Zach tried to swallow, although his throat suddenly felt very dry. It was too easy to imagine the doll moving on her own, fluttering her painted eyelids and turning toward him. Maybe opening her tiny rosebud of a mouth to scream. “She told you that?”
“Each night she told me a little bit more of her story.” Illuminated by the flashlight, Poppy’s face had become strange. “She’s not going to rest until we bury her. And she’s not going to let us rest either. She promised to make us miserable unless we help her.”
He looked at Alice. “And you believe it? You believe all of this?”
“I never believed in ghosts, so not at first,” Alice said. “No offense, Poppy, but it’s a crazy story. And I’m still not totally sure, but show him the thing. It’s pretty convincing.”
“Show me what?”
Poppy pulled the doll’s head sharply up from the body. Zach gasped at the sudden violence of it, but all that it revealed was a string-and-rusty-metal-hook apparatus. With a twist, the Queen’s head came entirely off, leaving the hook still attached to the neck, hanging from the cord. Poppy slid her fingers into the body of the doll, feeling around like she was trying to reach something.
“What are you doing?” He stared at the disembodied head resting on Poppy’s knee. The eyes were closed now.
Poppy drew out an old burlap bag from the neck cavity. “Here, take this and look inside.”
He took the rough cloth as she turned the beam of the flashlight on it, revealing letters and a date in blocky print. The bag was full, but Zach couldn’t tell what it was full with.
“Liverpool?” he read out loud. He had a vague memory of the place from some late-night British rock documentary his mom had been watching. “That’s where the Beatles are from—in England. There’s no way we can go there. I guess we’re going to have to find out if ghost girls really can curse people, because—”
“That’s what I thought at first,” Alice said, and pointed to the markings. “But look again. It says East Liverpool. In Ohio. So we could get on a bus and be there by morning.” She paused. “And we are. We’re going. Tonight. Well, technically, it’s morning, so we’re going in the morning.”
He looked from the doll to Alice and then to Poppy. “This is why you brought me out here?”
“We tried to explain yesterday,” Alice said. “I told you it was important.”
Poppy reached down and turned the flashlight beam on her watch, then shone it at him. “There’s a bus stopping in town at two fifteen in the morning. It’s coming from Philadelphia and going to Youngstown. One of the stops is East Liverpool. Alice said she’d come if you would too.”
Zach thought about the ghost story that Poppy had told on their last walk home, the one about holding your breath when you passed a cemetery. Was she trying to play a different kind of game? A game that she was making out of their real lives? But Poppy didn’t look gleeful, the way she did when she had a thrilling idea. She looked pale and nervous, like she hadn’t been sleeping well.
“You’ll really go?” he asked finally, looking at Alice. Her grandmother wouldn’t like a single thing about this: not the ghost, not the bus, definitely not Alice being out at two in the morning with a boy—even if the boy was just him.
Zach’s parents wouldn’t like him going either, but that was a point in favor of the plan, as far as he was concerned. And if he decided that he never wanted to come back, well, at least he’d have some company while he figured out where he was going. In stories, orphan boys became assistant pig keepers and magician’s apprentices. In real life, he wasn’t sure there were any equivalent jobs.
“You still haven’t looked in the bag,” Alice said, pointing to the burlap sack he was holding. “It’s pretty weird.”
With trepidation, he pulled the drawstrings so that he could peer inside. Poppy handed Alice the flashlight. She held it up high, pointing it down at him.
For a moment, Zach didn’t know what he was seeing. The bag seemed to be full of something that looked a little bit like dark sand with chunks of shells in it. Then he realized that the bag was full of gray ash, and what he’d thought were shells were actually sharp, pale pieces of bone.
Of course. The leftover ashes. The remains of a ghost. Of a girl. Of the Queen.
A nameless primal terror washed over him. He wanted to drop the bag, wanted to race out of the shed and go back to bed where he could shiver under his own covers. But he didn’t move. His hands started to shake, and he drew the strings tight so he didn’t have to look anymore.
“Poppy thinks we can catch a bus back in the afternoon and be home by dinnertime. It’s only a three-hour ride, but there aren’t a lot of buses from here to there—just this one early in the morning, and another in the afternoon that gets in too late for us to ride back in time. We left a note for her parents.” Despite her words, Alice’s voice grew a little uncertain. Zach wondered if she’d balked at first, before she’d apparently promised Poppy that if he went, she would go too.
“If these bones are real,” he began, “shouldn’t we tell someone? A girl died. Maybe Eleanor’s father murdered her. Maybe it’s some kind of cold-case file.”
“No one’s going to care about some old story,” Poppy said. “And even if they did, they’d just take the doll away from us—put her in a museum or display her somewhere—and then her spirit would be angry.”
He paused, considering everything she’d said and also what she hadn’t said. “Did you find the ashes before or after you dreamed about Eleanor Kerchner?”
“I’m going whether you both come or not,” Poppy said, snatching the burlap bag out of his hand. He guessed that meant she’d found the ashes first. “Whether you believe me or not, I’m going to bury her like she wants.”
Getting on a bus in the middle of the night to a place they’d never been was daunting. It also seemed a little bit like an adventure.
“Okay,” he said. “Fine. I’ll come.”
Alice looked at him in wide-eyed surprise. He wondered for the first time if she’d been planning on him saying no and hadn’t considered the possibility that he’d say yes. If so, she probably should have told him.
“I’ll come,” he continued, “so long as you both promise not to ask me about the game or why I don’t want to play. Okay? No more hassling me about it.”
“Okay,” said Poppy.
“Okay,” said Alice.
“Okay,” said Zach.
“You need to get ready fast,” Poppy said. “And leave a note so your parents don’t freak out. Just tell them you got up early and that you’ll be back tonight.”
“And you’re sure the bus will get us back in time?” Alice asked. “You’re positive?”
“Yes,” Poppy said. “I planned it all out. Just bring food and supplies, okay, Zach? We’ll meet at the mailbox in twenty minutes.”
She switched off the flashlight and, for a moment, the shed was plunged into darkness.
Zach blinked, willing his eyes to adjust. By the time they did, Poppy had put away the Queen, so at least her terrible head with its winking eye was hidden.
Zach walked home through the hushed streets, his sneakers wet with dew from the frosted grass. There was a kind of quiet that hung over the world in the middle of the night, as though there was no one else awake anywhere. It felt ripe with magic and endless possibility.
He snuck back into his house and stood for a long moment in the dark kitchen, a feeling of great daring swelling his heart. When he finally went to the cabinets, he felt as though he was provisioning himself for one of those epic fantasy quests—the kind that required a lot of jerky or something called hardtack that he’d read about soldiers eating during the Civil War and which he thought might be a kind of bread. His mother didn’t have either of those things, nor did she have elven lembas, which had kept Frodo and Sam from starving on the way to Mount Doom and always made him think of matzoh (which his mom also didn’t have). He did find a can of orange soda, a package of saltine crackers, three oranges, red Twizzlers, and a jar of peanut butter, all of which he stuffed into his backpack.
In his room, Zach changed into jeans, switched out his sweater for a zip-up sweatshirt, and packed a few other random things he thought he might need: twenty-three dollars (twenty of which had come from his aunt in a card for his birthday), a book identifying poisonous plants (in case they needed to live in the wild and eat berries, which admittedly seemed like a remote possibility), and a sleeping bag that was a little too small for him but worked okay as a blanket when completely unzipped. In the hall closet, he found a flashlight, and he picked up a garden spade from beside the back door.
Before he left, he wrote out the note and propped it up on his bed. It read:
Got up early. Gone to play basketball. Might not be back for dinner.
Might not be back forever, he thought, but didn’t write.
As he left the house, closing the door quietly behind him, he wondered, for a moment, again, if this was a trick. A lie. Poppy’s attempt at one last game.
But the ashes had seemed real, he reminded himself.
In the end, he wasn’t sure if he went because he half believed in the ghost already or because he was used to following Poppy’s lead in a story or simply because leaving allowed him to run away and still believe he could come back.
If he wanted.
ZACHARY WAS USED TO STORIES WITHOUT HAPPY ENDings. His dad called where they lived West of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, claiming it bordered Better off Forgotten, West Virginia, and Already Forgotten, Ohio. When Zach was little, those had seemed like magical place names, before he realized they were just sarcasm. Zach’s mother had gone to school to be an art therapist, but the only place she could get work was in a juvenile detention center. If she wanted the kids there to do art, she had to bring the supplies and collect them after each session because her supervisor was afraid of the kids jabbing each other’s eyes out with markers.
Zach’s mother’s parents, now living permanently in Florida, would tell stories about how things used to be. About how the big Victorian houses—the ones built by some famous architect, the ones that were in the center of town—used to be owned by single families and not divided into run-down apartments. His grandmother told stories about the people she’d known when she was a little girl, people who got out of town and made it elsewhere. The happiest the stories got were when his parents talked about how things were going to get better, although neither one of them really seemed to believe it, and Zach didn’t believe it anymore either.
When Zach’s dad left three years ago, he said he was going to run his own restaurant in Philadelphia and he was going to Italy to study how pasta was really made and he was getting a late-night spot on a local cable channel and would parlay that into a fortune. But two months later, he moved back and into one of the crappy apartments in the biggest and worst-kept Victorian and drifted in and out of Zach’s life, until he finally drifted back to their house. It was as if the town had some kind of gravitational influence on the people who lived there. But even as Zach thought that, he knew it was just another story. Dad was back because he hadn’t been able to hack it in the city. That was all.
He wondered whether growing up was learning that most stories turned out to be lies.
The bus stop was cold enough that Zach’s breath clouded in the air. The wind had picked up. It washed over them as they huddled together against the brick exterior of the post office. In the flickering streetlight, Zach could see the girls better. Poppy had pulled back her coppery hair into a ponytail and was wearing a dark-green sweater with jeans and tall brown boots. Alice was in a big shapeless red coat. Both of them had backpacks slung over their shoulders.
He felt his gaze going to Poppy’s backpack, knowing the Queen was inside and knowing, without knowing how he knew, that her eyes were open. He felt the weight of her stare on his back when he turned away. The hairs on the back of his neck stuck up, tickling his skin and making him shiver.
The bus was already fifteen minutes late, and there was no sign of it—or any other vehicle—on the road. A while back they’d seen a police car from a way off and had pressed themselves against the wall of the building. As they hid, Poppy muttered the whole time about the vividness of Alice’s coat giving them away and Alice muttered back about how she’d just packed for a sleepover because she hadn’t thought they were taking off somewhere harebrained that very night. But the police car had turned onto Main Street and away from them. And the next car that passed was a truck. It didn’t even slow.
Alice yawned. “Maybe we should go back. It doesn’t look like the bus is coming.”
Zach, impelled by the impulse that makes yawns catch, yawned too.
“Stop,” Poppy said. “We just have to wait a little longer.”
“You can’t be mad at us for being tired,” Zach said.
Poppy was clearly still upset, but she didn’t argue with him. “We’ll sleep on the bus.”
Alice bit her lip and looked hopefully at the stretch of empty road. She looked happier the longer they waited. Zach was pretty sure she was betting on the bus not coming and the three of them going back to their beds, having had a nice little middle-of-the-night adventure. He could tell Alice didn’t want to be the one who chickened out, but she obviously also didn’t want to go. If Alice’s grandmother found out about any of this, there would be no more play practice, no more sleepovers, no more chance of hanging out with Zach or Poppy. Ever.