Portal, an online novel: Chapter 35

Chapter 34: Professor Palmer is waiting at the farmhouse for Larry and Kevin.  He tells them what they have already found out from Stinky Glover: Lieutenant Carmody is after them, determined to keep them in this world.  The snowstorm prevents them from heading directly to the portal, so they have to stay at the farmhouse.  They hide when Carmody shows up.  Carmody orders the place to be searched.  Peter, the lieutenant’s good-natured driver, discovers them, but doesn’t tell anyone.  Carmody leaves, and the boys spend a worried night waiting for the dawn, when they will finally make it back to the portal.

And now (finally) the climax.

*********************

Chapter 35

Kevin and I put on the clothes from our world, then our coats.  Professor Palmer was coming with us; Mom was going to stay home with Matthew.

“Please be careful, Larry,” she said.  I knew she’d say that.

I went over to her.  She pulled my coat tight around me, and then touched my arm.  “If you don’t come back,” she whispered, “I will always see your face in my mind.  And I will always be grateful that you came into my life.”  She kissed the top of my head and hugged me.  “Now go, and be good to your mother.  She worries about you every minute.”

“I don’t want to go,” I said.  “I love you.”

She just shook her head and turned away.  I ran up to the attic then and kissed Matthew, who stirred but didn’t awaken.  When I came downstairs, I took a quick look around, and then followed the others out of the farmhouse.

Outside, Gretel was already hitched up to the sleigh.  Dad got up on the bench to drive.  Kevin and I sat on one of the facing seats; Professor Palmer sat on the other.  “A one-horse open sleigh,” I said to Kevin.

He didn’t bother answering.

The snow had mostly stopped.  The air was cold; the sky was brightening.  Dad picked up the reins.  Mom waved to us from the doorway; her cheeks were wet with tears.  We all waved back, and then we started off.

It was slow going at first, as Gretel got used to her burden.  The world was silent except for the shooshing of the sleigh’s runners over the snow.  Silent and beautiful, with the snow weighing down the branches of the trees.  I spotted a deer gazing out at us from a stand of pines.

“If we find the portal, will you come with us?” I asked Professor Palmer.

“I can’t decide,” he replied.  “What do you think?”

“I don’t know.”  I thought about the preacher’s advice.  “Listen to your heart,” I said.  “It’ll tell you what to do.”

“Yes,” he murmured, “I expect it will.”

I thought about my own heart.  What was it saying?  There was something that Kevin had said about hearts once, long ago . . . but I couldn’t quite remember it.  Finally I let it go.

We were on the Post Road now, and going faster.  Three miles to the Fitton place.  And then what?  How would Kevin react if we couldn’t find it?  How would I react?

“Oh, no,” Kevin said after a while.

Behind us we saw a dark shape on the road.

Kevin looked around at Dad.  “How much further?” he asked.  “I think we’re being followed.”

“Around this bend, then a bit beyond.  If it’s Carmody, he won’t catch us in a carriage.”

“Still, can we go any faster?” he pleaded.

Dad flicked the reins, but Gretel was pulling a lot of weight through the snow, and she just didn’t have the strength to speed up.  But Dad was right, the shape behind us didn’t come any closer.  I was pretty sure it was the lieutenant’s carriage, though.

“Let’s go!” Kevin cried.

We rounded the bend in the road.  Nothing looked familiar to me.  How much further?

To our right was a small slope, and at the top I saw someone standing in the trees.  “Stop!” I shouted.

Dad pulled on the reins.  I got out and started running up the slope.  The figure disappeared back into the trees.  I turned and saw Kevin behind me, and Professor Palmer struggling through the snow behind him.  And I saw the carriage pulling up behind Dad’s wagon.

I reached the trees.  Where was the figure?  I kept going into the woods.  A pine bough slapped me in the face and drenched me in snow.  I was out of breath; my feet felt numb.  Where did he go?

Then I saw him, standing in a small clearing.  The preacher.

He looked cold.

“I didn’t mean to leave like that last night,” he said.  “But I wasn’t supposed to be talking to you, never mind your friend.  I seem to be breaking rules left and right, though.  So what’s one more?”

“Is it here?” I demanded.

“I wasn’t standing out there for my health,” he replied–a little crossly, I thought.  “Look, here’s some final wisdom, not that you’re in the mood for it.  Don’t think badly of me.  It is difficult to find one’s way–in any world.  We–all of us–can only do our best.”  He took a step backwards.

“Wait a minute!” I called out.

“And remember,” he said, “it is only by setting out–”  But that was all I heard.  He had disappeared.

“Who was that?” Kevin asked, coming up beside me.

“The preacher.  He was waiting for us, to show us where he put the portal.  He just stepped into it.”

Professor Palmer joined us, trying to catch his breath.  “They’re right behind us,” he gasped.  “I think you boys should–”

Kevin didn’t have to be told what to do.  He headed into the middle of the clearing, but not soon enough.  Lieutenant Carmody crashed through the trees and came up beside the professor.  He took out his pistol and aimed it at Kevin.  “Good morning, lads,” he said.  “And Professor Palmer.  Not exactly where I was told the portal was, but no matter.”

We stood there.  A few seconds later Sergeant Hornbeam and my father showed up; the sergeant was holding a pistol to my father’s back.  “Morning, all,” he said.  Behind them came Peter, looking unhappy.

“You know everything we know,” Kevin said to the lieutenant.  “Keeping us here won’t help you.  Please let us go home.”

The lieutenant shook his head.  “President Gardner wants you to stay.  And so you’ll stay.”  He paused.  “I’m the one who is to go.”

“What?”

He shrugged.  “Did you think we’d have this device in our possession and not try to use it?  You may be right that we’ve learned all we can from you.  So I’m go to where you came from and return with those marvelous things you described to us–medicines, inventions.  Weapons.”

“But that’s nuts,” Kevin said.  “The portal doesn’t work that way.  If you go, you won’t be able to get back.”

“Perhaps.  But you boys are hardly experts on the portal, now are you?  The president thinks it a risk worth taking.  And I agree.”

“William, about the boys,” Professor Palmer said.  “I beg you to reconsider.  We owe these lads an enormous debt.  Without them, we’d have lost the war.  And I can assure you that my interrogations of them have been complete and exhaustive.  They have nothing left to give us.  Surely we can let them go home.”

“They’ll be treated well,” Lieutenant Carmody said.  “My orders are clear.  This is where they are to stay.”

“What if you keep me and let Kevin go?” I asked him.  “You–or Sergeant Hornbeam–can just say you didn’t catch him in time.  That’s almost true, after all.  If you’d been ten seconds later, he’d have been gone.”

“I’m afraid not,” he replied.  “I have my orders.  The president wants you both.  He has a personal affection for you, Larry, of course.  He was quite amused when he found out you had made up those stories about your experiences in China.  But Kevin has a somewhat better knowledge of the science of your world, in my opinion.  Come along, lads.”

I looked over at Kevin.  I could tell what he was thinking.  Should he just make a run for it?  Dive into the portal and hope for the best.  Maybe the lieutenant wouldn’t really shoot him.  Maybe he’d just be wounded and could still make it home.

“Please don’t, Kevin,” I said.

“Why not?” he replied.  “Why not?”  There were tears in his eyes.  To be this close . . .

And then I heard a familiar voice behind me.  “Damme, it’s too early in the morning for this sort of nonsense.”

I turned.  It was General Aldridge.  He was unshaven, and his uniform was the usual rumpled mess. “Thank you for the information about the lads, Alexander,” he said to the professor.  “I came as soon as I could, though this snow was a nuisance.  I believe I missed a turn back there somewhere, but no matter.  Everyone I was looking for is here.  Give me the pistol, Sergeant,” he ordered Sergeant Hornbeam.  “And Lieutenant, kindly set yours down.”

Sergeant Hornbeam obeyed immediately.  But Lieutenant Carmody said, “I believe an order from the President of New England would supersede an order from you, General.”

General Aldridge sighed.  “Sergeant, you have no direct orders from the president, I take it?” he said.

“No, sir.”

“Then kindly take the man’s pistol.”

Sergeant Hornbeam hesitated this time, but finally went over to the lieutenant and held out his hand.  “Sorry, sir,” he said.  “We should go back and sort this all out.”

“By then there’ll be nothing left to sort out,” the lieutenant muttered.  But he handed his pistol over to the sergeant.

“That’s better,” General Aldridge said.  “Now, I take it this famous invisible portal is somewhere in the neighborhood?”

“Yes, sir,” Kevin said.  “Right over here.”

“And you lads want to go home?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The lieutenant wants to use it too,” Peter said, speaking for the first time.  “Why don’t you let him?”

The general looked at Peter, then at the lieutenant.  “Is that true?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant replied.  “To bring back the knowledge from the other world, if possible.  As requested by the president.”

The general scratched his chin.  “Seems very risky.”

“I’m prepared to take the risk.”

“Very well, then–go ahead.”

The lieutenant hesitated.  “Now?”

“No, let’s stand here for an hour or two and freeze to death.  Of course now.”

“What about the boys?”

“You can leave them in my care, Lieutenant.  Who better to carry out the president’s orders than the leader of his military?”

The two men stared at each other.  Finally Lieutenant Carmody stiffened and saluted the general.  “As you wish, sir.”

General Aldridge casually returned the salute.

“Kevin,” the lieutenant said, “can you show me where the portal is exactly?”

Kevin walked forward to where the preacher had disappeared.  He reached out his hand, and it too disappeared in mid-air.  He pulled it back, and it reappeared.  Then he moved it forward again–gone.  “Here,” he said.

“Extraordinary,” the general muttered.  “Are you ready, Lieutenant?”

We waited.  Finally the lieutenant nodded and walked over to the portal.  “I wish no one unhappiness,” he said.  “Please believe me.  I only seek to do my duty.”

“Thanks for everything you did for us,” I said.

“How do I–”

“All you’ve gotta do is step in,” Kevin said, “then just, you know, step out the other side.”

“Very well.”  He looked around at all of us then–and, I think, at the trees, the snow, the sky–everything there was to see on the cold Christmas morning.  Then he followed Kevin’s instructions.

He was there and then he wasn’t, vanishing into invisibility in a split-second.  None of us moved, as if we expected him to come back if we stayed still long enough.  But he didn’t return.  He was gone.

Professor Palmer went over and reached his hand into the portal the way Kevin had done, then took it out again and shook his head.

Kevin walked back to General Aldridge.  “Are you going to let Larry and me go, sir?” he asked.

“Of course,” the general replied.  “Speaking of duty–you’ve done your duty here.  More than your duty.  President Gardner will be disappointed, but he’ll get over it.  If you happen to see Lieutenant Carmody on your world, send him our regards and tell him to come back soon.”

“Professor Palmer is going to come too,” Kevin said.  “Is that all right?”

“Really?  Doesn’t anyone want to stay here?  I know the weather’s been unpleasant, but it’s rather nice in the spring.”  General Aldridge turned to the professor.  “You wish to leave us, Alexander?”

The professor was looking at the portal.  “I–” he began, and then he shook his head.  “No, I don’t wish to leave.”  He turned to us.  “I can’t go, boys.  This is my home.  You’ve given me much to think about, much to learn, but I should learn it on my own.  And, you know, General Aldridge is right: it’s lovely here come springtime.”

“Okay,” Kevin said.  “I understand.  So it’s just you and me, Larry.”

Everyone turned to look at me.

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t speak.

Listen to your heart, the preacher had said.

It is only by setting out that you can finally return home.

“Larry,” my father murmured softly.  “You have to go.  We love you, but you have to go.”

And then I remembered what Kevin had said about hearts–back on our world when I brought him to the portal.  I wonder what happens if, like, one half your heart is in this world and the other half is in the other.

Just a stupid little comment–the kind of thing Matthew would say.  But it made a different kind of sense to me now.  This is the way it was going to be for me, no matter what choice I made.  There wasn’t a right answer or a wrong answer–it was just a question of which half of my heart I was going to leave behind.

I hugged my father–something I never did at home–and he tousled my hair.  He was weeping–something he never did at home.  I was starting to cry too.  Then I said my goodbyes to the rest of them: Peter, who had saved me more than once, and General Aldridge, who had rescued us from the lieutenant, and Professor Palmer, who had been our other father in this world.  I hugged them all.

“We will miss you terribly,” the professor said.  “But you’re doing the right thing.  Fare you well.”  His eyes were moist too.

“Good luck to the Red Stockings,” the general said to Kevin.

I figured I’d better do it before I changed my mind.  I looked at Kevin.  “Ready?”

“Are you kidding?” he said.  “I’ve been ready for months.”

“Then let’s go.”  Like Lieutenant Carmody, we took a last look around, at the faces so familiar to us now, at the world that had been our home, and then we stepped into the portal and left them all behind.

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