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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 7


  “Great!” said Aaron. “How about you, Kate?”

  Kate sighed. “I don’t know. My parents used to tell me I was good at walking around in other people’s shoes.”

  Aaron looked puzzled. “Really? That’s an interesting, um, skill.”

  “I think she means she’s good at imagining what it would be like to be someone else,” said Louis.

  Aaron laughed, embarrassed. “Right!”

  “But I haven’t felt like doing that lately.” She paused gloomily. “Haven’t talked to my parents much lately, either.”

  Then she added, with more fire than she’d shown so far, “Also, I stick by people I care about. I don’t just ditch them when things get rough.” Then, just as suddenly, the dullness came back. “Of course, I don’t really care about anyone anymore, so I guess that doesn’t matter.”

  Kate looked down at her hands in her lap. I noticed that she had beautiful hands, with the kind of oval fingernails I’d always wanted. We all sat for a second, not saying anything.

  Finally I said, “Okay, Louis. What special talent will you contribute to the group’s survival?”

  “Can we just maybe not say survival?” asked Louis. “I’ve been here less than a day, and I’ve already pictured like ten ways I’m probably going to die, which, even for me, is a record. Can we say . . . success?”

  “Sure,” I said. “Louis, what special talent will you contribute to the group’s success?”

  “Nothing,” said Louis. “I am useless. A total liability.”

  “Aw, that can’t be true,” I said encouragingly.

  Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but Louis definitely believed it was.

  “No, trust me, it is,” said Louis. “I have this weird sensory disorder, which basically means all my senses are like ridiculously heightened.”

  “That sounds sort of cool,” said Kate, shrugging. It was almost funny how even when she was saying something was cool, she sounded sad, dull, and like not one thing on the planet had ever been or ever could be cool.

  “Jewel beetles have infrared detectors under their legs that enable them to sense forest fires fifty miles away,” said Aaron. “The greater wax moth is capable of sensing sound frequencies of up to three hundred kilohertz, which means its range of hearing is almost twice as great as that of the bottlenose dolphin. Grizzly bears’ sense of smell can have an eighteen-mile radius.”

  I saw what he was doing, trying to put a positive spin on Louis’s sensory issues, but Louis stared blankly at Aaron for a few seconds and then said, “I can’t wear pants with regular waistbands.” He snapped the elastic waist of his pants, just to demonstrate, and then winced like he’d been shot.

  “Oh,” said Aaron.

  “I can’t go to the movies without throwing up because it’s so loud.”

  “It is really loud,” said Kate, shrugging, “especially the previews.”

  “I’ve never gotten past the previews,” said Louis.

  “Wow,” I said.

  “I can’t stand things coming at me unexpectedly. I’ve gotten better in that I don’t scream anymore, I mean not usually.” His face took on a haunted look. “I hope there won’t be dodgeball here. Dodgeball is hell.”

  “We unpacked our bags and repacked them back at the visitors’ center, remember?” I said. “Not a red rubber ball in sight.”

  Louis looked relieved, then smiled wryly. “A good idea, right? Sending a kid who is terrified of a playground game and can’t wear clothes with tags in them to the wilderness.”

  “Were your parents maybe thinking along the same lines as Aaron’s?” I asked.

  “I guess the idea is that if I face my challenges head-on, I’ll develop ways to cope with them,” said Louis. He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right. Like the wilderness could suddenly make me like dodgeball.”

  “Or make me happy,” said Kate.

  “Or make me into someone besides . . . Memory Boy,” Aaron said quickly.

  “Or make me trust my fellow human beings,” I said. It just slipped out.

  They all looked at me, waiting for more. Just then, a rock-hard lump of cornbread flew out of nowhere, hit Aaron in the side of the head, and fell at our feet.

  Randolph’s mocking voice came out of the darkness. “Tomorrow, you’re vulture bait, Memory Boy!”

  We all stared down at the cornbread. Aaron rubbed the side of his head.

  “Trust your fellow human beings?” said Kate dryly. “Good luck with that.”

  CHAPTER SIX

  Aaron Archer

  El Viaje a la Confianza

  I JOLTED AWAKE. IN A sleeping bag. In a tent. Lying on the rocky ground, next to the rusting tracks of an abandoned railroad. Before we’d bedded down the night before, Jare had made sure to tell us the story of the poor people who’d tried to build the railroad long ago, only to be defeated by the sun, sand, and heat of the desert. He gave us the impression it was mostly because they’d failed to PHWSS.

  I heard an enormous creature crashing away through the bushes, and then everything fell silent, like in a museum or a church. At first I thought I was the only camper awake, but across the clearing, I saw Louis sitting bolt upright in the door of his tent, wrapped in his sleeping bag, staring glassily at the stars like he hadn’t slept a wink.

  Suddenly, loud screams rang out. Everybody woke up in a panic and tried to thrash out of their tents before they’d even unzipped their bags.

  Except me. Because I knew the screams weren’t screams. I recognized the sound of Helm Brütson of Garroted Artery shredding the guitar solo from “Beast Wagon.” Two feet from my left ear. In the dimness of the dawn, I spied a beatbox hidden in a tumbleweed next to my tent flap.

  “Guys! Guys!” I hollered, fumbling with the switch to kill the music. “It’s okay! Stop! Everything is fine!” Slowly everybody calmed down. “It’s just Jare’s idea of an alarm clock.”

  “I hate Splutterkick,” grumbled Randolph.

  “It’s worse than Splutterkick.” Louis shivered, his hands still covering his ears. “It’s Garroted Artery!”

  “Shut up, freak,” snarled Randolph, and shoved Louis into a bush, which made him whimper. “It’s Splutterkick.” He stomped off toward the campfire, dragging his pack behind him.

  “Actually, you’re right,” I whispered to Louis, who was rubbing his ribs where Randolph had shoved him as he extracted himself from the bush. “Randolph made a mistake.” I figured it’d cheer Louis up to know he’d been correct. “What most people don’t realize is that Helm Brütson of Hang Time and Vhing Sharapova of Splutterkick were members of the same middle school marching band in Galveston, Texas, and during a hiatus in their rock-and-roll careers, they joined forces to form the supergroup Garroted—”

  I noticed Louis’s eyes grow wide at the sight of something behind me. I turned around in time to see Randolph, who must’ve come back for something he had forgotten, looking really annoyed and drawing back his—

  BLAM.

  Everything went white, and static crackled in my ears.

  I found myself lying in the dirt watching birds fly through the purple dawn while my fellow campers stared down at me with wide eyes and silent mouths shaped like Os. All except for Randolph, who carefully placed his bootheel on my forehead and said, “Listen up, Memory Boy. If I say it’s Splutterkick, it’s Splutterkick, even when it’s Garroted Artery. Got it?”

  I thought maybe I did.

  Because of my encounter with Randolph, I got to breakfast a little late.

  The other campers were just finishing up PHWSS, which was how we were going to begin every day in the desert, I realized: Pack a Hat, Water, Sunscreen, and Socks. The breakfast bowls were cleaned and packed, and there was nothing left to eat but half a box of raisins that somebody had dropped in the sand and picked back up, so when I chewed them, they made a lot of noise inside my head.

  Jare was concluding a speech about the purpose of our upcoming el Viaje challenge, whatever it was. I’d missed that part
while I was stretched out on the ground near my tent, contemplating all the stars in the daytime sky. “You’re going to work as teams,” he said. “You’re going to trust each other! Remember, you might not get back here until tomorrow! So take your sleeping gear and plenty of water! This heat has been killing everything from mastodons to mountain lions for the past ten million years! Now go beat the other guys! Win that air mattress!”

  “What air mattress?” I asked.

  Audrey turned to me with an exasperated look, but when she saw me standing there covered in dirt, my eye swelling up, her expression softened. A little. “It’s our first team challenge. Kind of a scavenger hunt. We’re supposed to follow Caesar’s Nose,” she explained.

  “Right,” I said. “Follow it where?”

  “Somebody else want to explain while I fill our water bottles?” asked Audrey, holding a canteen under the spigot of an orange cooler Jare had cached in a tree before we arrived.

  “Don’t spill a drop!” hollered Jare as he lumbered past. “Not one! It’s a crime to waste water in the desert!”

  His bellowing made Audrey jump, but she managed not to spill any water, which almost seemed to disappoint Jare, who stalked off to torment somebody else.

  “Caesar’s Nose is one of the clues Jare put on the sheet he passed out at breakfast,” volunteered Louis.

  “Jare’s clues,” continued Kate, “are supposed to lead us to a flag hidden somewhere in the desert. Have a look.” She handed me the clues to the challenge, which came in the form of riddles to solve at turning points along the way.

  The first step is easy—follow Caesar’s Nose.

  Benedict Arnold the river’s ghost.

  Do not go gentle into that good night, caballero.

  Delve back into time.

  By turning, turning, we come out right.

  “This makes everything clear,” I joked, but nobody was in much of a mood to laugh.

  Audrey told me Jare had said to pack tents and sleeping bags, as if the search might last overnight, but he had also promised it would be worth the trouble, no matter how long it took, because at the end waited a prize. The team that found the flag and brought it back got an air mattress to sleep on.

  Which didn’t sound like much, especially since, even if your team won, you only got it one night out of every four. But I noticed that Louis seemed excited for the first time since I’d met him. And I remembered the look I’d seen in his eyes that morning, after he’d stayed awake tossing and turning on the desert gravel for nine whole hours. An air mattress would mean a lot to him. I wouldn’t have minded one either, and I could tell by the gleam in Audrey’s and Kate’s eyes they felt the same way. Of course, so did everybody else on el Viaje a la Confianza. But our team had to win. For Louis.

  “Hey. Look at that,” said Louis, after I’d gotten my sunscreen smeared on (the tube still had Wahoo’s toothmarks in it) and my extra socks stowed. He stared at something above my head. I looked. The peak of the mountain we were camped beside was actually a colossal rock outcropping, shaped like the head of an ancient nobleman with a regal nose. Simultaneously, all four members of our team glanced in the direction the nose pointed, where an almost invisible path led behind the tents and disappeared into the desert.

  “Awesome, Louis,” whispered Kate.

  “Good eye,” murmured Audrey. “Let’s go.”

  As silently as we could, while the other teams rushed around slopping water into canteens and slathering on sunscreen and arguing about how much gear to carry, we shouldered our packs and slipped out of camp.

  On the trail, Audrey led the way. Then came Kate. Then came Louis. I picked up the rear. About thirty minutes out, we stumbled upon a bush swarming with hundreds, probably thousands of bees, and Louis panicked. He ran off the trail, straight into nowhere. Kate managed to catch him after a few hundred yards. She was tiny, but she moved fast. By the time Audrey and I got there, she had slowed Louis to a stop by putting her hand on his arm, and she was talking to him in the quiet voice a jockey uses to calm his horse after it bolts. After that, she walked beside Louis to keep an eye on him.

  We hiked for an hour. We hiked for two. On our left, the mountain still loomed, the nose still pointed. On our right, the desert rolled in waves to the horizon, like an ocean of stone, frozen in place. And dry as dust. I could see for twenty miles. I could see a million acres. Maybe this was what it felt like to be Louis.

  I breathed in the air. It was clean. And clear. And smelled of something sharp and exciting, like a city on a spring day when you ride the school bus to visit the science museum. Creosote. A sizzling wind blew up the trail, chasing away the cool air of morning. The sun turned into a fist and began pounding the back of my neck.

  I saw a tiny cactus beside the trail that had figured out how to grow on bare rock. Its spines were so fine that they looked like mist hovering around it.

  I heard birds cheeping, and when I looked for them, I saw a pair—flitting along the ground from shadow to shadow. I realized they were staying hidden, from anything that might eat them, and from the sun. As I watched, one lit on a prickly pear. It knew where to perch without getting stabbed. Quickly it took a drink from one of the yellow blossoms.

  We walked and we walked some more. The sound of our footsteps crunching together on the path, the equipment clinking in our packs, and our breathing made a rhythm. Almost a song. Caesar’s Nose loomed above, showing us the way.

  Then Louis hissed, “Somebody’s following us.”

  We stopped.

  “I don’t hear anything,” said Kate.

  “I thought we had a huge head start,” said Audrey.

  “People are back there,” said Louis, apprehensively cocking his ear. “Maybe half a mile. I definitely hear them.”

  “We better hike faster, then,” said Audrey.

  So we did. And soon I realized something. We were hiking in step. We were a team. We were almost a single person. Right there, in that second, I felt like I was about to make friends with Audrey, Kate, and Louis. If only I could remember the right thing to say, the way I’d remembered Heisman winners on the day I’d dropped all those passes and made friends with Hardy Gillooly . . .

  I thought about satellite images and geological reports. I thought about weather patterns and American history and the Spanish-English dictionary I’d thumbed through when I was in fourth grade. I wished my parents had told me I was coming here while I still had internet. I felt totally unprepared. But the more I thought, the more I realized I did know things about the desert . . . a few, anyway.

  “Certain factors remain constant in all high-temperature exertion,” I called to the rest of the group. “Ideally, sustained heart rate should not exceed fifty percent of maximum capacity, and personal water consumption should remain high enough to produce a clear, steady stream of—”

  “It’s okay, Aaron,” said Audrey, so softly I almost couldn’t hear her. “It’s okay if things are quiet.”

  But I really wanted them to like me.

  “The band America,” I tried in a softer voice, “had a smash hit in 1972 that contained the lyrics ‘I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name—’”

  “Really,” said Kate, “it’s fine not to talk.”

  Louis nodded. “I think the point of the desert is . . . sometimes there’s no noise,” he added.

  I felt the lightness inside me replaced by a weight. I felt Audrey, Kate, and Louis slipping away, even though we were all right there hiking together.

  The heat beat down. We moved more and more slowly. Finally we came to a gully in the foot of the mountain. It cut so deep into the desert that its sides cast shade on the bottom. Our trail led down one side, back up the other, and headed into the distance. Audrey scrambled in and out to follow.

  “Wait,” I said. I thought maybe I saw Audrey roll her eyes as she stopped and turned around. “Sorry,” I apologized. “But this might be important. Look at the next clue.” She dug the clue sheet out of her p
ocket. “Benedict Arnold the river’s ghost?” she read. “Yeah. I don’t really understand what—”

  “The river’s ghost,” murmured Kate, pointing at the arroyo. “There was a stream here. But it died.”

  “I get it,” said Louis. “This is the next place we have to make a decision.”

  “Benedict Arnold?” said Audrey uncertainly. “What does Jare know about Benedict Arnold? What do we know about Benedict Arnold?”

  “Benedict Arnold,” I said, “was an American Revolutionary War general who originally served in the Continental Army but later defected to the British side.”

  “So he was a double-crosser,” said Kate.

  “Which means we cross back to the other side,” whispered Louis, aiming his ears down the trail we’d just hiked. “They’re still back there.”

  “All right,” said Audrey quietly, gazing at the trail we’d almost taken, which would’ve led us off into the wide-open desert. She gave me a fist bump and then Louis. “Hurry. Let’s turn around and see if we can ditch our tail before they see us,” she whispered. “I bet none of them know who Benedict Arnold was.”

  We located the fork in our trail leading back over the gulch. We followed it, trying not to leave footprints in the gravel. Soon the path began to climb, like it wanted to lead us over the mountain. The empty streambed ran beside us.

  Before we’d gone half a mile, Louis held up his hand. “Hear that?” he asked.

  “Somebody’s still following us?” asked Kate.

  “No,” said Louis. “This is different. He cocked his head toward the arroyo. “This way,” he said, sliding gingerly down the side and following it uphill as it cut farther into the mountain, until it got so deep it became a tiny canyon, a slot between two walls, shady, dark, and cool at the bottom.

  I still didn’t hear anything. But then I did. Crying?

  A tall blond kid who’d told us his name was Kevin Larkspur hovered with two of his teammates over the last member of their team, a guy named Enod Marx, who lay on the ground, moaning. Kevin had said he’d go to the ends of the earth for his pet beagle. Enod for his little brother, who had autism.