Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 22

  The water rose to our knees. It rose to our thighs. And began to rage.

  We weren’t the Fearless Four, Plus Randolph, in the perfect spot at the perfect time. We were in the most awful spot we could be in. We were going to drown in the desert.

  Every bit of rain that had fallen or was falling or was going to fall for twenty miles around, every drop to come out of this storm, was now rushing toward us. The colossal forces that had carved this canyon—billions of gallons of water, tons of gravel and boulders and stones—were all in motion and couldn’t be stopped.

  Then the water rose another foot. The tempo of the lightning quickened. White, yellow, blue, green. Cracks, explosions, thuds, bangs, crashes, until the noises ran together into a shriek like a fighter jet blasting down Gage Cut over our heads, and the walls and floor around us were lit up like morning. Skeletal ocotillo arms and yucca stalks eddied crazily past us. Fence posts. Rusty windmill blades. We held on to each other for support.

  The flood grew stronger. And higher. Up to our waists. All we could do was try to stay on our feet. When the rising water swirled or rippled or crested, I felt it heave me around like a doll. It was a thousand times stronger than any of us. A million. It had carved through fifty feet of rock. And this was only the beginning. There was much, much more to come. Enough, I was sure, to fill the canyon to the brim, and overflow.

  “I hope Daphne made it out the other side before this started!” Audrey cried into the swirling wind.

  Lightning. Thunder. Beside me, I saw Kate stagger, and the current swept her away. Audrey stumbled next. I tried to reach her, but the water wrenched her out of my grasp, and she was gone. Randolph cried, “Oh, man!” and disappeared beneath the flood. Louis was the only one strong enough to stand, and the last thing I remember before I lost my footing was the sight of him behind me, terrified, his hands over his ears, fighting the water, and slowly losing. A blue bolt of lightning, the biggest one yet, forked in two and struck both edges of the canyon above him. A thousand tons of stone exploded into rubble and began crashing down the cut straight at Louis.

  “Dive, Louis! Dive!” I cried, and then I felt the current tumble me head over heels, and after that, I didn’t know which way was up. I didn’t know where anybody was. I could only hope Louis had plunged into the flood ahead of the avalanche. I heard a distant noise through the bubbles and the foam . . . somebody calling my name . . . and then all four of my friends and I were lying in a dazed pile, and the floodwater was gone.

  “What . . . hap—pened?” cried Kate, climbing to her feet. A rill of storm water trickled past our feet, and the storm still raged above us, but the torrent had subsided.

  I looked up the canyon the way we’d come. The rock slide caused by the lightning strike had crashed into Gage Cut and stuffed it shut like a plug.

  “The flood is dammed up on the other side of the avalanche!” I cried above the thunder. “For now!” But I knew, as the storm water accumulated, the entire flooded desert would rise against the other side like a flood from the Bible, and blast the whole thing loose like a colossal champagne cork. And we really didn’t want to be standing underneath it when that happened.

  I heard the stones groaning against one another. Small fountains of floodwater began to spray from the cracks in the bottom.

  “What do we do?” cried Kate.

  “Run,” I said.

  We ran like crazy. We ran like Usain Bolt and Indiana Jones rolled into one. The canyon floor was wet, and slick, and full of flood-scoured holes. We tripped. We bruised our elbows and knees. Randolph split his chin. It began to bleed.

  “So what?” He shrugged. “Not the first time.”

  We pulled each other back up and kept running. The rain fell harder and cascaded down the canyon wall in sheets. Behind us, the rock slide shifted as the water pressed harder and harder against its far side, rumbles and moans echoing down the stone corridor between thunderbolts.

  Hailstones began rattling down the walls and rolling beneath our feet like marbles.

  We stumbled and slid and skidded down in a pile.

  And looked up to see the canyon mouth fifteen feet away.

  “Hurry,” said Kate, leaping to her feet.

  We all felt, along the backs of our necks, that soon the inundation would come crashing down upon us.

  We ran out into the open and found ourselves standing on a broad sandbar beside the Rio Grande.

  “What are you doing?” demanded Daphne, who stood glaring at us like a bedraggled Siamese cat in a sopping black sweater.

  “Daphne!” cried Randolph through the roar of the rain. “You’re safe! We came to rescue you!”

  “Of course I’m safe, you dolt!” retorted Daphne. “Which means I don’t need anybody rescuing me!”

  “What do we do now?” panted Audrey, glancing warily at the canyon mouth behind us.

  “Get off my sandbar!” snapped Daphne, glancing upriver, soaked to the skin and furious. I noticed she had a whole campsite set up. She’d been here awhile. “That’s what! Leave! My dad’s going to be here any second. If he sees you, he’s going to be furious! Nobody’s supposed to know about our plan!”

  The rain still beat down, but it was slowing.

  “Your dad’s not coming,” said Louis.

  Daphne slapped him. Louis quivered, but he kept his eyes on hers. “You have to face it,” he said. Daphne made a fist and drew that back too. But before she could land her punch, we heard the rumble of the flood, the real flood, the whole deluge gathered and towering, thundering down Gage Cut, about to empty from the gap in the cliff a few feet from us. The rock-slide dam had given way. We had a few seconds before it hit. But not much more.

  “Run!” I cried. Everybody did. Except, of course, Daphne. She had no idea what kind of calamity was blasting down that canyon. And even if she did, I think she was ready to wait for her dad until doomsday. Literally.

  Louis, Audrey, and Kate didn’t see her; they sprinted upriver on the sandbar as fast and far as they could go.

  But Daphne dug in her heels. Literally.

  Randolph dithered back and forth, not knowing whether to try one more time to rescue Daphne or to save himself.

  “Go, Randolph!” I shouted.

  And I grabbed Daphne, and I carried her. She was bony, thin, and delicate under her soaking clothes, much more fragile than I’d ever have guessed. She tried to slug me, but I had her over my shoulder with her head facing backward, so she only managed to punch my tailbone, which must’ve hurt her more than it hurt me.

  The sandbar stretched far enough to let us run maybe half a football field upstream from the notch in the cliff where the water would burst. It wasn’t nearly far enough. I set Daphne down. “You—” she screeched.

  The flood exploded out of the canyon, a wall of water as tall as Dolley Madison Middle School, inundating the spot where she’d just been standing in the rain, waiting for her dad. Daphne’s anger evaporated. She looked at me with a look I’d never witnessed, not on her face, at least.

  The girl who’d seen everything was surprised.

  “I’d be dead if you—” she began to say. But now the flood was coming for us. As it crashed into the river, the crest broke, and it began to spread out in a semicircle. The water wall dropped lower and lower, thirty feet, twenty-five feet, twenty. But still awfully high. Still deadly.

  “What do we do?” cried Kate.

  I tried to think. I thought of Roger Woodward who, when he was seven years old, survived the drop over Niagara Falls. I though of General John Wesley Powell washing down three miles of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon after he fell out of his boat in 1869. I thought . . . I thought—

  And I quit thinking.

  “We take the plunge,” I said. “I think it’ll be small enough by the time it gets here.” I eyed the surge that still loomed fifteen feet above our heads, and would hit us in seconds.

  “Small enough to what?” asked Daphne.

rf!” I cried.

  “I can’t surf!” cried Daphne. “I can’t even swim!”

  Louis grabbed Daphne and swung her onto his back.

  “Dive, everybody!” cried Kate.

  We did. And shot the curling flood wave like we were riding a breaker at the beach.

  The last thing I remember was the sight of my friends sliding down the front of the swell, like it was a roller at the shore, if the roller were fifteen feet high and spiked with flood debris. But just when it seemed like we might all actually make it to safety upstream from the flooded canyon, an undertow grabbed me.

  The current of the Rio Grande still flowed beneath the water pouring from Gage Cut, and it had sucked me down. And might pull me, I realized, a hundred miles, to Langtry, Texas. Two hundred, to Del Rio. Maybe eight hundred, to the Atlantic Ocean. And that was longer than I could hold my breath. I fought toward the surface, but I couldn’t be sure where the surface was, and besides, the Rio Grande was stronger than I was.

  So I went down. Everything faded into a kind of dream. I imagined I was turning into a fish, and would soon have gills, and be able to breathe water, which seemed strange, and hard to believe, but then, what choice did I have? As I was about to draw my first and last lungful of water, I dreamed that a pair of hands appeared in the murk and grabbed me by my hair. They were big hands. Strong hands. I dreamed that one of the hands let go of me and started paddling—I could see the froth it made under the water, but the other hand kept a firm grip on my hair. In the dream, it really hurt. When my head broke the surface, I started to think maybe I wasn’t dreaming after all. My hair still hurt. I heard Louis shout, “Hold on to my shirt. I’ll pull you in.”

  “This is not a dream?” I called back.

  “Nope,” Louis replied, and started swimming.

  All I remember from there to the shore was that even though Louis seemed to be cruising through the water like an aircraft carrier, he barely made a splash. He didn’t move his arms fast, or kick much. He didn’t even breathe very often. But every time he took a stroke, he grabbed a giant handful of water and shot ahead. He could’ve taught that Splashview lifeguard a thing or two.

  Soon I found myself sitting on the sand. The surface of the river slid slowly away from my toes, dropping back into the riverbed where it belonged. The last of the flood trickled out of Gage Cut, a quarter mile downstream.

  “Louis!” gasped Audrey in amazement.

  “He saved all of us, didn’t he?” I asked when I could talk.

  Kate, Daphne, and Audrey nodded. Randolph made some kind of grunt that sounded appreciative.

  “He pulled you in last,” Kate added.

  “Well, I’m sure he got to me as soon as he could,” I said diplomatically.

  “Where did the hero stuff come from, Louis?” asked Kate. “No offense, but how can someone who can’t deal with a haircut and has to wear elastic waistbands swim like that?”

  “The one thing I can stand is water,” Louis said. “I’m no Michael Phelps, but I’m pretty good.”

  “No kidding,” said Audrey.

  We were sitting on a sandy bank tucked under the cliff at the river’s edge.

  The rain slowed. It stopped. Above us, as the pitch-black storm cloud scuttled away, I saw blue sky peek over the river bluff. Amazing. The sun hadn’t even set yet.

  We’d made it. We were safe. Once we’d caught our collective breath, the Fearless Four would put our heads together and figure out how to find our way back to el Viaje a la Confianza and, from there, sooner or later, to civilization. But for now, I just wanted to take the moment to appreciate being alive. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.

  “About what?” asked Audrey.

  I pointed. Half buried in the sand was—

  “A wheelbarrow,” Audrey said.

  “The red one. From the farm at the other end of the canyon. It must’ve washed down here in the flood,” I surmised.

  “It’s glazed with rainwater,” Kate observed.

  “Unfortunately, still no chickens,” said Louis.

  “That’s okay,” I said.

  “Are you okay?” asked Audrey. “You nearly drowned.”

  “I’m perfect,” I answered.

  “Me too,” replied Audrey, Louis, and Kate all at once. And then we fell into silence, which was also perfect.

  I remembered the question Mrs. Dunaway had asked after the Quiz Bowl Catastrophe—I felt like she’d asked it in another lifetime, and like she’d asked another me: How much depends upon a red wheelbarrow?

  In a flash, I realized everything that’d happened on el Viaje a la Confianza had been leading me to the answer. I finally understood what William Carlos Williams meant: things aren’t always just plain things. They aren’t simply objects and facts and details you can memorize. His wheelbarrow was more than just paint and iron and wooden handles and a rubber tire, because sometimes what you experience adds up something bigger, brighter, more important than yourself, and once in a while something becomes so much yours, you know you’ll carry it with you always.

  A shiny wheelbarrow.

  A rinsed-clean sky with friends gathered under it.

  We’d all get up soon and make our way back to camp, but this moment would last forever. And how much depended on it? Everything.

  In the meantime, in the sunlight after the storm, the red wheelbarrow from the abandoned farm looked beautiful. As beautiful as I felt. “I get it, Mrs. Dunaway,” I murmured. “I really do.”

  Daphne stared up the river, the way she’d probably been staring for two days, hoping for a kayak to appear. “I waited,” she murmured. “I almost drowned.”

  “It’s not your fault if you wait and your dad doesn’t come,” Randolph said to comfort her. “Believe me. I know.”

  Daphne turned to me. “I almost killed all of you,” she said.

  I thought about the lie Daphne had believed for so long about her dad. I also thought about the truth she would have to face now. The shattered look in her eyes made me think she’d already started to see it. Out of everything that’d happened, this felt like the worst thing of all. Because nobody could fix it.

  I knew that President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, and Olympic medalist Michael Phelps grew up without their fathers. And after age eleven, George Washington didn’t have one either.

  I also knew that telling Daphne these facts wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes facts help. But they can’t tell the whole story. Sometimes, facts are no help at all.

  “He never came,” said Daphne.

  “But we did,” Audrey answered.

  “But you don’t even like me,” said Daphne.

  “It’s not that we don’t like you,” I began. Audrey turned her head and gave me a look.

  “Okay,” I said, sighing. “We haven’t liked you all that much so far.”

  “But you came anyway,” said Daphne.

  I shrugged. “Yeah, we came anyway.”

  Then Daphne smiled and said, “Thanks.”

  After we got ourselves together, and dried our socks, and filled our bottles, and dropped in the water-purifying pills, we hiked back to camp through the remnants of the flood, just a few harmless trickles in the bottom of Gage Cut. The rock slide had been blasted to oblivion. Not even a shard of gravel remained on that trail. It was as clean as a whistle.

  We crossed the desert as darkness grew deeper and deeper around us, and then receded again, as the moon rose and soon shone so brilliantly, we could see one anothers’ faces, sharp and white.

  Nobody talked. Not because we were unhappy. It was the opposite. We felt like we’d won a victory that would last a long time.

  Above us, as we hiked, the stars of the Milky Way brightened until they joined into a solid streak of light, and finally Audrey spoke the only words of the night. She stopped in the trail, barely half a mile from camp, and turned her face toward the blazing sky. “Look,” she whispered, pointing at the Milky Way. “They’re all one star.”

>  In camp the next morning, we explained as much as we could to the rangers Enod and Kevin had fetched. We didn’t lie, although I admit we did leave some things out. We told them that Daphne had taken off on her own, and because Jare got hurt, the five of us had gone to save her. We didn’t see Jare again, because he’d already been airlifted to a hospital in El Paso, but none of the rangers mentioned that Jare was being charged with kidnapping, so we figured he must have done some leaving out of his own. Even so, it was pretty clear that he’d have to find another line of work. Stick a fork in el Viaje a la Confianza. It was done.

  When we got back to the camp headquarters, some of the parents were already there. Daphne’s dad was nowhere to be found, but there was a woman waiting for Daphne who must’ve been her mother, because, except for her regular brown hair and regular mom clothes, she looked exactly like her. You could tell from the woman’s eyes that she’d spent at least an entire plane ride crying, but when she saw Daphne, her face lit up like a skyful of stars, and when Daphne ran over to her and hugged her, Audrey, Kate, Louis, Randolph, and I watched as she hung on just the way we’d all held on to Louis when he was saving us from drowning.

  A few days after I flew home, Hardy Gillooly and I went to hang out at Splashview Pool so I could tell him about the whole thing. When I was finished, I also told Hardy I wanted to start a wilderness club at school.

  “Good idea,” said Hardy. “I’ll join up. And next year? Why don’t we just skip Quiz Masters?” He was trying to be nice. To let me off the hook after last spring.

  I told him no. I wanted to start a wilderness club, but I still wanted to do Quiz Masters. Because being captain of the Quiz Masters team was still part of who I was, and now that el Viaje a la Confianza had taught me how important it is to trust your friends, I knew I could do a much better job.

  “What if there’s another, um—” began Hardy.

  “Catastrophe?” I asked. “So what? I’m still doing it.”

  Hardy looked a little doubtful.

  “I’m doing it anyway!” I said.

  “Anyway?” repeated Hardy.

  I said, “When my friend Audrey visits, we’ll tell you all about the anyway. You’re gonna like Audrey.”