Rill has a dream that she, Lark, Fern, Gabion, Camellia, Queenie, Zede, and Silas are all together on the shanty boat heading down the river. When she wakes up, however, it’s just her and Fern curled up together where Briny won’t find them. Rill hears Silas fake a whippoorwill call to let her know he’s outside, so she tells Fern to stay under the canvas where Briny won’t find her and hurries off to meet Silas. When Rill gets to Silas, he gives her a bundle of food to share with Fern because Briny has been too drunk to feed them. Silas wants Rill to bring Fern to Zede’s boat so they can start going down the river in the hope Briny will follow—it’s getting too cold and unsafe for them all to stay where they are. However, Briny refuses to leave the spot where Queenie is buried.
Now that Rill has her wish and is back on her family’s boat, she is confronted with a reality she never considered—life has not simply returned to normal and nothing has truly been resolved; indeed, nothing can ever be the same again because they’ve lost so many of their loved ones. Even the return of two of his beloved children is not enough for Briny to return to the person he once was. This sends a powerful message about how severe trauma can change everything about a person and how some things are irretrievably lost because of it.
Silas tells Rill to let Briny know that Zede is leaving in four days and if Briny isn’t ready to leave at that point, then Zede is going to take Fern and Rill with him. Suddenly they hear Briny asking who’s in the woods nearby, so Rill shoos Silas away and sneaks back to her boat with the bundle of food. Rill pretends she just cooked the food when Briny comes onto the boat and scoops Fern up. Rill tries to tell him that Zede is leaving soon, but Briny says he won’t leave without Queenie, grabs his empty whisky bottle, and leaves. Rill thinks about how she thought finding the shanty boat again would make everything go back to normal. Instead, it’s made everything that’s happened more real—too much of their family is gone.
Rill believed that getting back to the Arcadia would mean her and Fern would be safe, but now that they’re there, they find themselves hiding from the person who is supposed to protect them the same way they did in the orphanage. Furthermore, Briny seems to be running from Rill and Fern because without Queenie, he doesn’t know how to really be himself anymore; therefore, he cannot really be their dad.
Rill and Fern go to bed and fall asleep before Briny comes home, but Rill wakes up later when she hears Briny shouting into the violent storm that’s rocking their boat. Suddenly, Rill realizes the boat isn’t tied up anymore—Briny is drunk and has untied the boat himself despite the storm. Rill tells Fern to stay in bed while she goes to see what’s wrong. Outside of the shanty, Rill tells Briny they have to get the boat tied up, but he doesn’t hear her. Rill notices that a tree floating down the river is about to hit their boat and yells for Fern, but the impact breaks the boat apart and sends Rill flying into the water. She swims back in time to grab Fern, a picture of Queenie and Briny, and Queenie’s crucifix before the boat sinks.
Briny is as miserable at the loss of their past life as Rill is, but his solution is to destroy all evidence of that past life—including himself—by releasing the boat during a storm. Because he can’t have his past life anymore, Briny sees all life as pointless and sets out to destroy it even though it means destroying his remaining kids, as well. For Briny, the presence of Rill and Fern serves as a reminder of all that he lost and has pushed him over the edge rather than bringing him peace.
Rill gets herself and Fern to a drift pile but knows they won’t be safe there for very long. Looking over the river, Rill sees the shanty boat in flames and desperately calls out to Briny. A voice answers, but it’s not Briny’s—out of the darkness, a small boat full of men sails over to Rill and Fern. The men row the sisters to the shore and ask who else was on the boat. Rill tells them about Briny, so they row out to search for him. Looking down the shore, Rill thinks she sees Briny watching and calls to him, but the man turns away and leaves. Just then, Silas rows up and scoops Rill into his arms. Rill tells him about the boat but doesn’t tell him she thinks Briny left them on purpose—this isn’t how she wants Kingdom Arcadia to end.
If the man Rill saw was Briny, then his decision to walk away indicates his intention to let go of the past entirely and make a new identity for himself, one that doesn’t include his children at all. Rill sees this as a tragic ending and she decides to rewrite that ending by keeping what saw a secret from everyone.
Silas tells Rill that Zede will bring the boat down and they can all live on it happily together. Rill tries to believe this, but she can’t—Zede is too old and too poor to take care of them all. Fern pulls on Rill’s leg and says she wants her mommy, and Rill knows she’s not talking about Queenie. Rill tells Silas they have to get away before the men take Rill and Fern back to the orphanage. Back on Zede’s boat, Rill tells Silas and Zede that she and Fern must return to the Seviers, where Fern will have nice clothes and toys. Neither Zede nor Silas likes it, but Silas agrees to bring them up the river. Arney also comes along to return her family’s boat. As they row away, Rill looks back and realizes she can’t be Rill Foss anymore; she must be May Weathers.
Rill knows that she has a responsibility to act in Fern’s best interest even if it’s not what she wants for herself. Fern is still so young that she may yet forget her identity as Fern Foss and all the trauma she endured as a young child; she has a chance to live a happier life, but Rill is the one who has to decide whether she will or not. However, Rill realizes that returning to the Seviers means cutting ties with her old identity forever. On the other hand, by doing this she will give herself a second chance, too.