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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 19


  “Gangrene?” cried Kate. “We have to get you out of here. Quick.”

  “We have to get us all out of here,” rasped Jare. “Quick.”

  “How are we going to do that?” asked Audrey.

  “You are going to do that,” replied Jare. “By applying the lessons you’ve learned along el Viaje a la Confianza.” Maybe we didn’t look like we thought this would be a real game changer. “Oh, come on,” he cried, gritting his teeth as he propped his leg on a rock made of sea-snail fossils. “Just because I’m a loser and a blowhard doesn’t mean I haven’t taught you anything!”

  I guess I looked surprised when he called himself a loser. “Aaron. Come on. With a brain like yours, you’ve gotta remember my statistics. Dontcha? Then you know. It’s okay to say it. I’m a loser.”

  “You’re a loser!” piped up Cyrus.

  “I didn’t mean say it right this second,” muttered Jare.

  “Sorry,” said Cyrus.

  “I hope you guys realize something. You’re fortunate. Blessed in a way I never was,” Jare went on. “Things are hard for you. All the time. You’re lucky.”

  “Then I guess I’ve had about all the luck one guy can stand,” cracked Louis.

  Jare started to laugh, and then he froze and turned green. And decided not to laugh. “Sadly,” he wheezed, “I always had it easy. Easy in Hillside, Montana. Easy in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And then one day in Cleveland, Ohio, when things got tough, it took me less than half an hour to become professional football’s all-time loser. You guys, though, you’ve been up against it your whole lives. You had it rough back home, and once you got here, I made sure to keep the problems coming. This might be hard to believe, but even when I was acting like a colossal jerk, I was teaching you something: not to fold in the clutch. And I guess today is when we find out if you absorbed my lesson.”

  “Whoa, Jare. You were a good guy all along?” called Randolph, gazing down from the precipice. “This is blowing my mind.” Smashing Jare’s leg hadn’t exactly transformed him into a model camper. In fact, he seemed like more of a jerk than ever.

  “The flatulence of an underfed gnat,” called back Jare, “would blow your mind.” He started to laugh again, and grimaced, and turned white. “Note to self. Laughing. Really hurts.” Shifting to find a position he could bear, Jare spread out a map. “Audrey and Aaron, you’re going for help. There’s a ranch twelve miles up the trail with two cowhands living in it. It’ll be a slog, but all you’ve got to do is stick to the path and keep walking. Two good people should make it before sundown. The rest of you are going to strike camp and bring it down here, since I can’t go back up that hill. And we’ll all hold the fort until Audrey and Aaron send help.”

  “But what if Audrey and Aaron don’t make it in time?” asked Edie. “We’ve barely got enough water for the rest of today.”

  “I know,” said Jare. “I was planning for us all to be at the ranch by tonight. Our next supply cache is there.”

  After a pause that gave me a chance to think about how far we were from help, and how tired, hungry, thirsty, and puny we were in a land that had been bone-dry and full of rocks hot enough to kill mastodons and mountain lions for millions of years, Jare said, “I think we’ve got a high likelihood of survival. But we can’t make even one more mistake. And by ‘we,’ I mean myself. I definitely made a mistake or two.”

  “Does one of your mistakes explain where Daphne is?” asked Audrey.

  Jare sighed. The last of the bluster leaked out of him as he slumped against the rocky bluff. “I was trying to help Daphne. And her dad. He’s my old buddy George Pepin. George had a close call this spring. Barrier Reef. Unruly sharks. Caused him to turn over a new leaf. Felt bad about how he’d handed over custody of Daphne all those years ago without a fight, regretted the way he’d neglected her ever since. Wanted to make amends, treat her to a summer of adventure. And of course, that mother of hers wasn’t gonna let it happen.

  “So we hatched a plan where Daphne could rendezvous with him from here, make it look like she ran off. I faked the trail in the wrong direction in case the authorities decided to get involved, and I made sure you guys discovered it. Meanwhile, Daphne was gonna hike the other way on an old sheep path. Her dad planned to kayak down the river to meet her at the trailhead by an abandoned farm, and then, right before they vamoosed to Mexico, they were gonna call me on George’s satellite phone. I thought our plan was pure gold.”

  “Except for one little detail: it was a felony. Kidnapping. Her dad doesn’t have custody,” I pointed out.

  “I know Daphne’s mom. She’d never prosecute George, because even if she thinks he’s a loser, she knows Daphne loves him. If he went to prison, it would break Daphne’s heart,” replied Jare.

  “And another little detail,” threw in Enod. “It didn’t work.”

  “There is that,” allowed Jare.

  “So how long ago were you expecting their call?” asked Audrey.

  For the first time ever, Jare’s voice was so quiet, I could hardly hear it. “About twenty-four hours ago.”

  “Something happened to Daphne,” said Louis.

  “She must not have made it to the rendezvous point,” Jare added wearily.

  “How do you know something didn’t happen to her dad?” asked Cyrus. “Maybe he never made it.”

  “Dude kayaked the length of the Amazon. Twice. Once in each direction,” said Jare. “He’s solid.”

  “So why didn’t he call when Daphne didn’t show?” I asked.

  “Good question,” replied Jare, but he didn’t really seem to think there was anything good about it. “I think she must’ve gotten behind schedule. But guess what: the Terminator up there smashed my phone, so there’s no way to tell.” He pointed to Randolph, squatting on his rocky perch.

  “What if George got to the meeting point, and when Daphne wasn’t there, he went looking for her?” asked Audrey. “And got lost? What if they’re both in trouble?”

  “Why are you asking all these questions?” shot back Jare.

  “Because we’re going to find Daphne,” I said. “And her dad too, if he’s lost with her.” Audrey nodded.

  “Our whole team,” added Kate.

  “Right,” agreed Louis.

  “Then who’s going to the ranch?” asked Jare.

  “Enod and Kevin,” Audrey replied. “You said two good people can make it to the ranch by midnight. Enod and Kevin are better than good. They’re great.”

  “Thanks, Audrey,” said Enod.

  “Don’t get all mushy on me, Enod,” said Audrey.

  “Sorry,” said Enod.

  “I can’t let you guys go after Daphne,” said Jare. “I already lost one camper. I can’t lose four more.”

  “We’re going,” I said.

  “No,” said Jare.

  “How are you going to stop us?” wondered Louis.

  “That’s a conundrum, all right,” admitted Jare, gazing at his leg. “I could order the other campers to band together and detain you.” He gazed around at Cyrus, Edie, and the rest, who stared back at him with wide, round eyes. “Or not. Okay. If you gotta go, you gotta go.”

  We inventoried the water left in camp. Six and a half gallons: three to share among the ten people staying behind, a gallon and a half for Kevin and Enod, and two gallons for Audrey, Kate, Louis, and me. We figured this was fair. “Enod,” said Jare. “You and your buddy keep your brains in gear, and this time tomorrow, everybody will be enjoying a nice tall glass of ice water delivered by law-enforcement helicopter.”

  He turned to Audrey, Louis, Kate, and me. From his front pocket, he dug a tattered map. “This isn’t much good,” he said. “All it shows is where Daphne is supposed to be. Which, as we know, is actually where she isn’t. But it’s better than nothing. Now be careful. I really couldn’t stand it if I lost any more of you. And Kate, you can leave the railroad spike here.”

  “Thanks, Jare,” said Kate. “You’re turning into a big softy.”
/>  “Searing pain will do that to you,” replied Jare.

  As we slowly crossed the dusty pan in the direction Daphne had taken, searching for some sign of her, I could feel the ground rise a tiny bit to the left and to the right, as if, out there somewhere so far away I couldn’t even see it, the desert was shrugging its shoulders. And as we pushed on, I realized our route was leading us into a vast downward funnel as big as an entire county back in Pennsylvania. Soon I could see stony hills miles and miles away to the east and west, rising higher and closing in on us as we made our way south. And above the hilltops to our right, I spied a puffy white cloud.

  “That’s the first cloud I’ve seen since we got here,” observed Louis.

  I knew all these things added up to something, even if I didn’t know what it was. And I could sense by the way Audrey, Kate, and Louis scoured the landscape that they knew something waited out there too. I knew now not to go digging in a file cabinet in my brain for a bunch of facts that would give everybody the illusion I had it all figured out. I knew to stay quiet and keep watching, walking, and thinking, because I realized there was no shortcut to the answers we were after. But I knew the Fearless Four would figure out everything we needed to know when the time came.

  Two hours into our rescue effort, as the sun really began to beat on us, Louis spotted one of Daphne’s unbelievably red hairs snagged on a yucca, undulating like a tiny pennant on the rising heat waves. He stopped and plucked it off the greeny wooden spray of spines. “Hers,” he said.

  Kate shrugged out of her pack straps. “Anybody want an orange?” she asked.

  “You’ve got oranges?” marveled Audrey.

  “Jare gave me a bag from his secret stash,” she said. “He told me not to tell you until we were on the trail.”

  “You are the Queen of the Fearless Four!” declared Audrey. “Now don’t be a stingy queen! Give me an orange!” Kate bestowed one upon her. “Mmmmmmm,” Audrey moaned as she bit in and orange juice spritzed through the hot, bright morning.

  “I hereby proclaim the orange,” said Kate, “the official fruit of the Fearless Four!”

  While the taste of tropical Florida trickled down my throat, I inked another X on the map in my head, marking the spot where we’d found Daphne’s hair. It was smack on the path she’d been supposed to follow. Which meant that wherever she’d run into trouble, it was still ahead of us. A breeze kicked up from the direction of the western hills, and I felt, at that moment, like the Fearless Four were unbeatable. We were smart. We were on the right track. And we had oranges.

  The breeze died and heat began shimmering from the desert floor as we stowed our water bottles and reshouldered our packs. Louis wound Daphne’s hair around his finger. It looked too red. It tried too hard, just like Daphne, and it was impossible not to think of her and wonder, even though she seemed as hard-shelled as a fossilized trilobite, how many things could have happened to her out here under a sky as wide, blue, and unconcerned as the one above our heads. If her water bottle had cracked . . . if she’d wandered off course . . . if she’d slipped, or stumbled, or fallen, or gotten bitten by a rattler . . .

  Even the terrible Daphne, when you got down to it, was just a teenage girl alone in an immensity that didn’t care whether she lived or died.

  We found one of her giant boot prints in a swath of dust blown across the trail.

  After another hour, I still had total faith in the Fearless Four, but a certain fact had become too plain to ignore.

  “We’ve drunk half our water,” said Louis as we took a breather under a lonely cottonwood tree in a patch of shade we shared with the bones of a longhorn steer. “So if we want to get back to camp, we should turn around here.”

  “Except there’s hardly any water in camp,” I reminded him.

  “And we haven’t found Daphne yet,” Audrey added.

  “So we’re not turning around,” Kate decreed. “Remember, I’m the queen.”

  “How could we forget, Your Majesty?” said Louis.

  “Straighten up, or no more oranges,” ordered Kate.

  It was hotter than it’d ever been on el Viaje, so hot that my eyes refused to focus on objects in the distance, objects like mountains and clouds. I checked my watch. Turned out my eyes wouldn’t focus on things that weren’t in the distance, either. “What time is it?” I asked Louis, holding up my wrist.

  “Nearly noon,” he said.

  As he spoke, the heat grew so strong I could hear it thrumming like a freight train in my ears.

  “Should we stop?” I asked.

  “We can’t. Daphne is out in this,” said Kate.

  “The river is only a few hours away,” I said, squinting at the map in my head. “On the other side of those cliffs,” I added, pointing ahead to where the hills converged to form a rock wall smack in our path.

  “Then we’ll keep going,” said Louis resolutely. “To the river. We’ll find Daphne on the way and have all the water we need.”

  We pushed on. My mouth felt like I’d eaten the cotton batting out of my mom’s sofa. My eyes glued themselves into their sockets. My muscles began to feel fluffy with exhaustion, and every individual one of my bones ached.

  I saw Kate stumble over a pebble no bigger than a pea, and I knew she felt the same way. We all did.

  “What’s that!” hissed Louis fifteen minutes later.

  “What’s what?” I asked, slowing down to let him catch up.

  “That smell! It’s horrible! Is it a javelina? A skunk? A composting facility, tucked away in the desert?” he said, frantically glancing around.

  “I don’t smell anything,” I said. “Oh. Wait. I do. Hold on. I think it’s—”

  “Hatchet aftershave,” said Kate from a few feet ahead, rolling her eyes. “Spectacular.”

  Crashing through the yucca and the creosote came Randolph, wild-eyed and delirious, oblivious to the desert spines and spears. How he’d caught up with us I did not know. He’d probably run the whole way, visions of Daphne dancing in his lime-sized brain.

  “Hey, everybody!” Randolph yodeled. “I’m here!” He staggered in three small circles like a drunk, bodybuilding ballerina, and collapsed in a heap.

  “Dizzy,” I observed. As hot as it was, I noticed that his skin was perfectly dry. “Unable to perspire.” I pinched Randolph’s forearm. I was taking a chance, I knew, because ordinarily, he’d have dealt me a black eye for touching him, but Randolph just giggled. “Ha ha ha! That tickles!” The skin stayed pinched after I let go, like he was made of Play-Doh.

  “Inelastic skin,” I recited from the Splashview first-aid manual. “Symptomatic of severe dehydration.”

  “What do we do?” asked Kate in a voice more tinged with pity than disgust.

  “Pour water down him,” I said. “Right now.”

  “We don’t have a lot,” said Audrey.

  “Then we have to give him what we’ve got,” I said. “At least most of it. Because if we don’t, he might die.”

  And of course, when it came down to it, no matter what we might’ve said back at camp when he was acting like the world’s biggest jackass, nobody wanted Randolph to die.

  “What are we going to drink?” asked Audrey.

  “Whatever is left,” I said. “Bottoms up, Randolph,” I said, carefully emptying my bottle down his gullet. I didn’t want him to chuck it right back up. That would’ve been a waste.

  “MMMMM!” cried Randolph happily. Kate handed over her bottle next. He slurped it down, and almost immediately he seemed a little less befuddled, which was only a relative improvement, since this was Randolph.

  “Now what do we do with him?” asked Louis. “We can’t leave him here. Can we?” Louis sounded slightly hopeful.

  But I was afraid that as soon as our water revived him, Randolph would hop up and do something else stupid. When I mentioned this, everybody agreed. Especially Randolph. “Got that right, Memory Boy!” he cried cheerfully. “So whatcha gonna do?”

  “Bring you,” I
said. “Can you drink a little? And walk a little? Until you feel better?”

  “Drink a little. Walk a little. Drink a little. Walk a little. Cheep, cheep, cheep! I’m a creep, I’m an ishkabibble,” sang Randolph, doing a pretty good job riffing on the classic musical, for a delirious dehydration victim with almost no singing ability to begin with.

  “Ishkabibble?’” said Kate.

  “Ish Kabibble was a comedian and cornet player, born Merwyn Bogue in North East, Pennsylvania, in 1908,” I said.

  “Exactly!” cried Randolph.

  “If we didn’t have so much else to worry about,” commented Audrey, “I’d be very concerned that you both know that.”

  “See ya!” cried Randolph. With that, he stood up and took off running for Mexico. And fell flat on his face.

  Audrey, Kate, and I all three turned to Louis at exactly the same time.

  Louis took a deep breath, grabbed Randolph’s ankles with one hand, snatched his wrists with the other, and slung the poor bonehead over his shoulders. For a second, it looked like Louis might pass out from the trauma of Randolph’s entire skeevy body draped across him.

  But Louis squeezed his eyes shut, gritted his teeth, and started walking.

  “Is he heavy?” asked Kate.

  “Yes,” wheezed Louis. “But I’ll make it.”

  “You’re strong,” Kate observed.

  “I used to think the universe was playing a joke on me,” said Louis, “making me as big as a truck driver but scared of my own shadow.” He hefted Randolph to a more comfortable position and glanced to see, beside his ear, Randolph, suddenly wide-awake, grinning at him like a maniac. “And now I’m sure the universe is playing a joke on me.”

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  Audrey Alcott

  The Desert

  WE HIKED AND HIKED. MY throat was coated with sandpaper, and whenever I opened my mouth to speak, the corners of it felt like they were cracking, but apart from the occasional cloud passing in front of the sun, conversation was our only relief.