Sixth-graders are the best people in the world!

I posted this photo on Facebook already, but here it is again for my blog.  I was invited to give a talk about The Portal to the sixth-graders of the Gateway Regional Middle School in western Massachusetts — maybe about 60 kids in total.  A bunch of them had already read the book, and were really enthusiastic.  Yikes, I have some fans in western Massachusetts!  Here are a few of them after the talk, along with some of my show-and-tell items:

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They were all great — funny, curious, and friendly.  I was going back to a classroom after the talk, and those two girls on the right offered to carry my books for me!  I was honored.  I’m always a little skeptical about people asking for my autograph–who, me?–but these kids honestly seemed happy to have me sign a scrap of paper for them.  Glad to oblige!

Here, by the way, are their current learning objectives:

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How would you do on those?  Maybe I could write a persuasive five-paragraph essay, but I’d probably be pretty cranky about it.  I’ve got nothing on brook trout.  I can’t do those conversions, but I know how to get Siri to do them for me.  And that last one–create a replica of a famous monument–would make me hang my head in despair.

Still, I’d happily be part of that class.

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My second draft is starting to feel like an alternative universe

My novel The Portal takes its inspiration from the idea of the multiverse, in which there are an infinite number of alternative universes, each slightly different from one another.  In the sequel to this novel, my second draft is starting to feel like its own alternative universe.  I’m 12,000 words in, and it’s becoming a strange near-replica of the first draft.  Characters are slightly different; motivations are slightly changed; plot elements are slightly rearranged.  It’s frustrating that I have to throw away so much work, but it’s also kind of interesting.  Where is our hero going to end up in this draft?  Maybe there should be an endless series of drafts, each one heading in a different direction.  No need to end up in either Oakland or Aukland–the journey is what matters.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 33

Chapter 32: Larry finally meets the preacher from the Burger Queen world once again. The preacher explains a bit about the portal, although he thinks that’s a dumb name for the thing.  He too is just a traveler, part of a kind of priesthood that uses the portal to visit different worlds and impart wisdom.  He gives Larry some enigmatic advice about how to get home, and then he disappears — just as Kevin arrives to tell Larry that Stinky has snitched on them to Lieutenant Carmody, who is on his way to Glanbury to prevent them from returning to their world.  What else can go wrong?

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Chapter 33

“We have to go,” Kevin said as we hurried along the dark corridor to the church hall.  “We have to get to the portal before Carmody finds us.”

“Well, we might have a problem there.”

“I don’t care if it’s snowing, Larry.  I don’t care if it’s a hurricane.  We finally know where the portal is.  We’re going.”

We entered the hall, which was almost overpoweringly warm and bright after being in the church and outside in the snow.  The musicians were taking a break.  Stinky was standing by the fireplace, looking guilty.  We went over to him.  “What’s going on, Julian?” I demanded.

“I’m sorry, Lawrence,” he said.  “Really I am.  If I’d known, I never would have done it.”

“I don’t understand.  Start at the beginning.”

He took a deep breath.  “Well, see, it started with Sergeant Hornbeam,” he said.

“Hornbeam?  What about him?”

“You remember how I did favors for the soldiers at the camp?  I was just trying to survive, you know–get some extra food once in a while.  There wasn’t anything bad about it.”

“I remember.  What about Sergeant Hornbeam?”

“Well, one day he asked me to look after you.  He said you were important to the army–he wouldn’t say why–and you’d started showing up at the camp.  He wanted to make sure nothing bad happened to you.”

“Wait–so when you rescued me from those kids who stole my coat–”

“Hornbeam had told me to follow you,” Stinky admitted.  “But I was glad to do it!  Then I didn’t see you again until the morning after the battle.”

“That was on orders, too?”

He nodded.  “After the battle I talked my way past the guards to get into the army camp.  I was just looking for a meal and a cot.  I had no idea you were there.  But I ran into Sergeant Hornbeam again, and he told me to stay with the two of you and keep you safe.  He said if I did a good job he’d see to it that I got out of my ‘prenticeship so I could join the army.

“And I did do a good job–didn’t I?  I kept you alive.  I got you to Glanbury.  And it wasn’t just a job–I liked you.  You became my mates.”

“Gimme a break,” Kevin muttered.

Stinky gave Kevin a look that suggested they were no longer quite so matey.  “So why did you leave?” I asked.

“Well, you know how it was.  The war was over.  I couldn’t stay with you forever–my master was in town and searching for me.  I surely didn’t want to run into him.  So I made my way back to Boston and started looking for Sergeant Hornbeam.  I found him finally, and he brought me to a lieutenant at headquarters–”

“Carmody,” I said.

Stinky nodded.  “And he was awfully excited to find out you were alive.  But he seemed worried that you’d escape again.  I heard him talking to the sergeant, and he said, ‘Why haven’t they found it?’ or something like that.  ‘We’ve got to catch them before they get away for good.'”

Stinky looked at me pleadingly.  “Lawrence, I don’t know what you fellows did and I don’t want to know.  There’s a lot I don’t understand.  I never really believed the stories you told me–about being orphans and such.  But I never meant to hurt you.  So after I spoke to the lieutenant, I decided I couldn’t stay in Boston, even though Sergeant Hornbeam said he was going to take care of me.  I came right back to Glanbury to warn you–got a ride from a peddler part of the way, and I walked the rest.  I figured I’d find you here.”

“So when is he coming?”

“I don’t know,” Stinky admitted.  “But I don’t imagine he’ll delay.”

“It doesn’t matter what he imagines,” Kevin said to me.  “We have to go.”

“I’ve never had many friends,” Stinky said.  By now he looked like he was about to cry.  “When I met you, I thought perhaps–”

“It’s all right, Julian,” I said.  “Really.  I’m grateful you came all the way back here to warn us.”

“If there’s anything more I can do . . . ”

“You’ve done enough.  Thank you.”

We left him and went to find my parents.  “Don’t see why you were so nice to him,” Kevin muttered.

“Don’t see why you treated him like a jerk.  But listen.  The preacher showed up–that’s who I was chasing after.  The thing is, he said he moved the portal.”

What?”

“Just to the other side of the road–but that might explain why we never found it.  But I don’t know–talking to him is like talking to Yoda or something.  Everything’s a riddle, except when he’s calling us stupid kids.”

Kevin looked like he wanted to shoot somebody.  “Your parents over there,” he said.  “Did you explain to them–?”

“They know about us and the portal,” I said.  “They don’t know this last bit, though.”

My parents were talking to each other across the room.  We made our way over to them.  “Things are getting complicated,” I said.  I began by summarizing what Stinky had told us.

Dad was outraged.  “No one can force you to stay here,” he said.  “That lieutenant can’t just kidnap you.  This isn’t New Portugal.  There are laws.  If you don’t want to stay, you don’t have to.”

I was pretty sure he underestimated Lieutenant Carmody’s power, but still it felt good to have him on our side.  “The thing is,” I said, “we need to find the portal before he stops us.”

“Well, the snow isn’t going to help, but the Fitton place isn’t far.”

“I know, except the portal might not be where we think.”  And I explained what I’d learned from the preacher.

“This is baffling,” Dad replied.  “What do we do?”

“I think we need to go home right now and figure this out,” my mother said.

That seemed like a pretty good idea.  “Very well,” Dad said.  “I’ll go fetch Matthew.”

He went searching for Matthew, and while he did Sarah Lally came up to us, looking flushed and happy.  “It’s such a wonderful party, don’t you think?” she said.

I hadn’t had a second to enjoy it.  But I said sure, it was great.

“I was rather hoping you’d ask me to dance, Larry,” she murmured, looking down at the floor.

Nothing would have made me happier, but Kevin would have killed me if we delayed leaving so I could dance with her.  “I’m so sorry, Sarah,” I replied, “but something’s come up, and we all have to go home.”

Her eyes crinkled with disappointment.  “So soon?  No one’s ill, I hope?”

“No, it’s just that–”  I didn’t know what to say, so Mom jumped in.

“Actually, Mr. Barnes is quite tired,” she said.  “He’s just back from the war, you know.”

“Oh, of course,” Sarah said quickly.  “Forgive me.  Perhaps you’ll come visit me later this week, Larry?”

“I’ll try, Sarah.  I’ll try.”

She reached out and squeezed my hand.  I squeezed back, and then she walked away.  “It’s wonderful having you here, Larry,” she called out over her shoulder.

I smiled at her.  “Get a grip,” Kevin said to me.

Meanwhile Dad had grabbed Matthew, who was really upset about having to leave so soon.  “Can’t we stay for a half hour more?” he pleaded.

Dad shook his head.  “We have to go now.  I’m sorry.  Let’s get our coats.”

A couple of minutes later we had said our goodbyes and were outside, climbing into the wagon.  The snow was coming down even harder now, with a strong wind swirling it all around us.  Mom put her arm around Matthew, who buried his face in her coat.  We had a lantern, but its flickering light didn’t penetrate far through the storm.  “Travel won’t be easy,” my father muttered.  He flicked the reins, and Gretel set out.

This is all going way too fast, I thought.  I needed more time to think things through, but I wasn’t getting any.  I looked at Kevin, who was sitting next to me, nervously glancing around as if he was expecting Carmody to appear out of the darkness.

I thought about telling him the one good thing the preacher had said: that the portal would take us home.

Except even that wasn’t very clear.  If you want to go home, the portal will take you home.  That would work for Kevin, certainly.  But what about me?  What if the portal read my mind or something and decided I didn’t really want to go home?  Would I end up somewhere else?  Back here?  Why wouldn’t the guy give me a straight answer?  For someone who traveled to different universes handing out wisdom, he sure didn’t seem to have a whole lot of social skills.

“I don’t know, lads,” my father called out.  “It’ll be all we can do to get back to the farmhouse in this weather.”

He was right.  We could barely see the road now, and Gretel was straining to make her way.  How much worse was it going to be after a few more miles of travel?  And how were we going to find an invisible portal in the woods in this mess?  I looked at Kevin again.  He just looked glum and stayed silent.

“Mr. Barnes can take you at first light,” Mom said.

“Where are they going?” Matthew asked.

“We’ll explain later,” Mom said.

At least Lieutenant Carmody was going to have as much difficulty in the storm as we were having, I thought.  It was hard for my father to find the turn into the lane leading to the farmhouse.  But Gretel seemed to know the way, and finally we pulled silently up toward the house.

“Did you leave a lantern burning, Henry?” Mom asked.

“Of course not,” Dad replied.

We all stared at the light shining in the window.  As we got closer, we saw a horse and carriage tied up by the front door.  “Let’s get out of here,” Kevin said to me, and he got ready to jump out of the wagon.

“Don’t, lad,” Dad said.  “You won’t survive in the storm.”

“He’s not going to capture us,” Kevin replied.  “Come on, Larry.”

“Who’s not going to capture you?” Matthew demanded.  “What’s going on?”

“That’s not the lieutenant’s carriage,” I pointed out.

Just then the door opened, and a single figure stepped out into the night.  I breathed a sigh of relief and joy.

It was Professor Palmer.