“Did you ever actually see the ghost?” Alice asked.
Leo shook his head. “No, but sometimes he would move things. Like my mom’s keys. Mom would yell for the ghost to give them back, and then, nine times out of ten, she’d find them right after. Mom says you have to know how to talk to ghosts or they’ll walk all over you.”
Poppy smiled like she did when she was anticipating revealing something exciting—a twist to a story, a shocking turn, a villain’s big move. Her cheeks were pink from the wind, and her eyes were bright. “Have you ever heard this one? When you drive past a cemetery, you have to hold your breath. If you don’t, the spirits of the newly dead can get in your body through your mouth and then they can possess you.”
Zach shivered, the hairs along his neck rising. Without meaning to, he imagined the taste of a ghost, like an acrid mouthful of smoke. He spat in the dirt, trying to untaste the idea.
“Ugh,” Alice said into the silence that followed the end of Poppy’s story. “You made me hold my breath! I was totally just trying not to inhale. Anyway, we already passed the graveyard—shouldn’t you have told us the story before we passed it? Unless you wanted us to get possessed.”
Zach thought again about the night before and the feeling of something right behind him, breathing on his neck, something that was about to reach out and grasp for him with its cold fingers. The story was like that, grabbing hold of him and promising that he’d think about it every time he was near a graveyard.
Poppy kept smiling. She made her eyes really wide and spoke in a flat, affectless tone. “Maybe I’m not Poppy anymore. Maybe I didn’t know not to hold my breath and I learned the hard way. Maybe a spirit possessed me and now it’s warning you, because it’s too late. The spirits are already inside yooOOooouUUuu—”
“Come on, stop,” Alice said, shoving Poppy’s shoulder. They both began to laugh.
Leo laughed nervously along with them. “That’s why it’s a scary story. Because you can’t do the one thing that would protect you—you’ll never know if you held your breath long enough or let it out too soon. And you can’t hold your breath forever.”
“The smiling was creepy,” said Zach. “Anyone tell you that you have a creepy smile, Poppy?”
She looked very pleased with herself.
They walked a few blocks more and then came to the place where Leo split off for home. He waved good-bye and headed off, cutting across a big lawn toward a trailer park.
Then it was just Alice and Poppy and Zach walking the few blocks to the development where their houses were clustered, all three nearly identical from the outside. His heart started to speed up again and his legs turned to lead because there was no way to avoid the conversation that was coming, even though he wanted to with all his might.
THE AIR WAS COOL, THE TREES BRIGHT WITH YELLOW and red leaves, and lawns thick with a wilted carpet of brown. A gust of air shook the branches above Zachary and blew his bangs over his eyes. He pushed them back impatiently and looked up at the cloudless sky.
He thought of all of them—all his characters, stuck in the duffel bag, rats chewing at the edges. He thought of bugs crawling over them and trash dumped on top of them. He thought of the folded-up Questions, still in his backpack, and of how he’d said William’s nightmare was being buried alive.
“Hey,” said Alice. “Do you guys want to meet up? I have an idea for what might—”
“I can’t,” Zach said quickly. He’d planned out a whole speech the night before, lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling of his room, but he couldn’t remember any of it now. He took a deep breath and blurted out the only thing he could think to say. “I don’t want to play anymore.”
Poppy frowned in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
For a moment, it seemed possible to take the words back, to tell Poppy and Alice what had really happened. He could explain what his dad had done and how angry he was and how he had no idea what to do now except be angry. He could tell them how he didn’t want all the stories to remain unfinished. He could tell them how he felt like pieces of himself were gone, like part of him had been thrown out with his action figures.
“I’ve been really busy with school and basketball and everything,” he said instead, his voice low. “I mean, you guys can keep playing or whatever.”
“You mean ever? Like you don’t want to play ever again?” When Poppy got upset, her neck would flush a blotchy red. He could see it coloring, as pink as her wind-whipped cheeks. She launched into a slightly desperate negotiation. “It’s just that we’re in the middle of something big. We came all the way through the Gray Country and to the Blackest Sea. Couldn’t we just finish this part?”
He’d been looking forward to crossing swords with the leader of the mermaids, who knew the way to an ancient underwater city full of secrets—including the secret to completing the Queen’s quest and lifting her curse—plus there was the promise of fighting sharks. There were even hints that they might find a clue to William the Blade’s parentage, plus the treasure of the Shark Prince—piles of gold and jewels so vast that Lady Jaye had been questing after it since she had first heard the story as an orphan beggar child. Remembering how awesome it was going to be made every new thought about playing hurt like the back of a shoe rubbing against a burst blister.
“We’re too old anyway, don’t you think?” he made himself say.
Alice looked stricken.
“That’s stupid,” Poppy said. “We weren’t too old the day before yesterday.”
“We were,” Zach said.
“It’s because of your friends on the team, isn’t it?” Alice glanced over at Poppy, like maybe they’d had this conversation before. “You think they’re going to find out and hassle you.”
“I don’t think anything.” Zach sighed. “I just don’t want to play anymore.”
“You don’t mean that,” Poppy said.
He forced the words out. “I do.”
“Maybe we could just take a break,” Alice said slowly. “Do something else for a while.”
“Sure,” he said with a shrug.
“And then maybe if you change your mind . . .”
Zach thought about the time that Alice had first brought her Lady Jaye doll to a game—three months back. Before Lady Jaye, Alice’s favorite character had been a Barbie named Aurora who had been raised by a herd of carnivorous horses. But one Monday morning, on the walk to school, Alice explained that she’d repainted an action figure from a thrift store over the weekend. She wanted to play somebody new.
Lady Jaye was different, all right. She was a thief who’d grown up on the streets of the biggest city in all their kingdoms, called Haven. And she didn’t care about anything except for what she could steal and what fun she could have along the way.
Lady Jaye was crazy. She got a ride on William’s ship because she wanted a ride to the Shark Prince’s treasure, but every time he docked, Lady Jaye kept stealing from people, so they’d been banned from landing in at least five different places. William had to bail her out of situation after situation, until he finally got her to agree to stay aboard the Neptune’s Pearl.
Except then she wound up doing things like climbing the mast with a blindfold on, just to show off. Alice’s descriptions of Lady Jaye’s antics had made Zach laugh so hard that his stomach hurt. His stomach hurt now, too, but for a different reason.
“I’m not going to change my mind,” Zach said numbly.
“But it doesn’t make any sense,” Poppy said, not willing to let him off that easily. “You can’t just stop. We’re in the middle of a scene. What happens to everyone else? What happens to Lady Jaye? Even if she gets away from the mermaids, what then? What about the crew?”
William had promised Lady Jaye that he’d take her to the place marked on the map as the lair of the Shark Prince. He’d sworn it on his honor and on the Neptune’s Pearl.
“Maybe one of your people can take over as captain.” Zach hated the idea, but the Neptune’s Pearl wasn’t a particular toy that one of them owned. It was just a cutout piece of paper, and there was no reason for him to hang on to it.
“Maybe they’ll make her walk the plank,” said Poppy.
“I don’t care what happens,” Zach said, and all the simmering anger at his father, at this conversation, and at everything bled into his voice then, turning it cruel. “You figure it out. I don’t care anymore.”
“Okay,” Alice said, holding up her hands like she was surrendering. “How about we walk over to the dirt mall? Or bike over. Whatever. See what’s at the used bookstore and play the arcade games in the movie theater lobby. Like I said, a break.”
Alice wasn’t allowed there, so it was a generous offer.
“I don’t really feel like it today,” Zach said. “But thanks.” They were almost to his street, almost home. He picked up his pace.
“Did you finish the Questions?” Poppy asked him.
He hitched his backpack higher on his shoulder and shook his head. The note was folded and tucked away in the front zippered pocket, scribbled on and illustrated, full of proof that he did care. He couldn’t give it to her.
She held out her hand.
“I didn’t answer them,” he said. “What do you want?”
“Give me the paper back anyway. Maybe I’ll make up my own answers.”
He frowned. “I don’t have them anymore. I lost them.”
“You lost them?” Poppy yelled. He wondered if she was afraid of someone finding out what she’d asked. He would have been.
“They’re probably just in your bag, right?” Alice said. “You could look.”
“Sorry,” Zach mumbled. “Like I said, I don’t know where they are.”
“What happened?” Poppy asked, grabbing his arm. “What’s so different all of a sudden? Why are you so different?”
He turned to look at her. He had to get away before he said something that he couldn’t take back. “I don’t know. I don’t want to play, that’s all.”
“Fine,” Poppy said. “Just bring your people over one last time. One final time. So that they can say good-bye to our people.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I just can’t, Poppy.”
“I just want to say good-bye.” The hurt on Poppy’s face was raw and so much like his own that it was hard to look at her. “They would want that. They’ll miss Rose and Lady Jaye and Aeryn and Lysander, even if you don’t.”
“They’re not real, you know.” He knew he was being a jerk, but it felt good to lash out, even if was at the wrong person. “They’re not real, and they can’t want anything. Stop being such a loser. You can’t play pretend forever.”
Alice sucked in her breath. The red blotches on Poppy’s neck had moved to her cheeks. She looked like she was about to cry or hit him; Zach wasn’t sure which.
When she spoke, though, her voice was flat and grim. “The Queen—what if I take her out of the cabinet? I know where my mom keeps the key. I’ll play her. She knows all the secrets, and she’ll give you whatever you want. Everything. If you come tomorrow, you can have everything you want.”
Zach hesitated. The Great Queen, who ruled over the Silver Hills, the Gray Country, the Land of the Witches, and the whole Blackest Sea. She would have information about William the Blade’s father. With her blessing, all his crimes might be forgiven, his curse lifted, and William would be allowed to dock the Neptune’s Pearl anywhere he wanted. It was a big thing for Poppy to promise—especially because her mother would be furious if Poppy actually took the doll out from the cabinet. The doll was very, very old, and—according to Poppy’s mother—worth a lot of money. She’d be worth a lot less if they touched her papery cotton dress or pawed at her brittle straw-gold curls. And if the Queen was free from her cage, then who knew what that meant for the world.
For a moment, he’d forgotten that there was no more game. It was an unpleasant shock to remember. No matter how tempting it was, Zach couldn’t play. There was no William the Blade anymore.
“Sorry,” he said, turning toward his house with a shrug.
Poppy made a strangled sound. Alice said something under her breath.
Zach bent his head, closed his eyes, and kept walking.
THAT NIGHT, AT the kitchen table, Zach poked at his baked chicken. He wasn’t hungry.
“Your mother pointed out to me that if I want you to start acting like a grown-up, I can’t keep treating you like a kid,” his father was saying, sounding overly sincere. “She’s right. I shouldn’t have tossed out your stuff, because it’s my job to guide you toward the right choices, not make all those choices for you.”
The tone in his father’s voice made Zach think of last year, when he’d gotten into a fight at school. His mother had made him sit in the principal’s office until he was ready to tell Harry Parillo that he was sorry for punching him, even though Zach hadn’t been sorry at all. Zach’s father’s apology sounded as forced as his had been.
“I know that it’s hard to adjust to us being back together,” Mom said. “But we’re going to keep working on it. Zachary, do you have anything you want to say?”
“Nope,” Zach said.
“That’s okay,” said his dad, getting up from the table and clapping Zach on the shoulder. “We understand each other, don’t we?”