“Thank you, kind sir,” said Poppy, with a little bow.
“I am not doing that with you,” Zach said, biting the Twizzler savagely.
Poppy looked crestfallen, which was stupid because she’d been needling him a minute ago about playing. He didn’t know why she was upset over something she started. If she hadn’t pointed out that he was playing, he wouldn’t have had to stop.
“Will you two quit it?” Alice said, aiming the beam of the flashlight at the sidewalk. She had the red candy hanging out of one side of her mouth and was chomping on it like it was a cartoon cigar.
Poppy looked at her feet. “We’re cranky because we’re tired, that’s all.”
Zach started to say something about how it was her fault that they were tired, when he realized saying that might actually prove her point that he was cranky.
The highway was a long stretch of lanes, with an even wider overpass, but at half past four in the morning, they saw only a single truck, headlights lighting up the street so brightly that it almost seemed like day. Once it zoomed by, Polly and Alice held hands and raced for the median. They climbed the concrete block quickly; Zach’s long legs made it easy for him to hop over. Then they ran across the lanes on the other side, even though there were no cars coming from either direction.
The edge of the woods was scrubby and sloped down at a steep angle. They tripped over sticks and uneven patches of earth. Long roping tendrils of bushes scraped at their legs. But after a few minutes of walking, Zach felt pretty hidden from the road. They could still see the lights of East Rochester on one side and could just glimpse the glimmering, rippling surface of the Ohio River stretching out on the other.
“WELL, THIS IS IT,” ALICE SAID, SHADING THE FLASHlight with her hand. “You really think we can sleep out here?”
Even though they were close to the highway, the branches swinging overhead and the smell of leaf mold rising up from the forest floor made Zach feel a million miles away from the world he knew. Like maybe they really were in some fantasy land where dragons flew overhead and magic was possible.
Poppy sat down on the root of a tree. “Ugh, it’s kind of damp and cold on my buttular region. We’re going to need a hammock or something.”
Zach knelt down. The ground was wet—the kind of wet that seeps up and soaks through clothes. He leaned against a tree, and despair washed over him. He liked the idea of an adventure—but what did he really know about having one? He wasn’t used to roughing it. He wasn’t used to bugs and dirt and all the stuff soldiers and pirates had to deal with. The only time he’d done anything even sort of like camping was when set he’d up his grandfather’s old tent in his backyard; it had turned out to be full of spiders, and he’d ripped the old canvas trying to escape from them.
Pushing away from the tree, he unzipped his backpack and pulled out his sleeping bag. It was waterproof on one side, so if he opened it fully and spread it out like a picnic blanket, it would be big enough for all of them to sit on. Maybe keep them dry.
“That was smart, bringing that,” Alice said, helping him to spread it out. “All I have is a change of clothes, toothpaste, and cookies that we got from Poppy’s.”
“You couldn’t sneak back into your house,” Poppy reminded her, crawling onto the sleeping bag, flopping down, and rooting around in her own pack. “And I didn’t exactly give you advance notice.”
Which, from Poppy, was almost an apology.
She took the Queen out of her bag. The doll’s eyes were open, but as Poppy leaned her one way and then another, her eyes closed. Zach was glad to see that Poppy had reattached the Queen’s head, although it lolled slightly, like maybe Poppy had done it in a hurry and it wasn’t on exactly right. The lolling head and closed eyes combined to make the Queen look as tired as they were, which was oddly reassuring. Poppy set the doll down and smoothed out her dress, then turned back to the bag. She tugged out a thin-looking coverlet, some safety pins and Band-Aids, a bar of chocolate that had gotten slightly mashed, a package of baby carrots, a bruised apple, a sweater, a pair of socks, a notebook, and one of her mermaid dolls.
“This is what I brought,” she said. “To share, if you want any.”
“We should take turns keeping watch,” Zach said, “like we did on the bus.” He took out his jar of peanut butter, package of crackers, oranges, and orange soda and put everything but the soda with the other supplies. Thirsty, he popped the tab on the drink. Fizzy foam bubbled up, and he quickly shifted the can over a mound of grass so the spraying liquid could spill onto the dirt. Then he took a long swig.
The bubbles hit the back of his throat in a satisfying way.
He thought about how he’d met them both, when they were all little kids. Poppy had been riding her bike up and down the block when she saw Zach sitting on his front steps, reading a beat-up old copy of James and the Giant Peach. She stopped to tell him that she’d read the book and it was good, but not as good as The Witches, and had he read The Twits? She was the one who’d met Alice, too, picking her up at a carnival, where they’d been the only two girls who had their faces painted like Batgirl instead of fairies and cats and clowns. The first time the three of them had hung out, they’d dangled upside down from the jungle gym until the blood rushed to their heads, trying to get their brains to work better so that they’d be able to move things with the combined power of their minds.
It seemed like such a long time ago.
“Watch? For what?” Alice said, reaching out her hand for the soda. “It’s not like there are going to be marauding orcs or bears or wolves or creepy, crazy old bus riders. We’re in a tiny strip of park.”
“We’ll sleep better if someone’s on watch,” said Zach, glancing at the doll’s creepy, almost-sleeping face. He wanted someone making sure she didn’t wake up and move around while their eyes were closed. “Or I will, anyway.”
“I can stay up,” Poppy said. “How about I wake one of you in an hour?”
“Not me,” said Alice, yawning.
“I’ll go second,” Zach said. “Kick me if you get tired sooner.”
She nodded. He finished off his orange soda in another two gulps. Alice had her enormous red coat off and was quickly layering her change of clothes—jeans and a blue hoodie with cat ears on the hood—on along with the gray dress she was wearing. Then she curled up like a bug under her coat, closed her eyes, and seemed to fall almost instantly into slumber.
Poppy had her thin blanket wrapped around her like a cape and was sitting with her back against the trunk of the tree, looking out at the water. Zach’s eyes had adjusted enough to the moonlight that he could see the determined set of her jaw.
On her lap was the Queen, eyes open now as though she was on watch with Poppy, staring at nothing, the bone white of the doll’s face seeming to glow in the gloom. Poppy’s hand rested absently on the thing’s chest, like she was holding it still. As Zach looked, his imagination fed him a horrible image: the Queen staggering across the uneven ground toward him, her chubby arms reaching for him. He wondered if he could convince Poppy to put the Queen back in her bag.
Poppy tilted her head, her gaze going to where he was sitting. “What?” she whispered.
He pointed to the doll, realizing he’d been staring. He kept his voice low. “This whole thing. Is it a game? Just tell me.”
She narrowed her eyes. “It’s real, Zach.”
“Okay,” he said, too tired to fight, lying down on the open sleeping bag and pillowing his head on one arm. “Wake me when it’s my turn to be on watch.”
She grunted a yes. He closed his eyes.
HE DREAMED ABOUT a big building near a river billowing smoke from its towers. And then, his dream vision swooping forward, he saw a yellow-haired girl watching as her father spun beautiful things from bone china. Teapots so thin and white that they seemed to glow from inside, covered in paper-fine china roses and lilies and leaves. Vases so fine that it seemed like a breath would shatter them, painted with dots of real gold.
At the thought of her name, she seemed to turn toward him, her large black eyes widening like she was the one who saw a ghost.
His vision seemed smeared, and he was in front of a big, drafty house, welcoming a skinny and pinch-nosed woman. He knew, without knowing how, that he was looking at Eleanor’s aunt and that she’d come down from the city to take care of Eleanor after Eleanor’s mother had died six months past and it became clear that her father had no plans to remarry.
Children are dirty, her aunt said, and forbade her from playing outside. She gave her chores instead, making her wash the windows and sweep the floors and move the furniture around.
Children break things, her aunt said, and took away the dolls her father had made for her with spare clay, telling her they were too precious for her to keep.
The aunt displayed them, along with less successful bone china pieces Eleanor’s father brought home from the factory. There was the bone china coffeepot wound with a vine that didn’t curve quite right, resting on the sideboard in the dining room. There were sets of too-small teacups and a bowl with alligator feet that were too frightening and no one liked. There were countless vases marred by mistakes, that listed a little to one side or had gold paint that had smeared or blistered before they were fired or had three-dimensional flowers that had broken coming out of the kiln. Soon several mistakes rested on every side table, forcing Eleanor to tiptoe through the parlor to avoid breaking any.
Zach watched as Eleanor swept the floors, polished the silver, and hid things under her bed. Clothespins that she marked with ink so it seemed they had eyes. A pillowcase tied with string so it seemed like it had a neck and head. In the dark of her room at night, when her father and her aunt had gone to their beds, she took them out and played with them, whispering to herself, calling them by the same names as her old dolls.
ZACH WOKE, BLINKING, to blue sky overhead, dotted with puffs of clouds.
Sunlight filtered through the canopy of green and brown leaves, dappling the ground with bright spots and shadow. He heard a sound that reminded him of the ocean. He’d gone to stay with his grandparents one summer, after his dad left, and they’d stayed in a house by the beach. He’d woken up with the crash of the waves in his head every morning.
But this wasn’t the ocean, he knew, and a moment later he realized it wasn’t the Ohio River, either. It was the sound of the highway, of cars and trucks whooshing past the woods, that sounded like breaking surf.
Zach sat up, blinking, stretching out his stiff limbs and looking around him. Alice was asleep on the sleeping bag, wrapped in her coat, braids falling in her face, a few pieces of white fuzz or feathers dusting her skin. Poppy was asleep too, her head lolling back against the tree. She’d fallen asleep on watch, Zach realized.
Turning, he saw the Queen resting in the dirt right behind his head, far from where she’d been the night before. Her black eyes were wide open, leering down at him. Now that it was daytime, he could see that the glass orbs were slightly too small for her eye sockets, leaving gaps in the corners. An ant crawled out from one of them, marching across her eye and up over her forehead into the thicket of her hair. Zach sprang up and scuttled away from her, his heart racing.
There was more of the white stuff settling on the grass. It looked almost like snow, but then he realized what he was looking at. It was the inside of the sleeping bag. Something had ripped it, cutting the fabric and pulling out the lining, and scattered that, along with all their food.
Baby carrots were tossed around in the dirt. The peanut butter was smeared on the bark of a nearby tree, the jar resting against a rock as if it had rolled there. Crackers were crumbled over the ground, and the chocolate bar was torn in half, pieces of gold foil scattered like confetti. He wondered who’d done this and then looked over at the doll’s empty eyes, the ant on her bone-white cheek.
As he stared a squirrel ran up to the open jar of peanut butter and stuck its furry body inside.
Looking back at the night before, at Poppy and Alice waking him up in the middle of the night, the story about the Queen, the walk to the bus station, and making camp in the dark—all of those things felt distant, like they’d happened to someone in a book. It didn’t seem possible that they’d spent the night in a tiny stretch of woods in a town he didn’t know.
Turning back to where the doll rested, outside the circle of Poppy’s arms, he wondered about other impossible things. Had a ghost really trashed their campsite? Was Eleanor watching him out of the Queen’s glass eyes? A chill shivered up his spine.
Out in the middle of nowhere with an angry ghost and no idea how to get to her grave.
Oh yeah, they were in trouble.
ZACH WOKE ALICE BY SHAKING HER SHOULDER UNTIL she groaned and rolled over. Her braids spread out on the slashed sleeping bag and more white stuffing got caught in her hair.
“Five more minutes,” she mumbled.
“Alice,” he said quietly, poking her upper arm. “Something happened. Come on. Get up. You have to see this.”
She opened her eyes and seemed surprised to see him there. “Where . . . ?”
“Stranded in East Rochester, Pennsylvania,” Zach said with a shrug, hoping that gesture would somehow convey that he shared her feeling that everything had gotten pretty weird.
Then, as she took in the state of their campsite, she turned back to him with her brow furrowed in further puzzlement. “Who . . . ?”
He jerked his head toward Poppy and then the doll. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked, keeping his voice low. “Because I think I do now. For real and for sure.”