as soon as ernesto bursts free of the weightless depths of the pool, the unexpected heaviness of the boy he’d saved sends him tumbling unceremoniously out of his arms and onto the ground with a muffled thump. no skeleton he’s touched in his many years of being dead has ever yielded to his embrace quite like this one had, has ever collapsed with any sound other than a clatter. this child must be something different. something special. shocked, ernesto scrambles to his knees beside the soggy bundle and watches in awe as he begins to stir and cough actual, deep, wet coughs that bring up water from somewhere inside him instead of just letting it drip down his ribs.
in an instinctual reflex he thought he’d long forgotten, ernesto reaches out a tentative hand and pats the boy between the shoulders to help him expel the liquid trapped in his lungs, all the while marveling at the fact that he apparently has lungs at all. his hand comes to rest on his back once his cough has reduced to a pant, and through his damp clothes he can feel flesh covering his shuddering bones, cushioning what would otherwise be the hard protrusions of his spine, and, deep in the confines of his concealed ribcage, a heart beating out the tumultuous rhythm of life. if that wasn’t enough to convince ernesto that this is the runaway living boy everyone’s been talking about, what he sees when the kid finally lifts his head to look at him certainly is.
the red hood he’d been wearing has fallen down, revealing a set of big round ears framing the brown eyes, soft lips and button nose of his face -- a face covered in smooth, solid skin, flushed bright with blood beneath streaks of melting face paint. it takes all that ernesto has not to reach over and touch it, to caress the boy’s soft flesh with digits of hard bone and pretend, for a moment, that he can still perceive his warmth.
instead, he whispers, “it’s you, you are that boy,” and the boy replies “i’m miguel. your great-great-grandson.”
the boy wraps his soft arms around ernesto's hips, and, prepared this time, ernesto heaves the boy up onto his shoulders, marveling again at how substantial he feels in his grasp. his hands may look skeletal but there’s blood and muscle and organ in him still, not yet shed from his bones in death. ernesto doesn’t know how he could possibly be related to him, but for now he lets himself believe that this precious miracle of a living thing is his.