Chapter 1: What makes you Think I'm so Special
A/N: This was inspired by a tumblr post by Wee-Chlo: post/172450947415/wee-chlo-in-the-attic-of-the-rivera-home
Disclaimer: I am pretty damn white, the most interaction I've had with Mexican culture is from my best friend I grew up with whose father was from Mexico and other friends and coworkers with Mexican heritage. If I get anything wrong, please tell me and I'll try to fix it.
It was by chance that Miguel had found the photo. He had been searching through his hideout in the attic, looking for whatever tools or parts he could use to help put together his partial guitar. In a box he had found wedding cords, a wedding band with small pieces of tarnish peeking from it ends, and the most important thing.
On the left was Tío Oscar and Felipe as young men and Mamá Imelda in a wedding dress, smiling, something Miguel couldn't really imagine after years of seeing the intense gaze she gave in her photo on the ofrenda. On the other side was the man Miguel had never seen before dressed snappy in a suit, undeniably his great, great grandfather, and most importantly of all, Ernesto De La Cruz!
Miguel had almost fallen over when he found it, his great, great grandfather was amigos with Ernesto De la Cruz? And not just any friends, best friends if he were going off the fact that Ernesto was at his great, great grandparents' wedding. He was absolutely giddy as he pulled out the photo. It made sense, of course when he thought about it, his great, great grandfather was a musician, just like Ernesto. They must have played music together when they were young!
The picture was still in rather good condition, aside from the fold down the middle of the photo, effectively cutting Imelda's side in half from his great, great grandfather's side. Miguel folded the photo on the pre-existing line with the side showing his great, great grandfather and De la Cruz facing up. He placed it to the side of his slowly growing shrine for De la Cruz before scurrying around the attic to find some kind of photo frame to protect it. The frame he found was very worn out, it's wood splintering at the corners and the glass cracked, but the folded picture fit perfectly inside. He put the picture up in front of a couple of De la Cruz record albums he had managed to find, their disks had too many cracks and scratches to be played anymore, but they were prized possessions of Miguel's slowly growing collection none the less.
He couldn't believe his luck at finding the picture, and so close to Dia de los Muertos, maybe De la Cruz would visit, seeing the photo up of him and his old friend. Maybe his Mama Coco knew something about De la Cruz, or maybe she met him when she was young!
He turned to his partially complete guitar, his great, great grandfather and De la Cruz were both musicians, they must have played together. Miguel always knew that he and De la Cruz were connected somehow, and he couldn't help but beam at the information, he was going to be a musician too, just like them!
Fueled by his discovery and idolization, Miguel went back to building his guitar. He made quick work of putting together the pieces he had collected already, and set out after to find more of what he could use to make his guitar, not before lighting a candle next to De la Cruz and his great, great grandfather's photo first. He should try to ask his Mama Coco for his great, great grandfather's name when he could.
Héctor had been preparing for Dia de los Muertos for a few months now, collecting and "borrowing" items for his disguise, and setting up for at least two back up attempts to cross the marigold bridge should the disguise not work. He can usually only manage three attempts in the night before they stopped letting him off with warnings and locked him up for the night. But tonight, tonight felt different, he was going to cross that bridge.
Héctor looked at himself in the compact mirror in his hand as he positioned the long curly wig on his head and put on the jingly earrings. With his old, weathered bones, he had to cross the bridge. He didn't know how much time he would have; Coco was already so old.
He snapped the mirror close with a shake of his head, trying not to think of being forgotten and disappearing before seeing her. With a quick adjustment of the bedazzled jacket, he set off to the Santa Cecelia gate he knew all to well, he had to start early, for it was going to be a long night ahead of him.
In the line for the gate he heard quiet whispers behind him.
"What is she doing coming to Santa Cecelia?"
Héctor didn't look behind him, just keeping his eyes straight and moving up with the line, needing to keep a proper persona to fool the silly machine, or at the very least distract and confuse the gatekeeper enough to make a run for it across the marigold bridge. He should have worn lipstick he realized as he took a step forward smiling with a wink at the gatekeeper, she didn't seem fazed.
"Surely we can skip all this, eh?" He asked, raising his voice an octave, "I've got a lot of places to be tonight, and there's only one me."
"You know the rules," The gatekeeper responded with a smile, enjoying this weird game that they played almost every year.
It was harder and harder to hide the yellowing of his bones and play himself off as someone famous and well-remembered, but he had to try. He steeled himself to book it should that damned machine make it's horrendous buzzing noise.
But it never came.
Instead of the buzzing, a cheerful ding came from the machine, louder than he had ever heard it before for being so close.
It worked! His disguise worked!
"Héctor…" The gatekeeper said softly, her face covered in shock. He briefly faltered, wondering if the gatekeeper would actually let him through despite his fooling the machine, having easily seen through his disguise, "Your photo."
"My photo?" He asked her, curious as to what she was seeing.
"Your photo is on your great, great grandson's ofrenda," She said.
"What?" He squawked, his great, great grandson's ofrenda? None of his family ever put up his photo, why would they start now?
"You know I never actually believed you when you said that you were good friends with Ernesto de la Cruz," She said, looking at the photo in amusement.
"Wait, what? Let me see," He said, leaning over the counter to look at the screen, she turned it so he could get a better look.
Someone behind complained that they were taking too long, but Héctor didn't care, cause on that screen he saw the most incredible thing.
A picture of him and Ernesto, in a busted up little picture frame and flanked by a couple of candles. He recognized it immediately.
"My wedding photo," He mumbled in amazement to himself, except the half with Imelda and her brothers was folded over so you could only see him and Ernesto. He was surprised that Imelda kept it after all this time.
"Have a wonderful visit," The gatekeeper said, breaking him out of his daze and smiling at him, "Make sure to be back by sunrise, and have all of your offerings ready for re-entry."
"Yes, yes, thank you!" He said incredulously, ripping off the disguise and running to the bridge. Habit made him peek over his shoulders to make sure that none of the guards were chasing after him, but they just stared at him from where they stood, surprised by what they heard as well. When Héctor actually got to the marigold part of the bridge, he stopped, cautiously taking a step forward. Would the bridge actually let him cross?
The feeling of the petals beneath his bony feet and actually letting him stand was one of the most wonderful things he had felt.
He continued forward, watching how the petals would glow with each of his steps. Gradually, he sped up, until he was running again, letting out a loud, joyful grito that he was finally crossing the marigold bridge after all these years.
At the end of the bridge was the Santa Cecelia cemetery, almost unrecognizable as it was full of more graves, people, and skeletons than he had ever seen before. It glowed a warm orange with candles and marigolds. He passed though a mysterious invisible barrier and received a soft shine from his bones, it didn't stop him as he continued running through the cemetery, dodging skeletons and graves to and fro. He hoped that he could remember where he lived as he ran out the cemetery and followed the marigold path that seemed most correct.
When he reached the house he remembered he and Imelda had together with Coco, he found it startlingly covered in patterned cloths, dim in the light of the setting sun. It had been converted into a fabric shop. He frowned, remembering Oscar and Felipe telling him when they first came to the Land of the Dead that the family had become shoemakers, not cloth makers. This must not have been their house anymore, they probably lived somewhere bigger with more room. He knew the family had greatly grown from his occasional eavesdropping on Imelda's conversations with others.
It could take him all night to try and find their new home. He deflated at the thought but turned when a dog bark at him. The Xolo dog trotted up and circled around him to show that they could see him, someone's alebrije, certainly not his as he had gone too long without one. None the less, he followed it when it walked away.
They reached a different marigold path and followed it until Héctor stood before a grand hacienda, the wall proudly telling him that this is where the Rivera Shoemakers lived. It was the right place. The dog had left and he slowly approached the open gate and peeked his head through curiously. People of all ages hustled and bustled about as they set up a table and pulled delicious smelling foods from a kitchen to put out, everyone talked and laughed, happy to be with their family. Héctor took a few steps inside and scanned the people as they all gathered to sit, looking for his dear Coco and wondering about his mysterious great, great grandson.
There were two potential great, great grandsons who could have put up his picture. A boy in his preteens, his face covered in a constellation of acne and happily talking with his family, most likely his mother by the looks of it. And a younger boy, no older than the age of nine with an adorable dimple on one cheek, sitting himself down next to the empty head of the table. He tried to listen for their names and weigh which of them could have been the one to put out his picture, but he quickly forgot them when he saw her.
There, being pushed in a whicker wheelchair to the head of the table by a woman in her late 20's, was his daughter. His Coco.
Her hair was a startling white, only broken by a few grey strands still remaining and weaving themselves through her braids, and her skin was more wrinkled than a crumpled paper bag but it was undeniably her. She smiles as she was wheeled to the table, the little boy next to her, her great grandson, greeting her cheerfully.
As quickly as his feet could take him, Héctor rushed across the courtyard to her side, kneeling and enveloping her in a hug despite her not being able to feel it. It took every ounce of hill power to not begin sobbing right then and there.
"Coco, my dear Coco," He whispered pulling away from her and looking at her wrinkled face, "I'm back, I'm home, your papá is home. I'm so happy to see you."
She straightened in her seat, those seated closest glancing at her to see if she needed anything.
"Papá is here," She said gently, assuredly.
Hector felt his heart warm at hearing that, she knew he was there, she knew her papa had come home to her. Admittedly it was a bit worrisome as he remembers hearing that only those who are very old or close to death can feel with their family's spirit is present, but if this was his only chance to see her than he was going to take it in for as long as he could.
There were immediate statement's following what Coco said, his family bad mouthing him, wondering why he would come back now after leaving his family for so long. Héctor felt his mood drop at hearing it, but he couldn't blame them, most had gone their entire lives only hearing Imelda's strong opinion of him, they could only know so much of the story.
His little great, great grandson leaned over closer to Coco, helping serve food onto her plate.
"Is your papa really here?" He asked, his voice low and his eyes bright.
She turned to him and nodded slowly, his face brightened at the response and Héctor smiled at seeing that someone in the family didn't completely hate him.
"I found a photo a couple weeks ago, of your papá and Ernesto de la Cruz! They were amigos weren't they?" He asked, his voice quieter and looking at Coco with star struck anticipation.
Coco didn't respond, probably unable to hear his quiet voice with her old ears. The boy deflated a little at the lack of response and Héctor realized with his own deflation that the only reason the boy must have put up his photo was because of his relation to his famed old friend.
"Miguel, eat, you're a growing boy," The boy's abuela said, if Héctor remembered correctly her name was Elena, one of Coco's daughters. He made note of the boy's name.
Héctor spent his time talking to Coco, and listening to the stories everyone shared around the table, mentally trying to keep track of everyone's name and who in the family they were. After some time he heard the unmistakable sound of Imelda's voice followed by Oscar, Felipe, and others coming from the gate, they were getting closer with each second. Héctor sprang up, running across the courtyard to an arched exit and hiding from the view of his wife. This was a happy occasion, made happier by the fact that he was actually here, but it would undoubtedly be ruined if Imelda saw him, old wounds being forcefully dredged up by them facing each other.
No, instead, Héctor took to inspecting the hacienda, careful not to be seen by any of his dead family. He looked around the empty workshop with amazement, only Imelda would be able to make something this grand with only shoes. He peeked into the ofrenda room through a hallway, marveling at the pictures, but distinctly not seeing his, the one that Miguel had put up. He looked up at the top, where a picture of Imelda, Coco as a baby, and he sat, his face had been ripped out and his guitar had been folded out of view. His photo must have been somewhere else, somewhere hidden. He went searching for some kind of hidden candle light.
In a back part of the hacienda was the xolo dog again laying contentedly on the ground, it perked up at seeing Héctor and wagged its tail. He leaned down to the dog who suddenly jumped up and licked him in the face. He grimaced, leaning away, but still smiled, asking where the hidden ofrenda was. The dog turned and trotted up a haphazard pile of bricks next to the building, one of them slipping out from under its foot, but the dog payed it no mind as it hopped on a tree branch and snuck through the leaves. The dog waited for him as he followed after and pushed his way through the branches of the tree onto a small rooftop, the dog pushed aside a large sign shaped like a shoe to reveal a hidden opening.
"Ey, gracias amigo," He said, crawling into the opening after the dog.
Inside was a dark, dusty attic. The soft glow around him being one of the few sources of light in the room, but in the back, the unmistakable flicker of candles, hidden behind a heavy cloth hung up like a curtain. Héctor crawled over to it and gagged when he revealed the absolute shrine to Ernesto de la Cruz. Record albums, strings of papel picados with Ernesto's name and face punched into them, announcement flyers of his performances, and a handful of worn out figurines, either of Ernesto or his guitar were spread across shelves on the wall. Slightly crushed marigolds and candles were everywhere, only half of them lit, letting in just enough light for him to see everything.
In the center though, was the picture of him and Ernesto, the one that had allowed him to cross over the bridge and see his daughter. He brushed his fingers over the glass in a quiet memory of the event. In front of the picture was a small offering of a couple of cookies on a chipped plate. Héctor sighed, he couldn't be mad at the kid, he didn't know. He calmly took the offering and smiled as they made a glowing copy of themselves. The cookies were a little stale, he could tell by the way they felt, but his was grateful for them none the less. He put the offerings into the pouch tied to his hip gently, so as to not crush them, before noticing the letter tucked behind the picture on Ernesto's side of the picture. In large, childish letters was Ernesto's name written on it, Héctor peeked to the other side of the picture and was needless to say, disappointed to not find a letter also addressed to him.
He sat back and observed the space more, an old TV sat, quiet and black, with a small stack of VCR's around it, most of them were Ernesto de la Cruz movies. Behind him was half of what looked to be a guitar, bits and pieces were scattered around it and a little book about guitars with a library card sticking out of it sat on the floor nearby. What really caught Héctor's sight though, was the mess of papers and pencils to his right. He peeked over at the papers and saw half a letter written out in neater, though still childish, handwriting.
It started with a "dear" but was immediately followed with question marks. Miguel didn't know who he was writing to, but reading through the letter, Héctor realized that Miguel was writing to him. The letter mostly asked about Ernesto, and was only half finished with sentences messily crossed out, but it was for him none the less.
Héctor smiled as he crawled out of the stuffy area, drawing back the cloth to hide Miguel's little secret and sitting out on the little roof. The dog followed and laid by his side as he dangled his legs over the side and took a breath of fresh air. From where he sat, he could easily hear the voices of his family as they talked and shared stories all while being hidden from view. He pulled out one of the cookies and took a bite, absentmindedly running his hand over the dog's head and just listening.
Despite the cookie being stale, Héctor felt like it was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. Better than any fine dining in both the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead, because it was for him, it was from his family and it was for him. He finished it with a smile and just listened.
For about an hour Héctor sat out there. When his dead family finally left, he emerged from his hiding spot and came back to the courtyard, sitting next to Coco and quietly talking to her while they watched the rest of the family clean up the courtyard. Coco was wheeled off to her room and Héctor took to inspecting the hacienda a little more until he knew that she was finally alone in the bedroom and he could sing his song for her, just for her.
He entered the dim room, sitting on the wheel chair next to her bed and turning towards her. She looked to be asleep, but with her wrinkles she honestly looked asleep when she was at the table. He took a deep breath and sang, it had been so long since he sang his song for her and he couldn't help but feel like he was singing it to her for the first time again. By the last note, he felt calm, having finally found her and sang his song for her at least one last time.
"Good night Papá," Coco responded once the song was done, alerting him that she had been awake.
He kneeled by her beside and ran his hand through her hair, "Goodnight Coco," He whispered, giving her a kiss in the forehead before leaving the room.
He wandered across the courtyard in the moonlight to where he knew his great, great grandsons' room was. Inside, Miguel and his other great, great grandson whom he didn't quite catch the name of lay in separate beds on opposite sides of the room. Héctor walked over to Miguel's side, kneeling down next to his bed, he affectionately ran a hand through the boy's hair like he had with Coco.
"Thank you," He whispered.
Miguel shifted in his bed, pushing his face further into his pillow, telling Héctor that he was already asleep. He chuckled and made his way back to the marigold bridge, the night well spent.