The Gate: Part 1 of the Hinterlands SeriesCharlotte Grey / Romance & Love
Part 1 of the Hinterlands Series
by Charlotte Grey
Copyright © 2015 Charlotte Grey
All rights reserved.
Cover photo by konradbak of Canstockphoto
Cover design by Charlotte Grey and MJE
All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form. The author acknowledges the trademark status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work.
Coffee. Shannon needed coffee. It was her life blood. Her magic feather. How, on today of all days, had she managed to run out of her favorite blend? She rummaged through the pantry, digging a single instant packet out of the back. Scrunching her nose in disdain, Shannon microwaved a cup of water and dumped the powder into the mug.
Powdered coffee. It was so, so wrong.
Shannon downed the swill as quickly as she could, taking her morning dose of Zoloft with the last sip. Sprinting to the door, she slid on her flats and threw her purse over her shoulder, barely remembering to lock up on the way to her car.
“Okay,” she put the key in the ignition and started her reliable, old Jetta. “Big day. No big deal. You got this.”
Rain pattered her windshield, and she turned on the wipers and headlights. Bad weather was status quo for West Hampshire, Pennsylvania. Sometimes they went weeks without sun, and when it finally decided to shine through the clouds, it was blinding.
Pulling out of her apartment complex, Shannon turned onto the main road and headed toward town. She squinted, leaning in toward the steering wheel. It was always so difficult to make out the double yellow line when the pavement was wet, and the fog that covered the road didn't make it any easier.
The tiny engine revved as she drove up the first winding hill. In weather like this, Shannon always drove slowly and cautiously. As she reached the crest, dim lights from an oncoming car came into view. Instinctively she hugged the ditch, giving whatever vehicle approached ample space to drive. Gripping the steering wheel tight, Shannon prepared for the car to pass by her.
It happened in a moment. The truck swerved into her lane, its headlights blinding her as she tried to steer out of the way. Tires shrieked against the pavement. Metal crunched against metal.
The pain was sudden. Intense. Consuming.
And then it was over.
Shannon came to in the middle of a forest. Shaking her head, she propped herself up with her hands and sat up. A thick blanket of leaves and pine needles covered the ground, and although it was only September, the trees were almost bare. She stood up, brushing the leaves off of her blue dress.
She didn't own anything like this, and she was positive she'd left for work in a pencil skirt and a white blouse. This dress hailed back to an earlier age – an age when flashing your shins was considered indecent exposure. It was ornate and flowing, and the corset that cinched her waist made it difficult to twist and move.
Still, she was surprisingly comfortable in what should have been damp, cold weather. Looking further into the woods, she noticed wispy strands of mist flowing and dancing ahead of her.
Had she only dreamed she'd been driving to work? The accident must have been some awful nightmare, and now she couldn't snap herself awake. She took a deep breath, but it brought her lungs no relief. It was as if there was no air. No temperature. And now that she thought about it, there was no sound. Shannon put a finger on her wrist, but couldn't find her pulse. She moved to her neck. Nothing. Placing her hand over her chest, Shannon waited.
She had no heartbeat.
Had she really been in that accident? No. That was impossible. It had to have been dream. She was just nervous about her meeting with Create-Me's biggest client, and this was her brain's way of dealing with it. If she had no heartbeat, it was to compensate for the extreme amount of anxiety she'd experienced before she went to bed.
“Just calm down,” Shannon took a deep breath and closed her eyes, trying to concentrate. At least she could still breathe, though taking in air – or whatever it was – gave her no relief. “Okay. Now wake up.”
She opened her eyes, but nothing changed.
“Fine,” she crossed her arms over her stomach. “You wanna be difficult, brain? I can work with this. I always work with the crap you throw at me.”
Observing her surroundings more thoroughly, Shannon noticed a well-worn path nearby that was only sparsely covered in leaves. They crackled loudly as she walked, her footsteps echoing through the woods. The twigs and branches dug into her bare feet, but she felt no pain.
When she got to the path, she looked down the left side. It continued indefinitely into the forest, and the thick fog that gathered in the distance shrouded her vision. The other path was clearer, though the wispy mist lingered. Deciding not to risk the hazier route, she headed right.
As Shannon walked, she took in her surroundings more thoroughly. Everything seemed to hold a muted hue. When she looked down at her hands, her usual rosy skin was almost gray. Her mystery dress, though beautiful, was dull, as though she'd used Photoshop to sap out most of a picture's saturation.
She walked along the path – for how long, it was hard to say – until a white fence appeared in the distance. Picking up her pace, Shannon jogged toward it. When she drew near, she noticed it was made of old wood and covered in ivy. A fence meant people, and she decided to continue in that direction.
Approaching it, Shannon brushed some of the ivy aside and revealed the latch to a gate. Its thin coat of whitewash had weathered away, and she was able to lift the latch easily despite the thick layer of rust that coated it.
Shannon opened the door just enough to allow her to squeeze through, but it creaked and groaned through the silent woods nonetheless. Closing and latching it behind her, she turned around to continue down the path.
As she stepped forward, the trees faded away, and a small, ramshackle town appeared in front of her eyes. She braced herself against the gate.
“What the...? Okay. Yeah, no. We're not doing this. No way in hell.”
She tried to yank the latch back open, but it refused to budge. It looked as though it had rusted together in the time it had taken her to turn her back. But that was impossible.
Seeing no alternative, Shannon braced her foot on the bottom slat and prepared to swing herself over the gate. She lifted up with her arms and propelled herself over. Her leg crashed into an invisible force that stopped her from moving any further. It was as though she had slammed it against a brick wall, but without the agonizing pain that usually came with such an injury. Taking a deep breath, Shannon tried again, but couldn't break through.
Carefully, she swung both legs over and sat on top of the gate, reaching out slowly. This wall, or force field, or whatever it was, stood only about six inches from fence. She hopped down and ran along the enclosure. When she reached out again, her hand met the same invisible wall.
Dr. Terrance was going to have a field day with this one; she just knew it.
“Creepy-ass town it is,” she conceded, heading down short, narrow path and into the village.
Upon closer inspection, it looked like a small, English village that had been neglected and had fallen into disrepair. Most of the buildings looked like private residences, and were fashioned in the traditional half-timbered Tudor style, though a small stone church stood out.
At least the town was populated. That was a good sign. Three children – two girls and a boy – jumped rope, and an old man with a hunched back pushed a wheelbarrow through the town square. There was a dry fountain in the middle of the square, and a woman sat folding her laundry on the steps. A simple store stood at the other end. A wooden sign – half falling off of its post – was labeled “Odds and Ends.”
Shannon made her way across the square and let herself into the store. A small bell chimed as she opened it.
It was larger than she had expected. Paper was stacked almost to the ceiling in one corner, and a whole wall was devoted to books. It seemed strange for a store that was supposed to sell odds and ends. Why not call call it Books and Stationary or something?
The cashier leaned on the counter, staring off into space. She paid Shannon no mind, and the man stacking boxes in the back hadn't noticed her either. The cashier was a pretty girl – early to mid-twenties, Shannon guessed, with a rich copper complexion and short, curly hair. Though her skin shone far brighter than Shannon's own, her yellow dress was muted like everything else.
“Hi,” Shannon smiled. “I was wondering... could you possibly tell me where I am, or how I can get out of this town?”
The woman continued to stare off into the distance, paying Shannon no heed.
“Excuse me?” she tried again.
The woman blinked, but made no other movements.
“Umm, okay...” Shannon headed to the back of the store.
“Excuse me,” she addressed the man. He was heavyset, and his massive