“You never cared about the quest!” Poppy shouted back. “You threw Eleanor into the water. You threw her away like she was garbage.”
“I thought maybe if she was gone, you’d go back to normal,” Alice said. “I know you’re just making all this up. Stop acting like it’s so important, like you actually believe in it. Maybe you have Zach fooled, but you don’t fool me.”
“Is that what you’re mad about? About Zach?”
Poppy whirled on Zach. “She loooooves you. That’s her big secret. She wants you to be her boyfriend and go to the movies with her and make kissy faces. That’s the only reason she even came with us.”
Zach took a step back, glancing over at Alice, expecting her to deny it.
Her trembling hands went to cover her face. She and Poppy were both shivering as hard as he was. But she didn’t deny anything and he didn’t have room in his brain to know how to process that. He felt a little embarrassed and a lot shocked. And it didn’t matter anyway. They were all cold and miserable, and he had to do something before the fight they’d been having all along bubbled over into something so bad that it couldn’t be taken back.
“Alice—” he started, not quite sure what he was going to say, but hoping he’d figure it out as he spoke.
She shook her head, keeping her eyes on Poppy. “Of course you would say that. You’re horrible. Now I know why Zach is sick of you. He answered those Questions you gave him, you know. He obviously cares about the game, even if he’s lying about it. He still wants to play. He just doesn’t want to play with you anymore. And you know what? I don’t either. He hates you, and I hate you too.”
Then, as Poppy stared at her, stunned, her skin flushed in that blotchy way it got, Alice turned and ran from both of them. She pushed her way into the tangled brush of the woods.
“I don’t hate you,” Zach told Poppy. He hesitated a moment and then raced after Alice.
He knew he’d been the bad friend, the liar, the one that had started everybody fighting. He’d been hurt and mad and afraid of letting anyone see how he felt. But he’d thought they would go on being Poppy and Alice, playing the same game, being best friends, sleeping over at each other’s houses.
He’d taken it for granted that he’d be able to go back to being friends later, if he wanted, and everything would be the way he’d left it. He’d counted on that.
But maybe he’d messed up everything.
It didn’t take long to find Alice. She was sitting with her back against a tree, head tipped forward so that her wet braids hung in her face. He thought that maybe she’d been crying again, but he wasn’t sure. The skin around her eyes was red and swollen.
“You didn’t have to go looking for me,” she said.
He went over and sat beside her. “Why did you say all that stuff?”
She shook her head, not looking up. “I don’t know.”
“You were really good on the boat. At sailing.” Which sounded lame now that he heard the words out loud, although it had made sense in his head.
She shrugged. Zach had no idea how to make things better. He wanted to ask her if it was true that she liked him, but he didn’t want to make her more upset—and since she’d gotten pretty upset already, it probably was true. But he wasn’t sure why she’d been willing to follow Poppy onto the boat just to keep Zach from finding out. It wasn’t an insult or anything. It was kind of a compliment.
Zach hadn’t really thought about asking a girl out in any kind of real way, but if he was going to ask a girl out to get pizza or play video games, he’d want her to be like Alice.
The silence stretched until, unexpectedly, she broke it. “It was fun.” She smiled lopsidedly. “Sailing. Even if we capsized. And I can’t believe you stole that boat.”
“We’ll call the marina,” he said, only a little defensively. “So it’ll only be stolen for a little while.”
She didn’t reply, and he didn’t want another moment of awkwardness. He gathered his courage. “I’m sorry—about everything. We should have gone back before. You were right. I’ll tell your grandmother it was all our fault.”
“It doesn’t matter. That’s not even what I’m really mad about.” Alice leaned her head against the tree. “I mean, I am, but there’s more.”
He waited, unsure of what she was going to say next.
“Do you think there’s a ghost that talks to Poppy?” Alice asked. “I’m not asking if you believe in ghosts. I’m asking if you believe in this ghost.”
Zach nodded. “There was all that stuff with the donut guy and the crazy bus guy seeming to see her, and there was the camp getting messed up, and—and I had a dream about Eleanor last night in the woods. Just like Poppy. It wasn’t the same dream, but it was kind of the same.”
“You did?” Alice didn’t look happy to hear it.
“I should have said something before,” he told her.
“It’s just—” Alice looked down at her hands. She clenched them. “I don’t want to believe in Eleanor. I don’t want there to be a ghost that’s talking to Poppy—and now, to you.”
“You can’t really be jealous—”
She cut him off, talking very fast. “You don’t understand. There can’t be a ghost, a real ghost. Because if there is, then some random dead girl wants to haunt Poppy, but my own dead parents can’t be bothered to come back and haunt me.”
Everything seemed to pause, as though the universe had taken a moment to draw its breath.
Alice wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. They were wet and glittering with all the tears she was holding back. “What if we bury the Queen and Eleanor is really gone? What if we actually put her to rest? What if it’s real? Does that mean that my parents didn’t even care enough to say good-bye? I didn’t even get a single stupid dream. Not one.”
He remembered Alice’s parents only vaguely. He recalled sitting on a linoleum floor, playing Matchbox cars with Alice in a sunny yellow kitchen while her mother made them toast with jam, her father wearing crazy ties to his job at the courthouse—and, of course, Zach remembered that they’d died. But he didn’t think of them as dead, the way ghosts were dead. And he’d never thought about how it would be to go on a quest to dig a grave when your parents were already in one.
He felt like a jerk for not even considering it. Now that he had, he wasn’t sure there was anything he could say to Alice that wouldn’t make him a bigger jerk. He was helpless.
“Maybe after we die, we don’t get choices like that.” He crouched down next to her. “And it probably sucks to be a ghost.”
Alice snorted, the corner of her mouth lifting. “Maybe,” she said.
Snapping twigs made them both look up. Zach stood. Poppy was walking toward them, wearing an uncomfortable expression, half relief and half dismay.
“I think I found the way to town,” she said.
ALTHOUGH THE MAIN STREET OF EAST LIVERPOOL was full of big store windows and shops, many were no longer open at all. There was a place called Pants Unlimited that was covered in flyers advertising FINAL SALE! on everything, since they were going out of business, but by the aged look of the flyers, they might have been going out of business for years. The store owner stood in the doorway, smoking a cigarette. Zach and Poppy and Alice walked past him, still trailing water, their shoes making squelching sounds. Poppy hugged the Queen to her chest, the doll’s face turned so that he couldn’t see if her cheeks had grown even rosier. Next they passed a gaming store with a few bikes leaned against the pavement and a couple more chained to a nearby STOP sign. And finally they came to a diner, the only restaurant they’d seen that was open.
They stopped to gaze at the menu on the door.
“I have four dollars and twenty-five cents—aside from the bus fare home,” Zach said. “How much do you guys have?”
“That I can spend?” said Poppy. “Zero.”
“Eight seventy-five,” said Alice, pushing up her dress to rifle through the pockets of the jeans she had on underneath.
“So, not much before we start dipping into our bus fare home,” Poppy said. “But something.”
Alice looked grim at the mention of the bus, but didn’t say anything, which was good, but also made Zach nervous. All the way from the woods, the three of them had only said things having to do with figuring out where they were going. He couldn’t decide if the girls didn’t want to fight anymore or if they were gearing up for an even bigger fight that was about to come.
Somehow he’d become at the center of their conflict, and he could tell it was just a matter of time before they figured out that they didn’t have to be mad at each other—he was the one they should both be mad at. He was the one who had messed up the game, the one who had hidden the Questions, the one who Alice—
The one who Alice liked, which was weird too. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought about girls or even like he’d never thought about Alice like that. He had. But actually asking her out? The idea was paralyzing.
“Okay,” Zach said, pushing open the door to the diner. “Let’s go in.”
The diner was warm, with a round display of desserts near the register that turned, showing huge cakes and pies piled with icing and oozing filling. There were little glass dishes of Jell-O and others of rice pudding studded with raisins, each one covered in plastic wrap.
A woman standing behind the register, her white hair in short beauty-parlor curls, looked them up and down skeptically, as though she was trying to decide if they were trouble. “You can’t track mud all over the place,” she said finally.
Zach could smell something frying in the back, and his stomach lurched with hunger.
“Sorry,” said Alice, taking a step forward, putting on her best acting face. “We were out racing our sailboat and got really into it. A little too much, I guess. We just wanted to get something warm to eat before we go back. The water was really cold.”
The woman behind the register smiled, like the idea of healthy outdoor activity had made their mud-stained appearance wholesome. Or maybe she figured that kids with sailboats had money, however bad they looked. “Well, okay, but you go dry off in the back first. Table for four?”
“Three,” Alice said, and the woman blinked in confusion.
Zach narrowed his eyes at the doll, hanging limply in Poppy’s arms.
“Come on.” Poppy took Alice’s arm and hauled her toward the bathrooms. As she walked she looked back at the white-haired woman at the register. “Table for four is fine.”
Zach went into the men’s bathroom. There was a row of three urinals and a single stall, all in baby-blue tile, with paintings of the Ohio River in the olden days hanging high on the walls. He walked over to the sinks, took off his shoes, and rinsed them off. Then he took off his jeans, wiped dirt and bits of grass from the cuffs, and tried to dry them the best he could with a combination of paper towels and a hand dryer.
Finally he wrung out his shirt over one of the sinks, hand-combed his wet hair, and put his jeans back on. They stuck to his legs, damp and chill. He looked back into the mirror, seeing a slightly sunburnt boy looking back at him, older than he remembered himself, with a familiar mess of brown-black hair and black eyes that seemed to say: I hope you know what you’re doing.
When he left the bathroom, Alice and Poppy were already sitting in a banquette. They waved in his direction, and he slid in just as their waitress arrived.
She was only a little older than they were, with pink lipstick, blunt-cut black hair, and a nose ring. Handing over the menus, she paused to stare at the Queen, lolling beside Poppy.
“Your doll?” the waitress said, pointing. Dirt from the riverbed was in the grooves of her nose and mouth and was turning her blond ringlets into thick clumps. “Superscary.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Alice, with a dark look in Poppy’s direction. “The scariest.”
The waitress smiled, handed them the menus, and walked off. Zach was just glad that it seemed like she was seeing a doll, instead of whatever Tinshoe Jones, the donut guy, and the lady at the register had seen. He pushed the thought out of his mind and studied the menu. They had twelve seventy-five that they could spend and still get home—and that was budgeting on loaning Poppy a quarter for her bus fare.
There were biscuits and eggs in white sausage gravy with hash browns, maybe big enough for them to split two plates three ways, for five dollars. But there was also a turkey bacon club sandwich that came with fries and slaw for a little more than seven dollars, and if they got water with that instead of sodas, and figured on a tip of a dollar, they would still have money left over. And there was the three eggs with hash browns and toast for three ninety-five—just enough that they couldn’t afford it all around.
There was a bowl of chili for two ninety-five that seemed promising. You could get a side of fries for another two fifty. Maybe if they got three orders of chili and one side of fries?
Thinking about what they could afford to eat was making his mouth water. If they didn’t figure out something soon, he was going to order it all and have no way home.
“Be right back,” Alice said, and headed off toward the counter, leaving him alone at the table with Poppy.
“Maybe you should go after her,” Zach said. “Talk.”
“Maybe you should go after her,” Poppy told him, pushing loose strands of wet hair behind her ears.