Portal, an online novel: Chapter 26

Chapter 25: Larry, Kevin, and Stinky Glover make their way out of Boston, south towards Glanbury.  Guards in watchtowers shoot at them; Kevin trades his Red Sox cap for a trip across the river; they see evidence of a headlong Portuguese retreat; they meet up with a weary mother and child heading home.  Is the war over?  Will they make it back to Glanbury?

*********

Chapter 26

A few minutes later we were there.

The Gradger house hadn’t been burned.  It was bigger than most of the houses I’d seen in Cambridge, with a fancy black iron fence out front and a wide brick drive leading up to an entranceway supported by large white pillars.  “We’re home, Mother!” Cecilia shouted.  “Home!”

But things didn’t look right.  The front door was open.  All the windows were smashed.  Staring at them, Mrs. Gradger looked like she wanted to kill someone else.  We walked quickly up the drive, rifles at the ready.  For a moment we stood by the door, listening, and then Mrs. Gradger strode inside, with the rest of us following.

The place had been trashed.  Broken glass and dishes littered the floor.  Furniture was overturned.  Paintings had been taken down from the wall and ripped in half.  We went from room to room–and there were a lot of them–and they were all wrecked.  We headed upstairs, and it was the same there.  Everything that could be destroyed had been.  It was awful.

Cecilia started crying again.  Mrs. Gradger didn’t say a word.  “I’m really sorry,” I said to her.  She just shook her head.

We went through the entire place to make sure it was empty, then came back downstairs.  Kevin, Stinky, and I didn’t have to say anything to each other; we all knew we had to pitch in.  “I’ll start a fire,” Kevin volunteered.

“I’ll unpack Barney,” I said.

“I’ll help,” Stinky added.

We went outside.  “Quite a mess,” Stinky remarked as we unloaded the mule.

“Think the Portuguese did it?”

“Don’t see why they’d do this much damage,” Stinky said.  “Same for thieves.  Maybe it was servants or townspeople, settling old scores.  They finally got a chance to show what they thought of the Gradgers.  I bet they weren’t so fond of Mrs. Gradger.”

“She’s not so bad.”

Stinky shrugged.  “Tell that to the person she shot.  Let’s get this stuff inside and see if we can find some food.”

We talked to Kevin and decided that he would stay behind with the Gradgers while we went out hunting.  Mrs. Gradger was starting to clean up the big living room, and Cecilia had lain down on a rug in the corner.  Stinky and I headed out into the late afternoon.

“Shouldn’t be hard to find game,” Stinky said.  “With no people around for months, the animals are probably nearabouts.”

“Whatever we do, let’s not get lost,” I replied.

We were in a residential neighborhood.  None of the houses were as grand as Mrs. Gradger’s, but they were still pretty nice.  We didn’t see anyone else, so it was like walking through a ghost town.  It took us a little while before we found a patch of woods behind a church.  “This’ll do, I expect,” Stinky said.

We went into the woods.  Stinky motioned for me to be silent.  Once again I noticed how quiet it could be in this world, without traffic or radios or airplanes.  We walked deeper into the woods, and then stopped again.  I could hear the sound of Stinky’s heavy breathing, the breeze moving the branches above us.  It was getting dark; I hoped this wouldn’t take long.  And then I saw Stinky slowly raise the pistol he had taken from the dead Portuguese soldier.

I looked where he was aiming.  There was a large, strange-looking bird waddling along the ground.  Could we eat that?  Stinky fired, and the sound was deafening.  The bird collapsed, squawking, and then there was silence again.  “Got ‘im,” Stinky said.

We walked over to it.  “What is it?” I asked.

Stinky looked at me with a puzzled expression.  “A turkey, of course,” he said.  “Don’t they ever feed you turkey in the orphanage?”

“Yeah, of course.  I love turkey.  But to be honest, I’m about ready to eat tree bark.”

Stinky picked up the bird and handed it to me, and we made our way out of the woods.  “A lot of turkeys’ll be shot before this winter’s over,” he said.

The dead bird was heavy, and it dripped blood as we walked.  Nasty.  But I wasn’t going to complain.  We made our way back to the Gradgers’ house without a problem, although night was falling fast.  Inside, the fire was roaring.  Mrs. Gradger was hanging sheets in front of the windows to keep out the cold air.  Kevin was sweeping up the broken glass; he looked relieved to see us return.  Cecilia was fast asleep on some cushions by the fire.

“Ma’am, if you’ll pluck this turkey, we can have some supper,” Stinky said.

Mrs. Gradger didn’t look happy about handling the turkey; that was probably something the servants did.  But she stopped what she was doing and went out with us to the kitchen.  Getting the turkey ready to eat turned out to be hard, disgusting work–chopping off the head, plucking the feathers, cleaning out the insides . . .  Rather than get involved with that, I started a fire in the kitchen fireplace, then pumped some water out back.  When the turkey had been prepared, she put it on a spit in the fireplace, and then we just had to wait for it to cook, while the aroma made our mouths water and our stomachs rumble.

The table and chairs had been destroyed, so we had to eat on the floor in the living room.  Mrs. Gradger found pewter plates that hadn’t been smashed and some old silverware, while the three of us did more cleanup.  Finally we took the turkey off the spit, carved it, roused Cecilia, and ate.  The turkey was burned on the outside, then too dry, then barely cooked next to the bone.  But it was probably the best food I’ve ever tasted.

Mrs. Gradger ate with her fork, I noticed.  It was the first time I had seen anyone do that since I’d been to Coolidge Palace.  She looked stiff and uncomfortable eating on the floor, but as usual she didn’t say anything.

There was a piano in a corner of the living room that had been too big to destroy.  After we had finished I went over to play it.  It was a good piano–better than Professor Palmer’s–but a little out of tune.  I played the song the professor like so much:

 

Wanly I wandered

Through the world far and wide

Seeking some solace

For dreams that had died

 

When I finished, everyone was silent.  Mrs. Gradger’s face was wet with tears.  Cecilia was sitting on her lap, asleep again, and Mrs. Gradger absently stroked her hair as she stared off into the distance.  Kevin got up and added a log to the fire.  “We should all go to sleep,” he said quietly.  “We’ll want to get started early.”

“Maybe we should stand watches,” Stinky suggested.  “Just in case.”

“I’ll take the first watch,” I offered.

“Wake me for one too,” Mrs. Gradger said.

We arranged more cushions, and people visited the privy, and then everyone but me settled down to sleep in front of the fire.  I sat next to a window, rifle by my side, and listened to the crackling of the fire and the regular breathing.  Despite all that had happened that day, I wasn’t very sleepy.

Wanly I wandered …

I thought about Kevin and how determined he was to get to the portal.  It looked like we were actually going to make it back to Glanbury, and that was more than I had expected a couple of days ago. So maybe we’d find it; maybe we’d have our chance to step into it and see where we’d end up.  I remembered the faint hope we’d had when we first came here that rescuers would follow us through the portal.  So many dreams had died.  But here we were, still alive, still struggling.

Long had I lingered/In an alien land . . .

I thought of my mother and father, and wondered if they were safe.  Which mother and father?  Both.  Kevin would scoff, but I didn’t think I could stand it if anything happened to the ones in this world.  And I worried about Professor Palmer, who had probably been operating the electric fence against the Canadians.  Would he be shot like Professor Foster?  I worried about Caleb and Benjamin and Chester and Corporal Hennessy.  This world, and the people in it, mattered to me now.  It wasn’t a dream, they weren’t a dream.

I might be part of this world for the rest of my life.

It is only by setting out that we can finally return home, the strange preacher had said.  But where was home?

I sat there for a couple of hours, just thinking.  Outside it was utterly quiet.  I got up once or twice to put another log onto the fire.  Finally I started to get sleepy, so I roused Stinky, who groggily took my place.  I lay down on the cushions and immediately fell into the best sleep I’d had in days.  No dreams.

When I awoke it was daylight, and everyone except Cecilia was already up.  Stinky was out shooting more game for breakfast.  Mrs. Gradger had found clean clothes upstairs and was laying them out for Cecilia.  And Kevin was waiting for me.  “Let’s go,” he said.

“We can wait for Stinky,” I replied.  “We can wait for breakfast.”

“Why?”

“Come on, Kevin.  Relax.”

Kevin brooded.  I wondered if he was thinking of leaving by himself.  He certainly wasn’t happy with me.

We heard some shots, and a few minutes later Stinky arrived with a couple of dead rabbits.  “Thought I spotted a deer,” he informed us.  “That’s what you’ll need to lay in a good supply of meat.”

Mrs. Gradger looked thoughtful.  Stinky skinned the rabbits for her, and then she roasted them in the kitchen.  We woke Cecilia and again ate sitting on the living-room floor.  “Mother,” Cecilia asked as we ate, “when will Father be home?”

“Father is still fighting for our country,” Mrs. Gradger said.  “Along with Gabriel and Elijah.”

“But we need them here.”

Mrs. Gradger didn’t reply.  When we were finished eating, she sent Cecilia off to change.  Kevin stood up to leave.

Mrs. Gradger raised a hand to stop him, and the rest of us.  “Please,” she said.  “Don’t go.  Stay here with Cecelia and me.  Just until my husband returns.  I can pay you well.”

Kevin shook his head.  “No, thanks.  We’ve got to get to Glanbury.”

“But what’s so important about going to Glanbury?” she persisted.  “I can pay you very well.  And my husband is an important man.  He can–he can find you work, give you opportunities.  You’re good lads.  You wouldn’t regret it.”

“Maybe St–maybe Julian would do it,” Kevin suggested.  “Larry and I have to go, but he doesn’t.  What about it, Julian?”

Everyone looked at Stinky.  “You wouldn’t regret it,” Mrs. Gradger repeated.  “We’re all alone here.  Think of my daughter.  We need help.”

It was hard for her to beg, I could tell.  And that only made the begging harder to resist.  Stinky looked pretty unhappy.  But he too shook his head finally.  “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to stay with my friends,” he said.  “We were glad to help, but now it’s time to leave.”

That was a little surprising.  Why not stay?  Was Stinky still grateful to me for helping him with those kids in the camp?  Was he worried about his master beating him or something?  Or was it just that he liked us?  Anyway, Mrs. Gradger looked like she didn’t know whether to yell at us or burst into tears.  Finally she got control of herself and said, “Very well.  In any case, I’m grateful to all of you and wish you godspeed.”

We said our fare-you-wells.  Cecilia came back in her new dress, cleaned up and cute.  She cried when she found out we were going.  “Mother, can’t they stay?  Please?”

Mrs. Gradger shook her head.  “We’ll be fine, Cecilia,” she said.  “Don’t wipe your face on your sleeve.”

It was tough, but a few minutes later we were headed back to the Post Road.

“How come you didn’t stay with them?” Kevin asked Stinky.

Stinky looked puzzled.  “What do you mean, ‘how come’?”

It was one of those phrases they didn’t quite get in this world.  “How come?”  Kevin repeated.  “Why?”

“Oh.”  Stinky shrugged.  “Don’t know, exactly.  But don’t you think she’d be hard to deal with, once things got back to normal?  She’s nice enough now, but there’s a reason people destroyed her home.  And who knows what her money’ll be worth–if anything?  Remember what that fellow on the river said.  She could pay me five pounds a week, but if a loaf of bread costs five pounds, that’s still poor wages, right?”

Seemed reasonable to me.  We didn’t say anything more about the Gradgers.  We all felt pretty bad, I think–probably even Kevin.  There were going to be a lot of people in the same situation, I knew, and many worse off than the Gradgers, but that didn’t make it any better.

The day was clear but cold, like yesterday.  It didn’t take us long to get back on the Post Road.  Unlike yesterday, there were other people on it now–families in wagons pulled by half-dead horses, old men and women leaning on sticks, and a few scruffy-looking characters that Mrs. Gardner probably would have called “brigands”.

We got the latest news from them.  There were few guards left at the fortifications, so people were starting to stream out of the city, whether or not this was officially allowed yet.  A makeshift bridge was in place.  No one was sure how things were going against the Canadians–or rather, everyone was sure, but they all had different stories to tell.  We had lost.  We had won.  We were still fighting.  Reinforcements from the Portuguese front had turned the battle around.  They had arrived too late.  They had been sent to the wrong place and never arrived.

But people were unanimous about the Portuguese.  If we were still seeing their discarded stuff on the road this far south of the city, they weren’t likely to be regrouping for another attack.  They must have been heading out of New England as fast as they could travel.  And that was good news.

“More than halfway to Glanbury, mates,” Stinky said.

A long distance in the cold, but our bellies were full and we’d had a good night’s sleep and no one was shooting at us, so it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  Kevin was almost twitching with excitement.

After a couple of hours walking he began to look more tired than excited, but by then it seemed like Glanbury must be just around the next bend in the road.  “Not far now, I think,” Stinky said.  “There’s Lantham’s Stables.”  Then, a few minutes later, “And there’s the Weymouth Inn, burned to the ground.  That’s a shame.”  We walked a little faster.

And then, finally, Stinky gestured up ahead.  “See the river?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“That’s the North River.  Glanbury’s on t’other side.”

Kevin and I looked at each other.  There were tears in his eyes.  Glanbury.  Home.  At last.

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