He suddenly remembered that he hadn’t dropped the rudder. Crawling to the stern of the boat, he pushed it down and grabbed the tiller so he could start to steer. Alice started working on the sail. It billowed wildly, flapping back and forth, the boom swinging to the right.
Starboard, some part of his brain reminded him.
“Tighten it,” he yelled, and she did, pulling the rope until the wrinkles went out of the sail. And suddenly they were moving. Spray splashed up off the water and wet their hair and faces like raindrops. Wind ruffled Zach’s hair.
Despite the fear of Poppy finding out about the Questions and the weirdness of Poppy and Alice having some secret, in that moment he felt pretty happy. He loved the feeling of the river beneath them and ahead of them and behind them. He was the captain of a real ship, a real ship really called the Pearl. It was almost too much magic to bear, but for once he didn’t question it. He threw back his head and grinned up into the blue of the sky.
On either side the banks were green, occasionally punctuated with oil tanks and industrial buildings and a few stretches of houses. Alice let out the sail more, and the boat sped, tilting starboard, the port side rising up and making them lean against it with their feet balanced against the edge of the cockpit, trying to flatten things out. They were cutting through the water, faster and faster.
“We’re going to flip!” Poppy yelled.
“Hold on,” said Alice.
Zach pushed the tiller so that they moved to the left, and they slowed a little, flattening. The sail began to luff, flapping noisily, and Alice tightened it to their new, slower speed. That had been exhilarating but also scary.
Poppy scrambled into the cockpit and got the Queen from her pack, zipping the doll beneath her hoodie. “In case we flip,” she said. “I’m afraid of her going overboard.”
“Don’t you think she’d be safer where she was?” Zach asked.
“Obviously, I don’t,” Poppy told him.
Alice raised both her eyebrows, as if to remind Zach that Poppy was crazy.
It took a while to get used to what made the boat move faster, when to let out the sail or tighten it, what to do when the wind changed slightly (which it seemed to do every ten minutes), and how to stay out of the way of other boats.
They sailed for what seemed like hours, but was really only a single hour. Usually when Zach was doing something, even walking, he could kind of zone out and think about other things. But handling the boat was like playing basketball—it demanded every bit of his attention. Maybe if he’d been more experienced at it, things would have been different, but half the time he was terrified that the boat was going to topple over because it was zooming along at such a steep angle. The other half of the time, the sail hung slack, and he barely could get it to move.
Occasionally, a massive barge would pass by, sending a wake that forced them to grip on to anything they could as the sailboat careened from side to side, nearly throwing them off like a bull at a rodeo.
“Do you think the Pearl ’s owner has noticed their boat’s gone?” Poppy asked as they passed a rocky island rising up on the right-hand curve of the river. A few scrub trees grew on it.
Zach shifted uncomfortably. When he’d played William the Blade robbing people, he was always able to find a good excuse—mostly that that were bad guys—but in real life, excuses felt different. “When we dock in East Liverpool, we’ll call the marina and tell them where the Pearl is. The owners will be able to pick up the boat, so hopefully they won’t worry for too long.”
Alice pointed to the island, clearly not listening to Zach and Poppy. “It seems like anything could be there, doesn’t it? I bet no one has ever stepped foot on the shore. Imagine if there was a gateway next to one of those rocks and no one knew it because everything that goes there disappears.”
Zach looked at the island as they sailed past, imagining.
Around the curve was an industrialized stretch of river with houses along the eastern shore and pipes, tanks, and barges along the other. Many were docked, and a few powerboats raced between them, making the water choppy. The constant rocking of the boat made it hard to steer. Zach’s muscles were sore from leaning hard in one direction, and his clothes were soaked through with spray.
Alice checked her phone.
“What time is it?” Zach asked her.
“About two forty,” she said. “We’ve got an hour to get there and find the bus station.”
Poppy looked over nervously. Even though this had started out as her plan, Zach thought that she looked as worried as the rest of them.
“This is taking longer than we thought,” Poppy said finally. “Longer than those boys said.”
Zach was tempted to point out that it would have taken a lot longer if they were rowing, but he didn’t. Even though they didn’t have much time, he was still feeling pleased. He and Alice had gotten good at sailing the little boat. They were going faster, catching the wind and skimming through the water like a bike speeding downhill.
Zach leaned back and watched the shoreline, watched the woods turn to town and highway and then back to woods again, watched the few houses built close enough to the river that he could spot them. In other places, houses on the river would have been big estates with their own private docks and vast lawns, but here were regular houses, like it was no big deal to live on the water.
Then they passed more industrial buildings, these a lot older-looking, with crumbling chimneys reaching into the sky. The city beyond them reminded him a little of a more sprawling version of his town—a couple of nice Victorian houses with boarded-up windows and a sluggish central square. There was a small metal bridge, which the boat was about to pass beneath. He could hear the rattle of cars across its metal supports. Up ahead, the river curved south.
“Wait,” Poppy said, pointing back at the town they’d just passed. “You’ve got to turn around. That’s East Liverpool. That’s the old pottery factory. Look.”
Zach half stood, he was so surprised. “Turn around? Do you understand that the current is running the way we’ve been sailing? And the wind—if we turn about, we’re going against the wind.”
“But we’ve got to go back.” Poppy’s eyes were wide. “We missed it.”
He looked at Alice and he could see the blank terror in her face. She had no more idea how to turn a sailboat around than he did.
“Okay,” he said. “So you swing the boom, and I’ll pull the tiller.”
Alice nodded. Zach steered toward the sandy bank to give them plenty of room to come about. “When the sail shifts, we’re going to have to change sides too,” he told Poppy. “So get ready.”
He pulled on the tiller, and Alice pulled in the rope so that the sail tightened and swung. The boat turned in a single graceful movement, and then, with the wind and the current coming at them the wrong way and almost no idea what they were doing, the boat listed to one side and went over, dumping them all into the river.
The water was shockingly cold, and the impact of it rattled him down to his bones. He grabbed for the side of the boat.
Alice sputtered to the surface. Poppy was treading water, holding on to the mast and the sail.
Zach swam to the keel, which rose from the hull like a shark’s fin. “Get clear for a second.”
Poppy kicked away from the boat, dog-paddling toward Alice.
Zach threw his weight against the hull, and it righted itself, its sail lifting up off the water. He scrabbled to pull himself on board.
Alice heaved herself onto the deck, and then both of them grabbed for Poppy, who kept one arm pressed across her chest to hold the doll in place even as she was hauled onto the boat. Another barge was passing to their left, creating a rippling wake that made their boat rock wildly again. And Zach could see that two barges followed it. For a moment they just drifted farther in the wrong direction, sail slack, holding on.
Alice lunged at Poppy. “This is enough. The end. Enough with the creepy doll and the lying and the trying to make this true.” With those words, her hand darted out and snatched the doll from where it was half zipped inside Poppy’s wet hoodie.
Poppy screeched, and Zach gasped, but it was too late. Alice threw it overhand, up and out toward the barge and the deep water.
Everything froze for a long moment. The Queen hit the waves with barely a splash, the water seeming to soak her dress in slow motion, drawing it down. Her hair spread in a golden wave, and her dull black eyes looked up at them as she bobbed for a moment before sinking in a froth of bubbles.
ZACH DIDN’T THINK ABOUT IT. HE DOVE.
When he was a little kid, his mom had taken him to swimming classes at the YMCA. He remembered the bleachy smell of the chlorine and the feel of the orange swimmies inflated too tightly against his upper arms and the way all the kids’ shouting bounced off the ceiling to echo. And he remembered how to kick like a frog.
He kicked now, over and over, toward the Queen, reaching for her, opening his eyes in the murky brown river.
His fingers closed on a scrap of her dress. Striking his other hand out hard, he caught her arm and hauled her to him. For a moment the cold deadweight of her small china body seemed warm against his. Before he could think too much about that, he was swimming toward the surface. His head broke through the waves, and he sucked in a grateful lungful of air.
His whole body was shaking with cold. His teeth chattered. His toes had gone numb. Behind him, Poppy and Alice were fighting, but it was hard to focus on their words.
Then the wake of the barge hit, the waves sending him under again, this time without him holding his breath. He came up choking.
The sailboat was at a strange angle, closer to shore. The waves had carried it to shallower water, where the keel caught in the mud. The Pearl had run aground.
The girls were wading through the shallow water.
They were shouting at each other, but Zach didn’t pay attention. The water was too cold, and it took too much energy for him to do anything but put his head down and swim.
He kicked and kicked and kicked.
Clutching the Queen to his chest, leaving only a single free arm with which to paddle, reaching the shore seemed to take forever. And when he finally got there, the bank of the Ohio River was muddy, sucking at his feet, making wading ashore even harder than swimming had been.
Poppy was sitting on a fallen tree trunk, looking bedraggled and miserable. Her lips were blue with cold. Alice had sloughed off her coat somewhere and had her arms around herself like she was trying to physically restrain herself from shivering.
“The backpacks are gone,” Alice said. “They must have fallen out when the boat rolled the first time.”
Zach sank down on the sandy, muddy bank and looked at the doll in his arms. The Queen’s dress was torn, and it seemed ready to disintegrate further as it dried. One of her arms had been pulled free from the socket and was hanging limply from a dirty string. He stared down at her and wondered why he’d been willing to jump back into a freezing river to get her.
He hadn’t even thought about it. He didn’t even remember deciding. He’d just known that if he didn’t, he would lose something he wasn’t ready to give up.
As the Queen’s dull black eyes rolled up at him, he remembered what Poppy had said about breathing in the dead. Maybe when he’d opened up her bag of ashes, he’d inhaled some by accident. And if that was true, then maybe she could possess him anytime she wanted, just like the dead people who possessed you when you passed by graveyards. He wanted to drop her on the riverbank, but his hands wouldn’t obey him.
“What time is it?” Alice asked. “My phone’s dead.”
He looked at his watch. The center of the crystal face had fogged up, but even if it had stopped, it couldn’t be too far off. “Three twenty.”
“We’ve got to get moving,” Alice said, clearly panicked. “Get up. We’ve got to go.”
Zach’s feet felt like they were filled with lead. “Alice . . .” We’re not going to make it, he wanted to tell her. There’s no way. We don’t even know where we’re going. But he could see in her face that she already knew all those things. That she’d figured them out on the boat before she’d hurled the Queen into the waves.
“How could you—?” Poppy said to her, but then bit off the end of the sentence as Alice stalked off. Poppy pulled the doll from Zach’s hands silently. He let her take it.
Alice walked with determination, and although Zach wasn’t sure she knew where she was going, he and Poppy followed her.
They stumbled through the woods and then along the side of an empty stretch of road, past a raggedy wire fence that looked like it was keeping zombies back after an apocalypse rather than cows. As they tripped over rocks and stumps, wet hair sticking to their faces and necks, soaked socks squelching in their shoes, the silence stretched between them, making him even more panicked. Zach kept looking at his watch, which wasn’t running entirely right anymore but still seemed to be ticking along faster than he wanted.
They were all shivering. Alice kept asking what time it was in a smaller and smaller voice. At three thirty, she kept marching with grim determination. At three thirty-four, she sped up to a near run. At three thirty-seven, she started to cry, quietly and to herself. He reached out a hand toward her, but she gave him such a terrible look that he pulled back and let her alone. At three forty-three, she set her jaw and kept going.
At three fifty-four, when the bus was well and truly gone, she whirled on Poppy.
“You promised this wouldn’t happen!” she shouted. “You promised, and then you broke your promises over and over again, and now my whole life is going to be ruined because of you!”