September 4th, 1970
For a mariner, the most dangerous place on the ocean, especially at night, is along its edges. This, however, was not the case for the lone man in a small raft by the name of Diego Duran. Had the middle-aged man been awake, Diego would have celebrated the sight of the Florida shoreline from afar; his adrenaline would have peaked with the pull of the oar getting him to the beach more swiftly. But Diego was finally awakened from his oceanic slumber once the raft had drifted aground on an empty stretch of beach along the Atlantic coast.
The force of the waves would push the raft no further up along the beach. The interruption of the calm rolling rhythm of the surf gave way to a pulsing pressure on the inflatable raft, caught between waves and sandy shore like a calm heart, awakened the man. Facing the sky, Diego’s crystal blue eyes opened to the vast blackness of the clear night above. As the full moon and bright stars that pierced through the night sky were coming into focus, a crisp beam of a brilliant white light swept across his view of the atmosphere. He knew then, without even surveying the coast, that he had been delivered to his destination. He remained there in the raft, looking into the heavens as an evening chill stretched across his body. His worn clothes were little protection against the light breeze infused with salt and spray at the water’s edge.
The beacon of light swept across the sky once again exactly as it had done before.
“Every thirty seconds,” he said to himself, “Just like she said.”
One day earlier, aboard the Ampoletta, he had been given his set of instructions. He rose and looked out of the raft to the soft silhouette of dunes ahead, the drifts of sand with vegetation just tall enough to block the view of a tower some distance away. Making his way out of the gray raft, his sandaled feet landed on the dark firm surface of wet grains and foam. He walked away from the raft towards the dunes as his feet sank deeper into the dry sand, sticking within his wet sandals and between his toes. Trudging higher up along the dune among the sea oats, he lost a sandal just as the lighthouse appeared in the distance. Diego climbed higher, wondering why the lighthouse was so far from the shore, peeling off the other sandal and leaving the leather behind. Finally, reaching the peak of sand and sea oats along the top of the dune, a narrow body of water, a channel less than a mile wide, came in to view down the other side. The cast of moonlight across the cove made him realize that he was on a thin strip of sand, perhaps an island or peninsula stretching as far as he could see. Diego took a deep breath, exhaled, and looked down at his wristwatch.
“There’s still time,” he said aloud, quickly descending back down the dun to the raft.
Grabbing the short loop on the bow of the raft, he jerked the raft towards the dunes, like the angered owner of a disobedient dog, repeating his steps back up the dune, this time with greater urgency, the air-filled vessel bounced closely behind. He stopped at the top again, turning back to the ocean, surveying the sudden slivers of moonlight that would appear as each wave crested before falling onto itself. Jacob descended the other side, raft in tow, into a darker and different environment. The dry loose sand transformed into a moist, silty, organic, ankle-deep muck. Diego moved much slower across this treacherous terrain, not only because of the sunken subsurface of sludge, but he had reached the edge of a thicket of mangroves waist-high. They would only grow higher as he descended deeper into the merciless arms of the estuary.
He noticed a finger of calm water to his left about fifty feet away, so he trudged towards it, pushing the mangrove branches away as the muck became knee-deep water. More than once, he turned and twisted the raft to maneuver it through the sprawling vegetation, hoping it would withstand the prickly pressure of branches and twigs. Finally, he searched for open water so he could board the raft as the water and muck became deeper with each step.
The mangroves seemed to fade as open water appeared before him, the inflated vessel behind him unscathed. He positioned the craft in front of himself as he stood stock-still, not only listening to the distant waves of the Atlantic muffled by the dunes and mangroves at his back but feeling the flow of water and watching the tethered boat gently pull towards the open water.
“A falling tide,” he noted by observation, “is in our favor.”
Diego hoisted himself aboard the raft and look out towards the lighthouse, seeing he was still surrounded by a thick and vast maze of tangled mangroves. He had choices as he noticed four narrow openings that he could pilot the boat through; he chose the narrowest, the farthest path to his right, the watery path that the bright turning beacon appeared to be at the end of. He reached down, grabbing the only object in the raft, a single oar. Looking down at his watch again, twisting his wrist so that its face and hands reflected in the moon glow.
“10:45. That’s cutting it close,” he muttered only to himself in the darkness.
Diego took the oar and dug deep into the calm water making his way into the narrowest channel. He rowed the tiny vessel port and starboard, zigzagging among the stoic thicket of mangrove trees. His senses of direction were at a loss. Was he turning circles through a maze in the shadows and moonlight?
Self-doubt began to creep into the man’s mind. Did he choose the correct passage to the open water? Frustration began to set in since he could still see the towering beacon off in the distance. The tide may have been with him, but he was rowing against the clock now. Would he make it on time? Diego settled to gather his thoughts for a moment to quiet the storm in his foggy, frenzied mind. He sat in the raft, no longer paddling, letting the current slowly carry the raft into a hedgerow of tall vegetation. To clear a path, Diego hacked at the bushes with the paddle, pulling at branches, snapping twigs, grabbing at what he could reach as he pulled himself into and across the patch of mangroves.
The craft was agile, conforming around the obstacles of branches and stems, deep into the thicket he pushed at tugged until he came out on the other side, suddenly birthed into the wide-open placid waters of the cove. He smiled, looking out across the flat surface. Then, witnessing the moon, the lighthouse, and other points of light along the distant shore and all their reflections in the calm waters, Diego took a moment to catch his breath.
Digging in the paddle deeply, he aimed directly for the lighthouse that was now about a half-mile away. The wooden oar splashed with each stroke, alternating from port to starboard, powering the craft into a dark area of shoreline as the lighthouse grew taller and the shore drifted closer with each passing minute. Once the or finally stuck the sandy bottom near the beach, Diego left the vessel behind and began wading towards the shore. He turned back once, looking at the abandoned raft as drifted away silently with the tide. He looked down at his wrist once more. The watch hands on the dial read 11:27.
Diego confidently waded forward along the firm bottom in knee-deep water that became more shallow with each step until a sudden immense pain shot through the bottom of his left foot. He lunged forward, losing his balance, and his hands plunged into the water to catch his fall. His hands struck the razor-sharp oyster shells on the bottom just as his foot had, cutting deep into both of his palms. Pulling himself over the hidden oyster bed just below the surface, he lay seething on the shore as both of his hands and foot burned and bled. He felt the grit on his face and tasted the salt of the water as he pulled himself up, now bleeding and limping. The soft sounds of water rippled and lapped at the shore behind him. He faced the dry land and a sprawling canopy of live oak trees ahead. Just beyond the trees stood a lighthouse.