My mother handed me my lunch box.
"Here you are. And don't stay out too long, it's bad for your skin," she told me. I ignored her as I put on my mask and wind coat. I hated staying at home; I felt more breathless there than I did outside.
Beyond our few brown houses, the entire world was its usual yellowish-brown. I walked for an hour, with the wind-blown sand slicing my skin, until I saw the red flag I'd left as a marker. Taking out my shovel, I began to dig.
I loved digging - and not only because it was the best way for me to exercise. When I was a child, my teacher had told me stories about buried treasure. Finding such a trove sounded like the easiest way to realise my dream and become rich.
It was strange: today my head was throbbing and a sense of excitement was gnawing at my nerves. This was something I'd never felt before. But was that a good or bad sign? I began to dig more quickly. Drops of sweat slid down my forehead and my heart pumped faster.
At a depth of about one and a half metres, I spotted what looked like a box half-buried in my pit. Pulling it out with both hands, I blew the sand off and opened it. Inside there were many separate surfaces, all hinged along one edge. These were covered with black spots and colourful rectangles.
However, I didn't have time to study this exotic object. The time limit for my mask was three hours and I'd been out for more than two already. I took several of the coloured pills from my lunch box and swallowed them before rushing home.
That night, I examined the object I had found. Although, unlike our stone pieces, its cover was flat and free from carvings, the markings on it formed the name "Hong Kong". Amazing.
Many of the words written inside were unknown to me and didn't even appear in the dictionary. I suspected words like "plants", "tree", and "grass" were misspellings of "pant", "three' and "glass".
What I could understand of the content was unbelievable. It described Hong Kong as a small place whose temperature dropped below 10 degrees Celsius at certain times of the year. How could that be, when it was universally acknowledged that Hong Kong was one of the largest islands in the world. What's more, how could someone survive at under 10 degrees when the optimum temperature for humans was 40 degrees? This thing was absolutely nonsense.
As I got into bed and turned off the light, I smiled and thought how Mr Tam would laugh when I showed it to him. In my half-sleeping state, I murmured: "Those green monsters look quite lovely, though ..."
Next morning, after swallowing a few pills for breakfast, I snatched up my school bag and mask and bounced off to school.
In the staff room on the fourth floor, a young man was sitting at a polished desk. This was my class teacher, Mr Tam, who was known as "Everything" by his pupils, as it seemed he could answer questions on everything.
"Sir, sir, look what I found," I said, thrusting the box towards him.
"How did you get this?" he demanded, his eyes open wide. "This is a book! This thing is as old as civilisation."
I was scared by his reaction. "Calm down, sir, I just want to know how much it's worth."
"You don't understand, this is priceless," he said, taking out a magnifying glass from his drawer. "But I don't understand either." He started examining the book. "We'll go and see someone after school who will be able to tell us more."
I left the book there and headed to my classroom. For the rest of the day, I was unable to concentrate on my lessons.
"Hey, Ada, could you imagine a world that was green?" I asked, looking out of the sand-covered window.
"Yes, if they built more green-coloured houses," my classmate replied as she continued taking notes.
"I'm not talking about ..."
Before I could finish, Ada kicked me under the desk. "Stop dreaming, the old witch is staring at you."
I took out my calculator and pretended to be working hard.
"Erica, come here," Mrs Ke shouted. The whole class laughed as I got up. "Look at your hand."
Confused, I looked down. Oh my god, I had just used an empty box as a calculator. Instantly, my face turned bright red.
Time crawled by until the bell eventually rang. As I rushed to see Mr Tam, he was also rushing to see me. We put on our masks and rode on sand skis to a museum.
"We're here to see the head of the museum, Mr Chow," Tam told the beautiful lady behind the counter.
"Do you have an appointment?" she asked.
"No. But tell him Mr Tam is waiting - he'll see me."
After a while, we were shown into an office. A man in a long coat was standing by the window.
"Master, we found a book and wondered if you could tell us something about it," Mr Tam said.
Mr Chow turned around. Although his hair was already white, he still looked young. Mr Tam handed him the volume.
"A book, eh?" he said. "Take a seat, Bud. And you, young lady. This is a long story."
Taking a sip of green tea, he began. "Five hundred years ago, the Earth was mainly covered by organisms called plants. These things were really amazing. They could absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen."
"Like our masks?" I asked.
"No, masks can't compare with plants. A mask can only provide oxygen for three or four hours. But at that time, there was oxygen everywhere because of the existence of plants. You could stay outside, with no fear of death." Chow smiled at the thought.
"Could I sleep outside?" I asked.
"Yes, of course. But let me finish first. One type of plant was called a tree. Nowadays, we record things by carving words in stone. However, in the past, there was something called paper which was a thin, light material made from trees. People could record things on it using coloured water."
"Their school bags mustn't have been as heavy as ours," I murmured.
"But as time passed, the problems began. A tree required 10 years to grow. However, each person used up a tree in six months. And they wasted a lot of paper. Oh, I forgot to tell you, this book you found is also made from paper.
"So, eventually, without trees to hold it together, the land gradually turned to sand and our world became the yellow place it is today."
"Do you mean what's in this book is true?" I asked.
"Yes, the land beneath our feet was once a country park in Hong Kong. A country park was a place full of trees and a variety of animals. Unlike now, humans weren't the only creatures on our planet."
I looked at the beautiful pages of the book. "This is magic," I said.
"No, it was their technology. It not only allowed the ancient people to use machines to record what they saw and heard, it also enabled them to travel quickly on the ground and to fly in the sky. However, the quicker their technology developed, the quicker they used up their energy resources. That's why today we use wind energy to power our masks." He smiled, bitterly. "We have no other energy sources - or technology - left."
Mr Chow looked at me suddenly and changed the topic. "Will you sell the book to our museum?"
To me, money was not unimportant, so I sold it. But when it came to handing the book over, I was strangely reluctant to let it go.
As we were about to leave, I turned back to Mr Chow. "But why haven't you told all this to the public?"
"If you hadn't found the book, would you believe such a colourful world once existed?" he replied without looking up from the book.
Recalling Ada's response, I knew the answer.
But as I digested all that I had heard, a beautiful image came into my mind. I saw myself asleep under a tree, lying on a bed of grass, with no mask covering my face. As a cool, fresh wind caressed my face, I could hear the clear, melodious singing of an unknown animal.
"Erica, wake up."
As I reluctantly opened my eyes, I saw Mr Tam waving his hands in front of my face. "Put on your mask, we need to go now."
We stepped into our sand skis and began our journey home. Feeling the sand's rubbing, a thought came into my mind.
I had a new dream. I wanted, one day, to have a tree.
Yee-man is the winner of our Winter Writing Competition that has run in the holidays since Christmas. Yee-man and the four finalists will receive gift vouchers from Dymocks