In my talk to those wonderful sixth-graders I discussed why I wrote The Portal. It wasn’t because of the science-fictiony adventure story; the reason I wanted to write it was the encounter between the protagonist (Larry) and another version of his family, one struggling to stay alive in wartime in the alternative universe he is trapped in. And I read them my favorite scene from the novel, where Larry has to view his own grave. In this world, he died as an infant and was buried behind the family farmhouse:
Mom got down from the wagon and led us into the woods. We came to a small clearing after a while, and in the middle of the clearing a few crosses stuck up through the snow. My head started spinning as I stared at those crosses. Kevin gripped my arm. Mom pointed to a spot in the snow. “Cassie needs to go here,” she said. “Beside her brother.”
I looked at the cross next to where she was pointing. Two words were crudely carved on it:
I was staring at my own grave.
“That’s the boy who would have been just about your age,” my mother was saying to me. “My baby.”
I think maybe I forgot to breathe for a while. “It’s okay, Larry,” Kevin whispered to me. “Take it easy.”
Kevin and I’d had talked about what would happen if we ran into our other selves in this world. Would we both explode, or destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum or something? Stupid. We never talked about this.
Nothing happened, of course, except that I was as spooked as I could possibly be. But I didn’t do anything. I just stood there in the snow. I was alive, the earth kept spinning, and that other me—the baby who didn’t make it—was still at rest in the cold ground.
And now we had to lay his sister—my sister—to rest, too.
We took turns using the pick and shovel to dig the hole in the frozen, rocky soil. I did most of the work, though—Kevin still didn’t have all his strength back, and it wasn’t the sort of task Stinky enjoyed. It seemed to take forever. It grew dark, and my muscles were screaming with pain after a while—the most digging I’d ever done was a little bit of snow shoveling, and I’d usually complain about having to do that. But we kept at it, and at last the time had come. We lifted Cassie’s body out of the wagon, then slid her down into the ground and covered her up. After that we stood around the grave as darkness fell and said some prayers, while I felt sorry for every mean thing I’d said to her in every conceivable universe.
That scene wasn’t in my original conception for the novel. But when I thought of it, I couldn’t wait to write it. It took a while, though; it occurs about two-thirds of the way into novel, and I write my novels straight through from the beginning to the end.
So anyway, here I am writing the third book about Larry and the portal, and today I finished the equivalent chapter in Barbarica–65,000 words in, I finally get to the scene I’ve wanted to write from the very beginning. Of course, the wise folks in my writing group may tell me that it doesn’t work at all and I should drop it. Still, I very much enjoyed writing it.
By the way, sixth-graders don’t have a very good sense of how many words there are in a novel (maybe few people have this sense). Their guesses about the length of The Portal ranged from two thousand words to two million. It actually contains 103,678 words, according to Microsoft Word.