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ThE Outside

Richard Zhu

     “Kansali Etterbor, come down here this instant! Have you no sympathy for your poor mother?” 


     Kansali groaned, curled up, and tugged the silk sheets over her ears. She would have to wake soon, but just one more minute...




     Her mother’s shriek was like that of a raven, piercing her ears, shattering the pseudo-darkness of her bedroom. 


     “Co...ming…” She yawned, clumsily rummaging for her glasses on the bedside table, blinking back the waves of drowsiness. The bedside clock read 3:11, the slashes of red LEDs flashing in sync with the pink neon lights outside.


     She staggered groggily towards her dresser. On top of the painted plastic surface were a row of twenty small pill bottles arranged like a row of gnomes, some with pointy caps, some with ridged ones that cut her hand when she pried them open. Each bottle was labeled with two identification lights that blinked up at her, their pupils synthetic shades of blue and brown. 


     When she was ten, Kansali had drawn lopsided grins on the bottles with a black sharpie. In the darkness, however, their faces were amorphous, almost sinister in their absence.


     She picked up a bottle, its lights blinking burnt sienna, shook out two pills, and swallowed them before staggering downstairs into the kitchen, drawing energy from the caffeine.


     Her mother was standing before the kitchen mirror, feverishly pouring out her morning pills while her other hand applied a flashy purple lip gloss. Without a word, Kansali threw a couple of eggs and a slice of bacon on the skillet.


     Glaring into the mirror, her mother said vehemently, “I’ve been calling you for the past ten minutes, young woman! How selfish you are, lying in bed while your poor mother tries to scrape together a living for you!” 


     Her massive hairdo wobbled dangerously as she swallowed another handful of pills.


     “Mr. Justyl will throw a fit if I am not at the salon by three. Quick, Kansali, what is the time?”


     “It’s quarter past,” Kansali said, “But you might as well have some breakfast since you are late alre—“


     Her mother whipped her head around, her eyes wild in anger, her face a nightmarish swirl and makeup.


     “No, you useless daughter, how could you not wake me in time?! Mr. Justyl is our biggest patron, he personally requested a new haircut at three--you know how he enjoys the nightlife—“ her hand shot out, and Kansali leapt away, but her mother was only grabbing for a bottle of pills “—the doctor is a doddering fool. I told him to give me larger doses...this medicine is watered down—“


     “Mother, I didn’t know—“ Kansali protested, shuddering at the thought of Mr. Justyl, who was a rich businessman reputed to be almost nocturnal, wasting away his nights in the bars of New Reykjavík, enjoying alcohol and other unholy pleasures. He sported an outrageous blond mohawk, courtesy of her mother, who was still fuming.


     “Why do you think I woke at midnight? When will you learn, Kansali?”


     She stood. Her sweeping purple dress and ermine fur scarf fluttered as she wrenched open the front door, allowing the cold Icelandic wind to rush in.


     She cast one last look back at Kansali, seeming to calm down enough to give her a honeyed smile.


     “What are the rules, my dear?”


     “Eat my pills before breakfast, at half past noon, and before bed--” Kansali muttered.


     “Don’t you give me that attitude! Medicine can save a man’s life, Kansali, never forget. Your father forgot.” her mother said sharply.


     “--don’t open the curtains. And never, never venture out.” Kansali finished softly.


     “Quite so. The terrible outside world is not the place for a civilized young lady. My darling, there is hope for you yet.” She paused, sniffing the air, then added contemptuously, “Oh, and your breakfast is burning.”


     She stepped outside, the door closing behind her. The automated security system called out a goodbye after her stiff back. 


     Kansali walked slowly back to the kitchen to find cracked yellow and black crisps sizzling on the skillet. Sighing, she tossed the remains into the garbage and took a bottle of water from the fridge. 


     Trudging back to her bedroom, she flicked on the lights and started robotically uncapping each of the medicine bottles, shaking out the dosage of pills for each. 


     Pills for diabetes, for depression, for dizziness and nausea, for muscle loss and vitamin D deficiency, eye drops for myopia...each year her body seemed to get a little more broken, another little rainbow-hued bottle added to her collection, but Mother said it was alright, said that medicine could cure all, she needn’t worry her little mind…


     The pills paraded over her palm, awash in the neon light which seeped between the city apartments. In one gulp, she swallowed all of them, and they burst into artificial flavor in her mouth, pomegranate and strawberry, peach and cinnamon, apple and another version of strawberry, dissolving into the water...these were her sodas and juices and energy drinks, her phantasm of a normal life, for Mother said too much sugar was bad, too much coloring was bad…


     “I wish she would get over Father.” she murmured aloud. “I wish she would stop blaming herself, stop worshipping these stupid drugs, can’t she see? Can’t she understand this isn’t the Amazon? That I won’t die from some malaria strain just by stepping outside?” 


     Kansali just wanted to be a normal girl, to skip down the sidewalk with the other middle schoolers, to go to the bird cliffs and waterfalls—anywhere but this apartment with its little pink curtains and little locked door.


     She glared at the pill bottles. They were the cause of her madness; her life revolved around them. She wished she could just chuck them in the trash like that damned burnt bacon.


     She stared despondently at the bar across the street. Through the windows, she could see a plump, ruddy-faced man bent over a shadowy pool table while others watched, clutching mugs of beer. A sign above the door traced out Scorpion’s Den in fluorescent pink swirls, pouring its cheerful light down the street, seeming to mock her in its neon glory. The man’s face lit up in joy as the ceramic ball careened into a pocket, his grin tinted pink.


     Kansali sighed, thinking of the pool table stuffed in a corner of the penthouse, its ceramic balls collecting dust while those in the Den shone like meteors. She stared at the wall--how I hate these walls! these bland white walls which seem to suffocate my heart!


     Angrily, she reached for the stash of Twix bars hidden behind a box of discarded pill bottles. Mother would kill her if she found out… Hell, she’ll kill me for watching drunk men, for even thinking about going outside! Father had loved Twix bars, even as Mother raved about diabetes and cavities. With a jolt, Kansali realized that there was only one bar left. One last bar to remember him by. Kansali smiled sadly, remembering the day he had presented her with the small box of candy.


     “Treat each bite as a moment of bliss,” he had said, eyes crinkling at the corners. “I know you miss New Jersey--trust me, I never would’ve picked Iceland if your mother hadn’t insisted. But when you feel down, just have one of these. A small snapshot of home to savor and hold in your heart.”


     She grabbed the candy and turned away from the pill bottles, their little rainbow faces seeming to laugh at her, mock her. She applied makeup, then changed into her new blue dress. She tied her hair in a ponytail, then curled the side strands into flowers that swirled down her jaw. Just like Mother taught her. Not that anyone would notice.


     She walked slowly to the living room, grief and yearning pressing on her shoulders, cursing the depression pills.


     Faintly, she heard a slight hissing sound emanating from the front door. The wind. couldn’t be...Mother never forgets to lock it...


     She quickened her pace, racing down the long hallway, accidentally knocking over a Chinese porcelain vase that was probably bought from some museum or another. Mother would be angry, but Kansali couldn’t be bothered. What if...I could finally meet the pool players at the Den...or better yet, I could run down the streets like the other kids...the wind in my hair...


     She was sprinting now, the door looming before her, the wind an ecstatic roar in her ears. She smashed into the door, her hand on the knob, twisting…


     The knob gave a small click! and a sliver of cold breeze hit her. It’s not locked!


     “No, I can’t, Mother said…” she muttered, even as her hand ached to pull the door open. No, stop being a coward! If Father were here… she gritted her teeth and pulled the door open, the brisk wind buffering her dress. No, I’m done with hiding.


     She stepped onto the street, blinking in the fierce sunlight, shivering against the cold, her carefully arranged hair whipping in the air. It was cold and windy, but she was free.


     “Goodbye, Kansali Etterbor. Your mother Alethia has been notified.” the security system beeped. She had no choice now.


     She took a deep breath, felt the arctic air grate against her windpipe, and smiled. Suddenly possessed by a wild ecstasy, she raced past the Scorpion’s Den, stopping briefly to watch the boisterous men at the pool table, and then she was off again. The psychedelic neon skyscrapers, the blinking traffic lights, all the people in their rich suits and sleek jeans and flowing dresses, stumbling from bar to was all so wonderfully new!


     At length, she found herself at the edge of the New Reykjavík, facing a vast expanse of grassy plains, sectioned by lines of mossy boulders and the odd dilapidated house, all underneath a gray sky. She could faintly hear the pounding of the indigo waves. The same waves that had swallowed their house on the Jersey shore.


     She stepped forward, treading lightly over the smooth gray boulders, her heart giddy with excitement, the gray apartments receding behind, and then the wind slammed into her body with the force of a speeding police car.


     She gasped, staggering forward as the invisible inferno tore at her hair, at the precious whorls and locks that framed her face. Her dress whipped around in a vicious cycle.


     Maybe Mother was right...I am just a frail little girl... 


     She gritted her teeth. No! She leaned into the wind, the cold seeming to rip the flesh from her face, but it was futile. A sudden gust hit her and she flew backwards, sharp stones cutting into her legs, her phone knocked out of her hand, and the Twix bar flew out of her pocket.


     “No!” She gasped. Father’s last gift…


     Her phone clattered down the stony hillock and seemed to disappear behind a line of rocks fifteen meters away. She crawled forward, ignoring her bleeding hands and knees, and suddenly a dark ravine opened up before her, a gaping maw in the earth. Her phone flashed tens of meters below.


     Help me, Father. She gingerly placed a foot on the dark crag below, her sneakers struggling to find purchase on the mossy surface, sweat rolling down her back, her palms sticky. 


     Turn back said the craven half. Turn back, or else Mother will be worried. What if she throws another fit? said the polite half, which was the craven part in disguise. I need my phone, she thought, I won’t be defeated by some invisible breeze. As if in answer, the wind slammed into her back, her dress ballooning like a sail, and she shrieked as she stumbled down another few black boulders towards the darkness below, showers of pebbles raining down before her, legs pale and trembling. Everything hurt, her legs, her knees, her face. She needed the pills...


     “Hey!” The shout pierced through the howling wind, seeming to fall on her ears like the sweetest melody. Dimly, she could make out a black shadow winding through the ravine.


     “Here! Help!” she screamed, but the wind rushed into her mouth, the words curling into tendrils of smoke. The cold seemed to gag her like no cloth ever could.


     And then suddenly he was below her, bounding from rock to rock, seeming to fly with the wind on his heels, leaping impossible heights with each gust. Then he was before her, standing like a sentinel, like the loyal knights in story books.


     In that moment she could have cried or leaped up and embraced him or kissed him even, her savior, but she stayed nestled against the black gorge walls, pinned by the wind, by her timid heart, even.


     He was wearing a blue jacket and black sweatpants. His swept back blond hair parted the wind like the prow of a ship, the eye in a raging storm. He was no older than fifteen, maybe younger.


     He waited for a lull in the wind before shouting down at her, “Go back up, else you’ll die!”


     No, I am done hiding or cowering behind concrete walls. Kansali could see the contempt, the pity in his eyes, much like her mother’s. 


     She shook her head vehemently, burrowing further into the rock like a timid mouse. Mouse she would be, but not captive.


     He stood there, swaying slightly, and then finally shrugged and held out a hand, stepping down to the rock column below. Kansali took it, still pressed against the granite face, and they slowly descended to the canyon floor, where he led her to sheltered cave. 


     He rounded on her, his eyes narrowing in anger.


     “What’s a foreigner like you doing here? Wearing that?!”


     “I don’t—”


     “Don’t lie, girl. Why would you wear a damned dress in this weather? What—are we in the Middle Ages? And that bird’s nest on your head…”


     “It’s my mother’s patented hairstyle!” And suddenly she was sick of this boy, of the way he treated her like an ignorant fool. Reaching up, she felt the mass of stones and grass clinging to her hair, and she wanted to cry.


     “I suppose your mother drives a sports car and you use plastic water bottles every day and you’re only here cause some wave swept away your precious seaside mansion like all the other rich immigrant kids in Reykjavik. Oh, and your candy.”


     He picked up the Twix bar from the ravine floor, tossing it contemptuously to her. She caught the candy and clutched it to her chest.


     “My father gave this to me,” she said softly. “Before he died. As a reminder of the States. Of home.”


     The boy was quiet. Kansali listened to the wind rushing outside. The gorge walls opposite looked like so many stone-faced old men, full of pockmarks and gray edges. She wished fervently for the warm apartment right now, with its glowing lamp shades and ornate sofas.


     “Both my parents are dead.”


     The boy’s voice was soft, broken, and Kansali looked over abruptly. He didn’t wait for her to reply before continuing.


     “I was taking one last hike in this gorge when I saw you. Tomorrow, the landlords will come with their crisp suits and little papers and reclaim our land. They need space for more billionaire apartments, apparently. With all you rich immigrant folk coming here.”


     Kansali felt a pang of guilt. Suddenly, her wishes seemed so petty, so spoiled. For years, she had yearned to leave that cramped apartment complex, had grown sick of the same lamb and fish Mother cooked every day. She had wanted to see the world, when even one of Mother’s phones could probably buy this boy a roof over his head.


     “Where will you go, after know. Do you have family?”


     The boy looked out into the windy canyon. She could imagine him as a five-year-old, skipping through the canyon from rock to rock, hand in hand with an old farmer, both laughing, carefree.


     “I'll go into the city, I guess. Hear there’s a big soup kitchen in the north.” He seemed to lock away his feelings, then, and stood up. 


     “I’ll bring you back up.”


     She followed him outside, stopping briefly to pick up her phone where it had fallen. She saw him looking, but the boy said nothing. He led her to a set of stairs carved into the canyon walls. She started up the rocky ledges, the wind still tearing at her dress, and turned around to thank him, but the boy was already gone, a dark shadow retreating into the dark gorge, the wind howling around him. 


     Kansali climbed up the dark rock wall. When she finally reached the surface, she ran the rest of the way to the city, the wind a constant rush at her back, pushing her away from the grassy plains and the dark scar in the earth, back to the city, the skyscrapers shining like fiery shards of glass in the dawn light. 


     She raced past the Den, just as the pool player was emerging from the darkened interior, his shirt covered with vomit and beer, his mouth agape. He stumbled down the steps of the bar and collapsed on the street, the sunlight tinting his face a bloody red. Kansali averted her eyes and ran on.


     By the time she was home, her head was pounding and pain tore through her legs. She staggered to her room and swallowed three painkillers in one gulp.


     “I’m never going outside again.” she muttered aloud before collapsing onto her bed, still in her tattered dress and messy hairdo. 


     Dawn sunlight shone through the window, tinting the pill bottle gnomes an orange shade, their grotesque marker grins stark against the fire roiling in their bellies. The bottles were silent, although their lights blinked in smug triumph. We’re all you need. 

Richard Zhu is a rising junior at The Peddie School, NJ.

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