Portal, an online novel: Chapter 10

Well, we’re about a quarter of the way through.  The story so far: Larry and his friend Kevin, who live in a suburb south of Boston, have stumbled through some kind of portal into a parallel universe.  Here, there is no “America”; instead they have landed in a  “United States of New England” that’s fighting a war with Canada and New Portugal.  They make their way to Boston, which is preparing for a siege, and no one is optimistic about winning the war.  Kevin shows his multi-function watch to some soldiers, and this eventually brings the boys to the attention of New England’s military commander, General Gardner and his aide, Lieutenant Carmody.  They are (somewhat) convinced that the Kevin and Larry are from another world, but they can’t figure out how the boys can help the war effort.  So they send the boys off to live with Professor Palmer in Cambridge, hoping that he can come up with some ideas.  And that brings us to . . .

Chapter 10

“My housekeeper left to join her daughter’s family in Boston,” Professor Palmer explained, “but I’m used to fending for myself.  Kindly have a seat.”

The kitchen was large and sunny, with a big open fireplace along the inside wall.  We sat in a couple of straight-backed wooden chairs in a corner and watched him putter for a while in silence.  When he was done, we helped him bring the food into the dining room, which was small and dark and kind of stuffy.  We ate cold roast chicken, and it was just about the best chicken I’d ever tasted.  I was beginning to get the idea that food here was either terrible or delicious.  Like the soldiers in the mess hall, he ate with his knife.  His fork only had two prongs, and he used it just to hold down the meat while he cut it.  Weird.

“Before long, meals like this will be but a memory,” the professor said.  “We must enjoy them while we can.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied.  “It’s very good.”

“Yes.  Well.”  He paused, then fell silent and looked down at his plate.  He seemed to be having difficulty starting up a conversation with us.

“Do you believe us?” Kevin asked.

He looked up and blinked rapidly.  “You know, I want very much to believe you,” he replied.  “Knowledge is so hard to come by.  In many ways we have learned little–and forgotten much–since the ancient Greeks.  The idea that somewhere, somehow, another turn was taken, and so much more has been discovered and accomplished–it is deeply exciting.  But then, there is still Occam’s razor.”

“We’re telling the truth,” I said.  “We’re not smart enough to make up all this stuff.”

The professor nodded.  “That is actually the most powerful argument in your favor.  Your theory, though–that we live our lives countless times, in countless different worlds–simply doesn’t feel real.  It is the stuff of fantastical late-night conversations in college common rooms, after too many glasses of port.  Lieutenant Carmody wants weapons.  I want to understand what is real.”

“We don’t drink port,” I pointed out.  I had no idea what port was.

That got him to laugh.  “Let us begin, then,” he said.  “Remove these plates, and I’ll find some paper.”

We cleared the table while the professor got some of that odd-looking yellowish paper that the lieutenant had used, and one of those strange, long pencils.  And we started telling our story once again.

It didn’t go all that well.  Professor Palmer took a lot of notes and asked a lot of questions, but we had the same problem we had before.  Like the lieutenant said, we knew things, but we didn’t understand them.  And the professor was mostly interested in the portal and how that worked and what it meant to philosophy and religion and stuff, and there we couldn’t help him at all.  After a while he began to look unhappy and distracted, like he was getting tired of listening to us.

Finally we took a break, and he showed us his house and where we’d be sleeping.  For a famous professor, his house wasn’t all that big–I think people in this world were used to a lot less space than in ours.  Across from the dining room was a small room he called the “parlor,” which was mostly filled up with a piano.  That reminded me again of the piano lesson I had missed, which wasn’t good.  Next to the parlor was a tiny study crammed with books.  There was a narrow staircase leading to the second floor, which had one good-sized bedroom and one small one.  We were bringing up sheets and blankets to the small bedroom when we noticed a couple of paintings in the hall–one was of a little boy in short pants, the other of a black-haired woman with a sad smile sitting in a chair and holding a fan.  Kevin asked the professor who they were.  He looked like he didn’t want to answer, and then he said softly, “My wife and son.”

“Where are they?” Kevin asked.  “Are they–?”

He shrugged.  “They died many years ago.”

“How did they die?”

I thought that was kind of a pushy question.  The professor again didn’t seem to want to talk about it, but he said, “In an outbreak of the smallpox.”  He gazed at the painting of the child.  “It occurred shortly after Seth’s portrait was completed.”

“Smallpox?” Kevin said.  “I’m pretty sure that’s totally cured in our world.”

The professor turned and glared at Kevin.  “Do not trifle with me, boy!” he shot back angrily.

Kevin retreated a step.  I think he was afraid the professor was going to hit him.  “I didn’t mean to–” he said.  “I mean, I’m sorry, if you don’t want to talk about it . . . ”

“How was it cured?” he demanded.  “Or is that something else you don’t understand?”

“I’m pretty sure they came up with, you know, a vaccine.”

“No, I don’t know.  What is a ‘vaccine’?” he demanded.

This time Kevin had an explanation.  “It’s like when you give someone a tiny bit of a disease, with a shot or something.  Not enough to make them sick, but it gives them immunity when they come in contact with the disease for real.”

“What do you mean, ‘immunity’?”

“You know, when you don’t get a disease, because your body has built up a resistance to the germs.”

The professor shook his head, still not getting it.  “And what are ‘germs’?” he asked.

Kevin looked at me like, Can you believe this?  “They’re tiny, um, organisms that can make you sick,” he said.  “Different kinds of germs give you different illnesses.  They’re really small–you can only see them with a powerful microscope.  Do you have microscopes in this world?”

Professor Palmer continued to stare at Kevin.  Then I noticed that his dark eyes were filled with tears.  “So many people have died of smallpox,” he said.  “And you tell me they could have been saved?”

“We’ve cured a lot of diseases,” Kevin said.

“What about . . . drikana?”

Kevin looked at me.  I shook my head.  The name was kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place it.  “Never heard of it,” I said.

“Me neither.”

“No matter, I suppose,” the professor said softly.  “No matter.”

But that conversation did matter.  It seemed to change the way Professor Palmer acted toward us.  He never really said that he believed us instead of Occam’s razor or whatever, but it was just more or less assumed.  It was more than that, though–before, it had been like what we were telling him was just a puzzle he was trying to figure out.  Now, it was different.  Now, it was sort of personal.  We weren’t going to bring his wife and son back, but maybe we really could help.

#

After supper we all sat in the parlor and talked more about his world.  Professor Palmer was eager to give us his opinions about it.  He seemed a little lonely, with the college closed and the town deserted and nobody to lecture to, and we were the best audience he was going to get.

“This war need never have happened,” he said, “except that those purblind fools in Boston were certain it wouldn’t happen.  They assumed the Canadians and Portuguese hated each other more than they hated us, and would never be able to unite against us no matter how much we provoked them.  Perhaps fifty years ago that was true.  But times have changed.  They realized that they needn’t be friends to be allies, and we were in no position to defend ourselves on two fronts.  So they attacked, and we have been fighting for our lives ever since.”

I remembered the newspaper we’d read and the soldiers’ talk.  “Why hasn’t England helped?” I asked.

“Because we asked too late.  And because England has more than enough problems of its own fighting the Franco-Prussian alliance.  And there continue to be those who never wanted us to become independent of England, and would be happy to see us fail.”

“Sir,” Kevin said, “would you mind–we still don’t understand what’s going on here.  We know about Canada, but what happened to America–you know, what we call this place?  And in our world, the Spanish came here first from Europe.  Portugal didn’t have a whole lot to do with the New World, that I remember.  We think something must have changed way back in your history, to make things end up so different.”

The professor nodded.  “All right.  The theory makes sense.  Let’s see if we can find out.”

It didn’t take that long.  You wouldn’t have to have paid much attention in history class to figure out what the difference was, once you started looking for it.

In this world, Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America.  Professor Palmer had never heard of the guy.

What we learned in school was that the Portuguese, under Prince Henry the Navigator, wanted to find a trade route to India, so they explored south along the coast of Africa, until they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed north through the Indian Ocean.  They weren’t interested in sailing west across the Atlantic, maybe because they knew more about geography than Columbus and realized they’d have to travel a whole lot further than he thought to reach India.

So in our world Columbus went off and sold Spain on his idea, and that’s why Spain reached the New World first, why it became a huge empire, at least for a while, why Balboa discovered the Pacific and Cortez conquered Mexico and all that stuff.  And America got named almost by accident when a mapmaker decided a guy named Amerigo Vespucci deserved some credit for his explorations.

That was us.

In Professor Palmer’s world, the Portuguese did sail west and discover the New World.  It wasn’t even Columbus’s idea; he never entered the picture.  It was Portugal, not Spain, that got all the silver and gold.  It was Portugal that became the big empire, with Spain just another loser country in Europe.

France still explored and settled what would become Canada, and England colonized the eastern part of “America.”  But the British colonies never expanded the way they did in our world.  They stayed along the Atlantic coast, hemmed in by the Portuguese, the Canadians, and the Indians.  And that’s the way it stayed.

Professor Palmer showed us a map that night.  New England was a lot bigger than it was in our world–it looked like it included New York and Pennsylvania–but New Portugal was huge; it extended all the way from, like, Virginia, west to what’s Texas in our world, then south through Mexico and into South America.  Canada was big, too, stretching down into the Midwest.  On the map New England looked like this little stone stuck between two huge boulders.

How could it avoid getting crushed?

Well, things weren’t always quite as bad as they looked on the map.  New Portugal was too big, too spread out to be much of a nation.  It was more like a bunch of half-independent states, usually at war with each other.  And Canada had mostly been friendly with New England and an enemy of New Portugal.

But right now England was busy fighting a war against France and Prussia (which was sort of like our Germany), so it couldn’t do much to help with the defense of its former colony.  Canada and New Portugal saw this as an opportunity to carve up the little nation between them.  New England had been trying to extend its borders by skirmishing with both countries, and that gave them the reason they needed to invade.

It all seemed so strange, so different, as we talked about it.  There had been no American Revolution, no Civil War.  New England had stayed part of the British Empire until 1925.  Slavery ended there when it ended in the rest of the Empire, in the 1830’s, although it still existed on a small scale in some areas of New Portugal.  The whole western part of the continent remained largely unexplored and was inhabited mostly by Indians (who were called by their tribal names, because no one ever thought they came from India).

Some people were just as famous in this world as they were in ours–Beethoven, for example.  But many either hadn’t existed or, if they did, never became well-known.  Shakespeare had died young and was remembered for just a couple of poems.  Mozart, Van Gogh, Mark Twain–who were they?  Professor Palmer had never heard of them, and lots of others we mentioned.

And where were all the inventions, the medicines, the discoveries?  Why was this world, like, two hundred years behind ours?

The answer became obvious to Professor Palmer as we talked.  “You told me this afternoon that you had never heard of drikana,” he said.  “That may explain a great deal.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A horrible disease–worse even than smallpox or consumption.  A person afflicted with drikana has uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea.  It is as if everything in his body is trying to escape as quickly as possible.  Most people die within two days of the disease’s onset.  It is also highly contagious.  If it shows up in a city, it will kill a third of the inhabitants in a month.”

Kevin and I looked at each other.  I remembered where I’d heard the word before.  “A soldier asked us about drikana when we were coming into Boston,” I recalled.

Professor Palmer nodded.  “They need to be vigilant to keep the disease from entering.  An outbreak would be devastating, with the city so crowded with refugees.”

“Drikana sounds kind of like Ebola,” Kevin said.  “That’s a deadly virus from Africa.”

“And what is a ‘virus’?” the professor asked.

Kevin tried his best to explain.  “Kind of like germs, I think, only it’s harder to come up with medicines for a virus.  I think.”

“There is no cure for drikana,” the professor noted.  “Early settlers in the New World were the first to come down with it.  ‘Drikana’ was the name of a native tribe near the site of the first outbreak.  Unfortunately the survivors returned to Portugal and brought the disease with them.  It devastated Europe, and five hundred years later it still devastates us.  For a few years it seems to lie dormant, until people begin to hope that it is finally gone–but always there is a new outbreak, just as devastating as the last.

“Surely that accounts for the difference between our worlds,” he went on.  “How many geniuses has the disease claimed before they could make their discoveries?   How much time and effort have we spent in dealing with it that we could have spent in the search for knowledge?”  He looked pained again, as he had when talking about the death of his wife and son.  “And how many lives have we wasted fighting useless wars like this one?” he murmured.

“Well, it’s not like there are no wars in our world,” Kevin pointed out.  And we talked about the Civil War and the World Wars and Iraq, the concentration camps and the A-bomb and chemical weapons.  I don’t think it made the professor feel much better.

“Knowledge doesn’t bring wisdom, certainly,” he said.  “No reason to assume otherwise.  More advanced weapons just allow you to kill each other more efficiently.  Still, a world without drikana, with smallpox cured . . .  I daresay most people would make the exchange.”

I know I would have.

“Well,” he said, “this is the world we have, and we must make the best of it.  Time for bed.  Tomorrow we will set to work again.”

We went up to our room, and for the first time in this world we had clean sheets and soft pillows.  The mattresses were lumpy and, of course, we still had to pee in a pot or go outside to what the professor called the “privy.”  But we weren’t complaining.

“Drikana,” Kevin whispered in the darkness, as if trying out the disease’s name.

“Drikana,” I repeated, lying on my bed and staring up at the ceiling.

“Some little germ somewhere, can’t even see it, and it wipes out half the world, sets progress back centuries.”

“Do you think we’ll get it?” I asked.

“Maybe the worst danger in this world isn’t the Portuguese or the Canadians,” he replied, not quite answering my question.

“Have you ever been in the hospital?”

“Just to the emergency room once,” he said, “when I broke my thumb.”

“I don’t even know if they have hospitals here.”

“If they do, doesn’t sound like they’d be much use.”

I fell silent, thinking about how safe I’d always felt at home.  My mom was crazy about safety, but even if she weren’t, there were doctors and ambulances and firemen and policemen around . . .  Bad things happened, sure, but they had never happened to me.   And it had never really occurred to me that they could happen to me, maybe just because Mom was always so worried.  With her protecting me, what could go wrong?

Drikana.

Kevin was silent.  I listened to my heart beating in the quiet room.  I have to rely on myself now, I thought.  I had to grow up.  There just wasn’t any choice.  No use feeling sorry for myself; no use thinking about the past and my home and family and what I could have done to not get into this mess.  No use hoping they’d find the portal and find this world and magically save me.  A germ or a virus or whatever could kill me tomorrow, but I couldn’t worry about that.  I could only do my best, and try to stay alive.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 9

Thanks to Kevin’s multi-function watch, he and Larry get to meet with General Aldridge, the head of the New England forces in Boston.  He and Lieutenant Carmody decide to send them off to Professor Palmer in Cambridge to see what he can learn from them.  They’re making progress!  But they’re no closer to making their way home . . .

The fabulous first eight chapters of the novel are up there under “Portal” in the menu.  What could be more convenient?

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

Chapter 9

Peter, Lieutenant Carmody’s driver, came for us the next morning, just as we were waking up.  He was a big man with long, bushy sideburns and a large mustache.  “The Lieutenant would like for you to come to his quarters,” he explained.  He talked slowly, as if he wasn’t sure we could understand him.

We followed him down a couple of floors and along a short corridor, until we reached a door with Lieutenant Carmody’s name on it.  Peter rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for an answer.  We all went in.

The lieutenant’s room was large, with a bed, a desk, and a comfortable-looking chair, in which he was sitting.  There was a rug on the floor and curtains on the window.  On the desk was a vase with a single flower in it.  The place looked pretty homey after where we’d slept the last two nights.

The lieutenant got up from the chair and greeted us.  Like yesterday, his uniform was crisp and clean.  He wrinkled his nose when he got a whiff of us.  “Peter, I believe we’ll have to get these lads washed,” he said.  “Then let’s have them put on their new clothes.”  He pointed to the bed, where a couple of outfits were laid out–dark pants, shapeless shirts, and clunky shoes.  They weren’t much to look at, but that was okay by me; it would be good not to have people staring at us anymore.  “Bring their clothes back here, Peter,” he went on.  “I’ll hold on to them.  Lads, I’ll meet you in the mess.”

“Yes, sir,” Peter said.  “Grab the clothes, lads, and follow me.”

We went downstairs and out a back door, into an enclosed area next to the stables.  Laundry hung on lines, and there were buckets filled with water sitting on wood stoves that were tended by an enormous woman with sweat pouring off her.  Next to the stoves were tables with towels and big blocks of yellow soap on them.  A few soldiers were standing at the tables and pouring water over themselves.

“Grab a bucket, lads, and go to it,” Peter said.  And to the woman he said,  “Bessy, we need to get these lads cleaned up.”  I was a little embarrassed about taking my clothes off in front of the woman, but there was nothing to be done about it.  Anyway, it felt good to wash.  “Hand those clothes over when you’re ready,” he ordered us.

We did as we were told.  Peter was intrigued by our boxers–it turned out that only rich people wore underwear here–but he was totally fascinated by the zippers on our pants.  We showed him how they worked, and he couldn’t stop zipping and unzipping.  “How the devil does it do that?” he asked.

It was something else we couldn’t exactly explain.

My new shirt didn’t fit very well.  The pants were itchy, especially with nothing on underneath them.  The shoes were incredibly heavy compared to my sneakers.  “You look terrible,” Kevin said.

“So do you.”

But at least we were reasonably clean.

Peter brought us to the mess, where Lieutenant Carmody had breakfast waiting for us–porridge and tea again, but also scrambled eggs, which tasted great.  The lieutenant nodded his approval at our outfits.  “You look like you’re just off the farm.  And you smell much better.  Now finish up.  We have to get you over to Cambridge.”

After we were done, he hurried us out to the courtyard, where Peter was waiting with the carriage.  The three of us got in, and we rattled off over the cobblestones.  The streets were filled with horses and carriages and big wagons and those strange-looking bicycles, not to mention a hog or two and some nasty dogs.  Lieutenant Carmody tapped his fingers impatiently as we made our way through the noise and the traffic.  “You’d think it was life as usual in the city,” he said.  “More refugees adding to the confusion, I suppose.  It’ll be midday before we get to Harvard.”

“We have Harvard in our world,” I said.  “My father went there.”

Lieutenant Carmody gave me a look, as if he still wasn’t ready to believe this stuff about parallel universes. “What does your father do?” he asked.

“He’s a computer programmer.”

“And what is that?”

“Well, he writes software programs that, um, make computers work.”

The lieutenant shook his head.  “Software?” he asked.  “Programs?”

I tried, but I couldn’t make sense of it for him; finally he waved me silent in frustration and turned away to stare out the window at the traffic.

Finally we reached a river.  I guessed it was the Charles River, which separates Boston from Cambridge, but it didn’t look anything like the Charles in our world, which always seemed pretty peaceful and calm when we drove by, with joggers and rollerbladers whizzing around its banks, and lots of little sailboats out on the water.  This version of the Charles didn’t have much in the way of banks, with trees and bushes up to its edge, and only a couple of rowboats making their way towards the other shore.  The bridge we crossed was small and rickety, and I got a little scared that if the horse became excited he could crash through the railing and send us all down into the water.  But we made it across okay, and then we were in Cambridge and traveling along the Massachusetts Road, the lieutenant informed us.

Cambridge wasn’t anything like our version either, of course.  We passed by the usual farms and small shops; when we reached the part where the college was, the houses got nicer, and some of the buildings were pretty impressive, but there was nothing like the craziness of Harvard Square, which my dad brought us to a couple of times.  In fact, the place looked pretty deserted, especially compared to Boston.

“That’s where I lived when I attended Harvard,” Lieutenant Carmody said, pointing to a large brick building.  It was exactly the sort of thing my dad said when he brought us to Harvard Square.  Big whoop, Cassie would reply, and she wouldn’t even look at his dorm.

“Where is everyone?” Kevin asked.

“The students are all in the army,” the lieutenant replied.  “And most of the townspeople have retreated across the river into Boston.  Cambridge will not be defensible if the Canadians choose to advance on it.  And they will advance before long.”

“Why is Professor Palmer still here?”

“Because he’s a contrary old sod,” the lieutenant muttered.  I didn’t exactly understand the words, but I got the idea.

We kept going, and eventually Peter pulled up in front of a big white house down a dirt lane.  We got out, and the lieutenant went over and knocked on the door, but there was no answer.  He shook his head and walked around back.  We followed him.

In front of a red barn a gray-haired man with a small beard was tossing apples into what I figured was a cider press.  My family went apple-picking every fall, and they’d had gizmos like it in the orchards.  We approached.  “Good morning, Professor,” the lieutenant called out.

The professor looked up.  “Ah, William,” he replied.  “Nice to see you.”  He didn’t seem at all surprised.  “Don’t you have a war to fight?”

“Ninety percent of war is preparation.”

“So you’re preparing?”

“You might say so.”

Professor Palmer glanced at us with little interest.  “And who are these fellows?” he asked.

Lieutenant Carmody introduced us.  The professor gave us a brief nod and offered us a cup of cider.  It was delicious.

“Don’t you have friends to stay with in Boston?” the lieutenant asked him.  “I can’t imagine you’d enjoy having the Canadians show up at your doorstep one morning to take you prisoner.”

“I have every confidence that President Gardner will find a way to make this entire unpleasant episode go away,” Professor Palmer replied, and I was pretty sure he was being sarcastic.  “He’s still talking to the British, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but there’s that little matter of the naval blockade to deal with.  The British ambassador can agree to whatever we want, but he still has to find a way to inform Parliament of the agreement.  And as to whether they would accept his recommendations . . . ”  The lieutenant shrugged.  “We don’t have as many friends in London as we used to.”

“William, I was having a very pleasant morning here, and now you’ve gone and ruined it,” the professor said.  “Are you telling me His Excellency doesn’t have a plan to extricate us from this disastrous situation he has allowed to develop?”

The lieutenant smiled.  “Like you, I have every confidence in His Excellency.”

“Pah.”  The professor spat on the ground.  “Now, there must be a reason for visiting me with these young men in tow.”

“Indeed.  We have something to show you, professor, and a story to tell.”

Lieutenant Carmody took out the watch and handed it to the professor, who studied it while we waited.  He didn’t touch any of the buttons at first, just turning the thing over in his hands.  Then Kevin showed him how to use it.  After that the professor sat down on a tree stump and started playing with it.  “Square roots,” he muttered.  “To eight decimal places.  Remarkable.”  He stood up finally.  “And what is the story you have to tell, William?” he asked.

“It’s a very strange one–if you choose to believe it.”  We all sat down, and he repeated what we had told him, the way he had to General Aldridge.

The professor scratched his head and stared at us as he listened.  “Do you remember your philosophy courses, William?” he asked when Carmody was finished.

The lieutenant smiled.  “How could I forget them?”

“Do you recall the discussion of Occam’s Razor?”

“The principle of parsimony,” he replied.  “The simplest explanation is generally the best.”

The professor nodded.  “Such a pity you chose soldiering instead of the groves of Academe, William.  You were one of our brightest students.  So, can we not apply Occam’s Razor here?  Why postulate an infinitude of universes and the like?  Can’t we explain the current situation by suggesting that two boys with active imaginations have somehow come upon a device from China–amazing though it is–and concocted a silly story to go with it?”

“We could,” the lieutenant agreed.  “Except that, if you’re right, they have concocted a better story than any I’ve ever heard.”

“And there’s zippers, begging your pardon, sir,” Peter said.  I had forgotten about Peter.  He was tending his horses by a water pump, close enough to overhear the conversation.  “On their trousers, sir.”  And he described that other miraculous invention, which apparently he couldn’t get out of his head.  “You don’t need buttons on your fly,” he explained.  “The thing just goes up and down, smooth as you like.”

The professor stared at us some more.

“Ask them about baseball,” the lieutenant urged.  “General Aldridge was much impressed with the little one’s discussion of a sport on his world.”

Professor Palmer raised an eyebrow.  “Solomon is not a fool like our president,” he said, “but he is also not a philosopher.  Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to catechize them.”

So he began asking us questions–not about baseball, thank goodness, but about everything else on our world–politics and history and science and religion and lots more.  For the first time we got to explain about America.  We talked about how it became the most powerful country in the world.  We talked about watching TV and playing video games and surfing the net.  We talked about men landing on the moon, which got the professor to raise his eyebrow again.  I described how I had touched a moon rock when my family visited the Air and Space Museum in Washington.  That seemed to astound him more than anything else we said.

Like the lieutenant, the professor pressed us for explanations that we just couldn’t give.  I mean, I have some vague idea of how a car works.  You put gas in the tank, you turn the key, you move the thing so it points to “D”, you step on the accelerator . . .  But to explain it so that it made sense to someone who has never heard of a car–I couldn’t do it.  Kevin was a little better, because he read so much and liked to do science experiments and stuff, but even he didn’t make a lot of sense when the professor really pushed him.

After a while I figured we were screwing up pretty badly, and I started to get depressed.  We’d been better off with Kevin explaining earned run averages to General Aldridge.  Finally the professor stopped his questions and poured everyone more cider.  Then he looked at Lieutenant Carmody.  “What do you want from me, William?” he asked softly.

“We’re at war, Professor,” the lieutenant replied.  “Our nation’s survival is in jeopardy.”

“You expect these boys to conjure weapons for you?”

“I want whatever they can give us.”

Professor Palmer looked away.  “Another world,” he murmured.  “A thousand wonders to explore.  And what do we seek?  Better ways of killing.”

The lieutenant gestured towards the professor’s house.  “Everything you have,” he said, “–your life itself–is being protected by a few thousand soldiers, with dwindling supplies and little hope of reinforcement.  We don’t have time to explore wonders; we need to survive.”

“They’re just boys,” the professor pointed out.  “Obviously they don’t understand–”

“And that’s why I’ve come to you,” the lieutenant interrupted.  “They know things but don’t understand them.  You don’t know, but you can understand.  Together, perhaps you can come up with something.”

“You’re asking for a miracle.”

“Well, why not?  If these boys are to be believed, their very presence here is a miracle.”

“How long do we have?” the professor asked.

The lieutenant shrugged.  “We assume the enemy will lay siege to the city before the final attack.  If so, we can hold out a couple of months.  By winter it will be hopeless.  But the president will likely surrender long before that.  And the terms will not be favorable.”

The professor shook his head sadly.  “How did it come to this?”

“That’s for others to work out,” the lieutenant replied.  “Soldiers simply fight the war they are given.”

“That’s why you should be more than a soldier, William.  But in the meantime, what is your plan?”

“The boys will stay here with you,” he said.  “We need to keep this secret, not least because of how the president might react if he found out.  While they’re here, you learn what you can from them.  Whatever might help us.  I’ll return to check on your progress.”

“And if there’s nothing?”

“Then there’s nothing.  You will have listened to some entertaining stories while you wait for the Canadians to arrive, and the rest of us will march resolutely towards our fate.”

The professor looked at Kevin and me, and I could tell he didn’t like the idea of having us move in with him.  “I’m an old man,” he started to say, “and–”

“Nonsense,” Lieutenant Carmody interrupted.  “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and you know it.  You are the best person in New England for the task, and you know that as well.  Don’t lose the opportunity just because you’re set in your ways.”

“I suppose,” the professor said finally, as if he was agreeing to have his foot amputated or something.  “Very well.”

Lieutenant Carmody nodded in satisfaction and immediately stood up.  “Excellent.”  He turned to us.  “I trust you lads will do your best.  There is much at stake here.”

“Yes, sir,” we both replied.

“Good.”  He shook hands with Professor Palmer, then motioned to Peter to get the carriage ready.  In a couple of minutes they were clattering off down the lane, and we were alone with the professor.

It was very quiet.  Kevin and I stood by the cider press, waiting.

“Well, then,” the professor said.  “I suppose–I suppose you’re hungry.”

I wasn’t, actually, but we both nodded.

“So perhaps we should dine?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Pardon me?”

That word again.  “I mean sure.  Fine.”

“Well, then,” he murmured again, and he started off towards the house.

Kevin and I looked at each other.  “Weird,” Kevin whispered.  And we followed him inside.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 7

Stuck in some kind of alternate universe with Boston under siege by the Portuguese and Canadians, Kevin and Larry found their way to the refugee camp in the Fenway. Then Kevin had the bright idea of showing his calculator/watch to the soldiers.  That got them out of the crowded, dangerous camp, but instead they ended up in the brig — not much better! What will the new day bring them?

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

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Chapter 7

When I woke up it was light out, and at first I had no clue where I was.  Why wasn’t I looking at the Final Fantasy poster in my bedroom?  How come I was so uncomfortable?  What was that weird dream I’d had?  Who was that huge man glaring at me from across the room?

Chester.  All the memories of yesterday came flooding back.  This wasn’t a dream.

I looked over at Kevin.  He was still asleep.

“Boys,” Chester rumbled.  “I don’t like boys.”

“Uh, hi,” I said.

Chester just shook his head and glared at me some more.

Benjamin must have heard us, because he unlocked the door and stuck his head in.  “‘Morning, gents,” he said.  “Chester, you may be excused.  Go thou and sin no more.”

“I’m hungry,” Chester said.

Benjamin shook his head.  “Not my problem, Chester.  Now be off to the mess, before we become angry.”

Amazingly, Chester got to his feet, dusted off his dirty red jacket, glared at me one final time, and then obediently walked out of the brig.

Benjamin then turned his attention to Kevin and me.  “Sleep well, lads?”

I nodded.  Kevin had awakened and was rubbing his eyes sleepily.

“Did Sergeant Hornbeam say anything about what’s going to happen to us?” I asked.

“Sergeant Hornbeam is not with us at the moment.  You’ll need to stay here until he sends instruction.”

“Any chance we could go to the mess?” I asked.  “I’m pretty hungry.”

“Let me see what I can do,” Benjamin said, and he left, locking the door behind him.

Kevin sat up.  “I dreamed that this was all a dream,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll wake up again, and you’ll be right.”

“Wouldn’t that be good.”  He sighed.  “I’ve gotta use that thing over there,” he said, pointing to the pot in the corner of the cell.  I closed my eyes while Kevin did his business.

Were there any flush toilets in this world, I wondered.  Did they have toothpaste?  Hot showers?

Eventually Benjamin came back with a tray of food: cups of tea and bowls of, well, mush.  It could have been oatmeal, but it didn’t have any milk or sugar, and it was all I could do to get a few spoonfuls down.  I’d never drunk tea before, and that didn’t taste much better.  When I had finished trying to eat, I was as hungry as when I started.  Kevin had barely touched his food either.  He was looking pretty glum.

After a while Benjamin came for the trays.  “Porridge not to your liking?” he asked.

“Can we go outside?” Kevin asked back.  “We won’t leave, I promise.”

Benjamin considered.  “All right.  It’s going to be hot–not a good day to spend in the brig.  But stay right by the barracks.”

We followed him out of the cell.  There were only a few soldiers in the barracks, plus an old man mopping the floor.  We went outside.  It did feel like it was going to be a hot day.  No air conditioning, I thought.  No fans.  I looked around.  None of the buildings had been painted, and there was lumber lying around on the ground.  They had been put up in a hurry, I realized.

We sat down on some boards by the entrance to the barracks and watched the wagons go by, heading for the camp.

“Maybe now’s the time to leave,” Kevin said.

“You mean: go back to Glanbury?”

“Yeah.  We could stay off the main road and hide from the Portuguese army.  If we started now, we could probably make it by dark.”

“You think the New England soldiers’d let us out that gate we went through?”

Kevin thought for a second.  “I don’t know.  Anyway, there’s got to be a way around,” he decided.  “They can’t fence in the whole city.”

“And you think the Portuguese army wouldn’t shoot us if they caught us?” I said.  “Or at least treat us worse than this?  You think we’re smart enough to find the portal without getting caught?  It was your idea to do this thing with the watch, Kevin.  Why don’t we just see what happens?”

He didn’t answer.  “I wish I was in school,” he said.

“I wish I had a bowl of Frosted Flakes and a big glass of orange juice.”

We fell silent, and just sat there in the hot sun.

Eventually Caleb came by.  “Morning, mates,” he said.  “Anything happen yet with your ciphering machine?”

We shook our heads.  “I hope Sergeant Hornbeam hasn’t forgotten about us,” Kevin said.

“No, no, he wouldn’t do that.  He’s a busy man, though.  We’re all busy, more’s the pity.  Looks like the camp’ll fill up today.  Have to open up another one somewhere.  Never knew there was this many people in all of New England.”

“Is there some way we could talk to him?” Kevin asked.

“Oh, he’ll be around.  Never worry, mates.  Just enjoy the day.”

Then he went off, and we were left to ourselves again.  Soldiers came and went.  Most of them knew seemed to know about us and asked about the “ciphering machine.”  A couple of them looked at us like we were going to put a curse on them.  The sun got hotter.  There was no sign of Sergeant Hornbeam.

Then a carriage pulled up in front of the barracks, and a fat officer got out.  The soldiers guarding the entrance stood at attention and saluted.  The officer was bald, with red cheeks and bushy gray eyebrows, and his uniform was soaked with sweat.  When he saw us, he stopped.  “Who the devil are you?” he demanded.

“We’re waiting for Sergeant Hornbeam, sir,” Kevin said.  “He has a watch of mine that–”

“Oh, that nonsense.  Just a gewgaw, if you ask me.  Well, you can’t just sit around idly all day.  There’s a war on, in case you haven’t noticed.”  He turned to one of the soldiers.  “Corporal–er?”

“Hennessy, sir.”

“Corporal Hennessy,” he repeated.  “Find ’em something to do.”  Then he went inside the barracks and started yelling at the soldiers there about shaping up and looking sharp, there was a war on.

Corporal Hennessy looked at us.  “Colonel Clarett worries that we’ll forget we’re at war,” he said.  “I think his concern is misplaced, don’t you?  Anyway, let’s find you a chore.”

We got up and went with him.  “Is Colonel Clarett in charge of the camp?” Kevin asked.

The corporal nodded.  “And a nasty job it is, too.  No matter what you do, someone’ll criticize you.  Treat folks too well, you’re wasting food.  Treat ’em too poorly, you’re starving good New England citizens.  Let’s just hope this doesn’t last long.”

“He said our watch was nonsense,” Kevin went on.  “Does that mean–”

“Means nothing, mate.  I heard about that watch.  Lucky for you Sergeant Hornbeam was on duty last night.  He’ll know what to do with it.”

The corporal led us into another long, unpainted building behind the barracks.  It had an awful stench coming out of it.  “What’s that smell?” Kevin asked.

The corporal gave him an odd look.  “Luncheon,” he said.  “Have you never smelled salt pork before?”

We went inside.  There was one long room, with tables and benches along the wall.  There were no screens on the open windows, and flies were buzzing everywhere.  A few soldiers were sitting at one of the tables and eating off tin plates.  They were stabbing their meat with their knives and sticking it straight into their mouths, I noticed.  Didn’t they have forks here?  My mother went nuts if she caught any of us putting a knife in our mouths.

We went through the room.  Beyond it was a kitchen, where a shirtless, sweating man was standing over steaming pots set on woodstoves.  Corporal Hennessy greeted him cheerily.  “Coolest place in Boston, eh, Jonathan?”

Jonathan responded with a string of words my mother would have shot me for saying.  This didn’t seem to bother the corporal.  “Need any help here?” he asked.  “I have a couple of lads willing to pitch in.”

Jonathan glanced at us and shook his head.  “Try the warehouse,” he said.

“Very well, then.  Your loss.”  We went out through the kitchen and saw a much larger building surrounded by guards.  Soldiers were lugging sacks out of it and loading them onto a bunch of wagons.  The corporal went up to a big, bearded soldier who was supervising the loading and said, “Need a couple of extra hands, Tom?”

Tom gave us the look we were used to by now.  “What are those outfits?” he asked.  “Costumes for harvest festival?”

“We’re, uh, not from around here,” Kevin said.

“No, and you haven’t done much laboring, from the look of you.  Well, we can remedy that.  Head on inside and grab some sacks.  The camp awaits its midday meal.”

“Keep ’em alive, Tom,” Corporal Hennessy said.  “They’re guests of Colonel Clarett.”

Tom just grunted.

“Fare you well, lads,” the corporal said to us, and headed back to the barracks.  Tom waved us inside the building.

It was filled with shelves, and on the shelves were the sacks the soldiers were loading onto the wagons.  “What’s in them?” Kevin asked one of the soldiers.

“Corn,” he replied as he slung a sack over his shoulder.  “Folks’ll be mighty tired of corn before long.”

I tried lifting a sack; I couldn’t.  Kevin was a shrimp, and he obviously wasn’t going to be able to pick one up.  “We’ll have to do it together,” I said.

“This is embarrassing,” Kevin muttered.

“Just shut up and help.”

So the two of us picked up a sack and staggered outside with it.  Tom laughed when he saw us.  “Nicely done, lads,” he said as we managed to push it onto a wagon.  “Heft twenty or thirty more, and you’ll have it mastered.”

We managed to load about half a dozen sacks before our arms turned to rubber and we had to take a break.  There was a barrel of warm water in a corner, and we splashed some over us and drank what we could, but it tasted awful.  “This is going to kill us,” Kevin said.

“Let’s just slow down.  They don’t seem to care what we do, as long as we don’t look like we’re goofing off.”

We tried that, but it was still too hard.  I always thought of myself as being in pretty good shape.  I play soccer, and I have some ten-pound dumbbells that I work out with sometimes at home.  But this was just way beyond me.

Luckily, after we’d loaded a few more sacks Tom decided there was enough food for the camp, and it was time for us all to take a break and have our own lunch.  The wagons went off to the camp, and we went into the mess hall for some salt pork, boiled corn, and tea.  I was hungry enough now that the food actually didn’t taste too bad.  I think I needed the salt after all the sweating I’d done.

While we ate we listened to the men complain.  “We’re soldiers, not laborers,” a thin, wiry man said.  “They should get the farmfolk to do this.”

“They’d just stuff their pockets full of grain,” the soldier sitting next to him pointed out.

“Shoot ’em if they steal.  That’s what’d happen to us.”

“We should make ’em all soldiers,” a third soldier said.  “You think we can defeat the Portuguese and the Canadians with the army we’ve got now?”

“I hear they’re signing up all the able-bodied men,” the thin soldier said.  “We’d be worse off if we had to take the rest of them.”

“Doesn’t matter who we get,” yet another soldier muttered.  “We’ve no hope of winning in any case.”

That caused everyone to fall silent until Tom ordered us back to work in the warehouse.  Now we had to clean up the spilled grain.  This was a whole lot easier than lugging the sacks, but the heat inside the building was almost unbearable.  “Wish I had a Pepsi,” Kevin said.

“A Sprite.”

“Dr. Pepper.”

“Diet Fresca.”

We came up with all the soft drink names we could think of.  But we weren’t going to get any.  All we had was a barrel of warm water that was probably crawling with germs.

“What happens when the food runs out?” Kevin asked the thin soldier.

He shook his head.  “That’s when we surrender, mate.  Let’s hope we don’t have too many die before that happens.”

“How long till it’s gone?”

“Don’t know.  Depends on how many people show up and how much they bring with ’em.  Couple of months, I reckon.”

That didn’t sound good.  Kevin was about to ask another question when we noticed Sergeant Hornbeam standing in the doorway.  His red hair looked like it was on fire.  “What are you boys doing?” he demanded.

“Colonel Clarett told us we had to work,” I explained.  “So Corporal Hennessy brought us over here.”

Sergeant Hornbeam rolled his eyes.  “Naturally,” he muttered.  “Have to put you two back in the brig,” he said to us.  “Come along.”

I dropped my broom without a complaint.  Hard to believe I’d be happy to go to jail, but I was.

“What happened with the watch, sir?” Kevin asked the sergeant as we headed back to the barracks.  “Did you show it to anyone?”

Sergeant Hornbeam didn’t bother to answer.  He was walking so fast, it was hard to keep up.

“Please don’t just hold onto it,” Kevin persisted.  “It’s more than a toy.”

“Still don’t understand how you boys got hold of that thing,” the sergeant said.

“Well, it’s complicated, sir,” Kevin began.  But Sergeant Hornbeam waved him silent.  We had reached the barracks, and he started shouting for Benjamin, who came waddling in, stuffing his shirt into his pants.

“Sorry, Sergeant,” he said.  “Making a visit to the outhouse.”

“Kindly lock these two up once again,” Sergeant Hornbeam ordered him.  “And this time don’t let ’em out on anyone’s word except mine.”

“What about the colonel, Sergeant?”

The sergeant muttered something under his breath, then turned and strode out of the barracks without answering.

Benjamin turned to us.  “Sorry, lads.  What was it you did, anyway?”

“Nothing, really,” I said.

He shrugged and ushered us back into the cell, locking the door behind us.  It was still empty.  I slumped back down on the floor, and Kevin slumped next to me.

“This is good,” he said.

“Good not to be hauling sacks of grain,” I agreed.

“Yeah, but good because Hornbeam thinks we’re so important he has to keep us locked up.”

“If you say so.  I just wish something would happen.”

“Yeah, I know.  I was thinking,” he went on.  “Remember how Stinky Glover and Nora Lally showed up in that other world you visited?  I wonder if people from our world are here, too.”

“This place is a whole lot different than our world,” I pointed out.

“I know, but it’s not totally different.  There’s still a Glanbury, still a Boston.  So it’s a possibility, right?  What if our families were living in Glanbury?  What if they’re in that camp over there right now?”

I closed my eyes and felt a lump rising in my throat.  “You know what, Kevin?  I don’t really want to think about that.”

“Yeah,” he said softly, “I guess you’re right.”

We must have fallen asleep then, because the next thing I knew,  a loud voice was shouting, “Wake up, dammit, don’t you know there’s a war on?”

I opened my eyes and saw Colonel Clarett standing over us.  Behind him was Benjamin, holding a lantern and yawning.

“Come on, come on,” the colonel said.  “We don’t have all night.”

I struggled to my feet, then helped Kevin up.

“That’s it, then,” the colonel said.  “Let’s go.”

We followed him out of the cell.

“It’s all nonsense,” he told us, “but there you have it.  The enemy’s at our gates, and they’re interested in gewgaws.”  He led us to a room in a corner of the barracks.  “My own office,” he muttered.  “And where do I go meanwhile?”

He opened the door, and we went inside.  A tall, black-haired man in a uniform was standing behind a desk.

“Here they are, Lieutenant,” Colonel Clarett said.  “And much luck may you have of ’em.  If you want my opinion, they’re a pair of thieves, and that’s that.  Look at the hat on the little one,” he said, gesturing at Kevin’s Red Sox cap as if its existence proved he was a criminal.

“Thank you, Colonel,” the lieutenant said.

Colonel Clarett looked like he wanted to stay, but the lieutenant was obviously waiting for him to leave, so he turned and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

The lieutenant smiled at us.  “Now,” he said, “I think it’s time for a little chat.”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 6

Yikes!  Larry and Kevin are stuck in a parallel universe and have been abandoned in Boston by the family who saved them from the Portuguese soldiers.  (Portuguese?!) They have little food, no place to stay–and they’re wearing funny-looking clothes.  This can’t be good.

The first five chapters are up there on the right side of the menu.

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

Chapter 6

We walked away from the house, eating the food in silence.  I was so hungry, I forgot for a while how scared I was.  But it didn’t take long for the fear to come back.  Where would we get our next meal?  Where would we sleep?  Would we ever get back to the portal?  Would I ever see my family again?

We didn’t know where we were going.  The streets were dark, and I kept tripping on the cobblestones.  A dog barked at us out of an alley.  There was a lump in my throat, and it kept getting bigger. From one house we passed I heard someone playing a piano, and at least that sounded familiar.  But then I remembered my piano lesson, and I felt even worse.

Pretty soon Kevin and I started arguing.  “This is so stupid, Kevin,” I said. “Why did I let you talk me into it?”

“It’s not like I twisted your arm or anything,” he shot back.  “I said you could stay behind, if you wanted to be prudent.”

“I don’t know why I even told you about it.  I should’ve figured you get me into trouble, with all your theories.  And why did you tell that soldier our family had been murdered by the Portuguese?  He almost arrested us.”

“Maybe we’d be better off if we were arrested,” he pointed out.  “Jail would be better than this.”

We kept walking.

“You know what worries me?” Kevin asked softly after a while.

I shook my head.

“Even if we found the portal, what if we can’t get back?  What if it takes us to some totally different universe?”

“It took me home yesterday,” I reminded him.

“Maybe you were just lucky.  Maybe you go somewhere different every time you step into it.”

“We’ll get back,” I insisted.

He didn’t argue.  I think he wanted to believe me.  I wanted to believe myself.

It was getting cold.  Neither of us had a jacket.  At least neither of was wearing shorts.  I was grateful when we finally made it back to the main street.  With all the people around, it just seemed to feel warmer.

Now that we were out of the wagon, people were staring at us, but we were too tired and scared to care.  We looked in the store windows as we walked.  There was a dressmaker’s shop, and a place that sold something called sundries, and a chandler, which had candles and oil lamps for sale.  “No electricity, I guess,” Kevin muttered.  “Those streetlights are gas or something.  This place is, like, two hundred years behind us.”  We stopped in front of a tavern called the Twin Ponies and listened to the laughter and smelled the cigar smoke and the stale beer.  Someone was playing an instrument that sounded like an accordion.

“Look at this,” Kevin said.  He picked up a sheet of newspaper from the sidewalk in front of the tavern. It was called the Boston Intelligencer.  It had smaller type and wider pages than in regular newspapers, and no photographs–only a couple of drawings.  We read the headlines:

PORTUGUESE, CANADIANS ADVANCE ON BOSTON

Thousands of Refugees Arrive ahead of Siege

Pres. Gardner Calls for Calm as Naval Blockade Tightens

Talks with British Continue

“It has today’s date,” Kevin pointed out.

“Look at the British spellings,” I said.  President Gardner was at pains to dispel the rumour that he was negotiating terms of surrender with the Canadians and Portuguese.

We couldn’t make sense of a lot of what we read, but two things were clear: This place was in a whole lot of trouble, and there was plenty of disagreement about what to do about it.  The paper quoted one guy as saying they should cut off all the refugees from entering the city, because there wasn’t going to be enough food for everyone to survive the siege.  Someone else said there was no way the city could survive the siege anyway, and the president (who apparently was in Boston) should “surrender forthwith.”  And the president insisted everything was going to be fine and not to worry.

“What a mess,” Kevin said.

“No kidding.”

A tall man wearing some a round black hat and a green cape came staggering out of the tavern.  He stared at us for a second and shook his head.  “Strange days,” he muttered, and he headed off down the street.

“So, what do you think we should do?” I asked finally.  One of us had to ask the question.

“I don’t know,” Kevin said.  “Maybe we should, you know, turn ourselves in.”

“For what?  We haven’t done anything.”

“Well, we could, like, tell the truth.”

“You think they’d believe us?”

Kevin shrugged.  “I guess not.”

“But even if they did believe us, why would they care?  They’ve got way more important things to think about.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask.  What have we got to lose?”

We were lost on a strange world with no one to help us.  There really was nothing to lose.

“I think that’s a cop over there,” Kevin said.  “Go ask him.”

The blue-jacketed policeman was across the street, standing in front of a building with his arms folded.

“Why me?” I said.  “It’s your idea.”

“Because you’re taller,” Kevin answered. “He’ll pay more attention to you.”

Seemed like a stupid reason to me, but I was tired of arguing.  We crossed the street, picking our way through the disgusting horse manure.  We walked up to the cop, who stared at us suspiciously.

“Excuse me, officer,” I began.  My voice sounded thin and trembly in my ears.  “We’re not from around here, and–”

He scowled at me.  “I can see that, mate.”

“No, really.  We’re not just, you know, from another town or something.  We come from a different world altogether.  We’d like to, uh, speak to someone in authority.”

“Of course you would,” the policeman said, nodding.  “And, you’d like a meal.  And a nice bed to sleep on, as well.  Is that it?”

I glanced at Kevin, but he didn’t have anything to say.

“We’re in the middle of a war, in case you didn’t notice,” the cop went on.  “We don’t feed strays.  If we don’t get help soon, we won’t be able to feed ourselves.  Now run along.”

“But where?” I asked.  “We don’t have anyplace to stay.”

He gestured off to his left.  “The Fens camp is where you strays belong.  Don’t let us catch you stealing on the way, or you’ll wish the Portuguese had caught you first.  And don’t be wandering the streets after curfew, either.  You farmfolk–or whatever you are–aren’t going to overrun this city.  Understand?”

I nodded.  “How far away is the camp?” I managed to ask.

He laughed.  “Not far.  Just follow your nose.  And you might watch your step going through Cheapside–they don’t take kindly to strays.”  Then he turned and walked away.

“Nice job,” Kevin said to me.  “You didn’t explain anything.”

“You try, if you think you can do it better.”

We were silent then.  We headed off in the direction the cop had pointed.

“I wonder if the Fens has anything to do with Fenway Park,” Kevin said after a while.

“Who gives,” I muttered.

“They probably don’t even have baseball in this world,” he went on.

I just looked at him.  We kept walking.  I was getting really tired.  And I was hungry again.  Would there be food in the camp?  Everyone seemed worried about food.

After a while we entered what I figured was Cheapside–a nasty-looking section of town where the rickety houses were stuck close together, the street had turned into a rutted dirt path, and piles of garbage were heaped up everywhere.  Follow your nose, the cop had said.  There were lots of taverns, and people lounging in the doorways shouted insults at us as we passed.  We just kept going.

Cheapside seemed to peter out after a while, and we came to a bunch of buildings with soldiers guarding them.  Beyond the buildings was what I guessed was the Fens camp.

It was much bigger than the one we’d seen from the wagon on the way into the city.  It seemed to go on forever; we could see wagons and tents, smoky campfires and snorting horses.  There was a rough fence around it, and at the end of the path was a gate with lamps hung on either side.  A few wagons were lined up in front of the gate, waiting to enter.

“What do you think?” I asked Kevin.  “Should we go inside?”

“Do we have a choice?” he replied.

Not that I could see.  We got in line behind the wagons.  It took a few minutes for them to enter.  When we reached the gate the soldier guarding it laughed.  He was short and stout and missing a couple of teeth.  “Farmfolk get stranger-looking every day,” he said, shaking his head.  “Twenty minutes to curfew, lads.”

“Can we just, like, go in?” I asked.

“You can go in, but you can’t come back out–at least not till morning, and then you’ll need a pass.  But you’ll find plenty to do inside, I daresay.”

“Is there any food?”

“Not till morning, unless you want to steal some inside the camp–which I wouldn’t recommend, since it’ll likely get you killed.  Now run along with you.”

We walked through the gate into the camp.  There were muddy paths of a sort, along which people had parked their wagons and set up makeshift shelters.  People sat in their wagons or on chairs outside their tents, the men smoking long pipes and the women chatting with each other by the light of the campfires.  One man we passed was playing a guitar while his family sang what sounded like a hymn.  There were a lot of babies crying.  Older kids ran around, playing tag.  It didn’t seem all that bad, actually, if you could get used to the smell and the mud.

We kept walking, without any idea of where to go or what to do. Kevin pointed to the guards patrolling outside the fence, rifles on their shoulders.  “They’re serious,” he said.  “Nobody’s getting out of here.”

Great.  We were stuck inside a refugee camp.  My stomach started growling and my legs started hurting.  “I don’t think I can walk much further,” I said.  “I’m so tired I could sleep in the mud.”

“We need to get blankets or something,” Kevin said.

“How are we going to do that–steal them?  We’d get killed.”

He didn’t answer.

“Hey there!”  A thin man with long stringy hair and a beard was standing in front of us.  “Did I hear you say you needed a blanket?”  He smiled at us.  His face was pock-marked, and he was missing a lot of teeth.  His left eye wandered when he spoke.

Stranger danger, I thought.  My mother was always talking about stranger danger.  But what do you do when everyone’s a stranger?

Neither of us answered, so the man kept on talking.  “You boys here on your own?”  We still didn’t answer, so the guy just kept talking.  “These are parlous times to be on your own.  But I have a beautiful blanket I can let you have for a mere five shillings.  Made from the finest Vermont wool.  Just step over to my wagon here.”

I looked at his wagon.  A sad-looking donkey stood next to it, staring at us.  How much was a shilling, I wondered.  Didn’t matter.  “We don’t have any money,” I said.

The man’s smile faded a little.  “Parlous times, indeed,” he said.  “What about barter, then?  Have you anything to trade?”  He looked us over, then pointed at Kevin.  “Odd-looking hat,” he said.  Then, “This object on your wrist–what might that be?”

“It’s a watch,” Kevin said.

“A watch?  Strange place to have a watch.  Why not keep it in your pocket?  Let me take a look.”  He grabbed Kevin’s arm.  “Odd-looking watch, as well.  No case, no hands on the dial.  But I tell you what–I have a charitable heart, seeing you here by yourselves.  I’ll give you a blanket for it, and I’ll throw in a pound of salted pork.”

Seemed like a good deal to me, although salted pork sounded awful.  But all of a sudden Kevin got a funny look on his face and pulled his arm back.  “No thanks,” he said.

The man’s smile faded a bit more.  “You lads won’t get a better deal in this wretched camp,” he pointed out.  “Nights are growing colder, and who knows how long we’ll be imprisoned here?  The price of necessities will only go up.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said.  He turned to me.  “Let’s go, Larry.”

I was really annoyed at him.  What did he want the stupid watch for?  Who cared what time it was, when we were going to have to sleep in the mud?

Kevin started walking quickly back the way we’d come.  “Are you nuts?” I said to him.

He shook his head.  “It’s not just a watch,” he said.  “It’s a calculator.  It’s a timer.  It’s really cool.”

“So what?”

“So–maybe it’s worth more than a blanket in this world.  Maybe we’re worth something in this world.”

“Kevin, they know how to add.  They know how to tell time.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but they’ve never seen a calculator before.”

“Big deal.  Anyway, where are we going?”

Kevin pointed.  “Back to the gate.”

The gate was closing.  We ran up to it and slithered through.

The soldier we had talked to before didn’t look happy to see us again.  “Curfew, lads,” he said.  “Back inside with you.”

“Sir, I have a strange and wonderful invention that I’d like to share with the military leadership,” Kevin said.

The soldier looked at him like he was crazy.  Farmfolk.  “Let’s go,” he demanded. “There’s a war on, and no time for foolishness.”

“How much is 375 times 13?” Kevin asked.

The soldier was starting to get angry.

“Come here and see what I do,” Kevin went on before he could yell at us.  “This’ll be interesting, I guarantee.”  The soldier hesitated, then leaned forward.  Kevin put his watch in calculator mode, held it up so the soldier could see, then did the multiplication.  “3875,” he said.  “See how easy that was?”

The soldier thought about it for a moment, then said, “Can I try?”

Kevin held his arm out and showed him what to do.  “I never was very good at ciphering,” the soldier muttered as he hit the numbers.  He grinned with delight when the answer was displayed.  “Hey Caleb,” he called out to a tall soldier with a scruffy beard who was guarding the gate.  “Come look at this!”

Caleb took a look and had the same reaction–surprise and excitement.  The next soldier who came by, though, was terrified by the watch.  “This is some devilry,” he muttered, glaring at Kevin like he was the devil.

“Now, Oliver,” Caleb said to him, “it’s just a toy.”

Oliver shook his head.  “The Devil makes toys, too,” he muttered, and he walked away.

“The thing is,” Kevin said to Caleb, “I’d like to show this to your commanding officer.  I think it might be helpful in the war.  We know other stuff that might help, too.”

Caleb considered, then said, “Go find Sergeant Hornbeam, Fred.  He’ll be interested.”

Fred–that was the first soldier’s name–went off, and returned in a few minutes, accompanied by a large soldier with bright red hair.  He gave us the strange look we were used to by now, and then said: “Let me see the thing.”

Kevin held out his arm.

Sergeant Hornbeam shook his head.  “Take it off,” he said.

Reluctantly Kevin took the watch off and handed it to the sergeant, who took it and studied it.  Finally he let Fred show him how to use it.  Then he looked at us again.  “Are you Chinese?” he demanded.

“No, we’re–we’re farmfolk,” Kevin said.

“The inscription on this object says it was made in China.”  He made it sound like an accusation.

“Well, uh, this is complicated,” Kevin said.  “It was made in China, but we didn’t get it there.”

“Do we look Chinese?” I asked.

Sergeant Hornbeam glared at me.  “How would I know what the Chinese look like?”  Then he put the watch into his pocket.  “An interesting toy,” he said.

“Hey,” Kevin cried.  “That’s mine.”

“I thought you wanted to contribute it to the army,” the sergeant said.

“But we have to talk to somebody in charge.  They’ll need to know more about it.”

He shrugged.  “I don’t see why.  If Fred can use it, anyone can use it.”  Caleb laughed; even Fred smiled.  Then the sergeant seemed to think about the situation some more.  “Where are your families?” he asked.

“We’re here on our own,” Kevin said.  “We just arrived.”

The sergeant thought a bit longer, then gestured to Fred and Caleb.  “Put them in the brig for the night,” he said.  “We’ll see what the morrow brings.”  Then he turned to us.  “Fare you well, lads,” he said.  And he walked away.

I looked at Kevin.  The brig?

“Come on, lads,” Fred said.  “The brig isn’t much, but it’s better than the camp, I daresay.”

He and Caleb led us to a long low wooden building near the camp.  “Where’d you get that thing?” Fred asked.  “Off a trading ship?”

“Something like that,” Kevin said.

“I hear they’ve got all sorts of amazing inventions over in China,” he went on.

“Maybe if we had the Chinese for an ally we could win this damfool war,” Caleb added.

“Maybe if we had any ally at all we’d have a chance.”

“What do you think Sergeant Hornbeam will do with my watch?” Kevin asked.  “We really need to get it to a general or somebody like that.”

“Oh, Sarge’ll do the right thing,” Fred said.  “Don’t know if the generals will pay attention, though.  They’re too busy arguing with the president.”

The first part of the building was the soldiers’ barracks.  Beds were lined up against one of the walls.  A few soldiers were playing cards at a table, others were sitting on their beds cleaning their equipment.  The air was so thick with tobacco smoke that I wanted to gag.  Fred and Caleb led us through the barracks to a room at the back.  A fat, sleepy soldier sat slumped in a chair by the door.  He peered at us as we approached.  “What’d they do?” he asked.  “Sneak out of the camp and pinch some eggs in Cheapside?”

“If they did that, the folks in Cheapside would be happy to take care of them,” Caleb said.  “No, Sergeant Hornbeam wants to hold onto them.  See that they have every comfort, Benjamin.  They’re our guests.”

“No comforts to be had, I’m afraid.  Odd-looking little fellows, ain’t they?  I like that one’s hat, though.”  Benjamin struggled to his feet and took a key out of his pocket, which he used to unlock the door to an inner room.  “Chamber pot’s in the far corner,” he said to us.  “Try not to rouse Chester.  He’s only peaceable when he’s sleeping.”

Caleb and Fred said farewell, Benjamin locked the door behind us, and there we were in jail on our first night in the new world.

It was dark–the only light was from the small opening in the door.  We heard a loud noise that we finally recognized was snoring. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a big red-jacketed man lying with his head against the wall.  Like everything in this world, it seemed, he stank.

“This is just great,” I said to Kevin as we sat on the floor against the opposite wall, as far away from Chester as we could get.

“Come on, Larry, it could be worse,” he replied.  “This is what we were trying to do, right?  Turn ourselves in.  Get them to pay attention to us.”

“But what happens next?  What’s your watch going to do for us?”

“Anyone with any brains will know there’s nothing like that watch in this world,” he explained.  “So they’ll want to talk to us, find out where we got it.”

“And then what?  You think they’ll believe our story?  You sure they won’t think we’re the Devil, like that other soldier?”

“I dunno.  But in the meantime they’ll probably feed us.  I’ve already gotten us out of the mud for tonight.  It’s worth a shot, Larry.”

I supposed he was right.  And it wasn’t like I had any better ideas.  Suddenly I could barely keep my eyes open.  We seemed to be moderately safe for the night, except for Chester, who continued to snore loudly across the room.  And there wasn’t anything else we could accomplish right now except hope that Sergeant Hornbeam would do more than pocket Kevin’s watch as a silly little toy.  The floor wasn’t going to be comfortable, but it was better than sleeping outdoors in the mud.

I thought of the couple of weeks I had spent at sleepaway camp during the summer, how homesick I’d gotten, how brave I thought I was being when I stuck it out–with a counselor sleeping in the same cabin, with my parents just a two-hour drive away and sending me letters every day.  “We’ll get out of this, right, Kevin?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Of course we will.  It’s just a matter of time.”

“Right.”  He didn’t sound too sure of himself, but that was okay.  I slid down to lie on the floor.  “Good night, Kevin.”

“Good night, Larry.”

When I closed my eyes I thought of Matthew–was it really just last night?–telling me how life was really okay.  Yeah, yeah, I’d thought.  Would you please shut up so I can get some sleep?  Now what wouldn’t I give to be back in my own bed, listening to Matthew babble?

I was too tired to cry.  I miss you, I whispered into the darkness.  But there was no one there to hear me.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 5

Here’s the latest chapter of the online novel I’m perpetrating.  You’ll notice that I’ve got Portal up there in the menu now.  Click on it to see the chapters I’ve already published. Yet another service we provide for our customers!

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Chapter 5

The wagon was piled high with clothes and furniture, which swayed as the wagon rattled along the bumpy road.  Two small children–a boy and a girl–huddled in one corner, staring at us.  The woman had twisted around to look at us, too.  She was wearing a long coat and a bonnet.  “How come you to be in those woods, lads?” she asked.  Her accent was a little strange–not quite American, not quite English.

“It’s, um, a long story,” I said.  What was I supposed to say?

“You talk funny,” the little girl piped up.

“Hush, Rachel,” the mother said.  “Are you from Glanbury?” she asked us.

“Yes, we are.”

“Listen,” Kevin interrupted, “can you stop the wagon?  We have to go back.”

The man pulled on the reins to slow the horse and turned back to look at us, too.  “Why?” he asked.

“Their clothes are funny,” the girl said.

“Could you please just stop the wagon?” Kevin pleaded.

“There’s nothing to go back to,” the woman explained.  “The Portuguese army is destroying nigh everything.  If you’re separated from your parents, best stay with us till we get you to Boston.  You can find them there.”

“Along with everyone else in New England,” the man muttered.

“Are you in the navy?” the little girl asked Kevin.  She was pointing at his Old Navy t-shirt.

“What should we do?” Kevin asked me.

“I don’t know.  This was all your idea.”

Kevin glared at me.  We heard gunfire in the distance.

My parents would know what to do.  But we had left them far, far behind.  “We won’t be able to get to it,” I murmured to Kevin.  And then I asked the woman, “Will we be safe in Boston?”

“As safe as anywhere,” she replied, “with the Portuguese on one side of us and the Canadians on the other.”

“Maybe we should go to Boston,” I said to Kevin.  “We can come back when–when–”

When?

“What if it’s gone?” he said.  “What if we can’t find it?”

What if we find it, I thought, and it doesn’t take us home?

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I don’t know.”

Kevin slumped down in the wagon.  I slumped down next to him.  The man flicked the reins and the horse sped up.  “I bet I know what the ‘B’ on your hat stands for,” the little girl said to Kevin.

I thought the woman might press us about why we were in those woods, but she didn’t.  She and her husband started arguing about why he had waited till the last minute to leave their farm and how all their neighbors were safe in Boston by now, and here they were, barely outracing the Portuguese and endangering their children.  He said he couldn’t care less about their neighbors, he wasn’t going to give in so easily, he just hoped the cowardly government didn’t surrender without putting up a fight.

Kevin’s face was scrunched up, an expression he gets when he’s thinking hard.  Or maybe he was just trying to keep from crying.  We had screwed up so bad.  This was a totally different universe.  There was a Glanbury and a Boston, but what were the Portuguese doing here?  And where were the cars?  Where were the buildings?  And now that we’d landed here, would we ever be able to get back?

The wagon continued along the road to Boston, and the gunfire faded behind us.  My family drives to Boston a lot, but I didn’t know how far it was from Glanbury.  I don’t think it took very long, except when there was a lot of traffic.  How long was it going to take by horse?  The road wasn’t that great, and we kept getting knocked around in the back of the wagon.  My back hurt, and I started to get seasick.

“What time is it?” I whispered to Kevin after a while.

He looked at his watch.  “Four o’clock,” he said.

Late for my piano lesson.  I thought about Mom, probably standing on our deck and looking out into the woods for me, worried and angry at the same time, and I got a lump in my throat.  Pretty soon everyone would start looking for us, and we’d be gone–just gone, without a trace.  Mom always read those stories about missing children in the paper.  She’d figure this had something to do with that guy lurking by schoolbuses in Rhode Island.  But she’d never know where I went, if I was okay . . .

When they started searching they’d be bound to find the portal, I thought, and then they’d figure it out and come after us.

But that wouldn’t work, I realized.  If there were a kazillion universes, who knew which one they’d end up in?

I should never have come, I thought.  How could I have been so stupid?  It was all Kevin’s fault . . .

“Larry, do you have any of those Oreos?” Kevin asked.

I shook my head, suddenly getting hungry myself.  Probably no Oreos in this world, I thought.  No Coke, no pizza, no Burger King–or Burger Queen.

The fog faded away as we rode.  Occasionally a man on horseback passed us on the way to Boston.  No one was heading in the opposite direction, south towards Glanbury.  The riders would slow down and exchange news with us, then speed up until they disappeared up ahead.  There were some houses along the road, and a few inns and shops that looked like they came out of an old movie.  All of them appeared deserted.

We stopped once to give the horse some food and water, and we all went to the bathroom in the woods; it was gross, but the family didn’t seem to mind.

“What’s that?” the little boy asked, pointing at Kevin’s watch.

He shrugged.  “A watch,” he said.

“My papa has a watch, but he keeps it in his pocket.”

Kevin shrugged again.

“Don’t be frightened,” the boy went on.  “We’re going to stay with Uncle John, and he’ll take care of us.  He has a big house in the city, and that’s where all the army is, so the Portuguese won’t be able to get us.”

“That’s great.”

The father took Kevin and me aside and spoke to us before we got back into the wagon.  “I know every soul in Glanbury, and I don’t know you boys,” he said.  “I’ve certainly never seen anyone wearing clothes like that, or heard an accent like that.  Where are you really from?  China?”

Kevin shook his head.  “No, we’re from America.”

“Where is America?” the man asked suspiciously.  “I’ve never heard of it.”

Kevin looked at me, and we felt a little more desperate.  Just how different was this world?  “What–what’s the name of this country?” he asked the man.

The man shook his head in astonishment.  “Never heard of the like.  We’re in New England, lad.  The United States of New England.  Where’s America?”

Far, far away, apparently.  “Samuel, please come!” his wife called out to him from the wagon.  “If we don’t hurry we’ll not make it to Boston by dark.”

Samuel looked back at us.  “I think you lads have some explaining to do, but now’s not the time, I judge.  Let’s go, if you still want a ride to Boston.”

He headed off to the wagon.  “This may be our last chance,” Kevin said to me.  “What do you think?”

I shook my head.  “It’s too late, Kevin.  We have to go to Boston.”

Kevin didn’t argue, and we silently trudged back to the wagon.

When we got in, the mother was feeding the kids apples and bread.  She offered us some, and we took the food gratefully.  Kevin ate his share like he didn’t think he’d get another meal.

We started up again.  The sun was lower in the sky now, and it was getting colder out.  After a while there were more shops and houses, and a few signs of life.  Dogs barked at us.  On one side street I saw a bunch of hogs eating garbage in the middle of the road.  Another road merged with ours, and suddenly there was traffic–more wagons carrying furniture and frightened families.  Some of the wagons had a cow, a goat, or even an ox tied up behind them.  Everyone was headed towards Boston.

Finally we crossed a bridge over a river, and a little ways beyond was a long high wooden fence that stretched out as far as I could see in both directions.  There were slits for guns high up in the fence, I noticed.  A pair of gates were open, but a group of soldiers stood by them, examining everyone before they let them pass through.

They looked like soldiers, but their uniform was different from any I had ever seen.  They wore short red jackets, black pants, and metal helmets with little brims, almost like batting helmets.  Each of them had a rifle slung over his arm and a pistol in his belt.  When we finally reached the gates one of the soldiers came up to us.  He half-saluted Samuel and said, “Name, sir?”

He had an accent that was almost English.

“Harper.  Samuel Harper.  That’s my wife Martha.”

“And where are you coming from?”

“Up from Glanbury,” Samuel replied.

“Waited till the last minute, did you?”

“They were right behind us.  There was some skirmishing, and I thought it best to leave.  If they weren’t so interested in looting, they’d be right behind us still.”

“Why did you wait so long?”

“I didn’t want to yield my farm to any Portuguese, I tell you that.  I fired my house and barn before I left.  I don’t know how it got to this.”

The soldier nodded and looked into the wagon.  “This your family, sir?”

“Except for those two strays back there,” Samuel said, meaning us.  “I don’t know who or what they are.”

The soldier came around and took a close look at Kevin and me.  “Strange outfits,” he said.  “And your family is where, mates?”

“Murdered,” Kevin blurted out.  “By the Portuguese.  But we managed to escape.”

Why did he say that?

“But I thought you were in the navy,” the little girl objected.

“I know nothing of any murdering,” Mr. Harper said.

The soldier’s eyes darkened.  “Well?” he demanded.

But just then another soldier called to him.  “Move it along, Corporal!  We’ll be all night getting these people inside.”

He shrugged and stepped back.  “Any disease here?” he asked loudly.  “Smallpox?  Diphtheria?  Drikana?”

“No,” Mr. Harper said.  “We’re all healthy, thank God.”

“Pray God you stay healthy,” the soldier replied.  “The city is getting more crowded by the hour.  There is little food, and the water is bad.  You are welcome to enter, but you’ll have a hard time of it.  If there is a siege, conditions will get far worse.  You’ll have to stay in a camp.”

“I have a brother in the city who will take us in,” Mr. Harper said.

“Then count yourself lucky, sir.  The camps’ll not be pleasant places.  You may pass.”

Mr. Harper grunted and flicked the reins, and the horse started through the gates.  “A siege,” he muttered.  “They want to delay as long as they can while they parley with the Europeans, as if any European has ever helped New England before.  And meanwhile, all I’ve worked for has been destroyed.”

“You needn’t have set fire to the–” his wife started to say, but he quickly interrupted her.

“Better me than the Portuguese, woman.  If we all did what I did, there’d be no food to sustain them, and they’d have to slink like dogs back where they came from.”

I looked at the fence.  Soldiers were piling up sandbags against it.  Getting ready for a siege, I thought.  There were sieges in plenty of video games I’d played.  Sieges could last forever.

“Was your family really murdered?” the little boy asked Kevin.

Kevin shook his head.  “No, but I don’t think I’ll ever see them again.”

“Oh.  That’s sad.”

Kevin nodded and looked away.

We were passing through a big military camp.  The soldiers stared at us grimly as we went by.  In the distance to our right I could see the ocean.  I smelled fish and horse manure, and worse stuff.  It was really getting dark now, and there weren’t any street lights.  I was hungry and stiff and still a little queasy from the bumpy ride.  This was awful.

“Are you sure John will take us in?” Martha asked her husband.

“He’d better, hadn’t he?” he replied.

“What about these boys?”

“What about them?  I won’t ask my brother to house and feed anyone who isn’t kin, not with what’s about to happen.  Anyway, they haven’t told the truth about anything since we met them.  They can fend for themselves.”

“But they’re so young, Samuel.”

“They’re old enough to join the army, I daresay.  The redbacks will need everyone they can get.  They should be grateful to us.  If we hadn’t taken them with us, they’d be lying dead in the road by now.  Or worse.”

Martha gave us a look full of sympathy, but she didn’t argue with her husband.  The little boy said, “I’d like to join the army,” but she hushed him.

My stomach started to growl.

We were past the military camp now.  The road crossed some marshland, and on the other side there were a lot of shacks and tents jammed together, and some of the people in wagons got off the road to join the crowd.  Was this one of the refugee camps?  “Fools,” Mr. Harper muttered.  “Camping in the swamp.  Half of them will have the flux by morning.”  We kept going, and after a while some of the buildings were built of brick, the road became paved with cobblestones, and there were even sidewalks.

“At last,” Mr. Harper said.  “Now, if I can only find the street.”

The sidewalks grew crowded as we traveled further into the city.  Kids younger than Kevin and me, dirty-faced and dressed in raggedy old clothes, were selling newspapers or flowers.  Soldiers walked alongside women wearing too much makeup.  There were lots of old people–and some not so old–holding out their hands or tin cups, begging for food or money.  Policemen, dressed like the soldiers except in blue, directed traffic at every intersection.  Some people on the streets rode something that looked like a bicycle with very wide wooden wheels.  There were no traffic lights, and only a few dim, flickering lamps instead of street lights.

Mr. Harper made a few turns, asked directions a couple of times, and finally pulled up in front of a small house on a dark side street.  A bearded man walked out of the house, holding a lantern.  “Samuel,” he said, “about time you came to town.”

“Held out as long as I could, John,” Samuel replied.  “I’ve lost everything but what we’ve got in this wagon.”

“I’m very sorry for that,” John said, coming over to the wagon. “but of course you’re welcome to stay here.  Martha,” he said, nodding to the woman.  “And how are little Rachel and Samuel?”  He reached into the wagon and patted them on the heads.  Then he turned to Kevin and me with a puzzled expression.  “And you are–?”

Samuel had joined his brother and was unlatching the back of the wagon.  “Passers-by,” he said.  “Everyone had to get out or be shot.  We gave them a ride, out of the goodness of our hearts.”

We climbed down, followed by Martha and the children.  Samuel and his brother walked back to the front of the wagon, unhitched the horse, and led it behind the house.  Martha looked at us.  “Will you be all right?” she asked.

I didn’t know what to say.  “I guess so,” I said.

She reached back into the wagon and filled a small bag with apples, bread, and cheese.  “Good luck,” she said, handing me the bag.  “I’m sorry we can’t do more.  It’s a hard time for everyone.”  She turned to her kids.  “Come on, children.  Let’s go inside.”

Kevin and I watched them go into the small house.  And then we were all alone on the dark street, in the strange world, and neither of us had a clue what to do next.

Portal — an online novel: Chapter 3

Here’s Chapter 3 of Portal.

We also have Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 for your reading pleasure.  There’s no telling what chapter I’ll publish next!

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Chapter 3

I stepped through the clouds inside the thing and out the other side.

“Hey!  Where’d you go?” a voice called.

It was Stinky.  My Stinky.  Standing in the woods–my woods–looking puzzled.

I tried to catch my breath.  “Hiding,” I said.  I didn’t think I could be happy to see Stinky Glover, but right then I sure was.

He still looked puzzled.  “Hiding where?”

I waved vaguely.  “Behind a tree.”  I didn’t want him to know about the time machine, or whatever it was.  I moved quickly away from it.

He seemed to get back his Stinkiness.  “Why are you hiding?” he said.  “You afraid of me, Lawrence?”

I was no longer happy to see him.  I didn’t answer.  Instead I just kept walking, back towards my house.

“Don’t you like wet willies, Lawrence?” he called out.

I ignored him.  This time he didn’t follow me.

When I finally saw our swing set I stopped and took a deep breath.  Man, that had been strange.

I ran through the yard and inside our house, and there was Mom, frowning at me.  “Larry, I thought you were going to do your homework,” she said.

“Mom, you wouldn’t believe–” I began.

“Wouldn’t believe what?”

I stared at her.  “Well, uh, what a beautiful day it is,” I said finally.  “I just had to get some fresh air before I started my homework.”

She looked at me a little funny, and then just shrugged and said, “All right, but I don’t want you going too far into the woods.”

“Okay, sure.”

So, I didn’t tell Stinky because I just don’t like him.  And I didn’t tell Mom because I knew she’d yell at me–first, for disobeying her by going to the army buildings, and second, for doing something idiotically dangerous like actually stepping inside the invisibility thing.  Maybe I should have–but you don’t know my Mom.

I had to tell someone, though.

I figured I could tell my Dad.  He wouldn’t be too bothered by the disobedience thing, especially if it turned out I had made some important scientific discovery, which obviously I had.  But he wasn’t home from work yet.

In the meantime, I decided to call Kevin Albright.  This was just the sort of thing he’d love.

I went into my dad’s study and picked up the phone.  That turned out to be a mistake.  Cassie had arrived home while I was in the woods, and of course she was already on the extension in her room talking to one of her high-school-loser buddies.  She’d been demanding her own cellphone, which had caused more eyerolling from Dad.  So far, no cellphone.

“Hang up, snot-for-brains!” she screamed at me.

How creative.  I banged down the receiver and waited for her to wear herself out talking about how cute her math teacher was or whatever.  It took a while.  For someone who is always too exhausted to do any chores, she certainly has a lot of energy when she’s talking on the phone.

When she finally got off I called Kevin.  “You’ll never guess what just happened to me,” I said.

“Want me to try?” he asked.

“Not really.  Listen.”  And I told him about my adventure.  I have to admit it sounded pretty whacked, but Kevin didn’t have any problem believing me.  More than that–he was ready with an explanation.

“Larry, this is so awesome,” he said.  “You’ve found a portal to another universe.”

“A portal,” I repeated.

“Yeah, you know, a portal–a gateway.  An opening into a parallel universe.  Not the future, not the past–just different.”

I thought about it.  “Okay, I sort of get the idea of parallel universes.  But, I mean, that’s just Star Trek stuff.  They’re not for real.”

“Well, maybe,” Kevin said. “But there’s this theory I read about.  It says that every time anyone makes a choice–you know, turn left or turn right, watch the Red Sox game or watch the Celtics, whatever, a whole other universe splits off from this one.  And in that other universe, everything is exactly the same as this one, except that in one of them you changed the channel and in the other you didn’t.”

“But that’s nuts,” I protested.  “That would mean there’d be, like, kazillions of universes.”

“Okay, well, it’s just a theory,” Kevin said.  “But what if it’s true?  Or something like it?  In the place you went to, what if the guy who started Dairy Queen back whenever decided to name it “Dairy King” instead?  So another universe splits off, and things go on from there.  When some other guy is starting Burger King, well, in this world the “King” part is already taken, so he names it “Burger Queen” instead.”

“Okay, but what about all the other stuff–the different clothes, the cars, a whole new Glanbury Plaza in the conservation land behind my house?  All that’s because somebody decided to name his business ‘Dairy King’?”

“The butterfly effect,” Kevin said.  “You know–the idea that a butterfly flaps its wings in China and changes the weather in America.  One event ends up making a big difference.  Maybe the Dairy King choice wasn’t when that universe split off.  Maybe something else happened a whole lot earlier.  Doesn’t really matter.  The point is, the changes just keep piling up from when it started, until finally everything is just a little bit different, or maybe a lot different, and there’s no way of tracing everything back to that one little event that started it.”

“But Stinky was there,” I pointed out.  “And Nora Lally.”

“It was a different Stinky and Nora,” Kevin replied.  “And a different Glanbury.  But not entirely different.  No reason why they couldn’t be there.  No reason why we couldn’t be there, for that matter.”

That was a strange thought.  But it made sense.  Something else still didn’t make sense, though.  “Okay, let’s say you’re right, and there are all kinds of parallel universes.  There’s no way of traveling between them, right?  No one has ever been to a parallel universe.  So what’s up with this–this portal?  Where did it come from?  How come it’s back there in the woods behind my house?”

“Beats me,” Kevin admitted.  “Maybe it’s like black holes before they got discovered.  Maybe these things are all over our universe but no one has noticed them before.”

“Or maybe somebody put it there,” I suggested.  “Aliens–like that black slab in 2001.”

“Yeah, could be.”

“But the thing is, why was I the first one to find it?  I know it’s invisible, and it’s kind of out of the way in the woods, but it’s not that out of the way.”

“Maybe you weren’t, but other people kept it secret,” he suggested.  “Or the government took them away.  What if it only shows up every few years–like a comet?  I don’t know, Larry.  Anyway, when can I see it?”

“Well, I was going to show it to my Dad tonight, and–”

“Larry, come on, you can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“Because once you talk to your father, the grownups’ll be in charge–scientists, the army.  Like in ET.  We’ll never get near the thing.  This could be the most amazing thing that ever happens in our lives.  You can’t just give it up without doing a little exploring.”

“Kevin, I almost didn’t get out of that other universe,” I pointed out.  “What if I couldn’t find the thing again?  It’s invisible, remember?”

“Well, we just have to be more careful.  Where’s your sense of adventure?”

All of a sudden Cassie was standing in the doorway of Dad’s study, shooting death-rays at me with her eyes.  “Are you going to be on the phone all day?” she demanded.

Dad says Cassie speaks in italics, and I think I know what he means.  I ignored her.  “Look, Kevin, I gotta go,” I said.  “Let me think about it.”

“Please, Larry,” Kevin begged.  “One more time.  Just one more time.”

I hung up, and Cassie stomped off to make another call.  Why wouldn’t Dad just give in and get her a cellphone?  I went upstairs to my room.

Matthew was playing my Assassin’s Creed on the Xbox.

“Matthew!” I screamed.

“Oh.  Sorry,” he said, as if he’d never heard the one about not messing with my stuff.  Then he started talking endlessly about some video game he wanted to invent that would be way better than Assassin’s Creed.

I ignored him and lay down on my bed.

A portal to a parallel universe, practically in my backyard.  That was so cool.  But did I want to go back inside it?  It would be fun going with Kevin.  And there was Nora Lally and her smile . . . maybe I’d run into her again.

But what about those kids who had chased me?  I could wear different clothing if I went back, so I could blend in better.  And I’d stay away from Stinky–that was always a good idea.

Just once more, I thought, then I could turn it over to the grownups.  Would I become famous?  The First Human to Travel to Another Universe . . .  Or would it all be top-secret, and we could never tell anyone?

Thinking about all that stuff, I kind of blew off my homework, and before I knew it, it was time for supper.

Dad sometimes doesn’t make it home for supper, which drives Mom nuts, but he managed to make it tonight.  Not that it helped.  Family suppers are usually not very pleasant.  Lately Cassie has been on some weird diet that only she understands, so she automatically hates everything Mom cooks, which gets Mom in a bad mood.  And of course Matthew never shuts up, which gets the rest of us in a bad mood.

“So how was everyone’s day?” Dad asked.  He always asks that.  And he expects an answer.

Cassie rolled her eyes.  She acts like she’d rather have her fingernails pulled out than talk to any of us.

I tried to think of something, but if I wasn’t going to mention the portal, what else was there?  “Fine,” I said–my usual answer.

“Did you practice the piano?”

That was the last thing on my mind.  My parents have made me take lessons for years, but I’m still not very good.  “Uh, no, not yet,” I said.

“You have a lesson tomorrow afternoon,” Mom pointed out.

“Okay, okay, I’ll get to it.”

“How about you, Matthew?” Dad said.  “Anything interesting happen at school?”

That was all the opening Matthew needed.  “We had gym today,” he said, “but Jeremy Finkel is such a ball-hog, he only passes to Luke Kelly.  Luke isn’t as much of a ball-hog as Jeremy, only like maybe seventy-two percent, but he thinks he’s so cool and tries to dribble through his legs, but most of the time the ball just bounces off his ankle.  Anyway, I was on a team with Peter Gorman and Chet Pillogi, and we were playing this game the gym teacher made up–well, it’s kind of complicated, see . . . ”

Dad always tries to look interested when Matthew gets going, but after a few minutes of that sort of thing, even he starts to fade.  I just zoned out until the usual fight started because Cassie left the table without asking to be excused, and who did she think she was?  And she started screaming about how she hated this food and this family and her entire life, and why couldn’t everyone just leave her alone?

When the Cassie storm blew over, Dad asked Matthew and me if we wanted to go outside and play catch after supper, but we didn’t, so he just stared at his plate like we’d kicked him in the teeth.  He seems to think playing catch is such a great thing, but Matthew and I don’t like to play catch.  It’s boring.  Baseball is boring.  I’d actually rather practice the piano.  So after supper I did, just long enough to get my parents off my back.  Then I knocked off the rest of my homework, watched some TV, and went to bed.

Matthew was already in bed, but he wasn’t asleep, so of course he wanted to talk.  “Larry?”

“What?”

“I don’t like it when we all yell at each other.”

“Me neither.”

“How come we can’t get along better?”

“I don’t know.  How come you won’t stop playing my videogames without permission?”

“I’ll stop, really I will.”

“Okay.”  He really meant it, too.  For now.

He paused, and I thought maybe he’d given up.  But then he said, “Larry?”

Give it up, I thought.  “What?

“I don’t know what Cassie gets so mad about.  Life is okay, don’t you think?”

“If you say so, Matthew.”

And that was it–at least, that’s all I remember.  Life is okay.  Sometimes Matthew could be surprising.

The last thing I thought about before falling asleep was not Nora Lally’s smile, but that long-haired man in the park, and the way his glittering eyes fixed on me.

This world is not only stranger than you imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine.

That portal back in the woods had certainly turned my world strange.

Eventually I drifted off to sleep, and a bunch of strange dreams.  And before I knew it, it was time to get up and go to The Gross again.

Portal — an online novel: Chapter 2

Here is the second chapter of Portal.  You can find Chapter 1 here.

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

Chapter 2

I knew right away this was a big mistake.  I guess I had thought it would be sort of like stepping into the other side of one of those mirrors where you can see the person looking into the mirror, but he can’t see you.  That would have been cool.  But why in the world did I think that?  I dunno–seeing Stinky had made me stupid, I suppose.  Things just aren’t supposed to become invisible.  I had stumbled onto something very weird.  And instead of running home and getting a grownup the way I should have, I had gone ahead and stepped into it.

Well, it wasn’t like one of those mirrors.  Inside it was all cloudy.  I thought I could make out dark shapes to my left and right, but I couldn’t tell what they were.  Trees?  I didn’t think so.  I had brains enough to be scared, but here’s where I made another, maybe bigger mistake: I didn’t turn around right away and get out.  Instead I reached out and groped through the clouds.  I took a step forward.  Then another.  The cloudiness seemed to fade, and I was outside again.  I heard noises.  I looked around.

I was someplace . . . different.

Not entirely different.  I was still in the woods, sort of–I recognized the little clearing, and the oak tree right in front of me.  But Stinky was gone.  And ahead of me, through the trees, were the backs of buildings.  Beyond them was a street.  The noises I heard were cars passing by.

What was going on?

I turned and held out my hand.  It disappeared.  So the thing was still there.  But where was I?  What had happened?

I decided to take a look around.

I guess that was one more mistake.  Was I being brave?  Or stupid?  I don’t know.  Maybe I was just really confused.

I headed for the buildings.

Like I said, I was in back of them, and the first things I saw were dumpsters and parked cars.  One building I recognized right away–a Jiffy Lube.  But I didn’t think there were any Jiffy Lubes in Glanbury.  My dad always drives over to Rockford to get his oil changed.  And this didn’t look like the place in Rockford.  It didn’t look much like any regular Jiffy Lube I’d seen, actually, despite what the sign said.  But I couldn’t put my finger on what was different.

I walked around front, still trying to puzzle it out.  The layout of the building was different from the one in Rockford, I decided.  And the sign–it said something about their 16-point Signature Service.  Weren’t there more points than that in Jiffy Lube’s Signature Service?  Maybe different Jiffy Lubes had different numbers of points . . .  I had no idea.

I looked around and saw another sign that said “Glanbury Plaza,” and that was a little reassuring–except that the real Glanbury Plaza has a Stop ‘n’ Shop and a CVS in it, and this place didn’t have either; it was just a little strip mall on a street I didn’t recognize.

Next door to the Jiffy Lube was a Burger King.  And that didn’t look right either.  It took me a minute–it really did–to figure out what was wrong.

The sign didn’t say “Burger King.”  It said “Burger Queen.”

Burger Queen?

By now I was extremely freaked out.

I looked around for other things that were out of whack.  Sure enough, across the street people were lined up to get ice cream cones at a Dairy King.  And the cars–they were mostly long and wide, with big fins, like the kind you see in old movies.  In the Burger Queen parking lot I saw a really big one that was called a “Jupiter.”  I’d never heard of a Jupiter.  And where were all the SUVs and Jeeps and minivans?

Finally I noticed the kids hanging around outside the Burger Queen.  They were all staring at me.  One of them called out, “Hey, rad gear, hombre!”  At least, that’s what I think he said.

I couldn’t think what to reply, so I just stared back at him.

“I said, ‘Nice clothes,'” the kid repeated, laughing.  The other kids started laughing, too.

Well, my clothes were nice.  My mom had bought me some Abercrombie cargo shorts and Old Navy t-shirts, and I was wearing brand-new back-to-school Adidas.  But the kids in front of the Burger Queen–the boys were wearing tight black pants, shiny leather shoes, and actual white shirts–the kind you button up.  The girls were wearing big skirts and baggy sweaters.  The boys’ hair was long and shaggy; the girls’ hair was short and spiky.  They all looked totally strange, like they were going to a costume party, although I had no idea what they were supposed to be dressed up as–some rock group?

And they were making fun of me!

I kept walking.  I was scared, but I was also sort of fascinated.  Why had Burger King changed its name?  Why were people dressed funny?  Those kids weren’t the only ones–the men who walked by me wore suits and odd-shaped hats; the women wore long skirts and way too much makeup.

Why were some things familiar, while other things seemed so completely different?  Traffic lights looked the same, for example, but crosswalks were painted in bright yellow zig-zags.  I passed a Dunkin’ Donuts that looked normal, but the cellphones I saw people using were enormous, the size of hardcover books.

And lots of people stared at me like I was the one wearing a costume.

Finally I wandered into a little park with winding paths and old-fashioned streetlights.  Near the entrance, a man was standing on a bench and talking to a small crowd of people.  I went over to listen.  He was a tall and thin, with long black hair and dark, glittering eyes.  He was wearing baggy brown pants and a shapeless white shirt with a necktie hanging loosely over it.  His voice was soft, but it carried, and you could hear every word he was saying even from a distance.

“This world is not only stranger than you imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine,” he said.  “And more beautiful.  And more full of love.  Do not be complacent.  Do not live your lives as if each day is a chore to be endured.  Seek out the strangeness.  Find the beauty.  Feel the love.”

Then he turned his glittering eyes on me, and all of a sudden he smiled, like he was sharing a joke with me.  When he spoke again, it was as if he was talking to me personally.

“‘Where is it?’ you ask.  The strangeness–the beauty–the love.”  He lifted up his hand.  “It is here.  It is in each speck of dirt, and in the worm that crawls through the dirt.  It is in distant exploding suns.  It is just over the horizon.”  And then, looking even harder at me with those dark eyes, he added, “It is in the home you left behind.”

I shivered a little, then tore myself away from the guy and kept walking.  He was really creepy.  Nobody like that in Glanbury.

But this was Glanbury.  I sat on a bench and thought about it.

I was apparently in Glanbury, but it wasn’t anything like the Glanbury I knew.  Had I stepped into some kind of time machine and ended up in the future?  But why would cellphones be bigger in the future?  And why would Burger King and Dairy Queen switch their names?  This just didn’t feel like the future.  Could it be the past, then?  The cars and the clothes looked a little like something out of a 50s TV show, maybe . . . but cellphones hadn’t been around that long, I was pretty sure.  Maybe I should go find a newspaper and check the date.

Or maybe I should just go home.

But would I be able to get home?  If the thing was a time machine, did it have a dial where you could set the date, like that car in Back to the Future?  It hadn’t really seemed like a time machine at all.  So how could I be sure it would take me back where or when I had come from?

Well, it just had to.  All of a sudden I really wasn’t interested in this place anymore.  I needed to get out of there, right away.  I stood up.

And I bumped into someone.  A bunch of books fell to the ground.  “Sorry, sorry,” I said, and bent over to pick them up.

They were textbooks–math and science.  I went to hand them to the person, and I froze.  It was Nora Lally.

She smiled at me and took them.  “No worry,” she said.  “Thank you.”

“It was my–I mean–sure.  Sorry.”

She tilted her head and looked at me as if trying to figure something out.  Then she just smiled again and said, “See ya.”  And she walked away down the path.

I watched her go.

Nora Lally.  Here, wearing a puffy skirt and short white socks and shiny black shoes.  Smiling at me.

I remembered to breathe.  I should go after her, I thought.  But she had already disappeared.  And if I did go after her, what would I say?  What had I just said to her?  It had been pretty stupid, right?

And then I thought: If she’s here, then it can’t be the past or the future.  So what is it?

Didn’t matter, I decided.  I had to go home.  With one last look down the path where Nora had walked, I turned and headed back toward the Burger Queen and the Jiffy Lube.  I went past where the creepy guy had been preaching, but he was gone, and the crowd had disappeared.  I wasn’t interested in him now, though.  So weird, I kept thinking to myself.  Nora Lally–wearing clothes that the real Nora Lally wouldn’t get caught dead wearing.  But she had smiled at me, and she had talked to me, even if it was just a few words.

Back at the Burger Queen, the kids were still hanging in the parking lot.  “Hey, there’s the hombre in the short pants!” one of them called out.

“Hombre, aren’t you a little old to be dressed like a baby?” another kid shouted.

“What do you need all those pockets for–your pacifiers?” a third one said.

I ignored them.  I just wanted to go home.

Then the door of the Burger Queen opened, and I saw Stinky Glover come out, carrying a big bag of food.  He was wearing a white shirt and black pants, too, but his shirt wasn’t tucked in, and it looked like it hadn’t been washed in a week.

The other kids moved away from him.

The strange thing was, with everyone yelling at me, I felt grateful to see a familiar face, even if it was Stinky Glover’s.

“Hey Stinky!” I called out.

He looked up at me, and I could tell I’d made a mistake.  “What did you call me?” he said.

“Uh, never mind,” I replied.

“No.  You called me something.  What was it?”

“He called you ‘Stinky’,” one of the other kids told him, and they all laughed.

“That’s what I thought.”  He put down the bag of food and started toward me.

Swell.  I walked away.

“Hey!  C’mere!”

I walked faster.

“We’ll get him for you, Julie!” I heard one of the kids say.  Julie?

I started to run–back behind the Jiffy Lube, with the gang of kids behind me.  Past the dumpsters.  Where was the oak tree?  Where was the thing–the time machine–whatever?  Was it still there?  I had to find it.

“Hey, hombre!  We’re gonna get you!  You can’t run forever!”

There was the tree.  I reached out my hand–and it disappeared.  Thank goodness!  I didn’t look back at the kids behind me.  I just plunged inside and hoped for the best.

 

Portal — an online novel: Chapter 1

Here’s an experiment.  I have a science fiction/alternate universe novel that I am pondering/revising.  It’s a bit of a departure for me, since it has a young-adult narrator.  I think it might work for grownups, too.  If I decide I like this approach, I’ll post an additional chapter every week, or perhaps more frequently. I’ll also add an entry to the menu up top, so all the chapters will be in one place.  And I’ll probably end up making it an ebook, so  folks can pay for it!  Or, not.

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

Chapter 1

 People tell me I’m a pretty good writer for a kid, so I’ve decided to try and tell this story.  Not that I’m going to show it to anyone.  But if I don’t write it down, maybe I’ll start forgetting parts of it.  Worse, I might start thinking it didn’t really happen.  But it did.  It was as real as anything in this world, or any other world.  So here goes.

#

My name is Larry Barnes, and I live in Glanbury, which is a small town south of Boston.  I go to the Theodore Grossman Middle School, which even my parents call The Gross.  When this all happened I was just starting seventh grade, and my life sucked.

Just to show you, here’s the way things went on the day it began.  First off, Mom woke me up with that chirpy “Rise and shine, Pumpkin!” that she knows I hate.  One of the worst things about Middle School is you have to get up so early, and I’ve never gotten used to it.  I looked over at Matthew, and of course he was still sleeping like a baby, because grammar school starts an hour later.  One of the bad things about my life is that I have to share a bedroom with my kid brother.  This is okay when he’s asleep, but when he’s awake it’s just about unbearable, because he won’t stop talking.  It’s like the Mute button in his brain is broken.  And it’s not as if anything he has to say is all that interesting.  He’ll talk for twenty minutes about, I don’t know, lemonade, or water balloons, or some stupid video game.  And he doesn’t really need me to say anything, he’s happy just to yak away by himself.

So anyway, I got up to go to the bathroom, and of course Cassie was already in there, taking one of her endless showers.  Cassie’s my sister.  She’s in high school, and she has “issues,” my mother says.  I say she’s a jerk.  She’s the reason Matthew and I are stuck with each other, by the way; apparently there’s some law that a teenage girl has to have her own bedroom.  So I yelled at her to quit hogging the bathroom, and she yelled at me to get lost, and then Mom yelled at me to hurry up, and I was in a bad mood and I hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet.

Breakfast was the usual–gulp your cereal down or you’ll miss the bus.  Dad had already left for work.  I think he likes to get out of the house before all the yelling starts.  Mom doesn’t complain about him much, but I get the idea that she thinks the same thing.  He’s a computer programmer, and I guess he works really hard; but I don’t see why he can’t eat a meal or two with us once in a while.

While I was trying to get out the door Mom had something new to warn me about; she’s always worried about something.  “Larry, I read in the paper about a man in Rhode Island who was caught stalking kids as they walked to the bus stop.  I want you to be extra careful out there.”

“Mom, we’re nowhere near Rhode Island.”

“They’re all over.  You can’t be too careful.”

“But I’m almost a teenager.”

“That’s just the age these people are interested in.”

Cassie came downstairs in time to hear this part of the conversation, and she said, “Don’t worry, Larry, not even a dirty old man is going to be interested in you.”

So I yelled at her, and she yelled at me, and then I had to run to catch the bus.  I made it, but the only seat was right in front of Stinky Glover.

His real name is Julian, but guess why everyone calls him “Stinky”.  I suppose he takes a shower sometimes, but the effect must wear off before he gets out in public, because I’ve never been near him when he didn’t smell like low tide.  If there was a BO event in the Olympics, he’d get the gold medal.  Oh, and also he’s fat and stupid.  Of course, no one would sit beside him if they could help it, but sometimes you had to sit in front of him, and that could be just as bad.

For some reason Stinky has it in for me.  I really don’t know why.  I don’t call him Stinky; I don’t call him anything.  “Hey, Lawrence,” he whispered, leaning forward.  “How’s it going, Lawrence?”

Why someone named Julian would find the name Lawrence funny is beyond me, but that was Stinky for you.  I ignored him.

I’ve seen the bullying video, of course, and heard the lectures from the school shrink, so I know all about what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to act when someone bullies you.  But the fact of the matter is, Stinky wasn’t exactly a bully.  He never beat me up or stole my lunch money or any of that stuff.  He was just really, really annoying.

Like that morning.  After he got through saying my name a bunch of times, I felt something long and wet in my ear, and heard him half giggle/half snort behind me.  He’d decided to give me a Wet Willie.  Can you imagine feeling Stinky Glover’s finger wiggling in your ear, with Stinky Glover’s spit all over it?  Especially at seven o’clock in the morning, when your stomach hasn’t really woken up yet.  It’s a wonder I didn’t hurl.

I turned around.  “Cut it out!” I demanded.

He grinned, and I saw specks of breakfast on his teeth.  “What’s the matter, Lawrence?  Not having fun, Lawrence?”

So I got up to try and change my seat, and the bus driver started yelling at me.

Just great.  It was a relief to actually arrive at school, where I had a chance to talk to Kevin Albright.  He’s my best friend at school, even though we’re kind of different.  I’m good at writing; he’s better at math and science.   He actually doesn’t do all that well in school, mainly because it’s just so boring, compared to all the stuff he finds out on his own, reading books and visiting weird web sites and doing science experiments in his basement.  He likes me, I think, because I talk about more than video games and TV.  Lots of kids think he’s just strange.

In homeroom before “A” period I told him about Stinky.

“Stinky is an example of evolution gone wrong,” Kevin said.  “Darwin should apologize for coming up with people like him.”

“I don’t need apologies.  I need to figure out what to do about him.”

“Maybe you can pretend you have some kind of disease.  At least that might keep him from sticking his finger in your ear.”

“Stinky is a disease.”

“Maybe you need an anti-Stinky pill.  Stinkomycin.”

Kevin was no help, but he was fun to talk to.

Everything went okay then until English class.  I like English class.  Mrs. Nathanson is an interesting teacher, and she’s the one who thinks I’m a good writer.  But there’s just one problem: I sit next to Nora Lally.  That’s not bad, actually.  Nora is no Stinky Glover.  In fact, she’s the prettiest girl in the seventh grade.  She’s got long black hair and bright blue eyes and this terrific smile.  So what’s the problem, then?

The problem is I can’t bring myself to speak to her, even with her sitting right next to me.  I get nervous.  My throat feels funny.  I can’t think of anything to say.  It’s so stupid.  I go to the school dances.  I pal around with girls.  No one has ever accused me of being shy.  So why can’t I talk to Nora Lally?

I haven’t mentioned this problem to Kevin, by the way; I haven’t mentioned it to anyone.  It’s too embarrassing.

That day was no different.  Before class I could have asked her a question about the homework.  I could have made some funny remark about Mrs. Nathanson–the kind I’m always making to Kevin.  But I didn’t.  I just sat there like a dope.  And Nora just ignored me, the way she always does.

So school finally got out, and wouldn’t you know–Stinky got the seat next to me on the bus.  The only thing worse than having Stinky sitting behind you is having him sitting next to you.  Especially when you can’t open the window.  I felt like my elbow was sticking into a tub of rancid butter.  “Hey, Lawrence!  We’re gonna be best buddies, right, Lawrence?”  Giggle-snort, giggle-snort.

Finally I got off at my stop and walked home.  I didn’t notice any perverts, but then, I wasn’t looking too hard.  My mother was waiting for me with the usual questions.  “How was school, Larry?  How are things going?”

She’s always interrogating me about school.  I think she figures sooner or later I’ll break down and admit I was doing drugs during gym class or something.

“Fine.”  So what was I going to say?  My mom is really great and all, but she’s sort of, well . . . intense is the word my father uses.  I sure wasn’t going to tell her about Nora Lally.  And if I had told her about Stinky Glover, she would have been on the phone to the principal and probably Stinky’s mom as well.  There would have been letters written and meetings called and action plans developed.  And I’d still have to get on the bus with Stinky.

“Are you sure?” she asked.  “You look . . . ”

“I said school was fine,” I snapped at her.  “I’m just a little tired,” I added, trying not to be too grouchy.

“Well, you should go to bed earlier, then,” she replied.  “You know, Middle School can be very demanding, and children your age really need–”

“Good point,” I said.  “I’ll really try.”

She gave me another one of her searching glances, as if trying to figure out if my agreeableness was a danger sign of alcohol abuse.  But I just wanted to end the inquisition.  “Gotta get going on my homework,” I pointed out, and she couldn’t argue with that.  So I headed upstairs to my room.

This was the best part of the day–before Cassie and Matthew got home and started bugging me.  No yakking, no complaining.  Just . . . silence.  Too bad it wouldn’t last.  I didn’t start my homework.  Instead I lay on my bed for a while thinking about how rotten things were.  How was I going to stand a whole year of this?

Finally I decided to go for a walk and try to get Stinky and Nora and everyone out of my brain.

I went back downstairs.  “Goin’ out!” I yelled at Mom, and I headed into the back yard before she could ask me about my homework.  And then I kept on going, past the garage and the old swingset, into the woods beyond the yard.

I have to say something here about those woods.  They’re called conservation land.  My father says it’s great that we’re next to conservation land, because no one can build on it and it increases the value of our property.  My mom worries about Lyme disease, snakes, and poison ivy.  When we were little she used to have a rule against us going into the woods, but she’s kind of given up on that.  It’s better than playing in the street, I guess.

The thing about the woods is, if you go in far enough, you come to a bunch of falling-down old brick-and-concrete buildings.  They were used by the Army during World War Two, although I don’t know exactly what for.  After the war the Army didn’t need them anymore, so they gave the whole area to the town, which turned it into the conservation land.

It’s not that easy to get to the buildings.  There’s an old road that runs up to them, but it’s pretty wrecked by now because the town doesn’t maintain it.  But of course some kids go there, and you see broken beer bottles and stuff scattered around.  Everyone thinks the buildings are a safety hazard and should be torn down, but no one can agree who should pay for it.  Mom really doesn’t want me to go there, because she’s certain one of the buildings will fall on me and I’ll be crushed to death with no one to hear my cries for help.  But she can’t stop me.

I don’t care about the buildings, but I do like the woods.  They’re dark and quiet, and there’s no one to bug you.  My dad has taught me the names of some of the trees and plants, so I don’t feel like a dope in there.  Anyway, the woods just felt like the right place to be that afternoon.

So I picked up a long stick and started whacking it against the trees as I walked.  Take that, Stinky!  Take that, Cassie!

I usually don’t go out of earshot of the house–that’s Mom’s latest rule–but that day I just felt like walking.  I wanted to get as far away from my life as I could.  And eventually I found myself near those old army buildings.

I was a little surprised–I hadn’t realized I had walked that far.  But it was no big deal.  It wasn’t like a wall was really going to fall on me.

Then I heard a noise from inside one of the buildings.

Again, no big deal.  If other kids were there, I’d just go home.  Despite Mom’s fears, I don’t drink or anything, and I don’t want to hang with the loser kids who do.  So I turned around.  I had only walked a few steps when I heard someone call to me.  “Hey, Lawrence!  Watcha doin’, Lawrence?”

What was Stinky doing here?

“Wait up, Lawrence!”

I turned back.  He was heading towards me.  I really didn’t want to deal with Stinky right then.  I started to run.

Okay.  Here’s where it starts.  I slowed down to catch my breath–I wasn’t too worried about Stinky being able to catch up to me.  I was in a small clearing.  And I was still holding onto the stick, kind of whipping it in front of me like a sword.  And I noticed something.

The end of the stick disappeared.

I don’t mean that it got lost in the brush or anything like that.  I mean, it was there, in mid-air, and then it wasn’t.  And then as I kept moving the stick, it came back again–it reappeared.  I looked at the stick.  It seemed okay–it wasn’t broken or anything.  I tried again.

Same thing.

My heart was pounding.

I dropped the stick and slowly reached forward.  And my hand disappeared too.  One second it was there in front of me, the next second it was gone, like it had been lopped off.  But there wasn’t any pain.  There wasn’t any pressure or resistance.  It didn’t feel hot or cold.  It just felt–different.  I took my hand back out and extended my foot.  It went in, disappeared, and then I brought it back out.

I couldn’t figure it out.  All I could think was: This is really weird.

“Hey, Lawrence!  Wait up!”

Stinky was heading towards me through the trees.

And then I had another thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if I disappeared right in front of Stinky?

This was a really stupid thing to think.  I admit it.  My mom would have totally freaked out.  I would’ve freaked out if I’d thought about it for another couple of seconds.  But I had this cool vision in my mind of Stinky standing there with a dopey look on his face, and me standing right next to him in this zone of invisibility or whatever, laughing at him.

I sure wanted to do that.

So, like a total idiot, I stepped inside.