Portal, an online novel: Chapter 30

Chapter 29: Life starts returning to normal in Glanbury.  Larry and Kevin are living with Mrs. Barnes and Matthew.  Stinky leaves to return to his master.  The news finally arrives that the war is over, the Canadians have been defeated along with the New Portuguese, and the town decides to hold a celebration on Christmas Eve.  Soldiers start returning — but not Larry’s dad.  Meanwhile, his mom insists that Larry has to go to Boston to settle the affairs of the “father” he has made up, who supposedly died in the war.  Kevin pressures Larry to tell his mom the truth about who they really are and where they have come from.  Larry reluctantly agrees.  And then, the night before he is going to do this, his father shows up.  In his excitement, Larry rushes to greet him and calls him “Dad.”

(Okay, that was a pretty complicated chapter, plot-wise.  Probably easier just to read the thing.)

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Chapter 30

I stayed outside; I didn’t want to intrude.  Kevin came out to join me a couple of minutes later.  We sat down on the front step.  “Pretty emotional in there,” he said.

“I bet.  How did he take the news?”

“He cried.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grown man cry before.”

“Did he say where he’d been–why it took him so long to get here?”

“He was helping to scout the Canadian retreat–you know, make sure it wasn’t some kind of trick.  He didn’t exactly say it, but I think the officers really liked him–they wanted him to stay.  But he wouldn’t.”

We were silent for a while.  Then I said, “I called him ‘Dad’ when I saw him–it just slipped out.”

Kevin nodded.  “He looks different with the beard, but yeah–he’s your dad.  Think he noticed?”

“My dad notices everything.”

Then we looked up at the stars until the door opened.  “Come in, boys,” Mom said softly.  “You’ll get a fever staying outside in the cold.”

We got up.  Her eyes were shining.  “This is a wonderful night, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “It surely is.”

We followed her back inside and sat by the fire while she rejoined Dad and Matthew in the kitchen.

Matthew was sitting on Dad’s lap.  Mom had poured cups of tea and put out some food.  There was a jar of jam on the table–Dad must have brought it back from Boston.  He looked at me and said, “Mrs. Barnes has told me all you’ve done for us, Larry.  I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.  And I’m very sorry about your father’s death.”

I just managed a nod in return, then I got up and threw another log onto the fire.

“Tell us about the battle, Papa,” Matthew begged him.  “From the beginning.”

“Your father is very tired, Matthew,” Mom put in.  “Perhaps tomorrow.”

“It’s all right, Emma.  He’s been waiting for this story, I think, and it’s time he got it.  I was stationed at the Brighton fortifications, Matthew, and the orders were to hold them at all costs.  The artillery fire was fierce before the battle.  I couldn’t believe that we weren’t all killed.  The sun rose at some point, but we couldn’t see it for all the smoke.  Our lieutenant gave a speech about saving our homeland and so on, but I don’t think any of us paid much attention.  We just wanted to get through the battle.  And after a while we got tired of the waiting and just wanted the thing to start.  Finally we were moved north along the line about half a mile.  We assumed those airships helped the officers decide where the assault was going to come.  There had been some kind of strange, thin fence rolled out, as well.  None of us could figure out what it was for.”

“That’s the fence that killed everyone,” Matthew said.

“Not that I could tell,” Dad replied.  “Anyway, when we got to our new positions, the artillery fire had stopped, and it was very quiet for a few minutes.  Then we could hear them coming.  A little while after that, we could see them.”

He fell silent for a moment.  It sounded much like the battle with the Portuguese.

“Were there a lot of them?” Matthew asked.

“Too many,” he replied.

“And did you kill ’em?”

“Yes, Matthew, some of them.  I took no pleasure in it, but this was war, and killing is what you do in a war.  It was a fierce attack.  That fence just slowed them down a little, as far as I could tell.  We shot many of them, but there were many more we didn’t have time to shoot.  They breached the fortifications, and then we were fighting them hand-to-hand.  We knew that we couldn’t let them past.”

“And they didn’t get past, right?” Matthew said.  “You beat them.”

“Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, son.  We were actually forced to retreat after a while, but we fell back in good order–it wasn’t a rout.  We stopped and regrouped, and reinforcements arrived–I never found out from where–so we were ready when the Canadians attacked again.  I don’t think they expected us to put up so much resistance.  This time they were the ones who retreated, back beyond the fortifications.

“But it wasn’t the end, by any means.  They didn’t run away like the Portuguese.  And there was a rumor that their forces had broken through further west, so we were worried that we’d be outflanked.  We commandeered whatever houses we found nearby and spent the night in them.  We were cold and hungry and exhausted, and some of us had wounds that weren’t being treated.  We were happy to have survived, but we knew that tomorrow was likely to be even harder.”

Dad paused to sip his tea, and Mom put a hand on his arm to comfort him.  “Was there another battle?” Matthew asked.

“There was, but not the next day, as it turned out.  I don’t know if the Canadians made a mistake by not attacking immediately.  Maybe they were in as bad a shape as we were and also needed time to regroup.  But in any case, nothing happened.  Except more reinforcements arrived–the soldiers who had defeated the Portuguese south of the city.  That helped us immensely, knowing we had more comrades, and knowing there was just one army left to defeat.

“And then the generals started maneuvering.  We marched here and there over the next few days, without any of us having a clear idea of what we were doing.  We were getting very nervous.  Even with the new troops we were still outnumbered.  And most of us weren’t professional soldiers, after all, and none of us had had enough to eat for months.  We couldn’t wait forever to fight, but we couldn’t afford to fight with the odds against us.”

Matthew was getting bored.  “Tell me about the next battle, Papa,” he demanded.

Dad nodded.  “All right, the next battle.  The final battle.  Our lieutenant said to get ready, it was coming, and it would be different from the last one.  It would be much bigger, and it would be on open ground, instead of fighting from behind the fortifications.  Our position gave us a slight advantage–we held the heights in Brighton–but they had more troops, and probably more ammunition.  The main difference this time was that we were the ones who would attack.

“So we woke up before dawn and got ready and said our prayers, and before we really had time to think or worry or be afraid we were charging down towards the enemy, and they were firing back at us.  I don’t know how I survived.  People were dying all around me.  I just tried to stay alive and do my job, which was to kill as many of the Canadians as I could.

“It was a terrible battle.  Matthew, I know war sounds exciting, but I tell you, I never want to see another day like that one.  And I was lucky–I was cut and bruised and punched and kicked, but I wasn’t seriously wounded, I wasn’t left for dead, like a lot of soldiers I knew.  And I didn’t end up with a leg amputated, a cripple for the rest of my days.

“Well, in the end the Canadians retreated.  It didn’t exactly feel like victory–again, they didn’t turn and run, we didn’t slaughter them.  But by sunset they were gone and we held the field.

“At first we didn’t know if it was going to be like before, and they were planning to fight again.  I don’t think we could have survived another battle.  But it turns out they decided they couldn’t survive one either.  They retreated.  And as I said, some of us just followed along after them–not to fight, but to make sure they were well and truly gone.  We stayed on their heels for upwards of a week.  They must be back home by now–and good riddance to them.”

“We won!” Matthew said.

“Yes,” Dad replied softly, “we won.  At such a cost.”

“You’ve done a lot of soldiering, Henry,” Mom said.

“Too much, Emma, too much.  This war did no one any good.”

“I’m glad you’re home, Papa,” Matthew said.

“So am I, Matthew.  So am I.”

They all fell silent in the kitchen.  Matthew leaned back against Dad and closed his eyes.  Dad kissed the top of his head.  After a while he carried Matthew up to the attic and put him to bed.

Mom came in to us.  “Good night, boys,” she said.  “There’s jam in the kitchen.  Help yourselves.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I replied.

She smiled at us; she looked so relieved.  Then we heard Dad coming back downstairs, and he and Mom went off to their bedroom and left Kevin and me alone.  I heard them murmuring to each other while we sat by the fire.

“Want some jam?” I asked him.

He shook his head.  “No trip to Boston tomorrow,” he remarked.

“I guess not.”

“But you’ll still have to tell them.  Calling him ‘Dad’–”

“Yeah, I know.  After the victory celebration, for sure.”

Kevin looked skeptical, but he didn’t say anything.  He lay down on the floor and pulled his blanket around him.

I stoked up the fire and lay down next to him.  “It wouldn’t be so terrible staying here,” I murmured.  “Even if Lieutenant Carmody finds us.  We’ve made a lot of friends.  We know how to get along in this world.  We’d be okay.”

I didn’t think Kevin was going to answer, but after a long time he said, “We’ll never be able to say ‘okay’ in this world.  People will never understand us when we ask ‘How come?’.  They’ll always look at us funny when we eat with a fork.  There’ll never be a Christopher Columbus or a Mark Twain.  They’ll never know who the Red Sox are.  We’ll never ride our bikes again.”

Will it matter? I thought.  When we’re twenty, or thirty, or forty–will any of that matter by then?  We won’t say “okay”; we’ll never think about the Red Sox.  So what?  We’ll be what this world made us.  But I didn’t say anything.  There was no sense getting into an argument with Kevin.

Instead I fell asleep, grateful that my father was home, and ready to celebrate the victory that we had helped win.

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