Don’t Look Down

In “Don’t Look Down,” you’ve got to face your worst fears — whether you want to or not. 

By Ekemini Nkanta

“Quantum Mechanics” © Jamie Wynder

White walls are nothing but trouble. Trust me. I’ve woken up in enough hospitals to know this by heart.

Everyone always falls for the clean, scrubbed look. The cold emptiness never kicks in until it’s too late to turn back — and once you’re in these kinds of places, there’s no way out. Airplanes leave their terminals. Offices close their doors. Modern therapists seal you inside their spherical hubs and run virtual reality tests on you until whatever screws you’ve got loose finally settle back in. It’s just the way the system works.

The static crackling in the speakers means the system is waiting on me.

“Can we just get this thing over with?” I clear my throat, nervously wiping my sweaty palms on my bodysuit. “This ‘one-size-fits-all’ junk is really cutting off my circulation.”

I’m not even graced with a human response. A synthetic female voice pieces together her words in the awkward cookie-cutter style every robot uses, her voice resounding from the walls.

“Welcome to your first cognitive-behavioral therapy session with New Wave Technologies. Our simulation is designed to desensitize you to your fears through gradual exposure in a controlled environment. State-of-the-art equipment will be used to create your virtual reality experience. Responses will be monitored for subsequent evaluation.”

Evaluation? My shoulders sink in defeat. So I’m being graded? Please don’t let this be one of those pass or fail courses. I’ll be coming back here every week for the rest of my life.

“State your current disorder,” the voice commands.

My throat goes dry. I know what I have. Saying it aloud gives it too much power over me, makes it real, makes it my problem. My tongue scrapes like sandpaper against the roof of my mouth. Spit it out. Just say it.

“State your current disorder,” the voice commands.

My throat goes dry. I know what I have. Saying it aloud gives it too much power over me, makes it real, makes it my problem. My tongue scrapes like sandpaper against the roof of my mouth.

Spit it out. Just say it.

“Fear of heights.” I can barely hear my own voice over the sound of my own blood pumping.

“Your disorder is acrophobia.” The voice pauses to play a confirmation tone. “Your simulation will begin shortly.”

Before I know it, the entire room is humming. The projectors hidden behind the walls curved around me are hard at work. I recline my chair until the restraints dig into my stomach. Maybe if I lean back far enough I’ll escape my body — or at least this suit and all the sweat pooling in it. For heaven’s sake, is the temperature doubling by the second? My hands fumble around for the zipper, slipping and sliding and crashing into each other. They’re shaking so violently that they can barely grab onto the fabric. Out. I need to get out.

“Let me out!” The words slip free before I realize they’re mine. “Cancel simulation! End! Terminate! I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want to fall, I’m not ready, please—”

The walls reply by blinding me.

White light engulfs me from every angle. I go rigid, too scared to move an inch. Silence fills in the gaps between my ragged breaths. The wait feels endless.

And then the room comes alive.

Soft music fades in from the background static. I hear guitar notes being plucked from their strings by slow, careful fingers: gentle, yet deliberate. The highs and lows blend together until they’re nearly layered in harmony. A sigh I didn’t know I’d been holding escapes me, making my shoulders deflate.

I blink twice and the skies ease in. Cloud textures emerge from the walls of the sphere before being painted in a tropical wash of colors. The leaves of palm trees generate line by line, fanning out above my head. It drapes close enough to brush past my face with a breeze. When I reach my hand out to touch the ends, the space I close my fingers around is empty. No way… high-definition holograms?

The world continues to build itself in real-time, slowly surrounding me. Trees line themselves up along the horizon, twisting and turning in strokes of brown and green. Vines criss-cross over my head. Tiny droplets dance along them, splashing my cheek when the breeze picks up. I angle my head to watch the scene unfold and take a spray of mist to the face. My eyes close instinctively, the tension between my eyebrows melting away.
The details of my reality set in as afterthoughts. Beneath me, I feel a thin wall hugging the curve of my back, all the way down to my legs. I’m slowly rocking with the breeze. I lower my gaze to my feet and get a better look at what I’m resting on: a thin sheet cocooning my body in mid-air. My lips part in awe… and then terror.

I’m lying in a hammock.

The realization hits me hard. How far up am I? I jut my head out without a second thought. My vision warps in and out, stretching the ravine below me into an infinite drop. No, no, no… I bunch up the folds of the fabric in trembling fists.

“Looking down from Nevada Falls” © Ryan Grimm

“Help!” My voice breaks the soundscape, cracking above the whisper of rushing water and the cawing of birds. “Somebody help me!”

Before I know it, the synthetic robot voice is jarring me back to reality. “Let’s start some simple breathing exercises to help you manage your anxiety,” she says.

My jaw drops, despite myself. “Are you kidding me?”

She ignores my attitude and carries on. “Take a long, slow breath in through your nose.”

“I don’t need breathing exercises. I need to get down!”

“Hold your breath to the count of three.”

The thudding behind my ribs grows stronger. “Please!”

“Exhale slowly through pursed lips, while you relax the muscles in your face, jaw, shoulders, and stomach.”

I groan, feeling beads of sweat gather on my forehead. Years of artificial intelligence and millions of dollars in development, and their robot can’t listen?

“The goal is to overwrite your fear responses with healthy coping techniques,” she chirps in that indifferent, computer-generated voice of hers. “Cooperating will lower your stress levels.”

I throw my head back. It’s no use. She’ll just keep me trapped in the same loop until I either comply or some secret time limit elapses and I automatically fail. I search frantically for another way out, cycling through the options in my head.

I want to get better. I want to travel the world; I want to wake up one day in a real home and not a hospital bed. I want to see color —- no more white walls, no more holograms. But more than anything, I want my life back. If this is the only way to get it, then so be it.

I take my first breath.


Winner of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards © Alliance for Young Artists & Writers/Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Used with permission.


Ekemini Nkanta is a dreamer in the “city that never sleeps.” She’s graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School with no regrets, and was recently named a National Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. This fall, she’ll be learning how to design games and apps at NYC’s College of Technology. You can watch her splatter paint everywhere on Instagram at @merakibyekemini.

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One Comments Post a Comment
  1. T Sherard says:

    Ekemini, I am so proud of you. Ever since we won that PAL award together, I knew you would become the writer you always dreamed of becoming. You have grown, and your writing has matured. Congratulations on your success, and I wish you more success in the future.

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