“Do you think that was really what happened?” Poppy asked, leaning forward eagerly like there was only one possible right answer. “Do you think she’s trying to tell us about her death? Imagine that the whole time she was in the cabinet, she was just waiting for one of us to take her out.”
Zach opened his mouth to describe his dream, but it seemed as though not telling Poppy and Alice what had happened to his action figures or why he didn’t want to play made it hard to tell about other things too. It felt like everything was all mixed up together, weighing down his tongue.
The man moved behind the counter, dumping a fresh batch of peach muffins into a tissue-lined bin. “No problem,” he called to them.
“What?” Zach asked, confused.
“Your blond friend sounds pretty hungry,” he said, coming out from behind the counter with a pink-glazed donut on a paper plate. He placed it down in front of the doll. “Here. On the house. It’s Pepto-Bismol flavored. We’re trying it out to see if it gets on the regular menu.”
As the man walked back into the kitchen, Zach could only stare after him. “Did he—?” Zach whispered.
“It was just a joke,” Alice said quickly, but she looked nervous. “You know, because we had a doll. He was pretending it was real.”
“Why would he do that?” Poppy asked.
“Because he thinks he’s being some kind of cool adult.” Alice took another sip of her hot chocolate and then pushed it away like it had burnt her. She shuddered. Zach thought uncomfortably about what Leo had said on the walk home from school way back when. Somebody walk over your grave?
Your blond friend. There was something familiar about the words, though, something that snagged in Zach’s mind. “No, wait. Tinshoe. That’s what he said on the bus—‘I’m not going to talk to the blonde.’ Because he didn’t like the way she was looking at him. Remember?”
“I remember that,” said Alice. Poppy nodded.
“Do you think he was talking about the doll too?” Zach felt cold, and the food he’d eaten churned in his stomach. He’d wanted the ghost to be real, but the more real Eleanor seemed, the more scared he was. He tried not to look over at the Queen. He tried not to think about what it meant that she sounded hungry. He tried not to notice that her cheeks seemed a little rosier today, like she was feeding on something other than donuts.
They had to bury her, and they had to bury her soon.
“Okay, well . . . ,” Alice said. She checked the face of her cell phone, then took out the map. It was ripped down the middle, but she rested it on the table so all the streets lined up. “It’s ten forty-three now, and the next bus isn’t until four thirty. There’s time and all, but I really have to be on that bus.”
“East Liverpool isn’t that far,” said Poppy. “Zach said so last night. We could still make it. On foot. Like real adventurers.”
They were all quiet for a long moment.
“I’m going,” Poppy said, picking up the doll and cradling it in her lap. Her cheek rested against its pale bone china brow. Its eyes seemed more open than before. Pale milk glass with a black center. “With or without you guys.” Her voice was small, though.
Zach thought about all the food thrown around the woods, about the slashed sleeping bag. And he wondered what else a ghost could do.
Have you ever heard this one? When you drive past a cemetery, you have to hold your breath. If you don’t, the spirits of the newly dead can get in your body through your mouth and possess you.
But he’d already decided. He wasn’t turning back. “I’m still up for an adventure,” he said with a nod. “I’m in.”
Alice slapped her hands down on the table like she was calling a meeting to order. “I’m not a coward. I care about adventures too, okay? It’s not that. But I need to get home by tonight or my grandmother is going to lose her mind. She’s going to call the cops. She’ll make sure I don’t go anywhere for months, and she’ll remind me of what I did whenever I ask for permission to do anything for the rest of my life. Forever. So I am not going to be late. Okay?” Her voice got louder, and the words came out faster as she spoke, and when she finished there was a long silence.
“Okay,” Poppy said finally.
“So, look, I want to go, but I want you to promise we’ll get back home today. The bus leaves here at four thirty, and I want you to promise we’re not going to miss it. Promise that we’ll turn around in time if we have to. Promise me that you’ll get on it with me.”
“But what if we’re almost there and—” Poppy started.
“No way,” Alice said. “We still have to get to the graveyard and bury the Queen and find the bus station before the bus from East Liverpool leaves—at three forty-five. If we make it to East Liverpool and there’s time, great, but remember that the bus leaves earlier from there. I’ll come with you, but if it doesn’t look like we’ll make it, we all come back together.”
Poppy looked reluctant. “I’m not going back without finishing this quest.”
“Then I’m going to the bus station now,” Alice said, pushing back her chair and standing. “You and Zach can adventure by yourselves. I’m not going with you.”
“Wait,” Zach said, standing too and reaching for her. “We started this together. We need to stay together. We can make it to East Liverpool and still get home.”
Alice folded her arms over her chest.
“Poppy,” Zach said.
She sighed. “Fine. But if we’re going to make it by Alice’s deadline, we have to go now. And we have to go fast.”
Zach put out his hand to pull Poppy to her feet. “We’re already up. We’re waiting on you.”
Poppy stood without letting him help, holding the Queen under her arm. “You believe me now, don’t you? About the dream. About the ghost. You believe me, right?”
Zach opened his mouth to tell her that he’d dreamed about Eleanor too. But just then, Alice said, “Sure we do,” and the moment passed.
Instead he picked up the Pepto-Bismol donut and bit into it.
The frosting was sickly sweet, but it was the bitter taste underneath that stayed on his tongue.
ADVENTURING TURNED OUT TO BE BORING. ZACH thought back to all the fantasy books he’d read where a team of questers traveled overland, and realized a few things. First he’d pictured himself with a loyal steed that would have done most of the walking, so he hadn’t anticipated the blister forming on his left heel or the tiny pebble that seemed to have worked its way under his sock, so that even when he stripped off his sneaker he couldn’t find it.
He hadn’t thought about how hot the sun would be either. When he put together his bunch of provisions, he never thought about bringing sunblock. Aragorn never wore sunblock. Taran never wore sunblock. Percy never wore sunblock. But despite all that precedent for going without, he was pretty sure his nose would be lobster-red the next time he looked in the mirror.
He was thirsty, too, something that happened a lot in books, but his dry throat bothered him more than it had ever seemed to bother any character.
And, unlike in books where random brigands and monsters jumped out just when things got unbearably dull, there was nothing to fight except for clouds of gnats, several of which Zach was pretty sure he’d accidentally swallowed.
Also, it wasn’t like they were walking through the awesome vistas of Middle Earth—a forest full of Ents or elves, a mountain pass brimming with orcs and ice—they were mostly walking past industrial buildings and a bowling alley. Eventually the warehouses thinned out until it was just highway on one side and water on the other. They kept heading along the road, pausing occasionally to kick rocks or adjust their backpacks.
Alice was walking ahead, with Zach behind her. She had a blade of grass and was trying to turn it into a whistle, a trick she claimed her uncle could do. So far all she’d managed was to make a lot of spitting noises.
“I had an idea,” Poppy said, speeding her pace to draw even with Zach. She was still carrying the Queen, the doll settled against her hip like it was a child. He tried to keep his gaze from going to it. “About William. About who his father is.”
“You promised not to talk about the game.” He was tempted to, though. He wanted to know how the story would have ended, since he’d never get to play it. And he was bored.
“No,” Poppy said with a trickster’s smile. “I agreed not to ask why you stopped playing. And I didn’t.”
Zach sighed. He was arguing because he thought he should, not because his heart was really in it. “I guess I had some ideas too,” he admitted.
Poppy looked at him with astonishment. “You did?”
“He’s my character, after all. But even if his father is the king of the whole Gray Country, he’s going to stay a pirate. He’s happy where he is, on the Neptune’s Pearl. No dad is going to change that.”
Poppy was looking at him oddly, like she wanted desperately to ask why he thought about any of this stuff, since he’d said he didn’t want to play anymore. But for once, she was smart and didn’t. “Even if his father was the Duke of Deepwinter Barrow?”
They didn’t have a doll to represent him, but the Duke was a bad guy, through and through. They’d loved making up his crimes. He’d been raising a zombie army of broken dolls to march over the rest of the lands. He’d chopped off the heads of his enemies and abducted an evil priestess to be his duchess. Another action figure that Zach used to play had fought them over by the Silver Hills and nearly died. He was being healed by one of Alice’s dolls, in a temple she’d made from a shoe box.
“That would be pretty good,” Zach said. “If William was the Duke’s son, then he could get close enough to assassinate him. Or maybe he could say that he was the Duke’s son—maybe he’s really someone else’s kid entirely. Maybe someone even better. Like an ancient pirate lord or some kind of monster.”
Poppy looked flustered. She was good at making up stories, but she wasn’t always good at accepting the stuff he and Alice made up, no matter how awesome it was. It took her a little while to accept a universe she didn’t have total control over.
Alice halted abruptly.
The path had ended. Up ahead, another big fat river flowed into the Ohio, making it impossible to go farther. Two bridges spanned the river, but he could see that they were useless to three kids on foot. One was a railway bridge, rusted and abandoned, with large gaps where metal rails had fallen off. The other was a massive concrete three-lane highway, with a toll booth on one side and no room for walking on the shoulder.
“Well, that’s that,” Alice said. She had a strange expression on her face, half relief and half disappointment.
Zach sighed, gazing up along the waterway. There were shabby-looking marinas on either side of the big unknown river. If this was a book or a movie, they would meet a mysterious figure with a boat and that person would ferry them across. Like Charon. Probably try to trick them too—but if they were clever, they could make it. And if he was William, he wouldn’t need to be ferried across because he’d have the Neptune’s Pearl—his two-masted schooner—and all his crew.
But in real life, those things didn’t matter. He was suddenly aware of how tired he was.
“Let’s go ask,” Poppy said. “Maybe there’s a ferry?”
It was only a little after noon, so they walked down to the marina. The few buildings—an oversize boat storage area, a lean-to, and an office—sat beside three long docks, with an array of boats separated by berms. Two little kids were leaning over the side of a piling with a fishing net, watching something in the water.
“You want to split up?” Zach asked. “See if we can find somebody who might know how to cross?”
“Okay,” said Alice, glancing toward the office. “Let’s meet back here in five minutes.”
“I’m going to talk to those kids,” Poppy said, turning to head in their direction.
He walked a little ways, inhaling the smell of diesel and river and tar baking in the sun. The day had turned warm, and Zach wondered if it would be possible to swim across. He wondered if Alice had had the right idea, going into the main building. There was probably air-conditioning and maybe even a water fountain up there.
As he wandered he spotted an old rowboat, pulled up to one side of the dry dock and leaned against some pilings. The paint was chipped along the sides, and he didn’t see any oars, but for a moment, he imagined them ferrying themselves across. As he got closer, though, he saw the hull had enough rot damage to keep it from being seaworthy. He didn’t need to know much about boats to know it would leak like crazy if he put it in the water.
With a sigh, he studied the sleek motorboats, shaped like long cigars, and the towering, multilevel fishing vessels with tall antennae shooting off of them like whiskers on a cat. He couldn’t imagine the sort of people who owned boats like that, but he was pretty sure that they didn’t give kids rides just for asking.
Despite reading tons about pirates and drawing the Neptune’s Pearl in such detail that he’d figured out most of the rigging, and even building model ships, Zach had never been on a boat.
He took another look at the rowboat and wondered if it might be possible to patch it. Maybe he could find some nails and wood glue and tar. And if that didn’t work, then maybe they could bail water faster than the boat could sink?