Portal, an online novel: Chapter 18

We’re about halfway through this story of Kevin and Larry’s adventures in an alternate universe, where Boston is under siege from the forces of Canada and New Portugal.  Kevin is still in the hospital, recovering from his bout with a dread disease unique to this world.  Larry has made his way back to the refugee camp on the outskirts of Boston, hoping to find this world’s version of his family.  He thinks he has spotted a girl from his English class in the water line at the camp.  But has he really?

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

Chapter 18

I tried one last time.  “You’re not Nora Lally?”

She looked puzzled.  “I’m Sarah Lally,” she said, “Not Nora.”

“From Glanbury?” I asked.

“Yes.”  She put her buckets down.  “Your accent–are you from these parts?  Do I know you?”

Same person, different first name.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief.  It made sense, right?  They had old-fashioned names here.  They wouldn’t necessarily be called the same thing as in our world.

I didn’t know how to answer her question.  It’s me, Larry, I wanted to say.  From English class?  I gave that oral report on Mark Twain last year, and you laughed a couple of times–remember?  “No, I guess you don’t know me,” I managed to say.

“But how do you know my surname?”

For all the time I’d spent thinking about meeting someone in the camp, I hadn’t really come up with the right answer for that sort of question.  Should I tell her the truth?  If not, what story could I possibly come up with?  I decided to do what Kevin and I had done with the Harpers–just ignore the hard questions.  So instead I just asked my own.  “I wonder, Sarah–do you know the Barnes family?”

A wagon came lumbering down the path, and we had to get out of the way.  My heart was pounding as I waited for her response.  “Of course I know the Barnes family,” she said.  “They have the farm over next to the Johnson’s.  Do you know them, too?”

“Yeah, I–I’m related.  Are they here by any chance, in the camp?  I’ve been looking for them.”

Sarah nodded.  “Mostly all of us are here, sad to say.”

Finally.  I thought I was going to explode from excitement.  “Do you know where they are?  Could you–would you take me to them?  I’d be really grateful.”

“Surely.”  She stared at me.  “You do look like a Barnes, I believe.  What’s your name?”

“Larry.  Larry, uh, Palmer.”

“Larry.”  She smiled.  “Pleased to meet you, Larry.”  She held out her hand, and I shook it.  It was the first time I’d ever touched Nora–I mean, Sarah.  Her hands were rough and chafed.  This was way different from going to school at The Gross.

“Can I help you with those buckets?” I asked

She looked down at them and sighed.  “That would be very kind of you,” she said.  “I tire so much more easily nowadays.  We can drop them off with my family, and then I’ll take you to the Barneses.”

I picked up one of the buckets, and we started walking.  “What part of the camp does your family live in?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not staying in the camp.  We live in the city.”

She looked at me.  “I don’t understand,” she said.  “Then why are you here?”

“I wanted to find them–the Barneses.  We’ve never met.”

“But I thought you were related.”

This was already getting complicated.  “It’s a long story,” I said, hoping that Sarah didn’t ask to hear it.

Luckily she didn’t.  Instead she started asking me about how things were going in the city.  Did we have enough to eat?  Was there a lot of robbery and looting?  What news had I heard about the war?  The distant booming seemed louder now.  Were we fighting the enemy at last?

I told her what I knew, which was a lot more than she did.  But I couldn’t exactly make her feel optimistic about the war.

“I know we’re not supposed to say this, but I think it would be better if we surrendered, don’t you?” she said.  “My father has joined the army–all the men have gone.  It would be wonderful if he didn’t have to fight.  At least we’d be safe, and we could leave this wretched camp and go back home.”

“Sure, if the Portuguese let you go home,” I said.

“You think they’d take our farm?”

“I don’t know.  If we surrender, what’s to stop them from taking everything?”

“Oh my,” she murmured.  “That’s very true.”

It certainly was easy to talk to Sarah.  Why had I been so frightened of Nora back at school?  Not that it mattered anymore.

“Well, here’s our little home of the moment,” Sarah said.  It was the usual–a wagon, a sickly-looking horse, a makeshift tent.  A couple of kids were playing next to the wagon.  One of them had a cricket bat and was trying to whack the other one.  We set the buckets down.  “Jared, Thomas, stop that,” she ordered them.  “Where’s Mother?”

“In the food line,” one of them replied.  The other one stuck his tongue out at her.

“Charming,” she said.  “Larry, let’s go find your relatives.  You two, mind you don’t upset the buckets.  And don’t kill each other.”

My relatives.  Sarah said it so casually, like visiting them was something we did every day.  “Are they near here?” I asked.

“Not far.  We Glanbury folks tried to stay close together.  It’s all so different and frightening in the camp–it’s good to have familiar faces.”

That reminded me.  “Is there an Albright family here?”

“I don’t know anyone of that name.  Are they from Glanbury?”

“I think so,” I said.  “Is it possible they live in Glanbury and you haven’t heard of them?”

Sarah shook her head.  “It’s such a small town.  Everyone knows everyone else.”

Poor Kevin.  He wasn’t going to want to hear that.  We started walking.  “Do you see the Barnes family much?”

“Jared and Thomas play with their boy.  But there’s no one my age in the family.”

“How many children do they have?”

Sarah gave me another look.  She was probably thinking: If they’re my relatives, how come I didn’t know how many children they had?  But she answered my question.  “They have the boy–Matthew–and Cassandra.  She’s a couple of years older than me.”

Cassandra?  What kind of name was that?  Cassie’s real name in our world was Catherine.  Was she called Cassie here?

But that didn’t matter.  The big news was: no Larry.  That made things less complicated–the universe wasn’t going to explode–but I guess I was sort of disappointed.  “And Mr. Barnes–is he in the army, like your father?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  Look, there they are.”

I looked.  Another wagon, another tent made out of ragged sheets and blankets, another horse who looked ready to keel over at any second.  There was also a small, smoky fire, over which a girl sat hunched, looking tired and gloomy.  A boy was climbing up the side of the wagon, chattering to no one in particular.  And there was a woman telling him to get down this instant, he was going to hurt himself.

I was home.

Sarah and I walked over to them.  The girl–my sister–looked up.  “Hello, Cassie,” Sarah said.

So she was called Cassie, just like in my world.  She just stared at Sarah and said nothing.

Sarah kept talking.  “This is Larry Palmer,” she said.  “He is, um, a relative of yours?”

Cassie turned her gaze to me without much interest and shrugged.  “I don’t know him.”

Then my mother turned around.  She looked older.  Her hair had streaks of gray, and her eyes had little wrinkles around them.  But she was my mom, no doubt about it, and my heart leaped when I saw her face.  She, too, stared at me–a very different stare from Cassie’s.

I wanted to run into her arms, but I held back.  “Your name is Larry–Lawrence?” she whispered.

Her voice sent chills down my spine.

“Yes,” I managed to say.  “Larry Palmer.”

“Who’s that?” Matthew called out from the top of the wagon.  “Hello, I’m Matthew Barnes.  Are you from Glanbury?  That’s where we’re from.  My pa’s in the army, and he’s going to fight the Portuguese.  I wish I could fight them.  Are you old enough to be a soldier?”

“Be silent, Matthew,” my mother said, without taking her eyes off me.  Her gaze felt awfully strange.  Almost unbearably strange.  It was as if, somehow, she recognized me.

“Palmer,” she said finally.  “I don’t recognize the name.  You say you’re related to us, Larry?”

“I think so.”  I’d been trying to come up with a story.  “My mother–she died of smallpox when I was little–but she said once that she was related to the Clement family.”  That was my Mom’s maiden name.  “And a girl from the Clement family had married a man named Barnes from Glanbury.”

“What was your mother’s name?” Mom asked.  “How was she related to the Clements?”

“Her name was Annie,” I said.  I was making this up as I went along.  “I really don’t remember how she was related.  The story just kind of stuck in my mind for some reason.  So I thought–I thought I’d see if I could find you here in the camp.”

“He lives in the city,” Sarah said.  “He came here specially to look for you.”

That got Cassie’s attention.  “You came here, and you didn’t actually have to?” she asked.  “That’s the foolishest thing I ever heard of.”

“Mind your manners, Cassandra,” Mom said.

“Can you get us out of here?” Cassie asked me.  “Can we stay with you?”

I’d have liked to, but there was no way I was going to be able to pull that off.  “No, I’m sorry,” I replied.  “No one’s allowed out now.”

Cassie turned away, no longer interested in me.  But Mom–that was how I thought of her already–still was.  I was afraid she was going to keep on quizzing me about my story, but she didn’t.  “I don’t recall any relative of mine named Annie,” she said. “Probably a second cousin or some such.  But no matter.  You’re very welcome, of course.  I wish we had something to offer you, but you see how things are here.”

“Why not offer him tea in the parlor?” Cassie muttered.

“That’s okay–I mean, that’s fine,” I said, ignoring Cassie.  “Maybe we can just talk.”

“Well, I have to go back,” Sarah said, “before Jared and Thomas maim each other.  It was a pleasure to meet you, Larry.  Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

She really seemed to mean it.  “Thanks for everything,” I said.

Sarah smiled and gave a little curtsy.

“It’s getting dark,” Mom said to me.  “Won’t you be out after curfew?  And the artillery–”

“I’ll be all right,” I assured her.  “The police just make sure you’re on your way home.”

Mom looked doubtful, but clearly she wanted me to stay.  I sat down by the fire with her.  Cassie looked at me the way she always did–like she couldn’t believe she had to put up with my existence.  Matthew climbed down from the wagon and started peppering me with questions.  Mom mostly just gazed at me with that kind of puzzled look she’d had when she first heard my name.

I pretended I was Professor Palmer’s son, but I tried not to say too much, afraid I’d start getting confused with the stuff I had to make up.  I was pretty sure Cassie didn’t believe me, although I had no idea why she thought I’d be lying.  Probably she couldn’t believe she was related to someone who was a professor at Harvard.  Eventually I got the conversation off of me and onto their lives.

“We’re just farmfolk, as they call us in the city,” Mom said.  “Nothing special.  Though I wonder if we’ll ever see our farm again.”

Cassie looked disgusted.  “Fine with me if we don’t,” she replied.  She hated farm work, I was sure.  I figured she wanted to move to the city, wear a wig and a fancy dress, and go to dinner parties at Coolidge Palace.

“Please don’t say that, Cassandra,” Mom said softly.  “The farm is all we have in this world.”

Cassie looked glumly into the fire and pulled her shawl more tightly around her.  “Then we don’t have anything,” she said.  “You think we’re actually going to win this war?  You think we’ll actually be able to go back to our farm, as if nothing happened?”

“Pa is going to whip those Portuguese!” Matthew said.  “You wait and see!  We’ll be back home by New Year’s.”

“Do you go to school, Matthew?” I asked.

Matthew looked delighted.  “Not any more!”

Mom shook her head.  “We keep talking about setting up some kind of schooling in the camp.  We shouldn’t just let the children run wild, day after day.”

“You should let me join the army, like Pa,” Matthew said.  “I can help.  Can’t help anyone if all I’m doing is learning how to read and cipher.”

“The army doesn’t need little boys,” Mom said.

“It needs something,” Cassie muttered.

“I think the army will have some surprises for the Portuguese and the Canadians,” I said.

“Oh, I do hope you’re right,” Mom said.

“What about the airships?” Matthew said.  “Lots of people have seen them in the city.  Above the palace, they say.  Have you seen them, Larry?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I have.”

“Are they big?”

“They’re pretty big.”

“I’ll bet we can shoot cannonballs right down on the enemy from the air.  The Portuguese won’t have a chance!”

Mom was clutching a handkerchief and twisting it tightly.  To keep from crying, I realized.  She was worrying about Dad, but she didn’t like to cry in front of her children.  Just like Mom in my world.  Everything about their lives had been different, I thought.  But at bottom, they were entirely the same.  “Is Mr. Barnes able to visit you here?” I asked.

“Just a couple of times,” she said.  “They’re very busy with their training and building the fortifications and such.  He’s not really a soldier, you know.  It’s just that they need every man they can get.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“If something happens,” she said, twisting the handkerchief, “we may never find out.  Things are so upside-down.”

Matthew reached over and patted her hand.  Even Cassie looked sympathetic.  “Pa’s a dead shot,” she said.  “And he knows how to take care of himself.”

“Yes, yes he does.”

We were silent for a while, and then I asked more questions, learned a little more about them.  Matthew helped a lot on the farm.  He knew how to ride and shoot and fish.  Mom sewed the family’s clothes and cooked and worked in the fields during planting and harvest seasons.  Cassie said everything was boring and she was going to get a job in the city just as soon as she could, if by some miracle we won the war.  On Sundays they all went to church in their wagon; their horse’s name was Gretel.  Occasionally there was a dance in the church hall on Saturday night.  There were lots of parties around Harvest Day.  Their life had been quiet and happy, until the war.

I didn’t notice how dark it was getting until Matthew spoke up.  “If we don’t get in the food line soon, we’ll not have supper,” he pointed out.

“I did it this morning,” Cassie was quick to say.

“Of course,” Mom said.  “It’s my turn.  Larry, you really should be going.”

“I know.”  The sun had set, and the curfew would be starting soon.  But I didn’t want to leave.  It had been so long since I’d heard Matthew babble or seen Cassie sulk . . .

“Come with me, Larry,” Mom said.  “Just for a minute.  Cassie, watch your brother.”

We got up and headed for the food line.  “They say it can’t last,” Mom said to me.  “A few days more at most.  Too many people, too little food, and the soldiers are needed for fighting, not for guarding us.”

“I’m sure you’ll be all right.”

“Some people are going mad from the wait and the hardship,” she went on.  “Cassie is very unhappy.”

Cassie is always unhappy, I wanted to tell her.  “I think we’ve got a good shot at winning,” I said, desperate to make her feel better.

We reached the food distribution area.  There were several long lines heading towards a big wooden building much like the one where I’d helped to load the sacks of grain so long ago; soldiers were everywhere, carrying rifles.  They looked like they were more than willing to use them.  We got into one of the lines.

“Larry, how old are you?” Mom asked.

She was staring at me the way she had when I first showed up.  “Almost thirteen,” I said.

“Almost thirteen,” she repeated, and she nodded, as if this was the answer she had expected.  “Larry, Lawrence.  This is very strange.  You see, we had–we had a little baby.  We named him Lawrence, too.  He died of a fever when he was two months old.  He would have been exactly your age, if he had lived.”

I shivered, and not from the cold.

A tear leaked out of her eye.  “He was so brave, but he just couldn’t hold on.  This world was too harsh for him.  And to think: he could be just like you today.”

So, that’s what had happened to me in this universe: dead when I was just a baby.  My family had never gotten to know me.  “I’m very sorry,” I managed to say.  “It’s . . . it’s a big coincidence.”

Mom touched my arm, which was something she did when she got really emotional.  “I know it will be hard, Larry, but if you can  . . . come back and visit us again.  It’s like you . . . you fill up an empty space in my heart.”

“I’ll be back,” I said.  “Tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”  She squeezed my arm.  “Thank you, Larry.  Of course, if you can’t make it, I understand.  You should really stay at home, of course.  The city is so dangerous.  But maybe later, if things work out, you could come visit us in Glanbury.”

“Sure.  I’ll do that too.”

She smiled at me.  “Now you should go.”

She looked so frail, yet so brave, standing in that long line, with her shawl wrapped around her.  I couldn’t stand the idea that she had to face this camp without Dad, when I could be here to help her.  But she was right; it was time to go.

She leaned over and kissed my forehead, and then I left her there in the line.

I made my way back to the side gate where they’d let me in.  The old man was gone, but a few people were still there, begging to be let out.  The guards were different from the ones who’d been there earlier.  I showed my pass to one of them.  “Sergeant Hornbeam said you’d let me out if I showed you this,” I said.

The guard took the pass and studied it, the way the sergeant had.  “You can leave,” he said, “but I don’t know where you can go.  It’s after curfew.”

“I know,” I replied.  “I just need to get back to army headquarters.”

He just shook his head.  “Well, good luck to you.”

Once again the guards fixed bayonets to keep the other people from charging the gate, and they let me out.

It was dark and cold, and I had a long way to go.  The artillery hadn’t let up.  But I didn’t really care.  I felt so different.  I felt as if everything had changed.

My family was here.  I had found them.  Even if they were farmfolk, they weren’t really that different from the family I had left behind.

I had gotten used to not thinking about my family–it was too painful.  But now I couldn’t help but think about them–at least, this world’s version of them.  I would steal some food from the mess for them, I thought.  Maybe I could find them some warm clothes, too.  If Lieutenant Carmody tried to stop me from coming back, I’d just run away.

I passed by the barracks; there were a few soldiers outside it; they glanced at me as I passed by, but no one spoke to me, no one mentioned the curfew.  The hole Chester had been digging was filled up now.  It looked sinister in the darkness.

I hurried through Cheapside.  The streets were deserted.

Kevin was probably worried about me, but I couldn’t get to the hospital tonight.  Maybe tomorrow.  He’d be disappointed that there weren’t any Albrights, but that couldn’t be helped.

What if the battle had started?  Could I get back to the camp?  What would happen to Kevin?

My mind just kept racing.  I didn’t even notice how hungry and tired I was.  I didn’t notice that my stomach still hurt from where that kid had punched me.  And I wasn’t even particularly scared–I was just too excited.

I noticed a few people, hurrying like me along the streets, staying in the shadows.  There weren’t any carriages or wagons.  And I didn’t see any policemen.  I recalled the first night Kevin and I had spent in this world.  We were so scared, but the streets had been busy and full of life.  Would they ever be like that again?

I almost made it back to headquarters before I ran into the cop.  He saw me from across the street and yelled at me to stop.  I thought about running, but he took out his pistol and aimed it at me, and I figured I shouldn’t take the risk.  He came over and grabbed me by the collar.  He was big and stupid-looking, and he sure was angry.  “What are you doin’, sneakin’ around after curfew?” he demanded.  “Shoot on sight, those are the orders.  Want me to shoot you, you little sneak?”

“Officer,” I said, “I have a pass and–”

“I don’t care about your pass.  There’s no passes for curfew, those are the orders.”  He started shaking me.  What was he so angry about?

Just then a carriage came around the corner at top speed.  The policeman started yelling at the driver, who came to a stop next to us.

It was Peter.

“It’s curfew,” the policeman screamed at him, waving his pistol.  “Get down from there.”

“This is official army business, mate,” Peter said.  “Let the boy go and everyone’ll be happy.”

“Those aren’t the orders,” the policeman replied.  “No exceptions to curfew–those are the orders!”

Peter calmly picked up a rifle and aimed it at him.  “I’d hate to have to blow a hole in your stomach, mate,” he said, “but I need that boy.”

The policeman looked outraged, and for a second I thought he was actually going to try to shoot Peter with his pistol.  But he thought better of it and let me go.  I scrambled up onto the bench next to Peter.  “This isn’t right,” the policeman pointed out.  “You have a curfew, you got to–”

But I didn’t hear the rest as the horses clattered off down the street.  “Thanks, Peter,” I said.

“Been looking all over for you, mate,” he said.  “Thought you might be at the hospital, but you weren’t.”

“Sorry,” I said.  I noticed we were heading away from headquarters.  “What’s going on?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Peter replied.  “Just that the President of New England wants to have a chat with you.”

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