Portal, an online novel: the final chapter

Chapter 35: The climax.  A chase scene.  More gnomic utterances from the annoying alien preacher.  Guns are drawn, threats are issued. Decisions are made, lives are changed.  And finally Larry and Kevin step into the portal, and we reach our denouement.

***********

Chapter 36

Into the interior of the portal, filled with clouds, like a bathroom after a long shower (which I hadn’t taken for months).  Heart pounding, scared beyond anything I had felt before.

If you want to go home, the portal will take you home.  That’s what the preacher had told me in the church.  If only I could be sure what he meant . . .

One, two, three steps, then out of the portal.

Into warmth and bright sunshine.

No, I thought.  Not right.  Not on Christmas.

Was it the wrong world?  I looked at Kevin.  He was blinking his eyes against the sunlight.  “Where is this?” he asked.  “When is this?”

We looked around.  The leaves on the trees were green, but fading a bit.  That oak tree looked familiar . . .

It felt like a warm September afternoon.

“Well . . . ” I said.  My heart was still pounding, but with a different kind of excitement from what I’d felt a minute ago.

“When you went into the portal before,” Kevin said, “to the Dairy King world–when you came back–how much time had gone by?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t stay all that long.”  But then I remembered coming out of the portal–how Stinky had been waiting for me, right where I had left him.  As if no time had passed.  “Do you think–?”

“Could be?  Why not?  What do we know about time?  What do we know about anything?”

I looked down at my coat–the one the preacher had given me.  It looked really shabby in the sunlight.  I took it off.  Were we back home–and back when we had left?  Had this all happened, like, in the blink of an eye?  “Let’s find out,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” Kevin said.  “What about Lieutenant Carmody?”

We looked around again.  No sign of him.  Was he here?  Or had the portal brought him to some other world?  “Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “What’s he going to do to us now?”

“You’re right.  Let’s go.”  Kevin took off his coat too, and we raced through the woods.  Yes, I thought I recognized these trees, this path.  In a few minutes we saw what we were hoping to see.  There was the old swingset in my back yard.  There was the garage, with Kevin’s bike next to it.

And there was my mother standing on the deck by the kitchen door.  “Larry, would you please hurry up?” she called out when she saw us.  “We’re going to be late for your piano lesson.”

Kevin and I ran through the backyard and up to her.  She looked younger than the mother I had said goodbye to less than an hour ago; but she was the same woman.  I went to hug her, but stopped short as she made a face.

“Look at the two of you,” she said.  “You’re filthy–and soaking wet!  Larry, your new sneakers–you’ve ruined them!  What have you been up to?”

Kevin and I looked at each other as we caught our breath.  I didn’t think about my answer, really.  It was just a reflex.  “We didn’t go far,” I said.  “We just like . . . slipped in a puddle.  Sorry.”

Mom shook her head.  “Honestly, Larry, sometimes you have no consideration.  What were you thinking?  And Kevin, you should know better, too.  Your clothes are like rags.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Barnes.”  But Kevin didn’t look sorry.  He was grinning like crazy.

“I don’t see what’s so funny, Kevin,” Mom said.  “Now run along home.  Larry, go in and change.  Quick!  We’re never on time for Mr. Rosen.”

I stood there next to Kevin.  “Well,” I said to him, “I guess–that’s it.  See ya, Kev.”

“See ya, Larry.  I’ll call you later.”

“Okay,” I said.

He smiled at the word.  “Okay,” he repeated, still grinning.  Then he went over and got on his bike.

“I don’t know why his mother doesn’t make him wear a helmet,” Mom said.

“Beats me,” I replied.

#

So, why didn’t we say anything?

Well, would you want to tell your Mom you’d stupidly stepped into a portal or a cosmic gateway or whatever and gone off to an alternate universe for over three months and fought in a war and been shot at multiple times and exposed to deadly diseases?  I didn’t think so.

Of course, we could prove our story, more or less.  Show her the portal.  Get scientists out here to examine it.  We’d become famous, be interviewed on TV, make a million dollars.

But I wasn’t really thinking about any of that.  It was just: We were back, and that’s all that mattered.  I didn’t want scientists or TV shows.  I wanted to eat supper with my family.  I wanted to sleep in my own bed.  I wanted to see Cassie again.  I went past my mother and inside the house.

Cassie was in the kitchen, eating crackers, probably so later at supper she could say she wasn’t hungry and demand to know when were we going to get some good food around here.  She stuck two fingers in her mouth as I approached, making like she was going to puke.  “You smell like raw sewage,” she said.  “Haven’t they taught you how to use deodorant in middle school?”

I smiled at her.  I thought about kissing her, but she probably would’ve whacked me.  “It’s so great to see you, Cassie,” I said instead.  “Really it is.”

“You’re retarded,” I heard her mutter as I left the kitchen.

Upstairs, Matthew was playing a video game.  One of my video games, I realized, when I saw the guilty expression on his face.  “I thought you were at your piano lesson,” he said.

“Still here,” I replied.  “It’s okay.”

“What’s okay?”

“Playing my game  You can play it all you want.”

“Really?”

“Sure?  Why not?”

“Thanks, Larry,” Matthew said.  But he looked suspicious.  What was I up to?  I wasn’t up to anything.  I just put on some deodorant and changed clothes.  Before going back downstairs, I went into the bathroom and stared at the toilet.  I flushed it once, just for fun.  Things were going to take a little getting used to.

“Larry!” my mother shouted up to me.

“Coming!”  I left the bathroom and went to my piano lesson.

#

I don’t remember anything about the lesson; my mind was too filled with other stuff to concentrate.  There was just so much more of everything.  More noise, more sights, more smells–although none of the body odor that Cassie had objected to, and that I had gotten so used to.  I was a little overwhelmed.  The car went way too fast–and on the wrong side of the road.  The radio was just too loud.  I remember asking Mom if I could turn it off, and that got her worried.  “Are you feeling all right, Larry?” she asked.  “You look pale.  And you’re talking a little strangely.  You’re just not yourself somehow.”

Not myself.  Had I developed an accent, along with everything else?  “I’m fine,” I said.

She didn’t look convinced.  That’s what I always said.  “What exactly were you doing back there in the woods?” she demanded.

“Just goofing around,” I said.  “Really.”

Later Dad came home–beardless, and not as strong-looking as the soldier/farmer I had left behind a few hours ago, but still my Dad.  We sat down to supper, and I had my first mashed potatoes in months, and my first fresh vegetables.  The milk was way colder than any I’d had in the other world, but nowhere near as good-tasting.  And it was strange watching everyone use a fork instead of a knife to eat.  As we ate my father asked his usual question: “So, what did you do today, Larry?”

And I gave my usual answer: “Nothing.”

And then I started to laugh.

#

Kevin called later.  The phone was something else I’d have to get used to all over again.  “You say anything to anyone?” he asked.

“Nope.  You?”

“No.  You going to?”

“I don’t know.  Your parents suspicious or anything?”

“Mom can’t understand why my hair is so long,” Kevin said.  “But I mean, what’s she gonna say?  I went over to your house for a while, then I came back.  And that’s it.  I was gone, like, two hours, max.  How much can your hair grow in two hours?”

“Well, should we say something?”

“I suppose so, but–I dunno.  I don’t feel like it.  Not right now, anyway.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I was wondering,” Kevin said.  “How can we be sure this world is exactly the same as the one we left?  Maybe we’ll go to school tomorrow, and Stinky won’t exist.  Or he’ll be just a little bit different.  Maybe we won’t be able to tell what’s different.”

“I don’t want to do any wondering for a while, Kevin.”

“Yeah, okay, just a thought.  Any sign of Lieutenant Carmody over there?”

I had forgotten about him.  “No.  I hope he’s all right.  He wasn’t that bad.”

“I suppose.  If he’s not here, we’ll never find out where he is.”

“I guess not.”

Cassie came in and glared at me for hogging the phone for three whole minutes.

“Gotta go,” I said.  “Cassie wants the phone.”

“Cassie.  Geez.  Cassie’s alive again.  And you know something else? I’m twelve again.  I lost a birthday when we came home.  Anyway, it’s good to be back.”

“Did you flush a toilet?” I asked him.

“You bet I did.  And took the world’s longest shower.  See ya.”

Cassie had heard my last question, and made a face at me like I was too weird for her to even contemplate.  I just gave her another smile.

I tried watching TV after I hung up, but it jangled my nerves like the car radio, and besides, it was way too stupid.  I did like getting into my bed and feeling that comfortable mattress beneath me; I wouldn’t miss those straw mattresses and hard floors.  I wasn’t tired, though.  For all the excitement of the day, it hadn’t been that long since I’d been dozing in front of the fireplace and dreaming of grilled cheese sandwiches.  So for once I really enjoyed talking to Matthew.  He was happy about my letting him play Final Fantasy so he was even chattier than usual.  After he’d been yakking for a while I decided to bring up a topic of my own, which I figured was just the kind he liked to talk about.  “Matthew, what if there are millions of universes, each one just a little bit different from all the others?  What if we each have millions of different lives?  In some of them we’re rich, in some of them we’re poor, in some of them stuff like cars and computers haven’t even been invented.  In some of them we might be dead, or maybe we never even existed.  What if we could go to another universe and see how we lived there?  Wouldn’t that be cool?  Wouldn’t we learn a lot?  Matthew?”

No answer; he was asleep.  For once I had out-talked him.

#

There’s no place like home.

That’s what the movie says.  Now I was home.  So I should’ve lived happily ever after, right?  No more fighting with Cassie.  No more getting mad at my Mom or annoyed at Matthew.

That lasted less than a day.

Cassie yelled at me in the morning for being in the shower too long.  Well, she was the one who complained that I smelled bad, wasn’t she?  And Mom wanted to drive me to the bus stop–she was still worried about that pervert in Rhode Island she’d read about.  It’s so dangerous nowadays, she told me.  You can’t be too careful.  I’ll tell you about danger! I wanted to shout at her.  I’ll tell you about cannonballs falling all around you and Portuguese soldiers charging at you with swords and bayonets.  I’ll tell you about Canadian soldiers trying to decide whether to kill you, and New England soldiers shooting at you from watchtowers . . . And I survived it all.

But I didn’t say anything about that.  I just got into a stupid argument with her and almost missed the bus.  Nothing had changed–except me.  And how had I really changed?

Well . . .

Take Stinky Glover.  He was still here, despite Kevin’s fantasy.  On the bus the next morning he gave me a purple nurple instead of a wet willie.  Same difference.  He still thought the name “Lawrence” was incredibly funny.

But, you know, I didn’t really mind.  On that other world, he had helped me, maybe even saved my life–saved me from an enemy soldier, anyway; taught me how to hunt; showed me the way home, even if he had finally snitched on me.  Maybe on some other world he was a good guy whose master didn’t beat him.  Maybe on some world we were best friends.  I let it go.

And Nora Lally.  Before English class I decided, what the heck, and I went over to her.  “Hi, Nora,” I said.  “Listen, I was thinking–I’m a pretty good writer, at least that’s what Ms. Nathanson tells me.  If you want someone to, like, take a look at your compositions before you turn them in, I’d be happy to.  Just for, you know, spelling and grammar, that kind of stuff.”

Pretty lame, huh?  But she smiled–just the way Sarah Lally smiled–and she said, “Thanks, Larry.  That’d be great.”

It couldn’t be that easy, right?  But it was.  I smiled back, and we sat down to find out what Ms. Nathanson had to say.

#

 And the piano.  I might not have had a good lesson that first day back, but still . . .  I found myself playing more than I ever had before, just for the fun of it, the way I had at Professor Palmer’s.

And one day Mom asked, “What’s that piece, Larry?”

I realized I had been playing that old song Professor Palmer liked so much:

 

Wanly I wandered

Through the world far and wide

Seeking some solace

For dreams that had died.

 

Long did I linger

In an alien land

Till tears finally left me

As I stood on the strand.

 

And there was the final verse that I had tried not to think about in the other world.  But now it seemed okay to remember it:

 

Then homeward I hastened

To friends I’d forgot

And found where I’d left it–

The joy that I sought.

 

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Just something I picked up.”

“It’s very lovely,” Mom said.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”

It was lovely, and I was glad I had learned it.  I was glad of a lot of things that had happened to me.

#

Long did I linger

In an alien land . . .

I kept thinking of Kevin’s stupid remark about your heart being in two worlds at once.  Because that’s how I felt sometimes.  I was glad to be back, glad to have plenty to eat and no one shooting at me.  But half my heart was still in that other world, with the professor, with my family, with Sarah Lally, even with General Aldridge and President Gardner and Stinky Glover.  What were they doing right now?  How was New England making out after the war?  How was the Barnes family making out, with Cassie dead and me gone and no harvest to keep them through the winter?  Was Professor Palmer all right?  Was Stinky in trouble with his master?  I would never know, but that didn’t mean I would ever forget.

#

And found where I’d left it–

The joy that I sought.

I don’t know about joy.  But whatever it was, it had always been here, right?  And it just took a little growing up to find it.  I couldn’t keep smiling at Cassie when she insulted me, but I could remember her in the camp, unhappy and desperate, and I could feel a little pity for whatever was going on inside her.

And my mother.  Was it so hard now to see the overpowering love that was behind her fears of every danger that lurked in wait for us?  In how many worlds had she lost me because she hadn’t been vigilant enough?  In how many worlds did I lay buried in the family graveyard, and she had to spend her life mourning what might have been?

#

Finally, there was the mystery of the portal.  Kevin and I talked about it endlessly, and he was fascinated when I told him the preacher’s story, fascinated by the idea that some mysterious race had built the portal and then disappeared, and this other race used it just to go preaching, without really understanding it.  But mostly he was fascinated by the idea that the portal always brought you home, if that’s what you wanted.  “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, “if–every time your life started to suck–you could step into the portal and just come back when you’re ready?”

“Uh, Kevin, you’re skipping over the parts where you get shot at and come down with a terrible disease.  Who was the one that was desperate to get back here?”

“I know, I know.  But still . . . ”

Still . . .

Then there was the day Kevin came over with a copy of the Glanbury Mariner.  “See this?” he asked.

He pointed to an entry in the police log, which the paper prints every week.

 

“2:17 a.m. Fowler Street resident reports strange man sleeping in tool shed.  Man fled when approached.  Described as medium height, wearing red jacket, carrying old-fashioned pistol.  Cruiser dispatched, searched neighborhood.  No one found.”

 

It was dated the night after we had returned home.

“So he made it,” I said.

“Looks like.”

“What should we do?”

Kevin shrugged.  “I don’t know what there is to do.”

But eventually it became too big a secret too keep.  The portal was just too important not to talk about it, especially if Carmody was around.  I figured my father was the one to tell.  He’d know what to do with the knowledge, and he’d know how to keep Mom from getting too mad at me when she found out just exactly what we’d been up to back in the conservation land where we weren’t supposed to be.  Kevin agreed.  “Let’s not say anything to your Dad until he sees the portal for himself,” he said.  “Otherwise he’ll think we’re just making everything up.”

So on Saturday when Mom was out shopping Kevin and I told Dad there was something we wanted to show him out in the woods.  “Found some buried treasure?” he asked.

“Not exactly.”

“You know your mother doesn’t want you wandering around too far back there, right?”

“Yeah, I know, but anyway–this is going to be pretty interesting.”

So he followed us out into the woods.  Kevin kept looking at me like, this is really gonna be something.  And he was right.  It wouldn’t just shock Dad, but everyone in the world.  It would change the way people thought about everything–science, religion, history.  And we were the ones who found it.

And what if the scientists figured out how to use it, and we could return safely to our other world?

I knew the way pretty well by this time, although Dad kept bugging us by explaining stuff and pointing out the names of trees and the birds.  Everything was an education to him.  Well, we were about to give him an education.  Kevin and I stopped when we reached the clearing.

“It’s right here, Dad,” I said.  “Watch this.”

Kevin and I went over to it and reached out our hands.

They didn’t disappear.  We looked at each other, and then started walking around in the small clearing, waving our arms.  “It’s gotta be here,” Kevin muttered.

But it wasn’t.

“May I ask what you’re doing?” Dad asked.  His arms were folded, and he was looking at us like he was trying to figure out if this was some kind of middle-school joke that he didn’t get.

“Is it the wrong place?” Kevin asked me.

I shook my head.  “It’s gone.”

I felt like I’d been punched.  It couldn’t be true, but it was.  The portal was gone.

“Well?” Dad asked.  “I could use some help raking, if we’re done here.”

“Sorry, Dad,” I said to my father.  “There was something here, but now it’s gone.”

“Do you want to tell me what it was?”

I looked at Kevin, and he just shrugged.  “I guess not,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter.  Sorry we bothered you.”

Dad just shook his head.  “Larry, you sure have been acting strange lately.”

“It’s a phase,” I replied.  “Like Cassie.  Could you like–give Kevin and me a minute?”

“All right, but don’t get into any trouble back here.  You know how your mother worries.  And grab a rake when you come back.”

He turned and walked away from us.

“Figures,” Kevin said, kicking at a rock.

I noticed something else.  “I took off the preacher’s coat when we got out of the portal.  It’s gone, too.”

Kevin looked around.  His coat was still there, lying on the ground where he’d dropped it.  “The preacher moved the portal,” he said.

“Didn’t want stupid kids taking it for any more joyrides, I guess.”

Kevin sighed.  “Oh, well.  It would’ve been something, wouldn’t it?  The look on your Dad’s face . . . ”

“Yeah.  Still, this is okay.”

“It’s okay,” Kevin agreed, sighing again.

And we walked slowly back out of the woods.

#

This is okay–this life, this world.  But one thing I remember is the preacher telling me how easy it was for him to spot another traveler–someone who didn’t belong, someone from a different world who was just passing through.  Are there a lot of those travelers, or just a very few?  Sometimes I find myself trying to see if I can spot them, too: scared kids like me or soldiers in red coats or wandering preachers with black, glittering eyes . . .

And I find myself wondering: What if I do spot one?  Another stranger, say, talking to a small crowd in a park or on a street corner, telling them to how to live and love and appreciate the universe . . . ?  Would I run from him as fast as I could?  Or would I say, Please, show me where the portal is.  I don’t care about the risks.  I want to go back to that other world again–just for an hour, just for a minute.  And if I can’t go back, let me try for a new world, a new adventure.

And I think about what the preacher had said to the people in the Boston park: How can you know what is in you unless you have struggled, unless you have been asked to do more than you thought you were capable of doing?

What better way to do that, than to find a new world?

I really don’t know what I’d do if I spotted a traveler.

But I’d like to find out.

 

 

Advertisements

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 34

Chapter 33: Stinky has snitched on Larry and Kevin to Sergeant Hornbeam and Lieutenant Carmody.  Carmody is determined to keep them in this world.  Now Kevin and Larry have to get to the portal as fast as they can, before he can stop them.  But it is now snowing heavily, and the Barnes family can barely make it back to their farmhouse.  Someone is waiting for them at the farmhouse.  Larry and Kevin are relieved to discover that it is Professor Palmer.

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

Chapter 34

I jumped from the wagon, ran up to the professor, and hugged him.  Kevin was right behind me.

“Hello, Larry,” he said.  “It’s good to see you.  And you, too, Kevin.” 

“We missed you,” I said.  “I’m sorry we left like that, but–“

“I understand.  I’m just so glad you’re both alive.” 

“We’re glad you’re alive, too,” Kevin said.

Then my parents came up with Matthew, and the professor said, “You must be the Barneses.  My name is Alexander Palmer, and I beg your pardon for entering your home uninvited.  I rode down from Boston this evening in the utmost haste, and the weather–“

“Of course, sir,” Dad replied.  “You’re most welcome.  Larry has told us about you.  Let’s all go in out of the snow.”

We went inside, although Dad went out again almost immediately with Matthew to put Gretel in the barn.  Kevin stoked up the fire, and Mom heated some cider. 

“I’m afraid I’m here with some distressing news,” Professor Palmer murmured to me.  “Would it be better if we talked in private?”

“Not really.  I’ve explained about who we are and the portal and everything.  So, is this about Lieutenant Carmody coming after us?”

He raised an eyebrow in surprise.  “You’ve heard?”

I told him a bit about Stinky Glover.

“Interesting–so that’s how Carmody found out where you were.  Yes indeed, I did come to warn you about him.”

 

“When’s he coming?” Kevin asked.  “How much time do we have?”

“He’s coming as soon as he can, as far as I know.  But the storm may delay him, obviously.”

“How’d you find out?” I asked. 

“And how’d you get here before him?” Kevin added.

“I found out because he told me, Larry.  He has always assumed that I would be eager to have you boys kept here, even against your wishes, in the interest of science and the advancement of knowledge.  How little he knows me, after all these years.  As for how I managed to get here before him–as soon as I found out I spoke with General Aldridge, and he urged me to leave immediately; he was as outraged by this plan as I was.  Carmody had to stop at Coolidge Palace before making the journey.”

“Why?  To see the president?”

“That is correct.”  Mom handed the professor a cup of hot cider.  He bowed and thanked her, then continued.  “The president is less of a fool than he looks, I fear.  And the lieutenant is more of a schemer than I expected.  He has decided his opportunities are greater if he sides with the president against General Aldridge.  He explained about you boys to Gardner, and convinced him that you are vital to New England’s survival, and possibly more.  With the knowledge you bring, why couldn’t we conquer our enemies?  I rather think he believes there’s no one we couldn’t conquer, in fact.”

“That’s stupid,” Kevin protested.  I thought of the preacher talking about how easy it would be to rule a run-of-the-mill world like this, and I wondered just how stupid the idea was.

“Well, that was their thinking,” the professor went on, “–if they could find you, if you hadn’t already left.  But that raises the question: Why are you boys still here?  Have you not been able to find the portal?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“I’m very sorry to hear it.  But I fear that staying in Glanbury will not be an option, unless you want to be part of what Carmody and Gardner are planning.  Perhaps you do.  I’m sure you’ll be treated well.  But if you don’t, we must move quickly to get you away from here.  Despite the war, I have many academic friends in Canada, and I’m sure–“

“We’re going to try to find the portal,” Kevin interrupted.  “As soon as we can.  We have an idea where it is.”

“Ah.  That’s good, then.  You’ll have to hurry, though.”  The professor looked a little disappointed.  “I only wish I had a little more time to spend with you.  I was so happy to find out you were all right, and now–“

Kevin’s eyes lit up.  “You should come with us!”

“You mean–into the portal?”

“Sure–why not?  Think of all the stuff you asked about and we didn’t know the answer to.  Imagine what you’d learn if you came to our world and got to talk to real scientists–people as smart as you.”

Now the professor looked confused, flustered.  “But–but if I left, I couldn’t come back.”

“We don’t know that for sure.  Anyway, so what?  You don’t want to be around here when they find out you helped us escape.  President Gardner doesn’t like you anyway.”

“True, but–“

I suddenly thought of the most important reason for him to go.  “There’s no smallpox in our world,” I pointed out.  “Your wife and son may be alive.”

That stopped him, and I could see my Mom react, sitting by the fire.  “They may never have existed on your world, as I understand it,” he pointed out.  “Or they may have died of some other disease.  Anything is possible.  Correct?”

“Only one way to find out.”

“Well, I’ll consider it,” he replied.  “It would certainly be . . . quite an adventure.”

Dad and Matthew came back in the house then.  “We pulled out the sleigh and got it ready,” Dad said.  “We can leave as soon as the snow let’s up.”

“You’re going away,” Matthew said to Kevin and me accusingly.  “Dad told me.”

Kevin nodded.  “It’s time,” he said.

“Matthew, take off those wet clothes and have some hot cider,” Mom said.

Matthew reluctantly changed his clothes and sat on Dad’s lap next to the fire.  The rest of us also gathered around the fire, although Kevin kept getting up to check on the snow.  People talked–about the portal, about the war, about Carmody’s treachery–but I didn’t pay much attention.  It just felt so good to be there, with my family and Kevin and the professor, with the fire blazing and the snow coming down outside.  If only I could have captured that moment forever . . .

After a while I closed my eyes.  And, in the middle of everything, I had a dream about grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

That was our regular Sunday night supper.  We complained occasionally, especially Cassie: Why couldn’t we get takeout?  Why couldn’t we have real food?  But Mom wouldn’t relent.  The meal was cheap and easy, and she liked it.  Besides, it was what she’d had on Sunday nights growing up, and if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for us. 

So I’m sitting in my usual place at the kitchen table, across from Cassie.  I slurp down some of my soup, and then I happen to look over at her.  She’s one of these people who can get angry at you just for looking at them.  Just for breathing the same air, really.  So she says to me, “What are you looking at?”  And I say: “Nothing.”  And she says: “I’m not dead, you know.  That’s just in your stupid dream.”

And I say: “That’s not a dream.  This is the dream.”

And she says: “You’re so stupid.”  And she turns to Dad: “Isn’t he stupid?  Isn’t this the reality?”

And Dad smiles his leave-me-out-of-this smile and says: “One person’s dream is another person’s reality.”

And then we’re both mad at him for not agreeing with us.  But he says: “It really doesn’t matter.  No matter what the dream is, it’s time to wake up.”

“What if I don’t want to wake up?” I say.

“It doesn’t matter.  Wake up.  Wake up!

I opened my eyes, and Dad was staring down at me, but he had a beard, and it wasn’t Sunday night in my world, it was Christmas Eve in a very different world.

“Wake up, Larry,” he repeated.  “Someone’s coming.”

“In the closet,” Mom said, gesturing to the storage area to the right of the fireplace.  “Quickly.”

She had pulled out the blankets and some other stuff that they kept there.  I got up, and Kevin and I jammed ourselves into it, and then she pushed the stuff back in and closed the door. 

Kevin and I knelt down, cramped and in darkness except for a sliver of light through the door.  It wasn’t really a closet like in our world; it was only about four feet high, but it extended back a few feet, so we couldn’t stand up, but we could stretch out a little bit.  It’s Carmody, I thought.  He was bound to look in here.  And that would be that. 

There was a loud rapping on the door.  I heard footsteps, then muffled voices, then a lot more footsteps–boots moving across the wooden floor, this time coming towards us.  And then Lieutenant Carmody’s voice, just on the other side of the closet door from us: “Professor Palmer, how interesting to meet you here.”

“Hello, William.”

“Didn’t you trust me to find our young friends?”

“I couldn’t wait to see them.  I was overjoyed to learn that they survived the battle.”

“As was I.  Wretched weather, though.  Peter had a devil of a time getting us down here.  Now Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, we’re looking for a couple of lads named Larry and Kevin.  We have information that they are living with you.”

Were living with us,” my father responded.  “They have returned where they came.”

Silence.  I tried to imagine what Carmody was doing, how he was reacting.  He wasn’t happy, I knew that.  I was sweating.  My back hurt.  The blankets were making my nose twitch, but I willed myself not to sneeze.  I could here Kevin’s breathing–why couldn’t he be more quiet?  “What does that mean, exactly–‘returned where they came’?” Carmody asked finally.

“They finally found the portal that would take them home, as I understand it.  And they’re–well, gone.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Barnes, but I think that rather unlikely.  Our information is that they were here a couple of days ago, and that they’d been unsuccessful in finding the portal.”

“That’s true, sir, but something happened.”

“And what is that?”

“They met the family who picked them up that day coming out of the woods,” Dad replied.  “Name of Harper.  They remembered where that was.”

“Ah, I think the boys mentioned that family to me.  And where is the portal?  Did you see them leave?”

“They said it was in the woods near the Fitton farm–about three miles south on the Post Road.  I didn’t see them leave–it was rather emotional, sir.  My wife and son have grown quite attached to the boys.  We brought them to the woods, they went in, and they didn’t come back out.”

I didn’t realize my father was that good a liar.  There was another silence, and then I heard more footsteps.  “Well?” Carmody demanded.

“I checked the barn.  Nothing there.  A sleigh’s been moved out, though.”  It was Peter’s voice.

“Any footprints leading away from the house?”

“None that I noticed, sir.”

“Search the house.  Sergeant Hornbeam, find the stairs to the attic and look around.  Peter, search down here.”

“There’s a little boy sleeping up in the attic,” my Mom said.  “Please don’t wake him.”

No response.  Footsteps again.  So all my father’s lying would be in vain, once Peter opened the door to the closet.  And he’d probably get in trouble, too.

“Nothing in the kitchen,” Peter reported.

“Check that closet over there,” the lieutenant said. 

“Yes, sir.” 

I braced myself.  The door opened.  The blankets moved.  Then Peter was leaning in and staring at us.  He paused, then slowly winked and put the blankets back where they were.  “Nothing in here,” he said as he closed the door.

“Nothing in the attic,” Sergeant Hornbeam added.

“Very well,” the lieutenant said.  “Can you show me where you dropped off the boys?”

“Not in the dark,” my father replied.

“Yes, yes, in the morning,” Carmody snapped.

“All right.”

“Alexander, do you want to come with us?  I understand there’s a reasonable inn on the Post Road.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Barnes have invited me to stay here, William,” the professor replied.  “I’ve had enough of traveling for this day, I think.”

“Would you like some hot cider before you leave?”  That was my Mom, speaking for the first time.  Did she have to be so nice?  Why didn’t she just let them go?

“No, thank you, ma’am,” Carmody said.  “Sorry for the intrusion.  These were interesting lads, as I’m sure you understand.”

“Indeed we do.”

“One thing more: You’re not to speak of this portal to anyone.  Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”  That was my father again.

More footsteps and muffled voices, then a door slamming.  We waited, and after a minute the closet door opened and the blankets and junk were pulled away.  Kevin and I crawled out.  Everyone was grinning.  “I thought surely you’d be discovered,” my mother said.

“We were,” Kevin replied.  “But Peter kept it to himself.  I always liked Peter.”

“Thanks for making up that story,” I said to Dad.  “It sounded great.”

“I don’t approve of what that man wants to do,” he said.  “You’ve done nothing wrong, and he has no right to try to keep you here against your will.”

“I agree,” Professor Palmer said.  “But what do we do now?”

“If I understand correctly, he won’t find your portal when I bring him to those woods by the Fitton place,” Dad said.  “Will that make him suspicious?  Or will he give up and go back to Boston?  In which case the boys can just hide out until he’s gone.”

“I think it unlikely he’ll return to Boston without doing a thorough search for the portal,” the professor replied.  “Even without the boys, he and the president will be interested in what they can glean from the device itself–although it will be precious little, I imagine.”

“If the lieutenant stays here, he’s bound to find out that we were at the celebration tonight,” I pointed out.  “Everyone saw us there.  So he’ll know Dad’s story was a lie.”

“We have to look for the portal,” Kevin said.  “Right away, before he comes back.  If we wait around we’ll get caught.  I just know it.”

Looking for an invisible needle in the dark.  In a snowstorm.  Good luck to us, I thought.  “We’ll have a better chance of finding it if we wait till dawn,” I said. 

“Larry’s right, I’m afraid,” Dad replied.  “Even finding the Post Road won’t be easy right now.”

Kevin looked like he was ready to go off through the snow on foot, but he calmed down.  “All right,” he said.  “Dawn.”  He went over to look out the window. 

I felt really sorry for him.  Even in daylight, what were the odds we’d find the thing, with what the preacher had told me? 

Mom brought us some cider, and I sat back down by the fire.  I wasn’t sleepy anymore.  It was time to get this over with, one way or the other. 

No one wanted to talk now.  The professor nodded off once in a while, but the rest of us stayed wide awake.  It didn’t seem very long at all before Kevin said, “It’s brightening out there.”  Dad went over and checked, nodded his agreement, and said, “I’ll hitch up Gretel.”

Kevin stood up.  “Let’s go home,” he said to me.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 33

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

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

Chapter 33

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

“Well, we might have a problem there.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hornbeam?  What about him?”

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

“I remember.  What about Sergeant Hornbeam?”

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

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

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

“That was on orders, too?”

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

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

“Gimme a break,” Kevin muttered.

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

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

“Carmody,” I said.

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

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

“So when is he coming?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve done enough.  Thank you.”

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

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

What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll try, Sarah.  I’ll try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are they going?” Matthew asked.

“We’ll explain later,” Mom said.

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

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

“Of course not,” Dad replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Professor Palmer.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 31

Chapter 30: Larry’s father has finally returned from the army.  Kevin and Larry are, awkwardly, a part of the homecoming.  Mr. Barnes tells the story of the final defeat of Canada.  Tomorrow is Christmas Eve — when the town will be celebrating New England’s victory.  With his father’s return, Larry’s trip to Boston is off.  But what does their future hold?  Life might be good in this world, but things will never be the same.

I feel as though we’re heading towards the climax, don’t you?

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

Chapter 31

Christmas Eve.  It was a strange morning.  The family was so happy; it was so sad.  After breakfast Mom and Dad went to visit Cassie’s grave, and they spent a long time there.  Matthew, meanwhile, wanted to know if Kevin and I were staying.

“We’ll certainly stay for the celebration tonight,” I said.

“But you can live here forever,” he pointed out.  “Don’t you want to?”

“I don’t know, Matthew.  It’s complicated.  We’ll see.”

Matthew didn’t look satisfied.

When they got back from the grave, Mom said Dad would take her to town so she could help out with the preparations at the church hall.  “I understand you were going to Boston today,” Dad said to us.  “I think it’s wise to handle that business as soon as possible.  Perhaps we can take you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

He gave me kind of a puzzled look, and I knew he remembered what I’d said to him last night.  But he didn’t say anything.  Instead he went to hitch up Gretel while Mom got ready to go to town.  Matthew decided to go with them, so after they left Kevin and I were by ourselves for a while.  I went outside to chop some firewood, and Kevin joined me.  The day was cold and gray, and it felt like snow was coming.  A white Christmas, maybe.  I was nervous, although I couldn’t exactly say why.  “Something’s going to happen,” I said to Kevin.  “You feel it?”

“Yeah,” he replied.  “Maybe we should look for the portal.  If there’s a blizzard, who knows when we’ll have another chance?”

“You go ahead.  I want to finish chopping this wood.”

Kevin just shook his head and continued to sit on a stump while I worked.

When Dad and Matthew got back, Matthew was worried, too.  “We don’t know where Julian is,” he told us.

“He said he was going back to his master,” I said.  “You know, Mr.–uh–”

“Kincaid,” Dad said.  “We met Kincaid at the church hall.  He hasn’t seen Julian since they were in the camp.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think he liked Mr. Kincaid very much. Maybe he just decided he wanted to do something else.”

“Kincaid’s a hard man,” Dad pointed out.  “He’ll have the law on Julian if he tries to leave his apprenticeship.”

“I miss Julian,” Matthew said.

I did, too.  I didn’t know why, but finding out that he’d disappeared made me even more nervous.

In the afternoon Dad went around the farm in that deliberate way of his, taking stock of what needed to be done.  “You boys have helped a great deal,” he remarked afterwards.  “I was very concerned about how Mrs. Barnes would make out by herself.  It seems that I needn’t have been so worried.”  Dad wasn’t much on handing out compliments, so that was a big one, coming from him.

“We were happy to pitch in,” I said.

He nodded.  “Still, it’s strange that you decided to come here when your father died.  Now how did you say you were related to Mrs. Barnes?”

Dad was a lot harder to lie to than Mom.  “I didn’t, sir,” I said.  “I’m really not sure.”

He nodded again, and I felt like he saw right through me.  But if he didn’t believe me, he certainly couldn’t imagine what the truth was.  Anyway, he didn’t interrogate me any further, and pretty soon it was time to get ready for the celebration.

Matthew slicked back his hair and put on his best blue shirt.  Dad trimmed his beard and wore a white ruffled shirt and la ong dark coat.  Kevin and I just had our usual clothes–but at least they were clean.

I wondered what Sarah Lally would be wearing.

There were a few snowflakes falling when we started out.  Dad shook his head.  “Hope this doesn’t get any worse,” he murmured.

Matthew was so excited he started to sing.

The church hall was stuck onto the back of the church, up on the little hill overlooking the town center.  When we got there wagons and carriages were already lined up in front of it, with the horses shifting and stamping their feet in the cold.  We left our wagon with the others and hurried inside.  The place was blazing with light–I hadn’t seen a room so bright since the first time I’d been to Coolidge Palace.  In one corner, musicians were playing a violin, an accordion, and a piano, and in the middle of the floor couples were doing one of those complicated dances where everyone’s moving around and switching partners and ducking in and out of lines.  Red-white-and-blue striped ribbons and flags hung from the ceiling.  There was a roaring fire in the big fireplace, and the mantel over the fireplace was decorated with pine boughs and holly; the boughs made the room smell like Christmas, even if that’s not what we were celebrating.  Along the far wall were tables piled with turkey and venison and ham and vegetables and loaves of bread and cakes . . .  It was amazing.

Mom was behind one of the tables, helping to serve the food.  She waved to us when we came in.  Other people started coming over to greet Dad, and Matthew ran off to join his friends.  Sarah Lally was dancing, but she spotted me and waved too.  She was wearing a bright green dress and had a green bow in her hair, and she looked gorgeous.  I grinned and waved back.

“Great music, huh?” I said to Kevin.

“I thought Matthew said Stinky was missing,” he replied.  “Look, he’s right over there, stuffing his face.”

Sure enough, Stinky was standing next to one of the food tables, eating from a very full plate.  When he noticed us, his eyes widened and he put the plate down.  “That’s odd,” I remarked.  “Let’s go find out what’s up.”

The music stopped just then, and I was thinking I’d rather go talk to Sarah than to Stinky.  And that’s when I heard a little voice behind me say, “Look, Mama, the boys from the woods.”

The voice sounded familiar, so I turned, and I found myself staring into the faces of the Harper family.

The Harper family–Samuel and Martha, with their little boy and girl.  The family that had saved Kevin and me from the Portuguese when we stumbled out of the portal so long ago.  The ones who had driven us into Boston when we were friendless and clueless in this world, and I was still worried about the piano lesson I was missing.

It was the little girl who had spoken–was her name Rachel?–the one who thought Kevin had been in the navy because he was wearing an Old Navy t-shirt.  They were all looking at us, though.  And so was my father, who must have been talking to them.

“Bless the Lord,” Martha said, “I’m so glad you boys are safe.  I’ve often thought of you since that day we took you to Boston.”

“I never did understand where you came from,” Samuel said, still grumpy at us.  “First your family was murdered, then they weren’t murdered . . . Where did you say you were from?  America, was it?  Never heard of the place.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” my father put in.  “What woods?  What murder?”

“Where’s your watch?” the boy asked Kevin.  “Do you still have that watch?”

Kevin shook his head sadly.  And then his face lit up–you could almost see the lightbulb going off over his head, like in the comics. “Do any of you happen to remember,” he asked, “when we came out of the woods and you picked us up on the Post Road–where was that, exactly?”

Samuel and Martha looked at each other.  “It was just past Joshua Fitton’s place, wasn’t it, Martha?” Samuel said.

Martha nodded.  “Yes, certainly it was.  I remember seeing the smoke from the house, and we heard the Portuguese soldiers shouting to each other in the woods, and we were sure we’d left too late and be captured.  And then you two boys came running out of the woods on the other side of the road.  We didn’t know what to make of you.”

“Thought you were pirates, or spies,” Samuel said.  “Those strange clothes.  Those accents.  You don’t have so much of an accent now.”

“The Fitton place,” Kevin repeated.

“Yes, about three miles past the Barnes’ farm along the Post Road,” Samuel said.  “You know where it is, don’t you, Henry?”

“Of course I know the Fitton place,” Dad said.  “But what the deuce is this all about?”

“I can explain,” I said softly.

Everyone looked at me.

“Well, um, I need to talk to Mr. Barnes–and Mrs. Barnes–in private.”

Dad nodded slowly.  “I believe that would be a good idea.”

I turned to Kevin.  He looked so happy.  He didn’t care about anything except the Fitton place.  He knew exactly where to look for the portal now.  “Want to come?” I asked.

“Sure.  Whatever.”

We started to walk off with my father, but all of a sudden Stinky was standing in front of us, still looking upset.  “Larry, we need to talk,” he said.

I had more important things to do now than talking to him.  “Later, Julian.  I’m kind of busy.”

“But it’s important,” he insisted.

I shrugged.  Nothing I could do about it.

“I’ll talk to him,” Kevin said.  “You go on with Mr. Barnes.”

That worked for me.  Stinky still looked upset, but he went off with Kevin.  Dad and I made our way to the food tables.  Mom smiled at us.  “Look at this food,” she said happily.  “Two months ago, could you ever have imagined it?”

“Emma,” Dad replied, “Larry would like to speak to us in private.”

Mom’s brow furrowed.  “Is anything the matter?” she asked me.

I shook my head.  “Nothing’s the matter.  It’s just–we need to talk.”

“Oh.”  Mom set down the platter she’d been holding and looked around.  “Yes,” she said.  “Well, then.  Why don’t we go into the church?”

She acted as if she had been expecting this conversation.

I followed them through a door and along a short corridor that connected the hall to the church.  The church was cold and dark. Through the tall windows along the sides I could see snow falling.  Mom lit a lamp while Dad threw a couple of logs into an iron stove.  The walls were plain white, and there was a simple pulpit at the front.  I sat in the first pew.  Mom and Dad sat opposite me, on the steps to the pulpit.  Waiting.

I wished I had Kevin’s watch.  That would at least give me a way of starting, something they could examine and touch and use.  It had worked with Professor Palmer and Lieutenant Carmody, and it was the kind of thing that would work with my Dad.  But I had nothing, if you didn’t count my sneakers and my pants with their amazing zipper.  Nothing but my words.

What words could I use?

“There are other worlds,” I began.  “Not just this one.  And these worlds have other Bostons in them, other Glanburies.  I don’t understand why or how, only I guess–if God could make one universe, why couldn’t He make lots of them?  The thing is: Kevin and I come from one of those other worlds.  It’s a lot like this one, but, you know, different–sometimes in little ways, sometimes in big ones.  Like these sneakers and our clothes–they’re not from China, like I told you.  They’re what we wear at home.  In this other world.”

Here’s one thing I like about my Dad: he takes you seriously.  Matthew will start explaining one of his stupid ideas about why we have hair or who invented checkers or something–just to hear himself talk, I think–and Dad will sit there and listen and nod and occasionally ask a question, like Matthew is some sort of expert on  hair or checkers.  He might smile a little bit, but he never tells Matthew to put a sock in it.  Same thing with Cassie when she starts complaining about how awful her life is.  Afterwards she complains that Dad never does anything to solve her problems, but just listening is a whole lot more than I’d do when she starts up.

So I guess I shouldn’t have worried that he’d laugh at me or something when I started the explanation.  Instead he nodded like I was making perfect sense and said, “You’re not talking about heaven and hell, I take it.  You’re talking about, er, real worlds.”

“Right.”

“And why don’t we know about these worlds?”

“Well, because you don’t know how to travel between them.”

“But you do.”

“That’s right,” I said.  “Or, well, somebody does.  Kevin and I just happened to–see, we found a–a device, a machine.  We call it a portal.  We don’t know who made it or why–it’s probably not even from our world.  It was just sitting there in the woods behind my house–except, well, it’s invisible.  Anyway, we got in it and just kind of like stepped through it, and we were here.  By mistake.  That’s when the Harpers saw us–we’d just gotten out of the portal, and the Portuguese soldiers were chasing us, and we couldn’t get back to it.  So we sort of ended up, you know, stuck here.”

“An invisible machine,” Dad said.  Again, not sarcastically, but like he was just trying to understand.

“And that’s what Kevin is looking for when he goes off walking along the Post Road by himself?” Mom asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “He’s trying to get home.”

“And this other business,” Dad said, “about your father being a professor and dying in the war–you made all that up?”

“Well, yeah.  Except there really is a professor.”  And then I explained some of what happened to Kevin and me after the Harpers brought us to Boston.  I left out about Kevin’s drikana.  And I left out the–well, the complicated part, about why I was talking to them about all this instead of anyone else in this world.  Not that I was going to be able to avoid that part for long.

Dad kept nodding, as if this was the sort of thing kids told him every day.  “So you’re responsible for those airships and that fence–is that what you’re saying?”

“Well, more or less.  On our world there are inventions that are much more amazing than those things, but there wasn’t time to figure out how to build them here.”  I didn’t really want to talk about computers and telephones and stuff like that–it would just make things more difficult to believe.

“But this still doesn’t make sense, does it?” Dad said.  “Why did you come to the Fens camp?  Why were you looking for us?”

That was the complicated part.  But strangely, I didn’t have to explain.  Mom understood.  “Larry hasn’t really finished describing his world,” she said.  “Have you, Larry?”

“No, ma’am.”

She was staring at me hard, the way she had in the camp when I first gave that confusing lie about who I was.  And then Dad got it.  “‘Dad’, you called me last night,” he said.  “Not a word we use much in these parts.  But I’ve heard it.  I know what it means.”

I nodded.  “Some people exist in both worlds.  They’re different in lots of ways–different jobs, different homes.  But they’re basically the same.”

“And you’re saying that–that we’re there in this other world?” Dad said.

“Yes.  And Cassie, and Matthew.  And me–I was part of the family too.  And that’s why I went looking for you in the camp.  And that’s why I was so happy to find you.  I had found my family.”

I fell silent and waited for a response.  Dad couldn’t just act like he was taking me seriously; he had to make a decision.  He had to believe, or not believe.  He’s logical; he’s a computer programmer.  Professor Palmer had talked about Occam’s Razor–I could almost see Dad struggling to use it on my story.  “Larry,” he said finally, “this is very interesting and, well, moving, but you’ll have to admit it’s a bizarre tale.  You’re saying that–that you’re the son we buried as an infant.  Still alive, grown up to be a young man.”

“Yes, sir, that’s what I’m saying.  I’m your son on another world, where medicine is better, and they can cure fevers and consumption and smallpox.  I didn’t die of whatever killed me here.  I’m just a regular boy who goes to school and has an older sister who complains too much and a younger brother who talks too much.  And a wonderful mother who worries about all of us all the time.”

“Well frankly, I don’t see how you can expect us to–”

As he spoke I realized that he wasn’t the one I needed to be talking to.  “Do you believe me?” I asked Mom.

She was gripping Dad’s arm now.  A single tear worked its way down her cheek.  “Of course I do, Larry,” she whispered.  “Of course I do.”

Dad turned to her.  “Emma,” he said, “I know how grateful you are to Larry, but–”

She shook her head.  “No, that’s not it.  I know him, Henry.  I know him.  I couldn’t understand it–couldn’t understand this feeling I had when I looked at him, when I talked to him–but now I do.  He’s our son.  He’s my baby.  I don’t understand anything more, and I don’t need to.”

We were silent again.  I could hear the ticking of the clock on the rear wall of the church, and the distant sound of the joyful music from the church hall.

“I suppose we’ll find out the truth of it soon enough,” Dad said to me.  “If this–this portal is still there by Joshua Fitton’s farm, we should be able to find it, invisible or not.  And then you can use it go home.”

Home.  All those conversations with Kevin, and now the moment had arrived.

“Well . . . I don’t know,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.  “What don’t you know?”

“See, I was thinking of staying.  You know, to help you out.  There’s a lot I don’t know about farming and stuff, but I can learn.  I can be part of this family too.  I feel like–like I already am.”

I hadn’t known I was going to say that.  I had thought about it a lot, but I hadn’t ever really decided.  Now, there it was.

But instead of acting all happy, Mom was shaking her head.  “You have to go home, Larry.  I love you, but you can’t stay here.”

“Trying to go home could be dangerous,” I pointed out.  “We don’t even know if the portal will take us home.  We might end up in some universe where the Earth doesn’t even exist.  Kevin is willing to take the risk–he doesn’t have a family here.  But I have you, and I don’t want to give you up.”

I could tell the idea of the danger bothered Mom, but it wasn’t enough to change her mind.  “If–if I’m there, too, imagine how much I miss you.  Every moment of every day, Larry.  Wondering where my baby went.”

So I guess I hadn’t really thought it through.  I thought maybe they wouldn’t believe me and I’d have to convince them, but once they were convinced they’d be happy to have me stay.  I could see now how stupid that was.  In reality, Mom loved me so much that she had to let me go.

But she couldn’t force me to go.  If I stayed here, she might feel guilty, but she’d get over it.  And for all I knew, maybe we could figure out how to come back here in the portal, and I could be part of both worlds.  It was possible, wasn’t it?

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I don’t want to leave you, now that I’ve found you.”

“I understand, Larry,” she replied.  “I don’t want you to leave either.  But you have to.  And I’m sure you know it.  Take some time to think it over.”  She stood up.  “For now, why don’t we go back to the hall?” she said.  “Really, we have much to celebrate.”

“Do you mind if I stay here for a while?” I said.  “Maybe I do need to think about things.”

Mom shook her head and put her hand on my arm.  “That is very wise, Larry.”

Dad stood up too.  “I certainly want to talk more with you, Larry,” he said.  “But perhaps this is enough for now.”

I nodded and watched the two of them as they walked out of the church.  Then I leaned back in the pew and closed my eyes.  Now what?  Kevin would want to head off to look for the portal as soon as possible–he’d do it right now if he could.  So should I obey my mother and go with him?  Go back to a world where I didn’t matter, where our family argued morning and night and the schoolbus was a nightmare and I never learned or did a single thing that was really important, that really made a difference?

Where my mother missed me every moment of every day?

I tried to pray.  I’ve never been good at praying, but now seemed like a pretty good time to ask for help.  So I did.

I don’t know how long I sat there.  When I finally opened my eyes, the lamp was burning low and I knew I should get back to the church hall.  I stood up.  And that’s when I heard the noise behind me.

It was–well–it was a quiet noise.  A rustle, a breath.  I wasn’t really sure I had heard anything.  But I turned, and in the dimness I saw the outline of a figure standing at the back of the church.

My heart started thumping.  “Who are you?” I whispered.

“I really could use that coat back,” the figure replied.  And he took a step forward.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 30

Chapter 29: Life starts returning to normal in Glanbury.  Larry and Kevin are living with Mrs. Barnes and Matthew.  Stinky leaves to return to his master.  The news finally arrives that the war is over, the Canadians have been defeated along with the New Portuguese, and the town decides to hold a celebration on Christmas Eve.  Soldiers start returning — but not Larry’s dad.  Meanwhile, his mom insists that Larry has to go to Boston to settle the affairs of the “father” he has made up, who supposedly died in the war.  Kevin pressures Larry to tell his mom the truth about who they really are and where they have come from.  Larry reluctantly agrees.  And then, the night before he is going to do this, his father shows up.  In his excitement, Larry rushes to greet him and calls him “Dad.”

(Okay, that was a pretty complicated chapter, plot-wise.  Probably easier just to read the thing.)

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

Chapter 30

I stayed outside; I didn’t want to intrude.  Kevin came out to join me a couple of minutes later.  We sat down on the front step.  “Pretty emotional in there,” he said.

“I bet.  How did he take the news?”

“He cried.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grown man cry before.”

“Did he say where he’d been–why it took him so long to get here?”

“He was helping to scout the Canadian retreat–you know, make sure it wasn’t some kind of trick.  He didn’t exactly say it, but I think the officers really liked him–they wanted him to stay.  But he wouldn’t.”

We were silent for a while.  Then I said, “I called him ‘Dad’ when I saw him–it just slipped out.”

Kevin nodded.  “He looks different with the beard, but yeah–he’s your dad.  Think he noticed?”

“My dad notices everything.”

Then we looked up at the stars until the door opened.  “Come in, boys,” Mom said softly.  “You’ll get a fever staying outside in the cold.”

We got up.  Her eyes were shining.  “This is a wonderful night, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “It surely is.”

We followed her back inside and sat by the fire while she rejoined Dad and Matthew in the kitchen.

Matthew was sitting on Dad’s lap.  Mom had poured cups of tea and put out some food.  There was a jar of jam on the table–Dad must have brought it back from Boston.  He looked at me and said, “Mrs. Barnes has told me all you’ve done for us, Larry.  I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.  And I’m very sorry about your father’s death.”

I just managed a nod in return, then I got up and threw another log onto the fire.

“Tell us about the battle, Papa,” Matthew begged him.  “From the beginning.”

“Your father is very tired, Matthew,” Mom put in.  “Perhaps tomorrow.”

“It’s all right, Emma.  He’s been waiting for this story, I think, and it’s time he got it.  I was stationed at the Brighton fortifications, Matthew, and the orders were to hold them at all costs.  The artillery fire was fierce before the battle.  I couldn’t believe that we weren’t all killed.  The sun rose at some point, but we couldn’t see it for all the smoke.  Our lieutenant gave a speech about saving our homeland and so on, but I don’t think any of us paid much attention.  We just wanted to get through the battle.  And after a while we got tired of the waiting and just wanted the thing to start.  Finally we were moved north along the line about half a mile.  We assumed those airships helped the officers decide where the assault was going to come.  There had been some kind of strange, thin fence rolled out, as well.  None of us could figure out what it was for.”

“That’s the fence that killed everyone,” Matthew said.

“Not that I could tell,” Dad replied.  “Anyway, when we got to our new positions, the artillery fire had stopped, and it was very quiet for a few minutes.  Then we could hear them coming.  A little while after that, we could see them.”

He fell silent for a moment.  It sounded much like the battle with the Portuguese.

“Were there a lot of them?” Matthew asked.

“Too many,” he replied.

“And did you kill ’em?”

“Yes, Matthew, some of them.  I took no pleasure in it, but this was war, and killing is what you do in a war.  It was a fierce attack.  That fence just slowed them down a little, as far as I could tell.  We shot many of them, but there were many more we didn’t have time to shoot.  They breached the fortifications, and then we were fighting them hand-to-hand.  We knew that we couldn’t let them past.”

“And they didn’t get past, right?” Matthew said.  “You beat them.”

“Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, son.  We were actually forced to retreat after a while, but we fell back in good order–it wasn’t a rout.  We stopped and regrouped, and reinforcements arrived–I never found out from where–so we were ready when the Canadians attacked again.  I don’t think they expected us to put up so much resistance.  This time they were the ones who retreated, back beyond the fortifications.

“But it wasn’t the end, by any means.  They didn’t run away like the Portuguese.  And there was a rumor that their forces had broken through further west, so we were worried that we’d be outflanked.  We commandeered whatever houses we found nearby and spent the night in them.  We were cold and hungry and exhausted, and some of us had wounds that weren’t being treated.  We were happy to have survived, but we knew that tomorrow was likely to be even harder.”

Dad paused to sip his tea, and Mom put a hand on his arm to comfort him.  “Was there another battle?” Matthew asked.

“There was, but not the next day, as it turned out.  I don’t know if the Canadians made a mistake by not attacking immediately.  Maybe they were in as bad a shape as we were and also needed time to regroup.  But in any case, nothing happened.  Except more reinforcements arrived–the soldiers who had defeated the Portuguese south of the city.  That helped us immensely, knowing we had more comrades, and knowing there was just one army left to defeat.

“And then the generals started maneuvering.  We marched here and there over the next few days, without any of us having a clear idea of what we were doing.  We were getting very nervous.  Even with the new troops we were still outnumbered.  And most of us weren’t professional soldiers, after all, and none of us had had enough to eat for months.  We couldn’t wait forever to fight, but we couldn’t afford to fight with the odds against us.”

Matthew was getting bored.  “Tell me about the next battle, Papa,” he demanded.

Dad nodded.  “All right, the next battle.  The final battle.  Our lieutenant said to get ready, it was coming, and it would be different from the last one.  It would be much bigger, and it would be on open ground, instead of fighting from behind the fortifications.  Our position gave us a slight advantage–we held the heights in Brighton–but they had more troops, and probably more ammunition.  The main difference this time was that we were the ones who would attack.

“So we woke up before dawn and got ready and said our prayers, and before we really had time to think or worry or be afraid we were charging down towards the enemy, and they were firing back at us.  I don’t know how I survived.  People were dying all around me.  I just tried to stay alive and do my job, which was to kill as many of the Canadians as I could.

“It was a terrible battle.  Matthew, I know war sounds exciting, but I tell you, I never want to see another day like that one.  And I was lucky–I was cut and bruised and punched and kicked, but I wasn’t seriously wounded, I wasn’t left for dead, like a lot of soldiers I knew.  And I didn’t end up with a leg amputated, a cripple for the rest of my days.

“Well, in the end the Canadians retreated.  It didn’t exactly feel like victory–again, they didn’t turn and run, we didn’t slaughter them.  But by sunset they were gone and we held the field.

“At first we didn’t know if it was going to be like before, and they were planning to fight again.  I don’t think we could have survived another battle.  But it turns out they decided they couldn’t survive one either.  They retreated.  And as I said, some of us just followed along after them–not to fight, but to make sure they were well and truly gone.  We stayed on their heels for upwards of a week.  They must be back home by now–and good riddance to them.”

“We won!” Matthew said.

“Yes,” Dad replied softly, “we won.  At such a cost.”

“You’ve done a lot of soldiering, Henry,” Mom said.

“Too much, Emma, too much.  This war did no one any good.”

“I’m glad you’re home, Papa,” Matthew said.

“So am I, Matthew.  So am I.”

They all fell silent in the kitchen.  Matthew leaned back against Dad and closed his eyes.  Dad kissed the top of his head.  After a while he carried Matthew up to the attic and put him to bed.

Mom came in to us.  “Good night, boys,” she said.  “There’s jam in the kitchen.  Help yourselves.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I replied.

She smiled at us; she looked so relieved.  Then we heard Dad coming back downstairs, and he and Mom went off to their bedroom and left Kevin and me alone.  I heard them murmuring to each other while we sat by the fire.

“Want some jam?” I asked him.

He shook his head.  “No trip to Boston tomorrow,” he remarked.

“I guess not.”

“But you’ll still have to tell them.  Calling him ‘Dad’–”

“Yeah, I know.  After the victory celebration, for sure.”

Kevin looked skeptical, but he didn’t say anything.  He lay down on the floor and pulled his blanket around him.

I stoked up the fire and lay down next to him.  “It wouldn’t be so terrible staying here,” I murmured.  “Even if Lieutenant Carmody finds us.  We’ve made a lot of friends.  We know how to get along in this world.  We’d be okay.”

I didn’t think Kevin was going to answer, but after a long time he said, “We’ll never be able to say ‘okay’ in this world.  People will never understand us when we ask ‘How come?’.  They’ll always look at us funny when we eat with a fork.  There’ll never be a Christopher Columbus or a Mark Twain.  They’ll never know who the Red Sox are.  We’ll never ride our bikes again.”

Will it matter? I thought.  When we’re twenty, or thirty, or forty–will any of that matter by then?  We won’t say “okay”; we’ll never think about the Red Sox.  So what?  We’ll be what this world made us.  But I didn’t say anything.  There was no sense getting into an argument with Kevin.

Instead I fell asleep, grateful that my father was home, and ready to celebrate the victory that we had helped win.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 29

Chapter 28: Larry helps to bury Cassie, and in the little family graveyard he see his own grave.  Afterward Mom tells the story of how she dies — shot by a New England soldier in the camp because she wouldn’t — couldn’t — follow orders.  Larry has to lie about what’s been happening to him and why he’s in Glanbury.  His mother says that he and Kevin and Stinky are welcome to stay, but Larry is beginning to realize how complicated this new situation is going to be.

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

Chapter 29

Then for a few short weeks my life took on a new rhythm, as I hunted and fished and did chores, and later helped neighbors who had returned to homes that had been burned or ransacked.  It was great to be with Mom and Matthew, but every moment was shadowed by thoughts of Cassie’s death and worries about the future.  Was Dad all right?  What was happening with the Canadians? 

And where was the portal? 

Kevin kept searching, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it.  And I was too busy.  After a few days I think he started trying to get used to the idea that he was staying in this world, but it wasn’t something he wanted to talk about.  Maybe talking about it made it more real somehow, and he didn’t want to give up hope entirely.  I guess I couldn’t blame him.

And there were lots of awkward moments.  Like Mom asking me about my family and my future.  “You really need to go back to the city and settle things, Larry.  I’m sure your father had a will, and he may have named someone to be your guardian.  We can find a lawyer to help you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “After the war we’ll figure it out.  As soon as it’s safe.”

If she thought it wasn’t safe to go to Boston, she’d never let me go.

And then there was our clothes.  She insisted on washing them–we must have stunk pretty badly.  So Kevin and I peeled down to reveal that we were wearing another whole layer of strange clothes underneath our regular ones. 

“Where in the world did you get those pants?” she asked.

“China,” I said.  “My father knows a professor in China.  He sent them to us.  Did you notice this thing?  It’s called a ‘zipper’.  It’s really different.”

“But why do you wear the Chinese pants inside your regular pants?”

“We don’t like them all that much–we don’t want to look weird.  But we didn’t want to leave them behind.  They’re supposed to be valuable.”

I didn’t like lying to Mom, in either world.  It was easy to get her to believe you, and that just sort of made it worse.  When she found out about your lie she would tell you how disappointed she was, how much she had trusted you, and you ended up feeling like dirt.

“All these stories are pretty pointless,” Kevin said later.  “Sooner or later Carmody is going to come looking for the portal–and us.  And sooner or later you’re going to have to tell your mother the truth.”

“But I can’t tell her now,” I argued.  “What if she thinks we’re demons?  What if she throws us out?”

Kevin shrugged.  “She’s not going to do that,” he said.  “She’s crazy about you.  Anyway, suit yourself.”

But I couldn’t do it.  Not yet.

And then there was Stinky.  He wasn’t especially annoying, except that he didn’t seem to want to leave, and after a while that made everyone feel sort of awkward.  “No sense in going anywhere till Mister Kincaid’s back,” he said, talking about his master.  But then we heard from a neighbor that Kincaid was back, and Stinky said, “I’ll just get a beating when I return, so there’s no sense in hurrying.”  And so he stayed.

I tried to explain away Kevin’s story about the orphanage, but Stinky had his own explanation: “Your friend is insane,” he said.  “I just stay away from him as much as I can.”

That was fine with Kevin.

The best times were when I went off visiting with Mom and Matthew.  Stinky never went, because he was afraid of running into his master, and Kevin usually didn’t go because he just wasn’t interested.  But I enjoyed hearing people talk about their lives, and the war, and the rumors.  I enjoyed helping them rebuild their homes and barns; I turned out to be pretty good at carpentry, even though I never did much of it at home.

Everyone was really nice to me when they found out I was an orphan, but they would have been nice to me anyway.  And they all had some hardship to deal with–and not just the wrecked homes and barns.  A few of them had lost a family member; lots more had brothers and fathers and sons in the army, and there was no way of knowing if they were dead or alive.

More than once I ran into Sarah Lally.

Her father was a tailor, and the first time I saw her was outside his shop near the harbor.  My heart started racing. “Hi,” I managed to say.

She looked really happy to see me.  “How did you get here, Larry?  Do you know about Cassie?”

I told her the story about my father dying, and of course she was sympathetic.  She put her hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze.  “How awful,” she murmured.  “But how kind of you to come here to help.”

I felt guilty about lying to her, just the way I did with Mom.  But I didn’t want her to take her hand away.  “How are you doing?” I asked.

She gestured behind her at the shop.  “There was much damage, but we’ll be all right.”

“If there’s anything you need, let me know,” I said.

“Thank you, Larry.  Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you a question if I ever saw you again.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“That first time you saw me in the camp–you called me Nora Lally.  But you never explained: how did you know my last name?”

I had forgotten about that.  I had done pretty well answering my mother’s questions, and even making up something about the orphanage, but this was a tough one, especially with Sarah’s wide blue eyes gazing at me.  “I guess–I don’t know, really.”

She looked puzzled, but not angry or anything.  Then her father called to her from inside the shop.  “Well, no matter,” she said.  “Anyway—I’ll see you again, won’t I?”

“You can count on it.”

She smiled at me and rushed inside.

I did see her again, at neighbor’s houses and when we went to church–the same white church with the big steeple that overlooked the town common in my Glanbury.  And she was always happy to see me and easy to talk to, and it was hard to believe how scared of her I was back in my world.

Meanwhile, the news that filtered down from Boston was pretty good, although as usual everyone who showed up in Glanbury had a slightly different version.  We had defeated the Canadians, and they were retreating.  They weren’t retreating, but were preparing for a counterattack.  They had counterattacked but hadn’t been able to break through our defenses, which featured an amazing metal fence that killed anyone who touched it.  The blockade had ended, and supply ships from England were landing in Boston Harbor.  The blockade was still in place, but England had declared war on Portugal and it was only a matter of time . . . 

It was pretty much all anyone could talk about, and every scrap of news was treated like it was a precious gem.  But no one was going to really believe anything until they heard it from a returning soldier.  And that was what everyone was waiting for.

I was there when the first one arrived.  A bunch of us were working on the Wilsons’ barn when a red-jacketed man strode up the lane, a huge grin on his face.  It was Mr. Wilson, coming home.  Everyone got down from the ladders and came out of the house and crowded around.  He spent a while hugging and kissing his family, and then he gave us all the news: “We beat them Canadians,” he said.  “We fought ’em and fought ’em, and finally they retreated back north, and they’re not coming back.”

“Are you sure?” someone asked.  “Is it official?”

“They’re working on the peace treaty now at Coolidge Palace,” he replied.  “And the first thing they did was lift the blockade.  I hear food supplies’ll be moving down the coast any day now.”

“The other soldiers–when are they coming back?”

“Hard to say.  They’re letting the volunteers go, but not everyone at once.  Don’t know how I got to be among the first, but I’m not complainin’.”

And then the questions really started coming.  Have you seen my husband?  What about my son–is he all right?  There was good news and bad news for the people there.  And for a few there was no news at all.  Mom waited till the end.  “Henry–have you seen Henry?” she asked.

Mr. Wilson shook his head.  “Not lately, Emma.  But that doesn’t mean anything.  There were thousands of soldiers.  He could’ve been anywhere along the front.  I’m sure he’ll show up any day now.”

Mom forced a smile.  “Of course.  I understand.  I’m sure you’re right.”

So some people left the Wilsons’ place happy that day, and some in tears, and some–like us–were just as worried as before. 

Anyway, then things started to change. 

For example, Stinky finally decided to leave.  He knew it was only a matter of time before his master found out where he was, so he figured he didn’t have much choice.  He looked very depressed when he told us his decision. 

“You’ve been great, Julian,” I said.  “We wouldn’t have survived without you.”

He turned red and looked down at the floor.  “Don’t thank me,” he said.  “I’m just–I’m no saint, that’s all.  Anyone would have done what I did.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I replied.  It was hard to believe, but I knew I was going to miss him.  I had almost stopped thinking of him as “Stinky.”  I shook his hand, and then watched him as he said goodbye to the others.  He looked like he was holding back tears.  Even Kevin seemed sad to see him trudging down the lane away from the farmhouse.  “Not one wet willie from him,” Kevin said afterwards, which was about as close as he could come to saying something nice about Stinky. 

And then the food arrived, just like Mr. Wilson said.  A ship showed up in Glanbury Harbor filled with emergency supplies, and we all went down to the docks to get our share.  Beef, potatoes, flour–even sugar and molasses.  People couldn’t believe their eyes.  It was like a gift from heaven.

That was the day the town decided to have a victory celebration at the church hall.  The date was set: December 24th.  Christmas Eve.

It was the first time I’d thought about Christmas.  “They don’t celebrate it, do they, Kevin?” I asked.

Kevin shook his head.  “Not in New England.  It’s just another day here.  I read about it at Professor Palmer’s.  The Portuguese do all sorts of things for Christmas, but New Englanders say it’s just a pagan tradition.  Can you imagine, no Christmas?”

One more reason for Kevin to feel homesick.  Me too.  I remembered how excited Matthew got, so he could barely sleep a wink the night before, and he kept me awake too, of course, the two of us finally sneaking downstairs early to see the presents, Cassie coming down later and complaining about everything she got . . .  “Doesn’t seem right,” I said.

“It’s a different world, Larry.  It’ll never be your world, no matter how much you think you can make it yours.”

“Okay, okay,” I grumbled. 

The end of the war had started Kevin looking for the portal again in earnest.  “Now there’s nothing stopping Lieutenant Carmody from coming down here and finding out what happened to us,” he pointed out.  And he was pretty upset that I wasn’t interested in helping him, so he didn’t pass up any chance to let me know how stupid I was being. 

I saw his point, but walking around in the woods looking for an invisible needle in the haystack just didn’t seem all that useful to me, when I had so much to do helping Mom and Matthew and the rest of folks in Glanbury.

And, to tell the truth, I was worried about what would happen if my father didn’t return from the war.  The days went by, and more and more soldiers returned home, but no Henry Barnes.  And no news of him either.  None of the returning soldiers remembered seeing him shot or bayoneted or captured, which was good, but none could say for sure he was alive, either, and by now we were desperate for some news.  Matthew looked out the window during the day, and after dark he listened for footsteps in the lane.  “He’s coming home soon, Mama, isn’t he?” he asked.  “He’ll be here for the celebration on Christmas Eve, won’t he?”

“I’m sure of it, Matthew,” she replied. 

But her eyes were anxious, and I knew she was as worried as any of us.

“You could go in the wagon to Boston,” I suggested to her finally.  “Ask for him at army headquarters.  They must have lists and stuff.  You’ll probably find out, one way or the other.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” she said.  Then she brightened.  “And we could see a lawyer and start getting matters resolved about your father.”

Oops, that wasn’t what I had in mind.  “Well–” I began.

“Don’t argue with me, Larry,” she interrupted.  “It’s time, and you know it.  We’ll do it tomorrow.”

“But tomorrow’s Christmas Eve.  Tomorrow’s the celebration.”

“We’ll get an early start.  If we miss the celebration, that’s fine–I don’t really feel like celebrating.”

Of course I got no sympathy from Kevin when I told him.  “Just tell her the truth,” he said.  “Get it over with.”

I couldn’t see any way out.  “All right,” I said.  “Tomorrow, for sure.”

I must not have sounded all that convincing, because Kevin started in on me again.  “You’re still dreaming, Larry.  But it’s time to wake up.  You can’t just be this substitute kid for them.  And you can’t live in a substitute world.  It’s not going to work.”

“Shut up, Kevin,” I said.  It was all I could think of to say.

At supper Mom told Matthew about how we were all going to Boston, and we might not make it to the celebration, and that got him depressed.  And he finally understood that Kevin and I might not be staying forever, and that got him really depressed. 

And that got me really depressed.

If I told Mom the truth, what would happen?

After supper I went outside to think about it.  It was a clear, moonlit night, the kind where you don’t seem to mind the cold.  So I stood there, listening to the silence.  Was Kevin right?  Was I dreaming?  Probably.  But he was dreaming too, wasn’t he?  Dreaming that there was a way back home, when by now it was clear that there wasn’t, that the portal was gone and we were stuck here for the rest of our lives.  We were both entitled to our dreams.   

Then I heard something–footsteps in the snow.  Too loud for an animal.  I looked up, and saw a man in a dark coat walking up the path towards the house.  He was carrying a rifle and a satchel.  His coat was red, I realized.  A uniform.

“Dad!” I cried, and I ran to him.

He stopped, and then I stopped too, realizing what I’d said.  We stared at each other.

“Larry?” he asked, staring at me with a puzzled expression.  “Larry Palmer?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. 

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m just, you know, helping out.  You’re family’s inside.  They’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

“I expect they have,” he said, breaking into a grin.

That grin hit me like a blow.  I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just stepped aside.  He patted me uncertainly on the shoulder.  “Well, then, we’ll talk,” he said.  Then he walked past me and went into his house.

And I stayed out there in the cold as he greeted Mom and Matthew and learned the awful news that awaited him.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 28

Chapter 27: Well, that was a bummer.  Kevin, Larry, and Stinky Glover make it back to Glanbury and move into the Barnes farmhouse.  Kevin and Larry look for the portal without success.  In a snowstorm they run into Larry’s Mom and brother coming home from Boston in their cart.  And in the back of the cart is his sister Cassie’s dead body.

Why do writers think they can get away with killing characters off like this?  Have they no human decency?

We’re not far from the end now, so I may ramp up the posting of these chapters.  The suspense is killing me.

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

Chapter 28

Kevin and I walked alongside the wagon as Mom made her way through the snow back to the farmhouse.  She didn’t say anything; she didn’t ask who Kevin was or why we were there in Glanbury.  Even Matthew was quiet, except to complain about how hungry he was.

“We have food,” I said.  “We’ll take care of you.”

Stinky saw the wagon drive up the lane and came out to meet us.  “Julian?” Mom asked, with a puzzled look on her face.

“Just staying with Lawrence, ma’am,” Stinky replied.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

She didn’t respond.  She and Matthew got down from the wagon, and we took them inside and had them sit in front of the fire.  In the kitchen, I explained to Stinky about Cassie.  “Terrible,” he said.  “To live through it all, and then at the very end . . . ”

I nodded.  “They’re going to need all the help we can give them.”

Stinky had already cooked the turkey I had shot yesterday.  We carved it up in the kitchen and brought some out to them.  Mom looked like she didn’t want to eat, but she was too hungry to resist.  Matthew wolfed his food down.  “We’ve had almost nothing to eat for two days,” he said between bites.  “And we don’t know where Papa is or if he’s alive, and Gretel got lame and we thought we might not even make it home, and it’s been terrible, just terrible.”

Mom put her hand on his arm.  “We’re all right now, Matthew,” she murmured.  “Try not to eat to much.  It might make you ill.”

He leaned back against her, but kept eating.

Mom stood up when she had finished.  “We can’t leave her out there,” she said.

Did she want to bring Cassie’s body inside? I thought stupidly. No, she headed out the back door to the barn.  I followed her.  Inside, she found a pick and a shovel.  “Three days she’s awaited a proper burial,” Mom murmured.  “She can’t wait any longer.”

“I’ll help,” I said.  “We’ll all help.”

She stopped and gazed at me the way she had in the camp–puzzled, like she was on the brink of understanding who I really was.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you, Larry.  Finding you here is–is the only good thing that’s happened to us in a long time.”

I took the pick and shovel and followed her back out front.  I set the tools down by the wagon and went inside to get Kevin, Stinky, and Matthew.  Then we all followed behind the wagon as Mom drove it around the farmhouse to the edge of a little patch of woods beyond the barn.  Matthew was sobbing.  Kevin glanced at me a couple of times, but he didn’t say anything.

Mom got down from the wagon and led us into the woods.  We came to a small clearing after a while, and in the middle of the clearing a few crosses stuck up through the snow.  My head started spinning as I stared at those crosses.  Kevin gripped my arm.  Mom pointed to a spot in the snow.  “Cassie needs to go here,” she said.  “Beside her brother.”

I looked at the cross next to where she was pointing.  Two words were crudely carved on it:

 

Lawrence Barnes

 

I was staring at my own grave.

“That’s the boy who would have been just about your age,” my mother was saying to me.  “My baby.”

I think maybe I forgot to breathe for a while.  “It’s okay, Larry,” Kevin whispered to me.  “Take it easy.”

Kevin and I’d had talked about what would happen if we ran into our other selves in this world.  Would we both explode, or destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum or something?  Stupid.  We never talked about this.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I was as spooked as I could possibly be.  But I didn’t do anything.  I just stood there in the snow.  I was alive, the earth kept spinning, and that other me–the baby who didn’t make it–was still at rest in the cold ground.

And now we had to lay his sister–my sister–to rest, too.

We took turns using the pick and shovel to dig the hole in the frozen, rocky soil.  I did most of the work, though–Kevin still didn’t have all his strength back, and it wasn’t the sort of task Stinky enjoyed.  It seemed to take forever.  It grew dark, and my muscles were screaming with pain after a while–the most digging I’d ever done was a little bit of snow shoveling, and I’d usually complain about having to do that.  But we kept at it, and at last the time had come.  We lifted Cassie’s body out of the wagon, then slid her down into the ground and covered her up.  After that we stood around the grave as darkness fell and said some prayers, while I felt sorry for every mean thing I’d said to her in every conceivable universe.

“Thank you all,” my mother said at the end.  “God bless you.”

And then we made our way slowly back to the farmhouse.  Stinky took care of Gretel, and Kevin and I hauled in the few possessions Mom and Matthew had brought home in the wagon.

With her duty done, Mom seemed to relax a little.  She looked even older, more worn down than she had in the camp.  But she didn’t cry much, just a few tears.  Mom wasn’t a crier; she was the one who gave comfort, not the one who needed comforting.  She put Matthew to bed–she let him sleep in the downstairs bedroom with her–and then came out to join us in front of the fireplace.

And she asked the questions I knew were coming: “Larry, what happened?  How did you get here?”

As usual I hadn’t thought through my answer, so I just blurted something out.  “My father died, and I had nowhere else to go.”

“Oh no, Larry, what happened?”

What happened?  “He was–he was working with the army.  He had invented this electric fence that would, like, give the enemy soldiers a shock when they tried to climb over it.  He was operating it at the battle with the Portuguese.  And it worked great but–but they shot him.  He died instantly.”  I remembered Professor Foster dropping to the ground, killed in his moment of triumph.

“Oh my poor sweet boy.  Is there no end to these horrors?”

“I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so I came here,” I continued.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?  Of course not.  Stay as long as you want.  And your friend–”

“Kevin.  He’s, uh, an orphan.  He lived with us.  And Julian–we met him at the army camp, and he helped us get here.  We couldn’t have done it without him.”

I glanced at Stinky.  He didn’t say anything about how a couple of days ago Kevin had told him we lived in an orphanage.  Did he remember?  Of course he did.

“You’re all welcome to our home,” Mom said.  She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.  Stinky threw another log on the fire.

“Can you–can you tell us what happened to Cassie?” I asked.

“Perhaps another time,” she said wearily.

“Sure.  I understand.”

But after a moment she said, “I suppose it might help.  There’s been no one to talk to–just Matthew . . . ”  She paused again, and then began.  “You were there in the camp that last day, Larry.  You saw how wild things were becoming.”

I nodded.  “I barely got out.  Soldiers were firing at people by the main gate.”

“Yes.  We’d endured for so long in the camp, but then–we knew it was ending soon, and it seemed to drive some people mad.”

“Cassie wouldn’t come out of the tent,” I recalled.  “She wouldn’t listen to anyone.”

“Yes, that was Cassie.”  Mom’s eyes got a faraway look, and I imagined she was thinking about all the ways in which Cassie had caused them problems.  Or maybe it was just the opposite.  What do I know?  “Cassie just couldn’t stand it anymore,” she went on.  “Not another day, not another minute.  We all heard the shots by the main gate.  We weren’t sure what had happened.  Twenty people dead, someone said; someone else said a hundred.  And there were other rumors: the gates had been stormed and the guards had fled.  The Canadians were already in the city.  There was a drikana outbreak in the camp.  The wildest things.  Cassie begged me to leave.  But even if I had wanted to, there was no way we could get out of the camp in that madness with a horse and wagon and all our possessions.  ‘Leave them behind,’ she insisted.  ‘It’s all worthless anyway.’

“But I wouldn’t do it.  ‘Let’s wait for the morning,’ I said.  ‘Everyone says the soldiers will be gone by then.’

“She wouldn’t listen to me, though.  She was never–she was never easy.  Not bad, no, but . . . she knew her own mind.  Perhaps if I had tried harder to understand . . . ”

Mom paused then, as if she were thinking about how she could blame herself for Cassie’s death.  “Then what happened?” I asked softly.

“She ran away,” Mom answered.  “She didn’t argue, she just ran, as if she couldn’t stand it another moment.  I told Matthew to go stay with the Lallys and I went after her, but it was so difficult.  It was dark, and all the paths were crowded with people and wagons, and no one would get out of the way.  She didn’t head toward the main gate.  She went to the water station.  I don’t know why–perhaps she thought it wouldn’t be guarded at night.  Perhaps she’d heard that the fence had been torn down, and there was just that little stream to cross.  Or perhaps she had met the guards there and flirted with them, and she thought they would let her pass.

“I almost reached her.  I called out to her, but she just kept going.  I was near a soldier, and he was very young, and I could tell he didn’t know what to do.  Someone else called out ‘Halt!’  She was in the middle of the stream by now.  She paused and looked back.  She saw me, and I called out to her again.  But then she turned and kept going.  And then I heard the shot.”

Mom paused again and stared into the fire.  I wasn’t going to say anything this time.  If she wanted to talk about it, she’d do it when she was ready.

“Cassie went down,” Mom continued at last.  “I kept going after her, through the stream and onto the other side where she was lying.  So why didn’t they shoot me, too?”

I thought she wanted an answer, but I couldn’t think of one.  I guess she was just asking herself, though, because she repeated the question softly, and then went on.  “I held her in my arms, but there was no bringing her back, no bringing her back.  I noticed that the young soldier was standing next to me after a while, and he was crying and saying, ‘Didn’t she understand?  All she had to do was stop.  Why wouldn’t she stop?’

“Because she’s Cassie, I thought.  Don’t you see?  She didn’t think she had to stop for anyone.

“I didn’t want to move, but I couldn’t stay there.  The soldier helped me carry the body back to our wagon.  And then I had to get Matthew and tell him what had happened.  And then . . . ”

Mom put her hands to her face.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought, making her relive all this stuff.

“If she could have just waited a few more hours,” she said.  “A few hours later, all the guards were gone, heading off to the battle.  It must have been midnight when I heard that, and it wasn’t a rumor this time.  The gates were open, the guards had disappeared, and people were pouring out into the city.  Not that they had anywhere to go in the city.  Not that I cared.  Some of our friends were sitting with me, helping me grieve.  They wanted me to leave with them, but what was the point?  This was where Cassie had died.  Why should I go anywhere else?

“They couldn’t wait finally.  Everyone was leaving.  The camp was emptying out.  But then near dawn Matthew awoke–despite everything, he had finally fallen asleep–and I knew that I had to leave too, I had to get him home if I possibly could.  So I packed the wagon and hitched up Gretel, and we left.”

“Kevin and I were in the camp a little after dawn that day, looking for you,” I said.  “It was pretty empty.”

Mom nodded.  “It was a dismal place, and we were all so tired of it.  People looted the army buildings during the night, then set fire to them.  I think they might have shot the guards if they had found any of them.

“But the city streets were no better–worse, really, because the other Glanbury families were gone, and I had no one to talk to, no one to help me.  That first day I stopped at a church, and the minister took pity on us and gave us a little food.  He offered to bury Cassie in the church’s graveyard, but I couldn’t leave her there–she had to go home too.  Then I tried to get out of the city, but Gretel went lame–poor girl, she’d had no exercise for months.  It’s a wonder she’s still alive.  I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t recovered.  Matthew was frantic.  He wanted us to go find his father, but Henry was fighting the Canadians, and we have no idea where he was, or if he was even alive.

“Finally at dawn this morning we started out, praying that Gretel would make it.  She did, thank the Lord.  And now we’re home.  Now we’re home.”

I reached over and put my hand on her arm, the way she liked to do.  She smiled at me and squeezed my hand.  “I never thought I’d see you again,” she said.  “But under such awful circumstances . . . ”

“I’ll help you,” I said.  “We’ll all help you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, and fell silent.

Mom went and joined Matthew in bed a little later.  Stinky fell asleep by the fire.  I was still wide awake.

“That was weird,” Kevin remarked.

“What?  The graveyard?” I said.

“Yeah.  I thought you were going to faint.”

“It did make me a little dizzy,” I admitted. “But in a way, it’s weirder thinking about Cassie.”

“Sounds like she was kind of–you know–the same in both worlds.” Kevin said.

“A pain, you mean. ‘Difficult,’ my dad says.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Not that she deserved to die.”

“For going nuts in that camp?” I said.  “No, she didn’t deserve to die for that.”

“Your mom and Matthew–that’s weird, too.  They look just like, you know . . . ”

“You see what I mean?” I pressed him.  “They aren’t different people.  They are my family.  They’re just . . . here.”

Kevin stared at the fire.  Thinking about the portal and getting home, I supposed.  Thinking about how he had no one here, no Albright family to welcome him.

“We can keep looking for the portal,” I said.  “It’s gotta be out there somewhere.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Maybe.”  Then he lay down and wrapped the blanket around him.  “Let’s just get some sleep.”

And then there was just me awake in the silent farmhouse.  I had found my family again, but things hadn’t exactly turned out the way I’d wanted them to.  Poor Cassie.  I know she can be difficult, Dad had said to me once, but she’s family.  And that’s the most important thing.  Someday you’ll realize that you love her.

I didn’t know about that.  But I couldn’t help thinking about Cassie.  And, difficult as she was, I couldn’t help wishing she was still alive and giving us all a hard time.  No, she didn’t deserve to die.  And my mom sure didn’t deserve the heartache her death had brought.

I didn’t want to bring her any more heartache.