I had always wanted to fit in, but I could never seem to manage it. I was pretty sure that my hair was to blame. It’s white. Snow white. At first glance, people think that I have albinism, but I don’t. My eyes are a dark chocolate brown, and my skin tans nicely in the summertime, but nevertheless, my hair stays white. I’ve tried dyeing it, but nothing stays for long. It washes out, almost like my hair is rejecting it of its own free will.
My parents were gone; they had disappeared on their vacation when I was five. I had been left with a friend of theirs for the weekend, but when they didn’t come back, I was placed with a foster family who dumped me at a boarding school far away from everything I had ever known. I’ve been here ever since.
I’ve never had any friends, so when I got invited to a party at a swanky restaurant in town, at first I thought it was a joke; that I would get there and no one else would be there, or they’d be waiting to play some cruel prank on me for a few laughs. But I was desperate, so I took the chance. All the other girls on my hall were starting to get ready, chatting together, flitting in and out of each other’s rooms to borrow cute tops, makeup, and shoes, but I was left alone, as I always was. I snuck quick glances out the door every once in a while, to see what the other girls were wearing so that I could try to emulate their style with the limited wardrobe I was allowed by the headmistress. None of these girls were orphans. They had trust funds and daddies with deep pockets. I was the resident charity case that the school used to help boost their image.
I waited by my door until I heard the girls start to leave and followed behind them. I tried to remain quiet and inconspicuous, even though my hair shone brightly in the moonlight. Every once in a while, a girl would glance back at me and snigger to her friends. I ignored them. This was not a new occurrence and it had long since ceased to hurt my feelings.
The restaurant was so much fancier than anything I had ever seen. Adults were dressed to the nines in their three-piece suits and fancy dresses, diamonds practically dripping from the women’s ears, necks, and wrists. I stared in wonder as I followed the girls to a back room that had been reserved for us. It was a Christmas celebration that Candy, the daughter of an oil tycoon had put together for the girls on our floor. I supposed that was the only reason I was invited. It might look a little conspicuous if the only person not there was the freak with the white hair. Everyone knew I lived on their floor. The headmistress would probably discipline them if they didn’t invite me along.
I sat in the corner of the room, content to watch the party unfold around me. Most of the girls ignored me, treating me like just another piece of art on the wall, but when it came time for the gift exchange, I was forced to join in. We all placed our gifts into the center of the room and sat in a big circle around them.
To play the game, one girl would pick a gift, then the next person could either take her gift or pick one from the pile. If she took your gift, you had to go pick a new one from the pile. It went around until everyone had a gift. Everyone, except me. There was one gift left in the middle of the room: a plain brown envelope with a bright red wax seal. I felt weird taking a gift from one of the other girls, even though I had been eyeing the one with the pretty silver wrapping paper the whole time. If I took it, she would be forced to take the brown envelope, and she would likely hold it against me for the rest of my life, so with an internal groan in resignation, I slowly got up from my seat and picked up the brown envelope. There was a collective sigh of relief from all the other girls, and they promptly went back to ignoring me as they tore into their presents. Jewelry, perfumes, expensive clothes, nail kits, and makeups started appearing from behind their wrappings. I watched them with not a small amount of jealousy, holding my brown envelope tightly in my hands.
I looked down at it and decided that rather than expose myself to whatever horrors waited inside, I would take it into the bathroom and open it there. I got up slowly and made sure I wasn’t noticed before I slipped into the bathroom and locked the door.
The wax seal was plain, just two letters stamped into it. KB. Those were my initials. Kassia Broker. Weird. I carefully parted the seal from the envelope with my fingernail and pocketed it, then slowly opened the envelope. In it was a small strip of paper with two sentences scrawled on it in a hurried hand.
Come home Kassia. Your world is waiting for you on the Underside.
I read it over and over again. My world? What other world was there besides this one? The underside of what? I flipped the paper over, checked the envelope for other clues, but this was it. This one piece of paper telling me to come home.
I covered my mouth to stifle a scream as I saw a tiny old lady crouching underneath the bathroom stall, staring at me. She couldn’t have been more than four feet tall. Her wrinkled skin gave away her old age, but her eyes were bright and friendly. She motioned for me to follow her. With the lines of the letter repeating themselves over and over again in my head, I mentally shrugged and followed her into the stall. I opened the door just in time to see her drop down into a hole and disappear from sight. I peered into the hole and rubbed my eyes, convinced I was seeing things.
In the hole, about two feet down was a light grey floor, with a framed painting of a spring landscape sitting on it. I frowned but decided not to overthink anything and slowly lowered myself down, careful not to step on the painting. As soon as my feet hit the grey floor, I realized my mistake. It wasn’t a floor at all. It was a wall, and my world was tipped onto its side. Gravity was pulling me down and I started sliding uncontrollably down the wall until I landed in a heap on a dark grey plush carpet.
I looked up, expecting to find the hole I had fallen from, but saw only a white ceiling glowing warmly in the firelight. I should have been frightened that I couldn’t get back out, but I wasn’t. This room left me feeling strangely comfortable. It was pleasantly warm in here thanks to the merry fire crackling in the fireplace. There was a light blue couch sitting against the wall that looked incredibly soft and inviting; resting on the arm was a white fleece blanket that was velvety soft to the touch.
I wrapped it around myself as I explored the room further.
“Welcome home, Kassia,” the old woman said warmly from a rocking chair in the corner. “My name is Sol. I am your grandmother.”
“I have no family,” I said with tears filling my eyes. Even though my words denied it, I wanted to believe her.
“Oh, my poor child. Has no one cared for you while you’ve been away?”
I shook my head, the tears falling freely now. I made no attempt to wipe them away.
Sol rushed to my side and rubbed my back affectionately. She led me gently to the couch and sat down next to me. She held her hand out to mine and I took it gratefully.
“You were never meant to stay Upside for long, Kassia. Your father is a builder, you see. He took you and your mother with him to explore the Upside for new ideas. It was meant to be a short trip, but when your parents fell through without you, we were frantic. We were desperate to find a way back up, but the ports only open for moments at a time and they’re always only one way. You can’t get back up the way you came down and their locations are always changing. I promise you we have never stopped searching for a port back up to get you.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand anything you’re saying.”
“Ioc Tair is your home Kassia,” she said urgently. “The Underside is where you belong.”
“Ioc Tair,” I repeated slowly, testing the name on my tongue. A whole world that existed underneath the one I had lived in most of my life.
“When you’re ready, I’ll take you to your mother and father.”
I stared at her in disbelief. I had spent so many years completely alone that this was the bit of information that I found the hardest to accept. It was easier to accept that Ioc Tair was real than it was to believe that my parents were still alive.
I stood slowly on shaky legs and nodded to Sol. “I’m ready,” I lied.
She smiled sadly at me, seeing through the lie, but stood and ushered me through to the back of the house. There was another living room much like the one we had left, but nestled in one wall stood a floor to ceiling stained glass window. It shone brightly in a myriad of different colors. It had been nighttime when I fell down into this house, but it was clear that a rich afternoon sun was beaming through this window.
Sol touched it lightly and it swung out to reveal a beautiful courtyard filled with vibrantly colored flowers in all shapes and sizes. She stepped out onto the cobblestone path and turned back to me. Holding her small, wrinkled hand out to me.
I hesitantly stepped out into the afternoon sun and gripped her hand tightly. I felt like I would faint if I let go. I expected to see flowers I recognized, like tulips and daffodils, but none of these flowers looked familiar in any way. My brain kept trying to identify them, but couldn’t quite manage. It was very disconcerting, so I kept my eyes on the path instead.
Eventually, we came to a tall fence. Once again, all Sol had to do was touch it gently and it swung open. She led me down a long set of uneven stone stairs. Every few steps, she had to let go of my hand to scramble down a step that was too big for her small stature, but she quickly took hold of me again as soon as they evened out.
Finally reaching the base of the stairs, she sighed in relief and chuckled to herself. “Those steps are a chore, aren’t they?”
I smiled at her, also relieved to be at the bottom. There was another stone path before us that wound through tall shrubs, leaving us blind to what lay further than a few feet ahead, but I could hear the bustle of a busy street slowly getting louder the closer we got. I heard voices in all different cadences and timbres that instantly made me feel like I was in the middle of downtown New York, yet the path refused to reveal anything beyond its towering shrubs.
“We’re almost to Center, and it’s midday, so keep tight to my hand, child. Won’t be losing you again so soon after finding you.” She said it so seriously, that my heartbeat picked up its already quick drumming in my chest, and I tightened my grip on her hand.
Finally, we reached the end of the path, and I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a moving wall of people, but they weren’t your typical New York business crowd. Not even the eccentrics who panhandled on the streets could compare to this crowd. There were incredibly tall people, towering over their neighbors; tiny people who zoomed in and out and through people’s legs; people with too big of eyes, large pointed ears, overlarge noses, and even someone with horns sticking out of their head. But what surprised me the most, were the ones with hair in every color imaginable. Even as they walked by in their quick pace, I could tell the color was natural. Their eyebrows and eyelashes matched too perfectly. Those people, above all others, made my knees weak. All my life, I believed that my snow-white hair was a terrible curse that had been forced upon me as Mother Nature’s idea of a cruel joke. It was they that helped me finally believe Sol’s words.
“It’s alright, child,” Sol said, gently tugging my hand to get me moving again.
I swallowed and allowed her to pull me into the throng. I was jostled around until I found the rhythm of the crowd and matched their pace. I looked around, my mind racing in wonder at all I was seeing.
It wasn’t just the people that were different. Their clothes were a mishmash of styles, all decades too old for the world I had grown up in. It was like they were trying to emulate the people from up above, but had been given a template that had all the pages ripped up, then glued back together willy-nilly.
The buildings were all wrong too. At first glance, they resembled the skyscrapers that dominated the skylines of all the major cities around the world, but they were making me feel slightly seasick. It took my mind quite a while to process why. The buildings were swaying gently in the breeze as though they were made of paper, not steel and concrete. I reached out my hand and brushed my fingertips along one such building, and sure enough, it was solid stone. Suddenly afraid that my gentle touch might cause the building to collapse, I quickly pulled my hand away.
As we walked along the busy street, I looked inside the buildings’ windows; they were all completely empty. It was as though the people who built these buildings had never actually been inside one, only glanced at the skyscrapers from afar, not understanding their purpose. It seemed that these buildings, in Ioc Tair, were purely for decoration; to give the illusion that we were in the world above and nothing else.
I turned my attention to the cars on the streets, expecting to hear the noise of their engines and the honking of horns as they sped by, but I heard none of that. The cars were all silent. I watched curiously as a family climbed into a car waiting at the curb ahead of us. The mother had neon orange hair; the father, a nose that hung down to his chin. They held the hands of two young boys with the same mop of orange hair as their mother. As soon as the door closed behind them, they sped off, only to stop a few hundred yards down the road. They all got back out again and headed back the way they came. I frowned in confusion. Why get in the car at all? It clearly hadn’t taken them to their destination. Then it dawned on me, they had treated it as an amusement park ride. I shook my head in wonder as I watched another family do the same thing. It was as if they knew cars were used in the world above them but didn’t understand their true purpose.
With every step, every observation, I was beginning to understand Ioc Tair a little better. This world was full of people who had fallen through the cracks of the world above. People who had been rejected by their families and peers and had built a new life for themselves down here. But it was obvious that with each generation, they had only glimpsed the world above for brief periods of time before returning here, not taking the time to fully comprehend the purpose of the items they were bringing back.
I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face at the absurdity of it all. I didn’t dare voice this to Sol, though, afraid that I would hurt her feelings. I was already falling in love with this strange place, and I had only been here for mere moments. The sense of belonging was infecting every pore of my body, and I was truly starting to believe that I was home at last.
“You see that red building just up the way?” Sol asked, pointing straight ahead. I had no idea how she could see it from her height, blocked as she was by the masses of people, but sure enough, there it was, a wide oddly shaped red building with a tall chimney spewing purple clouds of smoke from its stack. “That’s home,” she said. “It’s not much, but your grandfather and father are enthusiastic builders, and we’ve all chipped in to make it cozy enough, I suppose.”
My parents were there, only a few hundred yards away, waiting for me and every step I took was leading me closer to them. I quickened my pace until I was the one leading Sol toward the house.
“Woah, child,” she said breathlessly. “My little legs can’t quite keep up with yours.”
“Sorry,” I said, practically forcing myself to slow down.
She chuckled. “It’s alright, child. We’ll be there soon enough, I promise.”
We were still about fifty feet away when the front door opened, and out came a woman with hair as white as mine. She had bright pink rubber gloves on and a bandanna holding back her snow-white hair, her navy dress covered with a matching pink apron. It was clear that she was in the middle of cleaning and had stepped outside at exactly the right time for a breath of fresh air.
I froze. My breathing stopped. My heart stopped. My eyes grew wide. She wiped her forehead with her arm and looked up, right into my eyes. I watched as they grew wide and she, too, froze, arm still raised. She smiled slowly, tears falling freely from her beautiful brown eyes. Eyes that matched mine exactly.
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