“It could have been raccoons,” Alice said. Her expression grew more horrified as she looked around. “I thought one of us was supposed to stay awake. Isn’t that what you said last night?”
Alice nodded slowly, like maybe she wasn’t so sure anymore. “Or Poppy did it. She was on watch.”
“She’s not crazy,” Zach said. “And she’d have to be totally crazy to do this. Anyway, I thought you believed her about the ghost.”
“I did. I do. I don’t know. It was fun to play along.” Alice pushed herself to her feet and walked around the woods, shivering. “This is too much. I don’t believe this. Maybe animals ransacked the camp, or maybe Poppy was mad at us for wanting to go back and was trying to convince us to keep going. Either way, it wasn’t a ghost.”
“It seemed like an adventure last night, right?” Zach said, but as he said it, he realized that it still did feel like an adventure—maybe even more than it had before—just not the same kind of adventure. He was scared. Little hairs were standing up along his arms, and he thought that maybe Alice was scared too. That was probably why she didn’t want to believe in ghosts anymore.
But Zach wanted them to be real, wanted that desperately.
If they were real, then maybe the world was big enough to have magic in it. And if there was magic—even bad magic, and Zach knew it was more likely that there was bad magic than any good kind—then maybe not everyone had to have a story like his father’s, a story like the kind all the adults he knew told, one about giving up and growing bitter. He might have been embarrassed to wish for magic back home, but there in the woods, it seemed possible. He looked over at the cruel, glassy eyes of the doll, so close that she could have touched his face.
Anything was better than no magic at all.
He thought about what Poppy had said—about how if they didn’t go on the quest right then, they never would. How if they faltered, they’d never come back.
And he thought about his dream.
“I think it was Eleanor,” Zach said. “Maybe her spirit’s angry that we aren’t taking this quest seriously enough. Maybe she’s mad that we got off the bus before we got to the right stop. Or maybe she’s mad that you want to go home.”
“I’m sticking with the raccoon explanation,” Alice said, picking up her coat and shouldering it on over her layers. “I bet Poppy got that story about Eleanor and the bones from one of her library books. I’m not trying to be mean. Poppy makes everything more interesting, but sometimes she gets carried away, you know?”
He thought about that, turning the words over in his mind. Alice was saying raccoons, but the rest of what she said pointed to Poppy. Poppy, who’d been the last one awake and who wanted to convince them both to stay on the quest. Who might have thought it was funny to put the Queen so close to him, knowing it would freak him out. “What about the ashes? Those were real.”
Alice nodded, but not in a way that was agreeing. “I keep thinking about them. Maybe she took some ash from a grill and mixed in pieces of chicken bone. It was dark when we both looked at it. People fake that kind of thing onstage all the time.”
He remembered that he’d wondered the same thing the night before, about whether it was all a trick, but somewhere along the way he’d become convinced, and he didn’t want to give that feeling up. He wanted to tell Alice about his dream and insist it meant that she was wrong, but he realized it didn’t prove anything. He’d just dreamed about what Poppy described, like the way that after you see a movie, you sometimes dream yourself into it. He had no way to know if any of it was true or if it was just his brain regurgitating stuff.
Alice seemed to have lost interest anyway, unzipping the front part of Zach’s backpack and sticking her hand inside, fishing around. “Do we have anything left? Any food?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
Her hand came out of his backpack, her fingers clutching a folded-up square of paper. She began to unfold it. “What’s this?” she asked, distracted by her discovery. “A note? What’s in here? Secret boy stuff?”
He knew exactly what she was holding.
“Give it to me,” Zach said, grabbing for the paper.
Alice stood up, still reading, the smile sliding off her face. It was replaced with an expression of astonishment. Zach could see the scrawl of his own handwriting across the page and doodles decorating the margins. “These are the Questions Poppy gave you. You answered them. You told her you didn’t, but you did.”
“I guess I did. Can I have them back now?” He stood too, starting toward her. He lunged forward to grab the note from her hand.
She danced out of his way. “But why would you answer them when you were going to—?”
Alice never got to finish because at that moment Poppy jumped up from the sleeping bag with a shriek. She was crouching, blinking in the sunlight, her hands outstretched like she was ready to fight. It was a move of surprising awesomeness.
“Poppy?” Zach asked.
To his relief, Alice folded the note twice and shoved it into the pocket of her coat, then walked over to Poppy. They sat back down together. Zach could see that Poppy was still breathing hard.
“I dreamed that I was Eleanor. I fell—” Poppy said, pressing her hands against her face.
Zach didn’t speak for a long moment. He wondered if he was a bad person if he didn’t say anything about his dream. He wondered if Alice would think he was ridiculous if he did. The leaves overhead rustled. “I think you better look around,” he said finally. “Did she seem angry? Because it looks like something trashed our camp.”
Poppy stood up and dusted herself off, going over to the Queen and lifting her up. The doll’s eyes moved to half-open, which made it appear as though she was watching them, the way his cat did when she was pretending to sleep.
“You think a ghost did this?” Poppy asked finally, turning back toward them.
“I don’t,” Alice said. “I think it was raccoons. But I thought that you’d say it was a ghost.”
“It’s classic poltergeist stuff, isn’t it?” Zach asked.
“She’s not a poltergeist,” Poppy said, as though Zach had suggested her brand-new box set of Doctor Who DVDs were bootlegs. “And why would she toss out our food? Ruin the only thing we’ve got to sleep on? She wants us to take her to East Liverpool. She’s not going to make it harder for us.”
Zach thought he detected a note of uncertainty in her voice, though.
“Okay, whatever,” he said. “You think it was raccoons too?”
Poppy looked around and sucked in her breath. “I don’t know. What if it was Tinshoe Jones? What if he followed us?”
A shiver went up Zach’s back, ending with a twitch between his shoulder blades. He could too easily imagine that weathered, smirking face watching them from the darkness. But there was no reason for Tinshoe to have gotten off the bus, followed them, waited for them to fall asleep, then tossed around their stuff. No reason at all. They didn’t have anything he wanted. He probably thought they’d all been grabbed by aliens and gotten their faces stolen.
But Eleanor had plenty of reasons to be mad at Alice and was probably frustrated that she wasn’t already in her grave.
“Look, I want to figure out what happened as much as you do,” said Alice, looking between them like she wasn’t sure which side she was on just then—maybe neither of theirs. “But can we please please get out of here first? The woods are creepy and I have to pee and I’m hungry.”
“We passed that donut shop last night,” Zach said.
Alice nodded. “Perfect. So long as they have a bathroom.”
There wasn’t much to pack up, so they didn’t. The sleeping bag had been ruined along with the rest of their supplies, the long gashes making puffs of white stuffing well up with every gust of wind. The best they could do was gather up everything, roll up the wounded sleeping bag, and dump it all in one of the trash cans along the river.
No one else was there, but that didn’t mean that no one else had been.
They walked back along the highway and managed to find a spot to cross that was less crazy than jumping over the median. Then they walked quietly, heads bent against the chill air. Zach could smell the melting sugar and rising dough of the shop blocks before he could see it. By the time he got to the door, he was practically drooling.
“How much money do we all have?” Poppy asked.
“I’ve got fifteen dollars and fifty cents.” Zach had started with twenty-three dollars, but the bus ticket had cost him seven fifty and it would be another seven fifty to get back. Of the fifteen fifty he had, that left him with only eight dollars he could actually spend.
“I have twenty,” said Alice.
“Eleven and a bunch of pennies,” said Poppy. “We should save something for later. For lunch and the trip back.”
But as they opened the door, Zach’s stomach growled, and saving money was the last thing on his mind. There were rows and rows of baskets along the back wall, each of them filled with a different flavor of donut, their frostings bright under the lights. There were cinnamon cider donuts, Boston cream and jelly crullers, chocolate sprinkle, rainbow sprinkle, maple cream, sour cream, old-fashioned, blueberry, toasted coconut, bear claws, and apple fritters. And then beneath the glass of the counter, stranger flavors—Froot Loops, peanut butter, ketchup, pickle juice, mandarin orange, honeycomb, lox and cream cheese, lobster, cheeseburger, fried chicken, wasabi, acorn flour, bubblegum, Pop Rocks, and spelt.
The man behind the counter had a thick, wild head of black hair. It stuck up as though he’d been electrocuted, except where it crawled down his cheeks into sideburns. “Get you kids something?” he asked as the bell on the door rang. “The wasabi donuts just came out of the fryer. They’re still hot.”
They were also a muted green color and smelled spicy, like hot peppers.
“Uh,” Zach said, glancing at the menu. “Can I have a hot chocolate? A big one.”
He took his warm cup with its spirals of whipped cream to one of the small plastic tables. Alice headed to the bathroom in the back while Poppy ordered two more hot chocolates. They sat for a while, letting the heat of the paper cups warm their fingers.
Then they each ordered a donut. Zach got Pop Rocks, Alice got maple cream, and Poppy got Froot Loops. The crumbling cake was delicious, and there were real Pop Rocks inside that fizzed against Zach’s tongue. He licked his fingers when he was done, forgetting that he hadn’t washed his hands in a very long time.
The hot chocolates had been two fifty a piece and the donuts were a dollar twenty-five, costing them each three seventy-five and leaving Zach with four twenty-five that he could spend for the whole rest of the trip. Poppy had even less. He hoped she had at least twenty-five pennies, or she wasn’t going to be able to pay her bus fare home.
Poppy sat the Queen on a nearby chair. The doll slumped, her head twisted on an angle, her hair rumpled as though she’d really been sleeping on it. Her half-closed eyes were bright with reflected light.
“If you died,” Poppy said, keeping her voice low. “Do you think you’d want to be a ghost?”
“If I was murdered, then yeah, definitely,” Zach said. “So I could haunt my killer and get revenge.”
“Get revenge by doing what?” Alice asked, laughing. “You would be a disembodied spirit. What are you going to do? Yell ‘boo!’ at them? Try to convince them to go on a stupid road trip?”
“I could throw stuff around,” Zach reminded her.
“Maybe,” Alice said. “I’d do it if I could be me, but see-through. The whole world would be like my television. I could visit the people I loved. But not if I had to repeat the same thing over and over again, like haunting some stretch of road or going up and down stairs.”
“Even if you couldn’t talk to anyone?” Zach asked.
Alice looked briefly uncomfortable. “I’d definitely want there to be a ghost society with ghost friends.”
Poppy pushed her hair back. “Well, what if you decided you wanted to come back from the dead and then changed your mind, but you were stuck?”
“You mean like how I’m stuck here in East Rochester?” said Alice, and then she took a big swallow of hot chocolate.
Zach thought he’d better interrupt that line of conversation. “Would you want to be a ghost, Poppy?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Lingering around, whooshing past people who’d never see me? It’s scary to imagine things happening and me not being able to affect them. I keep thinking about the dream I had. It was like I was really her—I was climbing around on the slate tiles of the roof of this giant house, trying to keep away from the windows while I waited for my father to get home. I had something really important to tell him. Up there, I could see for what seemed to be miles—I could see the river and boats and the iceman’s truck in front of a house down the street—but I kept slipping and catching myself on the copper gutters. And I heard this woman’s voice from behind me, whispering to me, telling me I better get inside or she was going to make me sorry. She had a broom, and she was sticking it out the window, trying to hit me.”
Zach thought about his own dream of the pinch-faced woman and the big Victorian house of flawed pottery. He wanted to tell her about the dream, but he felt a little silly about it. When he’d woken, it had seemed so obvious that the dream was real, that it had been given to him by their ghost. But now, in the warmth of the donut shop, after Alice being so certain there was no ghost, he was unsure about everything.