“Do you think that William likes Lady Jaye?” Poppy asked, settling herself cross-legged on her bed, the pale pink of one knee visible through the rip in her hand-me-down jeans. “Like like likes?”
He sat up. “What?”
“William and Lady Jaye,” she said. “They’ve been traveling together awhile, right? I mean, he must like her some.”
“Sure he likes her,” Zach said, frowning. He pulled his beat-up army surplus duffel bag toward him and stuffed William inside.
“But, I mean, would he marry her?” Poppy asked.
Zach hesitated. He was used to being asked how characters felt, and it was a simple question. But there was something in Poppy’s voice that made him think there was a meaning behind it that was less simple. “He’s a pirate. Pirates don’t get married. But, I mean—if he wasn’t a pirate and she wasn’t a crazy kleptomaniacal thief, then I guess he might.”
Poppy sighed as though that was the worst answer ever given by anyone, but she dropped it. They talked about other things, like how Zach couldn’t play the next day because of basketball practice, whether or not aliens would ever land, and if they did, whether they would be peaceful or not (they both thought not), and which one of them would be more useful in a zombie uprising (a draw, since Zach’s longer legs would be better for getting away, and Poppy’s small size was a hiding advantage).
On the way out, Zach paused in the living room to look at the Queen again. Her pale face was shadowed, but it seemed to him that though her eyes were closed, they weren’t quite as closed as they had been before. While he stared at her, trying to figure out if he was imagining things, her lashes fluttered once, as if stirred by an impossible breeze.
Or as if she was a sleeper on the verge of awakening.
ZACHARY WAS ABOUT TO LEAVE FOR SCHOOL WHEN his father limped in from work. He stank of grease and favored his left foot. The restaurant he worked at closed around three in the morning, but checking the stock and reorders and getting a meal with the rest of the crew meant he came home much later than closing time most days.
“Bad blisters,” Dad grunted, by way of explanation for the limping. His dad was a big guy with a mess of short curly hair the same burnt-toast color as Zach’s, the same beach-glass blue eyes, and a nose that had been broken twice. “And then, like an idiot, I splashed oil on myself. But we were slammed, so that’s something.”
Slammed was good. Slammed meant that people were eating at the restaurant, and that meant Zach’s dad wasn’t going to lose this job.
Mom got out a mug, poured coffee into it wordlessly, and set it down on the table. Zach grabbed his backpack, heading for the door. He felt bad, but it sometimes still surprised him to see his father in the house. His dad had moved out three years ago and moved back in three months ago. Zach couldn’t get used to him being around.
“Tear up that court today,” his dad said, tousling Zach’s hair as though he was a little kid.
His father loved that Zach was on the basketball team. Sometimes that seemed as if it was the only thing about Zach he liked. He didn’t like that Zach played with girls after school instead of shooting hoops with the older kids a couple of blocks over. He didn’t like that Zach daydreamed all the time. And sometimes it seemed to Zach that his father didn’t even like that Zach had gotten really good at basketball, since it meant that he couldn’t scold Zach about how all that other stuff was getting in the way of his performance on the court.
Mostly, Zach didn’t care what his dad thought. Every time his dad gave him a disapproving look or asked a question that was supposed to make him defensive, Zach would pretend not to notice. Zach and his mom had been fine before his father moved back in, and they’d be fine when he left again, too.
With a sigh, Zach started toward school. Usually, he met up with some of the other walkers, but today the only other kid he saw walking was Kevin Lord. Kevin told Zach a long story about seeing deer when he was riding his dirt bike through the woods and ate a toaster pastry thing, raw, right out of the wrapping.
Zach got to Mr. Lockwood’s class just after the buses. Alex Rios leaned back in his chair to bring his fist down on top of Zach’s. Then they both slapped their hands together and dragged them until they were hooked by the ends of their fingers. It was a handshake taught to everyone on the basketball team, and every time that Zach did it, he felt the warm buzz of belonging.
“You think we’re going to win against Edison next Sunday?” Alex asked in a way that wasn’t really asking. It was part of the ritual, like the handshake.
“We’re going to wreck them,” said Zach, “so long as you keep passing me the ball.”
Alex snorted, and then Mr. Lockwood started to take attendance, so they turned toward the SMART board. Zach tried to stop smiling and appear to be paying attention.
After lunch Poppy pressed a triangle-shaped note into his hand as she passed him in the hall. He didn’t need to unfold it to know what it was. Questions. He couldn’t remember which one of them had come up with the idea, or when, but Questions existed as a strange private thing outside the game. He and Poppy and Alice had to answer any in-game question they were asked, on paper, but the answers were only for the questioner. Characters didn’t get to know.
They passed notes back and forth, especially if one of them was about to get grounded or before someone went on a trip. He always felt a flush of excitement—and a little bit of dread—when he got a folded-up paper. It was a part of the game that felt particularly risky. If a teacher got ahold of the note or Alex saw it—just thinking about the possibility made the back of Zach’s neck burn with embarrassment.
He unfolded the sheet carefully, smoothing it against the pages of his textbook as Mr. Lockwood started his history lecture.
If the curse was lifted, would William really give up being a pirate? If he did, would he miss it?
Who does he think his father is?
Does he think that Lady Jaye likes him?
Does William ever have nightmares?
He started to scribble. He liked the way the story unfolded as he wrote, liked the way the answers just came to him sometimes, out of the blue, like they were true things just waiting to be discovered by him.
Sometimes William has dreams about being buried alive. He dreams that he’s woken up and everything is black. He only knows where he is because he feels a heavy pressure on his chest and it’s hard to get enough of a breath to scream. Usually, it’s the trying to scream that wakes him. He finds himself swinging in a hammock in his quarters, in a cold sweat, his green parrot peering at him suspiciously with her single black eye. And he tells himself that when he’s buried, he’s going to be buried at sea.
Even after he folded the questions back into the shape of a football and tucked it into the front pocket of his backpack, the feeling of the story being close stayed with him. Zach doodled pictures in the margins of his notebook, drawings of cutlasses and blast rifles and crowns next to geometry homework and facts about the Battle of Antietam.
That past summer, the mysterious thing that had stretched other boys like taffy had started to happen to Zach. He’d always been tall, but now he’d almost reached his father’s height, with hands so big that catching a basketball was a lot easier and legs so long that he could jump nearly high enough to touch the net. The year before, he’d hung back on the court, but now he was thundering down it.
Everyone at school looked at him differently all of a sudden. The guys were wanting to hang out more, slapping him on the back, and laughing louder at his jokes. And the girls had just gotten weird.
Even Alice acted strange around him sometimes. When she was with her school friends, instead of her talking to him like she usually did, the whole bunch of them giggled uncomfortably. That very afternoon, after practice, he passed by Alice and a few girls from the theater crew. They fled in a fit of shrieking laughter before he could ask Alice what had been so funny or whether she wanted to walk home with him.
So he walked home by himself, feeling a little bit lonely as he made his way through the early autumn evening, kicking the carpet of fallen leaves. He didn’t know how else to make things go back to normal. It wasn’t like he could shrink himself back into being the same as before.
An eerie wind sang through the untrimmed trees in front of Mr. Thompson’s old house at the end of the block. It sounded like someone shrieking from a long way off, but getting closer with every second. Zach sped up his pace, walking faster and faster, feeling foolish as he did it. He felt the tickle of the hairs on the back of his neck, as though whatever was coming was right behind him, as though he could feel its breath.
Suddenly he felt overwhelmed by a wash of terror. It was all-consuming and, despite feeling silly, he ran, racing across his lawn to the small brick house where he lived. He hit the front door, his palms slamming against it, and had to stumble back to jerk it open.
The kitchen smelled like spaghetti sauce and frying sausages, a warm, safe smell that drove away all thoughts of the night and the eerie wind.
His mother stuck her head out of the kitchen. She was wearing sweatpants, and her long brown hair was pulled back in a bunch of clips. She looked tired. “Dinner’s almost ready. Why don’t you start on your homework, and I’ll call you when it’s time to eat.”
“Okay,” Zach said. As he walked through the living room his dad was coming down the stairs. He clapped his hand heavily on Zach’s shoulder.
“You’re growing up,” he said, which seemed to be one of those weird things adults would say sometimes, stuff that was really obvious and to which there was no reply.
Since his dad had come back, he’d been really fond of saying that kind of thing.
“I guess.” Zach shrugged off his dad’s grip and went up to his room.
He dumped his backpack out on the bed and sprawled on his stomach, reaching for his social studies book. He read the chapter he was supposed to and then started on punctuation, toeing off his sneakers. It was hard to concentrate. His stomach gurgled with hunger, and the smell of dinner made waiting to eat even harder. He was tired from practice, and the last thing he wanted to do was more schoolwork. He wanted to sit in front of the television and watch the show about ghost-hunters or the one with the thief who worked for the government. Ideally, he’d be watching them from the couch, with a huge plate of spaghetti and sausage on his lap.
Mom probably wasn’t going to go for that, though. Ever since Dad was back, whenever he wasn’t working, she was all about the family sitting together at the table without phones or games or books. She kept quoting something she’d read in a magazine—some kind of study that having dinner together was supposed to make Zach a happier adult and make her lose weight. Why they did it only when Dad was at home, if it was so important, Zach wasn’t sure.
As all of this went through Zach’s mind, something struck him as odd. That morning when he’d left for school, William the Blade had been sitting on the edge of his desk along with a bunch of the other action figures who were the semi-expendable crew for the Neptune’s Pearl. But now none of them were there.
He glanced around the room. It wasn’t very clean, even though every Sunday his mother made him “straighten it up a little.” His dirty laundry was piled around his hamper more than in it. His bookshelf was stuffed with books on pirates, adventure novels, and textbooks that spilled onto the floor. His desk was crowded with magazines, his computer, LEGO pieces, and models of ships. But he knew the pattern of his mess. He knew where his guys should have been and where they were not.
He got up clumsily, half sliding off his mattress. Then he bent down to look under the bed. Their black cat, named “The Party,” would sometimes sneak into his room and knock things over. As Zach squatted on the rug, though, he didn’t see William the Blade anywhere on the floor.
He started to get anxious. William was his best character—the one he’d played the longest and the one that was still at the center of almost every one of his stories. Two weeks ago Poppy had introduced a fortune-teller who told William that she knew who his father was—and suddenly, while hunting down his past and trying to get the Queen’s curse removed, William had become more fun to play than ever.
Poppy was always doing that—improvising, jumping into the gaps in a story, creating something new and interesting and a little scary. Sometimes it annoyed him—William’s story was whatever Zach said it was, right?—but most of the time it was worth just giving in and trusting her.
It was important for William not to be missing. Because if William was missing, then there was no rest of the story, no more crazy ideas, no payoff, no ending, no more.
Maybe, he thought, maybe he was making a mistake. Maybe he’d misremembered where he’d left the figures. Maybe William and the others were with the rest of his toys. He walked over to where his duffel of action figures should have been, just inside his closet. But the bag wasn’t there either.
He felt odd. Like something was pressing on his chest.
He stared at the spot, waiting for his brain to supply some explanation. Panic bloomed in him. He was sure the duffel had been resting on the floor that morning when he’d stumbled over it to get a T-shirt off a hanger.
But maybe he’d left it over at Poppy’s house? Except that he remembered seeing it the night before. And he wouldn’t have left it anywhere unless there was a reason—unless they were in the middle of an elaborate battle where everything had to stay exactly where it was. Which they were not.
He looked around helplessly.
“Mom!” Zach shouted, walking to the door of his room and flinging it open, stalking out into the hall. “Mom! What did you do with my stuff? Did you take my bag?”