Guitar gripped tightly in hand, Miguel tiptoed into his parent’s room, before slowly and silently closing the door behind him. His mother was already inside, seated in a chair made of woven straw beside the bed where Bebé Coco slept, her thin frame nearly swallowed by the swaths of blankets and pillows enveloping her from the chin down. Sweat clung to her forehead as she tossed fitfully, her breaths coming in short, distressed gasps that tore at Miguel’s heart. A wet cloth and his mother’s hand draped her brow, but her eyes remained stubbornly closed. It wasn’t until Miguel had situated himself on the stool beside his mother and strummed the first chord of Socorro’s favorite lullaby that her lids flew open with to reveal a gaze made bleary and unfocused with fever, but as she struggled to sit up, he placed a palm on her chest and applied a gentle pressure to remind her body how much it needed rest. It seemed to get the message, too, because she stilled without complaint, though her bright brown eyes never left his.
They both knew, or at least Miguel thought she did, that today was his first performance as the official member of a Mariachi band. It consisted mostly of neighborhood kids, a pair of cousins named Carlos and Esteban, and a boy named Alejandro. He’d moved to Santa Cecilia with his mom about six months after Miguel’s adventure in the Land of the Dead, and they’d quickly hit it off after Alejandro happened upon Miguel practicing his guitar after school and revealed that he harbored some talent for the instrument, as well. He’d also admitted to having been an ardent fan of De La Cruz, “before he turned out to be a no good murderer, of course.”
A rueful smile tugged at the corner of Miguel’s mouth as he thought about the friends waiting for him outside, but they were just going to have to wait. Bebé Coco had wanted so badly to attend his first performance, and he’d wanted her there just as much. Though lacking a complete understanding for the cause of his excitement, she’d shared it with enthusiasm, to the extent of counting down the days with him and watching him rehearse until Miguel was certain that she could (and likely did) murmur his lyrics in her sleep. She was, without question, his most dedicated fan, so if she couldn’t attend the performance, he’d just have to bring the show to her.
The strings pressed against calloused fingertips as his hands deftly formed the first chord. He could feel her eyes on him, could hear the sharp inhale that followed the first thrum, and as it always did when he sang her this lullaby, the scents and sounds and colors of the room began to wake. It always started out sleepy, with oranges and crimsons that became a little warmer, a little more vibrant, the sweetness of cinnamon tickling their nose, but when the pair of them found harmony in the rise and fall of the notes, the rest of the world didn’t just join them in song - it became a part of it.
This time, though, the chances of this lullaby turning into a duet were looking slim, and as though to remind Socorro not to try it, their mother arced a stern brow the instant her dry lips parted, causing her mouth snap shut with an audible click.
Though he fought down a fond smile at the resulting fuming pout, Miguel started to sing, his voice whisper-soft and gentle, “Remember me.” It was a promise. A promise that he would never forget how much his family loved him, and, “though I have to say goodbye,” he would always find a way to return. “Remember me.” His thoughts drifted to Papá Hector and Mamá Coco, as they always did. Wherever they were, whatever they were doing, he hoped that they were happy. No, that wasn’t right. He knew they were. They had to be. His heart told him so.
A glance at the sick little girl on the bed showed him exactly what he’d expected – his hermanita had her apple cheeks inflated with protest. Sweat-damp hair clung to the back of her neck like wet down, and frustrated tears gathered at the corners of her gleaming brown eyes. He paused only for a moment to wipe some of those beaded tears away, “Don’t let it make you cry.” And she clung to his hand, stubbornly refusing to let go until he stopped playing entirely, after which she released him with almost comical timing. Falling back into the rhythm for his most captive audience, he sang with a bright smile, “For even if I’m far away, I hold you in my heart. I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart.” He rose from the stool, still playing with the instrument held steady against his chest, and pressed his forehead to the wet cloth over her brow. The heat seeping from her skin could be felt through the contact. “Remember me, though I have to travel far. Remember me, each time you hear a sad guitar.” She sniffled pitifully, already feeling miserable, and now even more so because he was leaving her behind, and Miguel would have given anything to make her well again, but there would be other shows, plenty of them, and she could attend them all once she got better. Kids got stomach bugs and colds all the time, he knew. Even he’d gotten sick more than a handful of times when he was her age, but she was so young and small and this was the first time he’d ever seen her sick. “Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be.” Slowly, her tiny hands came up to wrap around his neck, and she was strong. Probably the strongest toddler in all of Santa Cecilia. “Until you’re in my arms again,” and it was at this point that he tapped her nose, drawing out a sunrise smile, and thus causing enough of a distraction to let him slip away from her grip, as he put some distance between them with an apologetic expression. Through the window, he could hear his bandmates calling him.
And so like it was just the two of them in the room, Miguel sang the last words of the lullaby with a strength and clarity that rivaled the town’s church bell, “Remember me.”
Throughout the lullaby, he’d watched her mouth form familiar shapes as she followed along, heard the raspy wisp of her voice struggling past a throat scraped raw from coughing fits. Once the final reverberation had faded, Miguel allowed the base of the white guitar to fall against his side, as he offered a small bow to his sister and his mother, and with a crooked grin, said, “Next time, when you’re feeling better, Bebé Coco, we’ll make sure it’s a proper duet.” The way it was always meant to be.
She reached for him with a cry when he stepped towards the door. Unsure of what to do, Miguel cast a despairing look at his mother, who rose from her seat to smooth out the wrinkles on Coco’s cloth before bending down to softly whisper something in her ear as she pulled the dislodged quilt over her chest.
Though a nearly inaudible whimper promptly broke Miguel’s heart, Socorro obediently closed her eyes, allowing exhaustion to quickly and effortlessly tug her towards blissful, dreamless sleep. After casting one last lingering look at her daughter, Mamá Luisa rose to regard him, affection and pride shining in her gaze.
Still uncertain, Miguel straddled the threshold, half in and out of the bedroom, though he made certain to fill up the space to keep as much of the medicinal mist filling the air from escaping. Swallowing down a bout of nervousness, he asked his mother in a hushed tone, “You’ll let me know if anything happens, right?”
She crossed the floor without making a sound, before cupping his cheek with her palm, and with a smile, said,“Of course, Miguel.” Then with a pair of light pats, she added, “Now, go have a good time with your friends. Your papa and I can handle your abuela.” Miguel searched her features for any signs of doubt, before reluctantly making to turn around, but before he could get far, she yanked him into a bone-crushing hug. “We are all so proud of you, mijo.”
Coughing to hide the sudden lump in his throat, Miguel squeezed her back, noting inwardly that he was now several inches taller after his latest growth spurt, “I’ll only be gone for the night, Mamá. Plenty of time to celebrate Dia De Muertos with the family…” Pulling back with a wry grin, he added semi-seriously, “Please don’t let Mamá Elena put my photo on the ofrenda if I’m a little late.”
She scoffed, “Do not joke about that, you silly boy,” and pulled his crimson sombrero over his eyes before folding her arms over her chest crossly. “Now get out of here before I change my mind.”
Laughing, Miguel placed a light peck on her cheek, then darted out with a waved, “Love you, Mamá!” The rest of the house was asleep, so he hastily grabbed a knapsack, adjusted his cuffs, and made towards the exit. The alebrije sleeping at its base perked up at his approach. Pausing mid-step at the sight of his otherworldly guardian and ridiculously carefree pet, Miguel bent low to scratch behind the xolo’s ears, “You’ll take care of everyone while I’m gone, won’t you, Dante?”
Wagging his tail, Dante sat up with a yip, which Miguel chose to interpret as an affirmative. “Good boy.” When he made to leave, however, an uncharacteristic growl undulated in the canine’s throat, and he lunged forward to sink his incisors into the hem of Miguel’s pants. At first, Miguel tried reasoning with the dog, since his alebrije usually had a good reason for acting strangely, but another honk from the driveway urged him to hurry, so he quickly untangled the fabric from the canine’s jaws, and then slipped out the door, closing it quickly on the sound of claws scratching frantically against the wood.
A chill passed through him when the tone of the alebrije’s urgent barking shifted towards mournful, but he shook it off. Surely, Mama Elena would be awake now, and the last thing he and his friends needed was another delay.
“Yo,” Carlos called to him from the passenger’s side of a light blue convertible with a lopsided grin, “the warden let you out early, hermano?” Esteban stood up and waved. He was sitting in the backseat, already clad in his Mariachi garb, while Alejandro glibly tipped his sombrero in acknowledgement. It seemed he was driving again, which was fair, since none of the rest of them had a license and it was his car.
After chewing out his so-called friends for nearly waking up the whole neighborhood, and most terrifyingly, his chancla-wielding abuela, he vaulted with his trusty guitar into the seat next to Esteban, and they hit the road to sing at the plaza for their late night performance. It was to be their first, an introduction to the musical society, and thus the excitement among the boys was nearly a presence all its own, electricity mixed with nerves and indomitable hope.
And for a while, Miguel’s thoughts drifted from his sister. He’d taken comfort in knowing that his decision to leave that night hadn’t been an ultimatum. He could and would come back to his family, again and again, as many times as it took.
Lights and lanterns curled around the branches of the young birch trees lining the road as they streaked by. Soon, there would be families in the graveyards spreading cempazúchitl petals, but that wouldn’t start until morning, which was a lifetime away. For now, it was about proving to the veteran Mariachi bands that they had what it took to make it to the top, and with Miguel’s lyrics and vocals, there was absolutely nothing standing in their way.
When they were nearing the front of a line of Mariachi bands waiting for their chance to shine as they tested their instruments - about five performances away from taking the stage - Miguel’s phone began to vibrate. With a sheepish shrug that couldn’t quite conceal a worried frown, he thumbed the screen and listened. Gradually, the color began to melt from his face, leaving it gray, as panic, bright and sharp, shoved all former thoughts of contentment from his mind.
With a small nod, he ended the call, and when his bandmates prompted him, explained with his head hanging and a curl to his shoulders that he needed to go home.
Confusion came first from the cousins, followed by quiet denials. Alejandro, for the most part, was disconcertingly silent, until Miguel bent to sling his guitar strap over his shoulder, proving he was serious. Flatly, he said, “Miguel, you’re not leaving.”
Flashing the others a pleading glance, Miguel shook his head, and spread his palms in a helpless gesture. “You guys don’t understand. This is all my fault. Coco’s really sick. And she was so upset about me leaving... it must have made it worse.” He took a step forward, only to find his path blocked by Alejandro. There was something about the width of him, the strength evident in his arms and torso, the pronounced chin poorly hidden beneath a patchy beard, that made Miguel think, for the first time in a long time, of Ernesto. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Squaring his shoulders and closing the distance until he and Alejandro were practically bumping noses, Miguel told him levelly, “I have to go back to see if she’s okay.
Though Alejandro gritted his teeth, he was the first to look away. “This contest only happens once a year, and we were lucky to even get in it.” Frustration saturated his words. “We might not be so lucky next year.” There was a jarring honk as several cars passed them by, their drivers completely unaware of the turmoil unfolding.
Miguel took a moment to breath before placing a hand on Alejandro's shoulder. “There will be other contests, hermano. But she’s my sister. I owe it to her to be there for her when she needs me.” And, somehow, he’d always thought his friends would understand that.
“We’re your band, Miguel.” So far, Carlos and Esteban had watched with quiet resignation, as though they’d known the outcome the second Miguel had stated that his sister was sick, but Alejandro persisted with last-ditch desperation, “We need you here.”
Shaking his head, Miguel pushed forward, accidentally bumping shoulders with Alejandro as he passed, “I’m going.”
And in the instant that they made contact, an influx of jumbled information assaulted his senses, the first being a hard thump as his guitar was shoved against his chest, followed by a sensation of weightlessness as he stumbled and his feet left the sidewalk, followed by the terrible brightness of approaching headlights. The last thing he remembered seeing before everything he knew and was exploded into fireworks of white agony, was the familiar expression of fury on his bandmate’s face. It was already morphing into something else by the time he got a look at it, but he never got to find out what.
And for quite a long time afterwards, Miguel would curse his useless brain, because in the split second before his death, his mind thought it fit not to conjure images of his family and the people who loved him, but of someone he’d rather forget.
“Just give me five minutes, Senora.”
Waggling his brows, the skeleton in the torn Mariachi outfit leaned on the scanner with a cheesy grin. Meanwhile, the Border Lady sighed through a forced smile, suppressing an unprofessional eye roll with a visible force of will. “I’ll zip over there, make sure she’s okay, and then zip right back.” His hands clasped in a gesture that was not quite begging. “You won't even notice I’m gone!”
“It’s been three years, chiquito.” She told him, and not unkindly in spite of the detached demeanor required of her position, as the image of the giant red X placed over his bones dissolved once more into the scanner screen. Judging by his stature and gangly limbs, she guessed that the boy couldn’t have been older than fifteen or sixteen when he’d died. “If your sister were coming, you would know.”
Frowning, Miguel turned to see the ethereal bridge of cempazúchitl petals stretching out over the divide between the realms, and the steady stream of souls strolling across it, hand-in-hand and elbow-to-elbow with their families. Crossing it had been so easy when he was alive. “You say that like a kid’s never been lost in the Land of the Dead before.” The long line behind him was only getting longer and more restless as he continued to stall, yet he couldn’t bring himself to care. He knew his familia and refused to believe that they would keep neglecting to put his photo on the ofrenda.
Ignoring the growing restlessness of the waiting patrons, the Border Lady told him sternly, “You were a special case, Miguel, and you were very lucky your family found you when they did.” It reminded him of being scolded by his cousin Rosa – the comparison nearly drawing out a genuine smile. “You should really go to Customs. Everyone in the Land of the Dead knows the Riveras have been searching for you.”
The last Miguel had seen his Papá Hector, he’d been succumbing to the Final Death after sacrificing everything to send him home, even his chance to see his daughter again. How could Miguel possibly look Mamá Imelda and Mamá Coco in the eyes when Hector’s sacrifice had so quickly come to naught? It was his choices, his mistakes that had cost him everything, and he couldn’t bear the thought of how they might react when they realized that.
Instead of saying any of that aloud, however, Miguel merely shot a glance at the big-boned security skeletons standing guard by the marigold bridge, each of them watching him warily in case he tried to finish off this year’s Dia De Muertos by making another run for it. And, well, who was he to disappoint?
He took a step backwards, taking him out of the line, and then continued to retreat without turning around so that the look of suspicion on the Border Lady’s face went unobscured until the crowd swallowed it up. “I’ll think about it, Senorita.” He called back with a wide grin. “Thanks for the advice!”
Gears already turning as he took note of the bustling techni-colored streets, Miguel strolled down to the corner of the sidewalk where a lone motorbike was propped up against the Pedestrian Crossing street sign. There was a lock on the back wheel, which would have thrown a wrench in Miguel’s burgeoning plan, if the mechanism hadn’t been unwittingly obstructed by a metal spoke.
After scribbling out –
Sorry for borrowing your bike.
Will return soon.
- on a scrap of paper and sticking it to the sign, Miguel scrambled onto the white leather seat, his hands finding the rubber grips on the handlebars with ease. All there was left for him to do was get it started, so naturally he tried giving the engine a sharp kick, just to see if that would do anything.
It didn’t. Nothing changed except now he felt silly. Next, he tried checking the compartments, and sure enough, there was a spare key under the seat. He plugged it into the socket, letting out a delighted grito when the machine roared to life, and he slammed a foot down on the gas pedal, sending the motorbike careening towards the booths. Those who spotted his approach threw themselves out of the way, leaving the barrier wide open. The bike crashed through the gate, went barreling past the security guards, and distantly Miguel could hear shouting but it was drowned out by the sound of his own cackling because finally he was going home!
The unexpected give of the petals beneath his tires should have been his first clue that this wasn’t going to work. In the end, he made it about halfway up the bridge before the entire section collapsed, and for the second time in his life, Miguel was treated to a sensation of weightlessness, and following close on its heels, agonizing pain.
Something was cracked.
Actually, strike that, a lot of somethings were cracked.
He kept his sockets sealed shut until the waves of pain became more bearable, until he was sure he could open them without screaming, and when they did, it was to find himself lying soaked in a shallow canal, with a familiar disapproving face looming over him. “Tu eres muy stupido.”
Miguel winced, then quickly wished he hadn’t when inky black spots dotted his vision. He was vaguely aware of being lifted, his arms slung around a spinal column, and then he was moving, floating.
The next time he woke up, he was lying in a bed beneath a ceiling painted in swirls of marigold yellow, rusty bronze, reddish orange, sea green, and variants of blue, like a sunrise above the ocean, and had absolutely no idea where he was. His body twinged when he shifted his head to the side in an effort to get his bearings, a warning.
“Don’t move yet, chiquito.” He knew that voice. Moving only his eyes, he was able to see the border patrol who’d refused him three times now, except she’d taken her hair out of the stern bun she’d always worn it in. There was a chair pulled close to the bed, which Miguel realized with a pang of guilt was likely her bed, and she lowered herself into it, the movements slow and deliberate as though she were trying not to spook him. “I took you to my home because I didn’t know where else to take you.” The Rivera family was an obvious choice, but if he had gone out of his way to avoid any interaction with them since his arrival than she didn’t feel it was her place to interfere, and though those words never left her mouth, for which Miguel felt a swell of gratitude, it was written in the frustration emanating from the pronounced furrow of her brow. When he moved to sit up, bracing for the pain, she rested a bony finger on his chest, and pressed him back against the mattress, “Don’t be ridiculous, chamaco. You have so many fractures on your bones right now even your fractures have fractures. What you need is rest.”
“But Dia De Muertos is almost over,” he croaked, though he made no further attempts to move when the ceiling mural began to tilt. “What if my family puts my photo on the ofrenda?” And if they didn’t, then it was absolutely vital that he find out why. For years, his mind had been leaping to worst case scenarios. He needed to know that everyone was safe and healthy, or he’d lose his mind well before he was forgotten.
She rested her fingers over his, gently so as not to cause any undue friction between their bones. “If they do, then you will know. I’ll ask Customs to inform me the second any become available to you.” With a wry smile, she rose to her feet, one of her hands finding a hair tie as she did so that the motion seemed inextricably tied to pulling her hair into a bun. “It’s one of the perks of having this job.” She paused on her way out of the room, looking thoughtful. “Speaking of, I’m working a second shift today, but I’ll be back in time for dinner. Try not to borrow anything else without permission while I’m gone. ”
Sputtering, Miguel protested from his prone position, “I was going to give it back!”
She laughed, surprising him. “I was due for a new one, anyway. Sing me a couple of your songs after you’ve healed up some and we’ll call it even.”
Once she was gone, Miguel settled back into the cushions with a sigh. He’d never even considered playing music for the sake of settling a debt before and in truth, it’d been some time since he’d touched an instrument, with one notable exception.
There was a room in the Rivera household, formerly known solely for their shoemaking, which was dedicated to Miguel, a shrine for the rising musician whose life had been tragically cut short.
His guitar, once shattered to pieces, had been lovingly recovered and reconstructed, and it now had a place hanging above the fireplace. On the mantle, pictures could be seen of a young boy with a mouthful of tamales on his birthday, making tacos in the kitchen with his abuela, proudly holding up a pair of polished shoes with a gap-toothed smile, and wearing his pressed and ironed Mariachi uniform for the first time while surrounded by his parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmother. To the Riveras, losing him had been a blow they couldn’t recover from.
Socorro hated the room with the entirety of her six-year-old heart. Everyone who entered it seemed to come out sadder than before, if that were possible, but most of all, she hated what it represented. Miguel wasn’t gone like everyone said. He’d told her he was coming back, he’d promised. And she believed him.
But if everyone kept acting like he was never coming back, then maybe he would think they didn’t want him anymore and he’d stay away. That was why every year she snuck into the ofrenda room and hid her brother’s photo, so he would know that they were still waiting for him to come home, relenting only the day after when her Mamá begged her to tell where she’d hidden them.
Miguel was still alive. She was sure of it.
He’d told her a story once, about how he'd gone to a magical land where he met Papá Hector and Mamá Imelda, about how it was beautiful and wonderful and scary. And to get there, all he’d had to do was steal a guitar.
Standing up on her tippy-toes, Coco gazed up in awe at the white guitar with its splintered wood, cracked paint, and grinning skeleton handle. It had belonged to her brother, but before him, it had belonged to her great great grandfather.
After sneaking a furtive glance at the entrance to make certain no one was coming, she yanked the instrument off the wall, though the weight of it surprised her, and she stumbled backwards before narrowly recovering her balance.
Somehow, Miguel had gotten trapped on the Land of the Dead again, and she was the only person in their family who knew, so it was up to her to go and find him and bring him home.
The guitar was too large and unwieldy in her grip, yet she set her jaw stubbornly, and brushed her fingertips over the cords, eliciting an unexpectedly sweet sound from the strings. A tingle of warmth crept over her skin, a breeze tickled the back of her neck, and the flower petals on the tile rose as though swept up by a storm.
A discordant twang echoed through the Rivera house, but when all present rushed in to investigate, it was to find the room empty, with only a guitar lying on the tile, and the ghost of a child’s delighted laughter still clinging to the walls.
In case this wasn't clear, I am not a Hispanic person, and my knowledge of the language and culture is limited. But I loved this movie. If you find something that could use improvement, please feel free to let me know in the comments.
I'd like to give credit to that comic of Hector driving a van across the bridge, because it's a wonderful and amusing headcanon for how he got some of those cracks in his bones. I debated showing Miguel waking up directly after his death, and I still might do that next chapter, but though I remember Hector mentioning it, I can't recall if he woke up in the Land of the Living or in the Land of the Dead.
Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! And a Happy New Year!
Chapter 2: take your time
The graveyard outside the Santa Cecilia church had always been crowded, such as it was on the holiday for honoring and remembering the departed, but there were new visitors, ladies and gentlemen in old-fashioned garb, such as brown tailored suits, billowing skirts, and bowler hats. One of the ladies gasped when something rustled her gown,“Oh!” And a child rolled out, twisting around to look up at her with astonishment. There was a subtle orange glow around her form, a slight translucence reminiscent of the Rivera boy when he’d been cursed a few years back, and the senorita froze. It seemed the others were only just beginning to realize that the child could see them, when she picked herself up and sprinted towards the cempazúchitl bridge.
A murmuring followed, growing in volume.
“Dios mio. Another one?”
“Was that Coco?” Someone whispered, and Rosita started at the sudden appearance of Oscar and Felipe at her sides. Without waiting for her response, the twins exchanged a nod, then took off to catch up to the little living girl before they could lose her in the bridge’s foot traffic.
Miguel didn’t understand why he could see the cempazúchitl bridge in the sky. It glowed a vibrant sunset orange against the night, phantasmal and radiant as the world that it led to. But it wasn’t to be used by living, so when Miguel open his eyes, the first question that occurred to him was not ‘Where am I?’ as his location did not seem so important in the face of what could be another curse.
There was gravel biting into his limbs that he didn’t feel, a sweet floral scent carried on the breeze that he didn’t smell, and beside him, though he barely noticed it, a body was being lifted onto a stretcher and into an ambulance, while Alejandro sat on the curb, his head in his hands.
Curious, Miguel tried to angle himself to see who was being loaded into the ambulance. He craned his neck, caught a glimpse of brown bangs peeking out from beneath a white sheet, then was stopped by a wrinkled hand on his shoulder. Frowning, he turned his head to see an elderly man with a long white beard slowly shake his head. “You don’t want to see that, mijo.”
Realization dawned gradually, shedding light a little at a time until understanding became unavoidable. The fingers on his shoulder, spindly and pale, were bone. And the old man watching him knowingly, had no skin, no organs, no heart.
And neither, Miguel managed to think through the shock, did he.
His vision tilted, swayed, and suddenly he was sitting in the middle of the street again, his legs feeling soggy and deteriorated. A gentle hand lifted him up, guided him to the curb next to Alejandro. Carlos and Esteban appeared to have left, already.
Maybe they’d gone home.
The old man plopped down beside him, stayed with him as the ambulance drove away, and the crowd eventually departed, leaving only the three of them. The moon was high in the sky when he finally helped Miguel to his feet. “Come on,” he said with a grunt, after slinging the boy’s arm over his shoulder, “ I’ll take you over the bridge, gordito.”
It wasn’t until after he had crossed that Miguel remembered there was somewhere he had to be, but by that time, midnight had struck, and the bridge collapsed into a shower of beautiful petals.
“What is this?”
Enrique stared at the envelope the young mariachi standing at his door had passed him in disbelief, while the boy shifted awkwardly, apparently desiring to leave. “I’m sorry, Mr. Rivera. I meant to give you the money sooner, but it took a while to save up.”
From behind him, Enrique could hear Luisa ask who was at the door. “Just the mailman, sweetie,” he replied, taking some satisfaction in the way Alejandro’s face went a shade paler at the lie. “It’s his first week on the job and he needs directions.” Lifting a lock of brown hair from her eyes, Luisa frowned, but Coco was being fussy with her breakfast, the distraction causing her to soon lose interest, allowing Enrique to discreetly shove the envelope against the boy’s chest.
Working to contain the anger threatening to surface, he quietly asked the boy if he thought giving the Rivera family the money he’d earned off of his son’s music would somehow help make amends. Swallowing hard, Alejandro shook his head, “But I thought that, maybe, this was what he would want.”
Enrique stepped back into the house, leaving him with the cash. “Go home, Alejandro.”
He quietly shut the door.
Later, he would find the envelope in his mailbox. And another the following month. Enrique didn’t see how throwing the money away would help anyone, and he never saw Alejandro come or go to force him to take it back, so he collected the envelopes in his drawers, where they added up, becoming increasingly difficult to hide over the years.
For the first few days, Miguel searched everywhere for his Papa Hector. He asked around the streets, and the Forgotten Village, where the fading skeletons seemed happy enough to have him around, though they claimed not to have seen his great-great grandfather. Miguel stared at their markings and features, trying to recall if any of the village’s citizens remained from his visit several years prior, but he’d only caught a glimpse of them the first time, so it was hard to be sure.
“Hey, have you seen Hector? He’s a tall scarecrow-ish guy with gold teeth and a straw hat? He plays the guitar?” A bearded man with a balding head covered in scraggly white hairs took a puff of his pipe then shook his head.
“Haven’t heard of anyone matching that description around these parts. If there was someone like that, they’d be long gone by now.” He managed a toothless smile. “Lo siento, chamaco.”
And though Miguel had accepted the news without prying further, it didn’t mean he’d given up. After all, it was possible that Hector had moved. Or maybe he hadn’t visited in a while. Sometimes, elderly people forgot things. It wasn’t their fault. It just meant there was still hope. This didn’t have to mean he’d failed.
Next, he wandered to Frida’s, and was pleased to find she was setting up a routine with her dancers held by wires over a flaming papaya. Naturally.
It looked like she was still taking inspiration from the advice he’d given her when he was twelve, which was fine because this was awesome. Still, was it his imagination or did her dancers look nervous?
When Frida realized he’d let himself into her studio, she clapped her hands, halting the rehearsal for a break. The flames dyed down, causing the dangling dancers to collectively let out a sigh of relief, while Miguel clapped, grinning widely.
“Hola, Senora Frida! Como estas?” Frida became a blur rocketing towards him, a missile of brightly colored fabrics, and Miguel backpedaled, before a primate tripped him, and Frida caught him in an embrace that would have been tight enough to drive the air from his lungs, had he still had any. As it was, it made his ribcage creak. “Uh, Senora?”
Sounding uncharacteristically hoarse, Frida asked, “Why are you here?”
And he tried to brush it off, but she wasn’t having it. She stared him down, her arms crossed over her chest while her monkey sat on her shoulder, until Miguel caved. He told her about the concert, about Coco getting sick and the fight with his bandmates. He told her about waking up in the street. “It was an accident.”
After what felt like a long period of time where Frida’s sternness refused to fade, despite Miguel having nothing left to tell, it eventually eased out of her. Reaching forward to brush a few stray strands of hair from his brow, she muttered thoughtfully, “You are not the first to tell me that, you know.”
“It’s the truth, Senora Frida,” Miguel insisted, because he knew Alejandro and he wasn’t a murderer. “Could you tell me where Hector is? After everything that’s happened, I’d really like to talk to him.”
A chorus of sighs came from the dancers, who all threw their palms over their foreheads dramatically. Frida solemnly shook her head. “They miss him.”
And Miguel’s throat couldn’t go dry. His palms couldn’t sweat. His heart couldn’t race in his chest. And never was he more aware of that fact then now. “What happened to him,” he rasped.
Frida turned from Miguel to chastise her girls for acting silly on their break, before saying with a breezy wave of her hand, “Oh, he moved on some time ago. I miss him, too, though I cannot say the same for his terrible borrowing ha…” The boy, a young man now, really, was nowhere to be seen. A jarring whine of rusted hinges caused her to look up to see the door to her studio swung as though it had been pushed, as the sound of hurried footsteps faded. “Miguel?“
Angela went to her post at Customs knowing it was going to be a hectic day, but had dared to believe that the worst was over, what with the main culprit of her headaches lying injured in her bed, except the afterlife has a way of surprising even the most jaded of denizens, which was the only way she could find to explain the pair of identical adult skeletons juggling what appeared to be a screaming toddler between the pair of them.
“Should we cover her head with a cloth or something?” One asked, apparently serious.
The woman standing with them, a Rivera if she recalled, told him patiently, “Oscar, dear, that’s what you do with horses.”
The twin not holding the child, his mustache askew, asked, “Then what do you do with children?” Other people were starting to notice the screaming, living girl, who was actually no longer screaming, as she’d taken to kicking – landing a solid hit on Oscar’s jaw that caused him to reflexively drop her. After landing on her feet, much to the relief of those who were watching the proceedings play out, she took off, taking advantage of her small size to crawl under the gate and into the city.
Angela gaped, taking in the panicking family with a mix of disbelief and some growing panic of her own. What did protocol dictate? Did she chase after the child or call it in?
“Coco!” The men cried out, turning to her with pleading eyes. It was up to her to let them in, but they had to be cleared. Their identities double-checked. She couldn’t just allow them to waltz in without following-
Her fist slammed down on the button for unlocking the gate, and they piled inside, frantically calling for the little girl with braids. Before they could squeeze through, however, she cried, “Wait!” And knowing that wouldn’t keep them for long, continued in a rush, “Are you related to Miguel Rivera?”
They froze, their eyes widening comically while they tried to process this new information. “Yes?” The woman said cautiously. “He’s our great-grandnephew.”
“I know someone who can help you find Coco.”
Not waiting for a response, she pulled out a phone.
Coco didn’t want to admit that the skeletons had scared her, so she rubbed her tears away with her elbow, set her lips in a stubborn, flat line, and tried not to flinch whenever she accidentally bumped into one.
Those skeletons that had tried to catch her seemed familiar, somehow, but she didn’t let herself think about it too long, and was soon distracted by the colorful stacks of houses and animals with vibrant coats, all of which seemed to sniff her curiously when she passed. It took all of her self-control not to pet every single one of them. Instead, she pulled out the photo of Miguel she’d taken from the ofrenda, and asked their owners if they’d seen her brother. Surprisingly, it seemed like there wasn’t anyone who wanted to speak to her. She kept trying, though. Crossing roads she wasn’t supposed to cross unless someone was holding her hand, passing bakery shops with treats like strawberry cakes and powdered sugar donuts that made her stomach growl, and ducking into alleys when she could have sworn she heard people shouting her name.
She didn’t want to be found, not until she found Miguel.
Eventually, though, her feet hurt began to hurt. Feeling a strange tingling spreading up her arm from her fingers, she looked down to see the tips had become bone, her skin translucent. Her breath catching on a frightened sob, Coco called for Miguel, loudly at first, and then quietly. From the town center, a guitar could be hurt playing a chipper tune, something easy to dance to. The crowd cheered, singing along and laughing.
Curling up under a table covered in produce, Coco reached up to snatch what turned out to be an apple, but before she could retrieve it, a bony hand grabbed her wrist.
From above her, a familiar voice said with mild amusement, “You know, stealing from the dead is a capital offense.” There was a short pause. “Why don’t you come on out so you can apologize to the store owner when he gets back?” Coco bit her lip, not trusting herself to speak. There was a tired sigh, then a hiss that sounded a little like the man was in pain. “Look, if you want the apple that bad, I’ll pay for it, but I’m kind of in a hurry, so if you don’t mind…?” With a shout, Coco kicked off her shoe, hoping that it would somehow make him let her go.
There was a dull thud, followed by a flat, “Ow.”
Coco bowed her head, humbled by the understanding that her shoe’s sacrifice had been for naught. Finally, she crawled out from under the table, though her mind had conjured up at least a dozen more escape plans, three of which had real chance for success. She waited for the skeleton man to scold her, or drag her off to jail, but the instant she stood up, or maybe even before, he got strangely quiet. Like all the words in him had all been swallowed up.
Peeking through her fringe, she could see that the skeleton wasn’t as old as she’d thought, though it was hard to tell without skin. He wore a torn mariachi uniform, and he was missing his sombrero. “Coco?”
She frowned at him, disliking that he knew her name, but shrugged. “Do you know where Miguel is?”
The skeleton blinked owlishly at her, “…Que?”
More slowly, she tried again, “I am looking for mi hermano. Do you know where he is?”
He shook his head. “No, I-“ Then he remembered her hands, which now looked exactly like his. Coco stared in them in wonder, too tired to be afraid, when he suddenly stood, his gaze searching, and grabbed her hand. “I need to get you home.”
“I’m not going anywhere without Miguel.” Coco tore her hand out of his grip, shouting at the stranger, “And you can’t make me!”
For a moment, something in his eyes seemed to flare, but he quickly tamped it down. Kneeling down to her level, he continued in a softer tone, “Coco, listen to me, I’m – I’m willing to help you look for him. But if we don’t find your brother by sunrise, you’re going home. No fights. No arguments.” She pouted, feeling mutinous. Sensing this, the skeleton arced a brow, “Comprende?”
“Si, Senor Esqueleto.”
Seemingly satisfied that she wouldn’t run, lest she get lost again, he stared off into the distance to decide on a course of action. Coco rolled the apple on her palms. She wasn’t going to take a bite of it, except she did, and if she’d already taken a bite then there really wasn’t any point to saving the rest.
When she was finished, the skeleton fished a couple coins out of his pocket with a sigh and placed them on the table.
They walked together for a time, him guiding her through the streets like he’d designed the city himself, which was nice, because being lost had been a terrible feeling that Coco never wanted to experience again. Sometimes, they stopped to show Miguel’s photo to passerby, who sometimes looked oddly at her companion but usually claimed not to recognize the boy in the photo. Finally, they reached a casa on a hill, a home illuminated by magenta lighting from the bushes and decorated with multi-colored streamers from the roof. And on that roof, was perched the largest cat that she’d ever seen. There were blue, green, and yellow markings on its fur, and it rumbled curiously at their approach. Her skeleton waved. “Easy, Pepita, it’s me.” A wry smirk twisted his mouth, though he didn’t seem very happy. “Don’t tell me you don’t recognize me?”
Coco let out a startled scream when the giant cat leapt down to pin him against the ground with a paw. Her skeleton man didn’t move.
And then the cat started licking his face, and he laughed.
People started streaming out of the house, including the identical mustached men from before, and the pretty lady with the rose crown, and a new, stern-looking bespectacled woman that Coco hadn’t seen before. Rushing out behind them was a female skeleton with lavender markers around her upper sockets like eyelashes, and a bun sprinkled with white hairs. And beside her, a skeleton who looked a lot like her skeleton, only older, taller, and a little more narrow.
Looking nervously at the gathering crowd, her skeleton gently pushed Pepita off of him, dusted off his pants, then turned to her to introduce them. “Coco, this is your Tio Oscar and Felipe,” the men in the bowler hats waved, “Tia Rosita and Victoria,” the woman with the flowers from earlier smiled kindly, and the bespectacled lady mouthed a hello, “your Mama Imelda,” she appeared to be at a loss, so Coco waved instead, “and Papa Hector.” At the last, her skeleton’s voice cracked with emotion. Coco turned to see that he was desperately trying not to cry. Papa Hector stepped forward, his arms outstretched, but her skeleton shook her head repeatedly as he backed away. “I’m so sorry-” Hector’s arms closed around him, making his eyes go wide, before the tension bled out of him, and he fiercely returned the embrace, “I thought… I asked everyone where you were and nobody seemed to know. They said you were gone or that you had moved on…”
“Si, I moved in with Imelda. And we’ve been so worried about you, Miguel. Why didn’t you come to us?”
“Weren’t you listening?” Miguel demanded. “They told me you were gone. And it was my fault! I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t… If only I hadn’t dropped that photo, then-“
“Miguel, I’m fine. Look at me, gordito.” Hector cracked a grin, showing off his golden teeth. “Muy guapo, eh?” Miguel gave a wet chuckle. Hector’s smile softened, turning tender, “You don’t have to worry about me.”
Imelda took her chance to scold the pair of them when it was her turn, though she kept it light, since Coco seemed oddly subdued for a child her age, and Miguel had punished himself more than he’d deserved, already. Still, she couldn’t understand how he could have ever believed that they would blame him for Hector’s final death. The thought of it alone brought her pain. But she ushered them inside, right after wordlessly sending Oscar and Felipe to fetch a cempazúchitl petal for Bebe Coco. Although there was still time until dawn, and Julio and her daughter would have liked to meet their grandchild, waiting wasn’t worth the risk. Imelda was sure they would understand.
Grumbling under her breath, Victoria massaged the bridge of her nose.
“There really should be an age requirement on these curses.”
Too tired to sit up, Coco crawled onto the couch the moment she stepped into the casa and curled up on her side. Dead to the world almost as soon as she closed her eyes.
Miguel watched her breath evenly in her sleep. The curse had reached her shoulders now, and started up her legs. Was that an otherworldly sheen around her collarbone? It was happening so fast. They needed to send her back.
“So,” Hector sat down in an armchair across from him, “do you think you’re up to telling me what happened?”
And because Miguel had spent the last three years coming to terms with his untimely demise, he offered up a cliffnotes version. All the highlights.
In truth, though, there wasn’t much to tell. How could there have been? He was only sixteen when he’d died. But Hector listened without interrupting, even smiling when he talked about his music, and messing around with his friends. Then Miguel told him about Coco’s fever, how worried he’d been about her ever since he’d died.
Hector wasn’t smiling, anymore.
When he mentioned Alejandro, though, that was the only time he’d truly looked furious. “Did he do it on purpose?” He’d gritted out through a clenched jaw, and Miguel hastily shook his head. Hector watched him closely, before continuing, “Your friend in Customs let you know about Coco, right?” Not sure where this was going Miguel cautiously nodded. “She let me know something, too.” And he pulled out a drawer from the table to reveal a folder labeled with Ernesto De La Cruz. Hector looked grim. “There aren’t many ofrendas left for Ernesto, not after news got out of what he did, but…” Not waiting for him to finish, Miguel snatched the folder and pulled it open, scanning the list on the first page for what he knew would be there.
Since it was alphabetical, Alejandro’s name was near the top.
Miguel choked on air. “T-this doesn’t mean…”
“It doesn’t,” Hector agreed. “But it doesn’t look good.”
It took a few minutes for Miguel to get himself back under control. He had always wondered if maybe… Alejandro had hated him. But had never allowed his thoughts to drift down that path for long. And a relation was no solid proof. Still…
It didn’t look good.
Imelda strode in soon after with a petal between her fingers, glancing between the pair of them when Miguel scrubbed furiously to erase any trace of tears and Hector hunched his shoulders, looking as miserable as she’d ever seen him. Silently, he promised to tell her later, which she would hold him to, but first there was a tired child that needed to go home. She passed the petal to Miguel, since it was likely his curse that Socorro had wrought, as possession of the guitar had passed to him.
The markings on his cheekbones, she noted when he bent to consider the petal, were scarlet chrysanthemums, arranged in a pattern similar to her husband’s.
As though he were praying, Miguel held the petal to his forehead, “Coco, I give you my blessing.” And it glowed, imbued with mystical power. But when he tried to lay it on the child’s back, she started and swatted it away, making him drop it. Coco scrambled off the couch on all fours, leapt off, and made a beeline for the door.
Imelda was faster.
She hooked the runaway child by her neckline, lifted her up, and gave her a look that could quell lions. “I think not.”
Frustrated, Miguel swept the petal off the tile, which luckily still seemed to carry its blessing. “Are you insane, Coco? Have you looked at yourself?”
Though the girl’s lower lip trembled, she far less afraid of Miguel than Imelda. “I just want to find my brother.”
Temper rising, Miguel stared at her in disbelief. “Yeah? Do you think your brother would want you risking your life like this?”
Coco shook her head, making her braids swing wildly. “Miguel told me he went to the land of the dead before.” Imelda set her down, looking warily at her great great grandson. “I have to bring him back!”
Miguel gave a harsh laugh. “And did he also tell you how close he came to dying?” Imelda narrowed her eyes in warning, but he wasn’t listening, anymore. Not to her. Not over the blare of sirens in his ears, the lingering echoes of an argument long ended. “Coco, if you don’t leave this place, you will never see your mama or papa ever again. Is that what you want?” It all stopped when he saw the tears spilling down her cheeks. She sniffled, trying to keep up a brave face, until finally the façade crumbled, and she balled her hands into fists to rub against her eyes as the sobs burst forth.
Immediately regretting what he'd done, Miguel ducked his head, unable to bear the weight of judgment from Imelda or his Papa Hector. Shoving the petal into his pocket, he announced, “I’m going for a walk,” and sidestepped Imelda’s intimidating form to slip outside. He didn’t go far, however. He could still hear the crying when Hector dropped beside him on the stoop. For a time, he didn’t say anything, then Miguel muttered without inflection, as though recalling a particularly embarrassing memory, “I hate this family. I don’t care if I’m on the stupid ofrenda.” Hector listened.“I said that once, shortly before I met you. Well, it turns out I really do care. I know it’s only been a few years – and what’s a few years to a dead guy, right? – but I miss them.” Hector wrapped an arm around him, allowing Miguel to slump against his side. “I’d give anything to see my family again.”
Hector gave him a minute. “Well, in that case, I’d say your sister is a good start.” He winked. “Shall we, mijo?” And Miguel nodded, too tired to speak.
When they went back inside, Imelda was rubbing soothing circles into Socorro’s back, calming her down. Faced with that, Miguel found it harder than he’d anticipated not to walk outside again. Though he longed to apologize, he knew it wouldn’t do any good when Coco didn’t trust him, so when Hector handed him a guitar, a stunning spiritual version of the one Miguel had stolen when he was twelve, he accepted it gladly.
Imelda set Coco onto the couch, even sitting beside her so she wouldn’t run, and Miguel strummed the first chord. It sounded perfectly tuned and cared for, a guitar played regularly and often. It would play what he strummed, make the sounds that he wanted, which meant it was up to Miguel to do the rest. The pressure ate him, settling into his limbs like a winter’s chill, until he looked up at Coco, his number one fan, “Remember me.” The words rasped against his bones, his skeletal fingers and joints stumbled over the notes, and yet her brown eyes widened, her lips parting in a quiet gasp. He kept playing. “Though I have to say goodbye. Remember me.” The last time he’d played this song to her came to him, all the worry he’d felt, never truly knowing if she was okay. “D-don’t let it make you cry.” Music was never meant to bring her sadness. And neither was his memory. “For even if I’m far away, I hold you in my heart. I sing a secret-”
She pushed off the cushion, leaping off of the couch, giving him barely had enough time to get the guitar out of the way before she was in his arms, and he held her tightly, cradling her head and pressing his face into the crook of her neck. She still carried the smells of home - leather and oil from the shop, a sweet floral scent from their mother’s perfume. The yearning Miguel felt for them was like a physical ache beneath his ribcage, but he knew that though he would have to wait to see them again, he would see them again.
Warmth seeped through his bones when Coco fussily wiped his tears away. Grinning at the serious expression she was wearing, Miguel returned the favor. It felt normal – right, even – to be with her again. Except it wasn’t. Not when it wasn’t her time.
With a heavy sigh, Miguel put her down, and tried to explain to her, as carefully as he could, that he couldn’t go home with her. “I live here now, Coco. Do you understand?”
She nodded dutifully. “Then I’ll live here, too.”
“No, that’s not-” When Hector chuckled, Miguel paused to throw a half-hearted glare his way. “Mama and Papa would miss you so much if you stayed. But if you put my photo up on the ofrenda, then I swear I will visit you.”
“And Mama and Papa? And Mama Elena? And Rosa? And Dante? And-”
“Everyone,” Miguel reiterated with greater emphasis. “But you’ll have to take care of them while I’m gone, okay? Can I count on you to do that, Coco?”
She lifted her chin high, sticking out her chest. “Si, Miguel.”
And Miguel smiled. “I know I can.” Then he ruffled her hair, messing up her braids one last time, watched quietly as she said her goodbyes to Hector and Imelda, who loved her and looked forward to meeting her again, though not too soon, and to her aunts, who gathered her up in hugs and fondly kissed her head, and finally, her uncles. They’d seen Coco at her feistiest, and so told her with full confidence that she was going to be just as scary as Imelda, someday.
Imelda gathered her in her arms one last time, whispered in her ear as she stroked her hair, “But don’t hurry to grow up, and don’t hurry to come back, mija. You will find your way back to us in your own time.”
Hector put his arm around Imelda, and while she surreptitiously wiped her eyes, Coco was transferred to Miguel, who carried her weight in his arms, memorizing it, then pressed one last kiss on his sleepy sister’s brow, "Don't forget, okay?" as he slipped the petal into her palm, “I love you, Coco.”
And the weight in his arms vanished, but not for long, because he soon found himself being crushed in half a dozen other embraces.
A short time after, Miguel would learn that Alejandro had made an ofrenda for him that year, and that soon after it was registered in the system, another Ernesto ofrenda had mysteriously disappeared. After mulling the matter over for a while, Miguel decided to stick with the belief that Alejandro truly hadn’t meant to hurt him, and even resolved to tell him when he arrived.
Many, many years later.