Portal, an online novel: Chapter 21

Larry tries to visit Kevin in the hospital, but the hospital has burned down, and Kevin is nowhere to be found.  He brings food to his family in the refugee camp, but afterwards his mother insists that he return “home”.  The camp, meanwhile, is descending into chaos.  Larry makes it out, but is then accosted in Cheapside.

Can things get any worse?

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

Chapter 21

I turned.  There were three of them–short, scrawny kids, about my age probably, dressed in ragged shirts and pants.  They quickly  surrounded me.

“Where you headed, mate?”

“We’ve seen you before passin’ through Cheapside, haven’t we?”

“Comin’ from the camp?  How’d you get out?”

I tried to push past them, but they closed in on me.  The thing I remember most about them were their eyes.  They were wild and fearless.  They didn’t have anything to lose.  I put my fists up, ready to defend myself.  Not much point in that, it turned out, because the kid behind me cut my legs out from under me and I fell to the ground.  Then the three of them were on top of me, pulling my coat off while I tried to push them away.  They were small, but they were strong.  One of them held my legs while the other two wrestled with the coat.  I didn’t have a chance.  They had it off me inside a minute, and then they glared down at me.

“Got a little spunk in you, don’t you, mate?”

“This is our turf, and you don’t pass through without payin’ the toll.”

“Reckon you’ll have to be punished for breaking the rules.”

One of them picked up a rock and grinned.  I squirmed, but there was no way I could break free.

“Hey!” I heard someone shout, and a rock went whizzing past.  “Let ‘im go.”

The kids looked back.  “None of your concern, mate!” one of them called out.  “Now shove.”

“Shove yourself.  He’s a friend of mine.”  Another rock went by.

The kids looked at each other.  “You can have your friend,” the one holding the rock said.  “He’s not worth dross.  But we keep the coat.  We’re off, mates.”

They let go of me and disappeared down an alley.  I sat up and looked at the person who had saved me.  He was walking towards me with a rock in each hand.

It was Stinky Glover.

“Hey, mate, I think I actually do know you,” he said as he came up to me.

“There were some kids chasing you in the camp yesterday,” I said.  I was gasping a little, trying to catch my breath.

“That’s right, I remember.  You did a good deed for me.  I made up that ‘friend’ bit, but looks like I was right.”

“Thanks for getting those kids off me,” I said.

He helped me up.  I felt a little bruised, but otherwise okay.  “Dangerous place to be by yourself,” he replied.  “Name’s Julian Glover.  What’s yours?”

“Palmer.  Larry Palmer.  So, what are you doing outside the camp, Julian?” I asked.  It was going to be really hard not to call him “Stinky.”

“I could ask you the same thing, Lawrence,” he said.  “I make myself useful to the soldiers.  They want something from the city, they can send me, ’cause they know I’ll come back.  Beats sitting around all day in the camp doing nothing, and they’ll give me a hunk of meat or a hardtack biscuit for my troubles.  I’ve got no family, so I have to fend for myself.”

“No family?” I asked.  “You’re here alone?”

“Well, I’m ‘prenticed to a blacksmith, but I’ve pretty much run off from him since we got to the camp.  With no smithing to be done, I’m not earning my keep, so he doesn’t care.  What about you?  How’d you end up here?”

I told Stinky the story I had made up.  I figured it would get him interested, and it did.

“The Barnes family?” he said.  “From Glanbury?  I’m from Glanbury.  I know the Barneses.  Nice people.  Well, Cassie can be a trial.”

“I know what you mean.”

“But still–maybe we’ll run into each other after all this.”

“That would be great.  Anyway, thanks again.  I don’t know what they would have done to me if–”

Stinky waved me silent.  “We’re even.  So, you headed home?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You guess so?  Where else’d you be going?  Anyway, mind if I tag along?  It’s dangerous out here by yourself.”

The last thing I wanted right now was for Stinky Glover to be tagging along with me.  “No, that’s all right, uh, Julian.  Curfew’s coming pretty soon.  You better get back to the camp.”

Stinky looked sort of disappointed.  “You sure?  It’s no bother.  I can sleep in an alleyway as well as in that camp.”

“No, really.  Thanks for the help, but I’ll be fine.”

He stared at me, and then shrugged.  “Suit yourself, Lawrence.  And good luck.”

“Thanks, Julian.”

He turned away and headed back towards the camp.

I shivered–from the cold, and from fear.  I was alone again in Cheapside.  I started walking quickly towards the center of the city.

It was odd about Stinky, I thought.  He didn’t look all that fat in this world–but then, it was hard to be fat after a couple of months in that camp.  He probably stank, but it was hard to tell, because everyone sort of stank in this world, and I’d gotten used to it.  But the main thing was, he could’ve just left me to get beaten up–what did it matter to him?  But he didn’t.  Maybe he wasn’t so bad; maybe this world brought out some different qualities in him.

I saw a policeman, who stopped and stared at me suspiciously.  It wasn’t quite sundown, but it was close.  Did the curfew really matter, with the battle about to begin, with hospitals on fire and the camps ready to explode?  I remembered that my pass was in my coat.  Not that it had helped with that cop last night.  But losing it made me feel a little more lonely, a little more abandoned.  I was just another homeless kid wandering through the city.

I was downtown now, near where Kevin and I had been that first night when we’d asked that cop for help.  There were people still out on the streets, but they all look tired and worried.  A lot of the stores were boarded up.  I passed by a small park.  In it, a man was standing on a platform, talking to a small crowd.

Not talking, I realized after a moment–preaching.

Somehow I knew who it was, even standing outside the park, without being able to hear or see him clearly.  I went into the park and stood at the edge of the crowd.

It was him.  The guy from the Burger Queen world, with the black beard and fierce, dark eyes.  The guy who had talked about the beauty in each speck of dirt.  And in the home you left behind.

He wasn’t wearing a robe this time, just a rumpled jacket and pair of pants.  As before, he spoke softly, but you could understand every word he said.  He was talking about suffering.

“Yes, you have suffered, you continue to suffer, but you must not let your suffering define or diminish you.  You are so much more than that.  The suffering diminishes you only if you let it diminish you.  Even in suffering there is beauty, there is hope, there is love.  More than that.  In suffering lies the chance for redemption, and even the chance for greatness.  How can you know what is in you unless you have struggled, unless you have been asked to do more than you thought you were capable of doing?  Little consolation, perhaps, when there is not enough to eat and the enemy knocks upon our gates.  But it is true nonetheless.”

Someone shouted at him from the crowd, “We need food, not words!”

“What a fool!” an old man called out.

“Listen to the man!” a woman scolded him. “Let him speak.”

“There’s been too much talk!”

And then it seemed like he was staring straight at me as he went on, ignoring the crowd’s taunts.  “Our journey through life is harsh, and dangerous, and filled with sorrow and disappointment,” he said.  “We say to ourselves, I just can’t take anymore.  And yet there is more to be borne.  And it is only by enduring the pain that we can see the beauty.”

“I’ll show you pain!” someone shouted.

“It is only by living in doubt that we can find certainty.”

“See the beauty in this!” the heckler said, and flung a rock at him.  It hit him in the shoulder, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“It is only by setting out that we can finally return home,” the preacher concluded.

Then there were more rocks thrown, and fistfights broke out, and everyone was shouting.  I made my way through the crowd to the preacher, who was sitting on the ground rubbing his temple.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

He looked up at me.  “I’m okay,” he said.  “But you look cold.”

Okay.  He had said ‘okay.’  “Who are you?” I demanded.

“Just a stranger passing through,” he said.  “Maybe I should have passed through a little faster,” he added, wiping some blood onto his pants.

“No, I saw you–in that other world.  What’s going on?  Do you know me or something?  How come you know the word ‘okay’?”

He shrugged.  “Excellent questions.  But weren’t you listening?  It’s only by living in doubt–”

“Tell me!” I screamed at him.

His dark, glittering eyes looked a little doubtful then.  “I’m sorry,” he said softly.  “This whole thing has been entirely my fault.  I wish I could–”

“Hey you!” a voice behind me said.  I turned.  It was the cop I had run into the night before.  He didn’t look happy to see me.  “What are you doing here?”

“Listen,” I said, “could you just wait a sec–”

“Why are you causing trouble here?  Now get home before I tag you.”

I didn’t know what tagging was, but I supposed I didn’t want it to happen to me.  I turned back to the preacher–but he was gone.  Vanished.

Except for his jacket, which lay on the ground at my feet.  A parting gift?  I picked it up.

“Did you hear me?” the cop demanded.

“Fine,” I said, without looking at him.  “I’m leaving.”

I put the jacket on and ran out of the park, hoping to find the preacher.  But there was no trace of him.  I stopped to catch my breath finally in the middle of a street.  I checked the pockets of his jacket; they were empty.

So who was he?  Was he from another universe?  My universe?  Had he come here in the portal?  Why?  What did he mean when he said that the whole thing had been entirely his fault?  What whole thing?

He hadn’t answered any of my questions, and I had a whole lot more to ask him if I ever saw him again.  But what were the odds of that?

I started walking.  Suddenly I was so tired I could barely stand up.  I knew what I was going to have to do: go back to headquarters.  The lieutenant or the professor might yell at me, but they weren’t going to throw me out, they weren’t going to let me starve.  Besides, they had more important things to worry about right now than me.  And they might know what happened to Kevin.

So that’s where I headed, my mind filled with the preacher and my family and Kevin and Stinky Glover and the corpse of the old woman.  I felt overwhelmed; and the battle hadn’t even started yet.

The streets got more and more deserted as I walked, except for soldiers galloping by on horseback.  I saw a few policemen, but they ignored me.  I got the feeling that everyone was starting to hunker down to wait for the battle.

Headquarters, when I finally reached it, was anything but deserted.  Soldiers rushed in and out of the courtyard; wagons were being packed; officers were conferring with each other.  No one took any special notice of me.

I was surprised to see Corporal Hennessy there; the last time I had seen him, he had brought Kevin and me over to haul bags of grain in the food warehouse.  It seemed so long ago.  He nodded to me.  “Almost time, eh, mate?” he said.

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied.  “What’s going to happen to the camp?”

“Don’t know.  They’ve already pulled a lot of us out.  Not much point in guarding it now, is there?”

I thought about the old woman.  How many others were being killed as they tried to escape?  “Why don’t they tell the people in the camp?  Why don’t they just open the gates and let them go?”

The corporal shrugged.  “Because war’s a bloody mess.  If you spend your time trying to find sense in it you’ll go mad.”

That sounded about right.  “Well, good luck,” I said.

He nodded.  “Good luck to you, mate.  And to all of us, because we’ll surely need it.”

I went inside to the mess.  It was almost empty, but a grouchy cook got me the usual salt pork and stale bread, which I wolfed down like it was Harvest dinner.  Then I went upstairs to my room.

I could hear muffled sobs while I was still on the stairs.  I have never been so happy to hear someone crying.

I rushed into the room.  Kevin was lying on his cot, his face buried in a pillow.

“Hey, Kev,” I said, and I put my hand on his shoulder.

He turned over, and his face lit up.  “Larry!” he said.  “Am I glad to see you.”  He sat up, and we hugged for a long time.

“I went to the hospital this afternoon,” I said.  “I thought maybe you were–”

“I know, I know.  A cannonball hit the main building and set the place on fire.  Everyone was screaming to get out.  It would’ve been easy for me if they didn’t have those bars on my windows.  So instead I had to go out into the corridor, and there was smoke everywhere, so I could barely see.  But then a nurse grabbed me, and we found a door and got out just before the whole place collapsed.  They could really use some of those red Exit signs, you know?”

“Sure.  What happened then?”

“Well, I tried to help out for a while, but there really wasn’t much I could do.  There wasn’t much anyone could do.  It was awful, Larry.  All these people were injured and dying–and the doctors were basically helpless.”

“Yeah, I saw some of that.”

“So finally I just headed back here,” Kevin went on.  “I’d been in that hospital long enough anyway.  I feel fine.  There wasn’t much of anyone around, but then I ran into Peter, and he told me you’d disappeared and Lieutenant Carmody was really angry.  So then I started to get worried.  You hadn’t been to the hospital for a couple of days, and I thought: what if you’re dead?  What am I gonna do here by myself?  When it got dark and you still weren’t back, I guess I got pretty upset.”

“Sorry I haven’t been around, Kevin,” I said.  “But see, I found my family.  In the camp, just like you said.  Plus Stinky Glover, and Nora Lally, except her name’s Sarah here.”

“Hey, that’s great, Larry,” Kevin said.  Then he paused.  “What about–you know–my family?”

I shook my head.  “I didn’t find them.  I don’t think they live in Glanbury.  But they could be somewhere else–who knows?”

He sighed.  “Well, maybe it doesn’t matter so much.  At least there’s someone here from our world.”  He didn’t sound convinced that it didn’t matter.  “Tell me what happened,” he said.

So I told him everything.  About finding my family, about how I was dead in this world, about how my father was in the army and Cassie was pretty nuts, about the meeting with the president, and Stinky helping me fight those kids in Cheapside.  And about the strange preacher in the park.

“I guess you’ve been busy.” Kevin said when I finished.  “What do you think that meant–the preacher apologizing to you?”

“No clue.  No clue how he recognized me, either.  But I think–I think he’s like us.  From our world, or maybe from another world.”

Kevin was silent for a while.  Then he said, “So, what do we do?”

“I don’t know.  Go to sleep, I guess.  I’m wasted.”

“But tomorrow.  After we wake up.”

“I want–I want to help my family,” I said.

“Everyone says the battle is going to start tomorrow,” Kevin pointed out.

“I know.  But you can’t believe how awful it is in that camp now.  People are dying all over the place.”

“So how are you going to help your family?”

“I don’t know–bring them more food, maybe.  Help them get back to Glanbury, if that’s possible.”

“If we get to Glanbury, we can find the portal,” Kevin pointed out.

I hadn’t thought about the portal in days.  “Yeah,” I said.  “If we can get there.”

“Talking to Peter today got me worried,” he went on.  “It sounds to me like Lieutenant Carmody doesn’t want to let us go home.  We’ve been too valuable.”

“But we’ve told them everything we know.”

“Not really.  I mean–they’ve focused on this short-term stuff, just trying to win the war, right?  But if they do win, maybe they’ll start paying attention to other stuff.  Like medicine.  That Doctor Dreier who runs the hospital–I guess Professor Palmer talked to him, because he was in to see me a couple of times, and he was really interested in germs and viruses and smallpox and so on.  I bet we could help them a lot with that.”

I thought of the way Professor Palmer and then that doctor had wanted to bleed Kevin.  “It’s not right,” I said.  “We helped them.  They should let us go home.”

“I know.  But that’s not the way the lieutenant thinks.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying we should get out of here.  First thing tomorrow morning.  See if we can make it to Glanbury.”

The idea was scary, but it was what I wanted to do.  “We have to go to the camp first and find my family,” I said.

“Okay.  We’re going to have to wait till after the battle anyway to head south.”

So we had a plan, sort of.  And we had each other again–which was more than I’d expected an hour ago.  I blew the candle out, and we lay down on our cots to go to sleep.  I was really tired, but my mind kept on racing.  “Kevin,” I said, “if we find the portal, do you think it’ll bring us home?”

“Sure,” he replied.  “It has to.”

I thought about what the preacher had said: It is only by setting out that you can finally return home.  Had he been talking to me?  Well, it looked like I was going to try to follow his advice.

“You want to know something funny, Larry?” Kevin asked after a while.

“What’s that?”

“Today’s my birthday.  I’m a teenager.”

“Happy birthday,” I said.

“I almost didn’t make it,” he murmured.  “Hard to believe, but I almost didn’t make it.”

Then he was quiet.  The artillery had stopped, I noticed.  I could hear someone shout an order, the creaking of wagon wheels in the courtyard.  Not much of a birthday, I thought.  But it could have been worse.  I closed my eyes, and the next thing I knew it was dawn.

 

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