Read an Excerpt
By Robert Liparulo
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Robert Liparulo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTuesday, 6:58 p.m. Pinedale, California
Xander's words struck David's heart like a musket ball.
He reeled back, then grabbed the collar of his brother's filthy Confederate coat. His eyes stung, whether from the tears squeezing around them or the sand whipping through the room, he didn't know. He pulled his face to within inches of Xander's.
"You ... you found her?" he said. "Xander, you found Mom?"
he looked over Xander's shoulder to the portal door, which had slammed shut as soon as Xander stumbled through. the two boys knelt in the center of the antechamber. Wind billowed their hair. It whooshed in under the door, pulling back what belonged to the Civil War world from which Xander had just stepped. The smell of smoke and gunpowder was so strong, David could taste it.
He shook Xander. "Where is she? Why didn't you bring her?"
His heart was going crazy, like a ferret racing around inside his chest, more frantic than ever. Twelve-year-olds didn't have heart attacks, did they?
Xander leaned back and sat on his heels. His bottom lip trembled, and his chest rose and fell as he tried to catch his breath. The wind plucked a leaf from his hair, whirled it through the air, then sucked it under the door.
"Xander!" David said. "Where's Mom?"
Xander lowered his head. "I couldn't ..." he said. "I couldn't get her. You gotta go over, Dae. You gotta bring her back!"
"Me?" a heavy weight pushed on David's chest, smashing the ferret between sternum and spine. He rose, leaped for the door, and tugged on the locked handle.
He wore a gray hat ("It's a kepi," Dad would tell him) and jacket, like Xander's blue ones. They had discovered that it took wearing or holding three items from the antechamber to unlock the portal door. He needed one more.
"Xander, you said you found her!"
Xander shook his head. "I think I saw her going into a tent, but it was at the other end of the camp. I couldn't get to her."
David's mouth dropped open. "That's not finding her! I thought I saw her, too, the other day in the World War ii world-"
"Dae, listen." Xander pushed himself up and gripped David's shoulders. "She saw the message we left. She saw Bob."
Bob was the cartoon face and family mascot since Dad was a kid, drawn on notes and birthday cards. When David and Xander had been in Ulysses S. Grant's union camp the night before, Xander had drawn it on a tent. It was their way of letting Mom know they were looking for her.
"She wrote back!" Xander said. "David, she's there!"
"But ..." David didn't know if he wanted to scream or cry or punch his brother. "Why didn't you go get her?"
"Something was happening on the battlefield. They were rounding up all the soldiers and herding us toward the front line. I tried to get to her, but they kept grabbing me, pushing me out of camp. When I broke away"-Xander's face became hard-"they called me a deserter. That quick, I was a deserter. one of them shot at me! I barely got back to the portal." He shook his head. "You gotta go! Now! Before she's gone, or the portal changes, or something happens to her."
Yes ... no! David's stomach hurt. His brain was throbbing against his skull. His broken arm started to ache again, and he rubbed the cast. "Xander, I can't. They almost killed me yesterday."
"that's because you were a gray-coat." Xander began taking off his blue jacket. "Wear this one."
"Why can't you? Just tell them-"
"I'll never make it," Xander said. "They'll throw me in the stockade for deserting-if they don't shoot me first."
"They'll do the same to me." David hated how whiney his words came out.
"You're just a kid. They'll see that."
"I'm twelve, Xander. Only three years younger than you."
"That's the difference between fighting and not, Dae." He held the jacket open. "I know it was really scary before, but this time you'll be on the right side."
David looked around the small room. He said, "Where's the rifle you took when you went over? The Harper's Ferry musket?"
His brother gazed at his empty hand. He scanned the floor. "I must have dropped it when I fell. I was just trying to stay alive. I didn't notice." He shook the jacket. "Come on."
David shrugged out of the gray coat he was wearing. He tossed it onto the bench and reluctantly slipped into the one Xander held. He pulled the left side over his cast.
Xander buttoned it for him. He said, "The tent I saw her go into was near the back of the camp, on the other side from where I drew Bob." He lifted the empty sleeve and let it flop down. He smiled. "Looks like you lost your arm in battle."
"See? they'll think I can fight, that I have fought."
"I was just kidding." He took the gray kepi off David's head and replaced it with the blue one. Then he turned to the bench and hooks, looking for another item.
"Xander, listen," David said. "You don't know what's been happening here. There are two cops downstairs."
Xander froze in his reach for a canteen. "What?" his head pivoted toward the door opposite the portal, as though he could see through it into the hallway beyond, down the stairs, around the corner, and into the foyer. Or like he expected the cops to burst through. "What are they doing here?"
"They're trying to get us out of the house. Taksidian's with them." Just thinking of the creepy guy who was responsible for his broken arm frightened David-but not as much as the thought of getting hauled away when they were so close to rescuing Mom. "Gimme that," he said, waggling his fingers at the canteen.
Xander snatched it off the hook and looped the strap over David's head. "Where's Dad?"
"They put him in handcuffs. He told me to come get you."
"And one more thing," David said. He closed his eyes, feeling as though the jacket had just gained twenty pounds. "Clayton, that kid who wanted to pound me at school? He came through the portal from the school locker to the linen closet." He opened one eye to see his brother's shocked expression.
"how long was I gone?" Xander said. "Where is he now?"
"I pushed him back in. He returned to the school, but he might come back."
"Great." Xander glanced over his shoulder at the hallway door again, then back at David. "Anything else I should know?"
David shook his head. "I guess if I die, I won't have to go to school tomorrow." He smiled weakly.
The school year-seventh grade for David, tenth for Xander-had started just yesterday: two days of classes. Mom had been kidnapped the day before that. David couldn't believe they'd even gone to school under the circumstances, but Dad, who was the new principal, had insisted they keep up normal appearances so they wouldn't attract suspicion.
Lot of good it did, David thought, thinking of the cops downstairs.
"I don't know," Xander said. "Dad would probably figure out a way to get your body there."
David's expression remained grim.
"You'll be fine."
"Don't get taken away," David told his brother. "Don't leave with me over there. Don't leave me alone in this house when I come back. Don't-"
Xander held up his hand to stop him. "I won't leave," he said. "I'll go see what's happening downstairs, but I won't leave. No way, no how. Okay? Besides-" he smiled, but David saw how hard it was for him to do it. "You'll have Mom with you when you come back. Right?"
It was David's turn to smile, and he found it wasn't so hard to do. "Yeah." He turned, took a deep breath, and opened the portal door.
Chapter TwoTuesday, 7:05 p.m.
David squinted against the bright daylight coming through the portal. A warm breeze touched his face. The odor of gunpowder wafted into his nostrils. It reminded him of his time on the battlefield, and he felt sick again.
"Go," Xander said behind him.
"I am." He stepped through, stumbled, and fell into a bush. He rolled out of it and cracked his cast into a tree. He pulled air through his clenched teeth. Before the portal faded and broke apart like a defective DVD image, he caught a glimpse of Xander looking through it.
David scrambled up to get his bearings and immediately saw the rows of tents across a narrow meadow. Soldiers streamed toward the far hills, beyond which he knew a battle raged. Gun and cannon fire rang out in the distance. His hope for a deserted camp left him as he spotted more soldiers talking in clusters and others moving from one tent to another.
It wasn't the mad dash to the front line Xander had described, and he wondered if time here had skipped one direction or another, like a hiccup, in the five minutes since his brother had left. They hadn't thought of that. Maybe Xander could have returned safely. David looked for the portal, any sign of it, but it was gone.
The first time any of them had gone through a portal, Dad had ended up rescuing Xander from a gladiator. He said the items from the antechamber had tugged him toward the portal home. David and Xander had followed the same tugging to get out of the Civil War world the night before. It was as though the items wanted to go home too, and they knew the way. Now, however, the jacket, kepi, and canteen were exerting no unnatural pull. It was like they knew it wasn't time to return.
Get moving, David told himself, but his feet wouldn't obey. Even this far away from the battle, smoke drifted over him. Don't get sick, not now, not with Mom waiting.
Mom. The thought of her unglued his feet. He lurched forward and out of the woods. Approaching the backs of the tents, he tried to remember which one Xander had written on. Had it been two tents from the front or ten? He had no clue. He walked behind the big wedge-shaped structures, peering between them, hoping to spot something he recognized. And he did, but not what he had expected: the Harper's Ferry rifle Xander had dropped. He must be close to where Xander had drawn Bob and, later, where he'd seen Mom.
David picked up the rifle and walked to the front of the tents, coming out in the camp's center aisle. He turned in a circle, but he didn't see the cartoon face. He headed toward the rear of the camp. Four tents along, he saw it-and his heart leapt into his throat. Just as Xander had said, words were scrawled in block letters beside the goofy face: Is that you? I'm here! I'm
Mom! it had to be! Who else knew the face? Who else would write those words?
But what else had she wanted to write? she had obviously been interrupted: "I'm ..." I'm what? I'm safe? I'm hurt? I'm at this place or that?
Mom, where are you?
Which tent had Xander seen her enter? He remembered it was on the other side of the aisle. Could she still be there? it struck David that he could be in the camp before the events Xander had witnessed-time was that weird with the portals; she might not have even entered the tent yet.
Don't start freaking out now, he told himself. I can do this: find Mom!
He looked up the aisle one direction, then down the other. Only men-most of them in blue soldier uniforms, some in the bloodied, once-white smocks of surgeons. A soldier was pounding the butt of his rifle against a rock, a blackened metal pot beside him. David had learned that coffee was cherished in Civil War encampments; this was how they ground the beans. Another man sat on the ground, writing on a piece of paper on his thigh. Two men sat on a log, cleaning their rifles. He wanted to ask whether any of them had seen her. He wanted to call out for her. But did he really want to attract attention to himself?
He started for the tents across the aisle, then thought of something. If she knew they were looking for her there, wouldn't she stay close if she could? He returned to the tent bearing Bob's face and threw back the flap. A soldier sat at the edge of a cot, pulling on his boots. Another lay on a different cot, a rag over his face.
The soldier with the boots looked up. "What do you want, boy?"
David backed away, letting the flap fall into place. He moved toward the next tent. He'd check a few on this side, then cross to the other.
"Hey!" it was a man's deep voice. "You, boy!"
David spun to see the bearded officer who had spoken to him yesterday-General Grant. He was limping now. David couldn't remember if he had limped the day before.
As he drew close, the general expertly flipped up the cover of his gun holster with his thumb. He laid his hand on the handle of his pistol and said, "Drop the rifle, son."
"But-" the word squeaked out of David's tight throat.
General Grant's eyes narrowed. "If I pull this pistol on you, boy, I'll use it. Now drop it."
David forced his fingers to open. The gun hit the trampled earth with a thud. He said, "Sir, I-"
"I know you," Grant said. "Last time I saw you, you wore Confederate gray. Now you're wearing blue and carrying a rifle. Where's the soldier who was escorting you to the stockades?"
He meant Xander. They had pretended to be soldier and prisoner to get David off the front lines without getting shot. "I ... sir ... he ..."
The general shook his head. "We better not find him dead, boy." He turned and raised his hand to a passing soldier. "Corporal!"
David dropped to the ground and started to scramble under the edge of the tent. He heard General Grant say, "Oh, no, you don't!" and felt the man grab his heel.
He yanked his foot out of his sneaker, rose, and ran through the tent, jumping over cots and the men sleeping on them. He slid under the tent's back wall as though he were sliding into home plate. His head snagged on the canvas wall. He ducked, and the cloth wall snapped away.
Behind him the general was yelling, "Escaped Rebel!"
David pictured the man pushing through the tent flaps, pistol in hand. He expected to hear a shot any second. Instead, a commotion arose from within the tent: the clamor of soldiers jumping to their feet, going for their weapons, calling out for someone to tell them what was going on.
"Get down, men!" General Grant bellowed. "Out of my way!"
David got his feet under him and ran for the trees. kicking through the meadow's tall grass, gritting his teeth against the pain of his cast banging against his ribs, he got the feeling of déjà vu: hadn't he run for his life through this very field before?
Yeah, last night!
Only then Xander had been with him. And he'd had both sneakers. Now he was loping along, one shoe on and one shoe off.
He was almost in the woods when the first shot rang out. though he had been expecting it, the crack! of the weapon startled him. His feet did a little dance, and he tumbled over himself. Up again in no time, he plunged into the shadows of the trees. Behind him, another rifle shot cracked. He pushed deeper into the woods, then rammed his shoulder into the trunk of a big oak. He rolled around to the tree's far side and stopped. His breathing came in ragged gulps.
David hadn't bothered to grab the rifle when he'd bolted away from General Grant. He raised his hand to his head and confirmed what he expected: he'd also lost his kepi. But he still wore the blue jacket, which was now applying a pressure like gravity on his body-only in a sideways direction, not downward. If the strength of the tug was any indication, the portal was close. He noticed the canteen. It was lifting up on its strap, vibrating slightly, pointing in the same direction the tug indicated.
He craned his neck to peer past the tree. In the field behind the tents, soldiers were gathering around General Grant. The great man himself was pointing toward the woods, pushing at the soldiers and saying, "Get moving! Go!"
Me too, David thought. I gotta get out of here.
He pushed off the tree and ran. The canteen strap rotated on his neck until it floated a few inches off his stomach, directly in front of him. It acted like a compass needle, guiding him toward the portal ... he hoped.
Excerpted from gatekeepers by Robert Liparulo Copyright © 2008 by Robert Liparulo. Excerpted by permission.
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