He turned at the sound of his name being shouted. Poppy was standing next to the two kids with the net and waving him over.
“Brian’s dad is trying to sell a dinghy,” she said when Zach stepped onto the dock. It dipped underneath him and he steadied himself, lamenting his lack of sea legs.
“Uh-huh,” he said warily. They had maybe fifteen dollars before they were dipping into the funds for the way back. “How much does he want for it?”
“Twenty-five.” Poppy glanced at Zach’s watch and raised her eyebrows. “But Brian said that maybe we could trade if we had anything he wanted. And he’ll throw in oars.”
“There’s no other way across?”
She shook her head, making her red hair fly around her. The sun had pinked her nose and deepened her freckles. “There’s another bridge, but it’s more than a mile away. If we’re on the water, Brian says we can make it to East Liverpool in a half hour. Easy.”
Brian nodded. “We go up that way to fish sometimes. It’s not far,” the other kid said.
“Okay,” Zach said. “Let’s see this thing.”
Brian led them down to the end of the dock, where a few small dinghies and rowboats were moored. Three rowboats rocked gently beside one another, buffered by plastic fenders. Brian pointed to the one on the end, painted a slate gray. It was beat-up, but afloat, with no visible leaks. A lot better than the rotted-out one Zach had found near the dry dock.
“Can you give us a second to talk it over?” Zach asked.
Brian shrugged and headed back to where his friend was manning the net, trailing it through the water like he was going to catch something by sheer accident. As Zach watched the kid go he saw Alice crossing the gravel-covered yard toward them.
It was interesting watching her when she didn’t notice herself being observed. Her coat was tied around her waist. She looked determined and sweaty and a little bit hopeful. Her angular face and thin eyebrows were utterly familiar, but he realized for the first time that she looked like one of those older, mysterious girls he wondered at sometimes in the mall, and that made her strange to him.
“All I’ve got is a necklace,” Poppy said, touching the thin silver chain around her neck protectively. She wore a tiny typewriter key charm on it. He hadn’t seen her without it since she’d gotten it from her father on her birthday. “I’ll trade that, though.”
“I’ve got my watch and a flashlight,” Zach said. “And a book I’m pretty sure they don’t want.”
Alice walked up to them, pushing back her braids impatiently. “Hey, look, guys, I talked to an old guy up at the marina office. He said there was no way to walk to East Liverpool. I know you’re going to be mad, but he said it was impossible, Poppy.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“What if we don’t go by foot?” Poppy said, pointing to the gray boat.
“Do we even know which way the current of the river runs?” Alice asked. “Or anything about boats?”
Poppy looked momentarily thrown, then she frowned. “What’s to know? We just row harder if the current is against us.”
Zach itched to be on the water, even in the little dinghy.
“You promised we’d go back,” Alice said. “Both of you said that if we couldn’t get to East Liverpool in time to get the bus, we’d go back to East Rochester. Well, it’s time to turn around.”
Poppy hesitated, and Zach stayed silent far too long.
“Seriously?” Alice asked them. “You’re really going to break your promises?”
“It’s not that,” Zach said, looking longingly at the water. “It’s just that I think we can still make it.”
Alice’s expression hardened into a tight, unfriendly smile. Her eyes shone like chips of glass. “Oh no, you have to come back with me,” she told Zach. “Even if Poppy doesn’t come with us.”
“Yeah?” he said, trying to sound like he didn’t care—like he didn’t even know what she was going to threaten him with. He did know, though, and he did care.
“I’ll tell her,” Alice said. “That you lied, and what you lied about.”
“Tell me?” Poppy asked. “Wait, what do you mean? Tell me what?”
“Nothing,” Zach said, stepping back from them. He took a deep breath of diesel and river muck. He couldn’t think—all he knew was that if Poppy found out about the Questions, she would never stop picking at his reasons for lying about them until the whole story came out. Imagining that filled him with nameless panic. “Alice is right about us promising. If she wants to go back, then—”
Poppy interrupted him, looking at Zach like if she stared hard enough, she could read his mind. “What don’t you want me to find out?”
He remembered, too late, how much Poppy hated her friends keeping secrets from her.
“It’s nothing,” Zach insisted.
“Then tell me,” Poppy said. She hesitated a moment, then looked at Alice. “Tell me.”
“Come on,” Alice said. “Give up. The game’s over. We’re going back. Let’s all just go back. It was still fun. It was still a quest.”
“No way,” said Poppy. “I could tell Zach something that I bet you don’t want him to know, Alice. I know a secret too.”
Alice’s whole face changed. He wondered if he’d been so transparent, if it had been as clear when he’d figured out just what he had to lose. And he understood, right then, why Poppy was so upset about Zach and Alice not telling Poppy things. Because whatever Alice didn’t want Poppy to say had to be pretty bad. Maybe Alice had talked about how much she hated him or said that he smelled or how stupid he was. Maybe she had made fun of him to Poppy, snickering behind his back.
“You wouldn’t do that,” Alice said, her voice hushed. “You’re my best friend. That’s a secret.”
“Just tell me,” Zach said. “Come on. Whatever it is, I won’t be mad. At least I don’t think I’ll be mad.”
Poppy laughed, and Zach thought he saw a strange dancing light in the glass eyes of the doll, as though the Queen was laughing too. When Poppy spoke, her voice was different. She could be mean sometimes, but never before did she seem gleeful about being cruel. “She’s not going to tell you. I win at blackmail. Alice has to come, and since you apparently have to do what she wants, you have to come too. So come on, let’s buy this boat.”
“You don’t understand how much trouble I’m going to get in,” Alice said, running her fingers through her braids.
“I don’t care. You didn’t care about me, and now I don’t care about you either,” said Poppy.
“But you promised!” Alice said, her voice anguished.
“I don’t care,” Poppy repeated.
Zach paced down the dock, too angry at everyone to be ready to give in to anyone, especially those kids with their fishing net who were going to try and talk him out of all the cash they had. He glanced at Alice, who was staring at the water in an agony of indecision. And he looked back at the three rowboats and the dinghy, which, now, under his resentful gaze, looked increasingly shabby.
None of it was right. This wasn’t how their quest was supposed to go.
He had read lots of stories where heroes succeeded in spite of long odds, where they accomplished a task that everyone else had failed at. He wondered for the first time about all the people who’d gone before those heroes, about whether they’d been heroic too or whether they’d been at each other’s throats, before everything had gone wrong. He wondered if there was a point where they realized they weren’t going to make it, weren’t going to beat those long odds—that in the legend that would follow, they were going to be the nameless people that failed.
At the very end of the dock, Zach stopped. He drew in his breath.
In front of him was a tiny sailboat, low and slim, only a little bigger than the dinghy, but made from fiberglass. A black-and-white striped sail was folded loosely around the boom, the symbol of a sunfish visible on the Dacron cloth. Someone must have just left it, intending to come right back, because the centerboard was pulled out and there were two life jackets piled together in the cockpit.
Across the stern was one word in a curling script: PEARL.
Zach jumped down onto the hull, his sneakers hitting the curved deck. The boat rocked wildly underneath him, and he had to pinwheel his arms and grab the mast to steady himself. With a grin breaking across his face, he looked up at Alice and Poppy.
“We’re not buying anything,” he said. “We’re pirates, remember?”
Their twin expressions of disbelief only made his smile wider.
POPPY NEARLY CAPSIZED THE BOAT GETTING INTO IT. Zach sat in the center, fingers splayed against the hull, with his legs in the shallow cockpit as she climbed down rungs drilled into one of the pilings. First she handed him her backpack, which he dumped next to his, in a small cavity under the centerboard. The boat rocked lightly. When her foot touched the edge of the deck, though, it tipped dangerously toward her. Zach threw his weight hard to the other side, hoping to balance it out. Poppy staggered, falling on her knees with a yelp. After a few moments of wobbling, the boat settled.
“Wow,” she said, trailing her fingers through the water and lifting them up, like it was marvelous to be so close to the river and not swimming in it. “We’re actually doing this thing.”
“You’re next,” Zach called up to Alice. “If Poppy goes to the prow and I stay in the center, it won’t be as hard for you to come aboard. At least I think it won’t be hard.”
“Let me cast off the lines first,” Alice said, beginning to untie the boat from the pilings.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Zach said. “We can untie them from here and leave the ropes.”
Zach tried to remember everything he’d ever read about sailing, which was a lot. The prow was the point of the boat and the aft was the back end—he was pretty sure about that. And the stern was another word for the back end. The mast was the big thing sticking up from the center of the boat. Starboard was to the right and port was to the left. The boom was the other metal part that the sail attached to, making the L shape that swung the sail where it was supposed to be to catch the wind. And the rudder was the part that you steered with. But that was just vocabulary, and none of it would help him at all if he couldn’t recall the principles.
Alice put her hand on her hip. “What if we have to dock in East Liverpool? We can’t dock without rope.”
He couldn’t argue with that, but he could worry as the boat, no longer held by a line at its bow, began to angle more sharply in its berth. Then Alice untied the aft line. At first the Pearl swung closer to the piling, one of the boat’s fenders bumping against the floats holding up the dock. But while Alice scampered down the piling, the Pearl began to drift away from the dock.
In books, Zach remembered, there was some kind of pole that you used to cast off, hooking on to the dock to hold the boat in place once the ropes were released, and pushing off with the pole when everyone was on. He didn’t have anything like that. He scrambled to grab hold of a piling, but it was too late.
“Jump!” Zach yelled to Alice. “Now!”
And she did. She pushed herself off the piling and half fell into the cockpit, making Zach have to crouch low to keep his balance. The boat sat lower in the river with a third person weighing it down, water sloshing up over the edges of the hull, but it didn’t tip over. As Zach pushed off the far piling that marked the outer edge of the berth, he realized that they’d done it. They were moving. They’d pirated a boat.
For better or for worse, they were on Beaver River, the current swinging them toward the Ohio. The wind overhead gusted with the promise of good sailing.
And despite the fact that Alice hadn’t even wanted to come, she was laughing.
Sailing was supposed to be simple, so long as the wind was right behind you. You just let out the sail—Zach remembered that term and that it involved letting the sail billow, which must be done with one of the three ropes attached to the deck, although he wasn’t exactly sure which one—and the sail filled with lots of air, which propelled the boat straight forward.
But if the wind was coming from the side—which it usually was—then things were harder. You still caught the wind, but because of the keel on the bottom of the boat, instead of just moving away from where the wind was blowing, you mostly went straight. Mostly.
At least that was how all the books said it was supposed to work. But reading about it and doing it were completely different. He understood the theory, the ropes, the figuring out the wind, and the positioning yourself on the boat, but he couldn’t seem to make the Sunfish actually sail. They sat in the water, pushed around by the current, spinning slowly.
Poppy was strapping herself into one of the life vests, while Zach flailed around, overwhelmed, pretending to know what he was doing, pulling on ropes and testing things out. She offered the other vest to Alice, who took it grudgingly. Although Alice seemed to have accepted that they were continuing on the quest, she clearly hadn’t come close to forgiving Poppy. It was a very tiny boat, but Alice managed to sit as far from Poppy as was possible.
Zach wanted to say something to them, to make them talk to each other, but it was hard to concentrate on that while he was pulling on lines to lift the sail. They were coming up on the two bridges. The first one was high enough not to present much of a problem, but the second had more pylons underneath it, and Zach wanted to be sure they steered wide of those.