“Zachary?” she called up from downstairs. “That’s the second time you’ve slammed—”
He ran down the steps, cutting her off in mid-scold. “Where’s my bag? The action figures. The models and cars. All of them. They’re not upstairs.”
“I didn’t take anything out of your room. I bet it’s underneath one of the Kilimanjaro-size piles of laundry up there.” She smiled as she got down a stack of plates, but he didn’t smile back. “Clean your room and I bet the bag turns up.”
“No, Mom, they’re gone.” Zachary glanced over at his father and was surprised to see the expression on his dad’s face—an expression he wasn’t sure how to interpret.
She followed Zach’s gaze, turning to Zach’s father, her voice very quiet. “Liam?”
“He’s twelve years old, playing with a bunch of crap,” he said, getting up from the couch and raising his hands in a placating way. “He’s got to grow up. It was time he got rid of them. He should be concentrating on friends, listening to music, goofing off. Zach, trust me, you won’t miss them.”
“Where are they?” Zach asked, a dangerous edge to his voice.
“Forget it, they’re gone,” his father said. “There’s no point in throwing a tantrum.”
“Those figures were mine!” Zach was so angry he could barely think. His voice shook with anger. “They were mine.”
“Someone’s got to get you ready for the real world,” said his father, his face flushing red. “Be mad all you want, but it’s done. Done. Do you understand me? It’s time you grew up. End of discussion.”
“Liam, what were you thinking?” Zach’s mother demanded. “You can’t just go making decisions without talking—”
“Where are they?” Zach snarled. He had never talked to his father this way, never talked to any adult this way. “What did you do with them?”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” his dad said.
“Liam!” His mother’s voice was cautioning.
“GIVE THEM BACK!” Zach shouted. He was out of control and he didn’t care.
His father stopped for a moment, his expression suddenly uncertain. “I threw them out. I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d be this upset. They’re just plastic—”
“In the garbage?” Zachary rushed out the door and down the steps. Two big dented metal trash cans were at the end of the lawn, resting on the curb. He pulled off the lid of one with numb fingers and threw it against the road with a clang.
Please, he thought. Pleasepleaseplease.
But the inside of the can was empty. The trash truck had already come and gone.
It felt like a punch to the gut. William the Blade and Max Hunter and all the others were dead. Without them, all their stories would be dead too. He wiped his face against the sleeve of his shirt.
Then he turned back to the house. His father was silhouetted in the doorway.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t bother trying to be my father anymore,” Zach said, walking up the front steps and past him. “It’s too late for that. It was too late years ago.”
“Zachary,” his mother said, her hand reaching out to touch his shoulder, but he walked past her.
His father just stared at him, his face stricken.
In his room, Zachary looked up at the ceiling, trying to quiet the feelings inside him. He didn’t finish his homework. He didn’t eat dinner, even though his mother brought up a plate and set it down on his desk. He didn’t change out of his clothes into his pajamas. He didn’t cry.
Zachary tossed and turned, concentrating on the shadows moving across the ceiling and on the anger that seemed to grow instead of lessen. He was angry. At his father, for destroying the game. At his mother, for letting his father back into their lives. At Poppy and Alice, who hadn’t lost anything. And at himself, for acting like a little kid, just like his dad had said, and for caring about William the Blade and a bunch of plastic toys as though they were real people.
And that anger curdled inside his belly and crawled up his throat until it felt like it might choke him. Until he was sure that there was no way he could ever tell anyone what had happened without all of his anger spilling out and engulfing everything.
And the only way not to tell anyone was to end the game.
THE NEXT MORNING, ZACH PUSHED HIS LIMP CEREAL around in a bowl of milk as his mom poured herself a second cup of coffee. Light filtered in through the dirty windowpane to make the scarred wood on the kitchen table show the pale water marks from wet mugs and the greenish smudge where Zach had once drawn a spaceship in permanent marker. He traced the faint outline of it with a finger.
“Your father called the trash company last night,” his mother said.
Zach blinked and looked up at her.
She took another sip of coffee. “He called the dump, too. Asked them if there was any way to get your toys back. He even offered to drive over there and look for them himself—but there was no way. I’m sorry. I know that he did a stupid thing, but he honestly tried to fix it, sweetheart.”
Zach felt weirdly numb, as though everything that happened was on a slight delay. He knew what she was saying was supposed to be important, but somehow he couldn’t make it matter. He felt tired, too, as though he hadn’t slept at all, even though he’d actually slept so deeply that the ringing of his alarm had seemed to bring him up from the bottom of something deep and dark. He’d had to fight through his dreams to wake.
“Okay,” he said, because there was nothing else to say.
“Tonight we’re going to sit down and have a family discussion. Your dad was brought up by a very strict man and, as much as he hates it, he acts like his father sometimes. It’s what he knows, honey.”
Zach shrugged and put a scoop of soggy cereal in his mouth to keep from telling her that he’d rather be hung upside down by his toes over a blazing fire than talk to his father. Still chewing, he grabbed his backpack and started for school.
“We can discuss more later,” his mother said with false cheer, moments before he slammed his way out the door.
The cold air felt like a slap in the face. He was relieved not to see Poppy and Alice on the sidewalk. They all lived close enough that sometimes they ran into each other on the way to school, and they usually walked home together. But this morning he hurried along the side of the street, glad to be alone. He kept his head down as he stalked along, kicking rocks and chunks of loose asphalt into the road. When he saw the school building in the distance, he wondered what would happen if he just kept going, the same way his father had left them three years ago. If he just kept walking until he came to a new place where no one knew him, lied about his age, and got a job delivering newspapers or something . . .
Well, he didn’t know quite what he would do after that.
By the time he made up his mind to go to school, he was late. Mr. Lockwood glowered at him as he slunk into class just after the bell. He sat at his desk and drew nothing in the margins of his notebook. If a story idea came to him, he concentrated on something else until it went away.
At lunch his sandwich tasted like cardboard. He threw out his apple.
After school he told the coach he was too sick to go to practice, but really, it was just that he didn’t want to. He didn’t much want to do anything.
He started walking home, thinking he could sit in front of the television until Mom got home from work, then tell her the same thing he told the coach. A few minutes later Alice caught up with him, the slap of her shoes on the pavement heralding her approach. He felt like an idiot for taking the same old route and not expecting to see any of his friends.
“Zach?” Alice asked, out of breath from running. She was wearing a blue T-shirt with a creature on it that appeared to be half brontosaurus, half kitten. Her braids were pulled back into a headband, and little feather earrings hung from her ears.
He had no idea what to say to her. He wanted to ask her about the day before when she was giggling with her friends—he wanted to know why she hadn’t talked to him. But that seemed forever ago, and so much had happened since. He almost didn’t feel like the same person.
A kid named Leo waved to them, walking in their direction. He had big glasses and was always saying crazy things. He was like a random generator of weirdness. “Hey,” he said. “Poppy wanted me to tell you to walk slow. She’s getting a book from the librarian.”
“Oh,” Zach said, feeling doomed. He knew what would happen next. One by one the mass of kids who walked home together would gather and then peel away into clumps headed in different directions, until it was just Poppy and Alice and him. Then one of them would ask, “Want to play?” like always. And he would have to say something.
“You okay?” Alice asked.
“Yeah,” said Leo. “You don’t look so good, Zach. Somebody walk over your grave?”
He blinked a couple of times. At least Leo was acting like his normal crazy self. That was one thing that wasn’t going to change. “What?”
“That’s what my grandpa always said. You never heard that?”
“No,” Zach said. His foot sent a few leaves spiraling up into the air. Talking about graves made him think about walking home the night before, when he’d thought he heard the wind howling at his heels. He shivered. “So my grave is going to be in front of Thomas Peebles Middle School? That’s so lame.”
“It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be buried here.” Alice rolled her eyes. “It’s a saying. It means somewhere someone is stepping on the place where you’re going to be buried.”
“So it could be any old place?” Zach asked, shaking his head. “How does that help to know?”
“It’s not supposed to help,” Leo said. “It’s just supposed to be true.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Poppy asked, bounding up to them. She had on a black sweater and was bouncing on her blue Chucks, one of the pink laces untied and dragging muddily behind her. Her hair was in coppery pigtails, and her eyeliner looked smudged on one eye, like maybe she’d forgotten it was there and rubbed over it.
“Nothing,” Zach said with a shrug.
Poppy looked over at Alice and raised her eyebrows. “Nothing like nothing or nothing like something?”
Alice shook her head and smiled, but then turned her smile down at the pavement, like she was embarrassed. Zach had no idea what was going on. He wondered if it had to do with yesterday and the giggling, but couldn’t think of how to ask. Sometimes it seemed to him that girls spoke a different language, but he couldn’t figure out when they’d learned it. He was pretty sure that they used to all speak the same language a year ago.
“We’re talking about superstitions,” said Leo. “Like how stepping where someone’s grave is going to be makes them shudder involuntarily.”
He always talked with big words, like a textbook. Superstitions. Shudder. Involuntarily. Some kids said it was because his mother was a part-time teacher over at the college, but Zach thought that was just how Leo was.
“Like stepping on a crack is supposed to break your mother’s back?” Poppy asked. “I tried that when I was really little. I was so mad at Mom, but I don’t even remember why now. Wait, no, I do remember! Nate pushed me in the backyard, and I whipped a branch at him. The branch got him good, right above the eye. He was bleeding like crazy, so even though he started it, I was the one who got in trouble. I stomped on cracks all up and down the block. And the next day, she slipped in the garden and sprained her ankle.”
“No way,” Leo said. Zach could see him mentally filing that away with all his other oddball stories.
Poppy laughed. “It’s not like she actually broke her back. I mean, it was just a coincidence that she fell. But it scared me at the time. I thought I was some kind of powerful enchanter or something.”
“And you avoided cracks for years after,” Alice said. “Remember that? You would be crazy careful, always putting your feet sideways and going up on your tiptoes and stuff. You swerved around like a Roomba robot ballerina.”
“Roombarina,” Zach said automatically. For some reason, words were funnier smashed together.
“Roombarina,” Alice echoed, spinning on one toe and then stumbling a little. “Exactly.”
“That’s a good portmanteau,” said Leo. Zach nodded, the way he usually did when he had no idea what Leo was talking about.
They passed the old Episcopalian church with the big spire as they headed down Main Street. They walked past the barbershop, the pizza place where Zach had birthday parties when he was little, the bus station next to the post office, and the big old graveyard on the hill. Zach had followed this exact route many times, his fingers curled in his mother’s when he was little and then gripping the handlebars of his bike when he was older, and now on foot to and from school. This was the town he’d grown up in, and even though it was small and a lot of the stores on Main Street were closed, even though windows were boarded up and rentals went unrented, Zach was used to the place.
He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, which was a real stumbling block in imagining running away.
“That stuff is real,” Leo said. “For a while, my parents moved us around a lot, and there was this one apartment we lived in that was haunted. I swear—when the ghost was in the room, the air would get really cold, even in the middle of summer. And there was one spot that was always ice-cold. You could put a space heater on top of it, and it wouldn’t warm up. That’s where somebody died. The landlady even said so.”