Chills shot through my body as the cool night air touched my bare skin. I stared out at the blackened water, hoping that fresh air would bring me relief from my recent vision; however, it just seemed to intensify the feelings of emptiness. When I first discovered my ability, I thought it would be such a blessing. I've learned, however, that my blessing is also a curse.
The salty air tasted bitter on my lips. I closed my eyes, soothed by the rocking of the ship on the turbulent waters. I listened to the waves crashing against the side of hull and felt the power of the winds as they blew my long black hair wildly behind me. I knew that this would only be a temporary solution to my growing problem—hiding on a cargo ship as it sailed from the United States to some unknown destination in the Gulf wasn't where I thought my life was going. A year ago, I was an eighteen-year-old basketball prodigy at my high school in Chicago. Colleges from around the country would send scouts to almost all my games.
I was a runaway. Or that's what my family would think. I had been on the run for nearly six months. That was when they showed up at my doorstep. I could feel the anger welling up inside my chest as my breathing became shallow and quick. The thought that I was being hunted by almost every notorious war lord, gang leader, terrorist group, and government agency in the world was overwhelming.
“I don't know. He just said that we needed to do a check of the ship’s lower compartments. Something about maybe having a stowaway on board,” a man's thick-accented voice said from close by.
I quickly ducked back to my hiding place and held my breath as the two men walked nearby. I didn't know exactly where they were, but it sounded too close.
“Why would the captain think we had a runaway on board?” the other man asked.
“I'm not sure. A few minutes ago he received a call on the SAT phone. Whoever was on the other line sounded angry, and the captain looked worried,” the first man said.
“The only way anyone could get on this boat was if they were in one of the containers when we loaded them.”
“Well until we check, no one will be sleeping tonight.”
The first man grunted and flicked on his flashlight as he and his buddy went down the ladder to the decks below.
Great, I thought. They found me again.
I had no idea how these people knew where I was. I thought I was being careful and hiding my tracks, but apparently not well enough.
When I first boarded the large container ship four days ago, I had no idea where I was going to hide. The ship was packed tightly to allow for as many containers as possible. There wasn't even room to squeeze between them. Cargo ships were also very dangerous. Containers were often lost, and the ship itself was continually battered by waves and strong storms. If I would have found a small space to smash myself into, I wouldn't have trusted it anyway with the shifting of the cargo from the rocking back and forth caused by the turbulent waters. As I searched that early morning, I did discover the railing of the ship had a curve which made a small tunnel. I was small enough that I was able to squeeze myself in between the railing and the containers, which protected me from the shifting and most of the sea spray. As I worked my way farther in, I belly crawled along the railing and discovered a container that was either misplaced or smaller than the others. It gave me an extra few feet from the railing to the edge of the container and still gave me the much needed protection from the weight of the heavy cargo. I spread a small blanket on the hard surface and used my pack as a pillow. It became a haven of sorts for me. If I heard anyone, I would simply pull myself closer to the container and out of sight, knowing that I wouldn't be seen there. As I tucked myself back into my little cove, I knew that I had to try and get some rest or I'd be dead tomorrow. My heavy eyelids willingly closed, and I drifted off to sleep as the boat rocked me back and forth.
A squawking seagull woke me just before daybreak. It was still dark, and the wind had picked up slightly. I stretched my aching body and listened to the sounds around me. Having a seagull overhead and feeling the engines slow beneath my body meant that we were getting close to land. I had already come up with a plan to get off the ship, but it wasn't going to be easy now that they had somehow discovered they may have someone on board who wasn't supposed to be there. It wasn't like I had money to pay them off. I took a deep breath and began searching every container within my reach. I knew that if I could just find one that was left unlocked, I wouldn't have to jump from this large ship. I knew that a jump from this height could possibly kill me or I could get sucked down into the spinning propellers, but it was the only chance I was going to get to survive. If they got to port, I would be found and captured.
After nearly thirty minutes of endless searching, I knew it was time for me to find a safe place to jump; the engines were down to a low roar. I was a good swimmer and luckily was in pretty good shape. I knew that as long as the water or current wasn't too rough I could swim the mile or so to shore. I squeezed into a small area near the lower decks and listened. Holding my breath, I took a step out toward the railing. I could just make out the lights of the port ahead. I knew this would be the only chance I had. I looked down into the black water, and my stomach flipped. I had never jumped from so great a distance before, let alone into the blackness of a shark-filled ocean.
I grabbed a long rope from my pack, but because I had no actual repelling gear, I knew I would have to do this the hard way. I took the rope and secured it on the lower bar, and then took both ends and tied them like I had many times before. I knew that this type of repel would be difficult to slow myself without the use of a brake system but hoped the rope would be secure enough to withstand my weight for the short distance. I also knew that I would need to get my rope back or they would know where I had gone. It was the first time in my life I was grateful that my dad made my brother and me learn how to survive in the wild on our own. We would go on long trips where we had to learn how to live without anyone else to help us. My mom was never to keen on the idea of me going on these adventures, but my dad had a way of convincing her. I still don't know how he did it, but either way, I was grateful.
I quickly took my pack and tied it securely in front of me, out of the way of the ropes. If on dry land, I would have just dropped it to the bottom, but I would use it as a sort of floatation device once I was free from the ship. I also knew that I would need its contents later. When I snuck aboard, I saw that there was a small ledge where the anchor was stored. It would leave me a shorter distance to jump and give me some distance if I could get enough footing to jump away from the ship. The problem was it was in the front of the ship, so my jump would have to be when the ship made a slight turn. It was risky. If the ship turned too quickly, I would be caught in the suction of the propellers and be killed. My heart began pounding wildly as I stepped over the railing. I smiled as I pictured my mother’s panic-stricken face if she were to see me doing this. I quickly pushed myself away from the railing and let the rope slide gently through my fingers. I had repelled so many times, the movements felt natural.
The farther down the side of the ship I descended, the more I realized how crazy this idea was and that I had forgotten something critically important. The spray from the waves crashing against the front of the ship had made my rope wet and slippery. I hadn't put any gloves on, thinking that the short repel wouldn't require them. I could feel my hand sliding, and my shoes were struggling to grip on the oily and water-slick metal of the ship. My speed was becoming more uncontrolled, and I knew that if I had to go much farther, I wouldn't be able to stop my downward motion in time and I would miss the small ledge.
I gripped the rope tightly, trying to slow down. My fingers felt the burn as the rope slid easily through my grasp. I looked down; the ledge was only one more push off the ship, but I wasn't sure I could get enough of the small ledge beneath my feet once I got there. I closed my eyes, said a prayer, and pushed off the side of the ship. My body sailed out over the water as my fingers slid down the rope. I held tightly and watched as the ledge came closer. I stuck my feet up and made an impact against the side of the ship, knocking the wind from my lungs with a thud. My fingers ached from their firm grip as I pulled myself into a standing position.
I inhaled, trying to get some air back into my lungs. I knew I only had a few seconds before I would need to jump, so I loosened the rope and it tumbled down from where it was secured above me. I quickly pulled it in and stuffed it into my pack. The ledge was larger than it had looked, but it was still soaking wet. I glanced over the edge; it was still a long way to the water.
The sky overhead started turning a brilliant pink as the sun peeked above the horizon. It sent shimmers of color in all directions as the light reflected off the water. I started my count. I knew that eventually the ship would have to turn to make it into whatever port we were coming up to—it was never a straight shot—at least I hoped.
Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, I counted in my head, trying to sooth my nerves. Finally, I felt the boat shift slightly. This was it. I held my pack tightly against my chest, closed my eyes, and pushed as hard as I could off the ledge. Immediately I felt my body flying through the air. I didn't dare open my eyes. As my father had taught me, I put my legs straight down, toes pointed. I felt the wave before my feet hit the water. It slammed into my body, pushing me down into the depths of the ocean. The cold water sent shocks through my body. I could hear the engine of the ship directly behind me as it plowed through the water. I kicked hard, the salt burning my eyes as I tried to see where I was going. I broke the surface of the water just in time to be hit by another wave. It pushed me back down. My lungs were starting to burn; I needed air. I kicked harder this time, away from the sounds of the ship. My body was tossed around in the turbulent waters, and I couldn't get to the surface.
It was in that instant that I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. My life was going to end. It was over, right here, a mile or so from a shore I didn't know. No one would ever know what happened to me. No one would ever find me. The last of my oxygen was gone, and I was starting to get dizzy. I gave another final kick and felt my fingers break the surface of the water. Excited, I pulled my arms down, and my head broke the surface. I sucked in as much oxygen as I could get, spitting the salty water from my mouth. I looked around wildly, unsure of where I was going or how in the world I thought I would ever be able to make a swim that far in this ocean. I breathed heavily as I rested on my pack, grateful that I had thought to put it in front of me.
The large cargo ship was pulling away further into the distance. It still wasn't far enough away that I wouldn't be seen, but I was just grateful that it seemed like I had made a clean escape and that it didn't kill me like I had thought it was going to moments ago. I ducked my head low as I bobbed up and down in the waves. I was exhausted. My breathing was coming in short gasps. I watched for any signs that someone had seen my escape from the ship, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
After several minutes, I checked my surroundings. The Gulf, although not cold, wasn't exactly warm. My body felt cold, and the darkness of the water was starting to have an effect on my mind.
What is below me? Are there sharks nearby? I wondered.
Panic was starting to set in, and I knew that I needed to keep my cool or I would never make it to shore. It was going to be a much longer swim then I had ever intended. When I first saw the shoreline, I thought it was about a mile or so in the distance. Now that I was in the water, I realized it was much farther.
I started my swim, first on my back to allow my body rest, then I switched to a side stroke, and back again. I was grateful that I had thought to bring my waterproof pack instead of my school pack. It had come in handy many times in the last six months, from the southern spring storms, to swimming across many rivers and other bodies of water. My gear was always dry, including what little food I had left. My favorite part of my pack, however, was that it would float, giving me a place to rest when I became too tired. My panic started growing the longer I swam and the warmer the sun became. It was getting to be late morning by the shadows cast by the light of the sun, which meant soon there would be fisherman and other boaters out on the water. That would also mean less of a chance of my ability to enter the country unnoticed. If I were to be spotted, I would either go to jail, be handed over to some horrible mob boss, or worse, get sent back to the United States.
My body was now shivering from the cold, and it became harder for me to swim. I should have been getting closer to the shore, but I still felt like it was several miles off. A splash behind made me jump and whirl around. A large grey dorsal fin popped up several feet behind me. My heart began to race. I reached into my pack and pulled a long blade from one of the compartments. I held perfectly still, knowing that splashing would only increase my chance of an attack. I stared at the black water surrounding me, waiting for the shark. Another splash, this time from the opposite direction. I turned in time to see a tail disappear into the depths. I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized that the tail belonged to a dolphin, not a shark. Where there were dolphins, there weren’t likely to be sharks; at least that's what my science teacher always told us. I placed my blade back into the pack, making a mental note that I would need to dry it as soon as I could so it didn't get damaged. I watched as not one but two dolphins jumped from the water.
Jack would love this, I thought to myself as I remembered my brother’s fascination with sea life.
“No one can track you if you are on the sea,” he had told me a million times. “There are no tracks to follow, as long as you know what you're doing.”
I missed him. He used to always be there for me. At least until he joined the army. His ability to track down almost anyone, or anything for that matter, made him a legend with his captain and other officers and fellow soldiers. Now he was one of the ones that was tracking me down. I had narrowly escaped him in St. Louis when I crossed the Mississippi River. The look in his eye as I escaped, the look of betrayal and anger and fear, had caught me off guard. He was no longer the brother I had gone on long camping trips with, or stayed up with till all hours talking about his latest crush. This was a man I didn't recognize.
I heard the motor before I saw it. I quickly turned in time to see a large fishing vessel approaching from the distance. I knew there wasn't anywhere for me to hide but down, so I grabbed my pack and pushed it below the surface of the water as much as I could, took a big breath, and dove. My pack kept me from being able to go down as far as I would have liked, but I hoped it was far enough. I struggled to keep it below the surface. I couldn't let it go; it contained everything I would need to survive, and I couldn’t risk it being found. The motor grew louder; I hoped it wouldn't run right over the top of me. I tried to open my eyes, but the salt burned. I kicked my legs hard to push myself further from the sounds. My lungs ached as I finally had to break the surface of the water. The boat had passed, but it still was only a short distance ahead of me. I kept low in the water, keeping my pack down and swam as hard as I could to gain distance. The shore wasn't much farther; I could hear the waves crashing along the beach. Risking a look back, I saw a man standing on the side of the vessel looking over the side.
What is he looking at? I wondered.
I followed his gaze and noticed another boat had been lowered and a man was already aboard the small dingy.
Oh no, I thought. They saw me.
I kicked and swam as fast as I could. The sound of the waves grew louder with each kick. I looked back; the man in the dingy was gaining on me. He would catch me soon if I couldn't think of something.
What would my father tell me to do? I asked myself.
Immediately a thought rushed through my mind. Open your bag! “Of course!” I yelled aloud.
I grabbed hold of the top of the pack and pulled it open, allowing the water to pour inside. Everything I owned was now soaked, making it heavier and no longer able to float. I took another big breath as I heard the man shouting at me. I dove, dragging my bag with me. I kicked hard as I pushed myself further down into the water. I had to force my eyes open; although it was blurry, I could still see the shape of the boat sitting above me. I swam hard, keeping below the surface of the water, swimming toward what I hoped was the shore. My lungs burned, and my legs screamed in exhaustion, but I kept on. I knew that I could hold my breath for a good amount of time, but this wasn't the same. I was already exhausted from my swim and the fear of the unknown. I knew I couldn't make it much longer without air. I remembered something that my swim coach had taught me when I was younger. “Your head doesn't need to come all the way up, just your mouth so you can suck in air and keep going.”
I looked upward. The boat wasn't in my line of vision, but I knew it was close by. I swam up quickly and just stuck the front of my face above the water, careful not to break the surface any more than necessary. I inhaled deeply, getting some water in my mouth before going down again, continuing my swim. I breached the surface several more times, following the sounds of the breaking waves. I hoped that the boater wasn't close behind me. I knew that the darker waters were now giving way to a much clearer bluish-green color, making it much easier to spot me. The water became shallow, and I risked coming above the water to look back to where I thought the boat was. In the distance I could see the small boat, but it was headed away from me, not closer.
Maybe they thought I drowned, I hoped.
I pushed the final few feet before my feet touched the soft sand of the beach. My worn muscles throbbed painfully as I collapsed onto it. My breathing was quick and hallowed from the exhausting swim. I glanced toward the fishing vessel and the man in the dingy, but they were now out of sight. I didn't know where they had gone, but I knew that I couldn't stay here long. I urged my body up from the ground and wrapped my pack around my shoulders after pouring out the sea water. I grabbed a palm frond and wiped my footsteps from the sand. This beach wasn't large, and it was surrounded on either side by trees and jungle; as long as I was careful, no one would be able to follow me.
I knew that I wasn't far from civilization, but for now I needed to find a place out of sight and away from prying eyes. I sighed and headed into the jungle. My watch luckily had withstood the salt from the Gulf, but not knowing exactly where I was, I knew I would have to use the sun’s position to determine the time. From the shadow cast on the sand before I entered the jungle, I had come to the resolve that it was somewhere around ten or eleven in the morning, which coincided with the time on my watch. That meant I was still more than likely on Central Standard Time. My stomach agreed, grumbling from the want of food. I rubbed it subconsciously as I pushed through the tall grass and long vines, trying to avoid the sharp spines that seemed to grow on every plant.
The deeper I traveled into the jungle, the thicker the canopy became. After some time, I came to a grove of tall trees that I discovered would make a great place to hide. The limbs were thick at the base, but thinned out farther up. I had always preferred to sleep in the trees rather than the ground. The jungle floor was home to many creepy crawlies, and I wasn't very fond of finding them in my bed. I began my arduous climb to the thinner limbs where I would be hidden more fully amongst the canopy.
I was so tired from the swim and the very little sleep the night before that I began to wonder if I would make it. By the time I reached the mid-section of the large tree, I knew that I couldn't go any farther. I wasn't as high as I would have liked, but I knew that, for now, it would have to work. I quickly pulled a few of my soaked ropes from my pack and began the task of making a small, woven bag to allow my things a place to dry out.
My flashlight was ruined, as was the small prepaid phone I purchased in case of an emergency before I boarded the ship. I hoped that I could use something from the devices for my survival in this unknown jungle. I finished my makeshift bag and hung it from the nearest limb, dumping the contents of my pack into the new bag. I grabbed one of the small granola bars and thanked whoever invented the plastic wrapper that kept it from getting wet. I ate slowly. The smooth flavor of the peanut butter and the crunch from the granola was extremely satisfying. My small water bottle was nearly empty now. I had tried to find a way to fill it up on board the ship but knew there really wasn't anywhere besides the kitchen or bathrooms, and that was more risk than I could take.
I sipped a small amount, recapped the bottle, and slipped it back into the rope bag hanging from a nearby limb. My stomach still grumbled, and my throat remained dry, but at least I had some sustenance.
I decided I had better take an inventory of what I had left from my pack; I hadn't planned on my run being this long. I sighed as I saw what remained. A few more granola bars, two vacuum sealed meals, a knife, a change of clothes, a small blanket, three different types of rope, a broken phone and flashlight, waterproof matches, some small cooking pans, and a quarter of a bottle of water, plus about two hundred US dollars in cash and my passport, which I had thankfully wrapped in a plastic bag before I left home so it wasn't wet. I also had three small pieces of fabric that were being protected by a small plastic bag.
Not much at all, I thought. I'll need to re-supply if I'm going to keep running.
I cringed at the thought of trying to go into town and speak my limited Spanish looking like a homeless girl. I would need to clean myself up before trying to do anything else. I looked around me. Trees, trees, and more trees. There was nothing else that I could see. I would need to get above the canopy if I were to get an idea of where I was. For now, however, I just wanted to rest. I grabbed the smallest of my three ropes that I didn't use as part of the dry pack and wrapped it around the tree and my waist. I didn't want to fall as I slept. The air was humid and the temperature rose throughout the day, making my stint in the tree very unpleasant. I closed my eyes, cleared my mind, and soon drifted into a restless sleep.
I closed my fingers tightly around the teddy bear my dad had let me hold. In an instant, I found myself swept away. My mind was no longer my own. I breathed hard and long as I tried to figure out where I was. I couldn't see far in the darkened area. There were boxes on top of boxes, and a lot of dust kept building in my lungs, causing me to cough and sneeze. I searched the darkness, feeling blindly around, trying to figure out what had happened.
“Hello?” I cried. “Is anyone there? Daddy, where are you?”
A whimper made me turn around. Through the dark I saw a small figure curled up on the floor.
“Hello?” I said again, moving closer to the figure. “Where are we?” I asked.
I had come close enough to realize that the figure was a small girl, not much younger than myself. She had a pink blanket bunched up close to her chest. She rocked back and forth, and I could see from the look on her small face that she had been crying and was scared.
“I'm Kate,” I said to her. “Are you okay?”
No response. It was as if I was some kind of unknown presence. I reached to touch her arm, hoping that she would look up at me, but instead of touching her, my own small hand slipped through her arm in a wisp of smoke. I inhaled sharply and looked at my own hands, backing away quickly.
“Daddy!” I yelled. “Daddy where are you?”
I was starting to panic. The young child sat completely unaware that I was there, and I was sure she was a ghost. I went to the nearest wall and reached out to knock, hoping that someone might hear me, but my hand didn't make contact; it went right through. I screamed and tried again, but nothing changed. I realized in that moment that the little girl wasn't the ghost, I was.
“Kate?” a deep voice said. “Kate can you hear me?”
“Daddy?” I whispered. “Daddy, where are you?” I yelled louder.
“Kate! Honey listen to me. You need to open your eyes, baby. Kate, open your eyes!” the deep voice said loudly.
A bright light made me blink repeatedly. I brought my hand up to shield my face and began focusing on a face in front of me. Immediately I felt the tears spill over and run down the side of my cheeks.
“Daddy!” I sobbed. “Daddy I'm a ghost!”
“No, baby, you aren't a ghost. It was just a dream honey. You're okay now,” he said, pulling me into his arms and hugging me close to his chest.
“Where am I?” I whimpered between sobs.
“We are at the neighbor’s house honey,” he said
“But there was another little girl. She had a pink blanket and was so scared,” I told him.
“You know where Kendra is?” a woman's panicked voice said from behind me.
I looked at my dad; he was staring at me with questions in his eyes.
“She was sitting on the floor in the dark room with the boxes. She was all alone and crying. I tried to get her to talk to me, but she wouldn't look at me,” I told the woman.
I recognized her as our neighbor that had recently moved in across the street. My family had come over to say hello and meet them.
“Honey, what room? What are you talking about?” Dad asked me.
I looked around. We were sitting outside, the sun was bright on my face, and the smell of hotdogs was coming from across the street.
“It was dark and dusty,” I told my dad. “She was sitting on a wood floor, and there were lots and lots of boxes.”
“The attic!” another man said.
I didn't recognize the man, but as soon as he said that, he and the woman took off inside their home. I sat on the soft grass next to my dad as he played unconsciously with my hair. Jack was running up the street toward us with another boy, and my mom had been talking animatedly to the neighbors before running across the street to us.
“Did they find her?” my mom asked breathlessly.
“Dad, she's not anywhere. James and I looked around the whole block! There isn't any sign that she left that house,” Jack yelled as he reached us.
“I don't know,” my dad said to my mom. He then explained to them what had just happened with me, and they stared at me in confusion.
“She's okay!” the neighbor woman said as she came out of the house, holding the young girl with the pink blanket. The man was walking next to them, rubbing his neck.
My family looked at me and then each other, curiosity burning within each of their faces.
“Thank you for your help,” the man said as they reached us. “She must have climbed up the stairs when we were putting boxes up there and had the doors shut on her.”
Kendra looked up from her mom's shoulder. Her face was dirty, and she was sucking her thumb. She stared at me for a few seconds, then smiled.
“How did you know she was up there?” the man asked me.
I looked from him to my dad. I didn't know how to answer him. I couldn't explain what had happened.
“I don't know,” I finally said.
Everyone was staring at me, and I could feel my cheeks getting warm. I tried to turn away, but it kept getting warmer and warmer. It was too hot. I felt the sweat dripping down my neck. The air grew moist, and I could hear rustling sounds all around me.
My eyes shot open, and I felt myself pull at the ropes that were tied around my waist. I looked around, taking a moment to remember that I wasn't sitting in the soft grass as a young six-year-old girl but hiding in the treetops in a foreign jungle. My heart raced as I recalled my dream. It was the first time I realized my ability. The first day that started my journey. I was a tainted soul, a ghost, an unknown presence in people’s lives. That stupid teddy bear that I wanted to hold, the one that belonged to Kendra that I thought was so cute, sent me spiraling down a path I didn't want to be on.
The humid air had grown uncomfortable. My throat was dry, and every muscle in my body ached. I looked at my watch. I had been asleep for a couple of hours, which meant it was now around mid day and the sun was at its peak. My clothing had mostly dried from the long swim but now was damp from the sweat of the day. Being up in the tops of this tree was going to be more difficult than I thought. I was going to need to find fresh water soon; my own supply was very quickly being depleted, and in this heat I would need a lot more.
I felt my pack and the items I had removed to see if they had dried enough for me to put them away. My pack had mostly dried on the inside thanks to the small amount of sun that had shined through the canopy, and most of my items were dry enough. My extra shirt and jeans were still slightly damp, so I laid them out flat on the large branch I was sitting on. The humidity was making it very difficult for things to dry completely.
I carefully repacked, making sure to put my food and water inside along with my waterproof matches, and hung my pack back on the smaller branch. I untied myself, rewound my ropes, and placed them inside my pack as well. I stood carefully and made my way farther up the tree to see if I could get above the tree line to figure out where I was. Every move I made, my muscles screamed in agony. I was tired. The exertion from climbing the tree was taking its toll as I began to get more dehydrated.