Chapt. 1: Under the Painted Sky
By Michael Jesse
"It's clearly a portal of some kind," Laura explained. "However, we have not yet determined whether it's a time-travel portal or a wormhole to somewhere else in the universe."
"Or to another dimension," Jack added.
"That's quite a range of possibilities," their mother noted as she poured out two more doses of a medicine that the children knew from experience was not actually grape flavored. "And where does this portal manifest itself?"
"The first time was over there," Laura said, pointing to the short wall of the playroom where the attic ceiling was lowest. "That's where we saw the Viking ship at sea."
"And the next time it was over there," Jack said, pointing to another wall and making a face as he swallowed the sour medicine. "That's when we saw the creature!"
"And you said it looked like a horse with horns?" Mrs. Duncan asked absently as she gathered up bowls of half-eaten soup onto the blue wooden tray. "Horns like a bull?"
"No, it had lots of horns going every which-way like a deer," Jack said. "But thicker like a ram."
"Actually, I believe an ibex would be closest," Laura clarified, holding up one of the many books spread across the big red sofa sleeper. Laura was 12 (or "almost 13" as she preferred saying it) and Jack was 10.
"But the coolest thing isn't what the horns looked like," Jack insisted. "It's that music came out of them! Like this." Here, Jack held up his little wooden flute and played a series of notes.
"That's not how it sounded," Lauras huffled. "It was much deeper for one thing."
"I KNOW it was deeper, but I can't do that octave on a flute. The notes are the same. You just don't understand music."
Laura did not want to argue the point because she knew it was true. Though she excelled at all other academic subjects, Laura could barely carry a tune while her little brother seemed able to learn any new instrument in an afternoon. Even when they were playing outdoors, he would find reeds along the creek and cut them at different lengths so each played a different note.
The Duncan family had only recently moved into the peeling yellow Victorian house on an acre overlooking Pembroke College. Laura and Jack had the whole third floor to themselves, each with their own room and sharing the open space in between.
"Well, it doesn't matter," she said. "Because Mother clearly does not believe us anyway." Laura had recently started using "mother and father" instead of "mom and dad," especially when she felt they were being condescending to her.
"I didn't say I don't believe you," Mother said. "But I do have an alternative theory, and because you are serious scientists I assume you would at least consider it."
Laura folded her arms and leaned back against her pillow. "Fine," she sighed. "What is your alternative theory?"
"You both had pretty high fevers today. I was even considering taking you to the hospital at one point. As you may know from your extensive reading, fevers can cause waking dreams, or hallucinations."
"I know what the word hallucination means," Laura said.
"You know the word, but you have not previously experienced one so you can't be certain this was not one."
Jack propped himself up on one elbow, his dark brown hair plastered damply across his forehead. "Dad says any world you can imagine probably exists somewhere!"
Cathleen Duncan sighed as she stood up with the tray. "Your father teaches theoretical physics to college freshmen. It's his job to say things like that."
"And I am a physician. I treat actual illnesses in actual human bodies, not theoretical ones."
Laura was no longer engaged in the conversation because the gurgling feeling was back. She had already promised herself never to vomit again for the rest of her life, and maintenance of that vow was beginning to require more of her concentration. As her mother went down the staircase, Laura glanced over her side of the sofa sleeper to make sure the bucket was still there just in case. She looked up at the fake sky and clouds Dad had painted on the sloped ceiling walls and picked out a single star to focus on. In the daytime you could only barely make out the fluorescent blue dots that came out as stars at night. They matched the actual constellations almost exactly, except in one area where he had run out of stencils and had to make up his own region of space.
Laura closed her eyes for what she thought was just a minute, but when she opened them again she realized she must have slept because the room was dark and the only light came from the fake stars on the ceiling. Laura stared at them for a full minute before becoming awake enough to realize she was not looking at the playroom ceiling anymore. It was the real night sky, and the big red sofa sleeper had turned into a straw-filled wooden cart that rocked and squeaked to the slow rhythm of horse's hooves.
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