"What do you think you're playing at?" Imelda snapped.
Hecotr jumped. He looked like a child caught in the middle of some mischief. "I was just-"
"Get back in bed," Imelda said, storming up the stairs. "You're supposed to be resting."
"I'm fine, Imelda," Héctor insisted.
"No, the doctor said another week."
"The doctor said a week unless I'm feeling strong enough to get up, which I am."
Imelda tsked and waved his correction away. "That doctor doesn't know what he's talking about. He said himself he's never even heard of a near-final death before."
"He said that's because I'm probably the first."
Since Dia de los Muertos, Héctor gained wide notoriety throughout the Land of the Dead as both a tragic musician and a medical marvel. No one survived the final death before and that gained just as much attention as his being the true author of de la Cruz's songs. She didn't know what was worse, being hounded by reporters or by researchers.
The only person she allowed to see him was Dr. Herrero. He'd been their family's physician since Santa Cecelia. He was the only person she trusted to look after Héctor without publicizing it. She could see on his face that he wanted to ask so many questions, but he was at least polite enough to put them aside for now. After all, Héctor was the only person known to beat the final death. Everyone had questions, but they'd all have to wait.
Héctor spent the first few days falling in and out of consciousness. He'd wake up in a daze and ask a few confused questions. Sometimes he asked about where he was and what happened. Sometimes he'd ask about Miguel, Imelda, or Ernesto. After a few minutes, he'd pass out again. The doctor wasn't sure what to make of it at first. His only guess was that clinging on so long took a lot out of him. He told them to watch Héctor and call if anything changed. Imelda didn't know what to do. The dead didn't need food or water, so at least they didn't need to worry about that. All they could do was wait and for Imelda, that felt too much like doing nothing.
By day four, he was able to stay awake much longer, only falling into short naps every few hours. By day six, he was awake for most of the day. The doctor recommended another week of bedrest, though he admitted this was just an estimate as Héctor's condition was completely unprecedented. However, by this point, Héctor was already going stir-crazy and Imelda was reminded of just how bad a patient he was.
She recalled a time Héctor sat up all night with Coco when she had a stomach flu. Sure enough, as soon as Coco was better, he was sick himself. He insisted he was fine despite his glassy eyes, green-tinged face, and hair wet with sweat. She practically had to lock him in their room to get him to rest. After almost a hundred years, he still wasn't any better about letting himself heal.
"Héctor, you're up!" Oscar called from the bottom of the stairs. He and Filipe had just come in from the workshop, apparently to see what all the fuss was about.
"He should be in bed," Imelda shot back.
"He looks alright to me," Filipe remarked.
"I am alright," Héctor insisted. "Perfectly healthy." He grinned, but Imelda's skeptical glare never wavered. "I'll show you. Watch." He gripped the banister with both hands, hopped up, and held himself vertically upside down in a handstand. Imelda's shouts for him to get down competed with the twins' cheers. He apparently couldn't resist showing of a little by balancing on one hand. When he finally flipped himself right-side-up again, he flashed that same stupid grin she'd seen a thousand times. "See? Could a sick man do that?"
"Can't say I've ever seen the infirmed performing circus tricks," Oscar said with a smirk.
"Better set up a trapeze in the courtyard, though, just to be sure," Filipe added.
"Don't you two encourage him," Imelda warned. The twins ignored her scolding and walked out, discussing the logistics of setting up an in-home circus. "If I walk out there and see a trapeze in my courtyard… Boys!"
"They're just having a laugh," Héctor said, putting a hand on her shoulder. His touch was light, like it was barely there. Ever since he woke up, he treated her like an easily spooked animal. She couldn't blame him. After all those times she chased him away, he probably feared any misstep would send him back out again. She remembered the days when he'd sweep her up in his arms and they'd dance the night away. She supposed they'd have to work their way back up to that again.
She turned to face him and he smiled sadly. "You've been wonderful to me, Imelda," he said, chancing a hug. "More than I deserve, but I've imposed long enough. I can take care of myself from here."
"Imposed?" What was this foolishness? He'd better not be going where she thought he was going.
"It's alright," he said, stepping away and starting down the stairs. "I always knew I'd need to get out of your hair eventually." He stopped at the bottom of the staircase and put his hat over his heart. "Though, I do hope, you'll find time to see me again."
He started out and Imelda was left stammering on the steps. What was he talking about? This drivel about taking care of himself and wanting to get out of her hair… What was wrong with him? Didn't he see? Miguel changed everything. Didn't he know she wanted him here? That she wanted to take care of him? That was what you did for family. But you never said that, did you? It was true. She said 'get out.' She said 'stay away.' She never said she wanted him back. They didn't talk, they didn't listen… Maybe if they had sooner… Well, to hell with the past. She was talking now.
"Héctor Rivera, how dare you talk such nonsense?" she demanded, marching down the steps.
He froze with his hand on the door. "Imelda?"
She grabbed his hand pulled him back in. "You spent how long trying to come home? And now that you're here, you want to leave?"
"It's not that… It's just…" He took off his hat again and fidgeted with it in his hands. "I thought you didn't want me here."
Imelda sighed and softened her voice. "I didn't, not until recently, but everything's different now." She placed her hand on his chin and lifted his face to meet hers. "Besides, you don't want Miguel to be disappointed when he crosses over and sees we're still not together."
"Are we? Together?" His eyes went wide and she could feel him trembling.
He had hope in his eyes, but the fragile sort that expected to be crushed. She didn't want to tell him 'yes.' She missed him, and she spent the last couple weeks realizing how much. But there was too much damage and so much wreckage to sort through. Maybe one day, but right now, they just needed a start. "I don't know, but we have a family together. You should get to know the rest of them."
His hope rose, though cautiously. "You… really want me to stay?"
She smiled and put her hands on his. "This is your home."
He smiled too, not his mask of a grin, but the one she knew. "Then I will stay." In his boldest move yet, he bent down and kissed her hands. He lifted his head, and his joy radiated off of him like the sun. "But first, there's something very important I need to get."
Her hands flew to her hips. "What do you mean?"
"It's a surprise," he said, opening the door. "You'll see. I'm coming right back, I promise."
"No, no surprises." She ran forward and caught him by the hand. "I'm coming with you. I want to see what it so important."
Héctor lead her through the Land of the Dead as giddy as a schoolboy. He seemed to have a story for every brick in the city. He, for lack of better term, lived quite a life here. He told her all about how he spent the first few decades with his mother, about how he was an orchestra musician for a while (though his mood damped when he told her Ernesto put an end to that), and about the friends he'd made throughout the years. He went on and on, stories weaving into each other, and she listened to it all. It was something she recently learned she could stand to do a bit more.
Soon, they made their way to Shantytown. She should have known this would be their destination. Héctor had almost been forgotten, after all. They traveled down the rickety, old stair case, (Did he take Miguel on this death trap?) and through the archway which lead to an equally rickety boardwalk. They were greeted as soon as they set foot into the place.
"Héctor! You're back!" An old man shouted.
Héctor waved to him and went up to the table where two old men sat, playing cards.
"If you weren't who everyone's been talking about, I'd have thought you faded away," the other old man said, setting his cards face down.
"Almost," Héctor rubbed the back of his neck, "but I'm feeling much better now." Imelda joined the group. Héctor beamed and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Guys, I want you to meet my wife, Imelda."
"Oh it's the wife." The first old man looked at her like she were a mythical creature.
"We've heard a lot about you," the second old man sneered.
"Héctor's been talking about me?" she asked.
"All good things," the first man assured her. "All about how 'he's not worthy' and all that."
"Never said a harsh word about you," the second man agreed, though by his tone, he clearly thought Héctor should have. "Though I just figured he was blind and you were a bi-"
"We need to get going," Héctor cut in, steering Imelda away from the table. "I'll come down sometime and play cards, alright?"
As they continued along, Héctor's grin got a little more nervous. Was it what the old man said? Or almost said? She started to wonder what bitterness came out over the years. She had to admit, had it been her in his position, she'd have been cursing his name to the heavens. "Héctor," she began, trying to sound as understanding as possible, "what did you say about me when we were apart?"
Héctor cringed and rubbed the back of his neck. "They just know I'd spend every Dia de los Muertos trying to cross the bridge and some details came out over the years. If I felt like talking about it, I'd mostly just go on about how stupid I was and how it was all my fault. But people around here…" he gestured at the bungalows surrounding them. "We don't have anyone else, you know? We cling to each other and some folks get protective."
'We,' he said. He still counted himself among them, among the people who didn't have anyone. Was he so used to being cast out? Did he forget that he had a family now? Or was he simply afraid to believe it?
"Look, it's Tia Chelo's house!" he said, throwing on his mask grin. "You'll like her. She reminded me of your grandmother. You know, the one who threatened to feed me to her chihuahuas?" He went up to a bungalow and poked his head in the tent flap. "Tia Chelo! Guess who you still have to put up with!" After a moment of silence, he turned back to Imelda, a grave look on his face. "Tia Chelo?" he called again, walked back toward the boardwalk. "Tia Silvia? Tia Yolanda?"
His knee knocked into a makeshift table where a game of cards still lay, untouched. Héctor lifted one of the cards and, with a sigh, let it flutter back onto the table "They're gone…"
Imelda stepped up and put her hands on his shoulders. She wondered who these women were. Were they close friends of his? He'd always been able to make friends easily. How many had he seen fade away? She was about to ask about his lost friends when a woman called his name from inside one of the bungalows.
"Héctor? Héctor is that you?"
An old, plump woman stumbled out of her home. She smiled and waved at him, but was soon engulfed in orange lights.
"Patricia?" Héctor called out. He ran to her and managed to catch her before she fell to the ground. "Patricia, are you alright?" he asked as he gently sat her down on a stool.
"Héctor, they're gone. They passed on Dia de los Muertos. I thought I might be alone when I…" The shimmers engulfed her again and Héctor struggled to keep her from falling off the stool. Imelda rushed over and put an arm around the woman's shoulders to keep her up.
"Hey, hey, I'm here," he whispered once the shimmers stopped. "And look, it's my wife I told you about. She's decided to put up with me again."
Patricia turned to get a look at this wife. Imelda gave her a sad, sympathetic smile. Patricia smiled back. "Héctor, you foolish boy," she said, laughing and shaking her head. "After all those times we told you to give up and move on…"
"What can I say? She has my heart."
"You'd better take care of our big-hearted fool," Patricia said to Imelda, flashing a cheeky grin. "The village idiot, this one." She jabbed her thumb in Héctor's direction and let out another laugh which was soon interrupted by shimmers, this time more violent than the last.
She slumped over, exhausted. "I heard you singing…" She was interrupted by another fit of violent shimmers, "…right before Chich passed. Would you mind?"
"I'd be happy to."
Héctor began singing an old folk song. It was one Imelda knew well, as it was one of her mother's favorites. She joined her voice with his. He glanced up in surprise, but kept the soft song going for his dear friend. Patricia smiled, and was surrounded by an orange glow. They could feel her bones turning to light itself beneath their hands. She passed through their fingers like a warm mist. They finished the last note together.
Héctor dropped his hands to his side. "I should have been here," Héctor muttered, standing up.
"What do you mean?"
"When Tia Chelo, and Silvia, and Yolanda all passed… I should have been here to see them off. No one should go alone."
"Héctor, you were with Miguel. He needed you." She wondered if he was always this way. She did recall him spreading himself too thin; trying to be there for her, and Coco, and Ernesto, and sometimes her brothers, and his friends, and his music all at once. But this new fear of missing his last chance… Was is brought on by being nearly forgotten? Or was it something caused by her?
"What are we doing?" He said, a false smile on his lips and a forced jaunt in his step. "We came for something important."
"Come on, this way," he called, gesturing for her to follow.
He led her to another shack up a small ramp, off to the side of the boardwalk. It wasn't particularly different from the other shacks, but it was surreal stepping into where her husband had lived for God-knows how long. In her quest to never think about him, she also never gave much thought to where he lived.
"This is yours?" she asked, looking around. He didn't have much. Just a cot, and a few crates for storage. Although, she did spot a mini-fridge tucked into a dark corner.
"Yeah, it's fine," he said, kneeling down to look under the cot. "I spend most of my time outside, anyway, so I don't need much. Ah, there we are." He pulled out an old shoebox. She only had to glimpse the R on the top to know it was a Rivera box.
He placed the box down on one of the crates and opened the lid. Inside were a few folded up sheets of paper. She took one out and, upon opening it, immediately noticed the little drawing in the corner. "This is Coco's." She remembered writing down the letter as Coco dictated stories she thought her Papá would like to hear. In this one, she talked about seeing a pretty bird, playing with Pepita, and learning a few steps from a real dancer. She ended the letter by saying, "I miss you, Papá, and I love you. When will you come home?"
"It is the last letter I got from you," Héctor explained, taking the rest of the papers out of the box. "I have your part here, too. I happened to have them in my pocket when I died, so they crossed over with me. I've also got the letter I was going to send to you."
He handed it to Imelda, who took it and read it to herself.
I am sorry I stayed away so long. I hope you can forgive me. I realize my mistake now and I am coming home for good. Tell Coco I can't wait to hear all of her stories when I get back and I will tell you all of mine. Just thinking about her sweet smile makes me wish I was home already.
Ernesto is, of course, upset about this, but he will need to understand. We've been friends for years and I believe our friendship can survive this. I let him lead me astray for too long, but my place is at home with you and Coco.
Hopefully, one day I can-
The letter ended there. "I didn't get to finish," Héctor admitted. "Ernesto kept trying to argue with me while I was trying to write it. I figured I'd finish it on the train and send it at one of the stops. I thought, 'how funny will it be if I get home before the letter does,' but…"
"You kept them," Imelda whispered, never taking her eyes off of the paper. "You kept them for…"
"Ninety-six years, yes. They were my last pieces of home. I couldn't let anything happen to them."
He kept it. It was aged as much as could be expected, but he kept it. It was in good condition, too; possibly even exceptional condition given its age. There were no folds, no tears, no water marks… The care show to them became even more impressive when she considered everything that could have happened to them in nearly a century.
She didn't realize she was crying until she saw a tear drop onto the letter. Oh no, marred. He kept it impeccable for ninety-six years and she tarnished it in less than a minute. She folded the papers as gently as she could, placed them back in the box, then sat down on the cot and buried her face in her hands.
"Imelda, what's wrong?" Héctor asked, taking a seat next to her.
She couldn't look at him. She damned her own husband to a century of loneliness. How can she ever look him in the face again? "I'm sorry," she whispered into her hands. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry? What for?" He put his arms around her. That fool. Didn't he realize what she'd done? Why didn't he hate her? He should hate her. She wanted to push his arms away. She didn't deserve his comfort, but she was too selfish to turn it down.
"You kept those, but I lost everything of yours. I tore your face out of our photo. I got rid of everything that reminded me of you. I even ripped up your suit, the one from the night we met. They have nothing to put on the ofrenda. You can never go back and it's my fault."
There was no answer. She looked up to see his face somber, pensive. He wouldn't tell her his thoughts. He rarely revealed his pain to others. When she was young and foolish, she thought he just didn't care. Nothing seemed to affect him. But years of caring for a family taught her to see nuance. He did care, too much, so much he couldn't bear to burden anyone else with his troubles. Why did it take her so long to see? What a pair they were. He didn't talk, and she didn't listen. That was where all the trouble started, wasn't it?
Well, maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe they could still start right now. "Héctor, tell me the truth. Did you ever hate me for how I treated you?"
His eyes flew open and he tensed up. "No, no, everything was my fault. I always-"
"Héctor," she said firmly, "I can take the truth. Tell me, how did you felt about me when I refused to let you see your family?"
He signed and let out a long breath. He dropped his arms from around her and cast his eyes to the floor. "There were times when I was angry," he began, quietly. "I just wanted to apologize. I just wanted to explain, but you never gave me a chance. I had a family and I was never even allowed to know them. But, I could never bring myself to hate you. I always knew I was at least partly to blame and I punished myself plenty. Now that we all know what really happened… it's strange. I should hate Ernesto, but I just don't have it in me. Hate takes too much energy and I'm just…" He shook his head, wearily. "I'm tired, Imelda. I'm so, so tired."
"I'll make it up to you," she said, laying a hand on his cheek. "Carmen, your granddaughter in law, makes photo albums. I'll try to bring them back so you can see everyone. I'll tell you everything I see on Dia de los Muertos. I'll even stay here with you if you want."
He reached out and put his arms around her again. "No, go. I don't want to keep you from our family."
"I'll meet them all when they cross over." He gave her one last squeeze before pulling back again. "Is Carmen Miguel's mother?"
"No, she's his tía."
"How many are still in the land of the living?"
"Well," she began with a soft smile, "there's our granddaughter, Elena. She is Victoria's sister. Then there's her husband, Franco. Together, they have three children, Berto, Gloria, and Enrique…"
They weren't sure how long they sat together, talking about their family. Imelda told him everything she could think of and he drank it all in, the light behind his eyes becoming brighter with every word. He still needed to get to know the rest of the family in the Land of the Dead, she realized. She told him a few details, such as how Julio was a good husband to Coco and how Victoria would still seem cold and distant, even after he got to know her. However, she knew he would love learning all about his family members first hand.
It wasn't until they noticed the light changing and the stars beginning to appear in the sky that they decided to head back.
"Where have you two been?" Oscar called from the doorway as they walked up to the Rivera residence. Dante sat by his leg, barking happily.
"This just came via alebrije mail," Filipe added, holding up a letter. "It's for you." He handed the letter to Héctor and they all stepped inside.
"I didn't know they could do that," Héctor said, flipping the letter over in his hand.
"Well, I guess no one's ever tried," Oscar replied. "It's not every day a living boy crosses over and back again."
Héctor opened the envelope and read the first few lines. "It's from Miguel."
Dear Papá Héctor (and everyone else),
I hope this works. Even if it doesn't, I figured it was worth a try. I'll just start with the most important thing.
WE HAVE A PHOTO!
Mamá Coco kept the picture of Héctor's face that was torn off of Mamá Imelda's photo and we put it back together. It's all framed and ready to go for next year.
I've been grounded for 2 weeks for running away, but that's okay since I've been spending all my time with Mamá Coco. She's been talking a lot more. She asks me to play for her and it seems like every time I do, she remembers something. She's been telling the family all about you! I didn't know you could juggle too! Oh, and she kept your letters from when she was little. You doodled on the corners. I do that too in my notebooks for school.
Anyway, I hope this message gets to you, or at least someone in the family. If it does, can you write back? I just need to know I wasn't too late. And if I was, can someone please tell me?
Tears shown in his eyes by time he finished. "Héctor?" Imelda said, placing her hands on his shoulders and peaking at the letter.
"He is just the best little Chamaco in the world," Héctor said, still looking at the letter, eyes glistening.
"How did I get so lucky?"
Imelda gently turned his face toward her. "He has a lot of you in him." It was true. She always thought so.
Héctor quickly wiped the tears from his eyes. "Well, I can't keep him worrying. Where do you guys keep the pens? I have a very important letter to write."
"Miguel, your street dog is back!" Rosa shouted from the courtyard. Miguel put down his homework and went outside to see Rosa holding boxes of shoes away from the curious dog. "No, no. These shoes are not for chewing," she said, trying to guide the dog away with her foot.
"Dante, come here," Miguel called and the dog bounded up to him, proudly holding a roll of paper in his teeth. "What've you got?"
Dante barked happily when Miguel took the paper from his mouth.
I lived! Or, I guess, I'm still dead. But I didn't fade and that's all thanks to you. You are the best great-great grandson anyone can ask for.
I'm so happy to know my Coco is doing well. I hope you're putting on a good show for her. I can't wait to see her and the rest of my beautiful family next Dia de los Muertos, which is, again, all thanks to you. And of course I can juggle! Do you think you have an untalented great-great grandpa?
More good news. Your Mamá Imelda invited me to come live with the rest of the family. I don't know if I'll be much help around the shop, but I'll try. I'm going to get to know all of the other family members and I'm going to start right now. This is all I've ever wanted, and, again, I have you to thank.
I love you, Chamaco,