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.

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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.

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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.