Portal, an online novel: Chapter 30

Chapter 29: Life starts returning to normal in Glanbury.  Larry and Kevin are living with Mrs. Barnes and Matthew.  Stinky leaves to return to his master.  The news finally arrives that the war is over, the Canadians have been defeated along with the New Portuguese, and the town decides to hold a celebration on Christmas Eve.  Soldiers start returning — but not Larry’s dad.  Meanwhile, his mom insists that Larry has to go to Boston to settle the affairs of the “father” he has made up, who supposedly died in the war.  Kevin pressures Larry to tell his mom the truth about who they really are and where they have come from.  Larry reluctantly agrees.  And then, the night before he is going to do this, his father shows up.  In his excitement, Larry rushes to greet him and calls him “Dad.”

(Okay, that was a pretty complicated chapter, plot-wise.  Probably easier just to read the thing.)

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Chapter 30

I stayed outside; I didn’t want to intrude.  Kevin came out to join me a couple of minutes later.  We sat down on the front step.  “Pretty emotional in there,” he said.

“I bet.  How did he take the news?”

“He cried.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grown man cry before.”

“Did he say where he’d been–why it took him so long to get here?”

“He was helping to scout the Canadian retreat–you know, make sure it wasn’t some kind of trick.  He didn’t exactly say it, but I think the officers really liked him–they wanted him to stay.  But he wouldn’t.”

We were silent for a while.  Then I said, “I called him ‘Dad’ when I saw him–it just slipped out.”

Kevin nodded.  “He looks different with the beard, but yeah–he’s your dad.  Think he noticed?”

“My dad notices everything.”

Then we looked up at the stars until the door opened.  “Come in, boys,” Mom said softly.  “You’ll get a fever staying outside in the cold.”

We got up.  Her eyes were shining.  “This is a wonderful night, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “It surely is.”

We followed her back inside and sat by the fire while she rejoined Dad and Matthew in the kitchen.

Matthew was sitting on Dad’s lap.  Mom had poured cups of tea and put out some food.  There was a jar of jam on the table–Dad must have brought it back from Boston.  He looked at me and said, “Mrs. Barnes has told me all you’ve done for us, Larry.  I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.  And I’m very sorry about your father’s death.”

I just managed a nod in return, then I got up and threw another log onto the fire.

“Tell us about the battle, Papa,” Matthew begged him.  “From the beginning.”

“Your father is very tired, Matthew,” Mom put in.  “Perhaps tomorrow.”

“It’s all right, Emma.  He’s been waiting for this story, I think, and it’s time he got it.  I was stationed at the Brighton fortifications, Matthew, and the orders were to hold them at all costs.  The artillery fire was fierce before the battle.  I couldn’t believe that we weren’t all killed.  The sun rose at some point, but we couldn’t see it for all the smoke.  Our lieutenant gave a speech about saving our homeland and so on, but I don’t think any of us paid much attention.  We just wanted to get through the battle.  And after a while we got tired of the waiting and just wanted the thing to start.  Finally we were moved north along the line about half a mile.  We assumed those airships helped the officers decide where the assault was going to come.  There had been some kind of strange, thin fence rolled out, as well.  None of us could figure out what it was for.”

“That’s the fence that killed everyone,” Matthew said.

“Not that I could tell,” Dad replied.  “Anyway, when we got to our new positions, the artillery fire had stopped, and it was very quiet for a few minutes.  Then we could hear them coming.  A little while after that, we could see them.”

He fell silent for a moment.  It sounded much like the battle with the Portuguese.

“Were there a lot of them?” Matthew asked.

“Too many,” he replied.

“And did you kill ’em?”

“Yes, Matthew, some of them.  I took no pleasure in it, but this was war, and killing is what you do in a war.  It was a fierce attack.  That fence just slowed them down a little, as far as I could tell.  We shot many of them, but there were many more we didn’t have time to shoot.  They breached the fortifications, and then we were fighting them hand-to-hand.  We knew that we couldn’t let them past.”

“And they didn’t get past, right?” Matthew said.  “You beat them.”

“Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, son.  We were actually forced to retreat after a while, but we fell back in good order–it wasn’t a rout.  We stopped and regrouped, and reinforcements arrived–I never found out from where–so we were ready when the Canadians attacked again.  I don’t think they expected us to put up so much resistance.  This time they were the ones who retreated, back beyond the fortifications.

“But it wasn’t the end, by any means.  They didn’t run away like the Portuguese.  And there was a rumor that their forces had broken through further west, so we were worried that we’d be outflanked.  We commandeered whatever houses we found nearby and spent the night in them.  We were cold and hungry and exhausted, and some of us had wounds that weren’t being treated.  We were happy to have survived, but we knew that tomorrow was likely to be even harder.”

Dad paused to sip his tea, and Mom put a hand on his arm to comfort him.  “Was there another battle?” Matthew asked.

“There was, but not the next day, as it turned out.  I don’t know if the Canadians made a mistake by not attacking immediately.  Maybe they were in as bad a shape as we were and also needed time to regroup.  But in any case, nothing happened.  Except more reinforcements arrived–the soldiers who had defeated the Portuguese south of the city.  That helped us immensely, knowing we had more comrades, and knowing there was just one army left to defeat.

“And then the generals started maneuvering.  We marched here and there over the next few days, without any of us having a clear idea of what we were doing.  We were getting very nervous.  Even with the new troops we were still outnumbered.  And most of us weren’t professional soldiers, after all, and none of us had had enough to eat for months.  We couldn’t wait forever to fight, but we couldn’t afford to fight with the odds against us.”

Matthew was getting bored.  “Tell me about the next battle, Papa,” he demanded.

Dad nodded.  “All right, the next battle.  The final battle.  Our lieutenant said to get ready, it was coming, and it would be different from the last one.  It would be much bigger, and it would be on open ground, instead of fighting from behind the fortifications.  Our position gave us a slight advantage–we held the heights in Brighton–but they had more troops, and probably more ammunition.  The main difference this time was that we were the ones who would attack.

“So we woke up before dawn and got ready and said our prayers, and before we really had time to think or worry or be afraid we were charging down towards the enemy, and they were firing back at us.  I don’t know how I survived.  People were dying all around me.  I just tried to stay alive and do my job, which was to kill as many of the Canadians as I could.

“It was a terrible battle.  Matthew, I know war sounds exciting, but I tell you, I never want to see another day like that one.  And I was lucky–I was cut and bruised and punched and kicked, but I wasn’t seriously wounded, I wasn’t left for dead, like a lot of soldiers I knew.  And I didn’t end up with a leg amputated, a cripple for the rest of my days.

“Well, in the end the Canadians retreated.  It didn’t exactly feel like victory–again, they didn’t turn and run, we didn’t slaughter them.  But by sunset they were gone and we held the field.

“At first we didn’t know if it was going to be like before, and they were planning to fight again.  I don’t think we could have survived another battle.  But it turns out they decided they couldn’t survive one either.  They retreated.  And as I said, some of us just followed along after them–not to fight, but to make sure they were well and truly gone.  We stayed on their heels for upwards of a week.  They must be back home by now–and good riddance to them.”

“We won!” Matthew said.

“Yes,” Dad replied softly, “we won.  At such a cost.”

“You’ve done a lot of soldiering, Henry,” Mom said.

“Too much, Emma, too much.  This war did no one any good.”

“I’m glad you’re home, Papa,” Matthew said.

“So am I, Matthew.  So am I.”

They all fell silent in the kitchen.  Matthew leaned back against Dad and closed his eyes.  Dad kissed the top of his head.  After a while he carried Matthew up to the attic and put him to bed.

Mom came in to us.  “Good night, boys,” she said.  “There’s jam in the kitchen.  Help yourselves.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I replied.

She smiled at us; she looked so relieved.  Then we heard Dad coming back downstairs, and he and Mom went off to their bedroom and left Kevin and me alone.  I heard them murmuring to each other while we sat by the fire.

“Want some jam?” I asked him.

He shook his head.  “No trip to Boston tomorrow,” he remarked.

“I guess not.”

“But you’ll still have to tell them.  Calling him ‘Dad’–”

“Yeah, I know.  After the victory celebration, for sure.”

Kevin looked skeptical, but he didn’t say anything.  He lay down on the floor and pulled his blanket around him.

I stoked up the fire and lay down next to him.  “It wouldn’t be so terrible staying here,” I murmured.  “Even if Lieutenant Carmody finds us.  We’ve made a lot of friends.  We know how to get along in this world.  We’d be okay.”

I didn’t think Kevin was going to answer, but after a long time he said, “We’ll never be able to say ‘okay’ in this world.  People will never understand us when we ask ‘How come?’.  They’ll always look at us funny when we eat with a fork.  There’ll never be a Christopher Columbus or a Mark Twain.  They’ll never know who the Red Sox are.  We’ll never ride our bikes again.”

Will it matter? I thought.  When we’re twenty, or thirty, or forty–will any of that matter by then?  We won’t say “okay”; we’ll never think about the Red Sox.  So what?  We’ll be what this world made us.  But I didn’t say anything.  There was no sense getting into an argument with Kevin.

Instead I fell asleep, grateful that my father was home, and ready to celebrate the victory that we had helped win.

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Portal, an online novel: Chapter 29

Chapter 28: Larry helps to bury Cassie, and in the little family graveyard he see his own grave.  Afterward Mom tells the story of how she dies — shot by a New England soldier in the camp because she wouldn’t — couldn’t — follow orders.  Larry has to lie about what’s been happening to him and why he’s in Glanbury.  His mother says that he and Kevin and Stinky are welcome to stay, but Larry is beginning to realize how complicated this new situation is going to be.

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Chapter 29

Then for a few short weeks my life took on a new rhythm, as I hunted and fished and did chores, and later helped neighbors who had returned to homes that had been burned or ransacked.  It was great to be with Mom and Matthew, but every moment was shadowed by thoughts of Cassie’s death and worries about the future.  Was Dad all right?  What was happening with the Canadians? 

And where was the portal? 

Kevin kept searching, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it.  And I was too busy.  After a few days I think he started trying to get used to the idea that he was staying in this world, but it wasn’t something he wanted to talk about.  Maybe talking about it made it more real somehow, and he didn’t want to give up hope entirely.  I guess I couldn’t blame him.

And there were lots of awkward moments.  Like Mom asking me about my family and my future.  “You really need to go back to the city and settle things, Larry.  I’m sure your father had a will, and he may have named someone to be your guardian.  We can find a lawyer to help you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “After the war we’ll figure it out.  As soon as it’s safe.”

If she thought it wasn’t safe to go to Boston, she’d never let me go.

And then there was our clothes.  She insisted on washing them–we must have stunk pretty badly.  So Kevin and I peeled down to reveal that we were wearing another whole layer of strange clothes underneath our regular ones. 

“Where in the world did you get those pants?” she asked.

“China,” I said.  “My father knows a professor in China.  He sent them to us.  Did you notice this thing?  It’s called a ‘zipper’.  It’s really different.”

“But why do you wear the Chinese pants inside your regular pants?”

“We don’t like them all that much–we don’t want to look weird.  But we didn’t want to leave them behind.  They’re supposed to be valuable.”

I didn’t like lying to Mom, in either world.  It was easy to get her to believe you, and that just sort of made it worse.  When she found out about your lie she would tell you how disappointed she was, how much she had trusted you, and you ended up feeling like dirt.

“All these stories are pretty pointless,” Kevin said later.  “Sooner or later Carmody is going to come looking for the portal–and us.  And sooner or later you’re going to have to tell your mother the truth.”

“But I can’t tell her now,” I argued.  “What if she thinks we’re demons?  What if she throws us out?”

Kevin shrugged.  “She’s not going to do that,” he said.  “She’s crazy about you.  Anyway, suit yourself.”

But I couldn’t do it.  Not yet.

And then there was Stinky.  He wasn’t especially annoying, except that he didn’t seem to want to leave, and after a while that made everyone feel sort of awkward.  “No sense in going anywhere till Mister Kincaid’s back,” he said, talking about his master.  But then we heard from a neighbor that Kincaid was back, and Stinky said, “I’ll just get a beating when I return, so there’s no sense in hurrying.”  And so he stayed.

I tried to explain away Kevin’s story about the orphanage, but Stinky had his own explanation: “Your friend is insane,” he said.  “I just stay away from him as much as I can.”

That was fine with Kevin.

The best times were when I went off visiting with Mom and Matthew.  Stinky never went, because he was afraid of running into his master, and Kevin usually didn’t go because he just wasn’t interested.  But I enjoyed hearing people talk about their lives, and the war, and the rumors.  I enjoyed helping them rebuild their homes and barns; I turned out to be pretty good at carpentry, even though I never did much of it at home.

Everyone was really nice to me when they found out I was an orphan, but they would have been nice to me anyway.  And they all had some hardship to deal with–and not just the wrecked homes and barns.  A few of them had lost a family member; lots more had brothers and fathers and sons in the army, and there was no way of knowing if they were dead or alive.

More than once I ran into Sarah Lally.

Her father was a tailor, and the first time I saw her was outside his shop near the harbor.  My heart started racing. “Hi,” I managed to say.

She looked really happy to see me.  “How did you get here, Larry?  Do you know about Cassie?”

I told her the story about my father dying, and of course she was sympathetic.  She put her hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze.  “How awful,” she murmured.  “But how kind of you to come here to help.”

I felt guilty about lying to her, just the way I did with Mom.  But I didn’t want her to take her hand away.  “How are you doing?” I asked.

She gestured behind her at the shop.  “There was much damage, but we’ll be all right.”

“If there’s anything you need, let me know,” I said.

“Thank you, Larry.  Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you a question if I ever saw you again.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“That first time you saw me in the camp–you called me Nora Lally.  But you never explained: how did you know my last name?”

I had forgotten about that.  I had done pretty well answering my mother’s questions, and even making up something about the orphanage, but this was a tough one, especially with Sarah’s wide blue eyes gazing at me.  “I guess–I don’t know, really.”

She looked puzzled, but not angry or anything.  Then her father called to her from inside the shop.  “Well, no matter,” she said.  “Anyway—I’ll see you again, won’t I?”

“You can count on it.”

She smiled at me and rushed inside.

I did see her again, at neighbor’s houses and when we went to church–the same white church with the big steeple that overlooked the town common in my Glanbury.  And she was always happy to see me and easy to talk to, and it was hard to believe how scared of her I was back in my world.

Meanwhile, the news that filtered down from Boston was pretty good, although as usual everyone who showed up in Glanbury had a slightly different version.  We had defeated the Canadians, and they were retreating.  They weren’t retreating, but were preparing for a counterattack.  They had counterattacked but hadn’t been able to break through our defenses, which featured an amazing metal fence that killed anyone who touched it.  The blockade had ended, and supply ships from England were landing in Boston Harbor.  The blockade was still in place, but England had declared war on Portugal and it was only a matter of time . . . 

It was pretty much all anyone could talk about, and every scrap of news was treated like it was a precious gem.  But no one was going to really believe anything until they heard it from a returning soldier.  And that was what everyone was waiting for.

I was there when the first one arrived.  A bunch of us were working on the Wilsons’ barn when a red-jacketed man strode up the lane, a huge grin on his face.  It was Mr. Wilson, coming home.  Everyone got down from the ladders and came out of the house and crowded around.  He spent a while hugging and kissing his family, and then he gave us all the news: “We beat them Canadians,” he said.  “We fought ’em and fought ’em, and finally they retreated back north, and they’re not coming back.”

“Are you sure?” someone asked.  “Is it official?”

“They’re working on the peace treaty now at Coolidge Palace,” he replied.  “And the first thing they did was lift the blockade.  I hear food supplies’ll be moving down the coast any day now.”

“The other soldiers–when are they coming back?”

“Hard to say.  They’re letting the volunteers go, but not everyone at once.  Don’t know how I got to be among the first, but I’m not complainin’.”

And then the questions really started coming.  Have you seen my husband?  What about my son–is he all right?  There was good news and bad news for the people there.  And for a few there was no news at all.  Mom waited till the end.  “Henry–have you seen Henry?” she asked.

Mr. Wilson shook his head.  “Not lately, Emma.  But that doesn’t mean anything.  There were thousands of soldiers.  He could’ve been anywhere along the front.  I’m sure he’ll show up any day now.”

Mom forced a smile.  “Of course.  I understand.  I’m sure you’re right.”

So some people left the Wilsons’ place happy that day, and some in tears, and some–like us–were just as worried as before. 

Anyway, then things started to change. 

For example, Stinky finally decided to leave.  He knew it was only a matter of time before his master found out where he was, so he figured he didn’t have much choice.  He looked very depressed when he told us his decision. 

“You’ve been great, Julian,” I said.  “We wouldn’t have survived without you.”

He turned red and looked down at the floor.  “Don’t thank me,” he said.  “I’m just–I’m no saint, that’s all.  Anyone would have done what I did.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I replied.  It was hard to believe, but I knew I was going to miss him.  I had almost stopped thinking of him as “Stinky.”  I shook his hand, and then watched him as he said goodbye to the others.  He looked like he was holding back tears.  Even Kevin seemed sad to see him trudging down the lane away from the farmhouse.  “Not one wet willie from him,” Kevin said afterwards, which was about as close as he could come to saying something nice about Stinky. 

And then the food arrived, just like Mr. Wilson said.  A ship showed up in Glanbury Harbor filled with emergency supplies, and we all went down to the docks to get our share.  Beef, potatoes, flour–even sugar and molasses.  People couldn’t believe their eyes.  It was like a gift from heaven.

That was the day the town decided to have a victory celebration at the church hall.  The date was set: December 24th.  Christmas Eve.

It was the first time I’d thought about Christmas.  “They don’t celebrate it, do they, Kevin?” I asked.

Kevin shook his head.  “Not in New England.  It’s just another day here.  I read about it at Professor Palmer’s.  The Portuguese do all sorts of things for Christmas, but New Englanders say it’s just a pagan tradition.  Can you imagine, no Christmas?”

One more reason for Kevin to feel homesick.  Me too.  I remembered how excited Matthew got, so he could barely sleep a wink the night before, and he kept me awake too, of course, the two of us finally sneaking downstairs early to see the presents, Cassie coming down later and complaining about everything she got . . .  “Doesn’t seem right,” I said.

“It’s a different world, Larry.  It’ll never be your world, no matter how much you think you can make it yours.”

“Okay, okay,” I grumbled. 

The end of the war had started Kevin looking for the portal again in earnest.  “Now there’s nothing stopping Lieutenant Carmody from coming down here and finding out what happened to us,” he pointed out.  And he was pretty upset that I wasn’t interested in helping him, so he didn’t pass up any chance to let me know how stupid I was being. 

I saw his point, but walking around in the woods looking for an invisible needle in the haystack just didn’t seem all that useful to me, when I had so much to do helping Mom and Matthew and the rest of folks in Glanbury.

And, to tell the truth, I was worried about what would happen if my father didn’t return from the war.  The days went by, and more and more soldiers returned home, but no Henry Barnes.  And no news of him either.  None of the returning soldiers remembered seeing him shot or bayoneted or captured, which was good, but none could say for sure he was alive, either, and by now we were desperate for some news.  Matthew looked out the window during the day, and after dark he listened for footsteps in the lane.  “He’s coming home soon, Mama, isn’t he?” he asked.  “He’ll be here for the celebration on Christmas Eve, won’t he?”

“I’m sure of it, Matthew,” she replied. 

But her eyes were anxious, and I knew she was as worried as any of us.

“You could go in the wagon to Boston,” I suggested to her finally.  “Ask for him at army headquarters.  They must have lists and stuff.  You’ll probably find out, one way or the other.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” she said.  Then she brightened.  “And we could see a lawyer and start getting matters resolved about your father.”

Oops, that wasn’t what I had in mind.  “Well–” I began.

“Don’t argue with me, Larry,” she interrupted.  “It’s time, and you know it.  We’ll do it tomorrow.”

“But tomorrow’s Christmas Eve.  Tomorrow’s the celebration.”

“We’ll get an early start.  If we miss the celebration, that’s fine–I don’t really feel like celebrating.”

Of course I got no sympathy from Kevin when I told him.  “Just tell her the truth,” he said.  “Get it over with.”

I couldn’t see any way out.  “All right,” I said.  “Tomorrow, for sure.”

I must not have sounded all that convincing, because Kevin started in on me again.  “You’re still dreaming, Larry.  But it’s time to wake up.  You can’t just be this substitute kid for them.  And you can’t live in a substitute world.  It’s not going to work.”

“Shut up, Kevin,” I said.  It was all I could think of to say.

At supper Mom told Matthew about how we were all going to Boston, and we might not make it to the celebration, and that got him depressed.  And he finally understood that Kevin and I might not be staying forever, and that got him really depressed. 

And that got me really depressed.

If I told Mom the truth, what would happen?

After supper I went outside to think about it.  It was a clear, moonlit night, the kind where you don’t seem to mind the cold.  So I stood there, listening to the silence.  Was Kevin right?  Was I dreaming?  Probably.  But he was dreaming too, wasn’t he?  Dreaming that there was a way back home, when by now it was clear that there wasn’t, that the portal was gone and we were stuck here for the rest of our lives.  We were both entitled to our dreams.   

Then I heard something–footsteps in the snow.  Too loud for an animal.  I looked up, and saw a man in a dark coat walking up the path towards the house.  He was carrying a rifle and a satchel.  His coat was red, I realized.  A uniform.

“Dad!” I cried, and I ran to him.

He stopped, and then I stopped too, realizing what I’d said.  We stared at each other.

“Larry?” he asked, staring at me with a puzzled expression.  “Larry Palmer?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. 

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m just, you know, helping out.  You’re family’s inside.  They’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

“I expect they have,” he said, breaking into a grin.

That grin hit me like a blow.  I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just stepped aside.  He patted me uncertainly on the shoulder.  “Well, then, we’ll talk,” he said.  Then he walked past me and went into his house.

And I stayed out there in the cold as he greeted Mom and Matthew and learned the awful news that awaited him.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 26

Chapter 25: Larry, Kevin, and Stinky Glover make their way out of Boston, south towards Glanbury.  Guards in watchtowers shoot at them; Kevin trades his Red Sox cap for a trip across the river; they see evidence of a headlong Portuguese retreat; they meet up with a weary mother and child heading home.  Is the war over?  Will they make it back to Glanbury?

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Chapter 26

A few minutes later we were there.

The Gradger house hadn’t been burned.  It was bigger than most of the houses I’d seen in Cambridge, with a fancy black iron fence out front and a wide brick drive leading up to an entranceway supported by large white pillars.  “We’re home, Mother!” Cecilia shouted.  “Home!”

But things didn’t look right.  The front door was open.  All the windows were smashed.  Staring at them, Mrs. Gradger looked like she wanted to kill someone else.  We walked quickly up the drive, rifles at the ready.  For a moment we stood by the door, listening, and then Mrs. Gradger strode inside, with the rest of us following.

The place had been trashed.  Broken glass and dishes littered the floor.  Furniture was overturned.  Paintings had been taken down from the wall and ripped in half.  We went from room to room–and there were a lot of them–and they were all wrecked.  We headed upstairs, and it was the same there.  Everything that could be destroyed had been.  It was awful.

Cecilia started crying again.  Mrs. Gradger didn’t say a word.  “I’m really sorry,” I said to her.  She just shook her head.

We went through the entire place to make sure it was empty, then came back downstairs.  Kevin, Stinky, and I didn’t have to say anything to each other; we all knew we had to pitch in.  “I’ll start a fire,” Kevin volunteered.

“I’ll unpack Barney,” I said.

“I’ll help,” Stinky added.

We went outside.  “Quite a mess,” Stinky remarked as we unloaded the mule.

“Think the Portuguese did it?”

“Don’t see why they’d do this much damage,” Stinky said.  “Same for thieves.  Maybe it was servants or townspeople, settling old scores.  They finally got a chance to show what they thought of the Gradgers.  I bet they weren’t so fond of Mrs. Gradger.”

“She’s not so bad.”

Stinky shrugged.  “Tell that to the person she shot.  Let’s get this stuff inside and see if we can find some food.”

We talked to Kevin and decided that he would stay behind with the Gradgers while we went out hunting.  Mrs. Gradger was starting to clean up the big living room, and Cecilia had lain down on a rug in the corner.  Stinky and I headed out into the late afternoon.

“Shouldn’t be hard to find game,” Stinky said.  “With no people around for months, the animals are probably nearabouts.”

“Whatever we do, let’s not get lost,” I replied.

We were in a residential neighborhood.  None of the houses were as grand as Mrs. Gradger’s, but they were still pretty nice.  We didn’t see anyone else, so it was like walking through a ghost town.  It took us a little while before we found a patch of woods behind a church.  “This’ll do, I expect,” Stinky said.

We went into the woods.  Stinky motioned for me to be silent.  Once again I noticed how quiet it could be in this world, without traffic or radios or airplanes.  We walked deeper into the woods, and then stopped again.  I could hear the sound of Stinky’s heavy breathing, the breeze moving the branches above us.  It was getting dark; I hoped this wouldn’t take long.  And then I saw Stinky slowly raise the pistol he had taken from the dead Portuguese soldier.

I looked where he was aiming.  There was a large, strange-looking bird waddling along the ground.  Could we eat that?  Stinky fired, and the sound was deafening.  The bird collapsed, squawking, and then there was silence again.  “Got ‘im,” Stinky said.

We walked over to it.  “What is it?” I asked.

Stinky looked at me with a puzzled expression.  “A turkey, of course,” he said.  “Don’t they ever feed you turkey in the orphanage?”

“Yeah, of course.  I love turkey.  But to be honest, I’m about ready to eat tree bark.”

Stinky picked up the bird and handed it to me, and we made our way out of the woods.  “A lot of turkeys’ll be shot before this winter’s over,” he said.

The dead bird was heavy, and it dripped blood as we walked.  Nasty.  But I wasn’t going to complain.  We made our way back to the Gradgers’ house without a problem, although night was falling fast.  Inside, the fire was roaring.  Mrs. Gradger was hanging sheets in front of the windows to keep out the cold air.  Kevin was sweeping up the broken glass; he looked relieved to see us return.  Cecilia was fast asleep on some cushions by the fire.

“Ma’am, if you’ll pluck this turkey, we can have some supper,” Stinky said.

Mrs. Gradger didn’t look happy about handling the turkey; that was probably something the servants did.  But she stopped what she was doing and went out with us to the kitchen.  Getting the turkey ready to eat turned out to be hard, disgusting work–chopping off the head, plucking the feathers, cleaning out the insides . . .  Rather than get involved with that, I started a fire in the kitchen fireplace, then pumped some water out back.  When the turkey had been prepared, she put it on a spit in the fireplace, and then we just had to wait for it to cook, while the aroma made our mouths water and our stomachs rumble.

The table and chairs had been destroyed, so we had to eat on the floor in the living room.  Mrs. Gradger found pewter plates that hadn’t been smashed and some old silverware, while the three of us did more cleanup.  Finally we took the turkey off the spit, carved it, roused Cecilia, and ate.  The turkey was burned on the outside, then too dry, then barely cooked next to the bone.  But it was probably the best food I’ve ever tasted.

Mrs. Gradger ate with her fork, I noticed.  It was the first time I had seen anyone do that since I’d been to Coolidge Palace.  She looked stiff and uncomfortable eating on the floor, but as usual she didn’t say anything.

There was a piano in a corner of the living room that had been too big to destroy.  After we had finished I went over to play it.  It was a good piano–better than Professor Palmer’s–but a little out of tune.  I played the song the professor like so much:

 

Wanly I wandered

Through the world far and wide

Seeking some solace

For dreams that had died

 

When I finished, everyone was silent.  Mrs. Gradger’s face was wet with tears.  Cecilia was sitting on her lap, asleep again, and Mrs. Gradger absently stroked her hair as she stared off into the distance.  Kevin got up and added a log to the fire.  “We should all go to sleep,” he said quietly.  “We’ll want to get started early.”

“Maybe we should stand watches,” Stinky suggested.  “Just in case.”

“I’ll take the first watch,” I offered.

“Wake me for one too,” Mrs. Gradger said.

We arranged more cushions, and people visited the privy, and then everyone but me settled down to sleep in front of the fire.  I sat next to a window, rifle by my side, and listened to the crackling of the fire and the regular breathing.  Despite all that had happened that day, I wasn’t very sleepy.

Wanly I wandered …

I thought about Kevin and how determined he was to get to the portal.  It looked like we were actually going to make it back to Glanbury, and that was more than I had expected a couple of days ago. So maybe we’d find it; maybe we’d have our chance to step into it and see where we’d end up.  I remembered the faint hope we’d had when we first came here that rescuers would follow us through the portal.  So many dreams had died.  But here we were, still alive, still struggling.

Long had I lingered/In an alien land . . .

I thought of my mother and father, and wondered if they were safe.  Which mother and father?  Both.  Kevin would scoff, but I didn’t think I could stand it if anything happened to the ones in this world.  And I worried about Professor Palmer, who had probably been operating the electric fence against the Canadians.  Would he be shot like Professor Foster?  I worried about Caleb and Benjamin and Chester and Corporal Hennessy.  This world, and the people in it, mattered to me now.  It wasn’t a dream, they weren’t a dream.

I might be part of this world for the rest of my life.

It is only by setting out that we can finally return home, the strange preacher had said.  But where was home?

I sat there for a couple of hours, just thinking.  Outside it was utterly quiet.  I got up once or twice to put another log onto the fire.  Finally I started to get sleepy, so I roused Stinky, who groggily took my place.  I lay down on the cushions and immediately fell into the best sleep I’d had in days.  No dreams.

When I awoke it was daylight, and everyone except Cecilia was already up.  Stinky was out shooting more game for breakfast.  Mrs. Gradger had found clean clothes upstairs and was laying them out for Cecilia.  And Kevin was waiting for me.  “Let’s go,” he said.

“We can wait for Stinky,” I replied.  “We can wait for breakfast.”

“Why?”

“Come on, Kevin.  Relax.”

Kevin brooded.  I wondered if he was thinking of leaving by himself.  He certainly wasn’t happy with me.

We heard some shots, and a few minutes later Stinky arrived with a couple of dead rabbits.  “Thought I spotted a deer,” he informed us.  “That’s what you’ll need to lay in a good supply of meat.”

Mrs. Gradger looked thoughtful.  Stinky skinned the rabbits for her, and then she roasted them in the kitchen.  We woke Cecilia and again ate sitting on the living-room floor.  “Mother,” Cecilia asked as we ate, “when will Father be home?”

“Father is still fighting for our country,” Mrs. Gradger said.  “Along with Gabriel and Elijah.”

“But we need them here.”

Mrs. Gradger didn’t reply.  When we were finished eating, she sent Cecilia off to change.  Kevin stood up to leave.

Mrs. Gradger raised a hand to stop him, and the rest of us.  “Please,” she said.  “Don’t go.  Stay here with Cecelia and me.  Just until my husband returns.  I can pay you well.”

Kevin shook his head.  “No, thanks.  We’ve got to get to Glanbury.”

“But what’s so important about going to Glanbury?” she persisted.  “I can pay you very well.  And my husband is an important man.  He can–he can find you work, give you opportunities.  You’re good lads.  You wouldn’t regret it.”

“Maybe St–maybe Julian would do it,” Kevin suggested.  “Larry and I have to go, but he doesn’t.  What about it, Julian?”

Everyone looked at Stinky.  “You wouldn’t regret it,” Mrs. Gradger repeated.  “We’re all alone here.  Think of my daughter.  We need help.”

It was hard for her to beg, I could tell.  And that only made the begging harder to resist.  Stinky looked pretty unhappy.  But he too shook his head finally.  “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to stay with my friends,” he said.  “We were glad to help, but now it’s time to leave.”

That was a little surprising.  Why not stay?  Was Stinky still grateful to me for helping him with those kids in the camp?  Was he worried about his master beating him or something?  Or was it just that he liked us?  Anyway, Mrs. Gradger looked like she didn’t know whether to yell at us or burst into tears.  Finally she got control of herself and said, “Very well.  In any case, I’m grateful to all of you and wish you godspeed.”

We said our fare-you-wells.  Cecilia came back in her new dress, cleaned up and cute.  She cried when she found out we were going.  “Mother, can’t they stay?  Please?”

Mrs. Gradger shook her head.  “We’ll be fine, Cecilia,” she said.  “Don’t wipe your face on your sleeve.”

It was tough, but a few minutes later we were headed back to the Post Road.

“How come you didn’t stay with them?” Kevin asked Stinky.

Stinky looked puzzled.  “What do you mean, ‘how come’?”

It was one of those phrases they didn’t quite get in this world.  “How come?”  Kevin repeated.  “Why?”

“Oh.”  Stinky shrugged.  “Don’t know, exactly.  But don’t you think she’d be hard to deal with, once things got back to normal?  She’s nice enough now, but there’s a reason people destroyed her home.  And who knows what her money’ll be worth–if anything?  Remember what that fellow on the river said.  She could pay me five pounds a week, but if a loaf of bread costs five pounds, that’s still poor wages, right?”

Seemed reasonable to me.  We didn’t say anything more about the Gradgers.  We all felt pretty bad, I think–probably even Kevin.  There were going to be a lot of people in the same situation, I knew, and many worse off than the Gradgers, but that didn’t make it any better.

The day was clear but cold, like yesterday.  It didn’t take us long to get back on the Post Road.  Unlike yesterday, there were other people on it now–families in wagons pulled by half-dead horses, old men and women leaning on sticks, and a few scruffy-looking characters that Mrs. Gardner probably would have called “brigands”.

We got the latest news from them.  There were few guards left at the fortifications, so people were starting to stream out of the city, whether or not this was officially allowed yet.  A makeshift bridge was in place.  No one was sure how things were going against the Canadians–or rather, everyone was sure, but they all had different stories to tell.  We had lost.  We had won.  We were still fighting.  Reinforcements from the Portuguese front had turned the battle around.  They had arrived too late.  They had been sent to the wrong place and never arrived.

But people were unanimous about the Portuguese.  If we were still seeing their discarded stuff on the road this far south of the city, they weren’t likely to be regrouping for another attack.  They must have been heading out of New England as fast as they could travel.  And that was good news.

“More than halfway to Glanbury, mates,” Stinky said.

A long distance in the cold, but our bellies were full and we’d had a good night’s sleep and no one was shooting at us, so it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  Kevin was almost twitching with excitement.

After a couple of hours walking he began to look more tired than excited, but by then it seemed like Glanbury must be just around the next bend in the road.  “Not far now, I think,” Stinky said.  “There’s Lantham’s Stables.”  Then, a few minutes later, “And there’s the Weymouth Inn, burned to the ground.  That’s a shame.”  We walked a little faster.

And then, finally, Stinky gestured up ahead.  “See the river?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“That’s the North River.  Glanbury’s on t’other side.”

Kevin and I looked at each other.  There were tears in his eyes.  Glanbury.  Home.  At last.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 19

In the refugee camp, Larry has finally met his family.  They are much the same as in his own world, but their circumstances in this world are utterly different.

In particular, in this world Larry died as an infant.  And his mother senses something about him . . . he seems to fill a gap in her heart.

Larry returns to Coolidge Palace with some decisions to make, as artillery booms in the distance and the final battle for Boston is about to begin.

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

Chapter 19

The carriage raced through the deserted streets towards Coolidge Palace.  “What do you mean?” I asked Peter.  “Chat about what?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Peter replied.  “The president doesn’t tell me what’s on his mind.”

“Are people mad at me?”

Peter chuckled.  “I imagine they’ve more important things to be worrying about, lad.”

We reached the palace in no time.  The guards let our carriage through the gates, and we raced up the long drive to the front steps.  There was still a lot of activity on the palace grounds, I noticed.

“Hurry, lad,” Peter said when the carriage stopped.  I got down from the bench and ran up the steps.  A green-coated butler wearing a wig opened the door for me.

Lieutenant Carmody was standing in the entrance hall, looking seriously annoyed.  “Where did you get to?” he demanded.

“Well, uh, I–”

“Never mind.  Let’s go.”  He headed off down a long hallway to the president’s office.  Another butler bowed and let us in.

President Gardner was seated by the fire, along with General Aldridge, Professor Palmer, Vice President Boatner, and the foreign minister, Lord Percival.  The president wasn’t wearing his wig; he looked tired.  “Ah, you’ve brought Master Barnes,” he said when we entered.  “Excellent.  Have a seat.  General Aldridge was just finishing one of his gloomy reports.”

We bowed and sat down.  The warmth of the fire felt great after being outside all day.

“The Canadian artillery pieces on the Cambridge side of the Charles are firing almost continuously,” General Aldridge said.  “Damage is light so far except in the refugee camp by the river.  The goal, presumably, is to create confusion and panic prior to the main assault.”

“And the Portuguese?”

“A similar strategy south of the city, except the firing is more intermittent.  They may be conserving their ammunition.”

“And the balloons?” the president asked.  “The electricity?  All this work taking place on my back lawn–where are we with it?”

General Aldridge turned to Professor Palmer.  “Professor?”

“Four balloons are in use at strategic points around the city, Your Excellency,” he said.  “Two more are being completed tonight.  The balloons are tethered, with ropes sufficiently long that soldiers in the balloons will be able to easily view the enemy’s troop dispositions by telescope.  We have developed a semaphore signaling system that allows them to send the information back to the soldiers on the ground, so that they can adjust our own deployments of artillery and troops.”

“Can’t the enemy just train their fire on the balloons and shoot them down?” Vice President Boatner asked.  He looked as glum as he had the first time I saw him.

“The balloons are out of range of enemy artillery.  They’ll be safe.”

“What about wind, snow, ice?” the president asked.

Professor Palmer nodded.  “Weather is a concern, Excellency, particularly wind.  But on calm days, the balloons will be effective.”

“One might say that the balloons have already served their purpose,” Lord Percival pointed out.  “The enemy negotiators have seen the balloons floating over the palace.  And that has provoked a change in their attitude.”

The president raised a hand.  “We will get to that,” he said.  “First I want to hear about the electrified fences.”

Professor Palmer spoke up again.  “We have had some difficulty getting the batteries to hold sufficient charge,” he said.  “We’ve tried generating the electricity directly, but–”

“Yes, yes,” the president interrupted.  “These details are fascinating, I’m sure, but we need to know the consequences.  What can we do now?

“We have fences that can be deployed across a limited area,” the professor replied.  “The shorter the fence, the more significant the shock it will impart.”

“The plan is to expose gaps in the fortifications that will be filled by the fences,” General Aldridge explained.  “We hope the enemy will choose to attack in these gaps and be thrown into confusion by the shocks they receive.  We may also be able to inflict some injuries.”

“That’s all very well,” the vice president responded, “but neither these fences nor the balloons give us a decisive military advantage.  We are still besieged by enemy forces that far outnumber our own.  Our citizens are dying of disease and starvation, and looting and riots are widespread.  The refugee camps are about to explode.  The chaos and suffering will only increase if the siege continues.

“Lord Percival is correct, however: our bargaining position has improved somewhat.  At our negotiating session today, the enemy made what they termed their final offer: to let us maintain a civilian administration in New England as long as we disband our army and acknowledge the co-sovereignty of Canada and New Portugal.  This seems to me to be a far better outcome than we could have hoped for a month ago.  We would be foolish not to take it, and instead risk the future of our nation on a battle we have no hope of winning.”

“Solomon, when do you expect the battle?” the president asked.

“Not likely to be tomorrow,” General Aldridge replied.  “But no more than a day or two after that.  We assume the attacks will be coordinated.  The Portuguese are still moving troops up towards the fortifications.  Once they’re in place, they won’t delay further.”

That shut everyone up for a minute.  Then President Gardner looked at me.  “Master Barnes, what do you hear?” he asked.  “Do the people in the city want us to surrender, or fight?”

I thought.  How could I summarize what I had heard in the camp?  Sarah Lally was all for surrender.  Matthew was all for fighting.  Mom longed to go back to the farm and have Dad be safe.  “I think people just want it to be over, Your Excellency,” I said.  “Whatever you do, do it soon.”

That brought nods from everyone.

“Might I add one more thing?” Professor Palmer said.  “Obviously we have not achieved everything we would have liked with electricity.  But we have a new understanding of its power.  If we can continue to work on it, I believe its potential is limitless.”

President Gardner’s eyes rested on me for a moment before he replied.  “We would need our independence in order to reap the rewards of such work,” he remarked.

“That is correct.”

Vice President Boatner looked like he was going to say something, but instead he folded his arms and stared into the fire.  A clock in the corner of the room struck the hour.  We waited.

The president turned to the vice president and Lord Percival.  “Reject the enemy’s final offer,” he instructed them.  “Break off negotiations, and escort the diplomats back to the front lines.  We have nothing left to say to those who would destroy us.  Solomon,” he said, turning to General Aldridge, “do what you have to do, and quickly.  We will show them what New Englanders are made of.”

General Aldridge stood up and bowed.  “Thank you, Excellency.”

I expected the vice president to say something, but he simply shrugged.  He seemed to know there was no point in arguing.  We all got up, bowed, and left the room.  The meeting was over; the decision had been made.

“Never thought I’d see the day,” Professor Palmer said as we walked down the corridor away from the office.  “His Excellency showing some gumption.”

The Vice President stopped us at the front door of the palace.  “If we can help in any way,” he said to General Aldridge, “let us know.  All our lives are in your hands.”  He didn’t seem happy about it.

The general nodded.  “Thank you, Randolph.  The first thing you can do is pray for us.”

We hurried out into the night and heard the sounds of the artillery once again.  “William, Alexander, come with me,” General Aldridge said to the lieutenant and the professor.  “There is much to be done.  Larry, you can return to headquarters.”

“And stay there,” Lieutenant Carmody ordered.  “I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but you’re too important to be wandering around the city.”  He signaled to Peter to take me.

Instead of getting into the carriage, I climbed up next to Peter once again.  “Any news?” he asked as we headed out of the palace grounds.

“We’re going to fight,” I replied.

He didn’t seem surprised.  “There’ll be many of us dead before the week is out, then,” he said.  He didn’t look awfully upset about it.  It was just a statement of fact.

“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “I try not to think about it,” he said.  “This battle’s been coming for such a long time.  So we’ll all just do our duty when it finally arrives.”

We weren’t stopped on the way to headquarters.  “Thanks, Peter,” I said when he dropped me off in the courtyard.

“Don’t be wandering around the city, lad,” he advised me.  “The lieutenant’s right.  The situation is dangerous enough–don’t go looking for trouble.”

I went directly to the mess–I was starving.  All they could give me was the usual: salt pork, stale bread, and tea.  It would have to do.  Then I went up to my room, too tired to think, but knowing I had a huge decision to make.  Was I going to disobey Lieutenant Carmody and return to the camp?

I put out the lamp and dropped down onto my lumpy mattress,

When I closed my eyes, I saw my mother–tired and worried, just trying keep her family alive in that awful camp.  Dad wasn’t around, Cassie was about to go off the deep end.  It was so familiar, but so much worse than anything in our safe world.

I had to go back, I decided.  No matter what.  I had to help her.

But how?