The full moon lit the waters of the Caribbean as I looked over the railing of the S.S. Champion. Behind me one could hear the noise of celebration—people laughing and shouting, dancing and singing—as we drew closer to the midnight hour. But I was still caught up in my serious, sad reverie. More than once since I had come onto this cruise the thought of jumping over the railing and ending it all had come to me. The laughing behind me hit my heart like daggers and I once again wanted to finish everything. I had no one left to grieve me, after all.
“Señor, why aren’t you inside at the party?” I heard a voice behind me say.
I turned and saw a small, dark man dressed in the uniform of the cruise line. He smiled at me expectantly.
I shrugged. “I guess I just don’t feel in a party mood, Jesus.” I pronounced his name the way I saw it spelled on his name tag.
“Please, Señor, it is pronounced hay-soos,” he said patiently. “And I understand your feelings about the party. Sometimes people feel like they need to celebrate even when there is nothing to celebrate.” His face looked thoughtful for a long while, before brightening again. “But it is my job to make sure that you have a good time while you are aboard. You would not want me to lose my job, would you, Señor?”
I shrugged. “Sorry. My wife died six months ago, and it’s been hard to celebrate anything since then. My therapist recommended I come on this cruise, and my friends chipped in and paid for it. I’d just as soon be at home feeding the squirrels in my back yard as be on this cruise.”
“I am sorry to hear about your wife,” he said. “It seems we both have our crosses to bear.” He chuckled quietly to himself, then stopped when he saw that I wasn’t laughing.
We stood, shoulder to shoulder, looking out over the water for several long minutes before I broke the silence.
“So what’s your cross?”
“Excuse me, Señor?”
“You said we both had crosses to bear. What is your burden?”
Jesús sighed. “Please, Señor, you do not want to hear of my difficulties. I may get in trouble if they were to learn I was telling a passenger of my problems.”
I turned and looked at him. “Nonsense. Consider it therapy for me. Something to get my mind off of my own problems. Please. I insist.”
He looked at me for a long moment as if trying to decide whether to trust me or not. Finally he nodded and sighed.
“Have you ever read the story of Cassandra?” Jesús said. “From Greek mythology?”
I thought for a long moment, then shook my head. “I was never much of a reader.”
“Very well. Cassandra had the ability to foretell disasters, evil that would befall people. But she was also cursed with the fact that no one would believe her.”
“Sounds terrible,” I said.
“It is, Señor,” he said. “It is also hereditary.” He stared at me for a long while, waiting for his words to sink in. Finally I spoke.
“So you’re saying that you have inherited this ability to forecast disasters?”
He nodded, and I could see sadness come into his eyes.
“My mother warned me of it when I was a little muchacho,” he said. “She was a very quiet woman, who for the most part stayed to herself. She never read the newspaper or watched the TV news. When I grew up, I discovered why.
“My visions started when I was 17. Since that time, I have seen two train accidents, three fires, and four explosions. I have tried to save many, but have been only successful in one or two cases.”
I continued to stare at him until I began to realize something.
“You’re…you’re here because the something is going to happen to the ship,” I said.
He didn’t nod, even though I could see he wanted to. Instead, his lips drew into a line and his eyes grew hard.
“I am not sure,” he said. “Soon, I think.”
I looked at the little man, then listened to the reverie behind me. As I listened, the countdown to midnight began: “Ten…nine…eight…seven…”
“Have you told the captain?” I said.
He shook his head slightly. “He is aware of my history, and I have lost many jobs because I frightened the passengers. He would only lock me away where I could not help anyone.”
“So you decide to talk to passengers one at a time,” I said. “Individuals like me who aren’t part of the crowd. You find suckers who are sad, or lonely, and convince that the world is coming to an end. What’s your angle?”
“Angle?” he repeated. “I have no angle. I only want to save you.”
I looked at him as fireworks went off above our heads, and the words “Happy New Year!” were shouted behind us. Suddenly I was disgusted with it all, the celebration, the crowd, the cruise, and the small man who had tried to convince me that he was the only one who knew of an imminent disaster.
“I’m going to bed,” I said, turning away from him.
“I understand, Señor,” I heard a sad voice behind me say.
I walked down the three level of stairs to my small cabin, unlocked the door, entered and collapsed onto the bed, still fully dressed. I was tired of it all: tired of life, tired of pretending that things mattered, tired of going on. Despite my angry frame of mind, I fell into a fitful sleep.
I awoke, disoriented, a few hours later, with a rapping on my door. I got myself up and opened it, and somehow wasn’t surprised when the small man Jesús was standing on the other side. I looked at him expectantly and he looked up at me, a bit embarrassed.
“It is time, Señor,” he said, a note of urgency in his voice. “It will happen soon.”
“What? What will happen soon?”
He stammered. “The ship…she will sink. Many, maybe all, will die.”
I stared at the small man who stood in front of me, trying to decide whether to believe him or not. I don’t know what made me do it, but finally, I nodded.
“Esta bien,” he said quietly, and turned to lead me down the hallway, up the stairs and onto the deck we had left just hours before. The celebration had all disappeared, and everyone had gone to bed, many to rise late the next day with a major hangover.
“Get in,” he told me, gesturing toward one of the lifeboats. He reached over and pulled back the white canvas cover that lay over the top of it.
“Where are the others?” I said. “Am I the only one?”
“So far,” he said. “I will stay and try to save the others.” I stood there and stared at him, doubt creeping back into my mind.
“Señor, do you trust me?”
I furrowed my brow. “I’ve known you for less than a day. Common sense tells me that I shouldn’t trust you.”
“There are matters beyond common sense,” he said. “What does your heart tell you?”
I hesitated. “My heart says that you may be my only chance at salvation.”
In response, he pulled the tarp back farther, and I climbed into the lifeboat. Minutes later, the gears began moving and the boat swung out and down, suspended by ropes over the water. When the boat hit the waves, Jesús told me to unhook the ropes.
“Do not lose courage,” he shouted down to me. “I will be with you.”
This is crazy, I said to myself a minute after unhooking the second rope, but I had already committed. Everyone on the ship as far as I could tell was asleep, with the exception of my small, Hispanic savior. And for some reason he had placed me in the lifeboat by myself, not even bothering to join me.
I am a pragmatist by nature, and knowing that I was committed, I threw myself into my situation. I went through the lifeboat and found a first aid kit, a few old rations and five gallons of water. Plenty to spare, I told myself, believing that I would be rescued within hours.
But it wasn’t hours. It was a week before they found me, and I had by that time concluded that it had all been a hoax. A container ship found me floating on the flat sea, out of water, out of food, sunburned and finally deliriously happy to be with other people. When I finally got to the deck, I was congratulated by the captain.
“Thank God we found you,” he said. “We had just about given up hope.”
“Me too,” I said. “It was insane for me to get into that lifeboat.”
“It was an insanity that saved your life,” he said.
“What are you talking about?”
“The Champion struck an old mine left over from the Second World War, and sunk in less than a minute,” he said. “It happened just before dawn a week ago. Everyone was believed drowned. But so far, we have found two alive. Thank God.”
“Two?” I echoed.
He nodded, and stepped aside. Behind him, dressed in overalls like the other workers on the freighter, was Jesús. His sunburned face was sad.
“I tried,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “No one else would believe me.”
I smiled slightly. “One did. You saved me.”