Portal, an online novel: Chapter 17

Lying in his dismal hospital bed, Kevin has convinced Larry to return to the refugee camp and look for their families.  Do they even exist in this world?  Can Larry help them?  He decides that he has to find out.  So he sneaks off from Coolidge Palace, makes his way through Cheapside, and talks his way into the desperately crowded camp.  And now he has to search it . . .

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

Chapter 17

“Help me, help me, I’m dying!”

An old man was kneeling on the ground by the gate.  He grabbed my leg and wouldn’t let go.

The other people ignored him.  His eyes were watery; he didn’t have any teeth.  His whole body was shaking.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “There’s nothing–”

“I have no one,” he said.  “I can’t make it to the food line.  Please help, else I’ll die.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated.  “I don’t . . . I can’t . . . ”  I pulled away from him; he wasn’t strong enough to stop me.

Maybe this was a big mistake, I thought.

My next thought was: It really stinks in here.

I moved away from the gate and looked around.  I thought the place had been crowded before, but now there were people everywhere, jammed together for as far as I could see alongside the narrow dirt paths.  All the animals were gone, too, except for some sad-looking horses and donkeys.  I remembered the cows and goats and oxen tied to the wagons that people were driving into the city the day Kevin and I arrived.  Eaten by now, I figured, or dead of starvation.

I started walking.  That first night, things had been kind of mellow in the camp: people singing, kids playing, old men smoking pipes in front of fires . . .  Now all the mellowness was gone.  People were mostly just sitting down, on the ground or in their wagons, wrapped in blankets, staring back at me with dead eyes.  A lot of the men were holding rifles in their laps.  With soldiers afraid to enter the camp, I guess I understood why.  There were lots of people walking along the paths, too; some of them looked pretty scary, like they’d kill you if they thought you had a loaf of bread on you. I really didn’t feel like asking anyone if they knew a Barnes family from Glanbury.  Just looking at people made me nervous.

So I walked.  And I thought: How am I going to find anyone in this huge, crowded place?  What if I don’t recognize my family?  What if my father has a beard, or Cassie has a different hairstyle, or they’re all so bundled up that I walk right past them?

I wandered around for a long time until I started to get tired.  I stopped at an intersection of two paths and tried to decide what to do.  Should I just give up?  I couldn’t stay here forever.  I still had a long walk back through Cheapside to headquarters.

I realized that I had a lump in my throat.  Now that I was here, now that I’d taken the risk and gotten myself in trouble with Professor Palmer and Lieutenant Carmody, I really didn’t want this to be a waste of time.  I really wanted to find my family, or Kevin’s family, or someone.  Mostly I wanted my original idea to come true–I wanted to help my mother.

Then I saw a fight break out.  “You filthy picker!” someone shouted.  And two kids my age were dragging another kid down to the ground, where they started punching and kicking him.

I started to turn away.  Not my problem, like the old man by the gate.  But no one else was breaking up the fight, and it looked like the kid on the ground was going to get killed.

Something made me go over there.  “Hey!” I shouted, and I dragged one of the kids away from the fight.  He was short but tough-looking.  He glared at me.  “What’s your problem, mate?” he demanded.

Meanwhile the kid they were beating up managed to scramble away.  He got to his feet and looked at me for a second, then started to run away.  The other kid took off after him.  The tough-looking kid broke away from my grasp and punched me in the stomach.  I gasped for breath and my legs buckled; he really knew how to punch.  But he didn’t stay to punch me again; instead, he turned and ran after the other kids.

When I managed to catch my breath I started running after all of them.  Because the kid they had been beating up was Stinky Glover.  Not as fat as in our world, but I’d recognize that face anywhere.

I couldn’t find them, though.  They were lost in the maze of paths.  I kept going until I was sure it was useless, and then I stopped to catch my breath again.

A picker.  That was slang in this world for a thief.  It figured that Stinky would be a picker.

I had lost him, and that was bad.  But still, I was excited.  If Stinky was here, then Kevin was right.  Why couldn’t my family or his family be here too?  I just had to keep looking.

But where?  Just wandering around wasn’t working.  There had to be a better way.

In the distance I saw people lined up.  For food?  The privies?  I went over to the line.  Everyone had a bucket.  They were waiting for water, I realized.

The line moved fairly quickly.  I walked alongside, trying to glance at the people in it.  As usual, they looked back at me suspiciously.  Who was I?  Was I going to cut in front of them?  I didn’t recognize anyone.  At the front of the line was a little stream that went through a corner of the camp.  People were filling their buckets from the stream.  There were plenty of soldiers there to keep the line orderly.  I recognized one of them–he had been loading the sacks of grain that wicked hot first day.  He nodded to me.  “What’re you doing here, mate?” he asked.

“Just looking for someone.”

“Most everyone passes by here sooner or later.  No lack of water at least.  And it’s not giving everyone the flux the way it did back in September.  Still not the cleanest stream in the world, y’understand.”

Mr. Harper had mentioned the flux.  I figured it was something like diarrhea.  “What happens when the stream freezes?” I asked.

“Ah.  None of us’ll be here by that time, I trust.  If we are, there’ll be worse things to worry about than the flux.”

He fell silent, and I studied the people in line.  Even though it only took a few seconds to fill your buckets, the line stretched out a long ways.  If it was this bad getting water, I wondered what it was like getting food–if there still was any food.  People probably spent a lot of their day just standing in line.

I stuck my hands stuck in my armpits to keep them warm.  Sometimes I’d walk up and down the line.  Sometimes I sat on a tree stump nearby.  Occasionally there was a fight when someone tried to cut into the line, and the soldiers would move quickly to break it up.  But for the most part people just shuffled along in silence waiting their turn.  A lot of them looked too tired to fight, or to care about anything.

At some point I noticed a distant booming.  Artillery, I decided.  Had the final battle started?  The booming quickly became constant.  An old woman standing in line started to weep.

It was getting late.  I wasn’t going to make it back to headquarters before curfew.  I had my pass, but that wasn’t going to do much good if some policeman decided to shoot me.  And how much trouble was I was going to be in if I did make it back?  I was afraid to leave, though.  If I left, would I ever be able to return?

I was getting hungry.  And thirsty, watching all that water go by.  I must’ve stopped paying attention for a while.  I know I was feeling sorry for myself, even with these people all around me who were a lot worse off than I was, even with Kevin lying bored to death in the hospital.  So I didn’t see her until she had already gone to the river and filled her buckets.

Long black hair, shining blue eyes–I knew it was her, even wearing a long skirt and a shapeless jacket.  Even looking exhausted and worried.

My first response was the same one I felt in English class, in the cafeteria, in the world neither of us inhabited now.  I couldn’t say anything to her.  I was just too shy.  She had already gone past me when I got over it.  Things had changed.  This was important.

“Nora!” I called out.

She just kept walking.

I went after her.  “Nora?” I repeated when I had caught up to her.

There was no recognition, just puzzlement and suspicion, in those blue eyes.  “My name’s not Nora,” she said, and my heart sank.

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