A flurry of orange petals flew around them, and Miguel was gone in a flash.
Héctor closed his eyes. "Good. He's safe," he said hoarsely.
Imelda was still kneeling and holding his hand from guiding the petal to Miguel. She thought about letting go, but it seemed too cruel in this moment. He was dying-again. Imelda had so much to say, so much to ask, but she didn't think they had time for any of it. Mixed feelings were swirling inside her, but one feeling was the strongest: she didn't want him to go, not again. She didn't want to watch him die. "Héctor," she said, but didn't know how to continue. She thought about it. "I...I had fun tonight, with you."
The corner of his mouth lifted up every so slightly. "I'm glad," he whispered. The orange light was glowing brightly-until suddenly, it wasn't. The light dimmed, and then it retreated until only the markings on Héctor's skull were highlighted. His breath hitched and he struggled to open his eyes, his pupils unfocused.
Although Imelda lacked a heart, she could have sworn it felt like her pulse was beating wildly. "Héctor?"
He took a deep breath through his mouth, closing his eyes again. "I think...I think it's stopping," he croaked. "I'm-" A small, soft smile broke out on his face. "Oh, I can feel it-I can feel her. It's Coco!" his eyes snapped open and went wide.
Imelda placed her hand on her chest, smiling and breathing a sigh of relief, despite herself. "She remembers you."
Héctor nodded, putting his hands over his eye sockets. "She does. She really does," he said softly, shakily.
Imelda's smile dropped. Was he...crying?
"I'm so happy," he murmured, voice still thick and unsteady. "My Coco…Papá never stopped loving you," he whispered.
The tone of his voice incited a wave of sympathy in Imelda which she wasn't quite ready to examine yet. She looked up at her family. They seemed happy, but uncertain, not saying anything or moving, like they were waiting for her approval to be relieved that Héctor wasn't forgotten. Their apprehension was her doing. She dismissed the thought. No time for that now.
"Miguel must have done it," she said, thinking about her great-great grandson. While this holiday hadn't been ideal, she was glad she got to meet him face-to-face, even if she spent most of the night chasing after him. She would have been devastated if they didn't get him home in time.
Héctor removed his hands from his face, and sure enough, his eyes were glassy.
Imelda had to look away when a twinge of guilt nagged at her bones. "I wonder how Miguel did it?"
"He's a smart boy," Rosita spoke up.
"That he is," Héctor grinned. But when he moved to sit up, he collapsed back on the ground with a gasp.
Imelda couldn't just sit here while he was in pain. Her feelings for him were still all over the place, but she couldn't let him lie here and suffer. "Here," she held out her hands, "I'll help you up."
He looked surprised, but he lifted his arms and took her hands. His grip was weak and his bones shook and she tried to pull him up. He may have only been bones, but so was Imelda, and she struggled until Héctor lost his grip and fell back to the ground with a clatter.
His eyes were closed, and he didn't respond.
"Mama Imelda," Julio began cautiously, "I think he needs to rest. He was almost forgotten and-"
"Yes, I know he was almost forgotten," she snapped, a chill running down her spine at just how close it had been. She sighed, turning to Julio. "Sorry. You're right," she looked down at Héctor.
"Having someone come back from almost being forgotten is practically unheard of," Victoria said, adjusting her glasses. "It must not be an easy recovery."
It had been a long time since Imelda had anything but a negative interaction with Héctor, and seeing him now, clothes full of holes, tape wrapped around his bones, and nearly dead a second time, filled her with more sympathy than she knew what to do with. She spent so, so long being angry with him, but she hadn't known the full truth. Did she really have a right to be angry with him anymore?"
"Imelda?" Felipe asked, bringing her out of her thoughts. "What should we do?"
Good question, she thought. She had no idea where Héctor lived all of this time, but it didn't matter; she found herself reluctant to drop him off somewhere and leave him alone. Straightening her spine and putting a stern look on her face, she said, "We're putting him on Pepita and bringing him to my house."
All of their jaws dropped (in Oscar's case, literally).
"What are you looking at?" she crossed her arms, her eyes shooting lasers at them.
"Nothing!" they all said. Oscar grabbed his jaw, put it back on, and laughed awkwardly.
Imelda was grateful that it was impossible for her face to flush. She whistled for Pepita. "Oscar and Felipe, you put him on Pepita when she comes," she ordered.
"Yes, Imelda," they said in unison.
Once Pepita flew down to them, Oscar and Felipe did what they were told, and they all climbed on top of her to go home. They lived next door to each other, with Imelda living with Oscar and Felipe, and Julio lived with Victoria and Rosita. They were all silent on the way home, and Héctor remained unconscious. It was a heavy, uncomfortable silence, but no one dared to break it. No one knew what to say. Oscar and Felipe had known Héctor in life, but none of the others did, and they hadn't even been allowed to speak of him for most of their lives and afterlives. He was a stranger to them, and it was because of Imelda.
No, it wasn't her fault.
She looked at Héctor, unconscious and curled up on Pepita's back.
It was becoming more difficult to feel blameless in all this.
Imelda shut her bedroom door, leaning against it and sighing heavily. That was the longest night of her life-or, afterlife. So much happened so fast, but now everything was silent.
Héctor grunted, rolling over on his side.
Well, almost silent.
She had told Oscar and Felipe to bring Héctor to her room-solely so she could keep an eye on him, thank you very much. She just wouldn't be able to forgive herself if she left Héctor alone and something bad happened. If he didn't recover. Was it possible that he wouldn't get better? Coco remembered him, but as Victoria said, someone coming back from nearly being forgotten was a rare occurrence. This was uncharted territory for all of them.
She took the ribbons out of her hair and undid her braids, letting it all fall to her shoulders. There was a red armchair in the corner of her room next to a bookcase, and Imelda grabbed it and dragged it next to the bed. She feared the chair dragging against the floor was making too much noise, but Héctor didn't stir. She sat down in it, staring at him. She noticed all of the tears and holes in his clothes again and wondered what on earth he had been up to all these years. More troubling than the state of his clothes was the tape wrapped around his arm and leg. Were his bones broken under that tape? How did that happen? Aside from that, Imelda noticed just how yellow his bones were compared to hers. She looked down at her hands. They were pearly white.
But this was his fault, a stubborn voice in her mind said.
"He tried to go back to you and Coco, but de la Cruz murdered him!" the memory of Miguel's voice retorted.
Imelda sat back in the chair, wrapping her arms around her torso. She watched de la Cruz ruthlessly throw Miguel over the ledge. She didn't doubt he murdered Héctor...but…But he shouldn't have left them in the first place! Coco was so young then, and she told him it wasn't a good idea to leave him when their child hadn't even started school yet. Imelda was left alone to raise Coco. She loved her daughter with all her heart, but it wasn't easy to be a single mother.
But he would have gone back to you if he could, she pictured Miguel arguing back to her. If de la Cruz hadn't done that, then would Héctor really have come back?
Imelda's chest was heavy. The funny thing about being dead was that there were still phantom pains from life, and it felt like her heart was clenching. She spent most of her life angry and hurt, thinking that her husband left her for good. When Héctor tried to reconnect with her in the Land of the Dead, Imelda always thought that he had felt zero remorse for his actions, and that only made her angrier. How could he expect her to forgive him when he went off and lived life without her and Coco, all for music? But...that was what she always thought. If she had been wrong about Héctor, then that meant the sting of betrayal that hung over her in life and death was over nothing.
That was the root of her current worries; what if she had been wrong all this time? In the heat of the moment when she saw de la Cruz, the truth came out: he was the love of her life. She was bitter for decades because she'd loved him so much, and it hurt to think that he preferred music to her. How could she forgive a husband who thought music was more important than her and Coco? She couldn't, but could she forgive a husband who was merely the victim of a crime? Why didn't she tell him before that he had been murdered? Granted, Imelda never gave him much time to speak, but still.
She needed to talk to him. She needed to hear the truth from Héctor himself.
Héctor was unconscious for three days.
Imelda was worried.
It didn't make sense. She spent over ninety years without him and tried to keep him out of her thoughts as much as possible. Now, he was all she thought about. She was independent by nature and hated this feeling.
"You're a natural worrier," Rosita said gently, "and he is very sick. Well, could it really be called a sickness?"
"I don't know," Imelda said, taking off her glasses. She tried going to their shoe shop as a distraction, but nothing was working. It was difficult to admit this to her family. "If the idiota hadn't gotten himself in this situation in the first place, we wouldn't be here right now."
Rosita was frowning. "I know, Mama Imelda. But, um, well…" she trailed off.
"What?" she asked.
"Hasn't he suffered enough?"
The question caught Imelda off guard.
"Ah, sorry!" Rosita said nervously. "It wasn't my place to say. That was very rude of me," she looked down in shame.
Imelda blinked slowly. "No, it's...it's okay." The image of Héctor being forgotten, the bright orange light swirling around him, made guilt fully wrap around her bones. Rosita was right. He did suffer enough. Imelda never experienced the pain of being forgotten, and with that alone, she couldn't possibly know what it had been like for him all these years. Just the pain of the concept alone, of their daughter forgetting her, was unbearable for Imelda to ponder. How much pain was Héctor in for years? What was it like when he first realized he was being forgotten?
Imelda stood up, abandoning her work. "I think I should check on him." When she walked back to her house, however, there was a group of reporters.
"Señora Rivera!" one called, shoving a microphone in her face. "Is it really true that your husband, Héctor, was the one behind de la Cruz's songs?"
Imelda scowled and pushed the microphone out of her face, glaring into the lens of a camera someone was holding. "Who said you could all be outside my house? I don't want to talk to you."
"But señora, everyone's talking about this last Día de los Muertos!" the cameraman insisted. "That living boy, was he right that de la Cruz murdered your husband?"
It was to be expected that everyone had questions, considering how much everyone had adored de la Cruz. Imelda tried to cut music out of her life and afterlife as much as possible, but she couldn't escape the fawning over him. Imelda had seen Rosita and Victoria turn on the cameras, so everyone had to have seen what happened behind the curtain. So yes, it was understandable that people wanted to know the truth, but she was absolutely not going to stand for strangers showing up on her property unannounced! Imelda was about to take off her shoe and smack them all in the skull. How dare they ask her such invasive questions!
"Leave my husband alone!" she yelled. Then, she whistled for Pepita, and smiled in satisfaction as everyone ran away from the giant, roaring alebrije. She went back into her house and locked the door. Honestly, the nerve of those idiots! Even if she felt conflicted about everything, she wouldn't let anyone ask such personal questions about her husband and his fate. The defensive fire in her gut was a familiar sensation, it appeared whenever she felt protective of her family.
She sighed. The ice in her proverbial heart was thawing, and she knew it.
Finally, on the fourth night, a groan came from the bed.
Imelda looked up from her book, setting it down on the bedside table. "Héctor? Can you hear me?"
He groaned again, turning his head towards her, and his hat fell over his eyes.
She picked up his hat and placed it on the bed next to him. A part of her wanted to reach out and touch him, but she placed her hands on her lap.
Héctor's eyes slowly blinked open, squinting at her. "Imelda?" he asked gruffly. He coughed, rolling over to face her. "Where am I?" his eyes wandered around the room.
"You're in my bedroom," she told him.
He locked eyes with her. "Oh. That's unexpected. But I'm not complaining."
She rolled her eyes. "Héctor…"
"Sorry, bad joke," he winced. He tried to sit up, but his elbows shook and he fell back to the mattress and pillows.
"Easy," she told him, "you're in no state to be moving around."
"How long have I been here?" he asked.
"Four nights," she said.
They were silent. Imelda had so much to say but didn't know how to start.
Héctor cleared his throat. "Sorry. For bothering you with this," his eyes flickered downwards.
"You're not bothering me," Imelda said, "and I wasn't going to drop you off in some gutter while you're recovering."
His mouth twitched up into a smile. "Thanks. It's...it's more than I deserve, I know."
Imelda shook her head, her brow furrowing. "Don't say that. Héctor, I was angry at you for a long, long time-"
"I know," he said in a small voice, shame in his eyes. "You have every right to be."
"You didn't let me finish," she crossed her arms. "I was angry at you for a long time, but, Héctor, it's going to be difficult for me to forget how hurt I was, but I want to hear your side."
"Oh?" he perked up, hope emerging in his eyes.
He seemed so excited at the mere possibility of Imelda not hating him. Remorse nagged at her again. "I have questions, and I need answers," she said firmly.
"Of course, I'll tell you anything," Héctor said earnestly. He was so similar to how he was when he was alive, young and full of energy and light. Even though they were all skeletons now, he even looked similar to the last time Imelda saw him alive.
"How did you die?" she blurted out. "How did de la Cruz do it?" Imelda mentally slapped herself with her shoe. She would have scolded her family for being so tactless. What got into her?
"Ah," Héctor, deflated a bit, carefully shifting so he was propped up on the pillows a little more. "Well," he looked down at his lap, "it was poison. It was a toast to our friendship," he spat, expression turning bitter. "He walked me to the train station. I felt a horrible pain in my stomach, I fell to the ground," he shrugged a shoulder, "I woke up here."
Imelda gripped the material on his dress, the image of Héctor collapsing flashing before her eyes. "The train station?" she asked.
He looked back at her. "Yes, I was just about to come home," he gave a weak smile. "I was homesick. I missed you and Coco. It was always Ernesto's dream more than mine to become famous. I packed up my song book, and that's what drove him over the edge," a snarl twisted his mouth to the side. "I can't believe I ever trusted him. I still can't believe he did that. We were best friends," he said sadly.
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Imelda demanded, resisting the urge to smack his arm. Miguel was right; he really was going to come home to then. He was almost to the train. He was so close to coming back to her, and that musician ruined everything! If he weren't already dead, Imelda would have taken care of him, herself.
His eyes widened a little. "I didn't find out until a few nights ago. If it weren't for Miguel putting the pieces together, I don't think I ever would have found out. I thought it was food poisoning." His shoulders sagged. "I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised. He stole my guitar and songs...Remember when you got me that guitar?" he asked, a wistful look on his face.
"Yes, I do," she said, her mind reeling, her hands shaking from gripping her dress so tightly. The truth was plain to see and hit her like ton of bricks. She had been wrong about Héctor for nearly a century.
"Hey," his smile dropped from his face, "what's wrong?"
"Everything!" she threw her hands in the air, startling him. She huffed out a breath in annoyance. "That man, if I could get my hands on him!"
"We're all dead, Imelda."
"You know what I mean!" she balled her hands into fists.
"For what it's worth, I roughed him up a bit when I found out," he smiled, gold tooth shining. "Until his security guards threw me into a sinkhole," he muttered. "You found me and Miguel not long after that, by the way."
Once again, she could have sworn it felt like she had a pulse beating wildly in her chest.
"I'm the love of your life?" Héctor had asked her. Even after decades of being yelled at and turned away, he still loved her. He never stopped, he was murdered, and what was her response to that?
"And so what if it's true?!"
"Imelda?" Héctor reached out a weak hand and placed it on her forearm.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she said, "I'm sorry, Héctor."
He gaped at her. "You're sorry? For what?"
"I misjudged you," she opened her stinging eyes, hoping no tears were actually there. This was hard, she was never good at admitting she was wrong, but she couldn't treat him badly anymore. "I wanted nothing to do with you because I thought you didn't think we were important enough to you. I thought you cared about music more than us."
"No," Héctor shook his head, "never, Imelda. Never. I shouldn't have left in the first place, I know, but I never left because you two weren't important enough. Even when I was writing music, it was always about you and Coco. De la Cruz's biggest hit, 'Remember Me'? It was always about me and Coco. That liar stole it." He shook away the anger that came over him at the mention of de la Cruz and gently moved his hand down, grasping hers. His face grew soft and serious at the same time, sweet but intent. "I'll always love you and Coco, even if you don't love me. And," he dropped his hand, blinking and looking down, "I understand if you still don't want me in your life anymore, but I want you to know that you and Coco were always most important to me. I just want you to know the truth."
Imelda felt a hot tear leave her eye socket, and it wasn't fair. Why did skeletons still cry? She wiped at her eye roughly.
"Mi amor," Héctor tried reaching out to her, but he let out a pained grunt and had to lie back down.
Imelda took a few deep breaths, composing herself. She had to be strong. For him. She lifted her head. "Héctor. As I said, I was angry with you for a long time, and it will be difficult to forget all of that, but I think you've suffered enough."
His face lit up, gold tooth shining again, eyes dancing. "Does that mean? Imelda, are you giving me a second chance?"
She grinned. "Yes, I am."
He gasped, smiled even wider, and let out a long, loud grito. "Oh, I wish I could get up and jump right now!"
"Héctor," she laughed, "it's late, someone could hear you."
"Skeletons don't actually need sleep," he dismissed with a wave of the hand, still beaming. He tried to sit up a little more again, using the pillows and headboard for support. "I promise I won't leave again, Imelda," he said excitedly, "I'll be here for you and play for you and write you more songs and-"
"All right, all right," she found herself laughing more, "calm down." For the first time in ninety-six years, it felt like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She felt good.
Héctor held out his arms, though they shook and wobbled. "How about a kiss for your husband?"
Imelda put a hand over her mouth, stifling her laughter. She felt seventeen again. "Are you serious?"
"Of course I am! I haven't kissed anyone in ninety-six years!"
"Really?" she lowered her hand. "Never?"
His smile faded, and his shaking arms dropped. "No, of course not. I'm a married man."
She didn't exactly think that Héctor slept around after he left (and it was quite literally impossible to sleep around once they were dead), but the fact that he had been loyal all this time was a pleasant surprise. I really let myself think the worst of him, she thought.
"I'm also the love of your life," he wiggled his eyebrows at her.
"Ay," she rolled her eyes.
"But that's okay, because you're the love of mine," he said playfully, the pain on his face from earlier in their conversation gone.
Well, if it would make him happy. Imelda leaned over the bed and lowered herself, hands planted on the mattress, and pressed her mouth to his. It felt odd, honestly. The last time she kissed him, he had soft, warm lips. Pressing bone to bone, teeth to teeth, would be something she had to get used to, but the dreamy expression on Héctor's face when she pulled back made it worth it. Imelda sat on the bed next to him. "Satisfied?"
"Oh, yes," he said suggestively.
"You're so immature."
"I'm twenty-one at heart."
Imelda frowned. "Twenty-one." God, he was so young. She and Coco lived more than double his lifespan individually. Twenty-one was barely an adult. She hated de la Cruz more with each passing second for stealing years away from her husband.
"No more tears," he told her, placing his hand on her cheekbone. His smile grew cheeky. "The white streak on your hair suits you. It's sexy."
She laughed incredulously. "You've got to be kidding."
"I'm not!" he insisted. "I like it. It makes you look distinguished. It fits your personality perfectly."
"Hm. Thank you." Once again, she was glad she couldn't blush anymore. She had forgotten how much she enjoyed Héctor's attention. Averting her gaze, feeling self-conscious, she admitted, "For a skeleton, you don't look bad, either."
He laughed heartily. "I don't look bad? That's the best compliment you can come up with?"
"Ay," she pointed a finger at him, "if you keep being smart, that's the only compliment you'll get."
He was still giggling. "You're just how I remembered you."
Imelda truly felt like she was blushing, no matter how much she knew it was impossible. "All right," she lightened up a little, "even as a skeleton, you're still guapo. And, I'll admit I miss that big nose you had."
"It wasn't that big," he pouted.
"Don't you remember how much you'd have to turn your head to kiss me?" The look Héctor gave made her laugh. She was having fun. "But I did like it. Except that it made sharing a bed with you unbearable."
"Huh?" his brow furrowed in confusion. "Why?"
"You snored louder than a freight train."
Héctor groaned. "Go back to being mad at me, that was less embarrassing."
Imelda decided to give up the teasing. What was it about being around him that made her feel and act like a teenager again? "Where'd you get that gold tooth, anyway?" she asked, changing the subject. "You didn't have that in life."
"Oh, heh, no," he touched it with his forefinger. "I got it years ago while trying to cross the bridge. The security guards were aggressive that night, and I got punched in the mouth."
She regretted asking. "Well, it makes you stand out."
"I actually like it," he said. "I was guapo before, but this tooth makes me irresistible."
"If you weren't already hurt, I would hit you with my shoe." There was no venom in her words, though, as she lay down next to him, putting his hat on the bedside table. It felt odd to let go of all those bitter feelings and to be physically close again, but Imelda was just tired of feeling badly. She was always a determined woman, and if she were now determined to be happy with Héctor, then so be it.
"You're lying with me?" he asked in a low, fake husky voice.
"I'm just tired of sitting in that chair, idiota," she resisted the urge to roll her eyes again.
He made a teasing, humming sound. They lay in silence for a few moments, and then the smile gradually dropped from his face. "Imelda?" he asked softly.
"Well, I was just thinking that your family-"
"Our family," she corrected.
He grinned, but there was a hint of sadness on his face. "Right, but, I don't know who they are. I know Oscar and Felipe, but who are the three others?"
Every time he tried to approach Imelda, she chased him away and he had no opportunity to even ask who they were. "Julio was Coco's husband," she told him, " and Rosita is his sister. Victoria is Julio and Coco's first child."
Héctor's mouth dropped open, and the sadness in his eyes only grew. "Oh. Well, heh, I guess it shouldn't be a surprised that Coco got married… 'first child'?"
"Yes, they had another daughter, Elena. She's still alive."
Héctor was silent, rolling over onto his back carefully. He was looking up at the ceiling.
"What are you thinking?" Imelda asked, his silence growing unnerving.
He shook his head. "I guess...I knew how much time had passed, but every time I picture Coco, I see a little girl. To think of her getting married, becoming a mama?" His voice grew thick. "It drives home how much of her life I missed."
Imelda hadn't thought of that. She had been there to see her daughter get married and then have two children of her own. She watched Coco grow up into a beautiful woman. Before yesterday, she would have said that was what Héctor got for leaving. Not anymore.
"I can tell you about her life if you'd like," Imelda placed her hand over Héctor's. "I can tell you more about Julio, Rosita, and Victoria, too."
Héctor turned his hand around to intertwine their fingers, his expression still solemn. "I'd like that."
Imelda began telling stories about Coco, from how she was one of the brightest students in school to how she developed interests and hobbies, to how she picked up shoemaking right away to when she met Julio. She was going to keep talking and tell him about Victoria and Elena, but Héctor was blinking more than usual. "Are you tired?" she asked.
Héctor startled a little. "No. Skeletons don't need sleep. Keep telling me about her."
"You need to rest," she said firmly. "You know as well as I that you need more time to recover." By this point, the sun was starting to rise in the Land of the Dead, casting an orange glow through her curtains. How long had she been talking?
"No," he insisted. "Please, keep telling me about her."
Imelda shook her head. "Your recovery is more important."
"No it's not. Please," he said, tone growing dejected.
Imelda sighed softly. "Héctor, I'll be here when you wake up again. We can talk then."
There was a surprised look on his face. "Oh, yeah. Ha, yeah, that's right."
Imelda frowned. "I told you I'm giving you a second chance."
"I know, I know," he smiled, "it's just been a long time since we've shared a bed. Goodnight kiss?" he closed his eyes in anticipation.
"Oh, fine." She kissed him again, warmth blooming in her bones. His arms wrapped around her, although his embrace was still weak.
When their kiss broke, he was smiling sweetly. "Purple's a nice color on you, you know? Especially on your lips."
Warmth bloomed in her bones, but Imelda just said, "Go to sleep."
"Only for you, mi amor," he breathed, shutting his eyes. He was out pretty quickly, which didn't surprise her. It would probably be several days, at least, before he could stand up and walk around again, and he had probably stayed awake longer than he should have tonight. Imelda was grateful that they were able to finally have a long, honest talk. As she lay there with him, it started to sink in that she had her husband back, and that Héctor was truly the kind-hearted man she fell in love with.
There were still things she would want to discuss with him, like what he was doing all this time and how his clothes got torn and his bones got damaged. He needed to form bonds with their family members, which Imelda knew would be uncomfortable and maybe unnatural at first, considering how she forbade them all from even mentioning his name for decades, but if she learned one thing since Día de los Muertos, it was that he wanted to have a loving family again. She was sure they would warm up to him in time, especially if she told them to.
Imelda almost groaned aloud in annoyance, but refrained just in time so she didn't wake him. She just remembered the reporters. They would probably have to deal with all of that eventually, too, but that was much less important than Héctor's need to rest and connect with his family. All of that would be a headache for another day. For now, though, as the sun rose higher in the sky, she was being held by her husband for the first time in nearly a century. He was here with her, and clearly had no intention of leaving again. Imelda allowed her guard to be let down, and the relief felt freeing. She hadn't realized just how much her hurt feelings weighed down on her every day, even in death. But a few nights ago, he managed to play his way into her heart yet again.
In the end, despite all odds, Héctor came home to her.