No one could decide on what to do with Barkly Jokin. Willow’s family was not equipped to handle this situation. They were good at the ordinary sort of work they had always done. Anything new threw them for a loop.
Willow knew her grandmother at least understood more of the situation than she usually let on. Unfortunately, Willow never found the chance to figure out just how much her grandmother knew. The rest of the family was in the dark and their panic was making it hard for them to settle on a solution to a problem that was not willing to wait around for them to mull it over and adjust to the new reality before them.
Now she knew without a doubt she had done the right thing by hiding the truth about Yuri from her family months ago. Their meltdown today would be nothing compared to learning that their daughter was living with a man from another world as her roommate while they tried to figure out a way for him to get home.
Like then, she was starting to feel like she had no choice but to take matters into her own hands. The other people that might be capable of action were too rattled to act. She knew now that there were other people in this world with a greater understanding of the other world and the paths between worlds in an academic sense, but apparently, she was the only one willing to do anything with what she knew.
She did not consult her family while she struggled with her decision. They wanted to help. There was no doubt about that, but Willow thought she was the only one in a position to act with experience.
Her family would probably think she was being irresponsible again, but she refused to allow herself to think of it that way. She spent years of her life bowed over by the weight of familial responsibility. A lot of what she knew now came from trying to be the reliable, responsible and loyal daughter they wanted her to be. She resented it at the time and now that she was home again after being free from their expectations she could feel herself futilely resisting a return to her old way of life.
She had a solution. Her family did not. She was willing to go to places her family did their best to pretend were distant and unreachable. She might be indebted to them for all they had done for her, but she could not let that debt turn her into her parents.
If she tried to explain she knew they would try to stop her. Their hearts were in the right place. They wanted her to be safe, but this time she was not acting blindly. She knew the risks. She knew what was ahead of her.
Willow was not afraid to try.
Barkly was still staying in Aspen’s apartment. Moving him again seemed like a hassle even though there was more space for him at her parent’s house. The goal was not to keep him here so there was no plan in place for long term accommodations.
“Hey Barkly,” she announced as she walked into the living room.
He quickly put something back on the coffee table. Stealing did not seem to just be part of his job, the guy had a bit of an addiction to it, in her opinion. The idea of a kleptomaniac owning a shop amused her. She wondered if he ever stole from his competition and brazenly resold his ill-gotten merchandise. His paranoid, twitchy demeanor made it easy to believe he did just that regularly.
“What is it?” he snapped. His defensiveness only made her more sure he had been up to something.
“You want to go home?”
“Cool. Let’s go.”
She thought about grabbing Aspen’s keys and driving back out to the woods, but abandoning her aunt’s Jeep in another town seemed too cruel to imagine. Instead, she jotted a quick note explaining what she had decided to do and grabbed a couple dollars worth of quarters out of the change jar. They would need it for the bus.
Barkly’s surly attitude evaporated at the mention of going home. Willow hoped it would not be her only stroke of good luck for the day.
She led the way to the closest bus stop—a bit of a hike during bad weather, but they were currently blessed with pleasant, late spring conditions. While they walked she did her best to remember the bus routes. She was positive there was a route that would get them pretty close to the woods Barkly had described to her, but she had not regularly used the local bus system since she got her own car.
Fortunately, Barkly was so distracted by all the trappings of modern life that she barely had to put any effort into bluffing her way through the public transit system.
Once they boarded the first bus, Willow was able to check and realized they needed to ride all the way back to the bus depot to transfer to the route that would take them to their destination. At first, Willow felt fine. Everything was going as well as could be expected when dealing with public transportation, but as their trip took longer and longer she started to feel more than a little paranoid.
Aspen would have found her note by now. Even if her family thought this was the right course of action for dealing with Barkly, they would probably try to stop her from going along with him. She found herself on the lookout for her family and their cars. If they figured out they had taken the bus, it would not be hard for them to follow them to the depot and try to stop her.
Thankfully, there was no point to her paranoia. No one tried to stop them and they made the final leg of their journey with a couple hours of sunlight to spare.
As they trudged up a hill and into the woods, she started to feel like she might have been a bit too hasty in her effort to escape unnoticed. Barkly said this was the place they went to wait for another portal to appear while on this side. That meant there might not be one today, or even tomorrow. She had not brought anything with her to help her stay overnight in the woods. She might be comfortable in jeans and t-shirt during the day at this time of year but it still got chilly at night. She thought she had better bring up this flaw in her plan to Barkly before the sun started to set and they had trouble making it back out of the woods.
“So, what do you do out here if you have to wait overnight for a new portal?”
He rolled his eyes at her and this time she felt as though she might actually deserve some of his disdain.
“We’re not idiots, you know. We stow supplies out here in case we can’t make it back through our original portal.”
“Oh,” she perked up a bit. Their situation seemed a lot less dire now.
He scoffed. “What are you looking so happy about? I didn’t say I’d share with you.”
“Hey!” she protested, thinking fast for a reason he should help her out. “What about the food I gave you?”
“You mean while you were holding me prisoner?”
“I helped you get back here. I even paid your bus fare.”
It was a weak argument, but it was the best she had at the moment. She just needed to hope that underneath all of his surliness he had some shred of kindness, otherwise, it was likely to be a long, cold night.
He released the longest, most irritated exhale Willow had ever heard. “Fine, but you’re not allowed to say a word of complaint about my acquisitions from this trip.”
She rolled her eyes, wondering what he had managed to steal from under her nose. “Okay. Deal.”
The store of supplies he showed to Willow actually impressed her. Barkly seemed so underprepared for this world when they encountered him. From that first impression, she assumed he came here without preparing first. Out here in the woods, she discovered she had been mistaken.
This collective of shady merchants came prepared to hide out in these woods whenever their portals closed on them. They were organized. Despite finding their actions to be immoral, Willow had to admit she was impressed.
She did not want to dwell on the fact that these robbers came here more prepared than her and she was not traveling from another world. Instead, she tried to get a better picture of how this group operated from Barkly, but his surliness was back in full force and all attempts at conversation came to a standstill.
Barkly grudgingly gave her a blanket, which she sat on for now but was sure she would be using it later if they had to wait overnight. The group’s stash also contained dried fruit and nuts as well as a bit of water and what appeared to be an overabundance of beer and jerky. She immediately saw that aspect of this hideout for what it was. At least some of the robbers using this stash probably enjoyed hiding out in these woods for an extra day or two.
She just hoped they would not have to wait that long.
At least she could feel confident that they would not be found and stopped out here. The information Barkly had given previously had not been detailed enough to narrow down what woods he was describing.
Instead of worrying, she moved to sit in a spot of sunshine and closed her eyes. Her mind was still running through everything that could still go wrong, but at least the warmth from the sun encouraged her muscles to relax.
Her brief moment of attempted meditation was terminated by Barkly’s harsh voice. “You’d better not get too comfortable. You’re on lookout for the next portal home tonight.”
She glared at him, not bothering to hide her irritation. “What about you? Shouldn’t we take turns?”
“I have to keep an eye on you to make sure you’re not going to cross me.”
Willow wanted to argue with him so badly. His logic made no sense and it was obvious he was more interested in making her suffer for tagging along than being efficient, but she also wanted to avoid giving him the satisfaction of having a disagreement to help pass the time.
She calmly agreed with his take on their current situation and turned her attention to scanning the surrounding area. The thought of being as boring as possible to see which of them could remain awake longer seemed to be adequate motivation to play along.
It had been a long time since she had a chance to just sit outside and enjoy nature. At first, she was quiet and still just to spite Barkly, but soon she was more than happy to stay put and merely observe the activity around her. She knew the eerie feeling of a portal opening well enough to trust that she would not need to concentrate to feel it. If one opened close enough for them to have a hope of getting to it in time, she would not be able to miss the sensation.
The sun set and boredom threatened to set in, although Willow continued to valiantly resist the feeling by watching the shadows grow longer and longer. She told herself she just needed to hide her boredom and she would eventually find something new to divert her.
She tried to resist, but as night crept in around her, she felt her eyelids growing heavy. She yawned. Her eyes closed. Although she struggled to force her eyes open again, her will was not strong enough.
She was certain she had lost the battle when she felt something on the edge of her perception that jolted her mind and body back to full wakefulness.
A portal was appearing.
She sprang to her feet. She called out to Barkly and without any more words being exchanged he knew the exact cause of her excitement.
The portal was not far away by her estimation, but in the dark, they would have to move quickly and carefully to make it there before the window of opportunity closed itself.