POPPY SET DOWN ONE OF THE MERMAID DOLLS CLOSE to the stretch of asphalt road that represented the Blackest Sea. They were old—bought from Goodwill—with big shiny heads, different-colored tails, and frizzy hair.
Zachary Barlow could almost imagine their fins lashing back and forth as they waited for the boat to get closer, their silly plastic smiles hiding their lethal intentions. They’d crash the ship against the shallows if they could, lure the crew into the sea, and eat the pirates with their jagged teeth.
Zachary rummaged through his bag of action figures. He pulled out the pirate with the two cutlasses and placed him gently at the center of the boat-shaped paper they’d weighed down with driveway gravel. Without gravel, the Neptune’s Pearl was likely to blow away in the early autumn wind. He could almost believe he wasn’t on the scrubby lawn in front of Poppy’s ramshackle house with the sagging siding, but aboard a real ship, with salt spray stinging his face, on his way to adventure.
“We’re going to have to lash ourselves to the mast,” Zach said, as William the Blade, captain of the Neptune’s Pearl. Zach had a different way of speaking for each of his figures. He wasn’t sure that anyone but him could tell his voices apart, but he felt different when he talked in them.
Alice’s braids spilled in front of her amber eyes as she moved a G.I. Joe Lady Jaye figure closer to the center of the boat. Lady Jaye was a thief who’d begun traveling with William the Blade after she’d been unsuccessful in picking his pocket. She was loud and wild, almost nothing like Alice, who chafed under the thumb of her overprotective grandmother, but did it quietly.
“You think the Duke’s guards will be waiting for us in Silverfall?” Alice made Lady Jaye ask.
“He might catch us,” said Zach, grinning at her. “But he’ll never hold us. Nothing will. We’re on a mission for the Great Queen and we won’t be stopped.” He hadn’t expected to say those words until they came out of his mouth, but they felt right. They felt like William’s true thoughts.
That was why Zach loved playing: those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything. It was something he never wanted to give up. He’d rather go on playing like this forever, no matter how old they got, although he didn’t see how that was possible. It was already hard sometimes.
Poppy tucked windblown strands of red hair behind her ears and regarded Zach and Alice very seriously. She was tiny and fierce, with freckles thick enough to remind Zach of the stars at night. She liked nothing better than being in charge of the story and had a sense of how to make a moment dramatic. That was why she was the best at playing villains.
“You can knot ropes to keep you safe, but no boat can pass through these waters unless a sacrifice is given to the deep,” Poppy made one of the mermaids say. “Willingly or unwillingly. If one of your crew doesn’t leap into the sea, the sea will choose her own sacrifice. That’s the mermaid’s curse.”
Alice and Zach exchanged a look. Were the mermaids telling the truth? Really, Poppy wasn’t supposed to make up rules like that—ones that no one else had agreed to—but Zach objected only when he didn’t like them. A curse seemed like it could be fun.
“We’ll all go down together before we lose a single member of this crew,” he fake-shouted in William’s voice. “We’re on a mission for the Great Queen, and we fear her curse more than yours.”
“But just then,” said Poppy ominously, moving one of the mermaids to the edge of the ship, “webbed fingers grab Lady Jaye’s ankle, and the mermaid pulls her over the side of the boat. She’s gone.”
“You can’t do that!” Alice said. “I was lashed to the mast.”
“You didn’t specify that you were,” Poppy told her. “William suggested it, but you didn’t say whether or not you did it.”
Alice groaned, as though Poppy was being especially annoying. Which she kind of was. “Well, Lady Jaye was in the middle of the boat. Even if she wasn’t lashed, a mermaid couldn’t get to her without crawling on board.”
“If Lady Jaye gets pulled over the side, I’m going after her,” Zach said, plunging William into the gravel water. “I meant it when I said no one gets left behind.”
“I didn’t get pulled over the side,” Alice insisted.
As they continued arguing two of Poppy’s brothers walked out of the house, letting the screen door slam behind them. They looked over and started to snicker. The older of the two, Tom, pointed directly at Zach and said something under his breath. His younger brother laughed.
Zach felt his face heat. He didn’t think they knew anyone at his middle school, but still. If any of his teammates found out that, at twelve, he was still playing with action figures, basketball would become a lot less fun. School could get bad too.
“Ignore them,” Poppy declared loudly. “They’re jerks.”
“All we were going to say is that Alice’s grandma called,” Tom said, his face a parody of hangdog innocence. He and Nate had the same tomato-red hair as their sister, but they weren’t much like her in any other way that Zach could see. They, along with their eldest sister, were always in trouble—fighting, cutting school, smoking, and other stuff. The Bell kids were considered hoodlums in town and, Poppy aside, they seemed intent on doing what they could to uphold that reputation. “Old lady Magnaye says that you need to be home before dark and for us to be sure to tell you not to forget or make excuses. She seems rough, Alice.” The words were supposed to be nice, but you could tell from the sickly sweet way Tom talked that he wasn’t being nice at all.
Alice stood up and brushed off her skirt. The orange glow of the setting sun bronzed her skin and turned her glossy box braids metallic. Her eyes narrowed. Her expression wavered between flustered and angry. Boys had been hassling her ever since she’d hit ten, gotten curves, and started looking a lot older than she was. Zach hated the way Tom talked to her, like he was making fun of her without really saying anything bad, but he never knew what to say to stop it either.
“Leave off,” Zach told them.
The Bell boys laughed. Tom mimicked Zach, making his voice high-pitched. “Leave off. Don’t talk to my girlfriend.”
“Yeah, leave off,” Nate squeaked. “Or I’ll beat you up with my doll.”
Alice started toward the Bell house, head down.
Great, Zach thought. As usual, he’d made it worse.
“Don’t go yet,” Poppy called to Alice, ignoring her brothers. “Call home and just see if you can spend the night.”
“I better not,” Alice said. “I’ve just got to get my backpack from inside.”
“Wait up,” Zach said, grabbing Lady Jaye. He headed for the screen door and got there just as it shut in his face. “You forgot—”
The inside of Poppy’s house was always a mess. Discarded clothes, half-empty cups, and sports equipment covered most surfaces. Her parents seemed to have given up on the house around the same time they gave up on trying to enforce any rules about dinners and bedtimes and fighting—around Poppy’s eighth birthday, when one of her brothers threw her cake with its still-lit birthday candles at her older sister. Now there were no more birthday parties. There weren’t even family meals, just boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of ravioli, and tins of sardines in the pantry so that the kids could feed themselves long before their parents came home from work and fell, exhausted, into their bed.
Zach felt envious every time he thought of that kind of freedom, and Alice loved it even more than he did. She spent as many nights there as her grandmother allowed. Poppy’s parents didn’t seem to notice, which worked out pretty perfectly.
He opened the screen door and went inside.
Alice was standing in front of the dusty, old, locked display cabinet in the corner of the Bell living room, peering in at all the things Poppy’s mother had forbidden Poppy, on pain of death and possible dismemberment, from touching. That was where the doll they called the Great Queen of all their kingdoms was trapped, next to a blown-glass vase from Savers that had turned out to be vintage something-or-other. The Queen had been picked up by Poppy’s mother at a tag sale, and she insisted that one day she was going to go on Antiques Roadshow, sell it, and move them all to Tahiti.
The Queen was a bone china doll of a child with straw-gold curls and paper-white skin. Her eyes were closed, lashes a flaxen fringe against her cheek. She wore a long gown, the thin fabric dotted with something black that might be mold. Zach couldn’t remember when exactly they’d decided that she was the Great Queen, only that they’d all felt like she was watching them, even though her eyes were closed, and that Poppy’s sister had been terrified of her.