Portal, an online novel: Chapter 14

Larry and Kevin went to Coolidge Palace to meet President Gardner, and Larry uses the Heimlich maneuver to save the president’s life.  Now the kids are returning to Cambridge, where things are about to get really serious . . .


Chapter 14

We returned to Cambridge the next day, and work started up again.  Everyone had rumors to spread: that the president was making plans to surrender, that General Aldridge was going to seize power from the president, that the people in the camps were going to riot, break out, and try to take over the government, that the Canadians were about to attack Cambridge . . .

It was hard to concentrate, but Lieutenant Carmody kept the pressure on.  “Work as if your lives depend on it,” he told people.  “Because they do.”

Professor Foster was scared to death of the lieutenant.  He was happy to talk about electricity and give little demonstrations for people, but he got very nervous when he actually had to accomplish anything.  I got the impression he was drinking heavily.  So Professor Palmer spent a lot of time working with him, making sure that he stayed focused on getting things done.

The balloons worked pretty well, except for one thing: they didn’t stay up long.  It turned out the hot air leaked out of the silk too quickly.  Kevin and I didn’t know anything about that.  Finally someone figured out that they should sort of coat the silk with linseed oil, and that did a good job of stopping up the leaks.  People started going up in them, and they were really excited when they came back down.  “The grandeur of God’s creation is laid out before you,” one of them said.

Lieutenant Carmody just wanted to know if they could see the Canadians with their spyglasses.

Kevin and I got to go up, and he had a lot more fun than I did.  “This is so cool!” he shouted, as we looked out over the farms and the church steeples and the houses and the distant river.  I decided maybe I was afraid of heights.

And then we got the word: the New England troops were retreating from Cambridge.  We were going to have to leave too.  “Where will we have the space to do our work in Boston?” Professor Palmer wanted to know.

“Only one place with enough room right now,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.  “The grounds of Coolidge Palace.”

“His Excellency doesn’t object?”

“He does not.  Which isn’t to say we won’t be capitulating to the enemy tomorrow.  Let’s get everything packed up.  We don’t have much time.”

“William, Harvest Day is in two days,” the professor pointed out.  “It would be–well, I would like to celebrate it at home.”

“A bit of a risk, Professor.”

“I know.  But it’s important to me.”

The lieutenant considered.  “Very well,” he said, “the troops are scheduled to leave the morning after Harvest Day, unless the Canadians attack first.  Be prepared to go with them; otherwise, we’ll be unable to guarantee your safety on this side of the river.”

Harvest Day.  One more thing different about this world: the holidays.  No trick-or-treating on Halloween.  No Thanksgiving at all.  They didn’t have anything like the customs we had on Christmas, and most people didn’t even celebrate it.  Harvest Day took place in late October, and it was kind of like Thanksgiving; you ate food you had grown on your farm and celebrated your good fortune in making it through another year.

Needless to say, people weren’t feeling very fortunate on this particular Harvest Day.  The guys we worked with were mostly soldiers, and they still had enough to eat, but civilians were starting to go hungry in the city, and the food situation was only going to get worse while the siege lasted.  People had started to sneak over into Cambridge and break into houses looking for anything they could eat or sell, and the military had had to seal off the bridges trying to keep everyone out.  It was getting nasty.

So Professor Palmer wanted to celebrate one last Harvest Day at his home, knowing that it might be a long time, if ever, before he got back there again.  And it was really nice that he wanted us to share the holiday with him.  Kevin and I spent the day before helping him pack up his important books and papers and loading them into the carriage.  We didn’t want any part of slaughtering one of the pigs, but he insisted.  “If you want to eat the meal, lads, you have to help prepare it.”  He pointed out that we would have to leave the pigs behind, and either Canadians or wolves would kill them eventually.  That didn’t make murdering the poor thing any less gross, though.  It was a lot more fun churning the butter and baking the apple pie and the bread.

On Harvest Day itself we could hear artillery fire in the distance, and that didn’t help the celebration.  The reality of having to leave this place had set in, and it wasn’t making any of us happy.

The professor began the big meal with a prayer of thanks, but as we ate he got off onto a topic that didn’t make us any happier.  “It occurs to me,” he said, “that if the theory you boys propose is correct, and there are an infinite number of universes, that means there are some in which war doesn’t exist, in which people have managed to find a way to live in peace and harmony with one another.”

“That’s not our universe for sure,” Kevin said.  “But I guess you’re right.”

“It’s hard to imagine, is it not?” the professor went on.  “Once I got used to the idea of a world like yours, I had only a little difficulty in imagining the wonders it might contain–airplanes and automobiles and computers and so on.  But imagining a world without war, without hatred, without these endless disputes over who owns each little plot of land . . .  My mind cannot comprehend such a place.”

“At least you can’t blow the whole planet up, like we can,” I pointed out.

“I suppose one should be grateful for that.  But I’m sure that someday even we will be able to unlock the secrets behind such weapons.  And then . . . ” the professor shrugged.  “Perhaps we will find the wisdom to refrain from using them.”

But he didn’t sound hopeful.

We ate till we were more than full, and then we sat on the professor’s front porch and watched the sun set, glowing purple and gold over the horizon.  The artillery fire had stopped, and we put aside all depressing thoughts.  I still missed my own family and my own world, of course, but I remember wishing that I could hold onto that moment forever, feeling peaceful and well-fed and at least moderately safe in the middle of the war and the hunger and the uncertainty.

But the moment didn’t last.  That was the night that Kevin got sick.


At first I thought it was part of a nightmare.  We went to bed early, knowing we had to leave by dawn.  I dreamt I was up in a balloon and the tether had broken.  I had no idea how to steer or how to land.  Below me, people were calling out instructions, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.  I was floating higher and higher into the clouds, more scared than I’d ever been in my life, when finally I managed to make out Kevin’s voice, calling faintly to me from far below.  “Larry, Larry . . . ”

“Kevin!” I called back, and I fought my way through the clouds until I opened my eyes.

. . . and realized I was lying on my bed.  I sighed with relief, until I heard Kevin call my name again in a faint voice.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Larry, I don’t feel so good,” he said weakly.  “Could you get the professor?”

I got up and looked at Kevin in the moonlight.  He was sweating, even though it was cold in the room, and his eyes glittered.  He looked frightened.  I felt his forehead; it was burning hot.  “Be right back,” I said.  I went and roused Professor Palmer.  When we got back to the room, Kevin was on his knees, throwing up into the chamberpot.

“Get a bucket of water and a cloth, Larry,” the professor ordered.  “Quickly.”

I rushed downstairs to the kitchen, and all I could think was drikana.

No cure.  You feel like you’re vomiting your entire insides out.  You die within a couple of days.

No cure.

If there was any immunity to drikana–or any other diseases in this world–Kevin and I didn’t have it.

When I got back to the room with the cloth, Kevin was in bed again, shivering.  The professor was leaning over him.  He took the cloth from me and put it over Kevin’s forehead.

“Is he going to be all right?” I asked.

The professor looked up at me.  “I don’t know, Larry,” he said softly.  “I don’t know if any of us is going to be all right.”

“Is it–is it–?”  I couldn’t bring myself to say its name.

The professor nodded.  “I think so, yes.”

“I want to go home,” Kevin moaned.  “I want my mom.”

“It’s all right, Kevin,” I said.  “It’s all right.”

“Please let me go home.  Please.

I was scared out of my mind.  “What do we do, Professor?” I asked.  “Can we help him?”

He handed me the cloth.  “Keep him cool, Larry,” he said.  “I’ll be right back.”

Aspirin, I thought.  Tylenol.  Motrin.  There was none of that stuff in this world.  Just a wet cloth on the forehead for someone who was burning up with fever.  Kevin threw up some more, and the stench was bad, but I couldn’t leave him.  After a couple of minutes the professor returned, and he was carrying a basin and a scalpel.  “What are you going to do?” I demanded.

“I have to bleed him, Larry.  It is the only way to evacuate the noxious humors.”

“No!” I screamed.  “That’s nuts!”

He hesitated.  “It’s the standard treatment,” he said.

“I don’t care.  In my world they stopped bleeding people, like, hundreds of years ago.  It doesn’t work.  It’s just a superstition.”

“Larry,” he said, “you have to trust me.  You don’t have this disease in your world.  We’ve lived with it for five hundred years.”

“And you haven’t cured it.  You don’t know a thing about it.  You don’t know a thing about medicine.  You’re not bleeding Kevin.”

I don’t know how I got the nerve to stand up to him–the famous Harvard professor–but I did.  He wasn’t going to touch my friend with that scalpel.

We stared at each other for a minute, and then Professor Palmer put the scalpel and basin down.  And somehow I knew what he was thinking: smallpox.  Vaccinations.  Our world could have saved his wife and son.  We knew more than he did.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Let us pray that you are right, Larry,” he replied.  “In any event, we must keep him clean and cool.  If he can sleep, that would be best.  The crisis will be over, one way or the other, within forty-eight hours.”

“There’s no other medicine we can give him?”

The professor shook his head.  “None that have any efficacy.  In any case, his stomach cannot tolerate anything.  He may be able to sip water, that’s all.”

In our world, Kevin would have been in an ambulance by now, heading for a hospital.  Here, even if there were a hospital around somewhere, the trip in the professor’s carriage over the bumpy roads would have killed him.  I was going to have to take care of him, along with the professor.  I was going to have to help him live.

I guess that was the worst night of my life–worse, even, than that first night in this world, back in the brig with Chester.  To see Kevin suffer, and not be able to do anything about it . . .  The vomiting continued, and then the diarrhea started, and a little while later convulsions . . .  Before long Kevin wasn’t begging to go home, he was begging to die.  “Please, Larry, please!  Stop the pain!  Stop the pain!”

I held his hand.  “You’re going to make it, Kevin!  You will!”  And I was thinking: Don’t leave me alone here, Kevin.  I need you!

After that he must have been delirious, because what he was saying didn’t make any sense at all.  And then he was to weak to say anything.

I must have fallen asleep eventually, because when I opened my eyes it was gray outside.  I was kneeling next to Kevin, and his hand was lying on my arm.  His eyes were closed.  At first I thought he might be dead, but then I could see his chest go up and down, just a little bit, and I relaxed.  He was sleeping, and that was good.

I heard a banging sound coming from outside, so I went downstairs to investigate.

The professor was on the front porch, nailing something onto one of the white columns.  “Is Kevin still asleep?” he asked.

“Uh-huh.  What are you doing?” I asked.

He motioned to me to take a look.  It was a big red “C” painted on a board.  “A notice of claustration,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“It tells the world there is a drikana patient inside.  By law and custom, no one can leave this place for seven days.”

So, claustration was their word for “quarantine.”  Seven days, I thought.  “But the Canadians are coming!” I said.  “We were supposed to leave this morning.”

“We can’t go anywhere now, I’m afraid.”

“We’ll be trapped,” I said.  “They’ll take us prisoner.”

“Larry, we can only hope that is the worst that happens to us.”

I shuddered.  The professor finished putting up the sign, and we went inside.  He had already made some tea, so we had a cup by the fireplace.  “So what happens next?” I asked him.

“When Kevin awakens, the vomiting will likely start all over again,” he replied.  “If it’s worse, it’ll continue to get worse, and he will probably die by nightfall.  If it’s better, not so intense, that’s a good sign, and he may survive.  If he’s still alive tomorrow, that’s a very good sign.”

“What are his odds?”

“Half the people who come down with the disease die of it.  The odds are a little better if you are young and healthy.”

So, fifty-fifty.  Some hope for Kevin.  But then there was the question that had been lurking in my mind, too scary to ask.  Now it was time to ask it.  “What about–what about us?  Are we going to come down with the disease?”

“I don’t know, Larry.  I’ve been around the disease many times but never contracted it.  Perhaps for some reason I have that immunity you talk about.  As for you–who knows?  I wish I could give you a better answer, but I can’t.”

“But we’ve already been exposed, right?  If we’re going to get it, we’re going to get it.”

“That’s right.  There’s nothing we can do about it at this point.”

“What does it feel like, when it starts?”

“They say it starts with dizziness, like the world won’t stop spinning around you.  And then you become nauseated and feverish.  And finally the vomiting begins.”

I closed my eyes.  Did I feel dizzy?  I didn’t think so.  Were there germs already inside me, getting ready to kill me?  There was no way of telling.  I opened my eyes.  The professor was looking at me.  He reached over and put a hand on my shoulder.  “I’m sorry, Larry,” he said.  And then I buried my face in his chest and started to cry.


Later in the morning Lieutenant Carmody showed up.  He called to us from the path leading up to the house.  When the professor and I went out on the porch, he said, “It’s Kevin, then?”  He stayed on his horse and didn’t come any closer.  He had seen the sign.

“It is Kevin,” the professor replied.  “Last night.”

“Does he still live?”

“Yes, thank God.”

“I am sorry indeed to hear of this, Professor,” the lieutenant said.  “We can’t protect you, you understand.  The last troops retreat over the bridge by noon.  We were getting worried when you didn’t come.  But we can’t delay.  The Canadians are no more than a mile away.”

“I understand the situation,” Professor Palmer replied.

“If you can, use your fireplace only at night,” the lieutenant advised.  “They’ll see the smoke during the day.”

“Yes, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“If you hear the enemy approach, get out as quickly as you can, before they see you.  They’ll probably fire the house when they notice the sign, and not bother looking inside.  They’ll want nothing to do with drikana.”

“Of course,” the professor said.  “That makes sense.”

“Why don’t we just take down the sign?” I asked the professor.

He shook his head.  “It’s not done, lad.  It’s just not done.”

“One more thing,” Lieutenant Carmody said.  “Perhaps I needn’t say this, but I fear it’s my duty.  Do not try to reach Boston before the end of the claustration.  Important as you are, and as much as I respect and admire you, the law cannot be broken, especially not now.  Orders will be issued to shoot you on sight until the week has passed.”

“I would do the same myself, William,” the professor replied.

The lieutenant nodded.  “It’s an ill time for us all.  Fare you well, then.  And may God have mercy on the three of you.”

Then he rode off, leaving us utterly alone.

Upstairs, Kevin started to moan.

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