"I'm sure it's yogurt," eleven year old Lenny Bryant calmly argued.
"No, no--it goes, 'I never bathed in sour cream!'" irritable twelve year old Sarah replied.
Thirteen year old Cheryl stared despondently out the car window at the beautiful June day rushing past. The girl and her large family (nine kids) were on vacation, but it wasn't very restful. Being stuck with ten other people in a twelve passenger van was no one's idea of a good time, but they had been doing their best to put up with it as they traveled from their Iowa home to visit Niagara Falls. For quite a while Cheryl, as the oldest and most creative, had kept her younger siblings (Sarah, Lenny, Ralph, Faith, Joy, Jimmy, Johnny, and Jerry,) busy and happy playing road games. After seven hours in cramped conditions, however, Cheryl had suggested they sing a song, and now they were bickering over it.
Sarah had been very anti-social on this trip, even more gloomy and angry than usual. Even Mom and Dad had joined in the games at some points, but Sarah had remained moodily silent, ignoring all entreaties to join the fun.
Cheryl remembered that Sarah had recently made a new group of friends; young people that played Dungeons and Dragons and tried to use 'magic;' and Sarah wanted to be like them. Cheryl knew her sister was into something serious, and she had been praying furiously for several months, dismayed by Sarah's bad attitude and hatred of all that was good.
"It's yogurt," nine year old Ralph agreed with curly-haired Lenny.
"Milk!" 'The three Js' (Jimmy, Johnny, and Jerry,) screamed in unison, only little Jerry said "miwk!"
The entire van erupted in arguing. Only Cheryl forgot to toss in her two bits. She stared miserably out the window and tried to tune out the loud angry voices around her. She thought longingly of her cat, Angel, who had appeared at their door on a frosty night when Cheryl had been alone outside. The large orange tabby had a strange aura of calm that shed peace over whomever she was near, wherever she went. Angel was at home now, but the girl couldn't help wishing she were with them.
Finally, Dad had had enough. "Quiet!" he yelled as loud as he could, which was loud enough for a passing motorist to look at him strangely. They were instantly silent.
At that moment, the van was coming up on a state park. Samuel Bryant drove the vehicle in and paid the nominal fee, the continued in on a little gravel trail closely pressed by trees and vegetation. It led to a picnic area. Dad parked the van and quietly told them to get out of the vehicle. Not one of the children had made a peep the entire time. They remained silent until all were seated at picnic tables. They sat five to a table with Dad standing like a general about to send his soldiers into battle.
"I'm proud of you." Dad smiled. "You obeyed. Now, it occurs to me that you need to stretch your legs." He spread his arms and gestured at the footpaths leading away from the clearing. "So, go stretch your legs!"
Cheers rose from the entire family. They were all tired and ready for a break.
"But," Dad continued. A slight moan issued from the throats of those already headed for the little trails. "Stay in your groups. As usual, Jimmy, Johnny, and Jerry are with me, Joy and Faith are with Mom, and Cheryl, Sarah, Lenny, and Ralph are together." Dad wagged a finger at the four oldest. "Stay together, guys. No getting lost like last time."
Ralph's cheeks stung at the remembrance of how he'd wandered away at Yosemite and caused his family unneeded anxiety. He nodded mutely, as did his older siblings.
Dad grinned broadly. "Have fun! Don't stray from the paths, and be back in half an hour. We'll have lunch then. All right, gang, let's go!"
Dad led the charge to the trees. Comanche yells burst out of a few excited little Indians, and everyone rushed along their group's chosen path, delighting in the sunlight, flowers, and the heady scent of the wood.
Cheryl was having so much fun she didn't notice her sister's brooding expression. Sarah disliked this wood. "The power is so weak here," she muttered under her breath. "As if some other Power is driving it out." She was later to learn she was completely correct in that hypothesis.
Ralph, like Cheryl, was enjoying the forest for what it was: a lovely forest. He had recently given his life over to Christ, having noticed that Cheryl was usually happier than he was, and realizing it came from belonging to God. He had asked her to pray with him that night, and now marveled at the miracle of the growth of a living, growing, reproducing plant from a tiny, dead-looking seed.
Lenny was busy trying to identify all the plants around him. His scientific mind was fairly buzzing. Everything in the forest was fascinating to him, but he failed to notice how unutterably complex the simplest organism is.
Cheryl slowed her pace as the weight of her chubby body began to pull on her. Her heart beat faster than felt comfortable and her breath swooped in and out hard and fast. "Wait," she gasped to her three companions. Ralph and Lenny were too far ahead to hear her and kept going, enthralled by the beauty of the wood. Sarah turned around and glared at her.
"You're too fat," Sarah said venomously. "You should have stayed in the van reading one of your precious books. Your Bible, maybe."
Cheryl ignored the insults. "I just need--to catch my breath. Then--we can catch up--with the boys."
Sarah growled impatiently, but waited until Cheryl was breathing normally again. Then Cheryl knelt and picked up a smooth branch she'd noticed on the ground. "Perfect walking stick," she told Sarah.
The other girl glared at it balefully. "It's useless. You should throw it back."
Cheryl shrugged, but kept the stick. As they continued to walk she began noticing Sarah's malevolent expression, and she remembered what Lenny had told her: Sarah had professed a desire to be a witch. But before long they came to a fork in the trail, and Cheryl momentarily forgot her concerns. A park ranger stood there, tacking a placard over the guidance sign already there.
"Did two boys pass you?" Cheryl asked the man.
He looked up from his work and grinned. "Shore did, missy. Down the right fork. That's 'cuz I told 'em 'bout the left fork. Flooded stream, sez I. Can we cross it? sez curly hair with glasses. Just a slimy log, sez I. That's why I'm putting up this here sign, missy. T' warn folks no t' go down the left fork. Well, your friends took my advice, an' went to th' right, and if you have sense, you'll go that way too." Cheerfully he went back to the nail he was working on, tapping it firmly with a hammer.
"Thanks," said Cheryl. She turned to Sarah. "Let's go--" She noticed the strange gleam in her sister's eyes. "Sarah, what is it?"
"I'm going down the left fork," Sarah said in a strange tone, turning her glazed look to her sister.
"Didn't you hear what the ranger said? It's dangerous down that way!"
"Dangerous for you," Sarah said more angrily, "not me. Can't you feel it, Cheryl? The power? This whole wood's been like you-negative energy. But down that path is power I can use."
Sarah took off down the left fork, intent on using the spiritual power that drew her like a fly into a web. Before Cheryl could recover from the goose bumps enough to call out "No, Sarah, don't!" the girl was gone.
Cheryl turned to the ranger. "Would you tell Lenny and Ralph we went that way if they come back looking for us? I have to follow her!"
As Cheryl rushed down the path she heard him call, "I will, missy, but I think your friend's as loony as a jay bird in spring!"
Cheryl had to agree.
Lenny turned from the wild flower he was studying and looked at Ralph. "Where are the girls?"
Ralph shrugged. "I dunno." He had just discovered a flower with an intoxicatingly sweet scent.
Lenny was worried. "We'd better find them."
"You mean they aren't here? I didn't notice." Ralph was abruptly jolted out of his reverie.
"Neither did I," Lenny answered worriedly. "We'd better go."
Walking stick still clutched tightly in hand; Cheryl made it to the log bridge. The many bends in the path had made it impossible for her to catch sight of Sarah, though she never stopped calling "Wait!" whenever she had the breath.
"Sarah!" Cheryl cried. "Where are you?"
She was afraid to cross the log, which was covered with slime from age and fungus. Cheryl could tell that the stream beneath the log was usually a little, gently flowing thing, but it was now a rushing torrent. Spring rains and melted snow had swollen it to the top of its banks.
"Sarah!" she called again. "Saaraah!"
"Cheryl!" the faint reply came, barely audible over the roaring of the stream.
"Sarah!" Cheryl stumbled towards the stream, peering for a glimpse of her sister. "Where are you, Sarah!"
"I slipped crossing--the log! I just barely caught a branch--sticking out of it--but it's breaking! Hurry, Cheryl!"
Cheryl crawled on to the log, trying to find purchase for her fingertips. She had no wish to tumble off the slimy wood as her sister had.
"I'm coming, Sarah!" Cheryl moved as swiftly as she dared, glancing down at the water from time to time. It rushed past the log at a dizzying rate. "Sarah! Is the branch-upstream or downstream!"
"Upstream! I'm caught beneath the log--and the branch is cracking! Hurry, hurry!"
Finally Cheryl looked down on her right and saw her sister's scared face. The water was flowing so fast it had flung Sarah's body under the log and held it there. Sarah's feet were downstream, to Cheryl's left, and her face and the hands gripping the branch parallel to the trunk of the dead tree were upstream, to Cheryl's right.
Cheryl saw the whitened knuckles desperately holding the branch. It was breaking! In moments Sarah would be swept out of Cheryl's reach. Cheryl reached down to grab Sarah's hand, but the log was too big and Cheryl's arms too short. Then she realized that she still held the walking stick in her left hand. She transferred it to her right and stretched it to her sister.
"Grab it, Sarah! Grab it!"
Sarah let go of the branch with one hand and grabbed the stick. She managed to catch the staff in both hands just as the branch broke off the log! Cheryl was almost pulled off her precarious perch by the weight of Sarah's body, tugged by the current.
"Pull me up! Pull me up!" Sarah shrieked.
Cheryl tried, straining in an all-out effort.
"I can't! I'm not strong enough!"
"You're not trying hard enough!"
"Oh Jesus, help me!"
Lenny and Ralph reached the little park ranger.
"Have you seen--" Lenny said breathlessly.
"Two girls?" Ralph finished.
"Shore! Went up the left fork," he replied cheerfully. "One of 'em said somethin' about power and took off runnin', and the nice chubby one went after."
Lenny groaned. "Power? Oh, great!"
"We've gotta go help Cheryl, Lenny!" Ralph cried in great distress. "Something bad's happened!"
"How do you know?"
"I dunno, I just do. C'mon, we gotta go!"
Ralph began tugging Lenny down the path. The gray-eyed boy caught his brother's urgency, and both were flat-out running a split second later.
Sarah was frantic. "Pull harder, pull harder!" she screamed.
"I can't!" Cheryl gasped, pulling as hard as she could. "You're just too heavy!"
"Idiot!" Sarah yelled in panic and rage. "Why don't you--ever exercise! If you had you'd be-able to-pull me up!" Water washed over Sarah's face, and she was constantly swallowing it and being interrupted in the middle of sentences.
"Oh, Lord Jesus, help me!" Cheryl prayed. Her arms were aching, her grip on the wet stick slipping. "Oh, help me, God! Send someone this way!"
"Silly, useless!" Sarah yelled. "Praying--won't help--a thing! Pull, pull!"
Lenny and Ralph reached the stream then. Cheryl glanced over her shoulder at the noise of their arrival.
"Lenny!" she yelled above the sound of the rushing water. "Help me!"
Lenny took it all in in just a moment. "Hold on, Cheryl!" he shouted. "I'm coming! Ralph, stay here." The other boy gulped and nodded.
Lenny crawled onto the log the way Cheryl had, scrabbling with his fingers for a good hold. He found the indentations her hands had pressed through the slime as he slowly made his way to where Cheryl lay.
"Cheryl," he said loudly. "I'm going to have to crawl over and help you pull her up!"
She nodded almost imperceptibly. Lenny finally made it to her side and grabbed hold of the staff just under where Cheryl gripped.
"Pull!" Sarah hollered.
Cheryl and Lenny strained together and managed to lift Sarah halfway to the top. Lenny grunted with effort as Cheryl let go with one hand and stretched it to Sarah. She grabbed it. Cheryl and Lenny let go of the suddenly light walking stick and grabbed Sarah's forearms. Working together, they lifted Sarah up on the log.
For a moment the three lay on their stomachs and rested. Then by unspoken assent they made their way back to the bank where Ralph stood; first Cheryl, then Sarah, and last Lenny.
Worn out by the exertion, covered with slime and soaking wet, the siblings collapsed on the moss under a fir tree where Ralph joined them. Sarah was soaked to the skin from head to toe and completely exhausted, and terribly disappointed that she was unable to use the power she could feel around her.
"It's not fair!" she muttered. "I did everything right, everything! And it didn't work."
Cheryl looked at her in concern. "What are you talking about?"
Sarah glared at her. "It's all your fault."
Cheryl's confusion showed on her face. She had just rescued the twelve-year-old from probable death, and here the girl turned around and accused her of being at fault!
"What's my fault?"
"It's your fault that I can't use the power." The venom in Sarah's voice felt like a physical blow to her more sensitive sister
"I--I don't understand," Cheryl stuttered.
"Of course you don't. You don't understand anything."
Ralph and Lenny watch in bewilderment and dread, respectively, as Sarah continued her angry tirade.
"Whenever I'm with my friends from Dungeons and Dragons," she ranted. "I can feel your negative energy clinging to me. It makes it impossible for me to do what the other kids do. Jamie can move things through the air, Karla can see through walls, Sharise can call spirits, but I can't do anything! When I come in the room their powers lessen, because I bring your energy in with me, and I can't do anything, and it's your fault! It's all your fault! I can never get away from it! I can never get away from you!"
Ralph stared at his sisters with bulging eyes. "Cheryl," he whispered. "Is that true?"
Cheryl nodded slowly. "I think so." She bent her head back and peered up into the tree above them. "I think it's because I pray for her." She looked at Sarah. "Sarah, it's not me who won't leave you alone; it's God."
That was too much for Sarah. She reared back and dealt Cheryl a slap on the face the older girl never saw coming, then ran off the path into the trees.
The other children sat in shock. Cheryl slowly rubbed her sore cheek and prayed for guidance. She got it almost immediately.
Lenny stared dumbfounded as a large orange marmalade cat ran up the path towards them.
"Angel?" Ralph whispered.
Cheryl smiled as the cat trotted directly to the girl and plopped down in her lap, purring. Somehow, she wasn't surprised.
Lenny's chin was somewhere in the vicinity of his stomach. "How--how--that's not possible--is it?"
"Nothing's impossible," Ralph said, scratching behind Angel's ears. "Right, Cheryl?"
"Right." Cheryl grinned. Since she had led the boy to Christ only days before, he had looked to her as a mentor. It kind of scared her sometimes to have someone look up to her like that, but it also made her feel good.
Cheryl smiled at the tabby in her lap. "Well, where's Sarah, Angel?"
Angel leaped to her feet and padded into the trees. A few feet in she turned around and mewed at them.
"Let's go!" Ralph said, getting on his feet and following the cat.
Cheryl was already headed that way, and Lenny, not knowing what else to do, followed their lead.
Angel led them through the pathless forest for what seemed forever, but was really only about ten minutes. Finally they stepped out between two large trees into a clearing. Sloping up the middle of the clearing was a hill, and on top of the hill, a huge sphere of clear gold light shone brilliantly. It seemed to pulse with a light of its own, first very bright, then getting softer, than blinding again. A low hum emanating from the orb echoed in the trees. At the foot of the hill stood a familiar figure--Sarah.
"Sarah!" Cheryl called. "What's going on?"
Sarah turned toward the sound and saw the three children and the cat.
"I headed for where the power was greatest," she whispered in awe. She turned to the hill and the strange ball resting on it. "There's a battle up there," Sarah said in a strange tone. "Your kind of Power fighting my kind of power. Your Power's winning." Sarah shot Cheryl a wrathful look, as if it were her fault. Then with a look of intense determination she said, "I have to help!"
Sarah ran up the hill…and straight into the sphere. Her siblings gasped; Sarah had disappeared completely. Angel meowed contentedly and rushed into the yellow orb as well.
Cheryl, Lenny, and Ralph shrugged at each other, then walked to the sphere. They closed their eyes halfway to guard against the blinding light, and stepped inside.
Instantly, everything changed.
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Thanks to Paul Spooner for the great 'Portal Orb' artwork!