Chapter 1


The ship rolled over long swells of ocean under a luminous gray sky. A great hurricane was raging more than 250 miles to starboard, and the air was wet with it, even at this distance. And agitated. Sprays of water were ripped from the waves and flung into the growing tropical light—bursts of unbridled freedom. There was a wild beauty to it all, to which the ship was utterly oblivious.

Deep below deck, inside one of its containers, stowaways huddled. They were a young man and woman, recently married, and five days ago, they had committed themselves to this voluntary entombment, along with an aunt and uncle. Women’s apparel filled the twenty-foot-long chamber, a soft cargo that was able to yield space to four bodies with meager possessions, though with great reluctance. Except for the aunt, whose entire work life had been with a cigar maker, all in the family had labored in the sweat shops of their island’s garment industry. That was their common connection to this particular ship—and container.

Perhaps it also explained their folly. Once locked inside this tomb, they found that they were effectively buried alive. They were barely able to move and were in total darkness except for a few flashlights without spare batteries. Not a one of the four stowaways spoke of the dark claustrophobia which was little better than the impoverishment of the life they were fleeing—or of the abject terror that consumed them. It was not their way to complain. Their way was to pull together, each a source of support for the others.

Soon, however, the aunt succumbed to the oppressive heat and, the next day, the uncle. The family had been assured by their contact that the container would be above deck, but he was not speaking the truth. There was no way he could have known that. With hand drill and hacksaw, the stowaways had been able to cut vents in the reinforced walls of the container. This gave them air to breathe, but it was without the wind chill and air circulation that they would have had above deck. The heat in the ship’s cargo hold was suffocating, and because dry-goods containers do not require temperature control, their battle, from day one, had been a losing one.

On this the fifth day, the two survivors were squatting on the makeshift bed that all of them had once shared. They faced each other and held hands to balance themselves against the nauseating motion of the ship. In their exhaustion, they leaned forward and their foreheads touched. Their relatives were now sealed within plastic sheets that had once been garment protection. And that dreadful task had physically and emotionally depleted them. Finally the young woman spoke. “We are on our last water bottle, my husband, and our last flashlight is nearly spent. I feel so weak. I fear for us.

“I know, my Livia, but remember our old life. We want so much more than that. Think of our new island . . . a most excellent place . . . where we can grow . . . and thrive. Rest now . . .” Still holding hands, they lowered their bodies.

The next day, the ship’s rolling had lessened. Lying on their backs now, the couple could hear the beating of the diesel engines, the heart of the beast whose belly they were in. The young man spoke into the darkness. “I should not have trusted that man. He took our money and deceived us. We were supposed to be safe. I have failed you, my wife, and I have failed our family.”

She did not answer. But then, “You did not fail us, husband. Our dream island . . . filled with hope . . . ” and her voice trailed off. Until finally, “It was worth it, my Angel. Yes, it is worth it, Angel Ramos.”

He was beyond hearing, and she feared it was too late—for both of them. But had there been light, she would have seen the trace of a smile remaining in the corners of his mouth. He was far away now, dreaming of another place, a place of unlimited opportunity—and unbridled freedom. It was a place of excellence—unsurpassed excellence.


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