Barkly Jokin was not a nice man. Willow decided that before she even knew his name. He was stranded, friendless in this world, but somehow he still managed to be rude and ungrateful to the strangers that were offering him help.
If she did not think it would end in disaster (and more property theft), Willow would seriously consider leaving him to fend for himself. However, she understood why that could not happen. It did not matter how unpleasant or ungrateful Barkly was, her family needed to take responsibility for him. They were the only ones even remotely ready and willing to handle something of this magnitude and even then, they weren’t really ready.
Granted, Willow had technically hosted a stranded individual from the other world in the past, but Yuri was nothing like Barkly. She knew she was biased when it came to Yuri, but he was here for weeks and did not manage to cause as much trouble as Barkly had managed in a single day.
At first, she thought part of it was the unfair comparisons her mind kept wanting to make. Not everyone reacted the same way under stress and perhaps Barkly just got off on the wrong foot with them. As she got to know him, she realized that was not the case.
First of all, Barkly came here intentionally. He had no understanding of how the paths between worlds worked, but he had been determined to come here.
That was strange enough on its own. Willow tried not to use it too much against him, but it did make his illegal behavior once he got here a little harder to frame as a panicked reaction to an unexpected circumstance.
Then he revealed that he came here looking for things he could take and sell. He called himself a merchant, but he was a thief. Barkly flat-out refused to see it that way. He continued to insist that he had done nothing wrong.
He was rude, haughty, arrogant, and as hours went by, Willow came to realize he did not think of the people of this world as, well, people. All Barkly saw in this world was resources to exploit.
She tried her hardest not to hate him. It seemed unfair to judge someone so quickly when there still seemed to be a glimmer of hope that this was all some big misunderstanding.
They did their best to treat him as a guest. They made space for him in Aspen’s home even though it was already a bit crowded with Willow staying there as well. Aspen left to meet with the rest of the family and try to figure out what they should do now. That left Willow to babysit.
It was not an ideal situation. She was not entirely comfortable being left alone with a strange man in her aunt’s home, particularly since she had to keep asking him not to put small objects in his pockets. So far she caught him trying to steal the cable remote three times and a wireless mouse twice. She knew she was unlikely to catch him every time and did not want to imagine what might end up missing when they finally sent him on his way.
On that subject, he seemed completely confident he would be home again soon. Of course, Willow was skeptical. It had taken weeks for Yuri to get back home from this world. Barkly would be here at least as long unless…
Unless someone was going to do a ritual like the one that allowed Willow to come home.
Would someone do that for a sketchy merchant intent on thieving? Yuri had some allies in very high places and even with them helping out the effort that went into opening a path between the two worlds it still took a great deal of time and effort. She could not imagine someone doing the same just so someone like Barkly Jokin could come here and steal random small objects from people’s homes. Televisions and computers did not even exist in the other world—at least Willow never saw one—so what value could a remote or a mouse have?
It did not take long for Willow to accept that she would need to find a way to make peace with Barkly if she was going to get any answers to her questions. Just the thought of trying to gain his trust made her feel slimy. She did not have much of anything in the way of personal possessions right now and she did not want to think of the fight that would ensue if she tried to win his trust by giving him anything belonging to Aspen. The only alternative Willow saw was to win him over with food.
She never went hungry while she was on the other side, but their food over there was simple and natural. Heavily processed sugary foods would be a novelty for Barkly and she hoped he would open up to her about his plans to return home if she gave him a decent sugar high.
Leaving her guest/captive alone in the living room for even a moment was a risk, but she hoped the reward would be worth it in the end. She just needed to grab some sweets from the pantry. Even a sneak like Barkly could not cause too much mayhem in such a short span of time.
Fortunately, the pantry was stocked with just what she needed. She grabbed a pack of store-bought cookies and a bag of M&Ms. The M&Ms were unceremoniously dumped in a bowl but the cookies she attempted to hastily arrange on a plate before carrying both into the living room.
“Hey,” she called out, “I thought you might want a snack.”
She placed both the plate and the bowl on the coffee table and tried her best to smile with Barkly scowled at her suspiciously.
She sat down on the couch and picked up a cookie and took a bite. The last thing she wanted was for him to think she was trying to poison him. Obviously, they had no reason to do such a thing, but he seemed like he was paranoid enough not to see the need for a reason.
He continued to scowl at her. The way he stood made her suspect he had slipped something into one or more of his pockets again. She would try to recover whatever it was later, but for now, she was looking for a sign that his guard was dropping, even just a bit.
“These cookies need milk,” she declared and jumped back up from her seat.
There was a chance she would just be giving him another opportunity to steal something, but she thought there was an equally good chance that he’d try a cookie if she stopped staring at him for a minute. And the cookies really did call for a glass of milk.
She returned with two glasses of milk and forced her expression to remain neutral when she noticed Barkley had finally sat down and several cookies were missing from the plate.
The situation seemed to have improved slightly, but she was not ready to let her guard down yet or even allow herself to hope that things would turn out okay. She sat down on the chair closest to the couch, not wanting to be too close or too far away from Barkly. The last thing she wanted to do was crowd him—or be close to him at all, honestly, but he proved more than once that he could not be trusted.
“So, this has probably all been a lot to take in,” she ventured.
“Is this your first time coming over to this world?”
No answer. A few more cookies disappeared from the plate and he sipped the milk.
“Why are you trying to take things from this world back to yours? I know they won’t do anything over there. There aren’t televisions or computers!”
“Nine out of ten people won’t care that it doesn’t do anything. All they care about is being trendy. And this stuff,” he gestured at the room in general, “is the latest trend.”
Willow frowned slightly. Hearing that their electronics, essentially useless hunks of plastic in the other world, were trendy did not sound so bad until she started to consider the reasons for it. How did this trend get started? How were they getting enough products to keep this fad going? Well, she had a feeling they had figured that last one out when they caught Barkly earlier.
She took a deep breath and reminded herself she was trying to get information from him, not accuse him of a crime. If she wanted answers she needed him to be on her side.
“So you were here looking for more products to see back home?”
“Precisely,” Barkly replied with a victorious grin.
Apparently, he thought he had convinced Willow to see things his way. She wanted so badly to tell him he was wrong, but she was making progress and she could not risk putting an end to their conversation just yet. He wanted validation for his actions and she wanted to know how he was planning to get back home again. If she gave him what he wanted now, hopefully, he would be willing to give her what she wanted.
“Okay. So you came here and obviously you didn’t have much trouble finding things that would sell well back home.”
“Until you showed up,” he interjected.
“Until I showed up,” she agreed. “But how were you planning to get home again?”
“I was going to go back through the same portal, but it’s not there anymore,” he practically shot the words at Willow as an accusation.
She knew when they first met he had been convinced that she had somehow destroyed his portal, but she thought it would be obvious by now that she had done no such thing. It seemed she was not as good at building trust as she would like. It was not as though she had all that much practice with this sort of thing. Diplomacy was definitely Yuri’s thing, Asa knew how to keep them safe and, well, Willow had not exactly figured out what her place would be before she decided she needed to come back home.
Here her job was about making people feel safe and keeping things in balance. She was never great at the people side of things, which might be why she seemed to be making such a mess of this, but she wanted to get to the bottom of why Barkly was able to come here for such a trivial reason.
If there was a way to go back and forth easily, Willow needed to know about it. She had been wracked with guilt over leaving Yuri and Asa behind for the sake of seeing her family again. Ever since she came home she felt as though she did not belong here anymore. She knew she was probably being selfish by always wanting what she did not have, but the fact remained that she was simply not satisfied with things as they were. There was not typically a simple solution to a problem like this, but if Barkly Jokin and others like him were able to pass back and forth so easily, she might have discovered a way to see all the people close to her heart.
“What’s your back up plan?” she asked, realizing that he might not have an answer for her, but she would never know unless she asked.
He scoffed, “You mean what I would have done if you hadn’t forced me to come here?”
She was not going to start apologizing to him now. She refused to show him weakness. As much as it bothered her, she was going to continue to play the part of a kind and gracious host. She forced a gracious smile.
“Yes. We’re not planning to force you to stay here forever. We just couldn’t let you steal from people.”
Barkly rolled his eyes and sighed. “I’d head back to the woods and wait for the next portal to open up.”
“The next portal? You mean there’s a set place where the portals open up?”
“It’s not a set spot,” he spoke slowly as though explaining a simple concept to a small child. “The portals appear in the same general area so the woods are a safe spot to wait for the next one.”
Willow nodded. She had more questions, of course, but she did not want to use up the last of the goodwill from the milk and cookies since she would need him to tolerate her enough to lead her back to the woods he mentioned eventually.