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Road Home side story 2: Storytelling - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Road Home side story 2: Storytelling
This was easily the most requested side story at AO3. But it didn't feel right to tell it in that time frame. So I figured I'd use it to go forward a few years.

It needs a better title. I'm open to suggestions.


“This is extortion,” Miguel said, sitting down on the wooden chair in Carlos’s small backyard. “You know that, right?”

Carlos nodded and opened the cooler, tossing one beer to Miguel, and the other to Denny Calles, was sitting at the picnic table with a case file in front of him, grinning toothily.

“You’re holding my composition grade ransom.”

“Yes, I am.” Carlos smile and sat down, gesturing at the wooden chair by the table. “Get comfortable. You may be talking for a while.”

“To be fair,” Denny said, “you told us that you’d tell us almost six years ago.”

“No I didn’t. I told you to ask me again in the morning. In the morning, I said no. Where are Tina and Gabi?”

“At Tina’s sister’s house, where I’ll join them for the holiday tomorrow,” Carlos said implacably. “But she made me promise not to let up on this until you spilled, so no ally there.”

Miguel rolled his eyes. “There’s Gabi. Gabi would be on my side.”

“Yes, my five year old would be your best advocate, at least for a while. Do you really think she wouldn’t sell you out for liberal amounts of chocolate?”

“That’s a good point,” Miguel conceded. He sighed and opened his beer on the bottle opener that had been screwed onto the fence post beside him. “Fine. I had a dream. I dreamed that Ernesto de la Cruz murdered my great-great-grandfather, and wouldn’t you know, it turned out to be true. I’m psychic. Did I forget to mention that?”

Denny snorted and opened his folder. “You forget, chamaco. I’m a detective.” He produced a photo of Javier Delgado, who ran a touristy knickknack shop off of Mariachi Plaza in Santa Cecilia. “Exhibit A: Señor Delgado is a very helpful man. He told me stories about how you used to come in with whatever spare change you could find. He remembers you buying bobbleheads, action figures, a photo…”

Miguel drank his beer without comment.

“Ah, but we knew that already,” Carlos said. “The famous shrine.”

“Unfortunately, your family is tight-lipped and camera-shy, and no one took a picture of that. A real shame.”

“Because that would prove the story I’ve told the whole country for six years about how I used to be a de la Cruz fan?”

Denny shrugged. “No, but it would be good drama.”

“It’s true,” Carlos said. “Delgado is a terrible visual aid. We didn’t even get receipts to hound you with.”

Despite himself, Miguel laughed. “All right. We’ll pretend you threatened me with exposure of this deep dark secret that everyone knows. It’s still not going to make you believe the story you’re asking for.”

“So you said last year in Minnesota,” Denny said.

“Ah, yes.” Carlos shook his head. “The great motorcycle distraction. You know I had nightmares about you getting into an accident and mangling your hands.”

“But I came back fine, and with lots of songs.” Miguel settled into the chair, which was his usual perch here. Carlos grumbled about the trip—Miguel had put off the Conservatory for a year to travel with Papá for two months (Papá Isidro had come to the hacienda to help with the little ones). While they hadn’t hit every country between Tierra del Fuego and Anchorage, they had managed to get their various rented motorcycles over a lot of territory, only taking one significant flight (Recife to Mangua, because the rainforest just wasn’t feasible by road and they hadn’t wanted to go the more western inland route), and Miguel had learned a lot of music on the way. He’d also played in a lot of plazas, gotten more than handful of spare change, and become a viral meme as people posted various sightings (and spliced footage of him into places he’d never set foot, like the British Parliament and a Tibetan monastery). He hadn’t realized this until the weekend he’d spent at Cobbler’s Ridge, Minnesota, with Denny and his cousins. One cousin in particular, but he tried very hard not to dwell on that.

When he got there, he’d seen the spreading meme for the first time, and been a little disturbed by it at first. The Shaughnessy girls had thought he’d known all along, but the family at home apparently hadn’t known about it, except for Rosa, who’d thought it was funny to not tell him on his weekly check-in. As soon as he’d calmed down, he’d made a video of his own, with a handful of the songs he’d been writing on the road. That had ended up with an offer of recording contract, but he’d turned that down to go to the Conservatory this year. He wanted to just be another student, not the freak show star. That… hadn’t quite worked out as planned.

Denny cleared his throat. “Exhibit B.” He produced a copy of Santa Cecilia’s local paper, dated on Día de los Muertos, 2017. LOST BOY FOUND SAFE. Miguel’s school picture from that year was front and center. He couldn’t believe how young he looked. He was the same age then as Manny and Ben were now, and they’d been Coco’s age then. And his sister, at that point, had been a swelling in Mamá’s belly and a vague idea in his own head, as the new one was now. His brother Héctor, now four years old and already playing simple songs on Miguel’s old piano, hadn’t even occurred to anyone yet. He’d been an only child for twelve years then, and now he barely remembered what that had been like.

He knew the article by heart. Miguel Rivera Saavedra, whose disappearance last night caused dozens of people to search for him until dawn, was found in the cemetery. And so on. They reported that he’d run through the streets with de la Cruz’s guitar (including speculation that it was he who’d tried to steal it earlier and removed it from its pegs for most of the night), and that he’d rushed to the hacienda for purposes unknown. They’d talked to Cesaro, the mariachi that Mamá Elena had threatened the day before, and to the people he’d tried to borrow guitars from in the square, as well as to Gezana, who recalled telling him that he needed to acquire one. The conclusion was that he’d tried to steal the guitar, then gotten frightened of the consequences, left it behind in the crypt, and hidden in the cemetery to deflect attention. The family’s music ban had been covered rather jovially, as a famous local quirk.

“You caught me,” he said. “I did disappear that night. It was covered in the papers, but otherwise, a total secret.”

“One week later,” Denny said, pulling out another article, this one with the headline, “Rivera Shoemaker Family Claims de la Cruz Guitar is Family Heirloom!” This showed the photo of Papá Héctor and his guitar, side by side with a photo of de la Cruz with it. Denny raised his eyebrows. “And a month later.” The next article was about the hearing about the proper ownership of the guitar.

“And,” Carlos put in, “somewhere between those two articles, your cousin Rosa and your cousin Abel started taking music lessons in town. The local teachers turned you down, because you were technically beyond their most advanced levels. Your father contacted Professor Moreno, and the next thing we knew, the boy from the family that had forbidden music was taking lessons from the finest teacher the Conservatory could provide.” He primped at an invisible mirror.

Miguel didn’t quite manage not to smile. “What’s your point?”

“All the evidence says something happened the night of Día de Muertos 2017,” Denny said.

“Yes,” Carlos said. “And since I’ve been working on turning you into a great musician and Denny found your great-great-grandfather—”

“—and because we’re going to make something up pretty soon, anyway—”

“—we think it’s time for you to tell us.” Carlos laughed and opened a beer. “Come on, Miguel. I trust you to babysit my daughter. Can you trust me to not tell your secrets to all and sundry?”

Miguel sighed and drained his beer. “It’s not that. It’s…”

“It’s what? You really think we won’t believe?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I think.”

Denny tossed him another beer. “Give us a chance.”

“I don’t want you thinking I made it up. It’s…” Miguel shifted uncomfortably. “Look, it’s really important to me, okay? It’s not a joke, and it’s not anything you’re going to pull up news articles on. It really happened to me, and it really matters. I don’t run around talking about it because I don’t like people looking at me like I’m crazy.”

They gave each other a more serious look, and Carlos shrugged, sitting down at the table. “Look, something happened to you. That much is obvious. I can’t think of much I’d reject out of hand right now. If you say the ghost of your Papá Héctor dropped by de la Cruz’s tomb to fill you in on what happened, I’m actually pretty open to that.”

“Me, too,” Denny said. “Though I’d want to know why he waited so long.”

“You’re not far off,” Miguel said. “Though… you’re still on the mundane side of it.”

“The…. mundane side?” Carlos repeated.

“Yeah.” Miguel leaned forward, tapping the neck of his bottle.

“Look, I haven’t told this story all the way through since I told my family. And I was kind of scared then.”

“But they believed you,” Denny said.

Miguel nodded. He thought of the night he’d told them—the night after they’d spent all day listening to Mamá Coco’s stories. She’d been sleepy, but she’d said, “Now, I want you to tell us, Miguel. I want to know. How did you meet my papá?”

Of course, no one in the family had argued with Mamá Coco, and Miguel had sat beside her chair, holding her hand while he spoke. She had been his silent ally, and that had made everyone be quiet long enough to listen to him and think about what he was saying, and how unlikely it would be to make it up.

She wasn’t here now, and even if she had been, Denny and Carlos hadn’t spent their lives in the Rivera hacienda, and might not have known the rules about contradicting her.

“Okay,” Miguel said, but didn’t start talking right away. He just drank his beer, looking at the moon and the stars and the haze of Mexico City, thinking about where to start. Finally, he said, “Do you remember the song I did for my audition? ‘The Light Inside’?”


“And everyone was asking about the part where I picked up light and held it? Like, they wanted to know what I was really talking about.”

“I remember Professor Moreno wondering if you were planning to write a Mexican ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’” He rolled his eyes. “Because nothing says ‘Classic ballad of 1970s nihilism’ quite like the image of light breaking through the dark and…” He stopped. “What were you really talking about?”

“The marigold petals,” Miguel said. “On the bridge. I scooped up a handful of marigold petals, and the light just broke out of them. It happened every time people stepped on them. The surface—well, it was marigold petals, so it wasn’t dark to start with, but every time someone stepped on them or picked them up, there was a glow to them, like every petal had a star inside it.”

“You had that image in your head—stars inside of flower petals—and you didn’t use it?”

“I had this crazy composition teacher who said that if an image didn’t fit the music, I shouldn’t force it in.”

“Clearly, this person was a lunatic,” Carlos said. “How many other images like that do you have in your head? Maybe we’ll make you a poet, too.”

“Can we get off the topic of poetry and back to the subject of bridges?” Denny asked. “Miguel… are you talking about something real?”

“I am. It’s completely real. And you promised to believe.”

Carlos looked skeptical, but interested. Denny—the one Miguel had considered more hard-headed, if he had thought about the subject at all—seemed entirely invested.

Miguel tried to find the thread again. For a long time, he hadn’t told them just because the subject had faded. Parrying their occasional prods had even been a game. But the truth was, he didn’t have a good reason not to tell them. They were part of the extended world of his family, and they knew enough to know there was more. But there was still some part of him that was afraid they’d laugh. And maybe, because the memory itself was becoming something like a dream. He remembered some parts vividly. The handful of light that had haunted him into a song. The disappearance of Chicharron. Papa Héctor’s embrace in the cenote, and the last, terrifying view as he and Mamá Imelda had forced the marigold petal to touch him, sending him away. Much of that night seemed distant and unreal. Had he really been at de la Cruz’s party? He must have been, or he wouldn’t have been in the cenote. Had he really song “Poco Loco” to a crowd of skeletons? Well, again, it must have been true, because he’d learned to do a grito for that, and he could still do the grito, and besides, that was why they had visited Cheech. The Department of Family Reunions? Flying on Pepita? Being thrown from the stadium? All of those things sometimes seemed like a book he’d once read, and they had that strange, glowing quality that had spread through Cheech just before he blew away into the night.

He wasn’t afraid that he’d lose Carlos and Denny’s good opinions. He was afraid that their laughter, if it came, would blow those scraps apart and scatter them into nothingness.

Or, a wry, amused voice said inside his mind, it could be that telling things keeps the memories alive, chamaco. Seems to me I once told you that about people. Maybe it’s true about crazy stories, too.

He smiled. Papá Héctor himself never seemed to fade, and visited his dreams every Día de los Muertos, which by itself proved the rest.

“Hey,” Denny said. “Do you plan to open your mouth, or are Carlos and I going to have to make up the story?”

Finally, Miguel said, “Okay. It started with the guitar. Not the one I played. The one I made. You’ve seen it, Carlos. You’ve played it.”

Carlos nodded. Miguel had finally re-built his old guitar, using as many of the same scraps as he could, and adding only what he could have gotten before the ban lifted for the rest. It would never be a world-class instrument, like the fine one that Mamá Imelda had made for Papá Héctor, but he was proud of what he’d been able to do on his own. He’d shown it to Carlos, who’d played some Fernando Sor on it, looking like he wouldn’t believe it worked until he actually made it through the tune. Miguel had built two more guitars since, proper ones. One had been a small one for Coco to practice on, and the other was the instrument he played most often at the conservatory. But that first one meant the most to him.

“I spent most of year making that guitar,” he said. “I scrounged leather and wood from the shop. Nails, too, for the frets. I used my comb for the bridge, which was probably why my hair was always a mess. I used Papá Franco’s fishing line for strings for a while, but the sound wasn’t very good. So I found some steel wire in the dump. That’s where I got my television and VCR, too. And I just sat up there and played for hours. I didn’t care that it was just an old beater. I didn’t even care at first that the fishing line didn’t sound perfect. The more I played, the more I wanted it to be perfect. And I kept making it a little bit better all the time. I’d been on the steel strings for a few weeks when Día de los Muertos came around. I knew I was good. And the last few weeks, I just kept thinking about how much I wanted to take that guitar right out in the open and play it. I started blurting things out to customers. I was shining a guy’s shoes in the plaza, telling the whole story. Cesaro, from the news story?” He nodded at Denny’s pile of evidence. “He almost let me play his, but my abuelita spotted us before I could…”

The story came out slowly at first. Even now, Miguel cringed at how he’d spoken to his family, and even more, how delighted he’d been to think that de la Cruz might be his ancestor. “I was crazy,” he said. “I mean, I really was.”

“Miguel, you had a gift,” Carlos told him. “Gifts need to be shared. And they do very strange things to the brain when something is blocking them.”

Miguel didn’t answer that. It was an old argument. Carlos loved Miguel’s family and they loved him, but he made no bones about the fact that he considered the old ban to have been unconscionable. Only the fact that even Abuelita now admitted that she’d missed music and felt left out of the world because of it kept it from being a constant fight. But there was a difference between admitting that the ban had been wrong and kind of righteous fury Carlos seemed to want about it. It seemed disrespectful.

“Anyway,” he said. “I ran. I only meant to go into the talent show. But my guitar was gone. And no one would lend me one, so I had a brilliant idea.”

“You robbed a grave,” Denny guessed.

“I robbed a grave,” Miguel agreed. “On Día de los Muertos. And it cursed me.”


“Cursed. Straight to the land of the dead.”

Miguel looked at his two companions, trying to judge their acceptance level. Carlos was listening seriously, though he looked like he might have reservations. Denny was leaning forward avidly. When Miguel didn’t immediately continue, he gestured with his hand to go on.

Strangely, as the tale grew more fantastic, it also became easier to tell. The details came back—the scuffed floor of the office in the Department of Family Reunions, the glow of the petal as Mamá Imelda tried to bless him with conditions, following Dante to Papá Héctor and enlisting his help, the race to escape the building, having his face painted with shoe polish. “And those polish tins were gone from my jeans pocket when I got back. It wasn’t a dream. They were gone. They were left on cobblestone street in the land of the dead.”

“Okay,” Carlos said. “But you still thought de la Cruz was your ancestor. Did you meet him?”

“Don’t rush me. There were some side trips along the way. I met Frida Kahlo first.”

“Aha!” Denny said. “The Kahlo fixation. I almost forgot about that. I asked Enrique about that the first day I met you, and he wouldn’t answer.”

“She told me I had the soul of an artist. And that Dante was an alebrije. Also, there was a crying cactus involved.”

“Of course there was,” Carlos said fondly. “So, go on.”

Miguel went on, now hesitating less, just forcing himself to backtrack if he felt like he was about to start embellishing. There was no embellishment needed. As he spoke, the fading bits started to reform, to become vivid again. By the time he got to being thrown into the cenote, he felt like the boy in the newspaper photo again—the skinny kid with gapped teeth (he’d had that problem corrected when he was sixteen), with big dreams and no real hope, whose first real friend was a twenty-one year old man who’d died a century earlier, who was, incidentally, his great-great-grandfather.

After he told about Pepita’s rescue flight, he chanced a glance at his companions. Carlos’s skepticism was gone. Denny was deep in his own thoughts.

“Hey, Calles,” Miguel said. “Another beer?”

Denny pulled himself up enough to toss him one, and got fresh ones for himself and Carlos as well.

“I could have gone home then,” he said. “But I had to get that photo back. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. Papá Héctor thinks now that it might not have.”

“You still talk to him?” Denny asked.

“On Día de los Muertos. In dreams. Believe or don’t believe.”

“I believe.”

“Me too,” Miguel said, and smiled. “Anyway, at first Mamá Imelda kept her rule, and I agreed to it. After everything I saw with de la Cruz, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to play anymore. But then Mamá Imelda sang, and Papá Héctor played, and I loved it again. Just like they did. And then they were going to send me home, but de la Cruz threw me off the stadium.”

“Threw you?”

Miguel nodded. “I fell a long way. Pepita caught me. I don’t know how I didn’t break all her bones, I was going so fast, but I guess the rules are different there. And Dante had slowed me down. That helped, probably. He just wasn’t big enough to really stop the fall.”

“Your dog,” Carlos said in wonder. “That silly xolo dog.”

“He goes back and forth a lot now.” Miguel shrugged. “So, Pepita brought me back up, and it was just in time. The sun was starting to rise. And Papá Héctor… he was…” But that wouldn’t come out. The idea of Papá Héctor going the way Chicharron had gone wasn’t one Miguel wanted to think about. “I was scared for him, but he wouldn’t let me stay. He and Mamá Imelda blessed me with no conditions. They sent me back to de la Cruz’s tomb. I got the guitar. That’s where your newspapers pick up.”

“And you ran home with it,” Carlos said. “And you played it for your bisabuela.”


“And she remembered.”

“She did.”

Carlos nodded. “That’s actually not surprising. They knew music works like that for dementia patients.”

“After that,” Miguel said, “the family understood. I told them everything that night. And you know the rest. You were there for the rest.”

“How did you know his body was on the train?”

Miguel smiled. “Did I tell you that I was wearing a hoodie when I went there?”


“Well, I was. De la Cruz yanked it off at the stadium. It got left behind. Give me a second.” He pulled out his phone and texted Rosa, who was supposed to have come home from college for Día de los Muertos; Miguel himself planned to leave with Denny tomorrow morning.

right now? she texted back. it’s 1:30

and you’re still up checking your phone to see if it’s whatever his name is

Haha. I’m in the middle of paper. There was a pause, then she added. Fine, I’m working in the kitchen anyway.

Then the picture came.

The red hoodie, long stored in a wooden box beneath the ofrenda, with the piping removed and stitched back on to make the word TRÉN. And beneath it, still holding on, the more sparsely stitched phrase, “Estoy bien, mijo.”

Miguel zoomed in on the photo and showed it to Carlos and Denny. “Want to add that to your case file?” he asked.

“I don’t think it would stand up in court,” Denny said. “This is… it’s an actual… this is sitting in the room we’re going to see tomorrow?”

“I’ll even take it out for you if you want.”

“Oh, yeah. And it’s going on the file.”

“So that’s the whole story,” Carlos said.

“Do you want more?”

“Well, yes. I’m not sure what more I want, but I want details. I’m tempted to assign you a ballad on the subject.”

“Not until I get the mark you’re already holding hostage.”

“Fine. Nine-point-eight.”

“What are you knocking of the point-two for?”

“Unnecessarily complicated phrasing in—”

“No!” Denny said, waving his hands. “You two can get technical at the conservatory. I’m not done with this yet.”

“There’s nothing else to add. Unless you want to hear about Papá Héctor’s Viking play, which has been standing room only in the land of the dead for the last five years.”

“Now, you’re putting us on,” Carlos said.

“He taught me the songs. Want to hear one? You’ll be able to tell it’s Papá Héctor and not me, even if no one else could.”

He actually looked tempted, then shook his head. “No. I think I will wait until I can someday see it for myself.”

“I’ll tell him to make sure it’s still playing.”

Carlos laughed and sat back, looking up at the sky. “I can’t believe you sat on that for so long.”

“Me, either,” Miguel said. “And I shouldn’t have. Not with you guys. I mean, it’s never going to be on a YouTube video, but… I should talk about it more. I shouldn’t let it fade again.”

“Speaking of the famous videos,” Denny said, “someone’s got you singing in the Forbidden City.”

“I’m not sure they understand how motorcycle trips work…”

Denny called up the video, and Miguel watched his own spliced in figure dancing around in Beijing.

They were still up to greet the sun the next morning.
4 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: October 4th, 2018 04:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Aw yiss. Was looking forward to this, and you delivered.

In general, but most definitely after his experiences, it makes sense that trust is a big deal for Miguel. And I can just imagine how the slightest bit of disbelief from Carlos and Denny would not only shatter his bond with them, but within himself as well. So it's natural that he'd procrastinate on this.
At the same time, it is important that he tells the story beyond the family walls.

Considering how he brought those pictures over for their first Day of the Dead, I'm honestly not surprised that Denny's the one most readily to initially believe.
I am amused that the thing Carlos was most actively incredulous about was Dante helping to save Miguel; which... *watches the Xolo choke on his own leg* yeah. Alternatively, that he accepted off the bat there being a crying cactus connected to Kahlo.

"One cousin in particular, but he tried very hard not to dwell on that."
Do I detect... drama??? :P

Miguel Rivera: memelord. Forget professional music; there's his calling.

"'...how I didn’t break all her bones...'"
Should it be "my bones"? Considering that Pepita's the much bigger one flying.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 5th, 2018 05:24 am (UTC) (Link)
If the movie had no other message, it was that the stories we tell are very important, so he did need to tell it. But yeah... it would take courage. Hopefully, he tells each of his siblings as they get old enough.

Do I detect... drama??? :P
As only late teenagers can create it.

I figure that in the real world, that landing on Pepita would be something like a body landing on a parked car after being thrown from seven stories up. No one's coming out of it looking good. But the rules in the land of the dead are obviously not normal physics rules. :D
sonetka From: sonetka Date: October 7th, 2018 05:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Also, being alive may lend Miguel a certain extra resilience!

I enjoyed reading this and can definitely see how Miguel would need a beer or two to feel ready to take the plunge and start talking. Though after everything he had managed to find out before even contacting either of them I'd think that even Carlos would have to be in that headspace where all you can do is shrug and remember that there are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, and that some things simply cannot be explained. They knew from the first that something strange must have happened. I'd definitely want a look at that hoodie, though I think I'd be hesitant to touch it, benevolent though its alterers might have been :).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 7th, 2018 06:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I think I'd need a little liquid courage before daring to tell that story to my cool friends. :D

I think Carlos was less skeptical than Miguel was afraid of; he's just absorbing it and trying to get the logic of the thing, since, for a musician, he's actually pretty level-headed.
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