See the end for author's notes.
"Have all the songs been written?
Have all the truths been told?"
"It's getting late, niños," Héctor's tone was firm but his eyes were playful.
"Shouldn't you two be asleep by now? On a school night, as well?" Hector tsked. Miguel quickly rushed to the defense of just a few more minutes. He preyed on Hector's weakness for storytelling too, the little imp! Hector would be proud if he wasn't so amused.
"But—Papa Héctor, can't we hear more stories? Please? Just one! One of your letters said you rode a train—a real one! And it was headed to the West and—"
"Forget about some old train, I want to hear what it was like on the ship you were on! You didn't really have to serenade a giant squid to pass by, did you?" Rosa asked, giving him a studious stare, her nose scrunched like Oscar used to do…when he had a nose, anyway..
Héctor couldn't help it, he threw back his head and laughed.
"One atta'time, chamacos!" He chuckled, then pointed at Miguel. "It was pretty asombroso, aye. And…no." Now his attention was on Rose.
"That was a lie. I apologize for that. You gotta remember niña, Coco was a little girl when I wrote those to her. I liked spicing up my letters so she was proud of her father." He hesitated, feeling his good mood dampen.
"Though…I guess, the best way to do that would have been to stay in the first place, aye?" Héctor rubbed the back of his spinal column in a sheepish manner.
The two children stared softly at their elder. Rosa nodded, but it was halfhearted and Miguel simply watched his grandfather. It was interesting, to see an elder correct himself—to see him vocalize a mistake. That he too, was human. Héctor had a lot of life left in him—it was intoxicating, even if it was sometimes depressing when his past caught up to you.
Héctor jerked to life, then gave himself that familiar, distracting shake.
"Well! You two, nice try!" He teased, "But I meant it. If I left you two stay up any later, your Mama Imelda would come for me herself!"
"She would," Miguel whispered conspiratorially to his cousin, who actually giggled as she stood.
"Good night, Papa Héctor." She told him in her sweetest, kiss-up tone as Miguel called it. Héctor, however, ate it up. He even opened his arms in case she wanted a hug. Rosa hesitated, before walking timidly in and letting the skeleton man hug her carefully too. It was a weird sensation! She saw how comfortable Miguel was around Héctor, but she still needed to get used to the feeling of…bones. Cold bones, at that.
"Buenos noches, niña." Héctor's voice was warm, even if his frame wasn't. "Hey, remember what we talked about. I can't wait to hear you play for me again."
Rosa beamed at him for that, bid her cousin good night and quickly scooted out the door.
"What'ja talk about, Papa Héctor?" Miguel poked curiously as he pulled off his boots and let them flop to the floor with twin thuds. Héctor weighed his options, then a slow smirk tugged at his skull.
"Oh, we talked about how she was going to win the science fair by experimenting on her little cousin." He flashed his teeth when Miguel caught on and promptly spluttered as he fumbled for his night clothes.
"N-not funny, Papa," Miguel chided, making Héctor laugh again.
"Brush yer teeth, comb yer hair, then get to bed, mijo." Héctor instructed, putting enough inflection in his words that not even Miguel argued again. Héctor wondered if it was because Miguel had another plan brewing—and he was right. Part of the skeleton was worried that Miguel was so crafty—the other part of him mused that he had gotten that trait from Héctor himself likely, and that certainly served Héctor right! Karma, Imelda would call it with that coy smirk she always shot him when she teasing him.
Miguel had just drawn the covers up to his chin when he put his plan into motion.
Héctor, who was sitting at the kids desk trying to make some semblance of Miguel's arithmetic's, gave a noise of attention.
"Do you—do you think…that, well, maybe you could…I mean if its not too much trouble, por supresto, I was thinking that, since you're here-here and all…"
"Kid, you better ask what yer gunna ask before I roll over in my grave." Héctor paused, then smiled wanly. "Figuratively speaking, that is."
"Wouldyousingtome?" Came out all in one rush, even making Héctor pause to translate. He followed Miguel's wide, hopeful stare down to his guitar and he put the puzzle pieces together swiftly. Héctor softened, nodding immediately.
"Sí, Miguel. I will sing to you." The skeleton agreed softly, bending to grab the instrument.
"Any requests?" He says the same words he said to a friend a few months ago, god rest his soul.
Miguel smiled, recognizing the words for what they were. He considered his options, then shook his head.
"No requests. Just…anything." The young boy breathed, rolling onto his side to watch the musician play.
"Even that song…?" Héctor trailed off, giving his grandson a meaningful look, gauging his reaction. Miguel looked torn, the expression plain as the nose on his face. Finally he shook his head.
"…not that one. You said you didn't make it for the world. You made it for Coco." Miguel parroted the words softly.
Héctor nodded, but when his fingers danced across the strings, yet they still were the first few notes of an achingly familiar song. Playing the first few chords of the song on Camila made his bones pulse, but in a good way.
"I did write it for Coco. I wrote it for my daughter…but I will sing it for my grandson, as well, Miguel." Héctor explained as the intro of the song gave way to the refrain.
"Remember me…though I have to say goodbye…remember me…don't let it make you cry…"
His words were low, his notes were lulling, and the day had been long. Miguel was asleep by the time Héctor made it to the second verse.
With a faint smile, Héctor paused only to draw the blanket over Miguel's shoulders better. Then he laid Camila gently by the boy's nightstand, and slipped out the door. The dead can walk silently, when they have the mind to.
"Dios mio, Imelda…" Héctor let out a wonton sigh, slouching into his own arms as he stood. "What am I going to do? I'm lost chica, in more ways than one."
Imelda was silent.
Of course, she would be, seeing as she was merely a photo and all. Héctor still smiled at the young woman in the photo, so serious, so strong and courageous. One of his biggest regrets was not carrying this photo with him on the road, but he comforts himself with the fact that having a copy made would have likely broken the bank. The photo was a gift anyway, from Imelda's parents. They loved Héctor, they took a shine to him and when they died of their illness Héctor had written them a song. He had played it for Imelda, once and only once. It was his goodbye to them. The photo was their goodbye to their daughter. Had they been alive, Héctor wondered often what would have happened. Her father might have tried to find him, her mother would have assured Imelda that Héctor hadn't come back not because he didn't too—but because he couldn't.
After the young woman of nineteen lost her parents, she had taken to Héctor like a cat to a warm spot on the fireplace. Her occasional notice of him had turned into something richer and deeper, a strong friendship Héctor had never known before. When he had been there for her, Imelda had never forgotten it. Every night she was following him, supporting his desires to play for crowds in their small little town.
With surprisingly clarity, Héctor did what he had done earlier that day in the doorway of his granddaughter's room. He exhaled, closed his eyes, and he remembered—
"You scoff at this man without knowing him!" Imelda, young and with spitfire in her eyes and a forked tongue, lashed out with a jerk of her arm.
"He sings here every night, he tries and tries, and I see none of you appreciate him!" She scolded. "Then when he stops playing, you tell him he is a poor excuse for a musician?! I would stop too, if no one stopped to listen to me." She spit at their feet, making several grown men flinch as if the devil himself had waggled an eyebrow at them.
The crowd of men in the bar shrunk back, looking guilty into their beer, or at the walls, anywhere but the young lady's offended gaze. Their previous catcalls and teasing had only been the poorly placed words of tipsy men, but in truth, some of the comments were more than a little rude. Imelda had her last nerve struck when one of them asked if Héctor was finally 'going to get a real job, and stop living in the clouds.' The musician in question behind her, hunched over and holding sheets of torn, hastily written music notes swallowed nervously. Well…this had gone…dandy. The worst night yet, only a few dineros to show for it. He would have to work for Imelda's papa again to earn his bed in the hayloft of their barn.
"I-Imelda, come now," He had tried to hush the young woman, but she turned and gave him a look.
"I will not stand by while these tone-deaf payasos ridicule every night you come here!" Imelda protested, but she finally hesitated at the raw look in his eyes. Seeing she had made her point—and perhaps nearly gone too far—the woman pursed her lips and nodded.
"Thank you." He breathed at her softly, so only she could hear. Imelda's shoulders relaxed, and as she blinked her eyes softened. Suddenly she was…gooey, downright loving now, when she addressed her boyfriend.
"Mi poor sol," Imelda purred, turning her back on the chastised men and taking his arm. They would mutter amongst themselves—that Imelda? A firecat, wasn't she! And how did Héctor, Santa Cecilia's musician who couldn't even get on stage without messing up, ever win her hand like he did?—Perhaps some of their mocking was jealously; perhaps liquor simply loosened their tongues too much. Regardless, Héctor ignored his naysayers.
Imelda was the one who would not.
"We will leave now, yes? We will go home, and you will play for me and I will sing for luz de mis ojos, yes? And then sleep, and tomorrow things will be better." She told him, in her no-nonsense voice. Héctor didn't retort, he tucked his songbook away into his vest, sighing as he left the guitar he borrowed from the bar owner behind. He gave it a longing look, one Imelda saw and had to hide her secret smile.
"Yes, Imelda." Héctor felt a little whisked along, but he knows Imelda's actions come from a place of affection, rather than a desire to control. He appreciates it. More specifically, it's a comforting quality she has. Imelda babies those she loves, and enjoyed knowing she was appreciated right back.
Someday, he will mourn the loss of her warmth. Someday, she will turn him away as she did when she was alive a few times. When before it was the down on his luck musician, it was countless suitors who thought that to love Imelda was to command her, to tell her what to do without discussion. Héctor would be the first one to come and ask her, on bended knee, to the tune of a soft serenade.
He would make her laugh, he would want her opinion, want to hear her sing to him. And then one day, she would want nothing to do with him. If anyone ever asks you if a heart can be broken twice, then think of Héctor, and say yes.
Once when he woke up dead, and twice when one of the only souls he had left in the world scorned him.
The memory ended, Héctor's thoughts coming back to the present. So many years…
"Yet you never changed, mi amor." The skeleton touched her photo on the ofrenda lovingly. "It was me who changed." He groaned, shrugging haplessly.
"I'm grateful I am here, even if I don't know why. I want to know my family." He spoke, as if he was begging Imelda to stay longer in the Land of the Living. In some ways, maybe he was.
"But I know I can't." Héctor sighed, drawing back from the wonderful offering table and glancing mournfully out into the night. He felt…lost.
"How do I get back to you? To Coco," Héctor moaned, holding his skull as he heaved a heavy sigh. His ribs flexed on instinct, but that was it. He wouldn't feel so awful if he was covered in flesh and looked human. But looking like this, well…
He needed some air. Or, something like that.
The night was cool and dark, when Héctor slipped out of the wide doors to the shoemaker's enclosure. He hesitated, looking south and then looking north, before heading west. The moon was still swollen but losing her edge—he had plenty of darkness to roam. His eyes didn't understand 'adjusting to light' anymore, and he saw with solid clarity. His shoes—courtesy of one scolding woman back home—muffled his footsteps. It was likely he would hear and see anyone coming before they could see or hear him.
It was hard to explain why he was doing what he was doing. He hesitated once, staring at the little cobbled together display of his letters and his notes to Coco, before hurrying on his way. Santa Cecilia was…bigger now. Not overwhelmingly so, but enough that it took him a moment to get his bearings. He stopped outside the taberna, squinting at it quietly. The building was the same—a little saggy, if truth be told—and it had a new paint job. But he liked the paint job, he liked the sign, and he liked the memories it brought back to him.
Héctor did not go in though.
Mostly because he was distantly aware of the softest of meows coming from down his anklebone. He twisted in surprise, bending over to see the little gray tabby, with high stocking hind legs and a familiar twinkle in her eye.
"Pepita," Héctor almost forgot to keep his voice down he was so relieved. "Aye, did your niña send you to help me? We both know I'm always off getting into something I shouldn't somewhere."
The little cat mewed up at him, her tail high like a sail as she wound around the skeleton's legs.
"Well, you didn't have to agree with me," Héctor chuckled softly, bending down to pick her up. But Pepita raced from his reach, trotting off toward the road that Héctor knew would eventually lead him to the cemetery. She turned at the top of the hill and looked back, with all the expectancy an animal can muster.
He hesitated, wondering if perhaps Pepita knew some way of getting back that he didn't.
He also knew that, while he had just asked Imelda's photo on the ofrenda this exact thing, he didn't want to leave so soon.
Especially not without saying goodbye to Miguel…
Pepita meowed again, this time louder. Héctor shushed the alebrije in disguise and hurried after her. Lest she wake some poor unlucky soul up and they died of fright at seeing the living dead man!
Héctor paused only once more, before slinking off toward the cemetery after Imelda's spirit guide.
Something…something was happening. He could feel it, right down to the marrow of his old, taped together bones.
When Héctor saw the fist tendrils smoke rising from the behind the cemeteries stone walls, he knew with a sinking feeling that he was right.
He really, really hated being right.
I see Imelda—as her spirit guide suggests—being incredibly catlike. Imelda is certainly not mean—unless provoked!—but she would put Héctor before others. It's likely a strong way she shows her affection for people. In the movie she was protective and desperate to save Miguel—to the point she broke her centuries old rule and sang for him, so it seemed likely she would NOT let Héctor's more caustic critics get to him. Many of her terms of endearment for Héctor relate to light or sun—Héctor brought music to her life, and brightened it. At least, he did until he left…