Xena’s mouth was hanging open, and she stared at me, dumbfounded. I waved my hand in front of her shocked face, but she didn’t respond, so I slipped into the tent to get dressed.
As I shimmied out of the dirty clothes that I’d slept in, I could hear Xena pacing in front of the tent. There was the snapping sound of an elastic smacking against hair. Xena was playing absently with her red tresses, like she often did when she was upset.
What did I do to make her so angry? I wondered as I pulled on a gray hoodie to ward off the early-morning chill.
Fully dressed, I stepped out of the tent, and was instantly met by Xena’s hand slapping against my cheek. I yelped and touched the stinging spot of skin. “What was that for?” I cried.
“To knock some sense into you,” Xena growled, shaking me by my shoulders. “‘Who is Claire?’ She’s your best friend! She’s my best friend! We need to save her!”
I brushed her hands off my shoulders. “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about . . .”
Xena looked on the verge of tears. She murmured, “Mrs. Atkins, the Fairfaxes, and now you? Why does everyone keep forgetting?”
After a minute of uncomfortable silence, Xena blurted, “Where did you get that necklace, Steph?” She tapped the compass dangling on a cord around my neck.
I grabbed the pendant and fingered it. I hadn’t noticed the necklace until Xena had pointed it out — how weird. “Um . . . a friend gave it to me?” I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d come to own the necklace, but looking at it made me strangely sad. “I don’t know.”
Xena slapped me again, and I shouted.
“Stephanie. That necklace belongs to Claire Fairfax. She’s missing. The compass can lead us to her. Please concentrate — you need to remember!”
My cheek still throbbing, I closed my eyes, and Xena started describing someone to me: long, curly, white-blonde hair; aqua eyes; a soft, understanding voice; a sharp mind. A vague picture was forming in my head.
“Claire!” I shouted.
I collapsed on the ground next to the tent as memories came rushing back. I felt so ashamed; how could I have forgotten Claire? She was the reason I was out here. I aimed a grim smile at Xena and whispered, “Thanks for slapping me.”
My friend prepared a cup of tea and an energy bar for me to eat while I tugged on my boots.
My breakfast was gone in a blink, and I brushed my teeth as Xena started packing up camp. She hadn’t gotten far when she yelled “Blast!” and started kicking her hiking boots around in the dirt.
“What?” I asked, toothpaste foam spewing out of my mouth.
“The bag the tent goes in is gone. It was pretty windy last night, so it probably blew away. I’m glad that nothing else is gone, but now there’s no way to carry the tent!” she exclaimed. “We’ll have to leave it here. Mama will be so angry if we come back with no tent . . .”
When I was done brushing my teeth, I helped Xena stuff our sleeping bags into our backpacks.
I checked the compass to see which direction we needed to go in to find Claire, and we headed deeper into the forest.
* * *
Using Claire’s compass to track her down somehow drained our energy, so Xena and I traded it back and forth as the day wore on.
By lunchtime, we were hot and hungry, and it didn’t help matters that it felt like we were going in circles.
Eventually, with Xena in charge of the compass, we left the forest and found ourselves on a quiet road. Xena consulted the necklace and pointed at a large brick house on the end of the street. “There.”
That’s where Claire was being held prisoner? Call me dramatic, but I had envisioned having to break into a castle with a crocodile-filled moat in order to save her.
We marched up the drive to the house.
Before we could come up with a brilliant plan to rescue Claire, Xena knocked on the door with a steeled expression. It swung open a moment later to reveal two people: a redheaded woman dressed in pajamas, and a man in work clothes.
These were the people who were guarding Claire? In their late thirties, with kind blue eyes, they didn’t look like security.
“Hello,” greeted the woman. Her cheeks were flushed; she was clearly embarrassed to be seen in her nightclothes. “Can I help you girls?”
Straight-forward as always, but with an odd tremble in her voice, Xena asked, “Did you ever put a child up for adoption? Maybe a girl named Xena.”
The woman, the man behind her, and I all gasped at the same time.
“How . . . how do you know about that?” the lady demanded, tears brimming in her eyes.
“My name is Xena Fletcher,” my friend said coolly. “Thank you for your help.” She turned on her heel and ran down the street, leaving the stunned husband and wife standing in the doorway.
I sprinted after her, shouting her name. I caught up with Xena on the other end of the street, snagging her arm and forcing her to face me. “What . . . what was that about?”
Xena was blinking furiously. “Stephanie — have you ever noticed that I look nothing like my parents?”
I nodded slowly. Of course I’d noticed — I’d just never bothered to wonder why.
“My mom is Chinese,” she continued, her voice thick. “My dad has blond hair. I look nothing like them. In the back of my mind, there’s always been a nagging little voice whispering to me that I don’t belong in my family . I never wanted to believe it. But now . . .” She fingered Claire’s necklace. “This compass points to your heart’s desire. I wanted to find my birth family.” She laughed a bitter, sad, hollow laugh. “And to think — all these years, they were in the town just on the other side of the woods.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Maybe you should lead, Steph,” Xena said, and passed me the compass.
Update on my doll camp: instead of doing a sports theme, I’m going to do “Summer Days” — fancy speak for “General Summer Stuff.” I made this camp, I can change my theme if I want to. ;)