Tenía solo dieciocho cuando vendió su alma
Para la bruja de luces
y la multitud del diablo
Tenía solo dieciocho años, pero lo conocía bien:
El potente aplauso
que lo enterró
He was only eighteen when he sold his soul
To the witch of the lights
and the hot devil-crowd
He was only eighteen, but he knew it too well:
The heady applause
and the still-living shroud
The last time Héctor had needed to get into Ernesto's absurd mansion, he'd borrowed one of Ceci's Frida costumes and lied his non-existent (yet oddly functional) lips off. He'd made it onto the tram before the makeup started peeling off, but it had been a close thing. Even when he'd gotten all the way to the top, it had been another long stretch of low stairs before he could reach the door, and inside the cavernous house, it had taken him ten minutes to find Miguel and Ernesto.
He had felt very much alone, even though he'd been dodging the security guards. He hadn't dared take off the costume, for fear that leaving it somewhere would be like a breadcrumb trail leading straight to him before he could reach Miguel.
This time, he wasn't alone, and he wasn't wearing a dress, both of which were vast improvements. Imelda had sewn his clothes more securely, though no cloth had appeared for new clothes for him. She said she hoped the family would think to leave him some. In the meantime, though, she'd taken the remaining sleeve off of his old jacket and sewn the rest in to a perfectly decent vest. She'd clucked a bit about how these clothes couldn't possibly have fit him when he was alive, that his mariachi outfits had been perfectly sewn and this jacket had obviously not been his own, and de la Cruz had clearly managed to change him out of his identifiable uniform before he died completely, and…
Héctor had let it flow over him. Her anger on his behalf was somehow enough to quell his own at the thought of having been manhandled while he unconscious and dying, and stripped of his good clothes -- his recognizable good clothes, the tan charro suit he'd been wearing… Ernesto must have found the ill-fitting purple jacket and raggedy patched pants he'd arrived here in, and shoved him in them as his heart was beating its last rhythms. That must have been how his arm bone had originally cracked, though it hadn't fully broken for several years. It had been fine when he'd fainted, but fractured when he'd arrived at Marigold Grand Central. This had never occurred to him as something strange. He'd had more important things to think about than a fractured arm and a too-small suit. A moment's thought on that might have changed things a lot.
Or it might not have. What would he have done about it if he had realized that Ernesto had altered his body, and why he might have done that? Gone and complained? To who?
He shook his head. The clothes were better now. The pants had been patched and stitched. And he wore his new, shiny shoes with great pride. He looked as respectable as it was possible to look with a few bones still taped together (they would simply never heal; he'd have to get by with bracing them). No more stupid costume just to get around.
And Coco was with him. She didn't have any good reason to be. In fact, she thought the entire visit would be a waste of time, which Héctor also believed in his heart of hearts, though he wanted to give it a try. But she'd wanted to be with him, and that was enough for Héctor. That made even more of a difference than his repaired clothing, though she was still stuck in her slippers and shawl. The dress Imelda had tried to make had suddenly disappeared, possibly because of Coco's lack of interest, or possibly because the living had something else in store for her, or couldn't yet remember her as being dressed normally. She didn't seem to mind.
They got off the tram at the base of the staircase, and the operator gave them a little nod, almost embarrassed to see them here, as if having heard their family's business -- along with everyone else in the city -- had been a regrettable accident. Or maybe it was apologetic. Héctor was sure that the operators were the same ones who'd worked here under Ernesto.
Either way, nothing that happened was this man's fault. He smiled in as friendly a way as he could.
The man nodded. "Señor de la Cruz is almost always in the ofrenda room," he said. "If he's anywhere else, the guards will know."
"Thank you," Coco said.
They started to walk past, but the tram operator called, "Wait!"
The man looked around wildly. "We… um… we don't let him wander around. We would put him somewhere else if we could. We… support you, Señor Rivera. I wanted you to know. We've been talking about it ever since the Spectacular."
Héctor wasn't sure what to say to this declaration. He was vaguely aware that there was talk in the arts district about what had happened. He'd seen Ceci a few times, but she had long ago lost her liking for Imelda (before either of them, died, actually), and he'd found it uncomfortable to talk to her, now that he was back in his home. Gustavo had switched from mocking him about a chorizo to teasing about not noticing that he'd been murdered. Frida was above it all, as usual. All she'd said was, "I never liked that giant fake, anyway." Among artists who knew him, it was a more or less open secret that Ernesto was a snake.
The real talk, though, must have been going on in the audience. He hadn't really thought about what it had meant to them, but this man seemed to have taken it very personally. He didn't have a hat, but his hands were wringing like he was twisting one anxiously, like he expected Héctor to have spent the last several months fuming at Ernesto's fans.
"We don't let him out," he said again. "And we don't let anyone in to see him, except you." He looked around. "And we'll look the other way if you have revenge in mind."
"I don't," Héctor said quickly. This wasn't exactly true. He had fairly regular fantasies about how to get revenge on Ernesto. He'd even toyed with a revenge corrido. But he didn't really mean to do it. He just wanted the guitar back.
"Well. All right then. I'd offer you a ride up the stairs, but there really isn't a shortcut."
Héctor took Coco's arm and led her away. She was gaping at the man behind them.
When he was out of earshot, she said, "Wouldn't you get in trouble for that? I mean, if he let you…"
They walked the rest of the staircase in silence, and came into the grand party hall… or what had once been the grand party hall.
The guitar-shaped pool had been drained, and the screens were no longer playing looped clips from Ernesto's movies. In fact, one of them was showing the footage that Rosita and Victoria had gotten the night of the Spectacular, as he confessed his crime and threw Miguel from the top of the stadium. The video was almost clear enough to see the little red jacket thrown casually off to the side. Imelda had thought to use it for a message. They weren't sure whether or not Miguel could send one back -- it had, after all, been a fairly unique occurrence that something from the living world had made it here intact; it was likely that it wouldn't make it back for an answer. That was why Coco had insisted that Héctor add the bit about being all right. She didn't think there would be another chance.
On the screen, Ernesto picked up Miguel and strode to the edge of the stadium and, again, flung him out into the night.
Coco looked at it, horrified. "That's what he did to Miguel?"
"He didn't tell you?"
"He didn't want me worrying. He just said he was in trouble and you saved him."
"I didn't do a damned thing. Dante and Pepita saved him. I couldn't even stand up." Coco looked down, and he put a hand on her shoulder. "Not your fault, mija. No one can do anything about dementia."
They passed the empty pool and several torn up portraits, then went down a short hall, where one of Ernesto's security goons was now standing at attention outside the door to the huge ofrenda room.
He stood up straighter when he saw Héctor and said, "Señor Rivera. We were told you coming up."
"Will he see me?" Héctor asked.
"Oh, he'll see you," the guard said, narrowing his eyes. Héctor thought he might be one of the ones who'd thrown him in the cenote, but if so, he was apparently trying to make up for it by being just as aggressive in guarding Ernesto. "He'll see you if I have to pull his head off and make him look."
Héctor held up his hands. "I think that won't be necessary. Thank you, though. It's all right. I've had regular jobs, too."
Apparently realizing that he'd been recognized, the guard looked away and opened the door, stepping out of Héctor and Coco's way.
They went inside.
The room was vast, richly appointed, and still piled high with Ernesto's offerings from the living. Héctor didn't know how he retrieved them. Never having had a single ofrenda to go to, he didn't even know how someone would know about the thousands this sort of room implied, let alone get to them to collect hundreds of guitars, gallons of wine, and fine clothes of every kind.
"Héctor, my friend. I wondered if I would see you." Ernesto appeared from behind a tower of guitars, his face hidden under the shadow of his sombrero, only his broad smile showing.
The strangest part of the greeting was that it seemed perfectly sincere. The last time Héctor had seen Ernesto, he was being dragged off the stage after publically admitting to murder. To Héctor's murder, specifically. And yet, his voice was warm and welcoming, as if he'd been looking forward to nothing more than a visit from his childhood friend.
"A nice collection, isn't it?" Ernesto asked. "I've been looking for the lyrics Miguel left for me over the years. I thought you might like them. Maybe you could even come up with new music! I could use some new songs." He smiled. "But then, I get so many poems. I can't really remember where I left Miguel's. I'm afraid I didn't take any special notice of them. So many Riveras. I never made the connection, if they came to my attention at all." He looked at Coco. "And this must be baby Socorro. All grown up and then some, I see. The last time I saw you, you were… what, thirteen? Fourteen?"
"Thirteen," Coco said.
"Pretty as a little picture," Ernesto said. "You should have seen her, Héctor. I doubt you'd have left her alone with me. Or any man."
Héctor's fist clenched of its own accord, but Coco put her hand on his wrist to keep him from responding.
"I would not have been so foolish in any case," she said. "We came for the guitar, Tío Nesto."
Héctor was momentarily shocked by her use of the old endearment -- yes, she had called Ernesto that once, but it was a few lifetimes back -- but then he saw the way Ernesto brightened, like she had given him a great gift.
"Oh, yes, yes. The guitar. I am sorry about that." He looked at Héctor. "But surely, you would not have wanted it to lie idle? Or go back to the woman who burned all of your possessions out of spite?" He shook his head. "I heard about that. Quite the scandal in Santa Cecilia. My mother told me about it. Of course, that wife of yours always had a few screws loose in her head. I see she's not with you. You were afraid to tell her that you were coming to visit me?" He laughed. "Oh, you always did have a healthy fear of that crazy shrew."
"That's enough, Ernesto," Héctor said, still wrong-footed by exactly how casually Ernesto was treating this. He wasn't sure what he'd imagined -- maybe contrition, maybe defiance. But this was Ernesto as he had always been, as if he'd expected that this revelation about his behavior in the past was a minor matter, which certainly should have been forgotten by now.
Coco's grip on his wrist tightened, and he patted her fingers.
"I tried talking to her -- "
"I know what you said to her," Héctor cut in. "A woman?"
"Yes, I know. It was too much for her to believe. You and a real woman?" He rolled his eyes, as if at an old, worn out joke. "But after what she'd done to your music, I just wanted to have a bit of fun with her nerves."
"Yes, I’m sure Mamá burning his old papers was worse for his music than you killing him," Coco said.
"Oho," Ernesto held up a hand and laughed. "Allegedly. No one has proven anything."
"You admitted it!" Héctor said.
"I didn't deny it," Ernesto corrected him. "Your grandson confused a movie with history. He was upset about the songs, and I understand that. I didn't think something so crazy would need to be argued with."
"You threw him twice from high places, trying to kill him," Héctor said. "Once into the sinkhole, and then off a building in front of an audience. You don't do that over nothing."
"Well, he meant to spread this lie around. I couldn't let him do that."
"Like you couldn't let Papá take his song book back, and come home to us," Coco said.
"You don't think songwriters are so rare that I had to kill for songs?"
"For the ones you wanted, you did."
"Stop lying, Nesto," Héctor said, tired of the entire conversation. "We know what happened. You know what happened. What does it matter if you admit it here? We saw the Heirloom Division. We can't even try you for it here. The only thing that matters here is what everyone saw you do to Miguel, and even you can't talk your way out of that. We came to ask you to let go of the guitar."
"Papá's guitar," Coco said. "Just say you give it up freely. Then we don't have to force it at a hearing."
Ernesto laughed. "And how do you plan to do that?"
"I think you want to tell the story," Héctor said. "I think that's why you put it in that movie."
"If that guitar goes out of my tomb, people will ask questions. Everything will start to fall apart." He sat down on a fine velvet sofa and indicated chairs for Héctor and Coco. "I've talked to people, too. Not nice little ladies from the Heirloom Division. Ever since that boy was here, people have been questioning me. They can't take my things, not as long as the living want me to have them. But they took my guards. And they've turned my home into a prison."
"Yes, my heart would breaking for you, if you hadn't stopped it beating," Héctor said.
"If I start making concessions, if that guitar ends up in someone's hands instead of in my tomb -- all of this will start disappearing. I'll end up forgotten."
"I don't think they'd put up with you in Los Olvidados."
"But you wouldn't be," Coco said. "That's not what you're afraid of. They're not going to forget you. They're going to hate you."
"Odiados," Héctor realized.
"That's a place?" Coco asked.
"Of course it is," Ernesto said. "Why do you think the streets aren't overrun with the hated?" He grinned at Héctor. "You almost made the cut, didn't you? Had a look around there?"
"No. I didn't. Imelda didn't hate me."
"She certainly made a show of it."
"I was never La Malinche." Héctor looked at Coco. "It's a neighborhood, impossible to get to unless the living think you belong there. I knew a man who used to be called a villain -- a Nahua who fought the Spaniards. The living came think of him better, and he found the way out. Then they forgot him. But I knew him in Los Olvidados before he vanished. He told me about Odiados. I don't think Ernesto here will be in any trouble. They'll probably love him. They run around in there perfectly free to do whatever they want. It's just that they only have each other to do it to. For all time, since no one forgets them."
"And they just sentence you there?" Coco asks.
"No," Héctor said. "It's like everything else from the land of the living. You find yourself there. Some paths open. Some disappear. Until there's only one place to go, and no way out of it, unless the living re-imagine you."
"If I'm sentenced here for trying to stop the lies that might have sent me there, all they can do is put me in a cell." Ernesto shrugged. "They'll get bored trying to keep me in it. I'll be out in a decade or two. Long after the little brat has moved on to some new obsession, and your people forget you again."
"I knew this would be a waste of time," Coco said. "It was when I talked to him before, too."
Héctor sighed. "I thought I'd give him a chance to do the decent thing," he said. "But it's too late."
Ernesto put a hand over his heart in a sarcastic gesture and stood up, heading toward the great window that overlooked the square. "You never did have the spine to do what needed to be done, Héctor. All the talent in the world, and you would have followed your… heart… back to Santa Cecilia. To be nobody but the bruja's henpecked husband."
Héctor didn't think about it. He just crossed the room, grabbed Ernesto by the lapels of his overdesigned jacket, and shoved him against the window. "I was never nobody. I mattered to someone. Someone real. Not an audience who forgot me as soon as their dinner came to the table. You were nobody. A shadow on a screen. A voice in the air. A nest of lies on paper. I didn't live as long as you did, but I made something that mattered while I was alive. All you did was steal part of it."
He let Ernesto go with a shove and turned his back on him, leading Coco out without looking back.
When they got to the balcony outside, now covered with alebrije droppings and stones people had thrown at the house, he sat down on an ornate bench. "Sorry, Coco," he said. "I shouldn't have let you come. I should have told you to stay in the workshop."
"I didn't ask permission," she said, sitting down beside him. "I just came along. Like a genuinely grown up hundred year old." She smiled.
"I knew he wouldn't give it up. I don't know why I bothered asking."
"You wanted to see him," she suggested.
"He was your friend."
"Well, I used to think he was."
"In your heart, he was your friend. Even if your heart was wrong about him."
"Imelda told me so many times…"
"Yes. And he told you she was a shrew and witch. You were used to them sniping at each other, so you ignored it."
"Only Imelda wasn't sniping. She was telling the truth. She knew he was using me. I just didn't want to believe it." Héctor shook his head. "Ernesto was like my big brother. I thought he was, anyway. I used to scramble on the streets for just a few pesos. And I used to split that with Imelda and the twins, because even that was more than she could scrape up sewing back then. It was quick money. Ernesto always knew where to find more of it. The songs just came to me then. I never thought twice about them. They were free for me, so any money was good. Generous, even." He balled his fist and hit his knee. "I was a fool."
"You were a child!" Coco said. "Papá, you were a child living on the street. He probably did improve your life. And Mamá's and the uncles'. Of course you thought he was helping you. And of course you argued with Mamá when she pointed out that you should be getting more out of the deal."
"But I knew he could be a snake." Héctor looked up at the window, where Ernesto was still standing, probably watching this. It didn't matter. He couldn't hear so far away. "I knew it from the girls. The way he talked about them when they weren't there. There was another orphan girl. She lived in the abbey with Imelda and the boys. Ernesto took it in his head to… Well, she was a very pretty girl who was taken with him, and... well, she certainly wasn't the only one. But after the deed was done, he laughed about it, and wouldn't even talk to her again, let alone marry her like she must have imagined he would. And he told everyone in town how easy it was. Last I knew, Teresa had given in to her reputation and -- Coco?"
"Teresa?" She smiled. "I think she became a nun. I know the uncles were friends with a nun named Teresa, and Mamá… once said something nasty to her about liking low cut dresses when she was younger."
Héctor tried to imagine Teresa Rivera, another of the ones named for the padre who'd founded the orphanage, donning a nun's habit. Given some of the things he'd seen her do in taverns where he and Ernesto had been singing, he found it difficult. Ernesto had often pointed out that he'd had her first, and for free. Maybe she'd felt the need to do something drastic to get her life back in order. "Imelda had told her over and over not to trust Ernesto, and Teresa didn't like being told what to feel. They fought a lot about it, and I think Teresa was as embarrassed as I am to find out that Imelda was right." He snorted out a bitter laugh. "And it really wasn't that different in the end. I wonder who he laughed at me with."
"I doubt he told anyone. He wouldn't have wanted anyone nosing around. Stealing your songs would have been bad, but what he did to get it? He'd have ended up in jail if he'd told anyone."
"Still, I knew Imelda was right about what he did to Teresa. Why did I think she was wrong about what he was doing to me?"
"It would have cost you too much to know." Coco took his hand. "Come on, Papá. Let's go home."
"What will we tell the family?"
"That we had a nice walk in the arts district."
"You want to lie?"
She stood up and tugged him with her. "No. Mamá knows what I'm actually saying when I don't tell her something. It might as well be, 'We went to see de la Cruz about the guitar even though you told us it was crazy and we knew it was crazy and we all turned out to be right.' Except that it won't require any family discussion."
Héctor wasn't sure about it, but when they got back to the workshop and Coco said they'd had a walk, Imelda nodded knowingly, and later, when they were alone, she asked, "So… did you have nice chat with your murderer?"
He smiled, and told her everything.