PORTAL on sale for 99 cents!

For some reason my novel PORTAL is now on sale for a mere 99 cents at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I really think you oughta buy it. Here’s its great new cover:

And here’s a random quote from a satisfied reader:

A Terrific Read! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this. Would the promising story idea deflate once it got past the initial set-up, as so many other books do? It definitely did not, and stayed entertaining all the way through – I could not put it down. I have kids around the same age and I really felt for these boys – they’re lost and are doing whatever they can to stay alive, stay together and hopefully get home. Glad the book was complete in itself, but it would be great to see them have more adventures like this. Overall, two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

 

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Terra, Chapter 1

Here’s the first chapter of my new novel, which is probably a couple of months away from actually appearing in print and ebook format.  It’s a sequel to The Portal.  It would help to read The Portal first, but I think I’ve filled in the backstory sufficiently that this isn’t strictly necessary.

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Home

Chapter 1

I was standing in the snack-food aisle of the 7-11 when I saw her.  Somehow I knew who she was—or what she was, really.  Even though she looked like everyone else, was dressed like everyone else.  There was something about her eyes, her gaze.   Something I remembered….

And she knew me, which was very strange.  “Larry,” she murmured.  “We’ve got to talk.”

But just then my friend Vinny Polkinghorne came up behind me and whacked my Red Sox cap off, and when I had picked it up the woman was gone.  “Cut it out, Vinny!” I said, but he just grinned.

I ran to the front of the store, but she wasn’t there, and I couldn’t leave the store without paying for my bag of Doritos, and when I had done that and gone outside, she wasn’t there either.  She wasn’t anywhere.

“What’s the matter?” Vinny asked. “Looking for someone?”

“No, I just—nothing.”

“Well, that’s stupid,” Vinny said.  “Can I have a Dorito?”

I handed him the bag.

“Let’s go hang out at the harbor,” he suggested, opening the bag and stuffing his mouth full of Doritos.

“Nah, I gotta get home.  I just remembered I’ve got a composition to write.”

“Stupid homework.”

“I know, right?  See you.”

Vinny handed the bag back to me, then got on his bike and rode off.  I got on mine and searched for the woman for a couple of minutes, but I didn’t spot her.  So I got off my bike and sat on a bench across from the Glanbury post office.  After a minute I took out my cell phone and called Kevin Albright.

I was still getting used to having a cell phone.  My parents had finally relented and got us all phones, even my kid brother Matthew, because everyone else in the world but us had one.  Also, I think they liked it that we were all getting along so much better, which was mainly due to me and the way I had matured.  My parents had no idea why I had matured, of course, and I wasn’t going to tell them.

“What’s up, Larry?” Kevin said.

“I’m pretty sure I just saw someone,” I replied.

“Someone who?”

“You know.  Like the preacher.  From, you know.”

“The preacher?  Where?  Was he, you know, preaching?”

“No.  And it was a woman.  I saw her in the 7-11.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“No.  But she knew me.  And she had those eyes.”  Those glittering eyes…

“What happened?”

“She knew me.  She said she had to talk, but then Vinny Polkinghorne showed up and started bugging me, and when I looked up she was gone.”

Kevin was silent for a minute.  Then he said, “You could be mistaken.  It could’ve been anyone.”

Kevin had never seen the preacher.  If he had, he’d know I wasn’t mistaken.  “What if I’m right?” I said.  “What if someone has come back?  What if the portal is here again?”

The portal.  Our secret.  The invisible device that took you to other universes—like the one we lived in but different, in little ways and big ones.  The device had taken Kevin and me to a universe where we’d ended up trapped for months, without cars or computers or phones, where we’d fought in a war and Kevin had come down with a strange disease and almost died.  And where I found another version of my family, different from mine but somehow the same.  A universe in which I had already died.

“The portal isn’t here, Larry,” Kevin said quietly.  “Why should it be here?  We’ve been back for months, and after we came back it disappeared—they took it away or moved it or something.  That’s all over now.”

“I don’t think it’s over,” I replied.

“You don’t want it to be over,” Kevin said.

“It doesn’t matter what I want.  I saw that woman.  She knew my name.”

“You saw someone.  But that doesn’t mean anything.”

“Yes, it does.”

“Whatever,” Kevin said, suddenly sounding bored.  “I’ll see you at school.”

“Sure.”

I put my phone away.  I was right; I knew that.  But I was thinking about what Kevin said.  You don’t want it to be over.  Was that true?  Maybe.  I didn’t run away from that woman when I saw her; I went looking for her.  That said something, didn’t it?

And I knew that Kevin may have sounded bored, but he wasn’t, not really.  He wanted to know what was going, too.

But maybe I wanted it a little bit more.

I rode my bike home.  My kid brother Matthew was playing a video game in our room.  Mom was in her office, working on one of those grant proposals she gets paid to write.  My older sister Cassie wasn’t home; she was in the play at the high school and stayed late every day rehearsing.  I sat in the living room and tried to concentrate on my homework.  It wasn’t any use, though.

Those eyes.

What did she want?  She knew my name.  We’ve got to talk.

I thought about the preacher.  He had called himself simply a traveler.  He was from one of those other universes.  They used the portal to travel around to universes like ours and give sermons to people who mostly paid no attention to them.  Seemed like a waste of time to me, but I guess he knew what he was doing.  He had helped Kevin and me get home, which he didn’t have to do, and for that I was grateful.

I wondered what universe he was visiting right now.

Dinner was the usual—Dad got home around six, and he wanted to know about everyone’s day while we ate spaghetti and meatballs.  Of course Cassie didn’t like the meatballs, but she was more interested in telling us about her rehearsal than complaining about the food.  She went on and on about who was messing up their lines and who didn’t understand their character and whatnot.  She didn’t have a very big part, but she was convinced that she should have the lead.  I overheard Dad tell Mom once that drama gave Cassie “an outlet for her histrionics.”  After I looked up the word, I decided he was probably right.

Matthew had a long, boring story to tell about his Social Studies project, which he was doing with his friend Zach and involved creating a display of agricultural products from different states.  Or something.

And then it was my turn.

“How was your day, Larry?”

“Fine.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing much.  Hung out with Vinny.”

“How’s Vinny?”

“The same.”

What could I say?  Things were kind of boring.  Except for the thing that I couldn’t talk about.

After supper I went upstairs and surfed the net for a while.  Matthew asked me what I was doing, like he always does.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” I replied.  “I’m reading.”

“I know, but what are you reading about?”

“The multiverse.”

I thought that would shut him up, but it didn’t.  “What’s a multiverse?”

“There’s this theory that the universe we live in isn’t the only universe that exists.  There are lots of other universes—maybe an infinite number of them.  They call that the multiverse.”

“But that’s stupid.  There’s only one universe.  How could there be more than one?”

“Well, some really smart people think that’s not true.”

“How do they know?  Has anyone ever seen one?  Has anyone ever been to one?”

Sometimes I wanted to tell Matthew about my adventure, but why bother?  He wouldn’t believe me.  How could he?  From his perspective, I had never left—the months I had spent in that other universe had passed in no time on this one.  I couldn’t explain how.  And I couldn’t explain how the portal worked, when all the scientists said that the best we could do is maybe detect another universe somehow; we couldn’t actually visit one.  “No,” I said to Matthew, “no one’s ever been to one.  But no one’s ever been to the sun.  That doesn’t mean the sun doesn’t exist.”

Matthew pondered that, and then moved on.  “Did you know that California produces almost all the artichokes in America?”

“I did not know that, Matthew,” I replied.  “That’s very interesting.”

He looked at me suspiciously, sensing sarcasm, and then said, “Well, I think it’s interesting.”

“I’m going to look up some more artichoke facts right after I finish reading about the multiverse.”

“Shut up, Larry,” he said.  But I knew he wasn’t upset.

The next day at school Kevin cornered me in the lunchroom.  “It’s not here,” he repeated.

“Why do you keep saying that, like you know for sure?  You don’t know anything.  You’re just—” And then I figured it out.  “You’re worried you’ll have to make a choice,” I said.  “Go or stay.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he replied.

I had been by myself when I first discovered the portal, and I didn’t know what it was—just some invisible something that let me hide from the annoying Stinky Glover.  I used it fast—found myself in another universe, spent half an hour exploring a Glanbury that was kind of like the town where I really lived and kind of not, and then I came back.  It had been Kevin’s big idea to go into the portal again, this time with him.  And we landed in a very different, very scary place.  And it was Kevin who came to regret that decision even more than I did.

“Okay, Kevin,” I said.  “It was probably nothing.  I just got, you know, this vibe.  Plus, she knew my name.”

“Fine,” he said.  “But I don’t think you’re right.  What are the odds?”

I wanted to argue with him.  What did odds have to do with it?  The woman was looking for me.  Which meant she knew where she could find me.  Which probably meant she knew the preacher.

But why was she looking for me?

I decided I didn’t really want to argue with Kevin.  “Yeah, okay,” I said.  “I agree.  Sorry I even mentioned it.  Let’s hurry up and eat.”

We hurried up and ate, and we talked about other stuff.  But Kevin still looked worried.

After school I went home on the bus.  I didn’t really feel like hanging out downtown like I usually did.  I didn’t have much homework, so I went back to trying to understand the Wikipedia article on the multiverse.  Like Matthew, my father had noticed me reading about the multiverse once, and he’d gotten really excited, and he tried to explain to me about Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the wave function collapse and other stuff I wasn’t ever going to understand.  I pretended to be interested—and I guess I was, sort of.  I knew that what happened to me and Kevin was real, but it was nice to know that there was science behind it—that smart people like my Dad could possibly believe it was real.

Anyway, I gave up on Wikipedia after a while and I decided to take a walk in the conservation land behind our house.  This was where I had found the portal back last fall.  Now it was spring, and the leaves were budding on the trees and the ground was a little muddy, so my mother would probably yell at me if I didn’t wipe off my sneakers before I went back in the house.  She used to be really worried about me wandering off by ourselves in the woods, but she’s calmed down a bit lately.  Apparently she has decided I’m not quite as stupid as she thought.

I found the spot where I had stumbled onto the portal when I was trying to get away from Stinky Glover.  I groped around to see if it was there.  It wasn’t.  That didn’t necessarily mean anything.  It could be anywhere. The preacher had moved it, back in the other universe.  And, like Kevin said, he—or someone—had taken it away from here sometime after we returned.  What did I know about portals?

I felt a surge of disappointment, though.  And I knew that Kevin was right.  I didn’t want it to be over.

And that’s when I heard the voice.

“Larry Barnes.”

It was so soft that at first I thought I was imagining it.  I couldn’t bring myself to answer.

“Larry,” the voice repeated.

I turned.  And she was there, standing among the trees, staring at me the way she had at the 7-11.

“Larry, I need your help.”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 25

Chapter 24: Kevin and Larry are reunited after the battle with the New Portuguese.  Kevin is desperate to get back to Glanbury and find the portal.  They spend the night in the barracks, where Larry can’t stop thinking about the boy he killed.  They get up early, determined to find their way out of the city, and almost immediately they run into Stinky Glover.

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Chapter 25

Stinky came up to us.  “G’morning, Lawrence,” he said.  “What brings you here?”

“Hi, uh, Julian.  This is my friend Kevin.”

“Hello, mate.”  Stinky glanced at Kevin’s cap, but didn’t say anything.

They shook hands.  Kevin didn’t look happy to see him.  In our world, he hated Stinky Glover as much as I did.  Stinky liked to give him purple nurples; Kevin hated purple nurples–who doesn’t?  But this world was different.  With all the things that had been happening, had I told Kevin about Stinky saving me from those kids in Cheapside?

“We’re heading to Glanbury,” I said.

Stinky looked puzzled.  “Now?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“We want to help the Barnes family,” I said.  “Get things ready for when they come home.”

Not a very good answer, but I couldn’t come up with a better one.  “Didn’t you tell me you were related to them?” Stinky asked.

“That’s right.  And I got to know them pretty well in the camp,” I explained.  “Mr. Barnes is in the army, so I figured they might need some help.”

“But why now?” Stinky persisted.  “The Portuguese are still out there north of Glanbury, I expect, even if they’re in full retreat.  And anyway–”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin interrupted.  “We’re going.  Come on, Larry.”  He started to walk away.

I hesitated, and then said, “Well, see you, Julian,” and turned to go with Kevin.

“Wait a moment!” Stinky called out.  “I’ll join you!”

Kevin rolled his eyes.  “No way,” he muttered to me.

But we paused, and Stinky came up to us again.  “Do you know where the Barnes farm is located?” he asked.

“Well, no,” I admitted.

“I can show you.  Besides, three’ll be better than two if there are dangers on the road–and I’m sure there will be.”

“Why do you want to help us?” Kevin demanded.

Stinky grimaced.  “I’ve worn out my welcome here, I fear,” he replied.  “I try to make myself useful, but it’s been hard.  Lots of folks just take a dislike to me.  I don’t know why.  Now that the battle’s over, I expect the soldiers’ll throw me out of the camp rather than keep on feeding me.  I’ll have to return to Glanbury sooner or later and see if my master will take me back.  Might as well do it now.”

Made sense to me.  Kevin looked suspicious, but he didn’t say anything.  “All right,” I said.  “Let’s go, then.”

Stinky’s grimace turned into a big smile.  “Let’s go,” he repeated.

We headed back to the main road, which Stinky said was called the Post Road.  When we finally got there, I was surprised to see that nothing had really changed since yesterday: there were still guards posted, and people were arguing with them to be let through, even though it was barely dawn.  “We’ve no food,” one man was saying to a guard.  “We’ve no shelter.  We’ll die if you don’t let us go home.”

“We have our orders,” the soldier explained with a weary shrug, as if he’d explained it a million times already.  “It’s not safe out there.  Besides, the Portuguese fired the bridge over the Neponset.  How are you going to cross the river?”

“We’ll take our chances!” the man shouted.  “Would you rather we drop dead here in front of you?”

We had one big advantage over those people: we were on the other side of the guards.  “The army’ll surely change their minds today,” Stinky noted.  “That fellow is right–better to let people risk the journey home if they have a mind to try it.  There’s nothing left for them here.  But this is still dangerous—we risk having the New Englanders shoot at us as well as the Portuguese.  Why don’t we just wait and see what happens?”

Kevin shook his head.  “You wait if you want to,” he said.  “I’m leaving.”

Stinky looked at me, as if to ask where I’d found this strange kid with the strange hat.  But I wasn’t going to let Kevin leave by himself.  “We really want to get to Glanbury,” I said.

Stinky considered.  “All right, then,” he said reluctantly.  “Let’s keep going.  I think I know a way past the fortifications, although it’s awfully roundabout.  And then we still have to find a way across the river.”

So we kept walking.  The sun rose ahead of us in the east, but it didn’t make us any warmer.  Soldiers were up and about; none of them paid any attention to us.  After a while the camp and the fortifications petered out, with only a couple of observation towers looking out over marshland that stretched towards the ocean.  “They figured the Portuguese weren’t going to attack over the marshes,” Stinky said.  “Too hard to maneuver, too exposed.  So they just put up these towers.  We have to cross the marsh, and then work our way back towards the Post Road.  And find a boat or a raft or something to cross the river.”

“The marsh doesn’t look too hard,” Kevin said.

“Unless the soldiers in the watchtowers see us,” I pointed out.  “And decide to shoot.”

That didn’t faze Kevin.  “Let’s go,” he said.

Stinky glanced at me again.  “Coming, Julian?” I asked him.

He didn’t seem too happy about it, but he nodded.  “Keep to the left,” he said.  “If the watchtowers are still manned, the soldiers’ll be looking south.  We can circle around when we’re out of range of their rifles.”

“All right” I said.  “Sounds good.”

Kevin started off without saying a word.  We hurried after him.

There was a bitter wind blowing over the marsh, and my eyes started watering.  The metal of my rifle was so cold it stung.  Frostbite, I thought.  Stay out here too long and we’ll get frostbite.

The long brown marshgrass was harder to walk across than I had expected.  Every step we took, we broke through a crust of frost.  And it looked like we had a ways to go to get beyond the marsh.  Suddenly I felt dizzy from cold and hunger.

And then we heard the shots.  “Run!” Stinky shouted.

I took a quick look back.  There were soldiers in the watchtowers with their rifles aimed at us.

I started running.  Kevin stumbled, and I had to drag him back to his feet.  He was usually way faster than me, but the drikana must have slowed him down; even carrying the rifle I was faster now.  Stinky was the slowest.  He was gasping for breath right away and struggled to keep up with us.  But we couldn’t slow down–I could hear the bullets whistle past us, so I knew we were still in range.  “C’mon, let’s go!” I called out to them.  I sloshed through some water and hurdled a little stream that cut through the marsh.  My lungs were bursting, but I kept going, expecting any second that a bullet would rip into me.

But none did.  Eventually I realized there weren’t any more shots.  I looked back.  Kevin and Stinky were still running, but they had slowed down a lot.  I could make out the soldiers in the watchtowers, but I couldn’t tell what they were doing.  Didn’t matter, as long as they weren’t shooting at us anymore.

“Think we’re . . . out of . . . range,” Stinky gasped when he reached me.  Kevin just flopped down on the grass.

“Will they come after us?” I asked.

“Who knows?  Don’t even know why they bothered shooting at us.”

“Maybe they’re just bored,” Kevin said.

“You all right?” I asked him.  He was still trying to catch his breath.

“I think so.”

I sat down next to him.  My sneakers were soaked.  My feet felt numb.  Frostbite, I thought again.

“Got to keep going,” Stinky said.  “If we stay here, I wager they’ll come out to get us.”

“If we stay here, we’ll be dead before long anyway,” I said.  I got up.  “Can you make it?” I asked Kevin.

He nodded.  “Just needed a breather,” he muttered.  I held out my hand, and he took it.  I pulled him up, and we started off again.

It wasn’t long before we came to the river.  We stopped and stared at it, flowing peacefully out to the ocean.  It wasn’t a very big river, but we sure didn’t have a way to cross it.  I looked at Stinky.  He shrugged.  “Let’s head upriver,” he said.  “We’ll need to go that way eventually.  Maybe we’ll find a boat somewhere.”

Kevin and I didn’t have any better ideas, so that’s what we did.

We started walking inland, with the river on our left.  The path we were on twisted towards the river, then away from it.  We didn’t spot any bridges, or any boats we could borrow to get us across.  It was frustrating, and I could see that Kevin was getting upset.  Well, he’d been warned.

“Look down there,” Stinky said.

We saw smoke coming out of the chimney of a shack by the river.  Beyond the shack was a boat tied up at a little dock.

“Somebody’s home,” Kevin said.  “Let’s ask for a ride.”

“Could be dangerous,” Stinky pointed out.  “If they’ve been living out here all through the siege, they won’t be the sort who like company.”

“Worth a try,” Kevin said, and he started down the path to the shack.  “Hello?” he called out.  “Can you help us?  We need to get across the river.”

There was no response.

“Hello?” he repeated.  Stinky and I came up behind him.  There was all kinds of junk next to the house–broken barrels, wine bottles, a lobster pot–and a ton of firewood neatly stacked by the door.  I could smell fish frying.  I hated fish, but the smell made my stomach growl.

We saw the barrel of a rifle point out from a window.  “Who are ye?” a gruff, cracked voice said.

“We’re New Englanders,” Kevin said.  “Just trying to get home after the battle.”

“Put down the rifle.”

He was talking to me.  I laid my weapon down on the ground.

The rifle barrel disappeared from the window, and a moment later a gnarled old man wearing a woolen cap appeared, aiming the rifle at us.  “Ye’re children,” he said.  “Where are your parents?”

“We were separated from our parents in the battle,” Stinky lied.  “We’re trying to get home to Glanbury.  Can you help us?”

“Who won the battle?” he demanded.  His accent was different from anyone else I’d heard in this world–not English, exactly, just sort of old-fashioned.  I got the impression that he didn’t talk very much.

“New England did,” Stinky said.  “Have you seen any Portuguese retreating?”

He shook his head.  “Saw ’em before, though, foragin’ along the river.  Nasty brutes.  Killed a couple.”

“How’d you stay away from them?”

“I know more about these parts’n they do.  Take more than the Portuguese to get hold of old Bart Willoughby.”

“So, can you row us across the river?” Kevin asked.

The old man peered at him.  “What can you pay me?” he demanded.

We looked at each other.  “I have, like, six shillings,” I said.  Professor Palmer had given me some money once, but there really hadn’t been anything to spend it on.

The old man shook his head.  “Six shilling’s won’t even buy a loaf of bread in these times,” he said.  Then he peered at Kevin.  “That’s an interesting hat,” he said.  “I’ll take you across the river for that hat.”

Kevin blinked.  He loved his Red Sox cap.  But he took it off and handed it to the man.  “All right,” he muttered.  “Fine.”

The old man grinned.  He only had a couple of teeth.  He took his woolen cap off right away and replaced it with the Red Sox cap.  It made him look crazy.  “All right, lads,” he said.  “Let’s go.”

I picked up my rifle.  The old man led us down to the boat, and we all climbed in.  It was a little rowboat, and our weight made it ride low in the water.  But the old man was strong, and with a few powerful strokes he had us gliding out towards the middle of the river.  “Bad times in the city, I heard,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I replied.  “Too many people, not enough food.”

He shook his head.  “Too many people there in the best of times.  They tried to get me to go to one of them camps, but I wanted no part of it.”

“You weren’t afraid to be here by yourself?”

“Lad, I’ve lived too long to be afraid of anything.”

I thought of the old man in the camp standing by the gate and begging me for help.  And the corpse Kevin and I had seen there yesterday morning, its gray hair blowing in the wind.  Maybe this guy had the right idea.

We pulled up to the opposite shore.  “Thank you, sir,” Stinky said as we got out.

“Call me Bart,” he replied.  Then he pointed to the cap and started to cackle.  “See, lad?  ‘B’ for Bart!  Fare ye well.”  He maneuvered the boat around and started rowing back across the river.

“Let’s go,” Kevin said without even glancing back.

We found a path and headed towards the Post Road.  After a while we came upon a small settlement–a few houses, a horse barn, a church.  Everything looked empty, abandoned.  “Do you think we can stop here?” I asked.  “Maybe start a fire in one of these houses?  I need to warm up.”

“I’m not tired,” Kevin said.  But he was lying, I knew.

“It’s not about being tired,” I replied.  “My feet are freezing.  I’m worried about frostbite.”

“Whatever,” Kevin said with a shrug.  I think he wanted to take a break, but didn’t want to be the one to suggest it.

None of the houses were locked.  We went into the biggest one; even it had just one large room containing a few chairs, a bed with a straw mattress, and a small table.  On the wall was a shelf with an old bible on it and a bad painting of President Coolidge.  We found some tinder and a flint on the fireplace mantel.  Stinky and I gathered some scraps of wood outside, and within a few minutes we had a smoky fire going.

We all took off our shoes and socks to dry them.  Stinky glanced at the Adidas shoes Kevin and I set by the fire but didn’t say anything.  And he hadn’t said anything about Kevin’s cap.  He didn’t seem like a very curious kid.  How different was he from the Stinky we knew in our world?  He didn’t seem mean–just sort of, I don’t know, pitiful.  And he had sure helped me out so far.

We all lay down in front of the fire to rest and warm up.  It wasn’t very comfortable, but I shut my eyes, and I must have fallen asleep right away.  When I opened them, the fire had died out and Kevin was putting his sneakers back on.  Stinky was still asleep.  “Let’s go,” Kevin whispered.  “We can leave him here.”

“C’mon, Kevin.  Stinky can help.  Remember?  He knows where the Barnes farm is.”

“I don’t care about the Barnes farm, Larry.  I care about the portal, and he’s not going to help us find that.”

“Well, I care about both,” I said.  “And what about food?  I’m starving already, and we still have a lot of miles to cover.  We’re going to have to either beg for food, if there’s anyone around to beg it from, or go hunting.  I’ve got this rifle, but I don’t really know how to load it or anything.  And neither do you.”

Kevin shrugged.  “I just don’t trust him.  If you’re a jerk in one world, you’re probably a jerk in every other world.”

Stinky stirred then.  I reached for my sneakers and started to put them on.  “That’s better,” he said, sitting up and stretching.  “Probably been here a couple of hours,” he added, gesturing at the ashes of the fire.

“Think we can make it to Glanbury today?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  It’s a bit of a trek,” he said.  “Wouldn’t want to be traveling after dark.”

“Well, let’s see how far we get,” Kevin said.  “We can always break into another house and stay the night.”

“True enough.”  Stinky gave Kevin another what’s-your-hurry look, but he didn’t say anything more.  We finished putting our shoes and socks back on and headed outside.  The sun was bright, and the wind had died down now that we were off the marsh, so we weren’t as cold as we’d been before.  We pressed on towards the Post Road, feeling a little better.

We had only a vague idea how far away the road was.  We followed a rutted, curvy path that was headed inland.  There was no one else around, and that started to feel kind of spooky, after being stuck in the crowded city for so long.  It reminded me of being in Cambridge with Professor Palmer, and thinking of him made me sad.  He wouldn’t have any idea where we were, if we were dead or alive.  I sure wished I’d had a chance to say goodbye to him.

Stinky tried to make conversation as we trudged along.  He had enough curiosity to want a better explanation of why we were headed to Glanbury.  Did we have parents?  Did they know what we were doing?

“We’re orphans,” Kevin said.  “Just like you.”  Why did he say that?  I tried to remember if I’d told Stinky the lie about Professor Palmer being my father.

“Then how’ve you been living?” Stinky asked.  “Where?”

“In an orphanage,” Kevin said.  “Where else?”

“But you’re my age, looks like.  Wouldn’t you be ‘prenticed by now?”

“Well, we’re not.”

After a while Stinky sort of gave up.  And a while after that we reached the Post Road, smooth and wide compared to the path we’d been on, but just as empty.  Behind us was the wreckage of the bridge over the river.

“Look,” Kevin said, pointing to the other side of the road.  A wagon with a broken wheel lay on its side in a ditch.  We went over to examine it.  It was empty except for a few pots.  “Portuguese,” Stinky said, studying the lettering on the back.  “Says something about cooking.  The wagon’s pointing south.  They probably abandoned it during the retreat.”

We started heading south on the Post Road.  Everywhere there was stuff that the Portuguese had dropped or left behind–clothing and utensils and empty bottles, even a cannon.  And then we saw a blue-jacketed corpse, face-down by the side of the road.  Stinky went over to it.  He came back with the dead man’s pistol.  “Looks like a mighty disorganized retreat,” he said, “if they didn’t even stop to bury their dead.”

In the distance we heard some shots.  People hunting?  Fighting?  “Julian, could you show me how to load this rifle?” I said.  “I’ve got plenty of bullets.”

He gave me another look, as if to ask: who wouldn’t know how to load a rifle?  But he shrugged and demonstrated how to load the cartridges and cock it.  “Simple enough,” he said.  “And we’ll be needing this rifle before long, if we’re to eat anything today.”

We walked along.  The shooting stopped.  After the roar of the battle yesterday, things seemed awfully quiet–there was no noise except the crunching of our feet on the road.  Some of the houses and shops and inns we passed looked like they hadn’t been touched; others had been burned to the ground.  None of the fires looked recent, though.  The Portuguese were probably in too much of a hurry to do any more damage.

And then we saw people up ahead.  “Not soldiers,” Stinky said.  “One of them’s a woman, I’d say, from the shape of that bonnet.”  We quickened our pace to catch up with them.  There was a woman, a child, and a mule, weighed down with baggage.  “Good day to you!” Stinky called out when we were close enough.

The woman whirled around and aimed a rifle at us.  “Come no closer,” she shouted back, “or I’ll shoot you all.”

The woman was middle-aged, and had an upper-crust, almost-English accent.  Stinky raised his hands.  “We’re New Englanders.  We mean you no harm.”

The child was about six, and she clung sobbing to the woman, who lowered her rifle but still stared at us suspiciously.  “We’ve been set upon already,” she said.  “There are evil people about, both New Englander and Portuguese.  One of them has a bullet in his chest for his troubles.”

“I believe it, but I assure you we aren’t evil,” Stinky said.

“How did you get past the fortifications?” I asked.  “Are they open yet?”

“No, but this morning they removed most of the guards to go fight the Canadians.  If you’ve a mind to get out and have a few pounds to spare for bribes, you can leave.”

“How’d you get across the river?”

“Some men have rafts down there now,” she replied.  “Making quite a good day’s wages, too.”

“We’re headed home to Glanbury.  Where are you going?”

“Braintree, God willing, and no more brigands attack us.”

Braintree was maybe halfway to Glanbury.  “Why don’t we travel together?” I suggested.  “Safety in numbers.”

The woman continued to eye us suspiciously, but after thinking about it she said, “Very well.  You’re likely-looking lads.”

So we joined them.  The woman’s name was Mrs. Gradger; her daughter was named Cecilia.  Their story was familiar: They’d been stuck in the Fens camp during the siege.  Mrs. Gradger’s husband and two older sons were in the army, and she didn’t know if they were dead or alive.  Mr. Gradger was a lawyer, and the family had been well-off before the war, so for a while she’d been able to buy extra provisions in the camp.  But then food became scarce and money became pretty much worthless, and now the family was just like everyone else.

Mrs. Gradger, though, was a tough woman.  She had already killed one man today, and she sure seemed ready to shoot anyone else who tried to mess with her or her daughter.

Cecilia was another story, however.  She was so tired she was barely able to walk, and she kept complaining about how hungry she was.  She wiped her tears on her sleeve as she tried to keep up.  Mrs. Gradger didn’t seem especially sympathetic.  “Barney can’t carry any more weight,” she kept repeating, as if the amount of stuff on the mule settled matters.

“C’mon, Cecilia,” I said finally.  “I’ll carry you for a while.”  I handed the rifle to Kevin and squatted down so Cecilia could climb onto my shoulders.  She was pretty light.  “Thank you, sir,” she said, wiping her face clean yet again.

“Cecilia, don’t dirty your sleeve,” Mrs. Gradger said.  But she didn’t object to my carrying her daughter.

We walked like that for a long time.  It was good to have company, even if Mrs. Gradger reminded me a lot of Ms. Pouch, my sixth-grade math teacher, who everyone called Ms. Grouch.  She spent most of the time complaining about the how badly the camp had been run and how completely President Gardner had screwed up the war and how uncivilized the Portuguese were.  I think she was happy to finally get a chance to kill someone.

We didn’t run into anyone else, although off and on we heard more shots, which always scared Cecilia.  “No more bad men,” she said.  “I don’t want any more bad men.”  Once we spotted a skinny dog, who stared at us for a long time before slinking off down a side street.  And that somehow reminded Cecilia of how hungry she was.  “Please, Mother,” she said from my shoulders, “please can’t we eat?”

I looked at Mrs. Gradger.  Her face was hard, but there were tears in her eyes.  “We’ll be home soon,” she said.  “Now don’t talk about food.  It just makes things worse.”

Stinky came over to me.  “Have to do some hunting, mate,” he murmured.  “Before we lose the daylight.”

The sun was low in the sky.  It was starting to get colder.  Miles to go before I sleep.  I remembered that line from a poem we studied in English class.  And then we were at a crossroads.  Mrs. Gradger stopped and closed her eyes in relief for a moment.  Then she snapped back into character.  “Our house is along this road to the right,” she said.  “Cecilia, please get down.  Thank you, lads, for the company.”

I stooped to let Cecilia off.  My shoulders were stiff, but it had been sort of fun carrying her.  Then we all stood there.  I looked at Kevin.  I could tell he was all for pushing on to Glanbury.  Not me.  It was Stinky who made the suggestion.  “Ma’am, might you consider letting us spend the night?  In return we’ll go out and shoot you some supper.”

Mrs. Gradger said, “Oh no, we’ll be fine, no need.”  And Cecilia started wailing.

“It’d be a favor to us, ma’am,” Stinky pointed out.  “We could use the shelter.”

That was pretty clever of Stinky, I thought.  Mrs. Gradger would rather grant a favor than have anyone think she needed one.  “Very well,” she agreed.  “That’s a reasonable suggestion.  Come along.”

Kevin looked disgusted.  I shrugged.  “Just one more day,” I muttered to him.  “It won’t kill us.”

“How do you know?”

But he didn’t argue, and we all followed Mrs. Gradger down the road to Braintree.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 20

President Gardner has decided to fight rather than surrender to the Canadian and New Portuguese soldiers besieging Boston.  And Larry has decided to return to help his “family” trapped in the refugee camp.

Can New England win the battle?  Will Larry be able to get back to the camp?  And what about Kevin, still trapped in the hospital recovering from drikana?

Read on . . .

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

Chapter 20

I awoke the next morning in the cold attic room.  I could hear the artillery still booming away in the distance.

I went downstairs and out into the washyard to splash some water on myself, then over to the mess for another meager meal.  Word of President Gardner’s decision had gotten around.  A few officers were excited about the upcoming battle; most of them just seemed resigned.

Lieutenant Carmody wasn’t in the mess, but Professor Palmer was.  He started in on me right away.  “I’m most concerned about what you did yesterday afternoon, Larry–going off like that against my wishes.  Really, there is too much at stake here for such behavior to be tolerated.”

I felt guilty, but I didn’t want to lie to him.  Anyway, I couldn’t hold it in.  “I found my family,” I said.

He stared at me.  “Your family?”

“In the Fens camp,” I said.  “Not the people from my world, but the same people from this world–you know what I mean.  My mother and my sister and brother are in the camp.  My father’s in the army.”

“You went to the Fens camp by yourself?”

“I had to.  Kevin and I talked about it and–I had to find out if they were here.”  I could feel my eyes start to tear up.  “I know it was dangerous, but this was maybe my only chance.”

The professor shook his head.  “I understand.  It must be very emotional for you, Larry.  But you can’t risk this sort of thing–not now.  There’ll be time after the battle.”

“After the battle we may all be dead,” I pointed out.

He put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes.  Suddenly I noticed how tired he looked.  He had been working awfully hard–and it hadn’t been that long since the night when he’d been shot as we rowed across the Charles.  “We may all be dead very soon,” he agreed.  “But we must proceed under the assumption that we will survive.  There is really nothing else we can do.  Come with me to Coolidge Palace, Larry.  It’s the best–and safest–place for you.”

I didn’t want to hurt him.  I didn’t want to be a burden.  So I just said, “Okay.”

“Thank you, Larry,” he said.  He asked a few questions about my family, but I could tell he had too many other things on his mind.  We finished our breakfast in silence.

Pretty soon after that Peter drove us over to the palace.  Everyone was busy packing up the remaining equipment, and I did what I could to help.  Lieutenant Carmody was there for a while; I saw him stare at me once or twice, but he didn’t say anything.  Professor Foster left in a wagon with some of the electrical equipment soon after we arrived; he looked really nervous.

The artillery hadn’t let up, and there was a haze of smoke over the city.  It’s really going to happen, I thought.  The president wasn’t going to surrender.  The battle was coming.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my family.  What was going on in the camp?  Were they safe?  Were they hungry?  What would happen when the battle started?

Professor Palmer wanted me to stay at the palace.  But how could I?  It was okay while I had something to do, but now I was just hanging around.  Was I going to stay here straight through the battle?  Then what?  I went looking for Professor Palmer, but he wasn’t around.  “Heard he went off to some big strategy meeting,” a soldier told me.

I wandered over to the kitchen.  One benefit of working on the palace grounds was that there was still lots of food to eat.  Not as good as the roast beef we’d had the first time we were here, back when I’d saved the president’s life, but way better than what you’d get anywhere else in the city.  Everyone else seemed to have already eaten, and the kitchen was pretty deserted.  There was leftover chicken and roast potatoes, though, and they tasted unbelievable.

And that’s when I made my decision.  It wasn’t really conscious.  I just found myself walking over to the chef, pointing to the leftovers, and saying, “Could you put some of that food in a sack for me?  I’m supposed to bring it back to the soldiers–a few of them are too busy to come over here, and they’re getting hungry.”

The chef wasn’t pleased about having all those soldiers dirtying up her kitchen and eating her food.  She was a fussy lady with gray hair and a French accent.  She just shook her head at my request.  “I’m glad this nonsense is finally ending,” she muttered.  “I cook for aristocrats, not common soldiers.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “Not much longer, I’ve heard.  But your food has certainly been wonderful.”

She brightened at the compliment.  “You’ve not had the chance to sample my cuisine when we haven’t had these annoying shortages,” she pointed out.

Lots of people were dying because of those annoying shortages, of course, but I wasn’t going to mention that.  “I’m sure the food would be even more wonderful then,” I said.

She nodded in full agreement and pulled a sack out of a drawer.  “Will this be enough?” she asked, shoveling in the rest of the pan.

“Yes, ma’am,  That’ll do.  And thank you very much.”

“Come back when this wretched war is over,” she said.  “My stuffed pheasant is beyond compare.”

“I’ll certainly do that,” I replied as I hurried out of the kitchen.

I stuffed the sack down the front of my coat and headed for the palace gate.  Would the guards let me out?  Maybe Lieutenant Carmody had left orders not to.  Maybe I was a prisoner here.  Well, then, I’d have to figure out how to escape.  I was feeling really guilty–about lying to get the food, about letting Professor Palmer down.  But I just couldn’t help it.  I had to get to my family.

The guards at the gate still wore those weird-looking tall hats with the plumes on them and stood at attention, hardly even blinking.  There were more of them than usual, maybe because there were more people than usual outside.  Begging to get in to see the president.  Begging for food.

Would they be able to smell what was in the sack?  I could get torn limb from limb if people realized what I was carrying.

“Good morning,” I said to one of the guards.  “Can you let me out?  I have to get back to headquarters.”

He stared down at me.  “Why don’t you wait for a wagon?” he asked.  “They’re arriving and departing all the time.”

“I’m supposed to go now.”  More lying.

He shrugged and opened the gate for me.  The people outside surged forward, and I pushed through them, just like yesterday at the camp.  They ignored me.  If they smelled the chicken, maybe they thought they were hallucinating.

I headed off for the camp.

I felt weird.  I had really done it.  Just like that, I had left.  And I wasn’t going back.  Lieutenant Carmody, Professor Palmer, General Aldridge–they’d all be mad at me.  I probably couldn’t make them understand.  They’d done a lot for me, but I was alone.  I had lost my family and my world.  I wasn’t sure I’d ever get my world back, but I knew where Mom and Cassie and Matthew were.  And I had to be there too.

Then I stopped.  I had forgotten about Kevin.  He must have been going nuts, all alone in the hospital.  I needed to bring him along with me, I decided.  Of course, maybe he wouldn’t want to go; it wasn’t his family, after all.  But I was pretty sure he would–anything was better than staying in that room by himself.  So I veered off and headed towards Mass General.

The haze of smoke got thicker as I approached the hospital.  It was close to the Charles–but not that close, I thought, suddenly worried.  The Canadian artillery couldn’t reach it–right?  I hurried down the long empty street leading to the hospital.  More smoke.  The artillery kept getting louder.  I was really scared now.

I got as close as I could.  The hospital was on fire.  Horse-drawn fire trucks surrounded the building, and men were shooting streams of water into it.  Didn’t look like they were doing much good.  I heard people screaming and weeping.  Some were lying on the ground, others just wandering around in a daze.  “What happened?” I asked a doctor who was treating a little girl with a long gash on her face.

He glared at me.  “What d’you think happened?” he demanded.

“The survivors–where will they go?”

He waved vaguely around him.  He looked exhausted.  “Everywhere.  Nowhere,” he said.  “What does it matter?”  He went back to bandaging the girl.

I walked around and around the building, looking for Kevin.  I saw lots of stuff that I’ll never forget–people bleeding, people dying–but I didn’t see him.  Finally I sat down on the cobblestones and put my head in my hands.  My throat was raw from the smoke.  My stomach still hurt from where I’d been punched yesterday.  But I didn’t really notice.  People were dying all around me, and Kevin was gone.

I needed my mother.

I got up after a while and trudged away from the burning building.  It took me a long time to get to the camp.  I was kind of in a daze.  Poor Kevin.  First drikana, and now . . .  He could still be alive, of course, but what if he was burned, or hurt–what if he was dying all by himself in this alien world?  I saw a couple of balloons floating above the city, and they reminded me of Kevin getting the idea for them as we sat by the professor’s fireplace.  He deserved better.

Cheapside was quiet.  Some people were sitting on their steps, smoking long pipes, and children were running around in the lanes.  It seemed strange that kids would actually be playing on a day like today, but what did I know?  I wasn’t a kid anymore.  No one bothered me, and the sack of food stayed safe inside my coat.

Outside the camp, things were grim.  Chester and his friends were digging another big hole next to the one I’d seen yesterday.  By the barracks, soldiers were silently cleaning their weapons.  Sergeant Hornbeam spotted me, and he seemed angry.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I’m–I’m visiting someone.”

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” he said, sounding like Colonel Clarett.

Usually Sergeant Hornbeam scared me, but right now I didn’t feel like being a nice little boy.  “Look,” I said, “all I want is to go into the camp.  Can I do that or not?”

He raised an eyebrow, and then muttered, “I can’t stop you,” and he turned away.

I walked up to the main gate.  There were several empty wagons lined up there, and lots of soldiers, rifles at the ready.  Inside the gate was an even bigger crowd of people than I’d seen yesterday.  “What’s the bloody point of aiming those guns at us?” one old man shouted at the soldiers.  “Why don’t you go and fight the real enemy!”

Caleb was one of the soldiers being shouted at.  He shook his head when he saw me.  “Not a good day to be visitin’, mate,” he said.  “Lots of angry people inside.  Must not have got a good night’s sleep.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’ll be careful.”

“Come on, then.”  We headed over to the side gate.  “What’s the news from headquarters?” he asked.

“We’re going to fight,” I said.  “Tomorrow, probably, or the next day.”

He nodded.  “That’s what we heard.  Won’t be soon enough, for my taste.  Now be careful in there, lad.  People aren’t just angry, some of ’em are a bit crazy.”

Once again the guards opened the gate with bayonets fixed and I pushed my way through the crowd, making sure the sack didn’t fall out from inside my coat.

Caleb was right.  Things were falling apart in the camp.  I passed by several fistfights; no one seemed interested in stopping them.  Some old guy who was either drunk or crazy just stood in the middle of a path, howling at the top of his lungs.  And here and there a corpse lay on the ground, its face covered with a sheet or a scrap of clothing.

It took me a while to find my family in the chaos, but finally I spotted their wagon.  As I approached it, I saw a red-coated soldier standing next to my mother.  My first thought was: Is she in trouble?  Then I recognized the soldier.  It was my father.

Mom’s face lit up when she saw me, and she pointed me out to Dad.

“Larry,” she said.  “It’s so wonderful you came back.”

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Barnes.”  I was so relieved to be here I wanted to hug her.  And Dad.

“This is Mr. Barnes,” she said, pointing to Dad.  “He’s just–just here for a short while.  On leave, before the battle.”  She looked like she’d been crying, I noticed.  “Henry, this is the boy I was telling you about.”

My father extended a hand.  “A pleasure, lad.”

I shook his hand.  Like Mom, he looked different in this world.  He was wearing a bushy mustache.  He was thin, and his hair was streaked with gray.  And the uniform looked so strange on him; he had never been a soldier, and he hated guns.  But it was Dad all right.

He gave me a long look.  “Mrs. Barnes was talking about you,” he said. “She mentioned what a strange coincidence it was, your age and first name and all,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”  He seemed almost suspicious of me, like he thought I was up to something.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t return,” Mom said, “with the bombardment starting.  It’s so dangerous now.”

“I promised to come back,” I pointed out.  I motioned to the makeshift tent that was attached to the wagon.  “Let’s go in there,” I said.  “I’ve got something to show you.”

We crawled inside.  Matthew and Cassie were already in there.  “Hi, Larry!”  Matthew called out.  He was spinning a little wooden top.  “Did you see the airships in the sky?”

“I sure did,” I replied.  “They call them ‘balloons.'”

“That’s a funny name.  Pa says we’re doing some other things to beat the enemy, right, Pa?”

“That’s right, Matthew.”

Cassie was just sitting in a corner with her shawl wrapped around her, shivering, and rocking back and forth a little.  Her eyes were dead; she didn’t even seem irritated when she saw me.  She looked awful–not sick, just awful.

I pulled out the sack of food.  “It’s not much,” I said, “but it’s more than you’ve been getting here.”

Everyone’s eyes widened.  “Oh, you dear boy,” Mom murmured.

“This is extremely good of you, Larry,” my father said.

“I promised I’d do it,” I said.

“Where in the world did you get chicken and potatoes?” he asked as Mom passed out the food.

“My father–he got some extra rations at headquarters.”

“Really?  That’s hard to believe.”  He raised an eyebrow and smiled, and it was just like we were back at home, and I had said something he thought was kind of funny, although I didn’t know why.  He didn’t laugh much, but he was always acting amused, like the rest of us were putting on a play just for him.  It drove Cassie nuts.

Matthew was excited.  “This is the best food I’ve had in months!” he said.  “Thanks, Larry!”  Cassie took her share and started gobbling it down, but she didn’t say anything.

Dad refused to take any.  “We still get our rations,” he said.

“You need to keep your strength up,” Mom pointed out.

“I’m fine, Emma,” he replied.  “Larry, why don’t you and I go outside and give them a little more space to eat.”

We scrambled out of the tent and stood by the wagon.  “Mrs. Barnes has told me a lot about you, Larry,” he said.  “You’ve made a deep impression on her.”

“She’s a very nice woman,” I replied.

“You believe you’re related to her?”

“Possibly, sir.”

“How is that, exactly?  Emma wasn’t very clear about it.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied.  I tried to remember exactly what I’d said to her yesterday, so I could repeat the story.  I did my best.  He pressed me on the details, and I don’t think I did a very good job of answering him.  He still seemed a little suspicious of me, even though I’d brought them the food–or maybe it was because I brought the food, without a good explanation.  Or maybe he was just curious.  He liked things to be logical, to make sense.  And my story didn’t quite make sense.

But he let it go finally.  Logically, what reason did I have to be lying?  “I am very grateful to you for the food, Larry,” he said, changing the subject.  “It grieves me that I can eat so well and sleep in a cot while my family has to live like this.”  He gestured at the tent and the wagon.  “It grieves me to be away from them.”

“Yes, sir.  But you’ve got to do it.”

He nodded.  “Yes, of course.  I fear, though–”  He looked away and didn’t finish the sentence.

“I think we’ve got a good shot at winning,” I said.  “These balloons–”

“Ah, the airships,” he replied.  “Matthew is so excited by them.  But they’re nowhere near as useful as people hope.  I’ve heard they’ll be used for surveillance of the enemy, nothing more.”

“But that’s something,” I pointed out.  He could be a drag sometimes, telling us not to get our hopes up when we entered a contest or whatever.  Just giving you kids a reality check, he’d say.  But lots of times we didn’t want a reality check.

“It is something, of course,” he admitted.  “We’ll find out soon enough what difference they’ll make.”

“Where are you stationed?” I asked.

“On the Charles,” he said.  “Preparing to fight the Canadians.  My captain gave some of us with families in the camps a few hours’ leave to go and see them.  Very decent of him.”

“The battle is coming,” I said.

He nodded.  “Yes,” he replied quietly.  “It is coming.”

And some of you will never see your families again, I thought.

Matthew came bounding out of the tent then, and Dad turned his attention away from me.  Mom came out a couple of minutes later; Cassie stayed inside.

Mom looked worried, of course–she had plenty of reason to be worried, with her husband going off to battle.  But what worried her most now was Cassie.  She made Dad go back into the tent to talk to her.  “The strain is too much for the poor girl,” she said to no one in particular.  “It’s such a difficult time.”

“She’ll be fine,” I said, knowing she wouldn’t be.  Cassie would always find a way to feel bad.  And Dad wouldn’t be able to talk her out of it.  He always tried to be logical with her, and he could never get it through his head that Cassie didn’t have any use for his logic.  It just made her angrier, because she thought he was talking down to her.  Sure enough, I could hear her squawking after a minute:  “You don’t know what I’ve been through.  You don’t understand, you’ve never understood . . . ”  The same old stuff, only she said it with the almost-British accent people had in this world.

I heard Dad’s voice, too low for us to make out the words, and then Cassie again, this time in a tone I’d never heard before–beyond anger, beyond despair: “Please, Papa, please take me with you.  Please get me out of here, I have to get out of here.  Papa, please  . . . ”

And then she was sobbing, and I knew Dad had his arms around her, trying to calm her down.  And I knew he wasn’t going to succeed.

“Why is Cassie the only one complaining?” Matthew wanted to know.

Mom just shook her head.

Eventually Dad came out, looking as worried as Mom.  “Emma–” he said, and sort of shrugged.  “It’s hard on all of us.”

“I know, Henry.  I know.”

“Private Barnes!” someone shouted from the path.  It was a sergeant, with a couple of soldiers alongside him.  “It’s time!”

“One moment,” Dad replied.  He turned back to us.

“So soon, Henry?” Mom said.

“I’m sorry.”

Matthew hugged him and started to cry.  “Please, Papa, stay!” he sobbed.  Mom touched Dad’s arm, in that way she had.  I stayed back by the wagon; I wasn’t part of this.

When Dad had finished saying goodbye to Matthew and Mom, he ducked into the tent and said something to Cassie.  I don’t think he got any response.  Then he came over and shook my hand.  “Thank you again, Larry,” he said.

“Please be careful, sir,” I replied.

“I will.”

Then I blurted out, “I’ll take care of your family.”

He looked puzzled.  “That’s very kind of you,” he said, “but you’ve got your own family.”

I couldn’t think of anything I could say to that.  Dad kissed Mom and Matthew one last time, and then left us.

The day suddenly seemed a lot colder.

“It’ll be all right,” Mom murmured.  “Everything will be all right.”

Matthew cried for a while.  Mom put her arm around him, and he leaned close to her, but eventually he got over it and moved away.  That was how Matthew was.  Cassie stayed inside the tent.  Mom looked really upset.  The distant artillery never stopped.  We talked for a while about the war and conditions in the city.  I told her about the fire at the hospital, and she was horrified.  “Those poor people.  Is nowhere safe?”  And then she started in: “You should go home, Larry.  It was wonderful of you to come and bring that food, but it’s late already.”

How could I tell her that I didn’t have a home anymore?  I hadn’t thought this part through.  “Well,” I said, “I was thinking of staying here and helping you out.”

She gave me a long, puzzled stare.  “You can’t do that, Larry,” she said.  “You have to go home.  You have to be safe.  How can you think about leaving your father?”

“No, it’s all right,” I insisted.  “He’s really busy helping out with the war.  He doesn’t pay much attention to me.”

“I’d like Larry to stay,” Matthew piped up.

Mom shook her head, almost violently.  She wasn’t buying it.  “Larry, you must go,” she said, in that tone she gets when she’s really serious and we’ve gone too far.  “Now.”

I thought about telling her the truth.  But that was stupid–she wouldn’t believe me.  I could just stay somewhere else in the camp–she couldn’t make me leave–but that wasn’t the point.  The point was to be with my family.  I felt an awful emptiness come over me.  Kevin was gone.  Professor Palmer would probably be so angry that he wouldn’t want me anymore.  And now Mom didn’t want me either.  I thought: She’s not my real mom.  This isn’t the real Matthew.  But I didn’t believe that anymore.

I was all alone in this stupid world.  “Please let me stay,” I whispered.

Tears came into her eyes then.  She reached for Matthew and pulled him close to her.  “You have to go home, Larry,” she whispered back.  “You have to go home.  After the war, come visit us.  You’ll always be welcome.”

I didn’t move for a while, and then I slowly got up from the ground.  Matthew was crying again.  I gave him a long hug.  I hesitated, then looked into the tent.  Cassie was huddled in a corner, staring at me.  “Take me with you,” she begged in a hollow voice.

She looked scary.  She looked insane.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.  But there was nothing I could do.  “I’m sorry, Cassie,” I said.  “I can’t.”

Her eyes turned away from me then, and she started silently rocking once more.

Outside the tent, Mom was waiting for me, her face wet with tears.  “I’ll visit you,” I said.  “I promise.”  She hugged me then, and I didn’t want to leave her embrace.  I remember once when I was little getting separated from her at the mall, and I felt so scared and lost, and suddenly I saw her, frantically looking for me by the escalator.  I raced to her and jumped up into her arms, and I felt so safe there, I never wanted to be anyplace else.  That was kind of how I felt there in the camp.

But Mom pushed me away finally.  “Please go, Larry,” she said, “before it’s too late.”

And so I walked away.

I don’t know what I was thinking.  Maybe I was beyond thinking.  I made my way through the crowded, stinking camp to the main gate.  It was worse there than the day before.  I had to fight my way through the crowd, but when I got to the front I didn’t recognize any of the guards, and none of them looked like they wanted to hear my story or look at my pass.  Off to my right people were throwing things at the guards, who just stood motionless at the fence, their rifles at the ready.  Everyone was shouting.

“Let’s go!” someone yelled.  “They can’t stop us all!”

There was more shouting, and people started pushing against me.  I could see the guards just a few feet away, and their eyes were half-scared, half-angry.  Even if one of them recognized me, he couldn’t have done anything to help me at this point.  I felt like I was going to get trampled to death, like at one of those soccer games in South America.

And then I heard gunshots, and the shouting turned to screaming, and people were running every which way.  I fell to the ground, and someone kicked me, but I didn’t get trampled.  I could smell gunpowder in the air, and someone near me was groaning, and a woman was calling out, “Help me!  Help me!”

I was scared I’d be shot if I got up, so I stayed where I was.  I heard someone shouting out orders, and the gates opened.  A bunch of soldiers rushed in, and one of them hoisted me to my feet.

“I think you’ve outworn your welcome here, lad,” he said, shaking his head.

It was Sergeant Hornbeam.

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I’m just leaving.”

“See that you don’t come back.  This won’t be the last of it.  The night is going to be long and deadly.”

“Yes, sir.”

The crowd had mostly moved back.  Some of the soldiers aimed their rifles at them while others collected the wounded and the dead.  Sergeant Hornbeam gestured at the gate; I walked out.

It was only after I was outside the camp that I could think about what had happened.  I had been in a battle–soldiers fighting their own people.  I was lucky to be alive.

I was trembling and out of breath.  My ribs were sore where I’d been kicked.  Two soldiers hurried past me, carrying the corpse of an old woman on a stretcher.  Five minutes ago she had been alive, probably screaming at the soldiers along with everyone else.  Or maybe she had just been trapped in the crowd.  And now she’d be dumped in one of those graves that Chester was digging.  No one would ever know what happened to her.

And what was I supposed to do?

I headed off, trudging slowly through the deepening darkness.  Past the barracks and the other army buildings and on into Cheapside.  Going where?  To do what?

I don’t think I even noticed the footsteps behind me.  What did I care?  Then I heard the voice, loud and mocking, almost at my shoulder.

“Nice coat, mate!”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 18

We’re about halfway through this story of Kevin and Larry’s adventures in an alternate universe, where Boston is under siege from the forces of Canada and New Portugal.  Kevin is still in the hospital, recovering from his bout with a dread disease unique to this world.  Larry has made his way back to the refugee camp on the outskirts of Boston, hoping to find this world’s version of his family.  He thinks he has spotted a girl from his English class in the water line at the camp.  But has he really?

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

Chapter 18

I tried one last time.  “You’re not Nora Lally?”

She looked puzzled.  “I’m Sarah Lally,” she said, “Not Nora.”

“From Glanbury?” I asked.

“Yes.”  She put her buckets down.  “Your accent–are you from these parts?  Do I know you?”

Same person, different first name.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief.  It made sense, right?  They had old-fashioned names here.  They wouldn’t necessarily be called the same thing as in our world.

I didn’t know how to answer her question.  It’s me, Larry, I wanted to say.  From English class?  I gave that oral report on Mark Twain last year, and you laughed a couple of times–remember?  “No, I guess you don’t know me,” I managed to say.

“But how do you know my surname?”

For all the time I’d spent thinking about meeting someone in the camp, I hadn’t really come up with the right answer for that sort of question.  Should I tell her the truth?  If not, what story could I possibly come up with?  I decided to do what Kevin and I had done with the Harpers–just ignore the hard questions.  So instead I just asked my own.  “I wonder, Sarah–do you know the Barnes family?”

A wagon came lumbering down the path, and we had to get out of the way.  My heart was pounding as I waited for her response.  “Of course I know the Barnes family,” she said.  “They have the farm over next to the Johnson’s.  Do you know them, too?”

“Yeah, I–I’m related.  Are they here by any chance, in the camp?  I’ve been looking for them.”

Sarah nodded.  “Mostly all of us are here, sad to say.”

Finally.  I thought I was going to explode from excitement.  “Do you know where they are?  Could you–would you take me to them?  I’d be really grateful.”

“Surely.”  She stared at me.  “You do look like a Barnes, I believe.  What’s your name?”

“Larry.  Larry, uh, Palmer.”

“Larry.”  She smiled.  “Pleased to meet you, Larry.”  She held out her hand, and I shook it.  It was the first time I’d ever touched Nora–I mean, Sarah.  Her hands were rough and chafed.  This was way different from going to school at The Gross.

“Can I help you with those buckets?” I asked

She looked down at them and sighed.  “That would be very kind of you,” she said.  “I tire so much more easily nowadays.  We can drop them off with my family, and then I’ll take you to the Barneses.”

I picked up one of the buckets, and we started walking.  “What part of the camp does your family live in?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not staying in the camp.  We live in the city.”

She looked at me.  “I don’t understand,” she said.  “Then why are you here?”

“I wanted to find them–the Barneses.  We’ve never met.”

“But I thought you were related.”

This was already getting complicated.  “It’s a long story,” I said, hoping that Sarah didn’t ask to hear it.

Luckily she didn’t.  Instead she started asking me about how things were going in the city.  Did we have enough to eat?  Was there a lot of robbery and looting?  What news had I heard about the war?  The distant booming seemed louder now.  Were we fighting the enemy at last?

I told her what I knew, which was a lot more than she did.  But I couldn’t exactly make her feel optimistic about the war.

“I know we’re not supposed to say this, but I think it would be better if we surrendered, don’t you?” she said.  “My father has joined the army–all the men have gone.  It would be wonderful if he didn’t have to fight.  At least we’d be safe, and we could leave this wretched camp and go back home.”

“Sure, if the Portuguese let you go home,” I said.

“You think they’d take our farm?”

“I don’t know.  If we surrender, what’s to stop them from taking everything?”

“Oh my,” she murmured.  “That’s very true.”

It certainly was easy to talk to Sarah.  Why had I been so frightened of Nora back at school?  Not that it mattered anymore.

“Well, here’s our little home of the moment,” Sarah said.  It was the usual–a wagon, a sickly-looking horse, a makeshift tent.  A couple of kids were playing next to the wagon.  One of them had a cricket bat and was trying to whack the other one.  We set the buckets down.  “Jared, Thomas, stop that,” she ordered them.  “Where’s Mother?”

“In the food line,” one of them replied.  The other one stuck his tongue out at her.

“Charming,” she said.  “Larry, let’s go find your relatives.  You two, mind you don’t upset the buckets.  And don’t kill each other.”

My relatives.  Sarah said it so casually, like visiting them was something we did every day.  “Are they near here?” I asked.

“Not far.  We Glanbury folks tried to stay close together.  It’s all so different and frightening in the camp–it’s good to have familiar faces.”

That reminded me.  “Is there an Albright family here?”

“I don’t know anyone of that name.  Are they from Glanbury?”

“I think so,” I said.  “Is it possible they live in Glanbury and you haven’t heard of them?”

Sarah shook her head.  “It’s such a small town.  Everyone knows everyone else.”

Poor Kevin.  He wasn’t going to want to hear that.  We started walking.  “Do you see the Barnes family much?”

“Jared and Thomas play with their boy.  But there’s no one my age in the family.”

“How many children do they have?”

Sarah gave me another look.  She was probably thinking: If they’re my relatives, how come I didn’t know how many children they had?  But she answered my question.  “They have the boy–Matthew–and Cassandra.  She’s a couple of years older than me.”

Cassandra?  What kind of name was that?  Cassie’s real name in our world was Catherine.  Was she called Cassie here?

But that didn’t matter.  The big news was: no Larry.  That made things less complicated–the universe wasn’t going to explode–but I guess I was sort of disappointed.  “And Mr. Barnes–is he in the army, like your father?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  Look, there they are.”

I looked.  Another wagon, another tent made out of ragged sheets and blankets, another horse who looked ready to keel over at any second.  There was also a small, smoky fire, over which a girl sat hunched, looking tired and gloomy.  A boy was climbing up the side of the wagon, chattering to no one in particular.  And there was a woman telling him to get down this instant, he was going to hurt himself.

I was home.

Sarah and I walked over to them.  The girl–my sister–looked up.  “Hello, Cassie,” Sarah said.

So she was called Cassie, just like in my world.  She just stared at Sarah and said nothing.

Sarah kept talking.  “This is Larry Palmer,” she said.  “He is, um, a relative of yours?”

Cassie turned her gaze to me without much interest and shrugged.  “I don’t know him.”

Then my mother turned around.  She looked older.  Her hair had streaks of gray, and her eyes had little wrinkles around them.  But she was my mom, no doubt about it, and my heart leaped when I saw her face.  She, too, stared at me–a very different stare from Cassie’s.

I wanted to run into her arms, but I held back.  “Your name is Larry–Lawrence?” she whispered.

Her voice sent chills down my spine.

“Yes,” I managed to say.  “Larry Palmer.”

“Who’s that?” Matthew called out from the top of the wagon.  “Hello, I’m Matthew Barnes.  Are you from Glanbury?  That’s where we’re from.  My pa’s in the army, and he’s going to fight the Portuguese.  I wish I could fight them.  Are you old enough to be a soldier?”

“Be silent, Matthew,” my mother said, without taking her eyes off me.  Her gaze felt awfully strange.  Almost unbearably strange.  It was as if, somehow, she recognized me.

“Palmer,” she said finally.  “I don’t recognize the name.  You say you’re related to us, Larry?”

“I think so.”  I’d been trying to come up with a story.  “My mother–she died of smallpox when I was little–but she said once that she was related to the Clement family.”  That was my Mom’s maiden name.  “And a girl from the Clement family had married a man named Barnes from Glanbury.”

“What was your mother’s name?” Mom asked.  “How was she related to the Clements?”

“Her name was Annie,” I said.  I was making this up as I went along.  “I really don’t remember how she was related.  The story just kind of stuck in my mind for some reason.  So I thought–I thought I’d see if I could find you here in the camp.”

“He lives in the city,” Sarah said.  “He came here specially to look for you.”

That got Cassie’s attention.  “You came here, and you didn’t actually have to?” she asked.  “That’s the foolishest thing I ever heard of.”

“Mind your manners, Cassandra,” Mom said.

“Can you get us out of here?” Cassie asked me.  “Can we stay with you?”

I’d have liked to, but there was no way I was going to be able to pull that off.  “No, I’m sorry,” I replied.  “No one’s allowed out now.”

Cassie turned away, no longer interested in me.  But Mom–that was how I thought of her already–still was.  I was afraid she was going to keep on quizzing me about my story, but she didn’t.  “I don’t recall any relative of mine named Annie,” she said. “Probably a second cousin or some such.  But no matter.  You’re very welcome, of course.  I wish we had something to offer you, but you see how things are here.”

“Why not offer him tea in the parlor?” Cassie muttered.

“That’s okay–I mean, that’s fine,” I said, ignoring Cassie.  “Maybe we can just talk.”

“Well, I have to go back,” Sarah said, “before Jared and Thomas maim each other.  It was a pleasure to meet you, Larry.  Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

She really seemed to mean it.  “Thanks for everything,” I said.

Sarah smiled and gave a little curtsy.

“It’s getting dark,” Mom said to me.  “Won’t you be out after curfew?  And the artillery–”

“I’ll be all right,” I assured her.  “The police just make sure you’re on your way home.”

Mom looked doubtful, but clearly she wanted me to stay.  I sat down by the fire with her.  Cassie looked at me the way she always did–like she couldn’t believe she had to put up with my existence.  Matthew climbed down from the wagon and started peppering me with questions.  Mom mostly just gazed at me with that kind of puzzled look she’d had when she first heard my name.

I pretended I was Professor Palmer’s son, but I tried not to say too much, afraid I’d start getting confused with the stuff I had to make up.  I was pretty sure Cassie didn’t believe me, although I had no idea why she thought I’d be lying.  Probably she couldn’t believe she was related to someone who was a professor at Harvard.  Eventually I got the conversation off of me and onto their lives.

“We’re just farmfolk, as they call us in the city,” Mom said.  “Nothing special.  Though I wonder if we’ll ever see our farm again.”

Cassie looked disgusted.  “Fine with me if we don’t,” she replied.  She hated farm work, I was sure.  I figured she wanted to move to the city, wear a wig and a fancy dress, and go to dinner parties at Coolidge Palace.

“Please don’t say that, Cassandra,” Mom said softly.  “The farm is all we have in this world.”

Cassie looked glumly into the fire and pulled her shawl more tightly around her.  “Then we don’t have anything,” she said.  “You think we’re actually going to win this war?  You think we’ll actually be able to go back to our farm, as if nothing happened?”

“Pa is going to whip those Portuguese!” Matthew said.  “You wait and see!  We’ll be back home by New Year’s.”

“Do you go to school, Matthew?” I asked.

Matthew looked delighted.  “Not any more!”

Mom shook her head.  “We keep talking about setting up some kind of schooling in the camp.  We shouldn’t just let the children run wild, day after day.”

“You should let me join the army, like Pa,” Matthew said.  “I can help.  Can’t help anyone if all I’m doing is learning how to read and cipher.”

“The army doesn’t need little boys,” Mom said.

“It needs something,” Cassie muttered.

“I think the army will have some surprises for the Portuguese and the Canadians,” I said.

“Oh, I do hope you’re right,” Mom said.

“What about the airships?” Matthew said.  “Lots of people have seen them in the city.  Above the palace, they say.  Have you seen them, Larry?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I have.”

“Are they big?”

“They’re pretty big.”

“I’ll bet we can shoot cannonballs right down on the enemy from the air.  The Portuguese won’t have a chance!”

Mom was clutching a handkerchief and twisting it tightly.  To keep from crying, I realized.  She was worrying about Dad, but she didn’t like to cry in front of her children.  Just like Mom in my world.  Everything about their lives had been different, I thought.  But at bottom, they were entirely the same.  “Is Mr. Barnes able to visit you here?” I asked.

“Just a couple of times,” she said.  “They’re very busy with their training and building the fortifications and such.  He’s not really a soldier, you know.  It’s just that they need every man they can get.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“If something happens,” she said, twisting the handkerchief, “we may never find out.  Things are so upside-down.”

Matthew reached over and patted her hand.  Even Cassie looked sympathetic.  “Pa’s a dead shot,” she said.  “And he knows how to take care of himself.”

“Yes, yes he does.”

We were silent for a while, and then I asked more questions, learned a little more about them.  Matthew helped a lot on the farm.  He knew how to ride and shoot and fish.  Mom sewed the family’s clothes and cooked and worked in the fields during planting and harvest seasons.  Cassie said everything was boring and she was going to get a job in the city just as soon as she could, if by some miracle we won the war.  On Sundays they all went to church in their wagon; their horse’s name was Gretel.  Occasionally there was a dance in the church hall on Saturday night.  There were lots of parties around Harvest Day.  Their life had been quiet and happy, until the war.

I didn’t notice how dark it was getting until Matthew spoke up.  “If we don’t get in the food line soon, we’ll not have supper,” he pointed out.

“I did it this morning,” Cassie was quick to say.

“Of course,” Mom said.  “It’s my turn.  Larry, you really should be going.”

“I know.”  The sun had set, and the curfew would be starting soon.  But I didn’t want to leave.  It had been so long since I’d heard Matthew babble or seen Cassie sulk . . .

“Come with me, Larry,” Mom said.  “Just for a minute.  Cassie, watch your brother.”

We got up and headed for the food line.  “They say it can’t last,” Mom said to me.  “A few days more at most.  Too many people, too little food, and the soldiers are needed for fighting, not for guarding us.”

“I’m sure you’ll be all right.”

“Some people are going mad from the wait and the hardship,” she went on.  “Cassie is very unhappy.”

Cassie is always unhappy, I wanted to tell her.  “I think we’ve got a good shot at winning,” I said, desperate to make her feel better.

We reached the food distribution area.  There were several long lines heading towards a big wooden building much like the one where I’d helped to load the sacks of grain so long ago; soldiers were everywhere, carrying rifles.  They looked like they were more than willing to use them.  We got into one of the lines.

“Larry, how old are you?” Mom asked.

She was staring at me the way she had when I first showed up.  “Almost thirteen,” I said.

“Almost thirteen,” she repeated, and she nodded, as if this was the answer she had expected.  “Larry, Lawrence.  This is very strange.  You see, we had–we had a little baby.  We named him Lawrence, too.  He died of a fever when he was two months old.  He would have been exactly your age, if he had lived.”

I shivered, and not from the cold.

A tear leaked out of her eye.  “He was so brave, but he just couldn’t hold on.  This world was too harsh for him.  And to think: he could be just like you today.”

So, that’s what had happened to me in this universe: dead when I was just a baby.  My family had never gotten to know me.  “I’m very sorry,” I managed to say.  “It’s . . . it’s a big coincidence.”

Mom touched my arm, which was something she did when she got really emotional.  “I know it will be hard, Larry, but if you can  . . . come back and visit us again.  It’s like you . . . you fill up an empty space in my heart.”

“I’ll be back,” I said.  “Tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”  She squeezed my arm.  “Thank you, Larry.  Of course, if you can’t make it, I understand.  You should really stay at home, of course.  The city is so dangerous.  But maybe later, if things work out, you could come visit us in Glanbury.”

“Sure.  I’ll do that too.”

She smiled at me.  “Now you should go.”

She looked so frail, yet so brave, standing in that long line, with her shawl wrapped around her.  I couldn’t stand the idea that she had to face this camp without Dad, when I could be here to help her.  But she was right; it was time to go.

She leaned over and kissed my forehead, and then I left her there in the line.

I made my way back to the side gate where they’d let me in.  The old man was gone, but a few people were still there, begging to be let out.  The guards were different from the ones who’d been there earlier.  I showed my pass to one of them.  “Sergeant Hornbeam said you’d let me out if I showed you this,” I said.

The guard took the pass and studied it, the way the sergeant had.  “You can leave,” he said, “but I don’t know where you can go.  It’s after curfew.”

“I know,” I replied.  “I just need to get back to army headquarters.”

He just shook his head.  “Well, good luck to you.”

Once again the guards fixed bayonets to keep the other people from charging the gate, and they let me out.

It was dark and cold, and I had a long way to go.  The artillery hadn’t let up.  But I didn’t really care.  I felt so different.  I felt as if everything had changed.

My family was here.  I had found them.  Even if they were farmfolk, they weren’t really that different from the family I had left behind.

I had gotten used to not thinking about my family–it was too painful.  But now I couldn’t help but think about them–at least, this world’s version of them.  I would steal some food from the mess for them, I thought.  Maybe I could find them some warm clothes, too.  If Lieutenant Carmody tried to stop me from coming back, I’d just run away.

I passed by the barracks; there were a few soldiers outside it; they glanced at me as I passed by, but no one spoke to me, no one mentioned the curfew.  The hole Chester had been digging was filled up now.  It looked sinister in the darkness.

I hurried through Cheapside.  The streets were deserted.

Kevin was probably worried about me, but I couldn’t get to the hospital tonight.  Maybe tomorrow.  He’d be disappointed that there weren’t any Albrights, but that couldn’t be helped.

What if the battle had started?  Could I get back to the camp?  What would happen to Kevin?

My mind just kept racing.  I didn’t even notice how hungry and tired I was.  I didn’t notice that my stomach still hurt from where that kid had punched me.  And I wasn’t even particularly scared–I was just too excited.

I noticed a few people, hurrying like me along the streets, staying in the shadows.  There weren’t any carriages or wagons.  And I didn’t see any policemen.  I recalled the first night Kevin and I had spent in this world.  We were so scared, but the streets had been busy and full of life.  Would they ever be like that again?

I almost made it back to headquarters before I ran into the cop.  He saw me from across the street and yelled at me to stop.  I thought about running, but he took out his pistol and aimed it at me, and I figured I shouldn’t take the risk.  He came over and grabbed me by the collar.  He was big and stupid-looking, and he sure was angry.  “What are you doin’, sneakin’ around after curfew?” he demanded.  “Shoot on sight, those are the orders.  Want me to shoot you, you little sneak?”

“Officer,” I said, “I have a pass and–”

“I don’t care about your pass.  There’s no passes for curfew, those are the orders.”  He started shaking me.  What was he so angry about?

Just then a carriage came around the corner at top speed.  The policeman started yelling at the driver, who came to a stop next to us.

It was Peter.

“It’s curfew,” the policeman screamed at him, waving his pistol.  “Get down from there.”

“This is official army business, mate,” Peter said.  “Let the boy go and everyone’ll be happy.”

“Those aren’t the orders,” the policeman replied.  “No exceptions to curfew–those are the orders!”

Peter calmly picked up a rifle and aimed it at him.  “I’d hate to have to blow a hole in your stomach, mate,” he said, “but I need that boy.”

The policeman looked outraged, and for a second I thought he was actually going to try to shoot Peter with his pistol.  But he thought better of it and let me go.  I scrambled up onto the bench next to Peter.  “This isn’t right,” the policeman pointed out.  “You have a curfew, you got to–”

But I didn’t hear the rest as the horses clattered off down the street.  “Thanks, Peter,” I said.

“Been looking all over for you, mate,” he said.  “Thought you might be at the hospital, but you weren’t.”

“Sorry,” I said.  I noticed we were heading away from headquarters.  “What’s going on?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Peter replied.  “Just that the President of New England wants to have a chat with you.”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 13

In the alternate universe Kevin and Larry find themselves stuck in, they are helping the United States of New England in its war against New Portugal and Canada.  The boys are working with the military on hot air balloons and electricity when they get a summons from President Gardner.  Their guardian, Professor Palmer, is not happy about it.

Previous chapters are up there on the menu.  They’re all pretty good!

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Chapter 13

“The man’s an idiot,” Professor Palmer said.  “We won’t go.”

General Aldridge scratched his chin.  “I may have my disagreements with the president, but I fear he’s no idiot.  In any case, you don’t have any choice.  This wasn’t an invitation, Alexander; it was a summons.”

“Why can’t we just bring him out here and show him what we’ve accomplished?” Kevin asked.

“One must first persuade him that it’s worth the trip,” the general replied.  “Lieutenant, see that they get to the palace.  If Professor Palmer gives you any trouble, arrest him or something.  I’ll follow along presently.”

“Yes, sir.”  Lieutenant Carmody turned to us.  “Let’s go, then, shall we?”

The lieutenant didn’t have his carriage, so we all piled into Professor Palmer’s.  He decided we needed to improve our appearance, so we stopped back at the house, cleaned up, and borrowed a couple of the professor’s dressy white shirts.  They were about the right size for me, but way too big for Kevin.  Lieutenant Carmody thought it was an improvement, though.

The professor, meanwhile, was still in a snit.  “Everything is wasted–science, planning, courage–without political wisdom,” he said.

“We elected the president,” Lieutenant Carmody pointed out.

“Not with my vote.  He promised us a stronger New England.  And now with his reckless adventurism he has all but destroyed it.”

The lieutenant wasn’t very interested in what the professor had to say about President Gardner.  He just wanted to get us to Coolidge Palace.  Once we had changed, we got back in the carriage and hurried off to Boston.

It was twilight by the time we crossed the bridge into the city.  Things were looking worse.  Many of the trees I had seen there on the trip to Cambridge had been chopped down–for firewood, I guess; the smoke from the fires in the refugee camp stung my eyes.  The smell of sewage was almost unbearable.  There were fewer people on the streets, but those who were out looked tired and hungry.  More than one of them rushed up to the carriage with his hands outstretched, begging for food.  We didn’t stop.

In our world, I’d gone into Boston a couple of times to visit the Massachusetts State House, a big brick building with a gold dome at the top of Beacon Hill.  Here, there was more than one hill in the center of the city, and the president lived in a mansion at the top of the middle hill.  This was Coolidge Palace–named, I found out, after the first president of New England, Sir Calvin Coolidge.  I remembered him as a not-so-important president in our world, so that struck me as really strange.  But I didn’t say anything about it.

We drove up to the front gate, which was guarded by stern-looking soldiers with those silly plumes in their hats.  Lieutenant Carmody got out of the carriage and talked to one of them, who came up and looked at us suspiciously.  He wrote down our names, then opened the gates and let us through.

It was like going through the portal again–this time entering a serene, lovely world where nothing was out of place.  As we drove up the gravel drive to the large granite building we saw one groundskeeper sweeping leaves off the immaculate lawn, another trimming a bush that was so perfectly shaped it looked artificial.

“No refugees allowed near Coolidge Palace,” Professor Palmer muttered.  “Wouldn’t do.”

At the front steps a groom took Professor Palmer’s carriage, and then a tall man in a bright green suit wearing a long white wig escorted us up the steps and opened the door for us.  I thought I caught him sneering at Kevin and me, in our crufty pants and shoes, but I couldn’t be sure.  This was the first time I’d ever seen anyone in a wig for real, and I almost burst out laughing.  He led us along a couple of corridors lined with portraits of people I didn’t recognize, and finally deposited us in a small room whose walls were painted with scenes of pretty shepherdesses tending flocks of sheep.  He instructed us to wait there until summoned, and then he left.

“Waste of time,” the professor said.

Lieutenant Carmody gave us instructions about how to act in front of the president.  Give a small bow when you’re introduced, speak only when spoken to, throw in lots of “Your Excellency”‘s.  He looked like he was right at home in the palace.

Eventually the guy in the green suit led in General Aldridge.  He had shaved and put on a clean uniform, although the way he wore it, it still managed to look rumpled.  At least he wasn’t chewing on a cigar.  He sat in one of the overstuffed armchairs and folded his arms.  “His Excellency is dining this evening with the British ambassador and friends,” he said.  “I expect that we are the entertainment.”

“What’s the game?” Lieutenant Carmody asked.  “Is he trying to embarrass you?”

“Perhaps.  Show that he’s still in charge.”

“He could simply discharge you.”

“At the risk of having half his cabinet resign,” General Aldridge pointed out.  “Lord Percival would certainly object, as would some of the others.  At any rate, the president can’t afford a political crisis now.  And he can’t afford to make me too angry.”

Professor Palmer seemed to pick up on this.  “Your soldiers respect you, Solomon,” he said, “and they don’t respect Gardner.  They’ll follow you, if you decide to–”

The general raised a hand.  “Rebellion is not an option,” he replied in a stern voice.

“But surrender is?”

“None of us can guarantee victory,” the general replied.  “Even with electricity on our side.”

“How do you think the president found out about us?” Kevin asked.

“The president has spies everywhere, and there are many people working on our projects.  Apparently Cambridge wasn’t far enough away to keep them secret from him.  I didn’t really think it would be.  As for you boys–it isn’t clear what he knows about you, other than your existence.  So I think we should just find out.”

So we fell silent and waited some more.  Night fell, and I got hungry.  I started to wonder if this was some kind of punishment, and we weren’t really going to see anybody after all.  Then at last the guy in the green suit returned, and we walked down another fancy corridor.  He opened a set of big double doors, and we were ushered into the presence of the president of New England.

General Aldridge went in first, and the rest of us followed.  We were in a large dining room with high ceilings and walls covered with more portraits of men wearing wigs.  A bunch of people were seated at a long table, eating dinner.  My stomach growled as I caught the aroma of roast beef.  A fat, red-faced man sat at the head of the table, digging into his food like he was afraid any minute the Portuguese would swoop down and grab it away from him.  He was wearing a black coat, a white ruffled shirt, and a short wig.  Sweat poured down his face.  When he noticed us he waved a fork at General Aldridge.  “Solomon,” he said, “I hear these boys are your new military advisers.”  He had a strange, high-pitched voice.

The remark didn’t seem very funny to me, but the men and women at the table gave it a big laugh.  Most of the men wore black suits, like the president.  The women wore fancy gowns and lots of jewelry; their hair was piled up so high on top of their heads I thought they might lose their balance.

General Aldridge smiled and bowed.  “Your Excellency,” he said, “nowadays I take advice wherever I can get it.”

“Odd you can’t get good advice from your highly trained staff.  You’ve met the Earl of Chatham, Solomon?”

The general bowed to the guy on the president’s right, a short man with huge ears that stuck out from his wig.  “Mr. Ambassador, good to see you again.”

The earl nodded back with a little smile.  He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.

“You,” the president said, pointing his fork at Kevin, “where are you from, boy?”

Kevin remembered to bow; I’m not sure I would have.  “From Glanbury, Your Excellency,” he said.

The president chuckled.  “Glanbury?  When has anything useful come out of that godforsaken village?”  More laughter from the table.  The president speared a hunk of roast beef and stuck it into his mouth, looking satisfied with himself.  “And you are full of advice for General Aldridge?”

“Not really, Your Excellency.  We’re just staying with Professor Palmer.”

“I hear differently,” the president replied.  “I am told there are very strange doings over in Cambridge.”

“We are attempting to develop–” General Aldridge began.

“I know exactly what you’re attempting to do,” the president interrupted.  “We’re besieged by our enemies, winter is setting in, and you’re devoting precious time and manpower to projects suggested to you by ten-year-olds?”

I wanted to yell at him that Kevin and I were both teenagers, practically, but I managed to restrain myself.

“Come and see for yourself, Your Excellency,” the general offered calmly.

President Gardner waved away the suggestion and speared another hunk of roast beef with his knife.  “Mr. Ambassador,” he said, turning to the earl next to him.  “What is the message you delivered to me today, smuggled in from your superiors in London at great risk?”

The earl shifted in his seat and looked uncomfortable.  “Excellency,” he said, “I think it more suitable for–”

“Come, Cecil, we are all friends here,” the president insisted.

People around the table grew quiet.

“Sir,” the earl began, “His Majesty’s government regret that they will be unable to provide assistance to your nation in its current difficulty.  Unfortunately, the demands of the war in Europe preclude–”

“Thank you, Cecil, we all understand about the demands of war,” the president said.  He motioned to a servant to refill his glass with wine.  The earl looked down at his plate.

“Sir,” General Aldridge said to the president, “this is unhappy news.  But it simply means that we have all the more reason to press ahead with our efforts.”

“It means what I say it means,” the president retorted.  And he stuffed a large chunk of beef into his mouth.  I looked at General Aldridge.  He had turned red.  I imagined it was all he could do to keep his temper.  I had no idea how Professor Palmer was keeping his.

I looked back at the president, and his face was red, too.  Then he stood up.  One hand reached for his throat, the other reached for his wine, but knocked it over.  He tried to say something, but nothing came out.

He was choking on his meat.

The people at the table started shouting out instructions.  One of the servants came over and pounded the president on the back.  Didn’t help.  His eyes were bulging now, and his face was the color of a rotten tomato.  He gestured wildly, hitting one of the servants who was trying to loosen his collar.

That’s when I figured I should do something.

Mom made me take a first aid course in fifth grade.  It had never come in handy till that instant.

I went up behind the president–no one seemed to notice me.  He was doubled over now, still clutching at his throat.  I shoved a lady out of the way, then wrapped my arms around him, put my hands together, and pushed up on his chest.

The first push didn’t work.  I could feel people grabbing at me now, trying to pull me away, but I managed to try again.  And this time the piece of meat popped out of the president’s mouth.

People dragged me away from him then, and I didn’t see what happened next.  I was afraid some security guy was going to shoot me, but eventually they let me go and got out of the way, and President Gardner stood facing me.  His face was still red and splotchy, but at least he didn’t look like he was going to keel over.  At least he was breathing.

“You were the one?” he demanded.  “You saved me?”

I nodded.

“How did you learn how that–that thing you just did?”

“We know how to do a few things in Glanbury,” I said.  “Your Excellency.”

Kind of a wisecrack, I know, but he had made a wisecrack about my home town.  He stared at me, and I wondered if he was going to have me beheaded or something.  And then he threw his head back and laughed.  “Very well, then,” he said.  “Your village is apparently not as benighted as I had imagined.”  He picked up a glass of wine.  “A toast–to Glanbury!”

That kind of broke the tension.  The president ordered places to be set for all of us, so we got to eat some of that roast beef.  Which was good, because I was just about starving at that point.  The servants offered to pour us wine, but Kevin and I asked for milk instead.  General Aldridge ate, but he still didn’t look happy.  Professor Palmer asked me about what I’d done.  “Is that something from your world?”

“Uh-huh,” I said.  “It’s called the Heimlich maneuver.  I guess you haven’t figured it out here.”

“Indeed.  I wonder if it will change his attitude towards us.”

“Can’t hurt,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.  “You know, General Aldridge is right: he’s not as incompetent as you think, Professor.  He took some gambles during his presidency and lost.  But some would say the gambles had to be made, if New England were to survive.”

This was more of an opinion than we usually heard the lieutenant offer.  But Professor Palmer wasn’t buying it.  “A real leader would not be locked up behind palace gates,” he said, “swilling wine while his countrymen starve.”

The lieutenant shrugged.  “He has just seen his last gamble fail–reason enough to seek solace.  And in any case, little would change if the wine were not drunk.”

After the meal was over we got another summons from the green-suited butler.  The president wanted to see us all privately.  The butler brought us to a big office with lots of bookcases and a fire blazing in a marble fireplace.  “Now we’ll get down to business,” General Aldridge murmured.  Lieutenant Carmody, Kevin, and I stayed in the back of the room, while the general and the professor sat in a couple of chairs next to the fire.  Eventually the president showed up, followed by a couple of the guys who had been at the dinner.  One was tall, dark-haired, and a little stoop-shouldered, as if he had gone through too many doorways that were too small for him.  The other one was shorter, with a narrow face and bright eyes; he had taken his wig off, so you could see there were just a few wisps of gray hair on the top of his head.  “Vice President Boatner and the Foreign Minister, Lord Percival,” Lieutenant Carmody whispered to us.

General Aldridge and Professor Palmer stood as the others entered.  “Oh, sit down, sit down,” the president said, and he himself sank into one of the chairs by the fire.  He looked really tired.  The vice president and the foreign minister sat on either side of him.  “Anyone care for a brandy?” he asked.

No one did.  He sighed and waved the butler out of the room.

“So, would you care to explain about these boys, General?” the president said.  “I have heard that they are the spawn of Satan.  Seems rather unlikely, from the look of ’em, but what do I know?”

“Nothing as interesting as that, I fear,” General Aldridge replied.  “They were impressed onto a pirate ship a couple of years ago and spent a good deal of time in China.  On the return voyage they escaped and made their way back home to Glanbury, but the Portuguese had overrun the place, so they had to flee to Boston.  They are bright lads and picked up a good deal of useful knowledge in the Orient.  We are merely trying to take advantage of it amid our current difficulties.”

I was impressed by how smoothly the general could lie; he was very convincing.  The president shifted in his chair and stared at Kevin and me.  “They look no more like pirates than they do the spawn of Satan,” he remarked.  “But your story is somewhat more plausible, I suppose.  Now please tell us what is going on over there in Cambridge.”

So General Aldridge went through it all, with some help from Professor Palmer.  The president folded his hands over his big belly and closed his eyes.  I thought he might be falling asleep, but he opened his eyes every once in a while to ask a good question.  The foreign minister asked questions, too, but the vice president stayed silent.  The president especially liked the idea of balloons.  “Imagine being able to simply float away from this siege,” he murmured.  “How delightful.”

“Nevertheless,” the vice president said suddenly, “you should end all this nonsense immediately.”

“May I ask why, Randolph?” the general said.

“Because our only hope is in negotiating with the enemy, and if they find out what you are doing, it will simply make the negotiations more difficult.”

“Why so?  If they find out, I suggest it will incline them to negotiate more seriously, realizing how difficult we are going to make it for them to defeat us.”

“It will more likely incline them to end negotiations altogether and attack immediately, before you have a chance to complete your little science experiments.”

“They are far more than science experiments,” Professor Palmer replied hotly.  “They have the capacity to revolutionize the way we conduct warfare.”

“We have neither the men nor the munitions to defeat this enemy, now that the British have abandoned us,” the vice president insisted.  “To believe anything else is arrant nonsense.”

The president looked over at the foreign minister.  “Benjamin, what say you?  Might as well get everyone into the fray.”

“Well of course you know I disagree with Randolph,” Lord Percival began.  He had the most British accent of anyone I’d met so far, except the Earl of Chatham.  “We’re in a dire situation, I won’t deny it.  But if the Canadians and Portuguese believe they have such a decisive advantage as Randolph describes, why haven’t they attacked already, instead of sitting outside our gates and waiting for us to crumble?  They have as much to fear from a long siege as we do.  Their supply lines are hopelessly extended, so they have to live off the land–but what supplies will be left for them, by January?  And of course the Portuguese soldiers aren’t used to the cold, and neither Portuguese nor Canadians are eager to be here in the first place.  Their armies may simply melt away if they don’t make a decisive move soon.

“Now we have these new developments from Solomon.  I say, let them continue.  They may be enough to alter the balance.  I don’t know.  If the enemy do find out about them, that’s all to the good, in my judgment.  Let the enemy worry that they’ve got in deeper than they’d prepared for.  Let them realize that the price for this adventure may be far greater than they are willing to pay.”

“Bosh,” the vice president retorted.  “We all know this will be finished well before January.  They are waiting for the moment of maximum preparedness on their side, maximum vulnerability on ours.  Then they will strike.  And nothing that General Aldridge is doing or can do will change the outcome.  We need to negotiate now, and hope we escape with our lives.”

President Gardner raised a hand, and everyone fell silent.  “You see how clear my advisers make things for me,” he said.  “Ah, well.”  He turned to the vice president.  “Randolph, make contact with the enemy tomorrow.  We begin negotiations for surrender.”

The vice president bowed, looking satisfied.  “Very well, Your Excellency.”

“But Your Excellency–” Professor Palmer began.

The president glared at him, and he fell silent.  “Solomon,” he said to General Aldridge, “in the meantime, please continue your ‘science experiments,’ as Randolph calls them.  I see no good reason not to continue preparing for the final battle, even if it may not occur.”

The general bowed slightly in turn.  “Thank you, sir.”

The president waved his hand at us.  “All right then, you may all go.”  Everyone got up to leave.  As I was headed for the door the president pointed at me.  “You, stay a moment, if you please.”

I looked at Lieutenant Carmody, who grinned and gave me a little shove back towards the president.

“Sit,” the president ordered when everyone was gone.

I sat down next to him.

“Your name?”

“Larry Barnes, Your Excellency.”

“Master Barnes, would you like a cigar or a glass of brandy?”

“Uh, no thank you, Your Excellency.”

“Odd.  I’d think a pirate boy would have developed a taste for tobacco and spirits.”

“I’m still a little young, Your Excellency.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”  He leaned back in his chair.  “Tell me about China, Master Barnes.  I’ve always had an interest in the place, but I’ve met so few who have actually travelled there.”

Great, I thought.  I’m supposed to lie to the president.  “Well, it’s really . . . different.  Lots of people.  In some ways they’re, uh, pretty advanced.”

“Yes, the electricity, and the–what was it?–the balloons.  What else?”

What else?  I tried to think what else.  “Like, toilets,” I said.  I explained about flush toilets.  That was pretty good.  Then I brought up bicycles, because I’d seen a TV show about how everyone in China rides a bicycle.  I’d seen a few here, but they were really primitive-looking.  Then the president asked me what they ate in China, and I had a good answer for that, too, because we ate Chinese food at home a lot.

President Gardner looked kind of puzzled after a while.  “Well, you do seem to know something about China,” he said.  “It must feel strange to be back here in New England.”

“Pretty strange,” I agreed.  “But I’m getting used to it.”

“Yes.  Good.  Well, I want to thank you for saving my life, Master Barnes.  Very fortuitous that you were here tonight.”

“My pleasure, Your Excellency.”

The president stood, and we shook hands.  “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cigar?” he asked.

I was sure.

Outside, General Aldridge had already left, but Lieutenant Carmody, Professor Palmer, and Kevin were waiting for me, eager to know what happened.  “We talked about China,” I said.

“He doesn’t believe our story,” the lieutenant remarked.

“Maybe he’s not so sure now.  I was pretty convincing.”

“Good lad,” the professor said.

“Too late to return to Cambridge, I’m afraid,” the lieutenant said.  “Let’s go to the barracks.  Then back to work in the morning.  The stakes are only getting higher.”

Kevin and I returned to our old room in the attic.  “More interesting than The Gross, huh?” I said, feeling pretty good about my meeting with the president.

“Yeah, but I’d still rather be home.”

I lay down on the thin mattress.  Kevin was right, of course.  But still . . . it wasn’t everyday you save the president’s life, and he offers you brandy and a cigar.  And that sure beat having to deal with Stinky Glover and my stupid sister.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 5

Here’s the latest chapter of the online novel I’m perpetrating.  You’ll notice that I’ve got Portal up there in the menu now.  Click on it to see the chapters I’ve already published. Yet another service we provide for our customers!

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Chapter 5

The wagon was piled high with clothes and furniture, which swayed as the wagon rattled along the bumpy road.  Two small children–a boy and a girl–huddled in one corner, staring at us.  The woman had twisted around to look at us, too.  She was wearing a long coat and a bonnet.  “How come you to be in those woods, lads?” she asked.  Her accent was a little strange–not quite American, not quite English.

“It’s, um, a long story,” I said.  What was I supposed to say?

“You talk funny,” the little girl piped up.

“Hush, Rachel,” the mother said.  “Are you from Glanbury?” she asked us.

“Yes, we are.”

“Listen,” Kevin interrupted, “can you stop the wagon?  We have to go back.”

The man pulled on the reins to slow the horse and turned back to look at us, too.  “Why?” he asked.

“Their clothes are funny,” the girl said.

“Could you please just stop the wagon?” Kevin pleaded.

“There’s nothing to go back to,” the woman explained.  “The Portuguese army is destroying nigh everything.  If you’re separated from your parents, best stay with us till we get you to Boston.  You can find them there.”

“Along with everyone else in New England,” the man muttered.

“Are you in the navy?” the little girl asked Kevin.  She was pointing at his Old Navy t-shirt.

“What should we do?” Kevin asked me.

“I don’t know.  This was all your idea.”

Kevin glared at me.  We heard gunfire in the distance.

My parents would know what to do.  But we had left them far, far behind.  “We won’t be able to get to it,” I murmured to Kevin.  And then I asked the woman, “Will we be safe in Boston?”

“As safe as anywhere,” she replied, “with the Portuguese on one side of us and the Canadians on the other.”

“Maybe we should go to Boston,” I said to Kevin.  “We can come back when–when–”

When?

“What if it’s gone?” he said.  “What if we can’t find it?”

What if we find it, I thought, and it doesn’t take us home?

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I don’t know.”

Kevin slumped down in the wagon.  I slumped down next to him.  The man flicked the reins and the horse sped up.  “I bet I know what the ‘B’ on your hat stands for,” the little girl said to Kevin.

I thought the woman might press us about why we were in those woods, but she didn’t.  She and her husband started arguing about why he had waited till the last minute to leave their farm and how all their neighbors were safe in Boston by now, and here they were, barely outracing the Portuguese and endangering their children.  He said he couldn’t care less about their neighbors, he wasn’t going to give in so easily, he just hoped the cowardly government didn’t surrender without putting up a fight.

Kevin’s face was scrunched up, an expression he gets when he’s thinking hard.  Or maybe he was just trying to keep from crying.  We had screwed up so bad.  This was a totally different universe.  There was a Glanbury and a Boston, but what were the Portuguese doing here?  And where were the cars?  Where were the buildings?  And now that we’d landed here, would we ever be able to get back?

The wagon continued along the road to Boston, and the gunfire faded behind us.  My family drives to Boston a lot, but I didn’t know how far it was from Glanbury.  I don’t think it took very long, except when there was a lot of traffic.  How long was it going to take by horse?  The road wasn’t that great, and we kept getting knocked around in the back of the wagon.  My back hurt, and I started to get seasick.

“What time is it?” I whispered to Kevin after a while.

He looked at his watch.  “Four o’clock,” he said.

Late for my piano lesson.  I thought about Mom, probably standing on our deck and looking out into the woods for me, worried and angry at the same time, and I got a lump in my throat.  Pretty soon everyone would start looking for us, and we’d be gone–just gone, without a trace.  Mom always read those stories about missing children in the paper.  She’d figure this had something to do with that guy lurking by schoolbuses in Rhode Island.  But she’d never know where I went, if I was okay . . .

When they started searching they’d be bound to find the portal, I thought, and then they’d figure it out and come after us.

But that wouldn’t work, I realized.  If there were a kazillion universes, who knew which one they’d end up in?

I should never have come, I thought.  How could I have been so stupid?  It was all Kevin’s fault . . .

“Larry, do you have any of those Oreos?” Kevin asked.

I shook my head, suddenly getting hungry myself.  Probably no Oreos in this world, I thought.  No Coke, no pizza, no Burger King–or Burger Queen.

The fog faded away as we rode.  Occasionally a man on horseback passed us on the way to Boston.  No one was heading in the opposite direction, south towards Glanbury.  The riders would slow down and exchange news with us, then speed up until they disappeared up ahead.  There were some houses along the road, and a few inns and shops that looked like they came out of an old movie.  All of them appeared deserted.

We stopped once to give the horse some food and water, and we all went to the bathroom in the woods; it was gross, but the family didn’t seem to mind.

“What’s that?” the little boy asked, pointing at Kevin’s watch.

He shrugged.  “A watch,” he said.

“My papa has a watch, but he keeps it in his pocket.”

Kevin shrugged again.

“Don’t be frightened,” the boy went on.  “We’re going to stay with Uncle John, and he’ll take care of us.  He has a big house in the city, and that’s where all the army is, so the Portuguese won’t be able to get us.”

“That’s great.”

The father took Kevin and me aside and spoke to us before we got back into the wagon.  “I know every soul in Glanbury, and I don’t know you boys,” he said.  “I’ve certainly never seen anyone wearing clothes like that, or heard an accent like that.  Where are you really from?  China?”

Kevin shook his head.  “No, we’re from America.”

“Where is America?” the man asked suspiciously.  “I’ve never heard of it.”

Kevin looked at me, and we felt a little more desperate.  Just how different was this world?  “What–what’s the name of this country?” he asked the man.

The man shook his head in astonishment.  “Never heard of the like.  We’re in New England, lad.  The United States of New England.  Where’s America?”

Far, far away, apparently.  “Samuel, please come!” his wife called out to him from the wagon.  “If we don’t hurry we’ll not make it to Boston by dark.”

Samuel looked back at us.  “I think you lads have some explaining to do, but now’s not the time, I judge.  Let’s go, if you still want a ride to Boston.”

He headed off to the wagon.  “This may be our last chance,” Kevin said to me.  “What do you think?”

I shook my head.  “It’s too late, Kevin.  We have to go to Boston.”

Kevin didn’t argue, and we silently trudged back to the wagon.

When we got in, the mother was feeding the kids apples and bread.  She offered us some, and we took the food gratefully.  Kevin ate his share like he didn’t think he’d get another meal.

We started up again.  The sun was lower in the sky now, and it was getting colder out.  After a while there were more shops and houses, and a few signs of life.  Dogs barked at us.  On one side street I saw a bunch of hogs eating garbage in the middle of the road.  Another road merged with ours, and suddenly there was traffic–more wagons carrying furniture and frightened families.  Some of the wagons had a cow, a goat, or even an ox tied up behind them.  Everyone was headed towards Boston.

Finally we crossed a bridge over a river, and a little ways beyond was a long high wooden fence that stretched out as far as I could see in both directions.  There were slits for guns high up in the fence, I noticed.  A pair of gates were open, but a group of soldiers stood by them, examining everyone before they let them pass through.

They looked like soldiers, but their uniform was different from any I had ever seen.  They wore short red jackets, black pants, and metal helmets with little brims, almost like batting helmets.  Each of them had a rifle slung over his arm and a pistol in his belt.  When we finally reached the gates one of the soldiers came up to us.  He half-saluted Samuel and said, “Name, sir?”

He had an accent that was almost English.

“Harper.  Samuel Harper.  That’s my wife Martha.”

“And where are you coming from?”

“Up from Glanbury,” Samuel replied.

“Waited till the last minute, did you?”

“They were right behind us.  There was some skirmishing, and I thought it best to leave.  If they weren’t so interested in looting, they’d be right behind us still.”

“Why did you wait so long?”

“I didn’t want to yield my farm to any Portuguese, I tell you that.  I fired my house and barn before I left.  I don’t know how it got to this.”

The soldier nodded and looked into the wagon.  “This your family, sir?”

“Except for those two strays back there,” Samuel said, meaning us.  “I don’t know who or what they are.”

The soldier came around and took a close look at Kevin and me.  “Strange outfits,” he said.  “And your family is where, mates?”

“Murdered,” Kevin blurted out.  “By the Portuguese.  But we managed to escape.”

Why did he say that?

“But I thought you were in the navy,” the little girl objected.

“I know nothing of any murdering,” Mr. Harper said.

The soldier’s eyes darkened.  “Well?” he demanded.

But just then another soldier called to him.  “Move it along, Corporal!  We’ll be all night getting these people inside.”

He shrugged and stepped back.  “Any disease here?” he asked loudly.  “Smallpox?  Diphtheria?  Drikana?”

“No,” Mr. Harper said.  “We’re all healthy, thank God.”

“Pray God you stay healthy,” the soldier replied.  “The city is getting more crowded by the hour.  There is little food, and the water is bad.  You are welcome to enter, but you’ll have a hard time of it.  If there is a siege, conditions will get far worse.  You’ll have to stay in a camp.”

“I have a brother in the city who will take us in,” Mr. Harper said.

“Then count yourself lucky, sir.  The camps’ll not be pleasant places.  You may pass.”

Mr. Harper grunted and flicked the reins, and the horse started through the gates.  “A siege,” he muttered.  “They want to delay as long as they can while they parley with the Europeans, as if any European has ever helped New England before.  And meanwhile, all I’ve worked for has been destroyed.”

“You needn’t have set fire to the–” his wife started to say, but he quickly interrupted her.

“Better me than the Portuguese, woman.  If we all did what I did, there’d be no food to sustain them, and they’d have to slink like dogs back where they came from.”

I looked at the fence.  Soldiers were piling up sandbags against it.  Getting ready for a siege, I thought.  There were sieges in plenty of video games I’d played.  Sieges could last forever.

“Was your family really murdered?” the little boy asked Kevin.

Kevin shook his head.  “No, but I don’t think I’ll ever see them again.”

“Oh.  That’s sad.”

Kevin nodded and looked away.

We were passing through a big military camp.  The soldiers stared at us grimly as we went by.  In the distance to our right I could see the ocean.  I smelled fish and horse manure, and worse stuff.  It was really getting dark now, and there weren’t any street lights.  I was hungry and stiff and still a little queasy from the bumpy ride.  This was awful.

“Are you sure John will take us in?” Martha asked her husband.

“He’d better, hadn’t he?” he replied.

“What about these boys?”

“What about them?  I won’t ask my brother to house and feed anyone who isn’t kin, not with what’s about to happen.  Anyway, they haven’t told the truth about anything since we met them.  They can fend for themselves.”

“But they’re so young, Samuel.”

“They’re old enough to join the army, I daresay.  The redbacks will need everyone they can get.  They should be grateful to us.  If we hadn’t taken them with us, they’d be lying dead in the road by now.  Or worse.”

Martha gave us a look full of sympathy, but she didn’t argue with her husband.  The little boy said, “I’d like to join the army,” but she hushed him.

My stomach started to growl.

We were past the military camp now.  The road crossed some marshland, and on the other side there were a lot of shacks and tents jammed together, and some of the people in wagons got off the road to join the crowd.  Was this one of the refugee camps?  “Fools,” Mr. Harper muttered.  “Camping in the swamp.  Half of them will have the flux by morning.”  We kept going, and after a while some of the buildings were built of brick, the road became paved with cobblestones, and there were even sidewalks.

“At last,” Mr. Harper said.  “Now, if I can only find the street.”

The sidewalks grew crowded as we traveled further into the city.  Kids younger than Kevin and me, dirty-faced and dressed in raggedy old clothes, were selling newspapers or flowers.  Soldiers walked alongside women wearing too much makeup.  There were lots of old people–and some not so old–holding out their hands or tin cups, begging for food or money.  Policemen, dressed like the soldiers except in blue, directed traffic at every intersection.  Some people on the streets rode something that looked like a bicycle with very wide wooden wheels.  There were no traffic lights, and only a few dim, flickering lamps instead of street lights.

Mr. Harper made a few turns, asked directions a couple of times, and finally pulled up in front of a small house on a dark side street.  A bearded man walked out of the house, holding a lantern.  “Samuel,” he said, “about time you came to town.”

“Held out as long as I could, John,” Samuel replied.  “I’ve lost everything but what we’ve got in this wagon.”

“I’m very sorry for that,” John said, coming over to the wagon. “but of course you’re welcome to stay here.  Martha,” he said, nodding to the woman.  “And how are little Rachel and Samuel?”  He reached into the wagon and patted them on the heads.  Then he turned to Kevin and me with a puzzled expression.  “And you are–?”

Samuel had joined his brother and was unlatching the back of the wagon.  “Passers-by,” he said.  “Everyone had to get out or be shot.  We gave them a ride, out of the goodness of our hearts.”

We climbed down, followed by Martha and the children.  Samuel and his brother walked back to the front of the wagon, unhitched the horse, and led it behind the house.  Martha looked at us.  “Will you be all right?” she asked.

I didn’t know what to say.  “I guess so,” I said.

She reached back into the wagon and filled a small bag with apples, bread, and cheese.  “Good luck,” she said, handing me the bag.  “I’m sorry we can’t do more.  It’s a hard time for everyone.”  She turned to her kids.  “Come on, children.  Let’s go inside.”

Kevin and I watched them go into the small house.  And then we were all alone on the dark street, in the strange world, and neither of us had a clue what to do next.