Portal, an online novel: Chapter 20

President Gardner has decided to fight rather than surrender to the Canadian and New Portuguese soldiers besieging Boston.  And Larry has decided to return to help his “family” trapped in the refugee camp.

Can New England win the battle?  Will Larry be able to get back to the camp?  And what about Kevin, still trapped in the hospital recovering from drikana?

Read on . . .

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

Chapter 20

I awoke the next morning in the cold attic room.  I could hear the artillery still booming away in the distance.

I went downstairs and out into the washyard to splash some water on myself, then over to the mess for another meager meal.  Word of President Gardner’s decision had gotten around.  A few officers were excited about the upcoming battle; most of them just seemed resigned.

Lieutenant Carmody wasn’t in the mess, but Professor Palmer was.  He started in on me right away.  “I’m most concerned about what you did yesterday afternoon, Larry–going off like that against my wishes.  Really, there is too much at stake here for such behavior to be tolerated.”

I felt guilty, but I didn’t want to lie to him.  Anyway, I couldn’t hold it in.  “I found my family,” I said.

He stared at me.  “Your family?”

“In the Fens camp,” I said.  “Not the people from my world, but the same people from this world–you know what I mean.  My mother and my sister and brother are in the camp.  My father’s in the army.”

“You went to the Fens camp by yourself?”

“I had to.  Kevin and I talked about it and–I had to find out if they were here.”  I could feel my eyes start to tear up.  “I know it was dangerous, but this was maybe my only chance.”

The professor shook his head.  “I understand.  It must be very emotional for you, Larry.  But you can’t risk this sort of thing–not now.  There’ll be time after the battle.”

“After the battle we may all be dead,” I pointed out.

He put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes.  Suddenly I noticed how tired he looked.  He had been working awfully hard–and it hadn’t been that long since the night when he’d been shot as we rowed across the Charles.  “We may all be dead very soon,” he agreed.  “But we must proceed under the assumption that we will survive.  There is really nothing else we can do.  Come with me to Coolidge Palace, Larry.  It’s the best–and safest–place for you.”

I didn’t want to hurt him.  I didn’t want to be a burden.  So I just said, “Okay.”

“Thank you, Larry,” he said.  He asked a few questions about my family, but I could tell he had too many other things on his mind.  We finished our breakfast in silence.

Pretty soon after that Peter drove us over to the palace.  Everyone was busy packing up the remaining equipment, and I did what I could to help.  Lieutenant Carmody was there for a while; I saw him stare at me once or twice, but he didn’t say anything.  Professor Foster left in a wagon with some of the electrical equipment soon after we arrived; he looked really nervous.

The artillery hadn’t let up, and there was a haze of smoke over the city.  It’s really going to happen, I thought.  The president wasn’t going to surrender.  The battle was coming.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my family.  What was going on in the camp?  Were they safe?  Were they hungry?  What would happen when the battle started?

Professor Palmer wanted me to stay at the palace.  But how could I?  It was okay while I had something to do, but now I was just hanging around.  Was I going to stay here straight through the battle?  Then what?  I went looking for Professor Palmer, but he wasn’t around.  “Heard he went off to some big strategy meeting,” a soldier told me.

I wandered over to the kitchen.  One benefit of working on the palace grounds was that there was still lots of food to eat.  Not as good as the roast beef we’d had the first time we were here, back when I’d saved the president’s life, but way better than what you’d get anywhere else in the city.  Everyone else seemed to have already eaten, and the kitchen was pretty deserted.  There was leftover chicken and roast potatoes, though, and they tasted unbelievable.

And that’s when I made my decision.  It wasn’t really conscious.  I just found myself walking over to the chef, pointing to the leftovers, and saying, “Could you put some of that food in a sack for me?  I’m supposed to bring it back to the soldiers–a few of them are too busy to come over here, and they’re getting hungry.”

The chef wasn’t pleased about having all those soldiers dirtying up her kitchen and eating her food.  She was a fussy lady with gray hair and a French accent.  She just shook her head at my request.  “I’m glad this nonsense is finally ending,” she muttered.  “I cook for aristocrats, not common soldiers.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “Not much longer, I’ve heard.  But your food has certainly been wonderful.”

She brightened at the compliment.  “You’ve not had the chance to sample my cuisine when we haven’t had these annoying shortages,” she pointed out.

Lots of people were dying because of those annoying shortages, of course, but I wasn’t going to mention that.  “I’m sure the food would be even more wonderful then,” I said.

She nodded in full agreement and pulled a sack out of a drawer.  “Will this be enough?” she asked, shoveling in the rest of the pan.

“Yes, ma’am,  That’ll do.  And thank you very much.”

“Come back when this wretched war is over,” she said.  “My stuffed pheasant is beyond compare.”

“I’ll certainly do that,” I replied as I hurried out of the kitchen.

I stuffed the sack down the front of my coat and headed for the palace gate.  Would the guards let me out?  Maybe Lieutenant Carmody had left orders not to.  Maybe I was a prisoner here.  Well, then, I’d have to figure out how to escape.  I was feeling really guilty–about lying to get the food, about letting Professor Palmer down.  But I just couldn’t help it.  I had to get to my family.

The guards at the gate still wore those weird-looking tall hats with the plumes on them and stood at attention, hardly even blinking.  There were more of them than usual, maybe because there were more people than usual outside.  Begging to get in to see the president.  Begging for food.

Would they be able to smell what was in the sack?  I could get torn limb from limb if people realized what I was carrying.

“Good morning,” I said to one of the guards.  “Can you let me out?  I have to get back to headquarters.”

He stared down at me.  “Why don’t you wait for a wagon?” he asked.  “They’re arriving and departing all the time.”

“I’m supposed to go now.”  More lying.

He shrugged and opened the gate for me.  The people outside surged forward, and I pushed through them, just like yesterday at the camp.  They ignored me.  If they smelled the chicken, maybe they thought they were hallucinating.

I headed off for the camp.

I felt weird.  I had really done it.  Just like that, I had left.  And I wasn’t going back.  Lieutenant Carmody, Professor Palmer, General Aldridge–they’d all be mad at me.  I probably couldn’t make them understand.  They’d done a lot for me, but I was alone.  I had lost my family and my world.  I wasn’t sure I’d ever get my world back, but I knew where Mom and Cassie and Matthew were.  And I had to be there too.

Then I stopped.  I had forgotten about Kevin.  He must have been going nuts, all alone in the hospital.  I needed to bring him along with me, I decided.  Of course, maybe he wouldn’t want to go; it wasn’t his family, after all.  But I was pretty sure he would–anything was better than staying in that room by himself.  So I veered off and headed towards Mass General.

The haze of smoke got thicker as I approached the hospital.  It was close to the Charles–but not that close, I thought, suddenly worried.  The Canadian artillery couldn’t reach it–right?  I hurried down the long empty street leading to the hospital.  More smoke.  The artillery kept getting louder.  I was really scared now.

I got as close as I could.  The hospital was on fire.  Horse-drawn fire trucks surrounded the building, and men were shooting streams of water into it.  Didn’t look like they were doing much good.  I heard people screaming and weeping.  Some were lying on the ground, others just wandering around in a daze.  “What happened?” I asked a doctor who was treating a little girl with a long gash on her face.

He glared at me.  “What d’you think happened?” he demanded.

“The survivors–where will they go?”

He waved vaguely around him.  He looked exhausted.  “Everywhere.  Nowhere,” he said.  “What does it matter?”  He went back to bandaging the girl.

I walked around and around the building, looking for Kevin.  I saw lots of stuff that I’ll never forget–people bleeding, people dying–but I didn’t see him.  Finally I sat down on the cobblestones and put my head in my hands.  My throat was raw from the smoke.  My stomach still hurt from where I’d been punched yesterday.  But I didn’t really notice.  People were dying all around me, and Kevin was gone.

I needed my mother.

I got up after a while and trudged away from the burning building.  It took me a long time to get to the camp.  I was kind of in a daze.  Poor Kevin.  First drikana, and now . . .  He could still be alive, of course, but what if he was burned, or hurt–what if he was dying all by himself in this alien world?  I saw a couple of balloons floating above the city, and they reminded me of Kevin getting the idea for them as we sat by the professor’s fireplace.  He deserved better.

Cheapside was quiet.  Some people were sitting on their steps, smoking long pipes, and children were running around in the lanes.  It seemed strange that kids would actually be playing on a day like today, but what did I know?  I wasn’t a kid anymore.  No one bothered me, and the sack of food stayed safe inside my coat.

Outside the camp, things were grim.  Chester and his friends were digging another big hole next to the one I’d seen yesterday.  By the barracks, soldiers were silently cleaning their weapons.  Sergeant Hornbeam spotted me, and he seemed angry.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I’m–I’m visiting someone.”

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” he said, sounding like Colonel Clarett.

Usually Sergeant Hornbeam scared me, but right now I didn’t feel like being a nice little boy.  “Look,” I said, “all I want is to go into the camp.  Can I do that or not?”

He raised an eyebrow, and then muttered, “I can’t stop you,” and he turned away.

I walked up to the main gate.  There were several empty wagons lined up there, and lots of soldiers, rifles at the ready.  Inside the gate was an even bigger crowd of people than I’d seen yesterday.  “What’s the bloody point of aiming those guns at us?” one old man shouted at the soldiers.  “Why don’t you go and fight the real enemy!”

Caleb was one of the soldiers being shouted at.  He shook his head when he saw me.  “Not a good day to be visitin’, mate,” he said.  “Lots of angry people inside.  Must not have got a good night’s sleep.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’ll be careful.”

“Come on, then.”  We headed over to the side gate.  “What’s the news from headquarters?” he asked.

“We’re going to fight,” I said.  “Tomorrow, probably, or the next day.”

He nodded.  “That’s what we heard.  Won’t be soon enough, for my taste.  Now be careful in there, lad.  People aren’t just angry, some of ’em are a bit crazy.”

Once again the guards opened the gate with bayonets fixed and I pushed my way through the crowd, making sure the sack didn’t fall out from inside my coat.

Caleb was right.  Things were falling apart in the camp.  I passed by several fistfights; no one seemed interested in stopping them.  Some old guy who was either drunk or crazy just stood in the middle of a path, howling at the top of his lungs.  And here and there a corpse lay on the ground, its face covered with a sheet or a scrap of clothing.

It took me a while to find my family in the chaos, but finally I spotted their wagon.  As I approached it, I saw a red-coated soldier standing next to my mother.  My first thought was: Is she in trouble?  Then I recognized the soldier.  It was my father.

Mom’s face lit up when she saw me, and she pointed me out to Dad.

“Larry,” she said.  “It’s so wonderful you came back.”

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Barnes.”  I was so relieved to be here I wanted to hug her.  And Dad.

“This is Mr. Barnes,” she said, pointing to Dad.  “He’s just–just here for a short while.  On leave, before the battle.”  She looked like she’d been crying, I noticed.  “Henry, this is the boy I was telling you about.”

My father extended a hand.  “A pleasure, lad.”

I shook his hand.  Like Mom, he looked different in this world.  He was wearing a bushy mustache.  He was thin, and his hair was streaked with gray.  And the uniform looked so strange on him; he had never been a soldier, and he hated guns.  But it was Dad all right.

He gave me a long look.  “Mrs. Barnes was talking about you,” he said. “She mentioned what a strange coincidence it was, your age and first name and all,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”  He seemed almost suspicious of me, like he thought I was up to something.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t return,” Mom said, “with the bombardment starting.  It’s so dangerous now.”

“I promised to come back,” I pointed out.  I motioned to the makeshift tent that was attached to the wagon.  “Let’s go in there,” I said.  “I’ve got something to show you.”

We crawled inside.  Matthew and Cassie were already in there.  “Hi, Larry!”  Matthew called out.  He was spinning a little wooden top.  “Did you see the airships in the sky?”

“I sure did,” I replied.  “They call them ‘balloons.'”

“That’s a funny name.  Pa says we’re doing some other things to beat the enemy, right, Pa?”

“That’s right, Matthew.”

Cassie was just sitting in a corner with her shawl wrapped around her, shivering, and rocking back and forth a little.  Her eyes were dead; she didn’t even seem irritated when she saw me.  She looked awful–not sick, just awful.

I pulled out the sack of food.  “It’s not much,” I said, “but it’s more than you’ve been getting here.”

Everyone’s eyes widened.  “Oh, you dear boy,” Mom murmured.

“This is extremely good of you, Larry,” my father said.

“I promised I’d do it,” I said.

“Where in the world did you get chicken and potatoes?” he asked as Mom passed out the food.

“My father–he got some extra rations at headquarters.”

“Really?  That’s hard to believe.”  He raised an eyebrow and smiled, and it was just like we were back at home, and I had said something he thought was kind of funny, although I didn’t know why.  He didn’t laugh much, but he was always acting amused, like the rest of us were putting on a play just for him.  It drove Cassie nuts.

Matthew was excited.  “This is the best food I’ve had in months!” he said.  “Thanks, Larry!”  Cassie took her share and started gobbling it down, but she didn’t say anything.

Dad refused to take any.  “We still get our rations,” he said.

“You need to keep your strength up,” Mom pointed out.

“I’m fine, Emma,” he replied.  “Larry, why don’t you and I go outside and give them a little more space to eat.”

We scrambled out of the tent and stood by the wagon.  “Mrs. Barnes has told me a lot about you, Larry,” he said.  “You’ve made a deep impression on her.”

“She’s a very nice woman,” I replied.

“You believe you’re related to her?”

“Possibly, sir.”

“How is that, exactly?  Emma wasn’t very clear about it.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied.  I tried to remember exactly what I’d said to her yesterday, so I could repeat the story.  I did my best.  He pressed me on the details, and I don’t think I did a very good job of answering him.  He still seemed a little suspicious of me, even though I’d brought them the food–or maybe it was because I brought the food, without a good explanation.  Or maybe he was just curious.  He liked things to be logical, to make sense.  And my story didn’t quite make sense.

But he let it go finally.  Logically, what reason did I have to be lying?  “I am very grateful to you for the food, Larry,” he said, changing the subject.  “It grieves me that I can eat so well and sleep in a cot while my family has to live like this.”  He gestured at the tent and the wagon.  “It grieves me to be away from them.”

“Yes, sir.  But you’ve got to do it.”

He nodded.  “Yes, of course.  I fear, though–”  He looked away and didn’t finish the sentence.

“I think we’ve got a good shot at winning,” I said.  “These balloons–”

“Ah, the airships,” he replied.  “Matthew is so excited by them.  But they’re nowhere near as useful as people hope.  I’ve heard they’ll be used for surveillance of the enemy, nothing more.”

“But that’s something,” I pointed out.  He could be a drag sometimes, telling us not to get our hopes up when we entered a contest or whatever.  Just giving you kids a reality check, he’d say.  But lots of times we didn’t want a reality check.

“It is something, of course,” he admitted.  “We’ll find out soon enough what difference they’ll make.”

“Where are you stationed?” I asked.

“On the Charles,” he said.  “Preparing to fight the Canadians.  My captain gave some of us with families in the camps a few hours’ leave to go and see them.  Very decent of him.”

“The battle is coming,” I said.

He nodded.  “Yes,” he replied quietly.  “It is coming.”

And some of you will never see your families again, I thought.

Matthew came bounding out of the tent then, and Dad turned his attention away from me.  Mom came out a couple of minutes later; Cassie stayed inside.

Mom looked worried, of course–she had plenty of reason to be worried, with her husband going off to battle.  But what worried her most now was Cassie.  She made Dad go back into the tent to talk to her.  “The strain is too much for the poor girl,” she said to no one in particular.  “It’s such a difficult time.”

“She’ll be fine,” I said, knowing she wouldn’t be.  Cassie would always find a way to feel bad.  And Dad wouldn’t be able to talk her out of it.  He always tried to be logical with her, and he could never get it through his head that Cassie didn’t have any use for his logic.  It just made her angrier, because she thought he was talking down to her.  Sure enough, I could hear her squawking after a minute:  “You don’t know what I’ve been through.  You don’t understand, you’ve never understood . . . ”  The same old stuff, only she said it with the almost-British accent people had in this world.

I heard Dad’s voice, too low for us to make out the words, and then Cassie again, this time in a tone I’d never heard before–beyond anger, beyond despair: “Please, Papa, please take me with you.  Please get me out of here, I have to get out of here.  Papa, please  . . . ”

And then she was sobbing, and I knew Dad had his arms around her, trying to calm her down.  And I knew he wasn’t going to succeed.

“Why is Cassie the only one complaining?” Matthew wanted to know.

Mom just shook her head.

Eventually Dad came out, looking as worried as Mom.  “Emma–” he said, and sort of shrugged.  “It’s hard on all of us.”

“I know, Henry.  I know.”

“Private Barnes!” someone shouted from the path.  It was a sergeant, with a couple of soldiers alongside him.  “It’s time!”

“One moment,” Dad replied.  He turned back to us.

“So soon, Henry?” Mom said.

“I’m sorry.”

Matthew hugged him and started to cry.  “Please, Papa, stay!” he sobbed.  Mom touched Dad’s arm, in that way she had.  I stayed back by the wagon; I wasn’t part of this.

When Dad had finished saying goodbye to Matthew and Mom, he ducked into the tent and said something to Cassie.  I don’t think he got any response.  Then he came over and shook my hand.  “Thank you again, Larry,” he said.

“Please be careful, sir,” I replied.

“I will.”

Then I blurted out, “I’ll take care of your family.”

He looked puzzled.  “That’s very kind of you,” he said, “but you’ve got your own family.”

I couldn’t think of anything I could say to that.  Dad kissed Mom and Matthew one last time, and then left us.

The day suddenly seemed a lot colder.

“It’ll be all right,” Mom murmured.  “Everything will be all right.”

Matthew cried for a while.  Mom put her arm around him, and he leaned close to her, but eventually he got over it and moved away.  That was how Matthew was.  Cassie stayed inside the tent.  Mom looked really upset.  The distant artillery never stopped.  We talked for a while about the war and conditions in the city.  I told her about the fire at the hospital, and she was horrified.  “Those poor people.  Is nowhere safe?”  And then she started in: “You should go home, Larry.  It was wonderful of you to come and bring that food, but it’s late already.”

How could I tell her that I didn’t have a home anymore?  I hadn’t thought this part through.  “Well,” I said, “I was thinking of staying here and helping you out.”

She gave me a long, puzzled stare.  “You can’t do that, Larry,” she said.  “You have to go home.  You have to be safe.  How can you think about leaving your father?”

“No, it’s all right,” I insisted.  “He’s really busy helping out with the war.  He doesn’t pay much attention to me.”

“I’d like Larry to stay,” Matthew piped up.

Mom shook her head, almost violently.  She wasn’t buying it.  “Larry, you must go,” she said, in that tone she gets when she’s really serious and we’ve gone too far.  “Now.”

I thought about telling her the truth.  But that was stupid–she wouldn’t believe me.  I could just stay somewhere else in the camp–she couldn’t make me leave–but that wasn’t the point.  The point was to be with my family.  I felt an awful emptiness come over me.  Kevin was gone.  Professor Palmer would probably be so angry that he wouldn’t want me anymore.  And now Mom didn’t want me either.  I thought: She’s not my real mom.  This isn’t the real Matthew.  But I didn’t believe that anymore.

I was all alone in this stupid world.  “Please let me stay,” I whispered.

Tears came into her eyes then.  She reached for Matthew and pulled him close to her.  “You have to go home, Larry,” she whispered back.  “You have to go home.  After the war, come visit us.  You’ll always be welcome.”

I didn’t move for a while, and then I slowly got up from the ground.  Matthew was crying again.  I gave him a long hug.  I hesitated, then looked into the tent.  Cassie was huddled in a corner, staring at me.  “Take me with you,” she begged in a hollow voice.

She looked scary.  She looked insane.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.  But there was nothing I could do.  “I’m sorry, Cassie,” I said.  “I can’t.”

Her eyes turned away from me then, and she started silently rocking once more.

Outside the tent, Mom was waiting for me, her face wet with tears.  “I’ll visit you,” I said.  “I promise.”  She hugged me then, and I didn’t want to leave her embrace.  I remember once when I was little getting separated from her at the mall, and I felt so scared and lost, and suddenly I saw her, frantically looking for me by the escalator.  I raced to her and jumped up into her arms, and I felt so safe there, I never wanted to be anyplace else.  That was kind of how I felt there in the camp.

But Mom pushed me away finally.  “Please go, Larry,” she said, “before it’s too late.”

And so I walked away.

I don’t know what I was thinking.  Maybe I was beyond thinking.  I made my way through the crowded, stinking camp to the main gate.  It was worse there than the day before.  I had to fight my way through the crowd, but when I got to the front I didn’t recognize any of the guards, and none of them looked like they wanted to hear my story or look at my pass.  Off to my right people were throwing things at the guards, who just stood motionless at the fence, their rifles at the ready.  Everyone was shouting.

“Let’s go!” someone yelled.  “They can’t stop us all!”

There was more shouting, and people started pushing against me.  I could see the guards just a few feet away, and their eyes were half-scared, half-angry.  Even if one of them recognized me, he couldn’t have done anything to help me at this point.  I felt like I was going to get trampled to death, like at one of those soccer games in South America.

And then I heard gunshots, and the shouting turned to screaming, and people were running every which way.  I fell to the ground, and someone kicked me, but I didn’t get trampled.  I could smell gunpowder in the air, and someone near me was groaning, and a woman was calling out, “Help me!  Help me!”

I was scared I’d be shot if I got up, so I stayed where I was.  I heard someone shouting out orders, and the gates opened.  A bunch of soldiers rushed in, and one of them hoisted me to my feet.

“I think you’ve outworn your welcome here, lad,” he said, shaking his head.

It was Sergeant Hornbeam.

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I’m just leaving.”

“See that you don’t come back.  This won’t be the last of it.  The night is going to be long and deadly.”

“Yes, sir.”

The crowd had mostly moved back.  Some of the soldiers aimed their rifles at them while others collected the wounded and the dead.  Sergeant Hornbeam gestured at the gate; I walked out.

It was only after I was outside the camp that I could think about what had happened.  I had been in a battle–soldiers fighting their own people.  I was lucky to be alive.

I was trembling and out of breath.  My ribs were sore where I’d been kicked.  Two soldiers hurried past me, carrying the corpse of an old woman on a stretcher.  Five minutes ago she had been alive, probably screaming at the soldiers along with everyone else.  Or maybe she had just been trapped in the crowd.  And now she’d be dumped in one of those graves that Chester was digging.  No one would ever know what happened to her.

And what was I supposed to do?

I headed off, trudging slowly through the deepening darkness.  Past the barracks and the other army buildings and on into Cheapside.  Going where?  To do what?

I don’t think I even noticed the footsteps behind me.  What did I care?  Then I heard the voice, loud and mocking, almost at my shoulder.

“Nice coat, mate!”

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