This is an early preview of the first chapter of The Barrier! Moving forward all chapters will be live on Patreon a month before they go live on the blog! The next free chapter will be live mid-next month. Or if you’d like to stay up to date you can join my Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/meganezombi
Riley waved off what she hoped would be the last customers of the day with a smile. It was only slightly forced, but she did her best not to let that show. It wasn’t that she minded helping people; she didn’t most of the time, she was just a little crunched for time on finishing her book. When the bell rang to signal that they were gone, Riley let the smile drop, and her body followed suit into the chair behind her. She quickly grabbed the book and dove back in. She could feel the last bit of sun on her back reflecting on her dark hair and warming her a bit. Most of the west and east-facing walls in the shop were comprised of windows. Her boss and guardian, Jack Simmons, was a fan of the beautiful sunrises and sunsets the mountains provided. Normally Riley would share his enthusiasm, but today she was focused.
The shop was a quaint little place in a quaint little town. They didn’t have a proper sales desk and instead just a standard desk with a rather old cash register on it. Everything about the look of Midnight Reflections screamed “small-town bookshop” and fit perfectly into the town’s aesthetic. But much like the town itself, this was not a normal bookshop. No, Midnight Reflections specialized in books on the occult, ancient history, the paranormal, and anything related to or even adjacent with the study of the supernatural. It wasn’t somewhere you came for the latest romance or mystery or a book for help if you were struggling with those bulbs in your backyard.
Often people passing through the town would be surprised to find such a specialized bookshop in such a place. But their town was rather superstitious and odd. While most of the world had only recently started to acknowledge the existence of spirits, helped along by The Event, most of the people in this town had always been full of believers. People that believed to their very core. One could not be a skeptic and fit in. Beyond that, the town boasted its own hauntings. No, Midnight Reflections was perfectly at home in this town, despite what outsiders might think.
It also didn’t hurt that Jack and his protege were excellent at tracking down books for those interested in the subject or those that worked in related fields. If you hunted spirits, odds are at some point you had used Jack’s online services to find a book. Riley was not nearly as proficient as Jack, nor did she have the contacts, but she was turning into quite the expert herself. Jack, on the other hand, almost seemed otherworldly with his talent. More than once, Riley had witnessed him unwrapping a book that he tracked down that until she laid her own eyes on it, she had doubted existed.
She was convinced that some people asked him for books just to see if he could rise to the challenge. A few times, she even found people online speculating, in a teasing manner, if Jack was a time traveler. Perhaps he wrote the books himself, traveled in time to ensure they were hidden somewhere that only he’d know how to find them when the time was right. But, as much as these speculations were said in a teasing tone, there was a small part of most people that believed there might be an explanation like that when it came to Jack Simmons.
One such joker was supposed to be stopping by the store later today. He always ordered the best books, and Riley was quickly trying to make it through the last one she had before she would have to surrender them to their rightful owner. She would love to get a peek at the man’s library.
“You are going to miss a lovely sunset,” Jack said, joining Riley in the front part of the store. He spent most of his days in the back working on paperwork and tracking down books these days. He was an older gentleman with long gray hair that he normally kept braided. He wore a decent amount of jewelry for an older man, usually with a southwestern flair and casual dress. His appearance and demeanor had earned him the loving nickname of Hippie around town and among friends. However, many people knew that despite his kindness being genuine, Jack Simmons was not fully immune to the darkness that seemed to surround those with a fascination with the supernatural.
“I have seen many and will see many more. However, I only have a few more hours with Mr. Hill’s books,” Riley replied, not taking her eyes off the page.
Jack looked at the stack of books on the desk that his friend was meant to pick up that evening. “How many of them have you read?”
“Last one,” Riley said, lifting it ever so slightly.
“We’ve only had them a week!” Jack replied though he wasn’t truly surprised.
“I know it’s a shame. I won’t even get to do a second more careful read-through on them,” Riley said with a sad sigh.
“Not what I meant,” Jack replied with a chuckle.
Riley finally looked up and flushed a little. “I just knew I needed to read them quickly.”
“Only teasing, dear,” he assured. “Now, how are you feeling today?”
Riley paused at the question and thought. “I think I am okay. I haven’t been touched at all, to be certain, though.”
“Good,” Jack said, and before Riley had time to process, he had grabbed her arm and pulled her into his side.
Riley tensed for a moment, feeling a quick spark run through her, but then it passed, and she was able to relax. The two of them leaned on the desk and into each other while watching as the sunset truly began. Jack was not wrong to be so in love with the view. The vibrant pinks and oranges flashing against the blues and the greens of the mountains were always breathtaking, no matter how many times Riley might say she had seen them before.
Once again, Riley felt lucky for having Jack in her life. While not officially, he had all but adopted her when she was fourteen. She had not been an easy teen; she knew that. Some days touching people would cause her great pain, and she could never tell for certain which days it would be until it happened. Other days she could swear she was feeling people’s emotions, almost as though they were screaming them at her. On her very worst days, even being in the same room and close to others could be painful, though thankfully, those days were rare.
The result was Riley had a hard time being around people and didn’t care much to try most of the time. Jack had to help her get homeschooling at one point, and the two of them struggled with helping her to socialize. It had created a rift between her and most of the people in town. Oh, they were never cruel, she was a teen after all when she had first arrived, but the people in town weren’t that trusting of strangers, to begin with. Between that and her own need for distance from everyone, Riley had felt like an outsider her whole life here and had adjusted to that being her reality.
Jack was one of the few people she never felt that way with and the only one currently.
She knew Jack wanted her to leave. He didn’t want her to stay in a place where she couldn’t fully be herself. Still, after moving so frequently before coming to live with Jack, she had been happy to be in one place for a while and didn’t feel the need to immediately spread her wings when she finished high school. By the time she was ready to leave, Jack had gotten sick, and it hadn’t looked good, so once again, she stayed.
After the second delay in leaving, Riley had taken it as a sign that this was meant to be her home, and she was meant to take over the bookstore for Jack when he was ready to retire. Jack was not thrilled with the choice, thinking she had more potential and was hardly happy here, but she was well into adulthood, and there was little he felt he could do about it.
He also thought she was more afraid than she was willing to admit, not that he blamed her. The people in town might be distant, but they were understanding at the very least. None of them pushed her to develop deeper relationships, and nobody was offended when she refused to touch people or even be around them when they “got too loud,” as Riley used to describe it. She was not happy or thriving, but she had found a place where she was safe and comfortable.
While Jack worried that she might never find another place to provide that if she were to ever leave, he still wanted to push her from the nest, so to speak. But he had also realized they would have to work on it at a different pace than most people. He also had to admit the selfish part of him liked that she was slow about leaving. He didn’t get to have her for the first twelve years of her life, so now he had to admit he was greedy and wanted more. He had never had the chance to have his own children, and Riley was truly a special girl. He had felt blessed to get to play father to her for a while.
“Maybe there won’t be so many in the future, so I would like this one with you,” Jack said softly, giving her a squeeze.
“Is something wrong?” Riley asked, panic starting to rise.
“No, just a feeling I have.”
“But the doctor?”
“Said I am doing well,” Jack said, interrupting her panic. “Stop being a pain and just let me enjoy this.”
Riley snorted at that but did as he asked. “Thank you,” she whispered. She did it often. She felt so grateful to him that he helped her so much.
Jack did what he always did, not believing he needed to be thanked for caring for the child of two of his dear friends, and ignored the implied reason for it and instead responded to whatever other reason he could think of for being thanked. “You are welcome. You should listen to me more when I try to get you to pause for a sunset.”
Riley rolled her eyes but let him get away with it. “So when will Mr. Hill be here?”
“Ethan,” Jack said with extra emphasis, “Will likely be late, so I cannot say for certain.”
Riley huffed at that.
“It’s just his way, Riley. He loses track of time frequently when he gets started on something. I thought you would be excited to meet him.”
Riley couldn’t deny it; she truly was. She had exchanged
emails with the leader of the American branch of Paranormal Investigation and Research International, or PIRI, for many years. It went beyond his impressive collection of books — she had hoped that meeting him in person might take away some of the stiffness and formality that their emails carried through them. She was also fascinated by the paranormal field beyond their little shop. Maybe he would talk to her more, and she could gain more knowledge of the practical aspect of it.
She just didn’t like that he would be late. She often read “got distracted and didn’t pay attention to the time” as “you were not important enough to me to be bothered,” fair or not. It would do her no good to get upset, though, and she tried to tell herself to be understanding and patient.
It was several hours after Jack had let her get back to her book that Riley felt her patience rapidly hitting zero. She had finished the book and began her work for the rest of the week when she glanced down at her watch for what felt like the umpteenth time. It was nearly 9 o’clock, and she felt something in her snap. She was about to tell Jack she refused to wait any longer when she heard a knock on the shop door.
Riley went to the door and was a little taken aback. Tall, dark, and handsome was not what she had been expecting, but he was certainly that. She was even more surprised that through the window and darkness, she could see that his eyes were a vivid gray and rather expressive, although his face was harder to read. Still, Riley was annoyed and was quick to shake off her surprise.
“Can I help you?” Riley called through the door in an overly sweet tone.
“I am here to meet Jack,” the man answered with a British accent. That was less surprising as she had known he was originally from the UK.
“Well, we closed over three hours ago, so you’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Riley answered, giving him a snide smile and turning from the door.
“Damn it Riley,” Jack said as he moved towards the door. He was grateful he had heard the knock.
Riley only rolled her eyes as she went to the desk to grab the stack of books they had ordered for the man.
“I apologize Jack,” Ethan said as he walked in. “I thought I had informed you I might be a bit late.” The last was said with a sneer towards Riley.
“You and I have different interpretations of the phrase a bit,” Riley said, shoving the books into his hands none too gently. She had to bite back a loud exclamation as they briefly touched, and Riley felt a massive jolt through her body. It was rare for her to get such a strong reaction from such brief contact with a stranger. She was unable to hide the slight shift back that she did, though. That was enough to send her over the edge. She did not like when things like this happened, and so her defenses rose, and she sneered at him.
She was pleased that she managed to get a bit of an oof out of the man before she felt the jolt, however. Jack just sighed heavily, and Ethan ignored the internal voice telling him not to but rose to the bait. He had a headache, and her harshness with him had triggered his own rudeness. “Some of us have more important things to do with our lives than play shopkeeper,” he snapped.
“Ethan!” Jack demanded, instantly losing his friendly demeanor, and a bit of darkness seemed to fill his eyes. Ethan was almost instantly filled with regret.
“I can count the number of people you consider a true friend on both hands, and this is one of them, Hippie?” Riley asked her attention fully on Jack. “You have a great night,” she said snidely, then left the shop rather loudly.
“Ethan Hill, I cannot believe you said that,” Jack practically growled.
“In fairness, I cannot believe I did either,” Ethan said with a deep sigh. “I am so sorry, Jack. I am tired and got defensive, and it is not a secret that I can truly be an ass. I should not have let my mouth run away with me, especially for a cheap shot that does not reflect my usual thinking.”
Jack huffed but did not press. Ethan would do a thorough enough job beating himself up. Jack knew he did not need to help.
Wincing slightly, Ethan finally asked, “That was Riley?”
“You do realize it would have been a bad thing to say regardless, right?”
“I just admitted that, Jack. It just makes it worse that this is the one person you wanted me to make a good first impression with.”
“Well, there is nothing for it now. Come, I have some scotch in my office. We can catch up then sort out how you will apologize to her tomorrow and how we can make this right.”
Ethan nodded his head and followed his old friend. He felt horrible and guilty. However, he also couldn’t shake the feeling that had briefly hit him when they touched hands.