Across the Desert

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By Dusti Bowling

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One girl sets out on a journey across the treacherous Arizona desert to rescue a young pilot stranded after a plane crash in this gripping story of survival, friendship, and rescue from a bestselling and award-winning author.

Twelve-year-old Jolene spends every day she can at the library watching her favorite livestream: The Desert Aviator, where twelve-year-old “Addie Earhart” shares her adventures flying an ultralight plane over the desert. While watching this daring girl fly through the sky, Jolene can dream of what it would be like to fly with her, far away from her own troubled home life where her mother struggles with a narcotic addiction. And Addie, who is grieving the loss of her father, finds solace in her online conversations with Jolene, her biggest—and only—fan.

Then, one day, it all goes wrong: Addie's engine abruptly stops, and Jolene watches in helpless horror as the ultralight plummets to the ground and the video goes dark. Jolene knows that Addie won’t survive long in the extreme summer desert heat. With no one to turn to for help and armed with only a hand-drawn map and a stolen cell phone, it's up to Jolene to find a way to save the Desert Aviator. Packed with adventure and heart, Across the Desert speaks to the resilience, hope, and strength within each of us.

Don't miss Dusti Bowling's new novel, Dust, available for preorder now. 

Excerpt

1

NOW

IT’S SO HOT TODAY IN DOWNTOWN PHOENIX, I COULD probably bake cookies in a car. Mom and I did that once—baked chocolate chip cookies in our car. The cookies weren’t browned around the edges like when they’re baked in an oven. They had mostly melted into a pale hard crust, but they were crumbly and totally cooked through. That was, of course, when we had a car.

Racing down the city sidewalk in the middle of summer, I feel crumbly and totally cooked through. Speeding cars and buses blast air in my face hot enough to bake me, or at least melt me into a pale crust. My stomach growls, and I wish I had a cookie with a giant glass of cold milk. I’d even settle for a car-baked cookie.

I stop at a bench shaded by a big sign for discount car insurance and breathe for a second, wiping the sweat from my forehead and shifting my backpack full of books from one aching shoulder to the other. If only I had a computer and internet at home, I wouldn’t have to make this blazing-hot walk today.

When I finally reach the library, I burst through the automatic sliding doors and stop in the entry between those book-thief-detector things. I breathe in as much cool, book-scented air as my lungs can hold. The feel of the air-conditioning blowing against my sticky skin is almost worth the whole walk.

“Excuse me,” someone behind me says. I hunch my shoulders and quickly move out of the way without looking. I rush to the drinking fountain and chug a ton of water before heading to the bathroom, where I throw my backpack on the counter and splash water over my face.

I soak up the sweat under my tight purple tank top and armpits with a wad of paper towels and pull my messy, damp, dark hair up into a bun without looking at myself in the mirror. I leave the bathroom, tugging my tank top down to cover my stomach, but it’s too short. Everything I own is at least two sizes too small, which I’m constantly reminded of by the kids at school and by my eternal wedgie.

I slip the travel books I borrowed last week into the return slot, then go to the holds shelf, where several more are waiting for me. I’m not exactly the fastest reader, but when it comes to travel books, the pictures are really the most important thing. I love imagining I could jump inside them and explore all the far-off places.

The computers are mostly taken up by the homeless people using the library as a hiding place from the heat, but I manage to find an open one and set my stuff down. I log in using my library card number and go straight to BlipStream’s website. I click on the only show in my favorites and wait for The Desert Aviator to begin. Addie usually starts the show around ten o’clock, but never on the dot. I wish Addie would record her episodes so I could watch them anytime, but if I want to see her show, I have to catch it while it’s livestreaming.

Since the screen is dark, I hurry to the reference shelves and pull out this great atlas of Arizona, which has a map of the Alamo Lake area. Addie doesn’t know that I know where she flies. She’s never told me—I guess since we’ve never met in person. For all she knows, I could be some old guy who smells like cheese and onions pretending to be a twelve-year-old girl. So she never tells me where she flies or lives or goes to school or even what her real name is, but that’s okay. We still tell each other lots of important stuff.

Figuring out where Addie flies has been fun. It makes me feel like Marie Tharp, who mapped the ocean floor, or Kira Shingareva, who mapped the moon. Alamo Lake isn’t exactly the moon, but it’s pretty cool to discover something, even if it’s something small. Even if I’m not the first person to discover it.

But what I really wish is that I could be like Eva Dickson, the first woman to drive a car across the Sahara. Eva was also an aviator, like Addie. If I had a plane or a car or even a motorcycle (and if I wasn’t twelve and could drive and maybe had some money and food and a GPS and stuff like that), I’d travel to Alamo Lake and explore the whole area where Addie flies.

My life is so filled with If I hads that it sometimes feels like I’m drowning in them.

I remove the folded square of paper from my backpack and spread it on the desk. It’s taken me a whole month to make this map, and I hope maybe even Kira Shingareva wouldn’t think it completely stinks up the place.

My map shows the whole lake area with several mines, two canyons, three ghost towns, a hundred-year-old graveyard, native ruins, a bunch of trails, and all of Addie’s takeoff and landing spots—stuff that can’t be found on any other maps. When Addie starts her show, I’ll be able to follow her, not just on the screen, but on my map.

Addie is definitely one of the youngest explorers I’ve discovered, and I wish I could be more like her—brave and daring enough to go on an adventure. But real adventures aren’t like the movies. Real adventures are kind of scary. Lots of people die while exploring and mapping things. They get all kinds of diseases and broken bones and snakebites. They freeze to death and fall off mountains. And this one guy died from a pimple. It’s true. Totally true.

I already have a few potentially killer pimples on my forehead, and I don’t think I could face venomous snakes. Or even, like, a rabid raccoon. It would probably scare me to death. Then again, I don’t think there are raccoons in the desert. A hungry pack rat would be pretty scary, though. It might have some kind of disease. And sharp teeth. Definitely sharp teeth.

I tap my knuckles on the desk, but the screen is still dark, even though it’s now 10:04. Staring at the monitor, I open a new window. In the search box, I type something for about the hundredth time: How to quit oxycodone.

I already know all this stuff. Give me something new I can use, internet. Please?

When I read the words Oxycodone can be habit-forming, I want to punch my fist through the computer screen. Habit-forming? Like it’s the same as biting your nails or picking your nose.

Fuming, I try another search: How to make someone quit oxycodone.

Again, just a bunch of information I already know—help lines and treatment centers and hospitals. I’ve called the help lines and treatment centers. They always want to talk to an adult, of course. The other day I even tried making my voice really deep and assuring them I was a fully grown adult. They sounded suspicious, but then they told me a bunch of stuff about wait times and cost and insurance that left me with the car-crash feeling.

I type in something new today: Get into a drug treatment center when you have no money. But all the websites and information and phone numbers that pop up make the car-crash feeling worse.

Mom and I were in a car accident a couple of years ago. We’d stopped at a red light, and Mom was asking me what we should do for dinner, McDonald’s or Hamburger Helper? The light turned green, and I looked at Mom to tell her we should go to McDonald’s. We had a coupon for buy-one-get-one-free Happy Meals, and Mom always gave me the toy in hers, which meant two toys for me—total score. When I used to be into that sort of thing.

But as Mom started rolling forward into the intersection, I noticed that an old brown truck coming from the other direction seemed to be going really fast. As it got closer, I knew for sure it wasn’t going to stop, and this feeling shot right through my body, forcing out all my breath and words, leaving me completely frozen. Mom turned her head to see what I was looking at, but she didn’t have time to react.

I’ll never forget those few seconds when I knew the truck was going to hit us—that car-crash feeling I got in my stomach and chest and throat and even in my arms and legs. Because ever since the accident, I get that feeling a lot. It’s like when you trip or lean back in a chair and know you’re going to fall. Or when you sit down at your desk and realize you forgot to study for a big test. Or when you’re walking down the hall at school, just staring at your ugly old shoes, not bothering anyone else in the whole world, and you hear “Snaggletooth” or “White Fang.”

When it hits me, my brain and body vibrate painfully, like I’m being electrified, which somehow makes me feel like I could faint and explode at the same time. I can’t seem to ever get totally rid of it, so I do my best to stuff the car-crash feeling into little boxes, which I store away inside.

But I’m collecting so many boxes at this point that I worry about the day I won’t have room for any more. I don’t have endless storage like a big fancy house. My storage space is more like one of those hoarder houses on this TV show Mom watches. And like the hoarder houses on TV, my insides keep getting more and more cluttered and uncomfortable and stuffed to bursting. I could probably use one of those clutter experts.

Addie’s video finally pops up, and I relax into my seat. Even when the car-crash feeling eases, as it’s doing now because I get to watch Addie, I feel beat-up, shaky, and tired. I put on the bulky headphones.

“Hi there!” Addie says as always, holding her phone toward her face, which is mostly covered by her helmet and mirrored sunglasses. “I’m Addie Earhart, and you’re watching The Desert Aviator.” She laughs. “All one of you. Hi, Jo!”

I smile and automatically cover my mouth with my hand. Looking around the library to make sure no one is watching me, I let my hand drop and hunch down in my seat.

There are some rough camera movements as Addie fixes the phone to the front of her helmet. “Well, I’m still on the lookout for the ringtail, that sneaky procyonid, so I was thinking we’d spend some time exploring a cliffside, where I think there might be a cave. I’ll be on the ground today, so I got my snake boots on.” Addie looks down so the camera shows her tall brown boots. “The snakes probably won’t be out because it’s going to get pretty hot, but I hope my boots come in handy. I’ve heard a snake’s fangs can get stuck in them and break right off. How cool would that be?”

I think that sounds very not cool. Way too dangerous.

Addie jumps into her bright red ultralight and buckles herself in. As she starts it up, I bob my feet on the library’s thin, colorful carpet. I see what Addie sees—the desert coming at her faster and faster before she lifts into the air. A bushy mesquite tree stands in the distance, and I always worry Addie will run into it, but she makes it over again, and then she’s soaring through the brilliant blue desert sky.

Addie flies over saguaros and palo verde trees; wide, barren sandy washes that will turn into raging rivers during the monsoons; and long, winding rivers of green, towering, full trees like cottonwoods and aspens, which are found in the desert only where the water floods during storms. Addie told me all of this. She knows a lot about the desert. I’ve lived in the city my whole life, so all I really know about the desert is what I’ve learned at school and from Addie. Our apartment complex has a few half-dead cactuses around the parking lot, and we’ve found scorpions inside, but that’s about it.

“We’ll be flying over some pretty interesting stuff,” Addie yells over the loud buzz of the propeller. I point my pencil at a spot on my map where I’m pretty sure Addie begins and ends all her trips—a spot just east of a town called Bouse. I think maybe that’s where she lives.

Addie flies over a ghost town she calls “Ghost Town Number One.” There are a few ghost towns in the area. Checking my map, I figure she’s flying over a ghost town called Signal. Addie once landed near Signal and explored it on the show. Mostly it was just an abandoned mine and scattered mining supplies. But she also ran into a diamondback rattlesnake. I couldn’t believe how she stood there talking about the snake while it rattled loudly nearby. She said she was out of striking distance, but I think that should be more like five miles, not five feet.

Addie lands her ultralight in a flat open area, and I draw a small star on my map where I think she is. She hops out of her ultralight and lets out a cry. “Look at that!” she squeals. “A wild pig!” Addie chases the pig, and I want to shout, Stop! It might maul you to death! But luckily it’s far too fast for her.

“Darn,” she pants before explaining how she knows it was a wild pig and not a javelina. “Those pigs are destructive to the desert and shouldn’t be here. People brought them in, and now they run wild all over the place. You don’t even need a hunting license to kill one because Game and Fish wants them gone so badly.”

I kind of feel sorry for the pigs. It’s not their fault for being in the desert. They didn’t ask to be brought there. And now they’re being punished for it.

Addie jumps back into her ultralight after exploring the cliffside, including one small inlet, but no large cave as she’d hoped. She found a gopher snake, a centipede, a few scorpions, and even some bats hiding in a corner, but no ringtails.

“Oh well.” Addie removes the camera from her helmet and sighs into it. “We’ll just have to keep looking. Right, Jo?”

“Right,” I say, and then I feel stupid, glancing around to make sure no one heard me. Everyone is still focused on their own screens.

“It’s awfully hot today.” Addie removes her sunglasses and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. For a brief moment, I get a look at her face, her freckled cheeks, her hazel eyes, the wisps of light brown hair coming out of her helmet. Then she puts her glasses back on and takes a swig from the canteen she always carries, wiping her mouth when she’s done. “It’s supposed to be even hotter tomorrow, so I don’t think I’m going to fly.”

Seeing Addie is the only thing I have to look forward to lately. What am I going to do tomorrow? I guess I’ll probably come back to the library anyway, maybe work on my map or read one of my new books.

“I’m sorry to disappoint anyone watching.” She studies her phone. “Still just you, Jo. It’s supposed to be like one-fifteen tomorrow, and I could seriously get heatstroke. Then I could, like, get dizzy and pass out or barf while flying. Can you imagine it? The barf would shoot out.” Addie dramatically throws her hand out from her mouth. “And then fly right back in my face.” She whips her hand back toward her face. “Giant flying barf mess. No, thank you.”

Addie’s words make me feel queasy. Gross.

“Back to the sky!” Addie announces, attaching the camera to her helmet and starting the propeller back up. “How about taking a nice little detour over the mud canyon?”

Addie only needs a short distance to get the ultralight in the air, so the open sandy area near the cliffside is perfect. I follow her route on my map as she flies around the lake once before heading toward the canyon. After flying over the canyon, Addie makes a turn, the huge winding green of the wash coming into view.

Suddenly, the loud buzzing of the propeller goes completely silent, like a switch has been flipped, and all I can hear in my headphones is the wind whooshing. It’s never done that before while Addie’s flying.

And I know something is very, very wrong.

“Mayday, Mayday!” Addie cries. “Coming in for an emergency landing!” The video shakes from side to side, as though Addie is whipping her head around frantically, searching for a landing spot. And then the world is spinning, the desert below a brown whirl of confusion.

“I’m coming down!” Addie cries. “I’m coming down too fast!”

I grab the monitor in both hands. The camera jerks all over the place, total chaos, and no matter how hard I grip the screen, no matter how close I get to it, I can’t tell what’s happening

Addie is screaming so hysterically that I can’t make out what she’s saying or if she’s even saying words at all. She seems to be struggling to catch her breath, struggling to get a word out. “Huh,” she says, which turns into a shrieking sob. “Huh, juh, huh, juh,” again and again until she finally gets out what she’s trying to say before hitting the ground.

“Help, Jolene!”




2

30 DAYS AGO

BLIPSTREAM DIRECT MESSENGER

JoJo12: Hi, Addie! My name is Jolene. I like your show! How old are you?

Addie Earhart: Hi, Jolene! I’m 12. Glad you like my show!

JoJo12: Do you ever get scared of crashing?

Addie Earhart: Nope! I am a highly skilled pilot. A true professional.

JoJo12: But what if a wing broke off or the motor fell out or something?

Addie Earhart: Hahaha! You’re funny. Professional pilots are prepared for all scenarios.

JoJo12: How’d you learn to fly the plane?

Addie Earhart: My dad taught me. And it’s actually called an ultralight.

JoJo12: Do you live in the desert?

Addie Earhart: Yeah. Do you live in the desert?

JoJo12: No, I live in the city.

Addie Earhart: Hello from the desert!

JoJo12: Hello from the city

 

NOW

I’m still gripping the monitor, knuckles white, heart racing, chest heaving. The library spins around me as badly as the video. I can’t make out any more of Addie’s words over the terrible screeching and grinding and rumbling noises. One very loud crash blasts my ears, and then it seems for a second that the phone is flying by itself. Is it still attached to Addie’s helmet? I can hear her screaming. It sounds like she’s in pain.

Then all I see is blue, the camera pointed at the sky. I can hear her. Somewhere. It’s faint. Off in the distance. Over the sound of my own heartbeat and heavy breathing I can hear her screaming and crying and sobbing: “Help, help, help, help.” Over and over again.

Why doesn’t she pick up her phone? “Pick up your phone!” I cry. “Addie, pick up your phone and call for help!” But I know she can’t hear me.

I squeeze my hands over the headphones, pressing them tightly to my ears. I’m getting dizzy, starting to see black spots.

What do I do? What do I do?

My own hyperventilating drowns out Addie’s faint cries, but I can’t calm my breathing enough to hear her better. Can’t think. Can’t catch my breath. Can’t focus. The video is now an unmoving blue rectangle, but the library spins all around me.

And then I feel a hand on my shoulder, but I don’t acknowledge it. I can’t leave Addie. I can’t leave her alone.

Now the hand is shaking my shoulder. “What’s going on here?” a voice asks. “What’s wrong?”

I tear my eyes away from the screen and look up at the librarian through blurred vision, not sure what to say. I point at the screen. “Something horrible,” I tell her.

“Oh, no,” she says. “We have controls on these computers for a reason.” And before I can stop her, she reaches over and hits END on my session.

I whip back to the screen, which now displays the Phoenix Public Library log-in window. “No!” I scream. “I need to get back there!” I frantically type in my library card number with shaking fingers, continually hitting the wrong numbers. It’s like the keys won’t stay still.

The librarian eventually bends down and turns the computer off at my feet. “Please just calm down, sweetie,” she says. “Let’s find your parents.”

“No, you don’t understand,” I tell her, frantic to get back to the livestream. I look around, but all the other computers are taken. “Listen to me. There’s a girl in the desert. She’s in trouble. She crashed her plane. She needs help!”

The librarian looks down at me, her eyes filled with compassion. “I’m sorry you saw something like that. I’m sure it happened a long time ago.”

“No, it just happened! Right now! It was live!”

The librarian gives me a tight smile. “I seriously doubt it, and even if it was live, I’m sure she has people with her to help her. You don’t need to worry about that girl.”

“No, she’s all alone!”

The librarian looks around at the people glaring at me for making such a racket. “Please calm down. The internet has all kinds of awful stuff.” She crosses her arms. “As I said, that’s why we have controls—to avoid this sort of thing.”

I pound my fist on the table. “We have to help her!”

The librarian stares down at me. “Are you here by yourself?” She glances around again. “Where are your parents?”

I’m wasting time. Addie is hurt. She could be bleeding. Trapped. Stuck. In the hot sun. Alone.

I snatch up the map, then throw my backpack over my shoulder, leaving the new books on the table. I run out through the automatic doors, the librarian calling after me. The hot air hits me like a smoking frying pan, but I push through. There’s a fire department around here somewhere, but I can’t remember which street.

I run into a coffee shop, panting and sweating. The overwhelming smell of coffee makes my already sick stomach feel worse. The guy at the counter stares at me, wide-eyed. I burst out, “Where’s the fire station?”

The guy adjusts his dark man bun and points to the side. “Up the street on Washington.”

I sprint back outside without saying thank you or asking for a cup of water, though I’m dying for one. The stabbing pain in my side sharpens with every step until I find the station. I pull on the front door, which doesn’t budge, before noticing the doorbell. I ring it over and over again.

After a few seconds, a man wearing a blue uniform swings the door open. “Whoa!” he says. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“No,” I breathe out, sweat pouring into my eyes. “Help. She’s crashed. Screaming and I nee—”

“Whoa,” the guy says again, interrupting me. “Slow down. Catch your breath.” He motions for me to enter a small square office with countertops and computers lining the walls. I’m not sure what I expected—maybe a big open area with firefighters bustling all around and sliding down poles when they heard my pleas for help. Distant voices float to us through an open doorway. I peek down a long hallway, trying to slow my breathing and get my thoughts together.

“Now,” the man says, and I turn to him. “You say this is about a crash?”

“Yes.” My legs feel weak, and I sit in a nearby chair. “A girl crashed in the desert.”

“Where exactly?” he asks, his hand now perched on a phone.

“Out by Alamo Lake.”

The man’s face clouds with confusion. “Alamo Lake? Where’s that? Is that in Phoenix?”

“No, it’s over a hundred miles from here,” I say.

The man slowly withdraws his hand from the phone. “I’m sorry, but I’m confused. What’s happening with this girl, and why are you here getting help for her from so far away?”

I take a deep breath. “She crashed her plane near the lake.”

“She crashed her… plane? This is an adult we’re talking about?”

“No, it’s a girl. She’s twelve. She flies an ultralight trike.” I hold my arms out. “Like a glider thing. She crashed, and no one knows she’s out there.”

“Were you with her?”

“No, I saw it happen online.”

The man’s face clears, like he understands everything perfectly now. “Ah. I see. Do you personally know this girl, or you only saw a video?”

I want to throw my head back and scream in frustration, but I try to remain calm. Getting all emotional didn’t help at the library. “I saw a video. But I also know her. I’ve talked to her.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Jolene.”

“And you live here in Phoenix?”

“Yes.”

“So where exactly did it happen?”

“I don’t… know.” I stand up and whip my backpack around, pulling out my map of the Alamo Lake area. I unfold it and slam it on the desk next to him. “I think she might have been around here.” I circle a spot with my finger. “The last I saw, she flew over this area.” I run my finger across the large paper, over my drawing of the mud canyon.

The man studies the map. “Did you make this?”

I nod.

“How can you be sure this just happened?” he asks. “The video may have been old.”

“It wasn’t old. It was livestreamed. I can show you. Go to the website.”

The man turns to a computer and types in the address I tell him. Then I log in and click on The Desert Aviator. But the screen is dark. “No,” I whisper. I refresh the page over and over. “No, no, no.”

“Where is it?” he asks.

“It’s gone,” I breathe out.

The man turns to me. “Okay. What’s the girl’s name?”

Genre:

  • * “Readers will soar along with Jolene into the prospect of better days.”—Booklist, starred review
  • * “Instantly compelling.”—School Library Journal, starred review
  • * “[A] tense, poignant story about the essential nature of friendship and life’s unexpected possibilities.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "Experience has taught Jolene she can only count on herself, and she doesn't think she counts for much. But when she witnesses her friend's accident in the desert via live stream, she finds the strength to rescue them both. Across The Desert combines compelling adventure, honesty, danger, and love."—Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, two-time Newbery Honoree and #1 New York Times bestselling author of The War That Saved My Life and Fighting Words.
  • Praise for The Canyon's Edge:
     
    * "Stunning.... an edge-of-your-seat read."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * "This emotionally resonant survival tale is a must-have."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • * "Powerful...a triumphant story of healing and bravery."—Booklist, starred review
  • "Beautifully written. [Dusti] Bowling is a master storyteller."—Midwest Book Review
  • "A powerful, heart-thumping story about survival and the inner strength it takes to reclaim life after trauma. Nora shows us that it's possible to emerge stronger than we've ever been before."—Ann Braden, award-winning author of The Benefits of Being an Octopus
  • "You won't be able to stop turning pages of this gripping, unforgettable novel with emotional depth and resonance as you cheer for Nora to conquer her inner and outer beasts."—Donna Gephart, award-winning author of Lily and Dunkin, The Paris Project, and Abby, Tried and True
  • "A haunting, heart-pounding story of survival, brilliantly told in verse. The Canyon's Edge will inspire, uplift and resonate. I loved it!"—Barbara Dee, author of Maybe He Just Likes You and My Life in the Fish Tank
  • "A gutsy, page-turning tale of courage, survival, and healing, told in dynamic verse. The Canyon's Edge is powerful, unflinching, and full of heart."—Chris Baron, author of All of Me
  • "Thrilling."—BookPage

On Sale
Oct 12, 2021
Page Count
320 pages
ISBN-13
9780316494755

Dusti Bowling

About the Author

Dusti Bowling is the bestselling and award-winning author of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, The Canyon's Edge, and Across the Desert, among other books for young readers. Dusti holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology and lives in Arizona with her husband, three daughters, a dozen tarantulas, a gopher snake named Burrito, a king snake name Death Noodle, and a cockatiel named Gandalf the Grey.

Learn more about this author