Manuel A. Meléndez is an award-winning Puerto Rican author, born in Puerto Rico and raised in East Harlem, N.Y. He is the author of three mystery/supernatural novels "When Angels Fall", “Battle For a Soul”, and “The Cowboy”. Six poetry books, “Observations Through Poetry”, “Voices From My Soul”, “The Beauty After The Storm”, “Meditating With Poetry”, “Searching For Myself”, and “Pasos Sin Rumbos”. Two collection of Christmas short stories, “New York-Christmas Tales Vol. 1 and 2.” Two collection of supernatural horror stories, “Wicked Remnants” and “Outbursts of Horror” a collaboration with El Davíd. Two novelettes, “In the Shadows of New York”. “Battle for a Soul” was awarded in the 2015 International Latino Awards for Mystery Novels and “When Angels Fall” was voted by the LatinoAuthors.com as the Best Novel of 2013. His story “A Killer Among Us” was published by Akashi Books in “San Juan Noir” anthology. The author lives in Sunnyside, N.Y. harvesting tales from the streets of the city.
“Good riddance that he’s dead. I never trusted that man.” Steven said with no remorse.
“He’s my father, and Evan loved him a lot.” Jeannie stated and lowered her eyes.
“I’m sorry to speak about the dead—about your father like this—but you also feared him. And don’t lie to me, you’re relieved that he’s finally heading to where we both believe he belongs.”
“Please don’t say it. I won’t, but we can’t fool ourselves.”
“Now what? How can we break the news to Evan? He’ll be crushed.” Steven said, then remained silent, staring at Jeannie, his wife for the past fifteen years. Putting one arm around her, he brought her closer to him. “It’s not going to be easy, but it has to be done. We’ll do it together.”
Jeannie bit her lower lip, a bad habit she’s been carrying since childhood. She always did this whenever she felt cornered to make a decision she didn’t want to make. She lowered her head and rested it on Steven’s shoulder.
“The sooner the better,” Steven continued. “At least with the coming snowstorm, we have a good reason to miss the funeral. That’s the last place I want Evan to be. You know how close those two were. And let’s not forget the damn witchcraft he was teaching our son. Jesus, my hairs still stand up whenever I think about what he did.”
“Please, let’s not talk about that,” Jeannie said, rubbing both arms as if suddenly the room had gotten cold. “As long as we keep those awful paints from him, we will never have to worry about it. Besides, now that Father is dead,” Jeannie bit her lip harder, and let out a deep sigh. She felt moisture under her eyes, and she fought hard to keep the tears from coming down, but two defiant ones ran freely down her cheeks. It was still her dad who just died, regardless of the coldness they shared since she was born.
“You never told me what you did with those cursed paints,” Steven said, ignoring Jeannie’s tears.
“I buried them.”
‘Buried them? Where?”
“Does it matter?” Jeannie said, and there was a bit of anger in her words.
“Sure, it matters. If you buried them in our backyard, who’s to say Evan won’t dig them up and use them again? And let’s not forget our experience when he painted that horrible picture. So, tell me, where did you bury them? If it’s outside, we need to dig them up and destroy them. Burn them. Whatever it takes, they need to be destroyed.”
Taking a long look towards Evan’s room, Jeannie straightened up and rubbing her eyes with her fists, stood up and reached out a hand to Steven. “Come on, I’ll show you the spot, but get the shovel first.”
“I’ll also get some gasoline, we’ll burn them inside the hole. No need to move them.”
Evan sat on the edge of the bed. He could hear the murmurs from his parents, and he didn’t like one single thing that they were talking about. Would they be surprised that regardless of their low voices, he could hear each word as if they were being spoken through a loudspeaker? After the incident two weeks ago, Evan was sure that anything out of the ordinary would not surprise them. Rather it would make them fear him, the way they feared his grandpa, and who knows, probably him even more. They blamed his grandpa for what they saw as a curse in him, but to both Evan and his grandpa, it was a gift. His parents, raised in the old belief that anything that seemed like witchcraft was an extension of black magic, felt it was the devil’s doing. But they were so wrong! His grandpa’s gift, which manifested in him as well, was as ancient and as pure as the earth itself. How his mother did not possess the gift as well was beyond Evan’s comprehension. Maybe she did possess the gift, and she buried it like everything that she didn’t understand. The same way she buried the paints. Evan thought about that, and it made him frown, but soon he felt the presence of his grandpa, and a happy disposition rose in his heart.
The old man opened his eyes and glanced around. He was not disappointed one bit at the surroundings of the afterlife. It was more than he could ever have imagined. Before him a roaring sea crashed onto the shore, and squinting he saw on the horizon his ancestors jumping on the other side. They waved, and the wind carried their laughter and their welcoming shouts. Yes, he was home, and that simple feeling cocooned him with euphoria. The sudden apparition of a figure on a boat startled him for a second, but recovering quickly, he acknowledged the boatman with a bow and a salute. The boatman lifted his oar, bowed as well, and made a gesture to the old man to climb aboard. However, the second he began to walk, he stopped and deep wrinkles furrowed his forehead. “What was it?” he asked himself. Turning around he looked behind him. There was a vortex that hung before him like a gaping mouth. From its depth, he could see the hospital room, and his dead body on the bed.
Bewildered, he went closer to the opening and peeked in. He was alone, already inside a body bag, not zipped all the way up, leaving his face exposed. There was happiness frozen on his face that was beginning to lose its living color and was settling into the pale bluishness that death brings. He turned and glanced once more at the excited ancestors and at the boatman who waited patiently for him. But there was something pulling him back into the vortex inside the hospital room that he could not place a finger on. Still, he knew that it concerned his grandson.
“Evan,” the old man called out, and waited for a response. There was none, and dismissing it as nothing but a reaction that would soon leave him, he proceeded to walk to the ocean. Yet, no sooner than he took two steps, a buzz seemed to come out from the vortex. And in that buzz, he heard Evan’s voice call his name. “Pops.”
Steven grabbed the shovel, noticing the dried dirt caked on its tip, probably from when Jeannie used it to bury the paints. Jeannie stood by the entrance to the tool shed. Her face was pale and he noticed how she was working on her lower lip as if it were a piece of gum. If she didn’t stop, he knew that soon he’d spot beads of blood on it. He wanted to tell her to stop, but it was her own damn lip—let her chew it off for all he cared. Armed with the shovel and a can of gasoline used for the lawn mower, he went to her and without a word, he followed her. In the middle of the backyard she stopped, glancing around as if trying to determine where she buried the paints.
“Don’t tell me you forgot,” Steve said, and there was irritation accenting his words.
“Please, give me a second,” Jeannie said. Then taking five steps forward, she went down on one knee and felt the earth with one hand. Looking up, she nodded at Steven and standing up she backed away.
He thrust the shovel’s edge on the spot and the soft dirt gave in as easily as slicing a stick of butter with a hot knife. He dug for ten minutes until he hit something solid and looking at Jeannie he moved the shovel around the hard object until he unearthed a metal box. Casting the shovel away, he knelt and, seeing the handle of the box, he pulled it out, brushed off some of the dirt, and opened the lid with the key Jeannie gave him. It was best to put the paint tubes by themselves inside the hole, then pour gasoline over them and light them up. But, to their astonishment, the box was empty.
Evan watched in awe as a mist hovered above his bed, then it slowly moved to the center of the room, where it descended to the floor. It began to take shape, and with interest the boy kept his eyes glued to it. There was no fear in him, for this was not the first time he had experienced an apparition like this one. His grandpa once conjured such phenomenon to introduce Evan to his Spirit Guide, and now as the boy kept vigil on the mist’s transformation. Little by little, the spirit was revealed to him.
“Pops!” Evan shouted as his grandpa stood in front of him with his arms stretched out in an inviting embrace.
The boy ran to his grandpa, getting wrapped up in the old man’s hug, which filled him with love. For a good ten minutes, both grandson and grandfather remained tangled in each other’s arms, until gently the old man released his stronghold.
“I brought you something,” the grandfather said, as he offered his grandson the paints that his mother buried, and his father now wanted to burn. There was relief in the boy’s heart as he accepted the paints with more jubilation than the first time his grandpa gave them to him. Because now he understood the secrets and the powers each tube held.
“I thought I’d lost them forever,” Evan said. “The second Ma’ and Pa’ took them from me the night I used them and revealed what I could do with them.”
“Your mother, as much as she understood our ancestors’ gift, refused to accept it and allowed your father’s ignorance and limited understanding of all that God can create to control her. Poor children, and that’s exactly who they are—children—and unless they finally give in to the importance of believing and acknowledging the powers of our surroundings they will continue going around like blind bats. You remember that night you allowed the paints to create? Instead of embracing what was placed in front of them, they cried blasphemy. Even forbade me to see you. Now again, like the blind fools that they are, they find themselves outside on this cold night trying to comprehend how the paints disappeared from a locked metal box buried two feet in the ground.”
“Pops, did you take them out?”
“It doesn’t matter how or who took them out. What’s important is that they are where they belong. Now, my dear boy,” Pops placed one hand on the boy’s shoulder and brought him into his embrace, “you’ll carry our ancestors’ blessings and the legacy that someday you will leave behind. Just like I’m doing now. Rejoice, Evan, rejoice in the gift that was bestowed on us—generations and generations ago.”
With those words, the old man became once again a mist that twirled and soon was gone.
“Pops,” Evan whispered, “please don’t leave me. I want to go with you. Don’t go…please Pops, please come back.”
“Are you sure they were there?” Steven asked, holding on to the metal box, and not hiding his frustration, he cast aside the box.
“Yes,” Jeannie said, “how many more times do I need to tell you, that yes, the paints were there. I put them there myself.”
Shaking his head, Steven started to walk back to the house. “Well, there’s only one explanation… Evan probably saw you and took them out.”
“But that’s impossible, the box was locked, and the only key is the one I gave you.”
Practically running, Steven went past Jeannie. “Enough of this nonsense. Evan finally is going to learn that we are his parents and he must listen to us, not that kook of a grandfather. Thank God he’s dead, and I hope he’s nice and toasty now in hell.”
Once inside the house, with his open hand, Steven banged on Evan’s bedroom door. When there was no answer, he tried the knob. It was locked. He slammed the door again, a bit harder. Silence. He stared at the door, irritation beginning to cloud his senses.
“Evan!” He shouted while hitting the door with his fist. “Open this door at once.”
“Honey, this is Mom,” Jeannie went around Steven and placed one cheek on the door. “Please sweetheart, be a good boy and open the door.”
Infuriated by how Jeannie always sugarcoated everything when she spoke to Evan, he pushed her away from the door. “That’s why he’s the way he is, because you’re constantly babying him. He’s almost a teenager, and he knows right from wrong. If you would have agreed with me from day one, to keep him away from your father, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Coiling away from her husband’s rage, Jeannie began gnawing on her lip as she watched Steven lift his leg and kick the door. It shook violently, and with another kick, the door swung open. The room was empty. Running to the window, Steve tried opening it, and realized the lock was on. Evan had locked the window, and glancing at the door, he frowned. It’s impossible. There was no way that Evan could have locked the window and door from inside the room and not be in here. Dropping to his knees he looked under the bed. Nothing. Pushing Jeannie to the side, he ran to the closet. Evan must be here, maybe amused at his little joke. Steven opened the door, his anger increasing by the minute. The closet was empty, and to be sure, Steven grabbed a bunch of Evan’s clothes and threw them on the floor, and looked deeper inside. Evan was not there, and backing away, Steven turned around. Jeannie was standing by Evan’s desk, one hand over her mouth, her eyes glued to something lying on top of it.
“What is it?” Steven asked as he approached her.
Jeannie turned slowly as if there were not enough strength in her joints to move. She tried to answer him, but even moving her lips was a struggle. After a few attempts that only enabled her lips to tremble, the words finally jumped out of her mouth. Like the last breath of a dying person. “Oh, Lord, he did it again!”
“What do you mean?” Steven asked, although he knew the answer, he came closer to be sure. And from where he stood, he saw the various tubes of paint, some open, oils dripping on the desk—the same ones that had supposedly been buried inside a locked metal box. He spotted a paintbrush covered in colors and a drawing pad on the floor. He stopped short, for he had seen enough, and he dreaded—NO! He was terrified about what he was going to see on the desk. The last time Evan used those cursed paints, given to him by his sorcerer of a grandfather, his son drew a picture of the old man’s house. And to this day it sent horrifying chills down his spine because Evan had painted himself inside his grandfather’s home. Those awful memories were still fresh in Steven’s mind, for the detailed painting, showed the grandfather sitting with a great big smile with his arm around Evan. There was a diabolical smile on the old man’s lips, which practically shouted, Evan will always be with me. On that day, they became frantic because, just like now, Evan was missing. Until they received a call from the old man telling them that Evan was with him.
It was the paints—the devil’s paint—and the powers they possessed, that allowed Evan to transport himself to wherever his grandfather was.
Now, as Steven looked over Jeannie’s shoulder, he saw the painting on the desk, and he felt his knees buckle. On the painting, he saw Evan standing with his grandfather on a rickety, old boat. They were both smiling, their arms around each other’s shoulders as a hooded boatman with an old wooden oar in hand stared straight out of the picture and into Steven’s and Jeannie’s horrified eyes. The grinning boatman was Death.