Chapter 33: Stinky has snitched on Larry and Kevin to Sergeant Hornbeam and Lieutenant Carmody. Carmody is determined to keep them in this world. Now Kevin and Larry have to get to the portal as fast as they can, before he can stop them. But it is now snowing heavily, and the Barnes family can barely make it back to their farmhouse. Someone is waiting for them at the farmhouse. Larry and Kevin are relieved to discover that it is Professor Palmer.
I jumped from the wagon, ran up to the professor, and hugged him. Kevin was right behind me.
“Hello, Larry,” he said. “It’s good to see you. And you, too, Kevin.”
“We missed you,” I said. “I’m sorry we left like that, but–“
“I understand. I’m just so glad you’re both alive.”
“We’re glad you’re alive, too,” Kevin said.
Then my parents came up with Matthew, and the professor said, “You must be the Barneses. My name is Alexander Palmer, and I beg your pardon for entering your home uninvited. I rode down from Boston this evening in the utmost haste, and the weather–“
“Of course, sir,” Dad replied. “You’re most welcome. Larry has told us about you. Let’s all go in out of the snow.”
We went inside, although Dad went out again almost immediately with Matthew to put Gretel in the barn. Kevin stoked up the fire, and Mom heated some cider.
“I’m afraid I’m here with some distressing news,” Professor Palmer murmured to me. “Would it be better if we talked in private?”
“Not really. I’ve explained about who we are and the portal and everything. So, is this about Lieutenant Carmody coming after us?”
He raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You’ve heard?”
I told him a bit about Stinky Glover.
“Interesting–so that’s how Carmody found out where you were. Yes indeed, I did come to warn you about him.”
“When’s he coming?” Kevin asked. “How much time do we have?”
“He’s coming as soon as he can, as far as I know. But the storm may delay him, obviously.”
“How’d you find out?” I asked.
“And how’d you get here before him?” Kevin added.
“I found out because he told me, Larry. He has always assumed that I would be eager to have you boys kept here, even against your wishes, in the interest of science and the advancement of knowledge. How little he knows me, after all these years. As for how I managed to get here before him–as soon as I found out I spoke with General Aldridge, and he urged me to leave immediately; he was as outraged by this plan as I was. Carmody had to stop at Coolidge Palace before making the journey.”
“Why? To see the president?”
“That is correct.” Mom handed the professor a cup of hot cider. He bowed and thanked her, then continued. “The president is less of a fool than he looks, I fear. And the lieutenant is more of a schemer than I expected. He has decided his opportunities are greater if he sides with the president against General Aldridge. He explained about you boys to Gardner, and convinced him that you are vital to New England’s survival, and possibly more. With the knowledge you bring, why couldn’t we conquer our enemies? I rather think he believes there’s no one we couldn’t conquer, in fact.”
“That’s stupid,” Kevin protested. I thought of the preacher talking about how easy it would be to rule a run-of-the-mill world like this, and I wondered just how stupid the idea was.
“Well, that was their thinking,” the professor went on, “–if they could find you, if you hadn’t already left. But that raises the question: Why are you boys still here? Have you not been able to find the portal?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“I’m very sorry to hear it. But I fear that staying in Glanbury will not be an option, unless you want to be part of what Carmody and Gardner are planning. Perhaps you do. I’m sure you’ll be treated well. But if you don’t, we must move quickly to get you away from here. Despite the war, I have many academic friends in Canada, and I’m sure–“
“We’re going to try to find the portal,” Kevin interrupted. “As soon as we can. We have an idea where it is.”
“Ah. That’s good, then. You’ll have to hurry, though.” The professor looked a little disappointed. “I only wish I had a little more time to spend with you. I was so happy to find out you were all right, and now–“
Kevin’s eyes lit up. “You should come with us!”
“You mean–into the portal?”
“Sure–why not? Think of all the stuff you asked about and we didn’t know the answer to. Imagine what you’d learn if you came to our world and got to talk to real scientists–people as smart as you.”
Now the professor looked confused, flustered. “But–but if I left, I couldn’t come back.”
“We don’t know that for sure. Anyway, so what? You don’t want to be around here when they find out you helped us escape. President Gardner doesn’t like you anyway.”
I suddenly thought of the most important reason for him to go. “There’s no smallpox in our world,” I pointed out. “Your wife and son may be alive.”
That stopped him, and I could see my Mom react, sitting by the fire. “They may never have existed on your world, as I understand it,” he pointed out. “Or they may have died of some other disease. Anything is possible. Correct?”
“Only one way to find out.”
“Well, I’ll consider it,” he replied. “It would certainly be . . . quite an adventure.”
Dad and Matthew came back in the house then. “We pulled out the sleigh and got it ready,” Dad said. “We can leave as soon as the snow let’s up.”
“You’re going away,” Matthew said to Kevin and me accusingly. “Dad told me.”
Kevin nodded. “It’s time,” he said.
“Matthew, take off those wet clothes and have some hot cider,” Mom said.
Matthew reluctantly changed his clothes and sat on Dad’s lap next to the fire. The rest of us also gathered around the fire, although Kevin kept getting up to check on the snow. People talked–about the portal, about the war, about Carmody’s treachery–but I didn’t pay much attention. It just felt so good to be there, with my family and Kevin and the professor, with the fire blazing and the snow coming down outside. If only I could have captured that moment forever . . .
After a while I closed my eyes. And, in the middle of everything, I had a dream about grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
That was our regular Sunday night supper. We complained occasionally, especially Cassie: Why couldn’t we get takeout? Why couldn’t we have real food? But Mom wouldn’t relent. The meal was cheap and easy, and she liked it. Besides, it was what she’d had on Sunday nights growing up, and if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for us.
So I’m sitting in my usual place at the kitchen table, across from Cassie. I slurp down some of my soup, and then I happen to look over at her. She’s one of these people who can get angry at you just for looking at them. Just for breathing the same air, really. So she says to me, “What are you looking at?” And I say: “Nothing.” And she says: “I’m not dead, you know. That’s just in your stupid dream.”
And I say: “That’s not a dream. This is the dream.”
And she says: “You’re so stupid.” And she turns to Dad: “Isn’t he stupid? Isn’t this the reality?”
And Dad smiles his leave-me-out-of-this smile and says: “One person’s dream is another person’s reality.”
And then we’re both mad at him for not agreeing with us. But he says: “It really doesn’t matter. No matter what the dream is, it’s time to wake up.”
“What if I don’t want to wake up?” I say.
“It doesn’t matter. Wake up. Wake up!“
I opened my eyes, and Dad was staring down at me, but he had a beard, and it wasn’t Sunday night in my world, it was Christmas Eve in a very different world.
“Wake up, Larry,” he repeated. “Someone’s coming.”
“In the closet,” Mom said, gesturing to the storage area to the right of the fireplace. “Quickly.”
She had pulled out the blankets and some other stuff that they kept there. I got up, and Kevin and I jammed ourselves into it, and then she pushed the stuff back in and closed the door.
Kevin and I knelt down, cramped and in darkness except for a sliver of light through the door. It wasn’t really a closet like in our world; it was only about four feet high, but it extended back a few feet, so we couldn’t stand up, but we could stretch out a little bit. It’s Carmody, I thought. He was bound to look in here. And that would be that.
There was a loud rapping on the door. I heard footsteps, then muffled voices, then a lot more footsteps–boots moving across the wooden floor, this time coming towards us. And then Lieutenant Carmody’s voice, just on the other side of the closet door from us: “Professor Palmer, how interesting to meet you here.”
“Didn’t you trust me to find our young friends?”
“I couldn’t wait to see them. I was overjoyed to learn that they survived the battle.”
“As was I. Wretched weather, though. Peter had a devil of a time getting us down here. Now Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, we’re looking for a couple of lads named Larry and Kevin. We have information that they are living with you.”
“Were living with us,” my father responded. “They have returned where they came.”
Silence. I tried to imagine what Carmody was doing, how he was reacting. He wasn’t happy, I knew that. I was sweating. My back hurt. The blankets were making my nose twitch, but I willed myself not to sneeze. I could here Kevin’s breathing–why couldn’t he be more quiet? “What does that mean, exactly–‘returned where they came’?” Carmody asked finally.
“They finally found the portal that would take them home, as I understand it. And they’re–well, gone.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Barnes, but I think that rather unlikely. Our information is that they were here a couple of days ago, and that they’d been unsuccessful in finding the portal.”
“That’s true, sir, but something happened.”
“And what is that?”
“They met the family who picked them up that day coming out of the woods,” Dad replied. “Name of Harper. They remembered where that was.”
“Ah, I think the boys mentioned that family to me. And where is the portal? Did you see them leave?”
“They said it was in the woods near the Fitton farm–about three miles south on the Post Road. I didn’t see them leave–it was rather emotional, sir. My wife and son have grown quite attached to the boys. We brought them to the woods, they went in, and they didn’t come back out.”
I didn’t realize my father was that good a liar. There was another silence, and then I heard more footsteps. “Well?” Carmody demanded.
“I checked the barn. Nothing there. A sleigh’s been moved out, though.” It was Peter’s voice.
“Any footprints leading away from the house?”
“None that I noticed, sir.”
“Search the house. Sergeant Hornbeam, find the stairs to the attic and look around. Peter, search down here.”
“There’s a little boy sleeping up in the attic,” my Mom said. “Please don’t wake him.”
No response. Footsteps again. So all my father’s lying would be in vain, once Peter opened the door to the closet. And he’d probably get in trouble, too.
“Nothing in the kitchen,” Peter reported.
“Check that closet over there,” the lieutenant said.
I braced myself. The door opened. The blankets moved. Then Peter was leaning in and staring at us. He paused, then slowly winked and put the blankets back where they were. “Nothing in here,” he said as he closed the door.
“Nothing in the attic,” Sergeant Hornbeam added.
“Very well,” the lieutenant said. “Can you show me where you dropped off the boys?”
“Not in the dark,” my father replied.
“Yes, yes, in the morning,” Carmody snapped.
“Alexander, do you want to come with us? I understand there’s a reasonable inn on the Post Road.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Barnes have invited me to stay here, William,” the professor replied. “I’ve had enough of traveling for this day, I think.”
“Would you like some hot cider before you leave?” That was my Mom, speaking for the first time. Did she have to be so nice? Why didn’t she just let them go?
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Carmody said. “Sorry for the intrusion. These were interesting lads, as I’m sure you understand.”
“Indeed we do.”
“One thing more: You’re not to speak of this portal to anyone. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” That was my father again.
More footsteps and muffled voices, then a door slamming. We waited, and after a minute the closet door opened and the blankets and junk were pulled away. Kevin and I crawled out. Everyone was grinning. “I thought surely you’d be discovered,” my mother said.
“We were,” Kevin replied. “But Peter kept it to himself. I always liked Peter.”
“Thanks for making up that story,” I said to Dad. “It sounded great.”
“I don’t approve of what that man wants to do,” he said. “You’ve done nothing wrong, and he has no right to try to keep you here against your will.”
“I agree,” Professor Palmer said. “But what do we do now?”
“If I understand correctly, he won’t find your portal when I bring him to those woods by the Fitton place,” Dad said. “Will that make him suspicious? Or will he give up and go back to Boston? In which case the boys can just hide out until he’s gone.”
“I think it unlikely he’ll return to Boston without doing a thorough search for the portal,” the professor replied. “Even without the boys, he and the president will be interested in what they can glean from the device itself–although it will be precious little, I imagine.”
“If the lieutenant stays here, he’s bound to find out that we were at the celebration tonight,” I pointed out. “Everyone saw us there. So he’ll know Dad’s story was a lie.”
“We have to look for the portal,” Kevin said. “Right away, before he comes back. If we wait around we’ll get caught. I just know it.”
Looking for an invisible needle in the dark. In a snowstorm. Good luck to us, I thought. “We’ll have a better chance of finding it if we wait till dawn,” I said.
“Larry’s right, I’m afraid,” Dad replied. “Even finding the Post Road won’t be easy right now.”
Kevin looked like he was ready to go off through the snow on foot, but he calmed down. “All right,” he said. “Dawn.” He went over to look out the window.
I felt really sorry for him. Even in daylight, what were the odds we’d find the thing, with what the preacher had told me?
Mom brought us some cider, and I sat back down by the fire. I wasn’t sleepy anymore. It was time to get this over with, one way or the other.
No one wanted to talk now. The professor nodded off once in a while, but the rest of us stayed wide awake. It didn’t seem very long at all before Kevin said, “It’s brightening out there.” Dad went over and checked, nodded his agreement, and said, “I’ll hitch up Gretel.”
Kevin stood up. “Let’s go home,” he said to me.