Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 12

  Day Four


  I grabbed a cactus. I wasn’t even falling or anything, at least not at first. I just leaned over to look at what I thought was a rattlesnake’s rattle—minus the rattlesnake—on the ground and used the cactus for balance. It burned so much—sent flames of pain shooting up my arm—that at first my discombobulated brain thought I’d grabbed a hot coal. Then I fell. Fell and rolled around awhile, not just shrieking but actually yelling “Ow, ow, ow,” just like a comic-book character in a seriously unfunny comic book.

  Kate ran for Jare, and when he came, he said, “And here I thought you were the one member of your group who might have some common sense,” thus neatly insulting four people with a single sentence and making me feel even more like an idiot than I already felt. With a sneer but with no explanation whatsoever, he tossed a bottle of craft glue and a plastic bottle of witch hazel in my general direction.

  “What are we supposed to do with this stuff?” asked Louis, but Jare had already lumbered off.

  “In addition to using witch hazel bark and leaves for medicinal purposes, Native Americans also used its Y-shaped branches for dowsing,” said Aaron.

  “What’s dowsing?” asked Kate.

  “Finding underground water sources,” said Aaron. “Well, mostly. People also dowsed to find precious stones, oil, even gravesites, although I’m not sure if they used witch hazel for all those purposes. Dowsing is also called divining and doodlebugging.”

  “Doodlebugging? I thought doodlebugs were roly-polies,” said Louis. “You know, those little gray bugs that look like armadillos.”

  “The Latin name for the roly-poly or pill bug or wood louse is Armadillidium vulgare,” said Aaron.

  Just as I was starting to wonder if that was because both armadillos and roly-polies curled up in balls, I remembered that I was in horrible, excruciating pain.

  “Who cares about wood lice?” I yelped. “Hand. On. Fire!”

  About thirty seconds later, Kate was pouring craft glue all over my palm. About a minute later, Kate and Aaron were debating about whether to pull it off fast, like a Band-Aid (“No!” cried Louis) or peel it off slowly, like when you apply a fake tattoo (“No!” cried Louis), and I reached over with my good hand and ripped the darn thing off, so fast that the white-hot flash of pain almost didn’t register. Almost. We all leaned over to examine my palm at exactly the same time so that we blocked the light and no one could see a thing, and then we all leaned out again. I closed my eyes and stuck out my hand in Kate’s direction.

  “Kate, you look.”

  After a few seconds, she said, “It’s swollen and red and kind of terrible looking, but I don’t see a single spine.”

  I opened my eyes and stared down at my poor, throbbing palm. Gingerly, I ran a finger over it. Smooth. I squeezed my eyes shut and thrust out my hand again.

  “Witch hazel,” I said. “Please.”

  I heard Kate struggle with the lid to the bottle, and then someone must have gotten it off because suddenly the inside of my nose was prickling with a medicinal smell. It wasn’t bad, really. I mean, you wouldn’t want to use witch hazel for perfume, but at least it smelled powerful, and I was hoping for a powerful cure. But I heard a gagging noise and opened my eyes. Louis, looking, as my mom would say, a bit green around the gills.

  “I’m okay,” he said, following it up quickly with “I’m not okay.”

  “Go,” I said.


  He bolted for the brush at the edge of the trail. Later, when we were hiking again, my hand better, if a tad smelly, Louis caught up with me to say, “I’m sorry I’m hanging back, but that smell—it’s like a cross between cleaning fluid and pink erasers and the inside of airplanes.”

  “No problem, Louis,” I told him.

  And it wasn’t a problem, but just the three of us hiking together—Aaron, then Kate, then me—felt incomplete, off-kilter. Kate’s narrow back, her swinging, shining bob of black hair, was a new view, not a bad one, but unfamiliar and also oddly faraway, like I was looking at her from a distance. That’s when I realized it: without meaning to, I was leaving a Louis-sized gap, saving his place.


  After dinner that evening, Kate, Aaron, and I climbed a hill and sat on its stony, nearly bald top to watch the sun drop down into the scooped-out place between two faraway mountains. A glowing strawberry pink filled the scooped-out space, while thin, flat, opalescent clouds floated above like ice islands in a punch bowl. We didn’t speak, but if we had, it would have been under our breaths, in the most reverent of whispers. Just as the colors hit their supersaturated peak, I heard someone scrambling up the hill behind us, and there was Louis.

  Kate started to move over to make a space between her and Aaron, but Louis walked over and sat down right next to me. I could smell the witch hazel glazing my palm—I’d just smeared on a fresh coating after dinner—so I knew Louis could. But he sat, steady as the red rocks surrounding us, and he watched the sunset.

  We stayed until the pink faded and the dusk lay down in layers of shimmering gray, violet, and a smoke blue so lonely and perfect, you felt it at the base of your throat and the pit of your stomach and all the way down your spine. It was the perfect moment, and even though I was keeping to my no-friends vow, I was happy we were all there to see it. When the first stars came out, I said, “I’m glad you came up, Louis,” and Louis said, “Me too.”

  Day Five


  During a break in a hot, long desert-floor hike, after I resisted the urge to frantically gulp water from my bottle and instead drank it down in long, careful swallows the way Jare had told us to, I flipped over my pack to take a quick glance at the photo of me with my parents. It was something I did when the going got especially tough. I’m not sure why. Maybe because seeing us smiling through the clear plastic of the luggage tag reminded me that the going wasn’t always going to be this tough. Maybe to remind myself that if I died of exhaustion and vultures picked my bones clean, at least two people out there would definitely miss me. Either way, looking at the photo made me feel stronger, if a little bit homesick, every single time.

  Except this time.

  Someone had scratched out my parents’ faces. Not just their faces, but their whole heads were obliterated with white scratch marks, some so deep that they’d ripped through the photo paper. Whoever had done it had probably used a rock, but the paper looked clawed. For about ten seconds, I felt slammed by fear and grief, as if my real mom and dad actually had been attacked by some vicious animal and were gone, clawed right out of the world. I eased the photo out of the luggage tag and held it in my two hands, my eyes burning with tears. Then I looked up and saw Daphne, perched on her pack and staring at me with her beady eyes like the bird of prey she was. Slowly her mouth twisted into a mean smirk, and I felt a fiery rush of rage. I wanted to body-slam her, rip out her ketchup-colored hair by the fistful, and I had just jumped to my feet to go do it, when a voice right behind me said, quietly, “Don’t give her the satisfaction.”

  It was Aaron. I handed him the photograph.

  “I know,” he said. “I saw it just now.”

  “Why?” I demanded furiously. “Why would she do this?”

  Aaron’s dark eyes got that narrow, thinking look, and I prepared myself for a jargon-laced paragraph about the latest scientific research on photo-destroying psychopaths. Or something. But slowly, tentatively, Aaron said, “Remember what she said about seeing your parents at the airport? I think maybe, even though she would never admit it, she wishes her family were more like yours. That”—he pointed at the photograph—“is her way of trying to take your parents away from you. Which is stupid. Because that’s just a picture, a piece of paper. It’s not them.”

  I stared at Aaron, blinking, so surprised that I forgot my plan to yank out Daphne’s hair.

  “What?” he said.

  “That’s it? No facts?”

  “Oh! Sorry. Hold on.”

sp; I shook my head. “No, no, I think you might be—”

  “What?” he said nervously.


  Aaron looked shocked. “Seriously?”

  “Seriously. Thanks.”

  Aaron smiled. “Anytime.”

  I looked down at the picture that was nothing but a picture, and I folded it up and slid it into my pocket.


  It was at the tail end of the most grueling hike we’d done so far. Twelve miles on the desert floor, although “floor” conjures up an image of a flat, smooth surface, and what we discovered is that it’s not flat or smooth or anything close to easy. The land was pitted and scarred and scattered around with these little hills, so you had to watch your step—every step—and the terrain was so up and down, up and down, that my thighs practically cried out in pain. And it was hot. Oven hot. Kiln hot. We were like clay pots in a kiln, except that clay pots don’t have to hike, endlessly, and we did. The only breezes were dragon’s-breath gusts that did not deserve to be called anything so breezy as “breezes.”

  And did I mention that we were on mile twelve. We had just taken what Jare announced (with evil satisfaction) would be our last break before we got to our next campsite, and along with everyone else, I groaned, and stood up on my aching legs, and slung my monstrously heavy pack over my aching shoulders, and started to hike, and I’d gone maybe ten steps when I realized that even though it was hard, it wasn’t that hard, and I also realized that just a few days ago, it would have been impossible. My heart gave an exultant leap. I was getting stronger, sturdier, learning to work hard and get along with the bare essentials. Henry David Thoreau would have been proud.

  Day Six


  In the middle of the night, or I guess it was very early morning, I woke up to the sound of someone crying. It was muffled, as if the person doing it was trying to keep anyone from hearing, and somehow that lonely, dreary, low-key weeping was more heartbreaking to hear than loud sobbing would have been. I sat up and listened more carefully, and I could tell that the crying was coming from the tent next to mine. Kate’s tent. I started to get up to go talk to her, but her crying just sounded so turned inward, so private, that I changed my mind. I lay in the dark, listening, for a long time before she finally stopped.


  After an hour of the dry, stony, uphill hike Jare had sent us on, Aaron, Kate, Louis, and I came upon a little grove of madrone trees. It’s what the desert does: you think you know where you are and what’s around you, and then, suddenly, there’s something unexpected to knock the breath out of you, cactus flowers the color of lemon drops; two brilliant blue birds on a branch; a peregrine falcon, wings folded, plummeting like a soundless missile; or, like with the madrones, a flash of emerald when you least expect it. The trees had skin-smooth, tawny bark on their curving, twisting limbs, and they seemed to spring out of a kind of cup in the side of the hill, which I guessed trapped enough water for them to thrive. The madrones were a gathering of rarity and grace, like a family of gazelles. We stood, hushed, and drank in the sight of them.

  And if that had been all, it would have been so much more than enough, but then, afterward, as we kept walking, it was like my eyes had changed, like the madrones had woken them really and truly up. I noticed everything, every sharp edge, every curve, how all the trees and rocks broke the sky into shapes, every variation in color or texture. The colors were so vivid they seemed to shout, and as I looked around at the world, I wondered if this was how Louis saw all the time. When we got to a cliff face, I noticed that the rock wasn’t plain red or plain anything but seamed with a thousand shades of color—honey, rust, coffee brown, cat’s-eye gold—some seams as thin as pencil lines, some hundreds of feet wide. And I felt this huge presence that I understood was time, because those ribbons of rock weren’t just sandstone and shale but years. Centuries. Millennia.

  “If the four and a half billion years the Earth has existed were compressed into a single twenty-four-hour day,” said Aaron, very, very quietly, “humans would have appeared one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.”

  All that time, without us.

  A shiver went from my heels to the top of my head.

  Who cares if people lie? I thought. This—right here—is why the word “awesome” was made.

  Day Seven


  Randolph put a millipede down Louis’s shirt. I saw it happen, but I was too far away to stop it. We had just gotten to the campsite, and we were all setting up our tents, all of us except Randolph, who was putting a millipede down the back of Louis’s shirt. And it wasn’t one of those threadlike ones you find under rocks in the woods, either. It was fat and orange and at least six inches long, way more animal than bug (and, yes, I knew that millipedes weren’t really bugs, but arthropods in the class Diplopoda, a word that means “two feet” because they have two pairs of legs for each body segment; or, at least, I knew after Aaron told me).

  The screams. The shrieks. The rolling around on the ground. The slapping of his back with his own hands. The spasms of trembling that came and went for hours afterward. Sheer terror. Poor, poor, poor, poor Louis.


  As Randolph stood red-faced and bent over with laughter, Kate dropped the pieces of her tent, screeched “You!” and came charging at him like a wild animal. Kate can’t weigh more than seventy pounds, but it turns out that seventy pounds of pure fury packs quite a punch. Randolph hit the ground like a sack of flour, and Kate sat on his back whacking away at his shoulders, the back of his head, occasionally his round cheek, with her tiny, almost golf-ball-sized fists, shouting, “You think you’re funny? Do you? Do you?”

  No one jumped in for what felt like a long time. We were all too shocked. Well, almost all of us. Daphne stood a few feet away, one hand on her hip, amusement all over her face, watching. Jare was where he usually was when there was trouble between the campers—nowhere to be found. He’d told us on one of the first days that this was the wilderness, where survival of the fittest wasn’t a theory but part of the daily routine—and it was his job to let it “play out” even among us humans. As soon as I could unfreeze myself, I started to run over, but my shoelace caught on a prickly pear and I almost fell. By the time I’d untangled it, Aaron was there, behind Kate, catching hold of her flying arms and saying, “It’s okay, Kate! It’s okay!”

  And, sure, I know it’s not nice to celebrate physical violence, but after Aaron gently tugged Kate off Randolph, and Randolph had gotten to his feet and was rubbing the back of his head, before he could get himself together enough to act tough, the look he gave Kate—this amazing combination of scared and stunned and even sort of awestruck—made me want to hoist that girl onto my shoulders and carry her through an imaginary town square. I didn’t, for obvious reasons, but if I had, I guarantee that everyone, all the people lining the streets and hanging out of their car windows and sitting on their porches, would have cheered themselves hoarse.

  Day Eight


  It started out as an ordinary meal. Jare got the ingredients for dinner out of the metal, bear-proof storage box where he’d stowed them sometime before our camp started. Cans of beans, chili spices, Worcestershire sauce, wheat tortillas, dehydrated tomatoes and broccoli, all the makings of a bland-if-filling-and-fairly-nutritious dinner for sixteen. Aaron and Louis helped cook, because it was their turn. Kate and I served, because it was our turn. Jare went off to eat by himself, the way he sometimes did (Louis suspected that he had better food stashed someplace else just for him). And we all started eating.

  Then Edie, the other girl in Daphne’s group, started to cough. Actually, a number of us were coughing, because the chili spices were pretty hot. But then Edie started to cough differently, and soon after that, she started to scratch her head and her arms.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked her.

  She put her hand to her throat and croaked, “I’m having an allergic reaction. I need my shot.

  My heart started beating fast at this. When I was in first grade, a kid at my school named Rocco had gotten stung by a bee on a field trip to a petting zoo. Since no one had known that he had the allergy until then, no one had medicine ready for him, and his symptoms came on fast. I can still see him lying on the grass in the goat pen, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. The teacher had to scoop him up and carry him, running at full tilt, toward the petting zoo office, where, luckily, they had some epinephrine, and, luckily, it worked. I can remember reaching for Janie’s hand, and how we all stood in the pen, looking at each other, while the forgotten goats butted against us, asking for the food that we were still holding in our hands. A few kids started to cry, and nobody made a single joke, because even though we were really little and had seen almost nothing in our lives, we all knew we’d just seen someone almost die.

  Randolph, who happened to be sitting next to Edie, jumped up so fast he spilled his chili. Once he was up, he slowly backed away.

  “Allergies aren’t contagious, Randolph,” said Kate in her flat voice.

  “Like you know,” retorted Randolph.

  “Where is your shot?” I asked Edie.

  “Jare has it!” Her eyes filled with tears, and she made some fluttery motions in front of her mouth that I hoped weren’t sign language for “I am going into anaphylactic shock.”

  “I’ll go!” said Aaron, jumping up and running toward Jare’s tent, which we couldn’t even see from where we were. Jare always set up his tent at the very edge of the camp, as far away from the rest of us as possible.

  “What are you allergic to, anyway?” asked Daphne, turning to Edie with a sneer. She had this amazing talent for making everything she said sound like an insult.

  “Fish,” said Edie in a harsh whisper.

  “Fish?” Daphne raised an eyebrow. “Uh, last time I checked, three-bean chili didn’t have any fish in it, E-death.”

  E-death was Daphne’s nickname for Edie, whose real name was Edith. I thought that calling her that at this particular moment, while her throat was closing up, was crossing the line, even for Daphne.