It was easier than usual for Ru’s class to settle. The morning gloom saturated everything even with the shades drawn. Miss Graham was the only one fully awake, a contagious smile on her face and her hair up in bouncy curls. She almost skipped as she walked to her desk.
Ru wished the shades were open. The day that had started out so well had gone straight downhill after that dream. Colleen never made it to school, there was a Social Studies test Ru had completely forgotten about, and by the time school was out, the storms would be long over. Ru was especially worried about Colleen, who never stayed home from school unless she was very sick.
Miss Graham took her usual place in front of the class after taking attendance. “Today we start the Local Legends unit.”
The class burst into smiles and excited whispers. Ru herself suddenly felt far more energized. Guaranteed A, she sang in her head.
Miss Graham gestured to a bulletin board. A map of Oak County was posted there, along with several tourist brochures and photos of old buildings and trees. “Can anyone tell me why our town is named Quarterhill?”
A sea of fluttering hands went up. Miss Graham called on Nathan Hall. “Because of the Quarterstone in Tanager Park,” he said.
“Very good.” Miss Graham beamed. “But the Quarterstone is not the official symbol of our town. What is? Let’s see if our new student knows this one. Kenna?”
Kenna shrank in her seat, her voice soft. That was a surprise to Ru. In the few days Kenna had been in the class, she never seemed shy. She would ramble on to anyone that was listen about what it was like to live in Chicago. “The Blue Star?” she answered.
“The Blue Star,” Miss Graham echoed. “Legends of Quarterhill is coming around now. When you get your copy, turn to Page 31.”
Ru grinned as she opened the slender book. There was a painting of a burning blue star floating in a dark wood. She’d seen the painting many times before. Prints of it were sold in Quarterhill stores, and the original painting greeted guests at the Visitor Center on the north end of Tanager Park. The star was even on some of the town limit signs. It always seemed strange to have such an ominous figure welcome tourists, but it was exactly the kind of thing most Tanager Park tourists came to see.
“The artist called it ‘a light like the Pleiades.'” Miss Graham lowered her voice, her tone mysterious and musical. The class was silent, all eyes on her. “The Blue Star wanders the woods of Tanager Park at night. It’s said that those who cross its path disappear.”
By the time the story was finished, Ru had forgotten her previous troubles. The Blue Star was her favorite Quarterhill legend. Everyone had a different way of telling it, and she was never tired of listening. At the same time, the story saddened her a little. The first person who shared it with her was her father.
“You were barely talking when he told you that story,” her mother said. “I don’t know how you could possibly remember that.”
Before Ru could think too much about it, the class started pushing their desks together for a group worksheet. Ru and Nathan usually grouped with Colleen, but Kenna joined them instead. Nathan welcomed her with an awkward smile. “I guess you can work with us. How much do you know about the legends?”
Kenna settled back into her desk. She was a tall, lanky girl and the desk was a poor fit, but she made no complaints. She started to open her book. Ru blocked it with the tips of her fingers. “It’s OK, we don’t need that.”
Kenna’s gaze skimmed across the clusters of desktops. Only paper and pens could be seen, no open books. “Wow,” she breathed. “Daddy said all the kids in this town knew the stories by heart, but I thought he was just trying to get me to do extra credit.”
Nathan chewed on the end of his pen. “Just wait until you see they’re true.”
“They are not,” Ru said. “Not all of them.”
“Melissa saw the Aurora Pools last week.”
“Aurora Pools?” Kenna asked.
“They’re like lakes filled with light. People see them in the woods sometimes.”
“Oh, come on.” Ru rolled her eyes. “Everyone says they see these weird things, but for all we know they were shop owners running around in the woods with flashlights trying to give the tourists something to talk about. Nathan just freaks out a lot because he lives right next to the park.”
“So do I,” Kenna said uncertainly.
“No one lives that far from it,” Nathan said. “Look at the map. The park takes up half the town.”
“Have either of you seen the Blue Star?”
“No,” Ru and Nathan answered at once, dejected.
Kenna blinked in surprise. “Are there pictures?”
“No one has a good shot of it.” Ru opened her book to the painting. “Not a photo of it, anyway. You wouldn’t believe how crowded it gets here around Halloween, but no one comes back with pictures or videos, just stories. My brother says, ‘If so many people see the star, how are they around to talk about it? Why didn’t they disappear?'”
Kenna relaxed a bit. “Good question.”
She was in most of Ru’s classes, and with each class, Kenna brought up more questions. By the end of the day, Ru agreed to show her around the park on the way home. They set right out for Cardinal Street after the last bell.
Near Quarterhill Middle School, the park was closed off by a half-mile of thick hedges and chain-link fence, but halfway to Ru’s house it opened to an expanse of mowed grass. There were teams of older kids already practicing at the baseball and soccer fields. Even though the air was cool, the sun was high in the clear sky and the park glittered with the last of drying rain. The playground and picnic tables were crowded with families out to enjoy the final days of summer warmth. Trains of ringing bicycles and skateboarders coasted down paved paths that wound along the edges of the park.
Ru and Kenna followed a path near the east end. They circled a pond, where flocks of Canada geese murmured as they passed. The path brought them briefly into the woods, the shallow part of the forest where the trees were still young. Mulch veins ran further off into the woods. “If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t take the woodchip trails without a map,” Ru warned. “Tourists lose kids in there every couple of months.”
“It looks like a normal park to me.” Kenna shrugged. “I don’t get how people can believe these weird stories.” She caught Ru’s eye and frowned. “I mean, no offense.”
“Oh, no!” Ru laughed. “I totally get what you mean. It’s just that when you have seen such weird stuff, you don’t know what to believe.”
“What weird stuff have you seen?”
It was an innocent question, but hearing it gutted Ru. Her mind raced. At last, the silence forced it out of her. “Nothing, actually.”
Kenna raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you say you’ve lived here all your life?”
Ru opened her mouth to reply and was cut off by a rough shout. Normally she would have been annoyed to hear that gravelly voice, but now she was grateful for the interruption.
On the porch of a house across the street, a sour-faced man paced with a limp. His sweatshirt and jeans hung on his bony frame like they would on a scarecrow’s, and his stiff, straw-blond hair added to the illusion. Every once in a while he seized the rail and leaned over the side to yell at whoever happened to be passing by. “The tourism board should be locked up, every one of them!” He pointed a thin, gnarled finger at the tops of the trees.
“He’s kind of weird,” Ru cracked.
Kenna seemed personally offended by the man’s rantings. “What’s his problem?”
There had been stories told about this man too. Supposedly he had been around since the town’s founding, but Ru was sure he wasn’t that old. “No idea. Usually he’s down at the Main Street shops yelling like that until the cops show up.”
“Great. I live two houses away.”
She led Ru to the porch of a cute pink and white house that smelled of new concrete. Though Kenna invited Ru in, Ru said she had too much homework to do. In truth, she was still worried about Colleen, and now that she’d chosen to walk home, she wasn’t sure she’d make the Breckenridge visiting hours.
Ru’s mood dampened as she jogged home. Kenna’s question hung heavy in her mind. Why not me? Why haven’t I ever seen one of the legends? Are they really just stories? Are people lying about what they saw?