Portal, an online novel: Chapter 31

Chapter 30: Larry’s father has finally returned from the army.  Kevin and Larry are, awkwardly, a part of the homecoming.  Mr. Barnes tells the story of the final defeat of Canada.  Tomorrow is Christmas Eve — when the town will be celebrating New England’s victory.  With his father’s return, Larry’s trip to Boston is off.  But what does their future hold?  Life might be good in this world, but things will never be the same.

I feel as though we’re heading towards the climax, don’t you?


Chapter 31

Christmas Eve.  It was a strange morning.  The family was so happy; it was so sad.  After breakfast Mom and Dad went to visit Cassie’s grave, and they spent a long time there.  Matthew, meanwhile, wanted to know if Kevin and I were staying.

“We’ll certainly stay for the celebration tonight,” I said.

“But you can live here forever,” he pointed out.  “Don’t you want to?”

“I don’t know, Matthew.  It’s complicated.  We’ll see.”

Matthew didn’t look satisfied.

When they got back from the grave, Mom said Dad would take her to town so she could help out with the preparations at the church hall.  “I understand you were going to Boston today,” Dad said to us.  “I think it’s wise to handle that business as soon as possible.  Perhaps we can take you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

He gave me kind of a puzzled look, and I knew he remembered what I’d said to him last night.  But he didn’t say anything.  Instead he went to hitch up Gretel while Mom got ready to go to town.  Matthew decided to go with them, so after they left Kevin and I were by ourselves for a while.  I went outside to chop some firewood, and Kevin joined me.  The day was cold and gray, and it felt like snow was coming.  A white Christmas, maybe.  I was nervous, although I couldn’t exactly say why.  “Something’s going to happen,” I said to Kevin.  “You feel it?”

“Yeah,” he replied.  “Maybe we should look for the portal.  If there’s a blizzard, who knows when we’ll have another chance?”

“You go ahead.  I want to finish chopping this wood.”

Kevin just shook his head and continued to sit on a stump while I worked.

When Dad and Matthew got back, Matthew was worried, too.  “We don’t know where Julian is,” he told us.

“He said he was going back to his master,” I said.  “You know, Mr.–uh–”

“Kincaid,” Dad said.  “We met Kincaid at the church hall.  He hasn’t seen Julian since they were in the camp.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think he liked Mr. Kincaid very much. Maybe he just decided he wanted to do something else.”

“Kincaid’s a hard man,” Dad pointed out.  “He’ll have the law on Julian if he tries to leave his apprenticeship.”

“I miss Julian,” Matthew said.

I did, too.  I didn’t know why, but finding out that he’d disappeared made me even more nervous.

In the afternoon Dad went around the farm in that deliberate way of his, taking stock of what needed to be done.  “You boys have helped a great deal,” he remarked afterwards.  “I was very concerned about how Mrs. Barnes would make out by herself.  It seems that I needn’t have been so worried.”  Dad wasn’t much on handing out compliments, so that was a big one, coming from him.

“We were happy to pitch in,” I said.

He nodded.  “Still, it’s strange that you decided to come here when your father died.  Now how did you say you were related to Mrs. Barnes?”

Dad was a lot harder to lie to than Mom.  “I didn’t, sir,” I said.  “I’m really not sure.”

He nodded again, and I felt like he saw right through me.  But if he didn’t believe me, he certainly couldn’t imagine what the truth was.  Anyway, he didn’t interrogate me any further, and pretty soon it was time to get ready for the celebration.

Matthew slicked back his hair and put on his best blue shirt.  Dad trimmed his beard and wore a white ruffled shirt and la ong dark coat.  Kevin and I just had our usual clothes–but at least they were clean.

I wondered what Sarah Lally would be wearing.

There were a few snowflakes falling when we started out.  Dad shook his head.  “Hope this doesn’t get any worse,” he murmured.

Matthew was so excited he started to sing.

The church hall was stuck onto the back of the church, up on the little hill overlooking the town center.  When we got there wagons and carriages were already lined up in front of it, with the horses shifting and stamping their feet in the cold.  We left our wagon with the others and hurried inside.  The place was blazing with light–I hadn’t seen a room so bright since the first time I’d been to Coolidge Palace.  In one corner, musicians were playing a violin, an accordion, and a piano, and in the middle of the floor couples were doing one of those complicated dances where everyone’s moving around and switching partners and ducking in and out of lines.  Red-white-and-blue striped ribbons and flags hung from the ceiling.  There was a roaring fire in the big fireplace, and the mantel over the fireplace was decorated with pine boughs and holly; the boughs made the room smell like Christmas, even if that’s not what we were celebrating.  Along the far wall were tables piled with turkey and venison and ham and vegetables and loaves of bread and cakes . . .  It was amazing.

Mom was behind one of the tables, helping to serve the food.  She waved to us when we came in.  Other people started coming over to greet Dad, and Matthew ran off to join his friends.  Sarah Lally was dancing, but she spotted me and waved too.  She was wearing a bright green dress and had a green bow in her hair, and she looked gorgeous.  I grinned and waved back.

“Great music, huh?” I said to Kevin.

“I thought Matthew said Stinky was missing,” he replied.  “Look, he’s right over there, stuffing his face.”

Sure enough, Stinky was standing next to one of the food tables, eating from a very full plate.  When he noticed us, his eyes widened and he put the plate down.  “That’s odd,” I remarked.  “Let’s go find out what’s up.”

The music stopped just then, and I was thinking I’d rather go talk to Sarah than to Stinky.  And that’s when I heard a little voice behind me say, “Look, Mama, the boys from the woods.”

The voice sounded familiar, so I turned, and I found myself staring into the faces of the Harper family.

The Harper family–Samuel and Martha, with their little boy and girl.  The family that had saved Kevin and me from the Portuguese when we stumbled out of the portal so long ago.  The ones who had driven us into Boston when we were friendless and clueless in this world, and I was still worried about the piano lesson I was missing.

It was the little girl who had spoken–was her name Rachel?–the one who thought Kevin had been in the navy because he was wearing an Old Navy t-shirt.  They were all looking at us, though.  And so was my father, who must have been talking to them.

“Bless the Lord,” Martha said, “I’m so glad you boys are safe.  I’ve often thought of you since that day we took you to Boston.”

“I never did understand where you came from,” Samuel said, still grumpy at us.  “First your family was murdered, then they weren’t murdered . . . Where did you say you were from?  America, was it?  Never heard of the place.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” my father put in.  “What woods?  What murder?”

“Where’s your watch?” the boy asked Kevin.  “Do you still have that watch?”

Kevin shook his head sadly.  And then his face lit up–you could almost see the lightbulb going off over his head, like in the comics. “Do any of you happen to remember,” he asked, “when we came out of the woods and you picked us up on the Post Road–where was that, exactly?”

Samuel and Martha looked at each other.  “It was just past Joshua Fitton’s place, wasn’t it, Martha?” Samuel said.

Martha nodded.  “Yes, certainly it was.  I remember seeing the smoke from the house, and we heard the Portuguese soldiers shouting to each other in the woods, and we were sure we’d left too late and be captured.  And then you two boys came running out of the woods on the other side of the road.  We didn’t know what to make of you.”

“Thought you were pirates, or spies,” Samuel said.  “Those strange clothes.  Those accents.  You don’t have so much of an accent now.”

“The Fitton place,” Kevin repeated.

“Yes, about three miles past the Barnes’ farm along the Post Road,” Samuel said.  “You know where it is, don’t you, Henry?”

“Of course I know the Fitton place,” Dad said.  “But what the deuce is this all about?”

“I can explain,” I said softly.

Everyone looked at me.

“Well, um, I need to talk to Mr. Barnes–and Mrs. Barnes–in private.”

Dad nodded slowly.  “I believe that would be a good idea.”

I turned to Kevin.  He looked so happy.  He didn’t care about anything except the Fitton place.  He knew exactly where to look for the portal now.  “Want to come?” I asked.

“Sure.  Whatever.”

We started to walk off with my father, but all of a sudden Stinky was standing in front of us, still looking upset.  “Larry, we need to talk,” he said.

I had more important things to do now than talking to him.  “Later, Julian.  I’m kind of busy.”

“But it’s important,” he insisted.

I shrugged.  Nothing I could do about it.

“I’ll talk to him,” Kevin said.  “You go on with Mr. Barnes.”

That worked for me.  Stinky still looked upset, but he went off with Kevin.  Dad and I made our way to the food tables.  Mom smiled at us.  “Look at this food,” she said happily.  “Two months ago, could you ever have imagined it?”

“Emma,” Dad replied, “Larry would like to speak to us in private.”

Mom’s brow furrowed.  “Is anything the matter?” she asked me.

I shook my head.  “Nothing’s the matter.  It’s just–we need to talk.”

“Oh.”  Mom set down the platter she’d been holding and looked around.  “Yes,” she said.  “Well, then.  Why don’t we go into the church?”

She acted as if she had been expecting this conversation.

I followed them through a door and along a short corridor that connected the hall to the church.  The church was cold and dark. Through the tall windows along the sides I could see snow falling.  Mom lit a lamp while Dad threw a couple of logs into an iron stove.  The walls were plain white, and there was a simple pulpit at the front.  I sat in the first pew.  Mom and Dad sat opposite me, on the steps to the pulpit.  Waiting.

I wished I had Kevin’s watch.  That would at least give me a way of starting, something they could examine and touch and use.  It had worked with Professor Palmer and Lieutenant Carmody, and it was the kind of thing that would work with my Dad.  But I had nothing, if you didn’t count my sneakers and my pants with their amazing zipper.  Nothing but my words.

What words could I use?

“There are other worlds,” I began.  “Not just this one.  And these worlds have other Bostons in them, other Glanburies.  I don’t understand why or how, only I guess–if God could make one universe, why couldn’t He make lots of them?  The thing is: Kevin and I come from one of those other worlds.  It’s a lot like this one, but, you know, different–sometimes in little ways, sometimes in big ones.  Like these sneakers and our clothes–they’re not from China, like I told you.  They’re what we wear at home.  In this other world.”

Here’s one thing I like about my Dad: he takes you seriously.  Matthew will start explaining one of his stupid ideas about why we have hair or who invented checkers or something–just to hear himself talk, I think–and Dad will sit there and listen and nod and occasionally ask a question, like Matthew is some sort of expert on  hair or checkers.  He might smile a little bit, but he never tells Matthew to put a sock in it.  Same thing with Cassie when she starts complaining about how awful her life is.  Afterwards she complains that Dad never does anything to solve her problems, but just listening is a whole lot more than I’d do when she starts up.

So I guess I shouldn’t have worried that he’d laugh at me or something when I started the explanation.  Instead he nodded like I was making perfect sense and said, “You’re not talking about heaven and hell, I take it.  You’re talking about, er, real worlds.”


“And why don’t we know about these worlds?”

“Well, because you don’t know how to travel between them.”

“But you do.”

“That’s right,” I said.  “Or, well, somebody does.  Kevin and I just happened to–see, we found a–a device, a machine.  We call it a portal.  We don’t know who made it or why–it’s probably not even from our world.  It was just sitting there in the woods behind my house–except, well, it’s invisible.  Anyway, we got in it and just kind of like stepped through it, and we were here.  By mistake.  That’s when the Harpers saw us–we’d just gotten out of the portal, and the Portuguese soldiers were chasing us, and we couldn’t get back to it.  So we sort of ended up, you know, stuck here.”

“An invisible machine,” Dad said.  Again, not sarcastically, but like he was just trying to understand.

“And that’s what Kevin is looking for when he goes off walking along the Post Road by himself?” Mom asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “He’s trying to get home.”

“And this other business,” Dad said, “about your father being a professor and dying in the war–you made all that up?”

“Well, yeah.  Except there really is a professor.”  And then I explained some of what happened to Kevin and me after the Harpers brought us to Boston.  I left out about Kevin’s drikana.  And I left out the–well, the complicated part, about why I was talking to them about all this instead of anyone else in this world.  Not that I was going to be able to avoid that part for long.

Dad kept nodding, as if this was the sort of thing kids told him every day.  “So you’re responsible for those airships and that fence–is that what you’re saying?”

“Well, more or less.  On our world there are inventions that are much more amazing than those things, but there wasn’t time to figure out how to build them here.”  I didn’t really want to talk about computers and telephones and stuff like that–it would just make things more difficult to believe.

“But this still doesn’t make sense, does it?” Dad said.  “Why did you come to the Fens camp?  Why were you looking for us?”

That was the complicated part.  But strangely, I didn’t have to explain.  Mom understood.  “Larry hasn’t really finished describing his world,” she said.  “Have you, Larry?”

“No, ma’am.”

She was staring at me hard, the way she had in the camp when I first gave that confusing lie about who I was.  And then Dad got it.  “‘Dad’, you called me last night,” he said.  “Not a word we use much in these parts.  But I’ve heard it.  I know what it means.”

I nodded.  “Some people exist in both worlds.  They’re different in lots of ways–different jobs, different homes.  But they’re basically the same.”

“And you’re saying that–that we’re there in this other world?” Dad said.

“Yes.  And Cassie, and Matthew.  And me–I was part of the family too.  And that’s why I went looking for you in the camp.  And that’s why I was so happy to find you.  I had found my family.”

I fell silent and waited for a response.  Dad couldn’t just act like he was taking me seriously; he had to make a decision.  He had to believe, or not believe.  He’s logical; he’s a computer programmer.  Professor Palmer had talked about Occam’s Razor–I could almost see Dad struggling to use it on my story.  “Larry,” he said finally, “this is very interesting and, well, moving, but you’ll have to admit it’s a bizarre tale.  You’re saying that–that you’re the son we buried as an infant.  Still alive, grown up to be a young man.”

“Yes, sir, that’s what I’m saying.  I’m your son on another world, where medicine is better, and they can cure fevers and consumption and smallpox.  I didn’t die of whatever killed me here.  I’m just a regular boy who goes to school and has an older sister who complains too much and a younger brother who talks too much.  And a wonderful mother who worries about all of us all the time.”

“Well frankly, I don’t see how you can expect us to–”

As he spoke I realized that he wasn’t the one I needed to be talking to.  “Do you believe me?” I asked Mom.

She was gripping Dad’s arm now.  A single tear worked its way down her cheek.  “Of course I do, Larry,” she whispered.  “Of course I do.”

Dad turned to her.  “Emma,” he said, “I know how grateful you are to Larry, but–”

She shook her head.  “No, that’s not it.  I know him, Henry.  I know him.  I couldn’t understand it–couldn’t understand this feeling I had when I looked at him, when I talked to him–but now I do.  He’s our son.  He’s my baby.  I don’t understand anything more, and I don’t need to.”

We were silent again.  I could hear the ticking of the clock on the rear wall of the church, and the distant sound of the joyful music from the church hall.

“I suppose we’ll find out the truth of it soon enough,” Dad said to me.  “If this–this portal is still there by Joshua Fitton’s farm, we should be able to find it, invisible or not.  And then you can use it go home.”

Home.  All those conversations with Kevin, and now the moment had arrived.

“Well . . . I don’t know,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.  “What don’t you know?”

“See, I was thinking of staying.  You know, to help you out.  There’s a lot I don’t know about farming and stuff, but I can learn.  I can be part of this family too.  I feel like–like I already am.”

I hadn’t known I was going to say that.  I had thought about it a lot, but I hadn’t ever really decided.  Now, there it was.

But instead of acting all happy, Mom was shaking her head.  “You have to go home, Larry.  I love you, but you can’t stay here.”

“Trying to go home could be dangerous,” I pointed out.  “We don’t even know if the portal will take us home.  We might end up in some universe where the Earth doesn’t even exist.  Kevin is willing to take the risk–he doesn’t have a family here.  But I have you, and I don’t want to give you up.”

I could tell the idea of the danger bothered Mom, but it wasn’t enough to change her mind.  “If–if I’m there, too, imagine how much I miss you.  Every moment of every day, Larry.  Wondering where my baby went.”

So I guess I hadn’t really thought it through.  I thought maybe they wouldn’t believe me and I’d have to convince them, but once they were convinced they’d be happy to have me stay.  I could see now how stupid that was.  In reality, Mom loved me so much that she had to let me go.

But she couldn’t force me to go.  If I stayed here, she might feel guilty, but she’d get over it.  And for all I knew, maybe we could figure out how to come back here in the portal, and I could be part of both worlds.  It was possible, wasn’t it?

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I don’t want to leave you, now that I’ve found you.”

“I understand, Larry,” she replied.  “I don’t want you to leave either.  But you have to.  And I’m sure you know it.  Take some time to think it over.”  She stood up.  “For now, why don’t we go back to the hall?” she said.  “Really, we have much to celebrate.”

“Do you mind if I stay here for a while?” I said.  “Maybe I do need to think about things.”

Mom shook her head and put her hand on my arm.  “That is very wise, Larry.”

Dad stood up too.  “I certainly want to talk more with you, Larry,” he said.  “But perhaps this is enough for now.”

I nodded and watched the two of them as they walked out of the church.  Then I leaned back in the pew and closed my eyes.  Now what?  Kevin would want to head off to look for the portal as soon as possible–he’d do it right now if he could.  So should I obey my mother and go with him?  Go back to a world where I didn’t matter, where our family argued morning and night and the schoolbus was a nightmare and I never learned or did a single thing that was really important, that really made a difference?

Where my mother missed me every moment of every day?

I tried to pray.  I’ve never been good at praying, but now seemed like a pretty good time to ask for help.  So I did.

I don’t know how long I sat there.  When I finally opened my eyes, the lamp was burning low and I knew I should get back to the church hall.  I stood up.  And that’s when I heard the noise behind me.

It was–well–it was a quiet noise.  A rustle, a breath.  I wasn’t really sure I had heard anything.  But I turned, and in the dimness I saw the outline of a figure standing at the back of the church.

My heart started thumping.  “Who are you?” I whispered.

“I really could use that coat back,” the figure replied.  And he took a step forward.

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