One hundred ninety-seven days. Four thousand seven hundred twenty-eight hours. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen the moon. I press my face against the metal grate and stare at it. Lying low and illuminating the sky, it’s brighter than I ever remember. The contrast of the dark landscape below catches my eye. A portrait of nothingness lies ahead, no artificial light, only a black abyss.
My head is spinning, and my breathing is heavy. Liv, pull yourself together, there’s no time to waste. Reaching into my pack, I pull out the vial of acid. This small bottle is a miracle in my hand and the key to my escape. This isn’t going to be easy, cramped in a three-by-three-foot crawl space with no visibility. But I steady the vial on the flat metal surface in front of me and gently pull the dropper out. Four bolts hold the vent cover in place. Starting with the ones on the bottom, I drip several drops of acid on each. The pungent odor hits my nose and tingles my brain as the metal sizzles and disintegrates. I slide back and cover my face. I hope I don’t faint.
It was by accident that I learned the strength of this substance and that it could melt through the metal of the building. It started as a regular day, fifty teenagers lined up in a science lab assembling small microchips. The lab next door, separated by a glass wall, was similar in size and had the same long black tables, but the kids wore protective gear. I couldn’t tell what they were working on, but by the looks of their outfits it was clearly something dangerous.
Not even an hour into our shift, the kids in that lab started running and screaming. Guards rushed in and began ushering everyone out. I was close enough to see that someone had spilled a bulky container of liquid that melted through the metal floor and the bottom part of one wall. A large hole, about four feet in diameter, formed. As I looked more closely, the glass turned dark and a guard loomed over me, yelling for me to get back to work.
That night I couldn’t sleep. The thought of that powerful liquid consumed me, I had to get my hands on it. Somehow I had to get assigned to the project in lab 7. I devised a plan, but didn’t know if it would work—no one calls their own shots in the Underworld.
Underworld. That’s what we prisoners call this place. It’s never been referred to as anything at all, so someone came up with that name.
Three weeks passed and I received orders to report to lab 7. Jobs were assigned to each prisoner, but we never knew what we were really working on. The projects were divided into several different parts and no one worked on more than one part. On my first day, I was handed a rubber suit, gloves, and a face mask before I was led into the large lab. Five rows of tall metal tables lined the long room and each had what looked like a chemistry set sitting on top. People filed in and took their places at stations around the room. A man in a white lab coat gave me instructions and disappeared before I could ask any questions. Like robots we worked without speaking, without even looking up.
My job was simple: measure and pour. There were six different liquids and the instructions on measurements, mixtures, and where to place each in various glass or plastic containers were specific. Surely this was for a drug or chemical weapon. As I scanned the room, I was positive I found where the large hole had burned through the floor and wall, but it must have been patched, there was no trace of it ever existing.
Now my problem was to figure out which substance could melt the metal of the building. It was possible that all the liquids were strong enough, but I couldn’t steal a sample of each—I wasn’t even sure I could get away with taking one sample. People working in this lab had to be careful and meticulous, spilling or splashing would be grounds for removal, or worse.
As luck would have it, one week later my neighbor spilled a small portion of one of the liquids. It was the same one; I knew it because it immediately burned five millimeter-sized holes in the metal floor. There was no doubt about which liquid he spilled, the blue container of perfectly clear acid.
Once the substance had been identified, I had to figure out how to get some out of the lab. I already had a container. A couple of months back, one of the children in our block had an ear infection, so after giving her ear drops to cure it, I kept the small vial. At the time, I didn’t know what purpose it would serve, but I figured it would come in handy at some point. I stayed up late for several nights devising my plan to steal the acid. During my shifts, I watched the guards as they made their rounds watching over the workers.
The time had come. Even if I wasn’t ready, I was at the point that I either had to follow through or give up. The day I took it, I went right to work measuring and pouring; I wasn’t going to wait until the end of my long shift and risk being tired and clumsy. Letting the small glass bottle slide from the hiding place in my sleeve, I maneuvered it next to one of the large glass containers. It sat there blending in with the others surrounding it, hidden from view from everyone but me. The acid splashed into the large glass vessel as I poured and slowly lifted the gallon-sized container as if calculating the measurement. I bent down, pretending to take a closer look at my pour, then tipped the blue plastic container to add just a tad more. Instead, I carefully added the additional acid into the small vial. My hands should have been shaking, but I’d practiced it so many times in my head that they were steady. Losing my only chance was not an option.
I continued with my work, leaving the bottle there for the entire fourteen-hour shift. Although they passed by me several times that day, the guards never noticed it. They couldn’t see what they weren’t looking for.
At the end of my shift when I started the cleanup process, I took the cap out of my sleeve, screwed it onto the bottle, drying the exterior to ensure the substance wouldn’t touch my skin, and tucked it back into my sleeve. My heart pounded in my ears and a sick feeling crept upward as I headed into the changing area and all the way to my quarters. I placed the small glass container with the tiny acid sample in a hole behind the cabinet in my room. The same place I hid all my exodus equipment.
Here I am four weeks later, putting the liquid to use. When the sizzling stops, I uncover my eyes, the bolts and the metal surrounding them have been completely eaten away. The vent cover will likely come right off, but I hesitate. Adrenaline courses through my veins—I have no idea what’s on the other side.
My hands are shaking. What if sirens and lights go off when I remove this grill? Is it worth the risk? I can turn around, go back to my bed, and no one will ever know I tried to escape. I close my eyes and think of my grandmother and my brother, Jonah. As I picture their faces, my heart calms, my breathing shallows. I have no choice but to escape this hell. Guards might be waiting for me outside, but I have to take a chance and deal with the consequences. I gently pull back the grate and the sound of the scratching metal echoes in the darkness. The grate comes free and fresh air blows in against my cheeks. No sirens, no lights, no guards.
I slide my upper body through the breach in the wall. The sand is soft and cool. I look around outside, to the right and then to the left. Pulling the rest of my body out, I crouch as close to the building as possible. Nothing is familiar. The magnitude of my situation hits me. For the first time in months, I’m alone and scared.