Portal, an online novel: Chapter 6

Yikes!  Larry and Kevin are stuck in a parallel universe and have been abandoned in Boston by the family who saved them from the Portuguese soldiers.  (Portuguese?!) They have little food, no place to stay–and they’re wearing funny-looking clothes.  This can’t be good.

The first five chapters are up there on the right side of the menu.

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Chapter 6

We walked away from the house, eating the food in silence.  I was so hungry, I forgot for a while how scared I was.  But it didn’t take long for the fear to come back.  Where would we get our next meal?  Where would we sleep?  Would we ever get back to the portal?  Would I ever see my family again?

We didn’t know where we were going.  The streets were dark, and I kept tripping on the cobblestones.  A dog barked at us out of an alley.  There was a lump in my throat, and it kept getting bigger. From one house we passed I heard someone playing a piano, and at least that sounded familiar.  But then I remembered my piano lesson, and I felt even worse.

Pretty soon Kevin and I started arguing.  “This is so stupid, Kevin,” I said. “Why did I let you talk me into it?”

“It’s not like I twisted your arm or anything,” he shot back.  “I said you could stay behind, if you wanted to be prudent.”

“I don’t know why I even told you about it.  I should’ve figured you get me into trouble, with all your theories.  And why did you tell that soldier our family had been murdered by the Portuguese?  He almost arrested us.”

“Maybe we’d be better off if we were arrested,” he pointed out.  “Jail would be better than this.”

We kept walking.

“You know what worries me?” Kevin asked softly after a while.

I shook my head.

“Even if we found the portal, what if we can’t get back?  What if it takes us to some totally different universe?”

“It took me home yesterday,” I reminded him.

“Maybe you were just lucky.  Maybe you go somewhere different every time you step into it.”

“We’ll get back,” I insisted.

He didn’t argue.  I think he wanted to believe me.  I wanted to believe myself.

It was getting cold.  Neither of us had a jacket.  At least neither of was wearing shorts.  I was grateful when we finally made it back to the main street.  With all the people around, it just seemed to feel warmer.

Now that we were out of the wagon, people were staring at us, but we were too tired and scared to care.  We looked in the store windows as we walked.  There was a dressmaker’s shop, and a place that sold something called sundries, and a chandler, which had candles and oil lamps for sale.  “No electricity, I guess,” Kevin muttered.  “Those streetlights are gas or something.  This place is, like, two hundred years behind us.”  We stopped in front of a tavern called the Twin Ponies and listened to the laughter and smelled the cigar smoke and the stale beer.  Someone was playing an instrument that sounded like an accordion.

“Look at this,” Kevin said.  He picked up a sheet of newspaper from the sidewalk in front of the tavern. It was called the Boston Intelligencer.  It had smaller type and wider pages than in regular newspapers, and no photographs–only a couple of drawings.  We read the headlines:

PORTUGUESE, CANADIANS ADVANCE ON BOSTON

Thousands of Refugees Arrive ahead of Siege

Pres. Gardner Calls for Calm as Naval Blockade Tightens

Talks with British Continue

“It has today’s date,” Kevin pointed out.

“Look at the British spellings,” I said.  President Gardner was at pains to dispel the rumour that he was negotiating terms of surrender with the Canadians and Portuguese.

We couldn’t make sense of a lot of what we read, but two things were clear: This place was in a whole lot of trouble, and there was plenty of disagreement about what to do about it.  The paper quoted one guy as saying they should cut off all the refugees from entering the city, because there wasn’t going to be enough food for everyone to survive the siege.  Someone else said there was no way the city could survive the siege anyway, and the president (who apparently was in Boston) should “surrender forthwith.”  And the president insisted everything was going to be fine and not to worry.

“What a mess,” Kevin said.

“No kidding.”

A tall man wearing some a round black hat and a green cape came staggering out of the tavern.  He stared at us for a second and shook his head.  “Strange days,” he muttered, and he headed off down the street.

“So, what do you think we should do?” I asked finally.  One of us had to ask the question.

“I don’t know,” Kevin said.  “Maybe we should, you know, turn ourselves in.”

“For what?  We haven’t done anything.”

“Well, we could, like, tell the truth.”

“You think they’d believe us?”

Kevin shrugged.  “I guess not.”

“But even if they did believe us, why would they care?  They’ve got way more important things to think about.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask.  What have we got to lose?”

We were lost on a strange world with no one to help us.  There really was nothing to lose.

“I think that’s a cop over there,” Kevin said.  “Go ask him.”

The blue-jacketed policeman was across the street, standing in front of a building with his arms folded.

“Why me?” I said.  “It’s your idea.”

“Because you’re taller,” Kevin answered. “He’ll pay more attention to you.”

Seemed like a stupid reason to me, but I was tired of arguing.  We crossed the street, picking our way through the disgusting horse manure.  We walked up to the cop, who stared at us suspiciously.

“Excuse me, officer,” I began.  My voice sounded thin and trembly in my ears.  “We’re not from around here, and–”

He scowled at me.  “I can see that, mate.”

“No, really.  We’re not just, you know, from another town or something.  We come from a different world altogether.  We’d like to, uh, speak to someone in authority.”

“Of course you would,” the policeman said, nodding.  “And, you’d like a meal.  And a nice bed to sleep on, as well.  Is that it?”

I glanced at Kevin, but he didn’t have anything to say.

“We’re in the middle of a war, in case you didn’t notice,” the cop went on.  “We don’t feed strays.  If we don’t get help soon, we won’t be able to feed ourselves.  Now run along.”

“But where?” I asked.  “We don’t have anyplace to stay.”

He gestured off to his left.  “The Fens camp is where you strays belong.  Don’t let us catch you stealing on the way, or you’ll wish the Portuguese had caught you first.  And don’t be wandering the streets after curfew, either.  You farmfolk–or whatever you are–aren’t going to overrun this city.  Understand?”

I nodded.  “How far away is the camp?” I managed to ask.

He laughed.  “Not far.  Just follow your nose.  And you might watch your step going through Cheapside–they don’t take kindly to strays.”  Then he turned and walked away.

“Nice job,” Kevin said to me.  “You didn’t explain anything.”

“You try, if you think you can do it better.”

We were silent then.  We headed off in the direction the cop had pointed.

“I wonder if the Fens has anything to do with Fenway Park,” Kevin said after a while.

“Who gives,” I muttered.

“They probably don’t even have baseball in this world,” he went on.

I just looked at him.  We kept walking.  I was getting really tired.  And I was hungry again.  Would there be food in the camp?  Everyone seemed worried about food.

After a while we entered what I figured was Cheapside–a nasty-looking section of town where the rickety houses were stuck close together, the street had turned into a rutted dirt path, and piles of garbage were heaped up everywhere.  Follow your nose, the cop had said.  There were lots of taverns, and people lounging in the doorways shouted insults at us as we passed.  We just kept going.

Cheapside seemed to peter out after a while, and we came to a bunch of buildings with soldiers guarding them.  Beyond the buildings was what I guessed was the Fens camp.

It was much bigger than the one we’d seen from the wagon on the way into the city.  It seemed to go on forever; we could see wagons and tents, smoky campfires and snorting horses.  There was a rough fence around it, and at the end of the path was a gate with lamps hung on either side.  A few wagons were lined up in front of the gate, waiting to enter.

“What do you think?” I asked Kevin.  “Should we go inside?”

“Do we have a choice?” he replied.

Not that I could see.  We got in line behind the wagons.  It took a few minutes for them to enter.  When we reached the gate the soldier guarding it laughed.  He was short and stout and missing a couple of teeth.  “Farmfolk get stranger-looking every day,” he said, shaking his head.  “Twenty minutes to curfew, lads.”

“Can we just, like, go in?” I asked.

“You can go in, but you can’t come back out–at least not till morning, and then you’ll need a pass.  But you’ll find plenty to do inside, I daresay.”

“Is there any food?”

“Not till morning, unless you want to steal some inside the camp–which I wouldn’t recommend, since it’ll likely get you killed.  Now run along with you.”

We walked through the gate into the camp.  There were muddy paths of a sort, along which people had parked their wagons and set up makeshift shelters.  People sat in their wagons or on chairs outside their tents, the men smoking long pipes and the women chatting with each other by the light of the campfires.  One man we passed was playing a guitar while his family sang what sounded like a hymn.  There were a lot of babies crying.  Older kids ran around, playing tag.  It didn’t seem all that bad, actually, if you could get used to the smell and the mud.

We kept walking, without any idea of where to go or what to do. Kevin pointed to the guards patrolling outside the fence, rifles on their shoulders.  “They’re serious,” he said.  “Nobody’s getting out of here.”

Great.  We were stuck inside a refugee camp.  My stomach started growling and my legs started hurting.  “I don’t think I can walk much further,” I said.  “I’m so tired I could sleep in the mud.”

“We need to get blankets or something,” Kevin said.

“How are we going to do that–steal them?  We’d get killed.”

He didn’t answer.

“Hey there!”  A thin man with long stringy hair and a beard was standing in front of us.  “Did I hear you say you needed a blanket?”  He smiled at us.  His face was pock-marked, and he was missing a lot of teeth.  His left eye wandered when he spoke.

Stranger danger, I thought.  My mother was always talking about stranger danger.  But what do you do when everyone’s a stranger?

Neither of us answered, so the man kept on talking.  “You boys here on your own?”  We still didn’t answer, so the guy just kept talking.  “These are parlous times to be on your own.  But I have a beautiful blanket I can let you have for a mere five shillings.  Made from the finest Vermont wool.  Just step over to my wagon here.”

I looked at his wagon.  A sad-looking donkey stood next to it, staring at us.  How much was a shilling, I wondered.  Didn’t matter.  “We don’t have any money,” I said.

The man’s smile faded a little.  “Parlous times, indeed,” he said.  “What about barter, then?  Have you anything to trade?”  He looked us over, then pointed at Kevin.  “Odd-looking hat,” he said.  Then, “This object on your wrist–what might that be?”

“It’s a watch,” Kevin said.

“A watch?  Strange place to have a watch.  Why not keep it in your pocket?  Let me take a look.”  He grabbed Kevin’s arm.  “Odd-looking watch, as well.  No case, no hands on the dial.  But I tell you what–I have a charitable heart, seeing you here by yourselves.  I’ll give you a blanket for it, and I’ll throw in a pound of salted pork.”

Seemed like a good deal to me, although salted pork sounded awful.  But all of a sudden Kevin got a funny look on his face and pulled his arm back.  “No thanks,” he said.

The man’s smile faded a bit more.  “You lads won’t get a better deal in this wretched camp,” he pointed out.  “Nights are growing colder, and who knows how long we’ll be imprisoned here?  The price of necessities will only go up.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said.  He turned to me.  “Let’s go, Larry.”

I was really annoyed at him.  What did he want the stupid watch for?  Who cared what time it was, when we were going to have to sleep in the mud?

Kevin started walking quickly back the way we’d come.  “Are you nuts?” I said to him.

He shook his head.  “It’s not just a watch,” he said.  “It’s a calculator.  It’s a timer.  It’s really cool.”

“So what?”

“So–maybe it’s worth more than a blanket in this world.  Maybe we’re worth something in this world.”

“Kevin, they know how to add.  They know how to tell time.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but they’ve never seen a calculator before.”

“Big deal.  Anyway, where are we going?”

Kevin pointed.  “Back to the gate.”

The gate was closing.  We ran up to it and slithered through.

The soldier we had talked to before didn’t look happy to see us again.  “Curfew, lads,” he said.  “Back inside with you.”

“Sir, I have a strange and wonderful invention that I’d like to share with the military leadership,” Kevin said.

The soldier looked at him like he was crazy.  Farmfolk.  “Let’s go,” he demanded. “There’s a war on, and no time for foolishness.”

“How much is 375 times 13?” Kevin asked.

The soldier was starting to get angry.

“Come here and see what I do,” Kevin went on before he could yell at us.  “This’ll be interesting, I guarantee.”  The soldier hesitated, then leaned forward.  Kevin put his watch in calculator mode, held it up so the soldier could see, then did the multiplication.  “3875,” he said.  “See how easy that was?”

The soldier thought about it for a moment, then said, “Can I try?”

Kevin held his arm out and showed him what to do.  “I never was very good at ciphering,” the soldier muttered as he hit the numbers.  He grinned with delight when the answer was displayed.  “Hey Caleb,” he called out to a tall soldier with a scruffy beard who was guarding the gate.  “Come look at this!”

Caleb took a look and had the same reaction–surprise and excitement.  The next soldier who came by, though, was terrified by the watch.  “This is some devilry,” he muttered, glaring at Kevin like he was the devil.

“Now, Oliver,” Caleb said to him, “it’s just a toy.”

Oliver shook his head.  “The Devil makes toys, too,” he muttered, and he walked away.

“The thing is,” Kevin said to Caleb, “I’d like to show this to your commanding officer.  I think it might be helpful in the war.  We know other stuff that might help, too.”

Caleb considered, then said, “Go find Sergeant Hornbeam, Fred.  He’ll be interested.”

Fred–that was the first soldier’s name–went off, and returned in a few minutes, accompanied by a large soldier with bright red hair.  He gave us the strange look we were used to by now, and then said: “Let me see the thing.”

Kevin held out his arm.

Sergeant Hornbeam shook his head.  “Take it off,” he said.

Reluctantly Kevin took the watch off and handed it to the sergeant, who took it and studied it.  Finally he let Fred show him how to use it.  Then he looked at us again.  “Are you Chinese?” he demanded.

“No, we’re–we’re farmfolk,” Kevin said.

“The inscription on this object says it was made in China.”  He made it sound like an accusation.

“Well, uh, this is complicated,” Kevin said.  “It was made in China, but we didn’t get it there.”

“Do we look Chinese?” I asked.

Sergeant Hornbeam glared at me.  “How would I know what the Chinese look like?”  Then he put the watch into his pocket.  “An interesting toy,” he said.

“Hey,” Kevin cried.  “That’s mine.”

“I thought you wanted to contribute it to the army,” the sergeant said.

“But we have to talk to somebody in charge.  They’ll need to know more about it.”

He shrugged.  “I don’t see why.  If Fred can use it, anyone can use it.”  Caleb laughed; even Fred smiled.  Then the sergeant seemed to think about the situation some more.  “Where are your families?” he asked.

“We’re here on our own,” Kevin said.  “We just arrived.”

The sergeant thought a bit longer, then gestured to Fred and Caleb.  “Put them in the brig for the night,” he said.  “We’ll see what the morrow brings.”  Then he turned to us.  “Fare you well, lads,” he said.  And he walked away.

I looked at Kevin.  The brig?

“Come on, lads,” Fred said.  “The brig isn’t much, but it’s better than the camp, I daresay.”

He and Caleb led us to a long low wooden building near the camp.  “Where’d you get that thing?” Fred asked.  “Off a trading ship?”

“Something like that,” Kevin said.

“I hear they’ve got all sorts of amazing inventions over in China,” he went on.

“Maybe if we had the Chinese for an ally we could win this damfool war,” Caleb added.

“Maybe if we had any ally at all we’d have a chance.”

“What do you think Sergeant Hornbeam will do with my watch?” Kevin asked.  “We really need to get it to a general or somebody like that.”

“Oh, Sarge’ll do the right thing,” Fred said.  “Don’t know if the generals will pay attention, though.  They’re too busy arguing with the president.”

The first part of the building was the soldiers’ barracks.  Beds were lined up against one of the walls.  A few soldiers were playing cards at a table, others were sitting on their beds cleaning their equipment.  The air was so thick with tobacco smoke that I wanted to gag.  Fred and Caleb led us through the barracks to a room at the back.  A fat, sleepy soldier sat slumped in a chair by the door.  He peered at us as we approached.  “What’d they do?” he asked.  “Sneak out of the camp and pinch some eggs in Cheapside?”

“If they did that, the folks in Cheapside would be happy to take care of them,” Caleb said.  “No, Sergeant Hornbeam wants to hold onto them.  See that they have every comfort, Benjamin.  They’re our guests.”

“No comforts to be had, I’m afraid.  Odd-looking little fellows, ain’t they?  I like that one’s hat, though.”  Benjamin struggled to his feet and took a key out of his pocket, which he used to unlock the door to an inner room.  “Chamber pot’s in the far corner,” he said to us.  “Try not to rouse Chester.  He’s only peaceable when he’s sleeping.”

Caleb and Fred said farewell, Benjamin locked the door behind us, and there we were in jail on our first night in the new world.

It was dark–the only light was from the small opening in the door.  We heard a loud noise that we finally recognized was snoring. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a big red-jacketed man lying with his head against the wall.  Like everything in this world, it seemed, he stank.

“This is just great,” I said to Kevin as we sat on the floor against the opposite wall, as far away from Chester as we could get.

“Come on, Larry, it could be worse,” he replied.  “This is what we were trying to do, right?  Turn ourselves in.  Get them to pay attention to us.”

“But what happens next?  What’s your watch going to do for us?”

“Anyone with any brains will know there’s nothing like that watch in this world,” he explained.  “So they’ll want to talk to us, find out where we got it.”

“And then what?  You think they’ll believe our story?  You sure they won’t think we’re the Devil, like that other soldier?”

“I dunno.  But in the meantime they’ll probably feed us.  I’ve already gotten us out of the mud for tonight.  It’s worth a shot, Larry.”

I supposed he was right.  And it wasn’t like I had any better ideas.  Suddenly I could barely keep my eyes open.  We seemed to be moderately safe for the night, except for Chester, who continued to snore loudly across the room.  And there wasn’t anything else we could accomplish right now except hope that Sergeant Hornbeam would do more than pocket Kevin’s watch as a silly little toy.  The floor wasn’t going to be comfortable, but it was better than sleeping outdoors in the mud.

I thought of the couple of weeks I had spent at sleepaway camp during the summer, how homesick I’d gotten, how brave I thought I was being when I stuck it out–with a counselor sleeping in the same cabin, with my parents just a two-hour drive away and sending me letters every day.  “We’ll get out of this, right, Kevin?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Of course we will.  It’s just a matter of time.”

“Right.”  He didn’t sound too sure of himself, but that was okay.  I slid down to lie on the floor.  “Good night, Kevin.”

“Good night, Larry.”

When I closed my eyes I thought of Matthew–was it really just last night?–telling me how life was really okay.  Yeah, yeah, I’d thought.  Would you please shut up so I can get some sleep?  Now what wouldn’t I give to be back in my own bed, listening to Matthew babble?

I was too tired to cry.  I miss you, I whispered into the darkness.  But there was no one there to hear me.

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