Ch 43: The Department of Family Reunions

"C'mon, I've been waiting for over forty minutes now!"

"You said we were next in line!"

"It's already eleven o'clock! We don't have all night you know!"

Old Chicharron tried to ignore all of the complaints and shouts of the other restless spirits hanging around him as he marched towards his office with several heavy, ancient books under his arms. But then more came, some louder and angrier than others, and Chich's very low tolerance for foolishness gave way. Twirling around he let out a sharp piercing whistle that made everyone in the whole department cringe and fall silent.

"All right, listen up!" Chich barked out once he had their attention. "Unless any of you still has some flesh clinging to your bones, you've been moved back on the list of my priorities right now! Héctor Rivera is priority number one, comprende?!"

"Ah, the Riveras have always been your favorites, cabrón!" one stupidly brave skeleton shouted back.

"Pah! Shows what you know! I don't like anybody!" he snarled before turning his attention to the Rivera family, Leti in particular, with a warm smile. "Leticia, how nice to see you chiquita. Come on in, I have all I need to settle this mess. How's your mamá?"

Having not let go of Leti's hand since he had been reunited with her, Héctor was pulled from his seat as the rest of the family walked into the small man's office. Marigold Station was huge, with several other departments and hundreds of skeletons walking and running about. But the Department of Family Reunions was where the most harried of skeletons seemed to be, trying to get to different ofrendas and fighting with weary customer service assistants. They too stared in awe at a living man walking amongst them and able to see and interact with them. But whatever wonder they had turned to ire when they realized that the living man and his family had just cut in line in front of them.

Héctor also noted that there were even more skull and bone motifs in the architecture, the wallpaper, even the floor tiles.

He was picking up a not-so-subtle theme here…

"Héctor Rivera, step up here by the desk." Chich said grumpily as heaved the heavy books on top of the desk with a loud grunt and then took a seat. "Sorry there's only one chair in here and it's mine, so you'll have to stand."

"Oh, uh, that's alright."

"Can I get you anything? Coffee, water?"

"No gracias."

"You're cursed."

"What?!" Héctor gasped, hearing his in-laws do the same behind and feeling Leti hugging him in fear. The blunt and tactless way he received his news was like another slap to his sore face. "How? How am I cursed?!"

"Well that's easy." Chich said as he pulled out a thick folder and started flipping through the pages. "Dia de Muertos is a night to give to the dead. You stole from the dead."

"I didn't steal anything!" Héctor said righteously.

"Oh really? Because the evidence is staring me right in the face." He pointed down at the guitar still in Héctor's grip. When Héctor looked down himself he seemed to wilt a little at that in embarrassment.

"Oh… well, I… Oh!" Héctor held up the guitar. "No no, you don't understand! I wasn't stealing the guitar. I was preventing my son from stealing the guitar! Very different, you see? Heh heh… heh."

Looking around at everyone in order to get some sort of understanding, he was just met with unimpressed stares. Gaspar snorted out a laugh. "Wow, Miguel's a thief? What kind of parenting do you do?"

"I am a good parent! That's not the point!" Héctor whined pitifully. "Look, I didn't mean to steal it, alright? I had no idea this would happen. So can you please undo this?"

Chich gave a fake, simpering smile and laugh. "Oho, is that so? Alright, let me fix that for you with my magical powers, amigo. Abracadabra, oh look you're still cursed. Lo siento."

"This makes no sense!" Héctor cried out. "How does picking up a guitar get me cursed to the afterlife? Many people have picked it up and taken it away for refurbishing over the years. Is it just because it was on Dia de Muertos?"

"No, not exactly." Chich explained. "Sí, it being Dia de Muertos does play a big part in this but simply stealing from a grave or an ofrenda won't get you cursed by itself. Otherwise the whole department would be swarmed with little living babies who've swiped a candy or a galleta for themselves. No, the real reason you are cursed is because that guitar is cursed."

Everyone turned to look at the guitar with newfound apprehension, with both Gaspar and Mirasol stepping back slightly in case the curse would spread to them. Leti nodded slowly with dawning comprehension, letting out a soft 'ohhh' in understanding. Héctor was honestly… not surprised. He knew that music was a curse to him and his family, bringing more misery than good and hurting him so much. The fact that it was Ernesto's guitar, whose memory brought a good portion of that pain, seemed very fitting.

"All right then," he said. "So… what do I do to fix it?"

Pulling out one of the thick books on his desk, Chich absently shrugged. "I dunno."

"You don't know?!" Héctor stared at him wide-eyed and sputtered, then immediately leaned over the desk in agitation. "What do you mean you don't know?! Isn't this your job to know or whatever job skeletons have?!"

"I don't know yet, just give me a minute!" Chich barked out and shoved Héctor's face back with one hand. He flipped through the pages quickly, scanning them over. "Living people don't come and go through the Land of the Dead very often, you know. Luckily for you you're not the first one, I just gotta find his file."

"You mean this has happened before, Senor Chicharron?" Leti asked.

With a grunt and a nod, Chich didn't look up from his book. "Si, some guy got sick and was stuck in Limbo. And then… someone in the department messed up his Limbo retrieval and he ended up getting lost in the Alebrije Forest. We got him out and back to the Land of the Living, but he ended up making artwork out of the damn things now the whole world knows about alebrijes and I… someone got reprimanded for the whole thing and had their pay docked."

"Oh sí, Alebrije Forest." Gaspar laughed nervously. "The only place here besides the Land of the Dead where alebrijes reside in their thick forest, with lush greenery and fertile soil that no skeleton is allowed to go to. Yep, no one goes there. Not a single soul."

Chich shook his head in disgust. "Dios mio, everybody knows about your black-market vegetables in the forest, Rivera, and nobody cares! Case in point, I'd like some mangos next time you get some. Aha, here it is. The Linares case." Finding his spot on the page he quickly skimmed it over and gave out another grunt. "Well this should be easy. The only way to break a curse is to get a blessing from someone."

"A blessing?" Héctor asked, finally getting the answers he needed he smiled and nodded with excitement. "A blessing. Okay, who do I get a blessing from? A priest, a nun? I'll take one from anyone at this point."

"It's de la Cruz's guitar, so you need de la Cruz's blessing."

"I'll take one from anyone else at this point."

Everyone groaned in exasperation as soon as he said it, even Dante made a snorting huff at him. Leti looked up at him with disappointment. "Oh Papa. Why do you hate Tio Nesto so much?"

"I-uh… I don't hate him exactly." Héctor said. "It's just, umm… I have a lot of mixed emotions about him, and we didn't exactly part on good terms- Look, Senor Chicharron, is it? You seem like a nice guy, down to Earth, the kind of guy you could borrow stuff from. Is there anything else I could do to go back?"

"It's de la Cruz or nothing, Rivera." Chich said gruffly.

Standing up straight, Héctor smoothed out his jacket and started to give off an air of high importance. Something that did not suit him at all and he hated to do, but the situation called for it. "Uh Senor, I don't know if you know me, but despite my appearance I am an extremely wealthy man. So here's what I'll do for you."

Reaching into his pocket he pulled out his leather encased checkbook and a pen. Scratching out the details onto the check, he pointedly ignored the way Gaspar slapped his own forehead loudly and how Leti looked up at him with disappointment in her large eyes.

"I'll start you out with ten thousand pesos, sí? And if that's not enough then you can add as many zeroes to the end as you want. The sky's the limit amigo, now what do you say?"

Ripping the check out, he leaned onto the desk and held it out in front of Chich's glowering mug and put on his best winning, charming smile that ended up looking more sleazy than anything else. It was clear to everyone in the room at that moment that while Héctor was the true musician of the two, Ernesto was the true businessman.

"Anyone ever tell you that you get stupid when you're desperate, Rivera?" Chich asked, causing Héctor to wilt. "Look, you need de la Cruz's blessing and that's that. But you got to get it by sunrise and it's already past eleven."

"Sunrise? What will happen at sunrise?"

"Well, if you get your hand off of your attempted bribery of a public official you'll see for yourself."

Putting the check down Héctor saw what it had been hiding and what he hadn't registered before. The rest of his hand was normal, but his index finger was… white. Dumbly he tried to wipe it off on his pants, but the whiteness remained. It was white and… sectioned. Also his fingernail was gone. And his… skin was gone. He clenched the finger and it responded normally, but the sickening creaking sound it made caused the blood to drain from his face.

It was bone. His finger was turning into bone.

He was turning into bones. Into a skeleton.

Bones. Skeleton. Death. Dying. Bones.

…..

"Wake up Papa!"

All of a sudden that horrible smell had assaulted his senses again and Héctor coughed and hacked at the burning sensation coating his nasal cavity. Mirasol was kneeling before him and pulling away the smelling salts from his face with Leti hovering over him worriedly. Mirasol sighed with relief. "It's a good thing Barto gave us this. Turns out we needed it after all."

Groaning, Héctor reached a hand to cover his forehead only to jerk it away when once again he saw the whiteness of bone on his finger. He just laid back down, wincing a little as it felt like he was laying on something sharp and lumpy like a pile of broken boards. "What happened?"

"You fainted Papa!" Leti said. "You're eyes just rolled back into your head and you fell backwards like a tree!"

"It was the shock of it all." Mirasol said, pocketing the smelling salts. "Honestly, I'm surprised you lasted this long without fainting."

Héctor huffed out a short laugh. "I had good cause- Ow!" Shifting in discomfort, whatever he was laying was now poking at him in the back painfully. "Why didn't anyone catch me? And what am I laying on?"

"Me."

The pained, grunted out voice in his ear caused Héctor to scramble up and off his irritated father-in-law in surprise. With a grimace he took him Gaspar's scattered form and reached out his hands to help, only drawing back when he realized he didn't know where to start. Apparently Gaspar had tried to catch him when he had fallen, but his height and weight had been to much for the shorter skeleton and pieces of him were now strewn about the office floor. His skull lay there on his own, glowering unamused as his wife and granddaughter tried to stifle their giggling and Héctor lay hovering but not helping. "You are heavier than you look, yerno."

Héctor chuckled nervously and gripped his forearm. "Yeah, I'm uh… dense."

"Dense in the head too." Gaspar grumbled as once again the bones began to wobble on the floor and magically grouped themselves together. Once he was in one piece he helped himself and Héctor off the floor, silencing his girls with a glare that spoke that this little incident was not to leave the room. Ever.

"Now that you're done with your little nap, I have something for you." Chich said.

Everyone turned to see Chich had gone to the other side of the room and had retrieved a large black guitar case from the corner. Pulling out the plain brown guitar and shaking out of few bits of knick knacks and trash he handed the empty case to Héctor. "I don't trust you to keep that thing safe, especially if you keep keelin' over like that. This way you can protect it since it's probably your ticket out of here."

With a nod and mumbled thanks Héctor placed the golden guitar into the case and made a move to close it but paused. "Why do you say that? I thought you said I needed a blessing from Ernesto?"

"Sí, I did." Chich nodded. "But that guitar is probably just as important,. Because in the nine years that Ernesto de la Cruz has been dead, and the thousands of offerings he's brought back from the Land of the Living since then… Not once has he ever brought back that guitar with him."

Crinkling his brow in confusion, Héctor glanced at the guitar, then to his daughter for confirmation. With Leti's solemn nod Héctor shook his head. "I don't understand. He always performed with this guitar, even in his movies. He loved it. Why wouldn't he have it with him in death?"

Chich shrugged emphatically and glared. "What are you askin' me for, you need to ask him! He's the one who can answer that. Now take that guitar to him, get your blessing, and get out of here. I'm too busy to deal with you anymore."

Pouting Héctor closed up the case and slung it on his back. "Okay, okay. Sheesh!"

"Ay, puta de madre, one more thing: the blessing." Chich said before they left. "de la Cruz needs to get a cempazuchitl petal and present it to you, call your name and say, 'I give you my blessing to go home' and then you take the petal. Poof, your gone."

"…That's it? I'm gone, just like that?"

"Just like that." Chich said. "Now you can get out of my sight."

Leti watched as he father and grandparents head out the door, pausing to talk about something that she couldn't hear, and turned towards Chich with a smile. "You know this will be my third time helping Papa on Dia de Muertos. I don't know what he'd do without me."

"You should think about getting a little punch-out card." Chich said with a smile. "Save your Papa five times and you get a free helado, sí?"

Leti laughed out loud at that, a sweet high-pitched giggle, and old Chicharon found himself smiling even more. The little girl always made him feel better, especially on a night like tonight. "You go on ahead with your Papa. If you need anything else don't hesitate to come back. I'll be here all night."

With a laugh, Leti shook her head. "Well, not all night." At Chich's questioning brow raise, Leti rolled her eyes. "You have to go visit your family later. You always take a later shift, right? So the newer deceased can go first."

"… Of course." Chich nodded and rasped out a hoarse chuckle. "Of course, you know me too well niña. Well after that you can come see me, claro? Tell me all about how you saved your Papa yet again."

"Okay! Buenos noches, Señor Chicharron!" Leti said as she left. "Enjoy your visit!"

Watching Leti close the door, Chich didn't immediately start to get ready for the next skeleton to come in. He just leaned back tiredly in his chair with a gravelly sigh. Bringing his fingers up to his face he glowered hard and he could see the slight gray tinge to the bones. A grayness that had been getting steadily worse over the years. He could even make out the beginnings of a small crack along the index knuckle.

Then he looked down as his lunch kit, knowing that that for the first time in decades it held no offerings, no pan dulce, not even a plain piece of fruit. It was a new feeling for him: Not receiving any offerings, not having his picture put up, that angry buzzer that he had heard from a distance before now reverberating loudly and sharply in his memory. Yes, a new feeling that he didn't like one bit.

Finally he looked around his office. How many days had he cursed that he had ended up servicing the ungrateful souls of the afterlife with little to no thanks or perks? Now he was looking around and taking note of every nook and cranny of the small room, inhaling the scents of old paper and black ink. And it made him even angrier that, eventually, he would be asked to leave this wretched job and never see this stupid room again. And that he'd miss it.

"I'll be here all night." He mumbled again to no one.

But for how long?