“This way,” Poppy shouted against the wind, a flimsy piece of paper blowing in one hand, the other arm extended to indicate an upcoming left turn.
He felt the same elation he had aboard the little Sunfish: the certainty that they were going to make it and the pleasure that came from solving a problem that had only minutes before seemed insurmountable. Only now, looking back, did he realize how truly crazy their middle-of-the-night plan to find Eleanor Kerchner’s grave had been. But here they were, within minutes of the cemetery. They might turn out to be the kind of people who finished quests after all.
At that thought, he felt something move inside his shirt.
Zach’s bike wobbled, and he nearly crashed. He skidded to a halt instead, breathing raggedly. Alice zoomed ahead, down the street.
“Stop it,” he told the Queen firmly, not caring if he sounded like a lunatic. “I get that you’re excited. I get that we’re really close to the end. And I even get that you like to freak me out. But I don’t have my bike helmet, and you’re made of some superthin Orchid Ware, so if we crash, we’re both going to break. Okay?”
The doll didn’t move, which didn’t mean anything, since the squirming might just have been his imagination. He pushed off the road and started to pedal again just as Alice and Poppy rode onto the lawn of the Spring Grove Cemetery.
He followed them, dismounting and dropping his bike beside theirs on the soft grass near the entrance, wheels still spinning. The graveyard was a tidy meadow of trimmed hedges and orderly stones. They spread out over the hill that ran up against a wooded area. A path of white gravel veered along the side, barely wide enough for a car.
“Okay,” Alice said. “Now what?”
“We look for a willow tree,” said Poppy. “You know, one of the ones with the long branches and the leaves that hang down.”
“A weeping willow?” Zach put in.
Poppy nodded. “I think so, but I think regular willows have leaves that hang down too, just not as far.”
“Okay,” Alice said. “Depressed-looking trees. Got it. If it seems droopy and miserable at all, I’m calling you to confirm its willowy status.”
Zach unzipped his sweatshirt and glanced toward Poppy. “Hey. You want to go back to carrying Eleanor?”
Poppy smirked. “How come? Does she make you nervous?”
Zach shrugged. “I just thought that you’d want her, since you brought her all this way. But if you don’t—”
Poppy put out her hands. “I do, coward.”
He handed over the Queen with great relief. Now when he looked at her, he couldn’t help but believe she really was made from the bones of a dead girl. It made touching her shuddersome. He didn’t care if Poppy teased him. He didn’t want to carry the doll through the cemetery surrounded by dead people.
“Yell if you see anything,” said Alice. “Like willow trees . . . or zombies.”
Zach forced a laugh as they walked through the quiet graveyard, past flowerpots and wreaths, past statues to fallen soldiers and memorial benches and a large expanse of grass dotted with bronze grave markers. They passed fat oak trees, a smallish collection of pine trees, and something that Zach thought might be a locust tree, but which was definitely not a willow.
“I don’t see the tree,” Alice said finally. “Are you sure this is the right graveyard?”
“We’re missing it somehow,” said Poppy nervously. She couldn’t keep still, running ahead of them and then back again. “We have to be. The grave is supposed to be under a willow tree.”
They kept walking, crossing the same ground, staring at the same trees.
“Maybe we should just look for the name—for Kerchner,” Zach said. He wanted to tell them about the plaque in the library, but he wasn’t sure how much time they had—after all, Miss Katherine had seen the maps of the cemetery.
“It’s not here,” Poppy said finally, her voice very small. “I really thought—after you found Eleanor back at the library—I really thought that the grave was going to be here. I thought it was going to work.”
Zach flopped down on the grass in front of a large memorial. He’d thought the same thing. “Could you be wrong about the graveyard? I mean, could there be a different one in East Liverpool?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I could be wrong about that. I could be wrong about everything.”
“What do you mean?” Alice asked, hopping up to sit atop a granite headstone and folding her legs under her. “Don’t give up. We’re so close.”
Poppy remained standing, pacing back and forth on the grass. “Maybe I made it all up. All the stuff I said. I really did dream about her. But the rest . . . I don’t know. It felt true when I said it. But I wanted it to be true so much that maybe I convinced myself it was.”
For a moment they were quiet. It felt like the Earth had tilted on its axis, for Poppy to say that. She’d been the reason they’d come all this way, the reason they’d slept in the woods, sailed a boat down the Ohio River, and escaped from a library. She’d been the one who believed, no matter what. Zach had never imagined she had any doubts.
Fury rose up in him, terrible and formless. It felt like coming home and finding his figures gone all over again—as if something had been snatched away and he couldn’t get it back.
Alice took a quick breath, like she was swallowing her need to scream “I knew it!” at the top of her lungs.
No magic. Just a story.
But he’d dreamed about Eleanor and he’d seen the plaque on the wall of the library. He’d felt her move and he’d seen her bones.
So maybe Poppy was just like Alice and him, doubting herself sometimes. Maybe all that meant was that she didn’t know everything.
“Look, I think the ghost is real,” Zach said.
“Maybe I just tricked you,” said Poppy miserably.
It just figured that Poppy would be as stubborn about being talked back into believing something as she was about being talked out of believing things. “What about the guy on the bus and the donut man both saying something about there being a blond girl with us? And even the lady at the diner asked if we wanted seats for four. What about that?”
Poppy folded her arms. “The first guy was crazy. The second guy was kidding. And the diner thing was a coincidence.”
“What about the camp getting trashed?” Alice asked.
“You never thought that was because of the ghost,” said Poppy. “You never believed in Eleanor, Alice, so don’t try to pretend.”
“Did you do it?” Alice asked her. “I didn’t believe it because I thought maybe it was you.”
“No!” Poppy looked genuinely shocked.
“Well, then,” said Alice. “Look, I didn’t want to believe, but I have to admit that a lot of weird things have happened, and you have to admit it too.”
Zach took a deep breath. “Remember when I said I found something back at the library? It was an exhibition of pottery—of the pottery that a Lukas Kerchner made—and there was information on his life. He supposedly murdered his daughter, but they never found the body. That can’t be a coincidence. He must have been her father. And I think the secret that Eleanor wanted us to discover was that it was her aunt who killed her—the woman in the dream who chased her around the roof with a broom. She fell to her death, and her father took her body and made it into a doll because he was clearly some kind of a head case. But he didn’t kill her, even though everyone thought he did. And the whole thing proves that you’re right. That your dreams are real.”
Poppy looked at him skeptically. “Maybe I read the story before—maybe I read about it and then forgot it, so I made up a different version of what happened.”
“Oh, come on,” Alice said. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Okay,” Poppy said. “Maybe Zach is lying to make me feel better.”
Zach shook his head. “I had a dream, too, that night in the woods. About Eleanor. It was . . . like yours. Alice, tell her.”
“You had a dream?” Poppy’s incredulity stung. He remembered how many times he’d spoken to her in that tone of voice since they’d started this journey and was suddenly very sorry. “How come this is the first time you’re mentioning it to me? And anyway, if they couldn’t find her body, would she even have a grave? Maybe there’s nothing to find.”
“Fine,” Zach said, running his fingers through his hair. “What do you want me to say? We can’t find the weeping willow. I don’t know what to do either.”
Alice slid off the stone and hugged Poppy around the waist, resting her chin against Poppy’s shoulder. “It’s okay. It was still an adventure, right? Our last game.”
The words went through Zach like water. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. “There’s something I have to tell you. Before we go back. I might as well say it now, while Poppy’s already mad at me.”
Poppy and Alice looked down at him, something in his tone signaling that whatever it was would be important. They watched him as if he was a snake, rearing back to strike.
“When I said that I didn’t want to play anymore—” He stopped, not sure he could go on. “It wasn’t true exactly. My dad threw out all my— He threw out everything. All of them. William and Tristan and Max. Everybody. So it’s not so much that I don’t want to play. I can’t.”
There was a long silence. “Why didn’t you tell us?” Alice asked finally.
“I couldn’t. I couldn’t, because if I did, then—” He stood up, wiping his eyes. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the dream. I don’t know why I didn’t.”
Poppy just stared at him, her eyes as hard as the Queen’s.
“Okay,” he said, taking a few steps back. Tears were burning in his eyes already, and he was suddenly sure there was no way they would understand. He felt stupid for telling them. He felt stupid for crying. If only he’d kept his mouth shut, everything would have been fine. “How about we all make one more sweep? We can meet back here in a couple of minutes.”
“Zach,” Poppy said. “Wait—”
He didn’t want to hear how the quest was all his fault, how she would have never taken the Queen out of the case if it wasn’t for his lie; he already knew. He staggered off before she could finish, long legs carrying him over the uneven ground. He passed rows and rows of marble stones, heading deeper into the old part of the cemetery, where the markers were chipped and weathered. There he flopped down in the grass and let himself cry in big, heaving sobs.
Saying the words out loud—saying what he’d been avoiding this whole time, that William and the rest of them were gone forever, that the game had been taken away from him, that he still wanted to play but couldn’t—hurt. It ripped away the fog of numbness and even though it hurt, for the first time since he’d lost his figures, he was ready to let go.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he finally stopped crying. It was a beautiful day—crisp, the way early fall days can be warm but have an occasional chill wind. The sky overhead was as blue as spilled ink from a pen. Leaves shivered above him.
He leaned back and watched the clouds blow across his vision.
“Hey!” he heard Alice shout. “He’s here.”
“We were worried,” Poppy said, standing over him and looking down. “We thought you would come back after a minute, and then we thought you would come back after ten minutes, but you didn’t.”
“I’ve been a jerk,” Zach said. “I know. We’ve all been mad at each other, and I know a lot of it is because of what a jerk I’ve been.”
Poppy sat down next to him. “You should have just told us.”
“I know,” he said. “Are you mad?”
Poppy nodded. “Of course I’m mad! But I guess I’m less mad than when I thought you didn’t care about any of it.”
He looked over at Alice. She was staring at one of the stones, as if maybe she didn’t want to look at him. “What about you, Alice—?”
“Get up,” she said suddenly. “Get up! Get up! Look!”
Poppy jumped up and hauled Zach to his feet.
Alice was pointing to a stone he’d been lying in front of on the grass. “You found it! Zach, you actually found it.”
The large marble headstone bore the word KERCHNER on it, and over that, a carving of a willow tree. They stared at it, incredulous smiles giving way to genuine grins and laughter.
It made him feel, for a moment, like maybe no stories were lies. Not Tinshoe Jones’s stories about aliens. Not Dad’s stories about things getting better or things getting worse. Clearly, not Poppy’s stories about the Queen. Maybe all stories were true ones.
Poppy knelt down, pushed aside some weeds, and traced smaller words at the base. “There are names here—it’s a family plot. That’s why the stone is so big. There’s Lukas. And someone named Hedda—that must be Eleanor’s mother. And look—a blank spot. An empty place for Eleanor.”
“We did it,” Alice said, her voice soft as any prayer. “The quest is complete.”
“We have to give her a good funeral,” said Zach. “We came all this way. We have to do it right.”
Alice and Poppy nodded.
And so they decided that Zach would dig the grave, which he did mostly with his hands, but also with the assistance of several sticks and a long, flat piece of slate that was sharp enough on one end to cut through roots. It took some time, but he was able to hollow out a space big enough for the doll to rest comfortably.