“I think we have to get out of here,” Zach said.
“Why?” asked Alice. Then she noticed the three men standing together and got up quickly, swinging her bag onto her shoulder.
Zach took Poppy’s arm. “Right now. C’mon. Go.”
“But we didn’t do anything,” Poppy said, walking along with him. “Why would they be after us? Why not do something about that guy? He’s the one—”
“Because we’re kids,” Zach whispered, cutting her off.
“We’re being too obvious,” Alice said under her breath. “Poppy, we should go into the girls’ room and sneak out from there. Zach, meet us outside. Get something from the vending machine. Everyone, go slow.”
Zach took a deep breath and then spoke loudly and as casually as he could, “I’ll meet you guys back on the bus.”
Alice smiled and nodded exaggeratedly, playing casual too now. Poppy tried to follow her lead.
One of the bus station employees had peeled away from the others and was heading in Zach’s direction, his shoe falls echoing in the mostly empty space. He wasn’t rushing, but he had too much purpose in the way he moved to be just strolling. Zach started toward the door, deliberately not running despite wanting to. He paused a minute to look at the vending machine. In its reflection, he saw the station guy drawing closer, his blue uniform making him seem ominously authoritative.
Zach moved toward the door.
“Hey you, there,” the station guy called to him.
But Zach was out through the doors and turning a corner of the building and seeing Alice lowering herself from the girls’ bathroom window. Poppy jumped out after her and they were off and running into the darkness of an unknown town.
THEY HUDDLED IN THE DARK BEHIND A TATTOO PARLOR and watched as the bus pulled out of the station in a cloud of exhaust, taking with it both the crazy guy and their chances of getting to East Liverpool by morning. All the adrenaline Zach had felt back in the station burned off of him, and he felt tired down to the marrow of his bones. Eye-droopingly exhausted. He leaned against the brick wall and wondered if it was possible to fall asleep standing up.
“Where are we?” Alice asked finally, her breath clouding in the air.
“And how are going to get out of here?” asked Zach, pushing off from the wall. “We don’t even know what town we’re in.”
Poppy followed. “There’s only two buses to East Liverpool that take this route, and if we wait to take the next one—in the afternoon—then we won’t have enough time to take the bus back by tonight.”
“Forget East Liverpool. We’ve got to get home,” Alice said, digging out the cell phone that she was only allowed to use for emergencies.
“Sure,” Zach said. “But we can’t do that, either, can we?”
Poppy pulled the bus schedule from one of her pockets, along with a raggedy map. “You can look at this stuff if you want, but it’s not going to tell you anything I haven’t already told you.”
Alice took the bus schedule and opened it, studying the names of stations as though she were going to be able to figure out where they were just by finding a name that struck her as feeling like the right one.
“Hold on,” Zach said, walking the other way down the alley, so that he could see the front of the bus station. He walked back again. “East Rochester. There’s a sign that says so—but where is that?”
Poppy crowded next to Alice, so they were squinting together at the schedule in the dim moonlight. “There were only two more stops before East Liverpool,” Poppy said finally. “We almost made it.”
“We’re not even out of Pennsylvania yet,” said Alice. “We didn’t almost make anything.”
Poppy unfolded the map and tapped it grandly. “Look, that says Ohio.” Then she shook her head. “Oh, it says Ohio River.”
Alice pulled her coat more tightly around her, sitting down on the back steps of a building. Dumpsters loomed to one side of her. “Can you call Tom and see if he’ll pick us up?” Her voice sounded on the verge of panic. Calm, but not likely to stay that way.
Poppy just looked at her. “My brother will never come all the way here. Not in that junker car of his.”
“Your sister, then?” Alice asked, chewing on the end of one of her braids.
Poppy shook her head. “She broke her phone and hasn’t gotten a new one yet. I couldn’t get ahold of her if I wanted to.”
Alice looked at the face of her phone, frowning. “I guess I could call my aunt Linda. She’d be mad, but she’d come.”
“Would she tell your grandmother?” Zach asked.
Alice sighed heavily, a little shudder going across her shoulders. “Probably. And then I’ll get grounded forever and have to quit the play and be totally miserable. But what else are we going to do?”
Zach tried to imagine a single thing they could tell Alice’s grandmother to try and make sense of what they’d done. She wouldn’t want to hear about a creepy, possibly-still-headless doll, a ghost, and a curse that, more likely than not, didn’t even exist.
“I won’t go back,” Poppy said, sitting on the steps next to Alice. “I’m going to wait for the next bus and keep going.”
“But you said that the next bus wasn’t coming until the afternoon, so you won’t make it home before Sunday,” Alice said. “Where would you sleep?”
Poppy took a deep but unsteady breath. Zach could see that the idea of Alice leaving her made Poppy feel a lot less daring. He didn’t want Alice to go either; she was good at making crazy ideas actually work. If Poppy came up with the idea that they needed an ancient temple under the waves, Alice was the one who would actually find the discarded chunks of concrete to build it. Her going home would pretty much signal that they were doing something dumb.
“Alice is right. We can bury the Queen next weekend or the weekend after that,” Zach said. “What’s the difference?”
Poppy’s shoulders hunched forward as she got more tense. “If we don’t keep going now, we’ll never do it. We just won’t. You guys will make excuses and I’ll chicken out and Eleanor will find someone else to haunt, because I won’t be interesting enough to have a ghost talk to me. I won’t deserve to be the hero of a story, and I won’t be one.”
“Everyone has a story,” Alice murmured. “Everyone’s the hero of their story. That’s what Ms. Evans said in English.”
“No,” Poppy said, her low voice very fierce. “There’s people who do things and people who never do—who say they will someday, but they just don’t. I want to go on a quest. I’ve always wanted to go on a quest. And now that I have one, I’m not backing down from it. I’m not going home until it’s complete.”
Zach thought she might be right. He thought of his dad, who wanted to do things and then didn’t. And he decided that even if it was dumb, he wanted to be the kind of person who was interesting enough to have a ghost talk to him. Even if the idea of the Queen being made of bones and filled with human ash grew more frightening the farther they got from home.
Alice laughed a little, uncomfortably, like what Poppy said about being a hero had hit a little close to home for her, too.
Leaving in the middle of the night and escaping from the bus station already seemed like the kinds of things that happened on quests, so from that perspective they were doing really well. And thinking that made his tired brain slip into playing mode, which led to thinking like William.
“What if we don’t go back right away?” he asked suddenly. “If we don’t call anyone, we don’t get in trouble, right? No one will know what happened. So if you take the bus back tonight—not the one to East Liverpool, the one back home—then your grandmother will never know anything. Or maybe we could even make it to East Liverpool and take the bus back from there. There’s got to be a way for us to get there—we could walk if we have to. It can’t be that many miles up the river. And the quest would be completed, despite some slight setbacks.”
“In the dark?” Alice asked.
“We might as well try,” Poppy said, brightening. “And you don’t want to get in trouble, right?”
“I’m tired and it’s the middle of the night,” said Alice. “I don’t feel like trying to follow some stupid map with a dying flashlight and the compass on my phone.”
Zach thought about William the Blade, steering his ship by the North Star, and blinked up into the night sky. You were supposed to be able to find it by looking for the Big Dipper and then use that to find the Little Dipper. The North Star was the brightest of the Little Dipper stars, and the one at the very end of the Little Dipper’s handle.
That’s the Polaris, he thought. If we can see that, we can’t get lost.
“We’ll find our way.” When he spoke, he could feel William’s voice creeping into his own voice, which was strange because William was gone. “And figure out a place to make camp.”
“Make camp?” Poppy asked.
“Until break of day.” Maybe it was exhaustion, but it wasn’t that hard to think of what William would say. William always got into scrapes, so they didn’t bother him. Heck, he liked trouble. “We’ll eat the provisions we brought. Look, even according to the tiny map on the bus schedule, if we just follow the river, it should take us to East Liverpool. Our quest could still be completed.”
“You want us to walk?” Alice said. “Both of you have gone crazy.”
“My lady, I want us to rest,” Zach replied, offering her his arm. For once, he didn’t feel uncertain. “I want us to take our meager supplies and turn them into a feast. I want us to make a fire and warm our bones. Then, in the morning, we can decide what to do from there. Should you, fair maid, wish to return home upon the morrow, then we shall entertain your arguments.”
She laughed tiredly and looped her arm with his. “Fine. But I am going to want to go home upon the morrow, so plan on that happening.”
“See, you missed the game.” Poppy’s mouth lifted in a triumphant smile. “You missed us playing. Admit it.”
Zach stopped abruptly, whirling on her, the spell broken. “I told you not to talk about that, and you said you wouldn’t.” His voice came out harsher than he’d intended, almost a growl. Poppy took a step back.
“Okay,” Alice said, grabbing his shoulder and propelling him down the alley. “So long as we’re not freezing, I won’t call home. If we can make camp, get warm, and sleep for a while, then let’s do that and try not to get in more trouble than we’re already in.”
“Lady Jaye would be good at surviving on the streets,” Poppy said innocently.
“What? I was talking to Alice, not you. I’m allowed to talk to Alice about the game, aren’t I? You didn’t make any rules about that.”
Alice sighed. “I don’t even know what you two are fighting about. You both want to stay on this crazy adventure, and that’s what we’re doing.”
“We should keep off big roads,” Zach warned, pointing toward a narrow street up ahead. “If someone sees us with the map and the flashlight, they’re going to guess we’re lost kids or runaways or something. We already had those people at the bus station after us.”
“We still don’t know if they were really chasing us,” Poppy said. “Maybe they wanted to apologize about the crazy guy. Maybe they were afraid we were going to miss the bus. Or maybe they were aliens trying to take our faces.”
Zach raised his eyebrows and started walking.
“Oh fine, yeah, let’s use the dark scary road,” Alice said, but she followed him anyway. “Let me see the map.”
Poppy handed it over along with the flashlight. The asphalt of the alley was cracked, and they had to be careful not to stumble as they headed down it, passing heaped mounds of garbage and the back doors of restaurants.
There was a strange quiet in the air, as though everyone and everything was asleep. The echo of their footsteps was the loudest sound for several blocks. It felt both eerie and kind of exciting to Zach. It seemed to him that the whole world had become theirs for a little while.
“There’s a stretch of woods,” Alice said, waving the map. “Close to the water. We’d have to cross the highway to get there, but we’re not too far.”
“Is it a lot of woods?”
“Not really. But it’s a park. Like a small, protected-area park looking out on the water, not a kid park with swings. Too small for a fire to be hidden, but probably big enough that we’re not going to be seen from the road.”
Zach nodded and let her direct them. He didn’t know how to make a fire anyway. It had just seemed like something that you did when you made camp, along with making stews and playing lutes and swigging from jugs of cider.
“This was such a terrible idea,” Alice muttered as they walked. “How did you convince me this was a good idea? This was a terrible, terrible, terrible idea.”
They passed a supermarket with trucks pulled up to the back unloading flats of cardboard boxes. They passed a donut shop, closed, but with a light on inside. It gave off a warm waft of fresh dough and melting sugar. Zach’s stomach growled, and he fished a Twizzler out of the pack. In comparison to the delicious smell, the candy tasted like sweet rubber.
He dug around and took out enough to give Alice and Poppy a couple of Twizzlers each, in case they were hungry too.