The man gazed up at me from behind the wild strands of his curly black hair. He was seated cross-legged along the dirt path, a simple mat of handmade jewelry spread before him. His chest was an intricate pattern of tattoo and his feet were dusty and bare. “It may look delicate but it’s incredibly strong,” he said, gesturing at the shell necklace in my hand. “Opihi shells can withstand a car driving over them and not break. They grow at the base of Akaka falls, where the pressure is the highest. In fact, this kind of shell only forms in areas of extreme pressure.”
I fingered the polished, ochre-hued shell thoughtfully. It gleamed in the dappled Hawaiian sun. Oh how I wanted to be like that tiny shell, growing ever stronger through the pressure rather than succumbing to its force. Sometimes I felt more like wet moss, pummeled, flattened and barely clinging to the rock for dear life. I fished some money from my pack, paid the man and donned the shell like a sacred talisman.
I had escaped to visit a friend on the Big Island. I had spent the last few days standing atop the snow-capped peak of Mauna Kea beneath a sea of brilliant stars, hiking across black lava rock laced with fiery red fissures, sneaking into resorts and hiking through the jungle to Akaka Falls, where I encountered the mystical jewelry salesman. The Big Island was a wonderful distraction.
Everything shut down early where I was staying in Kona. So that night, with nothing else to do, I hopped into the car with my friends for a leisurely drive around the island. Dusk was just giving way to dark when we decided to stop at Hapuna beach. The lot was gated shut, so we parked outside and walked across the long stretch of deserted blacktop toward the ocean. The black outline of a thick tangle of trees stood before us, protecting the beach from our view.
Our feet made soft shuffling sounds on the pavement that added rhythm to my friends’ chatter as we moved toward the trees. I was just gazing up at the stars overhead, a heavenly array of light in the deep darkness of this deserted place when a small, inaudible voice whispered, “Turn back.”
I glanced at my friends, who both seemed completely unconcerned. I shrugged it off. My mind was playing tricks on me.
We stepped off the pavement and wound downward through the thicket of tropical trees and underbrush following a narrow, rocky trail, almost indiscernible in the dark. I felt the hard earth slowly giving way to the fluidity of loose sand.
“Stop. Go back,” The voice intoned again. What was that? I’d never been a big fan of the dark … or wild abandoned spaces. Was this just my five-year-old inner-self speaking up? I didn’t want to be a chicken. I shook it off and tried to keep up with the group.
We emerged from the spider-like forest onto a long strip of pure white sand, glowing brilliantly beneath the full moon. The night was sill and quiet. The ocean lapped calmly at the shore, emitting an almost otherworldly, ethereal, blue glow. The stars competed with the moon in their brilliance.
“Go back.” The voice was quieter now. For the third time, I ignored it and kept moving. It was bright and beautiful here on the beach. It was just my imagination.
We walked to the water, shoes in hand, trailing our toes in the sumptuous sand. Then we turned and meandered lazily down the narrow strip of beach, silenced by the beauty of our surroundings. Our path was bordered by the wall of enmeshed growth on our left and the shimmering ocean on our right. The waves lapped serenely, timelessly against the shoreline in a soft, soothing rhythm.
We chatted quietly as we coasted slowly through the lukewarm air. A powerful, rocky cliff face rose imperially at the end of the beach. I marveled at the sheer size of the rock, which shoved rudely into the sand below like a rogue spear head. As we neared, I could just make out the faint, red sparks of a bonfire burning above. Then the small auditory snippits of talking, laughing and music. It sounded like a party.
As we reached the cliff wall, two things happened simultaneously. One of my friends took off running, wanting to explore the impressive terrain, and the other stopped and bristled. I felt the hair rising on my arms as he called out through clenched teeth, “Wait, stop!”
The first stopped and turned, sliding on the sand, as an angry chorus of rage shouted down from above.
“We have to leave now,” my friend hissed, tension shattering his voice. He raised both hands above his head and shouted upward, “Sorry. We’re leaving now.” Then, turning, he muttered under his breath, “Let’s go… Move fast but try to look calm.”
My heart ricocheted around inside of my chest as I attempted to decipher what had just occurred. I tried to lengthen my stride to look like I was walking calmly while covering as much ground as possible.
We had crossed over half a dozen yards when I glanced back over my shoulder. The cliff face was now vibrating with movement in the moonlight. Five massive shadows were flying downward, zig-zagging impossibly across the sheer rock wall. I would never have imagined that there was any kind of passable pathway along the cliff, but the dark forms dodged back and forth as if gravity had given up its hold.
One of my friends saw it too. “Run,” he breathed.
We fled as fast as we could down the beach, sliding backward in the sand, one step for every two desperate paces we took. The large men were gaining on us. I could hear them now, yelling curses and death threats at us from behind. The adrenaline pumped like thunder through my body, giving me tunnel vision. The beauty of our setting had evaporated and the moonlight above now seemed only a dangerous liability, leaving us nowhere to hide.
I glanced back once more, realizing that our pursuers were even larger than I had originally thought. Their girth belied a body size of well over 250 lbs. How were they moving so fast?! There was no doubt in my mind that if they caught up, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
Stories flashed unhelpfully through my mind. Things I’d heard from local friends in La’ie that were only now coming back to me. “Stay away from the beaches at night … local gangs … hate white people … cut up his skin and threw him into the salt water … raped … beaten to death ….”
Pain streaked up my legs and into my lungs as I ran. Far ahead, two miles or more, we could see the miniscule lights of a resort … but we’d never make it. Sickeningly, I realized that none of us remembered where the narrow trail to the car was. I searched the bracken for any sign of an opening, but saw none. Had we missed it?
They were only yards behind us now. I could hear them breathe, deep, rumbling breaths. One of my friends suddenly veered off to the right yelling, “Here!” The rest of us scrambled desperately after him. We darted up the winding, narrow path, hurdling bulbous roots and ducking branches.
In a fraction of a breath, my foot inexplicably stopped moving and I crashed to the ground. The wind fled my lungs, saving itself, as my body thudded onto the hard, dirt floor.
It was over.
I felt myself being heaved, brutally, upwards.
Miraculously, it was friend not foe who had me. We ran onward together, trying ineffectively to silence the booming of our footfalls. I tried to orient myself again. A roaring thunder of breaking and scratching echoed off to our right. Our pursuers crashed through the undergrowth, cutting their own path. We ran quietly, wordlessly. My breathing sounded like a foghorn in my ears.
We broke out into the parking lot at a dead sprint and flew to the car. The driver was unlocking it as we approached. He threw it into drive just as we leapt inside. The engine screamed as we flew away. I looked back, as 5 black shadows slowed and stood, framed against the jungle wall, in the barely vacated parking lot.
We gunned down the highway at 85 mph until the threat of being pulled over outweighed the danger behind us. My hands and legs shook violently. My breathing came out in ragged spurts. It was only then that I noticed the thick, red river of blood pouring down my leg. Pools of it stained both palms. I couldn’t feel anything, only the thunderous beating of my own heart.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.