Portal, an online novel: Chapter 27

Chapter 26: Larry, Kevin, and Stinky meet up with Mrs. Gradger and her daughter as they make their way south towards Glanbury.  They spend the night with at the Gradgers’ house in Weymouth, but Kevin is desperate to keep going and reach Glanbury.  Stinky surprisingly turns down an offer to stay with the Gradgers and continues to accompany the boys on their journey home.

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Chapter 27

Home.  Sort of.  Certainly not for Kevin–he wasn’t interested in this Glanbury.  And it didn’t look at all familiar to me.  The North River was in our Glanbury, too, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it.  It wasn’t a very big river.  At least its bridge hadn’t been destroyed.

We crossed the bridge.  Glanbury didn’t look any different from what we had already passed by along the Post Road.  A few shops and houses, but mostly just woods and farmland, and occasionally a road leading off to the east or west.  Just another little town.  I wasn’t surprised that President Gardner hadn’t thought much of it.

Kevin looked around intently, trying to spot the place where we had burst out of the woods with the Portuguese soldiers shooting at us.  It would be on our left–I recalled that much.  But that was about all I remembered.  And if Kevin insisted it was on our right, I’m not sure how strongly I could have argued the point.  Nothing looked familiar to me.  Kevin hesitated once in a while, but he didn’t run off into the woods.  I could sense him getting worried as we walked.

“How far to the Barnes place?” I asked Stinky.

“Another mile or two, I expect.”

I wondered if the farmhouse was where my house was in the other world.  Was that how things worked in these alternate universes?  That would make it easier for us to find the portal–just look in the woods behind the backyard.  But I remembered how confusing the geography of the Burger Queen world had been, and I figured we weren’t going to be that lucky.

I was tired and hungry by now.  Kevin was starting to look pretty worn-out too.  I knew he wanted to keep searching until he found the portal.  But he only had so much energy; it would only be daylight for so long.  It would be tough.

“We turn here,” Stinky said finally, pointing to a road up ahead on the right.  “Go left and the road’ll take us to town and the harbor, go right to the Barnes farm.  It’s a nice little place.”

I looked at Kevin.  He shrugged.  “Let’s go to the farm,” he said.

So we turned off the Post Road, and then took another turn after a while, onto a small lane lined with hedges.  “There it is,” Stinky said.  “Lucky thing, looks like the Portuguese left it alone.  Probably didn’t bother coming this far off the main road.”

The house was small, far less imposing than the Gradgers’, or Professor Palmer’s house in Cambridge.  The red barn behind the house was bigger than house itself was.  Both seemed to be in good shape.  We walked up the lane to the front door.  I knocked.  There was no answer.

“What do you want to do?” Stinky asked.

“Go inside,” I said.  “Start a fire.  Get the place ready for them.”

“You mean just . . . move in?”

I nodded.

“If you say so.”

The door wasn’t locked, so we walked inside.

We found ourselves in a small entryway.  On the left was a long, dark, low-ceilinged room dominated by a big fireplace, with heavy black pots and pans hung next to it.  On the right was a smaller, brighter room with nothing in it but a table and chairs.  We walked into the room with the fireplace.  It led into the kitchen, where there was another table and chairs, and some shelves with pewter plates and cups on them.  Next to the fireplace was a small storage area.  In a corner of the living room was a spinning wheel.  “Home Sweet Home” said a piece of embroidery hung on the wall to our right.

Home.

Strangely–or maybe not so strangely–it did feel like home.

Everything was where it should be, where I wanted it to be.  Beyond the room on the right was a bedroom, with a Bible on the nightstand next to the bed.  From there you climbed up a wooden ladder-like set of stairs to an attic, where there were a couple more beds with a curtain between them.  On the floor I saw some wooden toys that probably belonged to Matthew.  I wondered how Cassie put up with Matthew chattering away on the other side of that curtain at bedtime.  In this world, she didn’t have a choice.

We checked out back.  Firewood was stacked neatly by the door.  Beyond it was the well, and on the other side of the yard was the privy.  Everything was simple but solid and clean.  I thought about how my mother always insisted that we keep our rooms tidy.  When we’d whine that the mess didn’t bother us, she’d say, “There’s no excuse for being a slob.”  There wasn’t, really.  I had a lump in my throat when I went back inside.

“Must be pretty weird for you, huh?” Kevin murmured while Stinky brought in firewood.

“It seems so . . . familiar.  How are you doing?”

“All right, I guess.  Pretty wiped.  Do you think the portal’s further south along the main road?”

“Probably.  I haven’t seen anything that looked familiar so far.  But then again, it was so foggy, and we were running for our lives, and–”

“I know.  I remember a bunch of pine trees across the road when we came out of the woods–but there are pine trees all over the place.  Anyway, it can’t be far.  Glanbury’s not that big a town.”

Unless the portal had disappeared back where it came from.  Unless it had moved.  Unless, unless . . .  “It can’t be far,” I agreed.  Kevin didn’t want to hear anything else.

We went and helped Stinky get the fire started.  Then it was time to go hunting for our supper.  Kevin stayed behind again.  He was tired, and besides, he didn’t care about hunting; it wasn’t something he was going to do once he got back home.

So Stinky and I went out with my rifle and his pistol.  We had to tramp through fields where cornstalks drooped, then climb over a long stone wall.  We passed by a small body of water that Stinky was familiar with.  “Amity Pond,” he said.  “Good fishing.  We may be able to catch some trout there.”  And then we headed into the woods past the pond.

This time when we spotted a turkey, Stinky motioned to me to take the shot.  It was a lot different from aiming at an empty Coke can with a BB gun.  Sorry, bird, I thought.  And I pulled the trigger.

The turkey squawked and keeled over.  Stinky clapped me on the back.  “Terrific,” he said.

All I could think of was the soldier with the wispy mustache.  Still, I had gotten us dinner.

We trudged back to the farmhouse, and this time all three of us helped prepare the turkey.  It was gross, but it had to be done. Another skill worth learning in this world.  Then we cooked and ate it the way we did the night before; it tasted fine, but I could tell I was going to get sick of turkey pretty soon, if that’s all we could find to eat.  Better than going hungry, though.

We found some blankets in the storage area and slept in front of the fire in the living room, like we had at the Gradgers; using the beds didn’t seem right.  We figured we were safe here, so we didn’t stand watches.  And in the morning the sun was shining, the fire had died down, and we had to figure out what to do next.

I assumed Stinky would want to leave, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry.  “Oh, I’ll find old man Kincaid when the time comes, and we’ll work things out,” he said, talking about his master.  “In the meantime, there’s plenty to be done here.  Chopping wood, hunting, fishing . . .  We can cart ice back from Amity Pond to preserve the meat.  There should be a root cellar somewhere around.  We can search for seed corn and make sure it’s protected.  That’ll be important come next spring.”

Kevin wasn’t interested in doing chores.  “What’s the point?” he demanded when Stinky was paying a visit to the privy.  “Let’s just find the portal and go home.  Now.”

He was right, of course.  We had done it.  We had gotten back to Glanbury, and there was no one to stop us from going home.  Still . . .

I wanted to find out what had happened to my family on this world.  I wanted to make sure they were okay.  And I didn’t want to have them wonder what happened to Larry Palmer.  Did he die in the battle?  Why did he never come to see us like he promised?

But I couldn’t say that to Kevin; he would’ve gone nuts.  He was already staring at me suspiciously.  “What’s the matter?” he demanded.

“I’m just a little–I don’t know,” I said.  “What if the portal doesn’t take us home?  We could step out into a black hole or something.”

“Okay, yeah, it’s a risk.  We know that.  But we’ve gotta take it, Larry.  We can’t stay here for the rest of our lives if we have a chance to make it home.”

“Sure, but, you know, what if you bring those drikana germs back with you?  We don’t want to start a plague or something.”

“I’m not contagious.  This world doesn’t know how to cure drikana, but they know when people are contagious.  I’m out of claustration.  I feel fine.  Now let’s go.”

Stinky came back in.  “What shall we do now?”

Kevin looked at me.

“Kevin and I are going hunting,” I said.  “We’ll be back in a while.”

“I’ll come too,” he replied.  “If you shoot a deer, we might need the three of us to bring it back.”

“No, uh, why don’t you stay here, Julian.  We’ll be all right.”

He looked puzzled and disappointed, but he didn’t argue.  He also didn’t say anything when we went down the lane to the road, rather than back into the woods beyond Amity Pond.

I might never see him again, I thought.

Kevin couldn’t have cared less.  He practically raced back to the Post Road.  When we reached it, we turned right and started heading south.  “Give a shout if you spot anything that looks familiar,” he said.

“Sure.”

But it all looked more or less familiar.  Or more or less unfamiliar.  I peered into the woods on the left and tried to remember any details from those few frantic moments when we raced out of the woods and into the road.  “Maybe there?” I suggested at one point, although I couldn’t say why.

But Kevin got excited, and we tramped into the woods and wandered around for a while, waving our hands in front of us.  We didn’t find anything, although I spotted a deer staring at us like we were crazy.  “Why did you think it was here?” he demanded.

“I don’t know.  Just a guess.  I can’t really remember anything, Kevin.  But I’m trying.”

“All right,” he said.  “Let’s keep going.”

We went back to the road and continued heading south.  We stopped a couple of times more when Kevin thought he spotted something he recognized, and we went through the same routine, walking around in the woods, hoping we stumbled onto the portal.  We weren’t just looking for a needle in a haystack, I thought.  We were looking for an invisible needle, and we didn’t even know which haystack it was in.

But I wasn’t going to say that to Kevin.

Finally we reached a deserted building called the Wompatuck Inn.  I didn’t remember the inn, but Wompatuck was the town just south of Glanbury.  We looked at each other.  Kevin sat down on a hitching post.  “I don’t know,” he said softly.  “I thought . . . I thought I’d spot something.  I thought we’d get lucky for once.”

“We can keep looking, Kevin.  We’ve got time.”

“Until Lieutenant Carmody tracks us down.  He knows we’re here looking for the portal.”

“He’ll think we’re gone.”

“He won’t be sure.  He’ll check.  You know he will.”

“Well, it’s got to be here somewhere.”

“No, it doesn’t,” he replied in a tired tone.  “We don’t know anything about it–where it came from, how it works.  We’re just a couple of stupid kids who did a really stupid thing.  And now . . . ”

I didn’t know what to say.  Finally Kevin stood up, and we started walking back.  He didn’t suggest looking in the woods.  “We should do some hunting,” I said after a while.

He just shrugged.  We had seen plenty of game besides the deer.  When we got near the farm I went back into the woods; Kevin didn’t join me.  Within a few minutes I had shot another turkey.

“I’m sick of turkey,” he muttered when I brought it out of the woods with me.

He was not going to be great company, I decided.  “Tomorrow,” I said.  “We’ll search again tomorrow.”

“Okay,” he replied.  “Whatever.”

When we got back to the farmhouse, Stinky was cooking up fish that he’d caught.  If he was curious about why we’d taken so long just to shoot one turkey, he didn’t say so.  It wasn’t hard to tell that something was wrong, but he didn’t ask what it was.

So it was a quiet night.  Kevin just stared into the fire; he barely touched his supper.  I ate enough for two, even though I didn’t like fish.  Stinky talked about all the chores he had done, and it made me feel guilty.  We went to sleep early, huddled in front of the fire.

I thought about my family–my “real” family–and how annoying they all could be, how rotten my life had been, with the “real” Stinky bugging me and Nora Lally ignoring me and my stupid teachers at The Gross boring me to death.  What if I didn’t have a choice–what if we couldn’t find the portal and I had to stay here?  No toilets or computers or TV, sure, but I was already used to not having that stuff.

What if I had to stay?

I fell asleep with that thought in my mind.

The next day was cold and raw.  Stinky and I did some chores while Kevin moped.  “What’s the matter with your friend?” Stinky finally asked me while we were in the barn.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think the battle bothered him.  He saw a lot of suffering.”

“We’ve all seen a lot the last few months,” was all he replied.

Eventually I got Kevin to go searching again.  Stinky didn’t offer to come with us this time.  I think Kevin was really starting to bother him.

We had only seen a couple of travelers yesterday.  Today there were a lot of people on the road, all making their way south.  We found out from them that no one was being stopped from leaving the city now; in fact, the army was encouraging it.  The travelers had the usual variety of rumors about what was happening with the Canadians, but no one said they had defeated us, and that was a good sign.

This time we headed north, back towards Weymouth.  We spent most of our time in the woods.  What was the point of walking along the road if we had no clue where to look?

After a while it started to snow.  “Great,” Kevin muttered.  “Now we won’t be able to recognize anything.”

But it wasn’t like we were recognizing anything to begin with.

We made it all the way back to the North River.  We watched the snow flecking the gray water for a while in silence, and then Kevin said, “Let’s go back before we freeze to death out here.”

“I’m sorry, Kev.”

He shrugged.  “Let’s just go.”

We turned back.  The snow was heavier now, and there were fewer people on the road.  We trudged along in silence, with our hands jammed into our pockets.  The snow was light and fluffy–not good snowball snow, but we were in no mood to throw snowballs.  For once I wished I was wearing those big old shoes from this world instead of my sneakers.

After a while I started looking for where we turned off the Post Road.  Visibility wasn’t that great anymore, and I sure didn’t want to miss the turn and keep on walking in the snowstorm.  Kevin didn’t look like he was going to be much help.  Up ahead I could make out a wagon, moving slowly along the road.  We got closer.  Suddenly the squeaking of the wheels stopped, and I heard a voice.  “This is Town Road, I think.”

It was my mother.

I started grinning and ran up to the wagon.  “Mrs. Barnes?” I said.  “It’s me–Larry Palmer!”

She was sitting on the bench with the reins in her hand.  Matthew sat next to her.  “Larry?” she whispered.  “Sweet Lord, it is.”

There was something about the way she said it.  There was none of the excitement and surprise I had expected; it was as if she could barely bring herself to speak.  I looked at Matthew; his eyes were red with tears.  “Larry, Cassie’s dead,” he said.  “Our own soldiers shot her, damn their eyes.”

I stared at my mother, and I knew that it was true.  A tear leaked out of her eye and fell down her cheek, mixing with the snowflakes.  I came closer and looked in the back of the wagon.  There, in the middle of all their snow-covered possessions, wrapped in a sheet, was the outline of a body.

“Oh, no,” I cried.  “Oh please, no.”

Mom reached down and touched me on the arm as I, too, started to weep.

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Portal, an online novel: Chapter 26

Chapter 25: Larry, Kevin, and Stinky Glover make their way out of Boston, south towards Glanbury.  Guards in watchtowers shoot at them; Kevin trades his Red Sox cap for a trip across the river; they see evidence of a headlong Portuguese retreat; they meet up with a weary mother and child heading home.  Is the war over?  Will they make it back to Glanbury?

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Chapter 26

A few minutes later we were there.

The Gradger house hadn’t been burned.  It was bigger than most of the houses I’d seen in Cambridge, with a fancy black iron fence out front and a wide brick drive leading up to an entranceway supported by large white pillars.  “We’re home, Mother!” Cecilia shouted.  “Home!”

But things didn’t look right.  The front door was open.  All the windows were smashed.  Staring at them, Mrs. Gradger looked like she wanted to kill someone else.  We walked quickly up the drive, rifles at the ready.  For a moment we stood by the door, listening, and then Mrs. Gradger strode inside, with the rest of us following.

The place had been trashed.  Broken glass and dishes littered the floor.  Furniture was overturned.  Paintings had been taken down from the wall and ripped in half.  We went from room to room–and there were a lot of them–and they were all wrecked.  We headed upstairs, and it was the same there.  Everything that could be destroyed had been.  It was awful.

Cecilia started crying again.  Mrs. Gradger didn’t say a word.  “I’m really sorry,” I said to her.  She just shook her head.

We went through the entire place to make sure it was empty, then came back downstairs.  Kevin, Stinky, and I didn’t have to say anything to each other; we all knew we had to pitch in.  “I’ll start a fire,” Kevin volunteered.

“I’ll unpack Barney,” I said.

“I’ll help,” Stinky added.

We went outside.  “Quite a mess,” Stinky remarked as we unloaded the mule.

“Think the Portuguese did it?”

“Don’t see why they’d do this much damage,” Stinky said.  “Same for thieves.  Maybe it was servants or townspeople, settling old scores.  They finally got a chance to show what they thought of the Gradgers.  I bet they weren’t so fond of Mrs. Gradger.”

“She’s not so bad.”

Stinky shrugged.  “Tell that to the person she shot.  Let’s get this stuff inside and see if we can find some food.”

We talked to Kevin and decided that he would stay behind with the Gradgers while we went out hunting.  Mrs. Gradger was starting to clean up the big living room, and Cecilia had lain down on a rug in the corner.  Stinky and I headed out into the late afternoon.

“Shouldn’t be hard to find game,” Stinky said.  “With no people around for months, the animals are probably nearabouts.”

“Whatever we do, let’s not get lost,” I replied.

We were in a residential neighborhood.  None of the houses were as grand as Mrs. Gradger’s, but they were still pretty nice.  We didn’t see anyone else, so it was like walking through a ghost town.  It took us a little while before we found a patch of woods behind a church.  “This’ll do, I expect,” Stinky said.

We went into the woods.  Stinky motioned for me to be silent.  Once again I noticed how quiet it could be in this world, without traffic or radios or airplanes.  We walked deeper into the woods, and then stopped again.  I could hear the sound of Stinky’s heavy breathing, the breeze moving the branches above us.  It was getting dark; I hoped this wouldn’t take long.  And then I saw Stinky slowly raise the pistol he had taken from the dead Portuguese soldier.

I looked where he was aiming.  There was a large, strange-looking bird waddling along the ground.  Could we eat that?  Stinky fired, and the sound was deafening.  The bird collapsed, squawking, and then there was silence again.  “Got ‘im,” Stinky said.

We walked over to it.  “What is it?” I asked.

Stinky looked at me with a puzzled expression.  “A turkey, of course,” he said.  “Don’t they ever feed you turkey in the orphanage?”

“Yeah, of course.  I love turkey.  But to be honest, I’m about ready to eat tree bark.”

Stinky picked up the bird and handed it to me, and we made our way out of the woods.  “A lot of turkeys’ll be shot before this winter’s over,” he said.

The dead bird was heavy, and it dripped blood as we walked.  Nasty.  But I wasn’t going to complain.  We made our way back to the Gradgers’ house without a problem, although night was falling fast.  Inside, the fire was roaring.  Mrs. Gradger was hanging sheets in front of the windows to keep out the cold air.  Kevin was sweeping up the broken glass; he looked relieved to see us return.  Cecilia was fast asleep on some cushions by the fire.

“Ma’am, if you’ll pluck this turkey, we can have some supper,” Stinky said.

Mrs. Gradger didn’t look happy about handling the turkey; that was probably something the servants did.  But she stopped what she was doing and went out with us to the kitchen.  Getting the turkey ready to eat turned out to be hard, disgusting work–chopping off the head, plucking the feathers, cleaning out the insides . . .  Rather than get involved with that, I started a fire in the kitchen fireplace, then pumped some water out back.  When the turkey had been prepared, she put it on a spit in the fireplace, and then we just had to wait for it to cook, while the aroma made our mouths water and our stomachs rumble.

The table and chairs had been destroyed, so we had to eat on the floor in the living room.  Mrs. Gradger found pewter plates that hadn’t been smashed and some old silverware, while the three of us did more cleanup.  Finally we took the turkey off the spit, carved it, roused Cecilia, and ate.  The turkey was burned on the outside, then too dry, then barely cooked next to the bone.  But it was probably the best food I’ve ever tasted.

Mrs. Gradger ate with her fork, I noticed.  It was the first time I had seen anyone do that since I’d been to Coolidge Palace.  She looked stiff and uncomfortable eating on the floor, but as usual she didn’t say anything.

There was a piano in a corner of the living room that had been too big to destroy.  After we had finished I went over to play it.  It was a good piano–better than Professor Palmer’s–but a little out of tune.  I played the song the professor like so much:

 

Wanly I wandered

Through the world far and wide

Seeking some solace

For dreams that had died

 

When I finished, everyone was silent.  Mrs. Gradger’s face was wet with tears.  Cecilia was sitting on her lap, asleep again, and Mrs. Gradger absently stroked her hair as she stared off into the distance.  Kevin got up and added a log to the fire.  “We should all go to sleep,” he said quietly.  “We’ll want to get started early.”

“Maybe we should stand watches,” Stinky suggested.  “Just in case.”

“I’ll take the first watch,” I offered.

“Wake me for one too,” Mrs. Gradger said.

We arranged more cushions, and people visited the privy, and then everyone but me settled down to sleep in front of the fire.  I sat next to a window, rifle by my side, and listened to the crackling of the fire and the regular breathing.  Despite all that had happened that day, I wasn’t very sleepy.

Wanly I wandered …

I thought about Kevin and how determined he was to get to the portal.  It looked like we were actually going to make it back to Glanbury, and that was more than I had expected a couple of days ago. So maybe we’d find it; maybe we’d have our chance to step into it and see where we’d end up.  I remembered the faint hope we’d had when we first came here that rescuers would follow us through the portal.  So many dreams had died.  But here we were, still alive, still struggling.

Long had I lingered/In an alien land . . .

I thought of my mother and father, and wondered if they were safe.  Which mother and father?  Both.  Kevin would scoff, but I didn’t think I could stand it if anything happened to the ones in this world.  And I worried about Professor Palmer, who had probably been operating the electric fence against the Canadians.  Would he be shot like Professor Foster?  I worried about Caleb and Benjamin and Chester and Corporal Hennessy.  This world, and the people in it, mattered to me now.  It wasn’t a dream, they weren’t a dream.

I might be part of this world for the rest of my life.

It is only by setting out that we can finally return home, the strange preacher had said.  But where was home?

I sat there for a couple of hours, just thinking.  Outside it was utterly quiet.  I got up once or twice to put another log onto the fire.  Finally I started to get sleepy, so I roused Stinky, who groggily took my place.  I lay down on the cushions and immediately fell into the best sleep I’d had in days.  No dreams.

When I awoke it was daylight, and everyone except Cecilia was already up.  Stinky was out shooting more game for breakfast.  Mrs. Gradger had found clean clothes upstairs and was laying them out for Cecilia.  And Kevin was waiting for me.  “Let’s go,” he said.

“We can wait for Stinky,” I replied.  “We can wait for breakfast.”

“Why?”

“Come on, Kevin.  Relax.”

Kevin brooded.  I wondered if he was thinking of leaving by himself.  He certainly wasn’t happy with me.

We heard some shots, and a few minutes later Stinky arrived with a couple of dead rabbits.  “Thought I spotted a deer,” he informed us.  “That’s what you’ll need to lay in a good supply of meat.”

Mrs. Gradger looked thoughtful.  Stinky skinned the rabbits for her, and then she roasted them in the kitchen.  We woke Cecilia and again ate sitting on the living-room floor.  “Mother,” Cecilia asked as we ate, “when will Father be home?”

“Father is still fighting for our country,” Mrs. Gradger said.  “Along with Gabriel and Elijah.”

“But we need them here.”

Mrs. Gradger didn’t reply.  When we were finished eating, she sent Cecilia off to change.  Kevin stood up to leave.

Mrs. Gradger raised a hand to stop him, and the rest of us.  “Please,” she said.  “Don’t go.  Stay here with Cecelia and me.  Just until my husband returns.  I can pay you well.”

Kevin shook his head.  “No, thanks.  We’ve got to get to Glanbury.”

“But what’s so important about going to Glanbury?” she persisted.  “I can pay you very well.  And my husband is an important man.  He can–he can find you work, give you opportunities.  You’re good lads.  You wouldn’t regret it.”

“Maybe St–maybe Julian would do it,” Kevin suggested.  “Larry and I have to go, but he doesn’t.  What about it, Julian?”

Everyone looked at Stinky.  “You wouldn’t regret it,” Mrs. Gradger repeated.  “We’re all alone here.  Think of my daughter.  We need help.”

It was hard for her to beg, I could tell.  And that only made the begging harder to resist.  Stinky looked pretty unhappy.  But he too shook his head finally.  “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to stay with my friends,” he said.  “We were glad to help, but now it’s time to leave.”

That was a little surprising.  Why not stay?  Was Stinky still grateful to me for helping him with those kids in the camp?  Was he worried about his master beating him or something?  Or was it just that he liked us?  Anyway, Mrs. Gradger looked like she didn’t know whether to yell at us or burst into tears.  Finally she got control of herself and said, “Very well.  In any case, I’m grateful to all of you and wish you godspeed.”

We said our fare-you-wells.  Cecilia came back in her new dress, cleaned up and cute.  She cried when she found out we were going.  “Mother, can’t they stay?  Please?”

Mrs. Gradger shook her head.  “We’ll be fine, Cecilia,” she said.  “Don’t wipe your face on your sleeve.”

It was tough, but a few minutes later we were headed back to the Post Road.

“How come you didn’t stay with them?” Kevin asked Stinky.

Stinky looked puzzled.  “What do you mean, ‘how come’?”

It was one of those phrases they didn’t quite get in this world.  “How come?”  Kevin repeated.  “Why?”

“Oh.”  Stinky shrugged.  “Don’t know, exactly.  But don’t you think she’d be hard to deal with, once things got back to normal?  She’s nice enough now, but there’s a reason people destroyed her home.  And who knows what her money’ll be worth–if anything?  Remember what that fellow on the river said.  She could pay me five pounds a week, but if a loaf of bread costs five pounds, that’s still poor wages, right?”

Seemed reasonable to me.  We didn’t say anything more about the Gradgers.  We all felt pretty bad, I think–probably even Kevin.  There were going to be a lot of people in the same situation, I knew, and many worse off than the Gradgers, but that didn’t make it any better.

The day was clear but cold, like yesterday.  It didn’t take us long to get back on the Post Road.  Unlike yesterday, there were other people on it now–families in wagons pulled by half-dead horses, old men and women leaning on sticks, and a few scruffy-looking characters that Mrs. Gardner probably would have called “brigands”.

We got the latest news from them.  There were few guards left at the fortifications, so people were starting to stream out of the city, whether or not this was officially allowed yet.  A makeshift bridge was in place.  No one was sure how things were going against the Canadians–or rather, everyone was sure, but they all had different stories to tell.  We had lost.  We had won.  We were still fighting.  Reinforcements from the Portuguese front had turned the battle around.  They had arrived too late.  They had been sent to the wrong place and never arrived.

But people were unanimous about the Portuguese.  If we were still seeing their discarded stuff on the road this far south of the city, they weren’t likely to be regrouping for another attack.  They must have been heading out of New England as fast as they could travel.  And that was good news.

“More than halfway to Glanbury, mates,” Stinky said.

A long distance in the cold, but our bellies were full and we’d had a good night’s sleep and no one was shooting at us, so it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  Kevin was almost twitching with excitement.

After a couple of hours walking he began to look more tired than excited, but by then it seemed like Glanbury must be just around the next bend in the road.  “Not far now, I think,” Stinky said.  “There’s Lantham’s Stables.”  Then, a few minutes later, “And there’s the Weymouth Inn, burned to the ground.  That’s a shame.”  We walked a little faster.

And then, finally, Stinky gestured up ahead.  “See the river?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“That’s the North River.  Glanbury’s on t’other side.”

Kevin and I looked at each other.  There were tears in his eyes.  Glanbury.  Home.  At last.

Portal, an online novel: Chapter 25

Chapter 24: Kevin and Larry are reunited after the battle with the New Portuguese.  Kevin is desperate to get back to Glanbury and find the portal.  They spend the night in the barracks, where Larry can’t stop thinking about the boy he killed.  They get up early, determined to find their way out of the city, and almost immediately they run into Stinky Glover.

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

Chapter 25

Stinky came up to us.  “G’morning, Lawrence,” he said.  “What brings you here?”

“Hi, uh, Julian.  This is my friend Kevin.”

“Hello, mate.”  Stinky glanced at Kevin’s cap, but didn’t say anything.

They shook hands.  Kevin didn’t look happy to see him.  In our world, he hated Stinky Glover as much as I did.  Stinky liked to give him purple nurples; Kevin hated purple nurples–who doesn’t?  But this world was different.  With all the things that had been happening, had I told Kevin about Stinky saving me from those kids in Cheapside?

“We’re heading to Glanbury,” I said.

Stinky looked puzzled.  “Now?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“We want to help the Barnes family,” I said.  “Get things ready for when they come home.”

Not a very good answer, but I couldn’t come up with a better one.  “Didn’t you tell me you were related to them?” Stinky asked.

“That’s right.  And I got to know them pretty well in the camp,” I explained.  “Mr. Barnes is in the army, so I figured they might need some help.”

“But why now?” Stinky persisted.  “The Portuguese are still out there north of Glanbury, I expect, even if they’re in full retreat.  And anyway–”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin interrupted.  “We’re going.  Come on, Larry.”  He started to walk away.

I hesitated, and then said, “Well, see you, Julian,” and turned to go with Kevin.

“Wait a moment!” Stinky called out.  “I’ll join you!”

Kevin rolled his eyes.  “No way,” he muttered to me.

But we paused, and Stinky came up to us again.  “Do you know where the Barnes farm is located?” he asked.

“Well, no,” I admitted.

“I can show you.  Besides, three’ll be better than two if there are dangers on the road–and I’m sure there will be.”

“Why do you want to help us?” Kevin demanded.

Stinky grimaced.  “I’ve worn out my welcome here, I fear,” he replied.  “I try to make myself useful, but it’s been hard.  Lots of folks just take a dislike to me.  I don’t know why.  Now that the battle’s over, I expect the soldiers’ll throw me out of the camp rather than keep on feeding me.  I’ll have to return to Glanbury sooner or later and see if my master will take me back.  Might as well do it now.”

Made sense to me.  Kevin looked suspicious, but he didn’t say anything.  “All right,” I said.  “Let’s go, then.”

Stinky’s grimace turned into a big smile.  “Let’s go,” he repeated.

We headed back to the main road, which Stinky said was called the Post Road.  When we finally got there, I was surprised to see that nothing had really changed since yesterday: there were still guards posted, and people were arguing with them to be let through, even though it was barely dawn.  “We’ve no food,” one man was saying to a guard.  “We’ve no shelter.  We’ll die if you don’t let us go home.”

“We have our orders,” the soldier explained with a weary shrug, as if he’d explained it a million times already.  “It’s not safe out there.  Besides, the Portuguese fired the bridge over the Neponset.  How are you going to cross the river?”

“We’ll take our chances!” the man shouted.  “Would you rather we drop dead here in front of you?”

We had one big advantage over those people: we were on the other side of the guards.  “The army’ll surely change their minds today,” Stinky noted.  “That fellow is right–better to let people risk the journey home if they have a mind to try it.  There’s nothing left for them here.  But this is still dangerous—we risk having the New Englanders shoot at us as well as the Portuguese.  Why don’t we just wait and see what happens?”

Kevin shook his head.  “You wait if you want to,” he said.  “I’m leaving.”

Stinky looked at me, as if to ask where I’d found this strange kid with the strange hat.  But I wasn’t going to let Kevin leave by himself.  “We really want to get to Glanbury,” I said.

Stinky considered.  “All right, then,” he said reluctantly.  “Let’s keep going.  I think I know a way past the fortifications, although it’s awfully roundabout.  And then we still have to find a way across the river.”

So we kept walking.  The sun rose ahead of us in the east, but it didn’t make us any warmer.  Soldiers were up and about; none of them paid any attention to us.  After a while the camp and the fortifications petered out, with only a couple of observation towers looking out over marshland that stretched towards the ocean.  “They figured the Portuguese weren’t going to attack over the marshes,” Stinky said.  “Too hard to maneuver, too exposed.  So they just put up these towers.  We have to cross the marsh, and then work our way back towards the Post Road.  And find a boat or a raft or something to cross the river.”

“The marsh doesn’t look too hard,” Kevin said.

“Unless the soldiers in the watchtowers see us,” I pointed out.  “And decide to shoot.”

That didn’t faze Kevin.  “Let’s go,” he said.

Stinky glanced at me again.  “Coming, Julian?” I asked him.

He didn’t seem too happy about it, but he nodded.  “Keep to the left,” he said.  “If the watchtowers are still manned, the soldiers’ll be looking south.  We can circle around when we’re out of range of their rifles.”

“All right” I said.  “Sounds good.”

Kevin started off without saying a word.  We hurried after him.

There was a bitter wind blowing over the marsh, and my eyes started watering.  The metal of my rifle was so cold it stung.  Frostbite, I thought.  Stay out here too long and we’ll get frostbite.

The long brown marshgrass was harder to walk across than I had expected.  Every step we took, we broke through a crust of frost.  And it looked like we had a ways to go to get beyond the marsh.  Suddenly I felt dizzy from cold and hunger.

And then we heard the shots.  “Run!” Stinky shouted.

I took a quick look back.  There were soldiers in the watchtowers with their rifles aimed at us.

I started running.  Kevin stumbled, and I had to drag him back to his feet.  He was usually way faster than me, but the drikana must have slowed him down; even carrying the rifle I was faster now.  Stinky was the slowest.  He was gasping for breath right away and struggled to keep up with us.  But we couldn’t slow down–I could hear the bullets whistle past us, so I knew we were still in range.  “C’mon, let’s go!” I called out to them.  I sloshed through some water and hurdled a little stream that cut through the marsh.  My lungs were bursting, but I kept going, expecting any second that a bullet would rip into me.

But none did.  Eventually I realized there weren’t any more shots.  I looked back.  Kevin and Stinky were still running, but they had slowed down a lot.  I could make out the soldiers in the watchtowers, but I couldn’t tell what they were doing.  Didn’t matter, as long as they weren’t shooting at us anymore.

“Think we’re . . . out of . . . range,” Stinky gasped when he reached me.  Kevin just flopped down on the grass.

“Will they come after us?” I asked.

“Who knows?  Don’t even know why they bothered shooting at us.”

“Maybe they’re just bored,” Kevin said.

“You all right?” I asked him.  He was still trying to catch his breath.

“I think so.”

I sat down next to him.  My sneakers were soaked.  My feet felt numb.  Frostbite, I thought again.

“Got to keep going,” Stinky said.  “If we stay here, I wager they’ll come out to get us.”

“If we stay here, we’ll be dead before long anyway,” I said.  I got up.  “Can you make it?” I asked Kevin.

He nodded.  “Just needed a breather,” he muttered.  I held out my hand, and he took it.  I pulled him up, and we started off again.

It wasn’t long before we came to the river.  We stopped and stared at it, flowing peacefully out to the ocean.  It wasn’t a very big river, but we sure didn’t have a way to cross it.  I looked at Stinky.  He shrugged.  “Let’s head upriver,” he said.  “We’ll need to go that way eventually.  Maybe we’ll find a boat somewhere.”

Kevin and I didn’t have any better ideas, so that’s what we did.

We started walking inland, with the river on our left.  The path we were on twisted towards the river, then away from it.  We didn’t spot any bridges, or any boats we could borrow to get us across.  It was frustrating, and I could see that Kevin was getting upset.  Well, he’d been warned.

“Look down there,” Stinky said.

We saw smoke coming out of the chimney of a shack by the river.  Beyond the shack was a boat tied up at a little dock.

“Somebody’s home,” Kevin said.  “Let’s ask for a ride.”

“Could be dangerous,” Stinky pointed out.  “If they’ve been living out here all through the siege, they won’t be the sort who like company.”

“Worth a try,” Kevin said, and he started down the path to the shack.  “Hello?” he called out.  “Can you help us?  We need to get across the river.”

There was no response.

“Hello?” he repeated.  Stinky and I came up behind him.  There was all kinds of junk next to the house–broken barrels, wine bottles, a lobster pot–and a ton of firewood neatly stacked by the door.  I could smell fish frying.  I hated fish, but the smell made my stomach growl.

We saw the barrel of a rifle point out from a window.  “Who are ye?” a gruff, cracked voice said.

“We’re New Englanders,” Kevin said.  “Just trying to get home after the battle.”

“Put down the rifle.”

He was talking to me.  I laid my weapon down on the ground.

The rifle barrel disappeared from the window, and a moment later a gnarled old man wearing a woolen cap appeared, aiming the rifle at us.  “Ye’re children,” he said.  “Where are your parents?”

“We were separated from our parents in the battle,” Stinky lied.  “We’re trying to get home to Glanbury.  Can you help us?”

“Who won the battle?” he demanded.  His accent was different from anyone else I’d heard in this world–not English, exactly, just sort of old-fashioned.  I got the impression that he didn’t talk very much.

“New England did,” Stinky said.  “Have you seen any Portuguese retreating?”

He shook his head.  “Saw ’em before, though, foragin’ along the river.  Nasty brutes.  Killed a couple.”

“How’d you stay away from them?”

“I know more about these parts’n they do.  Take more than the Portuguese to get hold of old Bart Willoughby.”

“So, can you row us across the river?” Kevin asked.

The old man peered at him.  “What can you pay me?” he demanded.

We looked at each other.  “I have, like, six shillings,” I said.  Professor Palmer had given me some money once, but there really hadn’t been anything to spend it on.

The old man shook his head.  “Six shilling’s won’t even buy a loaf of bread in these times,” he said.  Then he peered at Kevin.  “That’s an interesting hat,” he said.  “I’ll take you across the river for that hat.”

Kevin blinked.  He loved his Red Sox cap.  But he took it off and handed it to the man.  “All right,” he muttered.  “Fine.”

The old man grinned.  He only had a couple of teeth.  He took his woolen cap off right away and replaced it with the Red Sox cap.  It made him look crazy.  “All right, lads,” he said.  “Let’s go.”

I picked up my rifle.  The old man led us down to the boat, and we all climbed in.  It was a little rowboat, and our weight made it ride low in the water.  But the old man was strong, and with a few powerful strokes he had us gliding out towards the middle of the river.  “Bad times in the city, I heard,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I replied.  “Too many people, not enough food.”

He shook his head.  “Too many people there in the best of times.  They tried to get me to go to one of them camps, but I wanted no part of it.”

“You weren’t afraid to be here by yourself?”

“Lad, I’ve lived too long to be afraid of anything.”

I thought of the old man in the camp standing by the gate and begging me for help.  And the corpse Kevin and I had seen there yesterday morning, its gray hair blowing in the wind.  Maybe this guy had the right idea.

We pulled up to the opposite shore.  “Thank you, sir,” Stinky said as we got out.

“Call me Bart,” he replied.  Then he pointed to the cap and started to cackle.  “See, lad?  ‘B’ for Bart!  Fare ye well.”  He maneuvered the boat around and started rowing back across the river.

“Let’s go,” Kevin said without even glancing back.

We found a path and headed towards the Post Road.  After a while we came upon a small settlement–a few houses, a horse barn, a church.  Everything looked empty, abandoned.  “Do you think we can stop here?” I asked.  “Maybe start a fire in one of these houses?  I need to warm up.”

“I’m not tired,” Kevin said.  But he was lying, I knew.

“It’s not about being tired,” I replied.  “My feet are freezing.  I’m worried about frostbite.”

“Whatever,” Kevin said with a shrug.  I think he wanted to take a break, but didn’t want to be the one to suggest it.

None of the houses were locked.  We went into the biggest one; even it had just one large room containing a few chairs, a bed with a straw mattress, and a small table.  On the wall was a shelf with an old bible on it and a bad painting of President Coolidge.  We found some tinder and a flint on the fireplace mantel.  Stinky and I gathered some scraps of wood outside, and within a few minutes we had a smoky fire going.

We all took off our shoes and socks to dry them.  Stinky glanced at the Adidas shoes Kevin and I set by the fire but didn’t say anything.  And he hadn’t said anything about Kevin’s cap.  He didn’t seem like a very curious kid.  How different was he from the Stinky we knew in our world?  He didn’t seem mean–just sort of, I don’t know, pitiful.  And he had sure helped me out so far.

We all lay down in front of the fire to rest and warm up.  It wasn’t very comfortable, but I shut my eyes, and I must have fallen asleep right away.  When I opened them, the fire had died out and Kevin was putting his sneakers back on.  Stinky was still asleep.  “Let’s go,” Kevin whispered.  “We can leave him here.”

“C’mon, Kevin.  Stinky can help.  Remember?  He knows where the Barnes farm is.”

“I don’t care about the Barnes farm, Larry.  I care about the portal, and he’s not going to help us find that.”

“Well, I care about both,” I said.  “And what about food?  I’m starving already, and we still have a lot of miles to cover.  We’re going to have to either beg for food, if there’s anyone around to beg it from, or go hunting.  I’ve got this rifle, but I don’t really know how to load it or anything.  And neither do you.”

Kevin shrugged.  “I just don’t trust him.  If you’re a jerk in one world, you’re probably a jerk in every other world.”

Stinky stirred then.  I reached for my sneakers and started to put them on.  “That’s better,” he said, sitting up and stretching.  “Probably been here a couple of hours,” he added, gesturing at the ashes of the fire.

“Think we can make it to Glanbury today?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  It’s a bit of a trek,” he said.  “Wouldn’t want to be traveling after dark.”

“Well, let’s see how far we get,” Kevin said.  “We can always break into another house and stay the night.”

“True enough.”  Stinky gave Kevin another what’s-your-hurry look, but he didn’t say anything more.  We finished putting our shoes and socks back on and headed outside.  The sun was bright, and the wind had died down now that we were off the marsh, so we weren’t as cold as we’d been before.  We pressed on towards the Post Road, feeling a little better.

We had only a vague idea how far away the road was.  We followed a rutted, curvy path that was headed inland.  There was no one else around, and that started to feel kind of spooky, after being stuck in the crowded city for so long.  It reminded me of being in Cambridge with Professor Palmer, and thinking of him made me sad.  He wouldn’t have any idea where we were, if we were dead or alive.  I sure wished I’d had a chance to say goodbye to him.

Stinky tried to make conversation as we trudged along.  He had enough curiosity to want a better explanation of why we were headed to Glanbury.  Did we have parents?  Did they know what we were doing?

“We’re orphans,” Kevin said.  “Just like you.”  Why did he say that?  I tried to remember if I’d told Stinky the lie about Professor Palmer being my father.

“Then how’ve you been living?” Stinky asked.  “Where?”

“In an orphanage,” Kevin said.  “Where else?”

“But you’re my age, looks like.  Wouldn’t you be ‘prenticed by now?”

“Well, we’re not.”

After a while Stinky sort of gave up.  And a while after that we reached the Post Road, smooth and wide compared to the path we’d been on, but just as empty.  Behind us was the wreckage of the bridge over the river.

“Look,” Kevin said, pointing to the other side of the road.  A wagon with a broken wheel lay on its side in a ditch.  We went over to examine it.  It was empty except for a few pots.  “Portuguese,” Stinky said, studying the lettering on the back.  “Says something about cooking.  The wagon’s pointing south.  They probably abandoned it during the retreat.”

We started heading south on the Post Road.  Everywhere there was stuff that the Portuguese had dropped or left behind–clothing and utensils and empty bottles, even a cannon.  And then we saw a blue-jacketed corpse, face-down by the side of the road.  Stinky went over to it.  He came back with the dead man’s pistol.  “Looks like a mighty disorganized retreat,” he said, “if they didn’t even stop to bury their dead.”

In the distance we heard some shots.  People hunting?  Fighting?  “Julian, could you show me how to load this rifle?” I said.  “I’ve got plenty of bullets.”

He gave me another look, as if to ask: who wouldn’t know how to load a rifle?  But he shrugged and demonstrated how to load the cartridges and cock it.  “Simple enough,” he said.  “And we’ll be needing this rifle before long, if we’re to eat anything today.”

We walked along.  The shooting stopped.  After the roar of the battle yesterday, things seemed awfully quiet–there was no noise except the crunching of our feet on the road.  Some of the houses and shops and inns we passed looked like they hadn’t been touched; others had been burned to the ground.  None of the fires looked recent, though.  The Portuguese were probably in too much of a hurry to do any more damage.

And then we saw people up ahead.  “Not soldiers,” Stinky said.  “One of them’s a woman, I’d say, from the shape of that bonnet.”  We quickened our pace to catch up with them.  There was a woman, a child, and a mule, weighed down with baggage.  “Good day to you!” Stinky called out when we were close enough.

The woman whirled around and aimed a rifle at us.  “Come no closer,” she shouted back, “or I’ll shoot you all.”

The woman was middle-aged, and had an upper-crust, almost-English accent.  Stinky raised his hands.  “We’re New Englanders.  We mean you no harm.”

The child was about six, and she clung sobbing to the woman, who lowered her rifle but still stared at us suspiciously.  “We’ve been set upon already,” she said.  “There are evil people about, both New Englander and Portuguese.  One of them has a bullet in his chest for his troubles.”

“I believe it, but I assure you we aren’t evil,” Stinky said.

“How did you get past the fortifications?” I asked.  “Are they open yet?”

“No, but this morning they removed most of the guards to go fight the Canadians.  If you’ve a mind to get out and have a few pounds to spare for bribes, you can leave.”

“How’d you get across the river?”

“Some men have rafts down there now,” she replied.  “Making quite a good day’s wages, too.”

“We’re headed home to Glanbury.  Where are you going?”

“Braintree, God willing, and no more brigands attack us.”

Braintree was maybe halfway to Glanbury.  “Why don’t we travel together?” I suggested.  “Safety in numbers.”

The woman continued to eye us suspiciously, but after thinking about it she said, “Very well.  You’re likely-looking lads.”

So we joined them.  The woman’s name was Mrs. Gradger; her daughter was named Cecilia.  Their story was familiar: They’d been stuck in the Fens camp during the siege.  Mrs. Gradger’s husband and two older sons were in the army, and she didn’t know if they were dead or alive.  Mr. Gradger was a lawyer, and the family had been well-off before the war, so for a while she’d been able to buy extra provisions in the camp.  But then food became scarce and money became pretty much worthless, and now the family was just like everyone else.

Mrs. Gradger, though, was a tough woman.  She had already killed one man today, and she sure seemed ready to shoot anyone else who tried to mess with her or her daughter.

Cecilia was another story, however.  She was so tired she was barely able to walk, and she kept complaining about how hungry she was.  She wiped her tears on her sleeve as she tried to keep up.  Mrs. Gradger didn’t seem especially sympathetic.  “Barney can’t carry any more weight,” she kept repeating, as if the amount of stuff on the mule settled matters.

“C’mon, Cecilia,” I said finally.  “I’ll carry you for a while.”  I handed the rifle to Kevin and squatted down so Cecilia could climb onto my shoulders.  She was pretty light.  “Thank you, sir,” she said, wiping her face clean yet again.

“Cecilia, don’t dirty your sleeve,” Mrs. Gradger said.  But she didn’t object to my carrying her daughter.

We walked like that for a long time.  It was good to have company, even if Mrs. Gradger reminded me a lot of Ms. Pouch, my sixth-grade math teacher, who everyone called Ms. Grouch.  She spent most of the time complaining about the how badly the camp had been run and how completely President Gardner had screwed up the war and how uncivilized the Portuguese were.  I think she was happy to finally get a chance to kill someone.

We didn’t run into anyone else, although off and on we heard more shots, which always scared Cecilia.  “No more bad men,” she said.  “I don’t want any more bad men.”  Once we spotted a skinny dog, who stared at us for a long time before slinking off down a side street.  And that somehow reminded Cecilia of how hungry she was.  “Please, Mother,” she said from my shoulders, “please can’t we eat?”

I looked at Mrs. Gradger.  Her face was hard, but there were tears in her eyes.  “We’ll be home soon,” she said.  “Now don’t talk about food.  It just makes things worse.”

Stinky came over to me.  “Have to do some hunting, mate,” he murmured.  “Before we lose the daylight.”

The sun was low in the sky.  It was starting to get colder.  Miles to go before I sleep.  I remembered that line from a poem we studied in English class.  And then we were at a crossroads.  Mrs. Gradger stopped and closed her eyes in relief for a moment.  Then she snapped back into character.  “Our house is along this road to the right,” she said.  “Cecilia, please get down.  Thank you, lads, for the company.”

I stooped to let Cecilia off.  My shoulders were stiff, but it had been sort of fun carrying her.  Then we all stood there.  I looked at Kevin.  I could tell he was all for pushing on to Glanbury.  Not me.  It was Stinky who made the suggestion.  “Ma’am, might you consider letting us spend the night?  In return we’ll go out and shoot you some supper.”

Mrs. Gradger said, “Oh no, we’ll be fine, no need.”  And Cecilia started wailing.

“It’d be a favor to us, ma’am,” Stinky pointed out.  “We could use the shelter.”

That was pretty clever of Stinky, I thought.  Mrs. Gradger would rather grant a favor than have anyone think she needed one.  “Very well,” she agreed.  “That’s a reasonable suggestion.  Come along.”

Kevin looked disgusted.  I shrugged.  “Just one more day,” I muttered to him.  “It won’t kill us.”

“How do you know?”

But he didn’t argue, and we all followed Mrs. Gradger down the road to Braintree.

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?”

“Glanbury.”

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.”

“Okay.”

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.

“What?”

“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.

“Huh?”

“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?”

“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.