For a time after that one, deafening toll, there is only silence.
Little by little, sound returns - but it’s different from what he left behind. He remembers music, he remembers his own voice, the last note of a song leaving his lips… and then that toll before all went quiet. Now there is no music: only hushed voices, the rustling of sheets. There are smells, too; flowers, he can smell flowers, but beneath it all there is another scent that frightens him, that of disinfectant.
Where am I? What happened to me?
He tries to open his eyes and he manages to, for a few moments, but all he sees is blinding whiteness, and then darkness once more. Again, he drifts.
After a time - how long? All he knows is that there is a bell tolling somewhere, there must be a church nearby - he can tell he’s lying on his back someplace soft. A bed, but not his bed. And worst of all, someone is touching him, moving him around, taking off his clothes and no, stop, what is going on?
He tries to cry out, but he can’t find his voice, and that is terrifying. He tries to move, but he cannot, and that is worse. Finally, with a terrible effort, he opens his eyes. The whiteness is blinding, someone is towering over him and he tries to get away, but his limbs do not respond. His body doesn’t respond. There is a hand holding his wrist, he can see it, but he can’t feel it - he can’t feel a thing.
Why can’t I move?
“Señor de la Cruz? Señor de la Cruz, please, stay calm--”
Ernesto de la Cruz shakes his head and that is all, it’s the only thing he can do. Shake his head, and scream. Because his voice, that he does find again.
His body, however, will never again respond to his will.
“The paralysis is permanent, from neck down. Had the spine snapped only slightly higher, you would be unable to breathe.”
They tell him that like it’s something he should be grateful for. Ernesto stares at them, says nothing. This is a nightmare, he reasons, it has to be. If he refuses to acknowledge it, it will fade away as nightmares do.
He holds onto that thought throughout his stay in hospital. The flowers and gifts delivered to his room he does acknowledge, but of course his familia would send him tokens of affection. It means nothing. It is not that serious, his body cannot have turned into a motionless prison of flesh. He will heal. He will be back on his feet soon, back on stage where he belongs. Any day now.
Any day now. Any day.
Oh God please, please, let this be the day.
I beg you.
It is not.
He has a mansion at the outskirts of Mexico City. When the hospital discharges him - “there is nothing more we can do, Señor de la Cruz” - that is where he goes. Where he’s carried. He can no longer go anywhere on his own. He never will again. This is a nightmare he cannot awaken from; the knowledge hits him as he’s wheeled into his bedroom, hoisted on the bed by the carers who will never leave his side from now on.
There is barking, a tiny dog jumping on the bed with him, and one of the carers moves a hand to shoo her away; Ernesto’s order to leave her is more a snarl than spoken words.
The carers leave, and Zita curls up next to his head. Ernesto turns to press his face against her fur and, for the first time, he allows himself to weep.
Someone has the bright idea, one day, to put on a record of his music. Ernesto can bear listening for exactly fifteen seconds before he screams for them to make it stop, that it is wrong, it is all wrong.
The one who came up with the idea in the first place is fired and replaced.
No music is played in his presence ever again.
They gave him a small silver bell to call the carers to him. A goddamn bell mounted on the headrest above his head, with a string attached he can pull with his mouth.
When he realizes the irony of it, he laughs himself into hysteria.
When his sheets need changing, he has to be turned around or is moved to the wheelchair, it only takes one person to do it. He is so light now, all muscle having wasted away. His atrophied limbs look more and more like taut skin on bones. Ernesto stops looking at himself at all. Whatever happens to that body, it’s none of his concern. He can’t feel it, anyway.
The one bright side is that he can’t feel the pressure sores that keep returning, either.
He’s had visitors, for a time. Many of them, and important ones to boot. He used to love having guests over, entertaining them; his parties were events spoken of for weeks afterwards. But after the accident he could tell how uncomfortable they were in his presence, and how quick they were to leave when he fixed a sullen gaze on them, saying nothing.
He kept receiving flowers and gifts from fans, but the visits slowed down to a trickle through the months and, within a year or two since the accident, stopped altogether.
It is a relief. It’s unbearably lonely.
It’s all that there is to life now.
Zita no longer sleeps anywhere but by his head. It is a reassuring presence, a warm body and soft, graying fur against his cheek. When he awakens in the morning a click of the tongue gets her up, licking his face and wagging her tail.
It makes him laugh. It’s one bright spot in a sea of blackness, until the day he clicks his tongue and she does not stir. The fur against his cheek is still soft, but the body beneath gives no warmth anymore.
When his carers rush into his room, alarmed by the agonizing cry, he’s sobbing his heart out and unable to stop.
He asks for death, and more than once. He begs, demands, tries to bribe his way out of that nightmare. Surely it would be easy: a pillow on his face, a too strong dose of medication.
But they refuse to help, mutter some nonsense about the will of God and force him to keep living. Ernesto begins to refuse water and food, and what he gets is a tube down his throat. It hurts, and leaves him unable to speak for days. He never tries that again.
“I take it you would like a glass of rat poison vintage now, huh? Too bad, amigo. You gave it all to me. Salud.”
Héctor grins at him from his bedside, raising a non-existent glass into an imaginary toast. He looks like a corpse, this time, skin ashen and features bloated by death. It isn’t always so; sometimes he appears just as he did the night he died, and sometimes he sees the boy he’s been. He often grins. He’s usually silent.
Sometimes, he speaks.
“So, amigo. Was my songbook worth this?”
Ernesto closes his eyes, shakes his head. “Why are you here?” he asks, very quietly, so that no one can hear. He has learned long ago that the bedside ghost is visible to no one but him; perhaps it’s because he’s his ghost, or perhaps because he only exists in his head. Either way, it refuses to leave. No amount of pleading or raging or trying to ignore him can help.
“To keep you alive, mi hermano. How else do you think you could live five years like this? Sores and infections and all? The doctors didn’t give you more than a couple of years tops. And you know, I think you have it in you to keep going another decade. No need to thank me. ”
The mere notion causes something in Ernesto’s throat to tighten. God, oh God, how long can he keep going like this? How long must he keep going like this?
“I don’t want to be alive,” he chokes out. His voice sounds weak, distant, a child’s prayer. It is met with a scoff.
“And I didn’t want to be dead, yet here we are.”
“You left me no choice.”
“That’s a load of crap and we both know it. Look, do you want me to go?”
There are footsteps, or so Ernesto thinks, and he knows that the ghost has come to stand above him. He doesn’t want to look, but he’s compelled to. He meets a pair of glazed eyes, sunken into decaying flesh.
“You killed me to get what you wanted. Fair enough. Now give me what I want,” the ghost says, and smiles broadly. There is something crawling behind his rotting teeth. “Move Heaven and Earth if you must, but give me what I want. And then you can die.”
The letter leaves Ernesto de la Cruz’s mansion the next day, written with the uncertain hand of a young gardener, dictated word by word by Ernesto himself. Express delivery to Santa Cecilia. The name on the envelope is that of Imelda Rivera.
Ernesto watches the boy leave his room with the envelope in one hand and money for stamps in the other. He settles his head down, closes his eyes, and sighs.
“Are you happy now?”
At the foot of the bed, his bedside ghost laughs.