Pepita had first showed up only a few weeks after Héctor had left.
Back then, Imelda hadn’t been worried. She wasn’t glad to see her husband go, of course, but she knew it was something he and Ernesto had wanted to do since they were children - and that, if successful, would benefit their little family a great deal.
“Only a few months at most,” he’d said, holding her hands. In the next room over, she could hear Coco giggling ceaselessly as her brothers played their old-and-tried trick of pretending to be each other. All was right in the world, and she’d believed him. Why wouldn’t she?
“Don’t let Ernesto get you in too much trouble,” she’d said in the end. Héctor had laughed, kissed her, promised her that they’d stay out of serious trouble, that he’d write every day.
The letters had come; not every day - it had to be hard to write and post out letters that often while constantly on the move, something that made it impossible for her to write back - but at least two or three times a week, both for her and Coco.
She was reading one of those letters, and blushing just slightly because Héctor was being very clear in how and how much she missed her at night - “Maybe it’s for the best that Ernesto snores away all night: if I could sleep well I would dream of you, and God knows what conditions I’d wake up in” - when a meowing sound had startled her.
Imelda had looked up to see a gray and white alley cat sitting at the window, looking at her with calm yellow eyes. She had seen her around before, wandering - the terror of mice, chickens, other cats, and even dogs. She remembered watching her chased that annoying mutt old Rafael kept across the plaza one day, and laughing heartily at the scene.
As far as she knew, the cat was entirely feral and never approached anyone before, and now there she was: sitting at her window, halfway in, a front paw raised in an awkward position. Imelda raised an eyebrow, and the cat meowed again, holding the paw a little higher - a white paw stained with dried blood, and something was lodged in-between the pads; a thorn, most likely, or a piece of iron.
Imelda could recognize a dignified request for help when she saw one, coming from a creature who disliked owing anything to anybody. She could relate to that.
“... I will see what I can do. Scratch me, and you’re on your own. Are we clear?”
They were, obviously, because Pepita - Imelda wouldn’t remember, later, when she’d come up with the name after a quick glance confirmed it was a female - didn’t so much hiss at her when she went to look at her paw, and barely flinched when the thorn was pulled out. She licked her paw briefly, and then nuzzled against her arm, purring loudly, before jumping out of the window and out of sight before Imelda could even stroke her head.
That could have been it, a funny story to tell on how the Terror Cat of Santa Cecilia had turned into a kitten for her, but the next day Pepita was lazing by the well in her yard, a dead mouse in her mouth. Not a pleasant sight, but dead mice were better than living ones; if Pepita was going to earn her keep by getting rid of them and the diseases they carried, then Imelda might consider leaving out some meat scraps for her from time to time. Maybe once or twice a week. Or maybe every day.
In the end, it is every day.
Coco laughs, trotting after Pepita in the yard, and the cat lets her approach almost enough to touch her before darting off again, causing her to giggle and start running again. It makes her brothers pale, but Imelda is unbothered; she knows she won’t harm Coco, with complete and uncertain certainty, like she knows that Héctor will be back soon.
Any day now. Any day.
But another letter comes, then another, telling her that Ernesto decided to extend the tour, only a few more weeks.
Two more weeks. Maybe three, but no more.
Soon, mi amor, I’ll be back soon.
Soon is too nebulous. Soon isn’t soon enough. Imelda grows angry, money runs thin, and she begins thinking of a way to provide for Coco until Héctor comes back. He will be back, and she will rage at him; he’ll be sorry he ever left and perhaps things between them will never be the same again.
Perhaps this is the end of their life as husband and wife; perhaps they will live in that house as strangers, but he will return, and be a father to Coco. She still cannot contemplate a scenario in which he does not. She cannot imagine her little girl growing up without him.
Any day now, she tells herself, as she stays up at night to learn how to make shoes, growing more and more frustrated with every failed attempt. Any day, she thinks as she keeps letting her child share her bed, telling her over and over that her papá will be home soon, reading to her all of the letters he keeps writing to her, loving words that cannot fill the gap.
Until a day comes when the letters stop coming.
Until a day comes when she knows Héctor is not, after all, coming back.
No post has come for weeks, Coco asks again where papá’s letter is - she no longer asks where he is, she asks for his letters, good God, mere months are years to a child, what were they thinking, why did she let him go? - and Imelda snaps, tears up their family picture, sends Coco off to her room in a flood of tears, and locks herself in her own.
She will regret that outburst for a very, very long time. But she’s only human, not yet twenty-three, with a fledgling business she can barely make work and a child to raise and her husband is never coming home .
She will never know how Pepita gained access to her bedroom, but suddenly she’s on the bed with her, the feral cat who’d sit at the window and refuse to get one step further into the house even when bribed with the juiciest of scraps. She rests down next to her, purring, nuzzling her chin, and Imelda’s silent tears turn into sobs that tear all air out of her lungs.
Pepita doesn’t scratch, doesn’t lash out, hardly even moves when grabbed. She stays still, lets Imelda weep in her fur and then, suddenly, she begins grooming her hair with a tongue like sandpaper. It makes Imelda laugh through the tears, and she pulls back.
“I can’t help but feel I’ve been adopted,” she says, her voice a bit hoarse, and reaches to scratch the cat’s head. She leans into her hand, purring up a storm. Imelda smiles again.
What is she even doing? Crying isn’t going to solve a thing. Coco gets to cry, yes - she is a child and her papá is never come back, all of his loving words weren’t worth the paper they were written on - but what excuse does she have? Her daughter relies on her. Her brothers look up to her, and she cannot let them down to feel sorry for herself. And over what? Over some músico who decided his music, and playing it for the world, was more important than either of them - more important than watching his own flesh and blood grow up?
No. No, that will not do. He’s made his choice, and now she’s ready to make hers. No more useless waiting, no more crying over herself, no more music. She has a task ahead of her, a child to raise, a business to make work. If she has to do this on her own, so be it.
Imelda rises with the sun the next morning, apologizes to Coco for her outburst, and goes back to work.
At the door of the workshop, a pair of yellow eyes keep watching her every move.
The first one just jumps in his arms, literally, during a brief stay in Ciudad Juárez.
Ernesto isn’t yet well-known when it happens. Actually, he isn’t well-known at all. Five months after he’s--
seized his moment
-- done what he had to do he’s still travelling Mexico, looking for his big break. It’s taking more time than he hoped, and he’s now nearing a year on the road. Sometimes he’s had to chase away the thought that his moment will never come despite all that he’s sacrificed--
all of it even him oh God was it for nothing how could it be for nothing
-- to get to that point.
That wasn’t his worst night, but it was also far from the best; a small crowd and nothing more. If Héctor were here, he’d try to cheer him up and he’d succeed, eventually; he’d tell him tomorrow will bring them better luck. But now… now he can no longer do that.
He wouldn’t have either way. He was about to leave me behind.
That’s right, he thinks - he’d have lost him either way. He lost him before he even slipped poison in his drink, but now he has his songs, and he thought that was all he’d need. The world would embrace him, then, and be his family, one that would never turn its back to him.
Except that it isn’t happening. Except that the world isn’t so much glancing in his direction.
Ernesto forces himself to chase away the thought, sitting on a sidewalk and drinking the last of his beer before he heads back to his motel for the night. Is this all that he can get? Nothing more than what he had already, but friendless and with nights full of nightmares?
Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop.
Ernesto frowns, staring down at the bottle, wondering where that came from; must have been some leftover memory from an Sunday mass long ago. An odd thing to remember now, but once he’s finished his beer he’ll forget it again, and maybe his sleep will be dreamless. The thought of closing his eyes to find himself in the dark alleys of Mexico City, carrying--
“Come back, you devil! This is the last time-- come back here, chucho maldito! I’ll cook you this time, I swear to God--”
There is shouting, and a crash and cursing coming from the next street over. Ernesto turns to look, blinking, to see something running out of it. For a moment, under the streetlights, he thinks it’s an especially large rat - but then the animal yaps and charges straight at him and he can tell, one moment before it jumps in his arms and knocks the bottle on the ground, that it’s a small dog; a chihuahua with tan fur, some gray starting to show on its muzzle.
“Oye, I had yet to finish that,” Ernesto grumbles, but he’s already starting to grin and the battle is lost the moment the dog places two tiny paws on his chest and tries to lick his face, tail wagging. He’s always liked dogs, so he chuckles and scratches its head. “What are yo--”
“You! Is that devil your dog?”
“Huh?” Ernesto turns away from the stray to see a man standing a few feet from him, panting, his face bright red. He’s wearing an apron stained with grease, and he’s holding something that might be the sad remains of a chicken wing in his left hand. In the right one, slightly more worryingly, he’s holding a knife. Ernesto holds up his arms, alarmed.
“Wha-- no! I had never-- no, stay down-- seen this dog in my-- stop it!” he mutters, trying to get the chihuahua to stop trying to lick his face. “Never seen it in my life!” he snaps, and stands, forcing the dog to jump off his lap. It immediately stands on its hind legs to lean against his leg, looking up at him adoringly, tail wagging.
Looking back later on, Ernesto won’t be able to really blame the man for not believing him.
“Do you have any idea for how long it’s been bothering my clients?”
“Look, I only got here two days ag--”
“How much food it’s stolen from right under their noses?”
“That’s a shame, but this isn’t my do--”
“You will pay it all back, down to the last peso!” the man snarls, taking a threatening step forward. Ernesto looks at the guy, who’s short but broad, and at the knife in his hand. Within moments, he has a plan of action: he grabs the guitar case, grabs the dog, and runs.
Losing the man in the winding streets is a matter of only a minute; losing the dog, on the other hand, proves to be nearly impossible, because it keeps following him. Not that Ernesto tries especially hard: in the end, he sneaks him - a quick check confirms it’s male - in the motel. The small dog wanders around for a few moments, sniffing at his suitcase, before he tries to jump on the bed. He just falls back, too tiny to reach it, and Ernesto rolls his eyes before picking him up and putting him down on the mattress.
The dog immediately rolls on his back, tail wagging, looking up at him expectantly. “A devil, sure,” Ernesto chuckles, and reached to rub his belly. “Very well, Diablo,” he says. The name fits; he remembers old Rafael, back in Santa Cecilia, had a dog called that. It was supposed to keep him and Héctor away from his fruit grove, but Ernesto had befriended him quickly. “You get to stay for the night, but we part ways in the morning.”
They do not part ways in the morning; Ernesto sort of knew how that would turn out the instant he gave him a name. After a night of peaceful sleep, the tiny dog curled up on his chest, Ernesto boards a train to Chihuahua - the irony is not lost to him - with Diablo in one of the pockets of his coat. And then the train after that, and the one after that.
There are no more nightmares. He allows himself no more doubts. He travels Mexico, he plays and sings and begins to attract larger crowds. He meets people who count on the musical scene and, well, on a couple of occasions those meetings are not strictly the professional kind, but it matters not. He’s willing to do whatever it takes, no matter how distasteful, to play in important venues, where he can catch the eye of even bigger crowds and producers. And finally, finally, success comes.
When it does, Ernesto hires someone specifically to look after Diablo’s every need while he travels with him; he stuck with him when--
Héctor did not
-- things were bad, he should be rewarded now that everything he’s done - everything he’s had to do, all of it - paid off.
It is a life of luxury for a little stray dog, but it’s short-lived: Diablo dies only a couple of years after Ernesto has known his first true taste of success. He should have seen it coming; Diablo wasn’t a young dog when he took him in, and over time he’s grown more lethargic, less likely to jump up and steal a bite. But Ernesto doesn’t want to see it, and so he doesn’t - until Diablo takes a nap in the backstage of a photoshoot, and never wakes up.
The photoshoot ends there, and his manager hurriedly cancels all of his performances for the following couple of weeks when it becomes clear that the bawling wreck refusing to let go of his dead dog is in no condition to talk coherently, let alone to sing. He’s not wrong: for several days, Ernesto refuses to come out of his hotel room at all. He refuses to see anyone.
He knows he’ll be able to read the same thought on every faces he sees - it was just a dog - but of course they have no idea. It isn’t just about a dog; it’s about being left behind. Again.
Ernesto gives Diablo’s ashes a place of honor in his new residence, and swears he will never have another dog again.
“What is this?”
“A pup. Clearly.”
“What is it doing--”
“She lives here now. It’s a girl. Congratulations.”
Ernesto stares down at the ball of white fur that’s peering up at him from the basket, tail wagging and tongue lolling. A long-haired chihuahua, small enough to sit in the palm of his hand. His hands twitch and he almost reaches down, then he scowls and crosses his arms.
“I don’t need a dog,” he says. Having one dying on him was enough. Never again.
“I don’t want a dog. Take her back.”
His manager rolls his eyes, and puts down the basket. The dog immediately stumbles out of it and jumps up at Ernesto, who steps back like he’s being attacked by a coyote.
“She’s purebred,” Armando is saying, like Ernesto hasn’t protested at all. “The paper her pedigree is written on weights more than she does and her kennel name is ridiculously long. The breeder just calls her Clara.”
Clara. It’s a cute name. He might just keep it-- no, wait. No. Not a chance. He’s not going to have another dog. Someone else will decide what to call her. “That’s nice,” he mutters, lifting a foot to keep the pup from chewing his shoe. “And why have you taken her here?”
“She’s here so you stop moping and get back on track,” Armando mutters, and frowns. “You’ve cancelled enough performances. You’re famous, but not quite famous enough yet that you can just drop off the face of Earth for weeks. You need to keep going as long as momentum is on your side. You can’t afford to stop - neither of us can - and you know it.”
He does, of course; there is nothing he can argue against that, and Armando knows it. Seeing he’s not retorting, his manager smiles a bit and picks up the pup to shove her in his arms. She immediately tries to climb up his shoulder, and attempts to push her nose into his ear, causing Ernesto to yelp.
“Oh, you’re friends already. I’ll leave you to bond. You’ll be in my office on Monday morning.”
“Her pedigree papers are on the table at the entrance. Have fun.”
“I don’t want her.”
“Then leave her in a pound or in the street. I won't take her back.”
“Wha-- I can’t--!”
“Monday, nine on the dot,” his manager calls out over his shoulder, and pretends not to hear the insults Ernesto is throwing at him. The door closes behind him, and Ernesto snorts, holding the puppy at arm’s length. She looks back at him with black eyes, tail wagging.
“I’m not keeping you,” Ernesto informs her. “Give it a couple of days, and I’ll find someone to take you in,” he adds, and puts her on the sofa. Like Diablo years ago, she flops on her back to get a belly rub - but with more elegance, one paw extended, as the dainty little diva she is.
The couple of days turn into a week, then two weeks, then months and years. Five years, until something happens. Clarita is unable to keep her food down, and loses weight; there is blood in her urine, and she yelps in pain each time. Something wrong with her kidneys, and the only solution they can give him is putting her to sleep. It’s humane, they say.
Ernesto refuses, rants and raves and rages. He seeks more vets, demands that they fix his dog right now, he’ll pay them their weight in gold if he has to, but none of them can help. Soon enough she’s almost skeletal, her yelps turn into screams, and Ernesto caves in.
It shatters him and, again, he swears off ever getting another dog.
“Oye, oye, it’s all right. Nothing to be afraid of. I’m here to help, sí?”
The alebrije - it looks a lot like a coyote, but with a couple of extra tails and wings - barely turns to look at him, sitting in the same spot where it’s been for the past couple of days, where old Prospero faded away. It entirely ignores the food Héctor is holding out, and just rests its head on its front paws. Sighing, Héctor lets his gaze wander across Shantytown.
He doesn’t live there - yet, a tiny voice in the back of his head says, you don’t live here yet, but you cannot cross over and everyone says that’s the first step to being forgotten - but he’s befriended people who do, and he drops by from time to time to share a drink, or some good food. Sometimes, he returns to find fewer familiar faces than before.
When that happens there are friends left behind, and they drink together to the memory - their memory, not powerful enough to save anyone from fading - of the forgotten. They share stories about them no one in the Land of the Living can share anymore, and then they move on because it is the only thing that can be done, just deal with it and move forward.
But sometimes, the forgotten don’t only leave behind their few possessions. Sometimes, they leave behind an alebrije - a spirit guide with no one left to guide anywhere. And each time, Héctor tries to befriend them because they look so sad, so lonely, and so does he. Maybe they could grow to like him, and stick with him, and they would both feel less alone.
He could use a spirit guide. Better yet with wings, so that he can fly past those damn checks, across the bridge and to his family - to his little girl, who’s probably not so little anymore now. Yes, everything would be so much easier if he had a spirit guide like so many others do… but it seems that fate likes kicking him when he’s down, and no alebrije ever chose him.
There was one time when he thought one had, but it turned out to be a rogue - there are a few like that, wild and almost rabid-like, something no one has any explanation for - and that wasn’t much fun. Ever since, he’s been wary of those who approach him, and rightly so.
How alebrijes come to be and how they choose their charge is unclear, but there are many who swear that their alebrijes came to them in life, as beloved pets; they bonded in life, they argue, and so are bonded in death. Héctor sort of wishes he’d had a pet in life - he’d promised Coco a kitten, once - but he didn’t get enough time to have one and bond with it.
He didn’t get enough time to do… a lot of things.
“Come on, amigo. I know it hurts, but I can help. We can help each other,” Héctor tries again, and holds out the remains of his dinner. The alebrije shifts and stands, and Héctor has a moment to get his hopes up before the creature spreads its wings and, without even looking at him, just flies off into the night sky. Héctor doesn’t look up to watch it disappear: he just sighs, lets the scraps of food drop into the water, and lets out a long sigh.
No one really knows what happens to alebrijes once their chosen one fades, either. Some stick with remaining family members, but when no one else is left, they just… leave, and are never seen again. Héctor watches the fish - some alebrijes, some bones only - nibbling away at the food he’s dropped. Serves him right, really; the poor beast had just lost its chosen, did he really think a bit of food would be enough to bribe it? That it would let him replace Prospero just like that? Of course it never works: whatever their nature is, however they pick their chosen, alebrijes are loyal, and people cannot be replaced so easily.
Or maybe some can. Maybe I was replaced. Maybe that is why I cannot cross over.
It is a poisonous thought, and he refuses to mull over it. With a shake of his head, Héctor stands and walks away, telling himself that this year is the year he crosses that bridge. He can do it on his own; he doesn’t need a spirit guide to show him the way.
He knows exactly where he’s meant to go.
He meets Lobo while shooting a movie the following year.
A scene required a dog capable of doing a few simple tricks - lie down, give the paw, stand on its hind legs and jump at command - and a local guy shows up with a black chihuahua who fits the bill. His obedience, they find out quickly, vastly depends on what’s on offer: he will obey commands only as long as food is involved, as a reward.
Except when it’s Ernesto to give the order: with him, he’s eager to please for nothing more than a scratch behind the ears. He follows him across the set, and Ernesto knows he’s got to have him before they’re done shooting for the day. He approaches the owner, offers him money, and doubles the offer at his refusal.
The man walks out with more money than he probably ever got to handle all at once, and Ernesto has a new dog - a small bandit that quickly becomes the bane of every member of the cast and crew by trying to chase horses, peeing on any unattended costume, nipping everyone’s ankles, chewing up cables and tripping up a couple of cameramen.
If he doesn’t think Ernesto is paying enough attention to him, he’ll climb on the lap of the closest person and glance back at him to, he imagines, check if he’s jealous. He has free reign of the set and it’s the funniest thing Ernesto recalls witnessing since… well, in a long time. He drives everyone up the wall, and a member of the crew tries to kick him away once, thinking no one is watching; he misses, and is kicked out himself the next minute.
Out of all of them, Lobo is the one who stays with him the longest: seven years. Then one day he wanders off the mansion, through a small gap in the gate, and there is a day of frantic search before he trots back in at dusk, belly full and a half-chewed chorizo in his mouth.
Ernesto is too relieved to see him return to wonder too hard where he may have been, where he’s been scavenging for food. Until that night when, suddenly, Lobo jumps off his bed, takes a few staggering steps towards the water bowl, and starts vomiting blood.
“He must have eaten rat poison,” the vet says, and through the stunned grief - Lobo passed in Ernesto’s arms before the vet could even get there, it was so sudden - something is stirring, something he’s buried so deep it sometimes feels like only a dream he had once. For a moment he’s back in Mexico city, when there was a thud on the ground, a staggering sense of finality and then a bitter sort of relief because the deed was done.
There is no relief now. This didn’t have to happen. This shouldn’t have happened.
Ernesto has Lobo cremated, just like the other two. He promises he’s the last dog he buries and, this time, he keeps his word: he is the last he buries - but not the last one he takes in.
Zita catches his eye from the window of a pet shop in Oaxaca; there is a small crowd walking by, but that silvery-gray pup seems to be staring right at him, and he’s unable to walk away. He gets in, pays her full price, gives an autograph and walks away with Zita sitting in his hand, gnawing happily at his fingers. He needs those fingers to play, but he doesn’t mind.
She’s not a food thief like Diablo, nor the diva Clara was or the rebel Lobo turned out to be. She’s just enthusiastic about everything and, if clearly not the smartest, by far the yappiest out of all of them. The bouncy pup grows into a bouncy adult, impossible not to love, always a hit with his guests.
Zita is the one who outlives him.
Once the chaos has subsided slightly, the bell has been removed and body recovered, someone finally remembers that Ernesto’s beloved dog was left in his hotel room, and goes to check on her - only to find an empty suite. The door is locked and so is the window, but there is no trace of the dog anywhere. She’s just… gone.
They assume she was stolen, even though there is no sign of anybody entering or leaving the room, and quickly forget about her.
It is on a Sunday that Imelda finds Pepita at her favorite spot in the yard, motionless.
From a distance, she’d thought she was sleeping. Imelda never known how old she may be, but even if she’d been very young when she’d first spotted her, now she must be ancient; twenty-one, at the very least. It’s a very old age for any cat to live to, and over the years she’s slowed and lost her teeth, although her presence still keeps mice and rats away.
Even if it weren’t, Imelda wouldn’t mind: she’s earned her keep all those years and she is, after all, her cat. So she puts some stewed meat in a small dish, tender enough for Pepita to eat without teeth, and heads out to give her lunch. She never eats a single bite, and the dish will be left on the ground for hours, attracting ants, until a sniffling Rosita will retrieve it.
Imelda doesn’t take too long to say goodbye; the motionless weight in her arms is not her cat anymore. She strokes Pepita’s fur a few times before she lets Coco - who is now a woman, married and expecting her first child - to do the same, and then wraps her in a clean cloth.
Julio is instructed to dig a hole in Pepita’s favorite spot, and he does so quickly, without a word of protest despite the heat of the day; Imelda is grateful for it. They bury her in silence, wrapped in linen and with fresh flowers - Coco’s idea, that - and that is it.
Not seeing her around is harder than Imelda had thought it would be; of course she’d known she would very likely outlive her cat. Yet she can’t seem to get used to the absence, to the sense that something important is missing; the first true loss since that musician left them. But she gets used to it; she reinvented her entire life once, and she can adjust to this, too. Pepita is gone, and that is a fact no amount of moping will change.
Yet she notices that, even months and years later, there’s no mice or rats to be seen anywhere near their home.
One very quick way to get on Ernesto de la Cruz’s nerves, his staff find out after his arrival in the Land of the Dead, is saying anything about his alebrijes that is not glowing praise.
It doesn’t matter if Diablo stole their sandwich, if Clara refused to get off their lap until they spent at least a hour rubbing her belly, if Lobo left teeth marks on their ankles or if Zita spent forty minutes barking at a stain on the wallpaper - no complaints are allowed. And some innocent remarks are off limits, too: there are tales of a secretary who was fired on the first day for daring to suggest the four alebrijes all look the same.
That is secretly what they all think - the slight differences in their coats’ patterns are not enough to tell them apart without careful inspection and deliberation - but somehow, el señor de la Cruz can tell them apart at a glance, so there’s got to be something. Maybe it’s one of those odd things about the bond between alebrijes and their chosen; no one knows how that really works, so they just shrug it off and make sure to always treat the alebrijes right.
Working for Ernesto de la Cruz is a honor and a privilege, and pampering his dogs is a small price to pay.
The first thing Imelda thinks when that creature lands in front of her with a roar is that, if it wants a piece of her, there will be hell to pay. She is not afraid, and how can she be? She cannot die again. Probably. Either way, she won’t go down easily.
Then her second thought, as she reaches for her boot, is that she knows those eyes.
Her hand stills, and she stares back at the huge creature for several moments, unmoving. She doesn’t move, either, but leans forward just barely when Imelda lifts a hand. There is a nudge against her palm, and those familiar yellow eyes blink slowly. Imelda blinks back, and finally - for the first time since she’s awakened there - she smiles.
“Hola, Pepita,” she says. Her smile widens at the deep, familiar purr. “It’s been a while.”
“Aw, look! Dante!”
“Is it that street dog again? Abuelita says she doesn’t want him in the yard, and… is he okay? Is he having a seizure?”
“Nah, he’s fine! He just wants to play. He likes me!”
“He also likes trash.”
Miguel makes a face towards Rosa’s general direction, and she returns it by wrinkling her nose and squinting her eyes behind her glasses. Miguel sticks out his tongue. Rosa rolls her eyes back. Miguel gives a honk, and Rosa laughs first before conceding victory with a sigh.
“Fine. I’ll cover for you. Just don’t give me fleas if you catch them.”
Miguel almost points out that Dante has no hair for fleas to live in, but then he just shrugs and runs out. Dante greets him in a frenzy of wagging tail, flailing limbs and lolling tongue.
“Come on, Dante! Race you to the plaza!” Miguel cries out, zooming past him, and the dog immediately follows. It’s like he understands him, daft as he is, and Miguel sort of wonders if he used to belong to someone before. But according to everyone he’s talked to Dante just showed up in Santa Cecilia one day; Miguel doubts he’ll ever know anything more.
Not that it matters, anyway. No one else has ever claimed him and for some reason Dante seems to have chosen him, so that settles the matter. He’s his dog now.
And, within a week, he will turn out to be so much more than just that.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Of course. She’s also your alebrije now.”
“... Is she?”
“She looks after our entire family. She always did, even when we didn’t know it,” Imelda says, taking Héctor’s hand to press it against Pepita’s muzzle. “And you’re part of it now.”
“Oh,” Héctor says, and for a moment his gaze is very distant, like he’s lost in thought. Then Pepita purrs and he grins, scratching her muzzle and causing her to close her eyes in bliss. “I never had a spirit guide before. I think I can get used to this.”
“Can you get used to flying, too?”
Hécto’s grin widens. “A romantic flight?”
Imelda makes a point to roll her eyes, but her lips are curling upwards. “If you can hang on.”
“I’ll do my best,” he says.
As it turns out he can hang on - most of the time, anyway. When he loses his grip, Pepita dives down to catch him without Imelda needing to even ask.
Héctor clings to Imelda and, despite the obvious fright, he’s grinning.
“I think she likes me," he says, almost giddily, and lets out a grito when Pepita brings them up with a powerful beat of her wings, above the tallest buildings, and towards the waning moon.
A long way below, in the emptied-out Shantytown - why keep living there with a nice mansion so recently left vacant? - Ernesto de la Cruz is sleeping on a dusty mattress inside the shack he’s hiding in, and empty bottle on the floor by him, a threadbare coat to serve as a blanket.
His sleep isn’t an easy one; he shivers, he scowls, mumbles and turns around, but not for long. His alebrijes are rarely more than a few steps away; fortunes may change, but that never will. They may be all he has left, but he can be certain they will stay until the very end.
They move onto the mattress and curl up against him, nudge and lick skeletal fingers, offering what comfort they can until their chosen turns on his side, reaches out to hold Clara to his chest, and curls up around her. He stops mumbling and stills with a long sigh, the scowl fading, finally unbothered by whatever plagues his nights.
Then, and only then, do they settle down to sleep as well... but always with one eye open.
They may not be the best spirit guides, never quite knew what they were supposed to guide him to, but they will figure it out. Until then, they will keep him safe. Their chosen always said they were good dogs.
It’s time to prove they’re good alebrijes, too.