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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 15


  “Yes, I would,” said Randolph belligerently.

  “No. You could just go to the flap and yell her name.”

  Randolph rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, like that’ll work.”

  “Actually, it probably would. Your voice tends to . . . carry,” said Cyrus, using the tone of a person who got yelled at by Randolph at least five times a day.

  Randolph stared at the tent, swallowed hard, and started walking toward it like he was sneaking up on a sleeping rhino, but just before he got there, a voice boomed out, “What pathetic, hopeless, godforsaken loser has yet to break down and pack up her tent?” so loudly that Randolph nearly jumped out of his skin. We all turned and stared at Jare. He loomed huge, a wall of rage. His nostrils flared like a crazed bull’s.

  Because asking a question you already know the answer to is its own kind of lie, even before it totally registered that Jare had just said “her tent,” I knew he’d already figured out whose tent it was. The guy just couldn’t resist putting on a big, scary, name-calling show, a loud, big, scary, name-calling show. When I noticed Louis, standing in the back of the group, looking completely miserable, his shoulders bunched up, his hands cupped around his ears to muffle Jare’s stupid bellow, I wanted to tell Jare that people who shouted when everyone was listening anyway were pathetic, hopeless, godforsaken losers too. But of course, I didn’t.

  “Name!” he barked. “I need a name, people!”

  No one said anything. Nothing happened at all, which struck me as odd because this was the perfect time for Daphne to unzip her tent, climb out, yawn, and stretch, all the while smirking (because if anyone could yawn and smirk at the same time, it was Daphne), and gaze coolly into Jare’s bugged-out-with-rage eyeballs, as if she just did not care. But it didn’t happen. Her tent stood, zipped up and mute and indifferent, like a person keeping a secret. For the first time, I got the shiver-up-my-spine feeling that Daphne might not be inside that tent at all.

  Finally Kate shrugged and said, “Daphne.”

  Jare scanned the group with his scalding gaze. Then he hissed, through gritted teeth, “Get her.”

  Everyone looked at Randolph, whose eyes grew big as silver dollars. He shook his head. Henchman, I thought. Remora. Coward.

  Because no one moved, I sighed, walked over to Daphne’s tent, and yanked up the zipper. Inside: nothing. No backpack, no sleeping bag, no Daphne. Even though, in general, I was a firm believer in the philosophy that no Daphne was always better than Daphne, another shiver ran through me. As I gazed into the empty space where she was supposed to be, Daphne seemed more than missing. She seemed truly and utterly gone.

  I flashed to the evening before: Daphne’s slap; the cold, hard rage in Jare’s eyes. Slowly I turned around to look at Jare.

  “Let’s get this show on the road,” roared Jare, smacking his hands together. “Who’s on breakfast duty?”

  People shuffled their feet, glanced nervously at Jare and at each other, but no one made a single move to get the show on the road.

  “She’s gone,” I said, thinking maybe he hadn’t seen that the tent was empty.

  It could have been the morning sun playing tricks, but I swear that just for a second, I saw Jare smile. Then he said, “Whatever. I’m not worried about it.”

  Everyone else probably thought he didn’t mean it, that he was just acting tough, playing it cool, lying to cover up embarrassment or anger or concern. But I saw right away that he was telling the truth. His honesty was as stark and clear and unmistakable as the mountains behind him. A fourteen-year-old camper under his care—if you could call it “care”—had vanished overnight into the thin, dry desert air, and Jare wasn’t worried, not even a little. As I considered why this might be true, icy fear ran up my spine, and for the third time that morning, I shivered.

  Louis and I had dish duty. It wasn’t an easy job for Louis for a lot of reasons—the smell of the creosote leaves, the texture of the creosote leaves, the sound of the creosote leaves against the aluminum bowls, the gluiness of the oatmeal. But he did it anyway. While we scrubbed away at not sixteen but fifteen bowls and spoons, we discussed the Daphne situation. It had been nearly an hour since we’d discovered her gone.

  “And who knows what time she left last night?” I said. “She may have been gone for as long as eight hours at this point. And not that I miss her or anything, but wouldn’t a normal camp director be doing something? Looking for her himself? Setting up a search party? Something?”

  “Maybe he called the ranger station? He’s been in his tent awhile. According to the camp brochure, there’s no cell service here, but he must have some way to communicate with the outside world, right? A satellite telephone, maybe?”

  “Maybe, but I doubt he used it.”

  “Are you sure he wasn’t lying?”

  That morning, in a rushed breakfast conversation, I’d filled Louis and Kate in on my unsuperpower. Louis had said, “Cool!” but Kate had said, “Yeah, cool, but I can also see how it could have a big downside,” and if we’d had time, I might have hugged her for understanding that. Instead I went on to tell them that I knew Jare was telling the truth when he said he wasn’t worried about Daphne.

  “Absolutely sure. I am never wrong about lying. Ever. And believe me, there are definitely times when I wish I were.”

  “You think the reason he’s not worried about her disappearing is that he’s the one who disappeared her?” asked Louis.

  “I don’t want to think that, but she did send him into a rage and then slapped him across the face.”

  Louis winced, probably imagining what it would feel like to be slapped. A minute or two later, he set down the bowl he was scrubbing and said in a pained voice, “Okay, now my brain is going a mile a minute, thinking up all these terrible things he might have done.”

  “Sorry about that.”

  “Not your fault. You had to tell us. And most of the things I’m thinking are ridiculous, way worse than anything that could really happen.”

  “Probably so. Even if he were involved, it could have been an accident. Maybe he didn’t mean to hurt her.”

  Louis nodded, then blurted out, “I mean, one of the scenarios in my head involves a swarm of specially trained, genetically modified killer bees, which is crazy, right?”

  I smiled. “Right. I think we can rule that one out.”

  A few seconds later, he said, “Vicious javelinas? Drone bombers? Telekinesis?”

  “Not a chance.” I sighed. “Try not to worry, Louis. We’ll just keep an eye on Jare and wait to see what happens next. I could be wrong about the whole thing.”

  Louis nodded and picked up the bowl. A minute later, he dropped it again.

  “There could be a totally reasonable explanation for why he’s not worried, right?” he said.

  “Sure.”

  “Well, maybe someone should just ask him, so we can all stop imagining Jare sneaking rabid jackrabbits into Daphne’s tent in the dead of night.”

  I hesitated. I really wasn’t up for a chat with Jare, but Louis’s eyes were dilated with terror.

  “Okay, I’ll go,” I said.

  Louis swiveled his head in my direction, hope dawning on his face. But then it faded.

  “No,” he said resolutely. “You can’t. What if he did do something awful to Daphne? He might go all homicidal maniac on you if you ask him any questions. You’re right; we’ll just keep an eye on him for now.”

  “Okay,” I said. “Look, we’re almost finished here. Why don’t you go sit under that tree and relax? We don’t want you overbreathing or anything. I’ll put this stuff away.”

  Louis nodded and shambled unsteadily in the direction of a nearby cottonwood, which is why when, after I’d finished cleaning up and gone to check on him, I was surprised to find him gone. Kate was collecting firewood nearby.

  “Have you seen Louis?” I asked her.

  “A few minutes ago, he was sitting on that rock over there, doing the breathing thing with his finger on
his nose. He said he was fine, and after a while, he walked that way.” Kate pointed. “I figured he needed some time alone. This Daphne thing has freaked him out.”

  I looked in the direction she’d pointed.

  “There’s nothing really over there,” I said.

  “Except Jare’s tent,” said Aaron.

  I stared at him and then sat down hard on the same rock Louis had been sitting on. “Oh, no.”

  “What?” asked Kate.

  Quickly I told them about my plate-scrubbing conversation with Louis.

  “He went to ask Jare himself,” said Aaron. “Wow.”

  “Wow is right,” said Kate, wide-eyed. “Louis, taking the bull by the horns. Bearding the lion in his den. Where does that phrase even come from? Do lions have beards?”

  She and I looked at Aaron, who immediately got the expression he always got when he was rifling through his memory. Then he shrugged.

  “Well?” I asked.

  “Lions have manes,” said Aaron.

  Kate and I said, “Thanks, Aaron,” in exactly the same sarcastic tone at exactly the same time.

  “But the point is,” said Aaron, “that Louis is being insanely brave.”

  Louis was being brave, and Aaron was figuring out the point. I smiled. “Yes, he is,” I agreed.

  “I just hope Jare doesn’t start screaming at Louis,” said Kate. “You know how he can’t stand loud noises.”

  In a few minutes, during which no screams of any kind issued from the direction of Jare’s tent, Louis was back. He didn’t look traumatized. In fact, he looked pretty proud of himself, and that was a very nice sight to see.

  “So maybe it’s not so bad after all,” he said excitedly, sitting down on the ground next to us, without even scrupulously checking it for scorpions or pointy rocks or whatever it was he usually checked for first. The instant he was settled, the story poured out of him. “I started by asking Jare if he wanted me to take down Daphne’s tent, and he said no, and I said why, and he said because he figures she’s just trying to throw off our schedule or scare everyone because she’s mad at him and that she’s probably nearby, just sitting someplace, laughing her head off, and he thinks it’s just a matter of time before she gets hungry or thirsty or bored and comes moseying on back, and then she can take down her own darn tent.”

  We sat for a moment, letting this sink in.

  “Oh,” I said. “So you think that’s why he wasn’t worried?”

  “It seems plausible,” said Aaron.

  “All of that sounds like something Daphne would do,” said Kate.

  I had to admit it did. Privately, I still wasn’t totally ruling out that Jare had had something to do with Daphne’s disappearance. Maybe he hadn’t murdered her, but he could have killed her by accident in a fit of rage. Or maybe he’d been trying to scare her, teach her a lesson, and she’d gotten lost, or something else had gone wrong. But there didn’t seem to be any point in bringing up these possibilities right then, and, honestly, looking at the relief on Louis’s face, I just didn’t have the heart.

  “Louis,” said Kate, “you went to talk to Jare all by yourself, even though he might have screamed at you. That took guts.”

  “Not really,” said Louis. “I know my brain. It wouldn’t have stopped, ever. It would have thought up horrible things Jare might have done to Daphne, each one scarier than the one before, until it had terrified me into a coma. I had to do something.”

  “So you’re saying that you terrified yourself into being brave?” Aaron asked.

  “Yep,” said Louis. “I was too scared to chicken out.”

  “That’s not exactly how it happened,” I said. “Because you could have let me go talk to him, but you were afraid he’d go all homicidal maniac on me. He could have done the same to you. You risked your life, Louis.”

  Louis’s cheeks went red, and he waved a hand in the air dismissively. “No, Jare already despises me so much that if he were going to kill me off, he would have already done it. Since he hasn’t, he must have decided that I’m just not worth it. I was safe.”

  Because it was clear that we could spend the rest of the day trying to convince Louis he’d committed an act of courage and get nowhere, I let it drop and said, “So now we wait for Daphne to get back, I guess.”

  “I guess so,” said Louis. “Although there’s no rule that we can’t enjoy her absence in the meantime, right?”

  Aaron looked sheepish. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been enjoying it this whole time.”

  “You’d be lying, and I’d know you were lying,” I said.

  “Ain’t that the truth,” said Kate, and the four of us looked at each other and grinned.

  Lunch came and went, and there was still no sign of Daphne.

  Jare had given us all the job of scrubbing out our water bottles and food containers and repacking our bags, the usual busywork. Kate, Aaron, Louis, and I sat in a huddle, scrubbing and talking. Louis was still glowing faintly from his act of heroism, and the others all seemed to accept that Jare hadn’t had a hand in Daphne’s disappearance. I wasn’t so sure. I couldn’t stop thinking about that slap, and about Jare’s crying—crying—in front of all of us.

  “You know what’s weird about Jare?” I said suddenly.

  “He’s a psycho?” asked Aaron.

  “He’s got the biggest feet in the world and still manages to find hiking boots to fit him?” asked Kate.

  “He’s really, really, really loud?” asked Louis.

  “Yes. And also . . . he loves this place,” I said.

  They looked at me doubtfully.

  “That seems somewhat less weird than the size of his feet,” said Kate. “I mean, he works here, and it’s kind of a cool place, right?”

  “Plus he’s made himself king of it,” said Louis. “It’s his personal domain, and he gets to make the rules and push everyone around. He’s like an overgrown playground bully, and this is his playground. Bullies love their playgrounds.”

  “I know, I know,” I said. “But did you see him yesterday with the old man hoodoo? All that crying? How often do you think a guy like Jare cries in public?”

  After a moment, Louis said, “You know, he said something about a church. Maybe this place is sacred to Jare.”

  Aaron said, “Maybe this place is Jare’s white chickens.”

  “Right,” I said. “White chickens. But maybe it’s even more. He acted like Daphne hadn’t just destroyed an ancient and extremely interesting rock formation with wise, grandpalike qualities, which is a rotten thing to do all by itself. He acted like she’d killed a real old man, one Jare loved. Like she’d killed his actual grandpa.”

  “This place is his family,” said Kate softly, pressing her hands together and lowering her eyes. “And it’s beautiful, but it’s not easy. It stings. It’s hard and dry. It’s not like a garden or a beach. It’s like a family that’s hard to love, but you do it anyway. And—” She stopped and looked up and waited for someone to finish.

  “The anyway is the whole point,” I said quietly.

  We sat and thought about this. Then I said, “People will do anything to defend their families. I hope Daphne is out there, laughing at all of us right now. She probably is, but I just want us to remember that when it comes to what they really love, people will do anything.”

  “I really hope that if he did something, he didn’t do it on purpose,” said Kate. “Like he might have gotten mad and just shoved her harder than he meant to because he was all worked up. Or something.”

  “Either way, we should probably keep an eye on Jare,” said Louis. “Watch what he does next. He has to do something soon, right?”

  “Right,” said Aaron. “Even if he—he knows where she is, he’ll need to at least pretend to try to find her, soon.”

  “Look,” said Kate, lifting her head to see something over Louis’s shoulder.

  Jare strode toward us holding a map, all unfolded, big and white and catching wind like a sail. An image
popped into my head of his catcher’s-mitt hands wrapped around Daphne’s neck, but I pushed it away.

  “Here we go,” I murmured.

  Jare told us we’d wasted enough time being patient with Daphne’s little stunt. Now, he said, it was time to flush her out. He assigned each group a territory to search and gave us instructions on how to fan out and cover as much ground as possible. We’d divide each group into people who would search the ground for clues and people who would keep their heads up, scanning the horizon, the treetops, hills, and boulders. He gave our group the search area—a big square of dry, stony desert—farthest from what he, very importantly, called the P.L.S., or Point Last Seen.

  “We got the worst area,” grumbled Kate. “It’ll take an hour just to hike out to it. But on the bright side, at least it’s a scorching hot day.”

  As we all got busy gathering supplies and putting on sunscreen and doing all the other PHWSS stuff, Jare noticed that Randolph was sitting on his pack, doing nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly, because he was whistling. Randolph was either tone-deaf or just a horrendous whistler. He had his hands clasped behind his head and his eyes closed, like a person taking a nap, except that he was sitting up straight and whistling like a demented sparrow, which, in my experience, people taking naps rarely did.

  “Randolph!” bellowed Jare.

  Because he’d obviously been waiting for Jare to do exactly that, Randolph didn’t jump. He just opened his eyes and glared.

  “What?”

  “We’ve already lost precious hiking time because of your pathetic, attention-seeking friend. Get hopping!”

  Randolph sneered, but I’d seen his eyes light up when Jare had said “friend.”

  “Not going,” said Randolph.

  “Oh, for the love of Pete,” murmured Louis, his hands hovering around his ears.

  “What did you say?” asked Jare, narrowing his eyes.

  “Not going.”

  “And why would you consider yourself exempt from this activity?” said Jare, his face beginning its puff-up-turn-purple routine.

  “I don’t need to search for Daphne,” said Randolph, “because I know where she went.”