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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 20


  We talked about everything and nothing. I told them about my woods. Louis discussed his lifelong hatred of sandboxes. Kate told us a funny story about her grandmother yelling at the mailman, threatening to sic her dog on him because he knocked on the door during her favorite soap opera, even though she didn’t have a dog, and we all croaked with laughter like a group of frogs. We weren’t finding any signs of Daphne, but things were going pretty well otherwise, when Aaron said, “After this is over, we have to get together.”

  I felt a flutter of nervousness start in my chest.

  “A Fearless Four reunion!” said Louis. “Only instead of life-threatening heat, insane ex-jocks, and lost campers, how about if we have lemonade, Popsicles, ice cream, watermelon, a tree-shaded swimming pool, and an aerial trapeze? Everybody can come to my house!”

  The flutter intensified.

  “Wait,” said Kate. “You have an aerial trapeze?”

  “Are you crazy?” replied Louis. “Of course not. Those things are terrifying. I just threw it in to make sure everyone was paying attention.”

  “Or everyone could come to my house,” said Aaron. “I have super-high-speed internet and a prime subscription to the Library of Congress online special collections.”

  “Yeah, right,” said Kate. “Another trick to be sure we’re really listening.”

  “No,” said Aaron. “I really do.”

  The flutter became a whole flock of birds, startled ones, flapping their wings in a frenzy. I felt like I did once in New York City, when I almost walked out in front of a taxi—that rush of air, the streak of yellow just inches away, the blast of a horn—before my father, at the very last second, tugged me back by the hood of my coat. Because as soon as Aaron said that about “after this is over,” I realized I’d almost done it: I’d almost forgotten my vow. In the tumble of events, the search, the conversation, the teamwork, I’d come this close to letting myself get sucked into friendship. As the other three bantered about our potential get-together, I pulled back. I reminded myself that for me, there could be no “after this.” But, wow, it was hard. I liked Kate, Aaron, and Louis so much, and they seemed different from other people, truer. I’d trusted them enough to tell them about my gift; it was tempting to trust them all the way. But I forced my mind back to Janie’s porch, the icy-wave slap of her lie in my face.

  “No,” I mumbled. “I can’t.”

  No one heard me. And the reason that no one heard me was that Kate was saying this: “Well, I would invite you to my house, but my mom is having our kitchen, um, totally remodeled, and, when I left, there was sawdust everywhere, and I’m sure it’s only going to get worse, so you know, Aaron’s or Louis’s would probably be better. . . .” She trailed off.

  I didn’t look up to see her scratch her elbow. I didn’t have to. I knew she’d done it, Poison Ivy Liar that she was. And unlike the last time she’d lied—about how long her mom stayed sad after her grandmother died—Kate didn’t jump in right away to tell the truth, so that her lie hardly even counted. She let the lie stand. The funny thing is that I should have felt happy. Right when I most needed reminding that everyone you trust eventually lies, she’d gone and done just that. But for some reason, I felt sad instead.

  In a low voice, I said, “Count me out.”

  “What?” said Aaron. “You have to come!”

  “Yeah,” said Louis, stopping in his tracks. “What’s the Fearless Four without, you know, four?”

  “I can’t,” I said.

  “Why not?” asked Aaron.

  I felt so weighed down with sadness that I stopped walking. Maybe because it looked like this conversation might take a while, Louis carefully laid Randolph down on the ground. He, Kate, and Aaron stared at me expectantly. I tried to take a deep breath, but all it did was parch my throat more. I wanted to look up, to meet the three pairs of eyes that were staring at me, but somehow, that was more than I could stand. I kept my gaze on the stony, chalk-dusty path at my feet.

  “Because getting together after this is over is what friends do, and we—” I drew in another chestful of hot air. “We aren’t friends.”

  A smothering, smoke-thick silence swallowed us. Finally Aaron said, in a voice so confused it hurt my heart, “Audrey?”

  “It’s nothing personal,” I said softly.

  “What does that mean?” said Louis. “Because it feels pretty personal to me.” It was the closest I’d ever heard him come to sounding mad.

  “I just promised myself that I wouldn’t have friends. At least not for a really long time.”

  “But why?” asked Kate.

  With effort, I lifted my head and looked into her black eyes. “Because if you don’t have any friends, then your friends can’t lie to you the way my former best friend Janie did a few weeks ago. And the way you did, just now.”

  Kate stared at me, stunned, and I realized that when she’d said what she’d said about the kitchen renovation, she’d forgotten that I would know she was lying. Her eyes filled with tears.

  “Oh!” she said, and pressed her hand to her mouth. Then, with short, quick, stiff-legged steps, she charged far ahead of us, her head down, her hands clenched into fists. We all watched her go.

  “Audrey,” said Aaron, “Kate’s been having a hard time, remember? Did you really have to say that to her?”

  I stared at him. “But—”

  “Even if you don’t want her to be a friend to you,” Louis hissed, “you might have considered being a friend to her!” There was no mistaking his anger now.

  “But why did she have to say her house was full of sawdust?” I said. “Why?”

  Louis leaned in and spoke to me slowly, like I was either incredibly dense or about five years old. “Maybe because it’s not about sawdust. Maybe it’s about grief and anger and arguments with her parents. Maybe she didn’t want us to see that in her house.”

  “She still didn’t have to lie!” I said.

  “Remember Randolph?” said Aaron. “How he lied about knowing where Daphne was because of how he was feeling?”

  “But that was Randolph. This is Kate!”

  “Well, at least you know that much,” said Louis coldly. “For a second there, it seemed a lot like you forgot who she was.”

  Aaron and Louis exchanged a look; then Louis bent over and heaved Randolph onto his shoulders, and the two of them turned around and started after Kate.

  I was right. I was. Lying was wrong, and lying to a friend was doubly wrong. I knew I was right. Nothing could be more obvious: it was better not to have friends, because nothing felt worse than the moment—and it always came—when the person you trusted lied.

  Except that now, something did feel worse. As I was walking alone, far behind Aaron, Kate, and Louis (and Randolph, who, being mostly unconscious and also being Randolph, didn’t count), I felt worse than I ever had.

  I remembered the night Aaron had handed me his flashlight and I’d played connect the dots with the stars. As I trudged through the desert, I thought and thought about that moment, and everything became so clear: how the four of us had been a constellation, shining, connected, complete. How had I not seen it before? Even today, marching over the stony, stinging land, the sun pounding on us like a hammer, thirsty, tired, looking for a girl none of us even liked and probably wouldn’t find, had been good, true, and right because we were doing it together. And I had ruined it. Aaron, Kate, and Louis were a three-star constellation now, Orion’s belt, and I was all alone, a lost star, falling and sputtering and about to flicker out entirely.

  I thought about how, before I’d come to camp, I had wanted to leave civilization and live alone with nature, like Henry David Thoreau. But what I understood now was that even though nature was pure and never lied, it never laughed at your jokes or listened to your stories either. It didn’t pull cactus spines out of your hand or watch sunsets with you or laugh at itself for being scared of dodgeball. And it didn’t spin around and run headfirst into a giant, angry man to try to stop hi
m from chasing you across a desert mesa. Nature could be beautiful and harsh and inspiring, but one thing it never did was love you back. Or love you anyway.

  I wanted to flop down on the desert floor and cry.

  But instead, after several false starts, I scraped together every bit of courage I could find, sucked some breath into my chest, and ran to catch up with them. When they heard my footsteps, they didn’t turn around, just stopped, waited for me to step into place, my place, and then we started walking again. For a long time, no one said much of anything, although Louis did a fair amount of grunting, as he shifted Randolph around like the sack of wormy potatoes he was, and every now and then, we stopped to scour the ground for Daphne’s footprints or to eye places where the scrub might have been disturbed, searching for anything that might show where Daphne had left the trail, gone astray. But we never found a single clue. I could tell that everything wasn’t really okay between me and the others, but every time I opened my mouth to speak, it was like all the words I could think of to say turned to dust on my tongue. But at least I was there.

  Finally Aaron said, in a creepily accurate imitation of Jare, “‘Unruly sharks. Caused him to turn over a new leaf. Felt bad about how he’d given up 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.’”

  “Sharks’ll do that, I guess,” said Louis, managing to shudder at the thought of sharks, despite the dead weight of Randolph on his shoulders.

  “It’s weird, though, right, Audrey?” asked Aaron.

  I was so startled and grateful to hear him say my name that it took me a second to realize what else he’d said.

  “Weird?” I asked.

  “Remember the night we spied on them? By the fire?”

  I flashed back to Daphne’s and Randolph’s faces in the orange glow, to their voices shot through with the usual anger. But not just anger—hope, a clear bell tone of hope rising up out of Daphne’s usual growl.

  “She said she was going to live with her dad in Montana, just as soon as he could get custody of her,” I said.

  “Right,” said Aaron, “but think about what she said right before that.”

  “Why? Why can’t you just tell me?”

  “Come on, Audrey,” said Aaron gently. “Just try.”

  I sighed. “Okay, fine.”

  The landscape around me blurred as I tried to send myself backward, further into the moment when we crouched in the bushes, listening. Then I had it.

  “She said her mom had hired fancy lawyers who tricked her dad into giving up custody!” I said triumphantly.

  “But Jare said he gave it up without a fight,” said Kate, speaking for the first time since I’d rejoined them. “And why would Pepin have told him that, if it wasn’t true? I mean, giving up your kid, that’s not exactly something to brag about.”

  “No, it’s not,” said Aaron. “Audrey, when Daphne said that about the lawyer, was she lying to Randolph?”

  “Definitely not,” I said. “She believed it.”

  “Probably that’s what her dad told her,” said Louis, “to save face.”

  “Maybe,” said Aaron. “But Audrey, remember what Jare said when I brought up the fact that what they were plotting was kidnapping? A felony?”

  The other two didn’t answer, as if they were leaving it to me. Slowly I said, “He said her mother would never press charges because if her dad went to prison, it would break Daphne’s heart. He said her mom knows Daphne loves her dad.”

  For at least two minutes, there was no sound but the crunch, crunch, crunch of the dirt under our boots. I pondered Daphne, her mom, her dad, trying as hard as I’d ever tried to connect the dots. Daphne’s mom doesn’t want to hurt Daphne. Daphne’s mom knows Daphne loves her dad. Daphne’s mom wouldn’t tell on Daphne’s dad, even if he did something really bad, because she wants Daphne to have her dad in her life. Dot, dot, dot, dot.

  “I bet her mom lied too, about the custody thing,” I said in a breathless rush. “Or at least she went along with the story about the fancy lawyers tricking Daphne’s dad. Her mom could have told her the truth, probably could have proven to her that her dad didn’t want her, but she didn’t do that because she didn’t want Daphne to know that her dad didn’t want her.”

  “Imagine thinking that your own dad didn’t want you,” said Louis quietly. “I drive my parents up the wall, as you can probably imagine, but they still like me. They still want me around.”

  “Mine too,” said Kate.

  “And mine,” said Aaron.

  “Same here,” I said. “But now Daphne hates her mom and thinks her dad is the greatest thing in the world. Why would her mom lie if it made Daphne hate her?”

  Crunch, crunch, crunch.

  “I don’t know about you,” said Aaron, “but I can only think of one reason.”

  After a few seconds, so could I.

  “Because she loves her,” I said. I considered that: lying out of love. Lying even if it made the person you loved resent you forever. Could lying be noble? Generous? Right?

  “No,” I said.

  “No, what?” asked Aaron.

  “I just don’t think lying is ever the right choice.”

  “Probably not,” said Kate glumly.

  “But maybe,” I said carefully, “maybe sometimes it’s an understandable choice. Maybe sometimes it doesn’t mean the person telling the lie is bad. Maybe not all lies are created equal.”

  Crunch, crunch, crunch.

  Kate cleared her throat and, with her eyes trained on the ground, said, “Maybe sometimes, for example, a person will lie about sawdust because she’s worried that ever since her grandmother died, her family doesn’t get along so well, and her house isn’t a very nice place to visit.”

  Even though I would have sworn there wasn’t a drop of extra liquid left in my body, my eyes filled with tears. I reached over, took Kate’s hand, squeezed it, and let it go. She raised her dark eyes to me and smiled.

  “And maybe,” I said, “a person will lie and say she isn’t friends with her friends because she’s scared of being hurt, and she’s been telling herself that same lie for so long that she almost—but not quite—believes it, and then, afterward, she’ll realize she would give anything if she could just take the lie back.”

  I held my breath.

  “It sounds to me like she just did,” said Louis.

  I shook my head. “No. I lied to you guys. I did. Nothing can change that.”

  Kate, Aaron, and Louis all looked at me.

  “What I’m hoping,” I said, “is that you’ll stay friends with me anyway.”

  They exchanged glances with each other, smiles dawning on all their faces. On mine too.

  “Well, sure,” said Aaron. “Definitely. Because—” He paused.

  The four of us said it at the same time: “The anyway is the whole point.”

  For a second, even with my backpack straps digging into my shoulders, I felt light as air, like I might float right off that gritty trail.

  “Ishkabbible! Pishkabbible! Mishkabbible!” Randolph sang in his sleep.

  We all laughed. When we finished, we kept hiking.

  “Kate?” said Aaron after a minute or two.

  “Yeah?”

  “I’m just wondering. I mean, you’re so good at walking in other people’s shoes, right?”

  “I guess.”

  “Well, I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried to walk in your mom’s, to try to figure out why she acts like she’s not sad about her own mom dying. Because I bet there’s a reason.”

  “I bet so too,” I said.

  Kate walked a few steps, her face soft with thought. Then she nodded. “Maybe I will,” she said. She nodded again. “I will.”

  A cloud covered the sun, and in unison, Aaron, Kate, Louis, and I stopped hiking and lifted our faces to the sudden coolness. We stood there together, soaking up the sunlessness, until the clou
d slid away, and then we started hiking again.

  An hour later, the seamless rock wall we seemed to be hiking smack into stopped being seamless. When we shielded our eyes with our hands, we could just make out the slot canyon, a mere crack in the towering sandstone face. According to the map inside Aaron’s head, on the other side of the canyon was the river, the point where Daphne was supposed to meet her father, the spot at which she’d never arrived. In less than an hour, we’d be at the mouth of the slot canyon, and not only had we not found Daphne, we hadn’t found any trace of her since the boot print hours ago. And now, with the mountains rising up steeply on either side of us, it seemed less likely than ever that she’d accidentally strayed from the trail. Who would leave a perfectly good trail and head straight up a near-vertical incline? And why?

  We were taking a break. The four of us sat in a circle, with Randolph lying a little ways away. With a sigh, Kate had poured the last of our water down him, and we’d left him lying in the meager shadow—all the shadow we’d been able to find—of a creosote bush.

  “This doesn’t make sense,” groaned Kate. “If she’d gotten hurt or run out of water, we would have found her. If she’d gotten delirious or lost in the dark and wandered off the trail, we would have found her or some trace of her. If her father had found her, he would’ve called Jare. If he’d come to find her and gotten hurt or dehydrated, we would’ve found him or both of them. She isn’t on the trail and she isn’t off the trail. Where could she have gone?”

  “Ugh. I just wish I could climb inside her head,” I said.

  “Really?” said Louis, wide-eyed. “That could be a pretty scary place.”

  “Can you, Kate?” asked Aaron.

  Kate stopped and shut her eyes, trying to imagine what it was like to be Daphne, but then she shook her head and opened them.

  “I just didn’t know her well enough,” she said, then caught herself. “I mean don’t know her well enough.”

  “None of us really knew her very well,” I said. “I mean know her very well.”

  “Yeah, she wasn’t what you’d call approachable,” said Louis. “I mean isn’t.”