Joaquín was not an idiot. He pined for María for so long and watched Manolo do the same that he knew what it looked like in others. María had always preferred Manolo, even as children. He didn't doubt her love for him, but she looked at Manolo in a way different than anyone else. Manolo never noticed of course, and he doubted María truly knew herself. It sparked jealousy in Joaquín and it was that same jealousy that jumped out of his throat when he told Manolo he should have died instead.
His words kept playing over and over in his head as he stared at María's body, lively and beautiful even through ashen color and coldness. She would not have wanted him to say that, she would have slapped him for it in all likelihood and reminded him that Manolo was his friend, that he suffered just as much of a loss as he did, that he did everything he could to save her and it wasn't his fault.
"I'm going to find Manolo," Joaquín announced to the general, getting up from his chair.
"Hurry back," Posada said, "You should be here. You were her fiancée."
Joaquín clenched his teeth and fought a grimace. They both knew it was not true. María had not said yes, and thus, her answer was no. And she'd been with Manolo, they'd been alone together sometime before dawn, surrounded by candles. It did not take a genius to figure it out.
But the general was trying to console himself, so he said nothing and made his way towards the Casa de Sánchez. In the early morning light he passed by the usual denizens of the town, opening shops and getting a start on errands in the market. They didn't know that up behind the curtains on the balcony of the Casa de Posada, María Posada lay, eyes closed never to open again.
And they would give their condolences to Joaquín for his loss and for all that could have been. All the while blaming Manolo like Joaquín and Posada had, ignorant of just how deep his loss in this event went, if what Joaquín suspected was true, María died Manolo's fiancée.
He knocked on the door and received a tired looking Carlos, not quite dressed for the day.
"I wondered if I might talk to Manny," Joaquín said.
"I haven't seen him since the party," Carlos said, rubbing his head, "I thought perhaps he went out with his guitar and those three idiots."
"I saw him earlier just outside town, he's probably still there, thank you," Joaquín said, nodding.
"Is everything alright Joaquín? That's the most heated I've seen you two get over this whole thing," Carlos said.
"It's—I, um…María is dead," he said, dropping his head and focusing on the two pebbles on the ground intently.
"Manny was with her, she was bitten by a snake, I just want to make sure he's okay he—he was very shaken up," Joaquín said, groaning inside at his omission.
"My god, María…I should go with you—"
"No, I'll bring him back here. But I…I should probably talk to him alone."
Carlos looked like he wanted to protest, and for a moment Joaquín thought he might. But he sighed and nodded, he placed a silent hand on Joaquín's shoulder and squeezed. Joaquín gave him a tightly pressed smile and turned away, heading back now in the direction of the tree on the edge of town.
He took many deep breaths the closer he got, recalling just how cruelly he'd told Manolo he'd wished him dead. He didn't and hadn't, he didn't want to lose either of them. He didn't even want to think about the possibility of choosing between them and now Manolo believed his best friend would gladly trade him to get María back.
He found the trail of candles, some burned down to a pile of wax, some blown out in the wind, only one or two going strong. At the top of the hill he saw the form of Manolo, unmoved from his spot beneath the tree. Joaquín took a deep breath and prepared himself.
But something was wrong.
The closer Joaquín got, he realized Manolo was night resting by the tree but instead sprawled out. He was on the ground, limbs at odd angles, guitar a good distance away from where his fingers seemed to be reaching for it. This was not a restful sleep.
"Manny?" he called.
He ran the rest of the way up to the tree, Manolo hadn't moved an inch. Joaquín practically crashed onto him, dropping to his knees and placing a hand against Manolo's face and immediately jumped at how cold he was. His face was colorless and his eyes locked open and unseeing.
"No, no, no, no, no!"
Joaquín shook him, he gave him a few smacks. But nothing. Manolo didn't move, his skin did not redden from the slaps, his blank eyes continued to stare straight ahead, his head and limbs dangling in place, moving only when prompted. Joaquín placed his ear to Manolo's chest and heard nothing, he looked and saw no rise and fall.
"Not you too," Joaquín said, choking back what would have been a strangled yell. A lump was growing in his throat that he could never swallow if he tried for a hundred years.
Manolo had been his brother, the only family he had when he had none. When María was gone, Manolo had been all he had. They'd played together, stayed up late together betting on cards, they'd even drank together when Joaquín was in town. He couldn't lose Manny, not now, not both of them.
"She wouldn't have wanted this," he whispered, pulling Manolo's body up as much as he could and pressing their foreheads together.
He was certain it was suicide. After losing María and believing it his fault, he'd walked himself back up here followed after her. What would he tell Carlos? Would General Posada be kind enough for just a moment to allow María and Manolo to be buried together? He'd make the general see, María had accepted Manolo's marriage proposal not long before she passed. It was only right they lay in rest together as he hoped they found each other in the afterlife.
There was no way he'd get Manolo back to town on his own. Small as he may be in comparison, he was still a sculpted bullfighter and full-grown man. So Joaquín settled for yelling for help, as the tears he so desperately wanted to fight off finally won.
"I want to see him."
María waking, heartening as it had been, posed another set of problems. Very quickly Joaquín realized the dilemma of her waking while Manolo lay, still very dead, in his own home. And she would ask, and she did ask, and Joaquín had to watch as her face turned paler than he thought possible on person or corpse and tears quickly followed after. She spent over an hour crying, after which was silent to the point of near catatonic, staring out the window.
"I'm not sure that's a very good idea—"
"I don't care."
She was fighting back tears again, Joaquín could hear it in the way her voice shook. The first time she'd spoken all afternoon and it was request to look upon the body of her dead lover.
"Please," she whispered. "It can be my wedding gift." Her grim face and sarcastic tone matched the macabre joke but she meant it.
Joaquín understood the feeling behind it. She needed to know for certain, to understand to herself that he was well and truly gone so she would stop playing scenarios in her head that he'd waltz through the door and laugh and sing again.
They walked together, María on his arm, through the town. They passed people who rejoiced, wished them well. One or two remembered that Manolo was dead now and offered a condolence to the pair for their fallen member of the Three Amigos. Unfortunately not everyone was so kind.
"Well, it's a worthy trade I think, Manolo Sánchez for María," said one particular shopkeeper, setting out old worn books.
Joaquín was moving before he even knew it. One minute he was standing with María on his arm, the next he was holding the man by his collar, pressing hard to make him part of the wall.
"He was my brother," Joaquín hissed dangerously.
María looked shaken but glared at him for the outburst. Joaquín regained himself and released the man's collar, now bunched from a fist.
"Apologize to her," Joaquín ordered.
The man apologized, even not completely sure of why he was apologizing in the first place. María accepted it with a mumble
No. Manolo had not been traded for María, Joaquín's words hurt but did not have that power. It was an accident. One was not alive because the other was gone. That's what he told himself. Joaquín made no deals with any devil's, Manolo had been devastated, devastated by words Joaquín and Posada had said. Devastated because his guilt over what happened to María was doubled, tripled even. Joaquín traded Manolo to get María back no matter how you looked at it. And she wasn't even his to get back.
Once glance at her told him she was just as miserable as he was. Her hands were now crossed over her chest, her face to the sand, silent tears slipped out in twos every few minutes or so. She was probably thinking the same thing, survivor's guilt, she was awake now because Manolo was not. It didn't matter if some power in the world truly did trade their lives or it was simply coincidence. Manolo was gone, María was alive. And Joaquín should tell her the truth, that he was the one to blame, that he convinced Manolo to jump off the edge he was already forced to. But she would hate him forever. And all he would have was Manolo's colorless eyes and María's full of hate.
The Casa de Sánchez was a dreary place. Carlos was in much the same state as María had been the hours after she found out. He was fully dressed, sitting in a chair in a corner of the room. María took it upon herself to kneel before him, take his hand in hers and tell him how sorry she was. She managed to keep her tears at bay this time and Carlos nodded to her.
"She was wondering," Joaquín said, "If we might…if she might say goodbye to Manolo."
Carlos's glassy eyes looked at Joaquín and he felt guilty all over again. But he nodded and pointed upstairs. Joaquín took that for a sign to head to Manolo's bedroom. He offered his arm out to María who rose and took it.
Manolo's bedroom was as messy as one might imagine. The first thing of note was that sheet music was everywhere, both blank and written on. Manolo was not one to sit down and play music traditionally but he recorded the tunes he wrote so his band could follow him. There were old posted flyers advertising his bullfight. There was also, alone by itself in the corner but served as the brightest thing in the room, a vase of roses.
And Manolo was on the bed, hands folded over his chest and his once gaping eyes no, thankfully, closed. He was stiller than any human should ever look. His chest and stomach stayed pinned in place, no air moved them. His eyes didn't bounce behind his lids in a dream. Joaquín had seen this sight already, so he stepped back and watched María slowly move toward the body.
She looked down at him, ran her head back and forth over the length of his body, then kneeled on the ground beside. He watched her small hand slowly extend out and jump back immediately when her fingers made contact with his hand. Her own hands went to her mouth and he watched her shoulders begin to shake as her head lowered and muffled sounds made their way from across the room. Her head found his chest and she laid there, feeling and hearing no beating beneath her. Joaquín was certain he heard her whisper mi amor.
She stayed like that for a few moments, her hands finding the lapels of his jackets and grabbing tight as she cried, more openly than she had in hours.
"He's cold," she mumbled out, raising her head, "We should—we should get him a blanket, so he won't be so cold, we should—"
Joaquín was at her side in a second and she fell back onto him, head digging into his chest and he felt the warm sensation of her tears through the fabric. One of her hands reached back and still gripped the fabric of Manolo's jacket it while her other hand covered her mouth again.
"María this is not him," Joaquín said. "This is a body. It's warm where he is, I promise. He's with his mamá and playing music all the time. We'll light candles for him on Dia de los Muertos. He'll have the brightest grave in the cemetery."
They stayed that way for a while. Joaquín said no more and let her get as much out as she could and all of Joaquín's suspicions were confirmed. Love friends as you might, María was not mourning a friend and all jealousy fell away until he could only ache for her. He would trade himself that minute to bring Manolo back to her. It should have been me, he thought.
Death did not look good on Manny. He was made to be alive.
Carlos caught them as they were leaving the room and presented María with a familiar guitar, nicked in places, completely broken in others, but still very vibrant as the day María gave it to him years ago.
"He'd want you to have it," Carlos said.
María allowed the instrument to be placed in her hands, hours ago she'd been holding as Joaquín jealousy demanded to know how, when, and why Manolo's guitar fell into her hands. This time she clung to it. Joaquín wondered if it smelled like him, or perhaps it was the closest she could come to hugging him.
"What happened?" María said, as they headed back to the Casa de Posada.
"María, please. Don't torture yourself like this—"
"I want to know, please," she said in the same tone she'd used to ask to see his body. She stopped in the street and turned to Joaquín.
"The snake," Joaquín sighed. "He um, he went back to the tree. He wanted to be alone. I went to go find him but when I did…"
She grabbed his hand and squeezed tight with sympathy. She then let go and latched onto his elbow once more, Manolo's guitar in her other hand, hugged close at her side. The Three Amigos at it again.
"I tried, I saw the snake, I pushed him but…"
So that had been it then. Manolo, unable to protect María because she had been protecting him. And now all that was left was angry words, more regrets than Joaquín could count and a very miserable looking María, preparing to be dragged off to her own wedding in chains.
Ay mi hermano, it's quite a mess we're in now.