Alice’s job was to find flowers. She didn’t want to take them from other graves, so she picked some toad lily and goldenrod and turtlehead that grew in the woods at the edge of the cemetery. She braided all the stems together to make a garland for the Queen and then made another little bouquet to leave behind once they were done.
Poppy’s job was to prepare the doll for burial. She rubbed the dirt off the porcelain with spit and the cleanest edge of her T-shirt. Then she took off her hoodie and wrapped Eleanor in it, like it was a shroud.
Finally they were ready.
Poppy placed the doll in the hole in the ground and smoothed the hairs around her face. One of the doll’s eyes was open, staring up at them, but the other was closed. Poppy cleared her throat.
“Eleanor,” she said, “we think that you were about our age when you died and that no one really knows your true story, only that something terrible happened. We’re going to keep trying to discover the truth for you. We hope you can rest easy now. You’re home with your family.”
“Eleanor,” Zach said. The words came easily, the way they did when he was playing, but he felt entirely like himself. “You must be one determined ghost to get us to come all this way. I know we didn’t always do the best job, so thanks for not quitting on us. I’m glad you chose us to be your champions.”
“Eleanor,” Alice said softly, stepping forward. “I only ever knew you as our Queen, so that’s how I am going to talk to you. We, your loyal subjects, quested far to bring you to this place and have gathered here this day to bid you farewell on your journey. I’m glad you’re finally free from your tower.”
She leaned down to place the garland around the doll’s neck. Pink petals fell on the Queen’s dress and hair.
“The Queen is dead,” she said. “Long live the Queen.”
They clasped hands, and then Poppy knelt down to begin covering Eleanor with dirt. The first handfuls covered her face, leaving her fingers, her cheeks, and her forehead bare. More earth fell until she was covered completely.
“Good-bye, Eleanor,” Poppy whispered as Alice set the bouquet she’d made on top of the soft, new-turned earth. A few petals fell, dusting it gold.
Zach felt the wind rise, like the wind he’d heard singing through the trees the night he’d run home from basketball practice. He felt the same chill at his neck and he shivered, but this time he didn’t run. He let it pass over him, racing on and upward. And he thought he heard, very distantly, the sound of a girl laughing.
Smiling, Zach looked out at the lines of graves as they turned to walk back to the road.
Alice kept pace with him. “I keep thinking about what Poppy said, about us all changing. We are, aren’t we?”
Poppy shivered in her T-shirt. “You guys are.”
Zach wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “You’re cold because you gave your jacket to a ghost, and you don’t think anything’s different about you?”
Poppy snorted, but she didn’t pull away. “That’s not what she means. I’m just different like weird. We had this adventure together, but now we’re going to go back. And I’ll be the same, but you guys will keep changing.”
“Quests are supposed to change us,” Zach said.
“How about real life?” asked Poppy.
Alice picked up a blade of grass and folded it in her fingers. “What’s that? Seriously. This was real. This was a story that we lived. Maybe we can live other stories too.”
In the distance, Zach saw two cars pull into the graveyard. He recognized Alice’s aunt’s silver Toyota, with his mom’s beat-up green Nissan behind it. As they drew closer he saw the shadow of his father in the passenger seat.
“This was our last game,” Poppy said. “This is the end of our last game.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Zach. “With the Queen gone, the kingdoms are going to be in turmoil. Lots of people want her throne, all of them willing to manipulate, scheme, and battle to get it. And with William and so many other heroes dead, it’s going to be a different world. A world in chaos. Maybe we can’t play it the way we used to, but we could still tell each other what happens next.”
“Chaos, huh?” asked Alice, a slow grin spreading over her face. “Sounds like fun.”
Poppy smiled a familiar scheming smile, her eyes alight with new hope. “You want to play?” she asked.