Portal, an online novel: Chapter 15

The Canadian soldiers are approaching Cambridge.  It’s time for Professor Palmer and the boys to retreat to Boston with the New England soldiers.  They decide to spend one last night at home — to celebrate Harvest Day.

And then Kevin comes down with the dread disease drikana.  Now they all have to be quarantined for seven days, with the enemy invading their city.  Will Kevin survive?  Even if he does, will the Canadians discover them and burn down the house with the three of them inside?

Kevin and Larry are a long way their old lives, where all they had to worry about was getting wet willies from Stinky Glover . . .

*******************

Chapter 15

We went back inside to take care of Kevin.  He was sitting on the edge of the bed, pale and shivering, trying to throw up.  “Am I dying?” he managed to whisper.

“You are very ill, Kevin,” the professor replied, “but we will take care of you.”

I wrapped a blanket around him.

Was he better?  Worse?  I changed my mind every few minutes, and finally decided he was about the same.  Which meant he still had a chance.  “Larry, what did I do to deserve this?” he whispered as he lay back, gasping, after one long stretch over the chamber pot.

“Hang in there, Kev,” I told him.

“I just want to go to school.  I just want to be with my family.”

“It’ll be all right.”

“This is awful.  They’ll never know what happened to me.  I’ll die, and–”  He started to cough, and then he began retching again.  He was right.  It was awful.

In the middle of the afternoon he drifted off to sleep again.  I was exhausted.  Just sitting was a strain.

“Go to my room and rest,” the professor urged me.  “I’ll take care of Kevin.”

I didn’t want to leave him, but I wasn’t doing much good sitting there, so I went across the hall and lay down on the professor’s bed.  I probably fell asleep right away.  This time I didn’t dream of balloon rides.  I dreamed of stepping into the portal and, instead of finding a new world, this one started spinning around me.  I got dizzier and dizzier, and I realized: the germs have got me.  Drikana.  I’m going to die.  And I thought: I hate this world, I hate this world . . .

I opened my eyes.  The room was dark.  I blinked and shook my head.  Was I dizzy?  Was I dying?

No, it was just a dream.  I was hungry.  I had to pee.  But I felt okay.  I got up and went back across the hall.  Kevin was still asleep.  The professor was reading a book by candlelight.

“This is good, right?”  I asked him.  “I mean, that he can sleep?”

“It is good.”

“And if he makes it through the night . . . ?”

“That will be a very good sign.  But there’s nothing certain about the course of the disease, Larry.  Even if Kevin survives the first two days, he will still be very weak.  Often victims succumb to another disease that overtakes them in their weakened state.  In rare cases, the drikana returns, and that is certain death.”

“I just want to be able to hope,” I said.

“So do I, Larry.  So do I.”

We heard the sound of gunfire in the distance.  I noticed that the curtain was drawn.  “We’ll have to be careful about candles and lamps at night,” I remarked.

The professor nodded.  “It’s lucky we’re not on a main thoroughfare,” he said.  “But our situation is still perilous.”

“How are we going to get to Boston after the claustration is over?”

The professor put down the book and rubbed his eyes.  “Let us first survive these first few days,” he said.  “There’ll be time to decide what we do after that.”

So we took turns watching Kevin through the night.  He woke up after a while, and the professor tried feeding him a little broth, but he couldn’t keep it down.  I read to him, and he seemed to like that, but he was too weak to pay much attention.  I wasn’t very sleepy, so I just kept on reading, even after Kevin had closed his eyes and fallen back asleep.  I was too worried to just sit there and think.  Was I dizzy yet?  What would I do if Kevin died?  What would happen if the Canadians showed up?  It was probably better not to think about those things.  But it was hard to avoid, sitting in the dark bedroom in the middle of the night with your friend maybe dying next to you.

Finally I nodded off again.  When I woke up, it was light out.  The professor was sitting in his chair, asleep.  I looked over at Kevin.  He was awake.  “This sucks, you know that, Larry?” he said.

I could have kissed him.

“Am I gonna be all right?” he asked.

“Of course you are.”

His voice was weak, he was too exhausted to move very much, and he had no appetite, but he was definitely better.  “You are a strong young man,” the professor pronounced after he had examined Kevin.  In private, he told me that Kevin still wasn’t out of danger, but I don’t think I really believed him.  Kevin was okay, and the professor and I were still okay, and drikana wasn’t going to defeat us.

By the end of the day we could feed Kevin some broth.  By the next morning he wanted to know what was going on–weren’t we supposed to leave Cambridge?  Where were the Canadians?  Professor Palmer explained to him about claustration, and how we’d had to stay behind.

“You mean this is, like, enemy territory now?  And we’re stuck here?”

“We haven’t seen any Canadians yet, but yes, I expect they have taken over Cambridge at this point.”

Kevin thought this over.  “And you stayed behind to save me,” he said.

The professor put on his gruff voice.  “We really had no choice, you see.  The entire household must be claustrated when any inhabitant falls ill with the disease.  It’s the law.”

“All right,” Kevin replied.  “But, thanks just the same.  I’d be dead without you.”

The professor nodded.  “Of course, of course.”  Then he turned away, and I think maybe his eyes were moist.

So then it was a question of getting Kevin stronger and hoping the Canadians didn’t notice us until the seven days were up.  No fire during the day, no matter how cold it got; candlelight only behind thick curtains at night.  We went outside as little as possible–to visit the privy, to take care of the animals.  Once I was out in the barn, and I heard the sound of wagon wheels and soldiers’ voices, not that far away, and I prayed the animals would keep quiet until they passed.  Lieutenant Carmody’s warning kept buzzing around in my brain–when they saw the claustration sign they wouldn’t take us prisoner, they’d simply burn us up.  Could there be a worse death?  The sounds faded eventually, and we were still safe.

Eventually we began talking about our escape.  “Anything we attempt will be dangerous,” the professor explained, “but it should not be impossible to get to Boston.  I have lived here much of my life, and I know the backroads well.  On a clear night we should be able to reach the river without going near the Massachusetts Road–I have sketched out a route already.  The Canadians won’t be patrolling these roads, I think–their enemy is ahead of them, not behind them.”

“But what happens when we reach the river?” I asked.  “How do we get across?”

“The Canadians won’t have had time to build up positions along the entire length of the Charles, even if that is their strategy,” the professor replied.  “They’re probably massed on either side of the road.  We’ll need to work our way upriver.  I know an inlet where Harvard keeps a small boathouse for its students.  If we’re lucky, it will have escaped the enemy’s notice, and we can get a boat there and row across to the Boston side.”

“Will Kevin be strong enough to travel like this?”

“We don’t leave until Kevin is ready.  He can ride in the back of the carriage, but it will surely be a bumpy trip.”

“I can make it,” Kevin said.

The professor shook his head.  “Not until the seven days are up, at the earliest.”

I thought of the lieutenant’s final warning: We’d be shot if we showed up in Boston before those seven days.  People didn’t fool around here when it came to drikana.

Kevin had a question, too.  “What happens to Susie?”

“We’ll have to leave Susie at the boathouse,” the professor replied.  “It can’t be helped, I’m afraid.”

That was just awful.  The professor’s horse was like part of the family.  But there was nothing we could say.  It was clear we couldn’t get her across the river.

So we took care of Kevin, and we waited.

The seventh night was clear and cold.  Kevin was still very weak, but eager to leave.  “I’m ready,” he insisted.  “Let’s get out of here.”

Professor Palmer was hesitant.  “A day or two more would do you a world of good,” he said.

“Every day we’re here makes it more dangerous for all of us,” Kevin replied.  Couldn’t argue with that.  So the professor agreed: it was time to go.

There were things to be done first.  We burned all Kevin’s bedclothes–a requirement at the end of claustration.  Professor Palmer took down the sign; that was a big relief.  We unloaded the books and papers we had so carefully put into the professor’s carriage a week ago; we weren’t going to row them across the river.  It seemed like way more than a week had gone by since we had packed the carriage, since that happy Harvest Day.  If the professor was sad that we had to leave all his stuff behind, he didn’t let on.  Then we hitched up Susie, who seemed plenty surprised to have to go to work at this time of night.  Last of all, we brought Kevin out and made him as comfortable as we could in the back of the carriage.

“Ready?” Professor Palmer asked.

“Ready.”

We headed off.  I took one look back at the house, wondering if I’d ever see it again.  Then we turned a corner, and it disappeared.

The night was quiet, and we seemed to make a huge amount of noise as we clopped along in the moonlight.  Leaves floated down from the trees like small dark ghosts.  I thought of the pretend scariness of Halloween, and how different this was.  The enemy was out there somewhere, ready to kill us.

Susie seemed confused about where we were heading; this certainly wasn’t one of her regular routes.  The professor led us through little lanes and narrow paths, staying away from the main roads.  Sometimes it looked like there wasn’t a path at all, and we were cutting across a meadow or through someone’s backyard.  We didn’t see or hear anyone else; the town seemed entirely deserted.

“You okay, Kev?” I whispered to him after we went over a big bump.

“Hangin’ in there,” he replied, but he didn’t sound all that great.  “You know what I miss this time of year?”

“What’s that?”

“The World Series.  I wonder if the Red Sox–”

“Save the baseball talk for General Aldridge, Kevin.”

“Not much farther to go,” the professor said.

We made one final turn, and then I could see the rippling of water in the distance and the outline of a long, dark structure.  “The boathouse,” he whispered.  We had made it!

We pulled up in front of the building.  “Quickly,” the professor said, getting down from the carriage.  “Larry, bring the lantern.  We may have to risk a light inside.”

I turned to get the lantern.  And that’s when I heard the voice.

“Stop right there!  Turn around and get down!  Both of you, raise your hands where I can see ’em.”

I turned, my heart pounding, and saw the shape of a man aiming a rifle at me.  I did as I was told.

“Laurent,” he called out.  “Wake up and give us some light if you please.”

He had one of those French-Canadian accents.  In a few seconds a second soldier appeared out of the boathouse; he lit a lantern and held it up.

Both of the men had long hair and beards.  The one with the rifle was big and burly; Laurent was smaller, and looked nervous.  They were wearing dirty gray uniforms with the jackets unbuttoned.

“Put the lantern down and search them for weapons,” the burly soldier ordered Laurent.  He seemed to be the boss.

Laurent came over and patted us down.  “Trying to get to Boston, eh?” the other soldier asked meanwhile.

We didn’t reply.

“They don’t look like spies, Robert,” Laurent said when he was done.  He pronounced it “Row-bare.”

“And what exactly do spies look like?” Robert snapped.  “Do they wear red uniforms with ‘New England’ written on the sleeves?”

“We’re not spies,” the professor said.  “We’re merely residents of Cambridge who delayed in evacuating.”

“Well, you delayed too long,” Robert said.  “This is Canadian territory now.  D’ye think we’re too stupid to guard this boathouse?”

“Shall we shoot them, Robert?” Laurent asked.

Robert looked annoyed.  “No, fool, we bring them to headquarters and have them interrogated.  Even if they’re not spies, they may have valuable information.  Get some rope and tie them up.”

“Where’s the rope?”

Robert muttered what sounded like a French swear under his breath.  “Hold the rifle and give me the lantern,” he said.  “If either of them moves, shoot them both.”

“But I thought you said–”

Robert said the French word louder, then grabbed the lantern from Laurent and went back into the boat house.  The professor and I stayed where we were.  Laurent aimed the rifle at us in the moonlight.

And that’s when Kevin moved in the back of the carriage.

“What’s that?” Laurent demanded.

“That,” said the professor, “is our drikana patient.”

“Mon Dieu!” Laurent whispered, and he shifted the rifle and blessed himself.  “Robert!” he called out.  “Robert!”

Robert came back out of the boathouse a moment later, carrying another rifle along with the lantern.  “What the devil is it?” he demanded, when he saw that neither of us had moved.

“D-drikana,” Laurent said, pointing to the carriage.  “In the back.”

Robert went over to the carriage, shined the lantern inside, and saw Kevin lying down amid pillows and blankets.

“We were under claustration,” the professor said.  “That’s why we were delayed in leaving.”

Why is he telling them about that? I wondered.  They’ll want nothing to do with drikana, Lieutenant Carmody had said.  They’d just burn us alive.

“Now let’s shoot them,” Laurent begged, proving my point.

“If you shoot us,” the professor pointed out, “you’ll have to bury us.”

Robert backed away from the carriage.  “How do we know it’s drikana?” he said.

“Why else would we stay behind enemy lines instead of leaving with everyone else?” the professor replied.

“Please let’s shoot them,” Laurent said.

“Shut up!” Robert ordered him.  “The claustration, it is over?” he asked the professor.

“It ended tonight.  And now you can kill us and deal with our bodies, or you can let us row our patient over to the city.”

So then I understood what the professor was up to.  The best solution for the Canadians was to let us go and bring the disease across the river into Boston.  Let New England deal with us.

Robert got the point.  “The boy is definitely ill,” he said.  “Could be consumption, I suppose.”

“Could be,” the professor agreed.  “But it’s drikana.”

Laurent looked very unhappy.  “My sister died of it,” he said.

“It is not a pleasant disease.”

“Laurent, get a boat out for ’em,” Robert ordered.  “They’re going to Boston.”

Laurent didn’t have to be told twice.  He ran back into the boathouse, and soon after that we could hear him dragging a boat out into the water.

“This gun will be trained on you as you cross,” Robert said to us.  “If I see you turning back, you’ll all be dead before you reach the shore.”

“We understand,” the professor replied.  “Believe me, we have no desire to return to Cambridge.”

Robert motioned with the rifle.  “Get the boy,” he ordered.

We put our hands down–my arms were really tired–and went to get Kevin.  “Sorry,” he said.

“Sorry for what?” I replied.  “Come on, Kev.  Let’s get into the boat.”

The professor and I half-carried Kevin along a narrow path to the dock, where the boat was waiting.  Laurent was standing as far away from us as he could on the dock.  We arranged Kevin in the boat as well as possible, but he looked pretty uncomfortable.  “We need the blankets,” Professor Palmer said to Laurent, and he motioned with the rifle to go back and get them.  “Larry, you stay with Kevin,” the professor said.

“Say goodbye to Susie for us,” I said.

He patted me on the head and then returned to the carriage.  “That was a smart move by the professor,” Kevin said while we waited.

“I bet he planned it all along, and just didn’t want to tell us.”

He returned in a minute with the blankets and pillows.  “Can you row?” he asked me.

“A little.”  Thank goodness I had taken lessons at camp last summer.

“We’ll take turns.  You begin.”

Robert was on the dock now, too.  “To Boston,” he reminded us.  “Return, and you die.”

I picked up the oars, fit them into the oarlocks, and moved us away from the dock.  “So far so good,” I said.

“Indeed,” the professor replied.  “Unfortunately, now it begins to be really dangerous.”

Why?  I didn’t want to ask.  I focused on getting us out of the inlet and onto the river.  I was pretty rusty at rowing, but I got back the hang of it quickly.  The dock was out of sight once we were on the river, and I wondered how the Canadian soldiers were going to track us.  Had Robert just been bluffing?  The river was calm; its surface was like glass in the moonlight.  There were just a few dim lights on either shore.  And there wasn’t a sound except for the swooshing of the oars.  It felt incredibly peaceful.

When we were about in the middle of the river, the professor said, “I’ll take over now.”

“I’m not tired,” I said.  “I can make it the whole way.”

“Larry, let me take over,” he repeated.  “I want you to get down in the bottom of the boat with Kevin.”

“Why?”

“Because I expect the New England soldiers will start shooting at us any moment now.”

“Huh?  But the claustration is over!  We’re okay.”

After a few weeks with us, the professor didn’t need a translation of “okay”.  “They don’t know who we are,” he said.  “They just see a boat heading toward them from enemy territory.  They’re first instinct will be to shoot at it.  Now do as I say and get down with Kevin.”

I didn’t really have a choice.  I awkwardly switched positions with the professor, then scrunched down next to Kevin.  “Scary, huh?” I said.

“Wouldn’t it be great just to feel safe again?” he replied.

“Not gonna happen anytime soon.”

We approached the Boston shore.  The professor was a pretty good rower, for someone his age.  “Won’t be long now,” he muttered.  And then he shouted, “This is Alexander Palmer!  Let us come ashore!”

He barely got the second sentence out when the guns started firing.  The sound was like a punch in the stomach.  The bullets sprayed the water around us.  One of them nicked an oarlock.  Kevin and I huddled together.

“Alexander Palmer!” the professor repeated at the top of his lungs.  “I’m Professor Alexander Palmer!  Don’t shoot!  Let us come ashore!”

There was a pause.  “You all right?” I asked the professor.

“Yes, yes.  But their aim will get better as we get closer.”  He shouted out his name again, and then added: “We are friends of Lieutenant William Carmody.  We have no weapons.”

They fired a couple more shots at us, then I heard a shout from the shore that I couldn’t understand.  But the shooting stopped after that, and we continued to make our way toward Boston.  I sat up a little, and I saw a lantern ahead of us.  “Over here,” a voice called out.  “Stay in the boat.”

We eased up to the bank.  A squad of soldiers approached, with rifles aimed at us.  “You have the drikana patient with you?” one of them demanded.

“We do,” Professor Palmer replied.

The soldier came up to the boat.  He was a short, plump lieutenant, and he carried a pistol instead of a rifle.

“He is much improved,” the professor said.  “And the claustration is complete.”

The lieutenant peered in at Kevin.  “Hi,” Kevin said.

“Sergeant,” the lieutenant called out.  “Have you found the order from headquarters?”

“Yes, sir,” one of the other soldiers replied.

“What time does it expire?”

“Midnight, sir.”

The lieutenant took out his watch and made a big deal of checking it.  What a jerk, I thought.  We hadn’t left Cambridge till after midnight.  Obviously the time was up.  “Very well,” he said.  “I don’t approve, but the order is clear.  Sergeant, find a wagon and get these people to hospital without delay.  And keep everyone away from them.”

“Yes, sir.”  The sergeant headed off away from the bank.

The lieutenant turned back to us.  “Can he walk?”

“We can help him,” Professor Palmer replied.

“Follow the sergeant up the path.  Don’t touch anyone.  Don’t talk to anyone.”

“Let’s go, lads,” the professor said without replying to the lieutenant.

The lieutenant stepped back away from us as we got out of the boat.  “Corporal,” he said to another soldier, “burn the boat and everything in it.”

“Welcome back to Boston, eh?” the professor said to us as we headed towards the path leading away from the river, and all the soldiers shrank back.

“Could have been worse,” I said.

“Indeed it could,” the professor replied.  “Indeed it could.”

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