Chapter 1: A Prison of Flesh
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.
This was a prologue - will get to the meat of the story in the next chapter.
For the record: no, that is not Héctor. The poor guy is currently trying and failing to cross the bridge. This is all in Ernesto’s head.
Chapter 2: A Sealed Letter
I got two takeaways from writing this: that writing Imelda and Coco fighting hurts, and that there should be more canon information on what Julio and Coco’s relationship was like.
I hope this letter finds you well. I know it has been a long time, and that a letter from me may be far from welcome. I cannot blame you, but I need to speak to you all the same. My condition, as you may have heard, is far from good; travelling to Santa Cecilia would be hardly possible for me. But there is something I need to tell you about Héctor that you should have known many years ago.
I have a phone number you can call below. If you’d rather meet, the address is on the envelope. However you prefer to get in touch, for the love of God, do so as soon as possible.
Imelda did not open the letter.
She stared at it, sure enough, and for a long time. The handwriting on the envelope was unfamiliar, but the name of the sender was not. Ernesto de la Cruz, who had been Héctor’s best friend long before she had met him. De la Cruz, who had been his best man at the wedding. De la Cruz, who’d often show at their house unannounced as though it were his own, insisting for Héctor to go out for drinks with him without any notice, like Héctor being a married man with a daughter had changed nothing.
De la Cruz, who would scowl whenever his wishes were denied and make biting comment on how marriage had turned his old friend into an old man - sometimes giving her, and Coco, a look that was only slightly short of resentment. Who had eventually won that unspoken tug war over Héctor when he had convinced her husband to leave with him or a tour that was supposed to only last six months at the very most. Neither had ever returned.
She knew that Ernesto had gone on to become a famous musician – no amount of avoiding music could keep her from hearing about it, not in his hometown – until a stage accident had cut his career short. News on his true condition were scarce, but it had to be something serious, for he’d never performed again.
Imelda hadn’t tried to find out more. She hadn’t been happy to hear what had happened to him; she was not, contrary to popular belief, made of stone – and she knew that, at the end of the day, leaving had been Héctor’s choice. Ernesto had prodded him, of course, but he certainly hadn’t had to drag him away kicking and screaming. Still, she’d had no reason nor desire to get in touch with her husband’s old friend. She saw no point in it.
Only that now – more than a quarter of a century after leaving with her husband, five years after a life-changing accident that had by all accounts turned him into a recluse – he’d decided to write to her, and she could not bring herself to open the envelope.
She tried to imagine what may be written in it, and her thoughts kept turning to Héctor. What else could it possibly be about? She and Ernesto had never been precisely friends, although they had gotten along better than most seemed to have expected them to, as long as he didn’t cross certain lines. Barbs had been traded from time to time, but there had been a sort of grudging respect from both parts. He found her stifling, she found him self-centered, but there were traits they had in common. More than a few, really: it was their different outlook on life that had put them on a collision course from time to time.
And Héctor had been in the middle of it, both the cause of that tension and the peacemaker to smooth things over. He had been the one real bond between her and Ernesto; if he wrote to her now out of the blue, it could only be about him. She was certain of it.
Had he written to tell her she had officially become a widow? Héctor would be almost forty-seven now, a year younger than her, but plenty of people died earlier than that. The thought caused something to twinge painfully in her chest, and she forced herself to smother it. So what if he had died? It was none of her concern anymore. It shouldn’t be. He had made a choice, twenty-five years earlier, to remove himself from their lives. She could have dealt with being left behind on her own, but leaving Coco – that was unforgivable.
The memory of that first year without news of him – of her little girl crying herself to sleep because she wanted her papá, her own helplessness whenever she asked her when would he come back, the sleepless nights as she went over everything he had ever told her before leaving, wondering if he’d planned to never return from the start – reared its head, and it helped steel her resolve. Coco was a woman now, with her own family; Julio was a devoted husband, Victoria was almost five, and they were trying for another child.
She was happy – what would such news serve, other than ripping open an old wound? Hers was already aching just by thinking about it, what would it do to her?
Nothing. It will not happen. That man is never going to hurt her anymore.
Ernesto may have believed it thoughtful to send her word, but she had no interest in knowing what had become of that traitorous dog. She had rebuilt their lives from scratch after he chose music over them. She had a family and that musician had no place in it. Not in life, not in death. If he was dead, she didn’t–
– care to know. Let someone else mourn him. Her tears had dried long ago.
Imelda looked up to see a large gray cat at the window, looking at her with a pair of familiar yellow eyes. Pepita was an alley cat through and thorough, but she would often spend her days in their yard or in their workshop. She never did that with any other family nearby, as far as she knew, and over time Imelda had come to consider Pepita her cat. Over a long time, really: Pepita had to be very old, and yet it didn’t seem to have slowed her down at all: she was still a very efficient mouser. Like everyone else there, she earned her keep.
With a small smile, Imelda slipped the sealed envelope beneath a heavy balance book that never left her desk, and stood.
“Hello, Pepita. You’re in luck, I believe Rosita has kept some pork scraps just for you...”
After the letter was sent, Ernesto waited.
Days turned into a week, then two weeks, then a month and more without any sort of response. In the end, he had to face the very real possibility that no answer would come.
“You should have been more specific, Ernestito, Tito, mi amigo. Something I need to tell you about Héctor, really? If you’re really going to confess, may as well do it directly in the letter. Now that would have gotten her to come frothing at the mouth.”
“I couldn’t. Someone else was writing it.”
“Still hoping to keep what you did under wraps? You’re unbelievable,” the ghost snorted. “Then again, maybe the real mistake was putting in your name and address as that of the sender. Chances are she took a look at the envelope and threw it away without even looking. You’re the one who took me from her, after all.”
“She doesn’t know I… she doesn’t know.”
“Oh, but you are the one who convinced me to leave in the first place. She probably thinks I ran off with some puta, and if so, she also blames you. You can be sure of that.”
“I’m sure of nothing. Are you even real?”
“In your head, very much so. Doesn’t really matter whether I am real to others, does it?”
No, it did not. Ernesto closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the headrest of the wheelchair. Judging from the sun’s position he still had a hour to go like that, facing the window so that he could look outside and feel the sunlight on his face. He was inwardly thankful for the good weather that allowed the window to be kept open; last thing he wanted to see was his face in the glass, with sunken-in eyes and gaunt cheeks, his skin ashen.
His face was not the utter ruin his body had become, but it was a far cry from what it used to look like. He’d looked youthful for his age, once; now he’d aged well beyond his fifty years.
Ernesto shook his head, forcing the thought away - what he looked like was the least of his problems - and looked back out of the window. He could watch the garden for another while; then they would wheel him on the porch outside, and it would be time to force himself to eat some lunch before being wheeled back inside and to his bed - this time on his stomach, to give some relief to the pressure sores that were eating at his back.
Even though he felt nothing, even though nothing had been mentioned to him, he could tell that the ulcers were getting worse. He could see it in the wet spots on the sheets when he was lifted from the bed, smell it in the sickly sweet stench of infection that would not go away despite the sponge baths, medications and dressings.
“Your back looks like Swiss cheese, for the record. Smells worse, though,” the bedside ghost that could be either Héctor or a figment of his imagination muttered, leaning against the window. That day he looked everything like he had the night he’d died, down to the clothing. He grinned at him. “Oh, and don't think for a second that pillow under your bony ass is helping much. You know it’s not pretty, or else you’d check it out with mirrors or something. Good thing I’m here to tell you all the details everyone is sparing you.”
Ernesto wished more than anything to be able to cover his ears - it will not help he’s talking from my own head I know he is - but of course he could do no such thing. Resting lifelessly on the armrests of the wheelchair, his hands looked more like a bird’s talons than something that could once get melodies out of guitar strings. He shut his eyes not to see them.
“You’re pretty much rotting alive. I would be amazed that you haven’t died of sepsis yet, antibiotics and all, if l didn’t know you’re just not allowed to die until I-- oooh, what have we got there? We should call the plumber, Señor de la Cruz. I think your bladder isn’t the only thing that’s leaking.”
Ernesto ground his teeth and desperately tried to ignore the voice, the wetness sliding down his face, the way his throat tightened and breathing through his nose became more difficult. “No,” he choked out, desperately wishing he could at least wipe his face on his own. There had been a time when he’d have felt anger, righteous fury against the vision before him and the universe itself for putting him in that situation. He’d have raged and raged, screamed over how unfair all that was, and found some solace in that - but that had been a long time ago. Now he was too tired. Too helpless. Despair was everything that was left.
“Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen you do that since your last dog died,” Héctor went on, relentless. “You bawled even harder than you did for the ones who came before it. By the way, I really liked it how you wailed over mutts but never shed a tear for me, mi amigo. Makes a guy feel so appreciated.”
“Leave me alone.”
“No can do, señor. That’s not what amigos do. The world - some familia , by the way - may move on without you, but amigos stay. Didn’t you want me to stick with you at all costs?”
“Let me die.”
“You know what you need to do first.”
“I wrote to her. She didn’t reply. They may have moved for all I--”
“So have someone find out where they live and write again. Pick up a phone, maybe now they have one. Get someone to find out. I thought you were the guy who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants. And you want to die, don’t yo--”
“Señor de la Cruz?” A familiar voice caused Héctor’s ghost to finally, finally fall silent. Ernesto tried to let out a sigh of relief; it left him as a hiccuping sound. He recognized Griselda from the sound of her steps as she walked into the room.
“My apologies, señor,” she said. She had to be in her sixties, and showed no signs of slowing down. She’d been there from the start, unflinching before the worst tasks and his blackest moods, deaf to his pleas to just end him; she was too much of a devout Catholic to do a such thing. Tall and broad, strong enough to easily lift and turn him, she had features that may as well been carved in wood with a hatchet. “I heard you talking,” she was saying.
“I was praying,” Ernesto muttered, tears still in his voice. Same old excuse no one believed anymore, but she didn’t pry. She never did. Everyone there must be thinking that he’d lost his mind, and perhaps they were not too far off.
“I see,” she said instead. There was a splashing sound, then dripping water. He’d heard those noises before, countless times - a small towel being dipped in a basin, and then wrung out. He kept his eyes shut when the damp towel was passed over his face. Not one word about the tears, and he was pathetically grateful for it. “Prayer is balm to the soul. I pray for you every night.”
Some good it’s done for me so far, Ernesto thought. He was beginning to think the Almighty just might have a bone to pick with him, and that all versions of Héctor he kept seeing and hearing might just be some sort of divine punishment, but he didn’t say as much aloud. He just kept silent. It was easier that way.
A clean cloth was pressed on his face to dry it, and then Griselda began brushing his hair. It was still thick and mostly black, despite the growing streaks of gray on his temples; the only thing that seemed truly untouched by the decay that had followed his accident. It hardly needed any brushing at the moment, but his face and head were the only parts of his body that could feel touch anymore, and she knew it. She kept brushing and began talking about the garden, how good the new gardener was, and how the tangerines in the small grove at the far end were almost ready to pick. He focused on the pleasant sensation on his scalp, on the slight breeze on his face and the stream of words, and some of his anguish melted away.
“Actually, a few are probably ready to eat. It would do you good, and so would some fresh air, señor. How about I wheel you outside before lunch, so you can have a look yourself?”
The chance to leave the room felt like a blessing. Ernesto opened his mouth to say that yes, he would like that, but another voice rang out first - that of a child long gone.
“We used to raid fruit trees all the time, Neto, remember?” Héctor, young Héctor, was saying now. He sat on the windowsill, legs kicking in the air, a childish gap-toothed grin on his face. “You hoisted me up when I couldn’t reach. It was fun. Remember that time old Rafael got that guard dog and you befriended it?”
He remembered, of course. They had spent countless days resting in the shade and stuffing their faces with fruit, their hands sticky with juice, besieged by mosquitos but still so happy and smug - certain as only children can be that they would never be caught, that they were just too smart and could get away with anything. For a moment, Ernesto could have sworn he could taste fruit again. Then Héctor’s childish grin turned into sad frown.
“Can I come, too? Please? I’d like a tangerine. I haven’t had one in so long.”
The taste in Ernesto’s mouth turned into ashes. He closed his eyes. “No, Griselda,” he heard himself saying. “Maybe… maybe another time.”
To his relief, she didn’t press the matter. She just hummed and turned her attention back on his hair, running a hand through it. He leaned into the touch without thinking. “I think it needs a trim, señor. Would you like me to take care of it?”
“Please,” Ernesto muttered, eyes still shut. It wasn’t her he was talking to, but she didn’t know any better. After she left to fetch the scissors - oh, if only he could move an arm and reach for them, everything would be over in seconds - Ernesto dared to crack his eyes open, and let out a sigh of relief.
Héctor was gone. For a time.
“You’re doing it again.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Hu-uh, you are. I heard you too.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“Don’t ask questions when you already know the answer, hermanito.”
Julio rolled his eyes at Rosita before he smiled at Coco. “I thought you didn’t mind. If I recall correctly, I met a certain señorita when she was sneaking out to dance without her mother knowing.”
Coco raised an eyebrow, her lips quirking upwards. That never failed to make her smile; she hadn’t been very impressed with the timid young man who had tried – and failed – to keep up with her dancing at first, but things had changed since. The memory of that day sat warmly in her chest.
“Oh, I don’t mind at all. But last time you got so distracted you almost broke your thumb with a hammer. I’d rather you don’t do that again. Especially if Victoria is within earshot to hear you cussing.”
“Or Mamá Imelda. She’d wash your mouth with soap. Either for humming or for cussing, makes no real difference.”
Julio shifted a bit uncomfortably. “I didn’t cuss, I--” he began, only to pause when both Coco and Rosita raised their eyes from the shoes they were working on, both raising an eyebrow. He smiled a bit sheepishly. “Well. Maybe a bit. But only under my brea--”
“Mamá! Papá! What’s a soup with pliers?” Victoria’s shrill voice came from the next room over, cutting through the quiet of the workshop. The question caused all three adults – Tío Óscar and Tío Felipe were out and about to get components for ‘an idea they’d had’, while her mamá had gone to the market – to look at each other with confusion.
“Soup with pliers?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“What would that be?”
“Don’t look at me, I got nothing.”
“Mamá!” Victoria called out again, and Coco put down the shoe she’d been working on.
Victoria was in the small room her grandmother used as an office, scowling down at a sheet of paper. She’d wanted to learn how to read since the moment she’d realized that those mysterious signs on paper had a meaning grownups knew how to decipher and, when Victoria decided she had to master something, she wouldn’t slow down until she had. Telling her she was still too little served no purpose.
They had tried to get her to start learning by reading books suitable for children, but it was the paperwork on her grandmother’s desk that really caught her interest, which was somewhat baffling given how boring most of it was. She would sit there – usually on top of a bigger book, like she was doing now, because she was too short otherwise – and try to make sense out of all the papers on it… which usually led to questions like the one she just yelled.
“What is it, dear?” Coco asked, leaning over her daughter. Victoria tapped a finger on the word in question, looking up at her with that oddly solemn way of hers, like she was waiting for her mother to unlock the mysteries of the universe from her.
“Let me see… oh, suppliers! They are people who sell us all we need to make shoes – the tools, the leather, the needles and thread. They supply it all to us, and thus are called suppliers. Now that you’ve learned a new word, how about you go out and play? You’re going to ruin your eyesight if you keep this up,” Coco said, kissing the top of her head. “And if your abuelita catches you sitting on her balance book again, she’s not going to be happy.”
There was some huffing and a roll of the eyes, but Victoria jumped off the chair and was off. Coco gave it ten minutes before she got bored to skip rope and wandered in the bookshop to watch them working. With a chuckle, she picked up her mother’s balance book from the chair to put it back on the desk - but first, she took a look at the papers on it. Victoria was very neat for a child, almost fastidiously so, but it was always best to make sure everything was in pla--
Ernesto de la Cruz.
Coco paused, and stared down at the name for several moments before she finally put the balance book down and picked up the envelope - still sealed, addressed to her mother, and sent from Mexico city a month ago, according to the postmark over the stamp. Coco turned it over to look at the sender again, her fingers numb.
De la Cruz. Of course it was a name she knew well; everyone in Mexico, let alone in Santa Cecilia, knew it. The famous musician who had risen up to fame from nothing, after growing up in those very streets, and then had all but disappeared from the public eye after a dreadful accident that had left him bedbound. People knew him for his movies and for his music, but Coco had never seen or heard either, as far as she could recall.
He had been her papá’s friend, once, when she was very little and papá was still with them. Her mother never spoke of him as she never spoke of her husband and, if her memories of her papá were few, those of Ernesto de la Cruz were even fewer and more faded... but they were there. She vaguely recalled a man standing by her father, slightly shorter but sturdier.
Coco! Look who’s dropped by!
They left Santa Cecilia together and, as far as Coco knew, the man she used to know as her honorary uncle had never been in touch since. Only that now there was a letter, sent recently enough, that her mother hadn't even opened. One that she hadn’t even been told about.
Is it about papá? Why else would he write?
It was a sudden thought, and it was all that it took. Her heart beating somewhere in her throat, her hands shaking slightly, Coco - for the first time in her life - opened a letter addressed to someone else. She thought back of the trepidation she had felt when opening a letter her papá had sent to her, before they stopped coming, but this was nothing like this. There was no anticipation in it: only dread.
She pulled the letter out of the envelope, and read it quickly. And then she read it again. And again. She would have read it a fourth time if not for the sound of a gate opening, by voices greeting her mother’s return, Victoria’s voice by far the most shrill. Coco turned and walked out without thinking - out of the office, through the workshop, and into the yard. Something had to show on her face because she heard Julio calling out for her, some worry in his voice.
Coco ignored him and walked up to her mother, who turned to greet her and then stilled, clearly seeing something off in her expression as well. Her gaze flickered on the letter she was still holding in her hand, and Coco saw comprehension dawning. She felt oddly calm, as though her brain was encased in ice, and her voice was firm.
“Mamá,” Coco said. “We need to talk.”
Victoria found it peculiar how adults had their own set of words to describe their actions.
If she snapped at Gisela when she didn’t wait for her turn with the skipping rope, she was ‘arguing’. If she raised her voice and so did Gisela, they were ‘fighting’. But somehow, according to her papá, when two adults did either thing they were just ‘talking’ and ‘having a discussion’ respectively.
“So if I yell I am fighting, but grownups are discussing?”
“Why is that, papá?”
She found that decidedly unfair, and also pretty stupid. A fight was a fight, however you call it. And that was one big fight: no matter how quickly her papá and Tía Rosita had scooped her up to take her upstairs, they could still hear the rising voices very, very clearly.
“You should have at least told me--”
“I didn’t bother to read it and neither should you! It was addressed to me and--”
“... Not a child anymore--”
“... If Julio left you and Victoria right now, would you--”
“... Not the point, I have the right to know--”
“... Might just hurt you again and I will not let--”
“... He’s pleading for a response, it must be important--”
“... Convinced him to leave in the first place, it is none of my concern--”
“... Catch the first train to Mexico City and--”
“You will not dare --!”
“Then try to stop me!”
Her mamá’s last shout caused everyone to still, mouths dropping open - and, most unusual of all, it wasn’t followed by another shout. Her abuela had fallen silent, and that was new. And somewhat scary, if the way Tío Óscar and Tío Felipe were clinging to one another was anything to go by. Victoria looked out of the window to see her mamá marching out of the workshop, across the yard and into the door that led to her and papá's bedroom.
“They weren't talking, were they?” she asked, but her father didn’t reply: the next moment he was out of the door and down the stairs, as quickly as his legs could carry him. She looked back outside to see her abuela standing on the workshop’s doorway, her eyes shut, a hand over her mouth.
“But if there is a number to call, you could-- the inn just had a phone installed, I am sure--”
“I could, yes.”
“... But you want to go in person.”
“Yes. I need to clear my mind, before I say anything to my mother I know I will regret.”
“You know she worries--”
“I do. I understand, and so much more now that I have a daughter I can’t bear thinking of leaving behind. That’s why I would regret it. But I have a right to know what is it we were never told. It might hurt, but… it cannot be worse than knowing nothing.”
There were a few moments of silence, then a sigh, and Julio stepped closer. He took one of the dresses she had folded on the bed and handed it to her, so that she could put it in her suitcase. “I’m expected to talk you out of it,” he said. “I am also expected to fail, I bet.”
Coco smiled a little, and turned to her husband. “If anyone asks, you did try.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Now that would get you in serious trouble.”
“Trouble is my middle name.”
“You refused to leave the house last Tuesday.”
“It was Tuesday 13th!”
“I rest my case.”
Julio smiled a little sheepishly before he leaned his forehead on hers, grasping her hands. “I will come with you, if you want.”
“I know you would. But I think I need to do this on my own,” Coco replied, trying to ignore the stab of nervousness in the pit of her stomach. She had hardly left Santa Cecilia a few times, to visit towns nearby; going all the way to Mexico City on her own went far beyond that. But she needed answers and, for once in her life, she needed to be alone. “I will be back soon.”
“If you need anything--”
“I’ll find a way to call the inn and leave a message for you.”
“I’ll check every day. Be careful.”
“I will be.”
“I love you.”
“Me too,” she said, and threw her arms around her husband’s neck. Julio held her back - sweet, reliable Julio, who was somewhat scared of the stray cat that hang around their yard but wouldn’t hesitate to jump in the maw of a jaguar for her and their daughter - and she smiled against his shoulder. “Tell Victoria I will get her a gift from Mexico City.”
“Oh! A doll! I want a doll!”
“Huh?” Coco pulled back from the embrace and looked down - they both did - to see Victoria’s head popping out from beneath the bed. “How did you get in?”
“From the window. I wanted to know what’s going on. You’re coming back soon, mamá?”
Is papá coming home soon?
The memory of her mother’s expression when she asked was like the twist of a knife; once again Coco understood where she was coming from, she truly did… but she had to know what was it that Ernesto de la Cruz had to reveal after so many years. She knelt down to pull her daughter in a tight embrace, and Julio crouched as well to hold them both.
“I’ll be back so soon you won’t have time to miss me,” Coco promised, and she meant it.
Letting go of them felt like the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life.
Chapter 3: A Sudden Visit
Ernesto knew that the bell was about to fall moments before it did, and ran away from beneath it as though he had the devil at his heels.
If that surprised the public, the dancers and the stagehand that had just taken--
-- his guitar from him, he couldn’t tell. He didn’t care. He was aware of nothing but the sense of impending doom, his own pounding heart as he struggled to get away. It wasn’t easy, the escalator was working against him and trying to bring him back under that accursed bell, but he was faster, already halfway down the steps.
The bell would fall, but he wouldn’t be beneath it. All would be well. He’d talk about how close it had been, laugh about it, joke that he was never going to have bell props on stage ever again. Maybe it would become a running joke, and years down the road he would still be telling that funny story of how a bell had almost turned him into a tortilla.
The thought made him laugh even now, but it died in his throat when something suddenly seized his shoulder and pulled him back, when a familiar voice rang out and caused him to still as though blood had turned to ice in his veins.
“Hola, amigo,” Héctor said somewhere behind him, just as his arm latched around his throat. His voice was impossibly cheerful. “Remember me?”
All strength went out of his legs, and Ernesto was unable to take another step. Héctor’s grip tightened, but not enough to strangle him as Ernesto had half-expected him to. He had a split second to feel relieved before he realized that something much, much worse was going on: the escalator was still moving, and them with it. Back up to the top.
Back up towards the bell.
“No, no, no, no! Héctor, stop! Por favor! Por favor!”
Ernesto tried to struggle, to break free, but it felt like he was moving underwater and Héctor’s grip was impossibly strong, keeping him still as the escalator brought them further up, where the bell awaited. It was swinging slowly back and forth, ringing in a funeral toll, ready to fall down on him the moment he found himself beneath it. And it would fall, he knew it, as he knew what kind of hell would follow.
“Trying to get away from me, mi hermano? Trying to leave me behind? That won’t do, it won’t do at all,” Héctor said, clicking his tongue as though disappointed. His voice was gravelly, and he could smell earth and alcohol in his breath, and something else he dared not name. “I didn’t get to go anywhere, and neither will you.”
“No! Let me go! Someone help me!” Ernesto cried out, trying to stretch out an arm towards the public, the dancers, security, anyone. He couldn’t move it at all. Héctor’s fingers dug into his shoulder like knives, cold as ice.
“I tried so hard to go home, but I fell and you didn’t help me up. Now it’s your turn.”
No one lifted a finger, no one said anything. The dancers were still and silent, looking at him with expressionless, identical faces. Because they all had the same face, now, God, they all looked like… like…
“Imelda! Please! Put to stop to this! I beg of you! I--”
Too little, too late, and Imelda didn’t take a single step to help. She didn’t even change expression: she just turned away - all of them turned away - and then Héctor laughed, and the bell came crashing down on him. That final toll covered his old friend’s laugh, but not his own scream.
That kept ringing in his ears even after he woke up.
By the time the train stopped at Mexico City, Coco had had enough time to regret leaving without making up with her mother, regret leaving at all, convince herself all over again she was doing the right thing, think up at least seventeen things she should have told Julio to do, and feed everyone in the coach she was in with the lunch Rosita had insisted to pack for her.
Even if she hadn’t been feeling slightly nauseous - had she eaten something that had gone bad recently? She didn’t think so - the sheer amount of food Rosita had dropped on her went well beyond what she could reasonably eat on her own during the journey.
“Nonsense, nonsense! You never know when your next chance to have a good meal is going to be!” she’d said, waving off her protests. To be fair, her tamales were absolutely delicious, so Coco hadn’t complained too much. She was nowhere as good at cooking as her sister-in-law; sometimes Julio joked that his sister’s cooking was the greatest asset he’d brought into the family with their wedding. Coco didn’t quite agree, but she had the distinct sensation that her uncles sort of did.
Tío Óscar and Tíó Felipe were the only ones among them who had been to Mexico City before, too. They had tried to give her suggestions on how to navigate it, but they had only been there for a couple of days and nearly two decades earlier; in the end, all that they could suggest was that she got into a cab as soon as she left the station, gave the driver the address, and let him do the rest. It was exactly what she’d done, and it had been easy; the cab driver seemed more than slightly unhinged when it came to driving, but he was up for a chat and that helped her ignore the stabs of nervousness in her stomach.
“So, Ernesto de la Cruz’s mansion! You know him?”
“Sort of. He used to be a family friend.”
“I see. Dreadful accident he had, huh? Never seen him in public after that. A shame, I loved his songs. Well, who doesn’t-- watch where you’re going, hijo de la mil putas! Er… sorry about that, señorita.”
Coco, who had stopped being a señorita about six years earlier, smiled a bit. “Mexico City is far busier than my hometown. A car is still a sight to behold, there.”
“Hah! This might sound funny coming from a guy who drives for a living, but lucky you,” the man laughed, then glanced into the mirror. “Hey, are you all right?”
Truth be told, she was still feeling a bit nauseous and the man’s driving was not helping matters, but dismissed it as her nerves playing tricks on her.
He has something to tell me about papá. His best friend - there must be so much he can tell me, all the things my mother won’t say. I remember so little. I remember a song, and smiles and warmth and being picked up, but not much else.
“I am fine, yes. Only a bit nervous. I haven’t met Tío Ne-- de la Cruz in a long time.”
In the mirror, she could see the man making a face. “Before the accident?”
“Long before then, yes. I was a child last time I saw him.”
Him, and my papá. They left together. Neither came back, but only Ernesto is accounted for.
“Then get ready for some unpleasantness, señorita. I know a guy who knows a guy whose brother worked in the mansion, and he says he’d be better off dead.”
The notion caused something in Coco’s stomach to clench. Through the journey, she had done her best to dig up all memories she had of Ernesto de la Cruz, as well as those of her father. The man she remembered, ever so vaguely, looked well and healthy, often laughing, with a mustache she’d found almost as funny as her papá’s goatee. It seemed that she would find herself looking at a very different man, after all.
“Is it… that bad?”
“Oh, yes. Can’t move his legs, can’t move his arms, can’t move a thing except his head. Needs help with everything, and I do mean everything if you get what I mean. I’d prefer to die, too. He had a dog, I think - he always had dogs, but that one was the last. It died a couple of years ago. Word is that he almost went insane with grief over that thing. Being stuck in bed does funny things to one’s head, huh?”
There was that sense of nausea in the pit of Coco’s stomach again, and she knew that it had nothing to do with anything she may have eaten. Far from noticing, the driver kept going.
“I guess some folks get used to being stuck in bed for the rest of their lives, but he never did. They say that he tried to bribe carers to… you know, speed things up.”
The thought was so awful it took Coco’s breath away for a moment. “Did he really...?”
“That’s what my friend’s friend swears by. A blasphemy against God, of course, but Hell can’t seem that scary when you’re living it already," he added, taking both hands off the wheel for a moment to quicky cross himself. "I for one can’t blame him.”
Neither could Coco, really. It was almost unbearably sad to think of, but not surprising, given what she’d heard so far. She felt yet another pang of pity for a man she hardly remembered.
“He used to have visitors, but not anymore,” the driver went on. “He gets gifts, sure enough, from fans all over Mexico, but I’m sure he would trade it all for just being able to get up and walk. Maybe getting a visit is going to help. Look, that’s the mansion - we’re almost there.”
Coco glanced through the windshield to the road ahead. The drive had taken them to the outskirts of the city; they were now going through a long path with fruit groves on both sides and, ahead of them, there was a massive gate.
Nervousness tried to make a comeback, but Coco forced herself to ignore it. Why should she be nervous? He had written, asking - pleading - for her mother to get in touch. She was not her mother, but she was the next best thing, surely. He had something to tell her, and no reason to turn her away.
Telling as much to the man who came at the gate, however, wasn’t as easy as she’d hoped.
“I am telling you, he wrote to us!”
“Señora Rivera-Martinez, if you will.”
“However you’re called. El señor de la Cruz doesn’t receive guests--”
“Which part of he wrote to us eludes you?” Coco snapped, holding up the letter. For a moment, he could almost hear her mother’s voice rather than her own. “If you can’t read, it’s not my problem. Find me someone who can and let me talk to them.”
“De la Cruz cannot write on his own--”
“So someone wrote it for him, doesn’t that seem likely to you?”
The man hesitated and Coco drew in a deep breath, trying to calm down. She rarely, if ever, snapped at anybody - but she was tired from the journey, eaten up by questions that wouldn’t let her rest and very close to losing her patience. She hadn’t come all the way from Santa Cecilia to be held up at a gate by someone too thick to understand plain Spanish.
“Listen. Ernesto de la Cruz is an old friend of my family. He asked for our visit, and urgently as well. I figure my godfather wouldn’t be pleased at all to learn you’ve kept me waiting here,” she added, and that finally got the man to recoil, the stubborn frown on his face turning into doubt. He opened his mouth to speak, but someone else got there first.
“Juan, what's going on?” The woman approaching looked about as formidable as Rosita, if at least a couple of decades older. Her graying hair was tied back in a bun, and she carried a small basket filled with tangerines. She looked at her somewhat warily.
Coco held out the letter through the bars of the gate. “I am here to see Ernesto de la Cruz.”
The woman stared at her for a moment, then held out her free hand to take the letter and read through it quickly, her eyebrows rising slightly. After what felt like a long time, she glanced back at her. “Are you Imelda?”
She shook her head. “No, she… she couldn't come. My name is Socorro. I’m her daughter.”
“I heard you saying that he is your godfather. Is that true?”
Truth be told, Coco wasn’t entirely sure; her memories were too few and distant… but she was almost certain of it, almost certain of having heard as much a long, long time ago.
“Ay, don’t you want to give a hug to your favorite goddaughter?”
“She’s my only goddaughter, pendejo.”
“Hey! Watch your language in front of my girl!”
“Yes,” she finally said. “He was… he is a family friend,” Coco said. “He’d known my father since childhood, in Santa Cecilia. There is something he needs to tell us about him.”
The woman nodded, staring down at the letter. “Héctor,” she muttered. “He does call out that name, sometimes. In his sleep,” she added, and that was when Coco knew she had been convinced that the letter had truly come from de la Cruz. She turned to the man called Juan. “Let her through. And carry her luggage inside, where are your manners?”
The gate was opened, and she stepped in. The woman, who introduced herself as Griselda Lopez, guided her through a large garden - there were groves of various fruit trees, shrubbery, flower beds, lawns, a fountain, and Coco was almost sure she could see a pool at the far end - and towards the main entrance of an impression mansion.
“This place is emptier than it used to be. We have the gardener and his helper, then Juan, myself and a couple more carers. We do have security, too, but there isn’t much for them to do nowadays,” Griselda explained. “We got crazed fans trying to get in, the first year or two after the accident, but not in a long time. The ‘security’ is off somewhere, I suppose, drinking lemonade. Absolutely useless, but señor de la Cruz’s manager insists to pay for them.”
A few minutes were spent talking about her journey from Santa Lucia, what time she had left, how long it took; Coco asked a few polite questions about the fruit groves and the mansion. It was only as they stepped through the front door that the conversation turned to the reason for her visit. “He is not well,” Griselda said, and her feature twisted in a sorrowful expression. “God only knows what plagued him last night - it was a difficult one. He’s sleeping now, and peacefully. I’d rather not disturb him yet. I am sure you understand.”
Despite the need to know gnawing at her, Coco understood perfectly. “Of course.”
“I’ll make sure he knows you’re arrived as soon as he’s awake and aware. Meanwhile, do get some rest. We always keep a few guest rooms ready, just in case. I trust you’ll be staying at least for the night.”
“Oh, I… I wouldn’t want to impose,” Coco said, feeling more than slightly uncomfortable. Truth be told, she had been fully prepared to check into a hotel; the main reason why she’d gone straight to the address on the envelope, suitcase at all, was simple impatience. She wanted to know, and she wanted to know right away. Now, however, it looked like there would be some waiting to do regardless.
“You’re not imposing at all,” Griselda was replying, waving her hand. She put the basked with the tangerines down on a table, took Coco’s suitcase from Juan’s hands - if she noticed her stretching out her hand to take it herself, she pretended not to - and guided her up a huge staircase. “This place feels dreadfully empty, and a change is more than welcome.”
As far as Coco was concerned, that place didn’t feel just dreadfully empty: he it felt dreadful, full stop. It was spotless and luxurious beyond anything she had seen, but it made her think of an empty carcass, like bones picked clean of flesh. Still, she had been offered hospitality and that was a kindness she had no logical reason to refuse. “Thank you,” she said, then, “you said that he mentioned my father’s name before.”
“Never when awake,” Griselda replied, preceding her through a long corridor. There was a sudden defensive note to her voice, and Coco regretted bringing it up. “I never pried. It is not what I’m here for. El señor de la Cruz has little left in the way of privacy, you understand. At least what goes on in his mind should remain his business, unless he decides otherwise.”
“Of course. I apologize for asking. I didn’t mean to--” Coco began, only to fall quiet when Griselda waved a hand and stopped in front of a door.
“It is alright, dear. I am certain he will answer your questions in due time. After all, this is why he wrote to your mother,” she said, and sighed. “I do hope that telling you whatever is troubling him will ease his mind as well as yours.”
“Is he restless?”
“Oh, he has always been since the incident. We all bear our cross in life, but some are heavier than most. And, God forgive me for even thinking this, even His son’s path to Golgotha did not last years,” Griselda said with a shake of her head, and pushed the door open, setting down Coco’s suitcase. “Here, do make yourself comfortable. If there is anything more you need, don’t hesitate to let me know. You’ll have word as soon as Señor de la Cruz is ready to see you.”
Despite the sense of dread that had taken hold of her, Coco managed a smile. “Thank you,” she said, taking suitcase - only to stagger back when her head spun and her stomach turned, as though she’d just made a terrible effort rather than just picking up a relatively light suitcase. There was an arm behind her back steadying her, and she didn’t fall.
“Oh my, this may not have been the best time to undertake a journey,” Griselda said, some sternness in her voice. Head still spinning a bit, Coco blinked at her.
“I supposed it would be a good time as any. I must be more tired than I thought. Thanks for--”
“How far along are you, dear?”
Coco blinked at her. “... Qué?” she asked, causing the woman to pause and shrug.
“My apologies, I assumed… oh, never mind. Do lie down for a bit, though,” she said, and left before Coco could say anything - leaving her to stare at her retreating back in silence, a hand reaching to rest on her stomach.
“Oh, you’re awake, finally. I was starting to get bored here. Stop keeping your eyes closed, I know you’re not asleep. Hey, want to hear something funny?”
Ernesto clenched his teeth, refusing to answer, and kept his eyes screwed shut. Of course, his ghost kept going regardless. He always did. There was nothing Ernesto could do to shut him up, to stop hearing him.
“If you hadn’t killed me to become famous, chances are you would have never found yourself under that bell. I figured it would be a nice thought to start they day with. Sort of. You know it’s probably afternoon, right? Whatever they gave you to put you back to sleep when you so rudely woke up screaming must have been some powerful stuff. Knocked you off your feet, so to speak.”
He did remember screaming, but very vaguely. With the nightmare still clinging to him, so dreadfully real, everything else had seemed very far away. He had screamed, and someone had come in. He’d heard a voice - Griselda’s? - and felt a hand brushing back his hair, pressing on his forehead to keep his head down on the pillow. He hadn’t felt the prick of a needle, but of course she must have injected something because he’d fallen into unconsciousness moments later. It had been a deep, dreamless sleep. For a time, he’d been dead to the world. But he was still alive, and all too soon the illusion was gone.
“Señor de la Cruz?”
Ernesto opened his eyes and turned to the door. There was someone standing there, some handyman who usually worked in the garden called Juan. Or was it José? Hell if he knew and hell if he cared. It was some nobody who probably didn’t even know how to read, but he could still walk, scratch his own nose and wipe his own ass, and Ernesto hated him for it.
“What do you want?” he asked, pointedly ignoring Héctor, who was grinning at him while sitting at the end of the bed. He looked, once again, like a corpse just out of its grave. If he had been able to turn in his dream, Ernesto had no doubt that was the face he’d have seen.
The man took a step inside, not sparing a single glance in Héctor’s direction. Seeing him was the one thing Ernesto could do that no one else could; a privilege he would gladly trade for death, really. “A lady has come to see you, earlier this afternoon.”
Ernesto blinked, his heart seemingly leaping into his throat. He was aware, distantly, of the fact Héctor’s grin had faded into an expressionless mask. “A lady,” he repeated slowly. Could it be that Imelda had come, after all? That she had decided against settling the matter by letter or phone, and had come there in person instead?
Ernesto found himself hoping so more than he’d ever hoped for anything, or almost. He almost felt like he could cry if it turned out to be her. Maybe he would: if that would be enough to sate Héctor’s ghost, enough to finally allow it all to end, then he’d weep with joy.
“Yes,” Juan, or José, was saying. “She said her name is Socorro Rivera-Martinez, and that you wrote to her family.
For a split second, not hearing the name he’d been hoping for made his heart sink - but then his memory caught up and he knew that not all was lost. “Socorro, you said?” Ernesto asked slowly. So Imelda had never written back, but her daughter had come. Héctor’s daughter. He remembered a child; she must be a woman now, older than her father got to be before he--
was murdered you murdered me and left me to rot and now you will rot too
Ernesto’s eyes flickered to where the ghost - Héctor, or a very convincing hallucination - was sitting. He said nothing, did nothing; he only stared at the man with blank, milky-white eyes. And to think that those eyes would sparkle so much when he talked about his little girl; Ernesto had found it amusing, until he’d come to find it annoying and, by the end, plainly infuriating. Now, however, he was none of those things. He was just scared, hardly daring to let himself hope that the end may be within sight, out of fear that hope would be crushed.
Whatever you are, are you happy now? I will tell her, will it be enough to sate you? God, please, let it be enough.
“Sí,” Juan or José or whatever was saying, and Ernesto turned his gaze back on him. He was standing near the door, a hand still on the doorknob. “She says she received a letter from you, and has travelled here from Santa Cecilia. She had a letter to show, but none of us can recall assisting you write--”
“You’re not the only ones here who can write down what I say,” Ernesto cut him off. “She’s telling the truth. I wrote to her family. Where is he? She better not have left! You should have come immediately!”
“No, no, she hasn’t left. She--”
“Good for you. She is my guest, so see that she’s treated as one.”
“Of course. Griselda gave her a room. Shall we tell her you can meet her once you’ve rest--”
“I have had enough bed rest to last me a lifetime,” Ernesto scoffed. A sense of dread threatened to choke him - how much would he need to tell her for Héctor to be sated? How much of it would the world know? Even now, he found that thought terrified him - but he forced himself to ignore it. “Let her in the living room--”
“Which living room?”
“Whichever is closest, whichever is cleanest, whichever you like the most, I don’t care. Send someone to get me on the wheelchair. I’ll see her right awa--"
“Juan! What did I say about letting him rest?”
Griselda’s voice caused José - no, wait, it was Juan - to wince, and turn back towards the hallway. “I was just checking… he was awake, Griselda, I didn’t wake him up!”
“I certainly hope so,” she huffed, pushing past him. Her expression was stony as she watched Juan leave, and immediately softened when she turned to the bed. She passed right by the spot there Héctor had been, and now had disappeared from. “Good afternoon, señor. How are you feeling?”
Ernesto ignored the question. After all, it was a stupid one to begin with when asked to someone who felt absolutely nothing from neck down. “He said Socorro Rivera is here. I have to see her at once.”
“Of course. I have brought you some tangerines, just picked.”
“I don’t want--”
“You need to eat something.”
“I want to see--”
“Not in these conditions, you don’t. You need to get cleaned up and dressed.”
Somehow, that statement made Ernesto laugh. He could taste bile. “Hah! Like anything you do is going to make me a better sight. She’s in for a shock. Or two,” he muttered, and closed his eyes with a sigh.
Your back looks like Swiss cheese, for the record, Héctor has said. Smells worse, though.
Did it? Yes, he probably reeked of decaying flesh; the only reason why he couldn’t smell it, just like he couldn’t smell the ointments and disinfectant, was that he lived in it.
“How bad are the ulcers?”
“I will change the dressings in a minute. I think your hair needs some washing and--”
“That is not what I asked.”
There was a brief silence, and it was the only answer Ernesto needed.
You’re pretty much rotting alive. I would be amazed that you haven’t died of sepsis yet, antibiotics and all, if l didn’t know you’re just not allowed to die until...
Until. There was that, if anything. That until he could cling to, in hopes it would be now.
Move Heaven and Earth if you must, but give me what I want. And then you can die.
“Get on with it,” he finally heard himself saying, very quietly. “And then take me downstairs.”
“... Sí, señor.”
The living room she was accompanied into was large and immaculately clean, with white furniture and walls and even a very expensive-looking piano on the far side. A huge window let in sunlight, allowing a view of the garden outside as the sun began to set, setting the sky aflame. It was beautiful, and yet it felt all the world like she was sitting inside a tomb.
Sitting on an armchair so immaculate she was afraid of staining it by just touching it, Coco drew in a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves, and kept her hands tightly folded on her lap. No matter how much she told herself that she had every right and reason to be there - he’d written to her mother, pleading for her to get in touch - she still couldn’t entirely shake off the feeling she was not where she was supposed to be.
Home, that’s where I should be. With my family, Julio and Victoria, not here chasing ghosts.
Something I need to tell you about Héctor that you should have known many years ago.
I didn’t bother to read it and neither should you!
It cannot be worse than knowing nothing.
Get ready for some unpleasantness, señorita.
You’re coming back soon, mamá?
Is papá coming home soon?
How far along are you, dear?
Coco’s stomach clenched, and she had to fight back another wave of nausea. Maybe it was all her nerves. It had to be, she had plenty to be nervous about. She didn’t want to think that Griselda may have guessed right - she wanted another child, she and Julio had been trying for a couple of years, but now that she was so far away from her family the thought scared her. And if it was true it felt so wrong, being unable to share it with Julio right awa--
The sound of a door opening snapped her from her thoughts. Coco looked up without thinking - only to recoil when her eyes fell on the man who was being wheeled in on a wheelchair by a silent, somber Griselda.
She had expected to see a ruin, but nothing could have prepared her for it. Her memories, few and vague as they were, were of a broad-shouldered man, younger than she was now, who looked fit enough to lift a grown man over his shoulders and take him for stroll. Actually, she was almost positive he’d done as much with her papá once, causing him to protest while wheezing with laughter. She had laughed, too, while her mother watched on with a half-smile on her face as Coco sat on her knees.
What she saw now was a world away from the man she remembered. He was thin in a way that the house vest on him and the blanket on his lap couldn’t hide, all muscle in his limbs having wasted away. The hands on the armrests of the wheelchair looked like a bird’s talons, and she could have easily closed her fingers around his wrist with room to spare.
There was a strap across his chest, holding him upright against the armchair’s backrest, but she hardly noticed that: what her gaze paused on was his face. It was gaunt and of an unhealthy ashen color, but she still recognized those features; even the mustache had stayed the same, and his hair didn’t look that different. And the eyes - those hadn’t changed at all, perfectly clear and alert. They fickered somewhere over her shoulder for a moment, and he seemed to clench his jaw before he turned his gaze back on her, saying nothing.
Coco opened her mouth to speak, but she found herself speechless, and it didn’t seem to come as a surprise; Ernesto de la Cruz’s lips twitched for a moment in what could have been a sneer. Griselda stopped, leaving the wheelchair in front of her across a small table. That was when Coco smelled it: the scent of iodine and ointments and, beneath it all, the sickly sweet smell of corruption. She knew, there and then, that she was looking at a dying man - and that she had made the right choice by visiting, seizing what could be her only chance to know what had become of her father.
“I will leave you alone. If you need me, you only need to call,” Griselda said before turning and leaving the room, closing the door behind herself. It did feel like being locked inside a tomb, too, but this time it didn’t unnerve her.
Right there and then, there was nowhere else she’d rather be.
Héctor was there because of course he was, standing silently right behind the woman, looking just as he had the night he had died. She was older now than he’d been then; it was a jarring sight, a reminder that more than a quarter of a century had passed.
He remembered, distantly, how she’d looked at him back when she’d call him tío, laughing and reaching up for his face - his mustache specifically, she seemed really keen to find out if she could rip it off - whenever Héctor decided to put her in his arms for whatever reason. She certainly wasn’t laughing now, her horror at seeing him plain as day, her pity barely concealed. It would have bothered him if his mind hadn’t been taken by something else that he could see so very clearly, with the two of them right next to each other across time.
“You look like Héctor.”
He only realized he’d spoken as much aloud when the words reached his own ears, and from behind her Héctor’s ghost gave the closest thing to a real smile Ernesto had seen on him in a long time, if ever. “She does! Muy guapa, eh?”
“... Thank God Imelda was able to spare you his nose,” Ernesto added, causing her to blink and Héctor’s grin to turn into an unimpressed glare. It gave him no small amount of childish satisfaction, to be entirely honest.
“Oh, I see what you’re doing! You get one chance to roast me back, so of course you had grab it with both hands and run with-- ooh wait, no you can’t,” the ghost muttered, but Ernesto ignored him. Unaware of her father’s presence, if he was indeed present, Socorro Rivera brought a hand to her mouth and gave a small laugh, some of the tension in her frame melting away.
“Haha! I suppose… I’m sorry, I must have come across so rude, just staring and saying nothing,” she said, and pulled her hand away from her face, the smile still lingering. Ernesto half-dreaded to hear her say it was good to see him, or any other equally fake nicety he’d heard far too many times, but she did not. “I’m sorry it took so long for any of us to get here. Your letter was… misplaced.”
“Bet you fifty pesos that Imelda tried to burn it,” Héctor muttered from behind her. Again, Ernesto ignored him and gave her a wry smile.
“I’m happy enough that you made it here, Socorro,” he said, like each single day hadn’t been torture. But she was there, and speak out was all he needed to do, or so he hoped. She would know, Héctor would be sated, and he’d be allowed to die. It’d only take a few words; he could speak them now, and be done with it… yet something in him balked at the prospect.
Maybe I won’t have to tell her everything. Maybe she doesn’t need to know. Maybe the world won’t need to know.
“Please, call me Coco,” she was saying, entirely unaware of his thoughts. “Everyone does.”
“Of course. Coco. Is your mother well?”
“She is, thank you. She’s sorry she couldn’t come - she was needed to run the business.”
Héctor snorted. “So sorry she couldn’t come, sure. You don’t believe that, do you, Ernestito?”
No, not for one second, but it wasn’t important. “She runs a business?”
“Yes. We make shoes - she started it on her own when I was little, with my uncles helping.”
“What?” Coco blinked at him in clear confusion, and the laugh that left Ernesto sounded somewhat genuine. He thought back of two young boys looking at him with identical frowns.
“Your uncles. When they were kids, they used to pull this trick on everyone - pretending to be each other. I solved the problem by just calling them both ‘Bobo’. They were not very amused,” he added, and her confusion melted into a smile.
“Oh! They did that to me, too, when I was little. And my husband fell for it the first few times.”
“And with a daughter,” Coco replied, and suddenly her face lit up. She looked even more like Héctor now, nose or not, and there was a pang of something painful somewhere in his head, making him suddenly think that he would have rather faced Imelda and all of her grudge. As Coco reached for the locket around her neck to show him a picture, Ernesto glanced over her shoulder. Héctor was looking back at him, his expression somber.
“A granddaughter,” he said, flatly. “Imagine how much I would have loved her.”
I don’t want to, Ernesto almost said, but he kept his mouth shut and turned his gaze on Coco’s locket instead. There was a small picture inside, that of a man he did not know looking at the camera with a smile, a solemn-eyed little girl on his knees. He stared at her for a few moments. “... She looks like Imelda,” he found himself saying, and Coco laughed.
“She does! More than I ever did. She’s a lot like her, all serious and proper. And she can always tell her uncles apart. They could never trick her,” she said, and closed the locket, putting it back around her neck. “Her name is Victoria.”
“It’s a beautiful name.”
“How many Victorias did you bed back when everything downstairs was still functioning?” the ghost wondered aloud.
“Four,” Ernesto said without thinking, causing Coco to blink in confusion and Héctor to guwaff. “I mean-- she looks like she might be four?”
“Oh! Yes, she’s almost five,” she said, and paused. There were a few moments of silence, and he broke it before it became uncomfortable.
“It must have been a long journey. I trust the staff has treated you well.”
“Oh, yes. Griselda was very helpful.”
“You were offered something to eat, I hope. I should have asked before dismissing her - would you like a drink, or…?”
“Hey! HEY! No tricks with her, pendejo! Mija, don’t drink anything he-- oh wait, you can’t actually pour the drinks yourself. Never mind. False alarm. Do carry on.”
Ernesto kept ignoring the ghost’s antics, though he could have sworn he had felt his left eye twitching a little. If so, she didn’t notice.
“I am fine, no worries. Thank you for letting me stay, señor de la Cruz.”
“Right. I… used to call you Tío Neto, didn’t I?”
She did. He was amazed she even remembered. “Yes. Your father used to call me that as well, when we were children and he couldn’t pronounce my name properly.”
“I see. You... grew up together, didn’t you?” Coco was asking, but before Ernesto could answer, Héctor’s ghost smiled. It wasn’t one of his usual grins. It was a small, wistful smile.
“I wasn’t even three years old yet, and your name was a mouthful. You liked it better than when your mother called you Tito, though. You said you’d always wanted a little brother. I wished I had a big brother. I thought I was so lucky to have found you.”
You were, Ernesto thought, and something in his skull hurt. We were lucky. We could have had it all but then you had to go and decide that I wasn’t enough, we weren’t enough, everything we’d always wanted and dreamed about suddenly meant nothing.
Héctor shook his head. “Oh, no, mi hermano, don’t you get it? I told you, it was your dream.”
“Seño-- Ernesto?” Coco’s voice caused Ernesto to recoil and turn back to her. She looked concerned now, the earlier smile gone from her face.
“I… my apologies. Yes, we… we grew up together. He was my best friend.”
“... I’m picking up a past tense,” Coco said, and drew in a deep breath, as though to brace herself. “He died, didn’t he?”
Ernesto nodded. “Yes. I am sorry,” he said, fully expecting the ghost to say something scathing, but he remained silent. He kept her eyes fixed on Coco, who nodded.
There was a faraway cast to her gaze, but no tears just yet. “Years ago?”
“Sí,” Ernesto said, bracing himself for the next question he ought to expect - namely when, precisely, had he died. He should have dreaded it, but he found he didn’t. If she asked, he would tell her he’d died only months after leaving Santa Cecilia. If she asked why hadn’t he told them then, he would admit to taking his songs. Perhaps she would rage and then, well, she may very well guess the entire truth. Or maybe he would tell her first, anything to sate her. Anything to sate Héctor, and make him go away when she did.
But she didn’t ask. She closed her eyes, drawing in another deep breath, and brought her hands up to her face. She stayed still only for a few moments before she breathed out, and and pulled her hands away. Again, no tears; only that distant gaze again. “Why tell us now?”
“I’m not long for this world,” Ernesto found himself saying, fervently hoping that was the truth. He half-expected a remark from the ghost, but again he said nothing. He remained still and silent, his own gaze fixed on the floor. “It was now or never, I suppose.”
“I see,” Coco said, and looked down at her hands. They were folded tightly on her lap. “I remember so little. I have… good memories of him, but few. And I was so young, I am not even sure I can trust them. My mother never speaks of him - no one in the family does. She hasn’t been anything but amazing, but...”
“It was a sore spot, being left behind,” he said, his voice dull to his own ears. “I understand.”
“No,” Héctor snarled, suddenly looking up. “You don’t. I wanted to go home and you wrote me off musical history, wrote me off my own family. Take your pity party somewhere else.”
Coco was nodding, and suddenly she looked up from her hands to glance at him. “You knew him well. Will you tell me about him?”
For a moment, Ernesto wasn’t sure he had heard right. “What?”
“Tell me about him. You must have so many stories to share,” she replied, and for the first time her voice shook, like that of a pleading child. “It’s the only way I can have him back, I suppose. I want to know about him. So that I can actually be sad that he’s gone. Or angry. Or both,” she added, and gave a painfully forced laugh. “I know it makes no sense, but--”
“It makes perfect sense,” Ernesto cut her off, looking down at his own motionless hands. Having no feeling whatsoever below his neck had been the hardest thing to get used to - so hard, in fact, that he didn’t think he ever truly had. He would welcome the most excruciating pain over that horrifying nothingness.
“Tell her.” Héctor’s voice rang out suddenly, quieter than before, sadder, younger, pleading. Ernesto glanced down to see the young boy he’d been standing by the armchair Coco was on, a small hand with fingernails bitten to the quick resting on her arm. She gave no sign of being aware of that. “Please, Neto. Tell her about me.”
“Yes,” Ernesto said, not knowing who he was talking to anymore. “I’ll tell all I remember.”
If this is what you want, I will. And then allow me to die. For the love of God, let me go.
He looked back at Coco, who smiled. “Thank you,” she said, and then she fell quiet to listen, hanging to his every word.
Ernesto couldn’t tell for how long she listened in silence: in a way, he wasn’t there at all. For the first time in over a quarter of a century he was back in Santa Cecilia, where the sun beat down mercilessly and two laughing boys ran amok through fruit groves, splashed in the stream and made music with whatever they could find, dreaming of the wide world outside.
Coco will, eventually, know when Héctor died. But at the moment she wants more than anything to know about her missing father's life rather than his death, and she has no reason to suspect foul play.
Chapter 4: A Red Songbook
If you thought Ernesto was going to come clean right away, think again.
“I absolutely am not.”
“You set a rooster free in a church, really?”
“And it went straight for the holy bread. No communion that day.”
Coco pressed a hand against her mouth, trying to smother a laugh. It came out of her nose as a painful-sounding honk. “Pffft! Hah! Sorry, I… why did you do it?”
Ernesto laughed. It had been a somewhat jarring sound at first, like she supposed an instrument would sound when left unused for too long, but now it sounded more like an actual laugh. The more he talked, the more she could glimpse the man she remembered from when she was little - healthier, livelier. At that point she wasn’t sure which one of them needed that conversation the most: if her to hear about her father, or Ernesto to reminiscence of better days.
“I honestly can’t remember that,” he was saying. “We must have thought it a good idea at the time. We probably wanted an excuse to be out of there early.”
“Haha! Did they ever find out it was you?”
“We lived to tell the tale, so... no.”
“Was it that bad?”
“Quite a bit of commotion. A nun fainted. I think the rooster got to bathe in holy water before it was caught and became someone’s dinner, but didn’t go down without a fight,” Ernesto said, and laughed again - only that it turned into a coughing fit after a few moments, and Coco’s own smile faded quickly. She stood in sudden alarm, unsure of what to do.
Ernesto coughed again, and glanced down at the table, at the glass of water Griselda had left there when she’d come to leave some coffee and sweets - for her only, though, and she could only assume he wouldn’t want to be assisted eating and drinking in someone else’s presence - and Coco immediately went to pick it up.
“Here,” she said, reaching to cup the back of his head with one hand, and brought the glass to his mouth. He gulped down half the glass before pulling back, resting his head against the headrest of his wheelchair and breathing deeply through his nose, eyes shut. She put the glass down and reached for a clean napkin without thinking, to dry off the water that had spilled down his chin. “Is everything all right?”
Ernesto swallowed once or twice, and nodded. Suddenly, he didn’t look lively at all - like the coughing fit, and the need for her help, had brought reality crashing back down on him: he was no longer a healthy boy up to mischief with his best friend, but a man just over fifty unable to even lift a hand to get himself a glass of water, or wipe his own face.
The thought caused something in Coco’s chest to ache. She hadn’t meant to humiliate him, she only wanted to help. “Would you like me to call Griselda, or--”
“No,” Ernesto rasped, and cleared his throat, opened his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was firmer. “Not just yet. She’ll be here shortly, anyway. I would keep you company for dinner, but…” he paused, and gave a smile that was almost a sneer. “As you can imagine, I cannot eat on my own. There is phone you can use, if you’d like to reassure your family that you arrived safe and sound.”
The idea of asking for a phone to call the inn in Santa Cecilia and leave a message had crossed her mind, but she’d forgotten to. Coco nodded, and smiled. “I’ll do that. Thank you again for your hospitality.”
“Anything for Héctor’s family,” he muttered, and there seemed to be something bitter in his voice - but before she could ask, he suddenly cackled. “Hah! That was a good one!”
“Huh?” Coco blinked, taken aback, when Ernesto’s expression opened into what was nothing short of a grin.
“You might like to hear this one,” he said, and Coco sat back down, rather relieved to see him like that again. “We were in Oaxaca. There was… yes, there was this one time when we really needed to make a call. We needed to have a telegram sent but we had no money to. We knew someone who could send one for us if we asked, but we had to get in touch. There was this fancy hotel that had a phone in its lobby, one of the few at the time. Only that of course it was for the personnel and guests, and we were neither. So I had an idea--” he trailed off, and Coco could have sworn his eyes flickered to her left for a moment before he rolled them. “All right, fine,” he muttered. “So, Héctor had an idea.”
That caused Coco to smile a bit. She remembered her father as gentle, tender and yes, fun to be around - but she had never known how much of a trickster he could be, always coming up with far-fetched schemes, pranks, and stories to get out of trouble that ranged from surprisingly convincing to absolute nonsense.
“What kind of idea?”
“Well, we… he figured that no one would turn away a man begging to make a call while his wife was in labor.”
How far along are you, dear?
Coco made an effort to push Griselda’s question in the back of her mind - it was only a guess, after all - and found herself smiling. “Did you find someone to play the part for you?”
“Well, we did find someone who could let us borrow a dress and a hat.”
“And a pillow. It fit Héctor pretty well. The dress, I mean, not the pillow. That was a bit of a struggle to get under the dress, but we managed.”
Oh. Oh . Coco reached up to press a hand against her mouth, but it did little to keep back her laughter. “Hah! He went and pretended to be pregnant?”
Ernesto nodded, the grin back on his face. “Well, I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off convincingly. Plus, the dress didn’t fit me.”
“And they believed it?”
“To be entirely fair, Héctor knew how to wear a dress. He had to shave his goatee, though, and I am sure he cried a bit over it,” Ernesto said, and seemed to pause for a moment as though listening to something before laughing. “Yes, he definitely shed a tear or two. But it grew back quickly, so no harm done. I was able to make the call and have the telegram sent while he was in the lobby, shrieking like an eagle that the baby was coming. Except that one of the guests was a doctor and was called downstairs before I was done, so he had to hold him off before he tried to examine ‘her’ and things got complicated.”
“Hold him off?”
“He pretended to panic and ran from him through the lobby like a headless chicken. Or maybe he was really panicking. He would have had a good reason to, with half the place’s security nearby. We were able to run off, though, and as far as I know they never... is everything all right?”
For a few moments, Coco was unable to reply: she could only try and fail to hold back the braying sound that only vaguely sounded like laughter, reaching up to wipe her eyes. Jesus, she was tearing up and her sides hurt, but she couldn’t stop laughing. “Hahahaha! I-I’m sorry, I just-- hahahahaha! That must have been a sight!” she wheezed. With the mind’s eye she could see her father’s face, from the torn scrap of photograph she’d salvaged, and trying to imagine him in that situation brought forth another gale of laughter.
And yet, even now, there was something in her chest that hurt, the thought that she should have heard that tale years ago, and from him. He should have told her while she sat on his knees, and they would have laughed together. Maybe her mother would have laughed, too, though rolling her eyes in that way of hers to show disapproval. Maybe.
What would she have thought? What would she had said? I don’t even remember how they were around each other. He played music and she sang, but I remember nothing else.
She would never know, of course, because there was no way she could tell her mother that story without ripping open a wound that, she knew, had never quite healed. Coco knew she had a right to know, but her mother also had a right to forget. She needed those stories, but she could never force them on her mother. She could never tell her, or anyone else at home.
It was that thought that finally stopped her laughter. She muttered an apology, wiping her eyes, not entirely sure those were all tears of mirth anymore. She tried to think of something else to say, but before she could there was a knock at the door. When she turned, still wiping her eyes, Griselda was stepping in.
“My apologies. It is time for dinner. Would you like la señora Rivera to join--”
“No,” Ernesto said, very quickly, and Coco couldn’t fault him for not wishing her to be there while he was fed. “She… see that she’s served dinner. She may require the phone as well. Whatever she asks for, make sure it's provided,” he added, and turned to glance at her. The mirth seemed to be already gone from his face, leaving it oddly blank. “I hope you don't mind dining on your own. I would be of poor company, I am afraid.”
She nodded. “I don't mind at all. Thanks for the hospitality. And for telling me about papá.”
“I had to,” Ernesto murmured, sounding very tired, and very frail. “I will see you in the morning. Have a good night.”
“You, too,” Coco said, and watched in silence as Griselda wheeled him away, hoping with all her heart that he’d have a more restful night than the previous had been.
Héctor did not follow him upstairs. It was a relief, really, being able to have a meal without his jeering. All that he had to listen to was Griselda’s constant stream of words as she talked about the garden, the weather, late deliveries and another dozen small things that Ernesto honestly couldn’t even begin to care about, but that felt so soothingly normal.
She insisted for him to have at least a tangerine - he had two - and he dutifully agreed that yes, they did taste really good. He was spared conversation for most of what followed; she knew all too well that he preferred to keep his eyes shut and pretend nothing was happening throughout most of the routine of preparing him for sleep. She only spoke again while tending to the ulcers on his back. “It felt good to hear you laugh, señor de la Cruz.”
Ernesto opened his eyes, but he may as well kept them shut. He was resting on his stomach, head turned to his left, facing the wall. He could see her shadow on it.
“Were you eavesdropping or what?”
“Oh, you offend me,” Griselda quipped. There was the sound of a bottle being opened, a strong smell of iodine. “You could be heard all the way from the front hall. You should do it more often. Your voice was never damaged.”
Ernesto would have happily traded his voice for just being able to move his arms, but chose not to say as much. He closed his eyes again. “We were talking about better days,” he finally said, very quietly. “A long time ago.”
How long had it been since last time he’d allowed himself to think not only of Héctor as he used to be when he was alive, but of everything that had been before he’d taken his life and that damn songbook? Decades, at least. He’d left it all behind, stored it away like you would with old broken toys in a dusty attic, and never turned back.
But now he had and it all felt so vivid, like it had happened hours earlier. He’d walked into the attic and brushed the dust off that heap of broken things to see that they were not broken, after all. It had been a good time. They had a good time. When had he forgotten that?
Never, really. He hadn’t really forgotten a thing, as it had turned out. The more he talked the more came back to him, and he found he couldn’t stop remembering - even more so with Héctor spurring him on, leaning on the armchair his daughter sat on. She laughed at the stories, and he could hear him laughing as well.
“Hah! That was fun, wasn’t it? Hey, hey! Tell her that one time we tried to ride your father’s horse! And remember when that wild dog chased us up a tree? Oh! And the rooster in church! Don’t forget that time - wait a moment, that was my idea, don’t try to take credit--!”
He’d looked like he had as a boy most of the time, but sometimes he had looked like he had before his death too, and he had also acted like it: no sneers, no mocking, laughing with him rather than at him. That was… no, it wasn’t new, it was how it used to be. Like nothing had ever happened. Like that night had never happened.
Except that it had; memories from before had been a respite, but nothing more. He’d traded all that there had been for songs, and fame. Fame had come, sure enough, but then the bell had come crashing down on him. It should have spelled his end but it had snapped his spine instead, he was stuck there and there could be no going back. He’d give anything - his mansion, his fame, all of it - to go back to the life he’d had Santa Cecilia.
Play in the plaza, go out for a drink, laugh and boast and poke fun at Héctor at any chance he got. Getting him in trouble with Imelda if he kept him out too late, rolling his eyes when Héctor brought his wife along but grudgingly admitting she could sing. Complaining when he was tricked into babysitting duty, and getting payback by singing very inappropriate songs to the laughing toddler. It had seemed such a limited world back then but oh God, how he longed for it now. If he’d known what price he’d pay for his dreams, he’d have never thrown--
-- it all away.
“... Señor de la Cruz?”
Ernesto tried to ask her what was it, what did she want, but he found he couldn’t do it; a keening sound was all that left him. There was something stuck in his throat that kept him from speaking, kept him from breathing in anything but short gasps and it hurt, it hurt, it hurt.
There was a touch on his head, calloused fingers running through his hair, and thank God no words at all. He kept his eyes screwed shut, focused on the touch, and little by little he got his breathing under control, the knot in his throat loosening. I want to be gone, he thought, and tried to say as much, but that was not what left his mouth.
“I want to go home.”
If Griselda heard his mumble, she said nothing. She murmured something he supposed was meant to be soothing, finished tending to his ulcers, and moved him to a sleeping position on his side before pulling the covers over him. He felt her brushing his hair back again.
“Would you like an injection, señor?” she asked, very gently. “To help you sleep.”
Ernesto nodded, keeping his eyes shut. “Por favor,” he rasped.
That one plea, at least, was answered.
Coco couldn’t sleep.
Not that she didn’t need to: she was tired in a way she had ever been before. It had been a long journey to get there, and the entire thing had been emotionally draining to say the least.
She had been accompanied into a bedroom that was larger than her home’s living room, and far more luxurious. She was resting on her own on a bed larger than the one she shared with Julio, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to relax in it. It was too far removed from anything she’d ever known, too far from home.
She had gotten little to no sleep before she left, too. She had stayed wide awake for hours, with Julio’s arms around her and their mijita resting snugly between them - because she may be too big to sleep with mamá and papá, as she often claimed, but she wasn’t yet old enough not to be scared at the notion her mother would leave for days early the next morning.
If the tale of her disappearing grandfather had taught her anything, it was that no good things come from a parent who leaves the household and heads to a big city. Coco and Julio had done their best to reassure her that she would be back soon, and hopefully she believed them, but some things are hard to shake off. Coco would know; she’d grown up tip-toeing around the subject, while her mother worked herself to the bone to provide for her and make up for that unspoken absence at the same time.
The thought of her mother was another stab in the gut. She had said nothing to her before leaving, hadn’t even seen her, because she’d feared she would say something that she’d regret… or, worse yet, that mamá would convince her to stay, to just forget all about it, all about him, like she’d been trying to do for all those years.
Coco couldn’t fault her; she had been left in a difficult position. Betrayed in the worst possible way, alone with a child to raise, she’d still been the best mother she could have asked for. Coco had struggled to accept that her papá would never be part of her life - and she had never really accepted it, holding onto a tiny hope she hardly knew was there until the moment she had read Ernesto’s letter - but her mother had needed to fight, tooth and nail, for everything they had; to keep the family she’d brought together against all odds.
Leaving was not a decision Coco had taken lightly, but she had to do it, and she was certain now that she had made the right choice. She needed to know more about her papá if she was to ever put him to rest as her mother wanted, and that was the only way.
If only she could tell her as much without hurting her, gather the courage to explain that part of her had always, and perhaps would always, stare out of the window waiting for her father to come back home - that no ban on music, no amount of pretending he never existed could change that. It was something she couldn’t erase in any way, even though she had done her best - they all had. Her uncles had always been there, too, entertaining her as a child, sometimes covering for her when she went dancing in the plaza behind her mother’s back, walking her down the aisle on her wedding day.
They all had worked hard to give her a happy and secure childhood, and now she had a happy and secure life. There was nothing they could have done any better than they had, and to say that they just couldn’t entirely compensate for that one absence seemed terribly unfair… but it was also how things were. She couldn’t help that, like she couldn’t help holding onto the letters, photos and memories she had of him.
Coco thought of the face that would stare back at her from a scrap of photo, looking younger and younger with each passing year, and she had to swallow a lump in her throat. How could her papá just walk away and never turn back? How could he never miss home? She missed it already, was aching to have her little girl in her arms again, and her husband’s presence by her side. Had he ever felt that same longing? Did he ever lie awake like she did now, wishing to be back, or had she never been as important to him as Victoria was to her?
No, he had loved her, at least up to a point. Even after he’d left there had been the letters, lots of them. Poems. So much love poured on paper that sometimes she could still feel it, like a warm blanket on a cold night, and she refused to believe it had been anything but real. But then the letters had stopped, and he had vanished somewhere in the wide world. She knew now that he would never return, but she wanted to understand why he’d walked away, to understand him.
Had travelling made him realize his old life didn’t suit him, that his family was not enough? Had he felt trapped in his marriage, trapped by her very existence? He and his mother had married so young, several years younger than she’d been when Julio had worked up the courage to propose, and Coco was fairly sure she had not been born prematurely as her mother always said. Maybe it had been too early; maybe he hadn’t been ready.
Ernesto might know what had gone through his mind; he had been his friend, after all, his brother in all but blood. They had clearly stayed in touch, if he’d known of his death after he had left them behind. Her papá must have talked to him about his decision, surely, and she should have asked Ernesto about that; it should have been the very first thing she asked, really: she had come there for answers, not stories.
And yet she’d found herself unable to ask why had he left them, when had he died, and how. She had wanted to know about his life, grasping for bits and pieces of the man she barely remembered. Maybe what she wanted to know wasn’t the same as what she needed to know, after all.
With a sigh, Coco turned around in the bed to lie on her back, staring up at the ceiling, wishing more than anything to have Julio by her side. She’d called the inn in Santa Cecilia, sure enough, and left a message with the innkeeper - the journey went well, I am fine and will be back soon, give Victoria a kiss from me.
She knew that Paula would pass it on to her husband as soon as he came in asking… but it wasn’t the same as hearing his voice. A short message couldn’t replace a conversation; she knew that well, too, having read and re-read her father’s letters so many times she knew them word by word. And plus, she thought, a hand resting on her stomach, there were things that could only be said in person.
Griselda may have been wrong, of course. She was late, come to think of it, but she’d been before. She had only been feeling slightly nauseous, and a dizzy spell or two were easily explained by the journey, the emotional strain, the little sleep she’d had. It was only speculation, and mentioning it to her family now that she was so far away would only lead to more worry - just about the last thing any of them needed.
She would see things through there, learn everything she had come to find out. She would finally lie the memory of her father to rest and return home. She would mend things with her mother and, if it turned out that she was with child, she would share the news with everyone.
Victoria would be delighted to be a big sister, she was sure of it. Maybe they would make a shortlist of names for her little brother or sister, and let Victoria pick one. Coco was certain she would take that duty very, very seriously. The thought made her smile, and the smile turned into a yawn. Her mind a little more at ease, Coco closed her eyes and turned to rest on her side.
As she drifted off to sleep she hummed, very quietly, a song she’d learned a long time ago.
Imelda was not the kind to wince easily, but when the voice rang out suddenly, breaking the deep silence, she couldn’t help it. She almost dropped the pen, and looked up from her desk to see Victoria standing at the doorway, barefoot and in her tiny blue nightgown, hair all ruffled. Under one arm she was holding that odd doll Óscar and Felipe had made for her out of a shoe and some buttons.
“You should be sleeping, Victoria. How many times have I told you not to go barefoot? You could get a splinter in your foot. If there’s something we’re not lacking in this household, that’s shoes.”
Then child entirely ignored the last statement. “You should be sleeping, too,” she said instead, not moving an inch. She was far from a troublesome child, but she had a stubborn streak a mile wide. Imelda had wondered aloud, once, who she got that from. The silent glances the rest of the family had exchanged at the dinner table weren’t lost to her. She didn’t think they had realized she had said as much in jest. Most people had trouble telling when she joked, and she rather liked it that way.
“I have to take care of some business,” Imelda finally replied, looking down at the accounts book. She had been staring at the numbers for a while now, not really getting any accounting done despite her wish to keep her mind busy, but her granddaughter didn’t need to know that. “I’ll be going to sleep soon. Go back--”
“You’re worried for mamá.”
It was a statement, not a question. Typical Victoria. Imelda smiled weakly, too amused to be annoyed at… well. Too amused to be excessively annoyed, at least. “No, I am not. You shouldn’t be either. Your mamá can take care of herse-”
“It’s not that,” Victoria cut her off, wrinkling her nose as though insulted by her attempt at deflecting the real issue, and padded up to her, her bare feet silent on the floor. She grasped her sleeve with a tiny hand, and held tight. “I am not worried and you shouldn’t either. She’s gonna come back, you know.”
Don’t worry, mamá. Papá is gonna come back soon. I know it.
She had believed that too, for a time, but she had been so wrong; Coco had been wrong. Both her trust in the man she’d married and her daughter’s childish certainty that her papá would return to her had been crushed when the letters had stopped, and he had never shown his face at their doorstep again. Coco had held onto hope for much longer than she had; Imelda suspected that she’d never stopped, until Ernesto’s letter had come.
Ernesto, who had taken Héctor away from home in the first place, talking of glory and childish dreams. If he’d never filled his ears with those fantasies, perhaps Héctor would have never left. Imelda found herself wishing that the stage accident had killed him instead of maiming him, so that he could never write that damned letter and break her family apart again. First Héctor, and now Coco.
Papá is gonna come back soon.
She’s gonna come back, you know.
Something in Imelda’s chest ached, and she pulled her granddaughter on her knees, in her arms. For all her bold words, Victoria clung to her far more tightly than she usually would.
“Of course she is,” she said, trying not to think of last time she had given that same reassurance to a child. “I know her too well to think otherwise.”
You also thought you knew your husband, a tiny voice whispered in the back of her mind. Imelda did her best to smother it but it stayed, like the constant drip of water eroding stone.
“I told you, señor, the new gardener knows what he’s doing. They have never looked so good before.”
“Hu-uh,” Ernesto mumbled absentmindedly. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see young Héctor climbing up one of the apple trees, swinging from branch to branch. He ignored his childish voice calling out for him to join him, like he had so many times when they were children, and glanced up at the tree he was beneath instead.
For once he was grateful that Griselda had insisted on taking him out after breakfast, pushing his wheelchair across the lawn, past the fountain and flower beds, and among the trees. There was something soothing in the rustling leaves, the bits of blue sky he could see through the green.
On a day like that, back in Santa Cecilia--
“Oh, señora Rivera! I sure hope you have been served breakfast!” Griselda’s voice snapped him from his thoughts, and it was probably for the best, all things considered. He turned to see Socorro - Coco, she had asked to be called that - walking up to them. She had tied her hair back in a braid, which was now loose her back rather than pinned up in a bun; it reminded him of how Imelda used to braid her hair, back when Héctor had begun courting her… with disastrous results, at first.
But then he had somehow won her over, she had become more important than anything and anyone else to him, and it had been the beginning of the end. The birth of their daughter had been the last nail in the coffin of the dream they had shared since they were children, one that Ernesto had tried desperately to keep alive, and now look where it got them - Héctor was dead, and he wished he were.
“No, Ernesto, mi hermano. This is where you got us,” Héctor - the adult Héctor, the one who had clutched at his stomach in empty street a long time ago - said quietly, leaning against the same tree where a younger version of himself had been climbing a minute earlier. There was no bite to his remark, no mockery, but Ernesto had no time to wonder about that.
“Yes, yes. It was delicious, thank you,” Coco was saying before turning her gaze on him. When she’d first seen him the previous day, horror and pity had been plain as day on her face; now her smile didn’t waver, and oh God, had Héctor’s smile, too. “I hope you had a good night.”
He had, he supposed. A full night of dreamless sleep was nothing short of a blessing and, for the first time in a long while - he wasn’t certain he wanted to know how long, he felt he would go insane if he did - he had been awakened by the sunlight creeping through the curtains and not by a mocking voice telling him to rise and shine: when he’d opened his eyes, Héctor hadn’t been there at all.
Of course he’d turned up eventually, first as a boy running through the trees and now as the man he’d last seen falling limply on the ground in Mexico City. He stood silently on his left, watching. Ernesto was not surprised, he had known that he wouldn’t go so easily, but there had been respite. He had given him respite.
Maybe he would let him go, once he was satisfied. He prayed that he would.
“I did,” Ernesto said, and turned slightly towards Griselda. “Could you leave us alone for a few minutes?”
“Of course. I will get your medication ready.”
As she left - not without telling Coco something on how she was welcome to any fruit in the grove, a lot of it went to waste and it was such a shame - Ernesto’s gaze moved to Coco. She watched Griselda’s retreating back, and only spoke when she was some distance away.
“She’s very fond on you,” she commented
“Got it in her head she’s your mother,” Héctor muttered, sounding amused. “Only that unlike your mamá, she doesn’t call you Tito all the time. Old Alvaro would call us ‘Tito and Teto’ for a while, remember?”
He did, but he made an effort to push the memory away - he’d been annoyed, so annoyed, that was a stupid nickname for children and it wasn’t how he wanted to be called - to acknowledge Coco’s comment. “I pay her well,” he said, more drily than he’d meant to, and tiled his head slightly on the side. “The satchel on the wheelchair - there is a pocket on the side. Would you…?”
“Of course,” Coco said, and approached to reach inside. When she pulled back, there was something in her hands - a leather-bound, red songbook. Worse for wear now than it had been when he’d taken it and fled, moving on to the next city before Héctor’s body was found; he had flipped through those pages so many times, even after learning each and every song by heart.
Keeping it had been a foolish move, Ernesto knew it: it contained all of the songs that had made him famous, and was entirely written in what was very obviously not his handwriting. If it had fallen in the wrong hands, it would have caused him… problems. Nothing he couldn’t deal with, but problems nonetheless. He should have transcribed the songs, and then burn it, but he hadn’t. He couldn’t.
“Keeping the guitar was a stupid idea, too,” Héctor muttered. “Such a unique piece. It was a small risk, but a risk nonetheless. You could have had another one custom-made at any point, but you kept mine and you played no other. Did you want to keep a trophy? Got sentimental? Both?”
Was there a difference? Ernesto wasn’t sure, and he was too tired to wonder. He ignored the ghost and looked up at Coco, whose gaze was moving from the book to him and then back on the red cover as she clearly wondered what that was about. Ernesto found himself smiling faintly.
“You can open it, it won’t bite. It belonged to your father. It... fell in my possession after he died.”
That caused her to recoil. “Oh,” she exclaimed, and immediately opened it. He watched are her eyes scanned the page, almost hungrily, and he drew in a deep breath. He was remarkably unafraid, all things considered. Any moment now she would recognize those songs, and she would know he had taken credit for her father’s work. Would she react with anger? Would she demand to know how he had gotten his hands on it? Possibly. He was not looking to confess more than he had to, but if she guessed, he wouldn’t deny a thing. There was an odd relief in that, in knowing that whatever came next was entirely up to her. For the first time, relinquishing all control was not horrifying or frustrating.
“Are these… songs?” Coco murmured, flipping through the pages. Instead of anger, what showed on her face was surprise. “I recognize the words. He wrote some in his letters. I… I thought they were poems.”
… Wait. What? “You… never heard them?” Ernesto asked, taken aback. There weren’t many people in Mexico who hadn’t, and he’d have imagined someone from Santa Cecilia especially was bound to have heard them. As a response, Coco gave him a rather sad smile.
“I heard very little music. It is… sort of banned from the household. My mother won’t have it.”
“Wha-- she loved music!” Ernesto blurted out, but even in his surprise the irony wasn’t lost to him. He could no longer stand listening to music, either, especially not his own. It looked like he and Imelda had something in common now. Fate had a sense of humor.
“Too many memories. Music is why my papá left,” Coco explained. Beside him, Héctor’s ghost sighed.
“You. It was you, not music,” he said quietly, resting a ghostly hand on his shoulder. Once again, there was none of the bite Ernesto had grown used to in his voice. “Your dream is why I left. Your ambition is why I never made it to the train back.”
You tried to leave me behind, it was all that I had ever wanted and you were taking it away, Ernesto thought, but he said nothing. No point in arguing with ghosts: it would make him look crazy, and achieve nothing. His own argument sounded weaker and weaker each time he uttered it, anyway. Regardless what he had done to keep it - regardlessly who he had sacrificed for it - that dream was empty, now. It seemed unbearably cruel.
“So you see, I heard none of the songs before,” Coco was going on. “I knew of you - you were… you are too famous for us not to hear about. But music is banned in our house. And we don’t talk about my father. I never knew he was your songwriter.”
No one does. No one but you and I, and you have no idea.
“He… was never too eager to play for huge crowds. He liked it, but he was at his happiest writing songs,” Ernesto found himself saying. He had not expected that situation, hadn’t anticipated it at all. “There… if you’d like to listen to them, there should be still some recordings around somewhere. I am certain Griselda knows where to find them.”
That caused Coco’s face to light up, and somehow that made him more uncomfortable than her anger would have. “Oh, thank you! I would love to hear--” she began, only to trail off and look up at something on his right, suddenly startled.
Ernesto turned, and caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. “Who’s there?”
“Uh… it’s Ramírez, señor. Fom security,” someone muttered, and a man stepped within his line of sight. It was a man from the security, sure enough, those three or four idiots his manager had insisted for him to keep around. They usually stayed well out of sight, and Ernesto didn’t even know their names.
“And what are you doing here? Guarding apples from blackbirds?”
Héctor let out a guffawing laugh. “Good thing old Rafael had no security to keep us off his land - only a mutt you could bribe with scraps. What was his name again?”
Diablo, Ernesto recalled vaguely. A big scruffy thing, but a good dog once he had a full belly - nothing like a devil, easy to befriend. Ernesto had named one of the chihuahuas he'd had later in life after him.
“I, uh, came to check on you, señor,” Ramírez was saying. He was a large man, built like a bull, but he looked like a chastised boy. “I saw Griselda returning without you, and I thought I’d make sure all was well.”
Ernesto snorted. “As you can see, all is well,” he said. He faintly wondered if the man had heard anything of what had just been said, but he found he didn’t care at all. “But you can make yourself useful and tell someone come here and bring me back inside in ten minutes.”
“Not you. Get lost,” Ernesto snapped, and the man nodded. With a mumbled apology and a nod towards Coco, he walked past both of them and back towards the mansion. Ernesto sighed, leaning his head against the headrest. “My apologies. I don’t know why Armando insists I keep them around.”
“My manager. He seemed convinced there would be crazed fans trying to break in constantly. There were at first,” Ernesto muttered, faintly wondering when last time even was. He waited for Héctor to make a biting remark about the family he’d gotten himself - “some familia, huh?” - but none came. Héctor was nowhere to be seen. “If they’d refused you entry, I would have had an argument to fire them all,” he added, causing Coco to laugh a bit.
“I’m sure he was just trying to help,” she said, and looked back down at the songbook. “Thank you very much for letting me see this,” she said, and moved as though to put it back.
Ernesto shook his head. “No. You can keep it.”
“Oh! That’s very kind of you, but…” she paused, and there was no mistaking the hungry look in her eyes, the way her grip on the songbook tightened even as she spoke again. Had he looked at that same red cover that way, too, when he’d taken it from Héctor’s suitcase? He supposed he might have. “I could never,” she finally added. “He left it to you.”
Left it to him. The notion was so ridiculous, so wrong, and Ernesto almost laughed. Almost, because when he looked over her shoulder Héctor was there again, shaking his head slowly, causing laughter to die in his throat. He looked, again, like a corpse.
“You know I would have given it to you if you’d asked, right?” he said, his voice like old paper. “You only had to ask. I would have moved--”
“... Heaven and Earth for you, mi amigo,” Ernesto murmured, and closed his eyes, letting out a long breath. When he opened them again Coco was still looking at him, clearly confused. He shook his head again. “Keep it,” he said. “It’s yours.”
Coco crouched before his wheelchair, and Ernesto had little time to process what was happening. By the time he did her arms were already around his neck. “Thank you,” she said, very quietly, against his temple. He could hear tears in her voice. “Thank you so much.”
Ernesto tried to speak, but something was stuck in his throat, something that tasted more bitter than any medicine he’d had to swallow in those past five years of hell. A few steps away, Héctor looked at them with milky white eyes.
“I would give anything to be in your place right now, old friend. Anything.”
Ernesto closed his eyes not to see him and leaned his head against Coco’s shoulder, saying nothing.
Chapter 5: A Secret Song
Well, it was only a matter of time before Coco figured out something was wrong.
“Look! Look! It’s coming!”
“Whoa! Look how fast it’s going!”
“Of course it goes fast, tonto, that’s what trains do!”
“Why are we racing it?”
“I don’t know! I’m just following you!”
“Then stop following, you creep!”
There was laughter, and they both kept running along the tracks, knowing full well that they could never keep up with the train but trying anyway. Soon enough it was speeding away and they had to stop at the side of the tracks, panting, hands resting on their knees as they tried to catch their breath.
“I wonder where it goes,” Ernesto muttered. He had caught a glimpse of some passengers through a window, and there was a lady wearing a hat that looked just like the kind his mamá liked so much, but couldn’t afford. They probably couldn’t afford a train ticket, either.
“Maybe Mexico City,” Héctor suggested, wiping his brow with his forearm. He sat down on a rock and crossed his skinny legs, which were almost comically long for his frame - more than Ernesto’s own. It annoyed him a bit, really: Héctor was almost four years younger than him, but he was nearly as tall. His mamá kept telling him not to worry, that he would hit his growth spurt soon, and he really hoped so. Héctor just wasn’t supposed to be taller than him.
“Or Toluca,” Ernesto said.
“Or Oaxaca,” Héctor replied. “I’d love to visit Oaxaca.”
“To stuff your face with chapulines, I bet.”
“Like you wouldn’t love to visit Toluca for the candy!”
“I’ll take jamoncillos over chapulines any day.”
“See, that’s why you’re gordo.”
“I’m not! This is muscle!”
Héctor grinned, reaching out to poke his stomach. “It’s all pudge, Ernestito.”
“Keep it up and you'll catch the next train with your face,” Ernesto huffed, slapping his hand away. He sat down as well and tried to suck in his belly. His mamá said that that, too, would go away once he hit his growth spurt. That just couldn’t happen quickly enough.
For a time they just looked as the train disappeared from sight, and the trail of billowing smoke it left behind entirely faded. In the end, it was Héctor to speak again.
“Do you think they’re ever going to build a proper station in Santa Cecilia, too? So that trains start stopping here?”
Ernesto shrugged. “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter,” he said, and grinned. “Either way, we’re getting on a train sooner or later! We’re gonna travel Mexico, make music and have adventures, and--”
“And we’re never going to come back alive, are we?”
“Huh?” Ernesto blinked, taken aback both by the odd words and by the fact that it hadn’t been Héctor to reply - or at least, it hadn’t sounded like Héctor. He turned, and immediately jumped on his feet to take a few steps back, alarmed. The gap-toothed, gangly kid sitting on the rock was gone, replaced by a man in a mariachi suit.
“What-- who are you?” Ernesto demanded to know. He looked around quickly, and saw no sign of Héctor. “Where did he-- Where did you come from?”
The man gave him a sad smile. There was a suitcase on the ground by his feet, and a guitar case next to it. In his hands, he was holding a red notebook. “I missed my train, I’m afraid. I’m waiting for the next.”
Ernesto frowned. “There is no station here. Only the tracks. Have you… have you seen my friend? He was here a moment ago.”
The man shook his head, the sad smile still on his face, and stood. He was thin but tall, taller than even his papá, and Ernesto suddenly felt very, very small. “I don’t know where I am. I really want to go home. I should be in Santa Cecilia.”
“You… you are in Santa Cecilia,” Ernesto found himself saying, taking a few steps back to keep some distance between them.
The man’s smile faded. “No. I am not,” he said, his voice flat. His eyes were empty, too, like two windows opening on the blackest of nights. “Where am I, Ernesto?”
“W-well, almost in Santa Cecilia?” Ernesto said, suddenly acutely aware that he was alone - Héctor where is he where has he gone - with a man that seemed more than a little unhinged, and somehow knew his name. If he screamed, no one would hear. “It’s… it’s not long, that way just over the hill and… and…”
He tried to step back again, panic seizing his throat; he would have ran, but suddenly all strength went out of his legs and he fell. He landed on his back, suddenly unable to move and even to speak. He wanted to scream for Héctor to help him, to do something, get someone, anything - but his best friend wasn’t there anymore, and he couldn’t make a sound. His tongue seemed to be stuck to the roof of his mouth.
The man came to tower over him, blotting out the sun, and threw something down at him - the red notebook. It landed on his chest and it was unnaturally heavy, so much that it nearly knocked all breath out of his lungs. It felt as though it would have kept him pinned there even if he could move.
“Did you really think this was what I wanted? That credit meant anything to me?”
“I-I… I don’t understand!” Ernesto managed to choke out, panic turning into downright horror. Whatever was happening, he didn’t like it. He wanted his mamá. He would even be happy to see his father. He wanted Héctor to come back to help him, why had he left him all alone? He wanted to get away from that man. He wanted to go--
“Home,” the man in the mariachi suit said. “I want to go home, Ernesto. That’s all I asked, and you denied me even that. I tried so hard to go back, and they never knew,” he said, and moved aside. With his shadow gone, Ernesto found himself looking up directly at the sun. It was blinding and most of all it was hot, unbearably so. All of a sudden, he felt like he was burning. He tried to move away but he couldn’t, and he could only shut his eyes and cry out.
“Let me go!”
“You should have let me go.”
“Héctor! Héctor! Ayúdame!” Ernesto screamed, and let out a hiccupping sob. It felt like he’d been thrown in a fire. “Please, I’m sorry,” he choked out. He wasn’t even sure what he was apologizing for; all he knew was that something had happened and that he was so, so sorry. “I want to go home!”
“So do I,” Héctor’s voice replied. Suddenly there was something pressing against his forehead, something that felt like a small, cool hand. Ernesto tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t. The hand went to cover them; the glare of the midday sun through his eyelids was gone, leaving behind comforting darkness.
Somewhere in that darkness, his childhood friend spoke again. His voice echoed as though they were trapped--
under the bell
-- in a very small space.
“Let’s both go home, Neto,” Héctor was saying, very quietly. “We’ve been away for too long.”
Somewhere, very far away, a train whistled.
If not for the fact she was walking right by the door, Griselda may not have heard the strangled cries coming from inside.
She wasn’t supposed to be there: after giving him his lunch she had wheeled el señor de la Cruz in front of his room’s open window so that he could glance outside and perhaps sleep a little, and had gone downstairs to obey his instructions to find a few recordings of his music.
They had been stored away years earlier, but they were easy to find. She had also found a working record player, and brought it in a room where la señora Rivera - she insisted to be called Coco, but she couldn’t bring herself to be so informal - could listen comfortably.
Griselda had no idea what that was about, but she had seemed almost in tears of gratitude, holding a small red notebook to her chest, and she had not enquired. She had left her alone to listen to music to her heart’s content, closing the door behind herself, and had decided to go upstairs for no reason other than fetching an empty glass she had forgotten to bring back in the kitchen. As it had turned out, a glass was the least of their worries.
“Señor de la Cruz?” she called out, alarmed, and stepped inside. He was still on his wheelchair, strapped to its backrest, so thank God he had not fallen off it, but something was wrong. His eyes were shut, head hanging forward, hair stuck to sweaty skin on his forehead. He was asleep all right, letting out heart-wrenching noises that tried and failed to become proper screams. Good God, not another nightmare. Hadn’t that poor man had enough?
Griselda rushed in, crouched in front of his wheelchair, and put a hand over his forehead. His skin was warm, feverishly so, and it was alarming. Fever was not a good sign in a man in such poor health; it could very well mean that the end was nearing. “Señor de la Cruz!”
With a jerk of his head and a gasp, his eyes snapped open. He stared at her for a few moments, as though not comprehending what he was seeing, a look of such terror on his face that it made her heart clench. He needed a doctor but, first, he needed to calm down.
“It’s all right, señor,” Griselda reassured him, reaching for a handkerchief to wipe sweat and tears off his face. “You’re all right. It was just a dream.”
He shook his head, still looking so lost, but the terror was fading. “Héctor,” he choked out.
That name, again. “Señor, please, listen to me. I’m Griselda. Do you recognize me?”
He drew in a shuddering breath, but he seemed to be making an effort to put her into focus. To her relief, he nodded weakly. “Yes. Where is Coco?” he rasped. “I have to talk to her.”
“You need a doctor. I’ll call for doctor Rojas and--”
“No, no. I need to.. I have to…” his voice wavered, and he seemed on the verge of losing consciousness, hanging on out of sheer willpower. “A doctor can’t help.”
“He helped before - like with that pneumonia last year, remember? You’ll be all right.”
“No. Let me… I have to…” he slurred, and Griselda could tell he was losing his fight for consciousness. The despair on his face tore at her heart. “I have to tell… I need to--”
“You will, señor,” Griselda promised, very quietly, cupping his cheek. “I’ll call a doctor first. Whatever it is you need to tell her, it can wait. She’s listening to your music now.”
That got a sound out of him that almost the parody of a laugh. “I waited too many years.”
“Then it can wait a few more hours,” she said, and stood, gently pushing his head back against the headrest. He closed his eyes, drawing in a trembling breath.
“Don’t leave me here,” he pleaded, sounding scared and so, so small. “I want to go home.”
“I will be right back, señor. I promise,” Griselda replied, and to her relief he was once again asleep, or unconscious, before she was even out of the door. As she hurried to the closest room with a phone in it, she paid no mind to the man from security who almost bumped into her with a mumbled apology while leaving it.
The few times she had been able to sneak out and dance to some music, Coco had never paid much attention to words. It was more about the rhythm, the thrum in her blood, the way her feet would start moving almost on their own while she danced and danced and all worries melted away. There had been times when she had imagined that her papá was back, and he was the one playing; as long as she danced, she could keep that illusion up.
Now, however, she couldn't bring herself to move: she listened to song after song, eyes on the songbook, following the lyrics almost religiously.
Señoritas y señores
To be here with you tonight
Brings me joy, que alegria...
Coco had expected it to be bittersweet, listening to his father’s words through the voice of another - a beautiful voice, even though it had now been marred by too much hardship, but not her papá’s tender one. To an extent, she hadn’t been wrong. What she had not been prepared for was the sting. She was getting back a piece of her father and she ought to be happy about it, but it was something he had already shared with the world, something she was only getting second-hand and far, far too late.
For this music is my language
And the world es mi familia...
His real familia, so much more important than the one he had left behind. Coco’s sight blurred, and she found herself unable to read on. She put the songbook down, so that she wouldn't ruin it with her tears, and reached up to wipe her eyes. There was no use in crying, she knew. She was not a little girl anymore; she knew more of her father now than she ever did, had more of him than she’d ever had since he left. She should be happy with that.
It cannot be worse than knowing nothing, she had said, and she still believed it, and yet it hurt so much. She drew in a few deep breaths, eyes shut, trying to calm down as the song ended… and the next one began.
Though I have to say goodbye...
Coco tore her hands off her face, recoiling as though struck by lighting. It felt like she had been struck, sure enough. For several moments, her mind could form no thoughts at all: she could only listen, numbly, at words that she had heard before.
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away
I’ll hold you in my heart…
No, she thought, it couldn’t be. That was their song, their secret song, she remembered as much. Even her mother didn’t know about that one: it had been something only the two of them shared. Her papá had made such a big deal out of it - that it was their song and theirs alone.
This will be our secret, sí? Every night I am away, I will sing it only for you and you will sing it for me. So it will be like we’re singing together, see? Only me and you.
Except that it hadn’t been just theirs, in the end. He had gone on to share it with the world.
For this music is my language, and the world es mi familia.
The thought hurt, and it hurt a lot. That was more than just a song to her: it was a bit of her papá that no one but her knew about, or so she had thought until then. A bit of him that was hers and hers only, to remember him by - and now she was listening to it on a record that had sold millions of copies across Mexico.
I sing a secret song to you
Each night we are apart...
Coco wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and paused. She’d focused on the words, of course, because she recognized them… but they were also the only thing she recognized. Why did that song sound so different? The one she remembered was like a lullaby, to be sung quietly within the walls of her bedroom, no… not that.
Why did he change it? Did he decide it wasn’t good enough as it was, like I wasn’t good enough for him to stay?
Her thoughts in disarray, Coco went through the songbook with shaky hands, flipping pages until she finally found it. Her eyes went to the upper left corner, and there it was: rubato, simply, tenderly. That was it, that was how the song was supposed to be played and sung. She still remembered her papá kneeling before her bed, his voice filling the room while he played his white guitar and--
Wait. That guitar.
For the second time in minutes, it was as though she’d been struck by a bolt of lighting. Coco put down the songbook and reached for the cover of the vinyl record. She hadn’t given the covers more than a passing glance, too eager to start listening to her papá’s songs, but now she grabbed that last one, and she was unable to tear her gaze away.
Remember Me was printed in huge letters in the lower right corner, and she could hardly believe she had missed it earlier, but that wasn’t what she focused on now. There, in the hands of a much younger Ernesto, there was a white guitar with a familiar skull motif on it. Her papá’s guitar, a gift from her mother when they had married. It was custom made, she remembered him telling her one day while he was tuning it and had spotted her watching.
There is no other like it. It’s one of a kind, just like your mamá.
But there it was, in the hands Ernesto de la Cruz. Had her father given away her mamá’s wedding gift, too, like he had given away their song? It made no sense, just giving up such a good guitar. Or maybe Ernesto had just borrowed it? Coco bit her lower lip, and let her gaze wander on the small table in front of her… and there was the guitar again, on the cover of another vinyl, and then another. Finally, her gaze fell on the red songbook again.
It belonged to your father. It... fell in my possession after he died.
Had that been the case with the guitar, too? But Ernesto looked so young on that cover. Surely that must have been long before her papá died… hadn’t it?
When did papá die?
The thought hit her like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, all she could think of was the letter that had brought her there in the first place. There is something I need to tell you about Héctor that you should have known many years ago, it read, and Coco was astonished to realize that despite wondering she had not asked, even once, just how many years he’d been dead. She had assumed it may have been five, seven, maybe ten years at most, but…
That guitar. And he looks so young. When did this record come out?
Coco reached inside with shaky hands and pulled out the liner. Sure enough, it was covered in fine print… and there was a year, too: 1923. It was only two years after her father had left home, and yet that was not what struck her the hardest. What caused her to stare for several minutes, mouth dry and heart pounding, was the realization that among all those acknowledgements and information - about the record label, Ernesto himself, the songs - there was no mention of the songwriter. She checked the others, and still found nothing.
Despite having written every song in those records, her papá wasn’t mentioned even once.
This isn’t right. Something is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Coco almost ran out of the room, leaving the vinyls scattered on the table, her thoughts a jumbled mess. The hallway in front of her seemed to stretch on for miles, no matter how fast she walked. It took her less than a minute to make it to the main hall; it felt like a hour.
There was a large staircase there, leading up to the upper floor, where Ernesto’s bedroom was. There was a small lift on one side, which was used to get his wheelchair up and down - and walking quickly towards it, giving her her back, there was Griselda.
Coco breathed out a sigh of relief. “Griselda? I’m really sorry to bother, but I was wondering if I could see Ernesto, if he’s awake. I need to ask him--”
Coco’s question died in her throat the moment Griselda paused and turned. She saw the grim look on her face, the concern etched in her features, the ice and towels she was carrying, and stopped dead in her tracks. She swallowed, unsure, a sudden stab of worry in her chest. “Is… is everything all right?”
The woman sighed. “I am afraid el señor de la Cruz is not well. He’s quite feverish. It may be nothing to be truly concerned about, but for a man in his condition…” she paused, and drew in a deep breath before she made an effort to smile. “The doctor has been called, and will be here shortly. I promise you, your godfather is in the best possible hands. If you need anything meanwhile, feel free to ask Juan or any other member of the staff.”
Coco nodded, and for a few moments she felt numb. Ernesto had looked well enough that morning; could things really degenerate so quickly? Would she get another chance to talk to him at all? Could she risk never getting another one?
“Would it… would it be possible to see him?” she asked, unable to entirely shake off the feeling that she was being horribly selfish, demanding to talk to a man who was so ill. But she was not just asking for stories: she had so many questions, and she needed answers.
Did he really share our secret song with the world? Why is his name nowhere to be seen on any of your records? Why did you have his guitar? When did my papá really die? Just how long did you wait to tell us? Why? What made you decide this was the time to write us?
Griselda shook her head, but when she spoke her voice was kind. “It would be best if the doctor sees him first. He may need some rest, too. But I promise you, you will get to see him. He wishes to talk to you, too.”
“Yes. He was... quite desperate to speak to you, but also very upset. I fear that seeing you will agitate him further,” she added, almost apologetically. “I am truly sorry, but my duty is to tend to him the best I can. I hope you understand.”
She did, of course. As much as she ached to know - why was he so desperate to talk to her all of a sudden, after taking ill? - she understood perfectly. “Yes. Of course. Is he...” she hesitated, and the word - dying - refused to leave her mouth. “... Is he suffering?”
“He’s been suffering for years. Longer than any doctor expected him to live,” Griselda said, and Coco knew she must have guessed what she truly had wanted to ask. Her voice softened when she spoke again. “If he asks of you before he’s ready to see you, is there anything you’d like me to tell him?”
Coco nodded. “Yes. Tell him that… that I’ll listen. Tell him that whatever he has to say, I won’t hate him for it. I just need answers.”
Griselda stared at him for a long moment before nodding. “I will let him know,” she said, and headed upstairs without another word, leaving Coco on her own, head spinning and not knowing what to think.
For a time, he’d drifted.
All that he’d known was that he felt so warm and so, so tired. He dozed off for a time, vaguely aware that something cold was being pressed on his forehead, something wet passed over his face. There was a touch on his head, fingers brushing back his hair, hushed mumbling - but all of it had been far away, and he hadn’t caught the words.
Until someone had pulled up his right eyelid to shine a light in his damn eye, of course. That had jerked him awake.
“Buenas tardes, señor de la Cruz. How are you feeling?”
That was a stupid question if he’d ever heard one and ‘chinga tu madre’ was the very first reply to come to his mind, but he stopped when he heard a chuckle. Héctor’s chuckle.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Never piss off a doctor, mi amigo.”
Oh, Ernesto thought, right. Now that he could put him into focus, he recognized doctor Rojas. It was far from the first time he visited him; just the previous year, when it had looked like a bad case of pneumonia would finally put an end to that mockery of a life, it had been him to drag him back from the brink. It looked like Ernesto’s prayers that he would choke on a chorizo had not been answered. Go figure. As they said, if you want a job well done--
“Offer him a drink,” Héctor quipped, and Ernesto’s gave a noise that might have been a snicker, once. The ghost sounded so different from the embittered creature he’d been dealing with, more like Héctor had truly been. He remembered now. When had he forgotten?
“Señor de la Cruz? Can you hear me?” Doctor Rojas spoke again, leaning over him.
Ernesto swallowed. “Sí,” he rasped.
“Good, good. I’ll have a look at you, all right? Don’t be alarmed. It is but a precaution.”
At the foot of the bed, Héctor - as Ernesto had last seen him alive - made a face. “Has there ever been anything more alarming than ‘don’t be alarmed’ coming from a médico’s mouth?”
“Yes, ‘this won’t hurt a bit’,” Ernesto mumbled, causing Héctor’s ghost to laugh.
Doctor Rojas blinked. “Huh? Did you say something?”
“No,” Ernesto said, closing his eyes. Still, his lips quirked upwards. “Nothing important.”
He kept his eyes closed and only replied in monosyllables as the visit went on. It was easy to ignore that: he couldn’t feel touch, and was used to being moved around, poked, prodded. He still felt feverish and somewhat lightheaded, but no longer as confused. Héctor’s ghost sat at the edge of the bed; he didn’t see or feel him doing so, but he knew that he had.
“For the record, that creepy dream was not of my making,” Héctor informed him. “You did it all on your own - didn’t think you had it in you to be that creative, really. If you’d put half that effort in writing decent songs, I’d be with my family now,” he added. There was a pause, as though he waited for a reply that did not come, before he spoke again. “I really don’t give a damn about credit, you got that much right. You already knew that, didn’t you?”
Unwilling to speak again with someone else present, Ernesto nodded just slightly, eyes still shut. Héctor let out a hum. “I wanted to go home, that was all. She should know that I tried to return, she and Imelda both. You owe me at least that much,” his old friend said. Ernesto nodded again, a sudden lump in his throat, and for a time they were both silent.
“Very well, the visit is all over with. You can rest,” doctor Rojas said eventually, his voice impossibly cheerful, pulling the sheets back over him. So, it didn’t look good. Had he not been certain that Héctor’s ghost would not allow him to die until he’d done as he wished, Ernesto would have hoped that meant the end was within sight.
But it is, it’s almost over. I tell her and then I can die. You promised, Héctor. You promised.
“Tell her I tried to go home, Ernesto. Then we can both rest. What do you say, amigo?”
It was an empty question, of course: they both knew what the answer was.
“He is responsive now, if anything. Of course the next few days will be crucial. The fever may break, but it may also be a symptom of...” Doctor Rojas - a thin, balding man who reminded Coco of her uncles - paused. He’d seemed reluctant to speak in Coco’s presence at first, until Griselda had introduced her as Ernesto’s goddaughter. Coco met his gaze, and he seemed to decide she was not going to faint if he went on. “It may be a sign of sepsis.”
It seemed to come to no surprise at all to Griselda. “I understand. The ulcers never healed, no matter what I did to keep them clean.”
“You tended to him wonderfully, but there are limits to what we can do,” doctor Rojas told her, a hint of sorrow in his voice. “But it may not be sepsis. He only just became feverish.”
“Only two or three hours ago, yes.”
A nod. “Keep giving him the antibiotics I gave you, just in case, and the intravenous fluids as instructed. If he struggles to breathe, do not hesitate to give him some oxygen. Keep an eye on his heart rate. Call me if the temperature drops quickly. But, if I may speak frankly…”
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Coco heard herself saying. Her voice seemed that of a stranger. How could it be so calm and collected while she was feeling anything but?
Unaware of her thoughts, doctor Rojas nodded again. “Very well,” he said. “What matters the most is keeping him comfortable, I believe. He has defied all odds before, but he is severely weakened. At the moment, I don’t think there is anything else that can be done but to wait.”
“And pray,” Griselda murmured, her voice quiet.
“That too, I suppose. Perhaps you would like to call a priest to administer the last rites in case the fever doesn’t break by tomorrow evening,” he added. The statement, more than anything he had said until then, told Coco just how bad that looked: the doctor did not expect him to survive for long. That was happening fast, too fast,
“Can I speak to him?” she asked, her own voice sounding very small.
The question gained him a shake of the head from the doctor. “I think it would be best if we let him rest and--” he began, but Griselda spoke up first.
“El señor de la Cruz wished to speak to her before I called you,” she said. “He was quite upset. Perhaps he will rest better if we allow it.”
Coco breathed out a little more easily when the doctor nodded. There still was a weight on her chest, too many questions and an odd sort of grief for a man she hardly knew but who had become her only real link to her father, but it seemed a little more bearable now.
“Very well, but only for a few minutes. Try not to tire him out too much.”
As Juan saw doctor Rojas to the door, Coco gave Griselda a grateful smile. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. I only have one thing to ask of you.”
The woman sighed, and for a moment she looked older than her sixty-something years. “I know little of the circumstances that brought you here. What I do know is that there is a weight he needs to get off his chest as much as you need answers, and what I can guess is that it may not be something pleasant to hear. Hardly any secret a man sheds on the brink of death is,” she added, and put a hand on her arm. “Promise me you’ll go easy on him.”
Coco nodded. “I am not going to lose control,” she said, her voice a bit tighter than she’d meant. Did she think that sh’d start screaming at a dying man? “Whatever is done, is done. I only need some answers.”
With a nod, Griselda let go of her arm. “I hope it brings you both some peace of mind.”
Coco made an effort to smile. “I hope so, too,” she said, but as she walked inside Ernesto’s bedroom she wished, more than anything, that she could have her family by her side.
Ernesto knew that Coco had guessed something from the moment he saw her stepping his his bedroom. The line of her mouth, the rigid posture, the clasped hands - he had seen it all before in Imelda. Her calm voice as she asked him how he felt couldn’t hide that.
Well, it had been only a matter of time, after all. He had expected her to guess something was wrong the moment she saw her father’s songbook; the fact she had never heard the songs before had only delayed the inevitable.
“I’ve had better days,” he said, his eyes flickering towards the IV needle in his arm. It was not a widespread treatment yet, Griselda had explained to him once, but doctor Rojas was keen to experiment, and expected it to become more common in a few years’ time. The notion made him feel like the world’s biggest guinea pig. “I had hoped you wouldn’t have to see me like this,” he added, but truth be told he no longer really cared. There had been a time when he’d have been ashamed of the sad spectacle he offered; he was well beyond that now.
Coco sat on the chair next to his bed, and smiled. Despite the tenseness in her frame, it was still the same smile as Héctor, whose ghost was nowhere to be seen. He was on his own to face her now. At least, he thought, his mind was clearing.
“It is all right. I hope you recover soon.”
“I pray to God I don’t,” Ernesto said, and the smile faded, but she didn’t look surprised. He drew in a deep breath, trying to ignore the sudden sense of dread that was trying to grip his throat, and leaned his head back down on the pillow. “You have questions, I assume.”
“Did Griselda tell you?” she asked, readjusting the cold compress askew on his forehead. A small act of kindness that, he suspected, she wouldn't be keen to repeat in a few minutes' time.
“If she spoke to me before that quack walked in to prod me, I didn’t hear her. But I only needed a look at you to guess.”
“You were expecting me to ask, weren’t you?” Coco asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Griselda told me you were... eager to speak to me.”
And yet now I’m afraid, Ernesto thought. How much had she guessed? What would she do once he told her what he’d kept from her family for so long? It shouldn’t worry him; worst that could happen, she’d rage and perhaps hit him. Maybe kill him, even, but that seemed unlikely. He suspected Imelda might have, in her place. Shame it hadn’t been her to come: he rather wished someone would deal him a killing blow.
“I should have guessed something was off from the start,” Coco was going on. “If all that there was to it was that my papá had died, you would have said so directly in the letter. I was so eager to know more about him, I didn’t wonder about that once,” she added, and bit her lower lip. For the first time, the composure broke and he could see the hurt, the confusion, the fear. “You have his guitar. He wrote your songs, but he never got any credit.”
“No. I claimed I wrote them.”
“And he didn’t argue?”
“He couldn’t argue. I am certain you have worked that out by yourself.”
For a few endless moments Coco just stared at him, her expression completely blank, hands clasped tightly on her lap. He waited for tears, he waited for screams, but neither came. When she spoke, her voice was little above a whisper.
“Your first album came out in 1923. Was he… was he already dead?”
Tell her I tried to go home, Ernesto. Then we can both rest.
Ernesto drew in a deep breath and looked at her, or tried to. Suddenly, he found he couldn’t hold her gaze. He turned away and struggled to speak, his throat tight. “Héctor died in 1921.”
Coco’s features twisted in an expression he couldn’t define, something that was pain an absurd sort of relief at the same time. “That’s the same year he left.”
“He died within months of leaving. He...” Ernesto’s voice broke, and for a few more moment he could say nothing. He saw again, with the mind’s eye, Héctor’s expression that night.
I’m going home, Ernesto. Hate me if you want, but my mind is made up.
And yet, when Ernesto had called for one final toast, he’d accepted. He’d been relieved, even, happy to accept when Ernesto had offered to walk him to the station. They had talked and joked like nothing was wrong until they were almost at station, and then… then...
I missed my train, I’m afraid. I’m waiting for the next.
I tried so hard to go back, and they never knew.
Let’s both go home, Neto. We’ve been away for too long.
“He wanted to go home,” Ernesto choked out, and shut his eyes. He tried to tell himself that it was the fever that made his voice tremble and his throat tighten, but he knew that was not all of it. “He never made it, but he always meant to go back home.”
There was a sharp intake of breath, then a silence that seemed to stretch on forever. Ernesto kept his eyes shut, heart pounding in his throat, waiting for a reaction. Would she cry, scream, demand the entire truth out of him? If she did, he would tell. Anything to be able to die, to make it all end. Anything to make Héctor rest in peace so that he could rest, too.
“... He never meant to leave us behind,” Coco finally spoke, slowly, as though she was trying out a string of foreign words. As though she could barely bring herself to hope that was true. “All those years of wait - all these years without music, of my mother hating him… all along, we thought my papá had chosen music over us. And instead, he’d been... dead?”
Ernesto swallowed, and nodded. “Yes.”
“You never told us,” she spoke again, and now there was something else in her voice, something colder and sharper. “How could you? Twenty-five years, and not one word. Was it for the songs? So that you could take credit without anyone arguing otherwise?”
“Look at me.” The order was like the crack of a whip, and as he opened his eyes Ernesto almost expected to see Imelda towering over him. Coco’s eyes were wide and dark, brimming with tears she fought not to shed. “Was it for the songs that you never told us?”
For the songs. Because Imelda would have asked too many questions. Because the two of you were the most important thing in his life, our dream suddenly meant nothing to him and oh God, I was so angry. I hated you so much for it, I didn’t even realize I did.
He ached to say all of it, but he found that he couldn’t. Not aloud. “Yes,” he finally rasped. “For the songs. They made me famous. It was all I had ever wanted.”
Coco stood suddenly, knocking back the chair. It fell on the ground with a loud bang, but neither of them took notice of the noise, of the door opening, of Griselda standing in the doorway with an alarmed look on her face. “He was your best friend, and you let his family think the worst of him because you wanted to be famous ,” Coco choked out. Her hands were balled into fists at her sides, anger and grief twisting her features; he half-expected her to strike him, but she did not. Had it been Imelda, that would have gone very differently.
“We could have buried him! We could have known he loved us! We could have had closure! Do you have any idea what you have done to our family?”
Oh, no. You are the one who has no idea what I have truly done.
The thought was almost funny, in its own way, and maybe he would have even said as much aloud if given time to - but Coco was clearly done listening. “Well, señor de la Cruz,” she spat, reaching up to wipe her face, “you got what you wanted. I hope you’re enjoying your fame. You can keep it,” she added, and stormed past a stunned Griselda, out of the door.
Ernesto closed his eyes, feeling so tired and emptied, and sighed. “Get out, Griselda.”
“I said out!”
For one time’s sake, she did not argue in that insufferably maternal way of hers. As the door closed, Ernesto let his head drop back on the pillow and let out a dry sob. “Can I die now?” he pleaded. He didn’t even have it in himself to hate how small his voice sounded. He was too tired, and already regretted moving his head so much, causing the cold compress on his forehead to fall. He felt like he was burning up again. “Please, Héctor. Let me go.”
“Ay, mi hermano, that is not how it works,” Héctor’s voice rang out. It was quiet, almost mournful. Ernesto opened his eyes again to see him sitting on the edge of the bed. His hands were folded on his lap, like his daughter’s minutes earlier. In his hands, he held a train ticket that had never been used. “I can’t help you. I’m dead, remember?”
No, Ernesto thought, horror squeezing his heart in a vise-like grip. No, no, no. It couldn’t be.
“You promised you’d let me die, Héctor,” he choked out. Oh God, had it been all a ruse? Some kind of cruel mockery? He looked up at his old friend’s ghost expecting to see the sorrowful expression change into a manic grin and hear his mocking laugh, but no such thing happened. Héctor just shook his head.
“I said that you could die, not that it would be me to allow it. Don’t you understand, old friend?” he added, tilting his head towards the closed door. “It was never my blessing you needed.”
I need to get out of here. I need to tell mamá the truth. I need to go home.
Coco walked through the mansion in daze, those thoughts hammering in her head just as her heart hammered in her throat. That was all right, though, that was all she wanted to focus on. She felt she would go insane if she allowed herself to think anything else.
I always wished to know that my papá love me, but not like this. Never like this.
She barrelled into the bedroom she had spent the previous night into, forcing herself to shut down that line of thought, and went to grab her suitcase. She would call for a cab, get to the station, catch the first train. A night train, or she’d spend the night in a motel. She needed to be home with her mother, with her husband, with her daughter. She needed her in her arms, needed it so much it hurt. She’d hold her like her father never could hold her again, and--
He never made it, but he always meant to go back home.
Ernesto’s voice echoed in the back of her mind and her breath caught in her throat, her hand stilling in mid-air. She thought of her papá, young as he’d been, dying far away from home, wishing to see them one last time, and never getting to. It was a painful thought and... and it wasn’t right. What was she thinking? She couldn’t go home, not on her own. The truth was no longer enough. Her papá was long dead, but his body had to be somewhere - and wherever that was, it was too far from them.
I must bring him back. Whatever it takes, he’ll be coming home with me.
Slowly, Coco lowered her hand and let out a long breath, the turmoil in her mind coming to standstill. It was a relief, having a goal to focus on; it made it easier to keep a cool mind. She would freshen up, try to rest and eat something, and then she’d talk to Ernesto again once she'd gotten a hold of herself. He’d tell her where her papá was buried, he had to. He owed her as much and, if he’d written to them in the first place, there had to be some remorse at least. That was his chance to set things right; if the doctor was to be believed, he may not have much time left to take it.
Focused as she was on her next step, Coco didn’t glance towards the small table by her bed, and thus she didn’t notice that something was amiss.
Her father’s songbook was gone.
Chapter 6: A Missing Body
Ernesto is a slow learner, but he learns. Eventually.
As long as he's dragged into it kicking and screaming.
“Oh, Julio! There you are! She called, didn’t she? How is she? How’s Mexico City? Is she eating well? The poor thing, she looked so pale when she left, I should have packed her a better lunch!”
Julio couldn’t hold back a laugh at his sister’s barrage of questions, which had hit him the second he had stepped back inside the workshop. There had been a delivery to make, and that was usually something either Óscar or Felipe did, generally on rather odd bicycles and contraptions of their own making.
However, he had offered to do it that day, and they had not argued. He hadn’t told them that the main reason was that he wanted to stop at the inn to check if Coco had left a message, but of course they all had guessed.
“She did. All is well,” he said, lifting his hands somewhat defensively before his sister could speak up again, and she seemed to deflate, relief replacing the worry on her face. “She says she will be back soon, and that I should give Victoria a kiss from her.”
Rosita, ever the chatterbox, seemed slightly disappointed despite her relief. “That’s it? She said nothing else? Did she find out anything?”
“She didn’t say. I imagine she didn’t want to tell Paula too much,” he added.
“Oh, that does make sense. Paula is far too much into gossip.”
Says the pot to the kettle, Julio thought, and barely held back a smile. Still, she was not wrong. People talked, and the innkeeper talked more than most. “She was quite curious to know why Coco is in Mexico City, yes,” he admitted.
“You didn’t tell her, I should hope!”
“Of course not!” Julio protested. If there was something his mother-in-law had had enough of to last her a lifetime it was talk behind her back, so he’d stayed tight-lipped even when prodded for details. Paula clearly hadn’t been very satisfied with his evasive answers.
“I’m surprised her mother let her go, given… you know, history,” she had to him after passing on Coco’s message to him, lowering her voice. “I’m surprised you gave her leave to go, to be quite honest.”
Had he been more of a confrontational man, Julio might have told her to mind her own business. Instead, he’d simply shrugged - it was amusing how she assumed that Coco needed his leave to do anything; he would tell her when she returned and have a laugh about it - and thanked her for passing on the message to him.
“When she calls back, please do let her know that all is well at home,” he’d just asked in the end. Truth be told things were… not quite tense, but not entirely normal either. Mamá Imelda seemed more thoughtful than usual, even if she tried to hide it. Everyone could tell she was worried, even Victoria. Especially Victoria.
Given what she had endured, Julio couldn’t quite blame her - who could? - and yet he couldn’t help but feel slightly offended on Coco’s behalf, either. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind that his wife would be home soon. He got the feeling he should try to reassure her, but at the same time it felt like it simply wasn’t his place… and plus, he feared he’d end up saying the wrong thing. Maybe he should talk to Óscar and Felipe, and leave it to them. They were her brothers, after all.
“How is Mamá Imelda?” he asked, and Rosita sighed.
“I don’t think she slept last night,” she said. “And she ate very little breakfast this morning. Victoria hasn’t left her side for a minute. Maybe you should tell them both that Coco called and is fine,” she said, and Julio had to agree that yes, he should.
Besides, there was a kiss he had to give his daughter on her mamá’s behalf.
“Oh, Coco, you just missed him! He walked out if the door five minutes ago, after I gave him your message. If you’d called a bit earlier…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Coco said, trying to sound normal, but something in her chest ached. She would have given anything to talk to Julio directly, to hear his voice and tell him what she had found out without having to watch her words with Paula. If only she hadn’t spent so much time looking for that songbook… “I can just leave another message. It is not urgent.”
“Of course, dear. Are you well? You sound tired.”
Coco, who hadn’t slept a single minute - when she hadn’t been crying or grappling with her thoughts, she’d been struggling not to throw up; writing it off as just a reaction to those days’ upheaval was getting increasingly difficult - forced herself to chuckle. “The journey was more tiring than I thought. I have yet to catch up on my sleep, I suppose. When Julio drops by again, can you tell him that… I need to stay here a few more days than we thought?”
“Oh?” Paula said, and Coco could almost see her sitting more upright, the receiver pressed against her ear, gesturing for anyone around her at the inn - guests and staff alike - to be quiet. The innkeeper wasn’t a bad person, but she lived and breathed gossip to an extent even Rosita found exaggerated. There was a joke that, if you wanted word to get around in Santa Cecilia, all you had to do was telling Paula and begging her not to tell a soul.
More reliable than a radio station, Tío Felipe had said once. Even now, the thought made Coco smile a bit.
“And why is that?” Paula was asking, trying to sound casual and failing spectacularly at it.
We were wrong, part of her wanted to cry out, we were wrong about my papá all along, everyone was wrong and I will bring him home.
Except that of course she couldn’t, not unless she wanted all of Santa Cecilia to know about it. They would know, of course, everyone should - but not just yet. First, she had to find him. Then she had to come home, she needed to tell her mother everything while looking at her in the eye. First, they needed to grieve as a family. Then, and only then, the rest of the world could know.
“Oh, it’s nothing especially interesting,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “We just got a few things wrong. There was a misunderstanding I need to take care of before I return. Can you tell him that?”
“Of course. But what kind of--”
“I truly need to go. I believe someone else needs the phone. Thanks again for your help,” Coco said quickly, and put down the receiver with a sigh. Well, there went the first conversation of the day - and the easiest one. The next ones, she suspected, would be harder to get through.
With that thought in mind, Coco was relieved when she walked into the main hall to be greeted with a smile by Griselda. It was a tired smile, sure enough, but a smile nonetheless. Not having seen her since the outburst the previous evening, Coco had had no idea what to expect.
“Buenos días, señora Rivera,” she said. She did not ask if she’d had a good night; Coco suspected her puffy face told the whole tale.
“Coco, please,” she said, trying to smile. “I am… sorry for raising my voice yesterday. I promised I would not, but--”
Griselda shook his head. “It is all right. You were clearly upset.”
“Did he tell you what it was about?”
“No. He hasn’t said a word to me or anyone since yesterday.”
Coco wasn’t too surprised. Only the previous day, she would have felt sorry for him. Now she mostly felt numb. “How is he?”
“The fever has gone down. The antibiotics seem to be working, for now.”
The reply allowed Coco to breathe a little more easily. It would be easier to find her papá’s body if the only one to know where he was buried didn’t die on her. “Do you think I could talk to him? I will not raise my voice,” she added quickly when Griselda opened her mouth. The woman seemed to hesitate, then nodded.
“He’s on the porch. The doctor probably would not agree, but it is such a lovely day outside I didn’t have the heart to leave him cooped up in his room. But please, do not upset him.”
Coco nodded. “I’ll do my best not to. And, Griselda, have you… have you seen a red notebook anywhere?”
That caused her to blink. “A red notebook?”
“Yes. It is something that used to belong to my father. I thought I had brought it in my room yesterday, but it wasn’t there when I looked for it this morning. Perhaps I forgot it somewhere,” she added. She had an odd feeling about it - she was almost positive she had taken the songbook to her bedroom while she waited for the doctor visit to be over with - but she tried to ignore it. That was not the right time to get paranoid. “I thought I might have forgotten in the room where I listened to music, but it’s not there either. Could you…?”
“Of course. I will ask the staff if anyone has seen it - it might have been moved around while cleaning,” Griselda said, and smiled. “Do not worry about a thing. I will bring you some breakfast outside shortly.”
The walk to the porch outside took no more than a minute, but it seemed to last much longer. Ernesto was there, of course, just as Griselda had said, strapped to his wheelchair. Next to him there was a pole, with a bag full of clear liquid attached to it. A small tube ran from the bag to his arm where, she guessed, a needle had been pushed in a vein.
The wheelchair was turned towards the garden, and he didn’t move at all as she approached; he kept his eyes shut, head leaning back on the headrest. Only when her steps paused next to him did he open his eyes. If he was surprised to see her, it didn’t show.
“Not a very good night, was it?” he rasped. He looked even worse for wear than he had the previous morning, when at least he’d had a full night’s sleep. He was paler now, with dark shadows under his eyes, and he looked beyond exhausted. It was hard not to pity him.
Coco shook her head, and sat on a chair right by. She sat rigidly, but to her surprise it didn’t take too much effort to keep her voice quiet. Most of the anger was gone; now there was sadness, and a goal to focus on. “Not for you either,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
His lips quirked upwards for a moment in a humorless smile. “It’s kind of you to ask, all things considered,” he muttered. He paused and seemed to wait for a reply, a retort of some kind, but she just looked at him and, finally, he sighed. “It would be easier to handle if you raged. Good God, you’re just like him.”
“Shall I take it as a compliment?”
“... You should, yes.”
Coco felt a small smile forming on her face, despite the odd numbness she still couldn't quite shake off. “It feels nice to hear that. There weren’t many kind words for him as I grew up.”
Ernesto swallowed, and bowed his head. “I’m sorry.”
I know, Coco almost said, but didn’t. She let her gaze wander away from him, across the garden. Someone was watering the flower beds. “I’m not here for your apologies. I need your help,” she finally spoke.
“I want to bring him home. I need you to tell me where he’s buried.”
For a few moments, there was no reply. Coco turned to see he was staring at her, clearly surprised… and immediately looked away when their gazes met. It may have been guilt for stealing her father’s songs and never telling them about his death, of course; he had plenty to feel guilty and ashamed for. And yet something told her that there was more to it, and suddenly it didn’t matter how sunny and warm the day was: she felt very, very cold.
“... Ernesto? Where is my papá buried?”
“I…” he began, and paused. “Somewhere… somewhere here in Mexico City, I believe.”
“You believe?” Coco breathed. Did that mean he didn’t know? How was that possible? He was there when he’d died, how could he not know? It wasn’t right. She stood suddenly, heart hammering in her throat. “You mean… you weren’t there? You just ran off with his songbook and guitar after he died? You didn’t even stay long enough pay him your respects?”
Her voice rose, and she had to make a very conscious effort to lower it before Griselda, or someone else form the staff, came running. Ernesto shut his eyes, his head flinching back even as the rest of the body remained motionless. The realization - a dying man on a wheelchair honestly thought she was about to hit him - caused her to pause, Griselda’s voice echoing in the back of her mind.
Please, do not upset him.
Coco’s shoulders dropped, her anger already turning into a tired sort of indifference. Of course she wouldn’t hit him; what difference would it make? There was nothing she could do to punish him more than fate already had. It didn’t matter. Her anger didn’t matter.
All that counts is that I find papá and bring him home.
With a sigh, Coco crouched down in front of the wheelchair. Her hands reached to grasp his own, even though she knew he couldn’t feel her touch. They were almost skeletal, and cold.
“... Tío Neto.” It felt odd, hearing that coming from her own mouth again after so many years; it hadn’t been a conscious choice, and it clearly came as a surprise to Ernesto as well. He opened his eyes and looked down at her, his fear giving way to confusion.
“I wouldn’t know where to start looking,” Coco said. Finding a body with only a name would have been easy enough in Santa Cecilia, but Mexico City was so massive, and a quarter of a century had passed. “You must know at least something - when he died and where. I need to find him. So that he can--”
“Go home,” Ernesto choked out, cutting her off, and something spilled down his cheeks. Coco’s own throat tightened, but she forced herself not to weep. She just nodded and reached up with one hand to wipe the tears off his face.
“Yes. You told me so much about him, it felt like you were bringing him back to me,” she said, and smiled weakly. “And now that I know he wanted to return, I can’t leave without him. Please. He was your friend. If you want to put things right, help me bring him home.”
Ernesto opened his mouth as though to speak, but he seemed unable to; all that left him was a shuddering breath. He closed his eyes with a nod, and more tears spilled out. Coco reached up to wipe them with a wry smile. “So much for not upsetting you. Griselda is going to give me an earful if she sees you like this,” she said.
“Tell her you stepped on my foot,” Ernesto muttered, his voice a bit hoarse.
Coco wasn’t entirely sure who had snickered first, but it didn’t really matter. By the time Griselda walked out with a tray of food they were both cackling like lunatics, and she said nothing of it.
“You should have told her the whole truth.”
“You said I need her blessing to go. If she knew--”
“Do you really think she won’t figure it out? There is more Imelda in her than you think.”
“... I have seen that.”
“So you know she’s going to find out. It would be best if you told her now.”
Ernesto shook his head. “I… after she finds the body,” he said. “I told her what day you died, and what you were wearing. I told her you collapsed near the station. It will be enough. You must have been found quickly enough. There will be records, somewhere.”
Sitting at the window, Héctor sighed and seemed to be brushing some dust off his suit. “Right. You didn’t even bother to bury me. How much do you remember of that night?”
Not a lot, truth be told. He remembered everything clearly up to the moment Héctor had collapsed, of course. He remembered picking up the songbook, putting it in his pocket. He remember hiding both the suitcase and the guitar in an alley before going back to the body, looking around to make sure no one was there to see, knowing that he needed to be quick.
Everything after that was a blur, because he had never wanted to remember it. Even in his nightmares it would always be distant, fuzzy, confused like a dream within a dream. The dark all around them, the fear of being caught, the strain as he carried Héctor on his back like he’d done so many times before, when they were both children. Only that they were in dark, narrow alleys in Mexico City and not in the sunny countryside surrounding Santa Cecilia. Héctor had clung to him as a boy, laughing, as he carried him around after he’d twisted his ankle or got himself hurt in some other dumb way. That night he’d been limp and silent, but...
“Breathing,” Ernesto rasped, his eyes tightly shut. “You were still breathing.”
“Not for long, though. I was drawing my last by the time you put me down. Remember?”
Yes, he did. When he’d reached the dead end of a dark alley, with no windows in sight, Héctor’s breathing had turned into nothing but short, irregular gasps. He should have ran off to fetch a bottle of tequila before returning to complete the scene - a travelling musician with no name who had drunk himself to death in an alley, not the first or the last to do so - and he had, in the end… but not right away.
“You didn’t let go until I stopped breathing,” Héctor spoke, very quietly. “A stupid risk, like keeping the guitar and the songbook. Were you afraid I’d get up and walk away otherwise?”
Ernesto opened his eyes, fearing to see Héctor’s rotting corpse once again, but he still looked as he had the night he’d died. “I don’t remember what I was thinking.”
“But you do remember the last thing you told me.”
Look what you made me do, he’d said. With an inward shudder, Ernesto shook his head. No, she could never know that. She’d never give him any blessing to allow him to die.
“I can’t tell her,” he choked out. His voice came out as a plea, and Héctor shrugged.
“Suit yourself. That’s not what matters the most. As long as I can go home--”
He was cut off by the sound of a door opening, and someone stepping in. He saw Griselda’s reflection in the window, clean sheets in her arms, and frowned. “One would think you’re the only one to work here,” he muttered. “Isn’t it Inés’ duty to change the sheets?”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I’m not so old I can’t take on some more work,” Griselda said, stepping in. “Inés is looking for that red notebook la señora Rivera lost - I told her not to bother here.”
Ernesto’s eyes darted towards Héctor’s ghost, and saw his same thought mirrored on his face. He looked back at him in clear alarm.
The first thing of his she got in twenty-five years. She’d never lose it. Something’s wrong.
“A lost notebook,” Ernesto said slowly. “The red one?”
“Sí, señor. She said she had it in her room, or so she believed, but I helped search it and there was no sign of it. Nor in the living room where she was listening to your music yesterday. The rest of the staff hasn’t seen it either, but I have everyone looking and...”
She kept talking, but Ernesto was no longer listening. He stared out of the window, towards the grove of fruit trees where the previous morning - God, it felt like a years ago - he’d given Coco the songbook that had cost her father his life. He had never showed that songbook to anybody else before, and it had been only the two of them… except not really.
“Uh… it’s Ramírez, señor. From security."
Ernesto had wondered, distantly, how much had he heard; given that there didn’t seem to be much going on between that man’s ears, and that he fully expected to be exposed when all was said and done, he’d decided it didn’t matter. Except that now the songbook was missing.
"I don’t know why Armando insists I keep them around.”
His manager, who paid for security out of his own pocket - making him, at the end of the day, their true employer. His manager, who had founded the record label that would keep the rights to the songs once he was gone… unless, of course, something unexpected happened to complicate things. Like, say, an uncredited songwriter’s family cropping up with proof.
“... Hijo de la gran puta.”
“Señor de la Cruz! What on earth was that fo--”
“Ramírez,” Ernesto cut her off, turning to look at her. “Where is Ramírez?”
“Ramí-- oh, Antonio? I believe he’s away, today is his day off.”
Oh, of course. Of course he was away, and the songbook with him. Looking for it in the mansion would be absolutely useless at that point… and finding it was now the least of his worries. “Chingada madre,” Ernesto muttered, causing Griselda to scowl and cross her arms.
“Señor de la Cruz!”
“You can wash my mouth with soap later,” Ernesto snapped. “Where is she?”
Griselda blinked, clearly taken aback by the urgency in his voice. “She… she was downstairs, last I have seen her. She’s been on the phone for the past hour, calling--”
“Tell her that she has to come here,” he cut her off. “Now.”
As Griselda hurried out of the room, Ernesto let his head let his head drop back against the headrest and shut his eyes. He was beginning to feel feverish again. “Mierda,” he snarled.
“You don’t really think she’s in danger, right?” the ghost spoke, and for the first time since he’d appeared at his bedside he sounded unsure - like the boy seeking reassurance as they hid from soldiers raiding Santa Cecilia during the Revolution, when he’d been his hermanito in all but blood. “Ernesto? You can’t really believe that stick in the mud would--”
“He has a lot to lose. You never know what someone in that position is willing to do until they do it,” Ernesto muttered, and scoffed. “You of all people should know it.”
A few moments of silence, then Héctor spoke again. “... What are you going to do now?”
Ernesto opened his eyes, and glanced down at his hands, resting lifelessly on the armrests. He could hardly look at them without disgust, but Coco had grabbed them only hours earlier without even flinching. He heaved out a long sigh.
“Move Heaven and Earth,” he heard himself saying. He waited for a retort, but none came.
Héctor didn’t speak again.
“So, you are looking for the unidentified body of a man who died in proximity of the train station, on 12 December 1921. Early twenties, with a goatee, dressed like a mariachi. Is that all correct?”
“I see. And you believe it is someone you know?”
“I think it might be my father, yes.”
“Very well. I will pass this on so that someone can check in the archives - if he was found, there should be a record. But for information to be released to you, we’ll need you to come in person and fill out a form.”
“Of course,” Coco said. Having to go downtown to fill in paperwork may have been an annoyance in another scenario, but now it felt like a blessing in disguise: the mere thought of having to wait there for a phone call, doing nothing, made her feel like she was suffocating. “I’ll do that as soon as possible. What’s the address? Yes. Yes, got it. I’ll do that. Thank you very much for your help,” she added, and put down the phone with a sigh. Her hands, which had been firm enough while writing down the address, were shaking slightly now.
I may be so close. Please, let me find him. It’s all I ask.
She let her gaze rest on the phone again, and again she wished more than anything that she could call home and tell her family - her mother - what she had found out. If only they had a phone of their own! Tío Óscar and Tío Felipe had built a shoe-shaped one not too long ago, and perfectly functional according to them… only that it had been impossible to test because, taken as they were building the phone itself, they had forgotten that they still lacked a telephone line. The look on their faces when the realization had sunk in had made her laugh and, even now, the memory put a small smile on her face.
It didn’t last long.
“Señora Rivera?” Griselda’s voice rang out suddenly, but it was the sheer urgency in it that caused Coco to recoil. She turned to see her standing in the doorway. “I am sorry, but… el señor de la Cruz is asking to see you. I believe it’s quite urgent. Can you please come?”
“Oh. Sure,” Coco said, following her out of the room. “Did he say what it was about?”
“He… became agitated when I mentioned you can no longer find the notebook.”
The songbook, Coco thought. The sensation that she’d tried to ignore - something is wrong - grasped the pit of her stomach like a cold, cold hand.
She was running up the stairs before Griselda could add anything more.
“So you expect me to run away now?”
“I’m saying it would be best if you returned home.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Then you’re an idiot. That songbook--”
“I don’t care about the songbook! I don’t care about royalties! I have to find my father. I’m ready to take a few risks--”
“But I am not!”
There was something oddly satisfying in the way she recoiled at his shout, but Ernesto had no time to enjoy it; he leaned his head back on the headrest, feeling as though the outburst had taken every ounce of his strength. Why did she have to go and insist on doing the exact opposite of what he told her to? Was it genetics? It had to be genetics.
Ernesto drew in a deep breath before he spoke again, taking advantage of her surprised silence. “Listen. You said you need to go downtown to search - so go. But take your belongings with you. Check into a hotel. I know a good one - I will cover all expenses, you can phone if needed - but don’t come back. Don’t let anyone else here know where you are.”
Coco’s surprise faded, leaving behind a grave expression that reminded him very, very much of Imelda. “You really think this could get dangerous.”
Ernesto nodded. “Yes.”
“What makes you so sure?” she asked.
“... I know how far a man can go when he thinks he stands to lose everything,” Ernesto found himself saying, and grimaced. “Even a rat becomes dangerous when cornered.”
She stared at him, and for a moment he saw something change in her expression, her eyes more focused, and he knew she was teetering on the brink of comprehension. Behind her, Héctor - a corpse, again - tilted his head on one side. The tendons in his neck groaned like old rusted hinges.
“This may be the last chance to come clean,” he warned, and Ernesto shook his head. When he looked again, he was gone.
“Perhaps I am just being dramatic,” he said, looking back at Coco, and to his relief that spark of comprehension faded without catching. “But I’d rather be overly cautious than careless. Check into a hotel, and under your husband’s surname. Please.”
After staring at him for a few moments, Coco nodded slowly. “All right. I will,” she said. Her hand went to rest on her stomach as she spoke, but he paid it no mind. “What about you?”
Ernesto blinked. “Me?”
“Your position is far more vulnerable than mine. If they decide that you’re the threat--”
“I will take the due precautions,” Ernesto cut her off. Not too long ago - hell, the previous day - he would have welcomed that chance to finally die; how and by whose hand would make no matter. But now was not the moment. There was something he needed to see through, and he would.
If you want to put things right, help me bring him home.
Let’s both go home, Neto.
Unaware of his thoughts, Coco was biting her lower lip - but, before she could say anything, there was a knock at the door and Griselda was opening it a fraction. She nodded at Coco. “Your cab will be here in a half a hour, señora,” she said, causing Coco to give a half-smile and turn back to Ernesto.
“You were never going to give me a choice on whether to go or stay, were you?”
Nothing personal. Your father never got one, either.
“My apologies. I think it’s the only safe option,” Ernesto replied, and nodded towards the door. “You should have enough time to gather your things. Tell no one where you’re going. Call to let me know where you are, but only speak to me or Griselda,” he added, and paused again. “And let me know if… when you find him,” he finished, his voice weaker than he’d have liked. If Coco noticed that, she didn’t mention it.
“I will,” was all she said, and she paused before reaching down to give his right hand a squeeze. He didn’t feel it, and desperately wished he could. “Thank you.”
Ernesto nodded, gaze low, and said nothing as she left. He drew in a deep breath and finally looked up at Griselda, who was still standing at the door. He smiled.
Well, that was Heaven. Not bad for someone who can’t lift a finger. Time to move Earth.
“I need you to get me something,” he told her. “A recorder, and two reels of tape.”
“Of course, señor. Is there anything else I can do?”
Ernesto’s smile widened. “Perhaps. Tell me, how good are you at keeping a secret?”
“What are you drawing, pequeñita?”
“Oh, it’s a secret,” Victoria said, and covered the sheet of paper with one arm before looking up at Rosita. She was still squinting; Imelda had noticed she did that a lot, especially when drawing or trying to read. Her brothers did that before getting glasses, but Victoria insisted that her eyesight was per-fect-ly fine when asked. “It’s for mamá, when she comes back.”
This is me, this is you, and this is papá. I’ll give it to him when he comes back.
Imelda did her best to chase the memory away and focus on the shoe she was working on, but she found she couldn’t: it just stayed there in the back of her mind, refusing to leave.
Coco’s message had done little to put her mind at ease. There had been no word on what she’d learned, what news of Héctor Ernesto could possibly have to tell. Julio had returned saying that Coco had said all was well and that she would be back soon, and had proceeded to give Victoria a kiss on her behalf. It should have reassured her, but it had not; I will be back soon was a sentence she had come to hate. Soon wasn’t a day or time to look forward to; soon was nebulous and uncertain. Soon may very well turn out to be never.
Imelda hated thinking that way. She knew that it was was unfair towards her daughter - she could never, would never leave them behind - and yet she found herself unable to shake off the memories, unable to keep her mind form drawing parallels and making comparisons.
Give Victoria a kiss from me. I’ll be back soon.
Give Coco the biggest hug from me. I’ll be back soon.
Imelda - who hadn’t realized she’d just spent thirty full seconds staring at the sole of a shoe, not moving at all - recoiled. A pair of yellow eyes stared up at her, and she smiled. “Hello, Pepita,” she said, smiling faintly as the gray cat stretched on her work bench. It looked like she’d had enough of basking in the sun outside and had decided to pay a visit; Imelda supposed she should count herself lucky that, at least this time, she hadn’t brought a present in the form of a half-dead mouse or bird. She reached to scratch her behind the ears, and got a soothing purr in return. Pepita was very picky when it came to letting people pet her, something poor Julio had learned the hard way, and each time it felt like a privilege.
Imelda didn’t quite remember when Pepita had first showed up - she’d been an alley cat like many others, once - but she did remember the very first time she’d come through her window, let herself in, and curled up in bed with her: it had been during the lonely night when she had finally admitted to herself that Héctor was never going to return. Even crying had felt easier, with that purr in her ears and soft fur against her face.
The memory caused the smile on Imelda’s face to turn wistful. “You think I’m worrying too much,” she said, her voice low, and Pepita’s purr went up. She rose on her hind legs, resting her front paws against her chest, and nuzzled her chin. With a chuckle, Imelda reached to run a hair down her back, causing her to arch ecstatically under her touch. She was glad that Pepita was still around and well, despite the fact she had to be exceptionally old.
“You might be right,” she conceded, and saying as much aloud was a relief. Yes, all would be well. Coco was not her father; she’d raised her right. She would never leave her flesh and blood behind. She would be home soon, as she had said on the phone. She would tell her whatever it was Ernesto had to say - even now, Imelda forbid herself to speculate as to what it may be - or perhaps she would not, and that would be all right. Imelda didn’t truly need to know; the past was dead and buried, and only the present mattered.
Still, as she turned her attention back on her work, she resolved to stop by the inn herself the next day - just in case Coco had left another message for them.
After Griselda pressed the button with a loud clack, ending the recording, there were a few moments of complete silence. Ernesto could hear, distantly, the sound of birds outside; when she finally spoke again, her voice sounded strained in a way it had never been before.
“... Will that be all, señor?”
“I believe that about covers the worst I have done, yes,” he replied, eyes shut. His mouth was dry from all the talking, but he felt calmer than he’d been in a long time, like some weight - not all of it, but some - had been lifted from his chest. “Unless you wish me to record a long list of men and women I’ve slept with outside the sacred bond of marriage, that is.”
“Does she know?”
“The list of people I have slept with? I’d rather keep that private, if you don’t min--”
“This is no jesting matter,” Griselda said, her voice harsher. Ernesto opened his eyes to see that she was still staring at the reels, her mouth a tight line. “You have killed a man.”
I had to, it was the only way, part of him wanted to say, but he ignored the urge. He no longer believed it himself; it was never the only way. Just the easy one. “I am aware.”
“How much does she know?”
He saw no point in lying. “Everything I confessed in the first tape. Nothing of what I said in the second, though I expect her to guess soon enough. But by then, it shouldn’t matter.”
Griselda put the tape in question down next to the other, and absentmindedly brushed her hands on her apron as though to clean them; Ernesto faintly wondered if she was even aware of it. “You should have told her,” she said in the end.
“An excellent answer to a question I never asked. Now I need you to follow my instructions and keep silent,” he retorted. He would have much preferred to tell no one at all - two can keep a secret of one of them is dead, after all - but he couldn’t do much on his own. He needed help, and she was more trustworthy than most. It would have to do.
Griselda gave him a grave look. “I will,” she said, her voice tight. “And I will pray for your soul. But I must urge you to call for a priest and confess what you have done before the Lord, señor. Before it’s too late.”
“No. While your concern is moving, I need this ace to stay well up my sleeve.”
“It will. The secret of confession is sacred.”
“It’s not worth the risk.”
“For the sake of your immortal soul--”
“It’s not worth it,” Ernesto almost snarled, cutting her off, and let his head drop back again. The room around him seemed to spin, and he closed his eyes. He felt warm again, too warm, and his throat burned. He licked his lips, and found them dry. “I’m trying to keep her safe,” he rasped in the end. “I don’t need your prayers. I need your help.”
There were steps, the sound of water being poured, and then a hand was on his forehead, a glass against his lips. He drank, keeping his eyes shut, until the glass was pulled away. He heard it being put back down on the table beside him, but the hand stayed on his forehead.
“I’ll do my best,” Griselda spoke, her voice softer. “It’s time for your medication.”
“Later. Now I need you to--”
“It can wait a few more minutes. You still have fever. I have to tend to you first.”
Ernesto sighed, and opened his eyes to glance up at her. “Even now, you won’t let me die.”
She did not smile, but brushed some hair off his forehead. “Not without the last rites, I won't. Plus, I suspect you don’t want to go.”
Ernesto glanced to his left, where Héctor - the child he’d been - stood in a corner, still and silent. He’d said nothing throughout the confessions, not one word, and he didn’t say a word now either. He just looked at him, his expression somber beneath a mop of messy hair, and waited.
Let’s both go home, Neto.
“... No,” Ernesto found himself saying. “Not just yet.”
Chapter 7: A Fair Deal
Just a heads up for a brief mention of period-typical homophobia. Griselda means well, but she was born in the late 1800s and is strictly religious.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I need to stay here a few more days. Is that precisely what she said?”
“Yes, that is--”
“She didn’t say how long.”
Paula shook her head. Despite the complete calmness in Imelda’s voice, or perhaps because of it, she was gripping her desk as though to keep it between them like a shield. Normally, she would have asked questions - there was no doubt in Imelda’s mind that, had Julio showed up in her place, she would have prodded him for answers. She, however, was a different kettle of fish; at the moment, the innkeeper seemed downright scared of her.
Paula wasn’t a wise woman by any stretch of imagination, but Imelda supposed there was at least some sense left in her. She gave her a small smile that, despite the thoughts storming in her mind, was perhaps just a touch smug. “I understand. When she calls back, tell her…”
What did we ‘get wrong’? What kind of ‘misunderstanding’ are you even talking about? What in the world is going on?
She ached to ask all of that, but she could not - not in front of the most unabashed gossiper in Santa Cecilia, who was likely to report all of it to everyone in town well before her daughter had a chance to call again. Gossip had already hurt her family too much.
Imelda wished she had kept Ernesto’s letter instead of leaving it in Coco’s hands; it had the phone number to call Ernesto de la Cruz’s mansion on it, a number that certainly wasn’t available to the general public. If only she’d kept it she could have persuaded Paula to leave her alone with the phone, call, and speak with Coco directly to ask her what kind of nonsense was going on.
But she did not have that number anymore, and ‘if only’ would get her precisely nowhere.
“... Tell her that Victoria sends her love,” Imelda finally said, and turned to leave with quick steps. The main hall of the inn was spacious, but even so it had felt suffocating; being outside did little to help. The day was overcast and humid, without any wind to bring relief. Imelda breathed in deeply and then, without breaking her composure, began walking - but not towards home.
It only took minutes to walk from the inn to the train station. Imelda paused at its entrance, trying not to think of last time she had been there, watching her husband leave with his stupid friend, promising he’d be back soon. That ‘soon’, too, had begun stretching out - only a couple of weeks, Ernesto says it would be best to tour all the major cities to make the most out of it, maybe one more month, I love you, tell Coco she’s my life, I will be back soon soon soon - and, in the end, it had simply become ‘never’.
She had never been at the train station since then, only passing it by and thinking, from time to time, that she would only get in it again to greet Héctor back - with her boot in hand, to give him a good smacking before she threw him right back on the train to go back wherever he had come from. Now, however, things had changed. She needed to reach her daughter.
The station was almost empty, with a young man slouched on a chair at the ticket office, flipping idly through a newspaper. She walked up to him, trying to remember whose son he was - Luciana’s, perhaps? - and causing him to recoil when her shadow fell on him.
“Oh, señora Rivera!” he exclaimed, closing the newspaper and sitting up straight. Yes, it was definitely Luciana’s youngest; by far the most polite of her brood. “How can I help you?”
Imelda smiled back at him. It came with almost no effort at all; nothing calmed her storming thoughts as much as having a goal and a plan, however nebulous, to follow through.
Find Coco. Find out what happened. Bring her home.
“Good afternoon, Carlos. Can you advise me on the fastest route to Mexico City?”
Throughout most of the day, Ernesto kept his eyes shut and tried to think of nothing.
Easier said than done, considering that part of him kept waiting for the phone to ring, for screams and accusations once Coco figured it all out. Or perhaps there would be tears, a plea for him to tell her that she was wrong.
Tell me you didn’t do it, she would say, and Ernesto wouldn’t, couldn’t deny it. Then… then…
Dread threatened to grip his throat, and Ernesto tried to chase it away, but the knowledge - she will never give her blessing to you, she will never release you from this hell - sank its claws in his mind and refused let go. Somewhere on his right, there was a sigh.
“I told you, you should have come clean,” Héctor’s ghost spoke, his voice quiet. Ernesto opened his eyes to see he was standing at the foot of the bed; he once again looked as he had the night he’d died. “It may have been easier for both of you.”
“I couldn’t. For the plan to work--”
“It wasn’t the plan and you know it,” Héctor cut him off. “You just didn’t want to say it.”
Ernesto opened his mouth to protest, but he never got to say anything: the next moment there was a knock at the door, and then it was opened before he even called out for whoever it was to come in. He wasn’t surprised at all to see Griselda in the doorway. He knew it was time before she even spoke. “El señor Abascal is here to see you,” she said, her voice tight and her expression grim. Ernesto raised an eyebrow.
“You didn’t greet him with that face, I hope. He’s supposed to think that all is well.”
“He does, I believe. He hardly looked at me.”
“Don't take it personally, I doubt he's ever looked at any woman at all. Let him through,” Ernesto said, leaning his head down on the pillow. Well, that was it. He should count himself lucky that he felt remarkably lucid, hardly even feverish, at least for now. He could pull it off.
“At least they didn’t pump you full of meds for nothing. Not that I’m not glad your plan doesn't boil down to murder this time, but you have a back-up plan if this fails, right?” Héctor asked.
Ernesto snorted. “This is the back-up plan.”
A frown. “No back-up plan to the back-up plan? This is lazy.”
“And pray tell, what brilliant idea do you have?” Ernesto snapped. “I tried to get your idiot daughter to leave it be and go home. She’s too stubborn to run off. Blame Imelda, not me.”
Héctor’s scowl turned into an almost dreamy expression. “Ah, Imelda! She was always amazing, wasn’t she? If she were here--”
If she were here, I probably would have died already and none of this would be my problem.
“Another word and your kid is on her own,” Ernesto cut him off, and the ghost fell silent - though it hadn’t been his words to shut him up. There were footsteps and, sure enough, moments later the door was pushed open and Armando Abascal stepped in.
He was a couple of years older than Ernesto, but he easily looked a decade younger due to not having had his spine snapped by a giant bell prop; funny how much difference such a small details could make. There was only some iron gray in his hair, barely any silver in his closely trimmed beard. He had a few more wrinkles around his eyes than he’d had last time Ernesto had seen him, but his eyes - a startling dark green, not a common sight - undoubtedly diverted all attention from such blemishes. Ernesto suddenly felt very, very old.
Armando’s eyes found him, and he smiled. “Nesto! How are you, mi amigo?” he asked, stepping right past Héctor’s ghost, who scoffed.
“Is calling someone mi amigo a requirement before you stab them in the back?”
“Oh, I’m doing wonderfully,” Ernesto said, smiling back as Armando sat on a chair next to his bed. “I ran ten miles yesterday. If I keep it up, I might just make it to next year’s Olympics.”
“Hah! It’s good to see you in good spirits,” Armando laughed, giving a good-natured pat at Ernesto’s arm, which rested lifelessly across his stomach. He sounded like he meant it, too.
“Almost as good as you,” Héctor commented. “Just almost. I’d give it an eight out of ten.”
Ernesto ignored him, and for a couple of minutes he listened to Armando’s babbling about work, how busy he was, how no one else with half his talent had yet showed up on the musical scene, those were dull times indeed, not like the good old days. Nodding from time to time, Ernesto ran his gaze across Armando. He’d opened his cream-colored coat, draping it on the back of the chair, and it was askew on one side.
There was something in the right pocket, he could tell, something heavier and larger than house keys or a wallet - and Ernesto had a good guess of what it may be. He remembered all too well how heavy it had felt in his own pocket, so many years ago, as he fled the scene.
“... Returned from Ciudad Juárez just yesterday, it was an unexpected trip and you know how little I like unexpected trips! I hardly had the time to pack up--”
“It must have been exhausting. I’d never want to be in your place,” Ernesto said, unable to keep a sharp edge out of his voice. “What brings you here?”
That caused Armando’s smile to waver for a moment. He cleared his throat. “I should have visited you sooner,” he said, switching to his Apologetic Voice. None of it surprised Ernesto: after all, it was exactly how he would have handled it. “I must confess I became concerned.”
“Ooooh, right. He was concerned, the good Samaritan,” Hector muttered, crossing his arms. “Did you teach him how to pull this crap? Because I’m having a sense of déjà-vu here.”
Again, Ernesto ignored him. He blinked up at Armando as though surprised. “Concerned?” he asked trying to sound as confused as possible. “What for? I’m well looked after here. Especially thanks to the security you so generously pay for,” he added.
The last remark seemed to strike a nerve; Armando’s pose stiffened, just a fraction, and something that wasn’t concern at all flashed in his eyes. Still, he opted to keep the act up.
“Even so, you are in vulnerable position,” Armando said, and shook his head with a sigh. “These past few years haven’t been easy for you, Nesto.”
“That’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one,” Ernesto found himself rasping, and his manager sighed again, something unsettlingly close to pity in his gaze.
“Precisely. I feared someone might try to take advantage of you.”
Oh, this hijo de--
“Oh, this hijo de puta,” Héctor scoffed. “There, I said it for you. No need to thank me, Neto.”
Ernesto bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from guffawing and looked back up at Armando, staring at him straight in the eyes and causing him to shift, suddenly uncomfortable. Good. “I am not easy to take advantage of, Mando,” Ernesto said slowly. “As bad as my condition may be, my mind is still in perfect working order.”
“Don’t go too far. Just say it’s in working order,” Héctor said as Armando backpedalled fast.
“Oh, that is not what I meant. Lo siento, Nesto. It’s just that… I heard you had a visitor.”
“An old friend’s daughter. You just missed her, she returned home just yesterday afternoon,” Ernesto lied. There was something much like relief on the man’s expression for a moment, and that was a good sign. It meant he wasn’t aware that she was still in Mexico City.
“Has she? I see,” he said, and smiled.
Ernesto smiled back. “Yes. Sadly, she’s as forgetful as her father. She left behind something of hers, you see. It’s a good thing it was found by someone as thoughtful as yourself,” he added, and the smile on Armando’s face went out like a burned-out lightbulb.
Behind him, Héctor threw up his hand and let out a victory grito, not unlike those he’d utter when Ernesto won at something, be it skipping stones at the stream or a drinking match.
“I don’t understan--” Armando began, but Ernesto wasn’t going to give him enough time to say anything else. He’d caught him off-guard, and he needed to keep pressing on.
“That’s a nice songbook you have in your coat’s pocket,” he said, entirely ignoring Héctor’s comment on how he’d missed out a great chance to ask if he was happy to see him instead. To be entirely honest, he wasn’t even entirely sure he had it on him; it was mostly a hunch. If it turned out not to be the case, he would probably look amazingly stupid. “How thoughtful of you to bring it back. You can put it on the table over there. I’ll ensure it’s returned.”
For several moments, Armando just stared at him, jaw clenched and gaze darkening. When he spoke again, there was no friendliness left in his voice.
“Very well,” he said, fury barely restrained. His hand dove into the pocket of his coat, coming back out with a very familiar songbook. Armando was gripping it so tightly his knuckles had turned white. “Since you had to be clever explain, Ernesto. Explain this,” he snapped, and threw it down on the bed. Ernesto gave him an unimpressed look.
“Perhaps you didn't hear me clearly. I said you'd put it on the table, Armando.”
A scoff. “You’re giving an awful lot of orders for a cripple who can’t even lift a fing--”
“This cripple has you by the cojones, and not in a way you’d like,” Ernesto cut him off, causing him to shut his mouth, clearly startled. Now that was satisfying. “Put the songbook on that table, and have a look at what else is on it. Then we’ll talk.”
He did as instructed lips pressed together in a thin line. Ernesto followed him with his gaze as he walked up to the small table, his back to him, set the songbook down… and then paused for several moments. “A recorder,” he finally said, and laughed. “Seriously? It’s not even turned on, pendejo. And even if it were--”
“Oh, it isn’t meant to be recording anything now. It did its job before you even turned up at my door,” Ernesto said, and smirked when he saw Armando’s frame stiffening. “I wasn’t joking when I said I have you by the cojones. You and the entire record company, by extension. So come back here and sit down, amigo.”
Armando didn’t walk to the chair as much as he marched towards it. He sat stiffly, eyes livid. “Amigo,” he repeated, as though he was spitting out something rotten. “I don’t precisely feel as though you’ve been treating me like one.”
“I suppose I haven’t been entirely truthful during our cooperation, no. Don’t take it too personally. Given my track record as a friend, I believe you got off lightly. So far.”
“No kidding,” Héctor’s ghost muttered. Out of the corner of his eye, Ernesto saw him leaning against the wall, arms crossed, listening. Unaware of his presence, Armando scowled.
“Not entirely truthful,” he repeated, and laughed, running a hand through his hair in clear frustration. “Your handwriting is nowhere on here. You never wrote any of those songs.”
“An amazing deduction, considering that one of your men downright heard me saying as much,” Ernesto said drily. “You are correct. I couldn’t write songs any more than I could fly, regardless what some of my movies would tell you. Héctor Rivera wrote every one of them.”
“You never told me--”
“I told no one. Don’t feel too special.”
Leaning against the wall, Héctor snickered. “Oh, good one. You’re still an ass, but good one.”
“But you have,” Armando snapped. “You went and told his family, without telling me first!”
Ernesto rolled his eyes. “Because, of course, you would have let it happen,” he said, each word dripping with sarcasm. “This was never about you or the record company at all.”
“Well, it is now! You can’t be so dense not to realize how royalties work! If they can prove--”
“You can’t be so dense not to realize that I really, truly, honestly no longer give a damn. I’m unlikely to be long for this world. I am sure you can tell,” Ernesto said, fervently hoping that it was true, that once it was all over Coco would allow him to finally rest. “I don’t precisely care for the delicate feelings of a bunch of scavengers who have been waiting for me to die to pick my bones. You’re going to have to share the feast, is all. There is enough for everyone.”
A scoff. “Only if they have proof. And without that songbook--”
“Which will be returned to them. Money was never what they were after. I am certain they will be willing to agree to a generous deal. They may even ask for less than my current--”
Armando ignored his words. “Without it, they have nothing to prove--”
“Except letters, and my word,” Ernesto retorted. “You have seen the recorder. Can you guess what I used it for?” he asked, and smiled when Armando clenched his jaw. “That tape is now in a safe place. A word from me, and it goes to the Riveras. Anything happens to me before I can give that word, and it still goes to them. Anything happens to Socorro Rivera or anyone else in her family, it goes to the press. Imagine the upheaval when all of Mexico hears me confessing someone else wrote all of my songs, with a special mention on how the record company knew and tried to keep me silent.”
For several moment, Armando said nothing. On his right, Ernesto heard Héctor whistling.
“Well, damn. I think his brain just broke. Good job there.”
But it hadn’t, of course. Eventually, as Ernesto had expected, Armando recovered and gave him a cold smile. When he spoke, his words were dripping smugness… but there was fear there, and a lot of it. “Letters that may very well have been forged. So could the songbook, come to think of it,” he said. “And the tape? The word of a sick, dying man who was manipulated by a clever woman. We have better lawyers than these people can even dream of affording. A far better PR machine they could imagine of, too. We can--”
“You could win, yes. But it’s not a given. And even if you win, the doubt stays and you don’t want that,” Ernesto cut him off. The furious look that gained him was enough of an answer. He smiled. “It would be a headache, I suppose. Unpleasant, but a solid record company can deal with a few of those. Only that taking credit for the songs is not the only thing I did. You see, there is a second tape, too. In a safe place, just like the other one. And that, mi amigo, is the one you truly don’t want to be released to the public. It would destroy everything. It would leave your company with a handful of ashes, royalties or not.”
That caused Armando to blink, taken aback. “What--” he began, but Ernesto cut him off.
“Now, you didn’t know about the tapes, of course. But you must have anticipated I would be willing to make things public. You can’t have come in here without thinking that you might have to make sure I could tell no one about what transpired during this pleasant little meeting,” he added, and tilted his head, looking up at his manager with some sincere curiosity. “Say, how did you plan to do me in?”
Armando leaned back, sputtering indignantly. “What are you-- how dare you-- are you suggesting I am capable of murder now?”
“Could very well be. You have what it takes, my friend. It takes one to recognize another.”
His words were met with almost a full minute of deafening silence; even Héctor said nothing. Armando stared down at him, mouth hanging open, as he struggled to come to terms with what he’d just heard. When he spoke again, his voice was little above a whisper. He no longer sounded haughty or arrogant in the slightest; it was like listening to a scared boy asking how a horror story went on, craving answers and yet dreading them.
“Ernesto, what… what did you do? What’s on that tape?”
Well, that was the moment. Something in Ernesto’s throat tightened, but he forced his voice out, ignoring that cry in the back of his head that pleaded for him not to do it, don’t tell him, don’t tell them, please I don’t want the world to know, I don’t want mi familia to know.
Héctor let out a long sigh. “Ay, mi hermano, they were never your family. They were your fans, and where are they now? I was your family. I loved you. No one else has ever since. All they loved was your façade.”
Ernesto forced himself to swallow the lump in his throat. “The second tape,” he managed, “is the one where I confess to murder.”
“... No. No, you must have gone insa--”
“On 12 December 1921, I poisoned Héctor Rivera to steal his songbook.”
Slowly, so very slowly, Armando shook his head. “No,” he repeated, almost matter-of-factly. It was as though he was stating one of the tenets of existence. “It cannot be.”
“He wanted to return home with his songbook. I had rat poison on me. I slipped it in his drink, and called for a toast. He never knew. He died shortly afterwards, leaving behind a wife and a young child who never knew what had become to him. They still don’t know how he died.”
“My best friend since childhood, and I left his body in an alley, with an empty bottle next to him,” Ernesto went on, and his throat tightened again, just like it had while recording the confession on tape. It was hard, speaking aloud of what he’d done; going through with the deed had been easier, absurdly easier, than talking about it now. “I took his luggage, his train ticket, anything that could be used to identify him. I was on a train to Guadalajara hours later, with his guitar and his songbook. You know which guitar, by the way. Everyone in Mexico has seen it in my hands. It was a wedding gift from his wife. There is a picture, I believe.”
“No,” Armando repeated once again, his skin almost gray. His forehead was covered in sweat, and he reached up to wipe it. “You… you can’t have done a such thing.”
Ernesto gave him a bitter smile. “You never know what a person is capable of doing until they do it,” he said, and sighed. “I told his daughter all that could help to locate the body. Once it’s found, the remains can be tested if needed. I am far from an expert in poison - truth be told, I wasn’t even entirely sure Héctor would die that night - but I have heard that traces can be found for a very long time after one’s death. Suddenly, the words of this dying man are supported by some compelling evidence. That changes everything, doesn’t it?”
There was no reply. Armando stared down at him, eyes wide. Ernesto could see comprehension dawning in before he swallowed and finally spoke. “It is not a lie,” he said, his voice almost a croak. “You killed him. Good God, does… does his daughter know…?”
“Not as yet.”
“If this becomes public--”
“It will be the end of everything, yes,” Ernesto agreed. Coco would probably figure it out, and then whether or not to make that part of the story public would be her choice. By then it would be too late for Armando or anyone else to do anything against her, or her family. “And I swear to God it will become public if a single hair on Socorro Rivera’s head is harmed.”
There was a laugh that Armando couldn’t hear. “Hah! Not bad at all. Go on, Neto!” Héctor’s voice rang out. “You’ve got him by the cojones. Now squeeze.”
Ernesto gave a small nod, and smiled up at his manager. It came easier than it had before.
“So, mi amigo, here’s where it leaves you - with two choices, the way I see it. You can come to an agreement with the Riveras over credit and royalties, still keeping a good chunk of it. A fair deal. Your oh-so-great PR machine could easily salvage this one; public opinion will be lenient to a cripple, as you put it, who regretted taking credit and moved Heaven and Earth to set the record straight from his deathbed. You could tailor a moving tale out of it, really. Are you following?”
Armando nodded, still speechless, and Ernesto nodded back.
“Very well. The alternative, of course, is having your best-selling artist's popularity destroyed overnight when a murder confession on tape comes out. It would annihilate everything - especially sales. Good luck spinning that PR nightmare. And somehow,” Ernesto concluded, “I suspect that’s not the path you want to go down. Or is it?”
Armando recoiled, and he worked his jaw a few times before speaking. “It… it would destroy your name. Your legacy, everything you ever worked for. Why would you…?”
To rest in peace, anything to rest in peace, please, for the love of God let this be enough.
“Call it regret, if you will,” Ernesto said, his voice dull. “Call it a healthy fear for my soul. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to anyone but me. All you can do is choose how to deal with it. So, which will it be? Give up on some revenue, or lose everything?”
Another few moments of silence, and Armando reached up to press a hand over his eyes. He stayed still for several moments before he spoke, still covering his eyes. “I need a drink.”
Ernesto raised an eyebrow. “After what I told you? You do have guts,” he muttered, and Armando gave a laugh that sounded slightly unhinged, reaching up to brush back his hair.
“Dios mío,” he finally muttered. “I thought I knew you.”
“So did Héctor,” Ernesto said bitterly, and waited for Héctor’s ghost to say something, but he remained silent. When Ernesto turned to glance to his right, he was gone… for time being. He turned back to Armando on time to see him reaching in the breast pocket of his suit to pull out something - a small, empty syringe. He held it in the palm of his hand, staring at it, only to be startled from his thoughts when Ernesto spoke.
“Air in a vein, of course. Plenty of needle marks everywhere already, and no one would have questioned it if my heart gave out. Easy, on someone who cannot struggle. Plus a pillow on the face to keep me from screaming, maybe. Is that what you had in mind?”
Armando glanced at him, and gave an odd smile. “I suppose that’s what I was thinking. It wasn’t even a real plan, truth be told. Only a thought, just--”
“Just in case. I understand.”
“Of course you would,” Armando murmured, and sighed, closing a fist around the syringe.
“And I suppose that the thought of silencing Socorro Rivera crossed your mind as well.”
“It did, but I-- Ah, well. I’m not even sure I would have had the guts to go through with it.”
“I told you, you never know until you do it.”
“I suppose I’m glad you stopped it, then. I’m… yes, I’m fairly glad I’ll never find out,” his manager replied, and drew in a deep breath, clenching his fist around the syringe.
Ernesto tilted his head towards one side. “There is a waste basket, over there. Nobody will notice one more syringe in it,” he added, and smirked weakly. “Won’t tell if you don’t.”
A nod, and Armando went to drop the syringe in the basket. Ernesto could see his shoulders straightening, as though a weight had been lifted from him. When he spoke again, he did so without turning. “Tell me one thing - do you ever wish someone had stopped you, too?”
Ernesto’s gaze flickered to where Héctor had stood minutes earlier. He saw himself on that blank wall, a quarter of a century younger and still standing tall, throwing a packet of rat poison away. He swallowed, and shut his eyes.
“... Every day,” he murmured, and wished more than anything that Héctor could hear him.
All right, so that hadn’t been the fastest route back to her hotel. Coco took a mental note that, next time she needed directions, she’d need to ask someone sober. At least her feet didn’t ache... but of course they wouldn’t, no matter how much she walked. They didn’t make the best shoes for nothing, after all.
Still, even the pride over her shoes couldn’t keep her from feeling somewhat intimidated when she walked back inside the hotel’s mail hall. When she’d given the cab driver the name of the hotel Griselda had told her to go to, she had expected… well, something fancier than the inn at Santa Cecilia for sure, but still a hotel. The cab had left her at what looked much like a royal palace, and her clothes - perfectly fine clothes, but almost painfully plain in all that luxury - had made her feel like she’d stick out like a sore thumb.
The clerk at the front desk, immaculate in a freshly-pressed uniform, seemed to have been expecting her, too; Coco could only guess they had received a phone call about her. He’d told her that everything was being paid for, and that if she needed anything she only had to ask. Coco had briefly wondered how much that stay would cost Ernesto, and had quickly decided she didn’t want to know. And besides there was a small, angry part of her that knew it had been her father’s work to earn him that money, anyway.
Coco had eaten and slept, but then she’d awakened with the sun; she hadn’t been raised to stay idle for long. She’d asked the clerk to call her a cab, and had reached the address she’d been given - the office where she’d need to fill up a form to formally request a search through police archives for any kind of information that might concern her father.
The questionnaire was a long one, and she’d had to leave most of it blank: all that she could give were his name, his age, his date of death and the fact he had died not too far from the station; Ernesto had been vague on that point, saying that his memory was hazy, that her father had died very suddenly and that he had panicked. Coco wondered if it had been his heart to give in, like Julio’s father’s had when still in his prime. That, too, had been sudden.
She’d been able to tell them he had been wearing a salmon-colored charro suit when he’d died, Ernesto recalled as much, and… nothing else, really. She remembered he was tall, but she didn’t know how tall; she knew he had brown eyes and dark hair, but most people did. She remembered he was sweet and loving and had a tender voice, but that was of no help.
The realization of how little she truly remembered about her papá, no matter how many tales Ernesto told her, had made her tear up for a moment; she suspected that the pregnancy - the occasional wave of nausea was still there, and she was running out of other explanations - hadn’t helped. The woman at the desk, Isabella, had fretted to get her some juice and a slice of cake that her colleague had pulled seemingly out of nowhere. It reminded her so very much of Rosita, it had made her laugh; in a way, it helped more than the juice and the cake.
“There, there, my dear. This will be enough, I am sure,” Isabella had said, when not trying to get her to take yet another spoonful of cake or handing her yet another tissue despite the fact her eyes were now dry. “Now, is there an address-- oh, a phone number? Even better. I will get Eduardo to get off that lazy culo of his and get searching the archives right away. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Maybe tomorrow, even!”
Coco had left feeling quite a bit fuller than she had before, heartened, and thinking that perhaps she could walk to the hotel after all; it would help her recollect her thoughts and, besides, the cab hadn’t taken long to get there. She thought she could do it in half a hour.
As it turned out, it took two hours. Not that she entirely regretted it: Mexico City was a sight to behold, bursting with life in a way Santa Cecilia only did during a serious celebration. With life, and music - music was everywhere, or so it seemed to her, starved as she was of it.
Now that she knew her papá had never abandoned them for music, she found more joy in it than ever before. She got lost on the way, but she found herself in a small market where she found a lovely doll for Victoria… and she bought two, just in case. By the time she finally made it back to the hotel she was thinking that once back home she would need, among other things, to see a doctor and--
“Ah, Señora Martinez!”
Despite being Socorro Rivera-Martinez on paper, Coco had never used Julio’s surname any more than she’d used her full name; if anything, it had been her husband to start using hers. So, when the clerk called out, she didn’t realize he was talking to her until he spoke again.
“Señora Martinez? There was a call for you, while you were away. ”
“Huh? Oh!” Coco exclaimed, stopping in her tracks. She had a good guess of who it may be - certainly they couldn’t have possibly found anything about her papá already, and her family didn’t know yet where she was now - but she wondered what it could be about. She had called the previous evening and spoken to Griselda, to let her know she’d arrived safely.
Did something happen? Is he sick again? Did… did he die?
Trying to chase away the thought, Coco made an effort to smile at the clerk. “Sorry about that. Did they leave a message, or…?”
The clerk smiled back, holding out a piece of paper. Sure enough, there was a message written on it - likely with some sort of fancy pen clerks in luxury hotels got to use.
Everything is sorted out. Worry of nothing but finding him.
Griselda hadn’t known she had been expecting things to go downhill until they did.
Doctor Rojas had warned her that antibiotics would fail, sooner or later. He had told her that this may just be the time; that he may appear to be better for a day or two, and then relapse. But he’d seemed to respond to treatment, and she’d allowed herself to hope that perhaps he would live through it, too - although, she knew, his life was unbearable to him.
She pitied him for it; knowing him a murderer as well as an unrepentant sodomite had shaken her, but had not changed that. Still, if that was the--
punishment it is a punishment for what he did to that poor man isn’t it
--fate the Lord had chosen for him, it was not up to her to argue. It was not up to her to take a life, miserable as it may be. Her duty was to care for him as well as she could, as long as giving help was within her possibilities. She would care for him, pray for his soul, and ensure he confessed himself to a priest before his life came to an end.
As it turned out, the end may not be long in coming: she knew it in her guts the moment his wordless cry awakened her in the middle of the night. It was far from the first time, and it usually meant he’d had another of his nightmares, which rendered him unable to speak and in need of an injection to sink back into nothingness. This time, however, she knew there was something worse was going on; the sound of heaving and retching that greeted her when she threw the door open and turned on the light confirmed her fears.
“Señor de la Cruz?”
He was on his side, facing towards the wall as she’d left him, and didn’t answer her. When she turned him towards her, on his back, she could tell he was unconscious, eyes tightly shut, a puddle of bile on the pillow next to his head. And he was burning; she felt it through his sweat-soaked nightshirt, felt it before the back of her hand even touched his forehead.
Good God, how did it flare up so fast? He was barely feverish when I put him to bed.
Heat seemed to be radiating from him in waves, and whatever nightmare he was trapped in was suddenly the least of her worries. Her thoughts turned to sermons and preaching she’d heard so many times since she was a child, of fire, brimstone, and eternal damnation.
But for the cowardly, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and and whoremongers and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
Griselda swallowed at the thought, horror gripping her throat at the mere thought he may die without getting to confess what he’d done to a priest. That would damn his soul for certain, she knew, and she would have crossed herself if not for the fact that he suddenly gave a noise that sounded much like dry-retching, startling her.
“Lo siento,” he was choking out through short, shallow gasps. His skin was reddened, and sticky with sweat. “Por… por favor, Héctor. Lo s-siento.”
“Griselda? What is happening? I heard him crying out…”
She turned to see Inés, bless her soul, standing at the doorway - still in her nightgown and with ruffled hair, but alert and ready to help.
“El señor de la Cruz is not well. I need you to call--” she began, only to trail off when he cried out again - a pitiful strangled sound, words almost unintelligible. It took her a moment to realize he was no longer calling for Héctor Rivera; he was calling out the same word she’d heard from dying soldiers during the Revolution, including two of her own brothers. She’d heard it from the mouths of men of all kinds she’d cared for in hospitals when they were hurt, when they were frightened, when the end was nearing.
He was crying for his mother.
That, more than anything else, told Griselda that he’d almost reached the end of the line. Doctor Rojas was a good man and an excellent médico, but if antibiotics were failing to counter the infection there was little even he could do to save his body. But he could, at least, give him something to keep him comfortable… and alive for as long as it took to get him the kind of help that mattered for his soul.
Lips pulled in a thin line, Griselda turned back to Inés. “Call doctor Rojas first and then, for the love of God, find a priest for his last rites.”
For a few moments Inés stayed glued on the spot, eyes wide. “Oh, Lord. This is it, isn’t it? Blood poisoning.”
I poisoned him.
De la Cruz’s confession rang in the back of her mind, and Griselda found that the mere mention of poisoning made her shudder. Perhaps it always would, now.
“The word you’re looking for is sepsis,” she found herself saying, more sharply than she meant to, and nodded towards the door. “Now call doctor Rojas and find him a priest, Inés. Wake up Juan, tell him to bring some ice.”
Inés ran to do as instructed, and Griselda turned her attention back to her patient. She wiped the vomit and sweat and tears off his face, gave him oxygen, pressed a cold compress on his forehead when Juan came running with towels and ice, kept checking his pulse, spoke as softly as she could when he gasped out strings of words that made little to no sense.
“Just breathe, señor. Help will be here soon. Keep breathing.”
She tried to soothe him the best she could and most of all - as Inés ran back in to tell her that doctor Rojas was on the way but that she’d been unable to get a hold of a priest that late in the night - she prayed that he’d live to see one more dawn.
Morning seemed really, really far away.
Usually, Victoria didn’t mind. She liked being awake at night while everyone else slept; she liked the quiet of it, even if sometimes her papá snored so much that she could hear him through the thin wall.
When that happened, she would usually sneak away and into her Abuela’s room; she would grumble a little, but always let her into her bed. There was plenty of space for both, after all: even though she’d never married again, she still had a double bed. But that night, when she snuck in, that bed was completely empty.
Abuelita’s announcement that she was going to Mexico City herself had come as a shock to everyone. Tía Rosita had dropped her tools on her papá foot, and Tío Oscar and Tío Felipe had actually flinched back, covering each other’s mouth with a hand.
“You can’t be serious!”
“Let one of us come with you!”
But much like her mamá, Abuelita had insisted to go on her own - because, she said, they were already a pair of hands short; if one more person left with her, the business would suffer and that Would Not Do.
Victoria had no idea how her grandmother managed to make the upper case heard in her sentences, but she strived to be able to do the same once she was all grown up.
Faced with her refusal to let them accompany her, or even to wait until the next morning to leave and travel mostly in daylight, they had eventually given up; Abuelita’s gaze had softened when it had met her papá.
“You need not worry. I’ll be back soon, and Coco with me.”
Of course her papá worried anyway, like he did for mamá, because worrying was what he did best and he wasn’t very good at hiding it… but he hadn’t argued further. None of them had, and her grandmother had left for the station with a small suitcase, and not without giving her a hug.
“The sooner I leave, the sooner I can come back,” she’d said very quietly before letting her go. “Your mamá and I will be home soon.”
“How soon?” Victoria had asked eagerly, realizing only then that she had no idea how long it took to get to Mexico City and back. “Tomorrow morning?”
That had caused her grandmother to laugh. “Ah, nenita, I wish,” she’d said, and had dropped a kiss on the bridge of her nose, just like her mamá always did. “Soon. You have my word.”
That had reassured her, because she always kept her word. So did her mother, really, but knowing that Abuelita was going to make sure she would be back soon made her feel even more certain that everything would work out.
Victoria winced, and looked up. She had left the door ajar and, in the dim light coming from the window, she could make out - if she squinted, things always looked a little fuzzy lately but she was never, ever going to put on glasses like her uncles - a pair of yellow eyes.
Well, may as well let her up. The bed was big enough for both, after all.
Victoria patted the spot next to her, and Pepita leaped up, nuzzling against her with a purr before settling down. Suddenly feeling really tired, Victoria yawned and settled down with her. Maybe she should sleep, after all. Maybe morning wasn’t so far away and neither was Mexico City, and she would wake up to see both her mamá and Abuelita were back.
Snuggled up to her grandmother’s cat, Victoria slept and waited for dawn.
(Now I can't help but trying to imagine how underwhelming it must feel to die and expect either hellfire or angel choirs, and instead get a bored skeleton with a name tag and a clipboard welcoming you to the Land of the Dead and saying you need to fill out a form)
Chapter 8: A Stolen Life
I mean, we all knew this realization was coming.
(Also there is art of a scene in chapter 3 look at this guys look I love it)
When her papá comes home, Coco is asleep on the windowsill.
She snuck to the window in the middle of the night, as she does most nights, to wait for her papá. She doesn’t know how much time she’s spent straining her eyes in the dark, hoping to see him suddenly step out of the shadows and under the light of the moon, smiling, with the guitar in his hands to sing her their secret song. She often hums it very quietly as she stares out of the window, hoping that it will bring him home.
But it never did so far and always, without fail, she falls asleep well before dawn despite her best efforts to stay awake. Always, she awakens in the morning in her mother’s bed, in her embrace. And each time, her mother doesn’t say a word - like she hasn’t found her asleep at the window, and taken her to bed. She will comfort her, but never talk about it.
Coco suspects it hurts her mamá even more than it hurts her, but she doesn’t know how to help. All that she knows is that everything will be better when papá comes home, so she keeps waiting by the window - and this time, she doesn’t awaken in her mamá bed. When her eyes snap open she’s still there, the world outside still dark, and the door is rattling. She almost shrieks, but then a voice rings out on the other side, and it’s a voice she knows.
“Coco, plase! I’m so sorry! I wanted to come back!”
There is joy, but there’s also fear. Her papá is crying out, his voice thin and frightened, like he’s trying to get away from something dangerous out there in the dark. She can’t see him from the window, can’t see anything, and the door rattles again. He’s trying to get in and can’t, he’s locked outside and calling out for her to let him in.
“Coco! Let me come home!”
She tries to open the door to let her papá in, but she can’t: she’s too small and the door’s handle is too high up, it shakes and rattles just above her reach. “I can’t reach!” she cries out, and turns to grab a chair to climb on, or call for her mamá and her uncles, or both - but the room is gone, the house is gone, and around her there is nothing but darkness.
She takes a step back, shrieking for her papá to come in, come in right now, and that is when the door stops rattling… and finally, slowly, creaks open.
Moonlight spills on her, and there is a moment of relief, the simple certainty that all is going to be well - but when she turns, it’s not her papá she sees. Before her face, there is a grinning skull with a golden tooth; it takes her a moment to recognize it as his guitar.
But her papá is not the one holding it. She can only see his shadow, but it’s slightly too short and much too broad. She knows who it belongs to. “... Tío Neto? Where’s papá?”
A few moments of silence, and then Ernesto de la Cruz - who’s not really her tío but may very well be, her papá always said he’s his hermano in all but blood - sinks on one knee, one hand still holding the guitar. With the other, he’s handing her a songbook with a red cover that seems to be dripping color, turning his hand just as red.
“He’s never coming home, Coco. Take this back.”
She doesn’t want that dripping songbook, she wants her papá and she wants to scream as much, but words stay stuck in her throat. In the end, she just starts crying.
“You took our song,” she chokes out.
“I want him back. Where is he?”
Ernesto bows his head, and says nothing. Something red drips from his hands and from the eyes of the skull guitar, like it’s weeping along with her. Somewhere outside a train whistles, pulling into the station, and Coco knows that her papá never caught it.
“What do you mean, there will be no trains?”
To be entirely fair, Imelda hadn’t meant to shout. Not so loud, at least; she was perfectly aware that the little man before her, overseeing a small station in the vast middle of nowhere, had no more power to get trains moving than she did.
But she had travelled through most of the day to get there, and was supposed to catch her connection, a night train to Mexico City. Only that everything had been delayed, over and over, and now - in the middle of the night - they were telling her that was apparently no train was going to show up at all.
It had proved to be too much for her patience, which was already wearing thin. She was tired to the bone and was stuck there, with no idea how long it would take to get to her destination - all while being entirely cut off from both Coco and the rest of her family. Jesus Christ himself could have descended from heaven in a cloud of light and glory to explain her what was wrong with the trains, and would have received the same amount of shouting.
“Señora, please. We are doing our best to resolve the situation,” the man, whose name was indeed Jesus, was explaining. “A tree fell on the tracks, and a railroad switch has been damaged. It needs to be repaired, and no trains can run until then. The technicians will keep us updated - they hope trains can resume running by morning.”
That’s not good enough, Imelda wanted to say. By morning she was supposed to be in Mexico City already, not still halfway… but even if she said as much, it would change precisely nothing. So she breathed in, and forced herself to calm down.
“I understand. How long would the train ride to Mexico City be?”
“That depends on the route. A direct train would take no more than three hours, but…”
“But the first trains will have to pick up passengers from other affected stations on the way.”
“Precisely. That means there will almost certainly be diversions. It’s unlikely we’ll have any direct trains again until tomorrow afternoon, so a morning train would likely still get you there earlier. I am truly sorry about this. Do you have urgent business in Mexico City?”
The most urgent that there could be, Imelda thought, but didn’t say as much aloud. “I see. I’ll wait here and get on the first train.”
“At the station? That may not be ideal for a woman travelling alone. There is an inn, not far--”
“I want to be on the very first train to Mexico City that runs through this station. I will wait here,” Imelda cut him off, and went back to the waiting room. There were a few more passengers who had decided to do the same, but not that many: most had probably checked into the inn for the night. Imelda found a seat at the far end of the room that put some distance between her and everyone else, put down her suitcase, and opened it.
Rosita had packed her something to eat, muttering that she wished she’d had more forewarning to make her a proper meal for the journey. Imelda hadn’t touched any yet, but that seemed the right moment. There was bread, some cold cuts, hard cheese and fruit; more than enough to see her through until she reached her destination. Still, when she reached for the food, her eye fell on something else entirely, causing her hand to still.
Amongst her spare clothes, there was a shoe with button eyes: the bizarre doll her brothers had made for Victoria. She must have slipped it in her luggage while she wasn’t looking.
She never goes to bed without it. How is she sleeping now?
The thought brought back a memory, little Coco trying to stay awake to wait for her father, and suddenly she wasn’t hungry anymore. Imelda found herself unable to put the doll back in her suitcase; she just stared at it, wishing to go home and waiting for the next train to bring her further away from it. She hated having to wait, but at the moment it was all she could do.
“There is nothing else we can do, is there?”
Doctor Rojas shook his head with a sigh, his expression grim, as he kept putting his instruments back in his bag after cleaning each of them with rubbing alcohol. On the table, the basin full of hot water was still steaming weakly. The water itself was tinged with blood.
“I took away as much infected tissue as I could see. I am afraid there is little else that can be done, other than keeping him comfortable,” he said. “He won’t feel pain, at least.”
Griselda nodded, and her gaze paused on blood-stained towels. “The ulcer on his elbow--”
“It is likely where it started, yes,” the doctor replied, and heaved out a long sigh before turning. In the harsh sunlight that had begun creeping in through the window, he looked almost as tired as she felt. “If he were in better health I would probably suggest we proceed with amputation - but now, in all conscience, I cannot do it. I fear the infection is already in his bloodstream, and that would render it useless - or worse. Surgery itself could kill him.”
“If there is a chance, isn’t it your duty--”
“He is very weak, Griselda. I was almost expecting his heart to give out the moment I gave him the first injection. God forgive me, part of me hoped it would. I fear we’ve reached the point when fighting a lost battle to keep him alive is no longer a humane thing to do.”
There were a few moments of silence, then Griselda slowly nodded. It was nothing she hadn’t expected to hear, after all. She looked down at Ernesto de la Cruz, still unconscious but no longer crying out. Doctor Rojas had injected him with some anaesthetic to help him rest, as well as a mixture of drugs and antibiotics that Griselda had never thought she’d see used on anything short of a horse. Much of what had followed had been grim, and it had been a relief when she had bandaged his ulcers again, hiding them from sight.
He was resting on his back again, on clean sheets, with an oxygen mask firmly over his mouth and nose and another IV needle in his arm. Griselda reached to brush his hair off his forehead. He was still warm, but not enough for her to recoil. “The fever has gone down.”
“It is a temporary relief. I have little hope that these antibiotics will be more effective than what he’s been having so far, in the long run,” doctor Rojas said, and closed his bag with a loud clack. “Either way, I will leave you some bottles and a prescription. I have done all that I could possibly do, Griselda, and perhaps more than I should have. My suggestion is that you let it run its course. If he wishes to be brought outside, allow it whatever his condition may be. Let him enjoy what he can. You will know the end is nearing when--”
“I know what will happen,” Griselda cut him off, her voice tight. A memory emerged from the back of her mind, one of her own brothers sweating and trembling as his skin went clammy and cold, gasping that it had been all his fault, that he should have let them cut off his leg.
Jorge had died without getting to see a priest, but he was a good man, had always been a good man; perhaps sisterly love had blinded her to some of his flaws but the fact stayed that, even without the last rites, Griselda had never feared for the fate of his soul.
For the restless soul before her, things were very different. “I’ll have Padre Fernando come in for the last rites. Will he be able to speak?” she asked. She knew a priest could give absolution to an unconscious man, too - she’d seen it happen countless times - but would it be enough to absolve him of murder without a proper confession? She feared it wouldn’t.
“He should be, yes. Give him some time to awaken, first. He’ll be confused for a while.”
That was all she needed to know, at the moment. Griselda thanked doctor Rojas for all of his help and watched him leave the room for the last time before she sat again by de la Cruz’s bed. She placed a cold compress on his forehead, adjusted the pillow beneath his head, and waited in silence for him to wake up.
For a long time after awakening Coco sat by the window and stared at the bustling street outside, so very different from the darkness in her dream.
It was far from the first time she dreamed of waiting for her father at the window, as she had when she was a little girl and still hoped to see him walking through the door again. And sometimes, in the dream, he did return; then there would be smiles, her mother’s the brightest of all, the biggest hug, and music. It was a happy dream, most times, if painful upon awakening - but that night, it had turned into a nightmare the light of day couldn’t shake off.
She couldn’t remember all details, but what she did recall clung to her. Perhaps leaving the room and going out for a walk would help, but she dared not do so. There was a phone on the small table by her bed, a marvel that surpassed even the luxury of hot running water in the bathroom, and she’d been told that any call for her would be put through from the lobby.
Someone could call any moment with information about her papá’s whereabouts; she couldn’t bear the thought of missing that call, even though of course they would leave a message for her. Her father’s return home had been delayed enough as things were.
After about a hour’s wait, Coco had dared make one call to Santa Cecilia to leave another message for her family - a very short one, because she didn’t want to hold the line for too long. She’d told Paula that she was well, that she sent everyone her love, and that she would be back soon - again. Then she had put the phone down, and the wait continued.
Having nothing to do was the hardest part of it all. She wasn’t used to staying idle and, most of all, she had nothing to distract herself from her own thoughts and the nebulous memories of the dream that had plagued her night. A hour passed, then two and three; as lunch time approached, she began fearing that perhaps they had called just as she was calling the inn in Santa Cecilia. Maybe they had left a message. Maybe she should go downstairs and ask.
Or maybe she was simply being paranoid, and too impatient. Isabella had been eager to help and had said she would do her best to get the records found as soon as possible, but that didn’t mean she could work miracles. It may very well take another day, or maybe two, or three or even a week, before anything concerning her papá could be found in the archive.
And you can’t stress out like this for a week, a voice that sounded much like Rosita’s chided her from the back of her mind. You didn’t even finish your breakfast. This isn’t good for you. Or your baby, if there is one.
The thought caused Coco to bite her lower lip, and reach to rest a hand on her stomach. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that she was, indeed, with child. Looking back and counting the days, she could very well be in her tenth week or even further along… and she hadn’t told her family yet. She hadn’t told her husband yet.
It would serve no purpose but to make the worry at the moment, she told herself, and she knew it was true: Julio especially may downright panic if he knew. But at the same time, keeping it to herself made her feel more alone than she ever had before. Perhaps she should see a doctor right away, really. If she asked in the lobby where she could find--
A sudden, loud ringing noise caused her to recoil. It was a harsh and unpleasant sound, and it took her a moment to realize that it had come from the phone. Coco rose quickly, almost stumbling on her way to it - one of her legs felt numb, served her right for folding it beneath her - and grabbed the receiver before it could ring a third time. “Yes?”
The voice on the other side was wonderfully familiar, and the one she’d most wished to hear, aside perhaps from that of her daughter. And her husband. And her mother.
“Socorro, dear, is that you? It’s Isabella. We believe we have found his folder. It matches what you said, but we need you to confirm it for us. How soon can you make it here...?”
“Padre Fernando will be here soon, señor de la Cruz. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Griselda waited in silence as he stared at her for a few moments and then, slowly, tilted his head in what she supposed was an attempt at a nod. He was still slow on the uptake, but he seemed to understand what was going on.
“Can you talk, señor?”
He swallowed. “Yes,” he rasped. “Water.”
She poured some water from the pitcher, and held up his head to help him drink. Even so, it took the better part of a minute and some water spilled. Griselda settled his head back on the pillow and put the glass down; she was about to speak again, but he got there first. He seemed slightly more aware, more alert, his gaze no longer as clouded.
“You became sick last night,” Griselda said, reaching for a tissue. I feared you’d die in my arms, she thought, but didn’t say as much aloud. “Very sick. Don’t you remember?”
He seemed to think if over for a few instants. “Heath,” he finally mumbled. “I remember I was burning. It thought I was in Hell. Wasn’t too far off, I guess.”
Griselda barely restrained from crossing herself. “You had very high fever. It has gone down some now. Doctor Rojas was here, to give you some more antibiotics and--”
“And now you have called a priest,” he cut her off. “It’s almost… almost over, isn’t it?”
There was a pleading quality to his voice that made Griselda’s heart clench. She nodded as she wiped his chin dry with the tissue, avoiding his gaze.
Fighting a lost battle to keep him alive is no longer a humane thing to do.
“Sí, señor. It’s almost over.”
“Not yet, though. We both go home, or neither does. Héctor told me.”
It was far from a cold day, but Griselda found herself shivering all the same, wondering what nightmares had ravaged his mind before doctor Rojas had given him an injection to let him rest. Part of her wanted to ask, but she found she didn’t quite wish to know. “Regardless, you have little time. With everything else settled, you need to worry about your soul.”
“Why? You’re doing such a good job on my behalf,” he muttered, and gave a weak grin at the unimpressed look that gained him. “I will see the priest, if it’s so important to you.”
“It is. Will you confess--”
“I like priests. I fucked one, once. And a nun. Not at the same time, though.”
“... Are you trying to get a rise out of me just now?”
There was a rasping sound that might have been a laugh. In a way, it was a relief. “Maybe,” de la Cruz said, then, “I’ll confess what I see fit. The secret of confession and all that.”
Fair enough, Griselda supposed. It was not up to her to question what he would or would not confess. She would get him a priest; the rest was up to him. “Of course. I didn’t mean to pry.”
El señor de la Cruz closed his eyes, and let out a long sigh. “I’d really rather sleep,” he murmured, and he did sound dreadfully tired. It stirred some pity in her chest, and Griselda reached to brush back his hair. She glanced towards the drugs she used to help him sleep.
“After your last rites,” she promised, and was about to ask him if he wished her to close the window when he opened his eyes again and spoke.
“There is something I need you to do. Once I’m gone, if… if I’m allowed to go.”
“You told me already, señor. The tapes--”
“No, not those,” he cut her off, and swallowed a couple of times before speaking again. When he did, his voice was little above a whisper and his gaze was fixed someplace above her left shoulder, as though he was looking behind her rather than at her. “It’s about a guitar.”
“What do you mean, she has left??”
This time, at least, Imelda had fully meant to shout. She felt as though she would explode otherwise, all of the worry and frustration and exhaustion that had been building up suddenly too much for her to handle. The journey to Mexico City had been hell, the cab ride to the mansion - thank God everyone and their dog seemed to know where it was - vomit-inducing, but she could have dealt with all of that. She had.
What she could not deal with was a weasel of a man looking at her through the gate, refusing to let her in and telling her that her daughter was not there anymore.
“Señora, please,” the man said, holding up his hands. It would only occur to Imelda later that her reaction may not have been the kind that would make him want to open the gate between them. “I’m telling you, she took a cab two days ago and--”
“A cab to where?”
“I don’t know! Maybe el señor de la Cruz--”
“El señor de la Cruz will tell me himself, then,” Imelda spat, anger threatening to choke her.
It was a curse, wasn’t it? Forget music, he was her problem. Had that man taken it upon himself to break her family apart? First he’d taken her husband away from Santa Cecilia, filling his head with childish dreams if glory, and now she’d lured her daughter away, too, with the nebulous promise of news about her good for nothing father.
I should have slammed the door in his face when he first suggested that tour of Mexico. I should have burned that letter when I received it.
“El señor de la Cruz will see me now, ” Imelda cut him off, gripping the metal bars of the gate so tightly her knuckles turned white. “Open this gate, and--”
“Juan? Who is it?” a woman’s voice rang out. Imelda tore her gaze away from the man - who, unbeknownst to her, let out a long sigh of relief - to turn towards its source.
Two were people walking away from the mansion and up to the gate: a tall, imposing woman who had to be well in her sixties, and a priest who was maybe a few years older than that.
For several moments Imelda could only stare in silence, her eyes fixed on the priest, on his grim expression, on the small suitcase he was carrying. She had seen priests with that same look on their face and a similar suitcase leaving dying men’s homes before, after giving them their last rites. Realization hit her like a bucket of cold water and caused her anger to sputter out, replaced by a sense of sudden incredulity.
“Ernesto,” she found herself saying numbly. She had known that he wasn’t well - he’d hinted as much in his letter - but somehow she hadn’t thought for a moment that the situation could be that desperate; she hadn’t thought she would arrive to find him at death’s door.
It felt wrong on a fundamental level to imagine him on his deathbed, even though she knew what a dreadful accident he’d had and how many years had passed. In her memory he was still twenty-five, eager to travel Mexico to play for crowds, full of bluster and bull-headed optimism that never failed to rub off Héctor - and that sometimes, just sometimes, she had even found somewhat amusing herself. But now he was dying, or already dead.
The thought made her feel sick; she had never wished him ill. Not that much, at least.
“Señora? Can we help?” the woman asked, a concerned frown on her face.
“Ernesto,” Imelda repeated, finally tearing her gaze away from the priest. “Is he… did he…?”
The woman shook her head. “No, not yet. He’s sleeping now, though, so I’m afraid he won’t be able to see anyone for a few more hours,” she said, and gestured for the man - Juan - to open the gate. “May I ask…?”
“My name is Imelda Rivera. He wrote to me about a month ago.”
The woman’s expression lit up in recognition. “Oh! You must be Coco’s mother,” she said, and some of the numbness faded away, replaced by a sort of relief. Maybe she would know where her daughter was, after all. “I’m Griselda Lopez. I’m truly sorry you were faced with such grim news as soon as you arrived,” she added, and tilted her head towards the priest. “This is Padre Fernando.”
“My pleasure,” he said, and Imelda acknowledged him with a polite nod before turning her attention back to Griselda.
“I came looking for my daughter,” she said, trying to keep her voice as calm as possible, and her eyes darted to Juan, who flinched. “He told me she has left, but she never said she was coming home, either. Do you have any idea…?”
“Oh, yes. She’s still in Mexico City, but she had to stay in a hotel, for…” the woman paused, and Imelda could see the hesitation crossing her features before she spoke again. “I am certain she’ll be more than happy to explain you everything,” she finally said, and gestured for Juan to leave.
She waited for him to be on his way back towards the mansion before she poke again, and that told Imelda that whatever she was about to say, she didn’t want anyone but herself and the priest to hear. And was it her, or did that Griselda keep glancing at the priest, as though she was trying to guess something from his expression alone?
Unaware of her quizzical glance, or perhaps all too aware of it, Griselda spoke again. “I have called a cab to bring Padre Fernando back to the city. I am certain he’ll have no objections if you take advantage - it is all paid for,” she added, and Padre Fernando smiled.
“I don’t mind at all. I would like some company on the way back. Giving a man his last rites is always rather taxing on one’s heart.”
Imelda bit her lower lip. Part of her still wanted to march inside and demand explanations right away, but she was willing to hold her tongue and wait another while if that meant she would be able to see Coco soon, and ask what in the world was going on to her directly.
Plus, she found she didn’t want to see Ernesto, or whatever had become of the man she’d known, on his deathbed.
“I believe I will take you up on that offer, thank you,” she said, and glanced towards the mansion. It was in the middle of a large garden, and white as marble; it made her think more of a mausoleum than a home. Fitting, for a dying man. “... I had no idea he was that sick.”
That caused Padre Fernando’s smile to fade. “His suffering is almost over. I find some comfort in thinking about it this way.”
“Of course,” Imelda said, and turned away from the mansion, trying to ignore the stab of pity. Perhaps she was supposed to say something, leave a message for him when he woke up - if he did wake up. But she could think of nothing to say; too many years had passed since they had been… not friends, never quite friends, but close enough acquaintances. Too many years, over half their lives, and Héctor was no longer there to bind them in any way.
There was nothing she could do to help him, anyway. Best to leave him in peace. All that she could do - all that she should focus on - was finding Coco and bringing her home. So she said little more until the cab arrived, until she climbed on it and told the driver the name of the hotel where, according to Griselda, Coco was staying.
As the cab pulled away she did not look back, not expecting to see that mansion again - much less to set foot in it.
Then again, she expected nothing of what was about to hit her.
“Sit down, dear, sit. It’s dreadfully hot outside, isn’t it? Have some water.”
Coco smiled, agreed that it was unseasonably warm, and had a few gulps of water - but all of it felt forced, like someone else was pulling the strings to make her go through the motions. It had taken the cab forty minutes to get Coco to her destination - the longest, most agonizing forty minutes she had ever lived through. She had waited for her father her entire life, and now that the end was so close time seemed to stretch on and on.
“Eduardo wanted to start searching on Wednesday, that lazy bum, but he owes me a favor or two and that got him going. I’m sure that he’s nowhere as busy as he claims he is all the time. And this dust allergy of his that comes and goes - excuses, excuses, excuses,” Isabella was muttering, searching through her desk drawers. If they were as messy as the rest of her office was, it was no wonder she had trouble finding what she was looking for.
That thought, and her words, got a small smile out of Coco despite the tightness in her stomach. “Muchas gracias,” she said. “It means a lot to me.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” Isabella replied. “It doesn’t say where he was buried, but - oh, no, dear, it is all right!” she said quickly, clearly noticing the dismay on her face. “There is a reference number. It might take some time to dig out the old register and find out what the matching lot is, but it can be done. It will be done as quickly as possible, if you confirm this is him,” she added, and finally put something in front of her - a yellowish folder, stained by humidity and still smelling like dust. Coco faintly wondered how much longer it would have taken for it and its contents to be eaten away by rats and mould, and the thought made her nauseous.
But it’s here. I have it. I made it on time, she thought, and she forced herself to ignore the insidious fear that perhaps they got the wrong folder, or maybe something had happened to that register. Rats, mould, perhaps a fire, any kind of damage to make it unreadable--
No. Don’t. It will be all right. It must be.
“You can open it, dear,” Isabella spoke, her voice gentle, and Coco recoiled. She hadn’t realized she’d been staring down at the folder for several moments in complete silence.
“Oh. I… my apologies,” Coco said quickly, and reached to take the folder with shaky hands.
“No need to apologize, this must be very stressful for you. Take your time. I am afraid you cannot take it away - it is for identification purposes, you understand - but you can look all you want while here. A couple of pictures there may not be very pleasant to look at, I fear.”
“I understand,” Coco said, marveling at how firm her voice sounded despite everything. She drew in a deep breath and opened the folder, expecting to see a dead body.
Her papá smiled at her. For a moment everything stilled, and Coco forgot how to breathe.
The face looking up at her wasn’t that of a corpse: Héctor Rivera, aged twenty-one, was giving her that boyish grin of his she had never forgotten. He looked so much like her in that photo, with the same smile and cheekbones… and he was so, so young. It struck ever even harder than it ever had before that he’d been little more than a boy.
“This photo…” she whispered, her throat tight. Her fingers reached to stroke its surface, tracing his features, and she almost feared her touch alone would make it crumble to dust.
“It was found on him,” Isabella said, very gently, and refilled her glass with some more water. “It is him, isn’t it?” she asked. Coco nodded, unable to force out any words.
“We should be able to release that photo to you, once the formalities are all taken care of.”
With another nod, Coco put down the photograph - it took an effort, it truly did - and looked at the next sheet in the folder. There was an inventory of what the body had been found with, which wasn’t much. A salmon-colored charro suit, as she’d known; a few pesos in his pockets, as well as a photo of himself in the breast pocket… and that was all, or almost.
An empty bottle of tequila, resting in the crook of his right arm.
Coco paused, and read the sentence again - first with a sort of numbness, and then with growing confusion. That didn’t make any sense; Ernesto had said that her papá had felt sick on the way to the station, collapsed, and died within minutes. He’d said that he’d taken his songbook and guitar, and left. Why would her father have a bottle on him when found?
And why was his suitcase not mentioned anywhere in the list? Surely he must have had one with him, if he was about to travel home. Had Ernesto taken the entire suitcase, too, along with the songbook and guitar? It was possible, she supposed, but something about that scenario felt wrong… though not as wrong as that bottle. It didn’t fit Ernesto’s tale at all.
“Dear, is everything well? Do drink something, you’re so pale…!”
Isabella’s voice sounded distant, her words inconsequential. Heart beating somewhere in her throat, Coco turned the page with hands that were surprisingly firm - and found herself looking at two more pictures, taken from different angles: her father’s body, as it had been found the following morning. The photographs were old and slightly grainy, but she did recognize him; he looked like he was sleeping, slumped against an old brick wall, with his head head bent over his shoulder.
And sure enough, there was a bottle tucked in the crook of his arm that had no reason to be there. It looked wrong; it looked staged. But why….?
For the songs. They made me famous. It was all I had ever wanted.
“Señora Rivera? Socorro? Ay, are you all right? Do you need--?”
Whatever she said next, Coco did not hear. The world around her seemed to spin, and that photograph was all she could see clearly. On its own, it showed a travelling musician who had drunk himself into unconsciousness and death. With what she knew now - with what Ernesto had told her - it gave a different story. With the mind’s eye she saw her father’s best friend, his hermano, propping his body up against a wall and placing the empty bottle on him before running away into the dark, with his guitar and songbook, like a thief. Like a murderer.
He never made it, but he always meant to go back home.
With the songbook. He’d tried to return home with his songbook, with their song, and Ernesto wouldn’t let it happen. He hadn’t let it happen. Was that why he’d been so sure she was in danger over that accursed thing, that his manager would go as far as harming her? Because he, too, had stolen a life to keep it? How had her father really died, so suddenly, so young?
No, Coco thought desperately, no. She was going loca, it couldn’t be.They’d been children together; they had gotten into all sort of mischief, grown up, played, drank, sung together. Ernesto had been her papá’s best man at the wedding, the one he had chosen as her godfather, who had told her all those stories about him. He’d wept with her for him, tried to fix what he’d done. He may have stolen his songs, but not his life. He would have never…!
“I know how far a man can go when he thinks he stands to lose everything,” he’d said.
“Even a rat becomes dangerous when cornered,” he’d said.
Nausea hit her like a physical blow, and she felt bile rising in her throat. Coco let go of the folder as though it had caught fire and tried to stand, to walk away, to get outside and breathe in some air, but she never managed to take more than a few steps.
The world around her spun, her insides clenched, and her knees hit the floor before Isabella could get to her. Bile burned her throat and mouth, her eyes watered, and the room became dark - almost as dark as in her dream, when Ernesto had loomed over her.
In the darkness she hadn’t seen his face but, she now remembered, she had seen his hands - holding her papá’s songbook and guitar, and dripping with blood.
“What do you mean, she’s not here?”
“It means what I said, señora. The only Rivera we have had as our guest in the past month is Diego Rivera, and I am fairly sure he’s not your daughter,” the clerk added, so haughtily that it took all of Imelda’s willpower not to take off her boot and give him a lesson he wouldn’t ever forget. “Now please, lower your voice before I--”
Whatever he threatened next - call the security, most likely - was entirely lost to Imelda. She didn’t care how fancy that hotel was and how superior that clerk thought he may be: that was the place where she had been told Coco was staying, so she had to be there - and if not, they must have some idea of where she may be now.
She didn’t care if that man decided to call the army on her: she was not leaving that lobby without an answer, and she was not leaving that city without Coco. What would she even tell to Victoria and Julio if she returned alone, with no clue as to where--
“... Would be quite a regrettable incident for this establishment, so I will once again--”
“Martinez,” Imelda muttered, caused the man to pause and blink.
“She’s married. Socorro Rivera-Martinez,” she said, and stared at the man in the eye. “She may be under her husband’s name. Did a Socorro Martinez check in in the past two days?”
The clerk blinked, taken aback, then his gaze brightened as though something in his mind had just clicked. “Oh! Yes, now that you mention it, there is a Señora Martinez… let me see…” he mumbled, and went to check the booking. His demeanor changed so quickly it was almost unreal. “Yes, indeed. Socorro Marinez - she’s staying in room 217.”
“Good. I’ll be going upstairs.”
“She’s not in - she asked us to call a cab for her earlier today. B-But she will return!” the clerk added quickly after Imelda gave him one, long look. “She didn’t take her luggage, did not check out… she might be back shortly. Perhaps you’d like to wait in the lounge, or--”
For a moment, Imelda didn’t register the voice coming from behind her as her daughter’s. Coco was a woman, approaching her thirtieth birthday; her voice was softer than her own, her tone gentler, but she certainly didn’t sound like a scared young girl. Not anymore.
Mamá… is papá ever coming home?
Imelda’s stomach sank, and she turned slowly, barely registering the look of alarm on the clerk’s face. Coco was standing only a few steps away, and she looked ill. Her skin was ashen gray with red blotches, her eyes puffy, her lower lip trembling; when she blinked, tears spilled down her cheeks. Imelda had never seen her in such a state, and it caused her anger to vanish, her worry to turn into something closer to terror. Within a second she regretted all of the sharp words she had uttered when they had last spoken, every minute of cold silence.
“Coco,” she called out, dropping her small suitcase and taking a few quick steps forward. “What happened? What’s wrong, mija?”
She reached out to press a hand on her forehead and see if she had fever, but Coco moved first. She threw herself at her like she hadn’t since she was only a little girl with scraped-up knees, buried her face against her shoulder, and let out a gut-wrenching cry of grief. For a time she just kept sobbing, unable to utter a single word, and Imelda could only hold her tight, mind reeling with questions she couldn’t ask - not yet, not until she’d calmed down.
But even amongst that confusion there was one certainty, solid as stone: her daughter needed her, and she was exactly where she was meant to be.
Chapter 9: A Murder Confession
Well. Shit hits the fan.
It couldn’t be.
It simply couldn’t be.
For a long time as she kept listening to her daughter’s tale - often interrupted to weep some more, to drink a few gulps of water, to just hold onto her in silence for a few moments before she could muster the strength to keep talking - that thought kept circling in Imelda’s mind.
It can’t be.
Ernesto de la Cruz, taking credit for her husband’s songs in order to become famous - that she could picture, yes. It was a despicable thing to do, but not something she would put past the man she’d known; there had always been something she found unnerving beneath his friendliness, the constant desire - or was it need? - to be beloved, noticed, at the center of all attention. She remembered thinking, a long time ago, that his eyes reminded her of a coyote’s; the eyes of someone who didn’t want as much as he hungered.
Ernesto de la Cruz, never telling them that Héctor had died while trying to return home only months into that damned tour - that was harder to swallow, so much harder. Letting her and most of all Coco wait, days after day, week after week, year after year, for the return of a dead man. A letter could have put an end to that wait, given them some closure, and he had chosen not to do it. It made her blood boil but again, thinking of the resentful look he would give her and Coco from time to time, when Héctor cancelled their plans to be with them instead, she found she could believe that as well.
But Ernesto de la Cruz murdering her husband - his best friend since childhood - was too unfathomable for her to comprehend. Yet, the more Coco talked, the more sense it made.
“He said he felt ill, collapsed and died within minutes. I thought that maybe his heart gave out, but that photo - that bottle - it didn’t add up at all! Papá was so young, he was healthy, and he was just trying to come home, and Ernesto wanted his songs, and…!”
It had been Coco’s sobbing to snap Imelda from her thoughts. She reached to brush the hair off her face - her braid had come undone, she would help her fix that soon - and rocked her like she used to do when she was a little girl. The fact she was a woman grown, a mother herself, was no longer relevant.
Her child was crying and the one responsible for that would pay.
“Enough, mija, enough. I understand,” she said, and it was only partly true. She understood what she had heard; fully comprehending it was was a different matter, after so many years thinking - knowing - that her husband had abandoned them. So many years trying to forget him while her mind drifted to him again and again with each milestone Coco reached and he wasn’t there to see; as she herself grew older, she’d wondered what he saw when he looked in the mirror. Would she even recognize him anymore if she saw him on the street?
She’d wondered where he may be, what he may be doing; wondered if there was another woman, another family he may have made for himself while she fought tooth and nail to raise Coco and keep her family together. And now, now her daughter was telling her that none of it had ever happened. All of the scenarios she’d thought up were fantasies and nothing more.
Héctor had never abandoned them.
Héctor hadn’t even lived to be twenty-two.
Héctor had died while trying to return home.
Héctor was buried somewhere in Mexico City, in a nameless grave.
Those were all facts. Staggering, but cold hard facts. It made her head spin, it made her chest ache with the sheer injustice of it all - he still had so many years ahead of him, he was coming home, we should have had so many years ahead of us - and a small voice in her head whispered that she should have known better, she should have known Héctor better… But Imelda could deal with facts. She could deal with all of it, given time.
And then there was Coco’s speculation - her near certainty - that Héctor hadn’t died a natural death. That Ernesto had had a hand in it, that he had murdered him. As absurd as it seemed to her, Imelda knew she could never return home without knowing for sure… and there was only one way she could think of to find out. Only one man who could answer that question.
Dying or not, she and Ernesto de la Cruz would have words . He would look at her in the eye, and tell her how Héctor had died, why he had never told her of his death. Whether or not he had killed him the fact remained that he had left his best friend’s body in the street, to be buried in a nameless grave, for songs. And that alone was enough for any pity she might have felt for him to be blown away to dust.
“You stay here and rest, Coco,” she said, pulling back and wiping some tears off her daughter’s face. “If that is what he’s done, I’ll get a confession out of him and--”
“No,” Coco choked out, and gripped her arm tight. “I’m coming with you.”
“You need to rest.”
“I can’t rest until I know for sure,” she replied, and Imelda paused. There was something harsh in her gaze despite all the tears, and she knew then that arguing would be useless; Coco had made her decision, and was not about to change her mind. There was a lot of Héctor in her, but she was her daughter, too.
Finally, slowly, Imelda nodded. “Very well,” she said. “Splash some water on your face before we go. You look terrible.”
That caused Coco to smile faintly, and she gave her hand a brief squeeze before she stood and went into the bathroom. Imelda kept sitting in the bed, hands folded tightly on her lap and listening to the sound of running water.
Did you do it, Ernesto? Did you murder my husband?
As much as she wished to dismiss all of it as a misunderstanding, she couldn’t quite do it. Coco wasn’t some hysterical little girl: she was a clever woman, and she would never move such accusations unless she had a very good reason to believe they were true. And everything he had told her made such a frightening amount of sense, too.
That accursed letter was for me. I should have been the one to come here. I should have been the one to figure this out. I wanted to protect her and look what I got her into.
Imelda pushed the thought in the back of her mind, and stood as her daughter stepped out of the bathroom. She would deal with her guilt later; now what she needed to focus on was getting the truth out of Ernesto. She would never forgive herself if he died before they could have that one answer.
Coco had been waiting for closure long enough.
That certainty burned itself in Griselda’s mind the moment she found herself looking at Socorro and Imelda Rivera again at the main gate. Coco was very pale, and her mother’s eyes were steely. She didn’t ask to see Ernesto de la Cruz: she demanded it.
“If he’s not conscious, we’ll wait. But he will see us.”
She had let them in, of course, and led them to a living room to wait while she went upstairs - slowly, very slowly. She felt as though her legs were made of lead.
De la Cruz was on his wheelchair, where he’d asked to be left. He faced the window, but he wasn’t looking outside. His head was hanging sideways over his shoulder, his eyes shut. Only the faint rise and fall of his chest beneath the strap that kept him secured to the back of the chair told her was alive; otherwise, she could have easily taken him for a corpse.
He slept, for once without the aid of drugs, and peacefully. The thought of waking him up tore at her heart, but she knew he owed something to the two women downstairs; a confession, at the very least, and perhaps an explanation if they would listen.
“Señor de la Cruz,” she called out, stepping in, and he didn’t stir. She crouched by the wheelchair and reached to cup his cheek, to hold his head upright. His skin was feverish, but it didn’t quite feel like someone had set him on fire from inside. “Señor,” she called again, gently, and a frown creased his brow, there one moment and gone the next. Then, finally, his eyes opened and he blinked up at her.
“Griselda,” he finally mumbled when his eyes put her into focus. His gaze was dull. “You should have let me sleep. I dreamed that I was dead.”
“I’m sorry, señor. There are… some people to see you. It’s Socorro, and… and her mother.”
For a moment he said nothing, and she thought he hadn’t understood. Griselda was about to repeat herself when finally, slowly, the corners of his mouth curled in a very tired smile.
“Imelda,” he rasped. “It’s been a long time. Have they found him?”
“Not quite yet, but it won’t be long,” she replied, pulling back her hand once she was sure he could hold his head up, and hesitated. “They have… questions.”
Ernesto de la Cruz shook his head, very slowly. “No. They just want me to confirm or deny what they already know,” he rasped, and the ghost of a smile crossed his features. “I knew Coco would guess, eventually. Wasn’t counting on her mother getting here anymore, but I should have. She never let anything stand in her way. I admired that, you know? Just didn’t like it when it worked against me, which was all the time. We had a tug war going on, she and I. Héctor was the rope,” he added, then, “Don’t keep them waiting. Let them come in.”
“Afraid to let them into the monster’s den?”
He’d probably meant it as a jest, but she didn’t find it amusing in the slightest. “I see no monster here, señor.”
“No? You may need glasses.”
“I need no such thing. You’re only a man, who did something monstrous.”
“You say that like there is a difference,” he muttered, sounding almost thoughtful, then shook his head. “Have them come here. Then you’ll go downstairs and will not interfere.”
Griselda hesitated. El señor de la Cruz looked so tired and frail, and Imelda Rivera was a force of nature, she could tell. How could she be expected to react to his confession, if not with fury? Righteous fury, of course, but she had a duty of care towards the dying man before her. That felt uncomfortably like throwing him in a cage with a jaguar and leaving him to his destiny. And la señora Rivera, what if she did something she would later regret? God knew that wasn’t something poor Coco needed to deal with on top of everything else.
“This may not be the best time ,” she found herself saying, gaining herself a long look.
“This may be the only time.”
“There is that tape. If I give it to them, rather than have them--”
“No. Only after I’m dead,” he cut her off, and his lips twitched. “Are you afraid for my sake?”
She saw no point in lying. “Sí, señor.”
“Why? I gave my last confession and all. Except that it was worth nothing, regardless what you think,” he said, and sighed. “This will be the one that matters. Spare your worry for someone who deserves it, take them here, and then leave.”
“That isn’t a request. That is an order.”
Griselda stared at him for a moment, and finally sighed. “Very well,” she said, and stood. Her knees protested some, but she paid it no mind. She turned his wheelchair so that he would face the door. “Let me tell you just one thing I’ve learned, señor, about men and monsters.”
“Spare your breath,” he muttered, but she ignored the remark.
“No monster would admit to being one.”
There was no reply, nor she waited for one: she just left the room, closing the door behind herself, and went downstairs with a heavy heart.
Imelda and Socorro Rivera were still where she had left them, sitting still and silent; they turned to her as one when Griselda stepped in, and for a long moment she wasn’t sure who she pitied the most. She had to work her jaw before she trusted herself to speak firmly.
“... El señor de la Cruz will see you now.”
“Héctor? Are you here?”
Ernesto’s voice was hardly above a whisper, but he doubted it would have made any difference if he’d screamed. His eyes scanned the room, or at least the part of it he could see by turning his head. Nothing.
“Héctor, please,” he tried again. For all of the nerve he’d tried to show in front of Griselda, he was still scared. He knew he had to go through with it, but that knowledge did little to help. He closed his eyes and held back a dry sob, tried to ignore the fever that made his face feel like it was burning. “Don’t leave me alone, not now.”
Still no answer and he could hear, already, footsteps on the stairs. Something gripped his throat, a sort of terror he had come to know all too well. Under normal circumstances, Imelda would have been the one to fear… but there was nothing normal about his situation. Héctor’s widow could scream and rage; she could, and perhaps would, do her utmost to harm him… but it was his daughter who held his fate in her hands. He couldn’t go until she allowed it and oh God, why should she allow him to have peace now? Why should anyone?
She will never give me her blessing to die.
But he’d done all he could to let Héctor go home at last, everything he could to keep his daughter from harm. Surely it had to count for something. Surely it couldn’t have all been for… no. No, it hadn’t been for nothing. Héctor was going home, his family would know he hadn’t meant to leave them. It was something, all right… but where did that leave him?
I’m going home, Ernesto, he’d said.
You’ll manage, he’d said.
“No, I can’t,” Ernesto choked out. “Por favor, Héctor. Por favo--”
He didn’t get to finish that plea: the door’s handle was lowered, and words died in his throat. He found himself staring, transfixed, as the door opened slowly and two women stepped in: Coco, pale as death and almost expressionless, and an older woman who could only be Imelda Rivera.
Years had been kind to her; despite the lines around her mouth and eyes, he could still see the young woman Héctor had left behind over a quarter of a century earlier. There was hardly any gray in her hair, but what he truly recognized were the eyes fixed on him, burning into him like hot coals.
Héctor was nowhere to be seen, but his wife and daughter were there, and they knew.
One time, when she was six or seven, Coco had seen a rat stuck in a glue trap.
She didn’t remember exactly where the trap had been; certainly not in their workshop, because Pepita was enough to keep rats, and all the diseases they carried, well away. She didn’t even remember what she had been doing: all that she remembered were those few moments, forever seared into her mind.
It had been a gruesome sight: the poor animal had tried its utmost to free itself, chewing through one of its paws and tearing off entire chunks of fur as it thrashed, leaving it with patches of bloody, bare skin. None of it had helped: by the time Coco had found it, it had all but given up – lying where it was, unable to move, its breathing fast and shallow.
For all of the horror of the scene, it had been its eyes that would haunt her nightmares for much of the following year – the way they had opened when her shadow had fallen over it, and most of all the look it had given her. There had been fear, but also a sort of desperation that went well beyond that; it knew that the end was coming, it knew it was trapped, and it knew it was hurting.
Even a rat becomes dangerous when cornered, Ernesto would tell her many years later, but there was no fight left in that one. It had looked at her, had seen death, and – so she had felt – it had silently pleaded for her to end it.
She hadn’t, then: she remembered running off crying, and had no idea what had happened next. But now – now that she found herself facing that same gaze in a man, or what was left of one; a gaze that told her that he knew that they knew – she was no longer a little girl with ribbons in her hair. There could be no running away.
None of them was going anywhere until the truth was out.
“De la Cruz.”
Her mother’s voice was like the crack of a whip, and ended the moment of stillness as silence after the door behind them closed. Ernesto seemed to recoil, too, and glanced at her… but something was wrong, Coco could tell. When she had first seen him, only a few days and yet an eternity earlier, she had been surprised by how clear and alert his eyes were despite everything. Now those eyes were clouded with fever, his head leaning against the headrest of his wheelchair, beads of sweat across his forehead. He barely moved his head, as though even that was beyond him now. When he spoke, his voice sounded like old paper.
“Imelda,” he said. “I thought you couldn’t make--”
“Señora Rivera, if you will,” she cut him off, her voice icy. That was the first time she saw the state Ernesto was in, and it clearly left her entirely unmoved. It was hardly surprising, knowing her, and Coco envied her for it. She at least could focus on her anger and grief, without that nagging sense of pity in the back of her mind. “Although now I am his widow, rather than his wife. I have been for a very long time. Not that you ever bothered letting me know.”
“Silence,” her mother all but hissed, stepping forward and causing even Coco to recoil. She could see her fury, plain as day in her rigid posture, in the tenseness in her shoulders. She couldn’t see her expression, but Ernesto could. He shut his mouth and just stared at her – a sick, dying man unable to lift a finger, powerless before the approaching storm.
“Hardly anything that ever left your mouth was worth the air you wasted for it. No wonder you could never write a single decent song; you never had anything of value to say. I should have known something was off when I heard you had somehow become the best musician in all of Mexico. You could have never made it on your own. You were a decent performer with a passable voice, nothing more, and you always knew it. That’s why you leeched off the real musician’s work.”
That seemed to strike him in a way nothing else had. He shook his head. “No,” he managed, an almost pleading quality to his voice. “Imelda, Iisten--”
“Shut up,” she cut him off, and he did. His chest rose and fell fast, as though those very few words had winded him. “I want to know one thing from you, and one thing only. You can rot, then, but first you owe me this one answer.” Imelda Rivera took a step forward, eyes steely, and came to tower over Ernesto. “How did my husband die? Was it your doing?”
Ernesto worked his jaw for a moment, and his eyes shifted to Coco. His features twisted briefly in an expression that she couldn’t quite define: there was fear, there was sorrow, there was a sort of despair that went well beyond either.
Deny it, Coco thought, a lump in her throat. Deny it all. Please. Say it was natural causes. Give an explanation, any explanation. Tell me you didn’t do it, and I’ll believe you.
He did not deny it. “Coco,” he rasped. “Please, I need your--”
“ De la Cruz! Answer to me!”
Her mother’s voice rose, filled the entire room. Her fists were clenched, and for a moment even Coco – on whom she had never, and would never, lift a finger – was almost scared of her. Ernesto looked back at her, turned his gaze away, and swallowed. He seemed to steel himself before he spoke… and when he did, his whisper was just as loud as her shout to Coco’s ears.
“Poison,” he choked out, as though just saying that one word hurt him. “I poisoned him.”
For a moment, everything was still. Coco heard the words, but her mind refused to grasp their meaning. She saw, very distantly, her mother’s shoulders dropping suddenly. Her rigid posture came undone, her arms fell limply by her sides; it was as though all of her anger had suddenly fled, leaving behind only disbelief. Suspecting – guessing – was one thing. Hearing the confession was something else entirely.
Poisoned, by his best friend – his hermano – and so far from home. Poisoned for songs as he tried to return to them, barely a grown man but still a tender father and devoted husband, with an entire life ahead of him. So many years pretending he hadn’t even existed, his face torn off their family photo – the injustice of it all was staggering, and Coco found herself unable to breathe for a moment. The room seemed to spin around her, and she held out a hand to support herself against a wall.
“You… poisoned him?” her mamá repeated. Coco recognized the same numbness she felt in her voice and she wanted to go to her, to hold her and cry with her, but she couldn’t do any of those things. Suddenly, she couldn’t move any more than Ernesto could. She could only watch as he closed his eyes, and nodded.
“He wanted to return to Santa Cecilia. I couldn’t convince him to stay. He would go away with the songbook and… you said it yourself. I could have never made with without his songs. We had a toast before he went to the train station. I put the poison in his drink, and he died on the way. I couldn’t let him… couldn’t let you...” his voice faded, and he opened his eyes. When he looked back up at her mother, Coco thought she saw something in his gaze that was almost accusing. “I was so angry. It had been all we’d dreamed about since we were children. But then you came along, and she happened, and suddenly it didn’t seem to matter anymore. He chose you over everything else. He would have left me behind for you, and I--”
There was a cry of anger and dismay, a blur of motion, and suddenly there was a boot in her mother’s hand. Coco didn’t see it strike – she moved so fast and suddenly, her eyes could hardly follow – but she did see Ernesto’s head whipping on one side, saw something spraying through the air, red droplets staining the cream-colored carpet.
Another blow, and Ernesto’s head whipped to the other side; if not for the fact he was strapped to the back of the armchair, he would have probably been thrown off it. He didn’t scream; he just let out a coughing sound, spitting out blood, just as her mother lifted her boot one more time above his bowed head. There were specks of blood on the heel.
No, stop. He’s so frail, what if it kills him, what will happen to you then?
“Mamá!” Coco’s cry was that of a frightened child, and it was enough for Imelda to still, her hand still in mid-air. She turned, and their gazes met. Coco had to blink away tears; Imelda’s eyes were dry, but sorrow was etched across her features alongside her anger. For a moment they stared at each other, and Coco opened her mouth, but someone spoke first.
“Señora Rivera. I have to ask you to step away from my patient.”
She hadn’t heard the door opening, but it had, and Griselda was standing in the doorway, pale but entirely in control, as though none of what she was seeing - Coco’s tears, Imelda’s boot in her hand, the blood that dripped down Ernesto’s face - surprised her. A question - did you know? - passed through Coco’s mind, but she had no time to ask.
“Your patient is a murderer,” her mother spat, and some of her sorrow gave way to fury again. “And I won’t stop until--”
“He’s my patient still. If you strike him again, I’ll have to remove you from this room.”
“I’d like to see you try.”
“I’d rather you don’t.”
“No,” Ernesto choked out, causing Coco to recoil and look at him again. He was bleeding from his nose and mouth, blood dripping down with each word he spoke, but he was struggling to hold his head upright and force out more words. “I told you… not to… interfere.”
Griselda’s tense expression softened. “Señor de la--”
“Get out,” Ernesto ordered, or at least Coco supposed that was what he was trying to do. It came out as a sob, and a garbled mess of words. “That was… that was…”
“An order, I know. One that I cannot in all conscience obey,” Griselda said, and turned back to her mother. “Señora Rivera, there is no reason to do this.”
Her mother bristled. “No reason?” she growled. “This rat murdered my husband and if you think you can keep me from ending him in turn--”
“Look at him,” Griselda retorted, more forcefully, but that sorrowful expression never left her face. “He’ll be dead within the week, señora, with no need for your intervention and no consequences for you. I believe both you and your family have suffered enough as it is.”
That argument, at least, seemed to get through to her. Her gaze shifted on Coco, who took a step forward. “Please, mamá,” she heard herself pleading. “We need to find papá and take him home. I can’t do this without you. I want us all to go home together.”
Another moment of stillness and silence then finally, slowly, her mother nodded. She put her boot back on, the anger and pain in her features fading into a look of pure disgust when she glanced back down at Ernesto. “… Very well, then. He’s made his own personal hell already, and I won’t be the one to deliver him from it. Were you hoping I’d do you this favor? Was that why you didn’t want her to interfere?” she asked, and grimaced, not bothering to wait for an answer. “Of course it is. A coward to the end. Too filthy to touch even with a shoe.”
Ernesto shook his head with a low, keening noise. “No. No, por favor,” he managed, blood still running down his face. The sight would have moved a stone, but then again a stone doesn’t feel any pain, and surely not the kind of having one’s husband and father torn away too soon. Even Coco, always softer than her mother, couldn’t bring herself to feel anything.
Imelda seemed to get a sort of vicious satisfaction out of it. “I hope she’s wrong, you know. I hope you live a long life, de la Cruz. As long as Héctor’s should have been,” she spat. “And I hope you suffer every minute of it.”
Ernesto shook his head again. He ignored Griselda’s attempt to wipe some blood off his face and lifted his head. His clouded gaze found Coco. “Por favor. I can’t die if you don’t let me. Héctor says I need your blessing.”
Coco recoiled, taken aback by the surreal statement – and if the other two women’s expression was anything to go by, she wasn’t the only one who was confused.
“What?” she managed, her voice little more than a hoarse whisper.
Ernesto sniffled up some blood before speaking. Every word of what he said sounded like the ramblings of a ravaged mind. “Your father, he wouldn’t leave me alone,” he managed. He was speaking as fast as his split lip allowed him, as though he feared he could be silenced any moment. “Not right now, but I saw him every day at my bedside. He told me I had to write to you. He told me I had to tell you he never meant to leave. He told me--”
There was a snort, cutting him off, her mother took step forward. She didn’t hit him nor moved to, but Griselda went to stand between them either way. Imelda entirely ignored her, and spoke to Ernesto as though she wasn't even there.
“Even now, you want to stake a claim on him,” she spat. “If Héctor could in any way return, he would not be wasting a single minute in your presence. It is us he'd come to. You murdered him for it, and you still haven't learned.”
Ernesto shook his head, as though desperate to keep her words out of his mind. “No. He told me,” he protested, and turned those dull eyes back to Coco, looking at her through locks of dishevelled hair. “I beg of you. Héctor said I need your blessing to--”
“So that’s why you wrote,” Coco spoke, cutting him off. Speaking felt like the most difficult thing she had done in a long time; her ears were buzzing, and her tongue felt heavy as lead. She thought back of the letter he had sent them, the letter that had brought her there.
Something I need to tell you about Héctor that you should have known many years ago.
“After you said he’d died in 1921 and you never told us, I thought… I thought you had written because you wanted to set things right before you died,” she went on. “But that wasn’t it, was it? It wasn’t because you regretted what you had done. It was just what your delusions told you you had to do. It was never to help me have closure, it was all about getting your own. You murdered my papá, took his songs - our song - and let us believe he’d abandoned us. And now…” Coco paused, and clenched her fist. Fury finally rushed in, replacing that horrible sense of numbness, and it was a relief. It truly was.
“Coco--” he tried, but she’d had enough.
“And now you expect me to give you my blessing, of all things?” she snapped.
Ernesto’s features twisted in what might have been fear, might have been pain, might have been something else entirely. Coco didn’t know, nor she cared to know. He must have seen that in her expression, for he lowered his head. “Please, I… I did all I could.”
“For yourself, yes. All you could, including murder.”
“I tried to keep you safe--”
“After you put me in danger, so I could give you what you wanted,” she said. There was a choking noise, and blood was no longer the only thing dripping from his face. Before, it would have made her heart ache. Now her heart did ache, but not for him. Never for him.
“I moved Heaven and Earth, I… por favor--”
Coco turned away sharply, refusing to listen to another word. Nausea reared up its head, the room around her spun for a moment, but she didn’t falter. She looked at her mother, at the one fixed point in all that chaos, and set her jaw. “Let’s go, mamá,” she said, and her mother had to see how unsteady she felt, for she moved to take her arm.
Coco let her lead her out of the room, the fury already turning into numbness again. Ernesto de la Cruz didn’t call out for either of them, and she never turned to glance back. She just kept walking, leaning on her mother, each step easier than the one before, until they were out of the mansion - a tomb for a still living man - and she felt the sun on her face again.
And then, only then, she wept.
“I know, señor. I know. Try to rest now.”
I can’t, Ernesto wanted to say, but words stayed stuck in his throat. He kept his eyes shut while Griselda wiped the blood and tears off his face, while she tended to his split lip and aching nose. Every part of him he could feel - his head, his face, his neck - hurt, and he was burning, and the worst of it was knowing it wouldn’t end. It would never end.
He’s made his own personal hell already, and I won’t be the one to deliver him from it.
He was taken back to his bed to rest on his back, a pillow beneath his head. Fingers combed through his hair, but even that gentle touch on his scalp failed to make him feel better. It would never get any better. It was what he deserved but oh God, he couldn’t stand it.
It had taken instants for him to make that decision, to seize his moment. One moment to slip poison in the glass, one moment for Héctor to drink it - and it had been enough to end his friend’s life, take away all the years he may have had and all he could have been. Enough to damn him for good. If only he could go back, God please let me go back, I’d throw that glass against the wall or drink from it myself, return to Santa Cecilia with him, I would, just let me--
“Héctor,” he gasped. “Please, please, I want to go home.”
But Héctor wasn’t there, he wasn’t anywhere, and he wouldn’t help him. Only Griselda’s voice answered his plea. “Hush. You are home, señor.”
No, he wasn’t. He was in Hell and would never be allowed to leave it. Maybe he was dead after all; the bell had killed him and this was his punishment, for all eternity, with no respite and no way out. He’d brought it on himself and for what? For songs and fame, for his pride and anger and his stupid dream. For a songbook.
“The songbook,” Ernesto rasped, and made an effort to open his eyes, turn towards the small table at the far end of the room. It was there; he had forgotten about it, and so had Coco. It felt so wrong, to still have it there. He couldn’t stand to look at it. It wasn’t his.
“Oh, this,” Griselda said, and went to pick it up. “Shall I have it sent to her hotel?”
“Please,” he whispered. A sigh, and she was back at his bedside, stroking his hair.
“Is there anything you would like me to write on your behalf?” she asked, very gently.
Lo siento, Ernesto thought, but he found he couldn’t force the words out, and in the end he said nothing. There was nothing more he could say or do: he’d tried to fix what he had done, but he’d taken something he could never give back. He never stood a chance. He’d tried and he’d failed, Héctor’s daughter had passed her judgement, and he was so tired.
So he just shook his head, closed his eyes, and prayed for sleep.
“I’m so sorry, mija.”
“Don’t be. You did nothing wrong.”
“I should have answered to that letter. I should have come here myself. I shouldn’t have let you go alone.”
“You’re here now.”
Imelda nodded, conceding the point, but kept an arm around her daughter’s shoulders. Outside the hotel room it was almost dark, and yet the streets were still full of people. On their way back, Imelda had to keep herself from wondering if she was walking down the same roads Héctor had seen on his last days in that world.
Her mind still reeled from all that she had learned, but she tried to focus on Coco, on her head against her shoulder. She felt she needed some quiet time before she could truly process everything. She sighed. “I don’t think I can take any more surprises for a while.”
“Oh,” Coco said, quietly. “I think I’m pregnant.”
That caused her daughter to chuckle. It was the most wonderful sound she could recall ever hearing. “I’m not sure yet. But I think I might be. I have yet to see a doctor.”
“And you still left Santa Cecilia--”
“I only realized after my arrival.”
“Ah,” Imelda said, and pushed aside the tirade that had already begun forming in her mind. Her grip on her shoulder tightened a fraction. “You should see a doctor soon.”
“I will. I’m sure Victoria will be overjoyed.”
“Julio, too. They miss you.”
“And I miss them, but not for much longer. We’ll both-- we’ll all be home soon,” Coco said, and sighed. “I shouldn’t have been so stubborn. Coming here on my own… I told myself I needed some distance, but I think I was only trying to prove a point.”
“You are stubborn, yes. I do wonder where you get it from.”
That caused Coco to laugh. “It’s a mystery we may never solve.”
“And that is something your father would have said,” Imelda said, her voice quiet. It was the first time she brought up a similarity between them in front of her, and a brief silence stretched out between them. In the end, it was Coco to break it.
“Will you tell me more about him, now? I... don’t want what Ernesto told me to be the only tales I have of him.”
Ernesto. The thought of that snake made Imelda’s fists clench, but she forced herself to breathe deeply. She didn’t want to think about him; he could live to be a hundred, he could die that very same night, and she wouldn’t care. There would be time for anger, but not now.
Now, it was time for some remembrance. It was time to let herself, and her daughter, grieve.
“Of course,” she said, and smiled faintly. “When I first saw him, it was from afar in the plaza. I believe I was fourteen; he was a year younger. He had this old guitar made out of scraps…”
She talked and talked and talked about him, well into the night and then until morning. For the few years they had spent together, there was so much to tell her. So many memories that had been locked away in her heart, and that now left her mouth in a constant stream, as though a dam had been broken. She talked and Coco listened, hanging to her every word, asking questions, weeping, laughing.
They were far from home, but Héctor - the Héctor she’d known, who’d still been an idiota for leaving but had loved them both so very much and had tried to come home - was there with them again, and she felt it was almost the same thing.
Victoria was confused by the newcomer.
She didn’t like being confused, generally: it made her feel very small and stupid. But she supposed it was all right this time, because the adults were also very confused - both her papá and the man with the suitcase standing in their yard while warily eyeing Pepita, who kept hissing at him from up on the gate. He’d introduced himself as Armando Abascal, and he was wearing a suit that had to be very, very expensive. He looked amazingly out of place.
“I told you, my wife is not here. She left for Mexico City last week, señor Abascal.”
“I was led to believe she had returned three days ago.”
“That can’t be,” Victoria pointed out, still half-hidden behind her papá’s leg. Not that she was scared of that stranger, of course, but one could never be too careful. Pepita didn’t like him, and so neither did she. “If mamá had left three days ago, she would be here already. It’s not like she would go anywhere else. Right, papá?”
“Absolutely,” her papá agreed with a nod, putting a hand on her head. Reassured, Victoria looked back at the man at the gate. He glanced down at her, and he suddenly looked… not scared, but uncomfortable, and he quickly looked back up at her father.
“Perhaps I was given wrong information. That being the case, I can book a room at the inn and wait for a while longer. I would like to speak to her as soon as she’s available.”
“You’re welcome to do so, but… may I ask what this is about?”
“I’d like to discuss with her an agreement over the rights and royalties of her father’s songs.”
“Rights? Songs? What are you…?”
Oh, Victoria thought, her grandmother would flip if she heard that. She shook her head. “No songs,” she said. “Abuela doesn’t want music here. That’s why her husband left and never came back. For music, I mean, not because she didn’t want it. She did before. Not anymore.”
The uncomfortable expression was there again, and this time the man reached to fix his tie as though it was suddenly too tight around his neck. “I… I understand,” he said. “Does your abuela happen to be home? Perhaps I could talk to her first--”
“Mamá Imelda has left for Mexico City, too,” her papá said, cutting him off. He was frowning, clearly worried… but, Victoria reasoned, he was often worried and usually for no good reason. So everything was fine, right? “She went to find Socorro.”
The man blinked. “So I got all the way here, and they are both in Mexico City?”
“Supposedly,” her papá said. It was a word Victoria had learned just last week, and suddenly she didn’t like it anymore, not when spoken in that uncertain tone. “We have yet to receive another phone call, but as per the last one we had… are you all right, señor?”
Armando Abascal put down his suitcase, rubbed his temples, and groaned loudly.
“... I think I need a drink.”
When the phone rang - and unpleasant sound that made her happy they did not have one of those devil machines in the house - it startled Imelda awake, and the first thing she saw was the window. She could tell, from the position of the sun, that it was late morning; it had been a very long time since she had slept that long, and it took her a moment to remember why.
We talked all night about him. Right until dawn.
Something in her chest clenched and she sat up with a groan, rubbing her eyes, barely aware that the noise had stopped, and that Coco was talking… until she called out for her.
“Mamá,” she called, and her voice sounded so small it caused Imelda to turn in sudden alarm, perfectly awake at once. Coco was staring at her, the receiver in her hand, her still reddened eyes wide.
Imelda knew what she was about to say one moment before she spoke again, almost in a whisper.
“They have found him.”
Chapter 10: A Journey Home
This fic got longer than expected, like... all of my stuff, really. But I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel - there will be another chapter after this one, and then a short epilogue. I think.
Last time the "short epilogue" ended just shy of 8,500 words so you see my problem with word counts.
Imelda Rivera had wondered several times - usually in the middle of the night, when sleep wouldn’t come but her control on her own thoughts still slipped - what Héctor would look like after so many years.
She’d imagined him with some wrinkles around the eyes and mouth, like her own; with some gray in his hair, perhaps with a slightly bent back since he’d always been so ridiculously tall. Maybe he’d be wearing glasses, maybe he’d be missing a few teeth. Maybe he’d be bald, even. She’d conjured up so many images of what he may look like.
A skeleton still clad in discolored rags that had once been a charro hadn’t been one of them.
Formal identification, they called it, and it sounded like a joke. The dark eyes and long eyelashes she remembered were gone, leaving behind only empty sockets. The nose she’d so teased him about was gone, too, as was the skin that had always felt so warm to the touch, and she could find no trace of that goofy smile of his in the grinning skull on the table.
That was not her husband. That was simply what had been left behind.
The charro, or what was left of it, was the only thing Imelda could possibly recognize; good God, she remembered the day she’d bought it for him - how happy he’d been, how he’d picked her up and spun, almost sending them both tumbling in the process. It had been one of her last gifts to him, and now even that was thoroughly ruined, stained with earth - because her husband had been buried in a body bag without even the dignity of a cheap casket, into a grave that had never been graced by a single flower.
She would have wished for Ernesto de la Cruz to rot in Hell if she hadn’t known he already was - because he was going through hell, and the knowledge gave her at least some satisfaction. But not enough, never enough, to ward off the wave of grief that threatened to overcome her before that bare table, and those bare bones.
“Mamá?” Coco’s voice reached her as though from a great distance, and yet she was there, her arm linked with her own. She squeezed her hand, and Imelda squeezed it back. She focused on that contact, and found her voice.
“It is my husband. I recognize his clothes,” Imelda said, and turned to the man on her left, who had been standing there in silence after letting them inside the small room. “When can we take him home to give him a decent burial?”
“Very soon, señora. There will be some paperwork to fill for your to have the body, but with an accidental death there won’t be any issue.”
Accidental death. Imelda almost laughed, tasting bile in her throat, and felt Coco’s grip on her hand tightening. Part of her wanted to scream that nothing had been accidental, that her husband had been poisoned by the man all of Mexico loved for no good reason, taken from her and their daughter in the cruellest of ways, his life cut shorts for songs. She wanted it so much it almost hurt - but she did not, could not.
Imelda had never been anything less than practical. She had no proof to back up such accusations; there was no guarantee Ernesto de la Cruz would confess a thing to authorities. Perhaps traces of the poison could be found, if the body was examined… but that would mean delaying his return home even more, and she wouldn’t allow it. In a month’s time, by the next Día de los Muertos, her husband would be resting in a decent grave in Santa Cecilia - close to them, where he belonged, where they could lay their offerings.
Raising up a storm would make that much harder, put her family in the eye of said storm, and what for? What charges could be pressed against a man in de la Cruz’s state? She’d wished him a long life of pain, but she knew he wasn’t long for that world; if she had an autopsy performed on her husband’s poor remains, that beast would likely be dead before the results were even in. No, all that mattered now was that they knew the truth, and that Héctor could come home. Everything else could be dealt with later.
“Very well,” she said, her voice almost unnaturally calm to her own ears. “I will start with those forms now, then. Coco, you go back to the hotel.”
That caused her daughter, whose gaze had been fixed on her father’s remains, to recoil. “What? No, I want to stay with--”
“I’d rather you rest. For your baby, if nothing else,” Imelda added, glancing at her, and Coco stared back only for a moment before nodding. Whether it was for her baby or because she’d realized Imelda needed to go through the process on her own - that they both needed a hour or two alone with their own thoughts - she couldn’t tell.
Either way she did not argue, and it was a relief; it was time for Coco to rest. She had brought her all the way there to Héctor, after all. Now, ensuring that he returned home as soon as possible - that their family would truly be all together again - was Imelda’s responsibility and hers alone.
“Ah, señora Mart-- Rive-- er. Señora? There has been a delivery for you.”
The clerk’s voice caused Coco to pause while walking past the front desk. The man turned and rummaged somewhere out of her line of sight before he put something down on the desk between them - a small parcel that looked a lot like it contained a book.
And she knew, immediately, what it had to be.
I don’t want it, was her first thought, and she almost said it. That accursed songbook was the reason why her father had been murdered, the reason why her mother had to fend for both of them on her own, the reason why not even a hour earlier they had found themselves staring down at a yellowed skeleton in a ruined charro, just dug up from a nameless pauper’s grave after twenty-six years. That little book and the songs in it had been the cause of everything bad that had happened to her family.
Except that it wasn’t so, and she knew it. It hadn’t been that songbook to take away her papá, nor the songs in it. It had been Ernesto de la Cruz, and him only; he had made the choice to put poison in that drink, to take those songs - their song! - and move on with his life as though her father had never even existed, too taken by his dreams of glory to spare a thought for the broken family left in Santa Cecilia.
I was so angry. It had been all we’d dreamed about since we were children, he’d said. Then you came along, and she happened, and suddenly it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Trying to swallow her anger - that monster had said it like it had been their fault somehow; was that what he'd been telling himself? - Coco nodded stiffly and took the parcel. It had belonged to her father, their song was on it, and she had every right to take it back.
“Thank you,” she said mechanically, and went up to her room with quick steps, so that she could open it without anyone watching. She sat on the bed and, sure enough, there was the red songbook. She pulled it out, placed it on the bed and, for a few moments, she just stared at it. Seeing it wasn’t surprising; what did take her aback was realizing what was missing.
There was no note. The small parcel had contained her father’s songbook, and nothing else. The reason why he had died, sent to her by his murderer - who else would send it? - without a word, an apology, a plea.
Coco flipped through the pages, to check if anything had been tucked in it, but again she found nothing. Had it come with a note, she’d have crumpled it and thrown it away without reading, without a second thought; Ernesto must have known that. She’d made it clear that she could never forgive him, that no amount of begging would get that blessing out of her.
And he hadn’t asked again: he’d just sent her father’s songbook, with nothing to gain from it. She wondered how he’d gotten it back in the first place, and then chased the thought away. It was hers now, and nothing else mattered. Nothing concerning Ernesto de la Cruz was any of her business anymore; she pushed all thoughts of him away, picked up the phone at her bedside, and made a call to the inn in Santa Cecilia to leave a message for her family.
Once again she ached to speak to Julio and Victoria, but that would have to wait; they would know everything directly from her mouth. So she just told Paula that both her and her mother would be back within a few days, dodged her questions, and put down the phone before she could try asking more. Then, she knew, she was supposed to rest.
And yet she could not. Every time she closed her eyes she could only see her father’s remains, those empty sockets where his eyes had been; she would see the songbook as it had been in her dream, in Ernesto’s hand, dripping red.
He’s never coming home, Coco. Take this back.
She had the songbook now, but her father was gone and it was not enough.
Por favor. I can’t die if you don’t let me.
Her mother’s laughter and her tears as she talked about how she and her papá had fallen in love, how happy he’d been when she’d found out they were expecting her.
Héctor says I need your blessing.
All of those years ahead of them, all of the years they should have had, the new memories they would never get to make. Ernesto had taken so much from them, hurt them so deeply, and they’d done nothing to deserve that pain.
I beg of you.
That rat’s eyes as it lay in the glue trap, one moment before she’d turned and ran away. What had become of that poor beast? How much longer had it breathed before its heart had given out, or someone else had come to end it? How much suffering could she have spared it if she’d only… she wouldn’t have to kill this time, only a meaningless blessing, only words-
“You don’t deserve it,” Coco snapped, and her voice seemed to echo inside the empty room. She sat, tried to breathe in deeply, but there was something stuck halfway down her throat. With a sigh, she passed a hand over her face, and lowered her gaze back on the songbook. Then, slowly, her eyes shifted to the phone.
Let me know if… when you find him.
He didn’t deserve that, either. She owed him nothing, much less closure. Someone capable of killing his best friend since childhood - the one he’d splashed in the stream with, sung and played and stolen fruit with, set a rooster free in a church with because why not - was undeserving of even an ounce of mercy. That should seal the matter.
And still, it did not. He deserved no closure but she did, and she found herself reaching for the phone - her mind empty but for the thought of her father’s skull on that table, the dying rat in the glue trap so many years ago, the blood dripping down Ernesto’s face. She waited for almost a full minute and she was close to slamming the phone down and forgetting about it when there was a click, a familiar voice from the other end, and she knew it was too late.
“Griselda? It’s Coco,” she heard herself saying, her voice shaking just a little. If she was surprised to hear from her, it didn’t show.
“Good evening, dear. How are you holding up?” she asked, and even through the phone Coco could tell that she was very, very tired.
“I’m… well, all things considered,” she replied. “About… about what happened yesterday, I’m sorry you were caught in the middle.”
“It is all right. I understand.”
“I called to ask… I have received my father’s songbook.”
“El señor de la Cruz asked me to send it to you shortly after you left. He’ll be glad to know you received it. He feared you might leave the hotel before it could get to you.”
“There was no message with it.”
“He had nothing to say, I suppose.”
Of course not. What else could he say? “I see. Is he…?”
A sigh. “I don’t think he will pass the night.”
It didn’t surprise Coco at all. “I understand,” she murmured, not quite knowing how she should feel. Her father’s murderer was dying, but she found it gave her no satisfaction. Some measure of relief, perhaps, because he would soon be gone; she found she didn’t want him to keep suffering, despite everything.
And he had sent that songbook, knowing that she would never forgive him, asking for nothing. That one thing, and that thing only, perhaps he had done to give her closure.
“Or maybe he will,” Griselda was going on, and gave a bitter laugh. “It wouldn’t be the first time he defies all odds. For someone who wishes to die, he’s holding on to life like… like...”
Like he’s waiting for permission, Coco thought, suddenly feeling cold. She thought back, again, of the rat waiting - begging - for the fatal blow. Back then, as a little girl, she’d turned away and ran. Now she found she couldn’t do the same thing.
I can’t die if you don’t let me.
Then let him die. My father is gone from this world. He should be, too.
“Is he awake?”
“He drifts in and out of consciousness. He was awake a minute ago.”
“And can he understand what he’s told?” Coco asked, and found herself holding her breath as she waited for an answer.
“He’s quite confused, but… yes, he does. Most of the time.”
Well, Coco supposed that was as good as it would get. She nodded, even though she knew Griselda couldn’t see her. “I see. Can you... tell him that I called. That we have found my father’s body, and that we’ll be taking him home very soon. And...” Coco had to pause, and swallow a lump in her throat. Her eyes burned with tears she struggled not to shed, and she grasped the receiver more tightly.
Her papá’s clothes, reduced to rags. All those songs they would never sing together. All those memories they would never make.
“I can’t forgive him. I will never forgive him,” Coco finally said, her voice firmer. “But I want to forget him. If you think it will help, tell him that… that he has my blessing. To rest in peace.”
There was a silence at the other side of the line, long enough for Coco to wonder if the phone had stopped working, then Griselda spoke, her voice strained. “I will let him know,” she said, then, “God bless you, dear. I wish you all the best.”
Coco sniffled, reaching up to wipe her eyes. “Thank you,” she said, and put the phone down without adding anything else. As she folded her hands to keep them from shaking, Coco turned to the room’s window and drew in a deep breath.
The sun was setting, its last rays making it look as though the sky was bleeding. Coco knew, with utmost and illogical certainty, that Ernesto de la Cruz wouldn’t live to see it rise again.
It was a relief.
“Griselda! Thank God you’re back. He… I think he’s getting worse.”
Of course he was; he’d been getting worse by the minute since the previous day. He was showing all signs of septic shock; he was cold and clammy to the touch, he’d vomited all they’d tried to have him drink, and he seemed more confused than he’d ever been, his speech slurred. She had seen all of it several times before, as well as other even less pleasant symptoms, and it should have meant a quick death.
And still, Ernesto de la Cruz kept breathing. Painfully, in short gasps, but he breathed.
I can’t die if you don’t let me. Héctor said I need your blessing.
It was nonsense, of course; no one but the Almighty could decide when one’s time had come. Griselda believed that wholeheartedly, always had, always would. And yet… yet, perhaps being told about that blessing would give him some peace of mind. Perhaps it was his conscience that didn’t allow him to let go.
Telling him couldn’t hurt.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Inés was saying, on the verge of tears. She was a good carer, with a good heart, but not quite experience enough to deal with someone at death’s door. “He kept crying out for one Héctor, then for his mother, for la señora Rivera, for a blessing - he’s calmed down now, but he’s so cold…”
“I see, Inés. You can go.”
“No, I… I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I prefer to be alone with him right now. I will call you if you’re needed, dear,” Griselda said, and Inés couldn’t quite hide her relief at her words. As she left quickly - away from the dying man on the bed, the smell of disinfectant, of infection, of death - Griselda let her gaze wander towards the small table to her right. Antibiotics, the syringes, the oxygen mask, the IV bag, a thermometer - all of it useless.
Fighting a lost battle to keep him alive is no longer a humane thing to do.
She stared at them for a long moment before turning her back to the table and sitting on the chair at his bedside. At that point there was one thing he needed, and one thing only. “Señor de la Cruz,” she called out, placing a hand on his forehead. His skin was mottled and so, so cold. “Can you hear me?”
He could; his eyes opened, and his dull gaze met her own, chest rising and falling in fast, shallow breaths. His nightshirt, and the sheets he lay on, were soaked with sweat.
“Can you understand me? Just blink if you can,” she said and, to her relief, he did. She smiled, and stroked his hair. “It was Coco, señor. At the phone. They have found her father’s body, and are about to bring him home.”
The look of pure relief that gained her was both comforting and painful to witness. He had to work his jaw before he spoke, his voice slurred. It sounded like it took him a terrible effort. “He’s… going home.”
“Sí, señor. He’s going home, and so are you,” Griselda said. “Coco received the songbook. She gave you her blessing to… to rest.”
The relieved look turned to suspicion, and something close to a tired, distant anger. Slowly, he shook his head. “Don’t… lie to me,” he gasped. “I’m not… I’m a cripple, I’m not… stupid.”
“Señor, I assure you--”
“She never… she would never… what I did--”
“She did not forgive you, no. But she had mercy on you.”
“L-liar,” he managed. Such an accusation would have made her bristle, normally, but not this time. There was such helplessness in his voice, such hopelessness, it felt as though something had grasped her heart and squeezed. Suddenly, nothing seemed as important as getting him to believe her.
“No. I swear to God, she did,” Griselda spoke up. She reached to run a hand through his hair, as she always did to soothe him, and spoke again while trying to keep her voice from breaking up. “I swear on Santa María, on all that's holy. You know me, señor, you know I would never swear in her name if weren’t true.”
For a few long moments, Ernesto de la Cruz stared at her as though he didn’t understand a single word that had left her mouth. Griselda was about to repeat herself when she finally saw comprehension - and hope . A frail hope, but hope nonetheless.
“She gave me... her blessing,” he repeated, wheezing, and she nodded.
“Yes. Tell him that he has my blessing to rest in peace, she said. Please, believe me. God be my witness, she did.”
He did believe her; she saw it in his gaze, in the relief on his face one moment before he nodded weakly. He let out a long breath, closed his eyes - then his features twisted and he burst crying, tears rolling down his temples and into his hair. It didn’t come as a surprise.
“Gracias,” he choked out amongst broken sobs. “Gracias, gracias, gracias …”
“I did nothing, señor,” Griselda said, but of course she knew it wasn’t her he was thanking. She turned away for a moment, glancing at the antibiotics again, and then back to him. He was too weak to even weep, his sobs already dying down to whimpers. She wiped his face, and spoke as gently as she could. “It’s all right, señor. You can rest. I’ll stay until it’s all over.”
She never knew whether Ernesto de la Cruz had heard those words: within moments his eyes were shut, and he’d sunk into unconsciousness… and she hoped, prayed, it would be for the last time. His body couldn’t take much more; his breathing stayed fast and rattling, his skin cold and clammy - but his forehead was smooth, his rest undisturbed. He didn’t cry out, didn’t weep, didn’t beg. It was a relief.
She knew she was supposed to check his heartbeat, his temperature, but what would be the point? He’d reached the end of the line, she could see it, and there was no reason to disturb him in his last hours, or even minutes, in that world. Her vision blurred with tears - it was always hard to watch a man die, even when she knew it was for the best - Griselda López cradled his head, closed her eyes, and prayed.
“Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia…”
“So it’s over huh? You did it. I knew you would.”
Héctor’s voice, his child voice, reached him through the darkness beneath his eyelids. Ernesto opened his eyes, vaguely aware of the fact someone was murmuring a prayer above him, over and over. So he wasn’t dead just yet, he thought, and looked up.
Young Héctor was looking down at him, head tilted on one side. Ernesto had to work his jaw before he spoke. “Where were you? I called for you. You left me alone.”
“I was here all the time,” the boy said, and shrugged. “You know it was you all along, right?” he added, “Me, the other two, and everything we said – it was all you. None of us is him.”
He did. Somehow, at the edge of the abyss, he knew. There was no surprise, like he’d always known. “I never… never needed to get him back home. I never needed to confess. I never needed any blessing,” he mumbled. Somewhere, in the same room and yet a world away, Griselda was still cradling his head and praying.
He couldn’t catch the words, all of his attention on Héctor, but he found the constant murmur soothing. It brought back a memory, very distant, of his mother sitting by his bed with a rosary in her hands - back when he’d been twelve and had almost died after a tree had fallen on him. Heavy things did have a tendency to fall on his head. He’d fully awakened only when he’d heard music - La Llorona, how eerily appropriate that would be now - and Héctor had been there in her place, as old as the apparition looked now, a guitar in his hands.
Above him, the boy who had never truly been him was rolling his eyes at his words. “No, no and no. You are thick, you know?” he huffed. “You did need to do all that because you believed you had to. Maybe you grew a conscience, or just wouldn’t leave unfinished business behind,” he added, and grinned. His grip on Ernesto’s hand tightened; he couldn’t feel or see it, but he knew it had. “It’s all done now. You moved Heaven and Earth, like you promised. You can go.”
Ernesto closed his eyes, and swallowed. When he opened them again, the Héctor looking at him was the man he’d murdered. He had the same smile and kind eyes he remembered.
“Lo siento,” he rasped, and the smile turned wistful.
“Save it for the real Héctor, amigo. Now go.”
Go where, though? Santa Cecilia? Somewhere else entirely? Would Héctor, the real Héctor, be there? What would he even say to him? What could he say?
Héctor, or what passed as him, shrugged. “How would I know, old friend? I’m just figment of your imagination. Would be nice if it were in Santa Cecilia, wouldn’t it? You had a good time there, it’s a shame you never knew how good it was until it was too late. Your bodies will be there, at least. Won’t get to return together as you left, but it’s the destination that matters.”
There was some comfort in that thought, but then again his body hardly mattered. That would be left behind, and he… what would happen to all that was him? Would he disappear as though he’d never been? Would he find himself facing fire and brimstone, or a purgatory? Was he really free, or was it the beginning of another sort of punishment?
Clearly aware of his fears, Héctor shrugged. “Well, there's only one way to find out. Remember when you watched trains pass you by? This is the same thing. No point in wondering. No point in asking people who have no clue, either. If you want to know where a train goes, you have to--”
“Seize my moment,” Ernesto murmured, and Héctor wrinkled his nose.
“I was thinking more something along the lines of ‘hop on’, really,” he said, and smiled faintly. “Come on, amigo. There is nothing to seize and you’ve been holding on long enough already. Just let go.”
Ernesto turned his gaze to the white ceiling above him. Griselda’s murmured prayers were barely audible, now, and he couldn’t even feel her touch on his head anymore.
“Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores…”
Maybe he was no longer conscious, after all. Maybe he had passed out, hopefully for the very last time. As he stared into that whiteness, cobwebs of darkness starting to cloud his vision, he heard a whistle. It could be one of the trains he and Héctor had raced like idiots as children, or the one billowing steam in a station they had never reached together. Maybe it had been the same train, who knew?
Where do you think that train goes?
Only one way to find out.
Ernesto de la Cruz drew in a deep breath, exhaled, and let go. Darkness rose up to cover him like--
beneath the bell
-- a thick blanket, the voice praying above him faded and, for a time, there was only silence.
“... Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”
For a few moments after the prayer ended, Griselda kept her eyes shut. She almost started it over, as she had several times already, but this time something stopped her - the peculiar heaviness in her arms, and silence.
She could no longer hear him breathing.
Slowly, Griselda opened her eyes and let go of his head, letting it rest back on the pillow. She stared down at his half-open eyes, glassy and distant, and she placed two fingers on the cold skin of his neck, looking for a pulse she already knew she wouldn’t find.
It was over.
Something dripped on his forehead to slide down his temple, and it was only then that she realized she’d been weeping. She quickly wiped her eyes with her sleeve, wiped his skin, and reached to close his eyes. He looked calm, now, as though sleeping. He looked at peace, at long last.
Lord, have mercy, she thought, bowing her head. Christ, have mercy.
Slowly, almost painfully - her knees ached, they truly did - Griselda stood and grasped the white sheets on the bed, pulling them up over the body like a shroud. She stood there for a moment, drawing in a deep breath, and crossed herself before turning to walk, slowly, out of the bedroom.
Francisco was good at his job.
Granted, it wasn’t the same job he’d had back when he was alive; the Land of the Dead offered very few chances of employment for an expert in skin diseases. He hadn’t minded too much; sure, waking up in a world where his specific set of skills was virtually useless had been sort of a bummer, but truth be told he’d begun getting bored of his job some time before his death. Now he had the perfect excuse to start over.
So he’d rolled up his sleeves, done some training, and joined the New Arrivals Support team earlier that year. He was good at dealing with people, which was a necessary skill in that line of work: a lot of people got very upset when they woke up dead, especially those who’d found themselves in the grave well before their twilight years.
And the one asleep before him, wearing a black nightshirt and little else - quite a contrast to the whiteness of his bones - was definitely one of them: his hair was still mostly black, with only some gray at the temples, and Francisco could tell by just looking at him that he may have been in his fifties at most. There was no telling whether he’d been sick or the victim of a sudden death; either way he would probably be stunned to find himself there, and upset.
Francisco knew it well: he’d been there, too, after dying of what he assumed had to be heart failure in his sleep. He’d opened his eyes to see not the familiar ceiling of his bedroom, but a skeleton smiling down at him. He’d screamed and tried to run off like a headless chicken… which he’d been rather embarrassed about afterwards, but good old Ignacio had taken no offense. It was common, he’d explained later over a drink, and far from the worst thing that could happen. Said worst - aside from children, who got specialist support - being new arrivals attempting to attack them in their panic, which was why there was always a second person behind the door’s room, within shouting distance and ready to intervene.
Francisco had never needed to call for help that far: the few times someone had tried to attack him, they had stopped as soon as their gazes had fallen on their own skeletal hands. From there on, taking their details and talking them through the procedure became surprisingly easy. Most of them were very cooperative once told that they would use their details to register their arrival, and look for any family they may have on that side of the bridge. So that day, as he sat on a folding chair in Room B-6 with the clipboard on his knees, waiting for the skeleton on the mattress to stir, Francisco wasn’t expecting anything unusual.
Much like everyone else, the new guy had appeared, unconscious, on the bed. There were several fixed points where the dead took form and awoke in the Land of the Dead, all of them concentrated in the same area. No one knew how they had come to be - they had always been there - but over the centuries they had built around them, so that the new arrivals would find themselves somewhere more comfortable than just on the bare ground.
Francisco had heard rumors that, before they had built the new place, there stood Aztec-era ruins - not a reassuring place for a modern man to awaken, so the decision had been made to replace them with modern buildings. A practical decision, but he’d have liked to see--
Ah, finally, he was waking up. Francisco stood as soon as he saw the new arrival beginning stir, put on his most reassuring smile - that was really important - and got his pen ready on the clipboard. The man groaned again and then sat up, reaching up for his head. He opened his eyes and found himself staring at the wall at the foot of the bed, at the banner reading WELCOME TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD hanging from it. He blinked at it.
“Good morning, señor,” Francisco spoke in his most pleasant voice. He found that speaking lightly helped new arrivals feel less scared. “Welcome among us! My name is Francisco Benítez. Please, do not be alarmed. I am here to help you sort things out. They’re not kidding when they say that death and bureaucracy are the only things that are certain, but I’ll be happy to help with the latter!”
The man blinked at him a couple more times, clearly at a loss, but he didn’t panic and Francisco counted that as a success. He was about to add that he needed to ask his name so that his family could be found, but before he could the man recoiled as though struck by lighting, and tore his hand off his head to look at it. He stared down at it, incredulous, before clenching and unclenching it.
Francisco chuckled. “Yes, we all look like that. It feels odd at first, but you will get used to it. If you would like… a minute to…” he paused, and fell silent when he realized the new arrival wasn’t listening to him at all. He just stared at his hands, completely expressionless, and clenched them into fists again. Unclench. Clench. Unclench. Clench.
It was getting just a little unnerving, really.
“... Señor? Perhaps you’d like me to explain how things work. If you tell me your name--”
The man entirely ignored him, but he finally tore his gaze away from his skeletal hands to look down at his body. He reached to press his hands over his own chest, feeling the outline of the ribs beneath the nightshirt. Again, he said nothing.
“Oh, we do have clothes to let you borrow, señor - right there on that chair, see? The trousers and shirt should fit you just fine. As you can imagine, we get a lot of people coming in wearing nightclothes or hospital gowns or whatnot. Once we’re done with formalities, I’ll give you a few minutes to--” Francisco tried again, only to trail off when the newcomer suddenly lurched on his feet.
It was so abrupt that for a moment he thought he would attack him after all, and he almost cried out for backup, but it wasn’t needed. The man nearly toppled forward, steadied himself, and just… stood there, staring down at himself with his mouth hanging open. Francisco had seen his fair share of surprised reactions but that was… the oddest so far, really.
“Huh. Perhaps you would like me to give you a few minutes now to get dressed, and then… señor?” Francisco called out, frowning, when the guy took an unsteady step, then another and another, before he stilled again with a look on his face that was nothing short of incredulous. He looked down at his hands again, holding them in front of his face and then, finally, he broke the silence. By laughing. And laughing. And laughing.
It wasn’t even a pleasant sort of laugh; it was loud and more than a little unhinged, and if he’d hand any skin left Francisco would have gotten goosebumps from just listening. He took a step back, bringing up the clipboard in front of himself as though to shield himself; the man sounded completely loco, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d lunged on him.
But he did not. After a few moments he took staggering step forward, still laughing, and fell on his knees. The sound of kneecaps hitting the floor caused Francisco to wince - that had to sting - but the guy just cackled harder, like the bolt of pain had been absolutely hilarious. He wrapped his arms around his ribcage, bowed his head, and kept laughing as though no one else was there at all, until he his voice turned hoarse, until he was almost wheezing.
And then, only then, did his laughter turn into sobs.
“... And he just kept sobbing, and then he laughed again, I thought he would never stop! He was loco, I tell you. In the end Ignacio had to come in and managed to calm him down, but he refused to sit. Just kept standing and pacing through the whole thing, can you believe it?”
Francisco’s exasperated expression caused Mireia to laugh, taking the papers from his hand. “We don’t all react to death the same way, you know that. Let me see… oh, sepsis. That is an unpleasant way to go.”
“True, might have messed him up. Still, it was creepy,” Francisco muttered as she looked through the information he had collected.
“Huh. No family on this side?”
“He said he never had any. It didn’t quite sound right to me, but what do I know? We only had his word to go by. Maybe he had in-laws to hide from.”
Mireia shrugged. “Ah, well. He’s not the first and won’t be the last to come in without anyone. He’ll adapt. Maybe he even has an alebrije somewhere, that would help. Have you directed him to our resources for cases like his?”
“Of course! I gave him the booklet, but he didn’t even look at it. I told him I could call someone for him, but he didn’t listen to a word. He almost ran when I told him he could go. Ugh, I think I’ll take the rest of the day off. Unless a earthquake strikes, you’re covered.”
“Sounds like you earned it. See you tomorrow?”
“Same place, same time.”
As Francisco left the room, Mireia chuckled again - she sort of wished she’d gotten to see that piece of work herself - before she busied herself copying all the notes she’d been handed. With so little information given, it was a short job. Within a few minutes, a folder marked with the name of one Estéban García - date of death: 1 October 1947 - was filed away along with countless others, and her day went on.
Somewhere in the Land of the Dead, Ernesto de la Cruz - whose father had been called Estéban, and whose mother’s surname had been García - was kneeling in the middle of a street under the eyes of confused onlookers, holding four yapping alebrijes to his chest, crying and laughing at the same time.
And, not too far away, a man called Héctor Rivera was working - for the twenty-fifth year in a row - on a cunning, absolutely-fail-proof-I-guarantee scheme to return home.
Victoria’s voice rose up over the train’s whistle, so piercing that Julio thought his left ear would never work properly again, and he found he couldn’t even begin to care. Watching his daughter run through all other passengers getting off the train and to her mother, watching Coco pick her up and pepper her face with kisses - it was worth a partial loss of hearing.
“Oh, cielita, mamá has missed you so much! I have brought you a present from Mexico City,” Coco was saying as Julio approached. When she looked up at him, her expression grew even brighter. Julio would have loved nothing more than holding her, but he could see the tiredness beneath the smile, so he took Victoria in his arms and kissed her forehead instead.
“Welcome home,” he murmured against her skin, and Coco tilted up her head to give him a peck on the lips.
“It’s good to be back,” she said. “I have… oh God, there is so much we need to tell you. We couldn’t say anything to Paula, she would have told the whole town before you got word.”
Julio could easily imagine that. Paula had been talking a lot lately, all right… but not about them. “I heard he died,” he said instead, very quietly. The death of famous musician Ernesto de la Cruz - who hadn’t visited Santa Cecilia in many years, but had been born there - was all most of the town had been talking about for the past few days, with most wondering if his body would be laid to rest there and, if so, what sort of grand burial should he be given.
An unreadable expression crossed Coco’s features, and he thought he could see something harsh in her eyes that wasn’t like her at all, there one moment and gone the next. “He did,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically dull.
“Did he die with his eyes open or closed?” Victoria inquired, causing Coco to laugh a bit.
“Oh, I really don’t know. I wasn’t there. I--”
“A man who knew him visited,” Victoria cut her off, shifting in her father’s arms. “He said he was his manager. He used a lot of big words. Said he wanted to talk about rights and songs.”
That caused Coco to recoil, eyes widening. “What? Here? What did he do? Is everything alright? Is everyone--”
“We’re all fine,” Julio said quickly, a pang of concern at her clear alarm. He’d worked out that apparently Ernesto de la Cruz had taken credit for songs written by Coco’s father - Armando Abascal had been very vague on other details - and that had sounded… odd, but nothing that worrying. “He was looking for you and mamá Imelda. He meant to stay and wait for you, but once word came of de la Cruz’s death, he left a business card for you to get in touch and went back to-- wait. Where is mamá Imelda? I didn’t see her--”
As Victoria squirmed to pass from Julio’s arms into her grandmother’s, he recovered from his surprise - only to be surprised once more when he glanced behind his mother in law and saw two men carrying… Julio blinked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him.
“Mamá Imelda! I… is that…?”
Imelda didn’t seem to even hear his question: she just took Victoria in her arms, kissed her forehead, and turned to glance at the casket. It was made of dark, polished wood; Julio was vaguely aware of several people’s gazes on them, of Coco’s hand grasping his own. Mamá Imelda seemed to pay absolutely no mind at the curious looks they were getting - but, when she spoke to Victoria, her voice was loud enough for all to hear.
“It has taken more than expected,” she said, “but your abuelo has come home.”
Chapter 11: A Bitter Reunion
Well. It was about the real Héctor showed up.
Keep in mind that this is set about 26 years after his death, so while he's not precisely living it up, he's not doing as badly as he is in the movie - he may not be talked about or able to cross the bridge, but there are several living people who still remember him well. I figure the real trouble for him started when they began to die out.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The day of Héctor Rivera’s long-due funeral, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as far as the eye could see; a warm, bright day that seemed almost an hymn to life.
Coco didn’t know how to feel about it. The sun shone, life went on without him as it had all those years and there was a new life growing in her, another grandchild her papá would never meet. Because there would be another; the doctor had confirmed as much.
Julio, bless his soul, had been almost more shocked to be told he would become a father for the second time than by… anything else she had told him, really, which would have been a lot to take in for anyone. She and her mother had reunited the family in the workshop - after sending Victoria off to a friend’s house despite her protests, because she was still much too young to hear the full story - and told them everything.
There had been shock, and plenty. Julio had hardly let go of her hand for a moment, and Rosita had cried once or twice, but neither of them had looked quite as stunned as Tío Óscar and Tío Felipe. They had known both her papá and Ernesto, after all. “I cannot be,” Tío Felipe had blurted out, eyes wide. His twin had immediately echoed his thoughts.
“They grew up together, they were...”
“... Two peas in a pod since before we knew them…”
“Like Felipe and me!”
“Well, almost like the two of u--”
“No, nothing like the two of you,” their sister had cut them off, forcefully, and they’d immediately fallen quiet, an identical apologetic look on their faces. They all had promised to say nothing for a time; first they’d bury and mourn him, and make sure everyone knew he’d died only months into his tour - that he hadn’t, after all, ever meant to abandon his family.
“First we clear his name and give him a decent burial,” her mother had said, putting away the business card that Armando Abascal had left them. “We can deal with the rest later.”
Despite the fact the town was still reeling from the news of Ernesto de la Cruz’s death, and wondering whether the body would return to Santa Cecilia at all - talk that was impossible to escape, and that never failed to make her mother scowl - there had been quite a few people at her papá’s funeral; not only family, but also people who had known him before.
“Should have known he wouldn’t have walked out on you just like that,” elderly Raimundo, who’d gifted Coco wood-carved figurines when he came to buy his shoes from them, had said while placing a hand on her arm. “I saw him growing up. Should have known better.”
We all should have known better, Coco had thought, but just nodded in silence.
The funeral had been a simple matter, with the priest reading out a very predictable passage - “Because this, my son, was dead, and he is alive; he was lost, and now he is found” - as the casket was lowered in the ground. The attendees had stayed for some time, and then left; Julio had wanted to stay, but Coco had convinced him to go home with Victoria.
“You should rest, too. The baby--”
“It won’t be long,” she’d promised, and her husband had nodded. A kiss on the lips and he was off to go home, their little girl on his shoulders. Coco watched them leave, a stab of envy in her gut - how low of her, being envious of her own daughter for having a father, but she couldn’t help it - and then walked up to her mother, the widow, who stood in silence over the grave. Her black dress was stark contrast to the colourful flowers all around the tomb.
They stayed quiet for several long minutes before her mamá broke the silence. “He’s home.”
“Yes, mamá. He’s home,” Coco said softly, eyes resting on the wooden cross that would soon be replaced with a proper headstone. Another silence, and it probably would have stretched if not for the shrill voice that rang out suddenly, causing both to recoil.
Coco turned to see Victoria running into the cemetery and up to them, and she had no time to call out and ask what was wrong before Victoria reached her, gripped her dress and tilted her head up. “There is a woman at home,” she panted. “She says she has Abuelito’s guitar.”
Héctor was almost at his front door when he realized he was being followed.
He was usually much more aware than that of his surroundings, if anything because he’d stepped over a good amount of toes - especially in his attempts to cross the bridge - but at the moment, he was too busy thinking about his latest crossing plan to bother.
This time he would succeed for sure, because he’d had the best idea and only needed the right kind of fluorescent paint, a blanket, some rope, maybe fake horns. No one would question an alebrije crossing the bridge, would they? Of course not. He’d saunter right past the checks and, once he did, nothing could stop him. The crossing guards could babble all they wanted on how the bridge itself wouldn’t let him cross: Héctor would power through the entire damn thing if need be, but he would make it to the other side.
It was easy to think he could actually push through it: it had been a good week, and he couldn’t remember last time he’d felt so full of energy. Even the guys from the band he played with from time to time had noticed as much earlier that day, when they’d met to play for the quince años of a girl who had died only weeks before her fifteenth birthday, and whose grandparents had still wanted her to celebrate it on the day.
“Someone’s talking about you,” old Chicharrón had muttered as they took a short break.
That had snapped Héctor - who had been looking at the celebrating family, faintly wondering what Coco’s quince años had been like - from his thoughts. “Huh?”
“They say that when you feel good all of a sudden, it’s because someone on the other side is talking about you a lot,” Cheech had muttered. “Hope they stop soon, if it makes you this insufferable. Quit jumping around like that while we play, will you?”
Héctor had laughed it off, of course - Cheech was grumpy but not a bad guy, or else he wouldn’t had put in a word with the others to let him play with them a couple of years back - and gone on with the performance, more determined than ever to cross the bridge that year.
Celebrations had gone on well into the night and now, as he walked back home through empty streets, he began weighing his options. Where could he find the right paint? He knew a few people he could ask, but truth be told he’d sort of pissed them off a while ago. But maybe, if he managed to pull the right ropes, he’d--
A skittering sound snapped Héctor from his thoughts, and he stopped in his tracks. There was that noise again, closer, and he turned to an empty street. Still, he wasn’t alone; he felt it in his marrow. “Who’s there?” Héctor called out, turning, the guitar held up in front of him just in case. He’d been jumped only once or twice, but both had been unpleasant experiences he’d rather not repeat. “Anita, if it’s about that gambling debt, I already told you--”
Héctor blinked, then laughed and lowered the guitar when he saw four tiny alebrijes - chihuahuas, more accurately - scampering towards him, tails wagging. He crouched down, letting them jump up at him. Two of them rolled on their back for a belly rub, which he was all too willing to give. “Oh, so you have been following me! You gave me a scare, half-pints. If you’re hoping for a snack, sorry, but I ate all the chupalines and--”
“Heel,” a voice called out, very quietly, cutting him off. Héctor looked up, startled; there was a man standing maybe ten meters from him, wearing dark trousers and a white shirt. He hadn’t been there before - maybe he’d emerged from one of the side streets - and Héctor couldn’t see his features and markings clearly enough to tell if it was someone he knew.
But it was someone the alebrijes knew, clearly: they immediately scurried back to him… or at least, two of them did. The other two stayed on their back, clearly expecting more belly rubs, only joining the others when the man called out again. “Diablo, Zita - ven aquí.”
As the dogs ran to the man, Héctor stood again, warily. He picked up the guitar, if anything to have something in his hands to swing if needed. It was beginning to look uncomfortably like the guy, whoever he was, had set his alebrijes out specifically to find him.
“Who’s there?” he called out, taking a step back. The man uttered something - an order for hs alebrijes to stay behind, it seemed, because they all sat - and, after a moment of stillness, he stepped forward, close enough to a streetlight for his features to become visible.
It was… not a face he recognized, exactly. Those markings looked very distinctive, but he had never seen them before. And yet… yet, that voice...
“... Héctor?” he called out, his tone hesitant and shoulders hunched, and for a moment Héctor felt as though something had hit him in the face. He was looking at a skull rather than the face he remembered, of course, and something about his mannerism felt wrong - his friend had always carried himself so proudly, his head held high, his voice loud and impossible not to recognize even from a distance - but still, there could be no mistake.
“Ernesto,” he gasped, dropping the guitar. It clattered on the cobblestones, and he paid it no mind at all. “Dios mío, then… you actually died, there were rumors from new arrivals… but they said you never showed up, we assumed they were exaggerating, there were talks you had died so many times since your accident…” Héctor babbled, and then words failed him.
He suddenly felt incredibly stupid for talking and talking like that, with his best friend there after so many years, and he crossed the distance between them to throw his arms around him. He didn’t even fully register he way Ernesto had stiffened, without returning the hug; after all, he was still probably not used to being all bones just yet.
“Ay, Ernesto, it’s so good to see you! I… how did you-- when did you-- how are you holding up, amigo?” he exclaimed, and pulled back, both of his hands on Ernesto’s shoulders. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” he added. That caused Ernesto’s features to twist for a moment, something almost painful crossing them, and Héctor mentally kicked himself.
Right, he was just deceased. Not the right moment for death jokes, was it?
“Look at you - you’re better looking than me even as a skeleton, how unfair is that?” he asked, a whiny quality to his voice, and smiled broadly when Ernesto’s mouth twitched in a smile of his own. It was faint, but it was there. “Oh, that makes you happy, doesn’t it, cabrón? Is that gray in your hair?”
“... Is that a golden tooth?”
“I like to think it gives me a roguish kind of charm.”
“The right answer would be ‘yes, absolutely’.”
Héctor laughed. “That was awful, but I’ll pretend it was convincing. Ay, I’ve missed you. I heard all about your accident five years ago - that must have been horrifying, I’m so sorry! How does it feel to be a free man again?” he asked. Few details about Ernesto’s condition had made it to the Land of the Dead after the bell had fallen on him, but what little he’d heard - that it had left him bedbound, unable to move or feel anything from neck down - had made his chest cavity ache for him. It ached now, too, to even think about it.
That finally got an actual smile out of Ernesto. “Amazing,” he replied, and Héctor smiled back, patting his shoulder. It was awful to think that his life had become so unbearable death had been a relief, but now that relief had come they may as well celebrate it.
“This calls for a toast. Come over, my place is just around the corner! I should have some tequila left. There’s so much I’ve got to ask--” he trailed off with a yelp when Ernesto suddenly grasped him, holding onto him as tight as Héctor had before.
He blinked, taken aback, when Ernesto spoke quietly. “Lo siento, Héctor.”
“Oye, oye, it wasn’t your fault,” Héctor protested, pulling back and causing Ernesto to blink. “Look, I’m sorry too. About that argument, for deciding to leave with no warning. I thought about it for a long time. I know we made up, but a fight wasn’t one of the last memories I would have wanted to have of you, you know?”
“And then that chorizo, stopping to eat was my idea, not yours. A stupid idea, that place was definitely seedy, but performing always made me hungry, you know--”
“... I just went and croaked in the middle of the street, you had to watch me die, it must have been a rough night for you as well…”
“And having to break the news to my family, I’m so sorry it fell on your to - oh, you have to tell me everything!” Héctor exclaimed, realization suddenly hitting him like a bolt of lighting. That was his chance to know what had become of his family in those twenty-six years! Ernesto would know, Ernesto would be able to tell him how they were faring! Of course he would know in a few weeks’ time, because this year he would cross the bridge, but the sooner he could have news, the better.
“Imelda and Coco, how are they? I could never cross the bridge, something must have happened to my photo, but I think about them every day! Coco must be a woman now - and Imelda, how is she? You’ve been in touch, right? I mean, if she gave you the songs and all...”
Any expression on Ernesto’s face seemed to fade into something unreadable. “You could say that. I… let’s go to your place. I believe we need to talk in private.”
Something about that caused a chill to run up Héctor’s spine. “What… is everything all right? Ernesto, are they all right?” he asked. He hadn’t meant to let panic show in his voice, but it must have, for Ernesto reached to put a hand on his shoulder.
“Yes. Yes, they are all right. I made sure of it, I promise. All is well, they…” a pause, then, “You’re a grandfather, you know.”
If he’d had a heart in his chest, Héctor was sure it would have skipped a beat or two or twenty there and then. “I am… what?”
“Her name is Victoria. She’s almost five.”
Héctor could feel the biggest, dumbest grin spreading on his face. “Abuelo Héctor,” he muttered, and laughed. “My little girl has a little girl! This really calls for a toast! Come with me, and… aren’t your alebrijes coming?”
“... No. They can wait for me here,” he replied. Something seemed off about Ernesto’s voice, but Héctor assumed he was still reeling from, well, dying. That was all right, he thought as he led the way to his apartment, explaining how he played on his own or with other musicians at events and stuff to make ends meet. He’d feel better once he got used to it, and Héctor was ready to help every step of the way.
That’s what amigos are for, after all.
When they arrived home Griselda López was sitting at the kitchen table, a small suitcase and a guitar case on the floor by her chair, talking with Rosita over a cup of coffee.
She looked tired, and yet Coco could tell a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. That, she supposed, was understandable: she had been watching over a man’s slow agony for five years, after all, and it had finally come to an end.
“... Tiring, yes, but overall pleasant,” she was saying. “Last time I was in this part of Mexico it was… oh, at the beginning of the Revolution, I believe. Not a time of my life I look upon very fondly, I’m afraid - I lost both of my brothers in the space of a year, in opposite factions.”
“Oh! That must have been dreadful, I am so sorry,” Rosita said, shuddering slightly. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to Julio, or… oh, Coco! Mamá Imelda! Here you are!”
Her exclamation caused Griselda to look up at them, and smile. “Señora Rivera. Coco,” she greeted them with a slight nod, and moved as though to stand up. Coco opened her mouth to tell her not to worry, but her mother got there first and gestured for her to stay seated.
“Rosita, would you please give us a few minutes?” she asked, and Coco realized it was neither Rosita nor Griselda she was looking at: her eyes were fixed on the guitar case. “There are a few things I believe we should discuss in private.”
“Oh. Of course,” Rosita replied, standing up. There was some disappointment on her face - she was clearly very curious to know what the visit was all about - but she didn’t try to insist. As the door closed behind her, leaving only the three of them in the kitchen, Coco sat at the table across Griselda. Her mother kept standing, her expression unreadable.
“I don’t believe I had a chance to say I’m sorry for your loss,” Griselda spoke, breaking the silence. Coco opened her mouth to thank her, but her mother spoke first.
“Last I saw you, you stood between me and my husband’s murderer,” she said, very quietly.
Griselda looked back at her, unfazed. “Last you saw me, I was doing my duty.”
“Your duty to a murderer.”
“A duty of care towards a patient, and to keep you from doing something you’d regret.”
That caused her mother’s lips to curl into an odd smile. “I wouldn’t be that certain I’d have regretted it,” she said, and sat, the smile still on her lips. “Did you see him die?”
“I was with him until the very end, yes.”
“I wish it had been me in your place.”
“I wish it had been anyone but me.”
“Did he at least suffer?”
Griselda paused for a moment, and her gaze flickered towards Coco before she turned her attention back on he mother. “I have not come here to share details of his last moments in this world,” she said, very quietly, and reached to take the guitar case on the floor. She put it on the table, sliding it towards them; Coco heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath.
She says she has Abuelito’s guitar.
“One of el señor de la Cruz’s last requests to me was that I returned this to you.”
Slowly, as though moving underwater, Imelda Rivera reached for the guitar case and opened it. Inside was the beautiful white guitar Coco remembered in her father’s hands, the one Ernesto had stolen and played for the world - the one he’d stolen from him along with a songbook, and his life. The guitar her mother had gifted to him for their wedding.
There was a pang of something painful in Coco’s chest as she watched her fingers brushing over the decorated, polished wood in a caress, just as they had over her papá’s casket at the funeral, before it was lowered into the ground. Coco put a hand on her arm, and her mother let out a long breath, finally pulling her hand away from the guitar to place it on her own.
The faraway cast faded from her eyes, and she set her jaw before looking back at Griselda across the table, closing the guitar case with a clack. “My husband’s guitar. What was he hoping to gain by sending it back? Our forgiveness? Our silence?”
“He left instructions for it to be returned after he died, señora Rivera. He hoped for nothing,” was Griselda’s quiet reply, and she took something from her suitcase to place something on top of the guitar case - two reels of tape. “Not for your forgiveness, nor for your silence. I assume el señor Abascal has been in touch,” she added, and glanced at Coco, who nodded.
Armando Abascal had been in touch, yes - had even travelled to Santa Cecilia to speak to them personally, when they had both been in Mexico City. He’d left a business card, though, and Coco had called the number on it from a phone booth. She’d expected to talk with a cold, defensive businessman; the voice on the other hand had been hesitant at times, and even somewhat awkward, but he’d been surprisingly willing to listen.
“He told me he’s just learned that my father wrote the songs, and that he wants to put it right,” Coco said, and gave a small smile. “He talked about credit and royalties an awful lot. We will discuss those, I suppose, before we make it all public. We don’t care about royalties that much. All we care about is that my papá gets credit for his music.”
“That is good to know.”
Coco nodded. “He’s been nothing but helpful, for all that Erne-- de la Cruz said about the record company being a danger. I have to wonder if he made up the threat to keep me from--” she added, only to pause when, slowly, Griselda shook her head.
“Abascal has been nothing but helpful because he was left with no choice. El señor de la Cruz made sure that he’d stand to lose more if he worked against you,” she said, and Coco recoiled a little, suddenly reminded of Ernesto’s message at the hotel’s lobby.
Everything is sorted out. Worry of nothing but finding him.
Coco hadn’t wondered, then, how had he sorted it out; there simply hadn’t been enough time for her to. But now, she wanted to know. Slowly, Coco’s eyes shifted to the tapes. A thought hit her, almost too absurd to be possible. “Those recordings,” she said. “Did he…?”
Griselda nodded, and pushed a tape towards her. “He confessed to taking credit for your father’s songs, yes. He told Abascal that if anything happened to you, it would go to the press. I honestly do not know how much of a danger that man would have truly been, but de la Cruz decided to take... preventive measures.”
“Assuming everyone’s heart to be as black as his own,” her mother said coldly.
“Perhaps. He asked me to ensure you had it after his death, in case Abascal tried to back off. And here,” she added, handing her mamá the other tape, “he confessed to the murder.”
For a moment, neither Coco nor her mother spoke. They exchanged a quick, incredulous glance before turning back to Griselda. “Am I supposed to believe,” her mamá spoke, her voice tight, “that that monster’s dying wish was for us to be sent proof of what he did?”
“Not precisely his dying wish, but it was his wish nonetheless. He specifically asked me to ensure you received the guitar and the tapes. To give you leverage if you ever needed it, I suppose. And a choice.”
That caused her mother to fall quiet, and Coco found she didn’t know what to say either, an odd numbness taking her over. She could only stare at the guitar case, and the tapes - a full confession of all he had done, to be sent to them after his death, when it could no longer benefit him in any way - for several moments. Eventually, it was Griselda to speak again.
“I am glad to know your late husband will have all the due credit for his music. I know you have not made the truth on how he died public yet,” she said, very gently, and stood. “If you wish to, and lack of proof is what keeps you from doing so, that tape is all you need. He confessed to everything. What you decide to do with it is up to you alone.”
Her mother said nothing, gaze fixed on the tape in her hands, and Coco knew she needed a minute alone with her thoughts. So she stood, and accompanied Griselda outside.
“Thank you very much for coming, and for… for everything, really,” she said. “If you’d like to stay for the night…”
Griselda shook her head with a small chuckle. “Oh, no, not at all. I do believe it is best I leave you alone and go my way. I have a friend in San Luz; I was planning to get on the first bus there, and spend a couple of weeks with her. I do need some rest, I believe.”
“What are you going to do next?”
“I’ll probably retire. Age has crept up on me; in these past few months, every task has felt harder,” she said, and smiled faintly. “El señor de la Cruz has left me an exaggerated amount of money. I’ll donate most to the church, and the rest will still be more than enough for me.”
“I see. Have a safe journey to San Luz.”
“Thank you, dear. I wish you all the best,” Griselda replied, and turned from her as they reached the gate - only to stop after a couple of steps when Coco called out. There was something she had to ask, she had to know.
“Did he really ask you to give us the guitar and the tapes, or was it your doing?”
She looked back at her, and seemed slightly offended at the notion. “Of course he did. I would never lie over a such thing.”
“I apologize. It’s just… there are plenty of people who may still love him even after knowing he took credit for someone else’s songs. His last years were hellish enough for the public to be lenient on him. But a murder confession - we could destroy his reputation in minutes.”
“I am sure he was well aware, dear.”
“... I see,” Coco murmured. Thinking back of the red songbook, sent back to her at the hotel, she found the notion didn’t really surprise her after all. “Did he suffer, before he died?”
Griselda stared at her for a moment, as though debating whether to answer, then sighed.
“He did,” she replied. “Sepsis is… not a good way to go. But knowing of your blessing helped. He became unconscious minutes after hearing of it, and didn’t wake up again. He just let go there and then. If you hadn’t… I feel he may be still clinging to life, after all.”
Coco nodded. “I’m... glad I gave him that blessing, whether he deserved or not,” she said, and realized the truth of it only as it left her lips.
Griselda smiled. “You have a good heart.”
“Not as good as you think. I’m not happy he’s dead, I suppose. But I am glad that he’s gone.”
“I think anyone would be in your place,” Griselda replied. “Whatever you decide to do next, I do hope this gives you closure. Perhaps this is the reason why the Lord saw it fitting to spare his life, that day in 1942.”
Or maybe something above decided he simply deserved to suffer, Coco thought, but didn’t say as much. “Perhaps,” she murmured instead, and smiled a bit. “By the way - your hunch was right, you know. I’m twelve weeks in.”
Griselda López - who would go to sleep one night eighteen months later, and awaken to an afterlife that was quite different from how she’d always imagined it to be - blinked at her in confusion for a moment, and then smiled. “Ah, that is amazing news. My congratulations, dear. And you went through so much, too. I am certain your papá would be proud of you.”
Something in Coco’s chest ached, and yet she found herself smiling back.
“Never as much as we are of him.”
“A business of her own, really? I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s Imelda we’re talking about - of course she didn’t just get a job, no señor, she built a business! Isn’t she amazing?”
“Remarkable, yes,” Ernesto said, eyes wandering across the apartment - a small one, but better than plenty of places where they had slept in in their youth - before turning back to the glass of tequila in his hand. He’d drank with Héctor, of course, because he’d been expected to, but each glass had tasted more bitter than the previous, and soon enough he couldn’t force any down his non-existent throat anymore.
He’d busied himself talking instead, telling Héctor everything Coco had told him about her family - Imelda’s shoe-making business, Coco’s husband Julio and their daughter Victoria, a few anecdotes about her uncles and a sister-in-law whose name he’d already forgotten. Not a huge problem: unsurprisingly, most of Héctor’s questions were about his wife and daughter… and even so, he soon enough began running out of things to say.
Coco had told him a few things about her family when she was a guest in his mansion, but not that many. After he made him repeat everything twice, gushed over all of them some more and repeated over and over how he was going to cross the bridge that year, just watch him, he would see his granddaughter, there were a few moments of peaceful silence, a huge grin almost splitting Héctor’s face in two.
It was peculiar, how quickly Ernesto had grown used to seeing skulls everywhere he looked; it seemed more natural than the act of walking, of drinking on his own, of reaching up to brush back his hair. He could almost, almost believe it was all like it had been once, two old friends having a drink, still more boys than men and without the chasm of death and betrayal he’d opened up between them - like the past twenty-six years had never happened.
He found himself wishing more than anything that the moment - the one moment worth seizing, why had it taken him so long to see it? - would last. It did not.
“So, what about you? I know you got famous - the greatest, apparently! You really did it. I knew you would. How come your arrival isn’t on everyone’s mouth?”
Well, it was time. Ernesto kept his gaze on his glass for a moment, feeling the familiar lump where his throat should be, the voice in the back of his head crying out for him not to tell him, no one should know, no one must know. Just keep his mouth shut, pretend nothing had happened, try to pick up where they’d left off - take back what he’d thrown away.
Except that the Riveras knew and, perhaps, so did the world by now. It was only a matter of time before Héctor found out, whether from him or someone else.
It’s all done now. You moved Heaven and Earth, like you promised.
Except that he hadn’t. There was one last hurdle to move, now, even if it meant burning a bridge once again, and this time for good.
Save it for the real Héctor, amigo.
“Ernesto?” Héctor called out, concern plain in his voice, and that made things worse. He hadn’t changed at all, had he?
“I didn’t tell them who I was. When I arrived,” he said. It wasn’t a reply Héctor had expected.
“Huh? Why? They’d have welcomed you like a king. You’re as famous here as you were in the Land of the Living, you know. They’d all have asked you to sign their ribs or something!”
Ernesto forced himself to swallow the tequila in one gulp, along with all of his fears. It tasted bitter as ash. He put down the glass, and forced himself to look back at Héctor.
“Your songs,” he said. “It was your songs that made me famous. But if you have heard about my career, you already know as much.”
He did; Ernesto could see it in the bitterness that crossed his features for a moment before he shrugged. “Sí. There was a song I’d rather you-- well. You couldn’t know it was private. But I didn’t mind you singing the others, really. I mean, music is meant to be heard, no?”
You know I would have given it to you if you’d asked, right?, the hallucination’s voice echoed in the back of Ernesto’s mind. You only had to ask.
His hand clenched on the glass, one of the involuntary movements he had yet to get used to again, but he kept his voice even when he spoke again. “You know I never gave you credit.”
Héctor made a face. “I do. That was kind of a bummer, yes. People kept saying I was loco when I told them we used to play together, let alone when I tried to tell them…” he paused, and the look on his face turned accusing… but only for a moment. Then he shook his head, and smiled again - that smile he remembered so well. “I figured it must have stung, thinking about me - let alone talking about it. I didn’t mean to die on you, amigo. I didn’t get a choice.”
“No,” Ernesto said, very quietly, glancing at the empty glass in front of Héctor. “You did not.”
“So well, really, it’s all right. After all that happened, and… now you’re here. I mean, we’re both dead - would be a dumb thing to fight over,” he added, and grinned. “So it’s a closed matter, amigo. I never cared to become famous, you know that. You just pay for my drinks for the rest of our after life, and we’re good. Or, better yet… ay, of course!” he exclaimed, jumping on his feet and causing Ernesto to recoil. “You can help me out with the bridge!”
Ernesto blinked. Héctor had mentioned crossing a bridge a few times, but to be honest he wasn’t entirely sure what it was exactly about. “Bridge?”
“Right, right, you’re new - didn’t explain you too much, did they?” Héctor muttered, running a hand through his hair before he began pacing back and forth. “The marigold bridge. It appears every year, on Día de los Muertos, to let us through and visit the living. But only people with photos or portraits on their ofrenda can cross - you can tell when your picture is up because the petals glow beneath you to show the path home. They never did for me, and I was never able to cross so far. But I did try, believe me. Every year, I tried everything to see my little girl again. They wouldn’t let me because my photo was never put up on the ofrenda. Something must have happened to it - my bad, should have had more pictures taken, even if it was expensive - but now you’re here! You can help me out!”
“... Héctor, about that--”
“I mean, you’re Ernesto de la Cruz! They won’t deny you a small request…”
“... And you wouldn’t deny a small favor to an amigo,” Héctor finished with a wide smile, and put a hand on his shoulder. It was meant to be a friendly gesture. It felt very, very heavy. “Amigos help other amigos! We’re going to cross together in a month’s time, how about that? Back in our hometown! It’s been so long, too long. I wonder if the old cantina is still where it stood - we can check that out on the way to my place! Remember how we used to…” Héctor paused when Ernesto looked away and shook his head.
I want to go home, he thought, but of course he already knew that he could not. He’d burned that bridge, struck the match and watched it go up in smoke and ashes. No amount of marigold petals could fix it. “No,” he said, and drew in a long breath. It was odd how the instinct to breathe was still there without lungs. “You won’t need me to cross the bridge.”
“Well, I do have a really good plan this year, so probably not, but it would be so much easier if you put in a good word,” Héctor said, hope plain in his voice. “You said you’d move--”
“... Heaven and Earth for you, mi amigo,” Ernesto finished, and he felt really, really tired. “I did. I moved Heaven, Earth, and everything inbetween. Just not for you. Lo siento, Héctor.”
“Wha-- Ernesto, listen. It would only take you a few words” Héctor insisted, now very close to pleading. “It would mean everything to me. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important, but my photos must have been lost and I see no other--”
“Your photo wasn’t lost.”
The grip on his shoulder suddenly went slack. “... Qué?”
With what felt like a terrible effort, Ernesto lifted his gaze from his empty glass to meet Héctor’s. He looked confused but, most of all, he looked worried. He must have known, Ernesto could guess, that perhaps his photo was neither lost nor damaged. He must have wondered, year after year, if the truth was different - if he’d simply been left off the ofrenda entirely, by the family he’d loved more than anything. More than anyone. More than him .
“They still have your picture, as far as I know. You could never cross the bridge because they never put it on any ofrenda.”
The hand on his shoulder was pulled back as though he’d suddenly caught fire, Héctor’s eyes widening as he took a step back. “What?” he muttered, hurt and surprise plain on his face. “Why… why would they keep me off the ofrenda?”
Ernesto closed his eyes, and swallowed. “Because they didn’t know it was needed.”
“But… all right, no one living knows for sure that the dead do return to visit ofrendas, but it’s tradition, I figure Imelda--”
“They didn’t know you were dead, Héctor.”
He spoke quietly, but his voice felt loud as a gunshot to his own ears, or lack thereof. Héctor’s arms fell by his sides like the limbs of a mannequin whose strings had been cut. He stared at him for several moments, mouth hanging open, as though battling to comprehend what he’d just heard.
“They didn’t-- but that can’t be! You… you were there, you saw me die, you would-- you must have--” Héctor sputtered, shaking his head, and then looked at him as though he’d just grown a second head, as though nothing of what he’d said made sense.
Looking back, Ernesto could only agree. Nothing of what he’d done made sense.
You know I would have given it to you if you’d asked, right? You only had to ask.
“Ernesto, answer to me! You told them I died! You must have! Look at me and tell me --!”
“I didn’t,” Ernesto choked out, causing him to fall silent for the second time in a minute. He kept his head low, hands gripping the edge of the table. Something in his chest cavity hurt, and each word was more difficult to force out than the next. He shut his eyes.
“No. No, it’s not true.”
“I never told them a thing. Lo siento, Héctor.”
“No. No, no, no,” Héctor was repeating like a broken disk. “That’s… all these years--”
Ernesto drew in a deep breath. “They thought you’d left them behind,” he heard himself saying, and opened his eyes. It took all of his willpower to look up, meeting Héctor’s horror-stricken gaze. “They do know now. I told them the truth. This year, they should--”
There was a cry of dismay and anger, drowning out his last words, and Héctor suddenly grasped the front of his shirt, pulling him up. He had never done that before, wouldn’t have been able to if he’d tried, thin as he was, but anger lent him strength. The next moment Ernesto’s back hit the wall, and he had a moment to panic at the sting - no not my spine please not the spine what will happen if it breaks again - before Héctor’s grip on the collar of his shirt tightened, and he gave him a violent shake, features distorted.
“How could you!” he screamed, shaking him. “You knew I was trying to go home to them! You knew I had died! You took the songs, took credit, and let them believe I had abandoned them? Why? Because I’d had enough of your stupid musical fantasy? Was that it?”
Ernesto reached to grasp Héctor’s wrists, but didn’t try to push him away. In some absurd way, he found his fury easier to deal with than his joy upon seeing him. That, at least, he knew how to respond to. “I couldn’t let them know how you’d died.”
Whatever answer Héctor had been expecting, that clearly wasn’t it. He blinked, some anger giving way to confusion. “Wha-- really? That’s it? You thought dying of food poisoning was too embarrassing to tell my wife and child? Dios mío, you can’t be seriously telling me--”
“It wasn’t food poisoning, Héctor. It was me,” Ernesto rasped, cutting him off.
Héctor fell silent to stare at him in silent disbelief. “Qué…?”
“I killed you,” Ernesto said. Once again, telling the truth felt like pulling out a rotten tooth with no anesthesia, and with no relief to follow: only a moment of stasis, waiting for the worst.
Héctor stared at him for a few more moments, then confusion turned into sorrow. “Oh. Oh, mi hermano, no,” he exclaimed, and let go of his shirt to put a hand on his shoulder. “Good God, was that why… did you really think they would blame you? It was never your fault.”
“No, you don’t understand. It was. I--”
“You’re… you’re not well. Sit down. I’ll get you some water, sí?”
“You’re confused, happens to the recently deceased, you know?” Héctor was babbling, lifting up the chair that had been knocked over when he’d dragged Ernesto off it and gesturing for him to sit. “I should have realized, I’m so sorry I lost control. You’re not thinking straight, should have guessed. And I gave you alcohol on top of it.”
Oh, Jesus Christ. “Héctor. No. I killed you.”
“I really hope this is only a temporary thing, because I’d hate to think you blamed yourself all these years, mi amigo. Look, how about you eat something? No chorizo, bet you can imagine why I no longer eat that, but I should still have some--” he babbled on, only to trail off when Ernesto stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder, holding tight.
“Héctor,” he called out, very quietly. His old friend slowly turned to look at him and there it was, Ernesto could see it in his eyes - the beginning of a gnawing doubt. “Do you remember when I called for a toast? Right before you stepped out?” he asked, drew in a deep breath when Héctor nodded. “I had rat poison on me. I slipped it in your drink.”
“No,” Héctor replied, almost matter-of-factly, but something in his voice shook. “You did not.”
“I did. I wasn’t certain it would be enough to kill you. For all I knew it may have only made you sick, but I was willing to face either outcome as long as you didn’t board that train. Not with your songbook. When you decided to leave with it, I… I couldn’t do it without your songs. You were taking all I had ever hoped and dreamed to achieve with you. I couldn't… I thought I couldn’t let it happen. I thought it was you or… or my dream.”
Héctor stared at him, transfixed, before shaking his head. “No, you can’t have done it,” he protested weakly. Ernesto looked down and let go of his shoulder, letting his arm drop.
“I was willing to do anything,” muttered. “Whatever it took.”
Héctor staggered back, shaking his head. He had to lean on the table for support. “No,” he repeated, but this time he sounded desperate - denying what he knew to be true. Ernesto would know: it was what he’d sounded like when he had tried to protest with doctors that he couldn’t be, he couldn't have been left paralyzed for good, it wasn’t possible.
“I poisoned you.”
“You’re lying. You would never. You were… you are my best friend, almost a brother, and--”
“And you were mine, and I still murdered you,” Ernesto cut him off, and sighed. It felt as though a weight had been lifted on his chest, only to be placed on his shoulders.
For several moments, Héctor said nothing: he only stared at him with wide eyes, the same way he’d look at him when they were kids and Ernesto had come up with an especially scary story - waiting for resolution so that it would be over with and he could laugh about his own fear, which would seem so foolish once his mind was back in a world where monsters didn’t lurk under the bed.
They lurked in a glass of tequila, and behind the smile of an old friend.
“Ernesto,” Héctor finally spoke, very slowly. Ernesto could almost see the gears turning in his head, the way he went through every moment of that night, every word, every gesture. “Tell me you didn’t do it. That it was just bad luck. That you’re making this up,” he pleaded, and his voice broke up towards the end. “Tell me it’s some kind of sick joke and I’ll believe it.”
He would have, Ernesto was sure of it. If he denied everything there and then, he would choose to believe him. Somehow, it made it all even worse. He shook his head, ignoring the part of him that cried out for him to deny it, and shut his eyes.
“Perdóname,” was all he said.
He didn’t see Héctor lunging at him, but he heard his cry of anger and dismay, and felt the impact that sent them both tumbling on the ground, the weight on his ribcage, the blows that rained down on him. A fist cracked against his jaw, causing his skull to bounce against the floor, and his vision swam. He reached up to shield his head with a cry as Héctor kept hitting blindly.
“HOW COULD YOU! HOW COULD YOU! YOU TOOK EVERYTHING AWAY FROM ME!”
There were more blows, and he quickly lost count; all he could focus on was keeping his head shielded and teeth clenched. Trying to fight back, or get him off himself - he could do it, he was stronger, had always been - didn’t even cross his mind.
And then it was over. With one last cry and a punch that cracked one of the wooden boards next to Ernesto’s head, Héctor tore himself away from him and fell on his knees only a few steps away, cradling his right hand to his chest. As he sat up, if shakily, Ernesto could see cracks across the finger bones that hadn’t been there before.
“You rat,” Héctor choked out, eyes shut. “I just wanted to go back home.”
“You can now,” Ernesto found himself saying, his voice unsteady. His arms, ribs and jaw hurt, but he hardly noticed. “They… they know the truth now. The entire truth. You can cross--”
“Once a year,” Héctor cut him off, his voice hollow. “I should have had a lifetime with them.”
“Do not finish that sentence,” he snapped, lifting his head to glare at him. There were fury and disgust to match Imelda’s, but far more hurt. “Some amigo. Get out of my sight, Ernesto. Now.”
“OUT OF MY SIGHT!”
The scream was more deafening than the final toll of the bell that had fallen on him, and it filled him with almost as much terror. Ernesto was out of the door the next instant, down the stairs and back into the road as though he had the devil at his heels - away from the man he'd killed, from the empty glasses, from the bridge he'd burned to ashes all over again. He kept running through dark streets until his legs failed him, and only then he stopped. He let himself drop on the ground against a wall, covering his face with both hands.
Nothing else I can do, he thought, and it was true; the only right thing for him to do now was leaving Héctor be, but where did it leave him? He stayed there, shaking, not knowing what to do, until he heard a whine. He tore his hands off his face to see his dogs staring up at him, eyes huge, tails wagging slowly. Zita - old Zita, the last of them to leave him behind in the Land of the Living, who'd died in her sleep by his side - stepped forward and nudged at his shin. Ernesto smiled weakly.
“Spirit guides,” he muttered, his voice hoarse, and stood slowly, brushing his hair out of his eyes. “Very well. Guide me, then. Where do I go from here?”
His dogs - his alebrijes - yapped and, with a wag of their tail, they were off. He followed wherever they’d lead him, leaving behind what had been his best friend, and his own name, for the last time.
From that moment on, no one would see Ernesto de la Cruz ever again.
“You haven’t listened to it, have you?”
“I have no desire to hear that snake’s voice again. Also, we don’t have a player.”
“Heh. True. But we could get one. Not to hear this tape, but…” Coco let her voice fade away, and there were a few moments of silence as she and her mother sat side by side on her bed. The guitar was on the bed, too, in its case, but it her mother's attention was fixed on the tape in her hands, the one with the murder confession. She slowly put it down on the small table by the bed before she spoke.
“Music,” she murmured. “He was murdered for it.”
“He was murdered because he chose us over it, and because Ernesto wanted fame and glory,” Coco replied. “We can never have papá back. But music... that we can reclaim.”
“... Lo sé,” her mother said, and gave a long sigh before she spoke again, her voice harsher. “We are never going to listen to any of his recordings. Not in this household.”
Coco nodded. It still stung a bit, to think that she’d only heard most of her father’s songs through de la Cruz - and the fact those recordings would keep existing. She was rather sure they could have them taken off the market if they pressed for it, but she was reluctant to do it. Even if through his murderer, her papá’s music had struck a chord with so many and she, more than anyone, knew how important a song can be in hard times.
“That goes without saying,” she finally said, and leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder, a hand reaching to rest on her own stomach. “You know, there was a song papá always sang to me. Our secret song. I kept singing at night when I was little, and I sang it to Victoria when she was a baby. I would like to sing it openly now, to her and to the new baby.”
Her mother’s lips curled in a faint smile. “I never knew.”
“I also dance in secret. I can be sneaky. ”
“Just like your papá.”
Coco chuckled, then her gaze fell on the tape. “... What are we going to do about it?”
Her mother stiffened. “I’d love to have it broadcast on the radio,” she said, her voice tight. “To tell everyone how your father really died. To scream de la Cruz’s guilt from the rooftops.”
“But…?” Coco asked, though of course she already knew the answer. There was one reason only why her mother could possibly hold back from doing all that - their family.
“We will tell everyone it was Héctor to write those songs, once everything has been dealt with. He’s owed that much,” was the reply. “There will be some upheaval - nothing we cannot deal with. But this…” her voice faded, but Coco knew exactly what she was thinking.
Making the murder public would cause a storm, and their family would be caught right in the middle of it, their quiet lives and maybe even their business turned on its head, perhaps beyond repair. They had a taped confession, yes, but they would also need to exhume the poor remains they had just now put to rest. The public may accept someone else had written the songs once the record company admitted as much publicly, but she knew plenty of people would refuse to believe Mexico’s most beloved musician may be a murderer - no matter what proof they showed.
There would be rumors, doubts, slander. He’d been sick, his mental state deteriorating; they’d say they had manipulated him to confess something he’d never done. On her own, she knew, Imelda Rivera wouldn’t hesitate to fight all of it with her head held high, a bastion refusing to bend to the storm, but she wasn’t on her own. Her family came first, little Victoria and the child yet to come, and she wouldn’t drag them in it. Coco took her hand and squeezed.
“Whatever you decide to do, I’ll be on your side,” she finally murmured. Her mother smiled.
“Thank you, mija,” she said, and took the tape. She stared at it for a moment before she opened a drawer, put it in, and shut it. “We know what happened. So will Victoria when she'd old enough, and the child you're carrying, and their children. We're his family. It was us de la Cruz owed the truth. Not the world.”
Coco reached to hold her, her mother held her back, and for a long time they said nothing.
"YOU DENSE MOTHERFUCKER"
-- Ernesto at some point, probably.
(Okay seriously now, only the epilogue left! I'll be traveling, these days, but it should be rather short, so I might be able to post it by next Friday. If not, I'll aim for the following Friday.)
Chapter 12: A Marigold Bridge
And here's the epilogue. Hope you guys enjoy it because
a) it would suck if you'd read this far only to be let down and
b) I think I gave myself a cavity writing it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Día de los Muertos, 1947
“What’s the rush, idiota?”
“Watch where you’re going!”
There are yells and protests, and Héctor hears precisely none of them. He’s been running since the instant he made it through the checks, across the entire bridge, through the small cemetery of Santa Cecilia and now through its streets.
His hometown has changed in the twenty-six years he’s been dead, but not enough not to be recognizable, or so it looks like to him at a glance; it will have to do, because a glace is precisely all the spares to his surroundings. The streets are still familiar, but even if they were not it wouldn’t matter: there is a path of shimmering marigold petals to lead him home and he follows it – faster, faster, he can’t waste one minute, he needs to be with them every second he can, he needs to see them and hear their voices.
And then, suddenly, he’s home.
It’s bigger than he remembered; Imelda must have expanded it to accommodate the business, and the growing family. There is music and light and laughter coming from the yard, and the gate is just ajar. From up the wall, a gray cat is staring intently down at him. An alebrije, maybe? Just a random cat being both perceptive and creepy as cats can be?
Héctor wonders about it briefly, but he finds he doesn’t really care. He hasn’t come this far to watch a cat, after all: he’s here to see his family. So he draws in a deep breath, and steps in.
The first person he sees is a man he doesn’t recognize, meticulously arranging the food on the table. He’s tall and lanky, with a mustache and glasses; Héctor has just enough time to wonder if this is Coco’s husband when another man steps out of a door into the yard – an identical man, and Héctor suddenly knows who he’s looking at.
“Óscar! Felipe! Should have known from the glasses,” he exclaims, laughing. Last he saw them they were only boys, just turned sixteen, and now he’s looking at grown men… and with thinning hair to boot. Héctor wonders if they still like to mess with people by pretending to be each other – they used to confuse the crap out of him, too, and they did the same with little Coco. He wonders how many times she fell for it.
“Red sauce!” Óscar - or is it Felipe? - announces, passing right through him. It feels uncomfortably like stepping through a very cold shower, but Héctor is too elated to be there to care. “Your favorite!”
That causes his twin to roll his eyes. “You know my favorite is the black one,” he protests.
“Nu-uh, definitely the red one. Everyone says so.”
“Because you keep pretending to be me and tell them that. I swear that if someday I die--”
“Oh, right. Well, when I die, if I get red sauce on the ofrenda I will blame it on you personally and haunt you from beyond the grave!”
“Assuming you’re going to die first.”
“Of course. I was born first, after all.”
“By ten minutes.”
“Then by all accounts I should die ten minutes earlier.”
“That’s not a lot of haunting from beyond the grave...”
“Now, now, stop arguing!” Someone chides them, and Héctor turns to see a woman walking up to them, a tray with yet more food in her hand.
Must be Coco’s sister-in-law, the one Ernesto – the mere thought of him leaves a bitter taste in his mouth – has mentioned. There is a man as well, in his thirties, with a thick mustache and a meek smile… and, at his arm, there’s Coco.
Héctor’s jaw drops, and he needs to catch it in mid-air before it hits the ground, fumbling so much that it almost flies out of his hands. He reattaches it, and it stays hanging open for several moments. He left behind a beautiful little girl; he’s not looking at a grown woman with his same smile, the same cheekbones, the same tilt of the head as she laughs.
If it’s a girl, I hope she takes after her mother, Ernesto had taunted him with a laugh so many years ago, when he’d quite literally tackled him on the ground in the plaza to give him the news he was going to be a father. And there is something of Imelda, yes; to Héctor, she seems just as stunning… but she looks like him. How could his features be arranged to make something so beautiful, he’ll never know. Héctor reaches to bring a hand to her cheek and there it is, that sensation that is almost like touch. It will have to do, until her time comes.
Until you’re in my arms again.
“Hello, pequeñita,” he manages, his voice shaking. “Papá is home.”
Coco pauses mid-sentence and turns; for one long, heart-stopping moment, Héctor can almost believe she’s looking straight at him… but of course she isn’t. She’s looking through him, towards--
“I’ll see if mamá needs help with the ofrenda,” she says, and lets go of her husband’s arm – not without giving him a kiss on the cheek, something Héctor wishes more than anything he could steal right now – to walk past him, towards the ofrenda room. He follows her slowly, follows the path of marigold petals that shine at his passage, guiding him to his picture.
Guiding him to Imelda.
She’s as beautiful as the day he left her, that accursed day he would take back a million times over. The passage of time has marked her, but taken nothing away from the woman who could make his heart leap in his throat and his legs weak as jelly. She’s placing an envelope among the flowers and offerings in front of a picture on the ofrenda, Héctor’s own, the one he had on when he--
-- died. It is not the only one, either: he sees another envelope there.
“Did you write to him, too?” Coco asks, quietly, and Imelda nods. It is a small, dignified, almost regal movement; Héctor remembers it so well. He aches to take those letters and read them, and he will, but not right now. He has time to do so when it’s time to leave; he can read those letters in the Land of the Dead. For as long as he can be here, he will not lose sight of them for a moment.
Coco reaches to put a hand around Imelda’s shoulders, and they lean on each other. “I miss him,” Coco murmurs, and Imelda sighs.
Something in Héctor’s chest cavity aches terribly, and he almost steps forward to hold them both, but he has no time to: suddenly something – someone – barrels into the room and through him, her voice shrill. “Mamá! Mamá! Come dance with me and papá!”
Victoria, his granddaughter. The notion that he knew of her existence from Ernesto of all people – he should have been there when her existence was first announced, when Coco needed as much support as she could get as a new mother – leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, but that his quickly forgotten when he looks at the little girl pulling at her mother’s dress. He can see both himself and Imelda in her, and his face splits in a grin.
“Please? We can dance now, right, abuelita?”
Imelda gives a faint smile. “Yes,” she says. “You can dance.”
With a cry of triumph, Victoria drags a laughing Coco out of the ofrenda room, leaving it empty save from Imelda, and himself. Imelda’s smile fades the same moment Héctor’s does, and she turns back to the photo on the ofrenda, wrapping her arms around herself as though cold. Héctor catches sight of the wedding ring at her finger; it causes something between his ribs to hurt, and he reaches to wrap his arms around her the best way he can, leaning his chin over her head as he used to do when they were alive.
I love you, I thinks, hoping more than anything that she can somehow feel his touch, the unspoken words hanging between them, all of the love he’s capable of feeling. I’m so sorry, I should have never left. Te amo, te amo, te amo.
Her frame seems to relax, and she lets out a long breath – as well as a murmur that would make Héctor’s heart skip a beat, if he still had one.
“… I love you too, idiota.”
The night is over soon, too soon. When dawn approaches, he has to do the one thing he would never wish to do again: he leaves, with the letters they left for him on the ofrenda tight against his ribcage, to cross back to the Land of the Dead. But every moment of that night is seared into his mind, to be treasured and dreamed about for months to come, when he’ll read the letters over and over and think of home.
Until next year.
Día de los Muertos, 1948
Coco is holding a baby girl.
The sight alone is enough for Héctor’s face to split in a huge grin. He knew, from the letters, that Coco was expecting a baby, but seeing her is another matter entirely. Elena, they called her, and she’s by far the most perfect baby he’s seen since Coco. It stings a bit to think that he never got to see Victoria that age – Victoria, who’s serious and solemn-eyed, now wearing comically tiny round glasses, holding onto her mother’s dress, pointing at the picture on the ofrenda.
“And that is Abuelito Héctor. He died far away but mamá found him and brought him back, and he can visit us every year,” she’s saying. Elena follows her gaze to the picture, gargles at it, and then turns to look over Coco’s shoulder – right at him.
And she giggles.
Héctor has heard tales that little babies can see the visiting dead, and lose that ability as they grow into toddlers, but he’s never been sure whether there is any truth to it. Now, as he makes a face and watches Elena burst in another fit of giggles, a tiny pink hand reaching out for him, he is. He’s absolutely sure.
“Hola, nenita,” he says, reaching back for that hand. It passes through his fingers, of course, but there is a lingering sensation that is almost like touch. “Welcome to the family. Be good for your mamá and abuelita, sí?” he adds, and grins back at her toothless smile.
Next year she won’t see him, but he’ll make that smile be enough until her time comes to cross the bridge.
On his way back – leaving is just as painful as it was last year, but those who are caught at the wrong end of the bridge when the sun rises are destined to fade away, and Héctor has no intention to risk it; he’ll never get to be with his family again if he lets himself disappear – he pauses at the cemetery.
He didn’t stop to look for his grave the first year he visited, but he does now. It’s hard to find at first: there are so many flowers and tokens on it the tombstone is almost entirely covered. It feels odd, looking at it. Since getting credit for his songs, his standing in the Land of the Dead has definitely improved; he’s even gotten a few apologies for people who mocked him when he insisted he used to play with Ernesto de la Cruz.
He also began feeling more alive, so to speak, than he had in years – something he could put down to millions of people knowing about him; his bones have never been whiter.
Still, this is the first time he sees how much respect he’s getting from the living outside his own family, and it is staggering. There is something bitter about it – he’d give it all away in a heartbeat just to have his life back – but he has seen the fate of those forgotten, and he’s only recently realized how very close he was to end up down the same path.
He never wished for fame, but at least it means he’ll be remembered, and will get to be with his family for a long time once they die as well; there is so much they’ll need to catch up with. That, at least, is something Ernesto wasn’t able to take from him. In an ironic twist of fate, his last act as a living man was granting him as much.
The thought feels like a stab in his non-existent gut. Héctor finds himself turning without thinking, gaze scanning the small cemetery. And, not too far away, he finds Ernesto’s grave.
It is not the grandiose thing he may have gotten if truth hadn’t come out - if he hadn’t made the truth known - but it’s still a nice one. There are marigold flowers on it, too, tokens and offerings; not as many as on Héctor’s, but still a pretty good amount.
His reputation took a hit when the truth about the songs was made public, of course: that much had quickly filtered in the Land of the Dead, too. In other circumstances, or had the entire truth become known, it would have meant a truly disastrous fall from grace; but the awful circumstances of his last few years, along with the fact he’d told the truth from his deathbed, had gotten him plenty of sympathy and softened the blow.
It is more than he deserves, but Héctor finds he can’t bring himself to care; he can’t bring himself to waste a single minute thinking about him, let alone being mad about it. He doesn’t understand how could he come to do a such thing to him, and doesn’t want to understand.
It didn’t take too long for folks in the Land of the Dead to understand that he doesn’t want to talk about Ernesto de la Cruz - and oh, isn’t everyone curious to find out where he’s gone. As more and more nearly deceased arrived, confirming that he was dead, the question of why had he never showed up was soon on everybody’s mouth.
There are conspiracy theories that he actually faked his death; others have guessed he might be hiding away and there have been a few sightings, but each time a brief description was enough to tell Héctor none of them was Ernesto. He is the only one, as far as he can tell, his old friend has shown himself to - the only one who knows what he looks like now.
Héctor could expose him, of course. He could say they have met, give a full description of what his facial markings look like, what kind of alebrijes follow him around. Revealing him to be a murderer would get authorities looking for him and he would be caught quickly, he's sure of it.
But he never does. He doesn’t care to see what he did exposed; he doesn’t want to deal with the subsequent mess. He just wants to forget all about him, so that maybe one day his betrayal will stop hurting.
Héctor turns away from the grave stiffly and, avoiding to look around - that cemetery had been their playground as kids; all of Santa Cecilia had been, and every corner of it except for his home feels tainted by those happy memories - he marches back towards the bridge.
Día de los Muertos, 1955
“Look, I’m not saying that I was right all along. But the fact stays, I was right all along.”
“Cut it out, Jorge.”
“Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of me being on the right side of the revolution.”
“That has nothing to do with getting to the wrong cemetery, and it was over forty years--”
“Right. Wrong. Right. Wrong. Repeat with me, hermanito. Right, wro--”
“Griselda, say something!”
“Cut it out. Both of you,” Griselda says, trying with all her might to sound annoyed, and she must sound convincing enough, for they both fall silent with slight pout. Truth be told, she’s mostly amused; even though she did end up getting to grow older than either of them, she was their younger sister - and yet, much like in life, she has to be the one to show maturity.
Not that she minds: being with them again feels like a blessing, minor annoyances aside. This may not be the afterlife she had been expecting - there better be pearly gates beyond this mysterious final death, or else she may put in a claim to have back every single Sunday morning of her life - but as long as Jorge and Matías are there, she finds it’s good enough.
“What’s-- oh, there’s that basket by the door. Again.”
Griselda knows what Jorge is referring to before she even sees it; a basket full of tangerines, one of several they keep receiving from time to time. One of several she keeps receiving.
“There’s a note in here - your name, again.”
“No sender?” Griselda asks, but of course she already knows the answer. He hands it to her.
“No sender, as usual. Are you sure you don’t have secret admirer, hermana?”
The mere notion makes Griselda laugh as she picks up a tangerine and brings it closer to her face to breathe in its scent - something they can somehow still do, even or without nose.
“Oh, no. It’s no admirer. Just an old friend, I suppose,” she says, and picks up the basket. She doesn’t glance around: she knows that he must have left quickly, after leaving that gift at her door. She can’t imagine him lingering for long. “Letting me know he’s around.”
Her brothers will prod some more, but to no avail: she won’t tell them anything more. If he wants to keep anonymity, it is not her place to take it away. Should he ever decide to make himself seen she won’t hesitate to welcome him, share those tangerines with him, and listen.
But until then she just accepts his gift, and hopes he found the peace he was looking for.
Día de los Muertos, 1965
Every year when he crosses the bridge, Héctor is prepared to find out Imelda has married again. She is, after all, now officially a widow, and he can’t imagine any man in his right mind who wouldn’t want to be with her. He wouldn’t blame her at all if she found herself someone else – and yet she never does.
She grows older, the passage of time marking her face; at each visit, Héctor finds her more beautiful. Every year, she sees her wearing the wedding ring he put to her finger so many years ago and no other. She stays unmarried. Or, rather, married to him; her business is growing, the house is full of family, but the spot beside her in the bed remains empty.
It makes Héctor feel absurdly happy, and humbled and grateful because a tiny voice in his head keeps telling him she deserves better. When he returns to the Land of the Dead that year, he swears to himself he’ll learn how to make shoes, and make her a pair with his own hands to give her for when she passes on, to ask her if she wants to renew their vows.
He proposed with a ring once already, anyway. Time to up his game and propose with a pair of good shoes.
That day so far had been nothing but a string of absurdities.
Waking up in some kind of bare room with a skeleton looking down at her, while she remembered very well falling asleep in her bed, had been absurd. Being restrained and reprimanded by more skeletons for hitting their ‘colleague’ had been absurd. Being told that she was dead, and asked for her name, had also been absurd; looking down at her hands to see bone had been even more absurd. Staring into a mirror to see that her face - her skull - looked like a child had scribbled on it with a crayon had been the peak of all absurdity… at least until she’s made to sit in a waiting room, and a woman calls out her name.
“Imelda Rivera? Your husband will be here in a few minutes.”
It takes a moment for Imelda to realize that confused croak has come from her own mouth, which is somehow capable of articulating words despite the complete lack of a tongue, or vocal chords, or anything that would normally be necessary to speak. Somehow, that notion - Héctor is coming for her - is what finally, truly drives the point home: she’s dead.
The realization is staggering, and something sinks in the emptiness of her chest cavity. Has her family already awakened for the working day? She’s usually the first one up, they will notice her absence right away. Who will go to knock at her door? Who’s going to find her lifeless in her bed? Coco, Victoria or Elena, most likely. The mere thought makes her shudder. This isn’t right, it can’t be right, she has to go back to her family somehow.
But Héctor. Héctor is here. Fifty years dead, and he’s here.
There is something gripping her where her throat should be, and it’s hope and dread at the same time. So many years have passed, he was barely a man when he left; she’s had a full life and he has not. What will he say? Has he visited them on Día de los Muertos? Has he read their letters, watched their family grow? Or had he given up long before then, after years without an ofrenda? What if--
“Sorry, sorry-- I’m in a rush, lo siento-- let me through, come on, move it!”
Imelda looks up just as the door is thrown open and a skeleton burst in, so fast that he skids across the floor. He tries to stop, but the momentum is working against him and, under her stunned gaze, he flies right past her and crashes against the opposite wall.
All right, so it is Héctor for sure. He always knew how to make an entrance.
She stands as the skeleton turns, rubbing his head; their gazes meet, and they both still.
God, even like this he looks so young - there’s no gray in his hair. The wide-eyed look he’s giving her makes him seem almost a boy… and so does his grin, the one she recalls so well.
“Imelda! Ay, mi amor!” he calls out, and next thing she knows she’d holding her in a tight embrace, causing her to stiffen. That is not how she remembered it; there is no flesh, no skin. There is warmth, but it is a different kind from anything she has experienced before.
“I’m so happy to see you! I mean, I’m so sorry you died! But I’m so happy to see you! I missed you so much! Coco, how is she?” Héctor pulls back, hands on both of her shoulders, that smile impossibly wide. “And Victoria, and… oh, and Elena! Has Franco proposed yet? I mean, he’s there all the time, he should just go for it - I’ve seen how he looks at her! I kept your letters, all of them! And I’ve been learning to make shoes, I’m not so good yet but I’m getting there! Oh, and I wrote so many songs for you! I’m so, so sorry I never made it ba--”
Imelda pulls back suddenly, a hand already reaching for her boot, and Héctor lets out a yelp when it cracks against his face, causing his skull to spin in place briefly before he grabs it.
“This,” Imelda hears herself saying, voice shaking already, “is for leaving in the first place.”
Héctor immediately nods, rubbing his head. “Sí, sí, you’re right. So right. I missed you so--”
Somehow, the plain adoration on his face cuts deeper than a scowl would have. There is something boyish about it, a reminder than he never grew any older than twenty-one. “Idiota,” she cuts him off. “I thought you’d-- we thought you’d--” she chokes out, and her voice breaks, and she hates how weak it makes her sound.
Héctor returns her gaze, and that is when she sees it - the sorrow etched in his features, the pain, the regret. She sees that no, she is not looking at the young man who left her with the promise of being back soon. Time has stopped for him in the Land of the Living, and the Land of the Living only. Here, on this side, he’s endured more loneliness than she has; she can see now that it aged him, too, well beyond his mortal years.
He sighs, and looks down, shoulders hunching. “I’m sorry, Imelda. I should have never left.”
Imelda shakes her head, suddenly sorry for her outburst. “It wasn’t you. Ernesto, he--”
“I know what he did,” Héctor says, his voice beyond bitter. “He told me to my face.”
Anger rears up its head, boiling and bitter, and Imelda clings to it. It is comfortingly familiar. “Him! He’s here? Where? Once I get my hands on him, he--”
Héctor shakes his head. “No one knows where he went. I don’t care to know, either. I’m just happy you’re here. You’re right, I should have never left in the first place.”
Imelda sighs, her anger already sputtering out. There she is, looking at her husband for the first time in half a century, and what is she doing? Wasting time thinking about de la Cruz of all people, someone she’d be better off forgetting all about. “No. You shouldn’t have,” she agrees, and throws her arms around his neck. “You should have stayed.”
She feels him stiffening for a moment, then his arms are around her and his cheek is leaning on top of her head. “Lo siento. I am here now.”
“There was so much we should have done.”
“We can still do it,” Héctor says, and suddenly he pulls back, his face lighting up like a Christmas tree. “Oh! Right! I meant to ask - will you marry me?”
Imelda blinks. “We’re. Already married,” she mutters. She’s not too sure, though - are they still married? How literal is that ‘till death do us part bit of the wedding vows?
“Yes, but I mean - again? We can renew our vows! A lot of people do when they reunite on this side,” he adds, and before Imelda can say anything he kneels, pulling something from under his jacket - a pair of shoes. Or rather, the saddest excuse of shoes she’s ever seen.
“As I said, I’ve been learning to make shoes! These need, huh. Some work? But you can teach me to do better,” he adds, and holds them up towards her like, a long time ago, he held up a ring. “Will you marry me? Again?”
“No,” Imelda says, and immediately corrects herself when he recoils. “I mean… not yet. It’s. It’s been a long time, Héctor,” she adds. They spent so much time apart, after being married only four years a lifetime ago. She cannot give him the answer he hopes for, not just yet. And he knows it: she can see his hurt expression melting away into comprehension.
“Right. It has been a while,” he says, and clears his throat. “So, uh… will you teach me how to make shoes, ‘till I can make a pair you’ll be happy to walk in for the rest of our non-lives?”
There is something aching in her chest cavity again, but it is a sweet ache. “Are you asking for permission to court me?”
Héctor grins up at her. She’ll have to ask about that golden tooth, later. “Yes!”
Imelda’s mouth curls in a smile. “Permission granted,” she says, and takes the shoes from his hands. She wears them as they walk to the home he's been preparing for them, limping all the way and categorically denying she’s uncomfortable in the slightest.
Coco can’t breathe.
Not that she thinks she needs to breathe, with the complete lack of lungs and whatnot. But if she did try to draw in breath, she’s rather sure she wouldn’t be able to: her papá’s arms around her are too tight to let her ribcage expand even a fraction.
And she’s very much all right with that.
“Coco,” her papá is choking out, and his grip tightens. Something there is definitely creaking and, again, she doesn’t mind at all. “Oh Coco, Coco, Coco, I missed you! Your papá loves you so much, I’m so sorry. I tried to come home. I kept trying. I was there every year after you put my photo up, every year, always!”
Coco laughs, and reaches to hug him back, just as tight. She’s aware that the rest of her family is there, too - her mother and her uncles, Julio and Victoria and Rosita - and she hears more than a couple of sniffles, too. She will hold each of them just as tight as soon as she can, but this one hug has been ninety-six years coming, and she means to enjoy it.
“I know, papá,” she replies, her own voice tight. “I always knew.”
“I just wish I could have always been there for you. I really do.”
“But you were,” Coco says, and smiles. “Each time I heard a sad guitar.”
Día de los Muertos, 2018
“Wha-- oh, come on. Oye, Estéban! One of your dogs stole my taco. Again!”
There is some laughter from patrons as a tiny chihuahua alebrije trots across the cantina, back to the table his owner is sitting at, staggering a bit under the weight of its prize… which is, really, almost as big as the dog. As three other chihuahuas begin a scuffle to get a bite out of it – another familiar sight for patrons – there is a chuckle.
“My apologies,” Estéban says, shuffling a deck of cards. There is a still untouched glass of mezcal on the table in front of him, and he doesn’t even look up. “Alfonso, can you make him another and put it on my tab?”
“Sure, sure. Your mutts are always such a nuisance.”
Estéban shrugs, dealing the cards to the man sitting across him. “They’re purebred and you know it.”
“Purebred thieves, is what they are. I should kick you out of here, you know?” Alfonso adds.
“Ay, and deny yourself and your patrons the pleasure of my company?”
“Pah! Keep that up and I will kick you out,” he mutters, but of course it’s an empty threat. It’s no mystery that he likes the guy; all of the patrons do, too. He’s been a regular for a long time, and he’s good company, always up for a card game, a chat or a laugh over a drink. If he was like this in life, too, it’s not hard to see why plenty of people remember him well, making his bones whiter than almost any other skeleton Alfonso has ever seen.
He’s got his quirks, sure, but they’re the fun kind. Sometimes he has very long conversations with his dogs, and will come up with different tales on how he died, each more outlandish than the next; the first time Alfonso asked, he’d looked at him dead in the eye before quietly saying ‘pirañas’. There had been a brief horrified silence before he’d laughed uproariously at his own joke and said that no, actually he was hit in the head by a shoe.
Hardly a week goes by without someone asking him how he died, or what he did in life, and each time there is a new one. He was eaten alive by the same chihuahuas now napping at his feet, hit by a plane, fell off a pyramid, stabbed by a nun, fell off a window to escape a lover’s husband, stepped on a high-voltage cable, got into a drunken argument with a donkey and lost, got into a drunken argument with a train and lost really badly.
He was a postman, a carpenter, a farmer, a priest, a forger, a miner, a smuggler, a magician, a bartender, a bandit. One time, when a laughing man had told him he made up very convincing stories for such a chronic liar, Estéban had grinned.
“Oh,” he’d said, “maybe I was an actor.”
Alfonso doesn’t know if there is any truth to any of those claims, but if not an actor he certainly is a good entertainer; he’s fairly certain that a chat with Estéban is what keeps several people coming. A chat, and getting a shot at playing cards. So far no one has beaten him, and Alfonso hears variations of the same conversation on a weekly basis.
“You’ve got to be cheating!”
“I’m just that good. Don’t be a sore loser.”
There’s some grumbling, but he’s too well-liked for it to turn into an argument. He’s good fun and always ready to lend a hand if needed, and offer a drink. Just not tequila, never that.
Estéban really hates tequila.
“Your photo is up! Enjoy your visit home!”
Coco lets out a small sigh of relief - of course she knew her family would never forget to put up her picture, but she was unable to ignore a stab of nervousness either way - and walks past the checks, into the busy departure station.
“Over here, mamá!”
Julio and Victoria are only a short distance away, and Coco walks up to them quickly. She’s been dead a couple of months now, and she has gotten used to many things, but sometimes she still finds herself staring in wonder at her husband and daughter, lost to her years ago.
Losing Julio had been a terrible blow; Victoria’s own death only a few years later had almost torn her heart in two and if not for Elena, Franco and their children, she may have not survived her grief. She could bury her father, and her mother, and her uncles and sister-in-law and husband, but it isn’t right for a mother to bury her child. It isn’t fair.
But now she has everyone back.
“Where are the other… oh, there!”
Only a short distance away, her mamá and her papá are talking; or rather he’s doing the talking, probably describing how the two of them escaped a crowd begging for his autograph earlier that day, while her mother laughs. Coco saw her laughing like that only on special occasions in life. It is a common occurence, now.
Her papá turns to hold her, and lifts her up in a clumsy twirl that almost sends them both tumbling. It makes her laugh.
“One of these days you’ll both fall down in pieces,” her mamá mutters, but she’s smiling. She turns to wave for Tío Óscar and Tío Felipe, who are just past the checks, to join them.
Rosita gives that giddy smile of hers Coco remembered so well. “Your first crossing! Ready?”
Coco smiles, a hand grasping her papá’s own. She left her living family behind only a short while ago and she already misses them all so, so much. She’s filled in the rest of her family on what happened since the previous Día de los Muertos - how Luisa gave birth to a beautiful baby girl they named Socorro after her, what a good big brother Miguel is, how he and Rosa and Abel make everyone so proud with their skills as shoemakers and musicians, and how Benny and Manny seem inclined to pick up trumpets and complete their little band.
It was amusing, seeing the reactions: her papá is partial to Miguel - “Just like me when I was his age!” - while Rosita has a soft spot for Rosa. Julio sees a lot of himself in Abel and her uncles are all over the twins. Her mamá claims to be neutral, but she did mostly ask after Miguel. Coco can’t wait for them all to meet little Coquito, too. She’s sure they’ll love her.
“Ready to go,” she says, and they step all together on the bridge towards home.
Halfway through the night, most patrons are drunk and singing.
Hardly a surprise, especially on Día de los Muertos, with most of them coming over after a visit to their ofrendas, bringing their offerings with them to eat and drink and trade. Alfonso usually has a very strict policy about bringing in one’s own food and drinks, but well, tonight is an exception. It always was, always will be.
And, speaking of exceptions, Estéban is not joining in. He never sings, even when everyone else is and someone yells for him to sing with them. He just holds up his hands, shrugs and says something on how he’s not so cruel he’d subject them to his singing.
“You don’t want to hear it. Trust me. It’s not an experience you would forget,” he says with a laugh, and that is it. When voices rise singing, Esteban’s never joins them - although, sometimes, Alfonso has heard him humming to himself. Now he’s putting his deck of cards away before stretching briefly in the chair. He gulps down the last of his mezcal, pushes the chair back, and stands. He walks up to Alfonso and puts down money to cover his tab - plus a generous tip.
“See you next week, Alfonso.”
“Sure, next week. You’ll be back by Friday. Like my company that much?”
“You’re almost my type, but no. I like your mezcal. And your patrons are terrible at cards.”
Alfonso snorts out a laugh. “Hah! Hope someone beats you sooner or later, I really do,” he mutters, taking the money. “Plans for the rest of the night?”
“I’ll be watching the firework display.”
“As every year. Have a good night, you cheat.”
That gets him a bright smile. “Every night is a good night,” Estéban says, and turns to leave, the usual spring in his step, calling his alebrijes to him with a brief whistle. They follow him like little soldiers, through the cantina and to the door.
“Hey, do I know you?”
A patron - someone fairly new to the place, Alfonso only saw her once or twice before - calls out suddenly, just as Estéban pushes the door open. It causes him to pause in the doorway and look back over his shoulder. He tilts his head as though considering the question.
“No, I don’t think so,” he finally says.
“You look kind of familiar. Are you… uuuuh… Nando’s brother, maybe?”
A shrug. “I’m afraid not. I had a brother, once, but that wasn’t his name.”
“Ah, sorry. Maybe...” the woman mutters, still frowning in thought, then she shrugs as well. “No, I got nothing. Sorry, amigo – I just thought I had seen you before.”
Estéban gives the good-natured laugh Alfonso knows well, and shakes his head. “No need to apologize,” he says, and walks out of the door, his alebrijes at his heels. His last words drift in just as the door closes behind him.
“I get that a lot.”
"A brief epilogue", I whisper as I get to 6,500 words. But at least it didn't get dramatically long and I'll count that as a win. Thanks a lot to everyone who read/reviewed/kudo-ed this, I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did!
(All right, I'm going back to this thing now. For real, this time.)