Portal, an online novel: Chapter 28

Chapter 27: Well, that was a bummer.  Kevin, Larry, and Stinky Glover make it back to Glanbury and move into the Barnes farmhouse.  Kevin and Larry look for the portal without success.  In a snowstorm they run into Larry’s Mom and brother coming home from Boston in their cart.  And in the back of the cart is his sister Cassie’s dead body.

Why do writers think they can get away with killing characters off like this?  Have they no human decency?

We’re not far from the end now, so I may ramp up the posting of these chapters.  The suspense is killing me.

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Chapter 28

Kevin and I walked alongside the wagon as Mom made her way through the snow back to the farmhouse.  She didn’t say anything; she didn’t ask who Kevin was or why we were there in Glanbury.  Even Matthew was quiet, except to complain about how hungry he was.

“We have food,” I said.  “We’ll take care of you.”

Stinky saw the wagon drive up the lane and came out to meet us.  “Julian?” Mom asked, with a puzzled look on her face.

“Just staying with Lawrence, ma’am,” Stinky replied.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

She didn’t respond.  She and Matthew got down from the wagon, and we took them inside and had them sit in front of the fire.  In the kitchen, I explained to Stinky about Cassie.  “Terrible,” he said.  “To live through it all, and then at the very end . . . ”

I nodded.  “They’re going to need all the help we can give them.”

Stinky had already cooked the turkey I had shot yesterday.  We carved it up in the kitchen and brought some out to them.  Mom looked like she didn’t want to eat, but she was too hungry to resist.  Matthew wolfed his food down.  “We’ve had almost nothing to eat for two days,” he said between bites.  “And we don’t know where Papa is or if he’s alive, and Gretel got lame and we thought we might not even make it home, and it’s been terrible, just terrible.”

Mom put her hand on his arm.  “We’re all right now, Matthew,” she murmured.  “Try not to eat to much.  It might make you ill.”

He leaned back against her, but kept eating.

Mom stood up when she had finished.  “We can’t leave her out there,” she said.

Did she want to bring Cassie’s body inside? I thought stupidly. No, she headed out the back door to the barn.  I followed her.  Inside, she found a pick and a shovel.  “Three days she’s awaited a proper burial,” Mom murmured.  “She can’t wait any longer.”

“I’ll help,” I said.  “We’ll all help.”

She stopped and gazed at me the way she had in the camp–puzzled, like she was on the brink of understanding who I really was.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you, Larry.  Finding you here is–is the only good thing that’s happened to us in a long time.”

I took the pick and shovel and followed her back out front.  I set the tools down by the wagon and went inside to get Kevin, Stinky, and Matthew.  Then we all followed behind the wagon as Mom drove it around the farmhouse to the edge of a little patch of woods beyond the barn.  Matthew was sobbing.  Kevin glanced at me a couple of times, but he didn’t say anything.

Mom got down from the wagon and led us into the woods.  We came to a small clearing after a while, and in the middle of the clearing a few crosses stuck up through the snow.  My head started spinning as I stared at those crosses.  Kevin gripped my arm.  Mom pointed to a spot in the snow.  “Cassie needs to go here,” she said.  “Beside her brother.”

I looked at the cross next to where she was pointing.  Two words were crudely carved on it:

 

Lawrence Barnes

 

I was staring at my own grave.

“That’s the boy who would have been just about your age,” my mother was saying to me.  “My baby.”

I think maybe I forgot to breathe for a while.  “It’s okay, Larry,” Kevin whispered to me.  “Take it easy.”

Kevin and I’d had talked about what would happen if we ran into our other selves in this world.  Would we both explode, or destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum or something?  Stupid.  We never talked about this.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I was as spooked as I could possibly be.  But I didn’t do anything.  I just stood there in the snow.  I was alive, the earth kept spinning, and that other me–the baby who didn’t make it–was still at rest in the cold ground.

And now we had to lay his sister–my sister–to rest, too.

We took turns using the pick and shovel to dig the hole in the frozen, rocky soil.  I did most of the work, though–Kevin still didn’t have all his strength back, and it wasn’t the sort of task Stinky enjoyed.  It seemed to take forever.  It grew dark, and my muscles were screaming with pain after a while–the most digging I’d ever done was a little bit of snow shoveling, and I’d usually complain about having to do that.  But we kept at it, and at last the time had come.  We lifted Cassie’s body out of the wagon, then slid her down into the ground and covered her up.  After that we stood around the grave as darkness fell and said some prayers, while I felt sorry for every mean thing I’d said to her in every conceivable universe.

“Thank you all,” my mother said at the end.  “God bless you.”

And then we made our way slowly back to the farmhouse.  Stinky took care of Gretel, and Kevin and I hauled in the few possessions Mom and Matthew had brought home in the wagon.

With her duty done, Mom seemed to relax a little.  She looked even older, more worn down than she had in the camp.  But she didn’t cry much, just a few tears.  Mom wasn’t a crier; she was the one who gave comfort, not the one who needed comforting.  She put Matthew to bed–she let him sleep in the downstairs bedroom with her–and then came out to join us in front of the fireplace.

And she asked the questions I knew were coming: “Larry, what happened?  How did you get here?”

As usual I hadn’t thought through my answer, so I just blurted something out.  “My father died, and I had nowhere else to go.”

“Oh no, Larry, what happened?”

What happened?  “He was–he was working with the army.  He had invented this electric fence that would, like, give the enemy soldiers a shock when they tried to climb over it.  He was operating it at the battle with the Portuguese.  And it worked great but–but they shot him.  He died instantly.”  I remembered Professor Foster dropping to the ground, killed in his moment of triumph.

“Oh my poor sweet boy.  Is there no end to these horrors?”

“I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so I came here,” I continued.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?  Of course not.  Stay as long as you want.  And your friend–”

“Kevin.  He’s, uh, an orphan.  He lived with us.  And Julian–we met him at the army camp, and he helped us get here.  We couldn’t have done it without him.”

I glanced at Stinky.  He didn’t say anything about how a couple of days ago Kevin had told him we lived in an orphanage.  Did he remember?  Of course he did.

“You’re all welcome to our home,” Mom said.  She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.  Stinky threw another log on the fire.

“Can you–can you tell us what happened to Cassie?” I asked.

“Perhaps another time,” she said wearily.

“Sure.  I understand.”

But after a moment she said, “I suppose it might help.  There’s been no one to talk to–just Matthew . . . ”  She paused again, and then began.  “You were there in the camp that last day, Larry.  You saw how wild things were becoming.”

I nodded.  “I barely got out.  Soldiers were firing at people by the main gate.”

“Yes.  We’d endured for so long in the camp, but then–we knew it was ending soon, and it seemed to drive some people mad.”

“Cassie wouldn’t come out of the tent,” I recalled.  “She wouldn’t listen to anyone.”

“Yes, that was Cassie.”  Mom’s eyes got a faraway look, and I imagined she was thinking about all the ways in which Cassie had caused them problems.  Or maybe it was just the opposite.  What do I know?  “Cassie just couldn’t stand it anymore,” she went on.  “Not another day, not another minute.  We all heard the shots by the main gate.  We weren’t sure what had happened.  Twenty people dead, someone said; someone else said a hundred.  And there were other rumors: the gates had been stormed and the guards had fled.  The Canadians were already in the city.  There was a drikana outbreak in the camp.  The wildest things.  Cassie begged me to leave.  But even if I had wanted to, there was no way we could get out of the camp in that madness with a horse and wagon and all our possessions.  ‘Leave them behind,’ she insisted.  ‘It’s all worthless anyway.’

“But I wouldn’t do it.  ‘Let’s wait for the morning,’ I said.  ‘Everyone says the soldiers will be gone by then.’

“She wouldn’t listen to me, though.  She was never–she was never easy.  Not bad, no, but . . . she knew her own mind.  Perhaps if I had tried harder to understand . . . ”

Mom paused then, as if she were thinking about how she could blame herself for Cassie’s death.  “Then what happened?” I asked softly.

“She ran away,” Mom answered.  “She didn’t argue, she just ran, as if she couldn’t stand it another moment.  I told Matthew to go stay with the Lallys and I went after her, but it was so difficult.  It was dark, and all the paths were crowded with people and wagons, and no one would get out of the way.  She didn’t head toward the main gate.  She went to the water station.  I don’t know why–perhaps she thought it wouldn’t be guarded at night.  Perhaps she’d heard that the fence had been torn down, and there was just that little stream to cross.  Or perhaps she had met the guards there and flirted with them, and she thought they would let her pass.

“I almost reached her.  I called out to her, but she just kept going.  I was near a soldier, and he was very young, and I could tell he didn’t know what to do.  Someone else called out ‘Halt!’  She was in the middle of the stream by now.  She paused and looked back.  She saw me, and I called out to her again.  But then she turned and kept going.  And then I heard the shot.”

Mom paused again and stared into the fire.  I wasn’t going to say anything this time.  If she wanted to talk about it, she’d do it when she was ready.

“Cassie went down,” Mom continued at last.  “I kept going after her, through the stream and onto the other side where she was lying.  So why didn’t they shoot me, too?”

I thought she wanted an answer, but I couldn’t think of one.  I guess she was just asking herself, though, because she repeated the question softly, and then went on.  “I held her in my arms, but there was no bringing her back, no bringing her back.  I noticed that the young soldier was standing next to me after a while, and he was crying and saying, ‘Didn’t she understand?  All she had to do was stop.  Why wouldn’t she stop?’

“Because she’s Cassie, I thought.  Don’t you see?  She didn’t think she had to stop for anyone.

“I didn’t want to move, but I couldn’t stay there.  The soldier helped me carry the body back to our wagon.  And then I had to get Matthew and tell him what had happened.  And then . . . ”

Mom put her hands to her face.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought, making her relive all this stuff.

“If she could have just waited a few more hours,” she said.  “A few hours later, all the guards were gone, heading off to the battle.  It must have been midnight when I heard that, and it wasn’t a rumor this time.  The gates were open, the guards had disappeared, and people were pouring out into the city.  Not that they had anywhere to go in the city.  Not that I cared.  Some of our friends were sitting with me, helping me grieve.  They wanted me to leave with them, but what was the point?  This was where Cassie had died.  Why should I go anywhere else?

“They couldn’t wait finally.  Everyone was leaving.  The camp was emptying out.  But then near dawn Matthew awoke–despite everything, he had finally fallen asleep–and I knew that I had to leave too, I had to get him home if I possibly could.  So I packed the wagon and hitched up Gretel, and we left.”

“Kevin and I were in the camp a little after dawn that day, looking for you,” I said.  “It was pretty empty.”

Mom nodded.  “It was a dismal place, and we were all so tired of it.  People looted the army buildings during the night, then set fire to them.  I think they might have shot the guards if they had found any of them.

“But the city streets were no better–worse, really, because the other Glanbury families were gone, and I had no one to talk to, no one to help me.  That first day I stopped at a church, and the minister took pity on us and gave us a little food.  He offered to bury Cassie in the church’s graveyard, but I couldn’t leave her there–she had to go home too.  Then I tried to get out of the city, but Gretel went lame–poor girl, she’d had no exercise for months.  It’s a wonder she’s still alive.  I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t recovered.  Matthew was frantic.  He wanted us to go find his father, but Henry was fighting the Canadians, and we have no idea where he was, or if he was even alive.

“Finally at dawn this morning we started out, praying that Gretel would make it.  She did, thank the Lord.  And now we’re home.  Now we’re home.”

I reached over and put my hand on her arm, the way she liked to do.  She smiled at me and squeezed my hand.  “I never thought I’d see you again,” she said.  “But under such awful circumstances . . . ”

“I’ll help you,” I said.  “We’ll all help you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, and fell silent.

Mom went and joined Matthew in bed a little later.  Stinky fell asleep by the fire.  I was still wide awake.

“That was weird,” Kevin remarked.

“What?  The graveyard?” I said.

“Yeah.  I thought you were going to faint.”

“It did make me a little dizzy,” I admitted. “But in a way, it’s weirder thinking about Cassie.”

“Sounds like she was kind of–you know–the same in both worlds.” Kevin said.

“A pain, you mean. ‘Difficult,’ my dad says.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Not that she deserved to die.”

“For going nuts in that camp?” I said.  “No, she didn’t deserve to die for that.”

“Your mom and Matthew–that’s weird, too.  They look just like, you know . . . ”

“You see what I mean?” I pressed him.  “They aren’t different people.  They are my family.  They’re just . . . here.”

Kevin stared at the fire.  Thinking about the portal and getting home, I supposed.  Thinking about how he had no one here, no Albright family to welcome him.

“We can keep looking for the portal,” I said.  “It’s gotta be out there somewhere.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Maybe.”  Then he lay down and wrapped the blanket around him.  “Let’s just get some sleep.”

And then there was just me awake in the silent farmhouse.  I had found my family again, but things hadn’t exactly turned out the way I’d wanted them to.  Poor Cassie.  I know she can be difficult, Dad had said to me once, but she’s family.  And that’s the most important thing.  Someday you’ll realize that you love her.

I didn’t know about that.  But I couldn’t help thinking about Cassie.  And, difficult as she was, I couldn’t help wishing she was still alive and giving us all a hard time.  No, she didn’t deserve to die.  And my mom sure didn’t deserve the heartache her death had brought.

I didn’t want to bring her any more heartache.

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