This Buzzfeed listicle is kind of funny (and kind of meta for Buzzfeed). Here are a couple of examples that I like:
This Buzzfeed listicle is kind of funny (and kind of meta for Buzzfeed). Here are a couple of examples that I like:
One of the hardest parts of writing a novel is dealing with backstory. How much of each character’s past should you put into your story? When should you put it in? Backstory adds texture and depth and motivation to a novel, but you don’t want to stop the momentum of your story with endless flashbacks to someone’s childhood.
I’m dealing with two additional layers of backstory complexity in the novel I’m working on now, which is set in the world of Dover Beach.
First, as a sequel, the novel is dealing with characters and situations that have already been introduced in the first two novels in the series. I can’t reintroduce the history of the characters and the plots of the first two novels without annoying readers of those novels. On the other hand, I’ve got to say something about the stuff, or else new readers will be baffled; and I can’t assume everyone will start with Dover Beach and continue with The Distance Beacons before beginning Novel to be Named Later. I’m not sure there is a good solution to this problem; at least, I haven’t found it.
The other backstory issue I have is the familiar science fiction problem — if your story doesn’t take place in the real world, then you have to somehow fill in sufficient history about the world you have created to satisfy your reader — again, without slowing down the story. Your characters know this history, but your readers don’t. The crude way of solving this problem is the jokey “As We All Know” approach — have a character deliver a speech that says, for example, “As we all know, faster than light travel was invented in 2050…”
I have made a conscious decision to dribble out only a small amount of backstory about the world in which The Last Private Eye novels take place. After two novels we know there was some kind of nuclear war, but we don’t know who the combatants were, why the war was fought, who won . . . We don’t know any of this stuff because it’s not relevant to the characters and their story. They don’t really care; they’re just stuck in this world and trying to get by. So the backstory is irrelevant. Also, it would slow the story down. But I can guarantee that you’ll know more of this backstory at the end of TNTBNL than you did at the end of Dover Beach.
I know what you’re thinking about now. What about renowned author Dan Brown? How does Dan Brown handle the backstory in Inferno? The answer is clunkily. He feels the need to tell us a lot about Dante, so he has Robert Langdon recall a lecture about Dante he gave to some famous people at some famous place. (Of course, he’s suffering from amnesia at the time he recalls this.) The villain doesn’t like overpopulation, so he kidnaps the head of the World Health Organization and gives her a lecture about it, complete with graphs. The name Thomas Malthus comes up in some communication from the villain, so a flunky who apparently skipped college Googles the name and prints out a bunch of information about Malthus and his theory. Talk about slowing the story down…
The interrobang is almost a real thing, and Dan Brown is successful enough to demand that his publisher give him a font that includes one, like so:
His breathless, italics-laden style is what the interrobang was designed for. Here are some random examples from Inferno:
What the hell do they think I did? Why is my own government hunting me?!
Here he needs interrobangs in consecutive sentences:
Has the speech been canceled?! The city is in near shutdown due to the weather . . . has it kept Zobrist from coming tonight?!
This example is in Italian, although the translation apparently doesn’t require one:
“Lei è Robert Langdon, vero?!” You’re Robert Langdon, aren’t you?”
Here Brown reverses the order of the punctuation marks, for some reason that is too subtle for me to make out. Perhaps we need a banginterro for this usage:
He turned to the woman. “How do we get up there!?”
Somewhere I learned the rule that a writer should avoid exclamation points: your prose should convey the excitement, not your punctuation. But Dan Brown doesn’t need such lessons; he needs the interrobang.
By the way, let’s not confuse the punctuation mark with this local band that I’ve actually heard play (and some of whose members have hung out at my house). Or this other band with almost the same name. With so many great names for bands floating around the universe, why is this happening?
Chapter 34: Professor Palmer is waiting at the farmhouse for Larry and Kevin. He tells them what they have already found out from Stinky Glover: Lieutenant Carmody is after them, determined to keep them in this world. The snowstorm prevents them from heading directly to the portal, so they have to stay at the farmhouse. They hide when Carmody shows up. Carmody orders the place to be searched. Peter, the lieutenant’s good-natured driver, discovers them, but doesn’t tell anyone. Carmody leaves, and the boys spend a worried night waiting for the dawn, when they will finally make it back to the portal.
And now (finally) the climax.
Kevin and I put on the clothes from our world, then our coats. Professor Palmer was coming with us; Mom was going to stay home with Matthew.
“Please be careful, Larry,” she said. I knew she’d say that.
I went over to her. She pulled my coat tight around me, and then touched my arm. “If you don’t come back,” she whispered, “I will always see your face in my mind. And I will always be grateful that you came into my life.” She kissed the top of my head and hugged me. “Now go, and be good to your mother. She worries about you every minute.”
“I don’t want to go,” I said. “I love you.”
She just shook her head and turned away. I ran up to the attic then and kissed Matthew, who stirred but didn’t awaken. When I came downstairs, I took a quick look around, and then followed the others out of the farmhouse.
Outside, Gretel was already hitched up to the sleigh. Dad got up on the bench to drive. Kevin and I sat on one of the facing seats; Professor Palmer sat on the other. “A one-horse open sleigh,” I said to Kevin.
He didn’t bother answering.
The snow had mostly stopped. The air was cold; the sky was brightening. Dad picked up the reins. Mom waved to us from the doorway; her cheeks were wet with tears. We all waved back, and then we started off.
It was slow going at first, as Gretel got used to her burden. The world was silent except for the shooshing of the sleigh’s runners over the snow. Silent and beautiful, with the snow weighing down the branches of the trees. I spotted a deer gazing out at us from a stand of pines.
“If we find the portal, will you come with us?” I asked Professor Palmer.
“I can’t decide,” he replied. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.” I thought about the preacher’s advice. “Listen to your heart,” I said. “It’ll tell you what to do.”
“Yes,” he murmured, “I expect it will.”
I thought about my own heart. What was it saying? There was something that Kevin had said about hearts once, long ago . . . but I couldn’t quite remember it. Finally I let it go.
We were on the Post Road now, and going faster. Three miles to the Fitton place. And then what? How would Kevin react if we couldn’t find it? How would I react?
“Oh, no,” Kevin said after a while.
Behind us we saw a dark shape on the road.
Kevin looked around at Dad. “How much further?” he asked. “I think we’re being followed.”
“Around this bend, then a bit beyond. If it’s Carmody, he won’t catch us in a carriage.”
“Still, can we go any faster?” he pleaded.
Dad flicked the reins, but Gretel was pulling a lot of weight through the snow, and she just didn’t have the strength to speed up. But Dad was right, the shape behind us didn’t come any closer. I was pretty sure it was the lieutenant’s carriage, though.
“Let’s go!” Kevin cried.
We rounded the bend in the road. Nothing looked familiar to me. How much further?
To our right was a small slope, and at the top I saw someone standing in the trees. “Stop!” I shouted.
Dad pulled on the reins. I got out and started running up the slope. The figure disappeared back into the trees. I turned and saw Kevin behind me, and Professor Palmer struggling through the snow behind him. And I saw the carriage pulling up behind Dad’s wagon.
I reached the trees. Where was the figure? I kept going into the woods. A pine bough slapped me in the face and drenched me in snow. I was out of breath; my feet felt numb. Where did he go?
Then I saw him, standing in a small clearing. The preacher.
He looked cold.
“I didn’t mean to leave like that last night,” he said. “But I wasn’t supposed to be talking to you, never mind your friend. I seem to be breaking rules left and right, though. So what’s one more?”
“Is it here?” I demanded.
“I wasn’t standing out there for my health,” he replied–a little crossly, I thought. “Look, here’s some final wisdom, not that you’re in the mood for it. Don’t think badly of me. It is difficult to find one’s way–in any world. We–all of us–can only do our best.” He took a step backwards.
“Wait a minute!” I called out.
“And remember,” he said, “it is only by setting out–” But that was all I heard. He had disappeared.
“Who was that?” Kevin asked, coming up beside me.
“The preacher. He was waiting for us, to show us where he put the portal. He just stepped into it.”
Professor Palmer joined us, trying to catch his breath. “They’re right behind us,” he gasped. “I think you boys should–”
Kevin didn’t have to be told what to do. He headed into the middle of the clearing, but not soon enough. Lieutenant Carmody crashed through the trees and came up beside the professor. He took out his pistol and aimed it at Kevin. “Good morning, lads,” he said. “And Professor Palmer. Not exactly where I was told the portal was, but no matter.”
We stood there. A few seconds later Sergeant Hornbeam and my father showed up; the sergeant was holding a pistol to my father’s back. “Morning, all,” he said. Behind them came Peter, looking unhappy.
“You know everything we know,” Kevin said to the lieutenant. “Keeping us here won’t help you. Please let us go home.”
The lieutenant shook his head. “President Gardner wants you to stay. And so you’ll stay.” He paused. “I’m the one who is to go.”
He shrugged. “Did you think we’d have this device in our possession and not try to use it? You may be right that we’ve learned all we can from you. So I’m go to where you came from and return with those marvelous things you described to us–medicines, inventions. Weapons.”
“But that’s nuts,” Kevin said. “The portal doesn’t work that way. If you go, you won’t be able to get back.”
“Perhaps. But you boys are hardly experts on the portal, now are you? The president thinks it a risk worth taking. And I agree.”
“William, about the boys,” Professor Palmer said. “I beg you to reconsider. We owe these lads an enormous debt. Without them, we’d have lost the war. And I can assure you that my interrogations of them have been complete and exhaustive. They have nothing left to give us. Surely we can let them go home.”
“They’ll be treated well,” Lieutenant Carmody said. “My orders are clear. This is where they are to stay.”
“What if you keep me and let Kevin go?” I asked him. “You–or Sergeant Hornbeam–can just say you didn’t catch him in time. That’s almost true, after all. If you’d been ten seconds later, he’d have been gone.”
“I’m afraid not,” he replied. “I have my orders. The president wants you both. He has a personal affection for you, Larry, of course. He was quite amused when he found out you had made up those stories about your experiences in China. But Kevin has a somewhat better knowledge of the science of your world, in my opinion. Come along, lads.”
I looked over at Kevin. I could tell what he was thinking. Should he just make a run for it? Dive into the portal and hope for the best. Maybe the lieutenant wouldn’t really shoot him. Maybe he’d just be wounded and could still make it home.
“Please don’t, Kevin,” I said.
“Why not?” he replied. “Why not?” There were tears in his eyes. To be this close . . .
And then I heard a familiar voice behind me. “Damme, it’s too early in the morning for this sort of nonsense.”
I turned. It was General Aldridge. He was unshaven, and his uniform was the usual rumpled mess. “Thank you for the information about the lads, Alexander,” he said to the professor. “I came as soon as I could, though this snow was a nuisance. I believe I missed a turn back there somewhere, but no matter. Everyone I was looking for is here. Give me the pistol, Sergeant,” he ordered Sergeant Hornbeam. “And Lieutenant, kindly set yours down.”
Sergeant Hornbeam obeyed immediately. But Lieutenant Carmody said, “I believe an order from the President of New England would supersede an order from you, General.”
General Aldridge sighed. “Sergeant, you have no direct orders from the president, I take it?” he said.
“Then kindly take the man’s pistol.”
Sergeant Hornbeam hesitated this time, but finally went over to the lieutenant and held out his hand. “Sorry, sir,” he said. “We should go back and sort this all out.”
“By then there’ll be nothing left to sort out,” the lieutenant muttered. But he handed his pistol over to the sergeant.
“That’s better,” General Aldridge said. “Now, I take it this famous invisible portal is somewhere in the neighborhood?”
“Yes, sir,” Kevin said. “Right over here.”
“And you lads want to go home?”
“The lieutenant wants to use it too,” Peter said, speaking for the first time. “Why don’t you let him?”
The general looked at Peter, then at the lieutenant. “Is that true?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant replied. “To bring back the knowledge from the other world, if possible. As requested by the president.”
The general scratched his chin. “Seems very risky.”
“I’m prepared to take the risk.”
“Very well, then–go ahead.”
The lieutenant hesitated. “Now?”
“No, let’s stand here for an hour or two and freeze to death. Of course now.”
“What about the boys?”
“You can leave them in my care, Lieutenant. Who better to carry out the president’s orders than the leader of his military?”
The two men stared at each other. Finally Lieutenant Carmody stiffened and saluted the general. “As you wish, sir.”
General Aldridge casually returned the salute.
“Kevin,” the lieutenant said, “can you show me where the portal is exactly?”
Kevin walked forward to where the preacher had disappeared. He reached out his hand, and it too disappeared in mid-air. He pulled it back, and it reappeared. Then he moved it forward again–gone. “Here,” he said.
“Extraordinary,” the general muttered. “Are you ready, Lieutenant?”
We waited. Finally the lieutenant nodded and walked over to the portal. “I wish no one unhappiness,” he said. “Please believe me. I only seek to do my duty.”
“Thanks for everything you did for us,” I said.
“How do I–”
“All you’ve gotta do is step in,” Kevin said, “then just, you know, step out the other side.”
“Very well.” He looked around at all of us then–and, I think, at the trees, the snow, the sky–everything there was to see on the cold Christmas morning. Then he followed Kevin’s instructions.
He was there and then he wasn’t, vanishing into invisibility in a split-second. None of us moved, as if we expected him to come back if we stayed still long enough. But he didn’t return. He was gone.
Professor Palmer went over and reached his hand into the portal the way Kevin had done, then took it out again and shook his head.
Kevin walked back to General Aldridge. “Are you going to let Larry and me go, sir?” he asked.
“Of course,” the general replied. “Speaking of duty–you’ve done your duty here. More than your duty. President Gardner will be disappointed, but he’ll get over it. If you happen to see Lieutenant Carmody on your world, send him our regards and tell him to come back soon.”
“Professor Palmer is going to come too,” Kevin said. “Is that all right?”
“Really? Doesn’t anyone want to stay here? I know the weather’s been unpleasant, but it’s rather nice in the spring.” General Aldridge turned to the professor. “You wish to leave us, Alexander?”
The professor was looking at the portal. “I–” he began, and then he shook his head. “No, I don’t wish to leave.” He turned to us. “I can’t go, boys. This is my home. You’ve given me much to think about, much to learn, but I should learn it on my own. And, you know, General Aldridge is right: it’s lovely here come springtime.”
“Okay,” Kevin said. “I understand. So it’s just you and me, Larry.”
Everyone turned to look at me.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak.
Listen to your heart, the preacher had said.
It is only by setting out that you can finally return home.
“Larry,” my father murmured softly. “You have to go. We love you, but you have to go.”
And then I remembered what Kevin had said about hearts–back on our world when I brought him to the portal. I wonder what happens if, like, one half your heart is in this world and the other half is in the other.
Just a stupid little comment–the kind of thing Matthew would say. But it made a different kind of sense to me now. This is the way it was going to be for me, no matter what choice I made. There wasn’t a right answer or a wrong answer–it was just a question of which half of my heart I was going to leave behind.
I hugged my father–something I never did at home–and he tousled my hair. He was weeping–something he never did at home. I was starting to cry too. Then I said my goodbyes to the rest of them: Peter, who had saved me more than once, and General Aldridge, who had rescued us from the lieutenant, and Professor Palmer, who had been our other father in this world. I hugged them all.
“We will miss you terribly,” the professor said. “But you’re doing the right thing. Fare you well.” His eyes were moist too.
“Good luck to the Red Stockings,” the general said to Kevin.
I figured I’d better do it before I changed my mind. I looked at Kevin. “Ready?”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “I’ve been ready for months.”
“Then let’s go.” Like Lieutenant Carmody, we took a last look around, at the faces so familiar to us now, at the world that had been our home, and then we stepped into the portal and left them all behind.
In the refugee camp, Larry has finally met his family. They are much the same as in his own world, but their circumstances in this world are utterly different.
In particular, in this world Larry died as an infant. And his mother senses something about him . . . he seems to fill a gap in her heart.
Larry returns to Coolidge Palace with some decisions to make, as artillery booms in the distance and the final battle for Boston is about to begin.
The carriage raced through the deserted streets towards Coolidge Palace. “What do you mean?” I asked Peter. “Chat about what?”
“Wouldn’t know,” Peter replied. “The president doesn’t tell me what’s on his mind.”
“Are people mad at me?”
Peter chuckled. “I imagine they’ve more important things to be worrying about, lad.”
We reached the palace in no time. The guards let our carriage through the gates, and we raced up the long drive to the front steps. There was still a lot of activity on the palace grounds, I noticed.
“Hurry, lad,” Peter said when the carriage stopped. I got down from the bench and ran up the steps. A green-coated butler wearing a wig opened the door for me.
Lieutenant Carmody was standing in the entrance hall, looking seriously annoyed. “Where did you get to?” he demanded.
“Well, uh, I–”
“Never mind. Let’s go.” He headed off down a long hallway to the president’s office. Another butler bowed and let us in.
President Gardner was seated by the fire, along with General Aldridge, Professor Palmer, Vice President Boatner, and the foreign minister, Lord Percival. The president wasn’t wearing his wig; he looked tired. “Ah, you’ve brought Master Barnes,” he said when we entered. “Excellent. Have a seat. General Aldridge was just finishing one of his gloomy reports.”
We bowed and sat down. The warmth of the fire felt great after being outside all day.
“The Canadian artillery pieces on the Cambridge side of the Charles are firing almost continuously,” General Aldridge said. “Damage is light so far except in the refugee camp by the river. The goal, presumably, is to create confusion and panic prior to the main assault.”
“And the Portuguese?”
“A similar strategy south of the city, except the firing is more intermittent. They may be conserving their ammunition.”
“And the balloons?” the president asked. “The electricity? All this work taking place on my back lawn–where are we with it?”
General Aldridge turned to Professor Palmer. “Professor?”
“Four balloons are in use at strategic points around the city, Your Excellency,” he said. “Two more are being completed tonight. The balloons are tethered, with ropes sufficiently long that soldiers in the balloons will be able to easily view the enemy’s troop dispositions by telescope. We have developed a semaphore signaling system that allows them to send the information back to the soldiers on the ground, so that they can adjust our own deployments of artillery and troops.”
“Can’t the enemy just train their fire on the balloons and shoot them down?” Vice President Boatner asked. He looked as glum as he had the first time I saw him.
“The balloons are out of range of enemy artillery. They’ll be safe.”
“What about wind, snow, ice?” the president asked.
Professor Palmer nodded. “Weather is a concern, Excellency, particularly wind. But on calm days, the balloons will be effective.”
“One might say that the balloons have already served their purpose,” Lord Percival pointed out. “The enemy negotiators have seen the balloons floating over the palace. And that has provoked a change in their attitude.”
The president raised a hand. “We will get to that,” he said. “First I want to hear about the electrified fences.”
Professor Palmer spoke up again. “We have had some difficulty getting the batteries to hold sufficient charge,” he said. “We’ve tried generating the electricity directly, but–”
“Yes, yes,” the president interrupted. “These details are fascinating, I’m sure, but we need to know the consequences. What can we do now?”
“We have fences that can be deployed across a limited area,” the professor replied. “The shorter the fence, the more significant the shock it will impart.”
“The plan is to expose gaps in the fortifications that will be filled by the fences,” General Aldridge explained. “We hope the enemy will choose to attack in these gaps and be thrown into confusion by the shocks they receive. We may also be able to inflict some injuries.”
“That’s all very well,” the vice president responded, “but neither these fences nor the balloons give us a decisive military advantage. We are still besieged by enemy forces that far outnumber our own. Our citizens are dying of disease and starvation, and looting and riots are widespread. The refugee camps are about to explode. The chaos and suffering will only increase if the siege continues.
“Lord Percival is correct, however: our bargaining position has improved somewhat. At our negotiating session today, the enemy made what they termed their final offer: to let us maintain a civilian administration in New England as long as we disband our army and acknowledge the co-sovereignty of Canada and New Portugal. This seems to me to be a far better outcome than we could have hoped for a month ago. We would be foolish not to take it, and instead risk the future of our nation on a battle we have no hope of winning.”
“Solomon, when do you expect the battle?” the president asked.
“Not likely to be tomorrow,” General Aldridge replied. “But no more than a day or two after that. We assume the attacks will be coordinated. The Portuguese are still moving troops up towards the fortifications. Once they’re in place, they won’t delay further.”
That shut everyone up for a minute. Then President Gardner looked at me. “Master Barnes, what do you hear?” he asked. “Do the people in the city want us to surrender, or fight?”
I thought. How could I summarize what I had heard in the camp? Sarah Lally was all for surrender. Matthew was all for fighting. Mom longed to go back to the farm and have Dad be safe. “I think people just want it to be over, Your Excellency,” I said. “Whatever you do, do it soon.”
That brought nods from everyone.
“Might I add one more thing?” Professor Palmer said. “Obviously we have not achieved everything we would have liked with electricity. But we have a new understanding of its power. If we can continue to work on it, I believe its potential is limitless.”
President Gardner’s eyes rested on me for a moment before he replied. “We would need our independence in order to reap the rewards of such work,” he remarked.
“That is correct.”
Vice President Boatner looked like he was going to say something, but instead he folded his arms and stared into the fire. A clock in the corner of the room struck the hour. We waited.
The president turned to the vice president and Lord Percival. “Reject the enemy’s final offer,” he instructed them. “Break off negotiations, and escort the diplomats back to the front lines. We have nothing left to say to those who would destroy us. Solomon,” he said, turning to General Aldridge, “do what you have to do, and quickly. We will show them what New Englanders are made of.”
General Aldridge stood up and bowed. “Thank you, Excellency.”
I expected the vice president to say something, but he simply shrugged. He seemed to know there was no point in arguing. We all got up, bowed, and left the room. The meeting was over; the decision had been made.
“Never thought I’d see the day,” Professor Palmer said as we walked down the corridor away from the office. “His Excellency showing some gumption.”
The Vice President stopped us at the front door of the palace. “If we can help in any way,” he said to General Aldridge, “let us know. All our lives are in your hands.” He didn’t seem happy about it.
The general nodded. “Thank you, Randolph. The first thing you can do is pray for us.”
We hurried out into the night and heard the sounds of the artillery once again. “William, Alexander, come with me,” General Aldridge said to the lieutenant and the professor. “There is much to be done. Larry, you can return to headquarters.”
“And stay there,” Lieutenant Carmody ordered. “I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but you’re too important to be wandering around the city.” He signaled to Peter to take me.
Instead of getting into the carriage, I climbed up next to Peter once again. “Any news?” he asked as we headed out of the palace grounds.
“We’re going to fight,” I replied.
He didn’t seem surprised. “There’ll be many of us dead before the week is out, then,” he said. He didn’t look awfully upset about it. It was just a statement of fact.
“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I try not to think about it,” he said. “This battle’s been coming for such a long time. So we’ll all just do our duty when it finally arrives.”
We weren’t stopped on the way to headquarters. “Thanks, Peter,” I said when he dropped me off in the courtyard.
“Don’t be wandering around the city, lad,” he advised me. “The lieutenant’s right. The situation is dangerous enough–don’t go looking for trouble.”
I went directly to the mess–I was starving. All they could give me was the usual: salt pork, stale bread, and tea. It would have to do. Then I went up to my room, too tired to think, but knowing I had a huge decision to make. Was I going to disobey Lieutenant Carmody and return to the camp?
I put out the lamp and dropped down onto my lumpy mattress,
When I closed my eyes, I saw my mother–tired and worried, just trying keep her family alive in that awful camp. Dad wasn’t around, Cassie was about to go off the deep end. It was so familiar, but so much worse than anything in our safe world.
I had to go back, I decided. No matter what. I had to help her.
Lying in his dismal hospital bed, Kevin has convinced Larry to return to the refugee camp and look for their families. Do they even exist in this world? Can Larry help them? He decides that he has to find out. So he sneaks off from Coolidge Palace, makes his way through Cheapside, and talks his way into the desperately crowded camp. And now he has to search it . . .
“Help me, help me, I’m dying!”
An old man was kneeling on the ground by the gate. He grabbed my leg and wouldn’t let go.
The other people ignored him. His eyes were watery; he didn’t have any teeth. His whole body was shaking.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “There’s nothing–”
“I have no one,” he said. “I can’t make it to the food line. Please help, else I’ll die.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. “I don’t . . . I can’t . . . ” I pulled away from him; he wasn’t strong enough to stop me.
Maybe this was a big mistake, I thought.
My next thought was: It really stinks in here.
I moved away from the gate and looked around. I thought the place had been crowded before, but now there were people everywhere, jammed together for as far as I could see alongside the narrow dirt paths. All the animals were gone, too, except for some sad-looking horses and donkeys. I remembered the cows and goats and oxen tied to the wagons that people were driving into the city the day Kevin and I arrived. Eaten by now, I figured, or dead of starvation.
I started walking. That first night, things had been kind of mellow in the camp: people singing, kids playing, old men smoking pipes in front of fires . . . Now all the mellowness was gone. People were mostly just sitting down, on the ground or in their wagons, wrapped in blankets, staring back at me with dead eyes. A lot of the men were holding rifles in their laps. With soldiers afraid to enter the camp, I guess I understood why. There were lots of people walking along the paths, too; some of them looked pretty scary, like they’d kill you if they thought you had a loaf of bread on you. I really didn’t feel like asking anyone if they knew a Barnes family from Glanbury. Just looking at people made me nervous.
So I walked. And I thought: How am I going to find anyone in this huge, crowded place? What if I don’t recognize my family? What if my father has a beard, or Cassie has a different hairstyle, or they’re all so bundled up that I walk right past them?
I wandered around for a long time until I started to get tired. I stopped at an intersection of two paths and tried to decide what to do. Should I just give up? I couldn’t stay here forever. I still had a long walk back through Cheapside to headquarters.
I realized that I had a lump in my throat. Now that I was here, now that I’d taken the risk and gotten myself in trouble with Professor Palmer and Lieutenant Carmody, I really didn’t want this to be a waste of time. I really wanted to find my family, or Kevin’s family, or someone. Mostly I wanted my original idea to come true–I wanted to help my mother.
Then I saw a fight break out. “You filthy picker!” someone shouted. And two kids my age were dragging another kid down to the ground, where they started punching and kicking him.
I started to turn away. Not my problem, like the old man by the gate. But no one else was breaking up the fight, and it looked like the kid on the ground was going to get killed.
Something made me go over there. “Hey!” I shouted, and I dragged one of the kids away from the fight. He was short but tough-looking. He glared at me. “What’s your problem, mate?” he demanded.
Meanwhile the kid they were beating up managed to scramble away. He got to his feet and looked at me for a second, then started to run away. The other kid took off after him. The tough-looking kid broke away from my grasp and punched me in the stomach. I gasped for breath and my legs buckled; he really knew how to punch. But he didn’t stay to punch me again; instead, he turned and ran after the other kids.
When I managed to catch my breath I started running after all of them. Because the kid they had been beating up was Stinky Glover. Not as fat as in our world, but I’d recognize that face anywhere.
I couldn’t find them, though. They were lost in the maze of paths. I kept going until I was sure it was useless, and then I stopped to catch my breath again.
A picker. That was slang in this world for a thief. It figured that Stinky would be a picker.
I had lost him, and that was bad. But still, I was excited. If Stinky was here, then Kevin was right. Why couldn’t my family or his family be here too? I just had to keep looking.
But where? Just wandering around wasn’t working. There had to be a better way.
In the distance I saw people lined up. For food? The privies? I went over to the line. Everyone had a bucket. They were waiting for water, I realized.
The line moved fairly quickly. I walked alongside, trying to glance at the people in it. As usual, they looked back at me suspiciously. Who was I? Was I going to cut in front of them? I didn’t recognize anyone. At the front of the line was a little stream that went through a corner of the camp. People were filling their buckets from the stream. There were plenty of soldiers there to keep the line orderly. I recognized one of them–he had been loading the sacks of grain that wicked hot first day. He nodded to me. “What’re you doing here, mate?” he asked.
“Just looking for someone.”
“Most everyone passes by here sooner or later. No lack of water at least. And it’s not giving everyone the flux the way it did back in September. Still not the cleanest stream in the world, y’understand.”
Mr. Harper had mentioned the flux. I figured it was something like diarrhea. “What happens when the stream freezes?” I asked.
“Ah. None of us’ll be here by that time, I trust. If we are, there’ll be worse things to worry about than the flux.”
He fell silent, and I studied the people in line. Even though it only took a few seconds to fill your buckets, the line stretched out a long ways. If it was this bad getting water, I wondered what it was like getting food–if there still was any food. People probably spent a lot of their day just standing in line.
I stuck my hands stuck in my armpits to keep them warm. Sometimes I’d walk up and down the line. Sometimes I sat on a tree stump nearby. Occasionally there was a fight when someone tried to cut into the line, and the soldiers would move quickly to break it up. But for the most part people just shuffled along in silence waiting their turn. A lot of them looked too tired to fight, or to care about anything.
At some point I noticed a distant booming. Artillery, I decided. Had the final battle started? The booming quickly became constant. An old woman standing in line started to weep.
It was getting late. I wasn’t going to make it back to headquarters before curfew. I had my pass, but that wasn’t going to do much good if some policeman decided to shoot me. And how much trouble was I was going to be in if I did make it back? I was afraid to leave, though. If I left, would I ever be able to return?
I was getting hungry. And thirsty, watching all that water go by. I must’ve stopped paying attention for a while. I know I was feeling sorry for myself, even with these people all around me who were a lot worse off than I was, even with Kevin lying bored to death in the hospital. So I didn’t see her until she had already gone to the river and filled her buckets.
Long black hair, shining blue eyes–I knew it was her, even wearing a long skirt and a shapeless jacket. Even looking exhausted and worried.
My first response was the same one I felt in English class, in the cafeteria, in the world neither of us inhabited now. I couldn’t say anything to her. I was just too shy. She had already gone past me when I got over it. Things had changed. This was important.
“Nora!” I called out.
She just kept walking.
I went after her. “Nora?” I repeated when I had caught up to her.
There was no recognition, just puzzlement and suspicion, in those blue eyes. “My name’s not Nora,” she said, and my heart sank.
The Canadian soldiers are approaching Cambridge. It’s time for Professor Palmer and the boys to retreat to Boston with the New England soldiers. They decide to spend one last night at home — to celebrate Harvest Day.
And then Kevin comes down with the dread disease drikana. Now they all have to be quarantined for seven days, with the enemy invading their city. Will Kevin survive? Even if he does, will the Canadians discover them and burn down the house with the three of them inside?
Kevin and Larry are a long way their old lives, where all they had to worry about was getting wet willies from Stinky Glover . . .
We went back inside to take care of Kevin. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, pale and shivering, trying to throw up. “Am I dying?” he managed to whisper.
“You are very ill, Kevin,” the professor replied, “but we will take care of you.”
I wrapped a blanket around him.
Was he better? Worse? I changed my mind every few minutes, and finally decided he was about the same. Which meant he still had a chance. “Larry, what did I do to deserve this?” he whispered as he lay back, gasping, after one long stretch over the chamber pot.
“Hang in there, Kev,” I told him.
“I just want to go to school. I just want to be with my family.”
“It’ll be all right.”
“This is awful. They’ll never know what happened to me. I’ll die, and–” He started to cough, and then he began retching again. He was right. It was awful.
In the middle of the afternoon he drifted off to sleep again. I was exhausted. Just sitting was a strain.
“Go to my room and rest,” the professor urged me. “I’ll take care of Kevin.”
I didn’t want to leave him, but I wasn’t doing much good sitting there, so I went across the hall and lay down on the professor’s bed. I probably fell asleep right away. This time I didn’t dream of balloon rides. I dreamed of stepping into the portal and, instead of finding a new world, this one started spinning around me. I got dizzier and dizzier, and I realized: the germs have got me. Drikana. I’m going to die. And I thought: I hate this world, I hate this world . . .
I opened my eyes. The room was dark. I blinked and shook my head. Was I dizzy? Was I dying?
No, it was just a dream. I was hungry. I had to pee. But I felt okay. I got up and went back across the hall. Kevin was still asleep. The professor was reading a book by candlelight.
“This is good, right?” I asked him. “I mean, that he can sleep?”
“It is good.”
“And if he makes it through the night . . . ?”
“That will be a very good sign. But there’s nothing certain about the course of the disease, Larry. Even if Kevin survives the first two days, he will still be very weak. Often victims succumb to another disease that overtakes them in their weakened state. In rare cases, the drikana returns, and that is certain death.”
“I just want to be able to hope,” I said.
“So do I, Larry. So do I.”
We heard the sound of gunfire in the distance. I noticed that the curtain was drawn. “We’ll have to be careful about candles and lamps at night,” I remarked.
The professor nodded. “It’s lucky we’re not on a main thoroughfare,” he said. “But our situation is still perilous.”
“How are we going to get to Boston after the claustration is over?”
The professor put down the book and rubbed his eyes. “Let us first survive these first few days,” he said. “There’ll be time to decide what we do after that.”
So we took turns watching Kevin through the night. He woke up after a while, and the professor tried feeding him a little broth, but he couldn’t keep it down. I read to him, and he seemed to like that, but he was too weak to pay much attention. I wasn’t very sleepy, so I just kept on reading, even after Kevin had closed his eyes and fallen back asleep. I was too worried to just sit there and think. Was I dizzy yet? What would I do if Kevin died? What would happen if the Canadians showed up? It was probably better not to think about those things. But it was hard to avoid, sitting in the dark bedroom in the middle of the night with your friend maybe dying next to you.
Finally I nodded off again. When I woke up, it was light out. The professor was sitting in his chair, asleep. I looked over at Kevin. He was awake. “This sucks, you know that, Larry?” he said.
I could have kissed him.
“Am I gonna be all right?” he asked.
“Of course you are.”
His voice was weak, he was too exhausted to move very much, and he had no appetite, but he was definitely better. “You are a strong young man,” the professor pronounced after he had examined Kevin. In private, he told me that Kevin still wasn’t out of danger, but I don’t think I really believed him. Kevin was okay, and the professor and I were still okay, and drikana wasn’t going to defeat us.
By the end of the day we could feed Kevin some broth. By the next morning he wanted to know what was going on–weren’t we supposed to leave Cambridge? Where were the Canadians? Professor Palmer explained to him about claustration, and how we’d had to stay behind.
“You mean this is, like, enemy territory now? And we’re stuck here?”
“We haven’t seen any Canadians yet, but yes, I expect they have taken over Cambridge at this point.”
Kevin thought this over. “And you stayed behind to save me,” he said.
The professor put on his gruff voice. “We really had no choice, you see. The entire household must be claustrated when any inhabitant falls ill with the disease. It’s the law.”
“All right,” Kevin replied. “But, thanks just the same. I’d be dead without you.”
The professor nodded. “Of course, of course.” Then he turned away, and I think maybe his eyes were moist.
So then it was a question of getting Kevin stronger and hoping the Canadians didn’t notice us until the seven days were up. No fire during the day, no matter how cold it got; candlelight only behind thick curtains at night. We went outside as little as possible–to visit the privy, to take care of the animals. Once I was out in the barn, and I heard the sound of wagon wheels and soldiers’ voices, not that far away, and I prayed the animals would keep quiet until they passed. Lieutenant Carmody’s warning kept buzzing around in my brain–when they saw the claustration sign they wouldn’t take us prisoner, they’d simply burn us up. Could there be a worse death? The sounds faded eventually, and we were still safe.
Eventually we began talking about our escape. “Anything we attempt will be dangerous,” the professor explained, “but it should not be impossible to get to Boston. I have lived here much of my life, and I know the backroads well. On a clear night we should be able to reach the river without going near the Massachusetts Road–I have sketched out a route already. The Canadians won’t be patrolling these roads, I think–their enemy is ahead of them, not behind them.”
“But what happens when we reach the river?” I asked. “How do we get across?”
“The Canadians won’t have had time to build up positions along the entire length of the Charles, even if that is their strategy,” the professor replied. “They’re probably massed on either side of the road. We’ll need to work our way upriver. I know an inlet where Harvard keeps a small boathouse for its students. If we’re lucky, it will have escaped the enemy’s notice, and we can get a boat there and row across to the Boston side.”
“Will Kevin be strong enough to travel like this?”
“We don’t leave until Kevin is ready. He can ride in the back of the carriage, but it will surely be a bumpy trip.”
“I can make it,” Kevin said.
The professor shook his head. “Not until the seven days are up, at the earliest.”
I thought of the lieutenant’s final warning: We’d be shot if we showed up in Boston before those seven days. People didn’t fool around here when it came to drikana.
Kevin had a question, too. “What happens to Susie?”
“We’ll have to leave Susie at the boathouse,” the professor replied. “It can’t be helped, I’m afraid.”
That was just awful. The professor’s horse was like part of the family. But there was nothing we could say. It was clear we couldn’t get her across the river.
So we took care of Kevin, and we waited.
The seventh night was clear and cold. Kevin was still very weak, but eager to leave. “I’m ready,” he insisted. “Let’s get out of here.”
Professor Palmer was hesitant. “A day or two more would do you a world of good,” he said.
“Every day we’re here makes it more dangerous for all of us,” Kevin replied. Couldn’t argue with that. So the professor agreed: it was time to go.
There were things to be done first. We burned all Kevin’s bedclothes–a requirement at the end of claustration. Professor Palmer took down the sign; that was a big relief. We unloaded the books and papers we had so carefully put into the professor’s carriage a week ago; we weren’t going to row them across the river. It seemed like way more than a week had gone by since we had packed the carriage, since that happy Harvest Day. If the professor was sad that we had to leave all his stuff behind, he didn’t let on. Then we hitched up Susie, who seemed plenty surprised to have to go to work at this time of night. Last of all, we brought Kevin out and made him as comfortable as we could in the back of the carriage.
“Ready?” Professor Palmer asked.
We headed off. I took one look back at the house, wondering if I’d ever see it again. Then we turned a corner, and it disappeared.
The night was quiet, and we seemed to make a huge amount of noise as we clopped along in the moonlight. Leaves floated down from the trees like small dark ghosts. I thought of the pretend scariness of Halloween, and how different this was. The enemy was out there somewhere, ready to kill us.
Susie seemed confused about where we were heading; this certainly wasn’t one of her regular routes. The professor led us through little lanes and narrow paths, staying away from the main roads. Sometimes it looked like there wasn’t a path at all, and we were cutting across a meadow or through someone’s backyard. We didn’t see or hear anyone else; the town seemed entirely deserted.
“You okay, Kev?” I whispered to him after we went over a big bump.
“Hangin’ in there,” he replied, but he didn’t sound all that great. “You know what I miss this time of year?”
“The World Series. I wonder if the Red Sox–”
“Save the baseball talk for General Aldridge, Kevin.”
“Not much farther to go,” the professor said.
We made one final turn, and then I could see the rippling of water in the distance and the outline of a long, dark structure. “The boathouse,” he whispered. We had made it!
We pulled up in front of the building. “Quickly,” the professor said, getting down from the carriage. “Larry, bring the lantern. We may have to risk a light inside.”
I turned to get the lantern. And that’s when I heard the voice.
“Stop right there! Turn around and get down! Both of you, raise your hands where I can see ’em.”
I turned, my heart pounding, and saw the shape of a man aiming a rifle at me. I did as I was told.
“Laurent,” he called out. “Wake up and give us some light if you please.”
He had one of those French-Canadian accents. In a few seconds a second soldier appeared out of the boathouse; he lit a lantern and held it up.
Both of the men had long hair and beards. The one with the rifle was big and burly; Laurent was smaller, and looked nervous. They were wearing dirty gray uniforms with the jackets unbuttoned.
“Put the lantern down and search them for weapons,” the burly soldier ordered Laurent. He seemed to be the boss.
Laurent came over and patted us down. “Trying to get to Boston, eh?” the other soldier asked meanwhile.
We didn’t reply.
“They don’t look like spies, Robert,” Laurent said when he was done. He pronounced it “Row-bare.”
“And what exactly do spies look like?” Robert snapped. “Do they wear red uniforms with ‘New England’ written on the sleeves?”
“We’re not spies,” the professor said. “We’re merely residents of Cambridge who delayed in evacuating.”
“Well, you delayed too long,” Robert said. “This is Canadian territory now. D’ye think we’re too stupid to guard this boathouse?”
“Shall we shoot them, Robert?” Laurent asked.
Robert looked annoyed. “No, fool, we bring them to headquarters and have them interrogated. Even if they’re not spies, they may have valuable information. Get some rope and tie them up.”
“Where’s the rope?”
Robert muttered what sounded like a French swear under his breath. “Hold the rifle and give me the lantern,” he said. “If either of them moves, shoot them both.”
“But I thought you said–”
Robert said the French word louder, then grabbed the lantern from Laurent and went back into the boat house. The professor and I stayed where we were. Laurent aimed the rifle at us in the moonlight.
And that’s when Kevin moved in the back of the carriage.
“What’s that?” Laurent demanded.
“That,” said the professor, “is our drikana patient.”
“Mon Dieu!” Laurent whispered, and he shifted the rifle and blessed himself. “Robert!” he called out. “Robert!”
Robert came back out of the boathouse a moment later, carrying another rifle along with the lantern. “What the devil is it?” he demanded, when he saw that neither of us had moved.
“D-drikana,” Laurent said, pointing to the carriage. “In the back.”
Robert went over to the carriage, shined the lantern inside, and saw Kevin lying down amid pillows and blankets.
“We were under claustration,” the professor said. “That’s why we were delayed in leaving.”
Why is he telling them about that? I wondered. They’ll want nothing to do with drikana, Lieutenant Carmody had said. They’d just burn us alive.
“Now let’s shoot them,” Laurent begged, proving my point.
“If you shoot us,” the professor pointed out, “you’ll have to bury us.”
Robert backed away from the carriage. “How do we know it’s drikana?” he said.
“Why else would we stay behind enemy lines instead of leaving with everyone else?” the professor replied.
“Please let’s shoot them,” Laurent said.
“Shut up!” Robert ordered him. “The claustration, it is over?” he asked the professor.
“It ended tonight. And now you can kill us and deal with our bodies, or you can let us row our patient over to the city.”
So then I understood what the professor was up to. The best solution for the Canadians was to let us go and bring the disease across the river into Boston. Let New England deal with us.
Robert got the point. “The boy is definitely ill,” he said. “Could be consumption, I suppose.”
“Could be,” the professor agreed. “But it’s drikana.”
Laurent looked very unhappy. “My sister died of it,” he said.
“It is not a pleasant disease.”
“Laurent, get a boat out for ’em,” Robert ordered. “They’re going to Boston.”
Laurent didn’t have to be told twice. He ran back into the boathouse, and soon after that we could hear him dragging a boat out into the water.
“This gun will be trained on you as you cross,” Robert said to us. “If I see you turning back, you’ll all be dead before you reach the shore.”
“We understand,” the professor replied. “Believe me, we have no desire to return to Cambridge.”
Robert motioned with the rifle. “Get the boy,” he ordered.
We put our hands down–my arms were really tired–and went to get Kevin. “Sorry,” he said.
“Sorry for what?” I replied. “Come on, Kev. Let’s get into the boat.”
The professor and I half-carried Kevin along a narrow path to the dock, where the boat was waiting. Laurent was standing as far away from us as he could on the dock. We arranged Kevin in the boat as well as possible, but he looked pretty uncomfortable. “We need the blankets,” Professor Palmer said to Laurent, and he motioned with the rifle to go back and get them. “Larry, you stay with Kevin,” the professor said.
“Say goodbye to Susie for us,” I said.
He patted me on the head and then returned to the carriage. “That was a smart move by the professor,” Kevin said while we waited.
“I bet he planned it all along, and just didn’t want to tell us.”
He returned in a minute with the blankets and pillows. “Can you row?” he asked me.
“A little.” Thank goodness I had taken lessons at camp last summer.
“We’ll take turns. You begin.”
Robert was on the dock now, too. “To Boston,” he reminded us. “Return, and you die.”
I picked up the oars, fit them into the oarlocks, and moved us away from the dock. “So far so good,” I said.
“Indeed,” the professor replied. “Unfortunately, now it begins to be really dangerous.”
Why? I didn’t want to ask. I focused on getting us out of the inlet and onto the river. I was pretty rusty at rowing, but I got back the hang of it quickly. The dock was out of sight once we were on the river, and I wondered how the Canadian soldiers were going to track us. Had Robert just been bluffing? The river was calm; its surface was like glass in the moonlight. There were just a few dim lights on either shore. And there wasn’t a sound except for the swooshing of the oars. It felt incredibly peaceful.
When we were about in the middle of the river, the professor said, “I’ll take over now.”
“I’m not tired,” I said. “I can make it the whole way.”
“Larry, let me take over,” he repeated. “I want you to get down in the bottom of the boat with Kevin.”
“Because I expect the New England soldiers will start shooting at us any moment now.”
“Huh? But the claustration is over! We’re okay.”
After a few weeks with us, the professor didn’t need a translation of “okay”. “They don’t know who we are,” he said. “They just see a boat heading toward them from enemy territory. They’re first instinct will be to shoot at it. Now do as I say and get down with Kevin.”
I didn’t really have a choice. I awkwardly switched positions with the professor, then scrunched down next to Kevin. “Scary, huh?” I said.
“Wouldn’t it be great just to feel safe again?” he replied.
“Not gonna happen anytime soon.”
We approached the Boston shore. The professor was a pretty good rower, for someone his age. “Won’t be long now,” he muttered. And then he shouted, “This is Alexander Palmer! Let us come ashore!”
He barely got the second sentence out when the guns started firing. The sound was like a punch in the stomach. The bullets sprayed the water around us. One of them nicked an oarlock. Kevin and I huddled together.
“Alexander Palmer!” the professor repeated at the top of his lungs. “I’m Professor Alexander Palmer! Don’t shoot! Let us come ashore!”
There was a pause. “You all right?” I asked the professor.
“Yes, yes. But their aim will get better as we get closer.” He shouted out his name again, and then added: “We are friends of Lieutenant William Carmody. We have no weapons.”
They fired a couple more shots at us, then I heard a shout from the shore that I couldn’t understand. But the shooting stopped after that, and we continued to make our way toward Boston. I sat up a little, and I saw a lantern ahead of us. “Over here,” a voice called out. “Stay in the boat.”
We eased up to the bank. A squad of soldiers approached, with rifles aimed at us. “You have the drikana patient with you?” one of them demanded.
“We do,” Professor Palmer replied.
The soldier came up to the boat. He was a short, plump lieutenant, and he carried a pistol instead of a rifle.
“He is much improved,” the professor said. “And the claustration is complete.”
The lieutenant peered in at Kevin. “Hi,” Kevin said.
“Sergeant,” the lieutenant called out. “Have you found the order from headquarters?”
“Yes, sir,” one of the other soldiers replied.
“What time does it expire?”
The lieutenant took out his watch and made a big deal of checking it. What a jerk, I thought. We hadn’t left Cambridge till after midnight. Obviously the time was up. “Very well,” he said. “I don’t approve, but the order is clear. Sergeant, find a wagon and get these people to hospital without delay. And keep everyone away from them.”
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant headed off away from the bank.
The lieutenant turned back to us. “Can he walk?”
“We can help him,” Professor Palmer replied.
“Follow the sergeant up the path. Don’t touch anyone. Don’t talk to anyone.”
“Let’s go, lads,” the professor said without replying to the lieutenant.
The lieutenant stepped back away from us as we got out of the boat. “Corporal,” he said to another soldier, “burn the boat and everything in it.”
“Welcome back to Boston, eh?” the professor said to us as we headed towards the path leading away from the river, and all the soldiers shrank back.
“Could have been worse,” I said.
“Indeed it could,” the professor replied. “Indeed it could.”