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…

Know what Dan Brown needs?! The interrobang!!!!

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?

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 35

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

And now (finally) the climax.


Chapter 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t bother answering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no,” Kevin said after a while.

Behind us we saw a dark shape on the road.

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go!” Kevin cried.

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

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

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

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

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

He looked cold.

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

“Is it here?” I demanded.

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

“Wait a minute!” I called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t, Kevin,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir.”

“Then kindly take the man’s pistol.”

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

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

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

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

“And you lads want to go home?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m prepared to take the risk.”

“Very well, then–go ahead.”

The lieutenant hesitated.  “Now?”

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

“What about the boys?”

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

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

General Aldridge casually returned the salute.

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to look at me.

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t speak.

Listen to your heart, the preacher had said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 19

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

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

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


Chapter 19

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

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

“Are people mad at me?”

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

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

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

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

“Well, uh, I–”

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

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

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

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

“And the Portuguese?”

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

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

General Aldridge turned to Professor Palmer.  “Professor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That brought nods from everyone.

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

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

“That is correct.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re going to fight,” I replied.

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

“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how?

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 17

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 . . .


Chapter 17

“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.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 15

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 . . .


Chapter 15

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?”

“What’s that?”

“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?”

“Midnight, sir.”

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.”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 14

Larry and Kevin went to Coolidge Palace to meet President Gardner, and Larry uses the Heimlich maneuver to save the president’s life.  Now the kids are returning to Cambridge, where things are about to get really serious . . .


Chapter 14

We returned to Cambridge the next day, and work started up again.  Everyone had rumors to spread: that the president was making plans to surrender, that General Aldridge was going to seize power from the president, that the people in the camps were going to riot, break out, and try to take over the government, that the Canadians were about to attack Cambridge . . .

It was hard to concentrate, but Lieutenant Carmody kept the pressure on.  “Work as if your lives depend on it,” he told people.  “Because they do.”

Professor Foster was scared to death of the lieutenant.  He was happy to talk about electricity and give little demonstrations for people, but he got very nervous when he actually had to accomplish anything.  I got the impression he was drinking heavily.  So Professor Palmer spent a lot of time working with him, making sure that he stayed focused on getting things done.

The balloons worked pretty well, except for one thing: they didn’t stay up long.  It turned out the hot air leaked out of the silk too quickly.  Kevin and I didn’t know anything about that.  Finally someone figured out that they should sort of coat the silk with linseed oil, and that did a good job of stopping up the leaks.  People started going up in them, and they were really excited when they came back down.  “The grandeur of God’s creation is laid out before you,” one of them said.

Lieutenant Carmody just wanted to know if they could see the Canadians with their spyglasses.

Kevin and I got to go up, and he had a lot more fun than I did.  “This is so cool!” he shouted, as we looked out over the farms and the church steeples and the houses and the distant river.  I decided maybe I was afraid of heights.

And then we got the word: the New England troops were retreating from Cambridge.  We were going to have to leave too.  “Where will we have the space to do our work in Boston?” Professor Palmer wanted to know.

“Only one place with enough room right now,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.  “The grounds of Coolidge Palace.”

“His Excellency doesn’t object?”

“He does not.  Which isn’t to say we won’t be capitulating to the enemy tomorrow.  Let’s get everything packed up.  We don’t have much time.”

“William, Harvest Day is in two days,” the professor pointed out.  “It would be–well, I would like to celebrate it at home.”

“A bit of a risk, Professor.”

“I know.  But it’s important to me.”

The lieutenant considered.  “Very well,” he said, “the troops are scheduled to leave the morning after Harvest Day, unless the Canadians attack first.  Be prepared to go with them; otherwise, we’ll be unable to guarantee your safety on this side of the river.”

Harvest Day.  One more thing different about this world: the holidays.  No trick-or-treating on Halloween.  No Thanksgiving at all.  They didn’t have anything like the customs we had on Christmas, and most people didn’t even celebrate it.  Harvest Day took place in late October, and it was kind of like Thanksgiving; you ate food you had grown on your farm and celebrated your good fortune in making it through another year.

Needless to say, people weren’t feeling very fortunate on this particular Harvest Day.  The guys we worked with were mostly soldiers, and they still had enough to eat, but civilians were starting to go hungry in the city, and the food situation was only going to get worse while the siege lasted.  People had started to sneak over into Cambridge and break into houses looking for anything they could eat or sell, and the military had had to seal off the bridges trying to keep everyone out.  It was getting nasty.

So Professor Palmer wanted to celebrate one last Harvest Day at his home, knowing that it might be a long time, if ever, before he got back there again.  And it was really nice that he wanted us to share the holiday with him.  Kevin and I spent the day before helping him pack up his important books and papers and loading them into the carriage.  We didn’t want any part of slaughtering one of the pigs, but he insisted.  “If you want to eat the meal, lads, you have to help prepare it.”  He pointed out that we would have to leave the pigs behind, and either Canadians or wolves would kill them eventually.  That didn’t make murdering the poor thing any less gross, though.  It was a lot more fun churning the butter and baking the apple pie and the bread.

On Harvest Day itself we could hear artillery fire in the distance, and that didn’t help the celebration.  The reality of having to leave this place had set in, and it wasn’t making any of us happy.

The professor began the big meal with a prayer of thanks, but as we ate he got off onto a topic that didn’t make us any happier.  “It occurs to me,” he said, “that if the theory you boys propose is correct, and there are an infinite number of universes, that means there are some in which war doesn’t exist, in which people have managed to find a way to live in peace and harmony with one another.”

“That’s not our universe for sure,” Kevin said.  “But I guess you’re right.”

“It’s hard to imagine, is it not?” the professor went on.  “Once I got used to the idea of a world like yours, I had only a little difficulty in imagining the wonders it might contain–airplanes and automobiles and computers and so on.  But imagining a world without war, without hatred, without these endless disputes over who owns each little plot of land . . .  My mind cannot comprehend such a place.”

“At least you can’t blow the whole planet up, like we can,” I pointed out.

“I suppose one should be grateful for that.  But I’m sure that someday even we will be able to unlock the secrets behind such weapons.  And then . . . ” the professor shrugged.  “Perhaps we will find the wisdom to refrain from using them.”

But he didn’t sound hopeful.

We ate till we were more than full, and then we sat on the professor’s front porch and watched the sun set, glowing purple and gold over the horizon.  The artillery fire had stopped, and we put aside all depressing thoughts.  I still missed my own family and my own world, of course, but I remember wishing that I could hold onto that moment forever, feeling peaceful and well-fed and at least moderately safe in the middle of the war and the hunger and the uncertainty.

But the moment didn’t last.  That was the night that Kevin got sick.


At first I thought it was part of a nightmare.  We went to bed early, knowing we had to leave by dawn.  I dreamt I was up in a balloon and the tether had broken.  I had no idea how to steer or how to land.  Below me, people were calling out instructions, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.  I was floating higher and higher into the clouds, more scared than I’d ever been in my life, when finally I managed to make out Kevin’s voice, calling faintly to me from far below.  “Larry, Larry . . . ”

“Kevin!” I called back, and I fought my way through the clouds until I opened my eyes.

. . . and realized I was lying on my bed.  I sighed with relief, until I heard Kevin call my name again in a faint voice.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Larry, I don’t feel so good,” he said weakly.  “Could you get the professor?”

I got up and looked at Kevin in the moonlight.  He was sweating, even though it was cold in the room, and his eyes glittered.  He looked frightened.  I felt his forehead; it was burning hot.  “Be right back,” I said.  I went and roused Professor Palmer.  When we got back to the room, Kevin was on his knees, throwing up into the chamberpot.

“Get a bucket of water and a cloth, Larry,” the professor ordered.  “Quickly.”

I rushed downstairs to the kitchen, and all I could think was drikana.

No cure.  You feel like you’re vomiting your entire insides out.  You die within a couple of days.

No cure.

If there was any immunity to drikana–or any other diseases in this world–Kevin and I didn’t have it.

When I got back to the room with the cloth, Kevin was in bed again, shivering.  The professor was leaning over him.  He took the cloth from me and put it over Kevin’s forehead.

“Is he going to be all right?” I asked.

The professor looked up at me.  “I don’t know, Larry,” he said softly.  “I don’t know if any of us is going to be all right.”

“Is it–is it–?”  I couldn’t bring myself to say its name.

The professor nodded.  “I think so, yes.”

“I want to go home,” Kevin moaned.  “I want my mom.”

“It’s all right, Kevin,” I said.  “It’s all right.”

“Please let me go home.  Please.

I was scared out of my mind.  “What do we do, Professor?” I asked.  “Can we help him?”

He handed me the cloth.  “Keep him cool, Larry,” he said.  “I’ll be right back.”

Aspirin, I thought.  Tylenol.  Motrin.  There was none of that stuff in this world.  Just a wet cloth on the forehead for someone who was burning up with fever.  Kevin threw up some more, and the stench was bad, but I couldn’t leave him.  After a couple of minutes the professor returned, and he was carrying a basin and a scalpel.  “What are you going to do?” I demanded.

“I have to bleed him, Larry.  It is the only way to evacuate the noxious humors.”

“No!” I screamed.  “That’s nuts!”

He hesitated.  “It’s the standard treatment,” he said.

“I don’t care.  In my world they stopped bleeding people, like, hundreds of years ago.  It doesn’t work.  It’s just a superstition.”

“Larry,” he said, “you have to trust me.  You don’t have this disease in your world.  We’ve lived with it for five hundred years.”

“And you haven’t cured it.  You don’t know a thing about it.  You don’t know a thing about medicine.  You’re not bleeding Kevin.”

I don’t know how I got the nerve to stand up to him–the famous Harvard professor–but I did.  He wasn’t going to touch my friend with that scalpel.

We stared at each other for a minute, and then Professor Palmer put the scalpel and basin down.  And somehow I knew what he was thinking: smallpox.  Vaccinations.  Our world could have saved his wife and son.  We knew more than he did.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Let us pray that you are right, Larry,” he replied.  “In any event, we must keep him clean and cool.  If he can sleep, that would be best.  The crisis will be over, one way or the other, within forty-eight hours.”

“There’s no other medicine we can give him?”

The professor shook his head.  “None that have any efficacy.  In any case, his stomach cannot tolerate anything.  He may be able to sip water, that’s all.”

In our world, Kevin would have been in an ambulance by now, heading for a hospital.  Here, even if there were a hospital around somewhere, the trip in the professor’s carriage over the bumpy roads would have killed him.  I was going to have to take care of him, along with the professor.  I was going to have to help him live.

I guess that was the worst night of my life–worse, even, than that first night in this world, back in the brig with Chester.  To see Kevin suffer, and not be able to do anything about it . . .  The vomiting continued, and then the diarrhea started, and a little while later convulsions . . .  Before long Kevin wasn’t begging to go home, he was begging to die.  “Please, Larry, please!  Stop the pain!  Stop the pain!”

I held his hand.  “You’re going to make it, Kevin!  You will!”  And I was thinking: Don’t leave me alone here, Kevin.  I need you!

After that he must have been delirious, because what he was saying didn’t make any sense at all.  And then he was to weak to say anything.

I must have fallen asleep eventually, because when I opened my eyes it was gray outside.  I was kneeling next to Kevin, and his hand was lying on my arm.  His eyes were closed.  At first I thought he might be dead, but then I could see his chest go up and down, just a little bit, and I relaxed.  He was sleeping, and that was good.

I heard a banging sound coming from outside, so I went downstairs to investigate.

The professor was on the front porch, nailing something onto one of the white columns.  “Is Kevin still asleep?” he asked.

“Uh-huh.  What are you doing?” I asked.

He motioned to me to take a look.  It was a big red “C” painted on a board.  “A notice of claustration,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“It tells the world there is a drikana patient inside.  By law and custom, no one can leave this place for seven days.”

So, claustration was their word for “quarantine.”  Seven days, I thought.  “But the Canadians are coming!” I said.  “We were supposed to leave this morning.”

“We can’t go anywhere now, I’m afraid.”

“We’ll be trapped,” I said.  “They’ll take us prisoner.”

“Larry, we can only hope that is the worst that happens to us.”

I shuddered.  The professor finished putting up the sign, and we went inside.  He had already made some tea, so we had a cup by the fireplace.  “So what happens next?” I asked him.

“When Kevin awakens, the vomiting will likely start all over again,” he replied.  “If it’s worse, it’ll continue to get worse, and he will probably die by nightfall.  If it’s better, not so intense, that’s a good sign, and he may survive.  If he’s still alive tomorrow, that’s a very good sign.”

“What are his odds?”

“Half the people who come down with the disease die of it.  The odds are a little better if you are young and healthy.”

So, fifty-fifty.  Some hope for Kevin.  But then there was the question that had been lurking in my mind, too scary to ask.  Now it was time to ask it.  “What about–what about us?  Are we going to come down with the disease?”

“I don’t know, Larry.  I’ve been around the disease many times but never contracted it.  Perhaps for some reason I have that immunity you talk about.  As for you–who knows?  I wish I could give you a better answer, but I can’t.”

“But we’ve already been exposed, right?  If we’re going to get it, we’re going to get it.”

“That’s right.  There’s nothing we can do about it at this point.”

“What does it feel like, when it starts?”

“They say it starts with dizziness, like the world won’t stop spinning around you.  And then you become nauseated and feverish.  And finally the vomiting begins.”

I closed my eyes.  Did I feel dizzy?  I didn’t think so.  Were there germs already inside me, getting ready to kill me?  There was no way of telling.  I opened my eyes.  The professor was looking at me.  He reached over and put a hand on my shoulder.  “I’m sorry, Larry,” he said.  And then I buried my face in his chest and started to cry.


Later in the morning Lieutenant Carmody showed up.  He called to us from the path leading up to the house.  When the professor and I went out on the porch, he said, “It’s Kevin, then?”  He stayed on his horse and didn’t come any closer.  He had seen the sign.

“It is Kevin,” the professor replied.  “Last night.”

“Does he still live?”

“Yes, thank God.”

“I am sorry indeed to hear of this, Professor,” the lieutenant said.  “We can’t protect you, you understand.  The last troops retreat over the bridge by noon.  We were getting worried when you didn’t come.  But we can’t delay.  The Canadians are no more than a mile away.”

“I understand the situation,” Professor Palmer replied.

“If you can, use your fireplace only at night,” the lieutenant advised.  “They’ll see the smoke during the day.”

“Yes, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“If you hear the enemy approach, get out as quickly as you can, before they see you.  They’ll probably fire the house when they notice the sign, and not bother looking inside.  They’ll want nothing to do with drikana.”

“Of course,” the professor said.  “That makes sense.”

“Why don’t we just take down the sign?” I asked the professor.

He shook his head.  “It’s not done, lad.  It’s just not done.”

“One more thing,” Lieutenant Carmody said.  “Perhaps I needn’t say this, but I fear it’s my duty.  Do not try to reach Boston before the end of the claustration.  Important as you are, and as much as I respect and admire you, the law cannot be broken, especially not now.  Orders will be issued to shoot you on sight until the week has passed.”

“I would do the same myself, William,” the professor replied.

The lieutenant nodded.  “It’s an ill time for us all.  Fare you well, then.  And may God have mercy on the three of you.”

Then he rode off, leaving us utterly alone.

Upstairs, Kevin started to moan.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 13

In the alternate universe Kevin and Larry find themselves stuck in, they are helping the United States of New England in its war against New Portugal and Canada.  The boys are working with the military on hot air balloons and electricity when they get a summons from President Gardner.  Their guardian, Professor Palmer, is not happy about it.

Previous chapters are up there on the menu.  They’re all pretty good!


Chapter 13

“The man’s an idiot,” Professor Palmer said.  “We won’t go.”

General Aldridge scratched his chin.  “I may have my disagreements with the president, but I fear he’s no idiot.  In any case, you don’t have any choice.  This wasn’t an invitation, Alexander; it was a summons.”

“Why can’t we just bring him out here and show him what we’ve accomplished?” Kevin asked.

“One must first persuade him that it’s worth the trip,” the general replied.  “Lieutenant, see that they get to the palace.  If Professor Palmer gives you any trouble, arrest him or something.  I’ll follow along presently.”

“Yes, sir.”  Lieutenant Carmody turned to us.  “Let’s go, then, shall we?”

The lieutenant didn’t have his carriage, so we all piled into Professor Palmer’s.  He decided we needed to improve our appearance, so we stopped back at the house, cleaned up, and borrowed a couple of the professor’s dressy white shirts.  They were about the right size for me, but way too big for Kevin.  Lieutenant Carmody thought it was an improvement, though.

The professor, meanwhile, was still in a snit.  “Everything is wasted–science, planning, courage–without political wisdom,” he said.

“We elected the president,” Lieutenant Carmody pointed out.

“Not with my vote.  He promised us a stronger New England.  And now with his reckless adventurism he has all but destroyed it.”

The lieutenant wasn’t very interested in what the professor had to say about President Gardner.  He just wanted to get us to Coolidge Palace.  Once we had changed, we got back in the carriage and hurried off to Boston.

It was twilight by the time we crossed the bridge into the city.  Things were looking worse.  Many of the trees I had seen there on the trip to Cambridge had been chopped down–for firewood, I guess; the smoke from the fires in the refugee camp stung my eyes.  The smell of sewage was almost unbearable.  There were fewer people on the streets, but those who were out looked tired and hungry.  More than one of them rushed up to the carriage with his hands outstretched, begging for food.  We didn’t stop.

In our world, I’d gone into Boston a couple of times to visit the Massachusetts State House, a big brick building with a gold dome at the top of Beacon Hill.  Here, there was more than one hill in the center of the city, and the president lived in a mansion at the top of the middle hill.  This was Coolidge Palace–named, I found out, after the first president of New England, Sir Calvin Coolidge.  I remembered him as a not-so-important president in our world, so that struck me as really strange.  But I didn’t say anything about it.

We drove up to the front gate, which was guarded by stern-looking soldiers with those silly plumes in their hats.  Lieutenant Carmody got out of the carriage and talked to one of them, who came up and looked at us suspiciously.  He wrote down our names, then opened the gates and let us through.

It was like going through the portal again–this time entering a serene, lovely world where nothing was out of place.  As we drove up the gravel drive to the large granite building we saw one groundskeeper sweeping leaves off the immaculate lawn, another trimming a bush that was so perfectly shaped it looked artificial.

“No refugees allowed near Coolidge Palace,” Professor Palmer muttered.  “Wouldn’t do.”

At the front steps a groom took Professor Palmer’s carriage, and then a tall man in a bright green suit wearing a long white wig escorted us up the steps and opened the door for us.  I thought I caught him sneering at Kevin and me, in our crufty pants and shoes, but I couldn’t be sure.  This was the first time I’d ever seen anyone in a wig for real, and I almost burst out laughing.  He led us along a couple of corridors lined with portraits of people I didn’t recognize, and finally deposited us in a small room whose walls were painted with scenes of pretty shepherdesses tending flocks of sheep.  He instructed us to wait there until summoned, and then he left.

“Waste of time,” the professor said.

Lieutenant Carmody gave us instructions about how to act in front of the president.  Give a small bow when you’re introduced, speak only when spoken to, throw in lots of “Your Excellency”‘s.  He looked like he was right at home in the palace.

Eventually the guy in the green suit led in General Aldridge.  He had shaved and put on a clean uniform, although the way he wore it, it still managed to look rumpled.  At least he wasn’t chewing on a cigar.  He sat in one of the overstuffed armchairs and folded his arms.  “His Excellency is dining this evening with the British ambassador and friends,” he said.  “I expect that we are the entertainment.”

“What’s the game?” Lieutenant Carmody asked.  “Is he trying to embarrass you?”

“Perhaps.  Show that he’s still in charge.”

“He could simply discharge you.”

“At the risk of having half his cabinet resign,” General Aldridge pointed out.  “Lord Percival would certainly object, as would some of the others.  At any rate, the president can’t afford a political crisis now.  And he can’t afford to make me too angry.”

Professor Palmer seemed to pick up on this.  “Your soldiers respect you, Solomon,” he said, “and they don’t respect Gardner.  They’ll follow you, if you decide to–”

The general raised a hand.  “Rebellion is not an option,” he replied in a stern voice.

“But surrender is?”

“None of us can guarantee victory,” the general replied.  “Even with electricity on our side.”

“How do you think the president found out about us?” Kevin asked.

“The president has spies everywhere, and there are many people working on our projects.  Apparently Cambridge wasn’t far enough away to keep them secret from him.  I didn’t really think it would be.  As for you boys–it isn’t clear what he knows about you, other than your existence.  So I think we should just find out.”

So we fell silent and waited some more.  Night fell, and I got hungry.  I started to wonder if this was some kind of punishment, and we weren’t really going to see anybody after all.  Then at last the guy in the green suit returned, and we walked down another fancy corridor.  He opened a set of big double doors, and we were ushered into the presence of the president of New England.

General Aldridge went in first, and the rest of us followed.  We were in a large dining room with high ceilings and walls covered with more portraits of men wearing wigs.  A bunch of people were seated at a long table, eating dinner.  My stomach growled as I caught the aroma of roast beef.  A fat, red-faced man sat at the head of the table, digging into his food like he was afraid any minute the Portuguese would swoop down and grab it away from him.  He was wearing a black coat, a white ruffled shirt, and a short wig.  Sweat poured down his face.  When he noticed us he waved a fork at General Aldridge.  “Solomon,” he said, “I hear these boys are your new military advisers.”  He had a strange, high-pitched voice.

The remark didn’t seem very funny to me, but the men and women at the table gave it a big laugh.  Most of the men wore black suits, like the president.  The women wore fancy gowns and lots of jewelry; their hair was piled up so high on top of their heads I thought they might lose their balance.

General Aldridge smiled and bowed.  “Your Excellency,” he said, “nowadays I take advice wherever I can get it.”

“Odd you can’t get good advice from your highly trained staff.  You’ve met the Earl of Chatham, Solomon?”

The general bowed to the guy on the president’s right, a short man with huge ears that stuck out from his wig.  “Mr. Ambassador, good to see you again.”

The earl nodded back with a little smile.  He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.

“You,” the president said, pointing his fork at Kevin, “where are you from, boy?”

Kevin remembered to bow; I’m not sure I would have.  “From Glanbury, Your Excellency,” he said.

The president chuckled.  “Glanbury?  When has anything useful come out of that godforsaken village?”  More laughter from the table.  The president speared a hunk of roast beef and stuck it into his mouth, looking satisfied with himself.  “And you are full of advice for General Aldridge?”

“Not really, Your Excellency.  We’re just staying with Professor Palmer.”

“I hear differently,” the president replied.  “I am told there are very strange doings over in Cambridge.”

“We are attempting to develop–” General Aldridge began.

“I know exactly what you’re attempting to do,” the president interrupted.  “We’re besieged by our enemies, winter is setting in, and you’re devoting precious time and manpower to projects suggested to you by ten-year-olds?”

I wanted to yell at him that Kevin and I were both teenagers, practically, but I managed to restrain myself.

“Come and see for yourself, Your Excellency,” the general offered calmly.

President Gardner waved away the suggestion and speared another hunk of roast beef with his knife.  “Mr. Ambassador,” he said, turning to the earl next to him.  “What is the message you delivered to me today, smuggled in from your superiors in London at great risk?”

The earl shifted in his seat and looked uncomfortable.  “Excellency,” he said, “I think it more suitable for–”

“Come, Cecil, we are all friends here,” the president insisted.

People around the table grew quiet.

“Sir,” the earl began, “His Majesty’s government regret that they will be unable to provide assistance to your nation in its current difficulty.  Unfortunately, the demands of the war in Europe preclude–”

“Thank you, Cecil, we all understand about the demands of war,” the president said.  He motioned to a servant to refill his glass with wine.  The earl looked down at his plate.

“Sir,” General Aldridge said to the president, “this is unhappy news.  But it simply means that we have all the more reason to press ahead with our efforts.”

“It means what I say it means,” the president retorted.  And he stuffed a large chunk of beef into his mouth.  I looked at General Aldridge.  He had turned red.  I imagined it was all he could do to keep his temper.  I had no idea how Professor Palmer was keeping his.

I looked back at the president, and his face was red, too.  Then he stood up.  One hand reached for his throat, the other reached for his wine, but knocked it over.  He tried to say something, but nothing came out.

He was choking on his meat.

The people at the table started shouting out instructions.  One of the servants came over and pounded the president on the back.  Didn’t help.  His eyes were bulging now, and his face was the color of a rotten tomato.  He gestured wildly, hitting one of the servants who was trying to loosen his collar.

That’s when I figured I should do something.

Mom made me take a first aid course in fifth grade.  It had never come in handy till that instant.

I went up behind the president–no one seemed to notice me.  He was doubled over now, still clutching at his throat.  I shoved a lady out of the way, then wrapped my arms around him, put my hands together, and pushed up on his chest.

The first push didn’t work.  I could feel people grabbing at me now, trying to pull me away, but I managed to try again.  And this time the piece of meat popped out of the president’s mouth.

People dragged me away from him then, and I didn’t see what happened next.  I was afraid some security guy was going to shoot me, but eventually they let me go and got out of the way, and President Gardner stood facing me.  His face was still red and splotchy, but at least he didn’t look like he was going to keel over.  At least he was breathing.

“You were the one?” he demanded.  “You saved me?”

I nodded.

“How did you learn how that–that thing you just did?”

“We know how to do a few things in Glanbury,” I said.  “Your Excellency.”

Kind of a wisecrack, I know, but he had made a wisecrack about my home town.  He stared at me, and I wondered if he was going to have me beheaded or something.  And then he threw his head back and laughed.  “Very well, then,” he said.  “Your village is apparently not as benighted as I had imagined.”  He picked up a glass of wine.  “A toast–to Glanbury!”

That kind of broke the tension.  The president ordered places to be set for all of us, so we got to eat some of that roast beef.  Which was good, because I was just about starving at that point.  The servants offered to pour us wine, but Kevin and I asked for milk instead.  General Aldridge ate, but he still didn’t look happy.  Professor Palmer asked me about what I’d done.  “Is that something from your world?”

“Uh-huh,” I said.  “It’s called the Heimlich maneuver.  I guess you haven’t figured it out here.”

“Indeed.  I wonder if it will change his attitude towards us.”

“Can’t hurt,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.  “You know, General Aldridge is right: he’s not as incompetent as you think, Professor.  He took some gambles during his presidency and lost.  But some would say the gambles had to be made, if New England were to survive.”

This was more of an opinion than we usually heard the lieutenant offer.  But Professor Palmer wasn’t buying it.  “A real leader would not be locked up behind palace gates,” he said, “swilling wine while his countrymen starve.”

The lieutenant shrugged.  “He has just seen his last gamble fail–reason enough to seek solace.  And in any case, little would change if the wine were not drunk.”

After the meal was over we got another summons from the green-suited butler.  The president wanted to see us all privately.  The butler brought us to a big office with lots of bookcases and a fire blazing in a marble fireplace.  “Now we’ll get down to business,” General Aldridge murmured.  Lieutenant Carmody, Kevin, and I stayed in the back of the room, while the general and the professor sat in a couple of chairs next to the fire.  Eventually the president showed up, followed by a couple of the guys who had been at the dinner.  One was tall, dark-haired, and a little stoop-shouldered, as if he had gone through too many doorways that were too small for him.  The other one was shorter, with a narrow face and bright eyes; he had taken his wig off, so you could see there were just a few wisps of gray hair on the top of his head.  “Vice President Boatner and the Foreign Minister, Lord Percival,” Lieutenant Carmody whispered to us.

General Aldridge and Professor Palmer stood as the others entered.  “Oh, sit down, sit down,” the president said, and he himself sank into one of the chairs by the fire.  He looked really tired.  The vice president and the foreign minister sat on either side of him.  “Anyone care for a brandy?” he asked.

No one did.  He sighed and waved the butler out of the room.

“So, would you care to explain about these boys, General?” the president said.  “I have heard that they are the spawn of Satan.  Seems rather unlikely, from the look of ’em, but what do I know?”

“Nothing as interesting as that, I fear,” General Aldridge replied.  “They were impressed onto a pirate ship a couple of years ago and spent a good deal of time in China.  On the return voyage they escaped and made their way back home to Glanbury, but the Portuguese had overrun the place, so they had to flee to Boston.  They are bright lads and picked up a good deal of useful knowledge in the Orient.  We are merely trying to take advantage of it amid our current difficulties.”

I was impressed by how smoothly the general could lie; he was very convincing.  The president shifted in his chair and stared at Kevin and me.  “They look no more like pirates than they do the spawn of Satan,” he remarked.  “But your story is somewhat more plausible, I suppose.  Now please tell us what is going on over there in Cambridge.”

So General Aldridge went through it all, with some help from Professor Palmer.  The president folded his hands over his big belly and closed his eyes.  I thought he might be falling asleep, but he opened his eyes every once in a while to ask a good question.  The foreign minister asked questions, too, but the vice president stayed silent.  The president especially liked the idea of balloons.  “Imagine being able to simply float away from this siege,” he murmured.  “How delightful.”

“Nevertheless,” the vice president said suddenly, “you should end all this nonsense immediately.”

“May I ask why, Randolph?” the general said.

“Because our only hope is in negotiating with the enemy, and if they find out what you are doing, it will simply make the negotiations more difficult.”

“Why so?  If they find out, I suggest it will incline them to negotiate more seriously, realizing how difficult we are going to make it for them to defeat us.”

“It will more likely incline them to end negotiations altogether and attack immediately, before you have a chance to complete your little science experiments.”

“They are far more than science experiments,” Professor Palmer replied hotly.  “They have the capacity to revolutionize the way we conduct warfare.”

“We have neither the men nor the munitions to defeat this enemy, now that the British have abandoned us,” the vice president insisted.  “To believe anything else is arrant nonsense.”

The president looked over at the foreign minister.  “Benjamin, what say you?  Might as well get everyone into the fray.”

“Well of course you know I disagree with Randolph,” Lord Percival began.  He had the most British accent of anyone I’d met so far, except the Earl of Chatham.  “We’re in a dire situation, I won’t deny it.  But if the Canadians and Portuguese believe they have such a decisive advantage as Randolph describes, why haven’t they attacked already, instead of sitting outside our gates and waiting for us to crumble?  They have as much to fear from a long siege as we do.  Their supply lines are hopelessly extended, so they have to live off the land–but what supplies will be left for them, by January?  And of course the Portuguese soldiers aren’t used to the cold, and neither Portuguese nor Canadians are eager to be here in the first place.  Their armies may simply melt away if they don’t make a decisive move soon.

“Now we have these new developments from Solomon.  I say, let them continue.  They may be enough to alter the balance.  I don’t know.  If the enemy do find out about them, that’s all to the good, in my judgment.  Let the enemy worry that they’ve got in deeper than they’d prepared for.  Let them realize that the price for this adventure may be far greater than they are willing to pay.”

“Bosh,” the vice president retorted.  “We all know this will be finished well before January.  They are waiting for the moment of maximum preparedness on their side, maximum vulnerability on ours.  Then they will strike.  And nothing that General Aldridge is doing or can do will change the outcome.  We need to negotiate now, and hope we escape with our lives.”

President Gardner raised a hand, and everyone fell silent.  “You see how clear my advisers make things for me,” he said.  “Ah, well.”  He turned to the vice president.  “Randolph, make contact with the enemy tomorrow.  We begin negotiations for surrender.”

The vice president bowed, looking satisfied.  “Very well, Your Excellency.”

“But Your Excellency–” Professor Palmer began.

The president glared at him, and he fell silent.  “Solomon,” he said to General Aldridge, “in the meantime, please continue your ‘science experiments,’ as Randolph calls them.  I see no good reason not to continue preparing for the final battle, even if it may not occur.”

The general bowed slightly in turn.  “Thank you, sir.”

The president waved his hand at us.  “All right then, you may all go.”  Everyone got up to leave.  As I was headed for the door the president pointed at me.  “You, stay a moment, if you please.”

I looked at Lieutenant Carmody, who grinned and gave me a little shove back towards the president.

“Sit,” the president ordered when everyone was gone.

I sat down next to him.

“Your name?”

“Larry Barnes, Your Excellency.”

“Master Barnes, would you like a cigar or a glass of brandy?”

“Uh, no thank you, Your Excellency.”

“Odd.  I’d think a pirate boy would have developed a taste for tobacco and spirits.”

“I’m still a little young, Your Excellency.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”  He leaned back in his chair.  “Tell me about China, Master Barnes.  I’ve always had an interest in the place, but I’ve met so few who have actually travelled there.”

Great, I thought.  I’m supposed to lie to the president.  “Well, it’s really . . . different.  Lots of people.  In some ways they’re, uh, pretty advanced.”

“Yes, the electricity, and the–what was it?–the balloons.  What else?”

What else?  I tried to think what else.  “Like, toilets,” I said.  I explained about flush toilets.  That was pretty good.  Then I brought up bicycles, because I’d seen a TV show about how everyone in China rides a bicycle.  I’d seen a few here, but they were really primitive-looking.  Then the president asked me what they ate in China, and I had a good answer for that, too, because we ate Chinese food at home a lot.

President Gardner looked kind of puzzled after a while.  “Well, you do seem to know something about China,” he said.  “It must feel strange to be back here in New England.”

“Pretty strange,” I agreed.  “But I’m getting used to it.”

“Yes.  Good.  Well, I want to thank you for saving my life, Master Barnes.  Very fortuitous that you were here tonight.”

“My pleasure, Your Excellency.”

The president stood, and we shook hands.  “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cigar?” he asked.

I was sure.

Outside, General Aldridge had already left, but Lieutenant Carmody, Professor Palmer, and Kevin were waiting for me, eager to know what happened.  “We talked about China,” I said.

“He doesn’t believe our story,” the lieutenant remarked.

“Maybe he’s not so sure now.  I was pretty convincing.”

“Good lad,” the professor said.

“Too late to return to Cambridge, I’m afraid,” the lieutenant said.  “Let’s go to the barracks.  Then back to work in the morning.  The stakes are only getting higher.”

Kevin and I returned to our old room in the attic.  “More interesting than The Gross, huh?” I said, feeling pretty good about my meeting with the president.

“Yeah, but I’d still rather be home.”

I lay down on the thin mattress.  Kevin was right, of course.  But still . . . it wasn’t everyday you save the president’s life, and he offers you brandy and a cigar.  And that sure beat having to deal with Stinky Glover and my stupid sister.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 12

Kevin and Larry have come up with a couple of ideas — hot-air balloons and electric fences — that may help the war effort against New Portugal and Canada.  And now things start to change even further for them . . .

Earlier chapters are up there on the menu under “Portal.”


Chapter 12

Things changed once the meeting with General Aldridge was over.  We all went back to army headquarters, and Lieutenant Carmody and Professor Palmer had a long meeting to figure out what they needed to do.  Kevin and I just hung around in the courtyard, wondering what was going to happen next.

“They wouldn’t just get rid of us now, would they?” Kevin asked.

“No way.  We’re too valuable.”

“Why?  They’ve got what they need from us.”

“But they’ll want more, won’t they?” I pointed out.  “I think we’ll be okay.”

Kevin didn’t look reassured.  Luckily, Peter came along and made us forget about our problems for a while.  “How are your zippers, mates?” he asked us, grinning.

“Don’t have ’em anymore,” I replied.  “It’s hard getting used to these buttons.”

“I bet it is.  The lieutenant is very interested in you lads, you know.”

Peter pronounced the word “loo-tenant.”

“What do you think of Lieutenant Carmody?” Kevin asked.

“Oh, he’s a good enough sort,” Peter replied.  “Plenty ambitious.  I expect he’ll be president one of these days, assuming we still have a president, so you want to stay downwind of him.”

I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I think I got the idea.  The lieutenant and Professor Palmer came out a little while later, looking serious.  “Lots to be done, lads,” Lieutenant Carmody said.  “You’ll stay the night here and return to Cambridge in the morning.  Be sure to remain quiet about where you come from.  No tales of portals and alternate universes and such.  If it comes up, say you were cabin boys on a pirate ship that visited China.  People will believe anything about China.  Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Will we be doing anything to help?” Kevin asked.

“Of course you will,” Professor Palmer replied.  “We just have to get organized first.”  He seemed to understand that we were worried.  “If we actually manage to win this dreadful war, lads,” he pointed out, “you’ll be heroes.”

That was a good thought, although it wasn’t clear how we’d be heroes if we were supposed to keep everything secret.  Anyway, we went back to the hot attic room where we had spent the night before meeting Professor Palmer for the first time, and we waited for the professor and the lieutenant to do their business in the city.  Early the next morning we returned to Cambridge with the professor.  In the barn, the chickens and the pigs were hungry and the cow needed milking, and it almost (but not really) felt like we were coming home.

We took over the cricket fields at Harvard for our work.  Lieutenant Carmody was worried about the Canadians pushing into Cambridge unexpectedly, but here we had the space and the privacy we needed, so he decided to take the risk.  Equipment and people started arriving almost immediately, and the professor spent a lot of time talking with the experts he’d brought in to help.  Most of them started out pretty dubious about the whole thing, but his reputation kept them at it.

The balloons turned out to be the most straightforward thing we attempted.  It was easy enough to start with toy models and then get bigger as people started to understand the idea.  One tricky part was figuring out the right way to control heating the air to make the balloons rise.  That was pretty much a matter of trial and error.  Another problem was creating the big wicker baskets, which involved finding willow trees and reeds in the city.  To obtain the silk for the full-size balloons they held a drive to get all the upper-class ladies in the city to hand over their old dresses, telling them they were for bandages.  The results looked kind of strange, but they worked.

The electricity business was harder.  It was a good thing Kevin had been paying attention when Mrs. DiGenova did the electricity unit in the fifth grade–of course, that was the sort of thing Kevin liked.  I remembered about copper being a good conductor, but I had sure forgotten about zinc in batteries, and I had also forgotten how you could transform the energy in, like, waterfalls or even pedaling bikes into electricity.

Luckily, they found Professor Foster–the guy Professor Palmer thought would be drunk in a ditch somewhere.  I don’t know if he was an alcoholic, but he was really strange.  He was very tall, with frizzy brown hair and the palest skin I’d ever seen.  Someone called him a walking mushroom, and that seemed like a pretty good description.  But the big thing was, he loved electricity.  It seemed to him to be the most wonderful, mysterious thing in creation.  Lieutenant Carmody didn’t want us talking to most of the people who were involved in the projects, but he agreed to let Professor Foster meet with us.

We described batteries to him and he seemed to catch on immediately.  “Yes, yes, an array of capacitors!” he shouted.  “Leyden jars connected in parallel!”

I had no idea what he was talking about.  He brought Professor Palmer, Lieutenant Carmody, Kevin, and me to his laboratory, which was located in a shed behind his house in Cambridge.  It was a dusty place filled with pieces of metal, wires, and bottles of chemicals.  He showed us a jar lined with foil.  At the top of the jar was a ball connected to a shaft.  “Do you see?” he said.  “You use the ball of sulphur to rotate the shaft like so–”

“–and the electrical charge builds up in the foil,” Kevin said.

“Exactly!” Professor Foster exclaimed.  “What a brilliant boy!”  He turned to the lieutenant.  “Would you like to touch the foil?”

Lieutenant Carmody didn’t appear eager to do it, but he reached his hand into the jar and, sure enough, got a shock.

“You see, the current moved from the foil to your hand,” the professor explained.

“I built one of these in my basement,” Kevin said while the lieutenant rubbed his hand.

“Remarkable!  Stupendous!”

“Can we kill people with this?” the lieutenant asked.

That shut everyone up for a minute.

“Lightning kills,” Professor Foster said finally, in a much lower tone.  “We cannot capture the power of lightning.”

“But these boys–”

“All I know about is the electric fence,” I said.  “The electricity runs along the wires and just gives you a shock if you touch it.”  But I really wasn’t so sure about that.  I thought about the electric fence in Jurassic Park and how powerful it was.  Could they do something like that here?

“An electric fence would be a sight better than Aldridge’s foolish mounds of earth and pointed sticks,” Professor Palmer pointed out to the lieutenant.

“It all depends on the charge we can build up, store in the battery–what an evocative name!–then transmit along the wire,” Professor Foster said.  He absently turned the shaft in the jar.  “Copper and zinc,” he muttered, “copper and zinc . . . There are practical difficulties, I suppose.”

“We have six weeks,” the lieutenant said.  “Eight at the outside.  Any longer than that, and your work will be useless.”

This seemed to fluster him completely.  “Oh, my.  I don’t see how . . . well, perhaps . . . ”

The lieutenant looked at Professor Palmer.

“I will work with Bartholomew,” the professor said.  “If it can be done, we will do it.”

Lieutenant Carmody nodded, satisfied.  “Let’s get started, then.”

Professor Palmer explained to us about his friend later, when we were back home for the night.  “Electricity has never been taken seriously, I fear.  I have seen those jars used as an entertainment at parties–young ladies think it quite daring to put their hands inside and receive a shock.  So Bartholomew’s interest in electricity has always seemed bizarre, almost amusing, to most people.  To have it become part of the effort to win the war–well, it’s a bit much for him to take in.”

He set up the chess board to play Kevin.  I sat down at the piano and started playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.

“Do you think we we’ll be able to win the war?” Kevin asked.

“I’m not a soldier, thank God,” the professor replied.  “I have no idea what it will take to win militarily.  But I do know that we cannot win if we lack the will–if we believe the cause is hopeless and victory impossible.  That is the current situation, thanks to our president’s ineptitude.  Right now it is just a matter of counting out the days to our defeat and hoping it will be as painless as possible.  But defeat is never entirely painless.  Speaking of defeat, I would be paying particular attention to your rook, if I were you.”

“But that could be changing, right?” Kevin asked.  “I mean, the attitude.”

“Let us hope so.  Let us hope.”


“Larry, do you notice how we’re saying ‘we’ now?” Kevin asked me that night in our room.


“When we talk about this place–about New England.  Used to be we’d say, ‘Are you going to win?’  Now it’s, ‘Are we going to win?'”

I thought about that.  “You’re right,” I said.  “We’re part of it now.”

“Not that I’m not thinking about home, you know?” he went on.  “It’s just–we’re here.  This is it.”

“When the war is over,” I said, “all we have to do is go back to Glanbury and find the portal.”

“Yeah.  If we survive.  If we’re not, like, sold into slavery or something.”

“We’ll survive.  We’ll win.  We’ll get back there.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Home.  I realized I hadn’t been thinking about it as much lately.  My fights with Cassie, my annoyance with Matthew and Mom and Stinky Glover . . . all that stuff was starting to seem kind of far away now.  We had a war to win.  And in the meantime, I was getting used to going to the privy, to lighting candles and oil lamps, to living without TV, even to eating watery porridge and salt pork.


I fell asleep on my lumpy mattress, and my dreams were strange and confused.


After a few weeks General Aldridge came to Cambridge to check on our progress.  The hot-air balloons were going well.  We had a small prototype that was tethered to the cricket field by a fifty-foot rope.  It looked kind of goofy, stitched together out of all those different-colored dresses, but it worked.  The general peered up at it as it floated above him.  “People can fly in that contraption?” he asked.

“After a fashion,” Lieutenant Carmody replied.

The general laughed.  “If that doesn’t scare the Portuguese, nothing will.”

As Lieutenant Carmody had expected, we had been less successful with the stuff we were trying to do with gunpowder.  Nobody had a solution for the moisture problem, least of all Kevin and me.  General Aldridge talked with the munitions guys, and then said, “No sense wasting time.  Pack up and return to your units.”

Then there was electricity.  Professor Foster had moved his equipment from his shed to a larger building near the cricket fields.  He was so excited to be explaining his work that he was practically bouncing off the walls.  “The electrical fluid moves along the wire,” he said, showing the apparatus he had set up.  “The side that gains fluid acquires a vitreous charge.  The side that loses fluid acquires a resinous charge.  According to my calculations, the force between the charge varies inversely as the square of the distance.  So it follows that–”

“Touch the wire,” Lieutenant Carmody said.

General Aldridge looked at him.  “What?”

“Touch the wire, sir,” the lieutenant repeated.

The general hesitated, then reached out and grabbed the wire.  “Drat, that smarts!” he shouted, jumping back and glaring at the lieutenant.

Professor Foster clapped his hands in glee.  “You see?” he said.  “You see?  A fundamental force of the universe, under our control.  Isn’t it marvelous?”

That started a barrage of questions from the general.  How much electricity could you store?  How far would it travel along the wire?  What happened if the wire broke?  Professor Foster answered as well as he could.

“That’s good,” General Aldridge said finally.  “That’s very good.  Lieutenant, we need to talk about deployment.”

“Yes, sir.”

We all walked out of the building.  I was pretty happy.  Professor Foster looked like he was about to levitate with joy.

Outside, a soldier in a fancy red-and-gold uniform was waiting on a large black horse.  He was wearing a big hat with an even bigger white plume on top.  When he saw us he dismounted, stuck the hat under his left arm, and saluted the general.  “Message, sir,” he said.  “The honor of a reply is requested.”

General Aldridge didn’t look happy.  Neither did the lieutenant.  The soldier took a letter out of his pocket and handed it to the general.  He broke the seal, opened it, and studied it for a moment before handing it back.  “All right,” he muttered.

The soldier hesitated.  “Is that your answer, sir?”

“Of course it is, you dimwit,” the general exploded.  “Now begone!”

The soldier hastily got back onto his horse and rode off.

“Er, bad news?” Professor Foster asked.

General Aldridge glared at him for a moment, and then shrugged.  “Depends on one’s point of view, I suppose,” he said.  “My presence is required at Coolidge Palace.”

“Well, uh, that doesn’t sound–”

“Gardner knows,” Professor Palmer said.

General Aldridge nodded.  “Yes, apparently he knows.”

“But surely he can’t complain about–”

“You’re invited as well,” the general said.  “And the boys.  He knows about the boys.  He wants all work stopped until he’s met them.”  He looked at us.  “You’re in luck, lads,” he said.  “You’re about to meet His Excellency, the President of the United States of New England.”