Nightmare’s Edge is a gripping roller coaster ride that explores the dark underbelly of the Dominican Republic.
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Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, Wow-what a ride!
6:54 pm, Thursday, December 15th, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.
Nels Watson honked the horn at a motorcycle that suddenly cut him off. The driver ignored the gesture and slammed on his brakes to avoid a boy who was running across the road, oblivious to the bustling traffic on a busy street. Nels slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting both the motorcycle and the little boy.
The boy stumbled, fell, picked himself up and darted to the curb, narrowly avoiding becoming road kill.
No sense flipping him the bird, he thought. This is just what it’s like in parts of the Dominican Republic. Total mayhem on the roads and people seem used to it. In fact, they seem to thrive on it, going about their business as calmly as possible with horns blasting, vehicles cutting each other off, pedestrians jockeying for position, and noise pollution the likes of which could drive a first world citizen out of their mind.
But you got used to it. And Nels was used to it as he had navigated these streets before in a rental car and after a week he was as bad, if not worse, than the locals.
The light turned green and vehicles converged from all directions. Nels inched forward. What’s wrong? The light must be broken. The motorcycle in front of him roared to a start, blowing a thick cloud of black smoke into the windshield of his black four-door sedan. Shit, this is crazy even by Dominican standards, he thought as horns blasted him from all directions while attempting to clear the intersection.
“Focus,” he said out loud, checking the GPS unit for directions.
“Shit, this thing doesn’t seem to be working,” he said to no one in particular. He pressed the “where to” button on the GPS as he turned onto a busy side street, trying to buy time to figure out where he was going.
Where am I going?
Then he remembered. He was going to an apartment building in Puerto Plata to visit some friends. That’s right, they were waiting for him.
A couple of loud honks on a horn blasted him out of his reverie. He found a space that looked like a parking stall and pulled in, waking a mangy sleeping dog that yelped and scampered. He fidgeted with the GPS but it still would not lock in his position. It kept saying “acquiring satellite.”
Nels stared at the unit, hoping it would lock in a signal. He was geographically challenged at the best of times and he didn’t consider this the best of times. The hot afternoon sun was giving way to dusk and the streets of Puerto Plata could be extremely dangerous at night. Relax, you have a car. Just try and remember where the building is.
“Turn right in five hundred meters,” the sexy English voice on the GPS said. Great. It locked in a signal. Nels shoulder-checked, then swerved out of the temporary stall, just as an elderly shopkeeper came out, angrily waving a broom at him.
He followed the coordinates to a black low-rise apartment building in a seedy area on the hill with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. Dogs barked, people sang and drank in the streets; a few old men sat at on chairs at a kitchen table on a sidewalk and played dominoes. The streets were strewn with garbage and a few nasty looking characters cast him menacing glances as he passed. This wasn’t an upscale area
Sure hope the GPS doesn’t fail on the way outta here, Nels thought, knowing if it did he would have a hell of a time getting back to his apartment. Where am I staying anyway?
He parked, locked the vehicle, walked into a side entrance and up the stairs to the fourth floor. Funny, the door should be wide open in a neighborhood like this?
He knocked on the door a few times and listened. He heard a woman and a man arguing loudly. Who are they? Right, they’re my friends, Belinda and Simon. I’ve known them for years. I’m sure it’s just a minor spat.
He opened the door and walked in. The room was dimly lit, but for a few candles strategically placed in the corners of the room. Belinda jumped off the couch and smiled at him.
“How are you Nels,” she asked, giving him a hug. Simon’s agitated demeanor changed and he also smiled.
“Sorry about the noise Nels,” Simon said. “You know how it goes. Life wouldn’t be any fun if you didn’t have the odd spat now and again.”
Nels had detected some friction in the relationship a few days back, or was it weeks, he didn’t remember now, but he didn’t realize it was this bad. This sounded like something that could have erupted into a knock-down, drag-out brawl if he hadn’t walked in the door.
“No problem,” he said, walking into the kitchen to fix a drink. That’s how it was with Belinda and Simon. When they visited Nels, they helped themselves. When he visited them, it was the same story. It’s just how close they were.
As Nels poured himself a stiff cuba libre. He heard his friend’s voices become louder. And they didn’t sound that friendly. Should I walk into the room? I suppose I should. They’re my friends after all.
Nels walked into the living room of their two-bedroom flat and looked around. It was sparsely furnished and the TV was turned on. Some HBO movie played in Spanish. He understood the words but didn’t get the movie.
They sat together watching the screen and did not acknowledge his entrance. He picked an armchair and sat down.
“What are you watching?” he asked. Belinda glared at him and looked at Simon disgustedly.
What the fuck’s going on here? Nels thought. These two are usually pretty harmonious together.
Belinda drank a gin and tonic, Simon, a Presidente beer. Nels alternated between rum and fruit juice, rum and water, rum and coke and Bohemia beer on his visits to the DR. He had switched to Bohemia after the price had increased on Presidente.
He still didn’t understand what was going on. They both stared at the screen as the image of a vampire biting into its victim played itself out. The male victim screamed and became limp; the sexy female vampire backed away satisfied and smiled at the camera, blood dripping down her mouth, large fangs exposed.
“I don’t know what the fuck you thought you were doing but you did it all wrong,” Simon said quietly, his features darkening.
Belinda, who was fixated on the horror movie, suddenly jerked her head in Simon’s direction.
“Do you even know what you’re talking about?” she asked.
It’s time for me to leave, Nels thought. He stood, polished off his drink and walked quietly to the door.
The couple glared at each other angrily.
“Look you guys, it’s been a slice and thanks for inviting me, but I’m leaving.”
Belinda tried to protest, but Nels was already out the door and walking down the stairs. He had never seen his friends so stressed out and confrontational and it worried him. He heard them yelling at each other as he walked down the narrow pathway dotted with palm trees to the street. He glanced at the pool, quiet and blue, on his way out.
Nervously, he jumped into his car and started it. It roared into life on the first turn of the ignition. I hope the GPS works was the only thought going through his mind as he shoulder-checked, squealed the tires, and pulled away.
7:55pm, Thursday, December 15, Puerto Plata.
The streets were dark and unusually quiet as he drove. Where am I going? Where do I live? Nels did not have the answers so he tapped the GPS, hoping that it did.
“Acquiring satellite” was all he could read.
He approached a winding corner in the road and realized he was going much too fast to navigate it. He jerked the wheel, trying to bring the black car in line with his course.
It was too little too late.
The car skidded, swerved and crashed into a concrete divide. The momentum of the speed, must have been sixty or seventy miles per hour, sent it soaring airborne. It bounced a few times, finally skidding to a landing upside down, the roof grating along the concrete, sparks flying.
Nels gripped the wheel and wondered when it would end and when he would end.
All was silent.
He felt his extremities. They were all there. He did not see any blood and he didn’t feel any pain. He scraped himself out of the smoking wreckage and looked around.
He was on a street he could not recognize. The buildings were decrepit. He heard dogs barking and loud merengue music playing. Not unusual for the DR.
Get a grip.
He felt for his money. It was there. Nels didn’t carry a wallet. He never had. He figured if you carry a wallet you make yourself a target in a third world country. And Nels wasn’t about to do that. He considered himself a seasoned traveler and he didn’t invite problems when he travelled. In fact, he was one of the few people he knew who travelled with only a carry-on bag regardless of the duration of his stay -and on this trip he planned to be here at least three months.
Less is more was his philosophy when travelling. The quicker you can move the safer you are. Anything you need, you can buy. Anything you can’t take with you when you leave, you can give away to the poor.
With those thoughts in mind he breathed a sigh of relief as he reached into the smoking vehicle and pulled out his small green knapsack, something most other travelers would view as a day pack, a beach bag large enough for only a few towels, a swimsuit, a few beers and maybe some mosquito repellent and suntan lotion.
But for Nels it was his whole life.
That small nylon green bag he hauled out of the black car that was about to burst into flames represented everything he would need during his stay.
To pack light was an art form. To load up three or four suitcases … well anybody could do that.
He ran from the vehicle. Half a block away, he looked back. It exploded with a whooshing sound, followed by a big bang. Red flames and black smoke swirled into the black sky.
Fuck, he thought. Things are going from bad to worse. Where the fuck am I and where do I need to be? He searched his mind but found no answers.
He carried on down the dark street.
He heard a rustling sound in the hedges immediately in front of him and froze. A black man with freaky large eyes and a freakier afro jumped out of the bush, blocking his path down the narrow sidewalk.
He turned and ran.
“Wait, wait,” the black man said.
Nels stopped suddenly and looked behind.
The black man smiled. “I’m here to help you. Follow me.”
Without a clear direction, Nels followed the man. He was led to a busy street, the main drag in Puerto Plata, he guessed, and into a small food shack. They sat down together and the man served up rice, beans and chicken, a Dominican staple. Nels looked at the food but didn’t have an appetite.
He still didn’t know how to get to his apartment. He stepped outside the food shack while the man ate.
Three friends walked by. Nels was excited to see them, thinking they would drive him to his apartment, give him his bearings. They were female, attractive. But all they did was say hello, engage in some perfunctory and mindless chit chat and walk away.
Fuck sakes. Why did they leave? Why would they abandon me? Don’t worry, you’ve got money. And as Nels thought about it, he realized it was just too crazy to be real.
You’re in a fucking dream and wake up. But he wasn’t waking up. He pinched his arm as hard as he could. Hurt like hell but he still didn’t wake up. Fuck, this isn’t a dream. That sucks.
So he reached into his back pocket for the plastic insurance folder with his money and credit cards. He pulled it out, flipped it open.
Other than a few tattered business cards, it was empty. Not a single credit card. Not a single dollar.
He was broke, lost, confused and horrified.
Wake up, it’s a dream. But he couldn’t wake up. And it wasn’t a dream.
So he stood on a street corner in Puerto Plata, the noise pollution confusing him, blurring the lines between reality and what he thought was a nightmare.