In June, we reached the horizon.
Merry reined in her horse and blew out her cheeks, marveling at the dusky grey dome curving above us. It reached far into the sky, so tall that only by looking miles above you could you see its curvature. Already visibility was low, mist swirling around the liquidy wall like we were on a cobblestone street in London. Merry tilted her neck back, mouth agape, wonder in her sparky eyes. “Did you ever think it’d be like this?”
Dom’s horse stamped the ground impatiently, its jerky head movements jingling the bit. “What, you expected it to be pretty? Soft peach, with streaks of orange and blue? Grow up, Mercury—did you think this’d be a joyride?”
From the corner of her eye, Merry glared at Dom resentfully. “Anything you say, Wisdom,” she seethed, dismounting and doing little to comfort her tired horse, who, like the rest of us, was obviously at least a little spooked at having come to the end of the world.
Dom scoffed as he, too, slid off his horse. “That doesn’t even apply.”
“Whatever,” Merry muttered.
Terrie, balancing precariously on the horse’s dusty saddle, cleared his throat. “Well, I, for one, am proud of us. We’ve made really good time—if we wanted, we could rest for a bit before we, you know…”
“Like, kill ourselves on a suicide mission? Or did you mean something different,” I remarked snidely, taking Dom’s reins as he handed them to me
Pep, who’d been dismounted the longest, looked at me with disappointment. “Come on, Al, you know we aren’t going to die.”
“Sure,” I slurred sarcastically. I rolled my eyes and let go of the horses’ bridles. (Of course, they stay put. Why would they wander away? They’re not barbarians.) I slid my pack off my shoulders. “Anyways, I’m having a drink if someone wants to join.” I dropped to the dusty yellow ground and twisted into a cross-legged position, pulling my pack to the side and rummaging around in it for a flask. Every movement was a beg for my sore body to stop, to go home, to relax in a tub and sleep in a real bed for a change, but I knew that my best remedy for now could be found not hundreds of miles away in a place where I wasn’t welcome, but right in front of me, in the form of a half-empty bottle with pure euphoria inside.
After a pause, the others made their way near and formed a haphazard circle, the horses casting ominous shadows over our figures. “Great, Shale, our resident alcoholic, influencing a fourteen-year-old; telling us constantly with her actions that drinking is the best solution to a problem,” Merry said under her breath, baiting every word with verbal venom, eyes flitting between me and Pep. “Spectacular.”
“Shut up, Merry!” Dom cried suddenly, slamming his fist on the ground. Grains of yellow dust flew into the air, temporarily blinding everyone. When the cloud cleared, he continued as if he hadn’t just disrupted all our respiratory systems (Pep was still coughing quietly); “Everyone’s had enough of your negativity. Pep is just as much of a person as anyone is. Leave her alone.”
“Oh, it’s not Pepper I’m doubting,” Merry growled at me.
“Um, just a side note,” Terrie interjected, in what I can only guess he assumed was a smooth and natural manner, “is there a reason we keep emphasizing everyone’s full name instead of just addressing them normally, the way we usually do, or…”
“Well, I don’t know, Winter,” Merry retorted, prompting an eye roll from Dom.
“Can we all just stop, please?” Pep said in a small voice, folding into herself, her skinny shoulder blades like a shield from the outside world. “I—I really hate conflict.”
“See? She’s a child,” Merry pointed out unhelpfully.
As I choked down my anger and waited for a viable reply to come to my useless brain, I glanced towards Pepper. Merry did have a point, in a backwards sort of way—Pep was only fourteen, and she looked it. She was tall (for her age), slim with a small chest; blemishes spread across her face like faded tattoos, typical of an adolescent. At the moment, she was wearing her frizzy hair to the side in a fishtail braid, one cloth-clad leg drawn up in front of her chest, chin on knee, chapped lips parted slightly to reveal her overbite. A short, stray eyelash rested, lonely, on her cool brown cheek, grasping inconspicuously to the minute hairs providing it traction. Her molasses-dark eyes moved like cat paws from one person’s face to another as they spoke.
“Guys, let Pep speak for herself,” Terrie pleaded, his soft tan skin glowing in the dusklight, smudges of dirt dashed across his face from wiping away the day’s sweat. His greyish-blue eyes looked anxiously at Merry, silently begging her to leave the girl alone. A singular wave of golden blonde hair curled across his face, disguising his right eyebrow. He bit the corner of his lip, and I could sense from his terse posture that he wished Merry and Dom would be more agreeable.
And me too, of course. Who would recognize Al if she wasn’t in a constant state of anger, something smelling a bit too similar to beer for a nineteen-year-old on her breath?
“God,” I mutter, and take a swig from the bottle. “You all are such hypocrites.”
Dom scoffed. “Okay, I’m on no one’s side—”
“—but that is so uncalled-for, Al. If you’d just clear your mind and stop drinking for one goddamn minute—”
“Hey, what can I help?” I said defensively, shrugging. “I don’t have a choice; after all, the word ‘ale’ is literally in my name.”
After a few moments of confused silence, Merry broke out laughing. I tried to resist, but the edges of my mouth curled up just a bit, and around the circle, I could hear the suppressed chuckles of Dom and Terrie. Pep just seemed confused.
“I hate you, Shale,” Merry murmured quietly, wiping a tear of laughter from her right cheek.
“Hate you too, Mercury,” I responded, grinning. She shook her head and smiled at me. Merry had hair (which she swore she didn’t dye) the color of red jalapenos, shaved on the sides and aggressively straight on top. Freckles are said to be cute on people, but against Merry’s pale skin, they were as good as a death threat. Even the ones on her collarbone, displayed by whatever black leather top she was wearing that day, seemed to say, “Crack one giggle at me and you’re finished, meatloaf.” Merry had blue eyes like her partner-in-rhyme, Terrie, but while Terrie’s eyes conveyed a sense of calm and, truth be told, sometimes a bit of blankness, Merry’s gaze could send a shiver through your spine like freezing water on a January day.
Speaking of which, was it supposed to be snowing?
“Uh, guys?” Dom asked, a crease between his thick brows, his dark oily skin gleaming faintly yellow in the rapidly decreasing light. “Is it—“ His coffee-colored eyes jerked nervously between the ground and the sky. “I—“ He scrambled to stand up, and the others followed suit, me getting up last, my bottle nearly empty.
“Oh, holy hell,” Merry whispered. “Is that snow?”
“Isn’t it June?” Terrie asked, a hint of frantic in his voice, which was cracking. Though none of us were looking at him, I could imagine the flush coming into his cheeks at the thought of his voice’s betrayal—after all, he was practically a man, at seventeen. He didn’t hold a candle to Dom or Merry, who were twenty-two and twenty-three, respectively, but at least he had superiority over Pep. Although I won’t say she didn’t act just as mature as the rest of us.
Perhaps more so, considering my, Merry, and Dom’s recent behavior.
We were all on our feet now, gaping up at the sky, paying no heed to our horses as they whinnied and stamped the dry, flat ground with their hoofs, uneasy at this sudden change of scene.
“Ah, frick,” I muttered, as a flake landed on the tip of my nose. “I knew this would happen.”
Slowly, four heads turned to look at me.
“You what?” Merry hissed dangerously, her blue eyes scarily piercing in the fading daylight.
I shifted, my boots kicking up little clouds of dusty sand where I stood. “Well, Kett thought that if you knew everything this quest implied, that maybe you wouldn’t come, and he really, really needed all of you…”
Dom’s voice was lower than the current light levels, hitting frequencies I’m sure were deeply appealing to whales as he growled, “And who exactly, Shale, appointed you—the alcoholic!—as the leader of this expedition, in charge of keeping all its secrets?”
In silence, I could feel heat seeping into my face, then, after a few moments, Merry laughed aloud. “Why, you little bi—”
“He’s only twenty-one,” I snapped defensively. “I’m not a child. I know what I’m doing. Just because Kett happens to be the leader of the quest doesn’t mean—“
“Enough,” cut in Terrie sharply. “While Al’s personal life is up to her, this adventure-thing-whatever-it-is belongs to all of us, and I think we have a right to know what’s going on.” He fingered the reins of his horse, a few white snowflakes glittering wetly on his tanned hand. “Al? Got anything else to share?”
I swallowed, uneasy under the gaze of people who seemed to be growing less and less friendly with every word I spoke. “No,” I whispered. “He--Kett just said that the horizon was going to be weird, and not what we expected, and that going beyond it might result in death and stuff, but you all agreed to go on this quest, so I’m sure you already knew…”
Pep was staring at me, hurt etched into her face. “How could you, Al?” she said hoarsely. “I have a brother. I have my parents. Buckett told them I was going to come back.”
Merry scuffed the ground aggressively with her boot. “God, Al. You really are a jerk. I mean, Dom and I are loners, so we’re as good being here as doing anything else, and heaven knows you’ve already thrown your life away--but Terrie and Pep, Al? Really? They’re children! They have families!”
“I’m sick of you, Mercury,” Terrie lashed out suddenly. “Screw you. Screw everyone. I’m not a child, Merry! And yeah, so what if I have a freaking family, they don’t care about me, scum. I’ve made my own way in the world for longer than I can remember and here you are, attacking Al--attacking all of us--just because you know you’ll never prove up to what you want to make of yourself.” Terrie spat on the ground and angrily yanked a golden strand of hair out of his eyes, glaring at Merry’s surprised face. “So what if Al’s been keeping secrets--at least she views me as a person, which is more than I could ever ask of you.” In one fell movement, he slid his foot into a stirrup and was on top of his horse. “This is my chance to be wealthy. This is my chance to make a name. And if I die, no one will be any more worse off, so I’m living for myself, Merry.” He fitted his right foot into the stirrup. “Screw you, Madam High and Mighty. I’m not a child. I can think for myself.” Terrie looked down at me, energy flashing in his eyes, removing any trace of haziness from them. “No more secrets, Al. But I have to do this, whether it’s pleasant or not.” He shook the gathering snowflakes off the top of his head and grabbed his horse’s reins. “So, who’s coming?”
I could see Merry’s shocked expression, her mouth opening to, no doubt, berate him even more, but I quickly leaned over and stomped her foot with the toe of my boot. “Leave it, Merry,” I hissed. “Just leave him alone. It’s fine. You can deal with it later.” I stepped back and turned to my horse, my fingers grazing its neck before swinging into the saddle. “Terrie’s right. I’m sorry if I’ve misled any of you, but this is very probably the most important thing you’ll do in your lives, ever. I know as well as you what’s beyond this wall--”
“--I know it’s going to be strange and dangerous and frightening, but I don’t know how, or where, or why. We all know the reward, though. Kett’s…” My mouth dried at the mention of his name. I forced saliva down my throat and continued, “Kett has made clear to you what the incentive is, and while he has picked each of you for this journey, it was your choice to embark on it. We might not know what’s beyond the horizon, but we know that it’s very, very valuable, and it could change all our lives forever.” I glanced at Terrie, who was staring into his lap, his legs hanging limply down the side of his horse. “Right, Winter?”
Terrie nodded, almost imperceptibly. “The sooner in, the sooner out,” he mumbled into his saddle. “Al and I are going. Join us, or don’t.”
One by one, Dom, Pep, and finally Merry mounted their horses in silence. Once everyone was settled, we arranged ourselves in a line facing the horizon, only a few feet away from it. Before we urged the horses on, I glanced back on the desert over which we’d traversed. Dry, flat, dusty ground--grey in the evening light--stretched on for miles behind us. Part of me wondered how we’d even managed to make it this far; but I knew that, whatever challenges we were to face, they would come in this second leg of the journey, as soon as we ventured into the land of god-knows-what and god-knows-where.
I sighed and turned to face ahead once more. Everyone was looking at me, despite Dom having previously been the unspoken but universally recognized leader of our group, and I realized that it was on me now. “Ready?” I asked, trying to quell the shaking in my voice.
“Ready,” they all replied.
And with that, we stepped into the horizon.
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