Ch 44: Frangipani
Walking outside the Marigold Station and back into the Land of the Dead, Héctor was once again blown away by the majestic sights of gravity-defying skyscrapers and strange animals, that he now knew were the aforementioned alebrijes, flying and buzzing about. There were even more crowds of skeletons dancing in the streets and selling their wares in vendor booths, laughing and yelling and singing. It was so different and yet so familiar it made Héctor's head spin, and he couldn't help but smile at everything around him in spite of his dire circumstances.
But nearby skeletons were staring at him and pointing again, and Héctor tried in vain to cover his face with the short collar of his jacket.
"We really need to do something about this." Gaspar said as he glared at the crowds. "You've got to get to de la Cruz pronto and being stopped by these gawkers isn't helping any."
"Maybe we could go home and get your hat and scarf to wrap around him?" Mirasol suggested. "Or we could buy some paint and make his face like a calavera, so he'd blend in?"
Gaspar snorted. "There's no way paint would be able to hide that protruding nose."
"Okay…" Héctor faintly growled.
"We won't have to worry about that!" Leti piped up, and Héctor once again found himself melting and smiling at Leti. It felt just so good to hear her voice again that it was almost painful, and he hung onto her every word. "If anyone tries to stop or stall us, Frangipani will get them off of our backs. Speaking of which, she will also be our transportation for the night. Just stay here Papá, I'll go get her!"
Walking off into the town square with Dante panting happily behind her, Leti cupped her hands and called out to this Frangipani whoever, letting out a few shrill whistles despite not having any lips. Héctor's chest clenched painfully as he remembered the day when he had tried to teach his children how to do just that, just the tightening of teeth over lips with no puckering. Leti had been the only one to do it, at the ripe age of four years old. He had been so proud.
"A word Héctor," Mirasol said softly, breaking him out of his memories. "Before you two go."
Héctor had to force himself to look away from his daughter, wincing and smiling sheepishly once his attention was turned to his in-laws. "Sorry."
"No no, it's all right." Mirasol smiled. "We… know what it's like to lose a child to death. Especially when they are so very young."
Héctor's eyes widened and his gasped softly. "You mean… Before Imelda, you lost-?"
"No." she reassured him. "No."
"My wife and I may have been the ones who died, yerno." Gaspar said, for the first time sounding somber since talking to his son-in-law. "But we still lost all three of our children that day. Only it was worse since we couldn't see them or protect them when they so dearly needed it most."
"We wished so badly to be able to raise our children, and in the end we got that opportunity with our granddaughter. But… I never wanted it to be because you and Imelda and the family suffered such a painful loss. And for that I am truly sorry Héctor."
Feeling that he may start crying again Héctor pressed his lips closed and looked towards his daughter again. Leti now looked impatient as she tapped her foot, an adorable pout crossing her bony lips. Apparently whomever this Frangipani was wasn't coming when they were being called. It made him smile to see Leti so full of life again despite being dead, especially after seeing her as a hollow husk of her former self the last few days of her being alive.
"Well," Héctor managed to finally say with a little hoarseness. "she seems to be well adjusted and cared for. Thank you for taking such good care of her. Imelda was right, you two are great parents."
"So are you Héctor. You are a wonderful father." Mirasol said, her expression sad again. "You just need to remember how to be one."
His smile falling from his face and his eyes narrowing, Héctor suddenly didn't like the turn in conversation. "What do you mean?"
"You know what we mean Héctor." Gaspar said, and despite being physically twice the skeletal man's age Héctor suddenly felt like a punk kid in front of his father-in-law by the tone in his voice. "We were there the whole night watching you blow it with your family. Making your grown children cry, making Imelda cry, and Miguel! The poor boy will be scarred forever from tonight and that is all on you! Frankly, I should have slapped you again for what you've done!"
Héctor's face grew hot and the guilt that he had successfully pressed down from before came right back up, and he as he tried to defend his actions he sounded more miserable than truly defiant. "No, they… They kept secrets from me… betrayed me… I-."
"They kept secrets from you because they love you." Mirasol softly said, then sighed. "We may have only seen you one day out of the year during these last few decades, but we both know that this isn't who you are, Héctor. You are sweet, full of creativity, loyal and very goofy. The same things I see in my husband, Imelda sees in you."
Gaspar harrumphed at that. "Don't compare me to him…"
"This downward spiral with the whole family started with Leti's death, sí?" Mirasol asked. At Héctor's small nod she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Then go. Be with her for tonight at least. It's high time you finally heal. And with Ernesto too. Remember: we were there that night as well, mijo."
Héctor couldn't help but shiver when he thought about that night. The secrets that Ernesto had been hiding from him, the fight, being knocked out and locked up by his supposed best friend. All of the lies and betrayals that all ended in a bloody smear in a crater. The fact that they were there that night, that they bore witness to that terrible accident, made all the what ifs that he had suppressed for years come back again. If only he had been more attentive to Ernesto's well being instead of his own, if only he had successfully kept him from going on that stage. If only he had managed to reach him before he hit that final note and the bell cracked loose.
He would still be alive.
Seeing the distress her son-in-law was feeling, Mirasol drew him into a hug and rubbed his back when he stiffened up. It should have felt weird: being hugged by a skeleton. But she was somehow warm and comforting, and Héctor found himself returning the hug and feeling a little better. A hand clapped on his shoulder made him look up, and Gaspar smiled at him little. His own little way of offering comfort too. Héctor was grateful.
"Oh there you are, you silly thing you!" Leti cheerfully said, causing the three adults to break apart before it got awkward. She came up to Héctor with her hands cupped together and smiled brightly at him. "Finally! Sorry for the delay Papá, but our ride is here now. Say hello to Frangipani, my alebrije!"
Opening up her clasped hands and presenting them to him, Héctor was shocked to see an elephant in his daughter's hands. A pink elephant, to be precise, with butterfly wings for ears that fluttered lazily and green polka dots dotting her body. The elephant was also no bigger than a mouse. Héctor's first thought was that this was the most adorable little animal he had ever seen in his life, and he couldn't resist reaching a finger out to pet the little thing. He smiled when the elephant made a tiny peep! and wrapped it's trunk around his finger. It was amazing and fitting that his daughter would have such a cute ally-buh-buh or whatever it was called.
But then he recalled what Leti had just said to him about it. And it made no sense. "Our… ride?"
"… Mija, I know I'm a thin guy but if I ride that thing it'll be an elephant tortilla soon enough."
Leti tittered a laugh and lifted a finger to lightly rub the small creature's knobby head, causing it to toot with contentment. "No no! Frangipani's special, all alebrijes are. They can take many forms, do all sorts of cool things that boggle the mind, and not everyone gets them. Only those who need help when they need it, a spirit guide to guide them on their journey through the afterlife. Frangipani has helped me on many an occasion, you know… Wanna see her special gift?"
At Héctor's nod, Leti whispered into the butterfly ear and suddenly they both began to flap rapidly. The tiny pink elephant left Leti's hands and began to float hazily in the air, a high-pitched buzzing noise emitting from the ears. Héctor laughed as it buzzed a circle around his head, shaking his head in amazement. So cute. "Aww, she can fly… Still too small to ride though."
"That's only one of her abilities. Here's the other!" Leti let Frangipani rest back onto her hand, and then began to wind up. "Frangipani: Grande Grande!"
And with a mighty swing Leti flung the alebrije high enough into the air until she was only a tiny pink dot in the sky. And then, within the blink of an eye, a giant five ton elephant came crashing down onto the pavement with a ground-shaking thud. Skeletons shouted in alarm and ducked for cover when the monstrous behemoth was suddenly taking up space in the plaza, and Héctor found himself stumbling back into his in-laws once again making a sound befitting a small girl.
Gaspar shoved him away and helped him balance back to standing position, and Héctor gawked at what had happened to the adorable little animal that seconds ago could have fit in his palm. It was still pink, at least, and the ears were still that of a butterfly's. But the colors were harsher and glowed all over, the green polka dots had transformed into tiger stripes, the tusks were solid gold and as sharp as daggers at the ends, and the trunk looked like it could squeeze the life out of him faster than a python.
Not so cute anymore.
"Ta-daaah!" Leti grandly proclaimed as she went up beside her alebrije without fear, some skeletons applauding the spectacle while others put themselves back together. "Papá, this is the real Frangipani!. She can be as small or as big as she wants! A size-changer!"
Héctor placed a hand on his chest to calm the wild beating and sucked in a breath. "I… see…"
"And guess what?" Leti smiled. "Frangipani is the same elephant that Tio Nesto brought to Matty and I's birthday party all those years ago! Remember?!"
As the words registered in his brain Héctor's shock and amazement instantly turned to agitation and annoyance. "…You mean the same elephant that destroyed your gourmet birthday cake that I spent a small fortune on? And then sprayed me with icing and snot? That… elephant?..."
Frangipani, for all of her grandeur, seemed to deflate slightly at that. A lame wheeze of a trumpet let loose from her, and her trunk timidly poked at the ground in shame. Leti winced and brought a hand up to soothe her chastised spirit guide. "Uy… and I thought it was elephants that never forgot…"
Héctor sighed and walked up towards Frangipani, reasoning it would be silly to be wary about a seemingly wild animal when his eight-year-old daughter was hugging it. The long trunk unraveled and started poking around Héctor's chest, the dainty upper lip of it managing to catch a sensitive spot and causing him to laugh. Gently pushing the trunk aside, Héctor cleared his throat and straightened his face. "Ahem… So this is our ride?"
"Sí." Leti said from above, and Héctor was surprised to see that she was already on top and positioned behind Frangipani's massive head. "Normally I'd have her grab you by your shirt and haul you up here, but you still have all your skin and organs so that would be very painful for you. So I'll kneel her, you step up onto her leg, grab her ear and hoist yourself up. It'll be easy!"
It wasn't easy.
At fifty years old Héctor was not as limber as he used to be, and in the end he had to be pushed up by Gaspar and pulled by Leti to finally secure himself behind her. It was even more embarrassing when the normally clumsy Dante was able to hop up behind him with grace and dignity, panting and smiling with pride. Frangipani was also very hard with thick skin, and it took a few moments to position himself so that he was straddling her back with the least amount of discomfort.
"Oof… Oh!... Ay… Ugh, you'd think an animal this fat would be softer. No no no, wait! I'm sorry, I'm sor-!" But it was too late, for Frangipani's trunk came up and blew a blast of hot air directly into Héctor's face with a giant trumpet. It took a few seconds for his ears to stop ringing and his face to stop stinging before he realized that everyone in the plaza was laughing at him. Smoothing his hair back into place he pouted until Leti spoke again.
"Okay then, let's take to the air!"
Wait what? The air?! The butterfly ears weren't just for show?!
"Wait wait wait wait!" Héctor cried out before Frangipani could even move her ears an inch to begin flight. "I'm fine with riding an elephant, but flying is absolutely out of the question!"
"Aw, what?" Leti complained and Dante huffed in annoyance behind him.
"I agree with Héctor." Gaspar said. "That alebrije is not the most graceful of fliers. I know from experience. You'll be able to walk to Ernesto's mansion in no time."
"We're not going to the mansion first." Leti said, Héctor not seeing the conspiratorial smile on her face. "We're going to go to Shantytown. Tio Nesto always brings his portion of offerings there first before the party and concert. We'll meet him there!"
"Mija..." Mirasol sighed. "Are you sure you just don't want to wait at the mansion first?"
"No, I don't." Leti said seriously. The tone in her voice troubled Héctor a little bit, it was not like his daughter to disagree with an elder flat out. Before he could question it, however, Leti piped out again happily. "Trust me!"
Mirasol's face gave off a series of wavering emotions, clearly hesitating over whether this was a god idea or not. Finally she sighed and nodded, giving Leti a small proud smile. "All right then." Looking now at Héctor, she continued. "Héctor, this may be the last time we see you for hopefully a long while. Good luck, mijo."
Gaspar gave a short wave, smiling a bit. "Adios, yerno."
Héctor nodded and smiled. "Adios. And thank you for everything again!"
With a gentle nudge by the ear from Leti, Frangipani started to walk slowly in the opposite direction down the street. Héctor jolted a little at the sudden motion and made a grab for his daughter to keep her upright, but Leti just shook her head and laughed. Several skeletons made way for the large alebrije walking through the crowd, and Dante gave one last bark at Gaspar and Mirasol as a way of goodbye.
When they all turned around the corner and disappeared, Gaspar sighed. "Do you really think going to Shantytown is a good idea?"
"It might be."
"You know why she's really taking him there, don't you?"
"Sí." Mirasol nodded. "But it might help. Héctor needs to heal from his past wounds. And if there's anyone here who can help him feel better, it's Leti."
"Why the heck would you want Miguel to go to business school, Papá? Are you loco?"
Héctor couldn't help but be little offended at that. Seems like everyone, even those in the afterlife, thought that maybe some of his parenting ideas weren't so great after all. Even Imelda had balked at the idea of business school at first before he had managed to talk her into it the night before. Though from the reactions he got from everyone else, the way they had ganged up on him about Miguel pursuing music, maybe… No.
"I don't understand why it's such a bad idea!" Héctor said as all three of then swayed back in forth as Frangipani weaved through the streets of the dead. "He'll have a secure future, be able to provide for himself and his family. And besides Matty is a businessman and he loves it!"
Leti chuckled sarcastically and turned around to face Héctor. "Papá, I love my brothers with all of my heart, but Matty is a boring stick in the mud who collects coins and stamps that are, in his words, neato. And Miguel's… not the brightest bulb in the city if, you catch my drift."
"Oh, come on. Miguel is very smart."
Leti rolled her eyes. "Just tonight I saw he and Victoria get into a heated debate on whether vitamins existed or not. And before you ask, he was against them being real."
"Oh… I'm beginning to think I don't know my own children." Héctor said sadly.
Leti leaned back against him and hummed. "You used to… but think about it. Music was so engrained into our family for years. It was the backbone to our successes, helped us out through tough times. Even though I could only see him once a year I could tell Miguel was going to grow up just like you, a musician through and through. Then, all of a sudden, it was taken from him at such a young age. I guess that was when the secret-keeping started. You forbid something he loved and made him happy. Made others happy too."
"I was trying to protect him from what happened to Ernesto!"
"I was! You were there that night, right? He died on stage singing that dreadful song-"
Though I have to say goodbye
Don't let it make you-
Héctor gasped as they passed by one of the apartment complexes on the street, one skeleton on a balcony languidly humming along to a radio blasting that song at full volume. Even worse other skeletons had heard it too and started to sing along with it as well. Once again Héctor's insides clenched up until it was hard to breathe, his face grew hot, and his heart started pumping a mile a minute.
Shoving the heels of his palms hard into his ears and squeezing his eyes, he was able to feel that Frangipani had started to pick up speed. Leti must have urged her further to get away from the song as quickly as possible. Once they were at a safe distance Héctor felt Dante's wet tongue lick his hands, letting him know it was safe to let his hands down again. He did but kept his eyes shut as he tried to will his body to calm down. Again Leti leaned into his chest and Héctor wrapped his arms around his daughter searching for comfort.
He was so ashamed.
"You really hate that song, don't you Papá?"
His voiced trembling more than he wished it too, Héctor rasped out. "I… can't stand it…"
"That's very sad." Leti said. "You used to love that song, especially since you wrote it out of love for Coco."
"I can't feel the love anymore." Héctor whispered. "Only pain… and death."
"… It's because of me too, right?"
Héctor didn't say anything. Couldn't confirm it, or rather didn't want to. Because it was true. Two lives taken from him because of that song. Héctor just hugged her tighter, Dante whining behind him and placing his chin on Héctor's shoulder. They stayed that way for a few moments, just Héctor holding her, before Leti spoke again.
"Well, I rather like that song."
The bluntness coming from his daughter was so surprising that Héctor couldn't help but huff out a small laugh, but he just kept holding her with his eyes closed.
"I remember my last day alive. I was terrified, in pain, could barely breathe. But you were all there for me, and I was so glad Tio Nesto made it to say goodbye. I couldn't speak properly, but I wanted you to sing to me Papá. I wanted you to sing that song. And you did. You all did. It was beautiful, and it was the last thing I remembered being alive. It helped me pass peacefully."
"I know you feel like the song took us away from you, but I like to think that it released us from our pain. You were right, I was there that night. I saw Tio Nesto was sick at heart, but he still sang that song one more time. But we're not gone Papá, not as long as you remember us the way we were. Because now we're not sick and dying anymore. Now we are free to FLY!"
At that word Frangipani's wing ears spread wide open at rapid speed, and before Héctor had a chance to open his eyes the alebrije was air-born with one mighty flap and a whoosh of air.
Héctor once again made a sound that he was not proud of and held on tighter to Leti, trying in the back of his mind to convince himself that he was protecting her and not clinging on for dear life. There were many things he wanted to shout out, such as 'stop!', 'I said no flying!' and 'wasn't there a movie about this?!' but all that came up was panicked screaming. Before long they were up above the lower rung of buildings and heading straight up into the air.
Gaspar was right: Frangipani wasn't the most graceful of fliers. She had to dodge other buildings. Towers and cranes during her ascent, even ducking beneath an air trolly at one point. It was a little sickening as she looped around at all angles, and even Dante was trying to keep hold by biting hard on the back of Héctor's jacket and clinging to the guitar on his back. And Leti just laughed and whooped the whole time.
"Don't worry Papá!" she screeched. "We'll be in the open air right… NOW!"
And they were. Now that there was nothing in their way the turbulence was gone and there was now smooth sailing. Héctor slowly released his death grip from his daughter, and Dante from his, when his stomach finally settled back into it's natural position. Carefully he risked a lean to his right to look down below, and he gasped both at how high they were and how even more beautiful the city was from above. The lights from the streets illuminated the ground even more, and several more colors popped out now that they were free from the fog surrounding the flower bridges.
"Sorry Papá!" Leti said as she spread her arms wide enough to simulate flying herself. "But Frangipani is faster in the air than on the ground, and you don't have all night. Besides, it's a much better view up here than down there, right?"
And as the wind blew in his air and he could feel the smile growing on his face in pure wonderment, he couldn't help but agree.