Portal, an online novel: Chapter 29

Chapter 28: Larry helps to bury Cassie, and in the little family graveyard he see his own grave.  Afterward Mom tells the story of how she dies — shot by a New England soldier in the camp because she wouldn’t — couldn’t — follow orders.  Larry has to lie about what’s been happening to him and why he’s in Glanbury.  His mother says that he and Kevin and Stinky are welcome to stay, but Larry is beginning to realize how complicated this new situation is going to be.

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Chapter 29

Then for a few short weeks my life took on a new rhythm, as I hunted and fished and did chores, and later helped neighbors who had returned to homes that had been burned or ransacked.  It was great to be with Mom and Matthew, but every moment was shadowed by thoughts of Cassie’s death and worries about the future.  Was Dad all right?  What was happening with the Canadians? 

And where was the portal? 

Kevin kept searching, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it.  And I was too busy.  After a few days I think he started trying to get used to the idea that he was staying in this world, but it wasn’t something he wanted to talk about.  Maybe talking about it made it more real somehow, and he didn’t want to give up hope entirely.  I guess I couldn’t blame him.

And there were lots of awkward moments.  Like Mom asking me about my family and my future.  “You really need to go back to the city and settle things, Larry.  I’m sure your father had a will, and he may have named someone to be your guardian.  We can find a lawyer to help you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “After the war we’ll figure it out.  As soon as it’s safe.”

If she thought it wasn’t safe to go to Boston, she’d never let me go.

And then there was our clothes.  She insisted on washing them–we must have stunk pretty badly.  So Kevin and I peeled down to reveal that we were wearing another whole layer of strange clothes underneath our regular ones. 

“Where in the world did you get those pants?” she asked.

“China,” I said.  “My father knows a professor in China.  He sent them to us.  Did you notice this thing?  It’s called a ‘zipper’.  It’s really different.”

“But why do you wear the Chinese pants inside your regular pants?”

“We don’t like them all that much–we don’t want to look weird.  But we didn’t want to leave them behind.  They’re supposed to be valuable.”

I didn’t like lying to Mom, in either world.  It was easy to get her to believe you, and that just sort of made it worse.  When she found out about your lie she would tell you how disappointed she was, how much she had trusted you, and you ended up feeling like dirt.

“All these stories are pretty pointless,” Kevin said later.  “Sooner or later Carmody is going to come looking for the portal–and us.  And sooner or later you’re going to have to tell your mother the truth.”

“But I can’t tell her now,” I argued.  “What if she thinks we’re demons?  What if she throws us out?”

Kevin shrugged.  “She’s not going to do that,” he said.  “She’s crazy about you.  Anyway, suit yourself.”

But I couldn’t do it.  Not yet.

And then there was Stinky.  He wasn’t especially annoying, except that he didn’t seem to want to leave, and after a while that made everyone feel sort of awkward.  “No sense in going anywhere till Mister Kincaid’s back,” he said, talking about his master.  But then we heard from a neighbor that Kincaid was back, and Stinky said, “I’ll just get a beating when I return, so there’s no sense in hurrying.”  And so he stayed.

I tried to explain away Kevin’s story about the orphanage, but Stinky had his own explanation: “Your friend is insane,” he said.  “I just stay away from him as much as I can.”

That was fine with Kevin.

The best times were when I went off visiting with Mom and Matthew.  Stinky never went, because he was afraid of running into his master, and Kevin usually didn’t go because he just wasn’t interested.  But I enjoyed hearing people talk about their lives, and the war, and the rumors.  I enjoyed helping them rebuild their homes and barns; I turned out to be pretty good at carpentry, even though I never did much of it at home.

Everyone was really nice to me when they found out I was an orphan, but they would have been nice to me anyway.  And they all had some hardship to deal with–and not just the wrecked homes and barns.  A few of them had lost a family member; lots more had brothers and fathers and sons in the army, and there was no way of knowing if they were dead or alive.

More than once I ran into Sarah Lally.

Her father was a tailor, and the first time I saw her was outside his shop near the harbor.  My heart started racing. “Hi,” I managed to say.

She looked really happy to see me.  “How did you get here, Larry?  Do you know about Cassie?”

I told her the story about my father dying, and of course she was sympathetic.  She put her hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze.  “How awful,” she murmured.  “But how kind of you to come here to help.”

I felt guilty about lying to her, just the way I did with Mom.  But I didn’t want her to take her hand away.  “How are you doing?” I asked.

She gestured behind her at the shop.  “There was much damage, but we’ll be all right.”

“If there’s anything you need, let me know,” I said.

“Thank you, Larry.  Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you a question if I ever saw you again.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“That first time you saw me in the camp–you called me Nora Lally.  But you never explained: how did you know my last name?”

I had forgotten about that.  I had done pretty well answering my mother’s questions, and even making up something about the orphanage, but this was a tough one, especially with Sarah’s wide blue eyes gazing at me.  “I guess–I don’t know, really.”

She looked puzzled, but not angry or anything.  Then her father called to her from inside the shop.  “Well, no matter,” she said.  “Anyway—I’ll see you again, won’t I?”

“You can count on it.”

She smiled at me and rushed inside.

I did see her again, at neighbor’s houses and when we went to church–the same white church with the big steeple that overlooked the town common in my Glanbury.  And she was always happy to see me and easy to talk to, and it was hard to believe how scared of her I was back in my world.

Meanwhile, the news that filtered down from Boston was pretty good, although as usual everyone who showed up in Glanbury had a slightly different version.  We had defeated the Canadians, and they were retreating.  They weren’t retreating, but were preparing for a counterattack.  They had counterattacked but hadn’t been able to break through our defenses, which featured an amazing metal fence that killed anyone who touched it.  The blockade had ended, and supply ships from England were landing in Boston Harbor.  The blockade was still in place, but England had declared war on Portugal and it was only a matter of time . . . 

It was pretty much all anyone could talk about, and every scrap of news was treated like it was a precious gem.  But no one was going to really believe anything until they heard it from a returning soldier.  And that was what everyone was waiting for.

I was there when the first one arrived.  A bunch of us were working on the Wilsons’ barn when a red-jacketed man strode up the lane, a huge grin on his face.  It was Mr. Wilson, coming home.  Everyone got down from the ladders and came out of the house and crowded around.  He spent a while hugging and kissing his family, and then he gave us all the news: “We beat them Canadians,” he said.  “We fought ’em and fought ’em, and finally they retreated back north, and they’re not coming back.”

“Are you sure?” someone asked.  “Is it official?”

“They’re working on the peace treaty now at Coolidge Palace,” he replied.  “And the first thing they did was lift the blockade.  I hear food supplies’ll be moving down the coast any day now.”

“The other soldiers–when are they coming back?”

“Hard to say.  They’re letting the volunteers go, but not everyone at once.  Don’t know how I got to be among the first, but I’m not complainin’.”

And then the questions really started coming.  Have you seen my husband?  What about my son–is he all right?  There was good news and bad news for the people there.  And for a few there was no news at all.  Mom waited till the end.  “Henry–have you seen Henry?” she asked.

Mr. Wilson shook his head.  “Not lately, Emma.  But that doesn’t mean anything.  There were thousands of soldiers.  He could’ve been anywhere along the front.  I’m sure he’ll show up any day now.”

Mom forced a smile.  “Of course.  I understand.  I’m sure you’re right.”

So some people left the Wilsons’ place happy that day, and some in tears, and some–like us–were just as worried as before. 

Anyway, then things started to change. 

For example, Stinky finally decided to leave.  He knew it was only a matter of time before his master found out where he was, so he figured he didn’t have much choice.  He looked very depressed when he told us his decision. 

“You’ve been great, Julian,” I said.  “We wouldn’t have survived without you.”

He turned red and looked down at the floor.  “Don’t thank me,” he said.  “I’m just–I’m no saint, that’s all.  Anyone would have done what I did.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I replied.  It was hard to believe, but I knew I was going to miss him.  I had almost stopped thinking of him as “Stinky.”  I shook his hand, and then watched him as he said goodbye to the others.  He looked like he was holding back tears.  Even Kevin seemed sad to see him trudging down the lane away from the farmhouse.  “Not one wet willie from him,” Kevin said afterwards, which was about as close as he could come to saying something nice about Stinky. 

And then the food arrived, just like Mr. Wilson said.  A ship showed up in Glanbury Harbor filled with emergency supplies, and we all went down to the docks to get our share.  Beef, potatoes, flour–even sugar and molasses.  People couldn’t believe their eyes.  It was like a gift from heaven.

That was the day the town decided to have a victory celebration at the church hall.  The date was set: December 24th.  Christmas Eve.

It was the first time I’d thought about Christmas.  “They don’t celebrate it, do they, Kevin?” I asked.

Kevin shook his head.  “Not in New England.  It’s just another day here.  I read about it at Professor Palmer’s.  The Portuguese do all sorts of things for Christmas, but New Englanders say it’s just a pagan tradition.  Can you imagine, no Christmas?”

One more reason for Kevin to feel homesick.  Me too.  I remembered how excited Matthew got, so he could barely sleep a wink the night before, and he kept me awake too, of course, the two of us finally sneaking downstairs early to see the presents, Cassie coming down later and complaining about everything she got . . .  “Doesn’t seem right,” I said.

“It’s a different world, Larry.  It’ll never be your world, no matter how much you think you can make it yours.”

“Okay, okay,” I grumbled. 

The end of the war had started Kevin looking for the portal again in earnest.  “Now there’s nothing stopping Lieutenant Carmody from coming down here and finding out what happened to us,” he pointed out.  And he was pretty upset that I wasn’t interested in helping him, so he didn’t pass up any chance to let me know how stupid I was being. 

I saw his point, but walking around in the woods looking for an invisible needle in the haystack just didn’t seem all that useful to me, when I had so much to do helping Mom and Matthew and the rest of folks in Glanbury.

And, to tell the truth, I was worried about what would happen if my father didn’t return from the war.  The days went by, and more and more soldiers returned home, but no Henry Barnes.  And no news of him either.  None of the returning soldiers remembered seeing him shot or bayoneted or captured, which was good, but none could say for sure he was alive, either, and by now we were desperate for some news.  Matthew looked out the window during the day, and after dark he listened for footsteps in the lane.  “He’s coming home soon, Mama, isn’t he?” he asked.  “He’ll be here for the celebration on Christmas Eve, won’t he?”

“I’m sure of it, Matthew,” she replied. 

But her eyes were anxious, and I knew she was as worried as any of us.

“You could go in the wagon to Boston,” I suggested to her finally.  “Ask for him at army headquarters.  They must have lists and stuff.  You’ll probably find out, one way or the other.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” she said.  Then she brightened.  “And we could see a lawyer and start getting matters resolved about your father.”

Oops, that wasn’t what I had in mind.  “Well–” I began.

“Don’t argue with me, Larry,” she interrupted.  “It’s time, and you know it.  We’ll do it tomorrow.”

“But tomorrow’s Christmas Eve.  Tomorrow’s the celebration.”

“We’ll get an early start.  If we miss the celebration, that’s fine–I don’t really feel like celebrating.”

Of course I got no sympathy from Kevin when I told him.  “Just tell her the truth,” he said.  “Get it over with.”

I couldn’t see any way out.  “All right,” I said.  “Tomorrow, for sure.”

I must not have sounded all that convincing, because Kevin started in on me again.  “You’re still dreaming, Larry.  But it’s time to wake up.  You can’t just be this substitute kid for them.  And you can’t live in a substitute world.  It’s not going to work.”

“Shut up, Kevin,” I said.  It was all I could think of to say.

At supper Mom told Matthew about how we were all going to Boston, and we might not make it to the celebration, and that got him depressed.  And he finally understood that Kevin and I might not be staying forever, and that got him really depressed. 

And that got me really depressed.

If I told Mom the truth, what would happen?

After supper I went outside to think about it.  It was a clear, moonlit night, the kind where you don’t seem to mind the cold.  So I stood there, listening to the silence.  Was Kevin right?  Was I dreaming?  Probably.  But he was dreaming too, wasn’t he?  Dreaming that there was a way back home, when by now it was clear that there wasn’t, that the portal was gone and we were stuck here for the rest of our lives.  We were both entitled to our dreams.   

Then I heard something–footsteps in the snow.  Too loud for an animal.  I looked up, and saw a man in a dark coat walking up the path towards the house.  He was carrying a rifle and a satchel.  His coat was red, I realized.  A uniform.

“Dad!” I cried, and I ran to him.

He stopped, and then I stopped too, realizing what I’d said.  We stared at each other.

“Larry?” he asked, staring at me with a puzzled expression.  “Larry Palmer?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. 

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m just, you know, helping out.  You’re family’s inside.  They’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

“I expect they have,” he said, breaking into a grin.

That grin hit me like a blow.  I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just stepped aside.  He patted me uncertainly on the shoulder.  “Well, then, we’ll talk,” he said.  Then he walked past me and went into his house.

And I stayed out there in the cold as he greeted Mom and Matthew and learned the awful news that awaited him.

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