The paperback version of Terra is now available!

It’s $14.99 and worth every penny!  Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  (I have no idea how there is already a used copy for sale from a bookseller on Amazon.)

By the way, we’re in the process of coming up with a new cover for The Portal to give us continuity in the series.  I’ll post a draft when we have it.

Terra cover

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Cover for my new novel

. . . which is called Terra, you will recall.  Subject to further fiddling.  Comments are welcome.  You will notice that we’re looking for a parallel universe vibe here.  What is that ray gun doing against the backdrop of a bas-relief from ancient Rome?  Guess you’ll have to read the novel to find out.

Terra cover

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.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 31

Chapter 30: Larry’s father has finally returned from the army.  Kevin and Larry are, awkwardly, a part of the homecoming.  Mr. Barnes tells the story of the final defeat of Canada.  Tomorrow is Christmas Eve — when the town will be celebrating New England’s victory.  With his father’s return, Larry’s trip to Boston is off.  But what does their future hold?  Life might be good in this world, but things will never be the same.

I feel as though we’re heading towards the climax, don’t you?

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

Chapter 31

Christmas Eve.  It was a strange morning.  The family was so happy; it was so sad.  After breakfast Mom and Dad went to visit Cassie’s grave, and they spent a long time there.  Matthew, meanwhile, wanted to know if Kevin and I were staying.

“We’ll certainly stay for the celebration tonight,” I said.

“But you can live here forever,” he pointed out.  “Don’t you want to?”

“I don’t know, Matthew.  It’s complicated.  We’ll see.”

Matthew didn’t look satisfied.

When they got back from the grave, Mom said Dad would take her to town so she could help out with the preparations at the church hall.  “I understand you were going to Boston today,” Dad said to us.  “I think it’s wise to handle that business as soon as possible.  Perhaps we can take you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

He gave me kind of a puzzled look, and I knew he remembered what I’d said to him last night.  But he didn’t say anything.  Instead he went to hitch up Gretel while Mom got ready to go to town.  Matthew decided to go with them, so after they left Kevin and I were by ourselves for a while.  I went outside to chop some firewood, and Kevin joined me.  The day was cold and gray, and it felt like snow was coming.  A white Christmas, maybe.  I was nervous, although I couldn’t exactly say why.  “Something’s going to happen,” I said to Kevin.  “You feel it?”

“Yeah,” he replied.  “Maybe we should look for the portal.  If there’s a blizzard, who knows when we’ll have another chance?”

“You go ahead.  I want to finish chopping this wood.”

Kevin just shook his head and continued to sit on a stump while I worked.

When Dad and Matthew got back, Matthew was worried, too.  “We don’t know where Julian is,” he told us.

“He said he was going back to his master,” I said.  “You know, Mr.–uh–”

“Kincaid,” Dad said.  “We met Kincaid at the church hall.  He hasn’t seen Julian since they were in the camp.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think he liked Mr. Kincaid very much. Maybe he just decided he wanted to do something else.”

“Kincaid’s a hard man,” Dad pointed out.  “He’ll have the law on Julian if he tries to leave his apprenticeship.”

“I miss Julian,” Matthew said.

I did, too.  I didn’t know why, but finding out that he’d disappeared made me even more nervous.

In the afternoon Dad went around the farm in that deliberate way of his, taking stock of what needed to be done.  “You boys have helped a great deal,” he remarked afterwards.  “I was very concerned about how Mrs. Barnes would make out by herself.  It seems that I needn’t have been so worried.”  Dad wasn’t much on handing out compliments, so that was a big one, coming from him.

“We were happy to pitch in,” I said.

He nodded.  “Still, it’s strange that you decided to come here when your father died.  Now how did you say you were related to Mrs. Barnes?”

Dad was a lot harder to lie to than Mom.  “I didn’t, sir,” I said.  “I’m really not sure.”

He nodded again, and I felt like he saw right through me.  But if he didn’t believe me, he certainly couldn’t imagine what the truth was.  Anyway, he didn’t interrogate me any further, and pretty soon it was time to get ready for the celebration.

Matthew slicked back his hair and put on his best blue shirt.  Dad trimmed his beard and wore a white ruffled shirt and la ong dark coat.  Kevin and I just had our usual clothes–but at least they were clean.

I wondered what Sarah Lally would be wearing.

There were a few snowflakes falling when we started out.  Dad shook his head.  “Hope this doesn’t get any worse,” he murmured.

Matthew was so excited he started to sing.

The church hall was stuck onto the back of the church, up on the little hill overlooking the town center.  When we got there wagons and carriages were already lined up in front of it, with the horses shifting and stamping their feet in the cold.  We left our wagon with the others and hurried inside.  The place was blazing with light–I hadn’t seen a room so bright since the first time I’d been to Coolidge Palace.  In one corner, musicians were playing a violin, an accordion, and a piano, and in the middle of the floor couples were doing one of those complicated dances where everyone’s moving around and switching partners and ducking in and out of lines.  Red-white-and-blue striped ribbons and flags hung from the ceiling.  There was a roaring fire in the big fireplace, and the mantel over the fireplace was decorated with pine boughs and holly; the boughs made the room smell like Christmas, even if that’s not what we were celebrating.  Along the far wall were tables piled with turkey and venison and ham and vegetables and loaves of bread and cakes . . .  It was amazing.

Mom was behind one of the tables, helping to serve the food.  She waved to us when we came in.  Other people started coming over to greet Dad, and Matthew ran off to join his friends.  Sarah Lally was dancing, but she spotted me and waved too.  She was wearing a bright green dress and had a green bow in her hair, and she looked gorgeous.  I grinned and waved back.

“Great music, huh?” I said to Kevin.

“I thought Matthew said Stinky was missing,” he replied.  “Look, he’s right over there, stuffing his face.”

Sure enough, Stinky was standing next to one of the food tables, eating from a very full plate.  When he noticed us, his eyes widened and he put the plate down.  “That’s odd,” I remarked.  “Let’s go find out what’s up.”

The music stopped just then, and I was thinking I’d rather go talk to Sarah than to Stinky.  And that’s when I heard a little voice behind me say, “Look, Mama, the boys from the woods.”

The voice sounded familiar, so I turned, and I found myself staring into the faces of the Harper family.

The Harper family–Samuel and Martha, with their little boy and girl.  The family that had saved Kevin and me from the Portuguese when we stumbled out of the portal so long ago.  The ones who had driven us into Boston when we were friendless and clueless in this world, and I was still worried about the piano lesson I was missing.

It was the little girl who had spoken–was her name Rachel?–the one who thought Kevin had been in the navy because he was wearing an Old Navy t-shirt.  They were all looking at us, though.  And so was my father, who must have been talking to them.

“Bless the Lord,” Martha said, “I’m so glad you boys are safe.  I’ve often thought of you since that day we took you to Boston.”

“I never did understand where you came from,” Samuel said, still grumpy at us.  “First your family was murdered, then they weren’t murdered . . . Where did you say you were from?  America, was it?  Never heard of the place.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” my father put in.  “What woods?  What murder?”

“Where’s your watch?” the boy asked Kevin.  “Do you still have that watch?”

Kevin shook his head sadly.  And then his face lit up–you could almost see the lightbulb going off over his head, like in the comics. “Do any of you happen to remember,” he asked, “when we came out of the woods and you picked us up on the Post Road–where was that, exactly?”

Samuel and Martha looked at each other.  “It was just past Joshua Fitton’s place, wasn’t it, Martha?” Samuel said.

Martha nodded.  “Yes, certainly it was.  I remember seeing the smoke from the house, and we heard the Portuguese soldiers shouting to each other in the woods, and we were sure we’d left too late and be captured.  And then you two boys came running out of the woods on the other side of the road.  We didn’t know what to make of you.”

“Thought you were pirates, or spies,” Samuel said.  “Those strange clothes.  Those accents.  You don’t have so much of an accent now.”

“The Fitton place,” Kevin repeated.

“Yes, about three miles past the Barnes’ farm along the Post Road,” Samuel said.  “You know where it is, don’t you, Henry?”

“Of course I know the Fitton place,” Dad said.  “But what the deuce is this all about?”

“I can explain,” I said softly.

Everyone looked at me.

“Well, um, I need to talk to Mr. Barnes–and Mrs. Barnes–in private.”

Dad nodded slowly.  “I believe that would be a good idea.”

I turned to Kevin.  He looked so happy.  He didn’t care about anything except the Fitton place.  He knew exactly where to look for the portal now.  “Want to come?” I asked.

“Sure.  Whatever.”

We started to walk off with my father, but all of a sudden Stinky was standing in front of us, still looking upset.  “Larry, we need to talk,” he said.

I had more important things to do now than talking to him.  “Later, Julian.  I’m kind of busy.”

“But it’s important,” he insisted.

I shrugged.  Nothing I could do about it.

“I’ll talk to him,” Kevin said.  “You go on with Mr. Barnes.”

That worked for me.  Stinky still looked upset, but he went off with Kevin.  Dad and I made our way to the food tables.  Mom smiled at us.  “Look at this food,” she said happily.  “Two months ago, could you ever have imagined it?”

“Emma,” Dad replied, “Larry would like to speak to us in private.”

Mom’s brow furrowed.  “Is anything the matter?” she asked me.

I shook my head.  “Nothing’s the matter.  It’s just–we need to talk.”

“Oh.”  Mom set down the platter she’d been holding and looked around.  “Yes,” she said.  “Well, then.  Why don’t we go into the church?”

She acted as if she had been expecting this conversation.

I followed them through a door and along a short corridor that connected the hall to the church.  The church was cold and dark. Through the tall windows along the sides I could see snow falling.  Mom lit a lamp while Dad threw a couple of logs into an iron stove.  The walls were plain white, and there was a simple pulpit at the front.  I sat in the first pew.  Mom and Dad sat opposite me, on the steps to the pulpit.  Waiting.

I wished I had Kevin’s watch.  That would at least give me a way of starting, something they could examine and touch and use.  It had worked with Professor Palmer and Lieutenant Carmody, and it was the kind of thing that would work with my Dad.  But I had nothing, if you didn’t count my sneakers and my pants with their amazing zipper.  Nothing but my words.

What words could I use?

“There are other worlds,” I began.  “Not just this one.  And these worlds have other Bostons in them, other Glanburies.  I don’t understand why or how, only I guess–if God could make one universe, why couldn’t He make lots of them?  The thing is: Kevin and I come from one of those other worlds.  It’s a lot like this one, but, you know, different–sometimes in little ways, sometimes in big ones.  Like these sneakers and our clothes–they’re not from China, like I told you.  They’re what we wear at home.  In this other world.”

Here’s one thing I like about my Dad: he takes you seriously.  Matthew will start explaining one of his stupid ideas about why we have hair or who invented checkers or something–just to hear himself talk, I think–and Dad will sit there and listen and nod and occasionally ask a question, like Matthew is some sort of expert on  hair or checkers.  He might smile a little bit, but he never tells Matthew to put a sock in it.  Same thing with Cassie when she starts complaining about how awful her life is.  Afterwards she complains that Dad never does anything to solve her problems, but just listening is a whole lot more than I’d do when she starts up.

So I guess I shouldn’t have worried that he’d laugh at me or something when I started the explanation.  Instead he nodded like I was making perfect sense and said, “You’re not talking about heaven and hell, I take it.  You’re talking about, er, real worlds.”

“Right.”

“And why don’t we know about these worlds?”

“Well, because you don’t know how to travel between them.”

“But you do.”

“That’s right,” I said.  “Or, well, somebody does.  Kevin and I just happened to–see, we found a–a device, a machine.  We call it a portal.  We don’t know who made it or why–it’s probably not even from our world.  It was just sitting there in the woods behind my house–except, well, it’s invisible.  Anyway, we got in it and just kind of like stepped through it, and we were here.  By mistake.  That’s when the Harpers saw us–we’d just gotten out of the portal, and the Portuguese soldiers were chasing us, and we couldn’t get back to it.  So we sort of ended up, you know, stuck here.”

“An invisible machine,” Dad said.  Again, not sarcastically, but like he was just trying to understand.

“And that’s what Kevin is looking for when he goes off walking along the Post Road by himself?” Mom asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “He’s trying to get home.”

“And this other business,” Dad said, “about your father being a professor and dying in the war–you made all that up?”

“Well, yeah.  Except there really is a professor.”  And then I explained some of what happened to Kevin and me after the Harpers brought us to Boston.  I left out about Kevin’s drikana.  And I left out the–well, the complicated part, about why I was talking to them about all this instead of anyone else in this world.  Not that I was going to be able to avoid that part for long.

Dad kept nodding, as if this was the sort of thing kids told him every day.  “So you’re responsible for those airships and that fence–is that what you’re saying?”

“Well, more or less.  On our world there are inventions that are much more amazing than those things, but there wasn’t time to figure out how to build them here.”  I didn’t really want to talk about computers and telephones and stuff like that–it would just make things more difficult to believe.

“But this still doesn’t make sense, does it?” Dad said.  “Why did you come to the Fens camp?  Why were you looking for us?”

That was the complicated part.  But strangely, I didn’t have to explain.  Mom understood.  “Larry hasn’t really finished describing his world,” she said.  “Have you, Larry?”

“No, ma’am.”

She was staring at me hard, the way she had in the camp when I first gave that confusing lie about who I was.  And then Dad got it.  “‘Dad’, you called me last night,” he said.  “Not a word we use much in these parts.  But I’ve heard it.  I know what it means.”

I nodded.  “Some people exist in both worlds.  They’re different in lots of ways–different jobs, different homes.  But they’re basically the same.”

“And you’re saying that–that we’re there in this other world?” Dad said.

“Yes.  And Cassie, and Matthew.  And me–I was part of the family too.  And that’s why I went looking for you in the camp.  And that’s why I was so happy to find you.  I had found my family.”

I fell silent and waited for a response.  Dad couldn’t just act like he was taking me seriously; he had to make a decision.  He had to believe, or not believe.  He’s logical; he’s a computer programmer.  Professor Palmer had talked about Occam’s Razor–I could almost see Dad struggling to use it on my story.  “Larry,” he said finally, “this is very interesting and, well, moving, but you’ll have to admit it’s a bizarre tale.  You’re saying that–that you’re the son we buried as an infant.  Still alive, grown up to be a young man.”

“Yes, sir, that’s what I’m saying.  I’m your son on another world, where medicine is better, and they can cure fevers and consumption and smallpox.  I didn’t die of whatever killed me here.  I’m just a regular boy who goes to school and has an older sister who complains too much and a younger brother who talks too much.  And a wonderful mother who worries about all of us all the time.”

“Well frankly, I don’t see how you can expect us to–”

As he spoke I realized that he wasn’t the one I needed to be talking to.  “Do you believe me?” I asked Mom.

She was gripping Dad’s arm now.  A single tear worked its way down her cheek.  “Of course I do, Larry,” she whispered.  “Of course I do.”

Dad turned to her.  “Emma,” he said, “I know how grateful you are to Larry, but–”

She shook her head.  “No, that’s not it.  I know him, Henry.  I know him.  I couldn’t understand it–couldn’t understand this feeling I had when I looked at him, when I talked to him–but now I do.  He’s our son.  He’s my baby.  I don’t understand anything more, and I don’t need to.”

We were silent again.  I could hear the ticking of the clock on the rear wall of the church, and the distant sound of the joyful music from the church hall.

“I suppose we’ll find out the truth of it soon enough,” Dad said to me.  “If this–this portal is still there by Joshua Fitton’s farm, we should be able to find it, invisible or not.  And then you can use it go home.”

Home.  All those conversations with Kevin, and now the moment had arrived.

“Well . . . I don’t know,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.  “What don’t you know?”

“See, I was thinking of staying.  You know, to help you out.  There’s a lot I don’t know about farming and stuff, but I can learn.  I can be part of this family too.  I feel like–like I already am.”

I hadn’t known I was going to say that.  I had thought about it a lot, but I hadn’t ever really decided.  Now, there it was.

But instead of acting all happy, Mom was shaking her head.  “You have to go home, Larry.  I love you, but you can’t stay here.”

“Trying to go home could be dangerous,” I pointed out.  “We don’t even know if the portal will take us home.  We might end up in some universe where the Earth doesn’t even exist.  Kevin is willing to take the risk–he doesn’t have a family here.  But I have you, and I don’t want to give you up.”

I could tell the idea of the danger bothered Mom, but it wasn’t enough to change her mind.  “If–if I’m there, too, imagine how much I miss you.  Every moment of every day, Larry.  Wondering where my baby went.”

So I guess I hadn’t really thought it through.  I thought maybe they wouldn’t believe me and I’d have to convince them, but once they were convinced they’d be happy to have me stay.  I could see now how stupid that was.  In reality, Mom loved me so much that she had to let me go.

But she couldn’t force me to go.  If I stayed here, she might feel guilty, but she’d get over it.  And for all I knew, maybe we could figure out how to come back here in the portal, and I could be part of both worlds.  It was possible, wasn’t it?

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I don’t want to leave you, now that I’ve found you.”

“I understand, Larry,” she replied.  “I don’t want you to leave either.  But you have to.  And I’m sure you know it.  Take some time to think it over.”  She stood up.  “For now, why don’t we go back to the hall?” she said.  “Really, we have much to celebrate.”

“Do you mind if I stay here for a while?” I said.  “Maybe I do need to think about things.”

Mom shook her head and put her hand on my arm.  “That is very wise, Larry.”

Dad stood up too.  “I certainly want to talk more with you, Larry,” he said.  “But perhaps this is enough for now.”

I nodded and watched the two of them as they walked out of the church.  Then I leaned back in the pew and closed my eyes.  Now what?  Kevin would want to head off to look for the portal as soon as possible–he’d do it right now if he could.  So should I obey my mother and go with him?  Go back to a world where I didn’t matter, where our family argued morning and night and the schoolbus was a nightmare and I never learned or did a single thing that was really important, that really made a difference?

Where my mother missed me every moment of every day?

I tried to pray.  I’ve never been good at praying, but now seemed like a pretty good time to ask for help.  So I did.

I don’t know how long I sat there.  When I finally opened my eyes, the lamp was burning low and I knew I should get back to the church hall.  I stood up.  And that’s when I heard the noise behind me.

It was–well–it was a quiet noise.  A rustle, a breath.  I wasn’t really sure I had heard anything.  But I turned, and in the dimness I saw the outline of a figure standing at the back of the church.

My heart started thumping.  “Who are you?” I whispered.

“I really could use that coat back,” the figure replied.  And he took a step forward.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 28

Chapter 27: Well, that was a bummer.  Kevin, Larry, and Stinky Glover make it back to Glanbury and move into the Barnes farmhouse.  Kevin and Larry look for the portal without success.  In a snowstorm they run into Larry’s Mom and brother coming home from Boston in their cart.  And in the back of the cart is his sister Cassie’s dead body.

Why do writers think they can get away with killing characters off like this?  Have they no human decency?

We’re not far from the end now, so I may ramp up the posting of these chapters.  The suspense is killing me.

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Chapter 28

Kevin and I walked alongside the wagon as Mom made her way through the snow back to the farmhouse.  She didn’t say anything; she didn’t ask who Kevin was or why we were there in Glanbury.  Even Matthew was quiet, except to complain about how hungry he was.

“We have food,” I said.  “We’ll take care of you.”

Stinky saw the wagon drive up the lane and came out to meet us.  “Julian?” Mom asked, with a puzzled look on her face.

“Just staying with Lawrence, ma’am,” Stinky replied.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

She didn’t respond.  She and Matthew got down from the wagon, and we took them inside and had them sit in front of the fire.  In the kitchen, I explained to Stinky about Cassie.  “Terrible,” he said.  “To live through it all, and then at the very end . . . ”

I nodded.  “They’re going to need all the help we can give them.”

Stinky had already cooked the turkey I had shot yesterday.  We carved it up in the kitchen and brought some out to them.  Mom looked like she didn’t want to eat, but she was too hungry to resist.  Matthew wolfed his food down.  “We’ve had almost nothing to eat for two days,” he said between bites.  “And we don’t know where Papa is or if he’s alive, and Gretel got lame and we thought we might not even make it home, and it’s been terrible, just terrible.”

Mom put her hand on his arm.  “We’re all right now, Matthew,” she murmured.  “Try not to eat to much.  It might make you ill.”

He leaned back against her, but kept eating.

Mom stood up when she had finished.  “We can’t leave her out there,” she said.

Did she want to bring Cassie’s body inside? I thought stupidly. No, she headed out the back door to the barn.  I followed her.  Inside, she found a pick and a shovel.  “Three days she’s awaited a proper burial,” Mom murmured.  “She can’t wait any longer.”

“I’ll help,” I said.  “We’ll all help.”

She stopped and gazed at me the way she had in the camp–puzzled, like she was on the brink of understanding who I really was.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you, Larry.  Finding you here is–is the only good thing that’s happened to us in a long time.”

I took the pick and shovel and followed her back out front.  I set the tools down by the wagon and went inside to get Kevin, Stinky, and Matthew.  Then we all followed behind the wagon as Mom drove it around the farmhouse to the edge of a little patch of woods beyond the barn.  Matthew was sobbing.  Kevin glanced at me a couple of times, but he didn’t say anything.

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.

“Thank you all,” my mother said at the end.  “God bless you.”

And then we made our way slowly back to the farmhouse.  Stinky took care of Gretel, and Kevin and I hauled in the few possessions Mom and Matthew had brought home in the wagon.

With her duty done, Mom seemed to relax a little.  She looked even older, more worn down than she had in the camp.  But she didn’t cry much, just a few tears.  Mom wasn’t a crier; she was the one who gave comfort, not the one who needed comforting.  She put Matthew to bed–she let him sleep in the downstairs bedroom with her–and then came out to join us in front of the fireplace.

And she asked the questions I knew were coming: “Larry, what happened?  How did you get here?”

As usual I hadn’t thought through my answer, so I just blurted something out.  “My father died, and I had nowhere else to go.”

“Oh no, Larry, what happened?”

What happened?  “He was–he was working with the army.  He had invented this electric fence that would, like, give the enemy soldiers a shock when they tried to climb over it.  He was operating it at the battle with the Portuguese.  And it worked great but–but they shot him.  He died instantly.”  I remembered Professor Foster dropping to the ground, killed in his moment of triumph.

“Oh my poor sweet boy.  Is there no end to these horrors?”

“I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so I came here,” I continued.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?  Of course not.  Stay as long as you want.  And your friend–”

“Kevin.  He’s, uh, an orphan.  He lived with us.  And Julian–we met him at the army camp, and he helped us get here.  We couldn’t have done it without him.”

I glanced at Stinky.  He didn’t say anything about how a couple of days ago Kevin had told him we lived in an orphanage.  Did he remember?  Of course he did.

“You’re all welcome to our home,” Mom said.  She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.  Stinky threw another log on the fire.

“Can you–can you tell us what happened to Cassie?” I asked.

“Perhaps another time,” she said wearily.

“Sure.  I understand.”

But after a moment she said, “I suppose it might help.  There’s been no one to talk to–just Matthew . . . ”  She paused again, and then began.  “You were there in the camp that last day, Larry.  You saw how wild things were becoming.”

I nodded.  “I barely got out.  Soldiers were firing at people by the main gate.”

“Yes.  We’d endured for so long in the camp, but then–we knew it was ending soon, and it seemed to drive some people mad.”

“Cassie wouldn’t come out of the tent,” I recalled.  “She wouldn’t listen to anyone.”

“Yes, that was Cassie.”  Mom’s eyes got a faraway look, and I imagined she was thinking about all the ways in which Cassie had caused them problems.  Or maybe it was just the opposite.  What do I know?  “Cassie just couldn’t stand it anymore,” she went on.  “Not another day, not another minute.  We all heard the shots by the main gate.  We weren’t sure what had happened.  Twenty people dead, someone said; someone else said a hundred.  And there were other rumors: the gates had been stormed and the guards had fled.  The Canadians were already in the city.  There was a drikana outbreak in the camp.  The wildest things.  Cassie begged me to leave.  But even if I had wanted to, there was no way we could get out of the camp in that madness with a horse and wagon and all our possessions.  ‘Leave them behind,’ she insisted.  ‘It’s all worthless anyway.’

“But I wouldn’t do it.  ‘Let’s wait for the morning,’ I said.  ‘Everyone says the soldiers will be gone by then.’

“She wouldn’t listen to me, though.  She was never–she was never easy.  Not bad, no, but . . . she knew her own mind.  Perhaps if I had tried harder to understand . . . ”

Mom paused then, as if she were thinking about how she could blame herself for Cassie’s death.  “Then what happened?” I asked softly.

“She ran away,” Mom answered.  “She didn’t argue, she just ran, as if she couldn’t stand it another moment.  I told Matthew to go stay with the Lallys and I went after her, but it was so difficult.  It was dark, and all the paths were crowded with people and wagons, and no one would get out of the way.  She didn’t head toward the main gate.  She went to the water station.  I don’t know why–perhaps she thought it wouldn’t be guarded at night.  Perhaps she’d heard that the fence had been torn down, and there was just that little stream to cross.  Or perhaps she had met the guards there and flirted with them, and she thought they would let her pass.

“I almost reached her.  I called out to her, but she just kept going.  I was near a soldier, and he was very young, and I could tell he didn’t know what to do.  Someone else called out ‘Halt!’  She was in the middle of the stream by now.  She paused and looked back.  She saw me, and I called out to her again.  But then she turned and kept going.  And then I heard the shot.”

Mom paused again and stared into the fire.  I wasn’t going to say anything this time.  If she wanted to talk about it, she’d do it when she was ready.

“Cassie went down,” Mom continued at last.  “I kept going after her, through the stream and onto the other side where she was lying.  So why didn’t they shoot me, too?”

I thought she wanted an answer, but I couldn’t think of one.  I guess she was just asking herself, though, because she repeated the question softly, and then went on.  “I held her in my arms, but there was no bringing her back, no bringing her back.  I noticed that the young soldier was standing next to me after a while, and he was crying and saying, ‘Didn’t she understand?  All she had to do was stop.  Why wouldn’t she stop?’

“Because she’s Cassie, I thought.  Don’t you see?  She didn’t think she had to stop for anyone.

“I didn’t want to move, but I couldn’t stay there.  The soldier helped me carry the body back to our wagon.  And then I had to get Matthew and tell him what had happened.  And then . . . ”

Mom put her hands to her face.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought, making her relive all this stuff.

“If she could have just waited a few more hours,” she said.  “A few hours later, all the guards were gone, heading off to the battle.  It must have been midnight when I heard that, and it wasn’t a rumor this time.  The gates were open, the guards had disappeared, and people were pouring out into the city.  Not that they had anywhere to go in the city.  Not that I cared.  Some of our friends were sitting with me, helping me grieve.  They wanted me to leave with them, but what was the point?  This was where Cassie had died.  Why should I go anywhere else?

“They couldn’t wait finally.  Everyone was leaving.  The camp was emptying out.  But then near dawn Matthew awoke–despite everything, he had finally fallen asleep–and I knew that I had to leave too, I had to get him home if I possibly could.  So I packed the wagon and hitched up Gretel, and we left.”

“Kevin and I were in the camp a little after dawn that day, looking for you,” I said.  “It was pretty empty.”

Mom nodded.  “It was a dismal place, and we were all so tired of it.  People looted the army buildings during the night, then set fire to them.  I think they might have shot the guards if they had found any of them.

“But the city streets were no better–worse, really, because the other Glanbury families were gone, and I had no one to talk to, no one to help me.  That first day I stopped at a church, and the minister took pity on us and gave us a little food.  He offered to bury Cassie in the church’s graveyard, but I couldn’t leave her there–she had to go home too.  Then I tried to get out of the city, but Gretel went lame–poor girl, she’d had no exercise for months.  It’s a wonder she’s still alive.  I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t recovered.  Matthew was frantic.  He wanted us to go find his father, but Henry was fighting the Canadians, and we have no idea where he was, or if he was even alive.

“Finally at dawn this morning we started out, praying that Gretel would make it.  She did, thank the Lord.  And now we’re home.  Now we’re home.”

I reached over and put my hand on her arm, the way she liked to do.  She smiled at me and squeezed my hand.  “I never thought I’d see you again,” she said.  “But under such awful circumstances . . . ”

“I’ll help you,” I said.  “We’ll all help you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, and fell silent.

Mom went and joined Matthew in bed a little later.  Stinky fell asleep by the fire.  I was still wide awake.

“That was weird,” Kevin remarked.

“What?  The graveyard?” I said.

“Yeah.  I thought you were going to faint.”

“It did make me a little dizzy,” I admitted. “But in a way, it’s weirder thinking about Cassie.”

“Sounds like she was kind of–you know–the same in both worlds.” Kevin said.

“A pain, you mean. ‘Difficult,’ my dad says.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Not that she deserved to die.”

“For going nuts in that camp?” I said.  “No, she didn’t deserve to die for that.”

“Your mom and Matthew–that’s weird, too.  They look just like, you know . . . ”

“You see what I mean?” I pressed him.  “They aren’t different people.  They are my family.  They’re just . . . here.”

Kevin stared at the fire.  Thinking about the portal and getting home, I supposed.  Thinking about how he had no one here, no Albright family to welcome him.

“We can keep looking for the portal,” I said.  “It’s gotta be out there somewhere.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Maybe.”  Then he lay down and wrapped the blanket around him.  “Let’s just get some sleep.”

And then there was just me awake in the silent farmhouse.  I had found my family again, but things hadn’t exactly turned out the way I’d wanted them to.  Poor Cassie.  I know she can be difficult, Dad had said to me once, but she’s family.  And that’s the most important thing.  Someday you’ll realize that you love her.

I didn’t know about that.  But I couldn’t help thinking about Cassie.  And, difficult as she was, I couldn’t help wishing she was still alive and giving us all a hard time.  No, she didn’t deserve to die.  And my mom sure didn’t deserve the heartache her death had brought.

I didn’t want to bring her any more heartache.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 27

Chapter 26: Larry, Kevin, and Stinky meet up with Mrs. Gradger and her daughter as they make their way south towards Glanbury.  They spend the night with at the Gradgers’ house in Weymouth, but Kevin is desperate to keep going and reach Glanbury.  Stinky surprisingly turns down an offer to stay with the Gradgers and continues to accompany the boys on their journey home.

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

Chapter 27

Home.  Sort of.  Certainly not for Kevin–he wasn’t interested in this Glanbury.  And it didn’t look at all familiar to me.  The North River was in our Glanbury, too, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it.  It wasn’t a very big river.  At least its bridge hadn’t been destroyed.

We crossed the bridge.  Glanbury didn’t look any different from what we had already passed by along the Post Road.  A few shops and houses, but mostly just woods and farmland, and occasionally a road leading off to the east or west.  Just another little town.  I wasn’t surprised that President Gardner hadn’t thought much of it.

Kevin looked around intently, trying to spot the place where we had burst out of the woods with the Portuguese soldiers shooting at us.  It would be on our left–I recalled that much.  But that was about all I remembered.  And if Kevin insisted it was on our right, I’m not sure how strongly I could have argued the point.  Nothing looked familiar to me.  Kevin hesitated once in a while, but he didn’t run off into the woods.  I could sense him getting worried as we walked.

“How far to the Barnes place?” I asked Stinky.

“Another mile or two, I expect.”

I wondered if the farmhouse was where my house was in the other world.  Was that how things worked in these alternate universes?  That would make it easier for us to find the portal–just look in the woods behind the backyard.  But I remembered how confusing the geography of the Burger Queen world had been, and I figured we weren’t going to be that lucky.

I was tired and hungry by now.  Kevin was starting to look pretty worn-out too.  I knew he wanted to keep searching until he found the portal.  But he only had so much energy; it would only be daylight for so long.  It would be tough.

“We turn here,” Stinky said finally, pointing to a road up ahead on the right.  “Go left and the road’ll take us to town and the harbor, go right to the Barnes farm.  It’s a nice little place.”

I looked at Kevin.  He shrugged.  “Let’s go to the farm,” he said.

So we turned off the Post Road, and then took another turn after a while, onto a small lane lined with hedges.  “There it is,” Stinky said.  “Lucky thing, looks like the Portuguese left it alone.  Probably didn’t bother coming this far off the main road.”

The house was small, far less imposing than the Gradgers’, or Professor Palmer’s house in Cambridge.  The red barn behind the house was bigger than house itself was.  Both seemed to be in good shape.  We walked up the lane to the front door.  I knocked.  There was no answer.

“What do you want to do?” Stinky asked.

“Go inside,” I said.  “Start a fire.  Get the place ready for them.”

“You mean just . . . move in?”

I nodded.

“If you say so.”

The door wasn’t locked, so we walked inside.

We found ourselves in a small entryway.  On the left was a long, dark, low-ceilinged room dominated by a big fireplace, with heavy black pots and pans hung next to it.  On the right was a smaller, brighter room with nothing in it but a table and chairs.  We walked into the room with the fireplace.  It led into the kitchen, where there was another table and chairs, and some shelves with pewter plates and cups on them.  Next to the fireplace was a small storage area.  In a corner of the living room was a spinning wheel.  “Home Sweet Home” said a piece of embroidery hung on the wall to our right.

Home.

Strangely–or maybe not so strangely–it did feel like home.

Everything was where it should be, where I wanted it to be.  Beyond the room on the right was a bedroom, with a Bible on the nightstand next to the bed.  From there you climbed up a wooden ladder-like set of stairs to an attic, where there were a couple more beds with a curtain between them.  On the floor I saw some wooden toys that probably belonged to Matthew.  I wondered how Cassie put up with Matthew chattering away on the other side of that curtain at bedtime.  In this world, she didn’t have a choice.

We checked out back.  Firewood was stacked neatly by the door.  Beyond it was the well, and on the other side of the yard was the privy.  Everything was simple but solid and clean.  I thought about how my mother always insisted that we keep our rooms tidy.  When we’d whine that the mess didn’t bother us, she’d say, “There’s no excuse for being a slob.”  There wasn’t, really.  I had a lump in my throat when I went back inside.

“Must be pretty weird for you, huh?” Kevin murmured while Stinky brought in firewood.

“It seems so . . . familiar.  How are you doing?”

“All right, I guess.  Pretty wiped.  Do you think the portal’s further south along the main road?”

“Probably.  I haven’t seen anything that looked familiar so far.  But then again, it was so foggy, and we were running for our lives, and–”

“I know.  I remember a bunch of pine trees across the road when we came out of the woods–but there are pine trees all over the place.  Anyway, it can’t be far.  Glanbury’s not that big a town.”

Unless the portal had disappeared back where it came from.  Unless it had moved.  Unless, unless . . .  “It can’t be far,” I agreed.  Kevin didn’t want to hear anything else.

We went and helped Stinky get the fire started.  Then it was time to go hunting for our supper.  Kevin stayed behind again.  He was tired, and besides, he didn’t care about hunting; it wasn’t something he was going to do once he got back home.

So Stinky and I went out with my rifle and his pistol.  We had to tramp through fields where cornstalks drooped, then climb over a long stone wall.  We passed by a small body of water that Stinky was familiar with.  “Amity Pond,” he said.  “Good fishing.  We may be able to catch some trout there.”  And then we headed into the woods past the pond.

This time when we spotted a turkey, Stinky motioned to me to take the shot.  It was a lot different from aiming at an empty Coke can with a BB gun.  Sorry, bird, I thought.  And I pulled the trigger.

The turkey squawked and keeled over.  Stinky clapped me on the back.  “Terrific,” he said.

All I could think of was the soldier with the wispy mustache.  Still, I had gotten us dinner.

We trudged back to the farmhouse, and this time all three of us helped prepare the turkey.  It was gross, but it had to be done. Another skill worth learning in this world.  Then we cooked and ate it the way we did the night before; it tasted fine, but I could tell I was going to get sick of turkey pretty soon, if that’s all we could find to eat.  Better than going hungry, though.

We found some blankets in the storage area and slept in front of the fire in the living room, like we had at the Gradgers; using the beds didn’t seem right.  We figured we were safe here, so we didn’t stand watches.  And in the morning the sun was shining, the fire had died down, and we had to figure out what to do next.

I assumed Stinky would want to leave, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry.  “Oh, I’ll find old man Kincaid when the time comes, and we’ll work things out,” he said, talking about his master.  “In the meantime, there’s plenty to be done here.  Chopping wood, hunting, fishing . . .  We can cart ice back from Amity Pond to preserve the meat.  There should be a root cellar somewhere around.  We can search for seed corn and make sure it’s protected.  That’ll be important come next spring.”

Kevin wasn’t interested in doing chores.  “What’s the point?” he demanded when Stinky was paying a visit to the privy.  “Let’s just find the portal and go home.  Now.”

He was right, of course.  We had done it.  We had gotten back to Glanbury, and there was no one to stop us from going home.  Still . . .

I wanted to find out what had happened to my family on this world.  I wanted to make sure they were okay.  And I didn’t want to have them wonder what happened to Larry Palmer.  Did he die in the battle?  Why did he never come to see us like he promised?

But I couldn’t say that to Kevin; he would’ve gone nuts.  He was already staring at me suspiciously.  “What’s the matter?” he demanded.

“I’m just a little–I don’t know,” I said.  “What if the portal doesn’t take us home?  We could step out into a black hole or something.”

“Okay, yeah, it’s a risk.  We know that.  But we’ve gotta take it, Larry.  We can’t stay here for the rest of our lives if we have a chance to make it home.”

“Sure, but, you know, what if you bring those drikana germs back with you?  We don’t want to start a plague or something.”

“I’m not contagious.  This world doesn’t know how to cure drikana, but they know when people are contagious.  I’m out of claustration.  I feel fine.  Now let’s go.”

Stinky came back in.  “What shall we do now?”

Kevin looked at me.

“Kevin and I are going hunting,” I said.  “We’ll be back in a while.”

“I’ll come too,” he replied.  “If you shoot a deer, we might need the three of us to bring it back.”

“No, uh, why don’t you stay here, Julian.  We’ll be all right.”

He looked puzzled and disappointed, but he didn’t argue.  He also didn’t say anything when we went down the lane to the road, rather than back into the woods beyond Amity Pond.

I might never see him again, I thought.

Kevin couldn’t have cared less.  He practically raced back to the Post Road.  When we reached it, we turned right and started heading south.  “Give a shout if you spot anything that looks familiar,” he said.

“Sure.”

But it all looked more or less familiar.  Or more or less unfamiliar.  I peered into the woods on the left and tried to remember any details from those few frantic moments when we raced out of the woods and into the road.  “Maybe there?” I suggested at one point, although I couldn’t say why.

But Kevin got excited, and we tramped into the woods and wandered around for a while, waving our hands in front of us.  We didn’t find anything, although I spotted a deer staring at us like we were crazy.  “Why did you think it was here?” he demanded.

“I don’t know.  Just a guess.  I can’t really remember anything, Kevin.  But I’m trying.”

“All right,” he said.  “Let’s keep going.”

We went back to the road and continued heading south.  We stopped a couple of times more when Kevin thought he spotted something he recognized, and we went through the same routine, walking around in the woods, hoping we stumbled onto the portal.  We weren’t just looking for a needle in a haystack, I thought.  We were looking for an invisible needle, and we didn’t even know which haystack it was in.

But I wasn’t going to say that to Kevin.

Finally we reached a deserted building called the Wompatuck Inn.  I didn’t remember the inn, but Wompatuck was the town just south of Glanbury.  We looked at each other.  Kevin sat down on a hitching post.  “I don’t know,” he said softly.  “I thought . . . I thought I’d spot something.  I thought we’d get lucky for once.”

“We can keep looking, Kevin.  We’ve got time.”

“Until Lieutenant Carmody tracks us down.  He knows we’re here looking for the portal.”

“He’ll think we’re gone.”

“He won’t be sure.  He’ll check.  You know he will.”

“Well, it’s got to be here somewhere.”

“No, it doesn’t,” he replied in a tired tone.  “We don’t know anything about it–where it came from, how it works.  We’re just a couple of stupid kids who did a really stupid thing.  And now . . . ”

I didn’t know what to say.  Finally Kevin stood up, and we started walking back.  He didn’t suggest looking in the woods.  “We should do some hunting,” I said after a while.

He just shrugged.  We had seen plenty of game besides the deer.  When we got near the farm I went back into the woods; Kevin didn’t join me.  Within a few minutes I had shot another turkey.

“I’m sick of turkey,” he muttered when I brought it out of the woods with me.

He was not going to be great company, I decided.  “Tomorrow,” I said.  “We’ll search again tomorrow.”

“Okay,” he replied.  “Whatever.”

When we got back to the farmhouse, Stinky was cooking up fish that he’d caught.  If he was curious about why we’d taken so long just to shoot one turkey, he didn’t say so.  It wasn’t hard to tell that something was wrong, but he didn’t ask what it was.

So it was a quiet night.  Kevin just stared into the fire; he barely touched his supper.  I ate enough for two, even though I didn’t like fish.  Stinky talked about all the chores he had done, and it made me feel guilty.  We went to sleep early, huddled in front of the fire.

I thought about my family–my “real” family–and how annoying they all could be, how rotten my life had been, with the “real” Stinky bugging me and Nora Lally ignoring me and my stupid teachers at The Gross boring me to death.  What if I didn’t have a choice–what if we couldn’t find the portal and I had to stay here?  No toilets or computers or TV, sure, but I was already used to not having that stuff.

What if I had to stay?

I fell asleep with that thought in my mind.

The next day was cold and raw.  Stinky and I did some chores while Kevin moped.  “What’s the matter with your friend?” Stinky finally asked me while we were in the barn.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think the battle bothered him.  He saw a lot of suffering.”

“We’ve all seen a lot the last few months,” was all he replied.

Eventually I got Kevin to go searching again.  Stinky didn’t offer to come with us this time.  I think Kevin was really starting to bother him.

We had only seen a couple of travelers yesterday.  Today there were a lot of people on the road, all making their way south.  We found out from them that no one was being stopped from leaving the city now; in fact, the army was encouraging it.  The travelers had the usual variety of rumors about what was happening with the Canadians, but no one said they had defeated us, and that was a good sign.

This time we headed north, back towards Weymouth.  We spent most of our time in the woods.  What was the point of walking along the road if we had no clue where to look?

After a while it started to snow.  “Great,” Kevin muttered.  “Now we won’t be able to recognize anything.”

But it wasn’t like we were recognizing anything to begin with.

We made it all the way back to the North River.  We watched the snow flecking the gray water for a while in silence, and then Kevin said, “Let’s go back before we freeze to death out here.”

“I’m sorry, Kev.”

He shrugged.  “Let’s just go.”

We turned back.  The snow was heavier now, and there were fewer people on the road.  We trudged along in silence, with our hands jammed into our pockets.  The snow was light and fluffy–not good snowball snow, but we were in no mood to throw snowballs.  For once I wished I was wearing those big old shoes from this world instead of my sneakers.

After a while I started looking for where we turned off the Post Road.  Visibility wasn’t that great anymore, and I sure didn’t want to miss the turn and keep on walking in the snowstorm.  Kevin didn’t look like he was going to be much help.  Up ahead I could make out a wagon, moving slowly along the road.  We got closer.  Suddenly the squeaking of the wheels stopped, and I heard a voice.  “This is Town Road, I think.”

It was my mother.

I started grinning and ran up to the wagon.  “Mrs. Barnes?” I said.  “It’s me–Larry Palmer!”

She was sitting on the bench with the reins in her hand.  Matthew sat next to her.  “Larry?” she whispered.  “Sweet Lord, it is.”

There was something about the way she said it.  There was none of the excitement and surprise I had expected; it was as if she could barely bring herself to speak.  I looked at Matthew; his eyes were red with tears.  “Larry, Cassie’s dead,” he said.  “Our own soldiers shot her, damn their eyes.”

I stared at my mother, and I knew that it was true.  A tear leaked out of her eye and fell down her cheek, mixing with the snowflakes.  I came closer and looked in the back of the wagon.  There, in the middle of all their snow-covered possessions, wrapped in a sheet, was the outline of a body.

“Oh, no,” I cried.  “Oh please, no.”

Mom reached down and touched me on the arm as I, too, started to weep.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 23

In Chapter 22: Larry and Kevin grab the clothes they were wearing in our world and run away from army headquarters.  Lieutenant Carmody spots them and chases after them, but they escape.  They make their way to the refugee camp, but it’s deserted, and the barracks have been set on fire.  The city is descending into chaos as the siege ends and the battle is about to begin.  The boys are desperate to get back to Glanbury, but the army from New Portugal stands in their way.  They are now as alone as when they first arrived in this world.

And things can only get worse.

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

Chapter 23

For a while it didn’t matter which direction we were heading.  People were going everywhere, and I suppose no direction was particularly safe.  But the further south we got, the louder the artillery sounded, and the more dangerous our journey started to feel.  People going the other way kept telling us to turn back, turn back, you’ll get caught in the battle.  And they had all sorts of rumors: the battle had started, we were losing, we had already lost . . .

But there were some people heading south along with us, and they had the same idea we did.  “Win or lose, we just want to go home,” one woman said to us.  “There’s nothing left for us in Boston, and we were lucky to get out of that camp alive.”  She had a couple of little children with her, and a half-dead donkey carrying their possessions.  The face of one of the girls was pitted with smallpox scars; she looked curiously at Kevin’s cap.  The woman offered us a couple of hard rolls they had gotten somewhere, and we accepted gratefully.  It was our first food of the day, and we didn’t know when we’d get our next.

We pressed on ahead of the family after a while, staying on the main road so we wouldn’t get lost.  I recalled details of the road from our journey into the city with the Harpers so long ago.  I knew we were getting close when we passed by the remnants of another refugee camp on marshland.  I remembered how Mr. Harper had scorned the people staying in such an unhealthy place.  I wondered if they’d ended up worse off than anyone else.  There were still some people there, with their wagons and makeshift tents.  Probably they thought we were the fools, heading towards the battle.

“Should be a big military camp up ahead,” Kevin said.  “And then the fortifications.”

“Think they’ll attack along the main road?”

“No idea.  There’s a lot of territory to defend.”

I recalled the discussion in President Gardner’s office.  The electric fence wasn’t powerful enough to replace all the fortifications, so they’d try to trick the enemy into thinking the fence was a weak spot in their defenses.  Would that work?

The road curved inland after a while, and up ahead we saw a crowd of people.  When we reached it we asked a woman what was going on.  “They won’t let us pass,” she said.  “Say it’s too dangerous.”

“Has the battle started?”

“I don’t think so.  Someone said when the artillery stops, that’s when they’ll attack.”

I looked at Kevin.  Had we gone as far as we could go?

“What would happen if we went off the road?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What good would that do?”

“I dunno.  Maybe we could sneak through the fortifications somewhere else.  Or go around them.  Maybe over by the ocean.”

“And have both armies shooting at us?”

Kevin shrugged.  “Let’s go see what’s happening,” he said finally.

We made our way through the crowd.  There were just a couple of soldiers standing guard at a barrier in the road.  It wasn’t anything like the scene at the Fens camp yesterday.  Nobody looked like they wanted to go any further; they were happy to let the army do the fighting.

One of the soldiers looked familiar.  It was Benjamin, our jailer.  He was still fat, although not as fat as when we first saw him.  I don’t think he remembered us at first, but he recognized Kevin’s cap.  “Ah, the lads with the ciphering machine,” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

“Just trying to get home,” I replied.

“Where’s home?”

“Glanbury.”

He laughed.  “Good luck to you, then.”

“Has the battle started?”

“Oh, you’ll know when the battle’s started.  We’re all waiting for the battle to start.”

He seemed grateful for someone to talk to.  It occurred to me that he was scared.  He was sweating, despite the cold, and he flinched every time there was a particularly loud explosion.  No wonder they’d stuck him back here, well behind the front line.

Suddenly someone rode up on horseback.  It was Corporal Hennessy, who I’d talked to in the courtyard at headquarters the other night.  “I need one of you immediately,” he said to the two guards.

Benjamin looked like he was hoping his partner would volunteer.  The other guy was tall and skinny and kind of dopey-looking.  Neither of them said anything.

“All right, you, Benjamin, report to Sergeant Hornbeam,” the corporal ordered.  Benjamin looked like he wanted to protest, but instead he just sighed, as if he’d expected this all along.  Then the corporal noticed us.  “Hello, lads,” he said.  “You two reporting for duty?”

He was serious, I realized.  Was he asking us to fight?  Kevin and I looked at each other.  And I decided: it’s our war, too.  “What do you want us to do?” I asked.

“Go see Sergeant Dryerson, over at the ammunition depot,” he replied.  “He needs some extra hands.  Let’s hope you’ve developed some muscles since you were at the food warehouse.”  Then he galloped off.

Benjamin looked at us glumly.  “Should’ve stayed out of it, lads,” he said.

“Which way to the ammunition depot?” I asked.

He gestured to his left.  “Not a good place to be, I think.  Fare you well.”

And then he sighed again and trudged off.  The other guard let us pass, and we headed into the camp.

“Why?” Kevin demanded.

I looked up at the balloon–the balloon we had helped invent–hovering in the air.  I thought of Professor Palmer taking a bullet for us on the river.  I thought of my family, somewhere in the city, trying to survive–my father over by the Charles, getting ready to fight the Canadians.  I thought of all the soldiers who had treated us well.  “Because it’s the right thing to do,” I said.

He shrugged.  “I suppose so.”

The ammunition depot was about half a mile away, well back from the fortifications, which had been built out a lot since we first came into the city.  In some places there were now long, high walls of earth; in others there was a wooden fence supported by sandbags.  The pathway we walked along was crowded with soldiers on horseback and wagons hauling stuff.  Everyone looked tense.  Cannonballs kept coming in, but they landed short of where we were.

The depot was another one of those makeshift buildings that looked like it had been put up overnight.  It was filled with cases of ammunition, which soldiers were loading onto small wagons they called caissons.  Sergeant Dryerson was a big, burly guy with a droopy mustache.  “Always happy to have more assistance,” he said when we introduced ourselves.  “You,” he said, pointing to me, “help old Augustus over there.  “And you,”–pointing to Kevin–“go with Quentin.”

Kevin and I exchanged a glance.  “We–we’d like to stay together,” Kevin said to the sergeant.

“Then go off somewhere and play with your toys,” he replied angrily.  “I’ve no time for such nonsense.  Keeping you separate doubles the odds one of you’ll survive.  Consider that.”

We weren’t going to argue, so we did as we were told.  “Stay safe,” Kevin said to me before we split up.  “I don’t want to spend another day like yesterday.”

“Me too.  Meet me back here after we win.”

“Okay.”

Augustus was a short old soldier with a white beard and a messy uniform.  He talked nonstop while we were loading his caisson, mostly about the “idiot generals” who were losing the war for us.  When we it was full, we hopped up on the bench and drove off.  We were headed toward an area called Sector 7, which was somewhere to the west along the fortifications.  Meanwhile the bombs kept falling.  I wondered what would happen if one fell on our cases of ammunition.  I wouldn’t live to tell about it, I knew that.

“Idiot generals spent all their time designing floating airships and then don’t use ’em,” Augustus said, pointing up at the balloon.

“I think they’re being used for reconnaissance,” I said.  “Spotting the enemy’s position and stuff.”

Augustus shook his head.  “What’s to find out?  The enemy’s on t’other side of the wall, and he’s coming.  Soon.  And look over there–idiot generals left a gap in the fortifications, and all they could find to fill it with is that wire contraption.”

Sure enough, there was the electric fence.  And sure enough, it looked like a weak spot where the enemy could just march through.  I spotted Professor Foster, standing by some equipment connected to the fence and gesturing wildly at a group of men.  I sure hope this works, I thought.

And this was Sector 7.  We were bringing extra ammunition to soldiers in place behind the fence.  They were quiet, staring at the fence.  Waiting.  “Hurry, lad,” Augustus said, as we unloaded our boxes.  “Don’t want to be caught here when it starts.  The Portuguese are just going to come pouring through that hole.”

It was dangerous to be anywhere near the fortifications.  A cannonball landed about twenty feet from us, kicking up a huge cloud of dirt and gravel and causing our horse to rear back in fear.  “Idiot generals,” Augustus muttered, as if they were responsible for the cannonball.

Back at the ammunition depot, there was no sign of Kevin.  Augustus and I set to work filling up the caisson again, when suddenly something changed.  Strangely, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what had happened.  There was silence.  No more artillery.  Augustus paused and shook his head.

“It’s starting,” Sergeant Dryerson said.  “Let’s go, men.  This is it.  This is the war–right here, right now.”

I thought Augustus might complain about going back to Sector 7, but he didn’t.  We worked faster to fill the caisson–I had gotten stronger since that day in the food warehouse—and then we headed out again.  We were silent now as he steered through the waiting soldiers.  We were still on the way when we heard a huge, prolonged shout.  It wasn’t a cheer, it was more like the roaring of animals.  Animals getting ready to attack each other.

We made it to Sector 7, not far back from the fence.  Just where Augustus didn’t want to be.  I caught a glimpse of Professor Foster standing by his generator, looking terrified.  How many Portuguese were out there? I wondered.  How many soldiers were charging towards the fortifications right now, determined to kill us all?

And then I saw them: a huge blue wave approaching, ready to break over us.  Someone must have given a signal, because our soldiers all fired at the same time.  Some of the Portuguese fell, but more kept coming.  They were firing too as they ran, and I heard the screams of agony as New England soldiers were hit.

We had finished unloading the caisson.  I turned to Augustus.  “Should we go?” I shouted.

But his eyes were glazed, and he was holding onto his stomach.  A dark stain appeared around his hands, and he pitched backward onto the ground.  I knelt next to him.  He motioned to me to lean closer.

“Idiots,” he muttered in my ear, and then his head fell to one side, and he didn’t move.

I looked around, but no one was going to help.  We were in the middle of a battle.  I got to my feet and stood behind the caisson.  The sounds of the rifle fire and the shouting and the screams were overpowering.  The earth was shaking.  I was surrounded by dust and smoke.  It was a few seconds before I could make sense of anything.

Then I saw that the first Portuguese soldiers had reached the fence.  They grabbed it, ready to push through.  And then they were knocked backwards.  Every single one of them.  I heard a roar of triumph from our side.  The Portuguese scrambled to their feet, bewildered, but then most of them were shot down.  A second wave reached the fence.  Same result.

I spotted Professor Foster through the smoke.  He was jumping up and down and clapping his hands.  It had worked.  Electricity had worked.

And then his smile disappeared, and he too pitched over, clutching his chest.

The attack slowed down.  Over the gunfire I heard the sound of a trumpet from beyond the fence.  “They’re retreating!” someone shouted.

I expected us to go after them, and maybe some of the soldiers did, too.  But officers on horseback shouted out orders, and we stayed put, instead pouring fire on the enemy as they fell back.

I sort of figured that was it, the battle was over, but the officers didn’t act as if it was over.  One of them yelled at me to get more ammunition.  I pointed at Augustus’s body.  “The driver’s dead,” I said.

“Then go yourself, blast you,” he shouted.  “Come on, no time to waste.”

Reluctantly I climbed onto the bench and picked up the reins.  I had done this with Susie a couple of times at the professor’s house, just for fun.  Now it was anything but fun.  I gave the reins a shake, and amazingly the horse obeyed me, and we made our way through the bodies back to the ammunition depot.  Meanwhile, covered ambulance wagons were being loaded with the injured, and soldiers raced every which way on horseback.  It all looked utterly chaotic, but people seemed to know what they were doing.

Sergeant Dryerson just shook his head when he spotted me alone in the wagon.  I told him what had happened at Sector 7.

“Old Gus saw it coming, poor fellow,” he said.  “Well, he’ll have plenty of company before the day is done.”

“What do you think’ll happen next?”

“The enemy’ll regroup and attack again, I expect.  But from what you say we gave ’em a nasty surprise, so it’ll only get harder for ’em next time.  No sense speculating, though.  Let’s just fill that caisson.”

I loaded it up with the sergeant’s help, then headed back to Sector 7.  There was only scattered fire now, and I started to wonder if he might be wrong.  What if the Portuguese had given up?

No one seemed to believe it, though.  The fortifications were quiet, except for an occasional shot and the groans of soldiers the ambulances hadn’t yet reached.  I didn’t see Augustus’s body.  As I unloaded the ammunition I looked up at the balloon, still hovering over us.  The soldier inside was signaling down to someone, using the semaphore system Professor Palmer had devised.

We’ll know where the next attack is coming, I thought.

The officers started shouting out orders to the men, and a lot of them moved off, away from the electric fence to another part of the fortifications.  I recalled how the professor had scoffed at the fortifications the army had been building out by Brighton.  These were bigger than the ones there–they’d had a lot of time to work on them.  But, except for the electric fence, the whole thing was really nothing more than some fences and long piles of packed earth, never more than about six feet high.  In a lot of places there were long wooden poles sticking out like huge pencils to slow down attackers, but in other places cannon balls had blown pretty big holes in the earth.  The fortifications would slow the enemy down but wouldn’t stop them, not if there were enough of them, and they were determined to break through.

A lieutenant rode over to me as I unloaded the cases of ammunition.  “Who told you to bring those here?” he demanded.

“Sir, the sergeant at the–”

“Never mind, never mind,” he interrupted.  “Load ’em all back up and take ’em to Sector 10.”  He waved in the direction where most of the soldiers were heading–west, further inland.  “And hurry, boy.”

“Yes, sir.”

My arms were getting really tired, but I managed to load the ammunition back onto the caisson and started off.

I never found out where Sector 10 was, exactly.  Before I got there another lieutenant stopped me.  “Where are you going with that?”

“Sector 10, sir.”

“Never mind about Sector 10.  We need ammunition here.”

So I stopped and did as I was told.  And I started wondering how much control the “idiot generals” really had over the battle.

As I was unloading the ammunition again the battle resumed.  The roar of gunfire started out further along the fortifications–in Sector 10, maybe.  Our soldiers were crowded up at the earthen wall, their rifles aimed over it.  I saw the lieutenant on his horse with his sword in the air.  Then he lowered the sword, and the men began firing.

This time I was too busy to watch what was going on.  I hauled the ammunition up to the soldiers, who were firing as fast as they could.  I scurried along the wall, bent over to keep from being hit, and passed the bullets to whoever needed them.

“Steady, men, steady!” I heard the lieutenant shout after a while.  “Fix bayonets!  No retreat!  It’s here or nowhere!”

And then I saw why.  With a roar, a long line of enemy soldiers clambered up over the wall, pushing against us, and suddenly the sound of rifle fire died down a little, and I was in the middle of a hand-to-hand battle.

I had waited too long to get away.  Now I tried to get back to the caisson, but there were soldiers all around me, and I couldn’t even see it.  All I could see were blue- and red-jacketed men stabbing and bludgeoning each other.  All I could hear were their grunts and screams and moans.  And I was the one without a weapon.

It was awful.  I’ve played lots of violent video games, but they’re just stupid and pointless.  These were real people, killing and bleeding and dying right next to me.

I managed to stay out of the way for a while.  I was worried that, without a uniform, the soldiers wouldn’t know which side I was on.  Then one short, bearded enemy soldier spotted me and lunged at me with his bayonet, too fast for me to duck out of the way.  But before the blade reached me I heard a pistol shot from close range, and the man dropped to his knees and keeled over at my feet.  I turned around and saw Chester standing behind me.  “Boys,” he muttered, shaking his head in disgust.  He picked up the soldier’s rifle and tossed it to me, then turned to fight someone else.

I had never held a rifle before, if you don’t count BB guns.  My father won’t have any of that stuff in the house.  The rifle felt heavy with the bayonet attached, but I kept it raised in front of me as the fighting raged.

You kind of lose your mind in a battle.  You’re not thinking, you’re just reacting.  The adrenaline is rushing through you, and everything is kind of a blur.  And you do what you have to do, because otherwise you’re going to die.

So there was another blue-jacketed soldier.  He was young and scrawny, with no beard, just a wispy mustache.  Somehow I remember that mustache.  And I noticed him coming towards me out of the corner of my eye.  Looking back on it, I think he was heading for me because I looked young and scared.  Like him.  An easy target, maybe.  He had a sword in his hand, and it was aimed at me.

I whirled, and at the same instant I pressed the trigger.  The rifle recoiled with a force that almost knocked me over.  And he screamed.  Over all the shouting and shooting I heard that scream.  I will never forget it.  Then he toppled over backwards, still holding onto his sword.

And that was the last I saw of him.

I can’t remember anything much that happened after that.  I don’t think I killed anyone else–but it’s possible.  I have no idea how long the fighting lasted.  There just came a point when my brain seemed to start working again, and I realized that there weren’t that many blue jackets still standing.  Some had dropped their weapons and raised their hands.  There weren’t any more enemy soldiers climbing over the wall, either.

Finally my brain put it all together: We had won.

“After them, mates!” someone shouted, and everyone gave out a roar and raced to the fortifications.  I looked around for the lieutenant in charge.  All I saw was his horse, wandering by itself among the corpses and the wounded men.  Somewhere behind us a trumpet sounded.  I couldn’t tell what was going on, but the men hesitated, and then stopped.

I looked out through a part of the fortifications that had been destroyed.  The ground was covered with the bodies of enemy soldiers who had been shot before they’d made it inside.  How many Portuguese were left?  Would there be another attack?  Or was the rest of their army retreating, defeated?

A captain rode up.  I had seen him in the mess at headquarters, and had stood in line behind him once to wash up.  He looked around, gave some orders that I couldn’t hear, and then rode off.  I asked a soldier what was going on.  “We stay here and let ’em attack again if they’re so inclined,” he said.  His face was grimy and spattered with blood; one arm of his jacket was ripped.

“Why don’t we go after them?”

He shrugged.  “Getting late.  And we still have a city to defend, I expect.  Might have to go fight the Canadians next.”

“Do you think the Portuguese’ll come back?”

He shook his head.  “We cut the heart out of ’em, lad.  They won’t be back.”

I suppose I should have felt happier than I did.  But all I felt was relief and sudden, complete exhaustion.

The ambulances had returned to the battlefield and were being loaded with the wounded.  I found my way to the caisson and threw the Portuguese rifle into it.  It was all I could do to get up onto the driver’s seat and pick up the reins.  The horse had survived the battle.  He seemed tired too, but he perked up and slowly headed back to the depot.

And now all I could think about was Kevin.  Had he survived the battle?  And if New England had truly won, could we make our way back to Glanbury at long last?