No sooner had Willow arrived back at her aunt’s shop than she was ordered to move to the passenger’s seat. Aspen was not willing to waste even one moment in giving her directions. Her expression was grim and her jaw was determinedly set. Willow thought she was angry at first based on her silence and her body language, but her eyes were shining and betraying her excitement. As she drove, the stern expression began to disintegrate.
They were driving in uncomfortable silence for almost five minutes before the stern expression disappeared completely and a manic grin took its place. Willow found herself even more uneasy. She needed to know what was going on or she thought that she would die from the suspense.
“What’s going on?” she finally asked when she felt certain she could not wait a second longer without a bit more information.
“It’s like I said when I called. Someone just appeared out of nowhere. Mom said you’d be the one to handle it. Are you going to be able to handle it?”
“Handle it? I don’t know.”
Willow had never considered her experience making her any sort of expert. In fact, she felt like she had more questions than answers these days. That was the whole reason behind her research kick. She wanted answers and now it seemed like she was the one expected to give everyone else answers.
She felt certain that she had no answers to give. She struggled to even adequately explain her experience, and she was certain that she could do little more than anyone else in this situation. Her family’s confidence in her seemed to be misplaced.
Although the Jeep was cool from the air conditioning running since she left Ms. Lidia’s house, Willow found herself sweating. Her palms were slick with sweat. She tried her best to dry them by rubbing them against her pants but it seemed to have little effect.
Aspen’s excited chattering petered out. There just was not enough information for her to keep talking. Instead, she took to giving Willow quick glances of animated anticipation at intervals.
Willow debated telling her to keep her eyes on the road, but she suspected that the ensuing argument would be an even greater distraction. She preferred to arrive at their destination in one piece.
They pulled up in front of what had probably once been a big farmhouse before the surrounding land had been sold off piece by piece a couple decades ago. It was now the oldest home in a rural hamlet. A couple only a few years older than Willow were standing on the cracked sidewalk by the street looking nervously back at the house.
People usually did not wait for them at the side of the road like this. It was a sign of the extremely unusual nature of this particular mission.
The relief on their faces when their gaze lighted upon Aspen and Willow was at least somewhat familiar, if a bit out of place prior to them introducing themselves. She wondered what they were doing out here. It was not a normal place for people to wait for their arrival.
Although her aunt had insisted on bringing her along as some sort of expert, she still deferred to her when it came to interacting with the clients. She never seemed to say the right thing to them, or if she managed to say the right thing something about her expression or her demeanor somehow made the clients think she was less than sincere. Often in the past, they were right, but the problem persisted even now that she knew better.
The couple refused to leave the sidewalk and approach the house so Aspen was forced to stand there with them. She offered them assurances and generally tried to make them feel more at ease. Even for her, this case seemed particularly difficult. These people were actually afraid.
Sometimes people were uneasy or a little spooked when they were called out to take care of a problem, but their usual cases never left people terrified and standing on the curb outside their home. Whatever happened here was not their run of the mill disturbance.
Willow stood off to the side so she would not be roped into a botched attempt at comforting the homeowners. Aspen appeared to have it as well under control as possible anyway. What she really wanted to do was get a better idea of what they were dealing with.
This was unusual enough for her to be cautious. This was supposed to be her day off. Her grandmother knew she was busy with something important but hearing what was happening her made her insist on Willow coming back to help anyway. This might just be a highly unusual situation, but something in Willow’s gut told her that it was at least a little dangerous.
Based on the behavior of the homeowners, she was not the only one with that gut feeling. Even after Aspen spoke to them and reassured them that everything would be taken care of, they were refusing to go back in their home.
The weather was pleasant enough. They would be fine stay outside for a little while. The ashen tone of their skin was the only thing that made Willow concern for them. They looked like they might be going into shock.
What were they about to walk into that made these people so upset?
Aspen approached her with her lips pressed in a grim, thin line. Willow furrowed her brow, wondering what could have been said to make her aunt look so grave.
“Let’s get started,” she said in a flat monotone.
The lack of conviction confused Willow, which she thought would be impossible since she was already in the dark.
“What’s in there that’s got them so scared?” she asked, hoping for a chance to brace herself before they opened the front door.
“Not what,” Aspen said as they climbed the porch steps. “Who.”
Willow’s heart skipped a beat. She remembered what she had been told during the phone call she received at Ms. Lidia’s. Someone had appeared. She had been thrown off by the mention of someone then and somehow convinced herself along the way that it must have been a mistake. She told herself people did not appear out of thin air enough times that she started to believe it. Now she was reminded of it again, and she had to face the fact that she knew it was a very real possibility.
Once upon a time she had been the one to experience someone appearing out of nowhere in her home. Not too long ago she’d appeared out of thin air as well, although she had the good fortune not to appear inside anyone’s home. It was likely this person just had the same sort of bad luck as Yuri, but with a slightly worse twist since the owners of this home were not at all prepared to handle something so strange.
Odds were good that whoever was inside the house was at least as scared as the homeowners hiding out on the sidewalk. They might be disoriented or even hurt depending on the sort of appearance they had made when entering this world.
As they opened the door and stepped inside, Willow reminded herself to be kind and patient. This person had just been through an ordeal she knew all too well and they deserved to see a sympathetic face, not a combative one.
Aspen was on edge. Willow could not remember the last time she saw her aunt wound up so tight. Her muscles were practically vibrating from the extreme tension. She would not be of much use like this. Willow quickened her pace a bit so she could position herself in front of Aspen and act as a buffer between her anxious aunt and the farmhouse’s accidental visitor.
While they were in the sitting room near the front of the house—a room that looked to Willow like a repository of vintage farmhouse decor—she began to hear the sounds of someone moving somewhere further back in the house.
She looked back over her shoulder at her aunt whose wide eyes confirmed that she heard the noise as well. Aspen looked almost as pale as the homeowners. Willow squared her shoulders and continued through to the next room. No one else was going to take care of this situation she might as well step up and make sure the situation did not get any more out of hand.
Following the sound, she made her way to the back of the house and a small room that appeared to be some sort of gaming room or man cave based on fancy electronics, dragon figurines and posters of women in impractical armor on the walls. Inside the room was a middle-aged man with a deep scowl and a red face.
At first, Willow thought he must be blushing from embarrassment or frustration at his situation, but he barely spared them a glance as he hastily shoved items seeming chosen at random into a heavy canvas rucksack.
For a moment, she was too shocked to see an actual person in the house to comprehend the rest of the scene. Then the realization dawned on her that this man was looting the house. He did not even seem to be sorry about being caught.
Suddenly she felt extremely uneasy. Aspen had not followed her back here. She was alone in this part of the house.
This man could not be allowed to rob the homeowners, but at the moment she felt more pity for the looter—he was in a strange world and all alone. It made her think of Yuri, although he had not ransacked her home when they first met. Even though she had Yuri at her side, she also experienced being a stranger in a new world. It was hard. She could easily see how someone could panic and turn to criminal behavior within moments of appearing in a new world. At least no one was hurt, she mused.
“Excuse me,” she said. Her voice sounded smaller and younger than she would have liked. She needed to sound authoritative, not as though she would turn and run at the first unkind word or shout directed at her.
He turned to look at her, leveling her with a surly, red-faced glare before giving her a dismissive grunt and returning to his looting.
Willow refused to be ignored. She came here with a job to do. She was not going to walk away with the job not even started in earnest and she certainly could not allow this man to continue his criminal activity before her eyes.
“Those things don’t belong to you,” she said while crossing her arms. “You should put them back.”
The man scoffed but looked wary at the same time. It appeared as though he was realizing at around the same time as Willow that she was at least a few inches taller than him and appeared to be in better shape. His uneasiness only boosted her confidence that she could hold her own if this ended up being a fight.
“I don’t care,” the man said in a voice that dripped with disdain for Willow as well as his surroundings.
“Robbery is against the law,” she reminded him, mostly just trying to keep him distracted from his looting and hoping that her aunt would show up soon to offer her some sort of backup.
“It’s only illegal if I get caught, and I’m not going to get caught,” the man said with the arrogance of a man that somehow had missed the fact that his only exit was currently blocked by someone who had no intention of letting him escape.
Willow settled a defiant stare on him, practically daring him to try getting past her.
The man’s gaze slid past her to the back wall of the room. Willow leaned in from her place in the doorway but failed to see anything to draw the man’s attention in that direction.
Her attention returned to him. His bravado faded away. Willow’s mind raced to piece together the picture before her.
The man was arrogant, unafraid of looting this house right before her eyes. He was not big or strong enough to be sure he could overpower her and based on his word he had an alternative escape route. The way his face had fallen indicated something had changed. He had no way to escape.
She tried her best to keep her expression neutral, but nonetheless, she felt a smirk tugging at her lips. She put a hand on her hip and basked in her superior understanding of the situation.
“Yeah. Those portals don’t really stick around, you know?”
“What do you know about the portals?” the man asked in a hissing whisper, as though he was afraid all of the sudden of being overheard.
“Well,” Willow drawled, not feeling the least bit of shame over the fact that she was bragging, “I’ve been to your world and managed to come back to my own, which I think means I have twice as much experience as you do.”
The man glanced around cagily. “What did you do with my portal?”
Willow sighed. She realized she was in for a long, combative conversation, but at least the conversation was happening. She had been dreading a fight and realizing a fight was not going to happen made the painful task ahead of her seem like a great opportunity instead of a tedious struggle. Her conversation partner appeared to be a stubborn thug with no idea what he had done by coming here. Explaining the reality of his situation would be an uphill battle, but it was a task she was better equipped to handle than a brawl.
Once she made it clear that he was stuck here for the time being, she hoped that she could convince him to leave this place and come home with her. She had no idea what she would do with him then, but at least he would no longer be terrorizing and thieving from unsuspecting homeowners.