Portal, an online novel: Chapter 24

Chapter 23: Larry and Kevin make their way through the chaotic city, hoping to reach Glanbury and the portal.  But then Larry decides they should help with the imminent battle against the New Portuguese army; they owe it to the place that has been their home for months now.  They are separated, and Larry ends up bringing ammunition to the front line.  Then he himself becomes part of the battle as the Portuguese army storms over the fortifications; he ends up killing a soldier not that much older than he is.  New England wins the battle.  But has Kevin survived?


Chapter 24

Kevin wasn’t at the ammunition depot when I arrived.  Sergeant Dryerson said he’d been sent to Sector 14.  “Hard fighting there, I’ve heard.  But don’t worry, he’ll be back.  Meanwhile, you look like you’ve been through it.  How’d you end up with that?” he asked, gesturing at the rifle.

I told him about getting caught in the battle.

The sergeant was impressed.  “Hold onto the rifle, lad.  It might come in handy.  Grab some bullets for it, as long as you’re here.”

“Have you heard anything about the battle with the Canadians?” I thought to ask.

He shook his head.  “But it looks like we’ve won half the war–unless the Portuguese decide to regroup and attack again tomorrow.  That’s better than some of us thought we’d do.”

What good was it to win half the war, I wondered.  I hung around the depot, taking care of the horse and helping to clean up.  Outside, the camp was just as busy as before the battle, with wagons clattering over the dirt path and messengers on horseback galloping past them and soldiers trudging back from the fortifications.  I kept looking for Kevin’s caisson, but it didn’t show up, and I became more and more nervous.  It was getting dark out.  What would I do if he didn’t show up?

“Come to the mess with us, lad,” Sergeant Dryerson said to me.  “You need a good meal.”

“Thanks, but I guess I’ll stay here and wait for my friend.”

This time he didn’t say anything reassuring.  “Do you need a place to stay the night?” he asked gently.  “The barracks won’t be full, I fear.”

I just shrugged.  I couldn’t think about that right now.  The sergeant went off with the other soldiers, and I sat down outside the depot, shivering in the cold, with the rifle by my side.  It was starting to get dark.  I wondered if my father was all right.  And poor fat Benjamin, who had looked so unhappy when Corporal Hennessy told him to report to Sergeant Hornbeam.  And Chester, who had saved my life, even if I was a boy.  And all the other soldiers I had met.  How many people died today that I knew?

Don’t be dead, Kevin, I thought.  It had been my idea to volunteer for the battle.  He just wanted to go home.  So if he died, it was my fault.

“Am I glad to see you,” a voice said.

I looked up and saw a Red Sox cap heading towards me.

For the second day in a row, I was so relieved to see Kevin I thought I’d cry.  I was so relieved I didn’t have the energy to tell him how relieved I was.  I just kind of waved.  He sat down next to me.  “It’s cold,” he said.

“Sure is.”

“Think we can get something to eat?”

“They’ll feed us over at the mess.”

We didn’t move, though.  We were silent for a while.  “My driver was shot,” Kevin said finally.  “Killed.”

“Mine too.”

“The caisson got wrecked during the battle, so I had to walk back.  Then on the way they asked me to help out on one of the ambulances, take people to the field hospital.  Surgery, they call it.  What a nasty place.  They don’t have, you know, what’s the word?”

I thought.  “Anesthesia?”

“Anesthesia.  Yeah.  They could sure use anesthesia.”

I shivered, thinking about it.  “I killed someone, Kevin,” I said.  “I got caught in the battle, and I had this rifle, and I shot a Portuguese soldier.  In the chest.  He wasn’t much older than us.”

“Geez,” Kevin whispered.  “You okay?”

“I guess so.  I keep telling myself that I didn’t have any choice.  Kill or be killed, right?  Still.”

“It’s a war,” Kevin said.

“Still.”  We were silent some more.  Finally I said, “So why don’t we go get some food?”

Kevin didn’t respond.  I looked over at him, and tears were streaming down his face.  “I want to go home, Larry,” he said.  “I want to go home so bad.”

I put my arm around him, and we huddled together in the cold and the dark.  In the distance, I thought I could hear screams from the surgery.

Finally it got too cold to just sit there, so we got up and found our way to the mess–a long, low-ceilinged, smoky building with a big fire burning in a fireplace at one end.  It was crowded but quiet, despite the victory.  We didn’t see Sergeant Dryerson, but we did spot Caleb and Fred, who were happy to have us join them.  “You lads turn up everywhere,” Caleb said.  “Aren’t you supposed to be back at headquarters?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but everyone had to help out today.”

“That’s surely true.  Interesting hat, mate,” he said to Kevin.  “‘B’ for Boston?”

“That’s right,” Kevin replied.

“Wish I had me one of those.”

I noticed Sergeant Hornbeam looking at us from another table, but he didn’t come over.

Caleb and Fred told us the latest war news while we ate some cold mutton and hard rolls.  We had held the Canadians off for today, but everyone expected another assault; that battle had been nowhere near as decisive as this one seemed to have been.  Caleb thought that some troops would be left here to defend the fortifications, but others would be shifted over to reinforce the soldiers fighting the Canadians to the north.

“Maybe the Portuguese will swing around the city and join them,” Fred suggested.

“More likely they got such a licking today that they won’t stop running till they’re back in New Portugal,” Caleb countered.

All the other soldiers at the table got into the discussion about what would happen next.  Most agreed with Caleb that the Portuguese were done fighting.  “That fence was enough to scare them away,” one said.

“What did that fence do, exactly?” another soldier asked.

“Don’t know, but whatever it was, they surely didn’t like it.”

Kevin didn’t seem interested in any of this discussion.  Once he was finished eating, he immediately started asking where we could find a bed for the night.

“Not going back to headquarters?” Caleb asked.

He shrugged.  “Maybe tomorrow.”

“By the way, where is that ciphering machine of yours?” Fred asked.  “Fellows, you should have seen that machine.  It was the darnedest thing . . .”

But Kevin didn’t stick around to listen to them talk about his watch.  Instead he got up and left the mess.

“He’s pretty tired,” I explained.

“Don’t blame him,” Caleb said.  “We’re in Barracks B, across the way.  Tell the orderly to find you lads a spot.  Shouldn’t be hard, I’m afraid.”

I thanked Caleb, grabbed my rifle, and went to catch up with Kevin.  He was outside the mess.  “What’s up?” I asked.  “I was going to ask them about who died in the battle.  Did I tell you about Professor Foster?  He got shot.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin said.  “We’ve got to get some sleep and head for Glanbury first thing in the morning.  Otherwise Lieutenant Carmody is going to find out we’re here and grab us.  Everyone in camp is gonna know about the kids with the ciphering machine before long.  You think that won’t get back to headquarters?”

“Okay,” I said.  “Maybe you’re right.  Do you think we can make it to Glanbury?  For all we know, the Portuguese army is still out there.”

“We have a better shot than we did yesterday, Larry.  And we can’t stay here.  We can’t be in any more battles.”

He was shaking with emotion.  He’d had enough.  More than enough.  “Fine,” I said.  I motioned towards the building with the big letter B painted on it.  “Let’s go over there and see if we can find a couple of beds.  In the morning we’ll figure it out.”

Inside Barracks B a gloomy young soldier sat behind a desk.  He must’ve been the orderly.  He shook his head when we explained what we wanted.  “That’s not procedures,” he said.  “If you’re not assigned here, you need an order signed by a colonel.”

“Look,” I said.  “We’ve been fighting the Portuguese all day.  Now we just want someplace to sleep.  We’re too tired to go looking for a colonel.”

“That’s the procedures,” he explained again, as if we were a little slow in understanding.  “You’re not even soldiers,” he pointed out.  “The rules say you shouldn’t even be in this building.”

“Let them have a bed, you imbecile!” a voice demanded from behind us.

It was Sergeant Hornbeam, his red mustache bristling.

The orderly looked offended.  “They need an order signed–”

The sergeant was right in front of him now.  “Give them a bed!” he shouted.  “Do you have a casualty list?”

“Well, yes, but it’s very preliminary.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s preliminary, now does it?” the sergeant pointed out.  “If someone is listed as dead, he’s not coming back to life, is he?”

“Not procedures,” the orderly mumbled.  “Highly irregular.”

“These are highly irregular times.  Now do it!”

The orderly studied a piece of paper for a second, and then stood up.  “Come along then,” he said, without looking at us.

“Thanks, Sergeant,” I said to Sergeant Hornbeam.

He dismissed us with a wave.  “Get some sleep,” he said.  “There are far too many imbeciles in this army,” he muttered as he walked out the door.

We followed the orderly into a large hall where cots were laid out in long rows.  A few soldiers were snoring away, but most of the cots were empty.  “There and there,” the orderly said, pointing out a couple of cots near the back.

“Thank you,” I said.

He shook his head.  “It’s not right,” he replied.  I felt like we had ruined his day.

Kevin slumped down onto one of the cots.  “I thought an orderly was, like, someone who mopped floors,” he said.

I shrugged.  “In another world,” I murmured.  I put my rifle down, flopped onto the cot next to him, and pulled the thin blanket over me.  “The guys who slept here last night are dead now,” I said, staring up at the ceiling, which flickered in the lamplight.  “Kinda creeps me out.”

“Everything here is creeping me out,” Kevin said.  And then after a pause he added: “I wonder why Sergeant Hornbeam was following us.”

“What makes you think he was following us?” I asked.  “Maybe he just happened to see us come in here and wanted to do us a favor.”

“Whatever,” he said.  “Tomorrow morning we head home.”

I didn’t reply.  Too tired.  I closed my eyes and thought about the soldier who had lain on this cot last night.  Scared.  Excited.  Maybe too excited to fall asleep.  Maybe he wasn’t a whole lot older than me.  Maybe he thought he was going to be a hero.  And now he was just . . . gone.  Lying in the morgue.  Probably be buried in the morning, in one of those big holes people like Chester dug.  I shuddered and tried to stop thinking about him.

And instead I thought about that other soldier, with the wispy mustache, looking kind of scared as he rushed towards me, his sword gleaming.  Where had he slept last night?  What had he thought about?

I wondered what happened to the enemy dead–how did they get buried?

It had been a tough day.  I just had to stop thinking.

Eventually my body must have agreed, because the next thing I knew I was riding in a wagon at top speed.  The road was bumpy and I was being tossed all over the place, but I couldn’t slow down.  I didn’t know why at first, and then I realized that Portuguese soldiers were chasing me on horseback.  I turned to look at them, and one was the short bearded guy that Chester had killed, and the other was the kid with the wispy mustache, and I tried to shout to them that it was war, kill or be killed, nothing personal, but they didn’t understand or didn’t care, and they were closing in on my wagon, so I had to go faster, faster . . .

I opened my eyes.  Kevin was shaking me.  “Wake up,” he whispered.  “Time to go.”

Groggily I got to my feet.  There weren’t any windows, I noticed.  Thin gray light came in through chinks in the boards.  The soldiers snored and mumbled in their cots.  Had I really slept all night?  We made our way through the cots and into the outer room.  The same orderly was still there.  He was half-asleep, but he glared at us as we walked by like we had ruined the war for him.  Then we were outside.  It was bitter cold.  For some reason I thought about the arguments I’d had with my mom about putting on my gloves for the short walk to the bus stop.  Wouldn’t it be great if I had gloves?

“Now what?” I said.

“Now we go,” Kevin replied.

“How far is it?” I asked.  “Ten miles?  Twenty?” I really had no idea how far Glanbury was from Boston.  “Think we’ll make it?”

“Yeah, we’ll make it.”  He sounded like nothing in this world was going to keep him from making it.

“Well, how do we get past the guards at the fortifications?”

“I dunno.  Why should they care?  They’re supposed to keep the Portuguese out, not us in.  Let’s go down back to the main road and see what’s going on.”

We hadn’t gone twenty feet, though, when I heard a voice behind me.  “Hey Lawrence, what are you doing here?”

I turned around and saw Stinky Glover hurrying towards us.

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