Making the Horizon Excerpt
|Spirited away to an blank world, twelve struggling artists find themselves capable of anything.|
Hello fans and strangers!
THE LAST DISAPPEARANCE
Keely remained in the bathroom, bonking her head against the outside corner of the stall for a good three minutes. Or it was an hour. It felt like forever, and a dumb part of her thought the party might end before she could force herself to go back. The bathroom echoed with her self-shaming long after a man entered.
Realization dawned, and she glanced down to the urinal next to her before looking back to the man’s startled face. She nodded, then left, head held high.
But her shoulders slumped when the thick oak door thumped shut behind her. She stared dejectedly at the floor, listening to laughter trickling from the ballroom. The hallway shielded her from overwhelming sights and smells, yet the wave of energy socked her in the stomach.
A red dress draped off her shoulders, revealing too much and exposing her skin to the cold of the old building. She should have worn stockings. She should have worn jewelry. She should’ve tried for an actual hairstyle instead of letting her brown hair fall limp around her face like static-charged laundry. If she wanted to make a splash, then she should actually try!
Just because she wanted people to know her name, did they have to look at her? Really? There should be a way around it.
And, anyway, she did make her splash. She made a big fat splash right in the middle of everyone, managed to put her entire foot in her mouth. It was a good thing she couldn’t be picked out of a lineup with her basic dress and generic hair, as the Great Eric Stan wouldn’t remember her or her babbling.
Keely had come. She’d seen. She’d embarrassed herself. Would anyone notice if she turned right instead of left? Slipped out of the hotel lobby?
On the other hand, why go to these things to leave early? She could’ve stayed home and avoided all the hearta—
“Keely Fletcher. Hello!” a familiar voice rang out. Emily.
Give me strength.
Keely plastered on a grin. She had large teeth—a feature that irked the hell of her but got compliments left and right. Her smile was the best thing about her, she supposed. Possibly because it had more to do with the one complimenting than with her. It told them, I’m so delighted with your presence!
When she first started playing “Golden Retriever,” she feared it came off as disingenuous. Fake. A lie. But in a weird way, it allowed others to be themselves, not worry about their impact on Keely. It allowed her feelings to exist—inside—without consequence. With the big, dumb grin, Keely approached the catalyst of her agony, the reason Keely had been invited to this ceremony at all: Emily, her agent. Emily, the one person who believed in her. The person who didn’t say, “You’re not ready yet,” but “Get moving!” The woman who had no problem pointing out why Keely would never succeed. And the reasons she would.
“I didn’t know you were here yet,” Keely said sheepishly.
If Emily noticed Keely’s embarrassment, she didn’t bother acknowledging it. The agent offered an arm. “Had to work late. You know.”
Keely didn’t take the arm. “I did too, actually, but someone was like, ‘Come to the party. Introduce yourself! Drink, be merry! Act like a jackass in front of your peers!’”
“This is work,” Emily replied.
Emily was tall compared to a normal person, but she towered over Keely, which clearly suited the agent fine, not thinking twice about putting her hands on Keely’s shoulders to not so subtly guide her back to the crowd. “I know how you feel about these functions. But it is all about who you know. And you know nothing, and nobody knows you. Fix that.”
“Emily, I’m not feeling… capable. I should—”
“What happened?” Emily demanded. “Don’t look dumb. Why do you want to leave?”
“I didn’t want to come in the first place!”
“Oh? So why are you here?”
“I’m that special?”
“You’re that aggressive.”
“I know you better than that, Keely Fletcher.”
Keely had met her agent about six months after Emily agreed to sign her. The young writer had decided that New York City was the best place for her career. (Or, rather, the best place was anywhere but her hometown, and New York at least she’d heard of.) Keely asked Emily to lunch, and there was an immediate ease between them. She liked Emily. Not at the moment. But they had an understanding.
“Eric Stan said my prose compares to Edward Bulwer-Lytton,” Keely replied flatly.
Emily’s hand recoiled. “Ah.”
“I said,” Keely continued, not making eye contact, “‘who the hell is that?’ And everyone laughed and laughed and laughed…”
“Honey,” Emily said, distraught. “HONEY. Fake it ’till you make it! No one cares who Edward Bulwer-Lytton is. Keep the conversation going.”
“He was acting superior for an inane piece of info. I’m willing to bet that he stored that little fact away so he could make people feel stupid.”
“Would you like me to go talk to him?”
“I can. I can teach him not to mess with a client of mine.”
Keely smirked, shaking it off. “The issue is that I was humiliated, and you walking in and making a scene will make it worse. I would like a little control over the situation.”
“Well, then, don’t take the bait,” Emily said.
“I am not wordy,” Keely sulked.
The agent, having already lost interest in the conversation, searched with hawk-eyes for anyone famous in the crowd of editors, agents, and successful writers. “Oh, honey. Yes, you are.”
Keely stiffened. “If you say complex thoughts in simple ways, people hear what they expect! You explain that social events drain you, and they say, ‘Yeah, I’m super awkward too.’”
Emily blinked at her patiently.
“That’s not what I said! I said it’s tiring. I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed. I know what to say. I am not allowed to say it.”
“Says the massive guilt and embarrassment!”
“You can’t embarrass yourself,” Emily told her. The agent had locked elbows with her, now shifting Keely back and forth through the ballroom like a dog on a leash.
The crowd parted for Emily, whereas Keely always got swallowed. Toes squashed, shoulders bumped, lost in a group. Even when directly next to Emily. The literary agent usually didn’t account for the fact that Keely took up space too, often slamming her into anyone who didn’t make way. And no one made way for Keely. She was short, yes, but it was like she didn’t exist.
“There is no such thing as embarrassing yourself,” Emily continued. “You have an active imagination. I’ve read your books.” She laughed, and Keely squinted an eye. “But that’s all it is. You imagining someone else’s thoughts, their judgments, directed toward you. I mean, did anyone actually say they thought you were stupid?”
This was not a battle that could be won, and they both knew it. Emily continued dragging her. “Keely, you have told me one thing since we met. You told me your career was everything. You would do whatever it takes. And dear God, you have to go to a party and meet people. Your life is so hard. A Greek tragedy.”
Emily didn’t need to lecture her; Keely had made the same speech to herself when first walking out the door. What a stupid phobia. What a stupid thing to dread.
Keely wasn’t too perturbed by the self-proclaimed status of the partygoers. The anticipation of the Toni Eliot Literary Award for Outstanding Literature took most of their focus. Besides, she didn’t know who most of these people were. She was supposed to, of course, like she was supposed to know of a Mr. Bulwer-Lytton. But in her personal opinion, the things you were supposed to do were immediately forgotten about when shit hit the fan.
“Some of my other clients are here,” Emily said, still craning her long neck to see. “I’m sure you’ll get along splendidly.”
“As long as they don’t want to talk literature,” Keely grinned sheepishly.
“You’re smart. You think that everyone’s going to think you’re stupid if you disagree with them. But believe you me, you can’t be smarter than someone if you do agree with them. Take that knowledge to heart.”
“Ah.” Keely squinted up at her. “Do you believe that? I can never tell with you.”
Her arm was almost jerked out of its socket. Emily had found her target.
“I mean,” Keely continued, voice loud over the din, “you keep saying the world is horrible. ‘Accept it!’ But how does that not exhaust you?” They moved swiftly through the crowd, Keely falling behind, snaking along to stay in the path her agent cleared.
Then, suddenly, they stopped. Emily turned and looked her dead in the eye. The youthful smile was gone. The height of her chin, the energy in her face, all vanished, replaced by lines. Age. Stress. “There are parts of the world you can’t change, Keely. So, the only thing we can do is treat it like a joke and face it head on.”
Disagreement never sat well with Keely. Her teeth clenched to keep herself from saying, But that’s not exactly true… It came out anyway. “If you say something in the right way, people will understand. You just have to think carefully enough—”
“Keely, you’re under the impression that what people think is so important. But it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks; they don’t know what to think. You tell them, and they’ll believe you. If you act like an idiot, they’re going to go with it. So, what do you do?”
Emily, unamused, gave her a pointed look. “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You read unpublished books for a living. I highly doubt that.”
This spurred Emily on, digging her claws into Keely’s arm. “I can’t be babysitting you all day. Your next book will need some quotes. Find a cowriter. Make up stories with you and your famous buddy-buddies for the interviews.”
“I know! I’m here! I’m smiling! What more can I do?”
“Keep. The. Conversation. Going. Stop thinking so much.”
Emily’s people had snuck off to a less-occupied part by the far wall, much to Keely’s relief. They were writers, after all, and wouldn’t it be reasonable to presume they were stewing in their own nerves and inadequate social skills? Every time she’d gone to one of these things, there was someone else in the corner too. Someone else Emily had forced into socializing. There were familiar faces here. If she actually tried, really tried to make friends, maybe… They were all in the same boat. They all wanted to make connections.
Keely straightened, reminding herself to breathe.
It was all kind of hilarious, actually. She had things to say; she didn’t want to be punished for them.
And, boy, did that lead to awesome conversations. On her last event, she spent twenty minutes being talked at, trying to neither confirm nor deny if she had actually heard of the “literary masterpiece” the stranger praised, before it dawned on her—he hadn’t read it either.
Yet now, even as her muscles relaxed, she was quickly hit with another painful stomachache on spying the expression of a teen girl. This young stranger was playing Golden Retriever if Keely ever saw it, and she doubted that group was a bunch of dog lovers.
“Don’t worry, though,” a tall, black-haired man said, clapping a hand on the teen’s shoulder. “It’s a common mistake. I, too, didn’t think about those things at your age.”
And how old was he? Keely mused. She herself was fresh out of college—a BA in classical studies—but this guy had a baby face too; couldn’t be too much older.
“Hello, everyone,” Emily said, leading Keely into the small circle. “This is Keely Fletcher. Her debut book, Shielding Sisyphus, was released just a few months ago. Wonderful, satirical fantasy. Amazing sales for a debut.”
Keely stifled a snort.
“Keely, this is Mike, Payton, Susan, and Cara.”
Cara, the teen, blushed underneath her glasses and looked down as the others released a singsong, “Hi, Keely.”
“Cara,” Emily said, beaming, “is only seventeen-years-old, but she’s been nominated tonight for her fantasy young adult novel.” Emily’s laugh was like a music box—even though fake, it sounded so beautiful. “In Cara’s query letter, she went on and on about how naïve she was, and she knew she was just a kid, and yadda, yadda, yadda. And what did I say, Cara?”
Still not managing to fully raise her head, Cara smiled shyly. “That you’d represent me if I never, ever told anyone my age.”
Everyone laughed. Keely rubbed her throat, feeling it tighten.
“But they’d have to see me sometime!” Cara joked, throwing out her arms. It was clear she didn’t know how long they were; a hand smacked into the wall behind her with a loud thud. She recovered well enough, not seeming the least bit surprised.
“You just introduced her with her age, you realize,” Keely muttered to Emily.
“Well, that was then.” Emily beamed at the group. “It was not a good look then. But now, Cara’s successful. It’s an accomplishment.”
“It’s too bad such a strong voice has to come from such a mousey body,” the black-haired man said.
Cara turned bright red.
“And Mike,” Emily said quickly, “writes young adult as well.”
“But not like that romance crap,” he corrected.
“Oh yes. He’s eyeing much more of a… literary career, as you say, eh?” Emily tipped her head at him, eyes flashing warningly.
Mike rhymes with Ike.
That doesn’t help. Just remember it, idiot. Cara, Cara, Cara.
“I write essays as well,” he explained.
“Payton is one of my longest clients. Payton writes fantasy as well, so, Keely, you two might have a lot to talk about. And Susan is with my agency—client of the dearest agent I know—working on… poetry?”
Emily sucked in a breath, letting the silence within the group linger for an instant too long. Her eyes went wide, and Keely’s stomach churned. Even the indomitable Emily had met her match with these introverts, apparently.
“Anyway,” the agent said quickly, “I have so many people to see, but I thought that, as my clients, you would do well to get to know each other. Right? We all benefit from being friendly!”
“Goodbye, Emily,” Payton and Susan said in unison. They both sucked down their cocktails, a disengaged glaze over their eyes.
Payton, Susan. Payton, Susan, Mike, Cara. Keely studied them carefully. She only had a brief moment in the awkward silence, unable at first to understand Payton and Susan’s detachment, before Mike made it clear by opening his mouth.
“As I was saying,” he continued to Cara, “we all make simple mistakes when we’re young. Most times, you shouldn’t start writing until you’re thirty because… what would you say?”
Cara’s eyes looked pained, but she managed to keep a grin on. “Well, hopefully, a lot more than now, if I’ve been writing all that time.”
“I don’t know,” the man continued, musing to himself. “I’m so grateful that there wasn’t as much accessibility for young authors back in my day. If people heard the idiotic things I said when I was seventeen… my career would be ruined!” He chuckled into his drink. “I thank my lucky stars I now know the importance of not ending a sentence in a preposition, don’t you agree?” he said, giving Keely an opening.
She peered at him, wide eyed, mouth tight. Tell him he’s being a prick. She didn’t. His brow creased in confusion, and he turned back to the girl.
“But all I’m saying is,” Cara continued, stress giving her a blush, “I don’t understand why that’s a writing rule or what the benefit is. And personally, I sort of think that if the rule is important, it would become… you know, obvious what the problems are. But rarely when I use one, I don’t see bad results.”
“Well, that’s what I’m saying. You’re young. Of course you don’t see it. Wait until you are an adult and then all your childish beliefs will get a new light.”
No one spoke. Keely’s face reddened. She avoided Cara’s expression by scanning the room for drink.
Mike managed to see pretty well for someone with his head up his butt, though, sending a glance around the awkward silence before jumping to his own defense. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I was so arrogant when I was young. Youth always are. It’s not a big deal. But you’ll learn, Sarah. You will learn.”
“I hope so,” the teen said, swallowing.
It’s Cara, you idiot. Keely scowled. Her heart jumped. Or was it Sarah? Sarah, Sarah…
If Cara was going to cry, she hid it well, but her Golden Retriever smile didn’t come easy, not by any stretch. Keely opened her mouth, but a thought struck: Don’t you dare embarrass her, Keely.
“Excuse me,” Cara said pleasantly. “I want to check my makeup before going on.”
She didn’t look like she was wearing any.
She pushed past Keely, her face down, stride quick, knee-length skirt swishing under her baggy, shapeless sweater.
Keely’s heart lurched, but Cara was gone before she could even think of what to say.
Crossing her arms, Keely slowly turned back to Mike. He was smirking. Keely’s lips tightened. You do not want to deal with this guy. You do not want to deal with this guy. Don’t make an enemy; you’ll definitely have to talk to him again if you do.
“It must be hard to be so sensitive,” Mike said. “I’m glad I’m not that age again.”
The hitch in Keely’s throat tried to stop her, and ordinarily it would have succeeded. But something about the look on his face, the expectation of support…
“How do you feel about Latin?” Keely asked.
He debated. “The language?”
“Yeah. I think it should be taught in schools, personally. To everyone. All the time. Not because it’s particularly useful or anything but because it is so smart sounding, don’t you agree?”
Perhaps he tried to play along, his lips twitching as he looked for a response, but eventually he managed, “What?”
“We must do things, not based on effect, but because of how they appear, right? To look smarter than we are. That’s what you’re saying about prepositional phrases?”
He tensed. “Prepositional phrases…”
“It’s a Latin grammar rule,” Keely said. “It’s never been an English grammar rule. A few arrogant… gentlemen back in the 1800s wanted to bring in archaic rules because they sounded so smart. It’s all over the internet. Don’t you do research before you give advice?”
“I don’t care what the internet says…”
She grinned. “Ah.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but she was already high-tailing it out of there. As much fun as it would be to get into a public screaming match… to say exactly what she thought… to finally let it all out…
She needed to stop herself. Before anything happened. Before she hurt any feelings, caused any gossip, let her emotions embarrass her any more than they already had. She needed out.
Keely left the party quietly, a smooth, unhesitating passage through the giant ballroom. She passed the chatting people in suits and cocktail dresses, right by her blond bulldozer of an agent to the coat check. She never looked up from her feet until she shoved through the front doors and into the cool of the city night.
Catching her breath in a sob, Keely clutched at her long black coat and gaped at the deserted line of buildings. The moonless night flickered with a broken streetlamp. She saw no soul, no car, only the light stuttering. Her face flushed and her eyes stung now that she had a moment to feel embarrassed.
The Upper East Side could be quiet at these hours, bars and restaurants sparse. Sometimes she’d walk home at night and see nothing more than a cab or two. A few wanderers, sometimes the homeless and raccoons meandered inside Central Park, but Keely headed up Fifth Avenue and onto 82nd Street where closed bakeries and a few brownstones kept to themselves.
I am dignified. I am level headed. I am thick skinned.
Or am I just a coward?
Usually, it was nice to have a street all to yourself, the peace of the wealthy a refreshing change of pace from the crowded, convoluted streets of downtown.
You should’ve said something. In front of her. You let that girl walk away feeling like a fool.
Anger surged to soothe the pricks of tears in her eyes. As she stormed off, heels clacking, the heat of her rushing blood kept her from collapse. The movement in the dark of the alley didn’t register with her.
The figure had been waiting beside the stairs, back toward the corner of the building. How long he had been there, or if she had been his primary choice from a room filled with successful literary giants, it couldn’t be said, but he turned without hesitation and followed.
Her thoughts muted the warning signs.
Cara handled it well. She walked away. Like Eric Stan. You walked away. You weren’t weak. She wasn’t weak. You could have said something, but you don’t know. Maybe she didn’t want you to. She didn’t want a scene.
The footsteps behind her clomped, and Keely heard them, sure, but they meant nothing to her. Not then. She was consumed with the smirking. The joy in their eyes as they got to talk and talk without any fear—not a single fear of being punished for their own bullshit! Neither would leave the party believing they’d done anything wrong. Why had she hesitated?
Her steps were short and fast, the stranger’s stride long and slow. He was catching up, but it didn’t concern her.
It doesn’t matter, she told herself. This too shall pass. We’re survivors. It’s one party. I can make friends next time. I can dazzle people, dress better, speak better—
A tickling at the back of her neck told her something was wrong. Pausing briefly, she raised her head and finally heard the world around her, understanding the sound of someone following. As she turned to look, the man tackled her.
The dark shook with her screech.
She slapped at him with her tiny purse. She shoved. His hands were strong. Tears pushed through her clenched eyes, running down her face. She kicked. She bit. His fingers around her arms threatened to falter, and she shoved, but he didn’t give. The man merely shushed her; he tried to seize her in his arms to hold her still. She did not see his face, even when she clocked him across the jaw.
He let go, and she stumbled to run. Her purse dropped to the ground; her ankles buckled on high heels. Hands were around her, a rag on her mouth before she could even crumple to the cement.
This time the cry was muffled, and the struggle only lasted as long as her panic—a panic that turned warm and soft, disappearing into a blissful slumber, and the flickering of the streetlamp stopped for good.