Portal, an online novel: Chapter 5

Here’s the latest chapter of the online novel I’m perpetrating.  You’ll notice that I’ve got Portal up there in the menu now.  Click on it to see the chapters I’ve already published. Yet another service we provide for our customers!

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Chapter 5

The wagon was piled high with clothes and furniture, which swayed as the wagon rattled along the bumpy road.  Two small children–a boy and a girl–huddled in one corner, staring at us.  The woman had twisted around to look at us, too.  She was wearing a long coat and a bonnet.  “How come you to be in those woods, lads?” she asked.  Her accent was a little strange–not quite American, not quite English.

“It’s, um, a long story,” I said.  What was I supposed to say?

“You talk funny,” the little girl piped up.

“Hush, Rachel,” the mother said.  “Are you from Glanbury?” she asked us.

“Yes, we are.”

“Listen,” Kevin interrupted, “can you stop the wagon?  We have to go back.”

The man pulled on the reins to slow the horse and turned back to look at us, too.  “Why?” he asked.

“Their clothes are funny,” the girl said.

“Could you please just stop the wagon?” Kevin pleaded.

“There’s nothing to go back to,” the woman explained.  “The Portuguese army is destroying nigh everything.  If you’re separated from your parents, best stay with us till we get you to Boston.  You can find them there.”

“Along with everyone else in New England,” the man muttered.

“Are you in the navy?” the little girl asked Kevin.  She was pointing at his Old Navy t-shirt.

“What should we do?” Kevin asked me.

“I don’t know.  This was all your idea.”

Kevin glared at me.  We heard gunfire in the distance.

My parents would know what to do.  But we had left them far, far behind.  “We won’t be able to get to it,” I murmured to Kevin.  And then I asked the woman, “Will we be safe in Boston?”

“As safe as anywhere,” she replied, “with the Portuguese on one side of us and the Canadians on the other.”

“Maybe we should go to Boston,” I said to Kevin.  “We can come back when–when–”

When?

“What if it’s gone?” he said.  “What if we can’t find it?”

What if we find it, I thought, and it doesn’t take us home?

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I don’t know.”

Kevin slumped down in the wagon.  I slumped down next to him.  The man flicked the reins and the horse sped up.  “I bet I know what the ‘B’ on your hat stands for,” the little girl said to Kevin.

I thought the woman might press us about why we were in those woods, but she didn’t.  She and her husband started arguing about why he had waited till the last minute to leave their farm and how all their neighbors were safe in Boston by now, and here they were, barely outracing the Portuguese and endangering their children.  He said he couldn’t care less about their neighbors, he wasn’t going to give in so easily, he just hoped the cowardly government didn’t surrender without putting up a fight.

Kevin’s face was scrunched up, an expression he gets when he’s thinking hard.  Or maybe he was just trying to keep from crying.  We had screwed up so bad.  This was a totally different universe.  There was a Glanbury and a Boston, but what were the Portuguese doing here?  And where were the cars?  Where were the buildings?  And now that we’d landed here, would we ever be able to get back?

The wagon continued along the road to Boston, and the gunfire faded behind us.  My family drives to Boston a lot, but I didn’t know how far it was from Glanbury.  I don’t think it took very long, except when there was a lot of traffic.  How long was it going to take by horse?  The road wasn’t that great, and we kept getting knocked around in the back of the wagon.  My back hurt, and I started to get seasick.

“What time is it?” I whispered to Kevin after a while.

He looked at his watch.  “Four o’clock,” he said.

Late for my piano lesson.  I thought about Mom, probably standing on our deck and looking out into the woods for me, worried and angry at the same time, and I got a lump in my throat.  Pretty soon everyone would start looking for us, and we’d be gone–just gone, without a trace.  Mom always read those stories about missing children in the paper.  She’d figure this had something to do with that guy lurking by schoolbuses in Rhode Island.  But she’d never know where I went, if I was okay . . .

When they started searching they’d be bound to find the portal, I thought, and then they’d figure it out and come after us.

But that wouldn’t work, I realized.  If there were a kazillion universes, who knew which one they’d end up in?

I should never have come, I thought.  How could I have been so stupid?  It was all Kevin’s fault . . .

“Larry, do you have any of those Oreos?” Kevin asked.

I shook my head, suddenly getting hungry myself.  Probably no Oreos in this world, I thought.  No Coke, no pizza, no Burger King–or Burger Queen.

The fog faded away as we rode.  Occasionally a man on horseback passed us on the way to Boston.  No one was heading in the opposite direction, south towards Glanbury.  The riders would slow down and exchange news with us, then speed up until they disappeared up ahead.  There were some houses along the road, and a few inns and shops that looked like they came out of an old movie.  All of them appeared deserted.

We stopped once to give the horse some food and water, and we all went to the bathroom in the woods; it was gross, but the family didn’t seem to mind.

“What’s that?” the little boy asked, pointing at Kevin’s watch.

He shrugged.  “A watch,” he said.

“My papa has a watch, but he keeps it in his pocket.”

Kevin shrugged again.

“Don’t be frightened,” the boy went on.  “We’re going to stay with Uncle John, and he’ll take care of us.  He has a big house in the city, and that’s where all the army is, so the Portuguese won’t be able to get us.”

“That’s great.”

The father took Kevin and me aside and spoke to us before we got back into the wagon.  “I know every soul in Glanbury, and I don’t know you boys,” he said.  “I’ve certainly never seen anyone wearing clothes like that, or heard an accent like that.  Where are you really from?  China?”

Kevin shook his head.  “No, we’re from America.”

“Where is America?” the man asked suspiciously.  “I’ve never heard of it.”

Kevin looked at me, and we felt a little more desperate.  Just how different was this world?  “What–what’s the name of this country?” he asked the man.

The man shook his head in astonishment.  “Never heard of the like.  We’re in New England, lad.  The United States of New England.  Where’s America?”

Far, far away, apparently.  “Samuel, please come!” his wife called out to him from the wagon.  “If we don’t hurry we’ll not make it to Boston by dark.”

Samuel looked back at us.  “I think you lads have some explaining to do, but now’s not the time, I judge.  Let’s go, if you still want a ride to Boston.”

He headed off to the wagon.  “This may be our last chance,” Kevin said to me.  “What do you think?”

I shook my head.  “It’s too late, Kevin.  We have to go to Boston.”

Kevin didn’t argue, and we silently trudged back to the wagon.

When we got in, the mother was feeding the kids apples and bread.  She offered us some, and we took the food gratefully.  Kevin ate his share like he didn’t think he’d get another meal.

We started up again.  The sun was lower in the sky now, and it was getting colder out.  After a while there were more shops and houses, and a few signs of life.  Dogs barked at us.  On one side street I saw a bunch of hogs eating garbage in the middle of the road.  Another road merged with ours, and suddenly there was traffic–more wagons carrying furniture and frightened families.  Some of the wagons had a cow, a goat, or even an ox tied up behind them.  Everyone was headed towards Boston.

Finally we crossed a bridge over a river, and a little ways beyond was a long high wooden fence that stretched out as far as I could see in both directions.  There were slits for guns high up in the fence, I noticed.  A pair of gates were open, but a group of soldiers stood by them, examining everyone before they let them pass through.

They looked like soldiers, but their uniform was different from any I had ever seen.  They wore short red jackets, black pants, and metal helmets with little brims, almost like batting helmets.  Each of them had a rifle slung over his arm and a pistol in his belt.  When we finally reached the gates one of the soldiers came up to us.  He half-saluted Samuel and said, “Name, sir?”

He had an accent that was almost English.

“Harper.  Samuel Harper.  That’s my wife Martha.”

“And where are you coming from?”

“Up from Glanbury,” Samuel replied.

“Waited till the last minute, did you?”

“They were right behind us.  There was some skirmishing, and I thought it best to leave.  If they weren’t so interested in looting, they’d be right behind us still.”

“Why did you wait so long?”

“I didn’t want to yield my farm to any Portuguese, I tell you that.  I fired my house and barn before I left.  I don’t know how it got to this.”

The soldier nodded and looked into the wagon.  “This your family, sir?”

“Except for those two strays back there,” Samuel said, meaning us.  “I don’t know who or what they are.”

The soldier came around and took a close look at Kevin and me.  “Strange outfits,” he said.  “And your family is where, mates?”

“Murdered,” Kevin blurted out.  “By the Portuguese.  But we managed to escape.”

Why did he say that?

“But I thought you were in the navy,” the little girl objected.

“I know nothing of any murdering,” Mr. Harper said.

The soldier’s eyes darkened.  “Well?” he demanded.

But just then another soldier called to him.  “Move it along, Corporal!  We’ll be all night getting these people inside.”

He shrugged and stepped back.  “Any disease here?” he asked loudly.  “Smallpox?  Diphtheria?  Drikana?”

“No,” Mr. Harper said.  “We’re all healthy, thank God.”

“Pray God you stay healthy,” the soldier replied.  “The city is getting more crowded by the hour.  There is little food, and the water is bad.  You are welcome to enter, but you’ll have a hard time of it.  If there is a siege, conditions will get far worse.  You’ll have to stay in a camp.”

“I have a brother in the city who will take us in,” Mr. Harper said.

“Then count yourself lucky, sir.  The camps’ll not be pleasant places.  You may pass.”

Mr. Harper grunted and flicked the reins, and the horse started through the gates.  “A siege,” he muttered.  “They want to delay as long as they can while they parley with the Europeans, as if any European has ever helped New England before.  And meanwhile, all I’ve worked for has been destroyed.”

“You needn’t have set fire to the–” his wife started to say, but he quickly interrupted her.

“Better me than the Portuguese, woman.  If we all did what I did, there’d be no food to sustain them, and they’d have to slink like dogs back where they came from.”

I looked at the fence.  Soldiers were piling up sandbags against it.  Getting ready for a siege, I thought.  There were sieges in plenty of video games I’d played.  Sieges could last forever.

“Was your family really murdered?” the little boy asked Kevin.

Kevin shook his head.  “No, but I don’t think I’ll ever see them again.”

“Oh.  That’s sad.”

Kevin nodded and looked away.

We were passing through a big military camp.  The soldiers stared at us grimly as we went by.  In the distance to our right I could see the ocean.  I smelled fish and horse manure, and worse stuff.  It was really getting dark now, and there weren’t any street lights.  I was hungry and stiff and still a little queasy from the bumpy ride.  This was awful.

“Are you sure John will take us in?” Martha asked her husband.

“He’d better, hadn’t he?” he replied.

“What about these boys?”

“What about them?  I won’t ask my brother to house and feed anyone who isn’t kin, not with what’s about to happen.  Anyway, they haven’t told the truth about anything since we met them.  They can fend for themselves.”

“But they’re so young, Samuel.”

“They’re old enough to join the army, I daresay.  The redbacks will need everyone they can get.  They should be grateful to us.  If we hadn’t taken them with us, they’d be lying dead in the road by now.  Or worse.”

Martha gave us a look full of sympathy, but she didn’t argue with her husband.  The little boy said, “I’d like to join the army,” but she hushed him.

My stomach started to growl.

We were past the military camp now.  The road crossed some marshland, and on the other side there were a lot of shacks and tents jammed together, and some of the people in wagons got off the road to join the crowd.  Was this one of the refugee camps?  “Fools,” Mr. Harper muttered.  “Camping in the swamp.  Half of them will have the flux by morning.”  We kept going, and after a while some of the buildings were built of brick, the road became paved with cobblestones, and there were even sidewalks.

“At last,” Mr. Harper said.  “Now, if I can only find the street.”

The sidewalks grew crowded as we traveled further into the city.  Kids younger than Kevin and me, dirty-faced and dressed in raggedy old clothes, were selling newspapers or flowers.  Soldiers walked alongside women wearing too much makeup.  There were lots of old people–and some not so old–holding out their hands or tin cups, begging for food or money.  Policemen, dressed like the soldiers except in blue, directed traffic at every intersection.  Some people on the streets rode something that looked like a bicycle with very wide wooden wheels.  There were no traffic lights, and only a few dim, flickering lamps instead of street lights.

Mr. Harper made a few turns, asked directions a couple of times, and finally pulled up in front of a small house on a dark side street.  A bearded man walked out of the house, holding a lantern.  “Samuel,” he said, “about time you came to town.”

“Held out as long as I could, John,” Samuel replied.  “I’ve lost everything but what we’ve got in this wagon.”

“I’m very sorry for that,” John said, coming over to the wagon. “but of course you’re welcome to stay here.  Martha,” he said, nodding to the woman.  “And how are little Rachel and Samuel?”  He reached into the wagon and patted them on the heads.  Then he turned to Kevin and me with a puzzled expression.  “And you are–?”

Samuel had joined his brother and was unlatching the back of the wagon.  “Passers-by,” he said.  “Everyone had to get out or be shot.  We gave them a ride, out of the goodness of our hearts.”

We climbed down, followed by Martha and the children.  Samuel and his brother walked back to the front of the wagon, unhitched the horse, and led it behind the house.  Martha looked at us.  “Will you be all right?” she asked.

I didn’t know what to say.  “I guess so,” I said.

She reached back into the wagon and filled a small bag with apples, bread, and cheese.  “Good luck,” she said, handing me the bag.  “I’m sorry we can’t do more.  It’s a hard time for everyone.”  She turned to her kids.  “Come on, children.  Let’s go inside.”

Kevin and I watched them go into the small house.  And then we were all alone on the dark street, in the strange world, and neither of us had a clue what to do next.

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