“Who’s ready for some músicaaaa?”
As the audience hollered and cheered in response, Héctor guided Miguel around the edge of the crowd. The kid couldn’t take his eyes off the emcee (though, really, who could with all that…everything?), and Héctor couldn’t help but notice the wide smile that broke out on his face as the band played out a quick tune.
“It’s a battle of the bands, amigos,” she continued. “The winner gets to play for the maestro himself, Ernesto de la Cruz, at his fiesta tonight!”
Miguel’s eyes went starry, and Héctor couldn’t fight his own grin as he set his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “That’s our ticket, muchacho!”
One skeleton glanced over his shoulder as he overheard them. “Are you performing?” he asked, smiling. Miguel’s head immediately started bobbing.
“We’re just about to sign in!”
A sympathetic look immediately crossed the skeleton’s face, and Héctor felt his (metaphorical) heart drop. “Ay, niño, you didn’t hear? Sign ups closed ten minutes ago.”
“What?” Miguel’s smile immediately fell, and he looked up at Héctor with wide eyes. “How am I gonna get to him now?” he whispered, then he sucked in a breath. “How am I gonna get my blessing?”
Héctor snapped a few times to get him to focus. “Hey, hey! Listen, chamaco.” He set a hand on Miguel’s shoulder and leaned down a bit to meet his eyes. “I said I’d get you to de la Cruz, and I will, okay? Even if I have to throw you up his tower myself.” Ah, there we go, that got a little smile out of him. He pulled Miguel away from the crowd, thinking up a plan as quickly as he could. He and Ernesto had gotten into this same situation plenty of times; what had they done to get in?
“Look pathetic,” Héctor whispered. Miguel gave him a curious look, but did as he asked, body sagging as he creased his brows and stuck his tongue out. “No, no, no, what is that?”
“It’s what I do when I try to look sick!” Miguel argued.
“Hm? And how often does that work?”
“Wow, menuda sorpresa.” Before Miguel could argue, he added, “Anyway, we don’t have tongues, so unless you want to get caught…?” Miguel shook his head. “I didn’t think so.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
Héctor nodded down to Dante, who was busy biting at his leg. “Take a lesson from your amigo here.”
“Puppy-dog eyes. You’re still young enough that it works for everything.” Héctor grinned as he gave Miguel’s shoulder a light push. “When I was your age, all it took was puppy-dog eyes and flashing some dimples to get out of any kind of trouble. So come on, use those big eyes of yours.”
Miguel frowned for a moment, then looked up at Héctor with wide, sad eyes.
“Perfecto, qué patético!” Héctor adjusted his hood and ruffled his bangs. “There we go. Now take this…” He shrugged off the guitar and held it out to Miguel. “…and hop up on my back.”
Miguel frowned as he slung the guitar on his back. “Can you even carry me? You look like you’re gonna fall apart.”
Héctor rolled his eyes as he stooped down. “Do you want to get to de la Cruz or no?”
Miguel looked up at him, then took a breath and climbed up on Héctor’s back. He wobbled a bit as he stood up—dios mio, organs were heavy—but steadied himself before giving Miguel a wink.
“Let’s get you onstage, De la Cruzcito.”
It took a quick loop around the back of the stage, but Héctor finally caught sight of one of the stage managers. He whispered a quick “Get ready,” to Miguel, who quickly buried his face against Héctor’s shoulder. His brow ridge rose. Huh, nice touch.
He put on his most frenzied look as he bolted to the manager, starting to breathe hard. He let out a long sigh as the manager looked up at him. “Ay, Dios mio, we made it!” He turned to smile at Miguel. “Miguel! Mira, hermanito, we’re here!” He looked back to the manager with a hopeful smile. “You wouldn’t believe how far we’ve come for this. My little brother, he wants to sign up for the show!”
He tapped Miguel’s leg to get him to lift his head. He didn’t, instead tightening his grip on around Héctor’s neck. Mocoso, didn’t he know both their lives were on the line? Héctor fought to keep from rolling his eyes, instead putting on a fond little smile.
“He’s shy, but you should see him with his guitar. He’s a regular de la Cruzcito!”
The manager gave them a sympathetic look. “I’m so sorry, señor, but sign ups are closed.” She nodded up to the stage, where a man was going to town with his saxophone. “And besides, the show’s already begun.”
Miguel finally lifted his head. “What’s she saying, hermano?” he asked, voice soft and tired. “Am I gonna meet Señor de la Cruz?”
Héctor glanced at the manager, then back to Miguel before he sighed. “Doesn’t look like it, Miguelito.”
Miguel’s eyes widened. “But…but we missed our visit to Mamá and Papá for this!”
Oh. This kid was good. Héctor fought off his smile and shook his head with another sigh. “I know, I know. And I’m so, so sorry. I thought we had more time.”
Miguel swallowed, then sent Héctor the most perfect puppy-dog eyes. “It’s okay, Héctor. I mean…I know Mamá and Papá are old, but…but they should have at least one more year left, right?”
That was laying it on a bit thick, but…given the way the stage manager looked visibly moved, that might be the way to go.
“They…they definitely should,” he said, making sure to sound falsely confident. “And you know, we can still have our own Día de Muertos. You can play de la Cruz’s greatest hits, and I’ll find us some pan de muerto. It’ll…it’ll be just like going home.”
Miguel swallowed and nodded, hugging Héctor a touch tighter and putting on a small smile as he pressed his cheek against Héctor’s skull. “At least…” He gave a little sniffle for dramatic effect. “At least we’ll be together, right?”
The manager was actively fighting tears as Héctor nodded and turned. “That’s right, hermanito. Miguel y Héctor, just like always.”
He’d walked precisely one step away when the manager called, “Wait!”
He and Miguel exchanged a small triumphant smile, then both put on their most effective puppy-dog eyes as he turned back around. The manager dabbed her eyes with the edge of her sleeve, then said, “I…I think I can fit you in at the very end. What name should I put down?”
“De la Cruzcito!” Miguel chirped as he perked up. “Gracias, señora!”
“Ay, look at you, Miguelito! You’ll be meeting de la Cruz in no time!” Héctor sent his widest grin to the manager. “Gracias, señora! And keep an eye open for this one,” he said, nodding at Miguel. “He’ll be famous one day!” He grinned at the boy. “Let’s get you warmed up!”
Miguel let out a loud laugh of delight as Héctor ran backstage. “I can’t believe that worked,” he whispered as Héctor set him down.
“You don’t? You sold that, chamaco.” Héctor rubbed the top of his head, making him laugh. “I haven’t seen anyone pull heartstrings like that since I was alive. You’re a natural.”
Miguel laughed again as he adjusted his hood. “A natural what?”
Héctor winked. “A natural performer, obviously. Better than de la Cruz, even.”
“I’m serious! When he and I did the brothers trick, he…”
“Ay, no manches!” Miguel said with a laugh. “You definitely didn’t do that with him.”
Héctor side-eyed the boy, raising a browridge. “You keep not believing me when I say I played with him, and I’m starting to get offended, gordito.”
Miguel shot him a disbelieving look. “So did you carry him on your back?”
“Obviously he carried me. Believe it or not, I was a little chamaco like you once.”
Miguel’s eyes widened. “You knew him when you were a kid?”
“Oh, sure. Practically brothers, him and me. That’s why the act worked so well.” Despite his easy tone, he felt his throat tighten as he mentioned that. It’d been a long time since he’d thought about those days, the ones before Ernesto was famous and he was…well, dead. He shrugged. “But then my legs started dragging on the floor, and we switched to a husband and wife routine when we needed an in. That one…didn’t work as well.” Miguel burst out laughing, and the unease subsided as he gave the boy a little shove. “Hey, hey, don’t laugh! Clearly you didn’t see my Frida Kahlo disguise earlier; I make a stunning woman.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Miguel giggled. Héctor shook his head.
“Well, we can debate that after you’ve won.” He nodded to a couple empty boxes, a perfect spot for a tuning and some warm up. “Come on, chamaco, time to get ready. Puppy-dog eyes won’t win you that meeting with de la Cruz.”