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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 16


  Lie.

  “Like fun you do!” spat Jare.

  “Who says that?” whispered Kate, suddenly at my side. “‘Like fun’?”

  “No one,” I whispered back. “But Randolph is lying.”

  Kate’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”

  “Oh, but I do,” said Randolph to Jare.

  “How?” asked Jare. His tone was as belligerent as ever, but I saw something odd in his face. For the first time since Daphne had gone missing, Jare was nervous.

  “Duh,” said Randolph. “She told me.”

  The “me” squeaked like a mouse when it sees a cat. Another lie.

  “No, she didn’t,” I whispered to Kate, but it came out louder than I intended.

  Randolph jumped up, wheeled around, and yelled at me, “Yes! She! Did!”

  I shook my head. “You’re lying. You lie all the time, and you’re lying now.”

  “Shut up!” shouted Randolph. He took a couple of steps toward me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kate and then Aaron both take a couple of steps toward him. Randolph’s jaw was working as if he were grinding his teeth together, which he probably was, but then he said, “You guys don’t know jack,” and turned back to Jare.

  “Maybe you don’t either,” said Jare.

  “I do! Daphne tells me everything!” said Randolph. He crossed his muscle-bound arms over his muscle-bound chest. “But you are out of your stupid mind if you think I’m gonna tell you.”

  Jare smiled. He stood there, his eyes locked on Randolph’s. Then he waved his arm in the air and said, “Move out, people! Report back here in four hours on the dot—or before, if you find something!”

  We moved out—all but Randolph, who sat back down on his pack, a confused and disappointed expression on his face, as if his bombshell hadn’t made quite the splat he’d intended. Either Jare had believed me or he had seen for himself that Randolph was lying—because, unsurprisingly, Randolph wasn’t the slickest liar in the world—or he was planning to torture information out of him as soon as the rest of us were out of earshot. As the four of us hiked toward our search area, Kate said dryly, “If Randolph disappears next, we’ll know Jare’s a homicidal maniac.”

  “Are you sure Randolph was lying?” Louis asked me, and then he caught himself. “Never mind. I know you’re sure.”

  “Positive,” I said. “But what I wonder is—why? Why would he pretend to know where Daphne is? Just to get Jare all riled up?”

  “Why? Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Kate.

  I hiked a few more steps before I got what she meant. “Oh, right,” I said. “Because he’s a liar, and liars lie.”

  “Uh, no, Audrey,” said Kate. “I mean, maybe some people lie because they’re liars, but mostly they lie for a reason.”

  “Well, yeah. They lie to get something they couldn’t get any other way,” I said. “Lying is like stealing, sort of. But what I don’t understand is why Randolph would lie about knowing where Daphne went, when all a lie like that was going to get him was trouble.”

  Kate laid a hand on my arm, and I stopped hiking.

  “What?”

  “I thought you were an expert on lying,” Kate said, puzzled.

  “Yeah, so did I,” said Louis.

  “Same here,” said Aaron.

  “Wait,” I said, pointing at Aaron. “You know why Randolph lied?”

  “I think so,” said Aaron.

  “Sometimes people lie because they’re liars. Sometimes people lie to get something,” said Kate. “But a lot of times, they lie because of how they feel. Randolph lied because he was sad.”

  “Sad?” I said. “I’m having trouble picturing Randolph being anything as deep as sad.”

  “I’m basically an expert on sad,” said Kate, “and Randolph is sad a lot.”

  “But why is he sad now?” I asked. “Because Daphne is gone?”

  Kate looked at me like I’d just said one plus one was four.

  “Because he wishes Daphne had told him where she was going . . . ,” began Kate.

  “Because he wishes Daphne trusted him . . . ,” continued Louis.

  “Because he wishes Daphne were his friend. But she’s not,” finished Aaron. “So he made up a lie.”

  “That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

  “Yes, it does,” said Kate. “Think about it.”

  I started hiking again, turning over and over inside my head the possibility that people lied not only to get something or to get out of something or to get back at someone or just because they were bad people, but because they were something as simple as sad.

  “Maybe you’re right,” I said finally, my voice coming out smaller than I meant for it to.

  I felt flustered, off-kilter. I wasn’t used to being the only person in a group who didn’t know something. In fact, I was used to being the person in the group who knew things other people didn’t, things like when someone was lying. Now that I thought about it, though, I realized I hadn’t spent much time thinking about why people lied. And as I hiked along, with the afternoon sun in my face, sweat starting to slide down the back of my neck, I suddenly remembered Janie in the doorway of her house, the wild anger in her eyes, when she told me, “You think you’re so smart. You think you see right into people! But you know what? You don’t see anything!”

  Because I didn’t want to think about that horrible moment, and because I wanted to feel, once again, like a person who knew things, I said, “Do you notice where we’re going?”

  “Where?” asked everyone, and I thought, That’s more like it.

  “Straight into the heart of the desert, which is the last place Daphne would head,” I said.

  “It would be the last place anyone would head,” said Louis, eyeing an especially large lizard skittering into the shadow of a prickly pear with a shudder.

  “Unless it was by accident,” said Kate.

  Then Aaron said, in a remarkably good imitation of Daphne’s voice, “‘Please. This is like my fourth wilderness camp. They’re all alike.’”

  “Exactly, Aaron,” I said. “Daphne was experienced. She’d head toward water or toward the hills or one of those abandoned buildings we’ve passed during our hikes. She wouldn’t come this way.”

  “She didn’t even bring a tent,” said Kate.

  “Which raises the question of why Jare would send our group—the group that he must know is better at figuring things out than all the others because, technically, we won both of the challenges—to the search area where Daphne is least likely to be,” I said.

  “Because he doesn’t want her to be found,” said Kate.

  “What should we do?” asked Louis, looking at me. “Quit?”

  “We’re two thirds of the way finished. We may as well get it done, just in case,” I said.

  “I bet you’re right, though,” said Aaron. “We won’t find anything.”

  “Because there is nothing to find,” I said, and even though Janie’s terrible words and all that stuff about lying and feelings and sadness were still there, in the back of my mind, I felt steady again, capable, more like myself.

  But then, twenty minutes later, the doubt came back. Because eagle-eyed Louis, who, along with Aaron, was in charge of searching the ground for clues, found one. In the shade of an unusually large cottonwood tree, caught under a rock, was a black bandanna with tiny skulls all over it. I’d only ever seen that bandanna on one person, who tied it around her head underneath her hat to keep her chopped-off, ketchup-colored hair out of her eyes.

  We all leaned over to examine the bandanna. It was still knotted, and there was even a ketchup-colored hair caught in the knot.

  “So she did come out here,” said Kate. “But why?”

  None of us had an answer. A little while later, when we were even deeper into the wildest part of the wilderness and Louis found an empty plastic Baggie with the broken-off end of an almond in it, we were more mystified—and, with the sun beating relentlessly down and no wat
er source in sight, more afraid for Daphne—than ever.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Aaron Archer

  El Viaje a la Confianza

  BY THE TIME WE GOT back to our rendezvous point, Audrey, Kate, Louis, and I had decided we had to tell Jare what we’d found. Sure, we thought he might be a maniac, but we weren’t positive. If we knew something that might save Daphne and didn’t share it and then something happened to her—well, none of us wanted that on our consciences. So the team elected me to fill Jare in on the two clues.

  Jare was already talking when we arrived. “Every year, somebody can’t measure up,” he was saying to the other search parties, who had gotten back before us and found spots on the ground in the blazing sun to collapse. “Every year somebody gets discouraged. Every year somebody quits. It’s part of the el Viaje mystique.”

  “Daphne measured up!” cried Randolph truculently.

  “I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, Captain Knucklehead,” replied Jare disdainfully. “Daphne didn’t measure up. Daphne was—is—a girl with serious shortcomings.” Randolph stuck his bottom lip out and seethed.

  “Whatever was going on with Daphne,” observed Kate, “she didn’t seem discouraged.”

  “She seemed mad,” said Enod.

  “At you,” added Audrey.

  “Plus she was actually pretty good at hiking and camping, even if she was a total jerk,” tossed in Kevin.

  “And since, every year, somebody runs off across the desert, usually in the most nonsensical direction possible,” continued Jare, ignoring as many of us as he could, “there is a standard procedure for the event of a self-initiated camper disappearance. That is the procedure we are now following, and will continue to follow, in order to establish last known direction of travel.”

  “Tell him!” Audrey mouthed silently. She was right. This was as good a time as any to tell Jare what we’d found, since, even though none of us was sure we trusted him, we couldn’t keep the bandanna and the trail-mix bag a secret forever, and the longer we stayed quiet, the madder he would be when we finally told him.

  “We found her bandanna,” I said. “And on the way back, we found her trash.”

  “So. When were you planning to tell me?” asked Jare, studying our team with an expression I couldn’t figure out. I glanced at Audrey. She shrugged. She couldn’t figure out what Jare was thinking either.

  “I . . . just . . . you were talking . . . ,” I began. “We didn’t want to interrupt. We were going to tell you.”

  “Did you bother to keep track of where you found all this?” asked Jare dismissively. He glanced at his watch.

  “We left everything where it was,” said Kate.

  “Like on Law and Order,” said Louis. “We didn’t think we were supposed to disturb evidence.”

  Jare just shrugged. “Probably the smart play, all things considered,” he said. “Come on, Sherlock Holmes. Show me the clues. Everybody on your feet. I need all eyes for this.”

  But Randolph was already on his feet and headed into the desert. “I’m definitely going to find her now!” he crowed. He was so busy enjoying visions of his own heroism that he stepped right in the middle of a fire ant colony. “Ow ow ow ow,” he cried.

  “That’s gonna hurt later,” observed Jare. “Now stop clowning around and get going.”

  As we hiked back to the spot where we’d found the trail-mix bag, Jare got talkative, even for Jare. He told us there was a lesson in all this: if you face challenges with a can-do attitude and a will to win, you will turn adversity to account. For example, Jare said, we should consider him. We should consider the time he was quarterback of his high school team, the Hillsdale, Montana, Grizzlies, and he noticed a three-hundred-pound linebacker charging full speed through the line toward his star halfback. To meet this challenge, Jare had manned up and gotten his can-do attitude in gear, and he had charged right back at that linebacker, with no regard for his own personal safety, and despite the fact that quarterbacks almost never do this kind of thing, he had laid a crack-back block on him that basically saved his teammate’s life, probably, Jare was pretty sure. Now that was turning adversity to account. Got him a full ride to a Big Ten school too, when the scouts saw it on video. Small-town boy makes good. Ha ha ha.

  Or, Jare continued, consider the fourth quarter of the 2007 Bowl Championship Series title game, when his favorite receiver, Terrell Brandeis, had suffered a concussion with two seconds left to play, and his team was behind by four points. Jare called a play where he ran the ball in for the score, winning the game and the championship and saving Terrell from getting hit in the head and bruising his brain any more than he had to, all because Jare had made the decision to turn adversity to account and meet this formidable challenge head-on. Literally. Ha ha ha.

  “Ha ha ha,” muttered Kate.

  As Jare told us of these exploits, and others, I noticed Audrey’s expression growing puzzled. “Wait,” I whispered to her. “Is he telling the tr—”

  “If you were so great in college,” Audrey burst out before I could finish asking, “then how come you never played in the NFL?”

  “I wasn’t one of those guys who wanted to devote my entire life to tossing an oblate spheroid around an Astroturf field,” Jare said. “I wanted more.”

  I couldn’t help noticing he’d already delivered this line during the speech he gave on our first day on el Viaje. I also couldn’t help noticing that he’d gotten the shape of the football wrong that time too. And even though I’d learned enough by now to keep my mouth shut about things like this, Jare must’ve noticed the expression on my face, because he glared at me and said, “Not a word, Memory Boy. Not a stinking word.”

  We came to the Baggie impaled on the agave spine. “There it is,” Kate told Jare.

  “Already?” he replied, glancing at his watch, and then at the sun. “That was quick.”

  Jare snatched the plastic bag off the agave. He looked it over. “Definitely her litter, though. Look, everybody. Even got an almond in it.” He held the Baggie up for us all to see. “Definite clue.” He jammed it into his pocket. “Now where’s the bandanna?”

  I pointed to the cottonwood tree out in the desert.

  “Had skulls on it and everything, just like Daphne’s?” he mused.

  “Right,” Kate said. “Daphne’s. Who else is wandering around out here dropping pretentious fashion statements?”

  “Good point, Little Miss Sunshine,” said Jare. “It’s probably Daphne’s.” He glanced at his watch. He checked the sky again. “Let’s go see.” We went.

  Once Jare had the second clue in his pocket, he checked his watch again and said, “Outstanding. But here’s the thing. We need one more clue.”

  “Aww,” said Randolph. “What? Why?”

  “Because, Mr. Einstein, two coordinates don’t necessarily tell us which way she’s headed,” said Jare. “She could be zigzagging, walking in a circle, anything. If we can find one more clue, and it lines up with what we’ve already got, then we’ll have a direction I can trust. Now let’s see. How do I want to do this?” He spread out his crinkly new map.

  “Randolph, you and your grumpy pals head down this old mine trail,” he instructed. “Audrey’s team, take that sector over there.” Once again, he directed us into the emptiest, flattest, driest, hottest part of the countryside. “And if there’s anything to find, you better find it. And if I come along behind you and find there was something to find, and you didn’t find it, then there’s not gonna be anything left of you to find.”

  “Jare has such a way with words,” muttered Audrey as soon as we’d worked our way out of his earshot.

  “Why’d Jare send us out here?” wondered Louis, scanning the emptiness all around. “There’s no way Daphne came in this direction. She’d have to be crazy. I’ll bet you a night in the presidential suite at the El Paso Doubletree that she took off down that mine trail he sent Randolph to search.”

  “You know,” Kate said, “it would m
ake Randolph’s day—”

  “Week.”

  “Year.”

  “—if he were actually the one to rescue Daphne.”

  “So maybe Jare hopes it’ll make him easier to live with,” concluded Kate.

  We searched in silence for a while, and Louis spotted a roadrunner nest and I found a tangle of barbed wire left over from somebody’s old cattle ranch. Louis found the skeleton of a mountain lion, fangs and all.

  “Wow. Jare wasn’t kidding,” I said. “Mastodons to mountain lions.”

  Kate spotted a brass button.

  “You know what I can’t figure out?” asked Audrey finally.

  “What Randolph does with all his T-shirt sleeves after he cuts them off?” asked Louis.

  “Ha ha ha. I can’t figure out why Jare would lie about his reason for not playing in the NFL,” said Audrey.

  “Yeah, why does he have to keep saying he had better things to do?” asked Kate. “What football player has better things to do than the NFL?”

  “Hold on,” I said. Because as soon as Audrey brought up Jare and the NFL again, I scanned a few pages of the old NFL record book where I used to find facts to amuse Hardy Gillooly. “Jare isn’t lying about his reasons.”

  “He’s not?” said Audrey. She sounded dubious. “He sure looks like it to me.”

  “He’s lying about playing,” I said. “Because actually, he didn’t skip the NFL. He got drafted by the Cleveland Browns, and he started at quarterback the first game of his rookie season!”

  “Then why does he keep telling us he didn’t play?” asked Louis.

  “Because,” I said, turning the page of the record book in my head, “he was the worst quarterback ever to suit up in the National Football League.”

  “How can somebody be the worst quarterback?” asked Kate.

  “You have to be really special. Especially bad. Like Jare. He holds the all-time record for single-game futility,” I replied. It was all there at the bottom of the last page of the chapter on quarterbacks. I’d never noticed it before. I guess I’d never looked. Because what fun would records like this have been for Hardy Gillooly? Hardy was all about winners. He wouldn’t have wanted to hear about Jare. “During his first and only NFL appearance, Jared Eastbrook threw a total of four passes. Each was intercepted and two were returned for touchdowns, all in the first half. Eastbrook was benched before the start of the third quarter and did not take the field again. Eastbrook sustained an unsubstantiated toe injury in practice the following week, and subsequently never played football again.”