Imelda’s thoughts were a blank save for those two words, the name of the thin leatherbound volume resting in her hands. Since bringing it home, she’d brought herself to open it exactly once, just long enough for the familiar handwriting and lyrics to hit her like a dash of cold water. She’d slammed it closed immediately, but it had been too late. She might as well have found her former husband and had him talk to her awhile.
Among Ernesto de la Cruz’s things.
He’d been buried in Santa Cecilia; avoiding that bit of news had proven impossible. Such a famous man, returned to his hometown at last—it was all anyone talked about. Perhaps Imelda could have kept from hearing talk of that músico had her attempts to barricade herself in the workshop been successful, but for all its acclaim, the zapatería was not yet capable of running without intervention from its founder. This quandary or that complaint called her to the front, where she was subjected, yet again, to the talk of the town.
She shouldn’t have taken the book. She shouldn’t have been where she could see it fall, shouldn’t have been close enough to be struck with familiarity when it hit the ground, but it was too late for all that. All she had now was the present, the book, and the memories it had dredged up.
Imelda slipped the songbook beneath her pillow. “Sí, Coco?”
Her daughter gave her a longer look than was necessary, a question behind her eyes. ¿Estás bien?
Imelda had seen that question lurking in her daughter’s eyes more often than she would have liked over the past few weeks, ever since that songbook found its way into her hands. Coco had never vocalized it, but Imelda knew it was only a matter of time before her fraying nerves drove her daughter to more than silent support.
And when that finally happened, Imelda didn’t trust herself to brush the question off.
“Julio has a question for you.”
“What’s the question?”
Coco’s mouth tipped. “He says he can’t explain it. He has to show you.”
Imelda couldn’t help a small smile of her own as she got to her feet. Coco’s husband rarely asked questions using words alone. If he wanted to know where a tool was stored, he wouldn’t say, “Where do you want me to put this?” The first word, drawn out and paired with a questioning look as he held the tool, was enough for him.
Imelda fell into step beside her daughter, allowing her quick strides to push the songbook as close to the back of her mind as it would go.
That Día de los Muertos was as beautiful a holiday as anyone could have asked for. The sun made its way across a cloudless blue sky, and a soft breeze ruffled her dress and tugged at loose pieces of her hair.
The preparations passed quickly, without incident. Her familia approached them with the same commitment to efficiency they displayed in the workshop—do what needs to be done, do it well, and then move on to the next task until there are no more tasks to do. A blessing on one hand: she could assign a task and trust its recipient would complete it, pausing only to seek her guidance where needed.
A curse on the other: her mind was free to wander toward the songbook.
Whenever she’d remembered that songbook, back when she still liked to torment herself with thoughts of Héctor, she had imagined him thumbing through the pages with that smile on his face, trying to determine which of her songs would best charm the woman in the next room. “I was thinking of you when I wrote that,” he’d say when the song worked its magic. Maybe the next song he wrote would indeed be for that new woman; maybe he would have moved on to another romance by then.
In no case did she imagine him giving that book to Ernesto.
Imelda pushed her thoughts back from the songbook. She’d tried to unravel the mystery in the months since it fell into her hands, and all she’d discovered was a lack of murmurs regarding its disappearance. Which hinted that it was not one of his more important effects, but then, why return it to Santa Cecilia at all?
No. Best to think of other things. Today was a day for family.
She managed to keep her thoughts more or less on the present. By sunset, she smiled as little Victoria walked through the complex, watching her feet as if she suspected her shoes would flee without supervision. Coco had once managed to coax it out of her that she was making up stories in her head, though Victoria had never volunteered details. At least she seemed to be enjoying herself, even if her wanderings took her closer and closer to Imelda’s bedroom.
Imelda’s smile fell as she pictured Victoria wandering in, perhaps catching sight of an unconcealed corner of the songbook, opening it….
Coco was there before Imelda could move, steering Victoria away from the corridors and back toward the rest of the family. Imelda still waited until both were a safe distance away and hurried in.
The songbook was not visible from where she stood—a small relief—but under a pillow was hardly the best place to keep something hidden. She left the door slightly ajar, took the songbook in her hand, and glanced round.
It had been safe under her mattress for the past few weeks, but that could have been plain luck, and luck could run out. A drawer was the next obvious choice—though it might be too obvious. Perhaps she could—
The door slammed shut.
Imelda jumped, slipping the songbook into her apron pocket. She froze, listening, and sure enough there were voices outside the door.
“Mamá?” Coco’s. “Is…is everything all right?”
Dios mio. It must have looked like she’d slammed the door on her family, on this of all days. “I’m fine, mija. It was just the wind.”
There was a long pause at the other side of the door. "Mamá?”
Imelda’s heart skipped a beat—but there was no reason for that. None. She must have spoken more softly than she’d intended. “I said I’m fine, Coco.”
The latch clicked. Coco stood in the doorway, casting a glance through the room. Her gaze lingered on Imelda no longer than it did on the window or the bed. “She’s not in here.”
“Do you think she went a little further down?”
“I saw her come in here, Julio,” Coco said. “I—I don’t know where she could have gone…”
Coco was fooling. She had decided, against her nature and all evidence to the contrary, that it would be funny to pretend not to see her own mother. Perhaps she’d carry the charade awhile, but Julio? “Julio, stop this. I—”
They turned back toward the rest of the complex, letting the door close in her face. Imelda hurried to the door and grasped at the knob, her hand passing through as if one or the other were made of smoke.
No charade. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it was no charade.
She had no time to think what might have happened; there were endless possibilities and each was too bizarre to contemplate. She needed out of that room, needed to get someone’s attention, needed to find a way to correct…whatever it was that had happened.
Imelda drew a few quick breaths to steady herself. The first task was simple enough. The first one was doable. If her hand passed through the knob, then the door itself would function much the same way. She had only to purposely walk into a door.
She closed her eyes, clenched her fists. This was fine. This was nothing. This was just what had to be done.
She took the biggest step she could.
When she opened her eyes, the door was behind her and her daughter was already a few meters away. By instinct she started to call out, remembered what had happened before, and started forward instead.
Somewhere, somewhere close by, was music. Not the muffled, impersonal strains of a neighboring celebration, nor the passing notes of a roving band of musicians on their way to learn a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have thought it was coming from the next room.
It couldn’t be.
Yet there it was.
Music. Soft and intimate guitar notes playing as clear as day.
Imelda backed from the door, trying to keep her breathing steady. She couldn’t be touched, couldn’t be seen, couldn’t stop hearing music in a house that hadn’t welcomed so much as a phonograph for twenty-one years.
A dream. She was dreaming. It was still the night before Día de Muertos and this and everything that had come before it had been a prelude to the strangest nightmare her mind had to offer. She backed away from the music, toward the rest of the family.
“No, I haven’t seen her.” Concern already laced Rosita’s voice. “Are you sure you saw her go into that room?”
Imelda turned as Coco nodded. “We checked the other rooms, but she wasn’t there, either.”
“I’ll help you look,” Rosita said. Imelda made a grab for her hand, but she might as well have grasped at water.
The music was no fainter here; if anything, it surrounded her now, playing from everywhere and nowhere. No one else mentioned it. No one batted an eye. No pained look crossed Coco’s face; no look of fearful confusion crossed anyone else’s.
Imelda backed from the search beginning in her honor. They wouldn’t find her if she stayed, but she knew that tune and she couldn’t be where the music was when a voice joined that guitar.
She didn’t realize she’d gone through the gate until it filled her vision, growing smaller as she moved ever backward. Somehow, she got the presence of mind to turn around even with the music following, though it had grown a little fainter now that she was out. Away from her family.
On Día de los Muertos.
She had to go back.
Their concern would become panic if she didn’t return soon, but how was she to return when she couldn’t be seen or heard? Still, she had to go back, try to communicate somehow, music or no music—
In turning to glance behind, she hadn’t slowed her pace; a sudden collision brought her attention back to the path before her. Imelda looked up, irritated remark at the ready, but it died on her lips.
There, neatly dressed in slacks, hat, and jacket, with a clipboard in hand, was a skeleton.