“So the contest is across town?” The guitar had been too heavy for Miguel to hold, and Héctor had taken it from the struggling boy, and how had it in his hand, tuning it, brow lowered in concentration. “Isn’t that too far…”
“Nah- we’ll take the trolly. Contest doesn’t start for at least another hour- oye did this man ever tune his guitar…” He fiddled with the strings.
Miguel snorted, running ahead to kick at a can a few times, jumping up and off the sidewalk. The night had fallen to its darkest, but the light pollution was still too piercing to see any stars. If there were any. Miguel wasn’t really sure how this place worked yet.
He jumped off the sidewalk again, managing a good enough kick at a stray rock to send it flying against a trashcan. “GOAL!”
Héctor snorts. “You always this loco?”
“Yeah,” Miguel circled back. “I used to run a whole lot slower though. Like this,” he demonstrated, jogging in place while Héctor watched with a brow raised. “And now I’m more like this!” And he picked up the pace. “Abuelita says I’m going to break my neck on the calle one day, and then I won’t go fast anymore.”
Miguel shrugged, running ahead again. There’s a call from behind him; “Just stay where I can see you!”
He doesn’t think much about it, turning round to run backwards and flash a single-dimpled smile and a thumbs up.
It took a good thirty minutes to even reach the station. The twisted roads they’d taken led to the back where a tall flight of rickety steps sat that Héctor pulled him away from. “The stations right up there,” he said, pointing up to a platform made concrete and metal. Long wires stretched out east and west, and they rumbled and trembled with far off movement. There was light spilling over the edge, and Miguel could hear the sounds of people milling around, waiting for their train.
“Can’t we just take these?” He pointed at the steps. There were a few skeletons climbing them. Héctor seemed to consider it a minute.
“… No... No lo sé. The last time I did, one of them broke off. Mira.” Miguel followed his finger. There was a gap he could see right in the middle. A skeleton climbing up hopped over onto the next one, and even that creaked and groaned underfoot. That seems to be the deciding factor. “Come on. There’s another set around the block. It’s not far. And hey! If we hurry, we’ll catch the next one! Andale!”
There was a long set of concrete steps up to the elevated platform illuminated by streetlights, but it was a good ten-minute walk away. And Miguel watched, intrigued, as some of the other skeletons instead chose to climb the rickety, steeper wooden ones just to their left. Héctor continued to walk on, not noticing Miguel moving off to the side, following the small procession of travelers.
“I’ll have to show you what my old guitar looked like, chamaco. I don’t play much anymore. But oh, I took care of that one. Not like this old thing-“
Miguel watched a couple holding hands walk up the first, second, third step. It seemed to hold their weight fine. He poked his own arm -all fat and muscle- and wondered if he’d weight more or less. Probably less!
So there was no problem if he just…
“-and anyway, my old guitar- oh you should have seen it, Chamaco. Era tan hermoso. Todo blanco y- ¡Espere! Chamaco, where’d you-“
“Come on, Héctor!” Miguel was already five steps up, and gesturing to the skeleton. The wooden steps creaked under him, and he gave them an experimental lean. When nothing happened and he was satisfied with his lack of plummeting, he climbed up another two. “We can beat the crowd if we go now!”
He expected Héctor, the boisterous skeleton he was, to follow along, jovially recounting old stories as he’d been doing while they traveled.
He didn’t expect said skeleton to rush over, putting the guitar down, just to reach up and try to grab Miguel. His hand just brushed Miguel’s ankle. “Hey! Get down from there!”
“Hey- stop! I’m just trying to go up! No seas un bebé.” Miguel stepped back out of his reach. He looked up. The staircase was long, and a little less than secure, sure. But he could hear the trolly rolling by, just over the top past his line of vision. “Come on, it’s faster-“
“It’s fine. They’re all doing it.”
Hêctor lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. “They’re skeletons, Chamaco. Which you, if you remember, are not.”
“So?” He went another step up, ready to bound his way to the top and tell his guide see? Told you it was fine!
He wouldn’t get the chance.
His name was not said with any sort of friendly worry. A loud irate bark, not unlike the way his own father often demanded attention from the perpetually troublesome boy. “¡Miguel, ya basta!”
Miguel froze. Swallowed. “I’m fine…” he said, hesitating. He nearly took another step up.
That seemed to be the last straw.
“Miguel,” Héctor said again. Slower. Darker. “Baja. Ahora.”
And it was that command that had Miguel slowly making his way back down to the skeleton who, hands on his hips, eyes and mouth gone sour, looked far less approachable then he had just minutes before.
“I told you to stop,” Héctor snaps. “Why don’t you listen.”
“I…” Miguel rubbed his arm and kicked at a rock. He’d gone to the land of the dead to find his idol, not to be scolded. If he’d wanted that, he could have just as well stayed home. Or with Mamá Imelda. “… sorry…”
Who Héctor was beginning to channel to a terrifying degree.
“Oy… chamaco. You’re going to be the end of me.”
“I was fine…” Miguel sulked, while Héctor gave another look to freeze water.
The older of the two sighed and pinched the bridge of his former nose. “Listen to me next time, kid, alright? I’m actually trying to keep you from staying here permanently.” Miguel flushed. Hector sighed. “Lo siento. I didn’t mean to yell. But listen to me next time.”
“But something could have. Ay, do you want to kill me. again?”
Miguel remembered things his mother and father had said.
We don’t mean to scare you. We just care about you. You’re our-
“Come on.” Héctor was starting to perk up again, but his hand fell a little too securely on Miguel’s shoulder to be friendly. “We’ve got to move.”
Miguel follows without question.
(He somehow didn’t notice then, either. And he’ll definitely scold himself for it, later.)
They’re on a deadline, and Miguel definitely shouldn’t be staring at the tamal torta lined in the metal basin at the little street cart off to the side of the stage. The vendor kept mixing the huge pot, and plumes of aromatic steam fell and bloomed out. A few skeletons mulled around, paying, and walking away with wax paper wrapped buns stuffed with cerdo and menonita.
He hadn’t had dinner- too busy being half dead to grab a snack.
Then again, he hadn’t had lunch either, had he?
Héctor was going on about some idea he’d once had to cross the flower bridge (something about a mini van) and how, when his picture was on the other side, he wouldn’t need such convoluted schemes, when he noticed Miguel. “Oye, you good?” He elbowed the kid. Miguel fell out of his daze and quickly fell into an apology.
“What were you saying? A mini van?”
“You hungry, gordito?”
“Ah, no… I’m good.” Miguel waved it off. “So- I was thinking I could sing-“
“You sure?” Héctor looked over at the cart. Then back at Miguel. “Ach, Dios, when was the last time you ate!”
Miguel shrugged. “Sometime yesterday?”
“Yester- oh, we can’t have that.” He handed the guitar to Miguel. “Hold this.”
“No, I’m fine!” But Héctor was already digging in the little side pouch he carried round his waist, pulling out measly bits of copper and counting them carefully, eyes narrowed. He gave them a shake in his open palm, counting them again.
He beamed. “¡Perfecto! ¡Mira, sólo lo suficiente!” He showed Miguel the coins, giving them a rattle. “What kind you want?”
Miguel felt a pulling at this stomach. He’d seen where Héctor lived. He'd seen the mearger living- the desperate lack of everything.
And the way he was shuffling through them with all the care and consideration that could be given to little bits of metal. To little bits of metal that were some of your last and only and oh no-
Héctor’s snapping fingers drew him out of his haze. “No! Don’t tell me- I know which one! Cerdo was my favorite when I was alive, you know!”
“No, Héctor, I’m fine!” He gave the skeleton’s arm a tug. ”Let’s just go.”
Héctor hissed at him, pushing him away. “Calm down, gordito. I don’t mind- eso, wait until you try these! Pablo makes the best tamal- ¡Ey, Pablo! ¡Uno de tus mejores!”
The vendor looked up with a heavy frown. Apparently, they knew each other enough where the. vidictive glare was warranted. “Héctor, you know I don’t give these away-“
“Mi amigo! You wound me!” They chatted for a minute, too quietly for Miguel to hear, while Héctor dropped coins into the man’s skeletal hand, and the vendor began grabbing things up with tongs and forks.
And then he was trotting back, with a steaming tamale in hand, pushing it into Miguel’s hand before leading him to a stack of boxes behind the stage to sit down. Miguel turned round to see the vendor pocket the little array of coins.
Miguel felt his throat tighten. He tried to push back the feeling by taking a huge bite.
If Héctor survived the night, if they got his photo up (if if if) he'd have to remember to leave exact change on the ofrenda.
“Don’t eat fast, you’ll make yourself sick,” he said kicking Miguel’s foot once the two had chosen a couple of low electric boxes to sit on. “And you owe me a bite!”
Miguel was happy enough to hand the tamale over for Héctor, who handed it back, chewing while he continued to toy with the guitar. Miguel ate slowly, watching the deft hands work. “Thanks…” he said between a mouthful of food. His stomach was both placated and knotted.
“I used to get these all the time. The little park near us, it had all the best tamal. I used to go with my family. My wife loved the green mole. And my...” He stops, and his face shifts into something sad. Tragedy mists off him. “Ah. Well. No time for memories, eh?”
Miguel doesn’t ask. The sore spot is too much of an angry wound to prod, and he knows his limits. So instead he takes another huge bite and asks “why do you guys even eat? Where does the food go?”
Héctor just looked up and snorted. “Don’t talk with food in your mouth,” he said, the command coming easily, like he’d once been the guest at many a child’s dinner table.
Miguel follows the familiar direction and rambles between swallows.
Héctor continued to work on the few sticky strings, testing them out with practiced fingers. "Now, let me show you, here’s the trick- I'm telling you, I used to sit and teach Ernesto how to do this! He was never very good though. Never could catch on-"
"Mouth closed, gordito."
It’s only after Miguel finds out that Héctor was, in fact, a father and did, in fact, have a daughter and a wife that everything sort of makes sense.
He thinks that, once Héctor explained, and once he knew who Miguel was, and that they needed to hurry in order to save everyone (and geez this deadline thing was going to be tight) he’d stop it with the whole I’m Héctor and My Child is Grown Up So You’re Her Substitute thing and just sort of fall back into the plan.
Miguel was a fool for even hoping.
Because though Imelda’s seemingly endless hatred for Héctor lived on, and though Héctor had long lost his daughter to his own death and her age, the two of them were apparently not so grown apart that they couldn’t parent the hell out of the pre-teen boy they had in their midst.
“Miguel,” Mamá Imelda snaps when Miguel tries to climb on top of a stack of rot worn boxes to reach a shelf to get one of the costumes that Cece was so graciously letting them borrow. “Get down from there!”
“Oye! Miguel!” And then Héctor is right beside her, tugging Miguel down off the boxes and reaching the costumes, handing them off to Imelda, who thanked him briskly. “What did I tell you about climbing these things! Ach, first the stairs-“
“He tried to climb the trolly stairs!” Apparently, she knew about those too. Miguel wanted to find a nice patch of why-me and hide forever.
“Yes!” Héctor crossed his arms, glaring down at Miguel. “And he seems to not be able to listen to directions.”
Imelda groaned, “Miguel, no seas tonto!”
“… I was trying to help…” Miguel mumbled. She pointed a long finger at him.
“Te voy a dar una gallet,” she warned easily, and he flinched and nodded. “Keep watching him,” she says to Héctor, who doesn’t look like he’s intending on doing that, moving to lean over to Imelda to say something quietly, and she said something back in agreement.
They move in sync when it comes to Miguel it would seem.
It’ll be only moments later that he’ll see it again. Fitting himself into a costume, trying to zip up the back, Héctor is there kneeling in back of him. “Here,” says the skeleton, smiling playfully and flicking his back. “Suck in, gordito.”
“A ver.” Imelda kneels in front of him, tilting up his chin and fixing his unibrow, adjusting his shirt.
They don’t speak. But they surround Miguel for just enough time to get him ready, deft fingers working fast and gently, before spearing and ushering him along, still side by side.
“This way, Miguel,” says Héctor at the same time as Imelda’s “Don’t wander.”
It’s a complicated parental dance, Miguel thinks. There’s no disagreement in their methods. No push or pull. There’s only what they know, and what they know works well enough that in these moments they’re a unit who falls back into the familiar of family.
How Miguel didn’t notice he’d never figure out. But he tells Héctor that later after he’d found a way to hack the system under the cover of nightfall, weeks after the fateful Día de los Muertes. He had plucked Tío Oscar’s prized ball of waxed nylon thread from the ofrenda and gave it a pull, and just like that, he was opening his eyes to the bureaucracy of the Land of the Dead and all its paperwork inducing headaches. Héctor and Imelda were called, and the pair arrives, hand in hand, looking more than a bit perturbed at the child who stands in front of the clerk’s desk with the stolen ball of thread in his hands.
“I got lonely,” was his excuse when he runs to embrace Héctor, who pulls him in tightly and doesn’t seem too willing to let go. Miguel is crying, even though he wishes he wasn’t. But it’s fine. When he looks up, Héctor is wiping at his eyes with the heel of his hand. “And I was worried,” Miguel said.
“Me, too, chamaco.” Héctor pressed his face against the boy’s wild hair, lips leaving a trace of a boney kiss on his forehead, and Miguel buried himself against the man’s ribcage.
It would be. a good minute before Héctor was pushing him back to give him a look. Over his shoulder, Mamá Imelda casts him one of the same but loses it quickly once he’s throwing his arms around her next, Héctor’s hand still on his back.
“Ay, Miguel...” she says, and he knows it’s the best he’ll get.
“But you’re not hurt, right?” Héctor reached down to hold his face in his hands while Imelda checked the boy over for any dissipating skin.
“Don’t yank my chain, chamaco-“
“I’m telling you. I just wanted to say hi.” Both their eyes softened, and they put off the apparent scolding in favor of each taking a hand and dragging him along, the clerks behind them yelling about unfinished paperwork.
On their way to the home, Miguel runs between and in front of the pair, rambling on about work at school and races he won, and how his new baby sister isn't the worst thing ever. Héctor manages to chase him at one point, and Imelda crosses her arms and fondly watches, but by the time they're closer to the Rivera house, the two adults have reconnected, hands still together, watching Miguel try to find more pebbles to kick.
"Stay where I can see you!" Héctor calls out.
"And please try to stay clean, Miguelito, your mother just washed those pants!"
Soon enough, they’re in the Rivera kitchen, and Miguel is nursing a cup of hot atole, and Héctor is idly strumming his guitar while Imelda and Rosita work over the stove. Mamá Coco didn’t miss a chance to sweep the boy into a hug, and amidst many tears -almost all Miguel’s- managed to push her fingers through his hair and tell him how happy she was he got to meet her Papá while said Papá cast a loving glance up at the two family members lit by the sepia glow of a well used kitchen.
Oscar cradles the ball of thread lovingly. “Oh how I missed this,” he said with a sigh. “They don’t make them like this anymore-“
“Get over it,” Felipe snorts, moving to help the two women with dinner.
Miguel, sitting next to Papá Héctor at dinner, watches the way he sits beside his wife. They’re lined up like that. Miguel, and then Héctor (who Miguel had insisted he sit next to and Héctor had dragged him along like a proud grandfather or a boy who’d just found a puppy) and then Imelda. Mamá Coco, across from Miguel, seemed intent on watching them too, smile playing idly at her lips.
They were a pair if ever there was one. Hands held under the table and kisses shared when no one was watching.
Apparently, though, their secret, gentle love was always cut short when Miguel did something he wasn’t supposed to. Like try to talk to Mamá Coco with his mouth full.
“Mouth closed, Miguel,” Imelda snapped from where she’d just moments ago been whispering softly to her husband.
“Oye, Miguel, when will you learn,” Héctor teases (though the tease holds a note of a command that says enough to the young child).
Miguel groans. “Why are you two like that.”
“Like what!” Héctor stabs the edge of his tamale with his fork.
Imelda leans over to ask the same question, looks at Miguel’s plate, and says “you’ve barely touched your food!”
Miguel gawks. “Like that. Even when I first got here, you were all don’t do this, Miguel and don’t touch that, Miguel.” He scoffs, looking over at Coco, who was busy trying to hide her smile. “I thought Papá Héctor was at least supposed to be the cool one!”
That was apparently enough to break the dam, and table was suddenly filled with the roarings of laughter. Even Victoria ma aged a smile to her lap, and Rosita trilled.
Imelda looked less than amused. “You think I’m the strict one!” she squawked.
But that was not the fixation as Papá Héctor banged a fist on his knee, snorting. “You hear that Coco! He thinks I was supposed to be the cool one!”
“Supposed to be,” mumbled Miguel.
Coco wiped at her eyes. “My Papá used to have to be bargained with just to let me out of his sight.”
Imelda, despite her current grousing, let up enough to say “you should have seen us leave the house the first time. Left Coco with her abuelita. Héctor nearly left a books worth of instructions behind.”
"Remember the first time he let Coco braid her own hair!" Felipe crowed. "Oh, the man nearly cried himself a new river!"
"He used to check on her every hour," Rosita chimed in. "Poor Imelda nearly chained the man to bed each night!"
The family passed around stories, all of them attesting to the utter lack of coolness that the great-great grandfather was still chuckling about, and all of them more wild than the next. Héctor nodding and bobbing his head to them all, poking fun at the child beside him for even assuming that it could have been true.
"You seemed cool when I first met you!" Miguel says, by way of a barb. He crosses his arms. "A little creepy, but cool."
"Just because I had a guitar, doesn't make me cool, gordito."
Coco agreed, pouring more wine. "If anything, it made him worse. Remember, Papá, when you wrote that song about how rules were fun to follow."
"Even though she rarely did..." Imelda said, voice sour.
"My little Coco was such a helion," he said gleefully.
"I got it from you, Papá." Imelda made a noise in agreement.
“Yes, and no amount of songs could take that away from you. A true shame, eh?” Though the playful, proud spark in his eye said the opposite. Miguel slumped. Apparently, only his rulebreaking frenzies were to be condemned.
Héctor laughed again, loud and long, and ruffled Miguel's hair. The boy ducked away but not before he was pulled into a side hug by his great-great grandfather. “You’ll get used to me, Chamaco. Especially if you plan on stealing more from your ofrenda.”
Imelda crosses her arms, leaning back in her chair. “And we’ll be talking about that soon- don’t you worry.”
“Ah, leave the boy alone, Imelda. He just got here!” And then, when Miguel was sure he was out of the clear, content to once more begin his senseless rambles, Héctor lands a hefty hand on his shoulder and proclaims “but yes. We’ll definitely be talking about that.”
Coco, from across the table, hides another grin.