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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 14


  But when we got to the top of the nearest hill, the surprise was—there was no surprise. The desert floor stretched out plain and flat all the way to the hoodoos. And all the other groups were way ahead of us.

  “What the heck!” cried Kate. “He tricked us. Because he didn’t trick us!”

  “Just when you think you’ve got Jare figured out,” muttered Audrey, skittering down the hillside, “you don’t have Jare figured out. Come on. Let’s go!”

  “What’s he doing?” murmured Louis, pausing to stare back at camp.

  “Who?” I asked.

  “Jare,” said Louis.

  I looked, and thought, possibly, with my regular old eyes, I could make out Jare wandering among our tents. “I can’t tell,” I said. “What is he doing?”

  “Leaving camp in the other direction,” said Louis. “With his pack.”

  “Hey!” Audrey called to us. “Get moving up there!”

  “We’ve got a contest to win!” added Kate.

  So Louis and I slid down the hill after them.

  We hiked as hard as we could. I could tell we were in better shape than ever, because even though we were nearly running among the cacti, we still had enough breath to talk. As Kate and Louis walked side by side in the lead, we dropped into a gully and the hoodoos disappeared from sight. Louis glanced up and said, “Where the heck’s that doggone hoodoo?”

  Kate said, “You know just as well as I do.”

  Louis said, “Who do?”

  Kate said, “You do.”

  “I do?”

  “You do.”

  “Hoodoo?”

  “You do, I do, we do, they do.”

  They fell down laughing. But I noticed that they checked for cactus first. We were getting the hang of this place.

  And then, as soon as Kate and Louis had yanked each other back to their feet and we started hiking again, we topped a small ridgeline and realized that actually, the desert did have a surprise in store for us. The hoodoos stood right there, along with all the other campers. It had hardly taken an hour to get to them. Their distance from camp had been an optical illusion, because they weren’t nearly as big as we’d thought. The tallest one, which was wearing Jare’s hat, turned out to be twelve feet high. From far away, I guess we’d thought it was a hundred. Still, even with only a twelve-foot hoodoo, there was no way to get the hat down. The other teams had all dropped their packs and were dragging out their belongings, looking for something that might help scale the hoodoo.

  Cyrus and Edie tried to tie their group’s sleeping bags together to form a rope, but from what I could tell, that’s the kind of plan that works mainly in the movies.

  Enod had a pair of underwear in one hand and was collecting sticks with the other. “Stretchy,” he said, tugging on the waistband. “Should make a good slingshot.”

  “Why not?” I replied.

  “Looks like Jare just walked over here and tossed his hat on top,” observed Kevin Larkspur, pointing up at the hoodoo.

  “The whole thing feels really impromptu,” added Enod.

  “Impromptu,” snickered Randolph, as if he thought it was a naughty word. Which he probably did. Randolph had his pack scattered all over, looking for something to throw at the hoodoo, I guessed, but instead, he’d found a bunch of pistachios at the bottom and gotten distracted by cracking them in his teeth.

  Kate rummaged around inside her pack and came up with her railroad spike.

  “What are you gonna do with that?” sneered Randolph. “Comb your hair?”

  “Just shut up, Randolph, okay?” requested Daphne.

  And then Randolph wasn’t on a roll anymore. He dropped to the ground and sullenly began destroying the burrow of a field mouse with a stick.

  Kate circled the hoodoo a couple of times, examining its sides. She seemed to spot something, because she stopped, motioned to Louis, and said, “Louis? Can you give me a leg up?”

  Louis lumbered over, took a breath, dropped to his knees, and made a stirrup from his hands for Kate to step into. As soon as she did, he stood up. And lifted her feet all the way to his chest. From there, in one quick motion, Kate stepped onto his shoulders. She slipped her railroad spike out of her pocket, stuck it into a crack about eight feet off the ground, and used it like the rung of a ladder. With a sweep of her hand, she swiped the hat off the hoodoo, stepped back onto Louis’s shoulders, pulled her railroad spike out of the crack, and dropped to the ground.

  “Impressive,” said Enod.

  Kevin began to clap, and everybody but Daphne and Randolph joined in. Kate took a bow.

  Daphne didn’t waste a second. She marched up and put her face in Kate’s. “And now, Little Miss Sunshine,” she said, grabbing Kate by the elbow, “give me the hat.”

  Kate laughed scornfully and yanked her elbow away.

  “Or,” said Daphne, “if you want, I can just take it.”

  “Go ahead,” said Kate, glaring at her eyeball to eyeball, which meant basically staring straight up.

  “Randolph?” said Daphne. “I think we have a problem.”

  “Leave her alone, Daphne,” I pleaded. “We won fair and square.”

  “Yeah. Lay off, Daphne,” chimed in Enod.

  “Shut up, spud,” warned Randolph.

  Sheepishly, Enod fell silent and stared at the ground.

  “Seriously, Daphne,” I said. “Enough.”

  Daphne turned to me. “I’m starting to wonder,” she said, “if Memory Boy is really the right name for you. Because it seems like you forgot what happened the last time you messed with Randolph. I heard you ended up on your butt, counting stars.” She turned back to Kate. “You should go ahead and give us the hat. I want to get back to camp to have a nap. On my new air mattress.”

  “If you want the hat,” whispered Kate, “then come and get it.”

  “Fine.” Daphne smiled. She turned to Randolph. “Randolph?”

  Randolph snickered softly.

  “Don’t just stand there giggling,” said Daphne impatiently. “Take the hat!”

  “Uh,” said Randolph. He studied the ground, where he spotted a little blue rock he suddenly needed to kick into the bushes.

  “Randolph?” said Daphne.

  “Well,” said Randolph, waving a hand in Kate’s direction. “I mean, she . . . I . . . you—”

  Everybody had gathered to watch.

  “Get the hat, Randolph,” ordered Daphne. “I want it!”

  “I had to deal with her last time,” Randolph whined. “It’s your turn.”

  “Oh, for the love of—” began Daphne.

  Kate dangled the hat in front of Daphne. “Do you want it or not?” she asked.

  Daphne thought this over. But it was pretty clear that she didn’t want the hat badly enough to tangle with Kate. “Oh, who cares about Jare’s stupid dandruffy hat!” Daphne burst out. “Just keep it. Loser.”

  “All right, I will,” said Kate agreeably, unzipping her pack. First she dropped in the railroad spike. Then the hat. “Come on, guys. Let’s go claim our prize.”

  “Hold on a second,” I said. “I’ve got to put everything back in my pack.” I’d dug all my stuff out too, just like everybody else.

  While we all repacked, a breeze picked up and wafted among the hoodoos. They loomed silently over us. I began to think they knew something we didn’t, and I wondered what it was. Something made me want to tell everybody how I felt, and whatever that something was, it was so strong I couldn’t stop myself. “Hoodoos form from sedimentary rock and volcanic stone in desert landscapes across the globe,” I said. “They often exhibit a variable thickness, which contributes to the totem-pole shape of their bodies. Minerals deposited within different rock types cause varied colors throughout their height—”

  This didn’t feel like what I wanted to say.

  Above us, the sun moved just enough to cast downward shadows over the tallest hoodoo’s head, and as I watched, I saw his eyes, nose, and chin emerge. I heard myself tell everybo
dy, “Look at his face.”

  “Who?” scoffed Randolph. By now he’d gotten distracted by half a PowerBar he’d found in the bottom of his pack and was gnawing on it.

  “Him,” I said, because the hoodoo that had been wearing Jare’s hat, in this light, looked like an old man, a nice old man, a nice old man who was frowning a little because he was deep in thought.

  “What’s he looking at?” Louis asked, seeing the old man too.

  I scanned the hills, mountain, rocks, arroyos, river bottoms, cliffs, valleys, trails, roads, caves, abandoned farms, frozen windmills, rusting rails, reds, yellows, oranges, and blues stretched out in front of us. “All of it,” I said.

  “Who is he?” wondered Audrey, gazing at his expression.

  And all the facts I knew about hoodoos started rearranging themselves. I said, “First, he was seashells and the spines of ocean creatures collecting at the bottom of a prehistoric sea. It took him millions of years, but after a while, he got stronger and harder and turned into stone. And then the sea dried up. And then a volcano erupted and made his bones. And the desert formed above him. And the rain and the wind began to carve him out of the stone. He got taller and taller. And he watched everything. He’s been watching since before the dinosaurs were born. He’s seen everything. I’m going to come back to visit him.”

  When I stopped, I realized everybody was staring at me. Quickly Louis and Kate and Enod shot their gazes up at the hoodoo and stood silently contemplating it. And Audrey scanned the desert. Then they all stared at me again. But the words had stopped, like a flood that’d washed itself away. I didn’t have anything else to say. But maybe, I thought, I didn’t need to say anything else.

  In the silence, Daphne gazed at the base of the hoodoo. Slowly she picked up a giant rock, so huge she could hardly lift it, and as we watched, she started to run. Not very fast. Her rock was as big as a bathroom sink. Nobody quite understood what she was up to. Faster and faster Daphne staggered with her stone, and finally, after it was too late, I realized what she wanted to do. With a shout like an Olympic hammer thrower, she spun around once and let her stone go. It crashed into the delicate, fragile base of the old man hoodoo, knocked a rock chip loose, and slowly, very slowly, the hoodoo began to topple.

  For a second, I must’ve thought I could hold it up, because I ran toward the falling stone. Audrey did the same thing. But we were too late. The hoodoo had been doomed the second Daphne picked up that rock. Audrey and I had to leap back to keep from being crushed. As he fell, the worried old man began disintegrating, and when he hit the ground, he shattered into so many pieces, it was like he’d never existed. He was nothing but dust in the dust.

  “What does he see now, Memory Boy?” sneered Daphne, and she shouldered her pack and marched away toward camp.

  I felt like I was the one she’d just toppled with a rock.

  Nobody said anything. We just gazed at the fragments that used to be the old man hoodoo, and then we began wandering back to camp in ones and twos, completely silent.

  All except for Randolph, who hurried to catch up to Daphne. Maybe he wanted to give her a high five.

  After a while, our group managed to collect itself as we hiked through the brush and the ocotillo, and once we’d walked silently for half a mile, Kate said, “What’s Jare going to do when she gets back? I mean, he’ll see the missing hoodoo, and who else would have knocked it down but Daphne?”

  “He’ll call her names. Take her tent away,” said Audrey.

  “Make her carry a railroad spike,” I suggested.

  “Fifteen railroad spikes,” said Kate. “And a crosstie.”

  “For about a hundred miles,” I added.

  “Scream,” said Louis, grimacing at the thought. “Definitely scream.”

  “It’s not going to be pretty,” said Kate. “In fact, it’ll probably be horrible.”

  “As horrible as what she did to the hoodoo?” I asked.

  “Not that horrible,” said Kate.

  But as we all straggled back into camp, Jare didn’t do any of the things we’d predicted, at least not right away. In a very quiet voice, he asked a few questions. “Would you knock over a gravestone, Daphne? Would you dump garbage in a church? Would you spray paint the Mona Lisa’s face? Would you set the Declaration of Independence on fire?”

  Out of the corner of my eye, as I watched her smiling stonily at the ground, I glimpsed an expression on Daphne’s face that made me think yes, she might actually find one or two of those activities enjoyable, now that he’d mentioned them.

  And then a tear leaked out of Jare’s eye. He wiped it away with his sleeve. This was unnerving. Another one formed and ran down Jare’s cheek. I shuddered. Watching Jare cry was a thousand times worse than listening to him scream.

  Audrey, Kate, Louis, Enod, Kevin, and I looked at each other. Who knew he cared so much about this place?

  Jare finally got hold of himself and smeared away his tears with his fists, leaving muddy streaks on his face. He took a deep breath, and after that, he got mad.

  “You,” he barked at Daphne, “don’t know when to quit!”

  “And you,” she said sweetly, smiling at him like he was three and had just said something incredibly silly, “don’t know anything.”

  “This is public land,” hollered Jare. He pointed to the gap on the horizon where the old man used to stand. “That hoodoo belonged to everybody. You didn’t have the right!”

  “It would’ve fallen down sooner or later,” yawned Daphne.

  “It took the forces of nature millions of years to create that hoodoo!” cried Jare. “It took you a second to destroy it!”

  “Daphne one,” Daphne laughed, doing a victory dance in the dirt, “nature zero!”

  “Just keep laughing,” Jare snarled. “What if you’d knocked it down on somebody, and broken a leg or fractured a skull, or worse?”

  Daphne pretended to think this over. Then she shrugged. “I give up,” she said. “What?”

  Jare seemed to have run out of ideas for getting through to her. He stared at her silently, seething. Then he said, “For one thing, this place would be crawling with sheriffs and rangers, and our timeline would be off by a day, or more—” Then Jare stopped talking again.

  “That’s right, Jare,” said Daphne patronizingly. “It’s probably time to stick a cork in it.”

  “This is why,” whispered Jare, staring furiously at her.

  “This is why what, Jare?” asked Daphne brightly.

  “This is why,” said Jare, “your dad didn’t want you.”

  “What?” gasped Daphne, all her cockiness gone.

  “I said—this is why your dad left!” Jare shouted.

  Daphne’s hand moved so fast I hardly saw it, but I sure did hear the sound of the slap.

  “Charming,” Jare muttered at her back as she disappeared into her tent. And without another word, he slipped into his own tent, tossed the air mattress out over his shoulder, and zipped the flap. We didn’t see him anymore that night, so all we had for dinner was a squashed box of saltines Edie had hoarded in her pack.

  “Jare went a little too far tonight,” commented Kevin.

  “Got that right!” bellowed Randolph, and stomped away to sit by Daphne’s tent.

  We split the crackers fourteen ways, since Daphne never came back out and Randolph crouched by her door, panting in the heat like he was her faithful Irish setter, until we all got in our tents and fell asleep.

  Even Louis fell asleep that night, especially Louis, because despite everything that had happened, when darkness fell, he floated atop a cushion of air.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  Audrey Alcott

  El Viaje a la Confianza

  THE NEXT MORNING, WHEN JARE blasted his usual pleasant, person-screaming-bloody-murder-over-the-sound-of-tearing-sheet-metal wake-up music, Daphne did not come out of her tent. I noticed she was missing right away. I’m sure everyone noticed. Daphne’s absence was so conspicuous—no stomping, g
laring, growling—that it was almost a presence, a nice one, like the smell of baking bread or an unexpected snowfall during a heat wave. But I guess because we were all so busy enjoying the presence of her absence, no one pointed it out for at least twenty minutes. Even Randolph didn’t mention it, just darted wary but questioning glances at her tent. And like the rest of us, he stayed as far away from that tent as possible. When any of us had to walk by it, we left a margin of at least ten feet, as if there were an invisible fence around it that might shock us if we got too close.

  Despite the fact that Randolph was a gargantuan jerk, once again I felt a little sorry for him. Daphne was his best friend at camp (at least, I’m sure he thought so), and even he was uneasy around her. In fact, without her there, he seemed uneasy, period. Sure, he did some blustering, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it, and it was obvious that Randolph was a born henchman, lost without someone bigger and meaner to attach himself to. Randolph was the remora; Daphne was the shark.

  Finally, when Daphne’s tent was the only one still standing, Randolph said, “Someone’s gotta wake up Daphne. Jare’ll be here any minute, and she’ll get in trouble if she’s not packed up.”

  We all looked at Randolph expectantly. Since he was the only one who cared whether or not Daphne got in trouble, obviously he was the one to wake her up.

  “Go for it,” I said, and I swear he blushed.

  “But . . . shouldn’t a girl do it? I mean, what if, uh, you know, she’s in the middle of, uh, you know, dressing?” he said.

  “He’s turning the color of a Pyrocephalus rubinus,” said Aaron under his breath.

  “Yeah, Aaron, just what I was about to say,” I whispered back sarcastically.

  He grinned. “Vermilion flycatcher.”

  I gave him a look.

  “Those red birds we see all the time,” he said.

  “Ah,” I said. “Yep. He sure is.”

  Kate walked up to Randolph until she was standing a couple of feet away from him. Within smacking distance, I thought with satisfaction, as Randolph leaned away from her.

  “What?” he said.

  “You wouldn’t have to unzip her tent,” said Kate.