New Year's Eve, 2019.
Mari Stratton attends a New Year's Eve party with her brother Randall and her hearing-impaired friend Lauren. A collecting game begins in the dark fields outside prior to the celebration countdown. When midnight strikes, Mari finds herself and four others propelled by a violent green storm into a confusing landscape of beauty, danger, and mystery.
In this place, ruthless black-cloaked riders on horseback called Shifters comb the countryside hunting them down. Why is this world patterned after the things Mari adores, and why does it feature the hideous things she fears the most?
More importantly--how will she and the others get back to the real world?
This novella is the first of a 5-part series, with each book written from the viewpoint of one of the five main characters as the story progresses: Mari, Tony, Lauren, Randall, and Stefanie.
The books are as follows:
JUNCTION 2020: Book 1 The Portal
JUNCTION 2020: Book 2 Nightmare Realization
JUNCTION 2020: Book 3 Silent Scream
JUNCTION 2020: Book 4 Future Terrors
JUNCTION 2020: Book 5 Vanishing Fears
Add Book One to your to-read list: GOODREADS
Add Book Two to your to-read list: GOODREADS
Purchase this book on: AMAZON
Copyright © 2017 by Carol Riggs. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Author/Publisher.
Copyright © 2017 by Carol Riggs. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Author/Publisher.
Chapter 1 Excerpt:New Year's Eve, 2019. Eight o'clock at last.
I snap a checkered cloth over a table, blowing out an impatient exhale as it billows like a sail over uncharted waters before settling into place. I throw on a white flash of napkins, add a hasty clanking of silverware, and return the Parmesan and hot pepper shakers to their proper places next to the wall.
There. My evening shift, done. Another efficient and industrious evening at Aunt Lacey and Uncle Jim’s pizza restaurant, and now it’s Mom’s turn to charm the customers. Too bad Dad isn’t here to see my efforts. I can do more than read romance and adventure novels in the backyard hammock.
I hurry past Uncle Jim in the kitchen, through thick smells of sizzling pepperoni, pungent jalapeños, and steamy detergent. In the cramped employee bathroom, I change into jeans and my favorite powder-blue top. My reflection in the mirror frowns like a grumpy evil twin as I check my make-up. And now, time for this blasted party. I’d rather spend New Year’s Eve with only Lauren and one or two others, but Lauren’s a junior and wants to check out Stefanie Anders’ big “End of the Year Bash.”
Honestly. The things a person does to keep new friends.
I run fingers through my hair, throw on my short leather jacket, and dash out the back door to the car. Mom stands there in her waitress outfit, handing the Chevy keys to Randall like she’s relinquishing control of the known world to a chimpanzee. Randall looks scrubbed and shaved, his brown hair spiked to flawless precision. I roll my eyes. All for Stefanie’s benefit, I bet. He’s been trying to impress her since September—with a total of zero results.
Randall huffs as I climb into the front seat. “And why do I have to drive her there?” he asks Mom with a jerk of his thumb at me. “Showing up with my sister and her deaf friend is gonna put a serious cramp in the party.”
Mom narrows her eyes. “You could always go back inside and keep washing dishes.”
With a growl, Randall hops into the car and revs the engine to life. Cranking the wheel, he spins out of the alley with a spray of gravel. We leave Mom standing off to one side with her arms folded into an incredibly peeved pretzel.
“And for your information,” I tell Randall as he turns onto the street, “Lauren is hearing impaired, not deaf.”
He shrugs. “Same diff. Man, are you that hard up for friends, Mari? Can’t get normal ones?”
Normal. He’s such a jerk. “I don’t see you hanging out with a whole herd of new buddies.”
A muscle on the side of his face twitches. He grunts and has the sense to stay silent.
I select a Jaisha song from the music download menu to cover the bristling silence. Tapping my foot to the steady rhythm and honeyed vocals, I watch leafless maple and oak trees file by my window. School’s been a long, challenging haul for both of us since we’ve moved. New faces, new hallways, new classes, nothing the same. The friends I used to have since third grade are hundreds of miles away. Not how I wanted to spend my sophomore year.
After a few minutes Randall screeches to a halt at Lauren’s duplex. As I reach for the door handle, he hammers out two jolting blasts on the horn. I flinch.
“Think she’ll hear that?” Randall says with a smirk.
“You’re such a brain-challenged speck of nothing.” I turn to see Lauren’s tall, graceful figure darting down the sidewalk. Yes, she heard.
“Hi, Mari,” Lauren says, sliding into the back seat. She adjusts her hearing-aid buds in her ears, where they perch like tiny beige snails.
“Hi. This is my brother Randall,” I say, twisting so Lauren can read my lips. Just in case the helpful snail buds don’t pick up all the sound waves. “He’s a junior, too.”
“Great to meet you, Randall,” Lauren chirps.
He gives a hesitant wave toward the back seat. “Yeah, right,” he mutters.
He’s still being a jerk—no surprise. But he might be as confused as I am. Even after four months of knowing Lauren, I sometimes don’t know how to react to her. She doesn’t have that flat, toneless quality to her voice when she talks, probably because she didn’t start losing sounds until she was six. It’s hard to tell how much she hears compared to what she picks up from lip reading and context.
We drive out of town. The silhouette of the Anders’ house looms against the night sky once we reach the final road. Glowing white lights left over from Christmas border every roofline and gable, plunging the rest of the house into dim, unknown spaces. Neighboring fields surround the home’s tidy lawn. The long field grass ripples in the wind, alive and writhing with shadows.
A tingling apprehension grows in my gut as we approach. What if Brad shows up at this party? I’m not charged up about seeing him, not after the way he dumped me for Cherryl DeBarge last month. He spent three whirlwind weeks as my boyfriend, then texted me a brief “it’s not working out” message one night after our movie date. The next day he walked down the school halls with his arm wrapped oh-so-snugly around Cherryl’s tiny waist. So much for me thinking he was into the movie, or into me…
Randall parks on the street at the end of a long line of cars. We walk in the crisp breeze to the house, where a bearded man holding a ruby-tinted drink answers the doorbell.
“Come in!” the man booms over thumping music. “I’m Mr. Anders, father and chaperone extraordinaire. Help yourself to the party!” He ushers us in with an exaggerated wink and a few unsteady steps.
Randall shoots toward a table loaded with potato chips and awesome-smelling appetizers, leaving Lauren and me to drift from room to room. The place is unbelievable. Blank-eyed Greek statues, polished tables, glittering chandeliers. And sure enough, it’s not long before we pass an indoor swimming pool, and I spot Brad at one end. He’s splashing around with the cute and bikini-clad Cherryl, his wet hair plastered to his forehead, a giddy grin on his face.
My stomach gives a major lurch. Out. I need out of here. I drag Lauren away from the pool area, toward a huge living room. Or maybe it’s a family room. A live DJ mixes tunes there, and a gadget near the ceiling showers a constant smattering of glitter over the dancers. The floor sparkles with the stuff.
Lauren elbows me and gives a sly smile. She adjusts her hair to hide her hearing aids, then taps a thin, freckled guy on the shoulder and points at the dance floor. They drift off together.
Interesting. She’s definitely determined, going after what she wants. That’s a bravery I’m not sure I have. Instead, I stand against the wall with my eyes half-closed while the music thrums through me. The extreme bass reverberates clear to the center of my bones. Usually I love to dance, but not right now. My brain is too busy playing Brad and Cherryl in the pool over and over like a stuttering image. Guys. Worthless beasts. Smile and kiss you one minute, discard you like last week’s leftovers the next. Kind of like Dad, now living in newfound bliss in Florida with his ample-chested stockbroker, leaving Mom to flee to Stratton’s Pizzeria to volunteer for waitressing slavery.
My interest in romance novels is beginning to curdle. I know how most romances really end.
I grimace and pluck my phone from my jeans pocket. Only ten-fifteen. On the dance floor Lauren is gazing with dreamy eyes at a new partner, a junior named Tony Rodriguez. I don’t know much about him, but at school he seems like a chick-magnet kind of guy, always laughing with a flock of girls. Carelessly combed black hair, naturally brown skin, and dark romantic eyes. The droolable but dangerous type. I should warn Lauren. Unless she already knows he’s a player and doesn’t care.
Earlier Randall scored a dance with Stefanie—his “perfect” honor roll blonde—but I don’t see him now. Stefanie herself strolls toward me, tucking silky hair behind ears that feature more earrings than a jewelry display rack. Her entourage of preppy girls mimics her hair motions and lethargic sway. I doubt she could be more of a popular rich girl stereotype if she tried.
“Check it out,” Stefanie says, catching sight of me. “If it isn’t the sophomore, come to worm her way into my party with Lauren Carnes. Where is Lauren, anyway?” Amazing, how such a velvety voice can sound so cutting.
“Dancing, of course,” I say with a nod to the dance floor.
With her white-blond hair fanning out like a shampoo commercial, Stefanie turns. Her shapely eyebrows angle downward. “Hmm. Tony Rodriguez…” She saunters away with her minions, keeping the swaying pair in her crosshairs.
I frown. No telling what Stefanie will do. I eye Lauren and Tony, who dance with soft smiles on their faces. No telling what Tony will do to my new friend’s heart, either. I hurry over to Lauren as the song ends, hoping to snag her into a trip to the snack table, but Mr. Anders’ voice booms out from the speakers before I can say anything. His words sound a little slurred. Apparently, he keeps his own stash of special punch somewhere.
“Listen up, everyone! Outside we’re starting a New Year’s Eve hunt before the midnight countdown. We’ve hidden dozens of golden ping-pong balls in the yard and fields beyond. The more you find, the better prizes you win. An extra prize goes to the one who collects the most. Anyone who’s interested, meet me out on the back deck.”
“Sounds fun,” Tony says, a daredevil gleam flashing in his eyes. “It’s pitch black out there. You two ladies gonna try that with me?”
Lauren gives him a euphoric smile. “Sure, Tony.”
My eyebrows arch. I’m surprised he included me in the invitation. That makes him seem more friendly than flirty, not fitting the player vibe I pegged for him. “Well, I don’t—”
A smooth voice breaks in as Stefanie saunters over in a bright red jacket. “There you are, Tony-kins. Want to escort me outside for the hunt? We’ll leave Miss Stratton and her deaf friend to enjoy the music and munchies.”
Tony’s face slides into instant bewilderment. “What—Lauren’s deaf?” He cranes his neck to stare back at her while Stefanie leads him away by the arm.
Pink flushes Lauren’s face, and her gaze drops to her feet.
Not cool, Stefanie. She’s not usually rude about Lauren’s impairment, so I assume she’s laying claim to Tony to make a statement against bringing me, the lowly sophomore, to the party. I touch Lauren’s arm to draw her focus upward. “Come on, do you want to do the hunt with me?”
She presses her mouth into a thin line for a moment. “Okay.”
We set off for the back deck. An hour later, we’re gripping flashlights, peering as the beams illuminate a half-rotted stump in the field behind the house. Wavering lights appear like random ghosts in the smudgy darkness, winking out without warning as hunters dart behind bushes and small hilly areas. Abrupt shrieks and peals of laughter echo across the windswept grass.
I shiver. Brrr. Too bad we left our jackets in the house. I’m collecting more goose bumps than ping-pong balls.
“Here’s one,” Lauren says, aiming for a golden gleam by the stump. She deposits a gold-painted ball into her bag.
I point the flashlight at my face so she can see me speak. “Are you ready to go back yet?”
She shakes her head. “We need twenty-five to earn a DVD. Let’s check by those really tall bushes over there.”
“Twenty-five?” I say, my voice cracking. “That’s six more. Aren’t you cold?”
Either not hearing or ignoring me, she strides off, heading farther from the house.
I let out an exasperated breath. Long tentacles of grass whip the legs of my jeans as I follow her. I strain to see. We’ve lost most of the light from the house, and now only the beams of our flashlights show the way. I arrive at the bushes as Lauren disappears around the other side. A small golden orb nestles in the grass near my feet. Aha. Lauren missed that one. I reach under a branch for the ball, and something skitters across my hand. I jerk my hand back, giving a strangled scream.
“Are you okay?” Lauren’s voice asks from the other side.
“I guess.” I aim the flashlight at myself. Nothing there. Just my hand, shaking a little. “I got freaked out,” I call. “Probably a leaf, but I thought it was a spider.”
Lauren’s laugh rings out. “Spiders are little and shy. They won’t hurt you.”
I shudder. No, spiders are disgusting. With their multiple, scrambling legs and those wicked bloodthirsty things they do in their webs. They also bite people all the time, and even if they don’t bite, I don’t want the nasty things crawling on me. How many spiders lurk in this field, anyway, thousands? Millions? With my teeth chattering with more than just the coldness in the air, I snatch up the ping-pong ball and wade through the grass toward Lauren. When I circle the bushes, she isn’t there.
“Lauren—where are you?” A different kind of panic leaps inside me. I can’t even see her flashlight beam. Did she stumble and fall? Darkness crowds around my pathetic swath of battery-operated light, pressing upon my skin like something solid.
“Lauren!” I yell.
Sudden light bobs fifteen feet away. “I’m right here, don’t shout,” she says.
I squint. She’s next to a corner of something, a small structure. I hike over to see her investigating the exterior of a tool or supply shed. Surely the Anders family didn’t bother to hide ping-pong balls inside this remote place. I’m certainly not going to check. Lots of gloomy places for spiders to lurk in there.
Unfortunately, Lauren has other ideas. She creaks open the door.
She disappears inside. I groan. For Pete’s sake, what’s wrong with the girl? Does she have no common sense, no instinct for self-preservation? Her footsteps clunk across the shed floorboards. In the field off to the right, two lights advance toward us. Other treasure hunters. “We might have company soon,” I call.
She doesn’t answer.
I roll my eyes toward the inky blankness of the sky. I suppose I’d better help check out this shed, to speed things up. As I ease inside, the distant tweeting of a whistle sounds, announcing ten minutes before the hunt ends. I double-check the time on my phone. We need to get back soon.
The shed smells musty, damp. My nose tickles. Dust-covered shelves on both sides are stacked with indiscernible things. Lauren shuffles near one shelf, off to the right.
“Hey,” I say. “The whistle blew. That means it’s eleven-forty.”
She holds up a golden ball like it’s a trophy. “Found one.”
“Cool. Twenty-one, now.” I add the ball in my hand to Lauren’s bag. Did she hear what I said about the whistle? We can’t miss the midnight countdown. It isn’t every year the date changes to something as major and earthshaking as 2020.
I frown. Although on second thought, if Brad and Cherryl celebrate at midnight with an enthusiastic public kiss, maybe I don’t care so much.
We find two more balls on the shelves, then Lauren runs her flashlight beam over the back of the shed to reveal a stool and a workbench. Odd geometric sketches and chunks of wood lie on the bench, as well as a box of nails, a handsaw, and a bottle of carpenter’s glue. In curious contrast to the rest of the shed, the workbench isn’t dusty. Lauren pauses to examine a sketch.
Outside the building, murmurs of conversation become clearer.
“It’s just a shed,” comes a petulant, velvety voice. “Let’s go. If we don’t leave now, we won’t get back before the countdown.”
“Hang on,” comes a male voice. “We only need two more ping-pong balls.”
Great. That last voice sounded like Tony Rodriguez, with a definite Hispanic flavor to the words. Which means the petulant voice belongs to Stefanie. Oh, joy.
The door creaks open wider. I turn and find the glare of a flashlight in my face. I throw my arm up. “Hey, don’t blind us.”
The flashlight beam lowers and I confirm my guess. Yep. Tony and Stefanie.
“Oh, sorry.” Tony ambles over as Lauren spins to face him. “Hi, Lauren. And hi again…what’s your name?” he asks me, smiling.
“Her name’s Mari,” Stefanie cuts in. She jams one hand on her hip. “She’s just a sophomore. So, you girls finding anything in here?”
“Three so far.” Lauren throws a wary glance at Tony, then Stefanie.
Tony picks up one of the sketches on the workbench. Like the other sketches, it shows a triangle formed by a number of smaller triangles. The number of inner triangles varies from sketch to sketch, but the topmost inner triangle is outlined darker in all of them. At the back of the workbench stands a three-dimensional, wooden triangle.
“Someone’s creative.” Tony sets down the sketch. “Are these yours, Stefanie?”
“No way,” she says. “This isn’t part of our property. It’s Mr. Simpson’s field. He’s letting us use it for the treasure hunt, and he hid the ping-pong balls for us.” She points her flashlight under the workbench. “There’s one you girls missed,” she says with smug satisfaction. “Can you get it for me, Tony-kins? It’s in the left corner there.”
“Sure.” Tony drops to his knees and crawls under the workbench.
Wow, he’s sure quick to obey. Stefanie casts her spell of enchantment upon the male world fast.
“Watch out for spiders,” I say, eyeing the murky space underneath. I don’t envy Tony’s mission.
As he hands Stefanie her prize and brushes cobwebs from his hair, the door creaks again. Four swaths of light pin the hesitant newcomer into motionlessness. “Chill, people,” a male voice says. “Lower your weapons.”
“Randall Stratton,” Stefanie says with a touch of scorn. “What’re you doing here?”
“Um, looking for ping-pong balls,” he says. “How’s it going, Stef?”
She shrugs. “About done in here, I hope.”
My brother flings a venomous glare in Tony’s direction. Clues of ulterior motives fall into place. I’d bet big bucks Randall was stalking Stefanie and Tony around the field. He was probably afraid this shed would be a great place for a make-out session, and wanted to make sure they didn’t have a chance to try anything. I wouldn’t put it past him, as obsessed as he is with Stefanie.
“Mari, what’re you and Lauren doing here?” Randall waves his flashlight like an agitated baboon.
“We got here first,” I say, “and then…” My mouth falls open. I zip my flashlight beam up to where Randall’s beam briefly revealed an incredible sight. I laugh. “Look, you guys. Jackpot!”
They look up. Hanging from the ceiling is an old basket filled with ping-pong balls.
“Nice find, Mari,” Tony says. He grabs a stool by the workbench, climbs onto it, and tugs at the basket. He wiggles it and yanks harder. As he sets it free from a silver hook, a handful of balls shoot out and bounce around the room. I scramble to help gather the spilled ones. Tony jumps down, puts the stool back, and joins us.
A tinny beeping comes from someone’s phone, signaling the top of the hour.
Stefanie swears. “I can’t believe it.” She whips out her phone and glares at it. “It’s midnight and we missed the countdown.”
Midnight. The year 2020 has begun.
No one has time to respond, because a thunderous boom shakes the shed, rumbling and echoing around us. I duck in a knee-jerk reflex. Stefanie shrieks and latches onto the closest male, which happens to be Randall. Her phone clatters to the floorboards. The air around us grows brighter, glowing with a strange green light. A hissing, crackling noise fills the room.
“What’s going on?” Randall yells. “Stef, are you guys doing fireworks for New Year’s Eve?”
“No!” she yells, her eyes wide.
Frozen with a ping-pong ball in my hand, I blink. No, these aren’t celebration sounds. Celebration sounds wouldn’t make my skin crawl like it’s doing right now.
Lauren starts for the half-open door, but Tony grabs her arm. “Stay inside,” he shouts as the hissing magnifies into a rushing howl. “There could be a weird storm out there.”
The shelves and workbench begin to reel and warp before my eyes. A tremendous, magnetic force pulls on my arms and legs, trying to drag me toward the center of the shed. The ping-pong ball slips from my hand. My hair whips across my face. The howling force increases, raging like an uncontrolled storm. I drop my flashlight and lunge for the edge of the workbench, trying to counteract the inward pull, my fingers scrabbling and my muscles taut.
Paper sketches of divided triangles swirl demonically. Fluttering, suspended. Ping-pong balls skitter around the room, blown from the basket now discarded on the floor.
What’s happening—a sudden freak cyclone, a twister? Has something nuclear or chemical been set off to make the air turn green? Is the world under alien attack?
Flashlight beams angle helter-skelter as the others struggle against the wind. Stefanie and Randall cringe in the middle of the room, wedged together. Their faces and clothing look green in the eerie light. Lauren clutches the knob of the open door, while Tony staggers and stumbles to his knees on the floor.
The howling crackle grows even louder. Abandoning the doorknob, Lauren screams and claps her hands over her ears. She teeters, then spins across the room and rams into Randall’s shoulder.
I lose my grip on the workbench. Trying to brace myself, I plant my feet and lean away. The pull is too strong. The windy current builds, fast and faster, turning into a dizzy whirlpool of motion that sucks me inward. A split second after Tony rolls into Stefanie’s legs, I careen and jam tight against her side. The howl rises to a frenzied roar, and everyone’s confused cries are lost in the noise.
The green glow brightens with a sudden flash. A strong smell shoots through the room, like something oily or rubbery burning—acrid, nauseating. At the same time, a blast of pain sears my right forearm. I squeeze my eyes shut, and my scream becomes a tiny thread of sound, lost in the whirlwind of crashing noise and motion.