The Collector, pt. 2

Rokag notices that her fathers have been behaving peculiarly for days. Each morning they wake up exhausted, as if they’ve been out all night, but neither recall doing anything but sleeping. They snap at each other, things go missing, semiprecious stones accumulate, and her parents smell of tobacco, though neither of them smoke. At a loss, Rokag tries to get through her day-to-day life.

This is a modern alternative universe about Finn, Agrat, Rokag, and Tabris. It’s a longer one, so it’s posted in three parts.

Word Count: ~3700 (of ~13,500)
Rating: PG
Warnings: None

Rokag returned much later that evening. Her basketball practice got finished late, and by the time she got home, Finn and Agrat were already there. As soon as she saw their cars parked in the driveway, he tightened her jaw and steeled herself. She walked only the slightest bit slower, preferring to lengthen her time between arriving at home in the bus stop and actually walking into the front door. She touched the hood of Agrat’s car, then Finn’s. Both were still warm. As she approached, she braced herself for loud, angry voices, but heard none.

With still breath to calm her nerves, she opened the door and saw Agrat hunched in the kitchen, sweeping up the mess he’d made. Finn stood next to him and took groceries out of a bag. One item was, indeed, a box of pepper. The other, a new set of salt and pepper shakers. Agrat dumped the mix of salt and glass shards into the bag and stood with a bit of a grunt. He tossed the trash out.

“Sorry,” he said, hanging his head like a forlorn mutt. “I shouldn’t’ve lost it like that.”

“You’re fine,” Finn said and touched his face tenderly. “I’m sorry for insulting you. It was immature.” They hugged and Agrat nuzzled his nose into Finn’s hair with his eyes closed. They stood there for a long time, unaware of Rokag’s presence.

She said nothing and just went to her room. Better to let them be, she decided. Rokag took out her laptop and checked her social media sites for anything interesting, mindlessly scrolling through status updates and photos. The door creaked and Agrat peered in.

“Mind if I come in?” he said.

“Sure,” she said without looking up. He walked in, his hands in his pockets, and sat on the edge of the mattress.

“Sorry about this mornin’,” he said. “I overreacted and lost my head.” Rokag glanced at him.

“Dad wasn’t exactly being nice, either,” she said. Agrat shrugged.

“I started it and made it worse,” he said. “But anyway, I’m sorry you saw me actin’ like that. It isn’t OK.”

“It’s whatever,” she said. It wasn’t really “whatever.” But she didn’t want to dwell on it. She was just glad for his apology. Agrat smiled and stood again.

“I’m makin’ dinner tonight—beef skewers. They’ll be ready around, oh, eight or so,” he said.

“Cool—sounds good,” Rokag said and smiled back. He left and a moment later, she heard him chopping up ingredients in the kitchen. A while later, she smelled the aroma of sizzling, spiced meat and her mouth watered. She hoped he was making that orange sauce for them, the sauce that she always forgot to ask about.

When Agrat finished cooking, she joined him and Finn in the kitchen to eat. They talked in sleepy voices, yawned between bites, and leaned on their arms or slumped in their chairs. It was still light outside—she couldn’t imagine why they stayed up so late only to be so exhausted later. At least the food was delicious, like Agrat really poured his heart into it. She ate voraciously and took three kebabs for herself while Agrat and Finn stuck to two, then she went back for seconds. At the table, she also got the light scent of tobacco, and wondered if it was something in the kebab, or on her fathers’ clothing.

The rest of the night, Rokag waited for them to turn in early, but they instead stayed up and cuddled on the couch while she did homework in her room. Even with the door closed, she heard them kissing and speaking lovingly to each other. It was off-putting—they had their romantic moments, sure, but their hands were all over each other, like newlyweds. Even when she walked past them to get to the bathroom or the kitchen, they just glanced at her and continued petting each other’s faces. It all felt so performative, so fake. And downright cheesy, too.

“You’re my moon and my stars, Agrat,” Finn said. Even with the water in the bathroom running to wash up for bed, Rokag still overheard them.

“Well, you’re my sun and my sky,” Agrat said back, and they kissed again. Rokag rolled her eyes while she flicked her hands to make them easier to dry. Droplets scattered all over the counter and into the wooden dish of semiprecious stones her parents had started collecting recently. Well after Rokag went to bed, they giggled and eventually headed to their room together and shut off the lights. She heard snoring come from behind their door.

Rokag usually finished her homework on time. She knew how to prioritize and most assignments came easily to her. But tonight, she realized she’d completely forgotten about a paper due for her history class. Irritated, she first debated over whether or not she even wanted to stay up and do it, or just go to sleep and turn it in late. She checked her grades, saw that the paper was worth twenty percent of her final grade, and opened up her laptop and got to work once again.

At around three, Rokag’s head nodded and she struggled to keep her eyes open. Sounds of shuffling from her fathers’ room caught her ear.

“Finn, this one or this one?” Agrat’s muffled voice said.

“The blue one looks better on you,” Finn said. They weren’t even trying to be that quiet about it, either. Rokag wondered what in the world they were talking about, especially at this hour. “Now, what do you think about this set of cufflinks? I got ‘em just the other day.” Cufflinks?

“Yeah, those’re nice,” Agrat said. What in the world were they doing with cufflinks? “This tie?”

“Perfect. Let me put it on for you.” Rokag turned off her light and shut her laptop. Instead, she waited and watched out the door for them. The two of them quietly shuffled down the hall, hand-in-hand, dressed to the nines. Both wore tuxedos with all the usual and extra accessories—fine cufflinks, lapel pins, tie clips. Agrat even sported a pocket watch with a chain clipped to it, and Finn stuffed a crisply-folded handkerchief in his front pocket. They hardly made a sound as they walked, even on the wooden floors, since they wore slippers on their feet. She widened her eyes and plucked a strand of curly hair from her head to check if she was dreaming.

“I’m excited,” Agrat said. “They said they’d have food there t’night—wonder what kind?”

“Something wonderful, I’m sure,” Finn said. “I’m looking forward t’ trying it and seeing how it tastes.” As they passed through the living room and out the back door, Rokag followed on the tips of her toes. She watched as they walked over the patio in the back, down its steps, and into a ring of mushrooms—and they vanished.

Rokag gasped and her eyes widened. She rushed outside.

“Dad? Papa?!” she called and looked around, in case her eyes were playing tricks on her. But she saw no signs of them anywhere—no voices, no other sounds, no movements in the forest behind their home. Only the quiet breeze responded. It carried brown, fallen leaves to her ankles and she shivered. As she approached the ring they stepped into, something triggered a horrible sensation in her gut. She wasn’t invited. She hadn’t even introduced herself. Just who did she think she was, trying to enter without permission?

She took a step back. In the distance, as if through a tank of water, she heard jovial, lilting voices. And then, Papa’s laugh, and Dad’s chuckle.

“Dad! Papa! Where are you?” she yelled with her hands around her mouth. She didn’t care if the neighbors heard her. She was confused, and she was scared, and she was cold. Rokag followed the sounds of their voices into the woods, and stumbled through the darkness.

 

 

Tabris jolted from his sleep and blinked rapidly to clear his tired eyes. Who in the world was shouting outside at this hour? He unconsciously tilted his big, elven ears towards the source—the backyard. Irritated, he grabbed his cellphone and peered through a crack in his blinds to see who was making such a racket. They’d get their act together once the police came and lectured them on neighborhood noise policies.

But as soon as his eyes adjusted, he saw his neighbor, Rokag, wandering into the woods from her backyard. He tilted his ears towards her voice and listened.

“Dad! Papa! Where are you?” she cried. Tabris looked at the clock and bit his lip. Just past three-thirty. He looked back out to her, then he quickly put on a pair of sandals and a jacket. He hurried out his back door and rushed towards her before she could go too deeply into the trees.

“Rokag?” he said. She stopped, not terribly far ahead of him, and looked back with reddened, watery eyes. “Are you alright? What’s going on?”

“Tabris!” she said and hurried back to him. “I don’t—I don’t know! They got into some… fancy fucking clothes, then they went out back, and they—they just disappeared! I’ve got no idea where they went!” She sobbed. Tabris reached up and patted her shoulders.

“I’ll help,” he said. “Your dads, you mean? Agrat and Finn are missing?” Rokag nodded and sniffled.

“They’ve been acting funny, too,” she said. “They smell like smoke some mornings, and they started collecting, like, weird hippie rocks for the bathroom? And they’re always tired, always getting into fights and little arguments. Papa even—Papa even almost blew up yesterday.” She dabbed her eyes and hiccupped. “He broke—he broke a little salt shaker.” Tabris frowned and looked around.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Where’d you see them last?” Rokag pointed past the tall, sturdy trees and the thick bushes into her backyard.

“Right there! They walked into th’ backyard and just—just disappeared!” Tabris turned and followed her extended finger. He scanned the house, the garden, the ground, but saw nothing. No signs of them at all.

“When you say disappeared, you mean vanished? Poof?” he said and spread his hands to accentuate his words. She nodded.

“Just—they didn’t even move, or there wasn’t any… anything like mist, or something! They were there, and then they were gone.” Tabris cupped his chin and stared back at their house with a furrowed brow.

“Come with me,” he said. “We’ll take a closer look. But step lightly—there’s probably something supernatural afoot.”

“Supernatural?” Rokag wrinkled her nose. “You mean ghosts?” Tabris shook his head.

“Not ghosts. I’m talking about the Tall Ones, the Patrons of the Horn, the Dewdrop Sippers,” he said. He spoke in a hushed voice and articulated each word. “They have many names. But mostly, they’re the Fair Folk.” Rokag gawped.

Fairies?” she said. “Tabris, my dads are missing—quit joking around! Fairies don’t exist!” A strong, sudden breeze shook the leaves. A twig from a dead tree snapped and fell harmlessly beside her foot. A warning. Tabris looked around briskly, his eyes wide.

“Rokag, don’t say such things,” he said. “You must call them by a proper name—what you just said is a slur, kind of like—kind of like calling humans blunt-eared.” Rokag stiffened, but glanced around, obviously spooked.

“So, Fair Folk,” she said. “They can’t possibly exist, though. If they did, we’d know about it, right?”

“They’re clever,” Tabris said. “They know that mortals take advantage of their powers and knowledge, so they stay out of sight. And they like their privacy. They’ll only speak to you when they want to, and you can only see them if you’re invited. But accidents happen sometimes. Now come—let’s look around.” Rokag followed him to her backyard and Tabris looked down at the ground as he walked. He stopped in front of a small, thin mushroom—light orange in color, with tiny, pinpoint-sized glowing white spots. They looked like stardust sprinkled on the delicate fungi’s caps.

“What’s wrong?” Rokag said. Tabris shook his head and knelt down.

“Of course,” he said. “It’s a circle. A classic Fair Folk creation, their modus operandi to speak and meet with mortals.”

“What?” Rokag said. “These little mushrooms being in a circle actually means something?” Tabris nodded.

“Well, for one, it’s an unfamiliar species. Have you ever seen anything like this growing around here normally?” He touched one of the larger caps with two fingertips and looked up at her. She bent down and frowned at it.

“No,” she said. “They’re too bright, and—hold on—let me see closer?” She sat down and got as close to the mushroom as she could, and gasped. “It’s a color I’ve never seen before! What—what is this?” Tabris squinted and looked closer as well.

“Humans call it ‘orange,’ I think,” he said. “Their color is so intense that even those of us who can’t see hues that well can make it out. I guess it’s so we can see them in the first place, even if they’re surrounded by grass or leaves.”

“Wow,” Rokag whispered. “And Fair Folk leave these things here?”

“Yes. Not just mushrooms, of course—it could be stones, or upright twigs. Sometimes it’ll be something more ephemeral—leaves, dead insects. You name it,” he said. “I’ve even seen circles made of old soda cans. They use whatever they want.”

“And we just step into it, and we’ll also vanish? Like them?” Rokag said.

“Not always. It’s a door—not an archway. They need to open it,” he said. “So we’ll ask them if we can enter. Take my hand, please.” Rokag nodded and grasped his thin fingers between her thicker ones. They stepped into the circle and stood in its center. All around them, the world quieted. The leaves stopped rustling and the far-off traffic ceased. The humming of the streetlamps silenced and the breeze died down. Yet it wasn’t still. Everything around them moved more dynamically, with some sort of unspoken intent. It was as if every branch waved just so, and every petal on the flowers in the garden shook for a reason. Far, far away, in the depths of the woods, Rokag and Tabris saw someone tall and thin appear. They didn’t move. They only waited there, and watched their visitors. Curled horns adorned their forehead, stretching out well beyond the width of their shoulders.

“Hello,” Tabris said and bowed his head. “We politely request entry into your home. We believe some very close friends of ours are visiting you. We understand that you wanted their company, and invited them yourselves, but please—people like us, mortals… we aren’t built for that sort of environment.”

The Tall One flicked one deer-like ear, but otherwise stood still as a stone. Their eyes glinted in the pale light from the moon. Rokag felt cool breath on her neck and her hairs stiffened. Her throat tightened.

“Please,” she said. Tabris looked at her with just his eyes and bit the inside of his cheek. “Please let my dads come home. I’m worried about them. They haven’t been well lately, they’re tired all the time, and they’re acting weird. I don’t want them to get hurt!” She teared up again.

“Rokag, enough,” Tabris whispered. The Tall One’s eyes narrowed and Tabris smiled nervously. “I’m very sorry—she doesn’t mean to offend. She doesn’t understand your, uh, your culture and practices. She’s only worried.”

“Tabris!” Rokag said. “Let me speak for myself! I don’t care what their culture is, if it’s hurting my dads, I don’t want to understand it!” She sobbed. Tabris’ head hurt and he reeled.

“I’m so very, very sorry,” he said again, bowing his head once more. “She really—she doesn’t get that—”

“Go.” The Tall One’s mouth opened, but their voice came from behind Rokag and Tabris. Icy fingers traced their spines and they stood perfectly upright. Goosebumps rolled across their skin and they shuddered. The Tall One disappeared with no warning, no fanfare. The mushrooms around them seemed duller in color, and a little wilted.

“Shit,” Tabris hissed and shook his head. “Rokag, you insulted them!”

“I don’t care!” Rokag said again. “They’re hurting my dads! They don’t—they don’t just get to do that!” Tabris took her by both shoulders and looked straight into her eyes.

“The problem now is that the Fair Folk may keep them in their world longer just to spite you. They’re… they command respect,” he said, choosing his words very, very carefully. Rokag stared right back, mouth open and tears flowing.

“What?” she said, her voice a whimper.

“It might be worse for them now,” Tabris said as gently as he could. She cupped a hand over her mouth, pulled away from him, and sobbed. Looking back and forth for some sort of answer, or even the slightest of clues, she paced and hugged herself. After only a moment, she cried out, fisted her hands, and crushed the mushrooms under her foot. Tabris winced—he knew the Fair Folk would make the fungus circle grow back, but he imagined they wouldn’t appreciate their destruction. But he let her continue. Rokag kicked at the grass and smeared the squished matter all around, stamping over and over with her heel.

“I hate these stupid, stupid fairies!” she yelled. “Why can’t they see that they’re being wrong?!” Tabris crossed his arms and looked straight at the ground. “Where are they, anyway? I saw that one in th’ forest, but they spoke from behind me! It makes no sense!” Deep in thought, Tabris rubbed his chin. “It’s unfair. So we’ve gotta ask permission to even just enter their world, but they can just take people from ours? How in the gods’ names is that OK?!” She walked in circles like a stir-crazy zoon animal. Tabris suddenly snapped his fingers.

“I’ve got it,” he said.

“What?” Rokag demanded and faced him.

“We can enter their world,” he said. “It’s very difficult—exceedingly difficult, almost impossible under normal circumstances. But you saw how clearly we saw the one who spoke to us. Tonight isn’t a normal night.” Rokag’s face softened and she raised an eyebrow at him.

“How do you mean?” she said. He pointed up at the sky, to the moon. It was quite large—not truly a full moon, but in a couple days it would be perfectly round. It shone bright in the black sky, reflecting off of bluish clouds hanging above.

“Moonlight changes the way things work,” he said. “It makes them more solid when they come to our side of things, and it makes their portals glow vividly. They can affect our world and our side more, when on dark nights they have little influence here. But the reverse is true, too—when the moon casts so much light, we can also gain powers, of sorts. And tonight, we might be able to make use of liminal spaces.”

“Liminal spaces?” Rokag recognized the word from her classes. “So, like boundaries?” Tabris nodded.

“Exactly—places where our side merges with theirs, and vice versa,” he explained. “Even the weaker ones open wide on a night like tonight, and we can traverse them. The trick is finding one.” Rokag shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Hold on—what makes a liminal space so different?” she said. “Why can’t we just use the circle they left?”

“That’s one they constructed,” Tabris said. “These liminal spaces are naturally-occurring. Nobody builds them or wills them into existence; they just happen.” He grinned and held up a single finger. “And I, personally, have come across a number of them in my travels.” Rokag scoffed and rolled her eyes.

“You’re a librarian. Are you gonna tell me that the university library’s a boundary between our world and Wonderland?” she said.

“Not the entire library,” he said. “Just the second-lowest level—the stacks on floor B1. Specifically, the southwest stairwell there. And I’ll have you know, I don’t just sit in the library all day. I have hobbies, too.” Rokag watched his face after he stopped describing the place to her. He was being earnest. A little peeved at her assumption, but serious.

“Then let’s go,” she said. “Do we need anything? What should we take with us?” Tabris held up a hand.

“We need to get some sleep first,” he said. Rokag glared at him and fisted her hands. Her blood heated.

“But they’re still trapped wherever they are! How’m I supposed t’ sleep when I know they’re not safe?!”

“They weren’t acting like zombies, were they?” Tabris said. “They’ll be fine one more day. If anything, when they come back they might just sleep about three days straight instead of two. The problem is when they become completely charmed into going again and again and again, for longer stretches of time.” Rokag fumed, turned, and stamped her foot.

“Fine!” she said. “I guess I’ll try t’ get some sleep, since it’s apparently not a huge deal!” Tabris put his hands on his waist and sighed.

“Look, I promise you, they’ll be fine,” he said. “I was once trapped in that realm for a full week on our side, and I’m still here.” She looked over her shoulder and glanced him over, slumped, and hung her head. “Here, if you need help getting to sleep, drink chamomile tea. It’ll make you warm and tired.”

“It tastes like wet dog,” Rokag said.

“Then flavor it with a bit of honey, but not too much. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. If they come back during the night, let me know as soon as you can,” he said. Rokag nodded and they parted ways. Jacques slept soundly at the foot of her bed, curled up in the comforter where it folded over itself. She sat on the bed and rolled over to stay at the wall. Her cat sat up and chirped, offended that she’d jostled the bed. Once he saw she was back, Jacques stood, arched his back, and gingerly crossed the bed to press up against her back. Once she felt his spine on hers and his tail tickling the base of her neck, Rokag’s mind slowed, and she closed her eyes. It wasn’t the most restful of sleeps she’d had in her life, but she at least got some shuteye.

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