Awkward silence stretched between them.
Finally Zach nodded, because he did understand his father. He understood his wanting to make Mom happy. He understood not being sorry. It just didn’t make Zach forgive him.
The next day, Zach went to practice and tried to blot out thoughts of Poppy and Alice and his father by playing ball so aggressively that he got lectured by his coach and benched for the rest of practice. He tried not to think about the story, which would go on without him, flowing around the empty spaces where his characters used to be until they were swallowed up and forgotten.
He thought again about running away, but the more time passed, the more he’d realized that he had nowhere to go.
Since his father was at the restaurant that night, his mother let him eat ravioli from a can on the couch in front of the television. They didn’t talk much, although he caught her shooting him worried looks.
In the morning Zach asked her to drive him to school, and that afternoon he went home with Alex Rios. They played video games in Alex’s finished basement on a bigger television than Zach had seen outside of a store.
The day after that, Alice walked up to Zach while he was shooting baskets at recess and pressed a note into his hand. A couple of the other guys yelled “Go ask Alice!” and “Somebody’s got a girlfriend!” as she walked off, which made her hunch her shoulders like she was braced against a hard wind.
“Shut up,” Zach said, shoving Peter Lewis, since he was standing closest.
“What?” Peter said. “I didn’t say anything.”
The note was folded up in a square this time, with his name carefully printed in blue ink. When he opened it, there were only three short sentences on the lined paper:
Something happened with the Queen. Go to the hermit’s place by the Silver Hills after school. It’s important.
Important was underlined three times.
It’s nothing, Zach told himself.
He thought of the Queen’s fluttering lashes and the feeling of her closed eyes following him as he walked through the room.
The Queen wasn’t real, though, so nothing important could have happened with her. This was just Poppy and Alice attempting to get him to show up so they could all have the same fight over again. They wanted him to play and he couldn’t. There was nothing he could do except explain why it was over, and he couldn’t bring himself to do that.
“What did the note say?” Alex asked. “She tell you that she wants your skinny body?”
Zach tore it in half and then in half again. “Nah. She just wants my math homework.”
There was no practice after school that day, but he stayed late anyway, pretending there was. He managed to talk the coach into letting him shoot hoops in the gym, which he did methodically, alone, letting himself drown in the thump of the ball, the squeak of his sneakers, and the familiar smell of fresh floor wax and old sweat.
ZACH WOKE IN THE DARKNESS OF HIS BEDROOM. HE wasn’t sure why, but his heart raced, adrenaline pumping through his body, as though something had activated his body’s fight-or-flight response. He blinked in the dark, letting his eyes adjust. The moon was high enough to give the room an eerie silvery glow. He could make out the familiar shapes of his furniture. His black cat was uncurling and stretching her long sleek body, claws digging into the coverlet. She padded up to him, her yellow eyes full of reflected light.
“What’s up?” he whispered to The Party, reaching out to pet her soft triangular head and press his thumb against her ear, folding it down and rubbing it. She butted against him and started to purr.
He jumped. The cat hissed, her white teeth flashing in the moonlight, and she jumped off the bed. Something small and hard had struck the window.
This was no echo of a dream, no made-up story. Something really had hit the glass, smacking against one of the panes he couldn’t see, one of the lower ones, hidden behind blue half-curtains.
A sudden gust of wind made the branches outside shake and jitter. He couldn’t help imagining the long, bony fingers of the trees scraping against the glass.
When he was a little kid, he’d had a firm belief in universally observed monster rules. He’d been sure, for example, that if he kept all parts of himself on the mattress and shrouded beneath blankets, if he kept his eyes closed, and if he pretended to be asleep, then he’d be safe. He didn’t know where he’d gotten the idea from. He did remember his mother saying he’d smother himself if he kept sleeping with his head under the comforter. Then one night—quite randomly—he fell asleep with his head above the covers like a normal person, and no monster got him. Over time he got spottier about observing his safety precautions, until he routinely slept with an arm dangling off the side of his bed and his feet kicked free of the sheets.
But right then, at the sound of the wind, for one panicky moment, all he wanted was to burrow under the blankets and never come out.
The thing hitting the window was just a branch, he told himself.
Or an insomniac squirrel rattling around in the gutters.
Or a neighbor cat trying to pick a fight with The Party.
He was never going to be able to go back to sleep if he didn’t look. Zach slid out of bed, his bare feet padding over the carpet. Steeling himself and taking a deep breath, he pushed aside the curtain.
There were a few scattered pebbles on the roof tiles in front of his window. That was the first thing he noticed. The second was that when he looked past the roof, he saw two dark figures looking up at him from the moonlit lawn. He was too surprised to shout. They had windblown hair and upturned faces and, for a moment, he didn’t know them. But then he realized it was only Poppy and Alice, not zombie girls or witches or ghosts. Alice lifted her hand in a shy wave. Poppy had another handful of pebbles and looked ready to throw them at him.
He let out his breath and waved back a little unsteadily. His hammering heart started to slow.
Poppy beckoned to him. Come down, she was signaling.
He thought of the note that Alice had passed him and the way she’d underlined important, but he couldn’t think of anything so important that it would lead them to sneak out of their houses on a Friday night. Alice’s grandmother would ground her for the rest of forever if she found out.
Zach backed away from the window. Quietly he went to the closet and pushed his feet into a pair of sneakers. He pulled a sweater over his T-shirt and crept downstairs in his alligator pajama bottoms.
The Party followed, mewling plaintively, probably hoping to be fed.
The under-cabinet lights in the kitchen were bright enough to stumble through by, and he managed to find his coat on a hook in the entranceway. The microwave showed the time in blinking green numbers: three minutes past midnight. Zach shouldered his coat on and went outside, closing the door before the cat could slip through.
Poppy and Alice were waiting for him.
“Hey,” he whispered into the dark. “What’s going on? What happened?”
“Shhhhh,” Poppy said. “You’ll wake up everyone. Come on.”
“Where to?” he asked, looking back at his house. There was a light on in his parents’ bedroom upstairs. Sometimes his mother stayed up late to read; sometimes she fell asleep with the light on. If she was still awake, the sound of them talking might carry up to her, but he wanted to know something before he just followed Alice and Poppy into the night.
“The Silver Hills,” Alice said.
That was a junkyard that specialized in metal about half a mile from their houses. The owner bought everything from car parts to tin cans and, although no one was sure what he did with them other than let them rust in huge mounds on his property, they were a pretty impressive sight. The stripped rods, machine parts, and batteries gleamed like mountains of silver, so that’s why they’d started calling it the Silver Hills. They’d come up with a whole story line, including dwarves and trolls and a princess doll that Poppy had painted silver.
Zach jogged behind Poppy and Alice, the wind cutting through his thin pajamas, making him feel both cold and sort of ridiculous. After a few minutes Poppy pulled a flashlight out of her jacket and clicked it on. It illuminated only a narrow patch of grass and dirt, so she had to swing it back and forth to see much.
There was the same old high chain-link fence around the property that Zach remembered. And there was the same old abandoned shed that they’d found a few summers ago and used as a clubhouse until Alice’s grandmother had found out about it and given them a speech about tetanus and how it led to something she called lockjaw. Zach wasn’t sure lockjaw was a real thing, but he thought about it every time his neck felt stiff.
They hadn’t been there since—or at least, he hadn’t. He wondered if Poppy and Alice snuck out to the shed without him. They seemed full of secrets tonight. The only secret he had was one he wished he didn’t.
Alice opened the creaky old door and went inside. He followed nervously.
Poppy sat down on the splintery floor, cross-legged, setting the flashlight against her sneakers, so it lit her face. Then she unhooked her backpack from one shoulder, pulling it around onto her lap.
“So are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Zach asked, sitting down across from Poppy. The wood planks were cold under his pajama pants, and he shifted, trying to get comfortable.
She unzipped her bag. “You’re going to laugh,” she said. “But you shouldn’t.”
He glanced over at Alice. She was leaning against one wall of the shed. “Poppy saw a ghost,” she said.
He tried to suppress a shudder. Ghosts weren’t something you talked about in an abandoned shed at night. “You’re just trying to freak me out. This is some kind of stupid—”
Poppy carefully took the bone china doll from her backpack. Zach drew in his breath and went silent. The Queen’s dull black eyes were open, her gaze boring into his own. He’d always thought she was creepy-looking, but in the reflected beam of the flashlight, she seemed demonic.
Poppy touched the doll’s face. It was pure white, like a dinner plate. Hair, dry as brush bristles, was threaded into her scalp, and her cheeks and lips were rouged a faint pink. When she was tilted onto her back, her eyes stayed open instead of closing the way they should have, as though she was still watching Zach. There was a tear at the shoulder of her thin, brittle gown and tiny pinholes through the discolored fabric. It hadn’t aged as well as the rest of the doll—and the ride in Poppy’s backpack probably hadn’t helped.
“The Queen,” Zach said unsteadily, forcing a sneer into his voice to cover his rising fear. “So what? You brought me all the way out here to see a doll ?”
“Just listen,” Alice said. “Try not to be the huge jerk you’ve turned into.”
Alice never said stuff like that, especially not to him. It stung.
“I know you told us you weren’t going to come over the other day, but I thought you might anyway,” Poppy said, talking fast. “And I couldn’t just go in the cabinet and get the Queen if Mom was there. So I took the doll out of the case that night when we had the argument and moved around some of Mom’s other stuff to hide what I’d done. But that night—well, I saw the dead girl.”
“You mean you had a nightmare,” Zach said.
“Just shut up a minute,” said Alice.
“It wasn’t like a regular dream,” Poppy said, her fingers smoothing back the Queen’s curls and her voice changing, going soft and chill as the night air. It reminded Zach of the way Poppy talked when she played villains or even the Queen herself. “It wasn’t like dreaming at all. She was sitting on the end of my bed. Her hair was blond, like the doll’s, but it was tangled and dirty. She was wearing a nightdress smeared with mud. She told me I had to bury her. She said she couldn’t rest until her bones were in her own grave, and if I didn’t help her, she would make me sorry.”
Poppy paused, as though she was expecting him to say something sarcastic. Alice shifted uncomfortably. Zach was silent for a long moment, arrested by the images Poppy had conjured. He could almost see the girl in her stained nightgown.
“Her bones?” he finally echoed.
“Did you know that bone china has real bones in it?” Poppy said, tapping a porcelain cheek. “Her clay was made from human bones. Little-girl bones. That hair threaded through the scalp is the little girl’s hair. And the body of the doll is filled with her leftover ashes.”
A shiver ran up his spine. He closed his eyes to keep from looking at the doll in Poppy’s lap. “Okay, this is your idea of a funny prank. I get it. You’re mad at me for not playing the game anymore, so you made up this story to scare me. What’s the punch line? Did one of you rig a sheet outside to flutter from a tree or something?”
“I told you,” Alice said to Poppy, under her breath.
“You really did rig a sheet?” Zach frowned, looking out at the trees and the mounds of cans and metal.
“No, idiot,” said Alice. “I told her that you wouldn’t believe us and that you wouldn’t want to help.”
He threw up his hands in confusion. “Help with what? Help you bury a doll ? Why would you need to wake me up in the middle of the night to help you do that?”
Poppy pulled the doll to her chest, and one of the eyes closed and opened, as though it was winking at him. “Eleanor Kerchner is real. That’s the doll-girl’s name. She told me about herself. Her father was some kind of worker for a china manufacturer, designing and decorating pottery, and when Eleanor died, her dad went totally crazy. He couldn’t bear to put her in the ground, so he took her body back to the kilns at his job, chopped her up, and cremated her. He ground up her burnt bones and used them to make a batch of bone china, then poured it into a mold cast from one of Eleanor’s favorite dolls. So her grave stayed empty.”