I lay on the lush, peridot green grass and turn to my side. There is an army of ants marching triumphantly to bring home cookie crumbs. My bored mind swirls with questions…Do ants have families? Are they like humans, do they feel emotions?
I hear my sister, Yuki’s booming voice shout, “Aya! Aya! I got the Frisbee out of the tree!” she grins as she waves the bright neon Frisbee in the air. I jump up and shout, “Throw it!” It soars with such speed that I’m running after it faster than a cheetah could. I jump up to catch it, but then my foot gets caught on a tree root. I trip and fall into a ditch. I’m falling, falling…And still falling? I want to scream for help but I’m so scared out of my mind that my throat won’t listen to my brain. This has got to be a dream. I pinch myself to make sure. “Ouch!” I recoil. Yup. This isn’t a dream.
I flutter my hazy eyes open and look around at my new surroundings…Where in the world am I? It’s an underground city that’s throbbing with life. It’s crowded and noisy in the market. There are people are selling fresh fare, trendy clothes, and pricey jewelry. My head is spinning with so many questions. I still feel like I’m a dream. I need to get home, everyone is probably worried sick about me. I try to get up, but realize I’m imprisoned in shackles. I struggle harder, but the restrain seems to just get tighter.
“There’s no use in fighting back,” says a voice, “it’ll just get tighter and more painful.”
My eyes dart to the voice, “Who are you?” I ask cautiously.
He smiles, “I’m Jae. I’ve been here for about three years now. It sucks here. And, who are you, newbie?”
“I’m Aya. And, what do you mean?” I ask, “Can’t you just ask someone to unlock the shackles and then leave this place?”
He rolls his eyes, “Like I said, I’ve been here for years. If I could do that, I wouldn’t be here, now would I?”
I huffed in exasperation, “Well, I’m not giving up. There’s got to be some way to get these shackles off my wrists.” I keep on pulling on the shackles, but it makes my wrists burn and I scream in pain.
Jae glares at me and mumbles, “Shut up!”
I cock my head in confusion, “Wait, what-”
There is a sudden booming and an immediate hush spreads over the market. All fighting has stopped, parents silence their rowdy children, and everybody bows down. I look up and someone humongous is shadowing over me. I can feel the beads of sweat rolling down my neck. She narrows her eyes at me suspiciously, and looks me up and down.
“So, this is the new worker?” she asks impatiently, as if she were already bored.
“Yes, your highness. She fell from outside at around noon.” an attendant replies.
“Alright,” she mumbles, “She’s a bit chubby, we can fix that. We’ll tell the chefs to not feed her for about two weeks.”
The attendants stand there like zombies as they await for more instructions.
“Well?” she barks, “Get to work, tell the chefs my command!” She rubs her temples in distress. She stares at me with her beady eyes then darts them at Jae, “You! Give her some work to do. And don’t slack off, you’ll regret it.” She snobbily walks away after telling us her biddings.
He sighs, “I guess we should start working. You can help me build one of the new houses.” He then screams, “KEY!”
A guard comes running towards us with a ring of many keys. He looks at us and grunts, “Jae, you better not be trying to escape again. You know what happened to your friend last time, and you don’t wanna end up like him. So, what are you two up to?”
“We have to work on the new houses.”
“Alright,” the guard grumbles. He takes a key out of the ring and takes our shackles off. I close my eyes and smile, it feels so good to let my body breathe. Jae starts walking off into an orange shed and I follow him in.
“So, you tried to escape once?” I ask quietly.
He nods, “Yeah, and it failed miserably. My friend, Ashton had convinced me to come escape with him, and I foolishly agreed. Ashton found something sharp and had used it to unlock our shackles. The guard is a lazy pig and was sleeping, so we easily stole his keys.. We reached the wall, but…The guard woke up and caught us. He got Ashton, but I ran away in time. That’s why I don’t try to escape anymore. I can’t risk it.”
I shook my head, “But…What if we tried again? Maybe this time we-”
“Can you help me pick these up?” he asks as he motions to the big heap of logs. I nod, knowing he doesn’t want to talk about escaping anymore.
We both grunt and I clench my teeth as we pick up the logs one by one. The log slips under my sweaty palms and it lands on my feet. “Ow…” I mutter.
“Hey, clumsy!” the guard yells as he walks towards me with a whip.
I look at Jae nervously, “He’s not gonna whip me. No way he will, that’s abuse.” I realize I spoke too soon as the whip is lashing onto my back. “What the heck?” I shout, “You can’t do that!”
He whips me again. “You get that one for talking back. Now, get to work.” he says as he leaves with a smirk.
My back is throbbing with pain and it intensifies with every moment. “See!” I whisper-shout at Jae, “This is why we need to escape! That guard just whipped me! I can’t stay here any longer, and I don’t know how you did!”
Jae sighs, “It’s not like I want to stay here; I want to escape! I just don’t want to die trying.”
“I know you’re scared, but we have to try. We just have to be stealthier this time. Like ninjas!” I say as I karate chop the air.
He laughs, “Okay. I need to think about it though.”
The previous whipping makes me work harder and stronger. I’m less clumsy, and I can carry in logs twice as fast now. As I’m opening a new paint jar, Jae speaks up. “Okay, I think my answer is…Yes! We should escape. Tonight. But just a fair warning, it won’t be easy.”
“Workers!” a guard shouts, “It’s time to go back.” He shoves us back along to our little “homes” and locks us up for the night.
“Jae” I whisper as soon as the guard leaves, “I brought a paper clip from the shed!” I dig it out of my pocket and hold it up as proof.
His eyes light up, “Perfect!” he replies, “Now give it to me so I can free us.” I hand it over to him and watch him do his magic.
“Okay, now we’ve got to find the guard. Follow me!” He tiptoes stealthily, so I copy him. I giggle because it feels like we’re ninjas. He turns around and puts his finger to his lips, “Shhh!” I put my head down and continue following him.
“I found him!” he says. We take a right and there he is, holding the beautiful keys that will lead to our freedom. We take the keys and run for our lives.
I’m gasping for air by the time we reach the wall. It shadows over us and looks bigger than life. If it were a monster, it would be able to swallow us both in one bite. Jae takes out the keys and is about to unlock the wall when I see a silhouette nearing closer behind him.
“Jae, no!” I scream. He turns around and there is a guard holding a gun and smiling maniacally at us. He aims the gun at Jae and I run over and jump in front of him like a hero in a movie. The bullet goes straight through my heart, and I feel myself drop.
I wake up to hear loud and ugly crying.
“What’s happening?” I ask no one in particular.
The crying stops and I hear a familiar voice, “Aya! Oh my god, Aya!” my sister, Yuki screams and hugs me.
I awkwardly pat her back and ask, “Yuki, uh, what happened…? And why does my head hurt so much?”
She looks at me sympathetically, “Remember? You were catching the Frisbee but then you tripped on a branch or something. You hit your head real bad, there was so much blood. But I bandaged it up. You kept on saying something about a guy named Jae after you passed out.” She winks at me, “Is it a guy at school, huh? ”
“No, no,” I say, brushing off her silly fantasies. But I remember everything. The guards. The escape. Him.
“We should probably get back home now. Mom called me about a billion and one times,” Yuki rolls her eyes.
I nod and I look back at the ditch where I tripped. The wind blows my hair to the side and I feel a chill run down my spine as I hear it clearly whisper into my ear, “Help…Jae…”
I take Yuki’s hand and murmur, “Okay, let’s get going.”