That one special scene

In my talk to those wonderful sixth-graders I discussed why I wrote The Portal.  It wasn’t because of the science-fictiony adventure story; the reason I wanted to write it was the encounter between the protagonist (Larry) and another version of his family, one struggling to stay alive in wartime in the alternative universe he is trapped in.  And I read them my favorite scene from the novel, where Larry has to view his own grave.  In this world, he died as an infant and was buried behind the family farmhouse:

Mom got down from the wagon and led us into the woods. We came to a small clearing after a while, and in the middle of the clearing a few crosses stuck up through the snow. My head started spinning as I stared at those crosses. Kevin gripped my arm. Mom pointed to a spot in the snow. “Cassie needs to go here,” she said. “Beside her brother.”

I looked at the cross next to where she was pointing. Two words were crudely carved on it:

Lawrence Barnes

I was staring at my own grave.

“That’s the boy who would have been just about your age,” my mother was saying to me. “My baby.”

I think maybe I forgot to breathe for a while. “It’s okay, Larry,” Kevin whispered to me. “Take it easy.”

Kevin and I’d had talked about what would happen if we ran into our other selves in this world. Would we both explode, or destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum or something? Stupid. We never talked about this.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I was as spooked as I could possibly be. But I didn’t do anything. I just stood there in the snow. I was alive, the earth kept spinning, and that other me—the baby who didn’t make it—was still at rest in the cold ground.

And now we had to lay his sister—my sister—to rest, too.

We took turns using the pick and shovel to dig the hole in the frozen, rocky soil. I did most of the work, though—Kevin still didn’t have all his strength back, and it wasn’t the sort of task Stinky enjoyed. It seemed to take forever. It grew dark, and my muscles were screaming with pain after a while—the most digging I’d ever done was a little bit of snow shoveling, and I’d usually complain about having to do that. But we kept at it, and at last the time had come. We lifted Cassie’s body out of the wagon, then slid her down into the ground and covered her up. After that we stood around the grave as darkness fell and said some prayers, while I felt sorry for every mean thing I’d said to her in every conceivable universe.

That scene wasn’t in my original conception for the novel.  But when I thought of it, I couldn’t wait to write it.  It took a while, though; it occurs about two-thirds of the way into novel, and I write my novels straight through from the beginning to the end.

So anyway, here I am writing the third book about Larry and the portal, and today I finished the equivalent chapter in Barbarica–65,000 words in, I finally get to the scene I’ve wanted to write from the very beginning.  Of course, the wise folks in my writing group may tell me that it doesn’t work at all and I should drop it.  Still, I very much enjoyed writing it.

By the way, sixth-graders don’t have a very good sense of how many words there are in a novel (maybe few people have this sense).  Their guesses about the length of The Portal ranged from two thousand words to two million.  It actually contains 103,678 words, according to Microsoft Word.

Farewell to Portal

Thanks to everyone who followed along with (or who is following along with) Portal.  The next step is to turn it into an ebook; that’s in process.  As usual, the biggest issue is what to do about the cover.  If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.

Portal was my attempt to write a Young Adult novel, but I think I got a bit carried away.  The novel ended up longer, and the issues I covered were deeper, than I had intended.  I have no idea if modern-day young adults would have the patience for it.  Still, I enjoyed inhabiting its worlds for a while, and I enjoyed writing from Larry’s point of view.  Let me know what you think.

Here’s Chapter 1, if you’re just stopping by and have no idea what I’m talking about.

Portal, an online novel: the final chapter

Chapter 35: The climax.  A chase scene.  More gnomic utterances from the annoying alien preacher.  Guns are drawn, threats are issued. Decisions are made, lives are changed.  And finally Larry and Kevin step into the portal, and we reach our denouement.

***********

Chapter 36

Into the interior of the portal, filled with clouds, like a bathroom after a long shower (which I hadn’t taken for months).  Heart pounding, scared beyond anything I had felt before.

If you want to go home, the portal will take you home.  That’s what the preacher had told me in the church.  If only I could be sure what he meant . . .

One, two, three steps, then out of the portal.

Into warmth and bright sunshine.

No, I thought.  Not right.  Not on Christmas.

Was it the wrong world?  I looked at Kevin.  He was blinking his eyes against the sunlight.  “Where is this?” he asked.  “When is this?”

We looked around.  The leaves on the trees were green, but fading a bit.  That oak tree looked familiar . . .

It felt like a warm September afternoon.

“Well . . . ” I said.  My heart was still pounding, but with a different kind of excitement from what I’d felt a minute ago.

“When you went into the portal before,” Kevin said, “to the Dairy King world–when you came back–how much time had gone by?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t stay all that long.”  But then I remembered coming out of the portal–how Stinky had been waiting for me, right where I had left him.  As if no time had passed.  “Do you think–?”

“Could be?  Why not?  What do we know about time?  What do we know about anything?”

I looked down at my coat–the one the preacher had given me.  It looked really shabby in the sunlight.  I took it off.  Were we back home–and back when we had left?  Had this all happened, like, in the blink of an eye?  “Let’s find out,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” Kevin said.  “What about Lieutenant Carmody?”

We looked around again.  No sign of him.  Was he here?  Or had the portal brought him to some other world?  “Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “What’s he going to do to us now?”

“You’re right.  Let’s go.”  Kevin took off his coat too, and we raced through the woods.  Yes, I thought I recognized these trees, this path.  In a few minutes we saw what we were hoping to see.  There was the old swingset in my back yard.  There was the garage, with Kevin’s bike next to it.

And there was my mother standing on the deck by the kitchen door.  “Larry, would you please hurry up?” she called out when she saw us.  “We’re going to be late for your piano lesson.”

Kevin and I ran through the backyard and up to her.  She looked younger than the mother I had said goodbye to less than an hour ago; but she was the same woman.  I went to hug her, but stopped short as she made a face.

“Look at the two of you,” she said.  “You’re filthy–and soaking wet!  Larry, your new sneakers–you’ve ruined them!  What have you been up to?”

Kevin and I looked at each other as we caught our breath.  I didn’t think about my answer, really.  It was just a reflex.  “We didn’t go far,” I said.  “We just like . . . slipped in a puddle.  Sorry.”

Mom shook her head.  “Honestly, Larry, sometimes you have no consideration.  What were you thinking?  And Kevin, you should know better, too.  Your clothes are like rags.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Barnes.”  But Kevin didn’t look sorry.  He was grinning like crazy.

“I don’t see what’s so funny, Kevin,” Mom said.  “Now run along home.  Larry, go in and change.  Quick!  We’re never on time for Mr. Rosen.”

I stood there next to Kevin.  “Well,” I said to him, “I guess–that’s it.  See ya, Kev.”

“See ya, Larry.  I’ll call you later.”

“Okay,” I said.

He smiled at the word.  “Okay,” he repeated, still grinning.  Then he went over and got on his bike.

“I don’t know why his mother doesn’t make him wear a helmet,” Mom said.

“Beats me,” I replied.

#

So, why didn’t we say anything?

Well, would you want to tell your Mom you’d stupidly stepped into a portal or a cosmic gateway or whatever and gone off to an alternate universe for over three months and fought in a war and been shot at multiple times and exposed to deadly diseases?  I didn’t think so.

Of course, we could prove our story, more or less.  Show her the portal.  Get scientists out here to examine it.  We’d become famous, be interviewed on TV, make a million dollars.

But I wasn’t really thinking about any of that.  It was just: We were back, and that’s all that mattered.  I didn’t want scientists or TV shows.  I wanted to eat supper with my family.  I wanted to sleep in my own bed.  I wanted to see Cassie again.  I went past my mother and inside the house.

Cassie was in the kitchen, eating crackers, probably so later at supper she could say she wasn’t hungry and demand to know when were we going to get some good food around here.  She stuck two fingers in her mouth as I approached, making like she was going to puke.  “You smell like raw sewage,” she said.  “Haven’t they taught you how to use deodorant in middle school?”

I smiled at her.  I thought about kissing her, but she probably would’ve whacked me.  “It’s so great to see you, Cassie,” I said instead.  “Really it is.”

“You’re retarded,” I heard her mutter as I left the kitchen.

Upstairs, Matthew was playing a video game.  One of my video games, I realized, when I saw the guilty expression on his face.  “I thought you were at your piano lesson,” he said.

“Still here,” I replied.  “It’s okay.”

“What’s okay?”

“Playing my game  You can play it all you want.”

“Really?”

“Sure?  Why not?”

“Thanks, Larry,” Matthew said.  But he looked suspicious.  What was I up to?  I wasn’t up to anything.  I just put on some deodorant and changed clothes.  Before going back downstairs, I went into the bathroom and stared at the toilet.  I flushed it once, just for fun.  Things were going to take a little getting used to.

“Larry!” my mother shouted up to me.

“Coming!”  I left the bathroom and went to my piano lesson.

#

I don’t remember anything about the lesson; my mind was too filled with other stuff to concentrate.  There was just so much more of everything.  More noise, more sights, more smells–although none of the body odor that Cassie had objected to, and that I had gotten so used to.  I was a little overwhelmed.  The car went way too fast–and on the wrong side of the road.  The radio was just too loud.  I remember asking Mom if I could turn it off, and that got her worried.  “Are you feeling all right, Larry?” she asked.  “You look pale.  And you’re talking a little strangely.  You’re just not yourself somehow.”

Not myself.  Had I developed an accent, along with everything else?  “I’m fine,” I said.

She didn’t look convinced.  That’s what I always said.  “What exactly were you doing back there in the woods?” she demanded.

“Just goofing around,” I said.  “Really.”

Later Dad came home–beardless, and not as strong-looking as the soldier/farmer I had left behind a few hours ago, but still my Dad.  We sat down to supper, and I had my first mashed potatoes in months, and my first fresh vegetables.  The milk was way colder than any I’d had in the other world, but nowhere near as good-tasting.  And it was strange watching everyone use a fork instead of a knife to eat.  As we ate my father asked his usual question: “So, what did you do today, Larry?”

And I gave my usual answer: “Nothing.”

And then I started to laugh.

#

Kevin called later.  The phone was something else I’d have to get used to all over again.  “You say anything to anyone?” he asked.

“Nope.  You?”

“No.  You going to?”

“I don’t know.  Your parents suspicious or anything?”

“Mom can’t understand why my hair is so long,” Kevin said.  “But I mean, what’s she gonna say?  I went over to your house for a while, then I came back.  And that’s it.  I was gone, like, two hours, max.  How much can your hair grow in two hours?”

“Well, should we say something?”

“I suppose so, but–I dunno.  I don’t feel like it.  Not right now, anyway.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I was wondering,” Kevin said.  “How can we be sure this world is exactly the same as the one we left?  Maybe we’ll go to school tomorrow, and Stinky won’t exist.  Or he’ll be just a little bit different.  Maybe we won’t be able to tell what’s different.”

“I don’t want to do any wondering for a while, Kevin.”

“Yeah, okay, just a thought.  Any sign of Lieutenant Carmody over there?”

I had forgotten about him.  “No.  I hope he’s all right.  He wasn’t that bad.”

“I suppose.  If he’s not here, we’ll never find out where he is.”

“I guess not.”

Cassie came in and glared at me for hogging the phone for three whole minutes.

“Gotta go,” I said.  “Cassie wants the phone.”

“Cassie.  Geez.  Cassie’s alive again.  And you know something else? I’m twelve again.  I lost a birthday when we came home.  Anyway, it’s good to be back.”

“Did you flush a toilet?” I asked him.

“You bet I did.  And took the world’s longest shower.  See ya.”

Cassie had heard my last question, and made a face at me like I was too weird for her to even contemplate.  I just gave her another smile.

I tried watching TV after I hung up, but it jangled my nerves like the car radio, and besides, it was way too stupid.  I did like getting into my bed and feeling that comfortable mattress beneath me; I wouldn’t miss those straw mattresses and hard floors.  I wasn’t tired, though.  For all the excitement of the day, it hadn’t been that long since I’d been dozing in front of the fireplace and dreaming of grilled cheese sandwiches.  So for once I really enjoyed talking to Matthew.  He was happy about my letting him play Final Fantasy so he was even chattier than usual.  After he’d been yakking for a while I decided to bring up a topic of my own, which I figured was just the kind he liked to talk about.  “Matthew, what if there are millions of universes, each one just a little bit different from all the others?  What if we each have millions of different lives?  In some of them we’re rich, in some of them we’re poor, in some of them stuff like cars and computers haven’t even been invented.  In some of them we might be dead, or maybe we never even existed.  What if we could go to another universe and see how we lived there?  Wouldn’t that be cool?  Wouldn’t we learn a lot?  Matthew?”

No answer; he was asleep.  For once I had out-talked him.

#

There’s no place like home.

That’s what the movie says.  Now I was home.  So I should’ve lived happily ever after, right?  No more fighting with Cassie.  No more getting mad at my Mom or annoyed at Matthew.

That lasted less than a day.

Cassie yelled at me in the morning for being in the shower too long.  Well, she was the one who complained that I smelled bad, wasn’t she?  And Mom wanted to drive me to the bus stop–she was still worried about that pervert in Rhode Island she’d read about.  It’s so dangerous nowadays, she told me.  You can’t be too careful.  I’ll tell you about danger! I wanted to shout at her.  I’ll tell you about cannonballs falling all around you and Portuguese soldiers charging at you with swords and bayonets.  I’ll tell you about Canadian soldiers trying to decide whether to kill you, and New England soldiers shooting at you from watchtowers . . . And I survived it all.

But I didn’t say anything about that.  I just got into a stupid argument with her and almost missed the bus.  Nothing had changed–except me.  And how had I really changed?

Well . . .

Take Stinky Glover.  He was still here, despite Kevin’s fantasy.  On the bus the next morning he gave me a purple nurple instead of a wet willie.  Same difference.  He still thought the name “Lawrence” was incredibly funny.

But, you know, I didn’t really mind.  On that other world, he had helped me, maybe even saved my life–saved me from an enemy soldier, anyway; taught me how to hunt; showed me the way home, even if he had finally snitched on me.  Maybe on some other world he was a good guy whose master didn’t beat him.  Maybe on some world we were best friends.  I let it go.

And Nora Lally.  Before English class I decided, what the heck, and I went over to her.  “Hi, Nora,” I said.  “Listen, I was thinking–I’m a pretty good writer, at least that’s what Ms. Nathanson tells me.  If you want someone to, like, take a look at your compositions before you turn them in, I’d be happy to.  Just for, you know, spelling and grammar, that kind of stuff.”

Pretty lame, huh?  But she smiled–just the way Sarah Lally smiled–and she said, “Thanks, Larry.  That’d be great.”

It couldn’t be that easy, right?  But it was.  I smiled back, and we sat down to find out what Ms. Nathanson had to say.

#

 And the piano.  I might not have had a good lesson that first day back, but still . . .  I found myself playing more than I ever had before, just for the fun of it, the way I had at Professor Palmer’s.

And one day Mom asked, “What’s that piece, Larry?”

I realized I had been playing that old song Professor Palmer liked so much:

 

Wanly I wandered

Through the world far and wide

Seeking some solace

For dreams that had died.

 

Long did I linger

In an alien land

Till tears finally left me

As I stood on the strand.

 

And there was the final verse that I had tried not to think about in the other world.  But now it seemed okay to remember it:

 

Then homeward I hastened

To friends I’d forgot

And found where I’d left it–

The joy that I sought.

 

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Just something I picked up.”

“It’s very lovely,” Mom said.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”

It was lovely, and I was glad I had learned it.  I was glad of a lot of things that had happened to me.

#

Long did I linger

In an alien land . . .

I kept thinking of Kevin’s stupid remark about your heart being in two worlds at once.  Because that’s how I felt sometimes.  I was glad to be back, glad to have plenty to eat and no one shooting at me.  But half my heart was still in that other world, with the professor, with my family, with Sarah Lally, even with General Aldridge and President Gardner and Stinky Glover.  What were they doing right now?  How was New England making out after the war?  How was the Barnes family making out, with Cassie dead and me gone and no harvest to keep them through the winter?  Was Professor Palmer all right?  Was Stinky in trouble with his master?  I would never know, but that didn’t mean I would ever forget.

#

And found where I’d left it–

The joy that I sought.

I don’t know about joy.  But whatever it was, it had always been here, right?  And it just took a little growing up to find it.  I couldn’t keep smiling at Cassie when she insulted me, but I could remember her in the camp, unhappy and desperate, and I could feel a little pity for whatever was going on inside her.

And my mother.  Was it so hard now to see the overpowering love that was behind her fears of every danger that lurked in wait for us?  In how many worlds had she lost me because she hadn’t been vigilant enough?  In how many worlds did I lay buried in the family graveyard, and she had to spend her life mourning what might have been?

#

Finally, there was the mystery of the portal.  Kevin and I talked about it endlessly, and he was fascinated when I told him the preacher’s story, fascinated by the idea that some mysterious race had built the portal and then disappeared, and this other race used it just to go preaching, without really understanding it.  But mostly he was fascinated by the idea that the portal always brought you home, if that’s what you wanted.  “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, “if–every time your life started to suck–you could step into the portal and just come back when you’re ready?”

“Uh, Kevin, you’re skipping over the parts where you get shot at and come down with a terrible disease.  Who was the one that was desperate to get back here?”

“I know, I know.  But still . . . ”

Still . . .

Then there was the day Kevin came over with a copy of the Glanbury Mariner.  “See this?” he asked.

He pointed to an entry in the police log, which the paper prints every week.

 

“2:17 a.m. Fowler Street resident reports strange man sleeping in tool shed.  Man fled when approached.  Described as medium height, wearing red jacket, carrying old-fashioned pistol.  Cruiser dispatched, searched neighborhood.  No one found.”

 

It was dated the night after we had returned home.

“So he made it,” I said.

“Looks like.”

“What should we do?”

Kevin shrugged.  “I don’t know what there is to do.”

But eventually it became too big a secret too keep.  The portal was just too important not to talk about it, especially if Carmody was around.  I figured my father was the one to tell.  He’d know what to do with the knowledge, and he’d know how to keep Mom from getting too mad at me when she found out just exactly what we’d been up to back in the conservation land where we weren’t supposed to be.  Kevin agreed.  “Let’s not say anything to your Dad until he sees the portal for himself,” he said.  “Otherwise he’ll think we’re just making everything up.”

So on Saturday when Mom was out shopping Kevin and I told Dad there was something we wanted to show him out in the woods.  “Found some buried treasure?” he asked.

“Not exactly.”

“You know your mother doesn’t want you wandering around too far back there, right?”

“Yeah, I know, but anyway–this is going to be pretty interesting.”

So he followed us out into the woods.  Kevin kept looking at me like, this is really gonna be something.  And he was right.  It wouldn’t just shock Dad, but everyone in the world.  It would change the way people thought about everything–science, religion, history.  And we were the ones who found it.

And what if the scientists figured out how to use it, and we could return safely to our other world?

I knew the way pretty well by this time, although Dad kept bugging us by explaining stuff and pointing out the names of trees and the birds.  Everything was an education to him.  Well, we were about to give him an education.  Kevin and I stopped when we reached the clearing.

“It’s right here, Dad,” I said.  “Watch this.”

Kevin and I went over to it and reached out our hands.

They didn’t disappear.  We looked at each other, and then started walking around in the small clearing, waving our arms.  “It’s gotta be here,” Kevin muttered.

But it wasn’t.

“May I ask what you’re doing?” Dad asked.  His arms were folded, and he was looking at us like he was trying to figure out if this was some kind of middle-school joke that he didn’t get.

“Is it the wrong place?” Kevin asked me.

I shook my head.  “It’s gone.”

I felt like I’d been punched.  It couldn’t be true, but it was.  The portal was gone.

“Well?” Dad asked.  “I could use some help raking, if we’re done here.”

“Sorry, Dad,” I said to my father.  “There was something here, but now it’s gone.”

“Do you want to tell me what it was?”

I looked at Kevin, and he just shrugged.  “I guess not,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter.  Sorry we bothered you.”

Dad just shook his head.  “Larry, you sure have been acting strange lately.”

“It’s a phase,” I replied.  “Like Cassie.  Could you like–give Kevin and me a minute?”

“All right, but don’t get into any trouble back here.  You know how your mother worries.  And grab a rake when you come back.”

He turned and walked away from us.

“Figures,” Kevin said, kicking at a rock.

I noticed something else.  “I took off the preacher’s coat when we got out of the portal.  It’s gone, too.”

Kevin looked around.  His coat was still there, lying on the ground where he’d dropped it.  “The preacher moved the portal,” he said.

“Didn’t want stupid kids taking it for any more joyrides, I guess.”

Kevin sighed.  “Oh, well.  It would’ve been something, wouldn’t it?  The look on your Dad’s face . . . ”

“Yeah.  Still, this is okay.”

“It’s okay,” Kevin agreed, sighing again.

And we walked slowly back out of the woods.

#

This is okay–this life, this world.  But one thing I remember is the preacher telling me how easy it was for him to spot another traveler–someone who didn’t belong, someone from a different world who was just passing through.  Are there a lot of those travelers, or just a very few?  Sometimes I find myself trying to see if I can spot them, too: scared kids like me or soldiers in red coats or wandering preachers with black, glittering eyes . . .

And I find myself wondering: What if I do spot one?  Another stranger, say, talking to a small crowd in a park or on a street corner, telling them to how to live and love and appreciate the universe . . . ?  Would I run from him as fast as I could?  Or would I say, Please, show me where the portal is.  I don’t care about the risks.  I want to go back to that other world again–just for an hour, just for a minute.  And if I can’t go back, let me try for a new world, a new adventure.

And I think about what the preacher had said to the people in the Boston park: How can you know what is in you unless you have struggled, unless you have been asked to do more than you thought you were capable of doing?

What better way to do that, than to find a new world?

I really don’t know what I’d do if I spotted a traveler.

But I’d like to find out.

 

 

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 35

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

And now (finally) the climax.

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

Chapter 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t bother answering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no,” Kevin said after a while.

Behind us we saw a dark shape on the road.

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go!” Kevin cried.

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

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

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

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

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

He looked cold.

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

“Is it here?” I demanded.

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

“Wait a minute!” I called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t, Kevin,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir.”

“Then kindly take the man’s pistol.”

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

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

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

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

“And you lads want to go home?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m prepared to take the risk.”

“Very well, then–go ahead.”

The lieutenant hesitated.  “Now?”

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

“What about the boys?”

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

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

General Aldridge casually returned the salute.

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to look at me.

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t speak.

Listen to your heart, the preacher had said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 34

Chapter 33: Stinky has snitched on Larry and Kevin to Sergeant Hornbeam and Lieutenant Carmody.  Carmody is determined to keep them in this world.  Now Kevin and Larry have to get to the portal as fast as they can, before he can stop them.  But it is now snowing heavily, and the Barnes family can barely make it back to their farmhouse.  Someone is waiting for them at the farmhouse.  Larry and Kevin are relieved to discover that it is Professor Palmer.

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Chapter 34

I jumped from the wagon, ran up to the professor, and hugged him.  Kevin was right behind me.

“Hello, Larry,” he said.  “It’s good to see you.  And you, too, Kevin.” 

“We missed you,” I said.  “I’m sorry we left like that, but–“

“I understand.  I’m just so glad you’re both alive.” 

“We’re glad you’re alive, too,” Kevin said.

Then my parents came up with Matthew, and the professor said, “You must be the Barneses.  My name is Alexander Palmer, and I beg your pardon for entering your home uninvited.  I rode down from Boston this evening in the utmost haste, and the weather–“

“Of course, sir,” Dad replied.  “You’re most welcome.  Larry has told us about you.  Let’s all go in out of the snow.”

We went inside, although Dad went out again almost immediately with Matthew to put Gretel in the barn.  Kevin stoked up the fire, and Mom heated some cider. 

“I’m afraid I’m here with some distressing news,” Professor Palmer murmured to me.  “Would it be better if we talked in private?”

“Not really.  I’ve explained about who we are and the portal and everything.  So, is this about Lieutenant Carmody coming after us?”

He raised an eyebrow in surprise.  “You’ve heard?”

I told him a bit about Stinky Glover.

“Interesting–so that’s how Carmody found out where you were.  Yes indeed, I did come to warn you about him.”

 

“When’s he coming?” Kevin asked.  “How much time do we have?”

“He’s coming as soon as he can, as far as I know.  But the storm may delay him, obviously.”

“How’d you find out?” I asked. 

“And how’d you get here before him?” Kevin added.

“I found out because he told me, Larry.  He has always assumed that I would be eager to have you boys kept here, even against your wishes, in the interest of science and the advancement of knowledge.  How little he knows me, after all these years.  As for how I managed to get here before him–as soon as I found out I spoke with General Aldridge, and he urged me to leave immediately; he was as outraged by this plan as I was.  Carmody had to stop at Coolidge Palace before making the journey.”

“Why?  To see the president?”

“That is correct.”  Mom handed the professor a cup of hot cider.  He bowed and thanked her, then continued.  “The president is less of a fool than he looks, I fear.  And the lieutenant is more of a schemer than I expected.  He has decided his opportunities are greater if he sides with the president against General Aldridge.  He explained about you boys to Gardner, and convinced him that you are vital to New England’s survival, and possibly more.  With the knowledge you bring, why couldn’t we conquer our enemies?  I rather think he believes there’s no one we couldn’t conquer, in fact.”

“That’s stupid,” Kevin protested.  I thought of the preacher talking about how easy it would be to rule a run-of-the-mill world like this, and I wondered just how stupid the idea was.

“Well, that was their thinking,” the professor went on, “–if they could find you, if you hadn’t already left.  But that raises the question: Why are you boys still here?  Have you not been able to find the portal?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“I’m very sorry to hear it.  But I fear that staying in Glanbury will not be an option, unless you want to be part of what Carmody and Gardner are planning.  Perhaps you do.  I’m sure you’ll be treated well.  But if you don’t, we must move quickly to get you away from here.  Despite the war, I have many academic friends in Canada, and I’m sure–“

“We’re going to try to find the portal,” Kevin interrupted.  “As soon as we can.  We have an idea where it is.”

“Ah.  That’s good, then.  You’ll have to hurry, though.”  The professor looked a little disappointed.  “I only wish I had a little more time to spend with you.  I was so happy to find out you were all right, and now–“

Kevin’s eyes lit up.  “You should come with us!”

“You mean–into the portal?”

“Sure–why not?  Think of all the stuff you asked about and we didn’t know the answer to.  Imagine what you’d learn if you came to our world and got to talk to real scientists–people as smart as you.”

Now the professor looked confused, flustered.  “But–but if I left, I couldn’t come back.”

“We don’t know that for sure.  Anyway, so what?  You don’t want to be around here when they find out you helped us escape.  President Gardner doesn’t like you anyway.”

“True, but–“

I suddenly thought of the most important reason for him to go.  “There’s no smallpox in our world,” I pointed out.  “Your wife and son may be alive.”

That stopped him, and I could see my Mom react, sitting by the fire.  “They may never have existed on your world, as I understand it,” he pointed out.  “Or they may have died of some other disease.  Anything is possible.  Correct?”

“Only one way to find out.”

“Well, I’ll consider it,” he replied.  “It would certainly be . . . quite an adventure.”

Dad and Matthew came back in the house then.  “We pulled out the sleigh and got it ready,” Dad said.  “We can leave as soon as the snow let’s up.”

“You’re going away,” Matthew said to Kevin and me accusingly.  “Dad told me.”

Kevin nodded.  “It’s time,” he said.

“Matthew, take off those wet clothes and have some hot cider,” Mom said.

Matthew reluctantly changed his clothes and sat on Dad’s lap next to the fire.  The rest of us also gathered around the fire, although Kevin kept getting up to check on the snow.  People talked–about the portal, about the war, about Carmody’s treachery–but I didn’t pay much attention.  It just felt so good to be there, with my family and Kevin and the professor, with the fire blazing and the snow coming down outside.  If only I could have captured that moment forever . . .

After a while I closed my eyes.  And, in the middle of everything, I had a dream about grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

That was our regular Sunday night supper.  We complained occasionally, especially Cassie: Why couldn’t we get takeout?  Why couldn’t we have real food?  But Mom wouldn’t relent.  The meal was cheap and easy, and she liked it.  Besides, it was what she’d had on Sunday nights growing up, and if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for us. 

So I’m sitting in my usual place at the kitchen table, across from Cassie.  I slurp down some of my soup, and then I happen to look over at her.  She’s one of these people who can get angry at you just for looking at them.  Just for breathing the same air, really.  So she says to me, “What are you looking at?”  And I say: “Nothing.”  And she says: “I’m not dead, you know.  That’s just in your stupid dream.”

And I say: “That’s not a dream.  This is the dream.”

And she says: “You’re so stupid.”  And she turns to Dad: “Isn’t he stupid?  Isn’t this the reality?”

And Dad smiles his leave-me-out-of-this smile and says: “One person’s dream is another person’s reality.”

And then we’re both mad at him for not agreeing with us.  But he says: “It really doesn’t matter.  No matter what the dream is, it’s time to wake up.”

“What if I don’t want to wake up?” I say.

“It doesn’t matter.  Wake up.  Wake up!

I opened my eyes, and Dad was staring down at me, but he had a beard, and it wasn’t Sunday night in my world, it was Christmas Eve in a very different world.

“Wake up, Larry,” he repeated.  “Someone’s coming.”

“In the closet,” Mom said, gesturing to the storage area to the right of the fireplace.  “Quickly.”

She had pulled out the blankets and some other stuff that they kept there.  I got up, and Kevin and I jammed ourselves into it, and then she pushed the stuff back in and closed the door. 

Kevin and I knelt down, cramped and in darkness except for a sliver of light through the door.  It wasn’t really a closet like in our world; it was only about four feet high, but it extended back a few feet, so we couldn’t stand up, but we could stretch out a little bit.  It’s Carmody, I thought.  He was bound to look in here.  And that would be that. 

There was a loud rapping on the door.  I heard footsteps, then muffled voices, then a lot more footsteps–boots moving across the wooden floor, this time coming towards us.  And then Lieutenant Carmody’s voice, just on the other side of the closet door from us: “Professor Palmer, how interesting to meet you here.”

“Hello, William.”

“Didn’t you trust me to find our young friends?”

“I couldn’t wait to see them.  I was overjoyed to learn that they survived the battle.”

“As was I.  Wretched weather, though.  Peter had a devil of a time getting us down here.  Now Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, we’re looking for a couple of lads named Larry and Kevin.  We have information that they are living with you.”

Were living with us,” my father responded.  “They have returned where they came.”

Silence.  I tried to imagine what Carmody was doing, how he was reacting.  He wasn’t happy, I knew that.  I was sweating.  My back hurt.  The blankets were making my nose twitch, but I willed myself not to sneeze.  I could here Kevin’s breathing–why couldn’t he be more quiet?  “What does that mean, exactly–‘returned where they came’?” Carmody asked finally.

“They finally found the portal that would take them home, as I understand it.  And they’re–well, gone.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Barnes, but I think that rather unlikely.  Our information is that they were here a couple of days ago, and that they’d been unsuccessful in finding the portal.”

“That’s true, sir, but something happened.”

“And what is that?”

“They met the family who picked them up that day coming out of the woods,” Dad replied.  “Name of Harper.  They remembered where that was.”

“Ah, I think the boys mentioned that family to me.  And where is the portal?  Did you see them leave?”

“They said it was in the woods near the Fitton farm–about three miles south on the Post Road.  I didn’t see them leave–it was rather emotional, sir.  My wife and son have grown quite attached to the boys.  We brought them to the woods, they went in, and they didn’t come back out.”

I didn’t realize my father was that good a liar.  There was another silence, and then I heard more footsteps.  “Well?” Carmody demanded.

“I checked the barn.  Nothing there.  A sleigh’s been moved out, though.”  It was Peter’s voice.

“Any footprints leading away from the house?”

“None that I noticed, sir.”

“Search the house.  Sergeant Hornbeam, find the stairs to the attic and look around.  Peter, search down here.”

“There’s a little boy sleeping up in the attic,” my Mom said.  “Please don’t wake him.”

No response.  Footsteps again.  So all my father’s lying would be in vain, once Peter opened the door to the closet.  And he’d probably get in trouble, too.

“Nothing in the kitchen,” Peter reported.

“Check that closet over there,” the lieutenant said. 

“Yes, sir.” 

I braced myself.  The door opened.  The blankets moved.  Then Peter was leaning in and staring at us.  He paused, then slowly winked and put the blankets back where they were.  “Nothing in here,” he said as he closed the door.

“Nothing in the attic,” Sergeant Hornbeam added.

“Very well,” the lieutenant said.  “Can you show me where you dropped off the boys?”

“Not in the dark,” my father replied.

“Yes, yes, in the morning,” Carmody snapped.

“All right.”

“Alexander, do you want to come with us?  I understand there’s a reasonable inn on the Post Road.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Barnes have invited me to stay here, William,” the professor replied.  “I’ve had enough of traveling for this day, I think.”

“Would you like some hot cider before you leave?”  That was my Mom, speaking for the first time.  Did she have to be so nice?  Why didn’t she just let them go?

“No, thank you, ma’am,” Carmody said.  “Sorry for the intrusion.  These were interesting lads, as I’m sure you understand.”

“Indeed we do.”

“One thing more: You’re not to speak of this portal to anyone.  Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”  That was my father again.

More footsteps and muffled voices, then a door slamming.  We waited, and after a minute the closet door opened and the blankets and junk were pulled away.  Kevin and I crawled out.  Everyone was grinning.  “I thought surely you’d be discovered,” my mother said.

“We were,” Kevin replied.  “But Peter kept it to himself.  I always liked Peter.”

“Thanks for making up that story,” I said to Dad.  “It sounded great.”

“I don’t approve of what that man wants to do,” he said.  “You’ve done nothing wrong, and he has no right to try to keep you here against your will.”

“I agree,” Professor Palmer said.  “But what do we do now?”

“If I understand correctly, he won’t find your portal when I bring him to those woods by the Fitton place,” Dad said.  “Will that make him suspicious?  Or will he give up and go back to Boston?  In which case the boys can just hide out until he’s gone.”

“I think it unlikely he’ll return to Boston without doing a thorough search for the portal,” the professor replied.  “Even without the boys, he and the president will be interested in what they can glean from the device itself–although it will be precious little, I imagine.”

“If the lieutenant stays here, he’s bound to find out that we were at the celebration tonight,” I pointed out.  “Everyone saw us there.  So he’ll know Dad’s story was a lie.”

“We have to look for the portal,” Kevin said.  “Right away, before he comes back.  If we wait around we’ll get caught.  I just know it.”

Looking for an invisible needle in the dark.  In a snowstorm.  Good luck to us, I thought.  “We’ll have a better chance of finding it if we wait till dawn,” I said. 

“Larry’s right, I’m afraid,” Dad replied.  “Even finding the Post Road won’t be easy right now.”

Kevin looked like he was ready to go off through the snow on foot, but he calmed down.  “All right,” he said.  “Dawn.”  He went over to look out the window. 

I felt really sorry for him.  Even in daylight, what were the odds we’d find the thing, with what the preacher had told me? 

Mom brought us some cider, and I sat back down by the fire.  I wasn’t sleepy anymore.  It was time to get this over with, one way or the other. 

No one wanted to talk now.  The professor nodded off once in a while, but the rest of us stayed wide awake.  It didn’t seem very long at all before Kevin said, “It’s brightening out there.”  Dad went over and checked, nodded his agreement, and said, “I’ll hitch up Gretel.”

Kevin stood up.  “Let’s go home,” he said to me.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 32

Chapter 31: Larry and Kevin go to the Christmas Eve celebration with the Barnes family.  And there they run into the Harper family, who rescued them from the New Portuguese soldiers when they first arrived in this world.  The Harpers remember exactly where they had seen the two boys running out of the woods, and suddenly the mystery of where the portal is has been solved.  But now, in the church sanctuary, Larry has to have the conversation he has been dreading with his parents — explaining who he really is and where he comes from.  They believe him — it’s like his mother had known all along — and she tells him he has to go back to his own world.  To his real mother.  They leave him to think about it.  And as he does, a man steps forward from the back of the church and asks for his coat back.

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

Chapter 32

Soft voice, black beard, glittering eyes.

The preacher from the Burger Queen world, from the park in Boston.  The guy who had left behind his coat for me.  The guy who had told me it was all his fault.

“Who are you?” I demanded.  I moved a little closer to him.  He was wearing a ragged brown coat now.  His hair was wet from the snow.

“A traveler, like you,” he replied, still standing in the doorway.

“What do you want?”

He shook his head.  “A better question might be: What do you want?”

“I want to know why you’re following me.  I want to know what you know that I don’t.”

“I wouldn’t say that I’m following you,” he said.  “It’s more that . . . our paths have crossed.”

“Whatever.  The portal–is that your machine?”

“‘Portal’–is that what you call it?  Kind of clichéd, don’t you think?  Couldn’t you come up with something more original?  ‘Cosmic gateway’–what about that?”

I was starting to get angry.  “You didn’t answer my question–you’re not answering any of my questions.”

He smiled sheepishly.  “I know,” he said.  “It’s kind of a habit.  We’re not really supposed to answer questions.”

“Who is ‘we’?” I almost shouted.

“Okay, okay,” he said.  “Just calm down.  I guess I can make an exception for you.  You’ve had a tough time of it.  And it wasn’t like you meant any harm.  You were just, you know, stupid.”

I was so upset by now that I thought I might go over and start pounding him.  But I managed to stay quiet, and he kept talking.

“So no, the portal, or the cosmic gateway, or whatever, isn’t mine, and it isn’t exactly a machine–at least, not in the way you think of machines.  I just borrow it for my travels.  Like you, except not so stupid.  Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to set foot inside invisible gizmos from other universes?  That would be, like, rule number one if I were a parent.”

I ignored the insult.  “So what is it?”  I demanded.  “Where does it come from?”

“Okay, that one I really don’t know the answer to.  There are lots of universes, right?  You know that now, of course.  Imagine one where people have advanced way beyond anything you can imagine, if that makes any sense.  So they develop these portals.  And then they disappear.  At least–none of us know has a clue where to find them.”

Portals–there’s more than one of them?”

“Uh-huh.  Or maybe they’re all manifestations of a single underlying entity.  Who knows?”

I had no idea what that last part meant, but I had another question.  “You keep saying ‘we’, ‘us’–are you from my universe?  Is there more than one of you?”

“No, I’m from a different universe–although it’s not all that different, and I’ve visited yours from time to time–yours needs a lot of help, if you ask me.  Anyway, there’s a group of us who use the portal.  You might call us a priesthood.”

“Priesthood?  You’re part of a religion?”

He tilted his head and thought for a moment.  “Not in the way you’d think of it,” he replied.  “We don’t have a set of beliefs.  We’re not trying to convert anyone.  We just want to impart some wisdom.”

“So you just, like, travel around to different universes and give sermons and stuff?”

He looked insulted.  “Well, yes,” he said, “but–”

“Don’t you help people?  I mean, like, this world.  What if you could cure drikana?  Would you do it?”

He shook his head.  “It’s forbidden.  Simply coming to a world, simply crushing a blade of grass underfoot, is interference enough.  We don’t tell anyone who we are or where we come from.  We just say what we have to say, and then leave.”

I thought of giving President Gardner the Heimlich maneuver.  If someone’s dying, you try to save him.  “But that’s crazy,” I said.  “That’s–immoral.”

“If we save one life, why not save all of them?” he argued.  “We’re just visitors.  Who are we to decide who lives and who dies?  It’s a small step from that to teaching people how to build better bombs–or electric fences.  Look, what’s most important is to guard against the corruption of power.  That’s something we face every day.  Any of us could become ruler of a run-of-the-mill world like this–we could be worshipped as gods–by using a tenth of what we know.  Does that make any sense to you?”

I supposed that it did, but I had more important things I needed to learn from him.  “How did you know who I was?” I asked.  “Even on that other world it seemed like you could tell I was–I was an outsider.  You knew I had come in the portal.  Didn’t you?”

He smiled.  “Sure.  It’s not really that hard, after you have some experience.  What’s obvious to us may not be at all obvious to anyone else, of course.”

“So more people use the portals than just you guys?”

“Yes, unfortunately.  People like you.  Random travelers.  And observing the bad results of their interference has made us develop our own rules.”

“So am I in trouble or something?  I’ve broken your rules.”

He shook his head.  “Not at all.  We live by our rules.  Others do as they please.”

That was a relief.  But I still hadn’t gotten to the really important question.  “Can you tell me–can we get home in the portal?” I asked.  “We’ve been looking for it, and now we think we know where it is.  But we don’t know where it will take us.”

“Do you want to go home?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “This is home too, sort of.  But maybe it’d be easier to make a decision if I wasn’t worried that we’d end up on a world where we’d be eaten by dinosaurs or something.”

“I understand,” he replied.  Then he was silent for a long time.  “Listen,” he said finally.  “I’m not trying to make things difficult for you–really I’m not.  I shouldn’t have left the portal in the woods like that in your world.  It was too close to an inhabited area, I admit it.  If kids find invisible cosmic gateways, they’re going to use them.  We know that.  So I’m trying to help you out.  But I’m just not supposed to answer stuff like that.  So here’s the best I can do: If you want to go home, the portal will take you home.”

I couldn’t tell if that was an answer or not.  So I said, “You once said: It is only by setting out that we can finally return home.  Were you talking to me when you said that?”

He shrugged.  “I was talking to whoever would listen.”

“Well then, what should I do: Should I stay here, or should I go back to where I came from?”

“Ah,” he said softly.  “Now there’s a question I can answer.  Sort of.  The answer is: Listen only to your own heart.  It’ll tell you what to do.

I should have known that was the sort of thing he’d say.

“One final thing,” he added.  “The portal?  I don’t really think you know where it is.  I moved it across the road.  Too many people in the woods near the Fitton farmhouse.  I’m trying to learn my lesson.”

Then I heard a door open behind me.  I turned and saw Kevin standing there, looking upset.  “Where have you been?” he demanded.  “Who are you talking to?”

“I’ve been right here,” I said.  “Talking to–”  I turned back to the preacher, but of course he was gone.  The front door to the church was open.  I went outside and looked around, but I couldn’t spot him.  There were tracks in the snow.  I followed them, down the walkway to the street.  “Come back here!” I shouted into the night.  “You can’t just leave like that!”

I tripped and fell on the street, and when I got up I couldn’t find the tracks, and I couldn’t find him.  “Come on!” I shouted again.  “Please help us!”

Kevin came up behind me.  “What the heck is going on?” he asked.

“The–the preacher–the stupid preacher–”  I was too mad to explain.

“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin interrupted.  “You’ve gotta come with me.  Right now.”

“Why?  What happened?”

“Stinky’s a snitch–he’s been a snitch all along.  He went back to Boston and told the lieutenant where we were, and Carmody’s coming to get us.  Let’s go.”

Swell, I thought.  What else could go wrong?  I followed Kevin back into the church hall.