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Connect the Stars
Marisa de los Santos
Connect the Stars 5
My palms got sticky. I shivered. I stood it as long as I could. Then I jumped out of my seat. “I did it!” I cried.
I ran out of the classroom, down the hallway, and around the corner, and I burst into Principal DuPlessy’s office. There sat a policeman whose name tag read OFFICER HANRAHAN. Beside him sat a colossal German shepherd.
Wow, I thought. These Central Standards guys don’t waste any time.
“I admit it!” I cried. “I admit the whole thing! I tried to fix the Central Standards Exam!”
“The what?” said Officer Hanrahan as the dog peered at me with his ears at attention.
“The exam,” I began. “I . . . uh—”
“Wahoo and I are just here for the SSFT assembly,” said Officer Hanrahan. He pointed out the office window at the hallway, where shrimpy sixth graders filed by on their way to the libracafegymnatorium. “What’s all this about a Central Standards Exam?”
“What’s all this about SSFT?” I asked.
“Summer Safety Fun Tips!” explained Officer Hanrahan.
As he said it, he fished a miniature tube of sunscreen out of his pocket and tossed it in the air. Leaping like a trained seal, Wahoo snatched it in his teeth. “First, no matter what sort of fun you enjoy, always wear sunscreen!” said Officer Hanrahan. Wahoo dropped the slobbery sunscreen in my lap, wagging his tail.
“In that case,” I said, wiping it off, “never mind.” Wahoo was so well trained he’d only left three faint toothmarks. I stuck the sunscreen in my pocket.
“No problem,” said Officer Hanrahan as he and Wahoo headed for the assembly.
I stood up to follow. But Principal DuPlessy said, “Could you please stay here, Aaron? I have a few questions for you.”
“So,” the principal began, “what exactly do you mean by ‘fix’?”
“Fix, to make firm or stable,” I replied. “To give permanent form. To preserve for microscopic study. To make a photograph permanent.”
“I think you meant something different,” ventured the principal.
“To attach,” I continued. “To hold steady. ‘He fixes his eyes on the horizon.’ To repair or mend. ‘He fixed the broken lock.’”
“No, I don’t think that’s what you meant either,” mused Principal DuPlessy.
“To get even with. To influence an outcome by improper or illegal means,” I continued. Whoops. A prime example of something I should’ve previewed before I said it out loud.
“That sounds closer,” mused the principal, rubbing his shiny head. It still wasn’t clear if his hair was going to grow back.
Mrs. Dunaway knocked on the door. The principal must’ve called her before he started in on me.
An ice age dawned inside my rib cage, and a glacier began to coat my spine.
“Are you shaking?” asked the principal.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good,” said the principal. “Have a seat, Mrs. Dunaway. I’m just finishing up your termination letter.” He jotted his initials on a sheet of paper and handed it to her.
Everything inside me started to sink. “But I did it!” I cried.
“But I can’t fire you,” said the principal. “So I’m firing your teacher. I’ve been looking for an excuse. I need somebody new and fresh who can improve my statistics.”
“But it was me,” I repeated miserably. “I saw the questions when you dropped that quiz book on the floor, and I revealed the answers to the class! Mrs. Dunaway, I was only trying to help.”
“I have to hand it to you,” said Mrs. Dunaway. “You failed spectacularly.”
“I’m really, really sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” said Mrs. Dunaway, tearing up the letter Principal DuPlessy had just handed her. “As I said, it was spectacular.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked the principal.
“Going back to class,” said Mrs. Dunaway, standing up and motioning to me.
“But you’re fired!” cried the principal. “As for Aaron, he’s suspended.”
“I don’t think so,” said Mrs. Dunaway, giving the principal a stare.
“But he just admitted leaking answers to the Central Standards Exam!” bellowed the principal. “That’s cheating! The Central Standards Committee will not be happy!”
“I agree,” said Mrs. Dunaway. “They certainly won’t. When they hear how Aaron got those answers. How the principal of Dolley Madison Middle School stood right in front of him and broke the seal on the test SIX DAYS EARLY and dropped a question book ON THE FLOOR FOR HIM TO SEE!”
I could almost hear the air leak out of Principal DuPlessy. He turned white. He slumped in his chair.
“You’ve certainly got some explaining to do for the benefit of the Central Standards Committee,” observed Mrs. Dunaway. “Good luck.”
“I . . . you . . . ah . . . ,” stammered the principal.
“Bye,” said Mrs. Dunaway.
As Mrs. Dunaway and I walked back to class, she said, “You’re a smart kid, Aaron. Smarter than you realize.”
“But everything I touch turns into a disaster!” I said. “I think I’m actually some kind of idiot. How can I possibly be smarter than I realize?”
“That’s the kind of question you have to figure out on your own,” she said.
“The same way I have to figure out how much depends on a red wheelbarrow?” I wondered.
“A lot like that, yes,” replied Mrs. Dunaway. “But it sounds like you’re already on the right track.”
“This could take a while,” I said.
“It might,” agreed Mrs. Dunaway. “And now, one last thing: I’m afraid a parent-teacher conference is called for.”
Evidently, the principal made some kind of excuse and filled out a waiver and signed a form and convinced the Central Standards Committee to let Mrs. Dunaway’s homeroom retake the test the following week, since we never got to finish taking it the first time, due to unspecified “technical difficulties” (in other words, me).
And believe it or not, Mrs. Dunaway’s score went up four whole points! Mrs. Dunaway said it was because of all the adrenaline rushing through everybody’s bloodstream because of the excitement I’d caused. I think she was joking, but she also told the whole class thanks for saving her job, and when she said that, she sounded serious.
After the parent-teacher conference, during which Mrs. Dunaway revealed pretty much the whole story, except the part about blackmailing the principal to avoid punishment, my mom and dad and I went home to discuss everything. We sat at our kitchen table and my mom told me the same thing Mrs. Dunaway had told me: “You’re a smart kid.”
My dad snapped, “You think you know everything.” He was a little mad at me because of all the trouble I’d caused. Actually, so was I.
“I don’t think I know everything,” I said. “I think I remember everything. But I don’t know anything.”
“Oh, son,” my dad said much more softly. Suddenly, he was over being mad. He put his arm around me. “I realize it’s hard.”
“Mrs. Dunaway is the greatest teacher I’ve ever had,” I explained. “She was trying to teach me something important. She gave me a nutty poem. She asked me questions with no answers. She’s awesome. And the principal was going to fire her. Because of that test. I just wanted to help her!”
“We know your heart is in the right place,” said my dad. “But things have to change. You could’ve gotten yourself expelled.”
“Maybe we’ve let you down,” reflected my mom. “Maybe when you memorized all fifty-seven countries in Africa just by walking past the globe at the pediatrician’s office when you were three—”
“Sixty-one,” I corrected. “Including independent territories.”
“Maybe then we should have consulted an expert. But we thought you’d outgrow it.”
“I probably would’ve ended up this way no matter who you consulted,” I reassured them.
“Your mom and I talked it over earlier,” said my dad, “and we did some researc
h and conferred with the school counselor, and we think maybe you could use a change of scene, a brand-new start, a blank page for the summer.”
“What kind of place?” I asked.
“A place where you have to think, instead of just remember,” said my mom. “Like you said.”
“There’s a place like that?” I asked.
“We believe so,” said my dad.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“We said a blank page,” my dad reminded me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“We’re not telling you where you’re going, honey,” sighed my mom. “Because what good will it do if you memorize every known fact about it before you get there?”
El Viaje a la Confianza Trailhead
THE VIAJE A LA CONFIANZA brochure hadn’t been lying about the “stunningly beautiful” landscape. Even from the window of the airport shuttle that took me to the camp, I drank in the spice colors of the earth and noticed the way the clear sunlight made everything sharper than at home. When I got off the van at the trailhead in a tiny town called Pumpjack, beside a low, plain stucco ranger station with a red tile roof, I just stood there for a moment, blinking and greedily breathing in what felt like an entirely new kind of air.
But I’d hardly gotten my bearings when a voice boomed across the parking lot, “I’m Jare Eastbrook, your mentor and guide along el Viaje a la Confianza. Parents, see you in six weeks!’”
A few tearful good-byes continued while Jare made this announcement, but I grabbed my backpack and jogged over to a patch of silvery-green grass to join what I guessed must be my fellow campers, a group of pretty dazed-looking kids. Jare’s wasn’t the kind of voice you disobey.
“No. Really. I’m serious,” shouted Jare as he seemed to loom over the parking lot. “See you, parents. Skedaddle. Vamoose. Let me start earning all that money you just paid me.”
My shuttle was long gone, but the few moms and dads who’d driven their kids all the way to the trailhead shot him doubtful looks.
“I know what I’m doing,” Jare assured them. “Bye.”
Less than a minute later, all the parents were gone, and he turned to us. “We’re gonna hike from this ranger station to el Presidio de la Norte. Two hundred and ten miles of scenic Texas desert in six weeks. Which means we have to cover approximately five miles a day of mountains, gullies, badlands, and worse lands. Smile. That’s a joke.”
A minivan idled on the highway in front of the ranger station. Somebody’s mom peered anxiously out the passenger window. “HASTA LA VISTA!” cried Jare. The minivan sped away.
“To find our way, we’ll use maps, compasses, trail markers, the sun, the moon, the stars, and our wits, at least those of us who have any. We will supply our needs from stores of water and food I have cached along the trail. Six times during el Viaje, we’ll take a break from walking and undertake wilderness challenges of my devising, which will reveal what you’re made of. In the meantime, there will be plenty of sun, fresh air, and pure open country. And here is some advice: don’t ever let me catch you wasting water in the desert!”
“I’ve got a question,” said one of the campers, a small, dark-haired girl.
“The answer is no,” said Jare. “Now. Dump your packs. On the ground. Everything out. Here’s what you can keep: headlamps, tweezers, water treatment pills, clothes, sleeping bag, and tent. Here’s what goes in the Dumpster, the dead weight: teddy bears, photo albums, and favorite blankets.”
I made sure not to let him see the picture of my parents and me that I’d slid inside a luggage tag and clipped to my pack.
“One last thing,” said Jare as the “dead weight” thudded into the trash. “Your priorities in the desert: PHWSS. Pack a Hat, Water, Sunscreen, and Socks. Whatever you do, always PHWSS, and your chances of catastrophe are minimal. Let’s go. Three hours to camp.”
“PHWSS” was pronounced with a sound like running over a broken bottle on your mountain bike.
“Wait,” said a blond boy. “You mean we’re leaving? Now?”
Jare didn’t answer, just lowered his head and stared at him.
The kid’s face turned red. “Um. Sorry. I just thought, since we just got here, since we were at, you know, our houses this morning, maybe we weren’t, you know, ready.”
I knew what the kid meant. It had all happened really fast. But somehow, unexpectedly, I found that I was ready. Yes, I was nervous, but right at that moment, with that odd, beautiful place stretching out on every side of me, the world felt bigger than it ever had, and I wanted to see it.
After an hour of hiking, I started thinking about gravity, which got me thinking about how, back in my regular life, I never thought about gravity, unless you counted in science class, and even then, I never thought about it as part of my everyday life. I never considered that gravity tugs on me just as much as it ever tugged on Sir Isaac Newton’s apple. I don’t know what I thought was keeping me from flying off the face of the Earth back then. My school schedule? Homework? My friends (back when I had them)? But when you’ve been hiking for an hour in the hot sun with a hippopotamus-sized pack on your back, you suddenly understand how, every time you lift your foot off the rocky, sandy ground in order to take a step, gravity is trying with all its might to keep it glued to the spot.
Weird, maybe, to tromp through the desert thinking about gravity, but what was even weirder was that I found myself liking it, all of it. Yes, it was hard, achy, sweaty work, but even though, literally, I’d never been so weighted down in my life, I also felt light. No schedules, no school, no family, no friends, no lies, just me and gravity and my heavy, heavy feet and, underneath them, the ground, which was so pale and crumbling and stony that it might have been the moon (except for the gravity, of course).
There were over a dozen other people hiking around me, but for that first couple of hours, I hardly noticed them. For one thing, I tried not to notice them, and for another, we were all too hot and busy—and possibly also shy—to talk. Even when we took our first real break, I kept my distance from the others, tossing down my pack at the very edge of the group and, after a few desperate gulps of water, settling in to look at the land around me.
The place was oddly beautiful, like almost everything soft had been peeled away to reveal the Earth’s bone structure, which was as stark as truth. The mountains in the distance were faceted like crystals. There were clusters of cacti shaped like Ping-Pong paddles and spatulas, minus the handles; agave plants bursting out of the ground like artichokes gone haywire; gray-green grass that looked like fur but wasn’t soft; and a sky so vast, I felt my brain and rib cage expanding to make room for it.
I leaned back on my pack, and stared at the completely cloudless sky, and thought, lazily, How did the sky get that blue? At least, I thought I only thought it, but it turns out that I must have said it out loud, because right after I said it, the boy closest to me piped up with, “The blue of the sky is due to Rayleigh scattering. As sunlight passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, longer wavelengths such as red, orange, and yellow travel with very little impediment. But shorter wavelenths such as blue are captured by air molecules and scattered in all directions, making it appear that blue light is emanating from every part of the sky.”
Reluctantly, I turned to look at him. A skinny, brown-haired kid, he was red-faced and sprawled out on the ground like he’d been spilled there, just like the rest of us, but unlike the rest of us—now that I actually looked around at the other campers—he wasn’t bleary-eyed with fatigue. In fact, his face was wide-awake and peppy, and he talked like a person who was just getting started, who might go on talking for hours.
“That’s interesting,” I said. “Thanks.” I hoped my tone conveyed a combination of politeness and dismissiveness, but just in case he didn’t get the dismissiveness part, I turned away from him, lay back against my pack again, and closed my eyes. After wha
t had happened with Janie, I was more resolved than ever to keep people at a distance, to leave camp with exactly as many friends as I came with: zero. But the boy didn’t seem to notice I was giving him the cold shoulder.
“Rayleigh scattering also causes sunsets to appear red,” he continued cheerfully, “because as the sun drops near the horizon, light must travel farther through the atmosphere to reach your eyes. Therefore, more of it gets scattered. Short-wavelength blues and greens become so scattered they’re virtually lost, while the longer wavelengths of red are all that’s left to be seen.”
I hauled open one eyelid a fraction of a centimeter and darted my eyeball sideways to sneak a peek at the kid, just to see if he was talking to me or to the group as a whole. I couldn’t quite make out his face, but right before I closed my eye again, I saw a rock the size of a grape come winging in from the boy’s left to hit him on the shoulder, not lightly. The boy’s mouth twitched a little in a way that was maybe nervous, but he just swatted vaguely at his arm like a fly had landed on it and kept talking about the red waves.
“There’s gonna be some red waves coming out of your skull if you don’t shut up,” growled a voice.
Someone—a girl—laughed like this was the cleverest thing she’d ever heard. It was a mean laugh.
“Great,” mumbled someone else, a boy, worriedly. “Threats.”
Just ignore them, I told myself. If you keep your eyes closed, maybe they’ll all disappear. But I could feel myself getting interested in the conversation—if you could call it that—in spite of myself. I squeezed my eyes shut, and was trying to think of a way to put my fingers in my ears without anyone noticing, when a whistle cut through the clear air like a razor.