Portal, an online novel: Chapter 22

In Chapter 21: Stinky Glover saves Larry from a mugging in Cheapside.  In a park, Larry has a strange encounter with the preacher from the Burger Queen world. The preacher seems to have something to do with the portal; he apologizes to Larry for what has happened to him.  But then the preacher disappears; back at headquarters, Larry is relieved to find Kevin, who survived the fire at the hospital.  They worry that Lieutenant Carmody believes they are too valuable to let them return to their own world.  Desperately homesick, they decide to return to the camp in the morning to find Larry’s family and then find their way back to Glanbury, their hometown, after the battle.

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

Chapter 22

Kevin was already awake.  “Let’s go,” he said.  “Before someone ships us off to Coolidge Palace or wherever.”

“Okay, okay.”  I got up to my feet and used the chamber pot.  The room was freezing.  I put my shoes on, then the preacher’s coat.  “Ready,” I mumbled.

“One thing,” Kevin said.  He looked a little nervous.

“What?”

“I want to get our own clothes.”

“Huh?  You mean, from our world?  I don’t even know where they are.”

“They’re probably in Lieutenant Carmody’s room.  Peter gave them to him after he gave us these clothes, remember?”

I remembered.  “But that’s crazy, Kevin,” I said.  “The lieutenant is the one guy we want to stay away from.”

“He won’t be there,” Kevin replied.  “Peter said he mostly stays at the palace now.”

“But why take the chance?”

“Because it’ll be easier walking with our sneakers on.”

“Sure, but is that worth the risk?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I want my clothes.  I want to wear them when I go home.”

I was about to argue some more, but I looked at him and decided he wasn’t fooling; he wasn’t going to leave without his clothes.

I shrugged.  “Fine,” I said.  “Whatever.”

We went downstairs.  I wondered if Professor Palmer would be in his room.  I had another pang, thinking about how I’d abandoned him.  Could we say goodbye to him?  But what if he decided to stop us?  He’d certainly try.  It was risky enough going to the lieutenant’s room.

We found it halfway down the corridor.  For all the time I’d spent with the lieutenant, I had never been to his room before.

“You knock,” I whispered, although I didn’t really know why we should bother knocking.

Kevin hesitated, then tapped softly on the door.  We waited.  No answer.  He turned the knob, and the door creaked open.  We walked inside.

The room was smaller than I had expected.  The bed was neatly made.  A small window looked out on the courtyard.  In front of the window was a wooden desk with an oil lamp and a few papers on it.  Next to it was a small bookshelf.  On the floor was a pair of shiny black boots.  By the closet door was a dresser with a comb, a brush, and few coins on top.  Kevin opened the closet, and we saw a neat row of uniforms hanging along a pole, with more shoes and boots on the floor.

This felt creepy.  We didn’t belong here.  Kevin started opening the drawers of the dresser.  I just stood by the bed.  “Come on,” he whispered.  “Look.”

“Our clothes can’t be here,” I said.  “The room is too small.”

“We don’t know till we’ve searched the place.”  He finished opening the drawers, then went over to the closet.  “Under the bed,” he said.  “Check under the bed.”

Reluctantly I got down on my knees and took a look.  On the floor I spied a large black trunk and, next to it, a canvas sack.  I pulled the sack out, looked inside, and sighed with relief.  “Got ’em,” I said.

Kevin came over and pulled the clothes out.  Cap, t-shirt, jeans, sneakers . . .  “Let’s put them on,” he said.

“Huh?”

“Under these clothes.  It’s gonna be cold out there.  We can leave the stupid shoes.”

He started unbuttoning his shirt.  Again I wanted to argue, but I figured it’d be easier and quicker to just go along.  So I put on the two layers of clothes–my “old” clothes underneath, and my “new” clothes on top.  Wearing two pairs of pants felt pretty clunky, but it was great to have my sneakers on again.  Kevin put on his Red Sox cap.

“You sure you want to wear that?” I asked.

“Why not?”

“People’ll think you’re strange, like when we first got here.”

“So what?” he demanded.

I couldn’t think of an answer.  It was strange, but the cap seemed to make him look happier.  Like putting it on brought him one step closer to going home.  “Let’s go,” I said.

Apparently Kevin didn’t have any more bright ideas, because he just said, “Fine.”

We went downstairs, and I could smell food from the mess.  That could be the last meal we’d have in a while, I thought.  I was hungry, but I didn’t suggest stopping, and neither did Kevin.  We went outside into the gray morning.

There was less activity in the courtyard than there had been last night–probably everyone had already left to take up their positions for the battle.  The air was bitter cold.  The artillery rumbled in the distance.

We hurried out of the courtyard and onto the street.  And there, wouldn’t you know, was Peter driving the lieutenant’s carriage up to the entrance.  “Mornin’, lads!” he called out, coming to a halt next to us.  “Larry, people’ve been worried.  Where’ve you been?”

“Nowhere special,” I said.  “Gotta go.”

But before we could get away the carriage door opened and Lieutenant Carmody was staring at us.  It was the same stare I remembered from the first time we met him.  He was only a lieutenant, but it was the gaze of someone who knew how to make people obey him.

He looked at Kevin’s cap, then down at our sneakers.  He understood what we had done, and what we were up to.  “Planning on going home, lads?” he asked.  “Your portal’s a long ways off, and the Portuguese army’s in the way.”

“It’s time,” Kevin said.  “Time to go home.”

Lieutenant Carmody shook his head.  “Believe me, you’ll be much better off staying with us than trying to go anywhere today, of all days.  Hop in, lads.  We’ll take care of you.”

Kevin looked at me for a second, and then he took off.  I hesitated for another second, and then I took off right behind him.

“Peter!” I heard the lieutenant shout.  “After them!”

We headed for a side street.  The carriage clattered behind us.  I thought: Peter wouldn’t shoot us, would he?  We made it to the side street, then Kevin dodged into an alley, and I followed.  We hopped over a wooden fence, and then cut through a yard to another street.  After a minute I looked back over my shoulder: no carriage.  We kept going for a few more minutes, then hid in another alley and tried to catch our breath.

“Think we’re safe?” Kevin gasped.

“Lost ’em for now,” I said.  “And they can’t chase us all day, can they?”

“Hope not.”

Kevin didn’t look so good.  He was hunched over, still gasping for air.  Maybe this was going to be too much for him.  “You okay, Kev?” I asked him.

Kevin managed to nod.  “Yeah.  Kinda out of shape, I guess.  Just give me a minute.”

I thought about Lieutenant Carmody.  He was right, of course: this was a stupid day to try to get back to Glanbury.  But I had a feeling Kevin was right, too.  The lieutenant probably didn’t want us to go home at all.  Maybe he had never really been our friend.  We were just a way of helping to win the war.  And making him look good.

“Let’s go,” Kevin said finally.  “Which way is the camp?”

It took me a minute to get my bearings, but I figured it out–I was really getting to know the city.  We start walking.  The streets were surprisingly crowded–with people from the camps, I realized.

“What’s happening?” I asked an old man with a burlap bag slung over his shoulder.

“Soldiers are gone,” he said.  “Need to find some food.”

“Were you in the Fens camp?  Are people still there?”

“No more camp,” he muttered as he wandered away.  “Thank God, no more camp.”

Kevin and I looked at each other.  “I was afraid of this,” I said.

“What should we do?”

“Might as well go check out the camp.  My family might still be there.”

Kevin agreed, and we kept walking.

It turned out we weren’t far from the park where I had seen the preacher.  I pointed it out to Kevin as we went past.  “Sure would be good to ask him a few more questions,” Kevin said.

“No kidding.”

“But you know what?”

“What?”

“I really don’t care all that much.  I’m sick of portals and sick of this world.  I just want to go home.”

And that was all Kevin had to say about the preacher.

We kept going.  There were no policemen in sight, no soldiers.  I tried to spot familiar faces in the people we passed, but I didn’t see any.  Everyone looked exhausted.  Where did they think they were going?  They wouldn’t find food in the city.  It must have felt good to finally get out of the camp, but really, there wasn’t anyplace better.  Some people had already given up and were just sitting by the side of the road, their eyes dead, waiting–just like they had waited in the camp.

The crowds were thinner in Cheapside.  I don’t think people wanted to stop there.  I got nervous, but no one bothered us, except for a couple of kids who shouted out comments about Kevin’s cap.  He didn’t seem to mind.  We just walked on.

As we got close to the camp we could see smoke billowing into the air, and we could smell the odor of charred wood.  The sun was up now, but there wasn’t much sky to be seen.

All the military buildings had been set on fire: the barracks, the mess, even the food warehouse.  Some were still burning, others were smoldering rubble.  Beyond them, the gates to the camp stood wide open; the fence had been wrecked.  There was no sign of any soldiers.

“Geez,” Kevin muttered.

There wasn’t much to say.  We headed into the camp.

A few people were left, but not many.  Old people who looked too weak to go anywhere.  Nasty-looking men who were scavenging among the stuff that had been left behind.  And animals: a pair of mangy dogs, thin as skeletons, were barking furiously at each other; an equally skinny horse gazed mournfully at them.  Ahead of us a wagon lay on its side, its wheels shattered.  Everywhere there was trash–books, kitchen utensils, broken toys, a single shoe.

We wandered through the camp.  It was clear that my family wasn’t there, but I guess we didn’t know what else to do.  Finally Kevin pulled at my sleeve and pointed.  About twenty yards away from us a body lay face-down on the trampled earth.  I shivered.  We went over to it.  It was an old man, with one hand stretched in front of him as if he were trying to reach for something just out of his grasp.  But there was nothing there, just dirt.  He lay motionless except for a few wisps of gray hair blowing in the wind.  He was dead.  “Should we bury him?” Kevin asked.

I shook my head.  “We have to go,” I said.  There was a lump in my throat.  My family was gone.  Lieutenant Carmody was chasing us.  The enemy was about to attack the city.  Everything was falling apart.

We had to go, but where?  We weren’t returning to headquarters.  And, like the lieutenant said, the Portuguese army stood between us and Glanbury.  But we’d made our plan, and I couldn’t think of a better one.

“A lot of people are going to die today,” Kevin said, looking down at the corpse.  “Maybe us.”

“I know,” I said.  “Still, we’ve gotta go.”

He nodded.  We were silent for a moment, standing in the ruins of the camp.  And then we walked out of the camp and headed south, towards the battle.

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