Zach understood all that and he felt bad for her, but not bad enough to say anything. Selfishly, he wanted her along.
“Two more minutes,” said Alice, “and then we go back. I’m freezing.”
Poppy didn’t reply.
“One minute, fifty-nine seconds,” Alice said. “One minute, fifty-eight seconds.”
Looking at the bus stop sign, Zach thought about what it would be like to get off at a place like this in a different town, one he had no idea how to navigate. “When we get to East Liverpool, you know where we’re supposed to go, right? What cemetery Eleanor is supposed to be buried in and how to find the grave. You know all that, right?”
Poppy opened her mouth and hesitated over the answer. Just then a bus turned the corner three blocks away, washing them with its headlights. He didn’t realize how worried Poppy had been that it wasn’t coming until he saw how relieved she looked as the bus drew closer. Alice’s face froze in an expression of dread.
“You don’t have to go,” he whispered to her, deciding he could be only so much of a jerk.
“No,” she said, looking back down the street, away from the bus, and sighing. “It’s not that. I’m just tired. Anyway, if I snuck back into my house when I’m supposed to be sleeping at Poppy’s, Grandma would have a lot of questions.”
The last time Alice had gotten busted for staying out after curfew, she’d gotten grounded for a solid month. She’d been to the movie version of one of her favorite musicals, along with some of her theater friends and Poppy. Somehow the parent who was giving them a ride didn’t come on time, or maybe it took too long to drop everybody off, but Alice wound up home a half hour late. That was all it took. Boom. She was in mega-trouble. No phone calls. No Internet. No nothing.
So even though he knew that she wasn’t telling the whole truth about wanting to go, given that she was likely to get in trouble either way, he figured she might as well have an adventure and hope for the best.
The door opened with a creak of gears. An old man with a short white beard looked down at them. A small gold hoop hung from one of his ears, and he had a face that reminded Zach of a gruff and unfriendly wizard. “Well, get on if you’re getting on.”
Poppy, Zach, and Alice climbed the steps, each feeding cash into a machine beside the driver. It printed three tickets and dispensed change into a bowl with a clatter. Zach shuffled down the aisle, past a knitting woman and three college-age guys asleep in their seats, past a guy muttering to himself and looking out the window.
Zach went all the way to the back of the bus, following Poppy. They sat in the long last seat. A moment later Alice joined them, squeezing in next to the window.
“See,” Poppy said, pulling her legs up, so that she was sitting on her feet in a weird yoga pose. “Everything’s going according to plan.”
“I can’t believe the bus actually came,” Alice said faintly.
Zach looked at Poppy’s backpack resting on the floor and wondered whether Poppy had reattached the Queen’s head or whether it would roll around in the bottom of her bag when the bus turned corners. He thought he could see a few threads of her blond hair peeking out from where the zipper wasn’t fully closed.
The bus lurched forward, pulling away from the bus stop, and despite everything, Zach started to grin. They were leaving home by themselves—going on a real adventure, the kind that changed you. He felt a thrill run through him.
“You never really answered me before,” Zach said. “Do you know where the cemetery is? Do you know where we’re going, Poppy?”
“The grave is under a willow tree. Eleanor will tell us the rest.”
“Eleanor will tell us?” he asked in a quiet, urgent voice.
“She told me this much, didn’t she?” Poppy answered, and then in that way she had, where Zach was sure she wasn’t right yet somehow she seemed right, she added neatly and unanswerably, “If you didn’t believe me, why did you come?”
Exasperated, he mimed banging his head against the back of the seat. Poppy ignored him.
Alice leaned against the window and pulled her legs up onto the seat, resting one shoe against Zach’s leg. She looked exhausted, but no longer unhappy. “I’m going to try to sleep.”
He rested a hand on her ankle so it wouldn’t slip.
“We should take shifts,” Poppy said. “Keep watch. Like you’re supposed to on a quest. So we don’t miss our stop.”
“Okay,” Zach said, sticking out a fisted hand. “Rock, paper, scissors.”
Alice held out her hand and blinked muzzily, like she was trying to stay awake. She still beat him, throwing rock to his scissors. He stuck with scissors and tricked Poppy, who threw paper, expecting him to change moves. And then Alice beat Poppy, sticking Poppy with first watch, Zach with second, and Alice, third. Zach rested his head against his own backpack and closed his eyes.
He didn’t think he’d be able to go to sleep, but he must have dozed off, because it seemed like moments later he awoke to Poppy’s sharp yelp.
He sat up. The old guy who’d been talking to himself had moved to the seat in front of them. He was leaning close to Poppy and just letting go of a strand of her hair.
“I was just kidding you. Come on, you’re a cute little thing. Ain’t you used to being teased?” His bad breath washed over Zach, bringing with it a moldering smell, like wet clothes left in the washing machine overnight and sneakers after a long game. His hair was wild tangled curls, shot through with gray, and he had a scraggly beard hiding half of his windblown face. Nicotine stains darkened the ends of his pale fingers. “That your brother? Don’t he tease you?”
“Yes, he’s my brother,” Poppy lied quickly. “And he doesn’t like it if I talk to strangers.”
He cackled, revealing a black gap where a few bottom teeth should have been. He turned his attention to Zach. “I was just telling your smart-mouth little sister here that you can’t be sure this bus is going to take you where you want to go.” He sounded teasing all right, but in a bad way. A scary way. “That bus driver—you can’t trust him. He’s senile as a moose. And sometimes he gets aliens in him.”
Alice shifted and opened her eyes, blinking away dreams. When she saw the old guy, her eyes went wide and she grabbed for her bag. “What’s going on?”
“Okay,” Zach told the man, leaning forward, trying to get between him and Poppy. His father would say that as the boy, it was his responsibility to protect the girls. That made him even more scared, because he was afraid he’d let them down. “Thanks for the advice.”
The old guy’s grin widened. “Oh, the little man is going to give Tinshoe Jones the brush-off. You want to fight? You want to show off for them girls? And who is that one over there? She’s no sister of yours. Just what is it that you three are doing, anyway? Running off from home?”
Alice leaned forward. “We’re not doing anything.”
“Look, we appreciate you coming over and talking with us,” Poppy said placatingly. “But if that’s all—”
“Senile as all get out.” Tinshoe tapped his head and made a swirly motion with his finger, returning to what seemed to be his favorite subject—the bus driver. “Crazy as anything. Sometimes he gets a little lost. Sometimes he just parks and gets out of the bus, wanders around for a while. And sometimes he has meetings with them—them things. In their shiny spaceship. You can see the lights. Just leaves us out here for as long as it takes him to communicate.”
Alice elbowed Zach and raised her eyebrows, eyes wide.
“Okay,” Poppy said. “We’ll watch out for that.”
“You’ve got real pretty hair too,” Tinshoe Jones said, turning to Alice with a sly grin. His fingers darted out to tug at one of her braids. “Like little ropes.”
Alice jerked back.
“Don’t touch her,” Zach said.
“Oh, possessive, huh? Well then, what if I talk with your sister and leave the two of you alone?” Tinshoe grabbed for Poppy’s arm. She pushed herself back against the cushion and out of the range of his hand before he could touch her.
“Hey!” Zach said.
The man laughed. “You all are real jumpy, you know that? Real paranoid. Well, I’m not gonna talk to the blonde, so you better forget that idea. I don’t like the way she’s looking at me. She’s going to tell you that she’d never hurt anybody, but don’t you listen. She’d hurt you, all right. She’d hurt you and she’d like it.”
None of them were blond. In fact, as far as Zach could tell, no one on the bus was blond. He wondered what it was like to be so crazy that you actually saw things that weren’t there. He wondered if when you hallucinated, the stuff you were imagining was just as clear as regular stuff, or if it was hazy at the edges, so that if you really concentrated, you could tell.
“It’s time for you to sit somewhere else,” Alice told him, drawing herself up impressively, like she did onstage at the school play. “I might not look like it, but I am their sister. I’m adopted. And I don’t want you to talk to my brother like that anymore.”
“Aw, c’mon,” he said, reaching into his front breast pocket and coming out with a small paper-bag-wrapped bottle. “I have a black belt. You’ll need me when the aliens come.”
The bus turned a corner and started to slow. There was a brightly lit bus station up the road. Zach let out a sigh of relief.
“You wait and see. That driver’s gonna roll on out of this bus and leave all of us alone, and when he comes back, he’s going to have a new face. The aliens ride around in his skin. So when he does that, who are you going to tell?”
The rest of the bus was quiet and dark, the only lights in two strips down the center aisle and near the front, where the knitting lady sat. It seemed like a vast distance. There was only the click of her needles and the sound of the man’s voice.
In just a couple of minutes, they would be able to get off the bus, but what then? It was too soon for this to be East Liverpool. This was just a random stop in a random town they didn’t know.
“You be careful,” Tinshoe Jones said, looking right at Zach. “You better not let them get taken. That’s your job as the brother. You the man in the family, and you got to fight to make sure the aliens don’t steal their faces. Aliens like red hair. They take you down in them diamond ghost caves and you never come out again.”
“But aliens don’t live underground,” Alice said, completely incapable of not pointing out when something didn’t make sense. “They live in the sky. In spaceships.”
Zach widened his eyes, trying to signal her not to say anything that would agitate Tinshoe Jones.
The bus stopped, its engine grinding. The door opened and the overhead lights came on, making Tinshoe’s skin look sallow. He took a swig from the paper-bag-covered bottle. Then he stood up.
“Shows what you know. No, the safest thing is for you all to stay right here on the bus.”
They looked at one another.
“I’ve got to use the bathroom,” Zach said.
“Then you go,” Tinshoe Jones said. “I’ll protect these ladies and make sure you got the same face you left with.”
“What if we need to protect him?” Alice asked, standing up.
Tinshoe Jones shook his head. “You can’t go where he’s going.”
For a horrible moment Zach worried that Tinshoe Jones was going to block the aisle and make it impossible for them to exit. But then the bus driver stood up and turned his head toward them. Zach let out a sigh of relief.
If Tinshoe Jones knew the driver well enough to complain about him constantly stopping for aliens, he must take this route a lot. And if he took this route, he must have harassed passengers before. The bus driver would come back, say a few things, and Tinshoe Jones would go back to his seat. Everything would work out.
But the driver just took a long look at Zach, Poppy, and Alice and got off the bus. He didn’t say or do a single thing to help them.
Tinshoe Jones wore a smirk on his face like he’d known all along he wasn’t going to get in trouble.
Poppy shoved past him with a suddenness that got her through before he could react. While Tinshoe Jones gaped at her, Zach charged down the aisle, catching Alice’s hand and pulling her with him. Tinshoe Jones grabbed for Alice, and she gave a single, blood-curdling shriek, loud enough for the frat boys to wake up and the knitting lady to turn around in her seat. Loud enough for Tinshoe to let Alice go in surprise.
“Don’t come crying to me when the aliens take your faces!” he yelled after them.
The bus driver was smoking a cigarette, talking to two station employees, when they charged past him and into the building. There were benches and vending machines and bright fluorescent lights. Alice collapsed onto a bench, her eyes a little wet. She looked as freaked out as Zach felt.
“What are we going to do?” Poppy asked, pacing back and forth, backpack over one shoulder.
“This was your plan,” Zach said, and then regretted it. He knew he wasn’t being fair, but he was tired and upset and had no idea what to do himself. He felt useless.
“We can’t get back on that bus,” said Alice.
“Maybe we could tell someone—like a cop. There has to be a cop around a late-night bus station, right?”
“Yeah, and they’ll ask us how old we are.” Alice shook her head. “And call our families. No.”
Zach looked over at the bus driver. One station employee was speaking into a walkie-talkie. The other was watching the three of them.