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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 17


  “Wow,” said Louis quietly. “Poor Jare.”

  “Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for him.”

  “Almost,” said Kate.

  “But not quite,” threw in Audrey.

  “He’s not actually one of the all-time winners. He’s one of the all-time losers,” observed Louis.

  “Maybe that explains a few things about Jare,” I said.

  “How?” asked Audrey.

  “This is his playground, right?” I asked.

  “Yeah,” said Kate. “Like we talked about when Daphne knocked over the hoodoo. This is his playground, and he’s the bully.”

  “So why do people turn into playground bullies?” I asked.

  “Because they’re losers!” said Louis. “They hate themselves, they hate their lives, and they take over the playground and act like the king.”

  “And the bigger the loser, the bigger the bully, and the bigger the bully, the meaner the king,” continued Kate.

  “Plus,” added Audrey, “if the desert really is Jare’s kingdom, the point of his weird, lonely life is to protect it. And Daphne is a barbarian trying to destroy it.”

  “Which is why Jare totally flamed out on her,” said Louis. “Yeah. All this does explain a few things about him. . . . Hey,” he said, spotting something on the ground in the distance. “What’s that?” Slowly he made his way through the clumps of desiccated bunchgrass to stand beside a tiny barrel cactus with enormous yellow flowers. Kate followed him and reached down to pluck off the fingerless black glove impaled on the spines.

  “Don’t!” Louis reminded her. “We have to leave it for Jare. Let’s go get him.”

  “Let’s just yell,” said Kate. “Nobody’s very far away yet. Plug your ears, Louis.”

  “Hey! Over here!” shouted Audrey into the distance. “Jare! Everybody!”

  For half a mile around, we could see glimpses of searchers turning in the brush to head in our direction.

  “What?” said Jare to Audrey as he arrived. Audrey pointed at the glove on the cactus. “Now that,” he said, “is definitely Daphne’s. Nobody else would be stupid enough to wear gloves while making her desert getaway.” He stuffed it in his pocket and glanced at the dropping sun. “Who’s making our dinner tonight?” he asked.

  “Me,” said Edie in a small voice, “and . . . Daphne?”

  “Figures,” grumbled Jare. “You,” he said, pointing at Audrey, “are pinch cooking. Get going.”

  As Edie and Audrey made their way back to camp, Jare spread out his map on the ground, weighting the corners with stones. Then he used jagged pebbles to mark the three places we’d found Daphne memorabilia. “Look. All you have to do is connect the dots. She was walking in a straight line.” He traced a trail between pebbles. “She went on for a while, got hot, and found herself a nice bush to crawl under, not far from where we’re standing.” He tapped our location on the map and glanced around, as if he expected to see Daphne crouched under a creosote plant nearby.

  “Then we hafta—let’s go—now we can find her!” spluttered Randolph, gesturing helplessly in the direction Daphne had been walking.

  “Nope. Time to head back,” said Jare, smacking his hands together briskly.

  “What?” shrieked Randolph. “We’re not going to go get her? You just said we know for sure which way she’s headed! She’s under a bush! She’s not far! Let’s find her!” Jare had to grab Randolph’s belt to keep him from running off across the desert.

  “Keep your pants on, Slick,” said Jare. “I don’t need the rest of you tearing out there getting lost too.”

  “But . . . this doesn’t make any sense!” cried Randolph. “You just had us wandering all over the place looking for Daphne’s trail—and we found it. So now why can’t we just go find her?”

  As much as I hated to admit it, Randolph had a point. Jare’s thinking didn’t really add up.

  But Jare carefully ignored Randolph’s point. He checked the sun. It was dropping toward the horizon. He glanced around like he was memorizing the spot. “We’ll give her another night,” he muttered, almost to himself. “Tomorrow, if I have to call the sheriff, I’ll know right where to send him.”

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  Audrey Alcott

  El Viaje a la Confianza

  THAT NIGHT, I DREAMED THAT a grizzly bear in a football helmet was charging toward me down a steep hill, and I stood petrified, my brain whirring like an eggbeater in a desperate attempt to remember what you’re supposed to do when a bear comes after you (Run? Scream? Curl up in a ball? Climb a tree? Punch it on the nose?). And just before the bear attacked, when I could see its glittering black eyes and its four long, white, needle-sharp canines, the bear stopped, stood on its hind legs, and said, in Jare’s arrogant voice, “Hillsdale, Montana, Grizzlies,” and then another voice, one I recognized but couldn’t place, came from all around me, loud and echoing. “Montana, Montana, Montana,” it said.

  I woke up still hearing it inside my head, that unidentifiable voice saying that single word, and then, suddenly, the voice wasn’t unidentifiable at all, and even though it was the middle of the night and even though I’d just been sound asleep, inside my head it was broad daylight and I was so awake, I tingled. I knew. I knew. And I had to tell someone right that second.

  As quietly as I could, my heart galloping, my fingers shaking, I unzipped my tent and was just starting to climb out when I saw them: directly in front of me and not three feet away, a pair of hiking boots, big ones, and I was just thinking how weird it was that someone had left boots outside my tent when I saw the boots were on feet, connected to legs, and my galloping heart seemed to stop dead. Oh, no, oh, no, oh, help, it’s him! I thought, and threw myself backward into my tent, my fingers fumbling to zip the flap of it back up, as if there were a hope in the world that that flimsy barrier could save me.

  It wasn’t until I heard a voice whisper, “Audrey! It’s me!” that I realized the legs attached to those feet inside those boots were far too skinny to be Jare’s, and a flood of relief washed through me. In a flash, I was out of my tent, telling Aaron, “You’ve got some really big feet, do you know that?” and, Aaron looking every bit as startled as I’d just felt, was saying, “Yes.”

  “What are you doing out here?” I demanded. “I was just coming to get you.”

  “I remembered something,” he said breathlessly. “Something important.”

  His face was vivid and sharp, and maybe it was just the moonlight falling on him, but he seemed to shine with excitement.

  Astonished, I said, “Same here!” I started to say more when Aaron put a hand on my arm to stop me.

  “Wait,” he said. “Let’s get Kate and have a meeting in Louis’s tent.”

  We woke up Kate with ease, and then the three of us argued in whispers over how best to awaken the earplugged Louis without his screaming bloody murder and rousing the entire camp. Finally Kate just said, “Enough. Leave it to me,” unzipped Louis’s tent, and climbed in. Aaron and I hovered outside, watching. Louis was sound asleep. He looked peaceful in a way that he never did when he was awake, a sign that his air mattress was working the exact kind of magic we’d hoped it would. Very, very gently, Kate touched one fingertip to Louis’s left arm, and as soon as he stirred, she whispered, almost inaudibly, a tiny, velvet sound: “It’s Kate.” Maybe because she was so small or so still or because she just had a knack for making people feel safe, Louis didn’t scream. He sat up fast, blinked hard a few times, and pulled out his earplugs.

  “Oh, hi,” he said, smoothing down his hair, which really sort of needed it. Louis had told us that he hated having long hair because he was terrified of things getting caught in it, like burrs or flying grasshoppers or bats, but that he hated haircuts more. “All that tugging and touching and the sound of the scissors, like swords clashing right next to my ears,” he’d said, shuddering.

  Once we were all settled in, I looked at Aaron, who said, “You first.”
r />  I was so eager to tell what I’d figured out that I didn’t even bother to be polite and say he should go first. “Thanks,” I said. “Okay. Do you happen to have a map of Montana inside your head?”

  “Well, sure, along with all the other states,” said Aaron. “There was a really good U.S. map in my fifth-grade classroom. I looked at it a lot. I especially liked the names of the rivers. There’s the Tugaloo, the Passagassawakeag, the Scuppernong, the—”

  “Aaron!” I said.

  “Sorry.”

  “Where’s Hillsdale, Montana?” I asked.

  “Why is that name familiar?” asked Kate, knitting her brows.

  I held up a finger, signaling her to wait.

  “It’s in the northern part of the state,” said Aaron. “So far up it’s almost in—”

  “Canada!” I finished triumphantly.

  “Well, I was going to say Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan,” said Aaron smugly. “But I guess Canada works.” Then his eyes lit up, and I could tell he had just realized what I was getting at. “Oh!”

  “What?” asked Louis.

  “It can’t be a coincidence,” I said to Aaron.

  “What?” asked Kate.

  “Time for your Daphne imitation, Aaron,” I said.

  “‘My witch mom hired some fancy lawyer who tricked my dad into giving up custody of me. But as soon as he can work it out, he’s totally taking me back. We’ll go live in this amazing little town in Montana where he grew up. It’s so far north that it’s practically Canada. Which means I’ll never see my mom again, thank god. She hates the cold—’” He stopped.

  I realized my jaw had dropped a little. It happened a lot: just when I thought I was getting used to Aaron’s memory, he’d throw me for a loop. “You know, that really is amazing.”

  Aaron’s face fell, just the tiniest bit. “Thanks.”

  Quickly I said, “It’s not even close to the coolest thing about you, but I can see how Hardy Giloolly might have gotten that impression.”

  Aaron shrugged again, but this time he looked happy.

  “So,” said Kate slowly, “you’re saying that Jare might have known Daphne’s dad?”

  “Yes!” I said. “I mean, what are the chances that Jare and Daphne’s dad, who must be about the same age, both just happened to grow up in small towns in northern Montana, right near the Canadian border?”

  We all looked at Aaron.

  “Well, out of the fifty states, Montana is one of the least populous. It’s ranked forty-fourth, and the majority of Montanans live in cities like Billings, Bozeman, Butte, and Helena, and while I don’t know the population of Hillsdale, I do know that some parts of Montana have a population density of fewer than four people per square mile, so . . .”

  “It’s very unlikely!” I finished. “Which means that Jare must have planned the entire thing.”

  “Planned to do . . . something to Daphne?” asked Louis, wincing.

  “What’s Daphne’s last name?” I asked.

  “Pepin,” said Aaron. “It’s written in magic marker on her backpack.”

  “Well, I’m guessing that this Pepin was an enemy of Jare’s from back home, and when he figured out that Daphne was Pepin’s daughter, he decided to make Pepin pay,” I said.

  “By killing Daphne?” asked Louis. He winced again, and at the word “killing,” the rest of us winced right along with him.

  “Look, I agree that it’s hard to imagine Jare as a murderer, but maybe that’s just because it’s hard to imagine any real person you know as a murderer,” I said. “Maybe he was just trying to scare her and left her in the desert alone, or maybe he’s hiding her someplace for a while to scare Pepin. Or maybe Pepin’s rich, and Jare’s planning to hold Daphne for ransom. I don’t know. I just can’t believe there’s not a connection between Jare and Daphne’s dad, and if there is, I think whatever happened wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. It was planned. And if it was planned, well, that makes it much more creepy.”

  “It was planned,” said Aaron. “Definitely.”

  “You sound so sure,” said Kate, surprised.

  “I am sure. Remember when Jare put those pebbles down on the map, one for each piece of evidence we’d found that Daphne had been there?”

  “Yes. They made a straight line,” I said.

  “After we went to bed, I couldn’t fall asleep because I kept thinking about those three pebbles, and I kept telling myself to connect the dots, connect the dots. Then, out of nowhere, I remembered where I’d seen them before!” said Aaron.

  “The pebbles?” asked Louis.

  “Not pebbles. Back then, they were dots, in purple colored pencil, marking those same three locations,” said Aaron.

  “Back when?” I asked.

  “Back when Enod baked his knees. Remember when Jare ran up over that arroyo and dropped all his maps? I picked them up, and the one on top was folded exactly to the part of the desert where Jare sent us to search for Daphne, and there were the purple dots.”

  We all sat, letting this sink in.

  “That was well over a week ago,” I said, and one of those now-familiar shivers went up my spine.

  “Gosh, you were right, Audrey,” said Kate somberly. “Whatever happened to Daphne, Jare did plan it.”

  “He planted those clues to make it look like she’d run away,” said Louis. “And he chose our team for that search area because he knew we were the best at finding stuff.”

  “Daphne was never at any of those places,” said Kate in a small, scared voice. “Right now, it feels like she isn’t anywhere at all.”

  “And Jare had her stuff,” said Louis. I could tell he was trying to keep his breathing in check.

  “Daphne wore that bandanna all the time,” said Kate. “She hated Jare. She wouldn’t have just given him her stuff.”

  “Which means he took it,” said Aaron. “Either he stole the glove and bandanna or he took them by force. Or—” He stopped.

  “He took them after she was in no position to resist,” I said grimly.

  We stared at each other, horror dawning on all our faces.

  “We need to tell someone,” said Aaron. “Now. Today.”

  “Even though there’s no cell phone service here, Jare couldn’t spend six weeks in the wilderness with no way of communicating with the outside world,” I said. “He must have some kind of phone. We just need to find it.”

  “Whatever we do, though, we can’t let Jare know we know,” said Louis, his breath getting shallow. “He’ll disappear us too.”

  “He might try, but even Jare can’t make fifteen people disappear,” I said.

  “He can’t?” asked Louis hopefully.

  “Fifteen?” asked Kate.

  I leaned in. “Listen. I have a plan.”

  We stayed in Louis’s tent with the flap open until the sky turned from black to that soft mouse gray that means the sun is about to rise, and then—as Louis tiptoed to the far end of the campsite to keep an eye on Jare—Aaron, Kate, and I began to wake the other campers, all but Randolph. Staying calm and matter-of-fact, we told them about our theory that Jare had disappeared Daphne—either permanently or temporarily—and we also told them our evidence: the three purple dots, the Montana connection. No one freaked out completely, although a girl named Frankie started to cry and Kevin Larkspur looked like he might throw up. Edie and Cyrus weren’t surprised; they said they’d both had a gut feeling that Jare had done it—whatever “it” was.

  “We need the two of you for the next part of our plan,” I told them. “Are you okay with that?”

  “Sure,” said Cyrus. He nodded so hard, the springy black curls all over his head danced.

  “Definitely,” said Edie. “I mean, it’s not like I’ve missed being called E-death, but a grown man can’t go around killing kids.”

  “Good,” said Aaron and I together.

  “Let me ask you something, Edie,” I said. “I hope it doesn’t come to this, but what if you got one of thos
e shots you had when you ate the Worcestershire sauce when you weren’t actually having an allergic reaction?”

  Edie gave me a funny look, but she said, “Nothing too bad, I don’t think. I’d probably just get jittery. If that’s what I need to do to help, I’ll do it.”

  “I think you could pretty easily convince him that you didn’t need it, but just in case, I wanted to ask,” I said, and Aaron and I told them the plan.

  After about fifteen minutes, Louis came jogging back.

  “He was already up when I got there,” he said. “Acting kind of weird. Pacing around like a lion in the zoo.”

  “Cage stereotypy,” said Aaron. “Abnormal, repetitive motor behaviors often exhibited by animals in captivity and thought to be a result of stress and insufficiently complex environments.”

  “Aaron,” I said sternly.

  “I know, I know,” said Aaron, scratching his head. “All right. Jare’s not in a cage, but maybe he’s . . . stressed? Anxious? Worried?”

  “It sounds that way,” I said. “I just wish we knew what he was worried about.”

  Louis gulped. “Uh, you think he suspects that we know?”

  “How could he? Maybe he feels guilty. Or maybe something went wrong with his plan. But we can’t think about that now,” I said. “Look, everyone’s in on it, the whole camp, except for Randolph, who just can’t be trusted. Jare can’t fight off all of us, can he?”

  “Nope,” said Kate, shoving up her sleeves. Her black eyes glinted.

  “Fight?” said Louis, in a quavering voice. “You mean—fight-fight?”

  “I sincerely hope not,” I said.

  “Edie and Cyrus are on board with the plan,” said Aaron. “Now we just wait until everyone’s eating breakfast.”

  I took a deep breath. One by one, I met each person’s eyes. Kate’s were fierce and black; Louis’s were wide, scared, and desert-sky blue; Aaron’s were as bright brown and hopeful as ever.