Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 6

  “Break over!” Jare, the big, meaty camp director, barked. “Up and at ’em, people. We’ve got ground to cover.”

  Everyone started groaning, but I was relieved. Now we could go back to the silent walking, where I could pretend it was just me and gravity.

  But it was like the tall skinny boy with his Rayleigh whoever and his scattered whatever had poked a hole in the silence that wouldn’t close back up. The farther we hiked, the bigger the hole got. Not everyone talked. Mostly the skinny kid would unroll these long encyclopedia-sounding streamers of information; the rock-throwing kid, who was red haired, freckled, and muscly in that weight-lifter, no-neck, short-guy way, would call him stupid and tell him to shut up; and the mean-laugh girl, who had hair the color of ketchup, fingernails the color of dried blood, and boots like anvils, would laugh, meanly. But I could tell that even the nontalkers were part of it. They were listening, clumping together in twos and threes so they could exchange glances or roll their eyes at each other over what the three talkers were saying.

  Every now and then, Jare would stop to hurl a piece of education at us: “That’s a prickly pear. Edible, from the fruit to the pads to the seeds. Store that information away. You’ll need it!”

  Or, pointing to an innocent-looking bush with a smattering of white flowers: “Beebrush! Deadly poison to horses. Don’t even think about eating it!”

  “Who would think about that?” I mumbled.

  “Nobody,” a tiny, black-haired girl with big sad eyes mumbled back. “Ever.”

  “Bumblebees!” bellowed Jare, pointing at some fat, fuzzy, striped bees. “Fat! Fuzzy! Striped! Harmless. But there are other bees in the area. Honeybees! Not indigenous! Some are harmless. Others are Africanized, aka killer bees!”

  The boy to the left of me, who was almost as large as Jare and walked like he was stepping across hot coals, gulped and said, “Killer?”

  “If they chase you,” yelled Jare, “run! Zigzag pattern!”

  “Zigzag?” croaked the large boy.

  Pointing to an agave plant, Jare shouted, “Agave! Also called century plant because they bloom once every hundred years!”

  “Agave havardiana, a monocarpic succulent, lives up to fifty years and blooms once, just before it dies,” said Skinny Kid, “sending up a seed stalk that can be twenty feet tall.”

  We all swiveled our heads to stare at him, but I swiveled mine back fast and braced myself, waiting for Jare to start shouting.

  “I’m sorry,” barked Jare. “Did you say something?”

  Skinny Kid nodded, smiling like someone who hadn’t just been yelled at by a man the size of a grizzly bear.

  “What do you do?” asked Jare, whipping off his sunglasses to squint at the boy. “Memorize encyclopedias?”

  “Sometimes,” said the boy, shrugging. “But not on purpose. I mean, mostly not.”

  Glaring at him, Jare shoved his glasses back onto his face and said, “Let’s pick up the pace, people!” and took off hiking at about sixty miles an hour. “One last thing. Watch out for rattlenakes!”

  “Nice work,” said the no-neck boy, giving Skinny Kid a shove from behind. Then he added, “Memory Boy!” with a sneering tone and a snicker that suggested that “Memory Boy” was the most creative insult ever invented. He looked at the ketchup-haired girl for validation, but she just shrugged and hiked past him. After a disappointed beat, he scurried after her.

  I had to hand it to Ketchup Hair: she might look like something out of a bad vampire TV series, but, in her own furious, stomping-something-to-death way, the girl could hike through the rocks and cactus in those Frankenstein boots like a pro.

  “Memory Boy,” murmured Sad-Eyed Girl in her flat voice. “Good one.”

  I smiled at this. I couldn’t help myself. After I did it, I let out a groan, and this time, it wasn’t because of the heat or the hike. I saw that it was starting: We’d all keep talking and arguing and shoving and smiling at each other and interacting, and soon these people would stop being Ketchup Hair and Sad-Eyed Girl and Skinny Kid. Soon they would have names; soon they’d be full-fledged people, like Lyza, like Janie, and I knew that’s when the real trouble would start.

  By the time we got to our campground, it was almost evening. We’d gone uphill for the last thirty minutes or so, and while we weren’t exactly in the mountains, we were in an in-between area where the shrubs (“Mesquite! Long taproot! Edible beans!” “Creosote bush! Distinctive smell!” “Ocotillo! Medicinal! Makes good walking sticks!”) were starting to mix with some good-sized trees (“Piñon pine! Edible nuts! Good bird food!” “Juniper! Berries used to make gin! Don’t try it—or else, ha ha ha!”).

  Even though the desert floor was interesting, I was glad we would be sleeping with trees nearby. Somehow, trees made me feel safer. I wasn’t sure yet what I needed to be safe from, but I figured that before long, Jare would probably tell us, in a tone of sinister glee. He sure had a lot of fun hinting at how we’d sooner or later all be wandering through the desert, alone, starving, foraging for food, and getting attacked by bees.

  I have to say that, even though I’d been grumpy about how many times my parents had made me practice setting up my tent in our backyard before I left, I was proud of how well I did it, Tinkertoying the skinny rods together and sliding them into the fabric channels like I’d been doing it for years. Except for Jare and Ketchup Hair, I was the first one done. The big kid who’d worried out loud about the killer bees took twice as long as any of us, but while the rest of us had narrow, one-person tents, his looked big enough for three or four people. The only tent bigger was Jare’s, but I figured that Jare had to stow a lot of stuff inside. Big Kid was definitely large, but a tent this huge seemed like unnecessary weight to me. I wondered what was up with Big Kid.

  Dinner was a bland beef stew and hard chunks of cornbread like dull, yellow stones, but after the hard day, it all tasted good. I thought about Henry David Thoreau, hoeing his bean fields in the hot sun and then eating the beans for supper. I bet they tasted good too. Maybe that’s the way this camp was going to work: we’d suffer so much all day that even the stuff that was just okay or even kind of crummy would seem great in comparison.

  After dinner, Jare gave a speech. When he’d met us that morning at the park’s visitor’s center, he’d barely introduced himself before he’d started barking out orders. I’d taken it as a good sign, since, as I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t in the market for a big, chatty, get-to-know-each-other excursion. I had liked his impersonal, businesslike approach.

  But now, as we all sat around the campfire in a semicircle, Jare stood up, cleared his throat, and turned into a different person. He pointed his finger a lot; he clapped his hands together a lot. It was like he was part inspirational speaker, part football coach, which made sense, since he was a former football player. A Darn Good One! High School All-American! College Player of the Year in his rookie season!

  “Yeah, right,” mumbled No-Neck. “I bet he rode the bench.”

  But I could tell Jare was telling the truth. He really had been good—not that anyone seemed to care, because why would we?

  “But I wasn’t one of those guys who wanted to devote my entire life to tossing an oblate spheroid around an Astroturf field,” Jare went on. “I wanted more.”

  For the first time, I saw his truthfulness falter. Before I could think much about why this might be, Skinny Kid interrupted him.

  “A football is actually a prolate spheroid with the profile of a vesica piscus.” He said this cheerfully, as though he was honestly trying to be helpful.

  Even in the fading light, I could see Jare’s face turn red. Maybe that had been the problem with what he’d said about the oblate spheroid. Pretending to know what you’re talking about can look an awful lot like lying. I felt a little sorry for Jare; he’d probably used the term so we’d all think he was smart, not just a dumb football jock, and here he was, looking sort of dumb after all. After giving Skinny Kid the evil eye for a full ten second
s, Jare clapped his hands together and continued.

  “My point is, I know how to fight. How to work hard. How to win. And I know how to do it out here, in a wilderness like you’ve never seen in your lives. A place where all the rules are different.”

  “Please,” said Ketchup Hair in disgust. “This is, like, my fourth wilderness camp. They’re all alike.”

  Jare’s jaw tightened, but he didn’t even glance at Ketchup Hair. I could tell he was gearing up for the grand finale part of his speech. He bent over a little, narrowed his eyes, and leveled a piercing gaze at us, stabbing his finger at random campers as he talked.

  “Whatever you were back home—a delinquent, a smart mouth, a spoiled brat behind the wheel of a BMW . . .” The camp was for kids ages thirteen to fourteen, which meant none of us was old enough to drive.

  “. . . captain of the math league . . .” Jare sneered, like there was nothing stupider in the world than captain of the math league.

  “. . . a punk-rock skateboarder punk . . .” Ketchup Hair guffawed acidly at this.

  “. . . valedictorian, class clown, class president, Annie in the school musical, first chair trombone, et cetera! Whatever you were, you’re not that here. You’re nobody.”

  “Fine with me,” murmured Sad-Eyed Girl.

  “You can look at this as a fresh start or as the worst thing that’s ever happened to you,” said Jare, his voice getting louder, “but what you can’t do is escape. This land doesn’t play. It bites. It stabs. It stings.”

  Big Kid (with the big tent) flinched three times, like each of those verbs was actually happening to him as Jare spoke them.

  “Rise to it, ladies and gents,” boomed Jare. “Show yourselves worthy of it and all its challenges—or end up bleached bones in the desert sun!”

  Silence settled over us. Thinking about yourself as a skeleton will do that, I guess. For a long moment, we all just listened to the fire crackling and contemplated our own deaths, and then Jare smacked his hammy palms together one more time and said cheerily, “Okay, let’s get down to business, people! First thing to work on: mind-set! Sometimes, the difference between victory and defeat is less this”—he flexed his arm muscles—“and more this.” He tapped his forefinger to his temple. “Although plenty of this sure doesn’t hurt.” He flexed his muscles again. “Ha ha ha!”

  “Who laughs like that?” I whispered to myself. “‘Ha ha ha’?”

  Someone to the right of me chuckled after I said this. It sounded like Big Kid, but he was sitting at least twenty feet away from me. If he’d heard what I’d said, the guy had hearing like a bat’s.

  “Question: what is the thing that will be the difference—for you, personally—between throwing in the towel and surviving el Viaje? What thought will keep you hanging in there when the vultures are circling, when the wilderness has you in its clutches, ready to crush you?” asked Jare. “Let’s go around the circle, introduce ourselves, and share with the group the one and only thought that will have any hope of keeping you alive.”

  Great, I thought, bleakly, a getting-to-know-you game. I’d hoped Jare was too tough for that touchy-feely camp stuff, but even though his touchy-feely game had vultures circling around it with their hideous shriveled red heads, it was touchy-feely all the same.

  Jare started walking around the circle, pointing to each camper in turn. People said things like parents, dog, baby brother, and even in the dark, I could tell most of them were telling the truth.

  No-Neck turned out to be Randolph. He said, “My gang back home.” Lie.

  Ketchup Hair was Daphne. She said, “My dad and getting revenge on my mom and all the other losers who have crossed me.” Truth.

  Big Kid was Louis. He said, “Being in my house with my books and my computer and my food and my sheets on my bed.” Truth.

  Sad-Eyed Girl was Kate. She said, her voice flatter than ever, “What’s the point of holding on to stuff when it all just goes away in the end anyway? I don’t have anything. Unless you count the same reason I get out of bed every morning: why not? Like, I know what it’s like to be alive, and I don’t know what it’s like to be dead, so why not just go with what I know?” Truth. She wasn’t just being dramatic. She was really as sad as her eyes.

  Skinny Kid was Aaron. He said, “Well, first of all, the world’s a pretty interesting place, but mostly what I think is that I haven’t had the chance to give anything back to it. Like I’ve had this basically decent life, but because I’m a kid, I mostly just take what gets handed to me. The last time I tried to help someone was kind of a disaster. But it would stink to die without, you know, making a contribution.” Randolph and Daphne mimed vomiting, and yes, Aaron sounded eerily like a Miss America contestant, except that all of them are always lying, and Aaron was—oddly, amazingly—telling the truth.

  I said, “My parents. They’re pretty great people, and I’m their only kid. They’d be crushed if they never saw me again. And, you know, vice versa.”

  Daphne shot me a venomous glare, which was weird because, even though my answer was true, I also thought it was pretty generic.

  While we were all still squirming with discomfort but were also feeling relieved that it was over, Jare broke us into four groups of four. Mine was me, Aaron, Kate, and Louis. Uneasily, we got up and sidled toward each other, with weary “heys” and nods, except for Aaron, who shook hands with each of us in turn and said, “Aaron Archer, nice to meet you.” When he held out his hand to Louis, Louis looked at it like it might electrocute him, and after one quick shake, he dropped it like maybe it had.

  “This is your team!” Jare told us. “Team! Starting tomorrow, you will go out into the desert alone with your team! You will face unimaginable challenges together, challenges of my own devising! If you expect to rise to those challenges, you will need to rely on each other in ways you’ve never relied on anyone else! At some point in this journey, every member will be the difference between triumph and defeat! Don’t mess up, people! Don’t let your team down!”

  He gave us another question to discuss. “What do you bring to the table? What special talent will you contribute to the team’s survival?”

  Louis, Aaron, Kate, and I eyed each other shyly for a moment. Then I said, “I can’t believe he didn’t say ‘There’s no I in team.’ He’s definitely a no-I-in-team kind of person.”

  “Yeah, but of course,” said Aaron, “in the Spanish word for team, there actually is an I.”

  For a second no one said anything, and then Louis, in a perfect imitation of Jare, laughed, “Ha ha ha!” and we all cracked up. When we were finished laughing, Kate said, “I guess we should sit down?”

  So we all plopped down, except for Louis, who lowered himself slowly and gingerly, like the ground was as prickly as a cactus. I noticed that his curly hair was so long and shaggy it could almost have gone into a ponytail, except that he didn’t seem like the ponytail type.

  “Um, okay,” I said. “So what special talent will you contribute to the group’s survival? Anyone want to go first?”

  “Sure,” said Aaron brightly. “I guess my talent would be—”

  I held up my hand. “Let me guess,” I said. “You have a photographic memory.”

  “That’s not really it,” said Aaron, “because it’s not just what I see, but what I hear too. It all just stays in my brain.”

  “Do you use mnemonic devices?” asked Louis. “You know, like Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge? Always Add Acid? King Henry Died Unexpectedly Drinking Chocolate Milk?”

  “Nope,” said Aaron. He looked almost embarrassed. “I never really talked to anybody about how it works before. Everything I see and hear just kind of . . . sticks.”

  “Like Post-its,” said Kate.

  “If you had about three tons of them, and a thousand regrigerator doors to stick them on,” said Aaron. “Although what happens to me is not as overwhelming as hyperthymesia, where people recall nearly every event of their entire lives through uncontrollable and unexpected a

  “Still. Doesn’t it get cluttered?” I asked. “How do you think straight with all that stuff stuck to the inside of your brain?”

  “It’s not like it’s all there all the time. Well, it is there, but I might not even know, because it’s kind of put away. I can usually get it out if I need to, though.”

  “Like clicking open a folder on your computer desktop?” asked Louis.

  “Exactly!” Aaron said excitedly. Then his thoughts seemed to shift. “The first modern analog computer was a tide-predicting machine, invented by Sir William Thomson in 1872.”

  “What’s analog mean?” I asked.

  Aaron squinted up at the sky. “I don’t know,” he finally said.

  “I thought you knew pretty much everything,” I said.

  “I only know what I’ve seen, or heard, or looked up, and there’s only so much time in the day,” Aaron replied. “So there are definite gaps. I mean, sometimes I just have to put down the books and go eat dinner.”

  “Well, anyway,” I said, “your talent could definitely come in handy.”

  “Thanks,” said Aaron, and then added sheepishly, “except I don’t know if I have much information about the desert southwest. A few things here and there maybe, along with whatever Jare’s already told us.”

  “I’m surprised you didn’t read up on it before you came,” said Kate.

  “I would have, but my parents wouldn’t tell me where I was going until I got on the plane.”

  “Really?” said Louis. “Didn’t they want you to store information that would help you conquer the wilderness?”

  “I think the idea was for me not to have the information. I think they want me to use my other strengths to figure things out.” He looked embarrassed. “Except I don’t have any other strengths.”

  “I’m sure you do,” I said, but I sounded uncertain, even to myself.

  “Thanks. Uh, so, what about you?” Aaron asked me. “What’s your special talent?”

  I’d never told anyone about the lie-detecting thing, except for my parents, who had already figured it out on their own. There was no way I was telling these strangers. So I just said, “I spend a lot of time outside. And, uh, I’m good at setting up a tent.”