It’s quiet and dark when I finally regain consciousness. The throbbing behind my eyes makes it difficult to focus as I slowly survey my surroundings. The stars are dim, but the moon lights up the landscape with its eerie glow and I realize I am in a desert. The dunes of sand that rise up around me appear endless in all directions. I am alone but for a single, slanted cactus plant casting shadows in the moonlight.
And then I see it—the first trace of something human, civilized. A GoodLife duffel bag half hidden behind the cactus. I try to scramble towards it, eager to obtain any clues as to my whereabouts or explanation for how I got here. I desperately want to stand, but my legs refuse. Dehydration has barely left me with the energy to crawl like an insect across the desert floor.
The moon has shifted by the time I reach the bag. Mercifully, it falls open as I unzip it to reveal a steel canteen brimming with delicious lukewarm liquid. Water has never tasted so divine. I am careful not spill as I replace the lid on the canister. Rummaging through the bag I discover a map defiled with a bold, black ‘X’ near the center. “You are here”, it cheekily reports. I am relieved to have some reference of my location, but horrified to find that I am many miles away from the only village shown at the outskirts of the desert. It is labeled “Khatawali”, and might be several days’ worth of travelling away.
Again I search the GoodLife bag for clues. I find a rolled up sleeping bag, the sight of which triggers a sudden drowsiness in me. Although I was unconscious less than an hour ago, it was not a restful slumber. The lump on my head suggests a violent struggle has led to my current predicament, although I have no recollection of it. The last thing I can remember is arriving home after a long day on the ski slopes with my friends. I can only guess at how long ago that evening was, or how far away I now am from my home.
I unfurl the sleeping bag and stash my map, canteen and other supplies inside of it before climbing in myself. The desert night is far from cold, but I feel too vulnerable to sleep outside the comfort of this makeshift bed. The sand dunes fade as I begin to dream.
In sleep I am visited by a spirit, whose movements clang with the chains of steel imprisonment. He says he is a genie trapped deep below the desert dunes. At first I am afraid, but he assures me that he is no villain.
“I have been wrongfully imprisoned”, he tells me with a long dramatic sigh. “You see, many ages ago, I was punished for a crime which I did not commit. I was banished to a sandy underworld, until some brave soul arrives to rescue me!”
Incredulous, I say, “And…and you think I am that ‘brave soul’, the one to save you?”
I can’t help but feel that I have more pressing problems of my own to solve than to get tangled up in the curse of some ancient genie. He seems to sense my reservation. The spirit shrugs and says: “I see no one else venturing alone through this barren land. But if you won’t help me, I guess I’ll leave you be…”
He turns as if means to go, but glances back, his eyes cast down.
“You know, this desert can be a very dangerous place. The inhabitants don’t generally appreciate strangers, you see. The magic of a genie would probably protect you from the various forms of harm out here…”
“Wait! You must know how I got here in the first place! Please help me to understand”, I cry. “I don’t even know how to save myself, let alone you. My rations will soon deplete and I will dead and you no better off.”
“Well”, he says, “This is a very mysterious place. Find the entrance to the underworld where I am chained. Unlock me from my prison, and then I will help you get home.”
He disappears before I can protest or ask further questions.
I wake up drenched in sweat, although I am unsure if it’s due to the sweltering heat or disturbing nature of my dream. I toss off the sleeping bag, wipe my brow and survey the area. I don’t see any signs of life beyond myself and the solitary cactus, but I am rattled by the genie’s mention of desert ‘inhabitants’.