It takes a few seconds of heavy breathing before Dot realizes what she just experienced was a dream. Well, that time it was. She can still hear the sounds of the nightmare in her antennae: the terrified whispers of the ants around her. The raspy breathing punctuated by shrieks of fury and hunger. The loud thump-thump, thump-thump of the cruel heart beating in the chest behind her. And the voice, that awful voice asking questions that drip with sarcasm as he carries her toward the monster.
What's the matter, you scared of grasshoppers? he chuckles darkly, placing her in his lower hand so she's at eye level with his deranged pet. You don't like Thumper?
Dot squeezes her eyes shut and the tears slide down her cheeks. The darkness is only comforting for so long before images from her nightmare materialize in the light dancing behind her eyelids. A sea of blue and gray and purple bodies, shaking like clovers in the wind. Dirt showering down on them as feet burst through the ceiling. Green and brown faces, twisted into sick grins and nasty scowls. One yellow eye and one gray one, a scar above the latter from a bird's beak. Two crazed brown eyes above teeth sharp as thorns.
She opens her eyes again and the grasshoppers' faces melt away, but her heart pounds just as hard as before. As she lies in bed, eyes tracing the veins in the leaf canopy above her, a horrifying thought crosses her mind. What if they didn't all leave? What if some of them are hiding in Dot's room, waiting for her to fall asleep again so they can attack?
She sits up and wraps her daisy petal quilt around her so it covers everything but her face, then dares to check. A quick glance around her bedroom reveals nothing but the Blueberry Troop propaganda on her walls and the piece of cotton Aphie sometimes sleeps on. He had chosen to sleep in her mother's room tonight, probably still shaken up from Hopper's visit like the rest of the colony.
Even though she knows her room is grasshopper free now, the knowledge that she is completely alone only frightens Dot more. She wants to cry out for her mom or even Atta like she usually does after a nightmare, but tonight she hesitates. Neither of them had helped her earlier when she needed it most, so why should she count on them to come running to her aid now?
No, there is only one ant she can count on. The one who stood up for her when the rest, even her own mother and sister, stood and watched with wide eyes and quivering knees as Hopper tormented her. The one who defends her when the boy ants bully her and tries to cheer her up with silly metaphors. Dot glances over at the pebble sitting beside the hollowed out acorn she sleeps in and feels the corners of her mouth lift ever so slightly.
"Now, do you see our tree?" Flik says, spreading his arms wide with enthusiasm. Dot turns, holding the pebble he keeps insisting is a seed. Maybe Mr. Thorny's right; maybe Flik has spent a little too much time under the sun. He keeps going, oblivious to her skepticism. "Everything that made that giant tree is already contained inside this tiny little seed. All it needs is some time, a little bit of sunshine and rain, and voila!"
"This rock will be a tree?" she asks, raising an eyebrow. That wasn't what Mr. Soil had taught her class.
"Seed to tree. You've gotta work with me here, alright?" he says, taking the pebble from her hands. "Okay, so you might not feel like you can do much now, but that's just because… well, you're not a tree yet. You just have to give yourself some time. You're still a seed." He gently chucks her under the chin, probably proud of himself for giving such an inspiring pep talk.
"But it's a rock," she retorts, partly because it's true but mostly just to annoy him. It works.
"I know it's a rock!" he cries, flailing his arms in exasperation. "Don't you think I know a rock when I see one?! I've spent plenty of time around rocks!"
Dot has never had a big brother, but she supposes this is sort of what it's like. "You're weird," she giggles, cradling his homemade telescope to her chest. "But I like you."
Still smiling at the memory, she crawls out from beneath her petal blanket and picks up the rock-slash-seed before venturing into the tunnel outside her bedroom. She's not as afraid as she was before, but now she's wide awake. Flik once told Dot that taking a walk around the anthill calms his nerves when he's having trouble sleeping, so maybe it will work for her too.
Darkness doesn't usually bother Dot since living underground means she's almost constantly in it, but tonight the long stretch of dimly lit tunnel fills her with unease. She finds herself cringing every time she walks by one of the gaping holes that serve as entrances to bedchambers and other parts of the anthill. What if there's a grasshopper lurking inside one of them, waiting to jump out and snatch her in one of its four arms? Or worse, it's Thumper waiting to devour her whole?
A shudder goes down Dot's spine and she pushes the thought from her mind. As she passes by the entrance to Atta's bedroom, she can't help but smirk at the sound of heavy snoring from within. Her sister may seem dainty and elegant during the day, but whatever unfortunate ant she ends up with will have to endure that at night.
Her thoughts wander back to Flik. She can tell by the way he looks at Atta and how he's always trying to impress her with his inventions that he likes her, but from the way her sister treats him Dot would think she hated him. If Atta's diary hadn't told her otherwise, that is. Dot doesn't understand why she doesn't just tell Flik she likes him back or at least be nicer to him, but she stopped trying to understand her older sister a while ago – when she started getting mean and bossy because she was so "stressed out" all the time from training to be queen.
Still, Dot feels bad for Flik. He deserves a lot more credit than he gets for his inventions, even if they do cause problems sometimes. Like making the tunnels cave in or turning all the council members pink or almost squishing Atta with a stalk… twice (although Dot didn't really mind that one too much). And even though everyone else is mad at him for knocking the offering stone over and upsetting Hopper, Dot knows he didn't mean to do it.
Hopper. His name sends a sharp flash of fear through her stomach. He had told the colony that his gang would come back for the rest of the food "when the last leaf falls." That means Dot will have to face him all over again. And Thumper, too. Maybe they will even come looking for her, determined to finish the punishment that Flik interrupted.
The darkness of the tunnel suddenly feels even more menacing than before; the fluorescent mushrooms casting shadows with eerie shapes along the dirt walls. Dot's knees tremble like the last leaf about to fall, and her heart is beating so loudly she can hear it in her antennae. Suddenly all she wants to do is burrow under her quilt and fall asleep in the safety of her bedroom. She's about to turn around when a shift in the shadows catches her eye, followed by the unmistakable sound of footsteps behind her.
She is not alone.
Her first instinct is to scream, which lasts for a good two seconds before a hand clamps over her mouth. She feels another hand around her middle and remembers the way Hopper's fingers curled around her waist before he lifted her into the air and held her centimeters from his sneering face.
He's back. He came back early to kidnap her and feed her to Thumper.
She squirms in his grasp and tries to cry for help through the palm pressing down on her mouth. Hopper shushes her, urging her to be quiet so she doesn't wake up the entire colony. Not that it matters. Even if she did they would probably just stand and watch like they did before.
Dot remembers the pebble in her hands just as her feet leave the floor. Without looking down she drops it, hoping Hopper's feet are parallel to her own.
She hears a soft thud and a cry of pain and he releases her. As soon as her feet hit the ground she takes off running through the tunnel, the frantic pitter patter of her own footsteps echoing around her. She considers weaving in and out of rooms to lose him, but quickly decides against it when she realizes that might lead him to the other ants.
She hears the sound of running behind her and quickens her pace. C'mon wings, she thinks, pumping them harder than she's ever pumped before, but she remains small and flightless. She remembers the terrifying sound of a hundred grasshopper wings beating at once and wonders why Hopper doesn't just use his own to catch up with her. Whatever the reason she's glad for it, because there's no way she could outrun him if he did.
She reaches the main root that spirals down the center of the anthill and begins to descend it. A strong sense of déjà vu overcomes her as she passes by the ancient carvings along its walls. She had passed those same carvings earlier in the day, surrounded by other frantically running ants but comforted by the feeling of her mother's hand in her own. Although she had been scared then, she had no idea what lay in store for her and the rest of the colony when they reached the bunker.
She's already in her usual place atop the stone reserved for the colony's royalty before she realizes she's reliving the scene from her nightmare. It makes sense that she came to the bunker considering this is where she's always gone when the grasshoppers have come, but now it doesn't feel like the place of refuge it was intended to be. She can picture the gangling forms of the grasshoppers scattered around the room, can hear Thumper's screams as he strains against his leash, can feel the cage of Hopper's talon-like hands around her.
"Leave her alone!"
His fingers tense at the sound. A hush falls over the entire bunker. Even Thumper grows silent as Hopper turns toward the source of the command. Faces the ant who dared to challenge him.
Flik stands in a circle of light apart from the other ants, his hand raised as though reaching out for her. The two bugs stare each other down for several seconds before Hopper begins striding toward him, surprisingly calm given the circumstance. Flik slowly withdraws his hand, and Dot can see her friend's courage visibly shrinking.
Suddenly she feels nails digging into her scalp and finds herself being lifted from Hopper's palm.
"You want her? Then go ahead, take her."
Now it is Hopper's turn to challenge him. The only audible sound is her own whimpering as Dot dangles above Flik, waiting like everyone else in the room to see what he will do. For a fearful moment she thinks he might actually try to take her from the grasshopper towering above him, but then he lowers his eyes and clasps his hands in surrender.
"No?" Hopper sneers, satisfaction in his voice. Clearly this is the response he had expected. "Then get back in line."
"It's me. It's me. Dot, it's okay. It's just me. It's me, Dot. It's okay. You're okay."
Dot doesn't remember hearing Hopper catch up to her or feeling his hands wrap around her again. She starts to struggle, but stops when his words register. He keeps saying her name. How does he know her name?
The realization hits her just before the hands turn her around. Instead of Hopper's mismatched eyes, Dot finds herself staring into a pair of big blue ones much like her own, their lids drooping with sleepiness. Eyes the color of the sky or the bellflowers that bloom in the springtime. She's never been happier to see those eyes.
"Flik?" she whispers. She reaches a hand out to brush her fingers along his face, to make sure this isn't another dream.
"It's really me, Dot. I promise." Flik smiles, playfully flicking her antenna. "I was having trouble sleeping, so I came out to take a walk and saw you wandering around the tunnel. What are you doing up so late?"
His tone is like that of a big brother's, somewhat stern but mostly concerned. Dot tries to answer but finds that fear and relief have stolen all of her words away. Her bottom lip begins to quiver.
"Hey hey hey," Flik says. He uses his thumb to wipe away the tears budding in the corners of her eyes and reaches his other hand behind his back. "You know you dropped something back there? At first I thought it was just a rock, but on second glance…"
He brings his arm back out to reveal the pebble she had purposefully dropped on his foot, thinking it was Hopper's. She glances down at the purple bruise forming on his toes and laughs in spite of herself, then bursts into tears.
Flik's arms are around her in a second, his hand cradling the back of her head the way her mother does when she's afraid. She buries her face in his chest and allows herself to cry, something she hasn't done for a long time. She's tried for so long to be brave for her mother and sister and the other ants, but with Flik she doesn't feel like she has to be anything at all. Not brave, not strong, not even a princess.