was sorry we hadn’t done a better job. Audrey and Kate said they were too. But Louis said he was the one who was sorry. He said next time we found ourselves chasing a flag, and he started wigging out, just leave him behind and go capture it. Maybe even choose the fastest one of us to go alone, for instance Kate. But definitely ditch him.

  I said, “Experts agree that individuals in survival situations may be prone to loneliness, face greater individual responsibilities and workload, and may not be able to establish full perimeter security, while members of large groups will enjoy the benefit of a full support system, more numerous solutions to problems, a divided work effort, and the ability to sleep in shifts, not to mention companionship and the ability to establish full-perimeter security. So, um, like I said earlier, it’s better to keep groups together.”

  “Okay,” Louis answered. It didn’t quite seem like he believed me. But it seemed like he wanted to believe me. “If you say so!” He almost sounded cheerful. “By the way,” he asked, “what’s full-perimeter security?”

  “That part I’m not totally clear on,” I admitted.

  “I guess I’m going to sack out,” yawned Louis. I could hear the fear returning to his voice. Nighttime. The long black tunnel.

  “How about,” said Kate, “if the rest of us stay awake with you two hours at a time? That way you won’t feel so lonely. Maybe you’ll get some sleep?”

  “No,” said Louis. “You’re all tired. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

  “You don’t have to ask,” said Audrey.

  “Because we’re doing it,” I added.

  Louis unrolled his bag, and Kate sat in the doorway of his tent.

  “You made that up,” Audrey whispered to me after they were gone.

  “What?” I asked as innocently as I could.

  “That it’s better to stay together. I mean, the main facts were probably right,” she said. This seemed important to her. “But you made up the last part.”

  I didn’t quite know what to say. Because I had made it up. The jury is still out on the question of splitting up in survival situations. Nobody knows if sticking together is better. So I admitted it. But I also told Audrey that since there’s no way we could ever leave Louis behind, it was clear sticking together was better for us.

  “Maybe you’re Louis’s white chickens,” Audrey said.

  “What are white chickens?” I wondered.

  “You’re the one who brought them up,” Audrey said. “I thought you knew.”

  “Just because I bring something up doesn’t mean I know what it is,” I reminded her.

  “Maybe it’s time to turn in,” said Audrey, as if this conversation had gone on long enough. But I swear I could see her smiling in the last of the firelight.

  CHAPTER NINE

  Audrey Alcott

  El Viaje a la Confianza

  I WON’T GO SO FAR as to say that the camp started to feel like home after the failed flag contest. For one thing, the whole point of the camp, at least for me, was that it wasn’t home. No school, no Lyza, no best friend who turned out to be a liar and a thief and—worse than either of those—not my friend at all. For another thing, I wouldn’t feel at home with the likes of
Daphne and Randolph if we were the last three people on Earth. And then there was Jare. In moments, I suspected that Jare might be a total psycho, even though Aaron said it would be more accurate to call him an individual with antisocial personality disorder. Either way, the guy didn’t exactly give off homey vibes.

  But I will say that the days started to take shape, arrange themselves into a pattern. I’m not really talking about the camp’s routine, although that had its own pattern: we’d wake up; make, eat, and clean up after breakfast; PHWSS; hike, either as a group or in teams, breaking once for lunch; have wilderness survival training—orienteering, fire building, wildlife identification—make, eat, and clean up after dinner; have campfire time; go to bed. That was the daily, predictable stuff.

  I’m talking about the pattern that the daily, unpredictable stuff took on. Or maybe the pattern I imposed on it. When I mentioned this to Aaron, he went on for some time about a guy named Klaus Conrad, a German psychiatrist who studied apophenia, which, I think, is the tendency to see patterns in completely random and meaningless data. After about thirty seconds of scientific jargon, I got confused and told Aaron to stop, which caused him to shift gears and start talking about a related phenomenon called pareidolia. I had to admit that this was more interesting, especially when Aaron got to the part about people seeing faces in inanimate objects: the man in the moon, a face on Mars, the Virgin Mary in a tree stump, the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese, Jesus in a grilled cheese, Jesus in a pierogi, Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun (as if religious figures had nothing better to do than show up in pieces of food). Anyway, whatever the reason, after a while, our days seemed to fall into a kind of rhythm.

  Maybe because we were in the desert, which is an extreme place—extremely hot, extremely dry, extremely beautiful, extremely scary—the rhythm wasn’t a relaxed one. It was full of highs and lows. In my tent at night, when I took inventory of my day, I took to calling them “hells” and “heavens.” Every day had a hell. Every day had a heaven. I guess it was a way to organize it all in my head. Also, I think it was a way to not forget what was happening at the camp, because the longer I stayed, the more I understood that, for better or worse, it was an experience I’d want to hang on to.