Natalia knelt on the mattress and looked up through the sunroof. The natural light of a night’s sky filled with stars shined through onto her face.
I pulled the last of the worn grey curtains over the back windows of the van and collapsed down flat against the mattress. I folded the pillow in half and let my neck sink in. As I lay flat on the bed, I watched my girlfriend as she gazed above.
It seemed her anger, in full heat less than twenty-five minutes earlier, had subsided. The tired lines that stretched across her cheeks and forehead were gone. She didn’t like that I hadn’t arranged for a proper campsite that evening. And she made that very clear from the moment she found that fact out.
My eyes fell from her head and down to her body. I admired the slender curves and back arched neatly and resting on her calves. I adored every bit of her figure. It was still the fleeting body only a woman less than twenty-two could possess.
In that moment, I was happy just the way things were. Watching her childlike curiosity towards stars shining more brightly than above the city lights was all I needed. But, as I yawned for the first time, she treated me to a little more.
Her arms stretched as far as the confines of the Campervan would allow. She reeled her neck back so far I thought she may catch me as a silent observer. She reached for the straps of her white tank-top and slid them down her shoulders before pulling the shirt off. She sighed in relief before reaching back and unhooking straps of her bra. She fell onto her back and pulled her ripped denim shorts over her legs lifted in the air. Soon, she was under the blankets and beside me, naked and relaxed.
I took the last sips of my beer and rolled it gently off the mattress and onto the floor. The cold brew had been exactly what I needed after a day of driving through the desert. I found myself incredibly grateful and fortunate having decided to pull the van over where I did.
It was the only night of our road trip vacation that I decided not to book a campsite for us to park the van overnight. From Eugene all the way down to San Diego, I had carefully devised a route for us to follow. Something we had followed religiously up until that night. Every day had us seeing something new, whether it be a city, national park or coastal paradise. And each night carried the promise of a sure place to drive and sleep.
I decided to do things differently that night. Just to see what it’s like if you just parked somewhere. How big of a deal could it really have been? We were only three nights from dropping the van off and were driving the open roads running through Joshua Tree National Park. Nobody was going around patrolling for people camping overnight where they shouldn’t be.
Of course, Natalia didn’t see things the same way. She protested and sulked until the moment I pulled into the closed gas station parking lot (though its sign was still lit) and what looked to be an abandoned general store beside it.
There was another van parked there already. Three people sat on lawn chairs outside its open trunk. I parked six spaces away from them (close, but not too close), and got out while Natalia stayed in the passenger seat, now in a silent protest against me.
As I got closer to the three guys sitting around the van, I realized they weren’t speaking English. Their conversation was in some Asian dialect. When I got close enough to make their faces out, I figured they must have been Japanese.
Whoever they were, they seemed to understand me well enough. They nodded when I asked if we were allowed to park overnight. They looked to be doing the same thing themselves anyways. They also gave me a few bottles of water when I asked if they had any to spare. They even threw in two ice-cold Sapporos for good measure. I thanked them and headed back to the van, excited to be able to break good news to Natalia more than anything.
She drank her water down like a desert animal and we started getting the van ready for sleep. That’s how we found ourselves there. Calm, under the covers, and parked in the middle of a California desert.
With what felt like my last bit of energy, I slipped my boxers (which I had worn for three straight days) off and threw them to the end of the bed. I rolled to my side and pressed myself against Natalia’s body. Usually, I would have slid the undercover of the sunroof over to block out at any light before trying to sleep, but on that night, I was too exhausted to bother.
Being the only one driving through eight hours of desert terrain will do that to you is what I figured. Though, Natalia didn’t have the same excuse. She spent the early part of the day admiring the desert scenery from the air-conditioned van, and the later portion arguing with me.
But all of that was behind us. And I was happy for that. As I started to doze off, I thought about what a success our little road-trip vacation had been. My girlfriend of two years and I had gotten through nearly three weeks without any major argument or disruption. Just little conflicts that arise between with anyone in close proximity after a while.
I wrapped my arms tightly around her just before I slipped away. She didn’t make a sound, probably already sound asleep. It was a gentle embrace. As pleasant as could be.
The dream that followed was very different. It involved an embrace, although I was the one being held. And it wasn’t pleasant. Not in the slightest bit. I was being forced and held in a position that brought out only bitter agony.
And that’s when I realized it. Pain. You don’t feel pain in dreams. The moment anything bad happens to you, you roll over or you start dreaming about something else. As I slowly came to consciousness, and the realization of the pain I was in started to intensify, it became clear I wasn’t a dreaming at all.
The weight was the first thing my mind competently processed. Something was on top of me. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, as I couldn’t turn my head and look. But it was very heavy and very big. So much in both respects that it had me pinned down hardly able to breathe or move any limb.
There was one striking feature about the mass on top of me that stood out. It wasn’t one solid piece. Rather, it was a collection of many smaller pieces. I felt them moving. Individual parts were either stacked or held together on top of me and they were moving. And the movement wasn’t gentle. They thrashed out against each other.
As far as what I could see… The space I was in was lit only dimly. Less so than I remembered the back of the Campervan under the starlight. But, the little illumination that was in there seemed natural. Like a little crack of bright daylight was allowed to sneak in somewhere.
Sometimes, the weight above me would shift and put me in an even more painful position. It would shift higher, and it would press down against my upper half. That’s when my neck and the left side of my face would press against the floor. After enough times of this happening, I could feel that it was wood I was on top of. Not one consistent piece, but many separate planks of it. They were moist as well. And when my vision finally cleared enough to get a decent enough view of the space, I could see that the boards of wood were weathered and splintered.
I tried to speak. My throat was so dry that the feeling of my Adams Apple scraping against my throat hurt like heartburn. I coughed so dryly that dust (perhaps partially comprised of dead skin) shot out over the floor.
I remembered back to those bottles of water those three men had given me. How carelessly I tossed them into the van after I thought it tasted funny. Like they had no value at all. I would have done anything to have them within my reach in that moment.
I coughed again and something clutched my arm as I did. It had nails that dug into my flesh then scraped down away from my wrist before releasing. If it hadn’t happened, I may not have realized that for the entire time, my arm had been twisted far behind my back and mixed into the mass that struggled on top of me. More pain settled in after that realization. More pain than I had ever felt before.
I struggled to move again and this time felt I could go a little farther. I was able to slide up, more to the side of the mass than below it. I felt the thrashing grow stronger as I did, but I was able to work myself into a position where the weight wasn’t so heavy. I finally took in full breaths of air. I sucked in as much oxygen as I could, knowing it very possible the weight could shift and I would find myself below it again.
I tried to keep pushing outwards, but there was something stopping me from moving far. Two lines of it ran against my thighs and the other over my abdomen. It was thick and coarse. Different stretches of the same rope lining. It had me bound to whatever trashing pieces I was up against. It was the thing responsible for holding us all together.
I struggled against it in futility until I felt my ears ripple. Like the feeling you get after take-off when your ears adjust to being on the plane. A dull ring rose and fell. Then, for the first time since finding myself wherever exactly that I was, I could hear.
Breathing and gasping. That’s all that came through at first. It wasn’t just the sound of my own desperate breaths. I could hear others in my immediate vicinity. There were many different breaths that took in oxygen at varying lengths and paces. All of them were coming from right behind me. All of them bound in by the same rope netting that I was.
The next thing I heard was the creaking. But that wasn’t coming from me, or what I was tied up against. That came from the wooden floorboards we rested on. Not just there, but also from the lower parts of the walls as well. When I looked, I saw they weren’t regular walls that stood at 90-degree angles, perpendicular to the floor. The shape of the room was curved. The walls rounded up from the floor and towards the ceiling forming a rounded “U-shape”.
Thirst and desperation must have been well set in by that point. Because I swore the whole place moved up and down.
I wriggled my fingers as best I could and they met the soft, sweaty flesh of something living. Someone groaned from a space that didn’t feel very far away. I thought I heard someone say something, but I couldn’t have been sure. My attention was diverted elsewhere.
The crack of light was growing bigger. More details of the room came into focus. Creaking started. This time it was lighter and farther away. The sound of a door opening.
Light filled the room so much it was blinding. I had to blink in rapid succession to protect my eyes. Footsteps sounded and moved towards us. Shadows cut into the light.
Men spoke in a foreign language that wasn’t English. It was an Asian dialect I’d heard before. They sounded angry. Like they were in some kind of argument.
Something pulled and tensed the ropes that bounded me. Me, and whatever (or whoever) else I was tied too, slid a foot closer to the light before stopping. The bare skin of my stomach and thighs scraped under the weight and against the splintered floor. I winced and screamed out in pain until we were pulled again.
And for a little while, that’s how we moved.
The floor started to incline as we got closer to the light. The collective groaning misery grew with each pull. By the time we were almost completely out of the darkness, I started to make out the appendages. Arms, legs, faces. All of which that I didn’t recognize were in the mass. I had been tied to a group of people. Perhaps ten or more in total.
Finally, we were pulled up completely into the daylight. And we were a long way from the desert parking lot where I remembered falling asleep.
My one wish, for water, was granted. But not in the way that I had hoped. I saw that water surrounded us from all sides. None of it possible to drink. We were on the deck of a boat sailing the ocean. Not a massive cruise ship, but something closer to a tugboat. The sea was below us maybe twenty-five feet down.
My body was situated as such that I could see to the rear of the boat. Over boxes and scattered fishing nets, I was pretty sure I could see a coastline. It slowly disappeared in the distance.
The men started yelling in the language I couldn’t understand again. It still sounded as if they were so angry with each other. But it couldn’t have been so intense, because sometimes I would hear them laugh. One would yell something louder than all the others, then all of them would laugh.
Footsteps separated from the group and all around us. Again the ropes pinning me to everyone else were tightened as I felt us get hoisted up again. My head dangled out of the net, just above the deck that smelled like fish as they carried us. I could see us getting closer to the edge.
I wondered exactly how it was that I had found myself in that position. How had I comfortably fallen asleep with my skin warm and pressed against Natalia in the back of the Campervan, and now found myself on a boat tied to a bunch of people I didn’t know? Who were these people anyways? Were they campers just like me? Had they fallen in deep with the sharks and pissed the wrong people off? What exactly had I (or any of them) done to deserve any of this?
Above all else, I wanted to know where exactly Natalia was. Perhaps she was free of the netted clutches that currently had me ensnared. Every bit of me wanted to believe that was true. Even, I thought, I would have preferred if she was the reason that I was in that net. Even if she was the one to blame, it would be better than her being tied up along with me. Anything was better than her being part of that nightmare.
The net was pulled up on the railing of the ship. In the cold ocean wind, we teeter-tottered to each side. Only in the grips of the yelling men were we staying on the boat at all. Below us, I could see the white of the water rippling as the hull of the ship cut into the ocean.
Someone yelled something louder than all the others. And all at once, they let go. The mass turned in the air as we started our free-fall towards the water. I thought I heard someone laughing one last time as we went over. But it was quickly drowned out in the screaming of everyone that I was tied against.
We hit the side of the boat on the way down. Whoever was unlucky enough to be at that part of the net was surely injured terribly if not killed. It bounced us further from the ship and spun us faster than we already had been. I was close to hitting it myself on the recoil. I could feel the rope around my abdomen stretch as it caught on a rusty screw of the ship’s exterior.
We were only in the air for a little while longer. Before hitting the water, I was sure I heard one desperate scream standing out from all the others. Unmistakably, it was Natalia’s. The worst thing I’ve ever heard.
We slammed against the water and a great splash fired up around us. Whoever was on the bottom as we landed surely met a similar fate as whoever struck the side of the boat.
The screaming intensified as we bobbed up on the surface of the ocean before starting a steady sink. It only lasted for a short period, however. It was soon muffled by the ocean water pouring into everyone’s mouths as we were submerged completely.
When the screaming stopped, the struggling really started. I felt people kicking, scratching and doing whatever they could to try and get out. It was all hopeless of course. Save for one person.
I saw that the rope was completely torn where it had caught the side of the boat. My middle part was almost completely free. It seemed possible that I could myself out. And the force generated from the struggle above me was helping. I was being pushed out of the little hole by all the desperate people tied behind me.
My right arm came loose. I utilized it immediately to pull the torn pieces of rope aside. It opened a little further.
I looked up and through the bubbles surrounding us as we sank. I could see the bottom of the boat. It was moving quickly away from us. Slowly, it was getting smaller as we sunk deeper into the cool depths of the ocean.
I was desperate for a breath. It wouldn’t be long before I started swallowing gulp after gulp of seawater. I pulled the rope a little more and now had enough space to move my legs. One after the other, I pulled them out of the net.
Once my lower half was free, it was easy. I pushed off from the chest of whoever was tied against me, and again, I felt someone claw at my arm as I pulled away.
For the first time since I had fallen asleep in the back of that van, I was completely free.
My lungs were desperate for air. As was everyone else as I could see. Some had already swallowing mouthfuls of water. None of them looked like they had been able to move much. The thrashing started to weaken.
I looked them all over, desperately searching. Right near the top, I finally saw her. Natalia was hardly moving. Five layers of the rope netting were holding her in place. She managed to get an arm out. Her hand grasped at the ocean water as if she was trying to grab it for some kind of leverage.
I swam over to her, now taking in little bits of air when my mouth forced itself open. She saw me as I came in front of her. I looked back and tried desperately to pull the ropes. But it was no use. She was naked and completely constricted. Her eyes looked so sad.
The mass had all but stilled at that point. Nobody thrashed anymore, and the descent into the ocean depths was gentle. I could feel the water getting colder and deeper. The increasing pressure pushed harder against my ears.
I wasn’t going to give up on her. That’s what I thought. I would rather die down there than swim back up alone. And that’s fully what I intended to do.
The funny thing was, my natural survival-instinct didn’t agree. In fact, it had already started moving ahead with its own plan. Because, almost without my control, I had kicked off the mass as it sunk and launched myself back towards the surface which then seemed so far away.
I swam in a straight of a line as I could manage. My lungs exhaled any little bit of air that was still inside them. My ears popped, and I started swallowing bits of water. My vision blurred again, and I almost couldn’t see the surface by the time I finally emerged.
I coughed up a barrel of sea water. No breath I took in so desperately seemed enough. As I treaded there, struggling to calm myself, I saw the ship on the horizon. It was far, but not so far away. Perhaps they could have seen me. Perhaps they would decide to turn around and come back.
Back on the shore, the brown cliff face seemed an impossible distance. Only in my wildest dreams could a man nearly drowned swim that far.
When I finally caught my breath after all the chaos, I ducked my head back into the water. I spun around in circles, searching all over the blue. I was looking for what I already knew so well was gone. I saw no net of drowning people. It was too far down by that point.
I screamed under the water as hard as I could. In hindsight, perhaps it was best that I did it this way. It’s possible the boat could have heard me if I did above the surface.
It was helpless. As much as I hated to accept it, I started my swim back towards shore, fully expecting to drown along the way. It would be the longest swim I would ever make. The most energy I could ever expend. A swim that was impossible to complete.
Yet, somehow, I did it.
By the time I reached the shore, I thought it was possible that I was dreaming again. Because there was no way I could have made it. If it were real, I would have drowned in the ocean just like everyone who was in the net with me. As I crawled, flat against the coarse sand and up to where the rock formation started, it gave me the slightest flicker of hope.
Because if I was dreaming, that meant I would wake up in the desert in the back of a campervan. My sticky body would be pressed against Natalia. We would be safe and far away from the ocean.
Then, just as I had hoped, I woke up. It seemed like no time had passed at all. Sand was everywhere. But I was in no desert. My naked body was soaked and scratched all over. I heard the waves crash behind me and the water rise up against my toes before falling again. The brown cliff walls, towering over the beach were ahead.
It was no dream.