Portal, an online novel: Chapter 24

Chapter 23: Larry and Kevin make their way through the chaotic city, hoping to reach Glanbury and the portal.  But then Larry decides they should help with the imminent battle against the New Portuguese army; they owe it to the place that has been their home for months now.  They are separated, and Larry ends up bringing ammunition to the front line.  Then he himself becomes part of the battle as the Portuguese army storms over the fortifications; he ends up killing a soldier not that much older than he is.  New England wins the battle.  But has Kevin survived?


Chapter 24

Kevin wasn’t at the ammunition depot when I arrived.  Sergeant Dryerson said he’d been sent to Sector 14.  “Hard fighting there, I’ve heard.  But don’t worry, he’ll be back.  Meanwhile, you look like you’ve been through it.  How’d you end up with that?” he asked, gesturing at the rifle.

I told him about getting caught in the battle.

The sergeant was impressed.  “Hold onto the rifle, lad.  It might come in handy.  Grab some bullets for it, as long as you’re here.”

“Have you heard anything about the battle with the Canadians?” I thought to ask.

He shook his head.  “But it looks like we’ve won half the war–unless the Portuguese decide to regroup and attack again tomorrow.  That’s better than some of us thought we’d do.”

What good was it to win half the war, I wondered.  I hung around the depot, taking care of the horse and helping to clean up.  Outside, the camp was just as busy as before the battle, with wagons clattering over the dirt path and messengers on horseback galloping past them and soldiers trudging back from the fortifications.  I kept looking for Kevin’s caisson, but it didn’t show up, and I became more and more nervous.  It was getting dark out.  What would I do if he didn’t show up?

“Come to the mess with us, lad,” Sergeant Dryerson said to me.  “You need a good meal.”

“Thanks, but I guess I’ll stay here and wait for my friend.”

This time he didn’t say anything reassuring.  “Do you need a place to stay the night?” he asked gently.  “The barracks won’t be full, I fear.”

I just shrugged.  I couldn’t think about that right now.  The sergeant went off with the other soldiers, and I sat down outside the depot, shivering in the cold, with the rifle by my side.  It was starting to get dark.  I wondered if my father was all right.  And poor fat Benjamin, who had looked so unhappy when Corporal Hennessy told him to report to Sergeant Hornbeam.  And Chester, who had saved my life, even if I was a boy.  And all the other soldiers I had met.  How many people died today that I knew?

Don’t be dead, Kevin, I thought.  It had been my idea to volunteer for the battle.  He just wanted to go home.  So if he died, it was my fault.

“Am I glad to see you,” a voice said.

I looked up and saw a Red Sox cap heading towards me.

For the second day in a row, I was so relieved to see Kevin I thought I’d cry.  I was so relieved I didn’t have the energy to tell him how relieved I was.  I just kind of waved.  He sat down next to me.  “It’s cold,” he said.

“Sure is.”

“Think we can get something to eat?”

“They’ll feed us over at the mess.”

We didn’t move, though.  We were silent for a while.  “My driver was shot,” Kevin said finally.  “Killed.”

“Mine too.”

“The caisson got wrecked during the battle, so I had to walk back.  Then on the way they asked me to help out on one of the ambulances, take people to the field hospital.  Surgery, they call it.  What a nasty place.  They don’t have, you know, what’s the word?”

I thought.  “Anesthesia?”

“Anesthesia.  Yeah.  They could sure use anesthesia.”

I shivered, thinking about it.  “I killed someone, Kevin,” I said.  “I got caught in the battle, and I had this rifle, and I shot a Portuguese soldier.  In the chest.  He wasn’t much older than us.”

“Geez,” Kevin whispered.  “You okay?”

“I guess so.  I keep telling myself that I didn’t have any choice.  Kill or be killed, right?  Still.”

“It’s a war,” Kevin said.

“Still.”  We were silent some more.  Finally I said, “So why don’t we go get some food?”

Kevin didn’t respond.  I looked over at him, and tears were streaming down his face.  “I want to go home, Larry,” he said.  “I want to go home so bad.”

I put my arm around him, and we huddled together in the cold and the dark.  In the distance, I thought I could hear screams from the surgery.

Finally it got too cold to just sit there, so we got up and found our way to the mess–a long, low-ceilinged, smoky building with a big fire burning in a fireplace at one end.  It was crowded but quiet, despite the victory.  We didn’t see Sergeant Dryerson, but we did spot Caleb and Fred, who were happy to have us join them.  “You lads turn up everywhere,” Caleb said.  “Aren’t you supposed to be back at headquarters?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but everyone had to help out today.”

“That’s surely true.  Interesting hat, mate,” he said to Kevin.  “‘B’ for Boston?”

“That’s right,” Kevin replied.

“Wish I had me one of those.”

I noticed Sergeant Hornbeam looking at us from another table, but he didn’t come over.

Caleb and Fred told us the latest war news while we ate some cold mutton and hard rolls.  We had held the Canadians off for today, but everyone expected another assault; that battle had been nowhere near as decisive as this one seemed to have been.  Caleb thought that some troops would be left here to defend the fortifications, but others would be shifted over to reinforce the soldiers fighting the Canadians to the north.

“Maybe the Portuguese will swing around the city and join them,” Fred suggested.

“More likely they got such a licking today that they won’t stop running till they’re back in New Portugal,” Caleb countered.

All the other soldiers at the table got into the discussion about what would happen next.  Most agreed with Caleb that the Portuguese were done fighting.  “That fence was enough to scare them away,” one said.

“What did that fence do, exactly?” another soldier asked.

“Don’t know, but whatever it was, they surely didn’t like it.”

Kevin didn’t seem interested in any of this discussion.  Once he was finished eating, he immediately started asking where we could find a bed for the night.

“Not going back to headquarters?” Caleb asked.

He shrugged.  “Maybe tomorrow.”

“By the way, where is that ciphering machine of yours?” Fred asked.  “Fellows, you should have seen that machine.  It was the darnedest thing . . .”

But Kevin didn’t stick around to listen to them talk about his watch.  Instead he got up and left the mess.

“He’s pretty tired,” I explained.

“Don’t blame him,” Caleb said.  “We’re in Barracks B, across the way.  Tell the orderly to find you lads a spot.  Shouldn’t be hard, I’m afraid.”

I thanked Caleb, grabbed my rifle, and went to catch up with Kevin.  He was outside the mess.  “What’s up?” I asked.  “I was going to ask them about who died in the battle.  Did I tell you about Professor Foster?  He got shot.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin said.  “We’ve got to get some sleep and head for Glanbury first thing in the morning.  Otherwise Lieutenant Carmody is going to find out we’re here and grab us.  Everyone in camp is gonna know about the kids with the ciphering machine before long.  You think that won’t get back to headquarters?”

“Okay,” I said.  “Maybe you’re right.  Do you think we can make it to Glanbury?  For all we know, the Portuguese army is still out there.”

“We have a better shot than we did yesterday, Larry.  And we can’t stay here.  We can’t be in any more battles.”

He was shaking with emotion.  He’d had enough.  More than enough.  “Fine,” I said.  I motioned towards the building with the big letter B painted on it.  “Let’s go over there and see if we can find a couple of beds.  In the morning we’ll figure it out.”

Inside Barracks B a gloomy young soldier sat behind a desk.  He must’ve been the orderly.  He shook his head when we explained what we wanted.  “That’s not procedures,” he said.  “If you’re not assigned here, you need an order signed by a colonel.”

“Look,” I said.  “We’ve been fighting the Portuguese all day.  Now we just want someplace to sleep.  We’re too tired to go looking for a colonel.”

“That’s the procedures,” he explained again, as if we were a little slow in understanding.  “You’re not even soldiers,” he pointed out.  “The rules say you shouldn’t even be in this building.”

“Let them have a bed, you imbecile!” a voice demanded from behind us.

It was Sergeant Hornbeam, his red mustache bristling.

The orderly looked offended.  “They need an order signed–”

The sergeant was right in front of him now.  “Give them a bed!” he shouted.  “Do you have a casualty list?”

“Well, yes, but it’s very preliminary.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s preliminary, now does it?” the sergeant pointed out.  “If someone is listed as dead, he’s not coming back to life, is he?”

“Not procedures,” the orderly mumbled.  “Highly irregular.”

“These are highly irregular times.  Now do it!”

The orderly studied a piece of paper for a second, and then stood up.  “Come along then,” he said, without looking at us.

“Thanks, Sergeant,” I said to Sergeant Hornbeam.

He dismissed us with a wave.  “Get some sleep,” he said.  “There are far too many imbeciles in this army,” he muttered as he walked out the door.

We followed the orderly into a large hall where cots were laid out in long rows.  A few soldiers were snoring away, but most of the cots were empty.  “There and there,” the orderly said, pointing out a couple of cots near the back.

“Thank you,” I said.

He shook his head.  “It’s not right,” he replied.  I felt like we had ruined his day.

Kevin slumped down onto one of the cots.  “I thought an orderly was, like, someone who mopped floors,” he said.

I shrugged.  “In another world,” I murmured.  I put my rifle down, flopped onto the cot next to him, and pulled the thin blanket over me.  “The guys who slept here last night are dead now,” I said, staring up at the ceiling, which flickered in the lamplight.  “Kinda creeps me out.”

“Everything here is creeping me out,” Kevin said.  And then after a pause he added: “I wonder why Sergeant Hornbeam was following us.”

“What makes you think he was following us?” I asked.  “Maybe he just happened to see us come in here and wanted to do us a favor.”

“Whatever,” he said.  “Tomorrow morning we head home.”

I didn’t reply.  Too tired.  I closed my eyes and thought about the soldier who had lain on this cot last night.  Scared.  Excited.  Maybe too excited to fall asleep.  Maybe he wasn’t a whole lot older than me.  Maybe he thought he was going to be a hero.  And now he was just . . . gone.  Lying in the morgue.  Probably be buried in the morning, in one of those big holes people like Chester dug.  I shuddered and tried to stop thinking about him.

And instead I thought about that other soldier, with the wispy mustache, looking kind of scared as he rushed towards me, his sword gleaming.  Where had he slept last night?  What had he thought about?

I wondered what happened to the enemy dead–how did they get buried?

It had been a tough day.  I just had to stop thinking.

Eventually my body must have agreed, because the next thing I knew I was riding in a wagon at top speed.  The road was bumpy and I was being tossed all over the place, but I couldn’t slow down.  I didn’t know why at first, and then I realized that Portuguese soldiers were chasing me on horseback.  I turned to look at them, and one was the short bearded guy that Chester had killed, and the other was the kid with the wispy mustache, and I tried to shout to them that it was war, kill or be killed, nothing personal, but they didn’t understand or didn’t care, and they were closing in on my wagon, so I had to go faster, faster . . .

I opened my eyes.  Kevin was shaking me.  “Wake up,” he whispered.  “Time to go.”

Groggily I got to my feet.  There weren’t any windows, I noticed.  Thin gray light came in through chinks in the boards.  The soldiers snored and mumbled in their cots.  Had I really slept all night?  We made our way through the cots and into the outer room.  The same orderly was still there.  He was half-asleep, but he glared at us as we walked by like we had ruined the war for him.  Then we were outside.  It was bitter cold.  For some reason I thought about the arguments I’d had with my mom about putting on my gloves for the short walk to the bus stop.  Wouldn’t it be great if I had gloves?

“Now what?” I said.

“Now we go,” Kevin replied.

“How far is it?” I asked.  “Ten miles?  Twenty?” I really had no idea how far Glanbury was from Boston.  “Think we’ll make it?”

“Yeah, we’ll make it.”  He sounded like nothing in this world was going to keep him from making it.

“Well, how do we get past the guards at the fortifications?”

“I dunno.  Why should they care?  They’re supposed to keep the Portuguese out, not us in.  Let’s go down back to the main road and see what’s going on.”

We hadn’t gone twenty feet, though, when I heard a voice behind me.  “Hey Lawrence, what are you doing here?”

I turned around and saw Stinky Glover hurrying towards us.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 23

In Chapter 22: Larry and Kevin grab the clothes they were wearing in our world and run away from army headquarters.  Lieutenant Carmody spots them and chases after them, but they escape.  They make their way to the refugee camp, but it’s deserted, and the barracks have been set on fire.  The city is descending into chaos as the siege ends and the battle is about to begin.  The boys are desperate to get back to Glanbury, but the army from New Portugal stands in their way.  They are now as alone as when they first arrived in this world.

And things can only get worse.


Chapter 23

For a while it didn’t matter which direction we were heading.  People were going everywhere, and I suppose no direction was particularly safe.  But the further south we got, the louder the artillery sounded, and the more dangerous our journey started to feel.  People going the other way kept telling us to turn back, turn back, you’ll get caught in the battle.  And they had all sorts of rumors: the battle had started, we were losing, we had already lost . . .

But there were some people heading south along with us, and they had the same idea we did.  “Win or lose, we just want to go home,” one woman said to us.  “There’s nothing left for us in Boston, and we were lucky to get out of that camp alive.”  She had a couple of little children with her, and a half-dead donkey carrying their possessions.  The face of one of the girls was pitted with smallpox scars; she looked curiously at Kevin’s cap.  The woman offered us a couple of hard rolls they had gotten somewhere, and we accepted gratefully.  It was our first food of the day, and we didn’t know when we’d get our next.

We pressed on ahead of the family after a while, staying on the main road so we wouldn’t get lost.  I recalled details of the road from our journey into the city with the Harpers so long ago.  I knew we were getting close when we passed by the remnants of another refugee camp on marshland.  I remembered how Mr. Harper had scorned the people staying in such an unhealthy place.  I wondered if they’d ended up worse off than anyone else.  There were still some people there, with their wagons and makeshift tents.  Probably they thought we were the fools, heading towards the battle.

“Should be a big military camp up ahead,” Kevin said.  “And then the fortifications.”

“Think they’ll attack along the main road?”

“No idea.  There’s a lot of territory to defend.”

I recalled the discussion in President Gardner’s office.  The electric fence wasn’t powerful enough to replace all the fortifications, so they’d try to trick the enemy into thinking the fence was a weak spot in their defenses.  Would that work?

The road curved inland after a while, and up ahead we saw a crowd of people.  When we reached it we asked a woman what was going on.  “They won’t let us pass,” she said.  “Say it’s too dangerous.”

“Has the battle started?”

“I don’t think so.  Someone said when the artillery stops, that’s when they’ll attack.”

I looked at Kevin.  Had we gone as far as we could go?

“What would happen if we went off the road?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What good would that do?”

“I dunno.  Maybe we could sneak through the fortifications somewhere else.  Or go around them.  Maybe over by the ocean.”

“And have both armies shooting at us?”

Kevin shrugged.  “Let’s go see what’s happening,” he said finally.

We made our way through the crowd.  There were just a couple of soldiers standing guard at a barrier in the road.  It wasn’t anything like the scene at the Fens camp yesterday.  Nobody looked like they wanted to go any further; they were happy to let the army do the fighting.

One of the soldiers looked familiar.  It was Benjamin, our jailer.  He was still fat, although not as fat as when we first saw him.  I don’t think he remembered us at first, but he recognized Kevin’s cap.  “Ah, the lads with the ciphering machine,” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

“Just trying to get home,” I replied.

“Where’s home?”


He laughed.  “Good luck to you, then.”

“Has the battle started?”

“Oh, you’ll know when the battle’s started.  We’re all waiting for the battle to start.”

He seemed grateful for someone to talk to.  It occurred to me that he was scared.  He was sweating, despite the cold, and he flinched every time there was a particularly loud explosion.  No wonder they’d stuck him back here, well behind the front line.

Suddenly someone rode up on horseback.  It was Corporal Hennessy, who I’d talked to in the courtyard at headquarters the other night.  “I need one of you immediately,” he said to the two guards.

Benjamin looked like he was hoping his partner would volunteer.  The other guy was tall and skinny and kind of dopey-looking.  Neither of them said anything.

“All right, you, Benjamin, report to Sergeant Hornbeam,” the corporal ordered.  Benjamin looked like he wanted to protest, but instead he just sighed, as if he’d expected this all along.  Then the corporal noticed us.  “Hello, lads,” he said.  “You two reporting for duty?”

He was serious, I realized.  Was he asking us to fight?  Kevin and I looked at each other.  And I decided: it’s our war, too.  “What do you want us to do?” I asked.

“Go see Sergeant Dryerson, over at the ammunition depot,” he replied.  “He needs some extra hands.  Let’s hope you’ve developed some muscles since you were at the food warehouse.”  Then he galloped off.

Benjamin looked at us glumly.  “Should’ve stayed out of it, lads,” he said.

“Which way to the ammunition depot?” I asked.

He gestured to his left.  “Not a good place to be, I think.  Fare you well.”

And then he sighed again and trudged off.  The other guard let us pass, and we headed into the camp.

“Why?” Kevin demanded.

I looked up at the balloon–the balloon we had helped invent–hovering in the air.  I thought of Professor Palmer taking a bullet for us on the river.  I thought of my family, somewhere in the city, trying to survive–my father over by the Charles, getting ready to fight the Canadians.  I thought of all the soldiers who had treated us well.  “Because it’s the right thing to do,” I said.

He shrugged.  “I suppose so.”

The ammunition depot was about half a mile away, well back from the fortifications, which had been built out a lot since we first came into the city.  In some places there were now long, high walls of earth; in others there was a wooden fence supported by sandbags.  The pathway we walked along was crowded with soldiers on horseback and wagons hauling stuff.  Everyone looked tense.  Cannonballs kept coming in, but they landed short of where we were.

The depot was another one of those makeshift buildings that looked like it had been put up overnight.  It was filled with cases of ammunition, which soldiers were loading onto small wagons they called caissons.  Sergeant Dryerson was a big, burly guy with a droopy mustache.  “Always happy to have more assistance,” he said when we introduced ourselves.  “You,” he said, pointing to me, “help old Augustus over there.  “And you,”–pointing to Kevin–“go with Quentin.”

Kevin and I exchanged a glance.  “We–we’d like to stay together,” Kevin said to the sergeant.

“Then go off somewhere and play with your toys,” he replied angrily.  “I’ve no time for such nonsense.  Keeping you separate doubles the odds one of you’ll survive.  Consider that.”

We weren’t going to argue, so we did as we were told.  “Stay safe,” Kevin said to me before we split up.  “I don’t want to spend another day like yesterday.”

“Me too.  Meet me back here after we win.”


Augustus was a short old soldier with a white beard and a messy uniform.  He talked nonstop while we were loading his caisson, mostly about the “idiot generals” who were losing the war for us.  When we it was full, we hopped up on the bench and drove off.  We were headed toward an area called Sector 7, which was somewhere to the west along the fortifications.  Meanwhile the bombs kept falling.  I wondered what would happen if one fell on our cases of ammunition.  I wouldn’t live to tell about it, I knew that.

“Idiot generals spent all their time designing floating airships and then don’t use ’em,” Augustus said, pointing up at the balloon.

“I think they’re being used for reconnaissance,” I said.  “Spotting the enemy’s position and stuff.”

Augustus shook his head.  “What’s to find out?  The enemy’s on t’other side of the wall, and he’s coming.  Soon.  And look over there–idiot generals left a gap in the fortifications, and all they could find to fill it with is that wire contraption.”

Sure enough, there was the electric fence.  And sure enough, it looked like a weak spot where the enemy could just march through.  I spotted Professor Foster, standing by some equipment connected to the fence and gesturing wildly at a group of men.  I sure hope this works, I thought.

And this was Sector 7.  We were bringing extra ammunition to soldiers in place behind the fence.  They were quiet, staring at the fence.  Waiting.  “Hurry, lad,” Augustus said, as we unloaded our boxes.  “Don’t want to be caught here when it starts.  The Portuguese are just going to come pouring through that hole.”

It was dangerous to be anywhere near the fortifications.  A cannonball landed about twenty feet from us, kicking up a huge cloud of dirt and gravel and causing our horse to rear back in fear.  “Idiot generals,” Augustus muttered, as if they were responsible for the cannonball.

Back at the ammunition depot, there was no sign of Kevin.  Augustus and I set to work filling up the caisson again, when suddenly something changed.  Strangely, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what had happened.  There was silence.  No more artillery.  Augustus paused and shook his head.

“It’s starting,” Sergeant Dryerson said.  “Let’s go, men.  This is it.  This is the war–right here, right now.”

I thought Augustus might complain about going back to Sector 7, but he didn’t.  We worked faster to fill the caisson–I had gotten stronger since that day in the food warehouse—and then we headed out again.  We were silent now as he steered through the waiting soldiers.  We were still on the way when we heard a huge, prolonged shout.  It wasn’t a cheer, it was more like the roaring of animals.  Animals getting ready to attack each other.

We made it to Sector 7, not far back from the fence.  Just where Augustus didn’t want to be.  I caught a glimpse of Professor Foster standing by his generator, looking terrified.  How many Portuguese were out there? I wondered.  How many soldiers were charging towards the fortifications right now, determined to kill us all?

And then I saw them: a huge blue wave approaching, ready to break over us.  Someone must have given a signal, because our soldiers all fired at the same time.  Some of the Portuguese fell, but more kept coming.  They were firing too as they ran, and I heard the screams of agony as New England soldiers were hit.

We had finished unloading the caisson.  I turned to Augustus.  “Should we go?” I shouted.

But his eyes were glazed, and he was holding onto his stomach.  A dark stain appeared around his hands, and he pitched backward onto the ground.  I knelt next to him.  He motioned to me to lean closer.

“Idiots,” he muttered in my ear, and then his head fell to one side, and he didn’t move.

I looked around, but no one was going to help.  We were in the middle of a battle.  I got to my feet and stood behind the caisson.  The sounds of the rifle fire and the shouting and the screams were overpowering.  The earth was shaking.  I was surrounded by dust and smoke.  It was a few seconds before I could make sense of anything.

Then I saw that the first Portuguese soldiers had reached the fence.  They grabbed it, ready to push through.  And then they were knocked backwards.  Every single one of them.  I heard a roar of triumph from our side.  The Portuguese scrambled to their feet, bewildered, but then most of them were shot down.  A second wave reached the fence.  Same result.

I spotted Professor Foster through the smoke.  He was jumping up and down and clapping his hands.  It had worked.  Electricity had worked.

And then his smile disappeared, and he too pitched over, clutching his chest.

The attack slowed down.  Over the gunfire I heard the sound of a trumpet from beyond the fence.  “They’re retreating!” someone shouted.

I expected us to go after them, and maybe some of the soldiers did, too.  But officers on horseback shouted out orders, and we stayed put, instead pouring fire on the enemy as they fell back.

I sort of figured that was it, the battle was over, but the officers didn’t act as if it was over.  One of them yelled at me to get more ammunition.  I pointed at Augustus’s body.  “The driver’s dead,” I said.

“Then go yourself, blast you,” he shouted.  “Come on, no time to waste.”

Reluctantly I climbed onto the bench and picked up the reins.  I had done this with Susie a couple of times at the professor’s house, just for fun.  Now it was anything but fun.  I gave the reins a shake, and amazingly the horse obeyed me, and we made our way through the bodies back to the ammunition depot.  Meanwhile, covered ambulance wagons were being loaded with the injured, and soldiers raced every which way on horseback.  It all looked utterly chaotic, but people seemed to know what they were doing.

Sergeant Dryerson just shook his head when he spotted me alone in the wagon.  I told him what had happened at Sector 7.

“Old Gus saw it coming, poor fellow,” he said.  “Well, he’ll have plenty of company before the day is done.”

“What do you think’ll happen next?”

“The enemy’ll regroup and attack again, I expect.  But from what you say we gave ’em a nasty surprise, so it’ll only get harder for ’em next time.  No sense speculating, though.  Let’s just fill that caisson.”

I loaded it up with the sergeant’s help, then headed back to Sector 7.  There was only scattered fire now, and I started to wonder if he might be wrong.  What if the Portuguese had given up?

No one seemed to believe it, though.  The fortifications were quiet, except for an occasional shot and the groans of soldiers the ambulances hadn’t yet reached.  I didn’t see Augustus’s body.  As I unloaded the ammunition I looked up at the balloon, still hovering over us.  The soldier inside was signaling down to someone, using the semaphore system Professor Palmer had devised.

We’ll know where the next attack is coming, I thought.

The officers started shouting out orders to the men, and a lot of them moved off, away from the electric fence to another part of the fortifications.  I recalled how the professor had scoffed at the fortifications the army had been building out by Brighton.  These were bigger than the ones there–they’d had a lot of time to work on them.  But, except for the electric fence, the whole thing was really nothing more than some fences and long piles of packed earth, never more than about six feet high.  In a lot of places there were long wooden poles sticking out like huge pencils to slow down attackers, but in other places cannon balls had blown pretty big holes in the earth.  The fortifications would slow the enemy down but wouldn’t stop them, not if there were enough of them, and they were determined to break through.

A lieutenant rode over to me as I unloaded the cases of ammunition.  “Who told you to bring those here?” he demanded.

“Sir, the sergeant at the–”

“Never mind, never mind,” he interrupted.  “Load ’em all back up and take ’em to Sector 10.”  He waved in the direction where most of the soldiers were heading–west, further inland.  “And hurry, boy.”

“Yes, sir.”

My arms were getting really tired, but I managed to load the ammunition back onto the caisson and started off.

I never found out where Sector 10 was, exactly.  Before I got there another lieutenant stopped me.  “Where are you going with that?”

“Sector 10, sir.”

“Never mind about Sector 10.  We need ammunition here.”

So I stopped and did as I was told.  And I started wondering how much control the “idiot generals” really had over the battle.

As I was unloading the ammunition again the battle resumed.  The roar of gunfire started out further along the fortifications–in Sector 10, maybe.  Our soldiers were crowded up at the earthen wall, their rifles aimed over it.  I saw the lieutenant on his horse with his sword in the air.  Then he lowered the sword, and the men began firing.

This time I was too busy to watch what was going on.  I hauled the ammunition up to the soldiers, who were firing as fast as they could.  I scurried along the wall, bent over to keep from being hit, and passed the bullets to whoever needed them.

“Steady, men, steady!” I heard the lieutenant shout after a while.  “Fix bayonets!  No retreat!  It’s here or nowhere!”

And then I saw why.  With a roar, a long line of enemy soldiers clambered up over the wall, pushing against us, and suddenly the sound of rifle fire died down a little, and I was in the middle of a hand-to-hand battle.

I had waited too long to get away.  Now I tried to get back to the caisson, but there were soldiers all around me, and I couldn’t even see it.  All I could see were blue- and red-jacketed men stabbing and bludgeoning each other.  All I could hear were their grunts and screams and moans.  And I was the one without a weapon.

It was awful.  I’ve played lots of violent video games, but they’re just stupid and pointless.  These were real people, killing and bleeding and dying right next to me.

I managed to stay out of the way for a while.  I was worried that, without a uniform, the soldiers wouldn’t know which side I was on.  Then one short, bearded enemy soldier spotted me and lunged at me with his bayonet, too fast for me to duck out of the way.  But before the blade reached me I heard a pistol shot from close range, and the man dropped to his knees and keeled over at my feet.  I turned around and saw Chester standing behind me.  “Boys,” he muttered, shaking his head in disgust.  He picked up the soldier’s rifle and tossed it to me, then turned to fight someone else.

I had never held a rifle before, if you don’t count BB guns.  My father won’t have any of that stuff in the house.  The rifle felt heavy with the bayonet attached, but I kept it raised in front of me as the fighting raged.

You kind of lose your mind in a battle.  You’re not thinking, you’re just reacting.  The adrenaline is rushing through you, and everything is kind of a blur.  And you do what you have to do, because otherwise you’re going to die.

So there was another blue-jacketed soldier.  He was young and scrawny, with no beard, just a wispy mustache.  Somehow I remember that mustache.  And I noticed him coming towards me out of the corner of my eye.  Looking back on it, I think he was heading for me because I looked young and scared.  Like him.  An easy target, maybe.  He had a sword in his hand, and it was aimed at me.

I whirled, and at the same instant I pressed the trigger.  The rifle recoiled with a force that almost knocked me over.  And he screamed.  Over all the shouting and shooting I heard that scream.  I will never forget it.  Then he toppled over backwards, still holding onto his sword.

And that was the last I saw of him.

I can’t remember anything much that happened after that.  I don’t think I killed anyone else–but it’s possible.  I have no idea how long the fighting lasted.  There just came a point when my brain seemed to start working again, and I realized that there weren’t that many blue jackets still standing.  Some had dropped their weapons and raised their hands.  There weren’t any more enemy soldiers climbing over the wall, either.

Finally my brain put it all together: We had won.

“After them, mates!” someone shouted, and everyone gave out a roar and raced to the fortifications.  I looked around for the lieutenant in charge.  All I saw was his horse, wandering by itself among the corpses and the wounded men.  Somewhere behind us a trumpet sounded.  I couldn’t tell what was going on, but the men hesitated, and then stopped.

I looked out through a part of the fortifications that had been destroyed.  The ground was covered with the bodies of enemy soldiers who had been shot before they’d made it inside.  How many Portuguese were left?  Would there be another attack?  Or was the rest of their army retreating, defeated?

A captain rode up.  I had seen him in the mess at headquarters, and had stood in line behind him once to wash up.  He looked around, gave some orders that I couldn’t hear, and then rode off.  I asked a soldier what was going on.  “We stay here and let ’em attack again if they’re so inclined,” he said.  His face was grimy and spattered with blood; one arm of his jacket was ripped.

“Why don’t we go after them?”

He shrugged.  “Getting late.  And we still have a city to defend, I expect.  Might have to go fight the Canadians next.”

“Do you think the Portuguese’ll come back?”

He shook his head.  “We cut the heart out of ’em, lad.  They won’t be back.”

I suppose I should have felt happier than I did.  But all I felt was relief and sudden, complete exhaustion.

The ambulances had returned to the battlefield and were being loaded with the wounded.  I found my way to the caisson and threw the Portuguese rifle into it.  It was all I could do to get up onto the driver’s seat and pick up the reins.  The horse had survived the battle.  He seemed tired too, but he perked up and slowly headed back to the depot.

And now all I could think about was Kevin.  Had he survived the battle?  And if New England had truly won, could we make our way back to Glanbury at long last?

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 22

In Chapter 21: Stinky Glover saves Larry from a mugging in Cheapside.  In a park, Larry has a strange encounter with the preacher from the Burger Queen world. The preacher seems to have something to do with the portal; he apologizes to Larry for what has happened to him.  But then the preacher disappears; back at headquarters, Larry is relieved to find Kevin, who survived the fire at the hospital.  They worry that Lieutenant Carmody believes they are too valuable to let them return to their own world.  Desperately homesick, they decide to return to the camp in the morning to find Larry’s family and then find their way back to Glanbury, their hometown, after the battle.


Chapter 22

Kevin was already awake.  “Let’s go,” he said.  “Before someone ships us off to Coolidge Palace or wherever.”

“Okay, okay.”  I got up to my feet and used the chamber pot.  The room was freezing.  I put my shoes on, then the preacher’s coat.  “Ready,” I mumbled.

“One thing,” Kevin said.  He looked a little nervous.


“I want to get our own clothes.”

“Huh?  You mean, from our world?  I don’t even know where they are.”

“They’re probably in Lieutenant Carmody’s room.  Peter gave them to him after he gave us these clothes, remember?”

I remembered.  “But that’s crazy, Kevin,” I said.  “The lieutenant is the one guy we want to stay away from.”

“He won’t be there,” Kevin replied.  “Peter said he mostly stays at the palace now.”

“But why take the chance?”

“Because it’ll be easier walking with our sneakers on.”

“Sure, but is that worth the risk?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I want my clothes.  I want to wear them when I go home.”

I was about to argue some more, but I looked at him and decided he wasn’t fooling; he wasn’t going to leave without his clothes.

I shrugged.  “Fine,” I said.  “Whatever.”

We went downstairs.  I wondered if Professor Palmer would be in his room.  I had another pang, thinking about how I’d abandoned him.  Could we say goodbye to him?  But what if he decided to stop us?  He’d certainly try.  It was risky enough going to the lieutenant’s room.

We found it halfway down the corridor.  For all the time I’d spent with the lieutenant, I had never been to his room before.

“You knock,” I whispered, although I didn’t really know why we should bother knocking.

Kevin hesitated, then tapped softly on the door.  We waited.  No answer.  He turned the knob, and the door creaked open.  We walked inside.

The room was smaller than I had expected.  The bed was neatly made.  A small window looked out on the courtyard.  In front of the window was a wooden desk with an oil lamp and a few papers on it.  Next to it was a small bookshelf.  On the floor was a pair of shiny black boots.  By the closet door was a dresser with a comb, a brush, and few coins on top.  Kevin opened the closet, and we saw a neat row of uniforms hanging along a pole, with more shoes and boots on the floor.

This felt creepy.  We didn’t belong here.  Kevin started opening the drawers of the dresser.  I just stood by the bed.  “Come on,” he whispered.  “Look.”

“Our clothes can’t be here,” I said.  “The room is too small.”

“We don’t know till we’ve searched the place.”  He finished opening the drawers, then went over to the closet.  “Under the bed,” he said.  “Check under the bed.”

Reluctantly I got down on my knees and took a look.  On the floor I spied a large black trunk and, next to it, a canvas sack.  I pulled the sack out, looked inside, and sighed with relief.  “Got ’em,” I said.

Kevin came over and pulled the clothes out.  Cap, t-shirt, jeans, sneakers . . .  “Let’s put them on,” he said.


“Under these clothes.  It’s gonna be cold out there.  We can leave the stupid shoes.”

He started unbuttoning his shirt.  Again I wanted to argue, but I figured it’d be easier and quicker to just go along.  So I put on the two layers of clothes–my “old” clothes underneath, and my “new” clothes on top.  Wearing two pairs of pants felt pretty clunky, but it was great to have my sneakers on again.  Kevin put on his Red Sox cap.

“You sure you want to wear that?” I asked.

“Why not?”

“People’ll think you’re strange, like when we first got here.”

“So what?” he demanded.

I couldn’t think of an answer.  It was strange, but the cap seemed to make him look happier.  Like putting it on brought him one step closer to going home.  “Let’s go,” I said.

Apparently Kevin didn’t have any more bright ideas, because he just said, “Fine.”

We went downstairs, and I could smell food from the mess.  That could be the last meal we’d have in a while, I thought.  I was hungry, but I didn’t suggest stopping, and neither did Kevin.  We went outside into the gray morning.

There was less activity in the courtyard than there had been last night–probably everyone had already left to take up their positions for the battle.  The air was bitter cold.  The artillery rumbled in the distance.

We hurried out of the courtyard and onto the street.  And there, wouldn’t you know, was Peter driving the lieutenant’s carriage up to the entrance.  “Mornin’, lads!” he called out, coming to a halt next to us.  “Larry, people’ve been worried.  Where’ve you been?”

“Nowhere special,” I said.  “Gotta go.”

But before we could get away the carriage door opened and Lieutenant Carmody was staring at us.  It was the same stare I remembered from the first time we met him.  He was only a lieutenant, but it was the gaze of someone who knew how to make people obey him.

He looked at Kevin’s cap, then down at our sneakers.  He understood what we had done, and what we were up to.  “Planning on going home, lads?” he asked.  “Your portal’s a long ways off, and the Portuguese army’s in the way.”

“It’s time,” Kevin said.  “Time to go home.”

Lieutenant Carmody shook his head.  “Believe me, you’ll be much better off staying with us than trying to go anywhere today, of all days.  Hop in, lads.  We’ll take care of you.”

Kevin looked at me for a second, and then he took off.  I hesitated for another second, and then I took off right behind him.

“Peter!” I heard the lieutenant shout.  “After them!”

We headed for a side street.  The carriage clattered behind us.  I thought: Peter wouldn’t shoot us, would he?  We made it to the side street, then Kevin dodged into an alley, and I followed.  We hopped over a wooden fence, and then cut through a yard to another street.  After a minute I looked back over my shoulder: no carriage.  We kept going for a few more minutes, then hid in another alley and tried to catch our breath.

“Think we’re safe?” Kevin gasped.

“Lost ’em for now,” I said.  “And they can’t chase us all day, can they?”

“Hope not.”

Kevin didn’t look so good.  He was hunched over, still gasping for air.  Maybe this was going to be too much for him.  “You okay, Kev?” I asked him.

Kevin managed to nod.  “Yeah.  Kinda out of shape, I guess.  Just give me a minute.”

I thought about Lieutenant Carmody.  He was right, of course: this was a stupid day to try to get back to Glanbury.  But I had a feeling Kevin was right, too.  The lieutenant probably didn’t want us to go home at all.  Maybe he had never really been our friend.  We were just a way of helping to win the war.  And making him look good.

“Let’s go,” Kevin said finally.  “Which way is the camp?”

It took me a minute to get my bearings, but I figured it out–I was really getting to know the city.  We start walking.  The streets were surprisingly crowded–with people from the camps, I realized.

“What’s happening?” I asked an old man with a burlap bag slung over his shoulder.

“Soldiers are gone,” he said.  “Need to find some food.”

“Were you in the Fens camp?  Are people still there?”

“No more camp,” he muttered as he wandered away.  “Thank God, no more camp.”

Kevin and I looked at each other.  “I was afraid of this,” I said.

“What should we do?”

“Might as well go check out the camp.  My family might still be there.”

Kevin agreed, and we kept walking.

It turned out we weren’t far from the park where I had seen the preacher.  I pointed it out to Kevin as we went past.  “Sure would be good to ask him a few more questions,” Kevin said.

“No kidding.”

“But you know what?”


“I really don’t care all that much.  I’m sick of portals and sick of this world.  I just want to go home.”

And that was all Kevin had to say about the preacher.

We kept going.  There were no policemen in sight, no soldiers.  I tried to spot familiar faces in the people we passed, but I didn’t see any.  Everyone looked exhausted.  Where did they think they were going?  They wouldn’t find food in the city.  It must have felt good to finally get out of the camp, but really, there wasn’t anyplace better.  Some people had already given up and were just sitting by the side of the road, their eyes dead, waiting–just like they had waited in the camp.

The crowds were thinner in Cheapside.  I don’t think people wanted to stop there.  I got nervous, but no one bothered us, except for a couple of kids who shouted out comments about Kevin’s cap.  He didn’t seem to mind.  We just walked on.

As we got close to the camp we could see smoke billowing into the air, and we could smell the odor of charred wood.  The sun was up now, but there wasn’t much sky to be seen.

All the military buildings had been set on fire: the barracks, the mess, even the food warehouse.  Some were still burning, others were smoldering rubble.  Beyond them, the gates to the camp stood wide open; the fence had been wrecked.  There was no sign of any soldiers.

“Geez,” Kevin muttered.

There wasn’t much to say.  We headed into the camp.

A few people were left, but not many.  Old people who looked too weak to go anywhere.  Nasty-looking men who were scavenging among the stuff that had been left behind.  And animals: a pair of mangy dogs, thin as skeletons, were barking furiously at each other; an equally skinny horse gazed mournfully at them.  Ahead of us a wagon lay on its side, its wheels shattered.  Everywhere there was trash–books, kitchen utensils, broken toys, a single shoe.

We wandered through the camp.  It was clear that my family wasn’t there, but I guess we didn’t know what else to do.  Finally Kevin pulled at my sleeve and pointed.  About twenty yards away from us a body lay face-down on the trampled earth.  I shivered.  We went over to it.  It was an old man, with one hand stretched in front of him as if he were trying to reach for something just out of his grasp.  But there was nothing there, just dirt.  He lay motionless except for a few wisps of gray hair blowing in the wind.  He was dead.  “Should we bury him?” Kevin asked.

I shook my head.  “We have to go,” I said.  There was a lump in my throat.  My family was gone.  Lieutenant Carmody was chasing us.  The enemy was about to attack the city.  Everything was falling apart.

We had to go, but where?  We weren’t returning to headquarters.  And, like the lieutenant said, the Portuguese army stood between us and Glanbury.  But we’d made our plan, and I couldn’t think of a better one.

“A lot of people are going to die today,” Kevin said, looking down at the corpse.  “Maybe us.”

“I know,” I said.  “Still, we’ve gotta go.”

He nodded.  We were silent for a moment, standing in the ruins of the camp.  And then we walked out of the camp and headed south, towards the battle.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 21

Larry tries to visit Kevin in the hospital, but the hospital has burned down, and Kevin is nowhere to be found.  He brings food to his family in the refugee camp, but afterwards his mother insists that he return “home”.  The camp, meanwhile, is descending into chaos.  Larry makes it out, but is then accosted in Cheapside.

Can things get any worse?


Chapter 21

I turned.  There were three of them–short, scrawny kids, about my age probably, dressed in ragged shirts and pants.  They quickly  surrounded me.

“Where you headed, mate?”

“We’ve seen you before passin’ through Cheapside, haven’t we?”

“Comin’ from the camp?  How’d you get out?”

I tried to push past them, but they closed in on me.  The thing I remember most about them were their eyes.  They were wild and fearless.  They didn’t have anything to lose.  I put my fists up, ready to defend myself.  Not much point in that, it turned out, because the kid behind me cut my legs out from under me and I fell to the ground.  Then the three of them were on top of me, pulling my coat off while I tried to push them away.  They were small, but they were strong.  One of them held my legs while the other two wrestled with the coat.  I didn’t have a chance.  They had it off me inside a minute, and then they glared down at me.

“Got a little spunk in you, don’t you, mate?”

“This is our turf, and you don’t pass through without payin’ the toll.”

“Reckon you’ll have to be punished for breaking the rules.”

One of them picked up a rock and grinned.  I squirmed, but there was no way I could break free.

“Hey!” I heard someone shout, and a rock went whizzing past.  “Let ‘im go.”

The kids looked back.  “None of your concern, mate!” one of them called out.  “Now shove.”

“Shove yourself.  He’s a friend of mine.”  Another rock went by.

The kids looked at each other.  “You can have your friend,” the one holding the rock said.  “He’s not worth dross.  But we keep the coat.  We’re off, mates.”

They let go of me and disappeared down an alley.  I sat up and looked at the person who had saved me.  He was walking towards me with a rock in each hand.

It was Stinky Glover.

“Hey, mate, I think I actually do know you,” he said as he came up to me.

“There were some kids chasing you in the camp yesterday,” I said.  I was gasping a little, trying to catch my breath.

“That’s right, I remember.  You did a good deed for me.  I made up that ‘friend’ bit, but looks like I was right.”

“Thanks for getting those kids off me,” I said.

He helped me up.  I felt a little bruised, but otherwise okay.  “Dangerous place to be by yourself,” he replied.  “Name’s Julian Glover.  What’s yours?”

“Palmer.  Larry Palmer.  So, what are you doing outside the camp, Julian?” I asked.  It was going to be really hard not to call him “Stinky.”

“I could ask you the same thing, Lawrence,” he said.  “I make myself useful to the soldiers.  They want something from the city, they can send me, ’cause they know I’ll come back.  Beats sitting around all day in the camp doing nothing, and they’ll give me a hunk of meat or a hardtack biscuit for my troubles.  I’ve got no family, so I have to fend for myself.”

“No family?” I asked.  “You’re here alone?”

“Well, I’m ‘prenticed to a blacksmith, but I’ve pretty much run off from him since we got to the camp.  With no smithing to be done, I’m not earning my keep, so he doesn’t care.  What about you?  How’d you end up here?”

I told Stinky the story I had made up.  I figured it would get him interested, and it did.

“The Barnes family?” he said.  “From Glanbury?  I’m from Glanbury.  I know the Barneses.  Nice people.  Well, Cassie can be a trial.”

“I know what you mean.”

“But still–maybe we’ll run into each other after all this.”

“That would be great.  Anyway, thanks again.  I don’t know what they would have done to me if–”

Stinky waved me silent.  “We’re even.  So, you headed home?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You guess so?  Where else’d you be going?  Anyway, mind if I tag along?  It’s dangerous out here by yourself.”

The last thing I wanted right now was for Stinky Glover to be tagging along with me.  “No, that’s all right, uh, Julian.  Curfew’s coming pretty soon.  You better get back to the camp.”

Stinky looked sort of disappointed.  “You sure?  It’s no bother.  I can sleep in an alleyway as well as in that camp.”

“No, really.  Thanks for the help, but I’ll be fine.”

He stared at me, and then shrugged.  “Suit yourself, Lawrence.  And good luck.”

“Thanks, Julian.”

He turned away and headed back towards the camp.

I shivered–from the cold, and from fear.  I was alone again in Cheapside.  I started walking quickly towards the center of the city.

It was odd about Stinky, I thought.  He didn’t look all that fat in this world–but then, it was hard to be fat after a couple of months in that camp.  He probably stank, but it was hard to tell, because everyone sort of stank in this world, and I’d gotten used to it.  But the main thing was, he could’ve just left me to get beaten up–what did it matter to him?  But he didn’t.  Maybe he wasn’t so bad; maybe this world brought out some different qualities in him.

I saw a policeman, who stopped and stared at me suspiciously.  It wasn’t quite sundown, but it was close.  Did the curfew really matter, with the battle about to begin, with hospitals on fire and the camps ready to explode?  I remembered that my pass was in my coat.  Not that it had helped with that cop last night.  But losing it made me feel a little more lonely, a little more abandoned.  I was just another homeless kid wandering through the city.

I was downtown now, near where Kevin and I had been that first night when we’d asked that cop for help.  There were people still out on the streets, but they all look tired and worried.  A lot of the stores were boarded up.  I passed by a small park.  In it, a man was standing on a platform, talking to a small crowd.

Not talking, I realized after a moment–preaching.

Somehow I knew who it was, even standing outside the park, without being able to hear or see him clearly.  I went into the park and stood at the edge of the crowd.

It was him.  The guy from the Burger Queen world, with the black beard and fierce, dark eyes.  The guy who had talked about the beauty in each speck of dirt.  And in the home you left behind.

He wasn’t wearing a robe this time, just a rumpled jacket and pair of pants.  As before, he spoke softly, but you could understand every word he said.  He was talking about suffering.

“Yes, you have suffered, you continue to suffer, but you must not let your suffering define or diminish you.  You are so much more than that.  The suffering diminishes you only if you let it diminish you.  Even in suffering there is beauty, there is hope, there is love.  More than that.  In suffering lies the chance for redemption, and even the chance for greatness.  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?  Little consolation, perhaps, when there is not enough to eat and the enemy knocks upon our gates.  But it is true nonetheless.”

Someone shouted at him from the crowd, “We need food, not words!”

“What a fool!” an old man called out.

“Listen to the man!” a woman scolded him. “Let him speak.”

“There’s been too much talk!”

And then it seemed like he was staring straight at me as he went on, ignoring the crowd’s taunts.  “Our journey through life is harsh, and dangerous, and filled with sorrow and disappointment,” he said.  “We say to ourselves, I just can’t take anymore.  And yet there is more to be borne.  And it is only by enduring the pain that we can see the beauty.”

“I’ll show you pain!” someone shouted.

“It is only by living in doubt that we can find certainty.”

“See the beauty in this!” the heckler said, and flung a rock at him.  It hit him in the shoulder, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“It is only by setting out that we can finally return home,” the preacher concluded.

Then there were more rocks thrown, and fistfights broke out, and everyone was shouting.  I made my way through the crowd to the preacher, who was sitting on the ground rubbing his temple.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

He looked up at me.  “I’m okay,” he said.  “But you look cold.”

Okay.  He had said ‘okay.’  “Who are you?” I demanded.

“Just a stranger passing through,” he said.  “Maybe I should have passed through a little faster,” he added, wiping some blood onto his pants.

“No, I saw you–in that other world.  What’s going on?  Do you know me or something?  How come you know the word ‘okay’?”

He shrugged.  “Excellent questions.  But weren’t you listening?  It’s only by living in doubt–”

“Tell me!” I screamed at him.

His dark, glittering eyes looked a little doubtful then.  “I’m sorry,” he said softly.  “This whole thing has been entirely my fault.  I wish I could–”

“Hey you!” a voice behind me said.  I turned.  It was the cop I had run into the night before.  He didn’t look happy to see me.  “What are you doing here?”

“Listen,” I said, “could you just wait a sec–”

“Why are you causing trouble here?  Now get home before I tag you.”

I didn’t know what tagging was, but I supposed I didn’t want it to happen to me.  I turned back to the preacher–but he was gone.  Vanished.

Except for his jacket, which lay on the ground at my feet.  A parting gift?  I picked it up.

“Did you hear me?” the cop demanded.

“Fine,” I said, without looking at him.  “I’m leaving.”

I put the jacket on and ran out of the park, hoping to find the preacher.  But there was no trace of him.  I stopped to catch my breath finally in the middle of a street.  I checked the pockets of his jacket; they were empty.

So who was he?  Was he from another universe?  My universe?  Had he come here in the portal?  Why?  What did he mean when he said that the whole thing had been entirely his fault?  What whole thing?

He hadn’t answered any of my questions, and I had a whole lot more to ask him if I ever saw him again.  But what were the odds of that?

I started walking.  Suddenly I was so tired I could barely stand up.  I knew what I was going to have to do: go back to headquarters.  The lieutenant or the professor might yell at me, but they weren’t going to throw me out, they weren’t going to let me starve.  Besides, they had more important things to worry about right now than me.  And they might know what happened to Kevin.

So that’s where I headed, my mind filled with the preacher and my family and Kevin and Stinky Glover and the corpse of the old woman.  I felt overwhelmed; and the battle hadn’t even started yet.

The streets got more and more deserted as I walked, except for soldiers galloping by on horseback.  I saw a few policemen, but they ignored me.  I got the feeling that everyone was starting to hunker down to wait for the battle.

Headquarters, when I finally reached it, was anything but deserted.  Soldiers rushed in and out of the courtyard; wagons were being packed; officers were conferring with each other.  No one took any special notice of me.

I was surprised to see Corporal Hennessy there; the last time I had seen him, he had brought Kevin and me over to haul bags of grain in the food warehouse.  It seemed so long ago.  He nodded to me.  “Almost time, eh, mate?” he said.

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied.  “What’s going to happen to the camp?”

“Don’t know.  They’ve already pulled a lot of us out.  Not much point in guarding it now, is there?”

I thought about the old woman.  How many others were being killed as they tried to escape?  “Why don’t they tell the people in the camp?  Why don’t they just open the gates and let them go?”

The corporal shrugged.  “Because war’s a bloody mess.  If you spend your time trying to find sense in it you’ll go mad.”

That sounded about right.  “Well, good luck,” I said.

He nodded.  “Good luck to you, mate.  And to all of us, because we’ll surely need it.”

I went inside to the mess.  It was almost empty, but a grouchy cook got me the usual salt pork and stale bread, which I wolfed down like it was Harvest dinner.  Then I went upstairs to my room.

I could hear muffled sobs while I was still on the stairs.  I have never been so happy to hear someone crying.

I rushed into the room.  Kevin was lying on his cot, his face buried in a pillow.

“Hey, Kev,” I said, and I put my hand on his shoulder.

He turned over, and his face lit up.  “Larry!” he said.  “Am I glad to see you.”  He sat up, and we hugged for a long time.

“I went to the hospital this afternoon,” I said.  “I thought maybe you were–”

“I know, I know.  A cannonball hit the main building and set the place on fire.  Everyone was screaming to get out.  It would’ve been easy for me if they didn’t have those bars on my windows.  So instead I had to go out into the corridor, and there was smoke everywhere, so I could barely see.  But then a nurse grabbed me, and we found a door and got out just before the whole place collapsed.  They could really use some of those red Exit signs, you know?”

“Sure.  What happened then?”

“Well, I tried to help out for a while, but there really wasn’t much I could do.  There wasn’t much anyone could do.  It was awful, Larry.  All these people were injured and dying–and the doctors were basically helpless.”

“Yeah, I saw some of that.”

“So finally I just headed back here,” Kevin went on.  “I’d been in that hospital long enough anyway.  I feel fine.  There wasn’t much of anyone around, but then I ran into Peter, and he told me you’d disappeared and Lieutenant Carmody was really angry.  So then I started to get worried.  You hadn’t been to the hospital for a couple of days, and I thought: what if you’re dead?  What am I gonna do here by myself?  When it got dark and you still weren’t back, I guess I got pretty upset.”

“Sorry I haven’t been around, Kevin,” I said.  “But see, I found my family.  In the camp, just like you said.  Plus Stinky Glover, and Nora Lally, except her name’s Sarah here.”

“Hey, that’s great, Larry,” Kevin said.  Then he paused.  “What about–you know–my family?”

I shook my head.  “I didn’t find them.  I don’t think they live in Glanbury.  But they could be somewhere else–who knows?”

He sighed.  “Well, maybe it doesn’t matter so much.  At least there’s someone here from our world.”  He didn’t sound convinced that it didn’t matter.  “Tell me what happened,” he said.

So I told him everything.  About finding my family, about how I was dead in this world, about how my father was in the army and Cassie was pretty nuts, about the meeting with the president, and Stinky helping me fight those kids in Cheapside.  And about the strange preacher in the park.

“I guess you’ve been busy.” Kevin said when I finished.  “What do you think that meant–the preacher apologizing to you?”

“No clue.  No clue how he recognized me, either.  But I think–I think he’s like us.  From our world, or maybe from another world.”

Kevin was silent for a while.  Then he said, “So, what do we do?”

“I don’t know.  Go to sleep, I guess.  I’m wasted.”

“But tomorrow.  After we wake up.”

“I want–I want to help my family,” I said.

“Everyone says the battle is going to start tomorrow,” Kevin pointed out.

“I know.  But you can’t believe how awful it is in that camp now.  People are dying all over the place.”

“So how are you going to help your family?”

“I don’t know–bring them more food, maybe.  Help them get back to Glanbury, if that’s possible.”

“If we get to Glanbury, we can find the portal,” Kevin pointed out.

I hadn’t thought about the portal in days.  “Yeah,” I said.  “If we can get there.”

“Talking to Peter today got me worried,” he went on.  “It sounds to me like Lieutenant Carmody doesn’t want to let us go home.  We’ve been too valuable.”

“But we’ve told them everything we know.”

“Not really.  I mean–they’ve focused on this short-term stuff, just trying to win the war, right?  But if they do win, maybe they’ll start paying attention to other stuff.  Like medicine.  That Doctor Dreier who runs the hospital–I guess Professor Palmer talked to him, because he was in to see me a couple of times, and he was really interested in germs and viruses and smallpox and so on.  I bet we could help them a lot with that.”

I thought of the way Professor Palmer and then that doctor had wanted to bleed Kevin.  “It’s not right,” I said.  “We helped them.  They should let us go home.”

“I know.  But that’s not the way the lieutenant thinks.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying we should get out of here.  First thing tomorrow morning.  See if we can make it to Glanbury.”

The idea was scary, but it was what I wanted to do.  “We have to go to the camp first and find my family,” I said.

“Okay.  We’re going to have to wait till after the battle anyway to head south.”

So we had a plan, sort of.  And we had each other again–which was more than I’d expected an hour ago.  I blew the candle out, and we lay down on our cots to go to sleep.  I was really tired, but my mind kept on racing.  “Kevin,” I said, “if we find the portal, do you think it’ll bring us home?”

“Sure,” he replied.  “It has to.”

I thought about what the preacher had said: It is only by setting out that you can finally return home.  Had he been talking to me?  Well, it looked like I was going to try to follow his advice.

“You want to know something funny, Larry?” Kevin asked after a while.

“What’s that?”

“Today’s my birthday.  I’m a teenager.”

“Happy birthday,” I said.

“I almost didn’t make it,” he murmured.  “Hard to believe, but I almost didn’t make it.”

Then he was quiet.  The artillery had stopped, I noticed.  I could hear someone shout an order, the creaking of wagon wheels in the courtyard.  Not much of a birthday, I thought.  But it could have been worse.  I closed my eyes, and the next thing I knew it was dawn.


Portal, an online novel: Chapter 20

President Gardner has decided to fight rather than surrender to the Canadian and New Portuguese soldiers besieging Boston.  And Larry has decided to return to help his “family” trapped in the refugee camp.

Can New England win the battle?  Will Larry be able to get back to the camp?  And what about Kevin, still trapped in the hospital recovering from drikana?

Read on . . .


Chapter 20

I awoke the next morning in the cold attic room.  I could hear the artillery still booming away in the distance.

I went downstairs and out into the washyard to splash some water on myself, then over to the mess for another meager meal.  Word of President Gardner’s decision had gotten around.  A few officers were excited about the upcoming battle; most of them just seemed resigned.

Lieutenant Carmody wasn’t in the mess, but Professor Palmer was.  He started in on me right away.  “I’m most concerned about what you did yesterday afternoon, Larry–going off like that against my wishes.  Really, there is too much at stake here for such behavior to be tolerated.”

I felt guilty, but I didn’t want to lie to him.  Anyway, I couldn’t hold it in.  “I found my family,” I said.

He stared at me.  “Your family?”

“In the Fens camp,” I said.  “Not the people from my world, but the same people from this world–you know what I mean.  My mother and my sister and brother are in the camp.  My father’s in the army.”

“You went to the Fens camp by yourself?”

“I had to.  Kevin and I talked about it and–I had to find out if they were here.”  I could feel my eyes start to tear up.  “I know it was dangerous, but this was maybe my only chance.”

The professor shook his head.  “I understand.  It must be very emotional for you, Larry.  But you can’t risk this sort of thing–not now.  There’ll be time after the battle.”

“After the battle we may all be dead,” I pointed out.

He put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes.  Suddenly I noticed how tired he looked.  He had been working awfully hard–and it hadn’t been that long since the night when he’d been shot as we rowed across the Charles.  “We may all be dead very soon,” he agreed.  “But we must proceed under the assumption that we will survive.  There is really nothing else we can do.  Come with me to Coolidge Palace, Larry.  It’s the best–and safest–place for you.”

I didn’t want to hurt him.  I didn’t want to be a burden.  So I just said, “Okay.”

“Thank you, Larry,” he said.  He asked a few questions about my family, but I could tell he had too many other things on his mind.  We finished our breakfast in silence.

Pretty soon after that Peter drove us over to the palace.  Everyone was busy packing up the remaining equipment, and I did what I could to help.  Lieutenant Carmody was there for a while; I saw him stare at me once or twice, but he didn’t say anything.  Professor Foster left in a wagon with some of the electrical equipment soon after we arrived; he looked really nervous.

The artillery hadn’t let up, and there was a haze of smoke over the city.  It’s really going to happen, I thought.  The president wasn’t going to surrender.  The battle was coming.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my family.  What was going on in the camp?  Were they safe?  Were they hungry?  What would happen when the battle started?

Professor Palmer wanted me to stay at the palace.  But how could I?  It was okay while I had something to do, but now I was just hanging around.  Was I going to stay here straight through the battle?  Then what?  I went looking for Professor Palmer, but he wasn’t around.  “Heard he went off to some big strategy meeting,” a soldier told me.

I wandered over to the kitchen.  One benefit of working on the palace grounds was that there was still lots of food to eat.  Not as good as the roast beef we’d had the first time we were here, back when I’d saved the president’s life, but way better than what you’d get anywhere else in the city.  Everyone else seemed to have already eaten, and the kitchen was pretty deserted.  There was leftover chicken and roast potatoes, though, and they tasted unbelievable.

And that’s when I made my decision.  It wasn’t really conscious.  I just found myself walking over to the chef, pointing to the leftovers, and saying, “Could you put some of that food in a sack for me?  I’m supposed to bring it back to the soldiers–a few of them are too busy to come over here, and they’re getting hungry.”

The chef wasn’t pleased about having all those soldiers dirtying up her kitchen and eating her food.  She was a fussy lady with gray hair and a French accent.  She just shook her head at my request.  “I’m glad this nonsense is finally ending,” she muttered.  “I cook for aristocrats, not common soldiers.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.  “Not much longer, I’ve heard.  But your food has certainly been wonderful.”

She brightened at the compliment.  “You’ve not had the chance to sample my cuisine when we haven’t had these annoying shortages,” she pointed out.

Lots of people were dying because of those annoying shortages, of course, but I wasn’t going to mention that.  “I’m sure the food would be even more wonderful then,” I said.

She nodded in full agreement and pulled a sack out of a drawer.  “Will this be enough?” she asked, shoveling in the rest of the pan.

“Yes, ma’am,  That’ll do.  And thank you very much.”

“Come back when this wretched war is over,” she said.  “My stuffed pheasant is beyond compare.”

“I’ll certainly do that,” I replied as I hurried out of the kitchen.

I stuffed the sack down the front of my coat and headed for the palace gate.  Would the guards let me out?  Maybe Lieutenant Carmody had left orders not to.  Maybe I was a prisoner here.  Well, then, I’d have to figure out how to escape.  I was feeling really guilty–about lying to get the food, about letting Professor Palmer down.  But I just couldn’t help it.  I had to get to my family.

The guards at the gate still wore those weird-looking tall hats with the plumes on them and stood at attention, hardly even blinking.  There were more of them than usual, maybe because there were more people than usual outside.  Begging to get in to see the president.  Begging for food.

Would they be able to smell what was in the sack?  I could get torn limb from limb if people realized what I was carrying.

“Good morning,” I said to one of the guards.  “Can you let me out?  I have to get back to headquarters.”

He stared down at me.  “Why don’t you wait for a wagon?” he asked.  “They’re arriving and departing all the time.”

“I’m supposed to go now.”  More lying.

He shrugged and opened the gate for me.  The people outside surged forward, and I pushed through them, just like yesterday at the camp.  They ignored me.  If they smelled the chicken, maybe they thought they were hallucinating.

I headed off for the camp.

I felt weird.  I had really done it.  Just like that, I had left.  And I wasn’t going back.  Lieutenant Carmody, Professor Palmer, General Aldridge–they’d all be mad at me.  I probably couldn’t make them understand.  They’d done a lot for me, but I was alone.  I had lost my family and my world.  I wasn’t sure I’d ever get my world back, but I knew where Mom and Cassie and Matthew were.  And I had to be there too.

Then I stopped.  I had forgotten about Kevin.  He must have been going nuts, all alone in the hospital.  I needed to bring him along with me, I decided.  Of course, maybe he wouldn’t want to go; it wasn’t his family, after all.  But I was pretty sure he would–anything was better than staying in that room by himself.  So I veered off and headed towards Mass General.

The haze of smoke got thicker as I approached the hospital.  It was close to the Charles–but not that close, I thought, suddenly worried.  The Canadian artillery couldn’t reach it–right?  I hurried down the long empty street leading to the hospital.  More smoke.  The artillery kept getting louder.  I was really scared now.

I got as close as I could.  The hospital was on fire.  Horse-drawn fire trucks surrounded the building, and men were shooting streams of water into it.  Didn’t look like they were doing much good.  I heard people screaming and weeping.  Some were lying on the ground, others just wandering around in a daze.  “What happened?” I asked a doctor who was treating a little girl with a long gash on her face.

He glared at me.  “What d’you think happened?” he demanded.

“The survivors–where will they go?”

He waved vaguely around him.  He looked exhausted.  “Everywhere.  Nowhere,” he said.  “What does it matter?”  He went back to bandaging the girl.

I walked around and around the building, looking for Kevin.  I saw lots of stuff that I’ll never forget–people bleeding, people dying–but I didn’t see him.  Finally I sat down on the cobblestones and put my head in my hands.  My throat was raw from the smoke.  My stomach still hurt from where I’d been punched yesterday.  But I didn’t really notice.  People were dying all around me, and Kevin was gone.

I needed my mother.

I got up after a while and trudged away from the burning building.  It took me a long time to get to the camp.  I was kind of in a daze.  Poor Kevin.  First drikana, and now . . .  He could still be alive, of course, but what if he was burned, or hurt–what if he was dying all by himself in this alien world?  I saw a couple of balloons floating above the city, and they reminded me of Kevin getting the idea for them as we sat by the professor’s fireplace.  He deserved better.

Cheapside was quiet.  Some people were sitting on their steps, smoking long pipes, and children were running around in the lanes.  It seemed strange that kids would actually be playing on a day like today, but what did I know?  I wasn’t a kid anymore.  No one bothered me, and the sack of food stayed safe inside my coat.

Outside the camp, things were grim.  Chester and his friends were digging another big hole next to the one I’d seen yesterday.  By the barracks, soldiers were silently cleaning their weapons.  Sergeant Hornbeam spotted me, and he seemed angry.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I’m–I’m visiting someone.”

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” he said, sounding like Colonel Clarett.

Usually Sergeant Hornbeam scared me, but right now I didn’t feel like being a nice little boy.  “Look,” I said, “all I want is to go into the camp.  Can I do that or not?”

He raised an eyebrow, and then muttered, “I can’t stop you,” and he turned away.

I walked up to the main gate.  There were several empty wagons lined up there, and lots of soldiers, rifles at the ready.  Inside the gate was an even bigger crowd of people than I’d seen yesterday.  “What’s the bloody point of aiming those guns at us?” one old man shouted at the soldiers.  “Why don’t you go and fight the real enemy!”

Caleb was one of the soldiers being shouted at.  He shook his head when he saw me.  “Not a good day to be visitin’, mate,” he said.  “Lots of angry people inside.  Must not have got a good night’s sleep.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’ll be careful.”

“Come on, then.”  We headed over to the side gate.  “What’s the news from headquarters?” he asked.

“We’re going to fight,” I said.  “Tomorrow, probably, or the next day.”

He nodded.  “That’s what we heard.  Won’t be soon enough, for my taste.  Now be careful in there, lad.  People aren’t just angry, some of ’em are a bit crazy.”

Once again the guards opened the gate with bayonets fixed and I pushed my way through the crowd, making sure the sack didn’t fall out from inside my coat.

Caleb was right.  Things were falling apart in the camp.  I passed by several fistfights; no one seemed interested in stopping them.  Some old guy who was either drunk or crazy just stood in the middle of a path, howling at the top of his lungs.  And here and there a corpse lay on the ground, its face covered with a sheet or a scrap of clothing.

It took me a while to find my family in the chaos, but finally I spotted their wagon.  As I approached it, I saw a red-coated soldier standing next to my mother.  My first thought was: Is she in trouble?  Then I recognized the soldier.  It was my father.

Mom’s face lit up when she saw me, and she pointed me out to Dad.

“Larry,” she said.  “It’s so wonderful you came back.”

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Barnes.”  I was so relieved to be here I wanted to hug her.  And Dad.

“This is Mr. Barnes,” she said, pointing to Dad.  “He’s just–just here for a short while.  On leave, before the battle.”  She looked like she’d been crying, I noticed.  “Henry, this is the boy I was telling you about.”

My father extended a hand.  “A pleasure, lad.”

I shook his hand.  Like Mom, he looked different in this world.  He was wearing a bushy mustache.  He was thin, and his hair was streaked with gray.  And the uniform looked so strange on him; he had never been a soldier, and he hated guns.  But it was Dad all right.

He gave me a long look.  “Mrs. Barnes was talking about you,” he said. “She mentioned what a strange coincidence it was, your age and first name and all,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”  He seemed almost suspicious of me, like he thought I was up to something.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t return,” Mom said, “with the bombardment starting.  It’s so dangerous now.”

“I promised to come back,” I pointed out.  I motioned to the makeshift tent that was attached to the wagon.  “Let’s go in there,” I said.  “I’ve got something to show you.”

We crawled inside.  Matthew and Cassie were already in there.  “Hi, Larry!”  Matthew called out.  He was spinning a little wooden top.  “Did you see the airships in the sky?”

“I sure did,” I replied.  “They call them ‘balloons.'”

“That’s a funny name.  Pa says we’re doing some other things to beat the enemy, right, Pa?”

“That’s right, Matthew.”

Cassie was just sitting in a corner with her shawl wrapped around her, shivering, and rocking back and forth a little.  Her eyes were dead; she didn’t even seem irritated when she saw me.  She looked awful–not sick, just awful.

I pulled out the sack of food.  “It’s not much,” I said, “but it’s more than you’ve been getting here.”

Everyone’s eyes widened.  “Oh, you dear boy,” Mom murmured.

“This is extremely good of you, Larry,” my father said.

“I promised I’d do it,” I said.

“Where in the world did you get chicken and potatoes?” he asked as Mom passed out the food.

“My father–he got some extra rations at headquarters.”

“Really?  That’s hard to believe.”  He raised an eyebrow and smiled, and it was just like we were back at home, and I had said something he thought was kind of funny, although I didn’t know why.  He didn’t laugh much, but he was always acting amused, like the rest of us were putting on a play just for him.  It drove Cassie nuts.

Matthew was excited.  “This is the best food I’ve had in months!” he said.  “Thanks, Larry!”  Cassie took her share and started gobbling it down, but she didn’t say anything.

Dad refused to take any.  “We still get our rations,” he said.

“You need to keep your strength up,” Mom pointed out.

“I’m fine, Emma,” he replied.  “Larry, why don’t you and I go outside and give them a little more space to eat.”

We scrambled out of the tent and stood by the wagon.  “Mrs. Barnes has told me a lot about you, Larry,” he said.  “You’ve made a deep impression on her.”

“She’s a very nice woman,” I replied.

“You believe you’re related to her?”

“Possibly, sir.”

“How is that, exactly?  Emma wasn’t very clear about it.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied.  I tried to remember exactly what I’d said to her yesterday, so I could repeat the story.  I did my best.  He pressed me on the details, and I don’t think I did a very good job of answering him.  He still seemed a little suspicious of me, even though I’d brought them the food–or maybe it was because I brought the food, without a good explanation.  Or maybe he was just curious.  He liked things to be logical, to make sense.  And my story didn’t quite make sense.

But he let it go finally.  Logically, what reason did I have to be lying?  “I am very grateful to you for the food, Larry,” he said, changing the subject.  “It grieves me that I can eat so well and sleep in a cot while my family has to live like this.”  He gestured at the tent and the wagon.  “It grieves me to be away from them.”

“Yes, sir.  But you’ve got to do it.”

He nodded.  “Yes, of course.  I fear, though–”  He looked away and didn’t finish the sentence.

“I think we’ve got a good shot at winning,” I said.  “These balloons–”

“Ah, the airships,” he replied.  “Matthew is so excited by them.  But they’re nowhere near as useful as people hope.  I’ve heard they’ll be used for surveillance of the enemy, nothing more.”

“But that’s something,” I pointed out.  He could be a drag sometimes, telling us not to get our hopes up when we entered a contest or whatever.  Just giving you kids a reality check, he’d say.  But lots of times we didn’t want a reality check.

“It is something, of course,” he admitted.  “We’ll find out soon enough what difference they’ll make.”

“Where are you stationed?” I asked.

“On the Charles,” he said.  “Preparing to fight the Canadians.  My captain gave some of us with families in the camps a few hours’ leave to go and see them.  Very decent of him.”

“The battle is coming,” I said.

He nodded.  “Yes,” he replied quietly.  “It is coming.”

And some of you will never see your families again, I thought.

Matthew came bounding out of the tent then, and Dad turned his attention away from me.  Mom came out a couple of minutes later; Cassie stayed inside.

Mom looked worried, of course–she had plenty of reason to be worried, with her husband going off to battle.  But what worried her most now was Cassie.  She made Dad go back into the tent to talk to her.  “The strain is too much for the poor girl,” she said to no one in particular.  “It’s such a difficult time.”

“She’ll be fine,” I said, knowing she wouldn’t be.  Cassie would always find a way to feel bad.  And Dad wouldn’t be able to talk her out of it.  He always tried to be logical with her, and he could never get it through his head that Cassie didn’t have any use for his logic.  It just made her angrier, because she thought he was talking down to her.  Sure enough, I could hear her squawking after a minute:  “You don’t know what I’ve been through.  You don’t understand, you’ve never understood . . . ”  The same old stuff, only she said it with the almost-British accent people had in this world.

I heard Dad’s voice, too low for us to make out the words, and then Cassie again, this time in a tone I’d never heard before–beyond anger, beyond despair: “Please, Papa, please take me with you.  Please get me out of here, I have to get out of here.  Papa, please  . . . ”

And then she was sobbing, and I knew Dad had his arms around her, trying to calm her down.  And I knew he wasn’t going to succeed.

“Why is Cassie the only one complaining?” Matthew wanted to know.

Mom just shook her head.

Eventually Dad came out, looking as worried as Mom.  “Emma–” he said, and sort of shrugged.  “It’s hard on all of us.”

“I know, Henry.  I know.”

“Private Barnes!” someone shouted from the path.  It was a sergeant, with a couple of soldiers alongside him.  “It’s time!”

“One moment,” Dad replied.  He turned back to us.

“So soon, Henry?” Mom said.

“I’m sorry.”

Matthew hugged him and started to cry.  “Please, Papa, stay!” he sobbed.  Mom touched Dad’s arm, in that way she had.  I stayed back by the wagon; I wasn’t part of this.

When Dad had finished saying goodbye to Matthew and Mom, he ducked into the tent and said something to Cassie.  I don’t think he got any response.  Then he came over and shook my hand.  “Thank you again, Larry,” he said.

“Please be careful, sir,” I replied.

“I will.”

Then I blurted out, “I’ll take care of your family.”

He looked puzzled.  “That’s very kind of you,” he said, “but you’ve got your own family.”

I couldn’t think of anything I could say to that.  Dad kissed Mom and Matthew one last time, and then left us.

The day suddenly seemed a lot colder.

“It’ll be all right,” Mom murmured.  “Everything will be all right.”

Matthew cried for a while.  Mom put her arm around him, and he leaned close to her, but eventually he got over it and moved away.  That was how Matthew was.  Cassie stayed inside the tent.  Mom looked really upset.  The distant artillery never stopped.  We talked for a while about the war and conditions in the city.  I told her about the fire at the hospital, and she was horrified.  “Those poor people.  Is nowhere safe?”  And then she started in: “You should go home, Larry.  It was wonderful of you to come and bring that food, but it’s late already.”

How could I tell her that I didn’t have a home anymore?  I hadn’t thought this part through.  “Well,” I said, “I was thinking of staying here and helping you out.”

She gave me a long, puzzled stare.  “You can’t do that, Larry,” she said.  “You have to go home.  You have to be safe.  How can you think about leaving your father?”

“No, it’s all right,” I insisted.  “He’s really busy helping out with the war.  He doesn’t pay much attention to me.”

“I’d like Larry to stay,” Matthew piped up.

Mom shook her head, almost violently.  She wasn’t buying it.  “Larry, you must go,” she said, in that tone she gets when she’s really serious and we’ve gone too far.  “Now.”

I thought about telling her the truth.  But that was stupid–she wouldn’t believe me.  I could just stay somewhere else in the camp–she couldn’t make me leave–but that wasn’t the point.  The point was to be with my family.  I felt an awful emptiness come over me.  Kevin was gone.  Professor Palmer would probably be so angry that he wouldn’t want me anymore.  And now Mom didn’t want me either.  I thought: She’s not my real mom.  This isn’t the real Matthew.  But I didn’t believe that anymore.

I was all alone in this stupid world.  “Please let me stay,” I whispered.

Tears came into her eyes then.  She reached for Matthew and pulled him close to her.  “You have to go home, Larry,” she whispered back.  “You have to go home.  After the war, come visit us.  You’ll always be welcome.”

I didn’t move for a while, and then I slowly got up from the ground.  Matthew was crying again.  I gave him a long hug.  I hesitated, then looked into the tent.  Cassie was huddled in a corner, staring at me.  “Take me with you,” she begged in a hollow voice.

She looked scary.  She looked insane.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.  But there was nothing I could do.  “I’m sorry, Cassie,” I said.  “I can’t.”

Her eyes turned away from me then, and she started silently rocking once more.

Outside the tent, Mom was waiting for me, her face wet with tears.  “I’ll visit you,” I said.  “I promise.”  She hugged me then, and I didn’t want to leave her embrace.  I remember once when I was little getting separated from her at the mall, and I felt so scared and lost, and suddenly I saw her, frantically looking for me by the escalator.  I raced to her and jumped up into her arms, and I felt so safe there, I never wanted to be anyplace else.  That was kind of how I felt there in the camp.

But Mom pushed me away finally.  “Please go, Larry,” she said, “before it’s too late.”

And so I walked away.

I don’t know what I was thinking.  Maybe I was beyond thinking.  I made my way through the crowded, stinking camp to the main gate.  It was worse there than the day before.  I had to fight my way through the crowd, but when I got to the front I didn’t recognize any of the guards, and none of them looked like they wanted to hear my story or look at my pass.  Off to my right people were throwing things at the guards, who just stood motionless at the fence, their rifles at the ready.  Everyone was shouting.

“Let’s go!” someone yelled.  “They can’t stop us all!”

There was more shouting, and people started pushing against me.  I could see the guards just a few feet away, and their eyes were half-scared, half-angry.  Even if one of them recognized me, he couldn’t have done anything to help me at this point.  I felt like I was going to get trampled to death, like at one of those soccer games in South America.

And then I heard gunshots, and the shouting turned to screaming, and people were running every which way.  I fell to the ground, and someone kicked me, but I didn’t get trampled.  I could smell gunpowder in the air, and someone near me was groaning, and a woman was calling out, “Help me!  Help me!”

I was scared I’d be shot if I got up, so I stayed where I was.  I heard someone shouting out orders, and the gates opened.  A bunch of soldiers rushed in, and one of them hoisted me to my feet.

“I think you’ve outworn your welcome here, lad,” he said, shaking his head.

It was Sergeant Hornbeam.

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I’m just leaving.”

“See that you don’t come back.  This won’t be the last of it.  The night is going to be long and deadly.”

“Yes, sir.”

The crowd had mostly moved back.  Some of the soldiers aimed their rifles at them while others collected the wounded and the dead.  Sergeant Hornbeam gestured at the gate; I walked out.

It was only after I was outside the camp that I could think about what had happened.  I had been in a battle–soldiers fighting their own people.  I was lucky to be alive.

I was trembling and out of breath.  My ribs were sore where I’d been kicked.  Two soldiers hurried past me, carrying the corpse of an old woman on a stretcher.  Five minutes ago she had been alive, probably screaming at the soldiers along with everyone else.  Or maybe she had just been trapped in the crowd.  And now she’d be dumped in one of those graves that Chester was digging.  No one would ever know what happened to her.

And what was I supposed to do?

I headed off, trudging slowly through the deepening darkness.  Past the barracks and the other army buildings and on into Cheapside.  Going where?  To do what?

I don’t think I even noticed the footsteps behind me.  What did I care?  Then I heard the voice, loud and mocking, almost at my shoulder.

“Nice coat, mate!”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 19

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

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

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


Chapter 19

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

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

“Are people mad at me?”

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

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

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

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

“Well, uh, I–”

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

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

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

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

“And the Portuguese?”

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

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

General Aldridge turned to Professor Palmer.  “Professor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That brought nods from everyone.

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

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

“That is correct.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re going to fight,” I replied.

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

“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how?

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 18

We’re about halfway through this story of Kevin and Larry’s adventures in an alternate universe, where Boston is under siege from the forces of Canada and New Portugal.  Kevin is still in the hospital, recovering from his bout with a dread disease unique to this world.  Larry has made his way back to the refugee camp on the outskirts of Boston, hoping to find this world’s version of his family.  He thinks he has spotted a girl from his English class in the water line at the camp.  But has he really?


Chapter 18

I tried one last time.  “You’re not Nora Lally?”

She looked puzzled.  “I’m Sarah Lally,” she said, “Not Nora.”

“From Glanbury?” I asked.

“Yes.”  She put her buckets down.  “Your accent–are you from these parts?  Do I know you?”

Same person, different first name.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief.  It made sense, right?  They had old-fashioned names here.  They wouldn’t necessarily be called the same thing as in our world.

I didn’t know how to answer her question.  It’s me, Larry, I wanted to say.  From English class?  I gave that oral report on Mark Twain last year, and you laughed a couple of times–remember?  “No, I guess you don’t know me,” I managed to say.

“But how do you know my surname?”

For all the time I’d spent thinking about meeting someone in the camp, I hadn’t really come up with the right answer for that sort of question.  Should I tell her the truth?  If not, what story could I possibly come up with?  I decided to do what Kevin and I had done with the Harpers–just ignore the hard questions.  So instead I just asked my own.  “I wonder, Sarah–do you know the Barnes family?”

A wagon came lumbering down the path, and we had to get out of the way.  My heart was pounding as I waited for her response.  “Of course I know the Barnes family,” she said.  “They have the farm over next to the Johnson’s.  Do you know them, too?”

“Yeah, I–I’m related.  Are they here by any chance, in the camp?  I’ve been looking for them.”

Sarah nodded.  “Mostly all of us are here, sad to say.”

Finally.  I thought I was going to explode from excitement.  “Do you know where they are?  Could you–would you take me to them?  I’d be really grateful.”

“Surely.”  She stared at me.  “You do look like a Barnes, I believe.  What’s your name?”

“Larry.  Larry, uh, Palmer.”

“Larry.”  She smiled.  “Pleased to meet you, Larry.”  She held out her hand, and I shook it.  It was the first time I’d ever touched Nora–I mean, Sarah.  Her hands were rough and chafed.  This was way different from going to school at The Gross.

“Can I help you with those buckets?” I asked

She looked down at them and sighed.  “That would be very kind of you,” she said.  “I tire so much more easily nowadays.  We can drop them off with my family, and then I’ll take you to the Barneses.”

I picked up one of the buckets, and we started walking.  “What part of the camp does your family live in?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not staying in the camp.  We live in the city.”

She looked at me.  “I don’t understand,” she said.  “Then why are you here?”

“I wanted to find them–the Barneses.  We’ve never met.”

“But I thought you were related.”

This was already getting complicated.  “It’s a long story,” I said, hoping that Sarah didn’t ask to hear it.

Luckily she didn’t.  Instead she started asking me about how things were going in the city.  Did we have enough to eat?  Was there a lot of robbery and looting?  What news had I heard about the war?  The distant booming seemed louder now.  Were we fighting the enemy at last?

I told her what I knew, which was a lot more than she did.  But I couldn’t exactly make her feel optimistic about the war.

“I know we’re not supposed to say this, but I think it would be better if we surrendered, don’t you?” she said.  “My father has joined the army–all the men have gone.  It would be wonderful if he didn’t have to fight.  At least we’d be safe, and we could leave this wretched camp and go back home.”

“Sure, if the Portuguese let you go home,” I said.

“You think they’d take our farm?”

“I don’t know.  If we surrender, what’s to stop them from taking everything?”

“Oh my,” she murmured.  “That’s very true.”

It certainly was easy to talk to Sarah.  Why had I been so frightened of Nora back at school?  Not that it mattered anymore.

“Well, here’s our little home of the moment,” Sarah said.  It was the usual–a wagon, a sickly-looking horse, a makeshift tent.  A couple of kids were playing next to the wagon.  One of them had a cricket bat and was trying to whack the other one.  We set the buckets down.  “Jared, Thomas, stop that,” she ordered them.  “Where’s Mother?”

“In the food line,” one of them replied.  The other one stuck his tongue out at her.

“Charming,” she said.  “Larry, let’s go find your relatives.  You two, mind you don’t upset the buckets.  And don’t kill each other.”

My relatives.  Sarah said it so casually, like visiting them was something we did every day.  “Are they near here?” I asked.

“Not far.  We Glanbury folks tried to stay close together.  It’s all so different and frightening in the camp–it’s good to have familiar faces.”

That reminded me.  “Is there an Albright family here?”

“I don’t know anyone of that name.  Are they from Glanbury?”

“I think so,” I said.  “Is it possible they live in Glanbury and you haven’t heard of them?”

Sarah shook her head.  “It’s such a small town.  Everyone knows everyone else.”

Poor Kevin.  He wasn’t going to want to hear that.  We started walking.  “Do you see the Barnes family much?”

“Jared and Thomas play with their boy.  But there’s no one my age in the family.”

“How many children do they have?”

Sarah gave me another look.  She was probably thinking: If they’re my relatives, how come I didn’t know how many children they had?  But she answered my question.  “They have the boy–Matthew–and Cassandra.  She’s a couple of years older than me.”

Cassandra?  What kind of name was that?  Cassie’s real name in our world was Catherine.  Was she called Cassie here?

But that didn’t matter.  The big news was: no Larry.  That made things less complicated–the universe wasn’t going to explode–but I guess I was sort of disappointed.  “And Mr. Barnes–is he in the army, like your father?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  Look, there they are.”

I looked.  Another wagon, another tent made out of ragged sheets and blankets, another horse who looked ready to keel over at any second.  There was also a small, smoky fire, over which a girl sat hunched, looking tired and gloomy.  A boy was climbing up the side of the wagon, chattering to no one in particular.  And there was a woman telling him to get down this instant, he was going to hurt himself.

I was home.

Sarah and I walked over to them.  The girl–my sister–looked up.  “Hello, Cassie,” Sarah said.

So she was called Cassie, just like in my world.  She just stared at Sarah and said nothing.

Sarah kept talking.  “This is Larry Palmer,” she said.  “He is, um, a relative of yours?”

Cassie turned her gaze to me without much interest and shrugged.  “I don’t know him.”

Then my mother turned around.  She looked older.  Her hair had streaks of gray, and her eyes had little wrinkles around them.  But she was my mom, no doubt about it, and my heart leaped when I saw her face.  She, too, stared at me–a very different stare from Cassie’s.

I wanted to run into her arms, but I held back.  “Your name is Larry–Lawrence?” she whispered.

Her voice sent chills down my spine.

“Yes,” I managed to say.  “Larry Palmer.”

“Who’s that?” Matthew called out from the top of the wagon.  “Hello, I’m Matthew Barnes.  Are you from Glanbury?  That’s where we’re from.  My pa’s in the army, and he’s going to fight the Portuguese.  I wish I could fight them.  Are you old enough to be a soldier?”

“Be silent, Matthew,” my mother said, without taking her eyes off me.  Her gaze felt awfully strange.  Almost unbearably strange.  It was as if, somehow, she recognized me.

“Palmer,” she said finally.  “I don’t recognize the name.  You say you’re related to us, Larry?”

“I think so.”  I’d been trying to come up with a story.  “My mother–she died of smallpox when I was little–but she said once that she was related to the Clement family.”  That was my Mom’s maiden name.  “And a girl from the Clement family had married a man named Barnes from Glanbury.”

“What was your mother’s name?” Mom asked.  “How was she related to the Clements?”

“Her name was Annie,” I said.  I was making this up as I went along.  “I really don’t remember how she was related.  The story just kind of stuck in my mind for some reason.  So I thought–I thought I’d see if I could find you here in the camp.”

“He lives in the city,” Sarah said.  “He came here specially to look for you.”

That got Cassie’s attention.  “You came here, and you didn’t actually have to?” she asked.  “That’s the foolishest thing I ever heard of.”

“Mind your manners, Cassandra,” Mom said.

“Can you get us out of here?” Cassie asked me.  “Can we stay with you?”

I’d have liked to, but there was no way I was going to be able to pull that off.  “No, I’m sorry,” I replied.  “No one’s allowed out now.”

Cassie turned away, no longer interested in me.  But Mom–that was how I thought of her already–still was.  I was afraid she was going to keep on quizzing me about my story, but she didn’t.  “I don’t recall any relative of mine named Annie,” she said. “Probably a second cousin or some such.  But no matter.  You’re very welcome, of course.  I wish we had something to offer you, but you see how things are here.”

“Why not offer him tea in the parlor?” Cassie muttered.

“That’s okay–I mean, that’s fine,” I said, ignoring Cassie.  “Maybe we can just talk.”

“Well, I have to go back,” Sarah said, “before Jared and Thomas maim each other.  It was a pleasure to meet you, Larry.  Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

She really seemed to mean it.  “Thanks for everything,” I said.

Sarah smiled and gave a little curtsy.

“It’s getting dark,” Mom said to me.  “Won’t you be out after curfew?  And the artillery–”

“I’ll be all right,” I assured her.  “The police just make sure you’re on your way home.”

Mom looked doubtful, but clearly she wanted me to stay.  I sat down by the fire with her.  Cassie looked at me the way she always did–like she couldn’t believe she had to put up with my existence.  Matthew climbed down from the wagon and started peppering me with questions.  Mom mostly just gazed at me with that kind of puzzled look she’d had when she first heard my name.

I pretended I was Professor Palmer’s son, but I tried not to say too much, afraid I’d start getting confused with the stuff I had to make up.  I was pretty sure Cassie didn’t believe me, although I had no idea why she thought I’d be lying.  Probably she couldn’t believe she was related to someone who was a professor at Harvard.  Eventually I got the conversation off of me and onto their lives.

“We’re just farmfolk, as they call us in the city,” Mom said.  “Nothing special.  Though I wonder if we’ll ever see our farm again.”

Cassie looked disgusted.  “Fine with me if we don’t,” she replied.  She hated farm work, I was sure.  I figured she wanted to move to the city, wear a wig and a fancy dress, and go to dinner parties at Coolidge Palace.

“Please don’t say that, Cassandra,” Mom said softly.  “The farm is all we have in this world.”

Cassie looked glumly into the fire and pulled her shawl more tightly around her.  “Then we don’t have anything,” she said.  “You think we’re actually going to win this war?  You think we’ll actually be able to go back to our farm, as if nothing happened?”

“Pa is going to whip those Portuguese!” Matthew said.  “You wait and see!  We’ll be back home by New Year’s.”

“Do you go to school, Matthew?” I asked.

Matthew looked delighted.  “Not any more!”

Mom shook her head.  “We keep talking about setting up some kind of schooling in the camp.  We shouldn’t just let the children run wild, day after day.”

“You should let me join the army, like Pa,” Matthew said.  “I can help.  Can’t help anyone if all I’m doing is learning how to read and cipher.”

“The army doesn’t need little boys,” Mom said.

“It needs something,” Cassie muttered.

“I think the army will have some surprises for the Portuguese and the Canadians,” I said.

“Oh, I do hope you’re right,” Mom said.

“What about the airships?” Matthew said.  “Lots of people have seen them in the city.  Above the palace, they say.  Have you seen them, Larry?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I have.”

“Are they big?”

“They’re pretty big.”

“I’ll bet we can shoot cannonballs right down on the enemy from the air.  The Portuguese won’t have a chance!”

Mom was clutching a handkerchief and twisting it tightly.  To keep from crying, I realized.  She was worrying about Dad, but she didn’t like to cry in front of her children.  Just like Mom in my world.  Everything about their lives had been different, I thought.  But at bottom, they were entirely the same.  “Is Mr. Barnes able to visit you here?” I asked.

“Just a couple of times,” she said.  “They’re very busy with their training and building the fortifications and such.  He’s not really a soldier, you know.  It’s just that they need every man they can get.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“If something happens,” she said, twisting the handkerchief, “we may never find out.  Things are so upside-down.”

Matthew reached over and patted her hand.  Even Cassie looked sympathetic.  “Pa’s a dead shot,” she said.  “And he knows how to take care of himself.”

“Yes, yes he does.”

We were silent for a while, and then I asked more questions, learned a little more about them.  Matthew helped a lot on the farm.  He knew how to ride and shoot and fish.  Mom sewed the family’s clothes and cooked and worked in the fields during planting and harvest seasons.  Cassie said everything was boring and she was going to get a job in the city just as soon as she could, if by some miracle we won the war.  On Sundays they all went to church in their wagon; their horse’s name was Gretel.  Occasionally there was a dance in the church hall on Saturday night.  There were lots of parties around Harvest Day.  Their life had been quiet and happy, until the war.

I didn’t notice how dark it was getting until Matthew spoke up.  “If we don’t get in the food line soon, we’ll not have supper,” he pointed out.

“I did it this morning,” Cassie was quick to say.

“Of course,” Mom said.  “It’s my turn.  Larry, you really should be going.”

“I know.”  The sun had set, and the curfew would be starting soon.  But I didn’t want to leave.  It had been so long since I’d heard Matthew babble or seen Cassie sulk . . .

“Come with me, Larry,” Mom said.  “Just for a minute.  Cassie, watch your brother.”

We got up and headed for the food line.  “They say it can’t last,” Mom said to me.  “A few days more at most.  Too many people, too little food, and the soldiers are needed for fighting, not for guarding us.”

“I’m sure you’ll be all right.”

“Some people are going mad from the wait and the hardship,” she went on.  “Cassie is very unhappy.”

Cassie is always unhappy, I wanted to tell her.  “I think we’ve got a good shot at winning,” I said, desperate to make her feel better.

We reached the food distribution area.  There were several long lines heading towards a big wooden building much like the one where I’d helped to load the sacks of grain so long ago; soldiers were everywhere, carrying rifles.  They looked like they were more than willing to use them.  We got into one of the lines.

“Larry, how old are you?” Mom asked.

She was staring at me the way she had when I first showed up.  “Almost thirteen,” I said.

“Almost thirteen,” she repeated, and she nodded, as if this was the answer she had expected.  “Larry, Lawrence.  This is very strange.  You see, we had–we had a little baby.  We named him Lawrence, too.  He died of a fever when he was two months old.  He would have been exactly your age, if he had lived.”

I shivered, and not from the cold.

A tear leaked out of her eye.  “He was so brave, but he just couldn’t hold on.  This world was too harsh for him.  And to think: he could be just like you today.”

So, that’s what had happened to me in this universe: dead when I was just a baby.  My family had never gotten to know me.  “I’m very sorry,” I managed to say.  “It’s . . . it’s a big coincidence.”

Mom touched my arm, which was something she did when she got really emotional.  “I know it will be hard, Larry, but if you can  . . . come back and visit us again.  It’s like you . . . you fill up an empty space in my heart.”

“I’ll be back,” I said.  “Tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”  She squeezed my arm.  “Thank you, Larry.  Of course, if you can’t make it, I understand.  You should really stay at home, of course.  The city is so dangerous.  But maybe later, if things work out, you could come visit us in Glanbury.”

“Sure.  I’ll do that too.”

She smiled at me.  “Now you should go.”

She looked so frail, yet so brave, standing in that long line, with her shawl wrapped around her.  I couldn’t stand the idea that she had to face this camp without Dad, when I could be here to help her.  But she was right; it was time to go.

She leaned over and kissed my forehead, and then I left her there in the line.

I made my way back to the side gate where they’d let me in.  The old man was gone, but a few people were still there, begging to be let out.  The guards were different from the ones who’d been there earlier.  I showed my pass to one of them.  “Sergeant Hornbeam said you’d let me out if I showed you this,” I said.

The guard took the pass and studied it, the way the sergeant had.  “You can leave,” he said, “but I don’t know where you can go.  It’s after curfew.”

“I know,” I replied.  “I just need to get back to army headquarters.”

He just shook his head.  “Well, good luck to you.”

Once again the guards fixed bayonets to keep the other people from charging the gate, and they let me out.

It was dark and cold, and I had a long way to go.  The artillery hadn’t let up.  But I didn’t really care.  I felt so different.  I felt as if everything had changed.

My family was here.  I had found them.  Even if they were farmfolk, they weren’t really that different from the family I had left behind.

I had gotten used to not thinking about my family–it was too painful.  But now I couldn’t help but think about them–at least, this world’s version of them.  I would steal some food from the mess for them, I thought.  Maybe I could find them some warm clothes, too.  If Lieutenant Carmody tried to stop me from coming back, I’d just run away.

I passed by the barracks; there were a few soldiers outside it; they glanced at me as I passed by, but no one spoke to me, no one mentioned the curfew.  The hole Chester had been digging was filled up now.  It looked sinister in the darkness.

I hurried through Cheapside.  The streets were deserted.

Kevin was probably worried about me, but I couldn’t get to the hospital tonight.  Maybe tomorrow.  He’d be disappointed that there weren’t any Albrights, but that couldn’t be helped.

What if the battle had started?  Could I get back to the camp?  What would happen to Kevin?

My mind just kept racing.  I didn’t even notice how hungry and tired I was.  I didn’t notice that my stomach still hurt from where that kid had punched me.  And I wasn’t even particularly scared–I was just too excited.

I noticed a few people, hurrying like me along the streets, staying in the shadows.  There weren’t any carriages or wagons.  And I didn’t see any policemen.  I recalled the first night Kevin and I had spent in this world.  We were so scared, but the streets had been busy and full of life.  Would they ever be like that again?

I almost made it back to headquarters before I ran into the cop.  He saw me from across the street and yelled at me to stop.  I thought about running, but he took out his pistol and aimed it at me, and I figured I shouldn’t take the risk.  He came over and grabbed me by the collar.  He was big and stupid-looking, and he sure was angry.  “What are you doin’, sneakin’ around after curfew?” he demanded.  “Shoot on sight, those are the orders.  Want me to shoot you, you little sneak?”

“Officer,” I said, “I have a pass and–”

“I don’t care about your pass.  There’s no passes for curfew, those are the orders.”  He started shaking me.  What was he so angry about?

Just then a carriage came around the corner at top speed.  The policeman started yelling at the driver, who came to a stop next to us.

It was Peter.

“It’s curfew,” the policeman screamed at him, waving his pistol.  “Get down from there.”

“This is official army business, mate,” Peter said.  “Let the boy go and everyone’ll be happy.”

“Those aren’t the orders,” the policeman replied.  “No exceptions to curfew–those are the orders!”

Peter calmly picked up a rifle and aimed it at him.  “I’d hate to have to blow a hole in your stomach, mate,” he said, “but I need that boy.”

The policeman looked outraged, and for a second I thought he was actually going to try to shoot Peter with his pistol.  But he thought better of it and let me go.  I scrambled up onto the bench next to Peter.  “This isn’t right,” the policeman pointed out.  “You have a curfew, you got to–”

But I didn’t hear the rest as the horses clattered off down the street.  “Thanks, Peter,” I said.

“Been looking all over for you, mate,” he said.  “Thought you might be at the hospital, but you weren’t.”

“Sorry,” I said.  I noticed we were heading away from headquarters.  “What’s going on?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Peter replied.  “Just that the President of New England wants to have a chat with you.”

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 17

Lying in his dismal hospital bed, Kevin has convinced Larry to return to the refugee camp and look for their families.  Do they even exist in this world?  Can Larry help them?  He decides that he has to find out.  So he sneaks off from Coolidge Palace, makes his way through Cheapside, and talks his way into the desperately crowded camp.  And now he has to search it . . .


Chapter 17

“Help me, help me, I’m dying!”

An old man was kneeling on the ground by the gate.  He grabbed my leg and wouldn’t let go.

The other people ignored him.  His eyes were watery; he didn’t have any teeth.  His whole body was shaking.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “There’s nothing–”

“I have no one,” he said.  “I can’t make it to the food line.  Please help, else I’ll die.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated.  “I don’t . . . I can’t . . . ”  I pulled away from him; he wasn’t strong enough to stop me.

Maybe this was a big mistake, I thought.

My next thought was: It really stinks in here.

I moved away from the gate and looked around.  I thought the place had been crowded before, but now there were people everywhere, jammed together for as far as I could see alongside the narrow dirt paths.  All the animals were gone, too, except for some sad-looking horses and donkeys.  I remembered the cows and goats and oxen tied to the wagons that people were driving into the city the day Kevin and I arrived.  Eaten by now, I figured, or dead of starvation.

I started walking.  That first night, things had been kind of mellow in the camp: people singing, kids playing, old men smoking pipes in front of fires . . .  Now all the mellowness was gone.  People were mostly just sitting down, on the ground or in their wagons, wrapped in blankets, staring back at me with dead eyes.  A lot of the men were holding rifles in their laps.  With soldiers afraid to enter the camp, I guess I understood why.  There were lots of people walking along the paths, too; some of them looked pretty scary, like they’d kill you if they thought you had a loaf of bread on you. I really didn’t feel like asking anyone if they knew a Barnes family from Glanbury.  Just looking at people made me nervous.

So I walked.  And I thought: How am I going to find anyone in this huge, crowded place?  What if I don’t recognize my family?  What if my father has a beard, or Cassie has a different hairstyle, or they’re all so bundled up that I walk right past them?

I wandered around for a long time until I started to get tired.  I stopped at an intersection of two paths and tried to decide what to do.  Should I just give up?  I couldn’t stay here forever.  I still had a long walk back through Cheapside to headquarters.

I realized that I had a lump in my throat.  Now that I was here, now that I’d taken the risk and gotten myself in trouble with Professor Palmer and Lieutenant Carmody, I really didn’t want this to be a waste of time.  I really wanted to find my family, or Kevin’s family, or someone.  Mostly I wanted my original idea to come true–I wanted to help my mother.

Then I saw a fight break out.  “You filthy picker!” someone shouted.  And two kids my age were dragging another kid down to the ground, where they started punching and kicking him.

I started to turn away.  Not my problem, like the old man by the gate.  But no one else was breaking up the fight, and it looked like the kid on the ground was going to get killed.

Something made me go over there.  “Hey!” I shouted, and I dragged one of the kids away from the fight.  He was short but tough-looking.  He glared at me.  “What’s your problem, mate?” he demanded.

Meanwhile the kid they were beating up managed to scramble away.  He got to his feet and looked at me for a second, then started to run away.  The other kid took off after him.  The tough-looking kid broke away from my grasp and punched me in the stomach.  I gasped for breath and my legs buckled; he really knew how to punch.  But he didn’t stay to punch me again; instead, he turned and ran after the other kids.

When I managed to catch my breath I started running after all of them.  Because the kid they had been beating up was Stinky Glover.  Not as fat as in our world, but I’d recognize that face anywhere.

I couldn’t find them, though.  They were lost in the maze of paths.  I kept going until I was sure it was useless, and then I stopped to catch my breath again.

A picker.  That was slang in this world for a thief.  It figured that Stinky would be a picker.

I had lost him, and that was bad.  But still, I was excited.  If Stinky was here, then Kevin was right.  Why couldn’t my family or his family be here too?  I just had to keep looking.

But where?  Just wandering around wasn’t working.  There had to be a better way.

In the distance I saw people lined up.  For food?  The privies?  I went over to the line.  Everyone had a bucket.  They were waiting for water, I realized.

The line moved fairly quickly.  I walked alongside, trying to glance at the people in it.  As usual, they looked back at me suspiciously.  Who was I?  Was I going to cut in front of them?  I didn’t recognize anyone.  At the front of the line was a little stream that went through a corner of the camp.  People were filling their buckets from the stream.  There were plenty of soldiers there to keep the line orderly.  I recognized one of them–he had been loading the sacks of grain that wicked hot first day.  He nodded to me.  “What’re you doing here, mate?” he asked.

“Just looking for someone.”

“Most everyone passes by here sooner or later.  No lack of water at least.  And it’s not giving everyone the flux the way it did back in September.  Still not the cleanest stream in the world, y’understand.”

Mr. Harper had mentioned the flux.  I figured it was something like diarrhea.  “What happens when the stream freezes?” I asked.

“Ah.  None of us’ll be here by that time, I trust.  If we are, there’ll be worse things to worry about than the flux.”

He fell silent, and I studied the people in line.  Even though it only took a few seconds to fill your buckets, the line stretched out a long ways.  If it was this bad getting water, I wondered what it was like getting food–if there still was any food.  People probably spent a lot of their day just standing in line.

I stuck my hands stuck in my armpits to keep them warm.  Sometimes I’d walk up and down the line.  Sometimes I sat on a tree stump nearby.  Occasionally there was a fight when someone tried to cut into the line, and the soldiers would move quickly to break it up.  But for the most part people just shuffled along in silence waiting their turn.  A lot of them looked too tired to fight, or to care about anything.

At some point I noticed a distant booming.  Artillery, I decided.  Had the final battle started?  The booming quickly became constant.  An old woman standing in line started to weep.

It was getting late.  I wasn’t going to make it back to headquarters before curfew.  I had my pass, but that wasn’t going to do much good if some policeman decided to shoot me.  And how much trouble was I was going to be in if I did make it back?  I was afraid to leave, though.  If I left, would I ever be able to return?

I was getting hungry.  And thirsty, watching all that water go by.  I must’ve stopped paying attention for a while.  I know I was feeling sorry for myself, even with these people all around me who were a lot worse off than I was, even with Kevin lying bored to death in the hospital.  So I didn’t see her until she had already gone to the river and filled her buckets.

Long black hair, shining blue eyes–I knew it was her, even wearing a long skirt and a shapeless jacket.  Even looking exhausted and worried.

My first response was the same one I felt in English class, in the cafeteria, in the world neither of us inhabited now.  I couldn’t say anything to her.  I was just too shy.  She had already gone past me when I got over it.  Things had changed.  This was important.

“Nora!” I called out.

She just kept walking.

I went after her.  “Nora?” I repeated when I had caught up to her.

There was no recognition, just puzzlement and suspicion, in those blue eyes.  “My name’s not Nora,” she said, and my heart sank.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 16

Kevin appears to have survived drikana.  Once the quarantine was over, he and Larry, along with Professor Palmer, escaped the invading Canadians in Cambridge and rowed back across the river to Boston, nearly getting killed in the process.  Now more adventures await them . . .


Chapter 16

That nighttime journey from Cambridge back to Boston was the second time we had been shot at in this world.  It wouldn’t be the last.


Except for blue-uniformed policemen carrying nightsticks, the streets of Boston were deserted as we headed for the hospital.  The policemen eyed our wagon as we raced past them, but no one tried to stop us.  I think the sergeant would’ve shot anyone who tried.

Within a few minutes he pulled up in front of a large brick building with a sign in front that said Massachusetts General Hospital.  “Wait here,” the sergeant ordered us.  He got down from the wagon and went inside.  A few minutes later he returned with a couple of people carrying a stretcher.  They lifted Kevin out of the wagon and onto the stretcher.  The professor and I followed along as they brought him inside.  We never saw the sergeant again.

The building didn’t smell like hospitals in our world.  It stank, really.  And it was dark, with just an occasional oil lamp lighting the corridors, and not all that clean.  Somewhere a woman was screaming in pain.  As we walked, a bearded guy who was apparently a doctor started questioning us about Kevin’s drikana.  When had the symptoms appeared?  Who had been present at the onset?  How had we treated the illness?  He wasn’t happy to learn that we hadn’t bled Kevin.  “The height of folly,” he said.

“Except that the patient still lives,” Professor Palmer growled.

We passed through a door with a red “C” on it, and then into a small room with no furniture except for a bed, a chair, a little table with a candle on it, and a chamber pot.  There was one small, barred window.  Kevin was put into the bed, and the doctor examined the three of us.  It turned out that the professor had been nicked in the shoulder by a bullet back on the river and hadn’t said anything about it.  The doctor bandaged him up, but other than the bullet wound he couldn’t find anything wrong with us.

“You will be examined further in the morning,” he said.  “In the meantime, none of you is to leave this room.”

“In the meantime,” the professor said, “we demand that you send a message to Lieutenant William Carmody, chief of staff to General Solomon Aldridge, informing him of our presence here.  Also, send word immediately to my old friend Doctor George Dreier, who is the president of this august institution.  Tell him that Professor Alexander Palmer has taken up residence in his hospital and would like to chat about the accommodations.  And bring us some food; we’ve had a taxing night.”

The doctor didn’t look too happy about getting those orders.  He simply nodded and left without a word.  We were by ourselves finally.  And safe.  The professor sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.  “A little too much excitement for someone my age, lads,” he said.

“Are we going to be stuck here?” I asked.

“I’m afraid Kevin may be in hospital for a while,” he replied.  “Even though the claustration is officially over, they’ll want to be especially careful that he doesn’t suffer a relapse.  A drikana outbreak in the city would be just too devastating to contemplate.  As for us–I expect we’ll be able to leave once they’ve poked at us enough to be assured we don’t have the disease.”

I noticed that Kevin had already fallen asleep.  “Will we be able to visit him?” I asked.  “He’s going to get awfully lonely in here.  This place is creepy.”

“That should be possible, Larry.  I’ll talk to Doctor Dreier.”

I decided I was getting pretty tired, too.  I closed my eyes.  “You were really brave on the river, Professor,” I said.

“One becomes brave when one has no other choice,” he replied.  “Now we can all relax a little.”  And that’s the last thing I remembered until I opened my eyes and saw Lieutenant Carmody standing in the room.

“Very glad to find you have all survived,” he said.  “I’m informed you’re all in reasonably good health as well, thank God.”  Gray light shone through the small window.  I figured it was about dawn.  As usual, the lieutenant was freshly shaved, and his uniform was gleaming.

“You might have asked your sentries on the shore to refrain from shooting at us,” the professor replied.  “I received a welcoming present in the shoulder from one of them.”

“We did send out an order, actually, but unfortunately orders from headquarters do not always reach the men in the field.  And if they do, all too often they’re ignored or forgotten.”

“No wonder we’re losing this war,” the professor muttered.  “Anyway, what have we been missing in the past week?”

“We are established on the grounds of the palace, and progress continues, although Professor Foster’s behavior has left something to be desired.  He has not taken your absence well.”

“I’ll take care of Benjamin.  How are negotiations with the enemy progressing?”

“Vice President Boatner and Lord Percival ably represent our interests,” the lieutenant replied.  “Unfortunately, the enemy seems to think there is little to negotiate.  ‘Unconditional surrender or death’ would be a reasonable summary of their position.”

“Not especially conducive to a diplomatic solution.  And the situation in the city?”

“Not pleasant, I’m afraid,” the lieutenant replied.  “There is a strict curfew in force, dusk to dawn, and we’ve had to divert soldiers to help the police maintain order.  So far things are relatively calm, but I wouldn’t want to guess how much longer they will remain so.  People are cold and hungry and frightened, and there is little hope that their situation will improve.”

The curfew helped explain why the streets had been so deserted last night, I figured.

“At any rate,” the lieutenant went on, “I’m delighted you made it to Boston safely, and we’d like to get you back to work as soon as possible.”

“Yes,” the professor said.  “We may need a dispensation from Doctor Dreier to get Larry and me out of here, however.”

“I’m sure he’ll listen to reason.”

They went off to find the doctor, and I stayed behind with Kevin.  There was a loaf of bread and a pot of tea on a table next to Kevin’s bed.  The bread was stale, though, and the tea was cold.  Kevin woke up while I was trying to swallow a few bites.  I gave him some bread and explained what was going on.

“You mean I’m gonna be stuck in this place by myself?” he asked.

“Looks like it.  But I’ll come and visit you as often as they’ll let me.”

“Thanks,” Kevin said.  “They really don’t mess around with this disease, do they?”

I shook my head.  “Look at the bars on that window over there.  I bet they’re to keep drikana patients from escaping.”

“I can see why they’re scared,” Kevin said.  “I wouldn’t wish this disease on my worst enemy.  Still, it’s gonna be really boring in here.”

“Yeah, but it’s better than most of the alternatives.”

“No kidding.”

Lieutenant Carmody and Professor Palmer returned then with sort of good news.  The doctor had no objection to the professor and me leaving, but Kevin had to stay in the hospital for at least a couple more weeks.  “He is also very interested in some of the medical theories I have picked up from you boys,” the professor said.  “An extraordinarily open-minded man, for a doctor.  Larry, let’s go.  Kevin, we’ll be back to visit.  I’ll see if I can find a chess set and some books to keep you entertained.”

It felt awful leaving Kevin behind, but there was nothing we could do about it.  We went outside, and Peter was waiting there with the lieutenant’s carriage.  It was good to see him again.  He brought us straight to Coolidge Palace, and we got out to inspect the work going on.  I just kind of tagged along, actually; there wasn’t a lot I could help with at this point.

The balloons looked pretty much ready to use, now that they had figured out how to stop the leaks.  They were still experimenting with the best way of heating the air, but that seemed like a detail.  People had seen the balloons flying over the palace grounds and had gotten very excited.  “Airships,” they called them.

Professor Foster was very proud of his electric fence, but there was concern about how much power his batteries could generate, and what distance the fence would be able to cover.  Professor Palmer questioned him sharply, and as usual he got confused and defensive.  “It will work,” he insisted.  “You can count on me.  You can count on electricity.”

No one looked convinced.

Lieutenant Carmody left Professor Palmer in charge after a while and returned to headquarters.  I hung around all day, doing whatever people asked me to, and in the evening the professor and I went to headquarters too.  He was pretty tired.  I figured his shoulder was bothering him, but he wouldn’t admit it.  “There is much still to be done, and precious little time,” he said.  “I fear I won’t be able to visit Kevin as often as I’d like.”

“I can go by myself,” I pointed out.

“Traveling through the city alone will be quite dangerous,” he responded.

“I survived drikana and the Canadians,” I said.  “Not much is going to scare me anymore.”

That brought a smile to his face.  “Good point,” he admitted.  “But courage doesn’t keep you safe.  We should talk to Lieutenant Carmody.  Perhaps Peter can drive you.”

We found the lieutenant in his room.  He was okay with having Peter drive me once in a while, but not every day.  “I’m sorry that Kevin is in hospital,” he said, “but winning the war must take precedence.”

“I worry about Larry on the city streets by himself,” the professor said.

The lieutenant considered.  “We could give him a military pass,” he said.  “That might keep him out of trouble if the police pick him up after curfew.”

“That’s better than nothing, I suppose.”

So I got a pass, and they found me a beat-up winter coat that looked like it would be even more useful.  It was definitely getting colder now.  I couldn’t imagine how people in the camps would survive, once winter really set in.  On the other hand, everyone expected the war to be over before that happened.

The next morning Peter drove me to the hospital.  It turned out to be near the river, down the hill from Coolidge Palace.  I brought along a couple of books, a deck of cards, and a chess set that the professor had borrowed from a colonel who was too busy to use it.  The streets were still crowded during the day, but it was hard to go a block without people running up to the carriage begging for food.  The restaurants were all closed, I noticed, and there were armed guards outside the few grocery stores that were still open.

Kevin was overjoyed to see me.  “This place is horrible,” he said.  “There’s nothing to do, no one to talk to.  They just bring you a lousy meal every once in a while and empty your chamber pot and then disappear.  And that doctor with the beard is still mad that you guys didn’t bleed me.”

“And no TV,” I pointed out.

Kevin sighed.  “No TV.  No nothing.”

So we played chess (I lost every game), and we played cards, and we talked–about this world and our world, sort of all mixed in together.  I had to go after a couple of hours, but I came back the next day, and the next, and every day after that.

A couple of times I had to walk, but that was okay.  I was familiar with the route, and I always got back to headquarters well before the dusk curfew.  Nobody bothered me, although I saw a fight or two and some people trying to break into a store.  Professor Palmer started to worry less about me–not that he had much time to worry, with all the stuff he was supervising at Coolidge Palace.  At the officer’s mess, the food got skimpier and skimpier.  Standing in line to wash up in the morning, I overheard the officers worrying that the situation couldn’t last much longer.  Even Bessy, the huge woman who brought out the hot water, was starting to look thin.

As for Kevin–physically he kept getting better, although he too looked thin.  His mental state was another story.  He had too much time to think, and the more he thought, the unhappier he got.  It was the same old stuff: we wouldn’t find the portal, we’d never get home, we’d be stuck here forever.  But now it all seemed more real to him.  “We’re going to die here,” he said one day.  “Next week or in, like, sixty years, it’s gonna happen.”

“If we can just get back to Glanbury–”

“But we might not even be able to do that,” he pointed out, “if New England loses the war.”

“We won’t lose.”

But Kevin was too depressed to be convinced.  “Larry,” he said, “remember that first day, sitting in the brig?  Remember how we wondered if our families were in the camp?”

“Yeah, I guess so.  You were the one who was wondering.”

“Well, I still am.  I was thinking: If we can’t get back home, maybe at least we can find another version of our families here.”

“That’d be creepy,” I said.  “What if you met yourself?”

“That wouldn’t be creepy.  It’d be cool.”

I thought about it.  Hadn’t I wondered if I existed in the Burger Queen world?  But still . . .  “I know Stinky Glover was in the Burger Queen world, and Nora Lally,” I said.  “But this world split off from ours hundreds of years ago.  What are the odds they’d be here?”

“Beethoven lived in this world,” Kevin pointed out.  “And look at Calvin Coolidge, for crying out loud.  If there was a Calvin Coolidge here, why can’t there be an Albright family and a Barnes family?”

“Well, Glanbury’s just a small farming town.  There can’t be anywhere near as many people living there in this world as in ours.  I mean, think about it.  The right people have to fall in love and get married, generation after generation, every since the two universes split off.  Even if it’s possible that our families are here, what are the odds?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said.  “But I think you should go look for them.”

“You want me to go to the Fens camp?  That’s nuts!”


“Things are getting scary out there, Kevin.  Professor Palmer is worried about me even coming to the hospital.  And the camps are a whole lot worse.  They won’t let anyone out anymore, and people inside are getting desperate.  I was talking to a couple of soldiers at headquarters, and they said they wouldn’t go into the camp with anything less than a platoon.”

Kevin considered.  “I can’t make you go,” he said.  “But what if they’re in the camp?  What if Cassie and Matthew and your Mom and Dad are just a couple of miles away from here?”

“Come on, Kevin, they’re not the same people.  Even if they have the same DNA or whatever, all their experiences are different.  So they’d be different.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t be that different–how do you know?”

“What do we have in common?  Farming?  Smallpox?  Drikana?”

Kevin seemed to lose his energy all of a sudden.  Maybe it was my mentioning his disease.  “Suit yourself,” he said, lying back on his pillow.  “I’ll go myself when I get sprung from here.”

“Look, I’ll think about it, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied.  “Thanks, Larry.”  He didn’t sound like he meant it.

But I did think about it.  I had to admit I was curious, but was I curious enough to walk through Cheapside and talk my way into the camp?  If I got in, could I get back out?  I had my pass, but how much good was that going to do?  I guess I was braver than I used to be, but going to the camp really seemed stupid.

When I visited Kevin the next day, he didn’t bring it up, but I could tell he was still thinking about it too.  And he was still depressed about being in the hospital, and in this world.

Walking back to headquarters afterwards, I saw a woman begging outside a tavern, with a child Matthew’s age by her side.  They were both wearing rags, basically.  The mother looked desperate, and the child looked like he was too tired and hungry to care what happened to him.  There were lots of beggars now, and most people just walked past them.

I didn’t have anything to give her, but she started me thinking about my own mother.  If she was in the camp, how could she stand it?  At home she was worried about perverts from Rhode Island getting hold of us.  What would she do if there was real danger all around her?

And then I thought: What if I could help her?  Bring her food, maybe even get her out of the camp.

I got excited thinking about this, and it took me a while to realize that something weird was happening.  I had slipped from imagining my real mother being in the camp to thinking about my “other” mother–the one from this world.

And it didn’t seem to make any difference.  I had been arguing with Kevin that the Emma Barnes in this world would be a different person from my Emma Barnes.  Now I had fallen into thinking the opposite: She was my mom, no matter where she was.

Did I believe that?

I guess I sort of did.  And if so, why didn’t I agree with Kevin?  Why wasn’t I itching to go find my family?

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do just that.

I imagine this was the process Kevin had gone through, lying there in his hospital bed with nothing to do but think.  Practically everything about this world was different and strange.  But if we could find our families . . . well, they might be different, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be strange.  There would be some way in which my mom was still my mom, my dad was still my dad.

If they were here.

I lay awake that night in my cold attic room thinking about it some more.  In the morning I was still thinking about it as I washed up outside, then ate a hard biscuit and some thin porridge in the mess.  I went over to Coolidge Palace with Professor Palmer, but I didn’t say anything about going to the Fens camp; he would’ve gone nuts.  It turned out he didn’t even want me to visit Kevin anymore.

“But I haven’t had any problems at all going to the hospital,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but it keeps getting worse in the city,” he responded.  “I hear there was a riot at Dock Square yesterday.”

“I don’t go anywhere near Dock Square.  And Kevin is expecting me.”

He just shook his head.  “I can’t allow it, Larry,” he said.  “Things are just too dangerous, and you are too valuable to us.  If Peter could take you, then wait and bring you back, that would be acceptable.  But Lieutenant Carmody can’t spare him any longer.”

This wasn’t good.  Especially since I didn’t feel very valuable.  On the palace grounds, mostly I just hung around and got in the way.  Professor Palmer was usually in meetings or supervising something.  Once I saw President Gardner, along with Vice President Boatner and Lord Percival, but he barely nodded to me.  The three of them looked pretty tired.  I heard that the Portuguese and Canadian diplomats were meeting with them off and on inside the palace, but no one had any idea how the negotiations were coming.  For all any of us knew, the war could be over at any minute, with New England surrendering and all our efforts wasted.

After lunch I decided that I couldn’t stand it, so I just wandered away.  The soldiers with the big plumed hats at the gate knew me, and they let me out without a problem.

I was fine as I walked through the heart of the city, but I began to get nervous as I came to Cheapside.  When Kevin and I had walked through it before, it had been nighttime, and we hadn’t really seen just how run-down the place was, with its narrow dirt lanes and wretched shacks.  No more hogs snuffling around in the alleys, though–they’d all been eaten long ago, I supposed.  And no more music and laughter from inside the saloons.  The only people I saw were hunched in doorways, and they stared at me suspiciously.  I began to be conscious of my warm coat, which had looked pretty shabby when the lieutenant had first handed it to me.  But I thought: these people don’t have enough energy to attack me.

At last I made it through Cheapside and reached the military buildings outside the camp.  It felt strange to see them again, after so much had happened.

Near the barracks I spotted Chester, the guy who was in the brig with us.  He was digging a big hole in the ground with some other soldiers.  “Graves,” he said when he saw me.  “Need lots of graves.”

I shuddered and hurried on.

There seemed to be a lot more soldiers guarding the camp, and the fence looked higher and sturdier.  I searched for a familiar face, and finally spotted one.  “Caleb!” I called out.

He was standing in front of the barracks, talking to some other soldiers.  His beard was scruffier than I remember and, like everyone, he looked thinner.  He glanced over when I called his name and smiled.  “Hello, mate!” he said.  “What brings you back here?  I hear you was involved in that secret business back at the Palace.”

“I got the day off.  I was wondering–can I get into the camp?”

“Now why would you want to do that, mate?” he asked.  “It’s nasty in there.  Everyone who’s inside just wants to get out.”

“I’m looking for a friend.”

He shook his head.  “Know where he’s camped?”

“Not really.”

“Then you’ll not have much luck, I fear.”

“But I need to try,” I said, starting to feel desperate.

Caleb shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  Let’s go find Sergeant Hornbeam.  Easy enough to get in, I suppose.  The trick is getting back out.  Used to be folks could wander outside, as long as they came back before curfew.  Those days are gone now.  Too many people, not enough of anything else.”

He brought me inside the barracks to a little office next to Colonel Clarett’s–the one where I had first met Lieutenant Carmody.  Sergeant Hornbeam was sitting there writing on a sheet of paper.

“Sergeant, look who’s come back to visit!” Caleb said.

The sergeant looked up at me.  If I was expected him to be happy to see me, I was mistaken.  He just seemed puzzled and maybe a little annoyed.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“He wants to go visiting in the camp,” Caleb said.

“By yourself?  Is Lieutenant Carmody with you?”

“No, uh, just me.  But I’ve got a pass from him.”

I dug it out and gave it to him.  He studied it.  “Odd,” he muttered, then handed the pass back to me.  “Hold onto it,” he said.  “But take my advice and don’t go into the camp.”

“I’ll be careful,” I promised.

He shook his head.  “We only go in there to cart out the dead now.  But suit yourself.  Show the pass to get back out.  If there’s a problem, tell the guards to find me.”

“Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir.”

He waved me away, and Caleb escorted me out of the barracks.

“So,” Caleb said as we walked over to the camp gates, “what does headquarters have up its sleeve?  Flying airships, that’s what Fred heard.  Hundreds of feet above Coolidge Palace.”

“I can’t really talk about it, Caleb.”

“Could you just tell me if there’s something, mate?  Folks is getting mighty nervous, I don’t mind telling you.  There’s also rumors that the president’s going to surrender by week’s end.  So are we fighting, or are we giving up?  It’d be good to know what’s what.”

“I don’t know about surrendering,” I said.  “But I know they’re working on some things at Coolidge Palace, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to help.”

“As long as they’re still trying, that’s a good sign.  Here you go, mate.”

We had reached the main gates.  There were several soldiers standing guard.  A crowd of people on the other side of the fence was yelling at one of them, demanding to be let out.  The guards just ignored them.

“This here is Larry from headquarters, Sergeant,” Caleb said to the soldier in charge.  “He’s to be let in and out of the camp, though why he wants to go in there is beyond me.”

“He’ll learn soon enough,” the sergeant replied with a shrug.  “Take a couple of men and go to the side gate.  Fix bayonets, in case you have to clear a path.”

“Right.”  Caleb found a couple of his friends, and we went along the fence till we reached another gate, also heavily guarded, but with only a few people on the other side. Caleb and the guards put their bayonets on, then unlocked the gate and pretty much shoved me inside, while pushing back the people who lunged forward, trying to get out.

“Thanks, Caleb!” I shouted as I made my way through the people.

“Fare you well, mate!” he said.  “And be careful!”

And there I was, back inside the camp.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 15

The Canadian soldiers are approaching Cambridge.  It’s time for Professor Palmer and the boys to retreat to Boston with the New England soldiers.  They decide to spend one last night at home — to celebrate Harvest Day.

And then Kevin comes down with the dread disease drikana.  Now they all have to be quarantined for seven days, with the enemy invading their city.  Will Kevin survive?  Even if he does, will the Canadians discover them and burn down the house with the three of them inside?

Kevin and Larry are a long way their old lives, where all they had to worry about was getting wet willies from Stinky Glover . . .


Chapter 15

We went back inside to take care of Kevin.  He was sitting on the edge of the bed, pale and shivering, trying to throw up.  “Am I dying?” he managed to whisper.

“You are very ill, Kevin,” the professor replied, “but we will take care of you.”

I wrapped a blanket around him.

Was he better?  Worse?  I changed my mind every few minutes, and finally decided he was about the same.  Which meant he still had a chance.  “Larry, what did I do to deserve this?” he whispered as he lay back, gasping, after one long stretch over the chamber pot.

“Hang in there, Kev,” I told him.

“I just want to go to school.  I just want to be with my family.”

“It’ll be all right.”

“This is awful.  They’ll never know what happened to me.  I’ll die, and–”  He started to cough, and then he began retching again.  He was right.  It was awful.

In the middle of the afternoon he drifted off to sleep again.  I was exhausted.  Just sitting was a strain.

“Go to my room and rest,” the professor urged me.  “I’ll take care of Kevin.”

I didn’t want to leave him, but I wasn’t doing much good sitting there, so I went across the hall and lay down on the professor’s bed.  I probably fell asleep right away.  This time I didn’t dream of balloon rides.  I dreamed of stepping into the portal and, instead of finding a new world, this one started spinning around me.  I got dizzier and dizzier, and I realized: the germs have got me.  Drikana.  I’m going to die.  And I thought: I hate this world, I hate this world . . .

I opened my eyes.  The room was dark.  I blinked and shook my head.  Was I dizzy?  Was I dying?

No, it was just a dream.  I was hungry.  I had to pee.  But I felt okay.  I got up and went back across the hall.  Kevin was still asleep.  The professor was reading a book by candlelight.

“This is good, right?”  I asked him.  “I mean, that he can sleep?”

“It is good.”

“And if he makes it through the night . . . ?”

“That will be a very good sign.  But there’s nothing certain about the course of the disease, Larry.  Even if Kevin survives the first two days, he will still be very weak.  Often victims succumb to another disease that overtakes them in their weakened state.  In rare cases, the drikana returns, and that is certain death.”

“I just want to be able to hope,” I said.

“So do I, Larry.  So do I.”

We heard the sound of gunfire in the distance.  I noticed that the curtain was drawn.  “We’ll have to be careful about candles and lamps at night,” I remarked.

The professor nodded.  “It’s lucky we’re not on a main thoroughfare,” he said.  “But our situation is still perilous.”

“How are we going to get to Boston after the claustration is over?”

The professor put down the book and rubbed his eyes.  “Let us first survive these first few days,” he said.  “There’ll be time to decide what we do after that.”

So we took turns watching Kevin through the night.  He woke up after a while, and the professor tried feeding him a little broth, but he couldn’t keep it down.  I read to him, and he seemed to like that, but he was too weak to pay much attention.  I wasn’t very sleepy, so I just kept on reading, even after Kevin had closed his eyes and fallen back asleep.  I was too worried to just sit there and think.  Was I dizzy yet?  What would I do if Kevin died?  What would happen if the Canadians showed up?  It was probably better not to think about those things.  But it was hard to avoid, sitting in the dark bedroom in the middle of the night with your friend maybe dying next to you.

Finally I nodded off again.  When I woke up, it was light out.  The professor was sitting in his chair, asleep.  I looked over at Kevin.  He was awake.  “This sucks, you know that, Larry?” he said.

I could have kissed him.

“Am I gonna be all right?” he asked.

“Of course you are.”

His voice was weak, he was too exhausted to move very much, and he had no appetite, but he was definitely better.  “You are a strong young man,” the professor pronounced after he had examined Kevin.  In private, he told me that Kevin still wasn’t out of danger, but I don’t think I really believed him.  Kevin was okay, and the professor and I were still okay, and drikana wasn’t going to defeat us.

By the end of the day we could feed Kevin some broth.  By the next morning he wanted to know what was going on–weren’t we supposed to leave Cambridge?  Where were the Canadians?  Professor Palmer explained to him about claustration, and how we’d had to stay behind.

“You mean this is, like, enemy territory now?  And we’re stuck here?”

“We haven’t seen any Canadians yet, but yes, I expect they have taken over Cambridge at this point.”

Kevin thought this over.  “And you stayed behind to save me,” he said.

The professor put on his gruff voice.  “We really had no choice, you see.  The entire household must be claustrated when any inhabitant falls ill with the disease.  It’s the law.”

“All right,” Kevin replied.  “But, thanks just the same.  I’d be dead without you.”

The professor nodded.  “Of course, of course.”  Then he turned away, and I think maybe his eyes were moist.

So then it was a question of getting Kevin stronger and hoping the Canadians didn’t notice us until the seven days were up.  No fire during the day, no matter how cold it got; candlelight only behind thick curtains at night.  We went outside as little as possible–to visit the privy, to take care of the animals.  Once I was out in the barn, and I heard the sound of wagon wheels and soldiers’ voices, not that far away, and I prayed the animals would keep quiet until they passed.  Lieutenant Carmody’s warning kept buzzing around in my brain–when they saw the claustration sign they wouldn’t take us prisoner, they’d simply burn us up.  Could there be a worse death?  The sounds faded eventually, and we were still safe.

Eventually we began talking about our escape.  “Anything we attempt will be dangerous,” the professor explained, “but it should not be impossible to get to Boston.  I have lived here much of my life, and I know the backroads well.  On a clear night we should be able to reach the river without going near the Massachusetts Road–I have sketched out a route already.  The Canadians won’t be patrolling these roads, I think–their enemy is ahead of them, not behind them.”

“But what happens when we reach the river?” I asked.  “How do we get across?”

“The Canadians won’t have had time to build up positions along the entire length of the Charles, even if that is their strategy,” the professor replied.  “They’re probably massed on either side of the road.  We’ll need to work our way upriver.  I know an inlet where Harvard keeps a small boathouse for its students.  If we’re lucky, it will have escaped the enemy’s notice, and we can get a boat there and row across to the Boston side.”

“Will Kevin be strong enough to travel like this?”

“We don’t leave until Kevin is ready.  He can ride in the back of the carriage, but it will surely be a bumpy trip.”

“I can make it,” Kevin said.

The professor shook his head.  “Not until the seven days are up, at the earliest.”

I thought of the lieutenant’s final warning: We’d be shot if we showed up in Boston before those seven days.  People didn’t fool around here when it came to drikana.

Kevin had a question, too.  “What happens to Susie?”

“We’ll have to leave Susie at the boathouse,” the professor replied.  “It can’t be helped, I’m afraid.”

That was just awful.  The professor’s horse was like part of the family.  But there was nothing we could say.  It was clear we couldn’t get her across the river.

So we took care of Kevin, and we waited.

The seventh night was clear and cold.  Kevin was still very weak, but eager to leave.  “I’m ready,” he insisted.  “Let’s get out of here.”

Professor Palmer was hesitant.  “A day or two more would do you a world of good,” he said.

“Every day we’re here makes it more dangerous for all of us,” Kevin replied.  Couldn’t argue with that.  So the professor agreed: it was time to go.

There were things to be done first.  We burned all Kevin’s bedclothes–a requirement at the end of claustration.  Professor Palmer took down the sign; that was a big relief.  We unloaded the books and papers we had so carefully put into the professor’s carriage a week ago; we weren’t going to row them across the river.  It seemed like way more than a week had gone by since we had packed the carriage, since that happy Harvest Day.  If the professor was sad that we had to leave all his stuff behind, he didn’t let on.  Then we hitched up Susie, who seemed plenty surprised to have to go to work at this time of night.  Last of all, we brought Kevin out and made him as comfortable as we could in the back of the carriage.

“Ready?” Professor Palmer asked.


We headed off.  I took one look back at the house, wondering if I’d ever see it again.  Then we turned a corner, and it disappeared.

The night was quiet, and we seemed to make a huge amount of noise as we clopped along in the moonlight.  Leaves floated down from the trees like small dark ghosts.  I thought of the pretend scariness of Halloween, and how different this was.  The enemy was out there somewhere, ready to kill us.

Susie seemed confused about where we were heading; this certainly wasn’t one of her regular routes.  The professor led us through little lanes and narrow paths, staying away from the main roads.  Sometimes it looked like there wasn’t a path at all, and we were cutting across a meadow or through someone’s backyard.  We didn’t see or hear anyone else; the town seemed entirely deserted.

“You okay, Kev?” I whispered to him after we went over a big bump.

“Hangin’ in there,” he replied, but he didn’t sound all that great.  “You know what I miss this time of year?”

“What’s that?”

“The World Series.  I wonder if the Red Sox–”

“Save the baseball talk for General Aldridge, Kevin.”

“Not much farther to go,” the professor said.

We made one final turn, and then I could see the rippling of water in the distance and the outline of a long, dark structure.  “The boathouse,” he whispered.  We had made it!

We pulled up in front of the building.  “Quickly,” the professor said, getting down from the carriage.  “Larry, bring the lantern.  We may have to risk a light inside.”

I turned to get the lantern.  And that’s when I heard the voice.

“Stop right there!  Turn around and get down!  Both of you, raise your hands where I can see ’em.”

I turned, my heart pounding, and saw the shape of a man aiming a rifle at me.  I did as I was told.

“Laurent,” he called out.  “Wake up and give us some light if you please.”

He had one of those French-Canadian accents.  In a few seconds a second soldier appeared out of the boathouse; he lit a lantern and held it up.

Both of the men had long hair and beards.  The one with the rifle was big and burly; Laurent was smaller, and looked nervous.  They were wearing dirty gray uniforms with the jackets unbuttoned.

“Put the lantern down and search them for weapons,” the burly soldier ordered Laurent.  He seemed to be the boss.

Laurent came over and patted us down.  “Trying to get to Boston, eh?” the other soldier asked meanwhile.

We didn’t reply.

“They don’t look like spies, Robert,” Laurent said when he was done.  He pronounced it “Row-bare.”

“And what exactly do spies look like?” Robert snapped.  “Do they wear red uniforms with ‘New England’ written on the sleeves?”

“We’re not spies,” the professor said.  “We’re merely residents of Cambridge who delayed in evacuating.”

“Well, you delayed too long,” Robert said.  “This is Canadian territory now.  D’ye think we’re too stupid to guard this boathouse?”

“Shall we shoot them, Robert?” Laurent asked.

Robert looked annoyed.  “No, fool, we bring them to headquarters and have them interrogated.  Even if they’re not spies, they may have valuable information.  Get some rope and tie them up.”

“Where’s the rope?”

Robert muttered what sounded like a French swear under his breath.  “Hold the rifle and give me the lantern,” he said.  “If either of them moves, shoot them both.”

“But I thought you said–”

Robert said the French word louder, then grabbed the lantern from Laurent and went back into the boat house.  The professor and I stayed where we were.  Laurent aimed the rifle at us in the moonlight.

And that’s when Kevin moved in the back of the carriage.

“What’s that?” Laurent demanded.

“That,” said the professor, “is our drikana patient.”

“Mon Dieu!” Laurent whispered, and he shifted the rifle and blessed himself.  “Robert!” he called out.  “Robert!”

Robert came back out of the boathouse a moment later, carrying another rifle along with the lantern.  “What the devil is it?” he demanded, when he saw that neither of us had moved.

“D-drikana,” Laurent said, pointing to the carriage.  “In the back.”

Robert went over to the carriage, shined the lantern inside, and saw Kevin lying down amid pillows and blankets.

“We were under claustration,” the professor said.  “That’s why we were delayed in leaving.”

Why is he telling them about that? I wondered.  They’ll want nothing to do with drikana, Lieutenant Carmody had said.  They’d just burn us alive.

“Now let’s shoot them,” Laurent begged, proving my point.

“If you shoot us,” the professor pointed out, “you’ll have to bury us.”

Robert backed away from the carriage.  “How do we know it’s drikana?” he said.

“Why else would we stay behind enemy lines instead of leaving with everyone else?” the professor replied.

“Please let’s shoot them,” Laurent said.

“Shut up!” Robert ordered him.  “The claustration, it is over?” he asked the professor.

“It ended tonight.  And now you can kill us and deal with our bodies, or you can let us row our patient over to the city.”

So then I understood what the professor was up to.  The best solution for the Canadians was to let us go and bring the disease across the river into Boston.  Let New England deal with us.

Robert got the point.  “The boy is definitely ill,” he said.  “Could be consumption, I suppose.”

“Could be,” the professor agreed.  “But it’s drikana.”

Laurent looked very unhappy.  “My sister died of it,” he said.

“It is not a pleasant disease.”

“Laurent, get a boat out for ’em,” Robert ordered.  “They’re going to Boston.”

Laurent didn’t have to be told twice.  He ran back into the boathouse, and soon after that we could hear him dragging a boat out into the water.

“This gun will be trained on you as you cross,” Robert said to us.  “If I see you turning back, you’ll all be dead before you reach the shore.”

“We understand,” the professor replied.  “Believe me, we have no desire to return to Cambridge.”

Robert motioned with the rifle.  “Get the boy,” he ordered.

We put our hands down–my arms were really tired–and went to get Kevin.  “Sorry,” he said.

“Sorry for what?” I replied.  “Come on, Kev.  Let’s get into the boat.”

The professor and I half-carried Kevin along a narrow path to the dock, where the boat was waiting.  Laurent was standing as far away from us as he could on the dock.  We arranged Kevin in the boat as well as possible, but he looked pretty uncomfortable.  “We need the blankets,” Professor Palmer said to Laurent, and he motioned with the rifle to go back and get them.  “Larry, you stay with Kevin,” the professor said.

“Say goodbye to Susie for us,” I said.

He patted me on the head and then returned to the carriage.  “That was a smart move by the professor,” Kevin said while we waited.

“I bet he planned it all along, and just didn’t want to tell us.”

He returned in a minute with the blankets and pillows.  “Can you row?” he asked me.

“A little.”  Thank goodness I had taken lessons at camp last summer.

“We’ll take turns.  You begin.”

Robert was on the dock now, too.  “To Boston,” he reminded us.  “Return, and you die.”

I picked up the oars, fit them into the oarlocks, and moved us away from the dock.  “So far so good,” I said.

“Indeed,” the professor replied.  “Unfortunately, now it begins to be really dangerous.”

Why?  I didn’t want to ask.  I focused on getting us out of the inlet and onto the river.  I was pretty rusty at rowing, but I got back the hang of it quickly.  The dock was out of sight once we were on the river, and I wondered how the Canadian soldiers were going to track us.  Had Robert just been bluffing?  The river was calm; its surface was like glass in the moonlight.  There were just a few dim lights on either shore.  And there wasn’t a sound except for the swooshing of the oars.  It felt incredibly peaceful.

When we were about in the middle of the river, the professor said, “I’ll take over now.”

“I’m not tired,” I said.  “I can make it the whole way.”

“Larry, let me take over,” he repeated.  “I want you to get down in the bottom of the boat with Kevin.”


“Because I expect the New England soldiers will start shooting at us any moment now.”

“Huh?  But the claustration is over!  We’re okay.”

After a few weeks with us, the professor didn’t need a translation of “okay”.  “They don’t know who we are,” he said.  “They just see a boat heading toward them from enemy territory.  They’re first instinct will be to shoot at it.  Now do as I say and get down with Kevin.”

I didn’t really have a choice.  I awkwardly switched positions with the professor, then scrunched down next to Kevin.  “Scary, huh?” I said.

“Wouldn’t it be great just to feel safe again?” he replied.

“Not gonna happen anytime soon.”

We approached the Boston shore.  The professor was a pretty good rower, for someone his age.  “Won’t be long now,” he muttered.  And then he shouted, “This is Alexander Palmer!  Let us come ashore!”

He barely got the second sentence out when the guns started firing.  The sound was like a punch in the stomach.  The bullets sprayed the water around us.  One of them nicked an oarlock.  Kevin and I huddled together.

“Alexander Palmer!” the professor repeated at the top of his lungs.  “I’m Professor Alexander Palmer!  Don’t shoot!  Let us come ashore!”

There was a pause.  “You all right?” I asked the professor.

“Yes, yes.  But their aim will get better as we get closer.”  He shouted out his name again, and then added: “We are friends of Lieutenant William Carmody.  We have no weapons.”

They fired a couple more shots at us, then I heard a shout from the shore that I couldn’t understand.  But the shooting stopped after that, and we continued to make our way toward Boston.  I sat up a little, and I saw a lantern ahead of us.  “Over here,” a voice called out.  “Stay in the boat.”

We eased up to the bank.  A squad of soldiers approached, with rifles aimed at us.  “You have the drikana patient with you?” one of them demanded.

“We do,” Professor Palmer replied.

The soldier came up to the boat.  He was a short, plump lieutenant, and he carried a pistol instead of a rifle.

“He is much improved,” the professor said.  “And the claustration is complete.”

The lieutenant peered in at Kevin.  “Hi,” Kevin said.

“Sergeant,” the lieutenant called out.  “Have you found the order from headquarters?”

“Yes, sir,” one of the other soldiers replied.

“What time does it expire?”

“Midnight, sir.”

The lieutenant took out his watch and made a big deal of checking it.  What a jerk, I thought.  We hadn’t left Cambridge till after midnight.  Obviously the time was up.  “Very well,” he said.  “I don’t approve, but the order is clear.  Sergeant, find a wagon and get these people to hospital without delay.  And keep everyone away from them.”

“Yes, sir.”  The sergeant headed off away from the bank.

The lieutenant turned back to us.  “Can he walk?”

“We can help him,” Professor Palmer replied.

“Follow the sergeant up the path.  Don’t touch anyone.  Don’t talk to anyone.”

“Let’s go, lads,” the professor said without replying to the lieutenant.

The lieutenant stepped back away from us as we got out of the boat.  “Corporal,” he said to another soldier, “burn the boat and everything in it.”

“Welcome back to Boston, eh?” the professor said to us as we headed towards the path leading away from the river, and all the soldiers shrank back.

“Could have been worse,” I said.

“Indeed it could,” the professor replied.  “Indeed it could.”