Chapter 35: The climax. A chase scene. More gnomic utterances from the annoying alien preacher. Guns are drawn, threats are issued. Decisions are made, lives are changed. And finally Larry and Kevin step into the portal, and we reach our denouement.
Into the interior of the portal, filled with clouds, like a bathroom after a long shower (which I hadn’t taken for months). Heart pounding, scared beyond anything I had felt before.
If you want to go home, the portal will take you home. That’s what the preacher had told me in the church. If only I could be sure what he meant . . .
One, two, three steps, then out of the portal.
Into warmth and bright sunshine.
No, I thought. Not right. Not on Christmas.
Was it the wrong world? I looked at Kevin. He was blinking his eyes against the sunlight. “Where is this?” he asked. “When is this?”
We looked around. The leaves on the trees were green, but fading a bit. That oak tree looked familiar . . .
It felt like a warm September afternoon.
“Well . . . ” I said. My heart was still pounding, but with a different kind of excitement from what I’d felt a minute ago.
“When you went into the portal before,” Kevin said, “to the Dairy King world–when you came back–how much time had gone by?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t stay all that long.” But then I remembered coming out of the portal–how Stinky had been waiting for me, right where I had left him. As if no time had passed. “Do you think–?”
“Could be? Why not? What do we know about time? What do we know about anything?”
I looked down at my coat–the one the preacher had given me. It looked really shabby in the sunlight. I took it off. Were we back home–and back when we had left? Had this all happened, like, in the blink of an eye? “Let’s find out,” I said.
“Wait a minute,” Kevin said. “What about Lieutenant Carmody?”
We looked around again. No sign of him. Was he here? Or had the portal brought him to some other world? “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “What’s he going to do to us now?”
“You’re right. Let’s go.” Kevin took off his coat too, and we raced through the woods. Yes, I thought I recognized these trees, this path. In a few minutes we saw what we were hoping to see. There was the old swingset in my back yard. There was the garage, with Kevin’s bike next to it.
And there was my mother standing on the deck by the kitchen door. “Larry, would you please hurry up?” she called out when she saw us. “We’re going to be late for your piano lesson.”
Kevin and I ran through the backyard and up to her. She looked younger than the mother I had said goodbye to less than an hour ago; but she was the same woman. I went to hug her, but stopped short as she made a face.
“Look at the two of you,” she said. “You’re filthy–and soaking wet! Larry, your new sneakers–you’ve ruined them! What have you been up to?”
Kevin and I looked at each other as we caught our breath. I didn’t think about my answer, really. It was just a reflex. “We didn’t go far,” I said. “We just like . . . slipped in a puddle. Sorry.”
Mom shook her head. “Honestly, Larry, sometimes you have no consideration. What were you thinking? And Kevin, you should know better, too. Your clothes are like rags.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Barnes.” But Kevin didn’t look sorry. He was grinning like crazy.
“I don’t see what’s so funny, Kevin,” Mom said. “Now run along home. Larry, go in and change. Quick! We’re never on time for Mr. Rosen.”
I stood there next to Kevin. “Well,” I said to him, “I guess–that’s it. See ya, Kev.”
“See ya, Larry. I’ll call you later.”
“Okay,” I said.
He smiled at the word. “Okay,” he repeated, still grinning. Then he went over and got on his bike.
“I don’t know why his mother doesn’t make him wear a helmet,” Mom said.
“Beats me,” I replied.
So, why didn’t we say anything?
Well, would you want to tell your Mom you’d stupidly stepped into a portal or a cosmic gateway or whatever and gone off to an alternate universe for over three months and fought in a war and been shot at multiple times and exposed to deadly diseases? I didn’t think so.
Of course, we could prove our story, more or less. Show her the portal. Get scientists out here to examine it. We’d become famous, be interviewed on TV, make a million dollars.
But I wasn’t really thinking about any of that. It was just: We were back, and that’s all that mattered. I didn’t want scientists or TV shows. I wanted to eat supper with my family. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I wanted to see Cassie again. I went past my mother and inside the house.
Cassie was in the kitchen, eating crackers, probably so later at supper she could say she wasn’t hungry and demand to know when were we going to get some good food around here. She stuck two fingers in her mouth as I approached, making like she was going to puke. “You smell like raw sewage,” she said. “Haven’t they taught you how to use deodorant in middle school?”
I smiled at her. I thought about kissing her, but she probably would’ve whacked me. “It’s so great to see you, Cassie,” I said instead. “Really it is.”
“You’re retarded,” I heard her mutter as I left the kitchen.
Upstairs, Matthew was playing a video game. One of my video games, I realized, when I saw the guilty expression on his face. “I thought you were at your piano lesson,” he said.
“Still here,” I replied. “It’s okay.”
“Playing my game You can play it all you want.”
“Sure? Why not?”
“Thanks, Larry,” Matthew said. But he looked suspicious. What was I up to? I wasn’t up to anything. I just put on some deodorant and changed clothes. Before going back downstairs, I went into the bathroom and stared at the toilet. I flushed it once, just for fun. Things were going to take a little getting used to.
“Larry!” my mother shouted up to me.
“Coming!” I left the bathroom and went to my piano lesson.
I don’t remember anything about the lesson; my mind was too filled with other stuff to concentrate. There was just so much more of everything. More noise, more sights, more smells–although none of the body odor that Cassie had objected to, and that I had gotten so used to. I was a little overwhelmed. The car went way too fast–and on the wrong side of the road. The radio was just too loud. I remember asking Mom if I could turn it off, and that got her worried. “Are you feeling all right, Larry?” she asked. “You look pale. And you’re talking a little strangely. You’re just not yourself somehow.”
Not myself. Had I developed an accent, along with everything else? “I’m fine,” I said.
She didn’t look convinced. That’s what I always said. “What exactly were you doing back there in the woods?” she demanded.
“Just goofing around,” I said. “Really.”
Later Dad came home–beardless, and not as strong-looking as the soldier/farmer I had left behind a few hours ago, but still my Dad. We sat down to supper, and I had my first mashed potatoes in months, and my first fresh vegetables. The milk was way colder than any I’d had in the other world, but nowhere near as good-tasting. And it was strange watching everyone use a fork instead of a knife to eat. As we ate my father asked his usual question: “So, what did you do today, Larry?”
And I gave my usual answer: “Nothing.”
And then I started to laugh.
Kevin called later. The phone was something else I’d have to get used to all over again. “You say anything to anyone?” he asked.
“No. You going to?”
“I don’t know. Your parents suspicious or anything?”
“Mom can’t understand why my hair is so long,” Kevin said. “But I mean, what’s she gonna say? I went over to your house for a while, then I came back. And that’s it. I was gone, like, two hours, max. How much can your hair grow in two hours?”
“Well, should we say something?”
“I suppose so, but–I dunno. I don’t feel like it. Not right now, anyway.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I was wondering,” Kevin said. “How can we be sure this world is exactly the same as the one we left? Maybe we’ll go to school tomorrow, and Stinky won’t exist. Or he’ll be just a little bit different. Maybe we won’t be able to tell what’s different.”
“I don’t want to do any wondering for a while, Kevin.”
“Yeah, okay, just a thought. Any sign of Lieutenant Carmody over there?”
I had forgotten about him. “No. I hope he’s all right. He wasn’t that bad.”
“I suppose. If he’s not here, we’ll never find out where he is.”
“I guess not.”
Cassie came in and glared at me for hogging the phone for three whole minutes.
“Gotta go,” I said. “Cassie wants the phone.”
“Cassie. Geez. Cassie’s alive again. And you know something else? I’m twelve again. I lost a birthday when we came home. Anyway, it’s good to be back.”
“Did you flush a toilet?” I asked him.
“You bet I did. And took the world’s longest shower. See ya.”
Cassie had heard my last question, and made a face at me like I was too weird for her to even contemplate. I just gave her another smile.
I tried watching TV after I hung up, but it jangled my nerves like the car radio, and besides, it was way too stupid. I did like getting into my bed and feeling that comfortable mattress beneath me; I wouldn’t miss those straw mattresses and hard floors. I wasn’t tired, though. For all the excitement of the day, it hadn’t been that long since I’d been dozing in front of the fireplace and dreaming of grilled cheese sandwiches. So for once I really enjoyed talking to Matthew. He was happy about my letting him play Final Fantasy so he was even chattier than usual. After he’d been yakking for a while I decided to bring up a topic of my own, which I figured was just the kind he liked to talk about. “Matthew, what if there are millions of universes, each one just a little bit different from all the others? What if we each have millions of different lives? In some of them we’re rich, in some of them we’re poor, in some of them stuff like cars and computers haven’t even been invented. In some of them we might be dead, or maybe we never even existed. What if we could go to another universe and see how we lived there? Wouldn’t that be cool? Wouldn’t we learn a lot? Matthew?”
No answer; he was asleep. For once I had out-talked him.
There’s no place like home.
That’s what the movie says. Now I was home. So I should’ve lived happily ever after, right? No more fighting with Cassie. No more getting mad at my Mom or annoyed at Matthew.
That lasted less than a day.
Cassie yelled at me in the morning for being in the shower too long. Well, she was the one who complained that I smelled bad, wasn’t she? And Mom wanted to drive me to the bus stop–she was still worried about that pervert in Rhode Island she’d read about. It’s so dangerous nowadays, she told me. You can’t be too careful. I’ll tell you about danger! I wanted to shout at her. I’ll tell you about cannonballs falling all around you and Portuguese soldiers charging at you with swords and bayonets. I’ll tell you about Canadian soldiers trying to decide whether to kill you, and New England soldiers shooting at you from watchtowers . . . And I survived it all.
But I didn’t say anything about that. I just got into a stupid argument with her and almost missed the bus. Nothing had changed–except me. And how had I really changed?
Well . . .
Take Stinky Glover. He was still here, despite Kevin’s fantasy. On the bus the next morning he gave me a purple nurple instead of a wet willie. Same difference. He still thought the name “Lawrence” was incredibly funny.
But, you know, I didn’t really mind. On that other world, he had helped me, maybe even saved my life–saved me from an enemy soldier, anyway; taught me how to hunt; showed me the way home, even if he had finally snitched on me. Maybe on some other world he was a good guy whose master didn’t beat him. Maybe on some world we were best friends. I let it go.
And Nora Lally. Before English class I decided, what the heck, and I went over to her. “Hi, Nora,” I said. “Listen, I was thinking–I’m a pretty good writer, at least that’s what Ms. Nathanson tells me. If you want someone to, like, take a look at your compositions before you turn them in, I’d be happy to. Just for, you know, spelling and grammar, that kind of stuff.”
Pretty lame, huh? But she smiled–just the way Sarah Lally smiled–and she said, “Thanks, Larry. That’d be great.”
It couldn’t be that easy, right? But it was. I smiled back, and we sat down to find out what Ms. Nathanson had to say.
And the piano. I might not have had a good lesson that first day back, but still . . . I found myself playing more than I ever had before, just for the fun of it, the way I had at Professor Palmer’s.
And one day Mom asked, “What’s that piece, Larry?”
I realized I had been playing that old song Professor Palmer liked so much:
Wanly I wandered
Through the world far and wide
Seeking some solace
For dreams that had died.
Long did I linger
In an alien land
Till tears finally left me
As I stood on the strand.
And there was the final verse that I had tried not to think about in the other world. But now it seemed okay to remember it:
Then homeward I hastened
To friends I’d forgot
And found where I’d left it–
The joy that I sought.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just something I picked up.”
“It’s very lovely,” Mom said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”
It was lovely, and I was glad I had learned it. I was glad of a lot of things that had happened to me.
Long did I linger
In an alien land . . .
I kept thinking of Kevin’s stupid remark about your heart being in two worlds at once. Because that’s how I felt sometimes. I was glad to be back, glad to have plenty to eat and no one shooting at me. But half my heart was still in that other world, with the professor, with my family, with Sarah Lally, even with General Aldridge and President Gardner and Stinky Glover. What were they doing right now? How was New England making out after the war? How was the Barnes family making out, with Cassie dead and me gone and no harvest to keep them through the winter? Was Professor Palmer all right? Was Stinky in trouble with his master? I would never know, but that didn’t mean I would ever forget.
And found where I’d left it–
The joy that I sought.
I don’t know about joy. But whatever it was, it had always been here, right? And it just took a little growing up to find it. I couldn’t keep smiling at Cassie when she insulted me, but I could remember her in the camp, unhappy and desperate, and I could feel a little pity for whatever was going on inside her.
And my mother. Was it so hard now to see the overpowering love that was behind her fears of every danger that lurked in wait for us? In how many worlds had she lost me because she hadn’t been vigilant enough? In how many worlds did I lay buried in the family graveyard, and she had to spend her life mourning what might have been?
Finally, there was the mystery of the portal. Kevin and I talked about it endlessly, and he was fascinated when I told him the preacher’s story, fascinated by the idea that some mysterious race had built the portal and then disappeared, and this other race used it just to go preaching, without really understanding it. But mostly he was fascinated by the idea that the portal always brought you home, if that’s what you wanted. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, “if–every time your life started to suck–you could step into the portal and just come back when you’re ready?”
“Uh, Kevin, you’re skipping over the parts where you get shot at and come down with a terrible disease. Who was the one that was desperate to get back here?”
“I know, I know. But still . . . ”
Still . . .
Then there was the day Kevin came over with a copy of the Glanbury Mariner. “See this?” he asked.
He pointed to an entry in the police log, which the paper prints every week.
“2:17 a.m. Fowler Street resident reports strange man sleeping in tool shed. Man fled when approached. Described as medium height, wearing red jacket, carrying old-fashioned pistol. Cruiser dispatched, searched neighborhood. No one found.”
It was dated the night after we had returned home.
“So he made it,” I said.
“What should we do?”
Kevin shrugged. “I don’t know what there is to do.”
But eventually it became too big a secret too keep. The portal was just too important not to talk about it, especially if Carmody was around. I figured my father was the one to tell. He’d know what to do with the knowledge, and he’d know how to keep Mom from getting too mad at me when she found out just exactly what we’d been up to back in the conservation land where we weren’t supposed to be. Kevin agreed. “Let’s not say anything to your Dad until he sees the portal for himself,” he said. “Otherwise he’ll think we’re just making everything up.”
So on Saturday when Mom was out shopping Kevin and I told Dad there was something we wanted to show him out in the woods. “Found some buried treasure?” he asked.
“You know your mother doesn’t want you wandering around too far back there, right?”
“Yeah, I know, but anyway–this is going to be pretty interesting.”
So he followed us out into the woods. Kevin kept looking at me like, this is really gonna be something. And he was right. It wouldn’t just shock Dad, but everyone in the world. It would change the way people thought about everything–science, religion, history. And we were the ones who found it.
And what if the scientists figured out how to use it, and we could return safely to our other world?
I knew the way pretty well by this time, although Dad kept bugging us by explaining stuff and pointing out the names of trees and the birds. Everything was an education to him. Well, we were about to give him an education. Kevin and I stopped when we reached the clearing.
“It’s right here, Dad,” I said. “Watch this.”
Kevin and I went over to it and reached out our hands.
They didn’t disappear. We looked at each other, and then started walking around in the small clearing, waving our arms. “It’s gotta be here,” Kevin muttered.
But it wasn’t.
“May I ask what you’re doing?” Dad asked. His arms were folded, and he was looking at us like he was trying to figure out if this was some kind of middle-school joke that he didn’t get.
“Is it the wrong place?” Kevin asked me.
I shook my head. “It’s gone.”
I felt like I’d been punched. It couldn’t be true, but it was. The portal was gone.
“Well?” Dad asked. “I could use some help raking, if we’re done here.”
“Sorry, Dad,” I said to my father. “There was something here, but now it’s gone.”
“Do you want to tell me what it was?”
I looked at Kevin, and he just shrugged. “I guess not,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. Sorry we bothered you.”
Dad just shook his head. “Larry, you sure have been acting strange lately.”
“It’s a phase,” I replied. “Like Cassie. Could you like–give Kevin and me a minute?”
“All right, but don’t get into any trouble back here. You know how your mother worries. And grab a rake when you come back.”
He turned and walked away from us.
“Figures,” Kevin said, kicking at a rock.
I noticed something else. “I took off the preacher’s coat when we got out of the portal. It’s gone, too.”
Kevin looked around. His coat was still there, lying on the ground where he’d dropped it. “The preacher moved the portal,” he said.
“Didn’t want stupid kids taking it for any more joyrides, I guess.”
Kevin sighed. “Oh, well. It would’ve been something, wouldn’t it? The look on your Dad’s face . . . ”
“Yeah. Still, this is okay.”
“It’s okay,” Kevin agreed, sighing again.
And we walked slowly back out of the woods.
This is okay–this life, this world. But one thing I remember is the preacher telling me how easy it was for him to spot another traveler–someone who didn’t belong, someone from a different world who was just passing through. Are there a lot of those travelers, or just a very few? Sometimes I find myself trying to see if I can spot them, too: scared kids like me or soldiers in red coats or wandering preachers with black, glittering eyes . . .
And I find myself wondering: What if I do spot one? Another stranger, say, talking to a small crowd in a park or on a street corner, telling them to how to live and love and appreciate the universe . . . ? Would I run from him as fast as I could? Or would I say, Please, show me where the portal is. I don’t care about the risks. I want to go back to that other world again–just for an hour, just for a minute. And if I can’t go back, let me try for a new world, a new adventure.
And I think about what the preacher had said to the people in the Boston park: How can you know what is in you unless you have struggled, unless you have been asked to do more than you thought you were capable of doing?
What better way to do that, than to find a new world?
I really don’t know what I’d do if I spotted a traveler.
But I’d like to find out.