Portal — an online novel: Chapter 2

Here is the second chapter of Portal.  You can find Chapter 1 here.


Chapter 2

I knew right away this was a big mistake.  I guess I had thought it would be sort of like stepping into the other side of one of those mirrors where you can see the person looking into the mirror, but he can’t see you.  That would have been cool.  But why in the world did I think that?  I dunno–seeing Stinky had made me stupid, I suppose.  Things just aren’t supposed to become invisible.  I had stumbled onto something very weird.  And instead of running home and getting a grownup the way I should have, I had gone ahead and stepped into it.

Well, it wasn’t like one of those mirrors.  Inside it was all cloudy.  I thought I could make out dark shapes to my left and right, but I couldn’t tell what they were.  Trees?  I didn’t think so.  I had brains enough to be scared, but here’s where I made another, maybe bigger mistake: I didn’t turn around right away and get out.  Instead I reached out and groped through the clouds.  I took a step forward.  Then another.  The cloudiness seemed to fade, and I was outside again.  I heard noises.  I looked around.

I was someplace . . . different.

Not entirely different.  I was still in the woods, sort of–I recognized the little clearing, and the oak tree right in front of me.  But Stinky was gone.  And ahead of me, through the trees, were the backs of buildings.  Beyond them was a street.  The noises I heard were cars passing by.

What was going on?

I turned and held out my hand.  It disappeared.  So the thing was still there.  But where was I?  What had happened?

I decided to take a look around.

I guess that was one more mistake.  Was I being brave?  Or stupid?  I don’t know.  Maybe I was just really confused.

I headed for the buildings.

Like I said, I was in back of them, and the first things I saw were dumpsters and parked cars.  One building I recognized right away–a Jiffy Lube.  But I didn’t think there were any Jiffy Lubes in Glanbury.  My dad always drives over to Rockford to get his oil changed.  And this didn’t look like the place in Rockford.  It didn’t look much like any regular Jiffy Lube I’d seen, actually, despite what the sign said.  But I couldn’t put my finger on what was different.

I walked around front, still trying to puzzle it out.  The layout of the building was different from the one in Rockford, I decided.  And the sign–it said something about their 16-point Signature Service.  Weren’t there more points than that in Jiffy Lube’s Signature Service?  Maybe different Jiffy Lubes had different numbers of points . . .  I had no idea.

I looked around and saw another sign that said “Glanbury Plaza,” and that was a little reassuring–except that the real Glanbury Plaza has a Stop ‘n’ Shop and a CVS in it, and this place didn’t have either; it was just a little strip mall on a street I didn’t recognize.

Next door to the Jiffy Lube was a Burger King.  And that didn’t look right either.  It took me a minute–it really did–to figure out what was wrong.

The sign didn’t say “Burger King.”  It said “Burger Queen.”

Burger Queen?

By now I was extremely freaked out.

I looked around for other things that were out of whack.  Sure enough, across the street people were lined up to get ice cream cones at a Dairy King.  And the cars–they were mostly long and wide, with big fins, like the kind you see in old movies.  In the Burger Queen parking lot I saw a really big one that was called a “Jupiter.”  I’d never heard of a Jupiter.  And where were all the SUVs and Jeeps and minivans?

Finally I noticed the kids hanging around outside the Burger Queen.  They were all staring at me.  One of them called out, “Hey, rad gear, hombre!”  At least, that’s what I think he said.

I couldn’t think what to reply, so I just stared back at him.

“I said, ‘Nice clothes,'” the kid repeated, laughing.  The other kids started laughing, too.

Well, my clothes were nice.  My mom had bought me some Abercrombie cargo shorts and Old Navy t-shirts, and I was wearing brand-new back-to-school Adidas.  But the kids in front of the Burger Queen–the boys were wearing tight black pants, shiny leather shoes, and actual white shirts–the kind you button up.  The girls were wearing big skirts and baggy sweaters.  The boys’ hair was long and shaggy; the girls’ hair was short and spiky.  They all looked totally strange, like they were going to a costume party, although I had no idea what they were supposed to be dressed up as–some rock group?

And they were making fun of me!

I kept walking.  I was scared, but I was also sort of fascinated.  Why had Burger King changed its name?  Why were people dressed funny?  Those kids weren’t the only ones–the men who walked by me wore suits and odd-shaped hats; the women wore long skirts and way too much makeup.

Why were some things familiar, while other things seemed so completely different?  Traffic lights looked the same, for example, but crosswalks were painted in bright yellow zig-zags.  I passed a Dunkin’ Donuts that looked normal, but the cellphones I saw people using were enormous, the size of hardcover books.

And lots of people stared at me like I was the one wearing a costume.

Finally I wandered into a little park with winding paths and old-fashioned streetlights.  Near the entrance, a man was standing on a bench and talking to a small crowd of people.  I went over to listen.  He was a tall and thin, with long black hair and dark, glittering eyes.  He was wearing baggy brown pants and a shapeless white shirt with a necktie hanging loosely over it.  His voice was soft, but it carried, and you could hear every word he was saying even from a distance.

“This world is not only stranger than you imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine,” he said.  “And more beautiful.  And more full of love.  Do not be complacent.  Do not live your lives as if each day is a chore to be endured.  Seek out the strangeness.  Find the beauty.  Feel the love.”

Then he turned his glittering eyes on me, and all of a sudden he smiled, like he was sharing a joke with me.  When he spoke again, it was as if he was talking to me personally.

“‘Where is it?’ you ask.  The strangeness–the beauty–the love.”  He lifted up his hand.  “It is here.  It is in each speck of dirt, and in the worm that crawls through the dirt.  It is in distant exploding suns.  It is just over the horizon.”  And then, looking even harder at me with those dark eyes, he added, “It is in the home you left behind.”

I shivered a little, then tore myself away from the guy and kept walking.  He was really creepy.  Nobody like that in Glanbury.

But this was Glanbury.  I sat on a bench and thought about it.

I was apparently in Glanbury, but it wasn’t anything like the Glanbury I knew.  Had I stepped into some kind of time machine and ended up in the future?  But why would cellphones be bigger in the future?  And why would Burger King and Dairy Queen switch their names?  This just didn’t feel like the future.  Could it be the past, then?  The cars and the clothes looked a little like something out of a 50s TV show, maybe . . . but cellphones hadn’t been around that long, I was pretty sure.  Maybe I should go find a newspaper and check the date.

Or maybe I should just go home.

But would I be able to get home?  If the thing was a time machine, did it have a dial where you could set the date, like that car in Back to the Future?  It hadn’t really seemed like a time machine at all.  So how could I be sure it would take me back where or when I had come from?

Well, it just had to.  All of a sudden I really wasn’t interested in this place anymore.  I needed to get out of there, right away.  I stood up.

And I bumped into someone.  A bunch of books fell to the ground.  “Sorry, sorry,” I said, and bent over to pick them up.

They were textbooks–math and science.  I went to hand them to the person, and I froze.  It was Nora Lally.

She smiled at me and took them.  “No worry,” she said.  “Thank you.”

“It was my–I mean–sure.  Sorry.”

She tilted her head and looked at me as if trying to figure something out.  Then she just smiled again and said, “See ya.”  And she walked away down the path.

I watched her go.

Nora Lally.  Here, wearing a puffy skirt and short white socks and shiny black shoes.  Smiling at me.

I remembered to breathe.  I should go after her, I thought.  But she had already disappeared.  And if I did go after her, what would I say?  What had I just said to her?  It had been pretty stupid, right?

And then I thought: If she’s here, then it can’t be the past or the future.  So what is it?

Didn’t matter, I decided.  I had to go home.  With one last look down the path where Nora had walked, I turned and headed back toward the Burger Queen and the Jiffy Lube.  I went past where the creepy guy had been preaching, but he was gone, and the crowd had disappeared.  I wasn’t interested in him now, though.  So weird, I kept thinking to myself.  Nora Lally–wearing clothes that the real Nora Lally wouldn’t get caught dead wearing.  But she had smiled at me, and she had talked to me, even if it was just a few words.

Back at the Burger Queen, the kids were still hanging in the parking lot.  “Hey, there’s the hombre in the short pants!” one of them called out.

“Hombre, aren’t you a little old to be dressed like a baby?” another kid shouted.

“What do you need all those pockets for–your pacifiers?” a third one said.

I ignored them.  I just wanted to go home.

Then the door of the Burger Queen opened, and I saw Stinky Glover come out, carrying a big bag of food.  He was wearing a white shirt and black pants, too, but his shirt wasn’t tucked in, and it looked like it hadn’t been washed in a week.

The other kids moved away from him.

The strange thing was, with everyone yelling at me, I felt grateful to see a familiar face, even if it was Stinky Glover’s.

“Hey Stinky!” I called out.

He looked up at me, and I could tell I’d made a mistake.  “What did you call me?” he said.

“Uh, never mind,” I replied.

“No.  You called me something.  What was it?”

“He called you ‘Stinky’,” one of the other kids told him, and they all laughed.

“That’s what I thought.”  He put down the bag of food and started toward me.

Swell.  I walked away.

“Hey!  C’mere!”

I walked faster.

“We’ll get him for you, Julie!” I heard one of the kids say.  Julie?

I started to run–back behind the Jiffy Lube, with the gang of kids behind me.  Past the dumpsters.  Where was the oak tree?  Where was the thing–the time machine–whatever?  Was it still there?  I had to find it.

“Hey, hombre!  We’re gonna get you!  You can’t run forever!”

There was the tree.  I reached out my hand–and it disappeared.  Thank goodness!  I didn’t look back at the kids behind me.  I just plunged inside and hoped for the best.


2 thoughts on “Portal — an online novel: Chapter 2

  1. Pingback: Portal — an online novel: Chapter 3 | richard bowker

  2. Pingback: Portal, an online novel: Chapter 4 | richard bowker

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