Portal, an online novel: Chapter 27

Chapter 26: Larry, Kevin, and Stinky meet up with Mrs. Gradger and her daughter as they make their way south towards Glanbury.  They spend the night with at the Gradgers’ house in Weymouth, but Kevin is desperate to keep going and reach Glanbury.  Stinky surprisingly turns down an offer to stay with the Gradgers and continues to accompany the boys on their journey home.

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Chapter 27

Home.  Sort of.  Certainly not for Kevin–he wasn’t interested in this Glanbury.  And it didn’t look at all familiar to me.  The North River was in our Glanbury, too, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it.  It wasn’t a very big river.  At least its bridge hadn’t been destroyed.

We crossed the bridge.  Glanbury didn’t look any different from what we had already passed by along the Post Road.  A few shops and houses, but mostly just woods and farmland, and occasionally a road leading off to the east or west.  Just another little town.  I wasn’t surprised that President Gardner hadn’t thought much of it.

Kevin looked around intently, trying to spot the place where we had burst out of the woods with the Portuguese soldiers shooting at us.  It would be on our left–I recalled that much.  But that was about all I remembered.  And if Kevin insisted it was on our right, I’m not sure how strongly I could have argued the point.  Nothing looked familiar to me.  Kevin hesitated once in a while, but he didn’t run off into the woods.  I could sense him getting worried as we walked.

“How far to the Barnes place?” I asked Stinky.

“Another mile or two, I expect.”

I wondered if the farmhouse was where my house was in the other world.  Was that how things worked in these alternate universes?  That would make it easier for us to find the portal–just look in the woods behind the backyard.  But I remembered how confusing the geography of the Burger Queen world had been, and I figured we weren’t going to be that lucky.

I was tired and hungry by now.  Kevin was starting to look pretty worn-out too.  I knew he wanted to keep searching until he found the portal.  But he only had so much energy; it would only be daylight for so long.  It would be tough.

“We turn here,” Stinky said finally, pointing to a road up ahead on the right.  “Go left and the road’ll take us to town and the harbor, go right to the Barnes farm.  It’s a nice little place.”

I looked at Kevin.  He shrugged.  “Let’s go to the farm,” he said.

So we turned off the Post Road, and then took another turn after a while, onto a small lane lined with hedges.  “There it is,” Stinky said.  “Lucky thing, looks like the Portuguese left it alone.  Probably didn’t bother coming this far off the main road.”

The house was small, far less imposing than the Gradgers’, or Professor Palmer’s house in Cambridge.  The red barn behind the house was bigger than house itself was.  Both seemed to be in good shape.  We walked up the lane to the front door.  I knocked.  There was no answer.

“What do you want to do?” Stinky asked.

“Go inside,” I said.  “Start a fire.  Get the place ready for them.”

“You mean just . . . move in?”

I nodded.

“If you say so.”

The door wasn’t locked, so we walked inside.

We found ourselves in a small entryway.  On the left was a long, dark, low-ceilinged room dominated by a big fireplace, with heavy black pots and pans hung next to it.  On the right was a smaller, brighter room with nothing in it but a table and chairs.  We walked into the room with the fireplace.  It led into the kitchen, where there was another table and chairs, and some shelves with pewter plates and cups on them.  Next to the fireplace was a small storage area.  In a corner of the living room was a spinning wheel.  “Home Sweet Home” said a piece of embroidery hung on the wall to our right.

Home.

Strangely–or maybe not so strangely–it did feel like home.

Everything was where it should be, where I wanted it to be.  Beyond the room on the right was a bedroom, with a Bible on the nightstand next to the bed.  From there you climbed up a wooden ladder-like set of stairs to an attic, where there were a couple more beds with a curtain between them.  On the floor I saw some wooden toys that probably belonged to Matthew.  I wondered how Cassie put up with Matthew chattering away on the other side of that curtain at bedtime.  In this world, she didn’t have a choice.

We checked out back.  Firewood was stacked neatly by the door.  Beyond it was the well, and on the other side of the yard was the privy.  Everything was simple but solid and clean.  I thought about how my mother always insisted that we keep our rooms tidy.  When we’d whine that the mess didn’t bother us, she’d say, “There’s no excuse for being a slob.”  There wasn’t, really.  I had a lump in my throat when I went back inside.

“Must be pretty weird for you, huh?” Kevin murmured while Stinky brought in firewood.

“It seems so . . . familiar.  How are you doing?”

“All right, I guess.  Pretty wiped.  Do you think the portal’s further south along the main road?”

“Probably.  I haven’t seen anything that looked familiar so far.  But then again, it was so foggy, and we were running for our lives, and–”

“I know.  I remember a bunch of pine trees across the road when we came out of the woods–but there are pine trees all over the place.  Anyway, it can’t be far.  Glanbury’s not that big a town.”

Unless the portal had disappeared back where it came from.  Unless it had moved.  Unless, unless . . .  “It can’t be far,” I agreed.  Kevin didn’t want to hear anything else.

We went and helped Stinky get the fire started.  Then it was time to go hunting for our supper.  Kevin stayed behind again.  He was tired, and besides, he didn’t care about hunting; it wasn’t something he was going to do once he got back home.

So Stinky and I went out with my rifle and his pistol.  We had to tramp through fields where cornstalks drooped, then climb over a long stone wall.  We passed by a small body of water that Stinky was familiar with.  “Amity Pond,” he said.  “Good fishing.  We may be able to catch some trout there.”  And then we headed into the woods past the pond.

This time when we spotted a turkey, Stinky motioned to me to take the shot.  It was a lot different from aiming at an empty Coke can with a BB gun.  Sorry, bird, I thought.  And I pulled the trigger.

The turkey squawked and keeled over.  Stinky clapped me on the back.  “Terrific,” he said.

All I could think of was the soldier with the wispy mustache.  Still, I had gotten us dinner.

We trudged back to the farmhouse, and this time all three of us helped prepare the turkey.  It was gross, but it had to be done. Another skill worth learning in this world.  Then we cooked and ate it the way we did the night before; it tasted fine, but I could tell I was going to get sick of turkey pretty soon, if that’s all we could find to eat.  Better than going hungry, though.

We found some blankets in the storage area and slept in front of the fire in the living room, like we had at the Gradgers; using the beds didn’t seem right.  We figured we were safe here, so we didn’t stand watches.  And in the morning the sun was shining, the fire had died down, and we had to figure out what to do next.

I assumed Stinky would want to leave, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry.  “Oh, I’ll find old man Kincaid when the time comes, and we’ll work things out,” he said, talking about his master.  “In the meantime, there’s plenty to be done here.  Chopping wood, hunting, fishing . . .  We can cart ice back from Amity Pond to preserve the meat.  There should be a root cellar somewhere around.  We can search for seed corn and make sure it’s protected.  That’ll be important come next spring.”

Kevin wasn’t interested in doing chores.  “What’s the point?” he demanded when Stinky was paying a visit to the privy.  “Let’s just find the portal and go home.  Now.”

He was right, of course.  We had done it.  We had gotten back to Glanbury, and there was no one to stop us from going home.  Still . . .

I wanted to find out what had happened to my family on this world.  I wanted to make sure they were okay.  And I didn’t want to have them wonder what happened to Larry Palmer.  Did he die in the battle?  Why did he never come to see us like he promised?

But I couldn’t say that to Kevin; he would’ve gone nuts.  He was already staring at me suspiciously.  “What’s the matter?” he demanded.

“I’m just a little–I don’t know,” I said.  “What if the portal doesn’t take us home?  We could step out into a black hole or something.”

“Okay, yeah, it’s a risk.  We know that.  But we’ve gotta take it, Larry.  We can’t stay here for the rest of our lives if we have a chance to make it home.”

“Sure, but, you know, what if you bring those drikana germs back with you?  We don’t want to start a plague or something.”

“I’m not contagious.  This world doesn’t know how to cure drikana, but they know when people are contagious.  I’m out of claustration.  I feel fine.  Now let’s go.”

Stinky came back in.  “What shall we do now?”

Kevin looked at me.

“Kevin and I are going hunting,” I said.  “We’ll be back in a while.”

“I’ll come too,” he replied.  “If you shoot a deer, we might need the three of us to bring it back.”

“No, uh, why don’t you stay here, Julian.  We’ll be all right.”

He looked puzzled and disappointed, but he didn’t argue.  He also didn’t say anything when we went down the lane to the road, rather than back into the woods beyond Amity Pond.

I might never see him again, I thought.

Kevin couldn’t have cared less.  He practically raced back to the Post Road.  When we reached it, we turned right and started heading south.  “Give a shout if you spot anything that looks familiar,” he said.

“Sure.”

But it all looked more or less familiar.  Or more or less unfamiliar.  I peered into the woods on the left and tried to remember any details from those few frantic moments when we raced out of the woods and into the road.  “Maybe there?” I suggested at one point, although I couldn’t say why.

But Kevin got excited, and we tramped into the woods and wandered around for a while, waving our hands in front of us.  We didn’t find anything, although I spotted a deer staring at us like we were crazy.  “Why did you think it was here?” he demanded.

“I don’t know.  Just a guess.  I can’t really remember anything, Kevin.  But I’m trying.”

“All right,” he said.  “Let’s keep going.”

We went back to the road and continued heading south.  We stopped a couple of times more when Kevin thought he spotted something he recognized, and we went through the same routine, walking around in the woods, hoping we stumbled onto the portal.  We weren’t just looking for a needle in a haystack, I thought.  We were looking for an invisible needle, and we didn’t even know which haystack it was in.

But I wasn’t going to say that to Kevin.

Finally we reached a deserted building called the Wompatuck Inn.  I didn’t remember the inn, but Wompatuck was the town just south of Glanbury.  We looked at each other.  Kevin sat down on a hitching post.  “I don’t know,” he said softly.  “I thought . . . I thought I’d spot something.  I thought we’d get lucky for once.”

“We can keep looking, Kevin.  We’ve got time.”

“Until Lieutenant Carmody tracks us down.  He knows we’re here looking for the portal.”

“He’ll think we’re gone.”

“He won’t be sure.  He’ll check.  You know he will.”

“Well, it’s got to be here somewhere.”

“No, it doesn’t,” he replied in a tired tone.  “We don’t know anything about it–where it came from, how it works.  We’re just a couple of stupid kids who did a really stupid thing.  And now . . . ”

I didn’t know what to say.  Finally Kevin stood up, and we started walking back.  He didn’t suggest looking in the woods.  “We should do some hunting,” I said after a while.

He just shrugged.  We had seen plenty of game besides the deer.  When we got near the farm I went back into the woods; Kevin didn’t join me.  Within a few minutes I had shot another turkey.

“I’m sick of turkey,” he muttered when I brought it out of the woods with me.

He was not going to be great company, I decided.  “Tomorrow,” I said.  “We’ll search again tomorrow.”

“Okay,” he replied.  “Whatever.”

When we got back to the farmhouse, Stinky was cooking up fish that he’d caught.  If he was curious about why we’d taken so long just to shoot one turkey, he didn’t say so.  It wasn’t hard to tell that something was wrong, but he didn’t ask what it was.

So it was a quiet night.  Kevin just stared into the fire; he barely touched his supper.  I ate enough for two, even though I didn’t like fish.  Stinky talked about all the chores he had done, and it made me feel guilty.  We went to sleep early, huddled in front of the fire.

I thought about my family–my “real” family–and how annoying they all could be, how rotten my life had been, with the “real” Stinky bugging me and Nora Lally ignoring me and my stupid teachers at The Gross boring me to death.  What if I didn’t have a choice–what if we couldn’t find the portal and I had to stay here?  No toilets or computers or TV, sure, but I was already used to not having that stuff.

What if I had to stay?

I fell asleep with that thought in my mind.

The next day was cold and raw.  Stinky and I did some chores while Kevin moped.  “What’s the matter with your friend?” Stinky finally asked me while we were in the barn.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think the battle bothered him.  He saw a lot of suffering.”

“We’ve all seen a lot the last few months,” was all he replied.

Eventually I got Kevin to go searching again.  Stinky didn’t offer to come with us this time.  I think Kevin was really starting to bother him.

We had only seen a couple of travelers yesterday.  Today there were a lot of people on the road, all making their way south.  We found out from them that no one was being stopped from leaving the city now; in fact, the army was encouraging it.  The travelers had the usual variety of rumors about what was happening with the Canadians, but no one said they had defeated us, and that was a good sign.

This time we headed north, back towards Weymouth.  We spent most of our time in the woods.  What was the point of walking along the road if we had no clue where to look?

After a while it started to snow.  “Great,” Kevin muttered.  “Now we won’t be able to recognize anything.”

But it wasn’t like we were recognizing anything to begin with.

We made it all the way back to the North River.  We watched the snow flecking the gray water for a while in silence, and then Kevin said, “Let’s go back before we freeze to death out here.”

“I’m sorry, Kev.”

He shrugged.  “Let’s just go.”

We turned back.  The snow was heavier now, and there were fewer people on the road.  We trudged along in silence, with our hands jammed into our pockets.  The snow was light and fluffy–not good snowball snow, but we were in no mood to throw snowballs.  For once I wished I was wearing those big old shoes from this world instead of my sneakers.

After a while I started looking for where we turned off the Post Road.  Visibility wasn’t that great anymore, and I sure didn’t want to miss the turn and keep on walking in the snowstorm.  Kevin didn’t look like he was going to be much help.  Up ahead I could make out a wagon, moving slowly along the road.  We got closer.  Suddenly the squeaking of the wheels stopped, and I heard a voice.  “This is Town Road, I think.”

It was my mother.

I started grinning and ran up to the wagon.  “Mrs. Barnes?” I said.  “It’s me–Larry Palmer!”

She was sitting on the bench with the reins in her hand.  Matthew sat next to her.  “Larry?” she whispered.  “Sweet Lord, it is.”

There was something about the way she said it.  There was none of the excitement and surprise I had expected; it was as if she could barely bring herself to speak.  I looked at Matthew; his eyes were red with tears.  “Larry, Cassie’s dead,” he said.  “Our own soldiers shot her, damn their eyes.”

I stared at my mother, and I knew that it was true.  A tear leaked out of her eye and fell down her cheek, mixing with the snowflakes.  I came closer and looked in the back of the wagon.  There, in the middle of all their snow-covered possessions, wrapped in a sheet, was the outline of a body.

“Oh, no,” I cried.  “Oh please, no.”

Mom reached down and touched me on the arm as I, too, started to weep.

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