Chapter 31: Larry and Kevin go to the Christmas Eve celebration with the Barnes family. And there they run into the Harper family, who rescued them from the New Portuguese soldiers when they first arrived in this world. The Harpers remember exactly where they had seen the two boys running out of the woods, and suddenly the mystery of where the portal is has been solved. But now, in the church sanctuary, Larry has to have the conversation he has been dreading with his parents — explaining who he really is and where he comes from. They believe him — it’s like his mother had known all along — and she tells him he has to go back to his own world. To his real mother. They leave him to think about it. And as he does, a man steps forward from the back of the church and asks for his coat back.
Soft voice, black beard, glittering eyes.
The preacher from the Burger Queen world, from the park in Boston. The guy who had left behind his coat for me. The guy who had told me it was all his fault.
“Who are you?” I demanded. I moved a little closer to him. He was wearing a ragged brown coat now. His hair was wet from the snow.
“A traveler, like you,” he replied, still standing in the doorway.
“What do you want?”
He shook his head. “A better question might be: What do you want?”
“I want to know why you’re following me. I want to know what you know that I don’t.”
“I wouldn’t say that I’m following you,” he said. “It’s more that . . . our paths have crossed.”
“Whatever. The portal–is that your machine?”
“‘Portal’–is that what you call it? Kind of clichéd, don’t you think? Couldn’t you come up with something more original? ‘Cosmic gateway’–what about that?”
I was starting to get angry. “You didn’t answer my question–you’re not answering any of my questions.”
He smiled sheepishly. “I know,” he said. “It’s kind of a habit. We’re not really supposed to answer questions.”
“Who is ‘we’?” I almost shouted.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Just calm down. I guess I can make an exception for you. You’ve had a tough time of it. And it wasn’t like you meant any harm. You were just, you know, stupid.”
I was so upset by now that I thought I might go over and start pounding him. But I managed to stay quiet, and he kept talking.
“So no, the portal, or the cosmic gateway, or whatever, isn’t mine, and it isn’t exactly a machine–at least, not in the way you think of machines. I just borrow it for my travels. Like you, except not so stupid. Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to set foot inside invisible gizmos from other universes? That would be, like, rule number one if I were a parent.”
I ignored the insult. “So what is it?” I demanded. “Where does it come from?”
“Okay, that one I really don’t know the answer to. There are lots of universes, right? You know that now, of course. Imagine one where people have advanced way beyond anything you can imagine, if that makes any sense. So they develop these portals. And then they disappear. At least–none of us know has a clue where to find them.”
“Portals–there’s more than one of them?”
“Uh-huh. Or maybe they’re all manifestations of a single underlying entity. Who knows?”
I had no idea what that last part meant, but I had another question. “You keep saying ‘we’, ‘us’–are you from my universe? Is there more than one of you?”
“No, I’m from a different universe–although it’s not all that different, and I’ve visited yours from time to time–yours needs a lot of help, if you ask me. Anyway, there’s a group of us who use the portal. You might call us a priesthood.”
“Priesthood? You’re part of a religion?”
He tilted his head and thought for a moment. “Not in the way you’d think of it,” he replied. “We don’t have a set of beliefs. We’re not trying to convert anyone. We just want to impart some wisdom.”
“So you just, like, travel around to different universes and give sermons and stuff?”
He looked insulted. “Well, yes,” he said, “but–”
“Don’t you help people? I mean, like, this world. What if you could cure drikana? Would you do it?”
He shook his head. “It’s forbidden. Simply coming to a world, simply crushing a blade of grass underfoot, is interference enough. We don’t tell anyone who we are or where we come from. We just say what we have to say, and then leave.”
I thought of giving President Gardner the Heimlich maneuver. If someone’s dying, you try to save him. “But that’s crazy,” I said. “That’s–immoral.”
“If we save one life, why not save all of them?” he argued. “We’re just visitors. Who are we to decide who lives and who dies? It’s a small step from that to teaching people how to build better bombs–or electric fences. Look, what’s most important is to guard against the corruption of power. That’s something we face every day. Any of us could become ruler of a run-of-the-mill world like this–we could be worshipped as gods–by using a tenth of what we know. Does that make any sense to you?”
I supposed that it did, but I had more important things I needed to learn from him. “How did you know who I was?” I asked. “Even on that other world it seemed like you could tell I was–I was an outsider. You knew I had come in the portal. Didn’t you?”
He smiled. “Sure. It’s not really that hard, after you have some experience. What’s obvious to us may not be at all obvious to anyone else, of course.”
“So more people use the portals than just you guys?”
“Yes, unfortunately. People like you. Random travelers. And observing the bad results of their interference has made us develop our own rules.”
“So am I in trouble or something? I’ve broken your rules.”
He shook his head. “Not at all. We live by our rules. Others do as they please.”
That was a relief. But I still hadn’t gotten to the really important question. “Can you tell me–can we get home in the portal?” I asked. “We’ve been looking for it, and now we think we know where it is. But we don’t know where it will take us.”
“Do you want to go home?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “This is home too, sort of. But maybe it’d be easier to make a decision if I wasn’t worried that we’d end up on a world where we’d be eaten by dinosaurs or something.”
“I understand,” he replied. Then he was silent for a long time. “Listen,” he said finally. “I’m not trying to make things difficult for you–really I’m not. I shouldn’t have left the portal in the woods like that in your world. It was too close to an inhabited area, I admit it. If kids find invisible cosmic gateways, they’re going to use them. We know that. So I’m trying to help you out. But I’m just not supposed to answer stuff like that. So here’s the best I can do: If you want to go home, the portal will take you home.”
I couldn’t tell if that was an answer or not. So I said, “You once said: It is only by setting out that we can finally return home. Were you talking to me when you said that?”
He shrugged. “I was talking to whoever would listen.”
“Well then, what should I do: Should I stay here, or should I go back to where I came from?”
“Ah,” he said softly. “Now there’s a question I can answer. Sort of. The answer is: Listen only to your own heart. It’ll tell you what to do.”
I should have known that was the sort of thing he’d say.
“One final thing,” he added. “The portal? I don’t really think you know where it is. I moved it across the road. Too many people in the woods near the Fitton farmhouse. I’m trying to learn my lesson.”
Then I heard a door open behind me. I turned and saw Kevin standing there, looking upset. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “Who are you talking to?”
“I’ve been right here,” I said. “Talking to–” I turned back to the preacher, but of course he was gone. The front door to the church was open. I went outside and looked around, but I couldn’t spot him. There were tracks in the snow. I followed them, down the walkway to the street. “Come back here!” I shouted into the night. “You can’t just leave like that!”
I tripped and fell on the street, and when I got up I couldn’t find the tracks, and I couldn’t find him. “Come on!” I shouted again. “Please help us!”
Kevin came up behind me. “What the heck is going on?” he asked.
“The–the preacher–the stupid preacher–” I was too mad to explain.
“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin interrupted. “You’ve gotta come with me. Right now.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Stinky’s a snitch–he’s been a snitch all along. He went back to Boston and told the lieutenant where we were, and Carmody’s coming to get us. Let’s go.”
Swell, I thought. What else could go wrong? I followed Kevin back into the church hall.