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Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 8


  “What happened?” Audrey asked Kevin. “How’d you get here before us?”

  “We wanted to beat everybody. We really didn’t understand the clues, so we just took the first trail we saw. It cut over the side of the mountain. I guess we were in the sun more than we thought,” he said.

  “I went too fast putting on my sunscreen,” moaned Enod.

  “What do you mean?” asked Audrey.

  “Look,” said Enod.

  Grunting, he rolled over and pointed at the backs of his knees.

  Louis turned white and sat down with his arms over his head. Tears sprang to Kate’s eyes.

  Enod had put sunscreen almost everywhere, but he hadn’t reached the soft skin behind his knees. They were as red as fire, and blistered.

  “Second-degree sunburn,” I said. I’d seen pictures in a first-aid manual.

  “I can’t bend my legs,” said Enod. “I can’t walk.”

  “What do we do?” asked Larkspur.

  “Fire your Jare flare,” I said, because I knew Enod needed first aid fast. Audrey had told me that Jare had given each team a flare to fire in an emergency, so he could come get us. He’d made it clear that if you had to fire yours, you were a stinking loser on a team full of losers. Larkspur reluctantly pulled the flare out of his pack, sighted down the tube, and yanked the cord. The flare scorched a white streak through the blue sky.

  “You guys keep going,” moaned Enod. “Maybe you’ll be able to capture the flag. And keep those jerks Daphne and Randolph from getting the air mattress!”

  “No,” I said. “Look at the sun. It’s almost straight above. We should all just stay here in the shade. There’s no point in trying to hike until things cool off. For every hour we hike during the heat of midday, we’ll go two miles at most, and use a quart of water each. It’s not worth it.”

  Kate took a T-shirt out of her pack, poured a cup of her precious water on it to cool it, and laid it across the backs of Enod’s knees. “How does that feel?” she asked.

  “Better,” said Enod, even though he muttered it through his teeth, so I could tell he was still in pain.

  “Daphne’s group isn’t far behind,” Kevin told us. “We saw them below you on the trail when we were lost on the mountain.”

  “We’re still waiting until Jare gets here,” I said, even though I could tell by the shadows on the arroyo floor that the sun had already dropped a little. “In the meantime, everybody, check your water.” It turned out, even though we’d started with eight gallons, we were already down to four.

  Suddenly Jare vaulted over the edge of the gully and landed in our midst, raising a cloud of dust. A handful of maps tumbled out of his vest pocket and fanned out on the dry bed of the ghost creek. As I picked one up, he snapped, “Give me that!” and snatched it.

  “How’d you get here so fast?” Kevin asked.

  “I have ways,” muttered Jare. He took a look at Enod’s knees and said, “Happens every year. Usually not on the second day, though. Son, I think you just set the el Viaje record for quickest calamity. Stick a fork in you. You’re done.”

  “What do you mean—done?” moaned Enod.

  “You ain’t gonna die, but the next few days around camp ain’t gonna be fun,” said Jare. “Other guys in his group. Larkspur, and whatever, and whoever?” Enod’s other team members, a tall skinny girl named Sara and a chubby guy named James, stood up out of the gloom. “You’re gonna carry him. And be careful. You break those blisters on the backs of his knees, then he’s in real trouble.”

  “Carry him?” asked James. “All the way to camp?”

  “No way,” said Enod. “I’m heavy.”

  “Shoulda thought of that before you blew it with your sunscreen,” said Jare. “You’re their teammate. You screw up, they pay the price. Everybody get cracking. Hup, two, three, four. What are you staring at?” He glared at our team.

  “We just . . . stopped to help,” replied Audrey.

  “What do you expect now?” shot back Jare. “A medal?”

  “No . . . we . . . ,” stammered Kate.

  Jare snorted derisively and stomped up a trail we hadn’t noticed before. Kevin and the rest scrambled to follow.

  “Good luck, guys,” Enod called as they headed over the shoulder of the mountain.

  After that, we hiked as fast as we could. We knew Daphne was right behind us, and nobody wanted to spend the next six weeks listening to her and Randolph gloat about all the sleep they were getting. My feet hurt, and I could feel thirst creeping up the back of my throat. At least my pack was feeling lighter. But so was everybody’s. Because our water was nearly gone.

  Louis panicked at the sight of a stick in the bushes and had to stop three times to take twigs out of his boot, and once an ocotillo stuck to his pack like the tentacle of an alien, scaring him stiff. Every time we halted, we asked him about Daphne’s team. And when he got calm enough, he almost always heard their footsteps behind us. One of the team, he said after a while, was limping.

  “Wait until I tell Hardy Gillooly about you,” I told Louis.

  “Who’s Hardy Gillooly?” he asked.

  “A friend of mine. From back home. He’s interested in superpowers,” I said.

  “What I have is anything but a superpower.” Louis sighed.

  We crested a rise, and Caesar’s Nose was gone. The double-cross trail was fading beneath our feet. All I saw were white rocks, stained red by the setting sun, scattered across the peak. We’d hiked onto a new mountain without realizing it. I checked, but I didn’t have a map or a satellite photo or even a travel brochure in my head to tell me where we were.

  I saw Audrey stumble, and I realized that as soon as we’d hiked over the pinnacle, the sun had disappeared. “Hold on,” I said. “Maybe we should look at the clue sheet again.”

  Audrey reached into her pocket. Then she reached into another pocket. Then she squirmed out of her pack straps and unzipped the flap. “It’s gone!” she said. “What happened to our clues?” Frantically, she dug through her pack. “Does anyone have it?” she cried. Louis and Kate shook their heads.

  “Maybe we dropped it when we stopped to help Enod,” surmised Louis.

  “Aaron? Do you have the sheet?” asked Audrey.

  “‘The first step is easy—follow Caesar’s Nose,’” I recited, because of course I had the clue sheet. Right there in my brain, beside everything else.

  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.

  “Are you sure that’s right?” Audrey asked.

  “Oh, yeah,” I said.

  “But what does it mean?” asked Kate, shivering. The nighttime chill was setting in fast now that the sun had begun to fade. “‘Do not go gentle into that good night, caballero’? Jare wrote these?”

  “Maybe his girlfriend wrote them for him,” said Audrey.

  “Or his English teacher,” I said. Everybody stared at me. “What?” I asked. “Some people are friends with their English teachers.”

  “No,” giggled Kate. “They’re not.”

  “‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is a poem written in the form of a villanelle by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in 1951. It’s addressed to his dying father.”

  “Maybe,” said Audrey, before I had a chance to go any further, “it just means what it says. Don’t go into the night.”

  “Maybe,” agreed Louis. “But why not?”

  I heard the narrator of an educational show start to speak inside my head. He sounded like Morgan Freeman. He was talking about the exact place we were standing: “Los Cañones de los Muertos y Sus Caballos . . .”

  “Hold on,” I told the team. “Let me listen to something.” Because even though I’d been doing my sixth-grade math homework at the kitchen table when it came on, I could hear the documentary my dad was watching on PBS in another room. I repeated what Morgan Fr
eeman was saying so the rest of the team could hear: “. . . is an isolated stretch of desert, where, in 1553, the Piñones expedition, in their quest to find a mythical town of gold, foolishly rode into complete darkness. Their leader plunged down an unseen ravine. Twenty riders followed. Every horse and every horseman died. Hence the name: the canyons of the dead men and their horses.”

  “And that was—” said Audrey.

  “A PBS documentary,” I said.

  “Then it’s definitely trustworthy,” declared Kate.

  “Sounds like this clue is telling us to learn from their mistakes,” said Louis. “And to stop for now, since once it’s fully dark, even I can’t see.”

  “It’s sort of flat here,” I observed, “since we’re at the top of the mountain. It’ll be cold, but we have tents and sleeping bags. There aren’t too many rocks—”

  “—THE HECK YOU LOOKING AT?” I heard somebody shout.

  “Randolph?” whispered Kate.

  Randolph had just limped over the peak. Daphne and her other two teammates, two kids who hadn’t said much yet besides their names, Cyrus Ramsey (the guys on his soccer team) and Edith Mendez (her guinea pig) followed. Louis stared blankly at Randolph. “What?” bellowed Randolph.

  “Nothing,” said Louis, looking away quickly.

  “What’re you doing in our campsite?” demanded Randolph.

  “This is our campsite,” said Kate.

  Randolph glanced at Daphne. One corner of her mouth twitched upward. Just a little. I almost didn’t see it. But Randolph sure did. And was highly encouraged. “Get off!” he shouted. Randolph grabbed Kate’s backpack, took a running start, and heaved it over the side of the mountain. I could hear it tumbling into the darkness.

  Nobody said anything. Nobody moved. Randolph grinned in pride. I could see his yellow teeth in the fading light as he looked hopefully at Daphne.

  “Are you waiting for a Scooby snack, Randolph?” asked Audrey.

  “Huh?” said Randolph. Some of the shine faded from his grin.

  “Come on, guys.” Audrey sighed. “Let’s go.”

  “But—” I said.

  Randolph glared at me and balled up his fists.

  “We should go find Kate’s pack,” Audrey said calmly, “and finish this conversation another time.” When she turned away, I saw how hard she clenched her teeth, and I realized how mad she was. Almost as mad as I was. But Audrey seemed to know how things like this worked, and I didn’t, so I followed her. Kate and Louis fell in behind.

  “That’s right, losers,” scoffed Randolph. “Run. Edie, hand me my water.” Edith dropped her pack with a colossal thud and rummaged around in it for Randolph’s water, which he’d evidently made her carry up the mountain. “And fix my blisters,” he added, yanking off his boot.

  We found Kate’s backpack at the bottom of the mountain, lying in a gulley. It wasn’t in great shape. Her last water bottle had cracked and soaked everything. Louis gave her a swig of his water.

  “Look at all these lines in the rock,” murmured Louis as he studied the sides of the gully in the last of the light.

  “Strata of sedimentary stone provide a useful historical record,” I said, “because the layers were deposited sequentially as sheets of mud at the bottom of a prehistoric sea, hardening into rock after aeons of heat and pressure. The top layers represent the most recent eras, while the deepest represent the most ancient.”

  “Wait,” said Audrey, gazing at the gully cutting deeper and deeper into the layered rock as it led across the plain into the darkness. “This is where we use the next clue—what was it—about going back in history?”

  “‘Delve back into time,’” I said.

  “The deeper we go, the father back we go,” said Kate thoughtfully.

  “But we don’t start until tomorrow, right?” asked Louis, shuddering as he gazed into the depths of the gulley. “Why don’t we leave at first light? That way, we can see where we’re going and lose Daphne’s team.”

  “What do you mean?” said Audrey. “They’re at the top of the mountain.”

  “No, they’re not,” said Louis. “They’re just over that ridge. They trailed us down the slope and stopped right behind us to camp. I can smell their fire.”

  The rest of us sniffed the air.

  “Believe me,” said Louis. “They’re there.”

  “Why did they follow us?” I asked.

  “Maybe,” said Audrey, “because we can figure out the clues and they can’t?”

  “Or maybe they’re just up there planning to break more of our stuff,” said Kate darkly, staring up the trail.

  “We need to go find out,” said Audrey, leaping to her feet.

  “We’re just going to ask?” Louis said. “I don’t think that will go well.”

  “We’re going to eavesdrop,” said Audrey. “It’s not cheating to spy on cheaters, is it?”

  “No way!” was our unanimous verdict.

  We heard something giant crash through the creosote bushes. “Probably a javelina,” I guessed. Louis looked alarmed. “Just a midsized wild pig,” I added. “They’re not hostile, but they have terrible eyesight, so sometimes they get confused and run over people by mistake. Who’s coming to spy on Daphne’s team?”

  “Not me.” Louis shivered.

  “You’d be super at eavesdropping,” I said.

  “Sorry,” sighed Louis, grinning. “Stick a fork in me. I’m done.”

  “I’ll stay here with Louis,” offered Kate.

  “Let’s go, Aaron,” Audrey said.

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  Audrey Alcott

  El Viaje a la Confianza

  EVEN THOUGH AARON AND I were on a mission, we hadn’t walked twenty yards before we got to a clearing in the bushes, stopped dead in our tracks, tipped our heads back, and stared upward. We did it at exactly the same time, like we’d planned it, although of course we hadn’t. The sky was just this irresistible force, as gargantuan and shiny as a limousine; you could practically hear it shouting, “Look!” There seemed to be twenty times as many stars as usual. In all those dots and islands and swarms of light, the few normal constellations I could usually recognize, like Orion, got lost. It was like we were on a planet in another galaxy.

  “They look like somebody spread them on with a knife,” I whispered. “Like peanut butter, except stars.”

  “Famed African-American botanist George Washington Carver is often credited with inventing peanut butter,” whispered Aaron, “but the Canadian chemist Marcellus Gilmore Edson actually secured the first patent, back in 1884.”

  I had always thought George Washington Carver invented it, but I didn’t say this because who did or did not invent peanut butter was so completely beside the point. Who wouldn’t know that? Aaron, that’s who. As smart as he was, I was starting to realize that a lot of times, he needed the point pointed out to him.

  “Okay, but I was talking about the stars and how they look,” I whispered, never taking my eyes off the sky. “They’re amazing.”

  “Oh. Right,” whispered Aaron, embarrassed.

  We kept staring.

  “You’re right. They are. They’re amazing,” whispered Aaron, and he didn’t sound embarrassed anymore. He sounded so dazzled that I had to smile.

  We kept walking.

  “It’s funny how good Kate is with Louis, isn’t it?” I said. I kept whispering because, even though I was pretty sure we were too far away for Louis to hear us, I wasn’t positive.

  “Funny? I . . . guess?” said Aaron. After a little while, he said tentatively, “Maybe it’s funny because she’s so small, and he’s so big?”

  “Yes! She’s like one of those tiny companion ponies, the ones that go around tethered to racehorses to calm them down.”

  “Seabiscuit had one named Pumpkin, but he also had a companion monkey.”

  “Named Jo-Jo,” I said.

  Aaron stared at me, shocked. I laughed. “Hey, you’re not the only one who reads books.”

&n
bsp; Aaron smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. I guess I sometimes forget that other people know things.”

  “That’s okay.”

  After a minute or so, Aaron said, “I smell the campfire now.”

  “So do I. We must be close. Also, I think the wind shifted.”

  Just then, as if it had heard me, the wind shot cold air straight at us. I shivered and tried to zip my jacket, but the zipper stuck. Before I knew it, Aaron had pulled a tiny flashlight from his pocket and was handing it to me.

  “Here, you hold this,” he said.

  I switched on the flashlight. As small as it was, its beam sliced through the dark like a laser. I lifted the flashlight and slid the beam through the bushes and across the sky.

  “You could play connect the dots with the stars with this thing,” I said, and then I found the dipper part of the Big Dipper and did just that: one, two, three, four.

  “You could also shine it on your zipper,” said Aaron. “Sometimes it’s easier to fix a zipper when you’re not the person wearing the jacket.”

  “Oh. Thanks.”

  As he worked on the zipper, he said, “Whitcomb L. Judson invented the zipper, but Gideon Sundback perfected and marketed it. The word for how the teeth interlock is interdigitate, which is what happens when two people hold hands, with their fingers interlocking.”

  For a second, Aaron’s hands on the zipper froze, and I could tell he was embarrassed again.

  “Not that I’ve ever, uh, you know, uh, done that,” he said. Usually he spoke with casual confidence, but now he was stammering. I realized that as much as Aaron talked, he hardly ever said anything about himself.

  “Yeah, me neither,” I said. “That’s cool about the word, though. I’ll probably think about that every time I zip something from now on.”

  He gave one final tug and said, “There. Try it.”

  I zipped my jacket shut. “Great, thanks. But can I ask a question?”

  “Sure!” Aaron’s face took on a focused, soccer-goalie expression, like he was gearing up for whatever question I might shoot at him.