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What Might Have Been

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When the reality of just how young her father is finally sinks in, it does so with a jolt that would take her breath away if she still had lungs in her chest.

Coco's only memories of him living are the memories of a child. Memories in which her father was an ageless being, who loved her dearly and sang her a lullaby every night, until one day he was simply gone. She always assumed – or hoped – that he had lived for many years after his disappearance. The prospect of him having abandoned her cut deeply, the pain of it making her cry herself to sleep on occasion, but it was preferable to the alternative.

Any notion of him being gone from the world had been wiped from her mind entirely. Coco would have known if her papá was dead. There would have been a letter, or Tío Ernesto would have come home with a sincere apology, or her heart would have shuddered at the utter wrongness of it all as her papá died in a distant city. Hearing nothing had always given her hope, even as her mother's anger at the músico burned all the more fiercely with time.

Coco first realised her father had died young when she herself passed away.

A kindly old man had been the one to direct her towards the waiting area, explaining her situation sensitively as she stared at hands now pared to the bone. Where there should have been panic she'd felt only peace, having passed away quietly in her sleep, and any unease had vanished entirely once she found herself surrounded by her familia. It was Julio's arms she ran to first as her dearest husband showered her in kisses, only for her to fall into her daughter's arms immediately after. Coco had clung tightly to Victoria for as long as she could. The pain of losing her had always been the sharpest, gnawing at her even as her mind became a dazed fog in later years. To have her daughter and husband in her arms again was so sweet, she would have been happy if the entirety of her afterlife was that one moment, stretched over an eternity.

It wasn't, of course, though she was quickly grateful for that too. Her mamá – still as fiery as she'd been in life but harbouring a softness Coco had dearly missed – had embraced her next, pressing a kiss to her forehead and whispering 'Welcome home' so faintly Coco wondered if she imagined it. When she'd surveyed the remaining crowd, she beamed at the sight of her tíos - receiving eager waves from Óscar and Felipe in response - and Rosita looked so overjoyed to see her that Coco had wondered if skeletons could cry.

Mamá had been the one to introduce her to the final bystander, taking her daughter's hand and beckoning the nervous young man on the sidelines to come closer.

Coco will always remember the tightness in her chest as she'd taken him in for the first time. He had been hesitant as he approached her, clutching his arm in a nervous gesture that reminded her of Miguel and glancing towards Imelda as though asking permission. Whenever his gaze landed on Coco, however, there was an unmistakable awe in his young eyes.

She would know those eyes anywhere, even if the rest of him had changed in death. After all, she had spent most of her life dreaming about them.

Coco had been the one to make the final move. Without hesitation, she'd thrown herself into her papá's arms, laughing as he stumbled backwards before clutching her tightly and letting out a delighted laugh of his own. She had let her eyes close as his voice washed over her, anything he may have planned to say descending into "I'm sorry mija, I tried to come home, I never stopped loving you, my Coco, I'm sorry…" while her own assurances of "I know papá, I missed you, I love you," collided with his words in a formless song. Words failed them both eventually, and they were simply left holding each other - oblivious to their many witnesses - and she'd wondered again if it was possible for skeletons to cry when he kissed the top of her head as though she were still his little girl.

Only when they made their way towards home did Coco notice that her papá did not have a single grey hair on his head. Judging appearances was difficult in the Land of the Dead, and she was still struggling to adjust to her beloved familia being skeletons, but her father had maintained a youthfulness that made her absent heart ache. Her own hair had whitened over the years and she could see streaks of grey in her mother's braid, but her father had never encountered even that aspect of growing old.

She hadn't mentioned it then. Any pain over her father's absence from her life could wait until the celebrations were behind them. She had never thought that dying could be such a joyous occasion, but the extravagant meals that awaited her at home was a pleasant surprise, and it seemed the entire street was there to perform music and dance with the Riveras well into the night.

She hadn't commented on the fact that the music ban seemed to have lifted. Her delight at being able to dance again after spending so long confined to a chair overwhelmed her to the point where the ban seemed like a half-forgotten dream.

It was only weeks later that her mind allowed her to dwell on more painful matters. The permanent fog that came with Alzheimer's had lifted, but it still surprised her to realise she could now recall moments from her final years that had once escaped her. Young Miguel's company returned to her in vivid detail. A fond smile would arise as she recalled conversations about dimples and running and, when the boy was certain Elena was out of earshot, music. Guilt would crawl into her bones as Coco recalled the many times she forgot her own daughter's name or had mistaken Miguel for her late husband, or how often her father's mere existence seemed out of reach, as though his memory would collapse into smoke if she caught it in her hands.

Miguel had saved her from losing her papá entirely. He had sung her old lullaby exactly as her papá had a lifetime ago, and at long last Coco had been able to pass on his stories and share the photo she had rescued as a child; the one she would take out of her drawer whenever the pain of her father's loss became too excruciating to bear. The lightness that came with telling stories of her mamá and papá at happier times had given her more clarity than she'd had in years, even if the fog eventually pulled her under again. Not long after that morning, Miguel had sat with her and shared an outlandish tale of the Land of the Dead and marigold bridges and skeletons; had told her all about her fierce mamá, and of a papá who loved her more than anything, so much so that he fought year after year to see her again.

At the time the story had mostly gone in one ear and out the other. With her mind now clear, however, the reminder of her father's love was enough to stop her in her tracks and pull him into a tight hug if he were close enough to her.

Miguel had tried to lighten the story, she knew. He had been sensitive with the details, even when the tale veered towards her old Tío Ernesto, but she had gathered enough to realise exactly how her father had died.

Poison. Murder. Not even in her darkest nightmares had that possibility come to her, so strong was her denial of her father being dead. And yet, that had been what had taken him from her all along.

Coco has never been a violent woman. Her mother had branded the chancla like a weapon often throughout her life – though never towards Coco herself – and her own daughter Elena had inherited a ferocity that would fill Mamá Imelda with pride. Coco herself had never truly possessed the iron streak her mother had adopted out of necessity, but she's always known when to make an exception.

Enough to know that if she ever stumbles upon Ernesto de la Cruz, he will quickly rue the day he tore her papá away from his family.

The true horror of it all occurs to her suddenly as she lays in bed one night. She is not sure what elicits her realisation, or why it even surprises her so much, but the shock has her sitting bolt upright in bed, causing Julio's snores to cease for a moment before he slips back into slumber.

Even knowing her father had been murdered, Coco had refused to consider when it took place. He'd been young – that much was undeniable no matter how deeply she wished it weren't so – but she'd strayed from asking when exactly it had happened.

Only for the memories to slam into her like a truck; the silence that stretched a little too long after Christmas as the letters stopped without warning; her mother's furious tears which she tried and failed to hide from Coco; the sudden urgency with which her mother took up shoemaking, as their funds became dangerously low and putting food on the table became more and more daunting. Coco had still been very young when the letters stopped, far too young to comprehend the significance or to give up on hope that her father was coming home. She remembers nights resting in her mamá's arms, trying to convince her that papá was probably just too busy to write, or that he was waiting to come home so he could surprise them. Mamá had always smiled and kissed her brow without saying anything, her own hope having flickered and faded long ago.

That had only been a few months after papá left to go on tour. And no matter how many theories she had to endure while growing up, Coco knows there's only one thing that could have stopped her papá from writing home to them.

Which means he was only twenty-one when he was killed.

Coco knows she won't be able to sleep again tonight. She takes a moment to catch her breath (something she doesn't need to do, but her instincts from being alive haven't left her entirely), before rising from the bed and pulling on a robe. The night seems cold all of a sudden, but she pays it no heed as she wanders from the bedroom into the hall. The only sounds are those of her sleeping relatives – soft snores and snuffles wafting from every room – and she indulges in a smile at the countless memories of being the only one awake in a full house, before letting her feet guide her towards the roof. The air inside the house feels thicker than usual; she needs to feel a breeze against her face and take in the sounds and colours of the city to clear her head.

Her papá had been twenty-one. It is a strange thought, and one that crushes a heart she no longer has.

When she was a child her father had seemed so wise and old, though she'd come to appreciate over time just how young her parents were when she was born. Coco can remember herself at twenty-one; how mature and independent she'd felt as she fled to the plaza whenever the opportunity arose, to dance in the square despite her mother's wishes. She'd been carefree and more than a little rebellious, as her eyes closed and she let the music guide her movements, until it stopped and the townsfolk rewarded her efforts with applause. She remembers opening her eyes to a young man staring at her in awe, and the endearing way he'd hidden behind his hat upon realising she'd seen him. It wasn't long before they were married and he too would dance with her in the square, though such activities became less frequent as he grew more afraid of her mamá.

She'd been her father's age then and had thought that was old, but hindsight has taught her that she was still so young with many years awaiting her. Her life had barely even started at twenty-one, and thinking of all the moments her papá missed because of another's greed makes her wish she could still cry. She remembers the exquisite pain of losing Victoria; how her daughter's thirty-nine years had seemed so terribly short compared with the time she should have had. An echo of that pain claws at her now as she thinks of her papá, with his kind eyes and large nose and joyful smile that she never got the chance to see after the age of four.

Coco had been one hundred years old when she died. It hits her that she got to live longer than both of her parents combined, and the injustice of it all burns fiercely.

She pushes the pain aside as she approaches the roof. Dwelling on the past will only hurt her. Her dearest Victoria is here with her again, as are her beloved mamá and papá. In time Elena will join her too, as will the rest of the family. In many years Miguel will reunite with his tatarabuelo, and they can perform music together while Imelda sings and Coco dances.

All in good time.

The roof is not deserted as she'd hoped, though she cannot help but find her company fitting. Her papá doesn't hear her step onto the rooftop garden, and she makes no attempt to alert him to her presence. Part of her can't help but worry as she watches him sit by the roof's edge – a worry that comes with being a parent, she notes with a bittersweet fondness – but she knows he can come to no more harm here. Even the yellowing of his bones is no longer a concern. Her papá is remembered; she and Miguel ensured that.

For a time, she simply watches as her father looks to the vibrant city with a guitar cradled in his arms. Every so often he'll strum a cord that flows into a sweet, improvised melody and she'll smile, glad he's able to compose again after all this time. Mostly he sits in silence. She cannot see his face, only a slight slouch and scruffy dark hair which she remembers from when he was alive. If it were darker, perhaps she could pretend that he was still flesh and blood with a beating heart inside him, but she does not wish to lie to herself. She did that often enough when she was alive.

Impatience grips her before long and she approaches, not bothering to give a warning before she sits by her papá's side and lets her legs dangle from the ledge. He jumps at the suddenness of her arrival, but any shock melts into joy when he realises who has joined him. It doesn't take long for that joy to morph into concern that seems so out-of-place on his young face that Coco's forced to suppress a laugh.

"You shouldn't sit so close to the edge, mija," he scolds, and Coco can't help but release the laugh she'd tried to bury.

"You're one to talk," she teases, glancing down at his own bare feet and taking in the three-storey drop to the street below. Their home is far from the tallest in the city, but putting themselves back together will still be a chore should they fall.

Not that the threat of that stops them from laughing. The sound is pleasant as it disturbs the relative quiet of the street, and Coco savours it. She went so long without hearing her father laugh that now she wants to hear little else. Somehow, he manages to make even his laughter sound musical, and she'd almost forgotten how much she missed it.

A comfortable silence falls between them. Neither asks why the other is awake, for which she's grateful, and it isn't long before he returns to tuning his guitar until it sounds perfect to his ears. Coco takes advantage of the stillness to look out at the city before them, still so lively even at this hour. The sight of it still amazes her after all these weeks, with its patchwork of colours lit against a dark sky and the various levels rising higher than the eye can see. No matter where she looks, houses are stacked atop each other in a manner that resembles her children's building blocks, and yet as unsteady as the structures seem, she knows in her heart that they will stand for years to come.

The vastness of the city feels foreign after spending all her years in Santa Cecilia. She doubts she'll be able to see all of it even if her afterlife spans centuries, but she's happy enough taking in the view from this quiet corner.

The novelty of the view having passed, she rests her head against her papá's shoulder and shuts her eyes when a bony arm wraps around her. Their embraces still tend to have a degree of desperation, as though one of them will vanish if the other lets go, but Coco is so grateful to hold her father at all that she's able to banish such thoughts from her mind. They've both waited so long to hold each other that any opportunity they get feels like there are strings attached, but nothing quite compares to the comfort of having him in her arms again.

The best times are when mamá joins them, shedding her reluctance and giving in when Coco pulls her in for a family hug, and if she closes her eyes she can pretend she is four years old again and that nothing can harm her family.

"Have any new songs come to you tonight?" she asks, reluctantly pulling away from her father's embrace to let him return to his guitar. He looks down at it as if he forgot it was there, before shaking his head with a sheepish grin.

"Not tonight, mija," he says quietly, as though uttering an admission of guilt. She doesn't push the subject. If her mamá and tíos can be believed, it had taken weeks after rejoining the family for her papá to be comfortable with even playing for an audience again. Writing new songs is sure to come less naturally considering all that has occurred in the past, though he always plays his old ones for her when she asks. It never ceases to amuse her that he'll still censor some lyrics for her benefit, even after countless reminders that she is a great-grandmother who probably saw most of what life could throw at her.

Hearing the songs the way they were meant to be performed brings sweet gratification, after so many years spent hearing the bastardised versions being championed. Coco had avoided thinking on the implications of Ernesto gaining fame using her father's songs – had rationalised it by thinking they must still work together – but it had still broken her heart to hear the glamourised version of a lullaby she sang to herself every night.

"Play me something," she insists, as though she were a child again, and her papá smiles at her before his hands come to rest over the keys in preparation.

"Any requests, querida?" he asks, though they both know there's no need.

"You know my favourite, papá," she says, before resting her head against his shoulder and closing her eyes. There's silence for a few moments as she feels him press a soft kiss to her forehead, and her chest aches with nostalgic longing when he finally starts to sing.

"Remember me, though I have to say goodbye…"

His voice hasn't changed after all these years. If she were to open her eyes now, it would not be a surprise to find herself sitting on her childhood bed and staring at her papá as he played; his voice sweet yet unpolished, as it should be for this song, their song.

For a moment she wishes she could truly go back. This time things would be different. She would convince him to stay, and he would share his music with his family and Santa Cecilia alone. He would dance with her in the plaza, and would be the encouraging good-cop to Imelda's bad-cop when she brought Julio home for the first time. He would watch her grow and remark on how big she was getting even though she could never be taller than him.

Her papá would be there at her wedding, holding back tears while Imelda smiled at him fondly; he would hold his grandchildren and write songs for them as he once had for her. He would die as an old man with a long life behind him, and though Coco's heart would break she would at least take comfort in knowing it would not be long before she saw him again.

The idea is so sweet that reality could tear her apart, and once again she finds herself wishing ungodly horrors upon Ernesto. The moment passes in a heartbeat, however. She banishes all thoughts of that man and focuses instead on the fact that her father is here with her now, solid and real in a way he wasn't for so many years. His voice acts as an anchor to the present despite reminding her so strongly of the past, and when the time comes for her to join him, she sings the words with a smile.

"Know that I'm with you the only way that I can be…"

Her own voice has clearly aged – time having added a raspy quality to it – but their combined vocals fit together perfectly even now. She sings the final note with him and they giggle as it ends up being a little flat, but she would have it no other way.

Coco can hear the guitar being set aside before her papá's arms wrap tightly around her once more, and she returns the hug in kind. Part of her yearns to fetch her mamá so they can perform together again – her mother has the most beautiful voice of them all and to hear her sing would be so sweet – but there'll be time for that tomorrow. For now, she lets herself take comfort in her papá's arms and doesn't dwell on all that they've missed.

The past no longer matters. After all this time, her family is whole again.