He was still thinking about those things when the door opened and Alice came back in, wearing shoes. She looked grim.
“Okay, Poppy,” Miss Katherine said. “Your turn.”
Poppy stood up and went out with only a single glance back.
“How was it?” Zach asked Alice after a long moment. She had been fiddling with the electric kettle switch, turning it on and then off again, seeming lost in thought.
“Oh,” she said. “Weird. My aunt Linda was there. Grandma had called her. She’d wanted to go out looking for me yesterday after I didn’t come back, but she knew she couldn’t see very well at night. She was mad, but—I don’t know, she sounded different. Like she realized she was old for the first time.”
“You think you’re going to be grounded forever?” Zach asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Alice said. “Forever and a day. Even if she lets Aunt Linda help out more.”
He didn’t want to never see Alice again. Before he chickened out, he blurted out the words. “So if I asked you to go to the movies with me or something—”
She leaned against the counter, glancing over at him, a smile lifting one corner of her mouth. “Are you asking me out?”
“Yeah,” he said, wiping his hands against his jeans. His palms had started to sweat. “Yes. Will you—”
“Yes,” she cut him off, saying the word very quickly, not looking at him. He wondered if she felt as awkward as he did. He was glad he asked and he was glad she said yes, but he was also glad she was grounded, so it wouldn’t be happening soon.
The door opened, and they both jumped. Poppy came in and threw herself into one of the folding chairs. She looked, if anything, even more upset than Alice had.
“You okay?” Zach asked.
“I need a ride,” Poppy mumbled, putting her head in her hands again.
“What?” Alice asked.
“I couldn’t get my dad, and my mom’s working until late. She asked if one of your folks could drive me.”
Miss Katherine topped up her cup with more hot water. “Zachary, it’s your turn.”
He stood and walked toward the door. As he was going out he looked back at Poppy. Alice was standing behind her chair, hand on her shoulder. And in that moment he realized that he didn’t want them to have to go back never having completed the quest. He wanted them to finish this thing the way Poppy had imagined: together.
He watched as the librarian locked the break-room door. Then he followed her through the library to an office on the third floor, where there was a small desk, piled with more review copies of books and papers, scattered with pens. A folding chair with a padded seat rested in front of it and a cloth chair on wheels behind it.
“Have a seat,” she said, sitting down behind the desk. She picked up the phone and handed it over to him. “You dial the number, but I need to talk to your parents. I’ll tell them where you are, and then I’ll hand you the phone. I’ll go outside to give you some privacy unless you want me to stay here, okay?”
He reminded himself that he wouldn’t care if they were upset. He was still mad about what his dad had done and how little his mother had cared. If he kept that in the front of his thoughts, then nothing they could say would bother him. He just wouldn’t care.
He wiped his hands against his jeans and hoped it was true. He dialed and handed the phone over.
The librarian took the receiver and started explaining how she’d found Zach sleeping on the couch in the Carnegie Public Library in East Liverpool—yes, East Liverpool, Ohio—and yes, he was fine, he had two friends with him, and they were fine too. She gave the address of the library and some abbreviated directions.
Then she held out the phone to him.
Zach took it and brought it slowly to his ear as Miss Katherine went out the door, closing it softly behind her. “Mom?” Zach said.
“It’s me,” said his father. “You all right?”
Zach’s heart sped. “Yeah, like she said. I’m fine.”
“I never meant to make you feel like you had to run away,” Zach’s dad said softly. As soon as his father had picked up, Zach had expected a lot of shouting and the phone getting slammed in its cradle. But his father didn’t sound angry. Zach wasn’t sure why, but more than anything else, his dad sounded scared.
“That’s not what I was doing,” he said. “I was on a quest. I was going to come back when I was finished.” Once Zach said the words, he knew they were true. He would have gone back. He’d just needed a little break.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, as though his father was not quite sure how to respond. “So, this quest,” he said finally, tentatively. “Are you done with it now?”
“Not yet,” said Zach. “I thought I was, but—I don’t think that I am.”
“We’re going to get in the car, and we’re going to be there in two and a half hours. Do you think you’ll be finished then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your mother’s been real worried. You want to talk to her?”
Zach wanted to tell her that everything was okay, that he was fine, but he didn’t want to hear her voice and realize how much he’d upset her. “No,” he said after a moment. “See you when you get here.”
His father gave a heavy sigh. “You know I don’t understand you.”
“You don’t have to.” Zach just wanted the conversation over, before either of them said something awful.
“I want to,” his father said.
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “I’m not good at this kind of thing, but even though I don’t always get things and your mother tells me I don’t know how to talk, I wanted to tell you that I’ve been thinking about what I did with those toys ever since it happened. It was a mean thing to do. I grew up mean, and I don’t want you to have to grow up mean too.”
Zach was silent. He’d never heard his father talk that way before.
“When I saw you with those figures, I pictured you getting hassled at school. I thought you needed to be tougher. But I’ve been thinking that protecting somebody by hurting them before someone else gets the chance isn’t the kind of protecting that anybody wants.”
“Yeah,” Zach said. It was all he could bring himself to say. He had no idea his father thought about anything like this. All the anger had drained out of him, leaving him feeling as fragile as one of those paper-thin china cups.
“So I’ll see you soon,” his father told him. “Good luck with the quest.” He said the word as though it was a strange, unfamiliar shape in his mouth, but he said it.
“Bye, Dad,” said Zach, and hung up the phone.
He sat there for a long moment, breathing hard. Something had shifted, something seismic, and he needed to be still long enough to have it settle inside of him. Then he stood up and went out the door.
MISS KATHERINE WAS SHELVING A FEW BOOKS NEARBY and put them back on the cart when he emerged from the office. Her pink hair was as bright as the synthetic mane of a plastic horse.
“Everything okay?” she asked him.
“They’re coming,” Zach said, trying to put the strangeness of his father’s words behind him. “Did you see Poppy’s doll?”
She shook her head. “I walked by the table where you left all those maps, but there was nothing else there. Do you want to take a look yourself?”
Zach nodded and followed her to the couches. He noticed her shoes for the first time, bright yellow with bows. She didn’t look like any librarian he’d ever seen before. In fact, she didn’t look like any adult he’d met before.
Zach looked under the sofa the girls had slept on and then under the one where he’d fallen asleep—after all, the last time he’d woken up, the doll was resting right next to his head. He knelt down with a shudder at the thought of her lying directly underneath where he’d slept, as though she might reach up her tiny porcelain hands and drag him down through the couch cushions. She wasn’t there, though.
The Queen wasn’t under the table, either. She wasn’t in any of the chairs, nor anywhere obvious on the rug. She wasn’t anywhere he could see.
He didn’t feel her either, didn’t sense the gaze of her dull eyes watching him from some corner of the room, the way he had when she was in the cabinet in Poppy’s living room.
While he searched, Miss Katherine started gathering up the books and maps Poppy had left on the table the night before.
“What was it that you kids were trying to find?” the librarian asked, frowning at him. He could tell that Miss Katherine didn’t know what to make of the story about the doll. He wasn’t sure that she even believed there was a doll. If not, he wondered what she thought he was looking for.
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
“It looks like someone was doing research on a cemetery near here,” said Miss Katherine gently. “Spring Grove? I saw a few pieces of copy paper with directions drawn on them and scratched out. What’s in Spring Grove Cemetery? You can tell me, Zach. I promise that I’ll try to understand.”
“Have you ever heard a story, a ghost story, about a girl who jumped off her roof ?” He hesitated, pressing the front of his sneaker against one of the legs of the table. He wanted to trust her, but he knew he couldn’t trust her too much—she’d never believe him if he told her everything. “Like under mysterious circumstances? Maybe one named Eleanor Kerchner.”
Miss Katherine shook her head. “The only Kerchner I can think of was a fancy worker—a very well-known potter locally. We even have a display of his work downstairs, courtesy of the museum. There was a grisly story about him, but I don’t know about any Eleanor Kerchner.”
That felt a little too real, there being a potter with a grisly story.
“Downstairs?” Zach took a few steps across the library floor before Miss Katherine cleared her throat.
“I don’t think so,” Miss Katherine said. “I let you look around, but enough’s enough. Come on.”
Zach remembered the wall of fragile-looking vases he’d seen in the basement. He’d run past them, not really looking at them, and now he was itching to know what he’d missed. He had to get down there. He had to. His heart started to pound with renewed hope. Maybe there was a secret there—a secret that might not help them to finish the quest but would prove that it was a real one. A real quest for a real ghost.
He concentrated on that as the librarian led him back to the break room and opened the door with the key sticking out of the lock. Inside, the girls were sitting at opposite ends of the table wearing near-identical expressions of worry.
“I am going to call the director back,” Miss Katherine said, with a bright smile that might have been forced. “Let her know that everything’s been resolved. Then we’ll figure out some lunch for you kids. It’s almost noon.”
“Thank you,” Alice said quietly.
“Thank you,” Poppy and Zach echoed automatically.
The librarian went out, and Zach waited until he heard the turn of the key in the lock. Then he put both his hands palm down on the table, like he was going to give a speech.
“Okay,” he said, looking from one friend to the other. “We need a plan. We need to break out of this room before the librarian comes back.”
Alice stood up, looking a little confused, but hopeful. “How?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Poppy said, staying seated. “We don’t have the Queen anymore. Even if we get out of here—and I have no idea how we could do that—we can’t finish the quest without her.”
“We’ll find her,” said Zach. “I looked around where we were sleeping, and she wasn’t there, but that doesn’t mean anything. We can find her. We can do this. Are you sure you didn’t bring her with you anywhere else? Anywhere?”
Poppy shook her head. It seemed to Zach that giving them that speech about all the stuff she hated had drained away the part of her that had driven her this far. Or maybe it was losing the Queen. Either way, Poppy looked more defeated than he’d ever seen her. “No. When I sat down on the couch, she was with me. I was worried about rolling over on her, since she’s so fragile, so I put her on the floor and hung my hand down to keep touching her. I would have known if someone moved her.”
“Creepy,” Alice said. “What is it with you and the Queen? You’re always holding her and touching her. Don’t you find the whole she-was-made-from-human-bones thing even a little bit, like, scary?”
Poppy gave her a look.
“I don’t mean it like that,” said Alice. “Not like you’re being weird. Are you sure she’s not doing something to you? Making you act like what she wants?”
“Oh, so now you believe in the possibility of a ghost,” Poppy sneered.
“We’ll find the Queen,” Zach insisted, interrupting before they started fighting again. “Just as soon as we figure a way out of this room. Which we will. In just a second an idea is going to come to me, and it’s going to be a good one.” He leaned against the wall, folding his arms and trying to concentrate. They could tell Miss Katherine they had to go to use the bathroom—all of them at the same time—and then sneak out the window. The only problem was that Miss Katherine probably wouldn’t let them all use the bathroom at once. Well, that and the fact that the windows in the basement were really far up the wall; they’d had to drop down during the climb in. And just one more problem—he wasn’t sure there was a window in the girls’ bathroom.