Te has ido para siempre
Aunque éramos hermanos
Estás en un camino que no seguiré
Y ahora debo decir adiós
Oh, my friend and my brother,
now you've gone from my sight
You chose a path I won't follow
And I must bid you goodnight.
If there was one iron-clad rule in the land of the dead as much as in the land of the living, it was this: No good thing ever followed a loud noise in the dead of night.
Even in the city, where nothing was ever entirely asleep, it was still true. And now, there was a second one in as many weeks.
The first noise, last Tuesday, had been the police, banging on the door and barging into the workshop after Ernesto escaped—ostensibly to make sure he hadn’t come after Héctor again, but they weren’t very subtle in making sure that Imelda’s actions were accounted for all night, given that she had outright told Ruiz that she preferred the thought of Ernesto being punished more severely than the jail cell allowed. They had searched the workshop and all of the living quarters while the family stood around dully, wrapped in robes. Of course, there had been no trace of Ernesto. Héctor himself hadn’t been able to find the way here when Imelda hadn’t wanted him to be here. But the police had been a constant presence ever since, dropping by in the afternoon, following Héctor the plaza, even sitting in the rehearsal space while Héctor tried to sort out the music for the play. They were convinced that Ernesto meant to make contact.
Héctor didn’t know what he would do if—when—it happened.
He knew Imelda had several weapons in mind from the shoe shop—plaster lasts that she used to form the shoes on that would make fine blunt instruments, sharp and strong awls, scissors and utility knives. She had made a careful study of what could be used if Ernesto dared to make another attempt on the family. She also hoped that whoever had let him out (they did think someone must have broken in and unlocked the cell) had led him straight to Odiados, where she fantasized about what kind of punishment he would have.
Héctor was not averse to the idea of arming himself, though he thought, in this land, blunt instruments would be more useful than sharp ones. He had no intention of allowing himself to be hurt again, and now he was strong enough to fight back. But he didn’t want to fight.
And he didn’t think Ernesto was interested in fighting, either. He didn’t have much more of a thirst for vengeance than Héctor did, and he never had. He had killed for ambition, and maybe in a fit of pique over being denied something he wanted. He’d killed his father for being an impediment and a possible threat. He hadn’t killed anyone in retribution for anything, at least not according to anything anyone had yet found. Héctor couldn’t see him making a spectacle of himself by trying such a thing now. It wouldn’t be useful to him.
“He’d do it for fun,” Imelda said . “That’s why he hurt Coco and me when we went to talk to him. He enjoys pain.”
“I think you might be right,” Héctor told her. “But he didn’t come looking for you to do that. He didn’t even show up in Santa Cecilia until he was afraid that you’d blow his cover story about the guitar and the songs. He could hurt anyone and he’d get the same enjoyment out of it. I don’t think I’m that special.”
She sighed. “Héctor, the worst thing about him is that you were at least close to being that special to him. He still calls you his friend. He says you were his best friend when he killed you. And he killed you anyway.”
“But not out of…” Héctor searched for a word and came up blank. “He didn’t kill me because he couldn’t control himself. He didn’t come after me here once he realized no one would believe me.”
“He did at first?” Imelda asked, frowning.
“He didn’t talk to me when I tried to talk to him, but we both talked to some of the same people. I didn’t want to name-drop, so I didn’t say I knew him, but people said he was asking questions around, like, was anyone saying anything bad about him… schoolyard stuff. It was almost funny. But of course everyone loved him, and they all thought I was a liar about everything else—which was sort of true—so I didn’t bother saying anything, and he stopped asking. He just left me alone.”
“Your point being?”
“Ernesto’s not out to get me. There’s no profit in it for him.”
“So you don’t think he’ll show up?”
“I… I’m not sure.”
But Héctor was sure. He was completely certain that he wasn’t quits with Ernesto yet. He felt like there was something left undone, something he couldn’t name, and wouldn’t know until the moment arrived. And whatever it was, he had a feeling Imelda wouldn’t like it.
So it wasn’t entirely a surprise when the second noise came, deep in the night, a week later.
It was Pepita, swooping down from the sky with a screech, returning from the land of the living with fury in her voice. Héctor, who had been dozing beside Imelda, sat up straight. Imelda was even quicker. She had grabbed her robe and run outside while he was still looking for something to put on.
“You!” she screamed.
Héctor finally found his shirt and pulled it on, stepping into his pants even as he ran out after her.
Pepita was standing guard between Imelda and Ernesto de la Cruz. Ernesto’s fine clothes were torn now, and his hair was in utter disarray, falling in jangled clumps around his skull. The faint greenish hue from the courtroom was pronounced now, and his face seemed to have thinned out, though that should have been impossible. His shoes were gone.
Imelda was facing Ernesto and Pepita was letting out a loud, threating growl. Dante came tumbling down out of the sky and landed in the shadow of her wing, snarling.
Behind Ernesto was his many-headed alebrije… also growling, pushing him forward.
And Héctor understood. Rage hadn’t driven him here. His love of pain hadn’t driven him here. His spirit guide had. Because it was Ernesto whose business wasn’t finished.
“Stop this!” Héctor said, going up beside Pepita. “Pepita, please.”
“Héctor, what are you doing?” Imelda asked, incredulous. “He’s not here to be helpful.”
“No.” Héctor didn’t turn his back on Ernesto. “I don’t think he wanted to come here at all. His alebrije drove him here.”
“What difference does that make?” Imelda asked.
Upstairs, Coco’s light went on, and her window rattled up. “What’s going on? Papá…”
“It’s okay, mija.”
“No, it’s not.”
Héctor smiled at her. “It will be.” He looked at Ernesto. “How long have you been trying to get away from your spirit guide, Nesto?”
Ernesto made a warding gesture toward the dog, but just glared back at Héctor, not speaking.
“If it did drive you here, it’s a waste of time,” Imelda said. “We aren’t giving you forgiveness.” She glanced warily at Héctor. “Well, I’m not.”
“It’s not about getting forgiveness,” Héctor guessed. “It’s about asking for it.”
“I’m not begging you for anything,” Ernesto said at last. His voice rasped in the night, a rusty sawblade, so different from his usual croon that Héctor wouldn’t have recognized it if he hadn’t actually seen Ernesto speaking. “I will not.”
Héctor took a few steps up, coming around Pepita. “Walk with me, Ernesto. It’s the last chance. Your last chance.”
“Héctor!” Imelda hissed.
“Dante, come with us,” Héctor said.
Dante trotted up to his side, still growling at Ernesto, but now wagging his tail at the same time.
Héctor didn’t reach out to Ernesto. He just ducked into an alley. Imelda started to follow, but he held up his hand. “It will be all right, mi amor. I’ll come back and this time, you know I mean it. But this has to be done.”
“Héctor, don’t you…”
“Mamá!” Coco’s voice came from the window, frantic. “Mamá, don’t get angry. Papá’s right.”
Héctor turned around. The house was further away than it should have been, but he could see Coco clearly. She raised her hand to him.
He raised his own to her.
Then he turned around and kept walking into the alley, Dante at his side, sniffing for paths. A loud growl and a clatter of bone on cobbles told him that Ernesto was following.
Dante turned down a narrow path, and Héctor let him lead. There was no music in his head now. There wasn’t really anything, just a sense of completion.
“Where are we going?” Ernesto asked. “Dammit, Héctor. Will you say something?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Anything. I don’t care.”
“How did you get out?”
“That girl who was sitting in court for the whole trial. The ugly Indian girl with that red shirt.”
Héctor had no idea what to make of that, since he still had no idea who she was. “She helped you escape?”
“That’s what I thought. She showed up in the middle of the night with two bandoliers over her shoulders, like an adelita. But she died before the war.” Dante paused and waited for Ernesto to catch up, and for his alebrije to push up behind him like a rear guard. “At first I thought she was a fan, trying to help get me back to my house. I thought she might have a way around… this. Then she started talking about Diaz this and rurales that. Just ranting and ranting, like a crazy woman. Diaz and the rurales! Can you imagine? That was practically ancient history before… any of this.”
“I remember when Diaz fell. So do you. You were fourteen. Not exactly ancient—it was only ten years before you killed me.”
“A pretty busy ten years for everyone.”
“But just ten years.”
Ernesto gave an elaborate shrug as Dante led them through a dark archway into back street that seemed to be going by warehouses. Héctor could see a glint of train tracks beyond it, and he knew perfectly well where Dante was bringing them. Ernesto hadn’t recognized it yet. He just made an irritated sound—Héctor remembered it well; it was the sound he made whenever a woman was talking about anything other than how handsome he was—and kept talking. “Fine, I remember a little, but so what? And what did it have to do with anything? She said her lover was shot by the rurales, and never knew his baby, and then she was shot and never got to see her baby grow up, and had to leave him to go die, so I suppose she felt some connection to those maudlin stories they wrote about you. I thought the shrew might have sent her—”
“Imelda,” Héctor corrected firmly. “If you call my wife another name, I will leave you alone here, just like before.”
Ernesto’s jaw snapped shut, and he looked up. Now, recognition came to him. “I left you here, not the other way around.”
They had reached an unlit train platform. The only light came from the city above. There was an old train car, its door open. Héctor could see the crates stacked inside. He knew they had, at least once, been packed with cheap costumes for tourists.
Héctor looked up at the warehouses nearby and took a few steps up the platform, trying to judge where he was. “I fell… about here, didn’t I? But I was still alive when you dragged me to the car. I must have been.”
“Barely. You were dead weight. Not easy to get in there. I strained my back. It hurt for days.”
Héctor felt a bizarre impulse to apologize, but stifled it. Instead, he went to the open door of the train car and sat down, glancing inside at a pile of cloth and thinking, I died there. It made him sad, but it didn’t overwhelm him as it had earlier this year, imagining what had happened here. He sighed and looked back at the platform. Dante came over and sat beside him, tongue lolling out. Héctor scratched his head, then looked up at Ernesto. “I’ll forgive you if you ask me to. I want this over with.”
“Just like that.”
“I think I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Forgiving, I mean, not necessarily forgiving you. It’s been on my mind this year.” He considered it. “But maybe it was about forgiving you, in the end. Maybe none of the rest mattered all that much to me, because I never blamed anyone else. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to talk to you. Maybe I hope you’ll ask. Maybe I just don’t want this hanging over me anymore.”
Ernesto sat down beside him and sighed. “You’re so weak, Héctor. You always were. Why wouldn’t you just throw me to Odiados, if you think I deserve it?”
“I don’t have any power over that one way or the other. I could just forgive you without you asking for it, and all it would do is let me walk away clean of it. Your chance isn’t in getting me to forgive you. It’s in getting yourself to ask for it.”
“But why would you even want to give me ‘a chance’?” He rolled his eyes. “A chance for what? To grovel at your feet? You want me on my knees to you? Is that it?”
“I don’t know. But when your spirit guides lead you somewhere, there’s a reason for it.” He scratched Dante’s ear again, and glanced at Ernesto’s monster dog. “Maybe because if I don’t do every last thing I can to set you right, it’s my own little hell.”
“There is no hell. Haven’t you noticed?”
Héctor didn’t answer that. “I have things I should have done differently in life, you know? I watched what you did to people. Over and over. And I said, ‘It’s just Ernesto.’ I watched what you did to poor little Teresa, and I watched you brag about it. I never stopped you. Not even once, not for any of them. I was afraid you’d leave me behind. Maybe if I had, we wouldn’t be here now. Maybe you never would have crossed that line. Maybe it’s my penance to be the one who finally has to force you to look at yourself.”
“You’re babbling,” Ernesto said.
“No, I’m not. I should have drawn the line with you a long time before I did, and it should have been about something other than my own property. How could I expect you to take me seriously about a handful of songs when I let you use real people the way you did without saying a word?”
“Imelda was right about you. She was always right, and I always knew it in my heart. But I was weak. I never made you look at what you were doing head on. I’m going to try now. You murdered me. You ruined Teresa and a dozen other girls in Santa Cecilia, and you laughed about it. I don’t know what all you did later on, but I doubt anyone ever stopped you.”
“Ah, so you’ve decided to be my confessor.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But I’m going to try, at least. Maybe if someone had told you then, you wouldn’t be here now. And I was supposed to be your friend. What you did to me was evil. What you did to those girls was evil.”
Ernesto looked up at the sky and laughed. “I know you, Héctor. You’re no saint.”
“I don’t have to be a saint to know that.” He shook his head. “Ernesto, all you need to do right now is feel… anything about it. I just want you to admit it, and be sorry for it. Once.”
“You’re such an old woman!” He kicked at the dirt. “I did what I had to. Why didn’t you just let me sing the damned songs? That’s what they were there for.”
“Why didn’t you just use another song at the audition and pay me to write you more?” Héctor shook his head. “I wouldn’t have told on you. I never did. I never wanted to be famous.”
“Mierda. You think I don’t know when you’re doing your humble act?”
“No, seriously, if we’re going to sit here in this place and try to talk truth, then talk it. Don’t give me crap, chamaco. I know you, remember. I saw you on every stage you ever went out on. You love being up there. You love it when they clap and tell you how much they love your songs. You were never happier than you were out there, and don’t bother lying about that.”
“I was happier sometimes,” Héctor said. “But all right, yes. I like performing. There’s a difference between that and the freak show you were in.”
“I had the freak show? I thought you were the one who got dragged around with a circus and dressed up like a little girl’s dolly.”
“And how was the studio different from the circus, except that you were alive when you let them do it to you?”
“I had everything,” Ernesto said, leaning forward with a ghastly smile. “I could have anything I wanted, and anyone I wanted. And I did. The most beautiful women in the world would do anything I asked, just for the pleasure of my company. And the things I asked…” He closed his eyes in apparent ecstasy at the memory, then opened them. “I could buy anything. Own anything. Anyone. It was mine for the asking, and it wasn’t the money. It was the thing you call the freak show. Even the richest man can never have what the famous man can get.” He laughed. “Oh, Héctor. Once there were kings and princes. They never had as much power as I did. The famous… they are the real princes of the heavens. Only princes are expected to run the country or risk a peasant revolt. Movie stars don’t need to worry about that.”
Héctor sighed. “Was it worth what you did to get it?”
“A million times over.” Ernesto smirked. “Did you really think I would say no? I wish you’d stayed out of the way. I wish it hadn’t come to what it did. I liked playing with you. I’d have liked to have you around, though I doubt the shrew—”
Héctor stood up and started away.
“Fine!” Ernesto followed. “All right. I doubt Imelda would have liked it much if you’d come to my parties.” He came around into Héctor’s path and stopped. “The point is, I didn’t need you to be dead. I wouldn’t have done it except that you, well—”
“Made you do it?” Héctor shook his head. “Nesto, is that really what you want to go with? Because I’m pretty sure this is your last chance. And I am giving you every chance right now.”
“A chance at what? You think I want to be like you? Too weak to go after what I really wanted? Or are you still trying to believe that you could ever have achieved what I did without being who I am?”
The lights in the station came on, sickly green, like the glow of Ernesto’s bones. Dante drew close to Héctor, and Ernesto’s alebrije snarled.
There was a shuffling sound in the shadows, then a woman with a black shawl around her head came up, smiling. “De la Cruz!” she croaked. “Oh, you’re my favorite! I always hoped you’d come visit us. I was at one of your parties once, with my girls. Don’t you remember me?”
“No idea,” Ernesto said. “Go away.”
“It’s Delfina! From Rancho El Ángel! Well, it was before the Rancho, but I was in the business...”
“I have no idea who you are.” Ernesto took Héctor’s arm and pushed past the woman, who was laughing. “Cheap girls,” he hissed.
Dante tugged at Héctor’s wrist, and he slowed. “Ernesto, stop. We’re crossing the line.”
“Crossing what line?”
“The one you won’t be able to get back over.”
They’d gone between two warehouses and into a seedy looking neighborhood. There was a restaurant called Calva’s, and in front of it, a pair of conquistadors in ruffed collars turned and gave them narrow looks. One of them had blonde hair.
“Oy, Alvarado,” the other said, “looks like there’s some new blood.”
“Looks like cheap blood. We should tell Malinche we’ll need a translator.”
“I don’t know,” the first said. “One of them doesn’t quite look like one of us. Maybe we send him to the Cubano for one of his spells. He’s always looking for the ones who think they’re better than us.”
They laughed unpleasantly.
Héctor turned around, but Ernesto’s alebrije was still pushing them in, and he couldn’t quite tell which alley they’d just come from.
They kept walking.
Héctor had seen worse neighborhoods when it came to shelter and provisions. There were blocks of apartments with thick walls, and market stalls that he didn’t look at very carefully. A yellow building rose up out of shadows, and it seemed familiar, a ghost copy of a house in Guanajuato that Héctor remembered seeing on tour. He didn’t remember much, but there had been something about murder and black magic.
They passed a stall selling chains, and from somewhere close by, Héctor heard a shriek, followed by laughter.
Dante grabbed his wrist and whined desperately.
“It’s all right, boy. You can get me out.” He turned back to Ernesto, saying, “It’s time for me to leave. I—”
But Ernesto was half a block further up.
“Ernesto!” Héctor called. “Ernesto! I’m leaving!”
Ernesto turned around, squinting and putting a hand to his ear, as though Héctor were much further away.
“Looks like your boyfriend’s leaving you behind,” a woman said from a booth. “You looking for company? I can give you company.”
“No, thank you,” Héctor said, with only a quick glance, but by the time he turned back, Ernesto had disappeared down a side street.
“You sure? I like the pretty light on your bones. We don’t see it very much down here.”
“I’m sure. I… I need to leave.”
“Good luck! I need to leave, too. I don’t belong here. Those men were all animals. They deserved what I gave them…”
Dante gave a big tug on Héctor’s arm, and then ran not for the alleyways behind them, where Héctor’s instincts told him to go, but deeper into Odiados.
He almost called the alebrije back, then remembered that Dante would be able to find his way better. Dante’s chances of being lost were slim.
They ran down cobbled alleys and even dusty streets, between fortresses and military fencing and a hundred other things that Héctor had no good associations for. There were people, too, people who saw him, who saw Dante, who came out of the hiding spots and followed, crooning taunts sometimes, threats other times. He saw men in marion helmets and some carrying spears and others in modern clothes. He didn’t see as many women, but once, he heard a high soprano voice from a window, crooning a lullaby that chilled him to his core.
Héctor tried not to hear it. He just followed Dante.
Finally, the crowd thinned, and somehow, they were back at the train platform. Someone jumped out of one of the cars and ran into the shadows, and then, at last, Héctor and Dante were alone, and standing beside the car he had died in. The lights went out, and now, there was once more just the soft light coming from the city Héctor had known for the last hundred years.
He didn’t have a heart to race, or blood to pump through him in a rush of relief, yet somehow, he still felt those things. His legs were weak.
He sat down in the train car’s open door, put his head in his hands, and waited for the shaking to pass.
Dante climbed up beside him and put his head on Héctor’s shoulder.
“That’s a good boy,” Héctor said. “That’s the best boy. You’re the best alebrije ever. Don’t tell Pepita I said so, but you are.”
Dante licked his face, and Héctor put an arm over the dog’s wing joints, hugging him tightly, feeling his heartbeat. It was a comforting sense, and, after what seemed like a long time, the shakiness passed.
He got down from the edge of the train car door and looked inside it. Faint city-light came through a window, falling on the pile of cloth in the back where he had died so long ago. He could almost see himself there, a boy with a shock of black hair, pale and clammy, his good clothes stripped away, lying there in his shirt and underwear, the picture, forgotten, between his shirt and his skin, soaked in sweat. He could no longer see, but maybe he’d heard Ernesto rifling through the other crates, looking for something to disguise him in.
Héctor reached over for the handle of the door and pulled it shut. He leaned against it for a minute.
Dante gave an urgent sort of bark.
Héctor turned away from the train and nodded. “Yes. Okay. It’s time to go.”
The city lights grew brighter as they left the station, coming up to the street outside of Héctor’s home. Imelda and Coco were waiting for him, Pepita crouched between them. He opened his arms and they came to him, and he held them.
“I’m home,” he said.
“And de la Cruz?” Coco asked.
“Tío Nesto made a different call.”
Imelda nodded. “That’s that, then.”
“Yes,” Héctor said. “That’s that.”
They went inside together, leaving the alebrijes to fly freely as they chose, and another day began.