Portal, an online novel: Chapter 7

Stuck in some kind of alternate universe with Boston under siege by the Portuguese and Canadians, Kevin and Larry found their way to the refugee camp in the Fenway. Then Kevin had the bright idea of showing his calculator/watch to the soldiers.  That got them out of the crowded, dangerous camp, but instead they ended up in the brig — not much better! What will the new day bring them?

Earlier chapters are up there on the menu, under “Portal.”


Chapter 7

When I woke up it was light out, and at first I had no clue where I was.  Why wasn’t I looking at the Final Fantasy poster in my bedroom?  How come I was so uncomfortable?  What was that weird dream I’d had?  Who was that huge man glaring at me from across the room?

Chester.  All the memories of yesterday came flooding back.  This wasn’t a dream.

I looked over at Kevin.  He was still asleep.

“Boys,” Chester rumbled.  “I don’t like boys.”

“Uh, hi,” I said.

Chester just shook his head and glared at me some more.

Benjamin must have heard us, because he unlocked the door and stuck his head in.  “‘Morning, gents,” he said.  “Chester, you may be excused.  Go thou and sin no more.”

“I’m hungry,” Chester said.

Benjamin shook his head.  “Not my problem, Chester.  Now be off to the mess, before we become angry.”

Amazingly, Chester got to his feet, dusted off his dirty red jacket, glared at me one final time, and then obediently walked out of the brig.

Benjamin then turned his attention to Kevin and me.  “Sleep well, lads?”

I nodded.  Kevin had awakened and was rubbing his eyes sleepily.

“Did Sergeant Hornbeam say anything about what’s going to happen to us?” I asked.

“Sergeant Hornbeam is not with us at the moment.  You’ll need to stay here until he sends instruction.”

“Any chance we could go to the mess?” I asked.  “I’m pretty hungry.”

“Let me see what I can do,” Benjamin said, and he left, locking the door behind him.

Kevin sat up.  “I dreamed that this was all a dream,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll wake up again, and you’ll be right.”

“Wouldn’t that be good.”  He sighed.  “I’ve gotta use that thing over there,” he said, pointing to the pot in the corner of the cell.  I closed my eyes while Kevin did his business.

Were there any flush toilets in this world, I wondered.  Did they have toothpaste?  Hot showers?

Eventually Benjamin came back with a tray of food: cups of tea and bowls of, well, mush.  It could have been oatmeal, but it didn’t have any milk or sugar, and it was all I could do to get a few spoonfuls down.  I’d never drunk tea before, and that didn’t taste much better.  When I had finished trying to eat, I was as hungry as when I started.  Kevin had barely touched his food either.  He was looking pretty glum.

After a while Benjamin came for the trays.  “Porridge not to your liking?” he asked.

“Can we go outside?” Kevin asked back.  “We won’t leave, I promise.”

Benjamin considered.  “All right.  It’s going to be hot–not a good day to spend in the brig.  But stay right by the barracks.”

We followed him out of the cell.  There were only a few soldiers in the barracks, plus an old man mopping the floor.  We went outside.  It did feel like it was going to be a hot day.  No air conditioning, I thought.  No fans.  I looked around.  None of the buildings had been painted, and there was lumber lying around on the ground.  They had been put up in a hurry, I realized.

We sat down on some boards by the entrance to the barracks and watched the wagons go by, heading for the camp.

“Maybe now’s the time to leave,” Kevin said.

“You mean: go back to Glanbury?”

“Yeah.  We could stay off the main road and hide from the Portuguese army.  If we started now, we could probably make it by dark.”

“You think the New England soldiers’d let us out that gate we went through?”

Kevin thought for a second.  “I don’t know.  Anyway, there’s got to be a way around,” he decided.  “They can’t fence in the whole city.”

“And you think the Portuguese army wouldn’t shoot us if they caught us?” I said.  “Or at least treat us worse than this?  You think we’re smart enough to find the portal without getting caught?  It was your idea to do this thing with the watch, Kevin.  Why don’t we just see what happens?”

He didn’t answer.  “I wish I was in school,” he said.

“I wish I had a bowl of Frosted Flakes and a big glass of orange juice.”

We fell silent, and just sat there in the hot sun.

Eventually Caleb came by.  “Morning, mates,” he said.  “Anything happen yet with your ciphering machine?”

We shook our heads.  “I hope Sergeant Hornbeam hasn’t forgotten about us,” Kevin said.

“No, no, he wouldn’t do that.  He’s a busy man, though.  We’re all busy, more’s the pity.  Looks like the camp’ll fill up today.  Have to open up another one somewhere.  Never knew there was this many people in all of New England.”

“Is there some way we could talk to him?” Kevin asked.

“Oh, he’ll be around.  Never worry, mates.  Just enjoy the day.”

Then he went off, and we were left to ourselves again.  Soldiers came and went.  Most of them knew seemed to know about us and asked about the “ciphering machine.”  A couple of them looked at us like we were going to put a curse on them.  The sun got hotter.  There was no sign of Sergeant Hornbeam.

Then a carriage pulled up in front of the barracks, and a fat officer got out.  The soldiers guarding the entrance stood at attention and saluted.  The officer was bald, with red cheeks and bushy gray eyebrows, and his uniform was soaked with sweat.  When he saw us, he stopped.  “Who the devil are you?” he demanded.

“We’re waiting for Sergeant Hornbeam, sir,” Kevin said.  “He has a watch of mine that–”

“Oh, that nonsense.  Just a gewgaw, if you ask me.  Well, you can’t just sit around idly all day.  There’s a war on, in case you haven’t noticed.”  He turned to one of the soldiers.  “Corporal–er?”

“Hennessy, sir.”

“Corporal Hennessy,” he repeated.  “Find ’em something to do.”  Then he went inside the barracks and started yelling at the soldiers there about shaping up and looking sharp, there was a war on.

Corporal Hennessy looked at us.  “Colonel Clarett worries that we’ll forget we’re at war,” he said.  “I think his concern is misplaced, don’t you?  Anyway, let’s find you a chore.”

We got up and went with him.  “Is Colonel Clarett in charge of the camp?” Kevin asked.

The corporal nodded.  “And a nasty job it is, too.  No matter what you do, someone’ll criticize you.  Treat folks too well, you’re wasting food.  Treat ’em too poorly, you’re starving good New England citizens.  Let’s just hope this doesn’t last long.”

“He said our watch was nonsense,” Kevin went on.  “Does that mean–”

“Means nothing, mate.  I heard about that watch.  Lucky for you Sergeant Hornbeam was on duty last night.  He’ll know what to do with it.”

The corporal led us into another long, unpainted building behind the barracks.  It had an awful stench coming out of it.  “What’s that smell?” Kevin asked.

The corporal gave him an odd look.  “Luncheon,” he said.  “Have you never smelled salt pork before?”

We went inside.  There was one long room, with tables and benches along the wall.  There were no screens on the open windows, and flies were buzzing everywhere.  A few soldiers were sitting at one of the tables and eating off tin plates.  They were stabbing their meat with their knives and sticking it straight into their mouths, I noticed.  Didn’t they have forks here?  My mother went nuts if she caught any of us putting a knife in our mouths.

We went through the room.  Beyond it was a kitchen, where a shirtless, sweating man was standing over steaming pots set on woodstoves.  Corporal Hennessy greeted him cheerily.  “Coolest place in Boston, eh, Jonathan?”

Jonathan responded with a string of words my mother would have shot me for saying.  This didn’t seem to bother the corporal.  “Need any help here?” he asked.  “I have a couple of lads willing to pitch in.”

Jonathan glanced at us and shook his head.  “Try the warehouse,” he said.

“Very well, then.  Your loss.”  We went out through the kitchen and saw a much larger building surrounded by guards.  Soldiers were lugging sacks out of it and loading them onto a bunch of wagons.  The corporal went up to a big, bearded soldier who was supervising the loading and said, “Need a couple of extra hands, Tom?”

Tom gave us the look we were used to by now.  “What are those outfits?” he asked.  “Costumes for harvest festival?”

“We’re, uh, not from around here,” Kevin said.

“No, and you haven’t done much laboring, from the look of you.  Well, we can remedy that.  Head on inside and grab some sacks.  The camp awaits its midday meal.”

“Keep ’em alive, Tom,” Corporal Hennessy said.  “They’re guests of Colonel Clarett.”

Tom just grunted.

“Fare you well, lads,” the corporal said to us, and headed back to the barracks.  Tom waved us inside the building.

It was filled with shelves, and on the shelves were the sacks the soldiers were loading onto the wagons.  “What’s in them?” Kevin asked one of the soldiers.

“Corn,” he replied as he slung a sack over his shoulder.  “Folks’ll be mighty tired of corn before long.”

I tried lifting a sack; I couldn’t.  Kevin was a shrimp, and he obviously wasn’t going to be able to pick one up.  “We’ll have to do it together,” I said.

“This is embarrassing,” Kevin muttered.

“Just shut up and help.”

So the two of us picked up a sack and staggered outside with it.  Tom laughed when he saw us.  “Nicely done, lads,” he said as we managed to push it onto a wagon.  “Heft twenty or thirty more, and you’ll have it mastered.”

We managed to load about half a dozen sacks before our arms turned to rubber and we had to take a break.  There was a barrel of warm water in a corner, and we splashed some over us and drank what we could, but it tasted awful.  “This is going to kill us,” Kevin said.

“Let’s just slow down.  They don’t seem to care what we do, as long as we don’t look like we’re goofing off.”

We tried that, but it was still too hard.  I always thought of myself as being in pretty good shape.  I play soccer, and I have some ten-pound dumbbells that I work out with sometimes at home.  But this was just way beyond me.

Luckily, after we’d loaded a few more sacks Tom decided there was enough food for the camp, and it was time for us all to take a break and have our own lunch.  The wagons went off to the camp, and we went into the mess hall for some salt pork, boiled corn, and tea.  I was hungry enough now that the food actually didn’t taste too bad.  I think I needed the salt after all the sweating I’d done.

While we ate we listened to the men complain.  “We’re soldiers, not laborers,” a thin, wiry man said.  “They should get the farmfolk to do this.”

“They’d just stuff their pockets full of grain,” the soldier sitting next to him pointed out.

“Shoot ’em if they steal.  That’s what’d happen to us.”

“We should make ’em all soldiers,” a third soldier said.  “You think we can defeat the Portuguese and the Canadians with the army we’ve got now?”

“I hear they’re signing up all the able-bodied men,” the thin soldier said.  “We’d be worse off if we had to take the rest of them.”

“Doesn’t matter who we get,” yet another soldier muttered.  “We’ve no hope of winning in any case.”

That caused everyone to fall silent until Tom ordered us back to work in the warehouse.  Now we had to clean up the spilled grain.  This was a whole lot easier than lugging the sacks, but the heat inside the building was almost unbearable.  “Wish I had a Pepsi,” Kevin said.

“A Sprite.”

“Dr. Pepper.”

“Diet Fresca.”

We came up with all the soft drink names we could think of.  But we weren’t going to get any.  All we had was a barrel of warm water that was probably crawling with germs.

“What happens when the food runs out?” Kevin asked the thin soldier.

He shook his head.  “That’s when we surrender, mate.  Let’s hope we don’t have too many die before that happens.”

“How long till it’s gone?”

“Don’t know.  Depends on how many people show up and how much they bring with ’em.  Couple of months, I reckon.”

That didn’t sound good.  Kevin was about to ask another question when we noticed Sergeant Hornbeam standing in the doorway.  His red hair looked like it was on fire.  “What are you boys doing?” he demanded.

“Colonel Clarett told us we had to work,” I explained.  “So Corporal Hennessy brought us over here.”

Sergeant Hornbeam rolled his eyes.  “Naturally,” he muttered.  “Have to put you two back in the brig,” he said to us.  “Come along.”

I dropped my broom without a complaint.  Hard to believe I’d be happy to go to jail, but I was.

“What happened with the watch, sir?” Kevin asked the sergeant as we headed back to the barracks.  “Did you show it to anyone?”

Sergeant Hornbeam didn’t bother to answer.  He was walking so fast, it was hard to keep up.

“Please don’t just hold onto it,” Kevin persisted.  “It’s more than a toy.”

“Still don’t understand how you boys got hold of that thing,” the sergeant said.

“Well, it’s complicated, sir,” Kevin began.  But Sergeant Hornbeam waved him silent.  We had reached the barracks, and he started shouting for Benjamin, who came waddling in, stuffing his shirt into his pants.

“Sorry, Sergeant,” he said.  “Making a visit to the outhouse.”

“Kindly lock these two up once again,” Sergeant Hornbeam ordered him.  “And this time don’t let ’em out on anyone’s word except mine.”

“What about the colonel, Sergeant?”

The sergeant muttered something under his breath, then turned and strode out of the barracks without answering.

Benjamin turned to us.  “Sorry, lads.  What was it you did, anyway?”

“Nothing, really,” I said.

He shrugged and ushered us back into the cell, locking the door behind us.  It was still empty.  I slumped back down on the floor, and Kevin slumped next to me.

“This is good,” he said.

“Good not to be hauling sacks of grain,” I agreed.

“Yeah, but good because Hornbeam thinks we’re so important he has to keep us locked up.”

“If you say so.  I just wish something would happen.”

“Yeah, I know.  I was thinking,” he went on.  “Remember how Stinky Glover and Nora Lally showed up in that other world you visited?  I wonder if people from our world are here, too.”

“This place is a whole lot different than our world,” I pointed out.

“I know, but it’s not totally different.  There’s still a Glanbury, still a Boston.  So it’s a possibility, right?  What if our families were living in Glanbury?  What if they’re in that camp over there right now?”

I closed my eyes and felt a lump rising in my throat.  “You know what, Kevin?  I don’t really want to think about that.”

“Yeah,” he said softly, “I guess you’re right.”

We must have fallen asleep then, because the next thing I knew,  a loud voice was shouting, “Wake up, dammit, don’t you know there’s a war on?”

I opened my eyes and saw Colonel Clarett standing over us.  Behind him was Benjamin, holding a lantern and yawning.

“Come on, come on,” the colonel said.  “We don’t have all night.”

I struggled to my feet, then helped Kevin up.

“That’s it, then,” the colonel said.  “Let’s go.”

We followed him out of the cell.

“It’s all nonsense,” he told us, “but there you have it.  The enemy’s at our gates, and they’re interested in gewgaws.”  He led us to a room in a corner of the barracks.  “My own office,” he muttered.  “And where do I go meanwhile?”

He opened the door, and we went inside.  A tall, black-haired man in a uniform was standing behind a desk.

“Here they are, Lieutenant,” Colonel Clarett said.  “And much luck may you have of ’em.  If you want my opinion, they’re a pair of thieves, and that’s that.  Look at the hat on the little one,” he said, gesturing at Kevin’s Red Sox cap as if its existence proved he was a criminal.

“Thank you, Colonel,” the lieutenant said.

Colonel Clarett looked like he wanted to stay, but the lieutenant was obviously waiting for him to leave, so he turned and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

The lieutenant smiled at us.  “Now,” he said, “I think it’s time for a little chat.”

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