Manuel A. Melendez
Manuel A. Meléndez is a 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 RUMBO. Two collection of Christmas short stories, NEW YORK CHRISTMAS TALES, VOL. I and II, and IN THE SHADOWS OF NEW YORK: TWO NOVELETTES. The novel WHEN ANGELS FALL, was voted by The LatinoAuthors.com as the Best Novel of 2013, while BATTLE FOR A SOUL was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2015 International Latino Awards for Mystery Novels. His short story A KILLER AMONG US was published by Akashi Books in SAN JUAN NOIR anthology.
Travelers for Life
Not in the sense of accomplishment, but of fear, I convinced myself that my sleep was over, regardless if pitch darkness covered the night. My eyes swollen with sleep, and tired yawns expanded my mouth into perfect “Os.” Yet I looked down at the bed as if it was a frightful monster laying down quietly and waiting to devour me. With that overwhelming apprehension dictating my actions, I went into the kitchen, and with shaking hands, I poured myself a glass of water from the bottle I kept on the small TV dinner table next to the refrigerator. I was told drinking lukewarm water was good for your digestive system. Something about drinking cold water shocking your organs, or something along those lines, and with no further research to support such statement, I never kept the water inside the fridge, not even during the hot days of summer. Tonight was a cold winter night, and the warm water felt cool and satisfying as it went smoothly down my throat. I could imagine my organs, one by one, getting bathed by the water and rejoicing in happiness to my choice of its temperature.
I placed the empty glass down and stood there, deciding what to do next. Still dressed, I could easily have opened the front door of my apartment to take a stroll outside. I might walk down the quiet boulevard where at this hour only those stumbling out of the bars and night shift workers returning home were lingering on the sidewalks. I took two steps toward the direction of the door, but before I could reach out and wrapped my hand around the knob, I turned rapidly to the living room. Maybe there was something worth watching on television, or I could pull out one of the many books in my bookshelf that I haven’t read. But in the end, I just plopped on the couch and stared blankly at the black sky outside the window. Too bad it was late to make a phone call and have a nice, lengthy conversation with someone. God sure knows there were many calls I have promised to many family and friends acquaintances, which I never made. But looking at the old phone on its table assured me that nobody was going to be pleased to have their phone ring at this god-awful hour of the night. Therefore, taking my face into my hands, I closed my eyes as I squeezed my temples. My Lord only knew how tired I was, but the act of simply closing my eyes and stretched out on the couch and sleep was one option I dared not to visit.
In anger, I jumped to my feet, and like some caged animal that just discovered its entrapment, I paced furiously from one side of the room to the other. Hands balled into fists as an acrid odor rose out of my mouth and drove straight into my nostrils. It was a stench I have accustomed myself to, for it was the smell of death that slowly seeped through my mouth and from every pore in my body. Yes, I knew I was dying, a secret I’ve been keeping from everyone for too long, and each night its ugly voice became much louder. How soon before it would rip out of my throat and announce it out loud for everyone to hear it? Once again, I crumpled into the old sofa, and allowing my despair to take a good firm hold of me, I sobbed.
As the old mantra of martyrs goes, I could say I had a good life with my share of bad days, disappointments and just plain bad luck mixed nicely with my happy days, joyful moments, smiles, and hugs remembered throughout generations in old photographs. Overall, I am a content man, and if I need to soon pack my soul to begin the journey that every Sunday the Queen of Angels told me about, then let it come swiftly. Still, if I feel so placid about it, then why every night do I fear that if I close my eyes to sleep, it would be a sleep I will not wake up in this world, but in the one of angels, demons, saints, and the holier than thou characters that poured out from the pages of the Bible.
Prayers of devotions began building on my lips, but I quickly dismissed them, for prayers have been plenty and answers through miracles have been none. So, I will let others murmur the catechism words of my youth, for those memorized phrases no longer hold the magic, nor the faith they once did. Great, I forced a weak smile. Blasphemy is now part of my repertoire at this wrong time in my life. Would God understand? What about if death comes and I find out that there’s no God, but just an empty dark abyss that will hold me forever in a frigid embrace? Or even worse, I would realize that God was here in this life all the time, though because the battle of believing in Him was always present in my mind, I pushed Him away. And now upon death, only the devil awaits, gleeful for my arrival into his darkened chamber.
Rattling noises from the old radiators fill the apartment along with their warmth, and I welcomed the sound, for it allows me to feel the companionship of something that will hopefully release me from my delusions. It also allows me to feel the gladness that in a few hours, morning will rise and replace the night shadows with the brightness of a new day. I nod with relief and confidence, and because of that fresh revival of strength, I stretched my body across the sofa and dare to close my eyes. And no sooner that the comfort of the soft cushion was underneath my head, sleep in a savage mannerism attacked me at once, entangling me in its web of distorted dreams.
Like always, terror straps a veil over me, a cocoon of fear. This time, a man stood in front of me. He resembled a lunatic with an oddness that makes me identify him as an early descent from a Neanderthal Man. I slowly opened my eyes, shielding them with my hand, for there’s a bright light shining down over his shoulder.
“Are you up?” he asked in a soft voice that belittles his rough demeanor.
I blinked at him without answering. I felt there was no need to answer a dream.
“Come on, man,” he put his face near mine. He smelled rotten, the identical odor that seeps from my veins. “It’s time to get up and join the caravan. It only comes once a day. If you miss it now, well, my good man, you’re going to need to wait until tomorrow. And I hear that tomorrow they expect the mass of humanity to be larger. It’s always like that, more join the caravan when the weekend nears.”
I rubbed my eyes and sat up on the couch to discover I was no longer on my couch, nor at my apartment, but in a place I have never seen before. I was sitting on what appears to be a bunk bed that hung from the wall on two rusted chains. Outside, I could hear what sounded like water lapping and splashing and by the way I rock from side to side, I knew I was in the belly of an old ship. I could smell the seawater and the muskiness of the wet wooden planks.
The strange man, naked from his waist up, stood next to me, his eyes held on to mine. I could see puzzlement in them. Then he gave me a smile that displayed a row of blackened stumps.
“We’re almost there. We need to go up and swim to the other vessel that will take us to our destination.”
I looked at him, more confused than I had ever been in a dream. I tried to force myself to wake up, even though my entire being told me I was awake. However, I knew that was impossible. I was dreaming. A twisted and realistic dream. Following him, I walked down a narrow passageway and took a staircase up onto the open deck. A washed-out white sky loomed over us, and looking overboard, I spotted what seemed to be one of those Chinese junk ships bobbing at least eighty feet away from our own. I walked to the side of the deck and looked down at the water below. The sea was calm, and the water was the color of clouds before a storm. Then, when I looked closely, I backed away from the deck’s edge. In the ocean, there were hundreds—no, millions—of dead bloated fish that sickeningly bobbed just below the surface of the water. I could see groups of men, women, and some children already splashing in the water as they swam towards the other vessel that loomed sinisterly. A thick mist covered most of its structure, but what I could see sent shivers of uncontrollable horror down my spine. They had built the ship not by wooden planks like the one I was on, but of chalky grey bones that looked human, fastened by what seemed to be strips of leather-like flesh. The look on my face must has been quite comical, for the man—my strange companion—laughed in a madly hysterical manner. For a good five minutes, he hollered, then abruptly he stopped and stared at me.
“My good man,” he said while pointing at the junk across from us. “We need to hurry if we expect to join the caravan. If not…” He shook his head. “We are going to miss it again and wait another day. I mean, I know it’s your decision, and I have to abide by it, but really my good man… it’s losing its charm.”
“You don’t have to wait for me,” I lashed out, losing my temper. “Go ahead, jump overboard, and join the others. I don’t recall us to have a partnership in this situation. And now that I think about it… who the hell are you?”
“I’m Tom,” he said, lifting his head with pride as if he was declaring some grand importance to such a common name. “They appointed me as your guide.”
Instantly, a frown took over my face as I glared at this man who stood in front of me with such a declaration. “My guide?” I pointed at my chest to emphasize my words. “And who the hell appointed you?”
“The committee,” he said.
“The committee?” I repeated his response. “And who or what is the committee?”
“The elders, chosen to be the guardians on the bridge between both worlds. They see and hear all,” Tom said as he glanced nervously around. He then came closer and whispered, and I could hear the fear on his lips. “They are watching now. So please my good man, let’s not anger them anymore. Let’s dive into the ocean once and for all.”
“Like hell I’m not! This is not real. You’re not real,” I shouted as I waved my arms around us. “All this is only a crazy dream that the sooner I wake up from, the better I’ll be. Too bad I’m not a writer; hacks all over the world would love to put this down on paper as they hope it becomes a bestseller!”
Tom stared at the crowd, those who were already climbing upon the bone-made junk. There was sadness in his eyes and his shoulders hunched down in disappointment. A certain hint of pity touched my heart and for a second, I almost gave in. But there was something in me—deep inside of me—that commanded me to stay put.
“As you wish,” Tom finally said as he watched the last person climb on the bone ship. Immediately, the mist thickened and covered the panorama in front of us, losing sight of the vessel within seconds. I heard only the sounds of splashing water, which I figured were oars pulling the ship away.
An icy drizzle fell, sending chills throughout my body, and in silence, Tom took another long look at where the bone ship once bobbed in front of us. Then, giving me a quick nod, he started towards the stairs and within seconds, I remained alone on the deck.
Tom’s departure comforted me and allowed me the luxury to think about what was going on. My stubbornness convinced me I was in a wild and vivid dream. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I had been sleeping for nearly thirty-six hours, which explained why this long and realistic dream had possessed me so deeply. One thing that amazed me was that even though I still felt the bopping actions of the ship underneath my feet, I have quite gotten used to it. What do they call that? Sea legs? Walking to the edge, I looked down at the water. The number of dead fish—belly up—was not only a gross sight, but the smell of their rotting bodies forced me to turn around and join Tom. Maybe it was for the best, to have a long conversation with the strange man and see what can I learn from him. Sure, I was still insisting that this was a dream, but there was a nagging voice inside of me that filled me with doubts.
Once down on the lower level of the ship, I spotted Tom sitting on the top bunk, his legs hanging from the edge. An oil lantern hung on a crooked nail, throwing thin yellow streaks on the floor, which didn’t remove most of the shadows cast inside the small quarters. I glanced around and besides a barrel pushed against a corner, the only place to sit was the bunk underneath Tom.
Noticing my hesitation, Tom quickly jumped off his bunk and pretended to be busy with some charts that I saw for the first time on top of the barrel. I wanted to ask him about the people and the ship, but not too eager to let this half-naked savage feel important, I dismissed him and sat down on the lower bunk.
“There was food and warm blankets on that ship,” Tom said, still rummaging through the papers. By the crunchy sound they made, it told me those papers were old and probably brittle enough to come apart if handled roughly.
“What are you trying to tell me? That this ship, for its size, lacks food and everything else needed for comfort? Come on, there must be something here. Don’t tell me that everyone I saw jump off the ship left nothing behind. Besides, this is a damn cargo ship. There must be a storage room.”
“There’s nothing here.”
“How do you know? Have you searched throughout the ship?”
“Yes, I’ve been here, waiting for you for quite a long time. This is the first time I’ll have company in the night.”
“You’re mad! How am I to believe you. Your words sound like a lunatic’s.”
“Your insults don’t bother me, for I know what I’m talking about. After tonight, I’m sure you’ll be the first one to jump into the ocean and swim to the ship when it returns.”
“You’re pretty confident it’s coming back. Why is that?”
“Because it always does. It has never failed to return. It’s been doing it for centuries, there’s no reason it’s going to stop now.”
I shook my head and laughed for a long time. I didn’t care I was mocking him. Yet as quickly I had laughed, I stopped when I realized that without noticing, Tom was no longer by the barrel, but was squatting down about five feet from me. I felt uncomfortable with him so close, especially in these gloomy surroundings. Besides, his speech and actions had convinced me that Tom was a sneaky bastard.
“Hey, Tom,” I brought the puzzle of my predicament out in the open. “Exactly where are we? And how did I end up here with you as my… God only knows who you are?”
“Do you really want to know? No, I don’t think so.”
“If I’m asking you, I definitely want to know. If this is not a dream I’m having, then what is it then?”
“This is part of your journey to your fulfillment.”
“My what? Journey? Fulfillment? You know Tom, I think you’re full of shit.”
“That has always been your downfall,” Tom said.
I stared at him hard, and for the first time, Tom met my eyes with his own burning ones. His demeanor made me uneasy. Dream or no dream, I was in front of someone that I knew could easily manhandle me if he wanted. Tom was not a big man. I could say he was as tall as me, and his age was hard to tell, but he couldn’t be that much younger than me. Still, there was a roughness that advised me not to be so quick with my insults.
“Tell me Tom,” I said as I laid on the bunk, its thin mattress uncomfortable, “you seem to know a lot about this situation I’m in. Just to pacify my curiosity, am I dreaming?”
“My good man. What’s a dream, but an extension of a reality forced to show the unavoidable? You’re a man with a mind so cluttered with constant nonsense that it kept your vision clouded. Your spirit can only reach so far until it needs to be more persuasive. That’s why it needs you to sleep, in order for you to stop and listen. You know that, and because of it, you have tried to cut its necessity from your life. But, just like deciding to go on a hunger strike, eventually, your fighting spirit will prevail. With that said, to answer your question, if it gives you a sense of control… yes, you are asleep. Your fatigued body finally succumbed and ignored what your stubborn mind wanted. You are the classic cliché—cutting off the nose to spite your face.”
“So, what does that make you, Tom? My damn conscience! Man, talk about a juicer of a dream I’m having. It’s so damn real I smell the rust on the hinges, the dampness on the warping panels of the ship. I even smell the old sweat seeping through your pores. My dear Tom, when was the last time you took a bath?”
Tom clapped a smile on his rotten mouth, and I knew he was the one mocking me. I didn’t like it one bit as I twisted my body and leap to the floor. It seemed Tom was expecting my actions, because he didn’t even flinch when I landed inches from him.
“There’s a lot of confusion in your heart. Some see it as hate, anger. You see it as self-destruction, regardless of if you’re unwilling it to admit to yourself as you continue this charade until it’s too late.”
“Figures.” I waved one hand in front of Tom’s face the way you shoo a fly away. “I have a nagging conscience. Did you pick up that habit from my ex-wife; the wicked witch who I married?”
Tom smiled and stood up. He went to the lantern, straightened it on the nail and, without bothering to turn around, he spoke. “My good man—”
“Stop calling me that!” I interrupted Tom with a shout. “I’m not your goddamn good man. My Lord, I’m not anybody’s good man. So, tell me what you want to say. Isn’t that what dreams are for? To reveal your inner desires and turmoil? But before you do, let’s make one thing clear, if this is not a dream, tell me for once what it is. Enough tip toeing like some poor excuse of a philosopher.”
I watched Tom slowly walk back to the spot he once occupied and squatted down. His dark eyes never leaving mine. He patted on the floor, and taking his invitation, I sat down facing him. I imagine we both looked like two monks ready to meditate.
“This is not a dream you’re having,” Tom said, sending chills down my back. “You’re on the journey where life stands upon the crossroads of both worlds.”
“What are you telling me? That I’m dead?”
“Not yet. They have not detected the contamination yet. But you show the signs of it.”
“Contamination? What the hell are you saying?”
"Please, allow me to tell you everything without interrupting me. It’s the only way for you to understand fully your situation.”
I nodded. Perhaps Tom was right. It was time for me to shut my mouth and let him say whatever was on his mind.
“This moment in everyone’s life always comes unannounced. It wraps around the individual and if the contamination is right, it snatches away what they all have believed is the only thing they cannot live without: their life. But life is only a label, a title that’s loosely understood, for when what you know as life vanishes, another sensation takes its place. It’s a journey unlike any other journey, for it only strives to heal the soul from its contamination. Please allow yourself to see life as a road that merges with another road. When you see them both as separate entities, they are different, but from overhead it’s only one road, one concrete strip that continues with no break. You are right now standing where one name of that road ends, and another name takes form. Still, be much aware that you’re still standing on the same road.”
Tom stopped and sighed a bit as I saw a change in him. It wasn’t sudden but was a subtle transformation which may have only been the flickering shadows playing tricks. I saw Tom’s lips move once more, then I stood up and stretched out on the bunk. His voice filled the room again, and with my eyes closed, I could hear the eloquence in his words. It was a guided meditation that soothed me into a comfortable cocoon.
“Every human being is an old traveler substituting old memories with new ones. The constant spin of the mind is always reshaping itself to accommodate new ideas, new desires, new habits that eventually become the dictating voice in what they see as another life… yet it’s only the same old life, now with an unfamiliar name. Today your life goes by the name of Tom, tomorrow it will be Peter, and the next tomorrow, perhaps, that same life will answer as Mary. But it’s still one life, the same road traveled by the same traveler who has forgotten he had walked on this path before. Pity the forgetfulness of humanity—imagine if one day they’ll be able to remember all those memories at once—oh, the achievable greatness, the mountains they’ll be able to scale without the slightest fatigue, for their walks will be sure-footed ones.”
Tom’s voice was now a monotonous sound that came in and out, like the passing song from a moving car that as it drives away, the less you hear the music. Still, the melody stays in your mind, which you sing in bits and pieces throughout the day. It produced a calmness that consumed me, wrapping around me like the perfect quilt on a cold winter night. My breathing came in and out, lifting my chest in a soothing comfort. I have never felt as restful as I did now, and my mind, which is always bombarded with nuisance, for once was as quiet as a Sunday dawn. Soon I heard faraway snores escaping from within, and with Tom’s words like sweet lullabies, I fell asleep.
I don’t know how long I slept. To be quite honest, there was no point in knowing the answer to that riddle. All that I cared now was how vigorous every fiber in my body felt. There were no ill thoughts swimming in my head, only this euphoria that cause my lips to lift themselves upward in a long and satisfying smile. I was genuinely happy, and again I didn’t care about the reason behind my happiness. I just accepted it. Through the cracks of the old wood of the ship’s chamber, I could see streaks of yellow zigzagging through the floor. The scent of fresh sea water caressed my nostrils and the back-and-forth rocking of the ship excited me. I sat up and I looked around for Tom. He was not here, and figuring that he was up on the deck, I slipped out of the bunk and went up the narrow steps. A bright shining sun greeted me, almost blinding me with its hot rays. Shielding my eyes, I stepped on the deck and spotted Tom at the further end of the deck, looking straight out into the roaring sea. I joined him, and looking down at the water, the first thing I noticed was the sparkling blue water with waves that invited me to jump in. I almost did, until Tom placed a hand on my shoulder and smiled. It took me aback, for I have never seen such a bright white smile in my life. What happened to the blackened stumps that crowded his mouth? Another thing I suddenly noticed was the crisp white shirt that he now wore along with well-tailored pants that had a sharp fine crease going down both legs.
I was looking at a completely different man. And it’s funny, that’s also how I also felt—like I, too, was a brand-new man. In the distance, a huge white ship advanced towards us, and I knew right away it was the bone ship. Tom was right, it had come back. With no mist hiding it, I could see how massive it was. Glorious and commanding, it rose above the white foaming waves with power and determination like an ocean god protruding from the depth of the sea. Its sails, taut, held the wind in its clutches, pushing the ship towards us at a fascinating speed. Sea creatures, of an undetermined variety, but what I imagined were dolphins, whales, sharks and a school of fish, leaped in and out of the water like cheerleaders escorting a well-battle-tested hero. The excitement of this magnificent scene captivated me as it filled my whole being with joy. I wanted nothing more but to leap into the air and nosedive into the sea and meet this exceptional creation halfway.
Sensing my enthusiasm, Tom now held me by both shoulders and whispered, “The time will come.” He then turned around and, for the first time, I saw Tom in the full brightness of the day. There was a resemblance in his face that puzzled me until it hit me like an unexpected punch. He looked like me! What kind of sorcery was this? Indeed, I exclaimed to myself, I am dreaming the most exquisite dream in my life.
“It’s not a dream, Peter,” Tom said, calling me by my name for the first time. “You are at the crossroad where lives overlap. You’re no longer contaminated but are renewing yourself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nobody does at the beginning, but soon you will. When it’s time, you shall swim to the ship, and they will answer all your doubts and questions.”
There were many questions tumbling wildly in my head, but instead of asking them out loud, I turned away from Tom and stared at the ship, which was now just fifty feet from us. The sails had been dropped as the massive ship bobbed on its anchor, waiting for its new cargo, its new caravan of travelers to board its deck. Behind me, an indistinct murmur mingled with and carried around me by the wind. The murmur increased in volume and size, and soon the loudness was terrifying, but not as frightening as what they have displayed throughout the ship. A humanity of men, women, and children was now gathered on the deck. Where did all these people come from? I turned, my bewildered eyes staring at Tom who, somehow, I knew held the answers to all my questions.
“The time is near. The caravan has arrived,” Tom said with a bright smile brightening his face.
“I thought you said there was no one on this ship but us. Where did all these people come from? Why I didn’t see them or even hear their breath all night long?”
“My dear Peter, I was once you. With the same identical questions. The same fears, until my guide helped me see the accurate picture of life. Look around, Peter, the reason you didn’t see them last night was simple—they are all you. These people around you are all the lives that have lived and gone on our never-ending journey. We are one spirit, giving and guiding every life that they assigned us to. As you can see, we have been every sex, every age, every race that God created. Today you, as Peter, have come to the crossroad to join all of us and give way to another life that awaits to be born. You were once Tom, today you’re Peter and tomorrow… well, tomorrow we shall find out who we will be. Are you ready to continue our journey?”
I looked around and a peace filled my heart and, taking a long look at the majestic ship, I nodded. I then watched Tom lift his arm and wave at the crowd on the deck. One by one, they plunged into the ocean and swam towards the waiting bone ship. At last only Tom and I remain, and taking a few feet forward, Tom embraces me as we, Tom and I, became one. And as one man, one spirit, we dove into the refreshing, renewing waters of the roaring ocean. And with powerful strokes, we swam, joining our other lives, excited for who we were about to meet and start a new tomorrow.