Ch 45: Shantytown
The flight wasn't a long one given how surprisingly fast Frangipani was able to fly, and soon she descended down upon an ancient Aztec pyramid. Unlike the rest of the city, with its dazzling lights and colors, the pyramid was cold and void of anything magical. Pieces had chipped and crumbled off and there was an ominous presence in the air. For the first time since coming to the Land of the Dead, Héctor finally felt like he was in a place of devoid of life.
In a show of good grace Frangipani did not let Héctor make a fool of himself by trying to climb down her side since it was such a hassle getting up. Instead she slowly shrank herself like a deflating balloon until she was the size of housecat, prancing off between his and Leti's legs with Dante happily trailing after and barking at his friend. Héctor was grateful for that, but Frangipani's large mass had done it's damage and he was left with a huge case of saddle soreness. He wobbled around bowlegged trying to work out the kinks in his legs, wincing and hissing with each step.
Hearing Leti giggle at his predicament, Héctor gave her a playful glare. "Don't laugh. I've got old bones."
Leti shook her head with a smile. "You've got old muscles. Once we get down to Shantytown, then you'll really see some old bones."
"Shantytown, eh?" Héctor asked warily, stretching his leg out one final time as he peered down into the dark shadows below. He could hear water splashing faintly against the rocks and could already smell the mildew from all the way up top. He raised an eyebrow at her. "Ernesto is down there?"
"Uh huh!" Leti nodded, "Every Dia de Muertos Tio Nesto always gives a portion of his offerings to the people of Shantytown. And he always makes a grand speech and visits with everyone. He's definitely down there!"
Héctor remembered well how he could usually tell that his daughter was lying. She would always talk extra brightly, smile just a little too widely. This time was no exception, and her new skeletal grin just made her smile wore wider. Or rather, this time it was like a lie mixed with the truth. Apparently this would be something Ernesto would do; he was sometimes charitable in life. Not as much as he and Imelda were, but for Ernesto each charitable moment was a triumph in his opinion.
"Okay." Héctor nodded, grimacing again at the bleak murkiness below. "Seems kind of shady though."
"Oh, I've been here loads of times, Papá." Leti reassured him. "It may look scary and depressing… well it is depressing, but the people here are more friendly than anyone else. You'll see. And we'll get down that way."
Héctor looked over to where she was pointing and gave a soft 'huh' in surprise. There, situated at the top of this ancient pyramid, was an escalator. It stood out against it's surrounding so badly that Héctor felt stupid for not noticing it sooner. Seeing her father's confusion Leti explained. "Oh, Tio Nesto had that installed a few years ago. Comes in handy, especially those with brittle bones."
Héctor was puzzled. "You can still get brittle bones after you're dead?"
"Oh sure." Leti said. "Brittle, broken, ground to powder, stolen, misplaced. Just depends on how long you've been dead of if you are being forgotten. But anyway, the escalator helps those kind of people in need. Come on!"
All four of them walked toward the top of the moving staircase, Frangipani shrinking even more to her initial tiny size before plopping down onto Leti's shoulder. Before Leti could reach for the handrail, however, a high-pitched whine stopped them. Turning back around they saw Dante sitting several feet away from them, head lowered and eyes looking pitifully afraid. A click of the tongue could not get him to budge, nor did the gently nudge from behind when Héctor went to fetch him. Dante just kept looking wide-eyed at the grinding metal plates before him, just waiting to slice of sensitive pads of the feet.
"Aww, he's afraid of the escalator Papá." Leti cooed, and even Frangipani gave a simpering little toot of compassion. "Looks like you're going to have to carry him the whole way down."
"Wha-?" Héctor started to protest, but three pairs of huge pouting eyes stopped him from saying anymore. With a groan of disgust he reached down to pick up Dante, difficult to do due his bony limbs and squirming body, but finally was able to hold him in an awkward spooning position. "Happy now, pelón?" he asked, and his answer was a happy slurp across the cheek.
It must have been a sight to see: A guitar-wielding old man carrying a dog like a small child, while with his skeleton daughter had an elephant on her shoulder, all riding down an escalator in awkward silence. It actually was pretty funny of one thought about it. Luckily, no one was there to see them, at least until midway down the giant pyramid. On the opposite escalator going up Héctor could see two figures emerging from the mist. Leti did too and with a gasp of surprise she started to wave. "Mama Chavela! Mama Rocío! Como estas?!"
As the two parties drew closer together, Héctor saw that they were two skeletal old ladies. Both were dressed in faded gowns that looks as though they had been patched and mended several times over the years. Both were holding two baskets each that were overflowing with breads, fruits and vegetables and one lady had a small guitar strapped to her back.
Even closer still Héctor could see that these ladies were not like the skeletons he had already seen. Instead of the clean pearly white bones he had come accustomed to, these bones were dull and gray. And, just like Leti had said before, some places were chipped off and scratched. One woman even had part on her jaw broken off and held in place with a strand of wire. Héctor was slightly taken aback by the ladies run down looks, but Leti paid them no mind.
"Looks like you both got a good haul this year!" she said.
"Oh yes! We're on our way to the trade show right now while the good items are still out." One of the ladies said, shifting the baskets onto her hipbones for more support.
"Who's your handsome young friend, Leticia?" The other asked.
"This is my Papá! He's been cursed and we need to get a blessing from Tio Nesto or else he'll die at sunrise."
"Oh that's nice dear."
"Have fun tonight!"
"Adios!" Leti waved them goodbye as they finally passed each other up. Continuing down on their journey, Leti shrugged a little. "They're a little batty, but still very nice. And Mama Rocío makes the best Shantytown ponche for Los Posadas."
"Why did they call you nieta?" Héctor asked.
"Oh, heh. It's just a term of endearment." Leti said. "See, Shantytown is full of the nearly forgotten. They have no family, no ofrendas, no homes. So they all bundled together and made their own family with each other. And I'm an honorary member since I'm not forgotten yet, but I come here all the time."
"So those ladies looked like that because they're nearly forgotten."
"Si. This whole place runs on memories, Papá. The more well remembered you are the longer you get to stay here. But, in the end, if no one remembers you… You just… go…"
The way Leti trailed off, so sad all of a sudden, didn't sit well with Héctor at all. In fact he was starting to grow afraid. "Go where?" he was hesitant to ask.
"No one knows." she said. "It's called the Final Death."
"Wait a minute! You can die again?!" Héctor was appalled. "No! I… I couldn't watch you die again! I can't."
"Everyone gets forgotten eventually, Papá." Leti reassured, and then actually had the nerve to get a little cocky. "Besides, I'm the tragic daughter lost from one of the richest families in Mexico. I'll stick around for a while yet."
It didn't seem to make sense to Héctor at all, the way everyone was so nonchalant about the fact that they were dead and could die again at the drop of a hat. Even his own daughter was making jokes about it. If he were the one on the verge of being forgotten he would be an inconsolable mess, probably unable to do anything other than curl up in a ball and wait for the inevitable.
But as they reached the end of the escalator he was surprised to see that Shantytown didn't look like the wretched, miserable place that it looked from above the mists. There was loud music playing, unfortunately, and laughter and all other sorts of rabble. Behind the giant stone arch there were bright lights shining through and Héctor could see papel picado hung up. Confetti and golden flower petals were strewn about all over the ground.
And there was one other thing.
Shantytown actually looked… nice.
It was on the water, which explained the musky smell, but the houses there were less like shanties and more like riverside condos. Several floors high and stacked as haphazardly as every other building in this realm, but much more sturdy. All painted a warm brown color and with beautiful murals on every other wall, high archways and clean clay tiles on the roofs.
The was a walkway that wove through the water and connected all of the houses together, made out of concrete and cobblestones with lamps illuminating the way down. All in all it looked like a very nice place to live and a realtor's dream location.
Again, Héctor was confused. "Uh… Shanty-town?"
Leti nodded. "Yeah, the name has stuck but believe me that this place was worse years ago. Rotting wood and pallets, rusted sheet metal, garbage everywhere. It was a terrible place to spend the last few days before the Final Death. But Tio Nesto got several other celebrities and wealthy citizens to pitch in and completely remodel the place!"
"It's very nice." Héctor admitted as he put Dante down on the ground. As he released him Héctor grimaced when he looked at his hands. The were completely skeletal now and reaching well past the wrist.
Leti smiled appreciatively, but then sniffed the air like a snob. "Well, I still say it's a work in progress." And Héctor laughed at that.
Several skeletons wandered all over it, going to neighbors houses with arms full of the same offerings as the two old ladies. They all seemed to be converging onto one spot in the middle of town, though. It was a much larger area, but still too small to be considered a plaza, but big enough to hold a huge pile of offerings stacked as high as some of the buildings. An absolute mammoth amount of bread, vegetables and fruits, cooked meats and musical instruments piled in a somewhat strategic manner so that it didn't topple into the water below. But it was clear that it had been slowly picked away as the minutes passed, and currently there were around a dozen other Shantytown skeletons situated around it passing out offerings.
"Oye, Paola. I managed to save you some grapefruit this time. I know you missed out on them last year."
"Three guitars? What are you trying to do, Primo? Start a band? Have some more food instead."
"Señor de la Cruz must hate bananas because we've got tons of them! Caramelize 'em, mash 'em, make 'em into bread. A very versatile fruit, c'mon don't be shy!"
'He does hate bananas' Héctor thought with a wry grin. 'No wonder he'd give them all away-… Wait.'
"This is a lot of offerings." Héctor said as he watched a small boy tuck in eagerly to the shiny red apple that was atop his own pile of goodies. "I'm surprised he'd just give it all away."
"Nah, just a tiny bit." Leti said. "But, in Tio Nesto's case, a tiny bit means an entire mountain! Speaking of… Oye, Tío Jaime!"
One of the skeletons handing out offerings, who was no older than twenty but looked like he had osteoporosis in every visible bone, smiled as Leti came up to him. "Hola, Leti. You're here awful early tonight. Did you already visit your family?"
"Si, but not as long as I would have liked. As you can see…" She gestured to Héctor, and when Jaime looked towards him his eyes bugged out a little. "…I have a bit of a problem."
"Santa Maria…" Jaime breathed out, and soon every skeleton was looking at Héctor again astonishment. A couple of jaws even fell off and splashed into the water. Héctor just cringed out a smile and waved to them all. "Espera… Is that Héctor Rivera? Your papá?"
Leti walked to Héctor and grabbed him by the wrist to hold his hand up as high as she could, showing off the shiny white bones that were exposed. "My papá has been cursed, and he needs a blessing from Tio Nesto before sunrise. Is he still here?"
Jaime winced and shrugged his shoulder, making an unsettling crack and pop at the slight movement. "Sorry, Leti. He was here, but after he presented us with his offerings he left. That was about half an hour ago, so he's probably off to the party at his mansion."
Héctor felt his chest sink at the thought that the trip to Shantytown had been a complete waste of time and now he was more cursed than before. Rolling up his sleeve he groaned at the sight of his ulna and radius making an unwelcome appearance. Bending down to Leti's height he whispered into her phantom ear. "Mija, the curse is spreading pretty quickly. Maybe we ought to hurry things up and-"
"Well shucks!" Leti placed her hands onto her hips and comically pouted. "Looks like he's gone already! Isn't that just the luck? Phooey!" Then she looked up and gave Héctor a cloyingly sweet smile with too many teeth. "Before we go though, can we go see a friend of mine?"
Héctor blinked in confusion, then held out his bare arm for Leti to see. "Leticia, I don't have time to see anyone else. I need to see Ernesto."
Grabbing his hand and already starting to tug him away from the pile, Leti just waved him off. "Sunrise isn't for another five and a half hours, and this will only take a few minutes. While we're here we might as well make the most of it. Kill two birds with one stone, si?
"Two birds? What's the second bird? Wait a moment! Leticia!"
Despite the dangerous nature of the situation Héctor let himself be dragged a ways by Leti as well as pushed by Dante and Frangipani. Maybe it was because he had just been reunited with his long dead daughter and could refuse her nothing at the moment. Maybe he was slightly curious to see what other new discovery awaited him in this new and exciting environment. But the real reason, probably, was because Héctor was somewhat desperate for any excuse to not see Ernesto as soon as possible. He didn't want to think what would happen if he did lay eyes on him.
As they continued on Héctor could see where the restoration of Shantytown had stopped. The pristine building transitioned to scaffolding, paint buckets and blocks of concrete with yellow warning tape wrapped around it. All abandoned in favor of the holiday, Héctor presumed.
And past that was the slum that Héctor had in mind.
It was just as Leti had said: Rotting wood and rusted metal. The only thing that had been completed and stood out like a sour thumb was the walkway they were on, but even then the shanties were connected to it by moldy, broken planks. Leti just shrugged up at Héctor. "I told you it was a work in progress."
With a skip and a wobbly jump they all made it into one such shanty, Leti knocking on the wooden wall and pulling open a moth-eaten blanket that served as a divider to the one room home.
"Buenas noches, Nieve! I thought I might find you here!"
"Of course you found me here." A sullen female voice said. "Where else would I be?"
Holding up one finger to tell Héctor to wait there, Leti walked further in with a giggle. "Well, you could be out there getting some of Tio Nesto's offerings. You'd better hurry before all the grapes are gone. You love grapes."
Now Héctor was really curious as to see who his daughter was talking to and why. Staying put he carefully pulled back the curtain slightly to peek out. Standing there with Leti was another young girl, a teenage one at that, standing by an open window looking out. She was wearing a tattered blue shirt, a gray skirt and a dingy straw hat. She was barefoot and a little dirty, but Héctor noticed that she didn't seem as run down as everyone else in Shantytown. Her bones were still a nice cream color.
But her eyes. They looked so sad and angry all at once. And they held a wisdom in them that only came with either a rough life or, given her young stature the passage of time. Héctor knew that he was really looking at an old soul. An elderly woman trapped in the body of a child. She had been dead for quite a while.
"I don't want any of that stuff, I just want to be alone tonight." the girl, Nieve apparently, said. "Why are you here anyway? Why aren't you with your family?"
Leti shuffled her shoes against the dirty floorboards and smiled. "Oh you know, some stuff happened. One thing led to another, that sort of thing. But I get it: You don't want any of Tio Nesto's offerings. But it is Dia de Muertos, and everyone deserves a little something, sooo… I brought you an offering of my own!"
Nieve then turned to her, and Héctor saw her look at Leti in anger. "You didn't go to my ofrenda, did you? I told you I want nothing to do with that man or anything else he gives me."
'Ah, so that's why she's different.' Héctor thought. 'She's not being forgotten. But then… why is she here?'
"No, no!" Leti reassured her. "I would never do that to you! No, but my offering is a man. Someone I know you've been dying to meet for years, figuratively speaking." Walking back to the curtain Leti pulled it aside to show Héctor in full form. "Okay, you can come in now."
Héctor walked slowly, not wanting to shock the poor girl with the sight of a living, fleshed out man. Nieve was slightly taken aback by his appearance at first, but then recognition kicked in and the girl's eyes widened. She just stared at him in shock, not saying a word. Héctor shifted the guitar on his back awkwardly and gave a small grin. "Hola."
She still said nothing. Just stared at him some more in amazement and a little fear.
"Nieve, let me introduce you to my Papá, Héctor Rivera." Leti said as she pulled Héctor closer to Nieve. "Papá, this is Nieve Mendoza, and she is a very close friend of mine! And she's always asking about you constantly!"
"Oh, I see." "Héctor said. "Are you a fan?"
That seemed to jumpstart Nieve's brain, and she croaked out. "N-no, I'm just… are you dead?"
"Nope, just cursed!" Leti said. "We have to get Tio Nesto's blessing but sunrise or else he'll be stuck here." Raising up Héctor's wrist again, she showed Nieve his bony hand. "See?"
Anger came back full force and Nieve hissed out, "You idiot! He's on a timeclock and you waste his time by coming here. You need to get him to de la Cruz now before it's too late!"
Leti was crushed. "But I thought you said you wanted to see him as soon as got here! Well now he's here!"
"Never mind what I want! He needs to get a blessing now! So get out, both of you!"
"But don't you want to talk to him?"
"No! I don't!"
"Please, Abuelita! He's your-"
There was a silence that hung heavy in the air now, both girls panting softly and both looking at Héctor with trepidation. Héctor was now shocked into silence, his mind not quite working out what was happening in such a short amount of time. Nieve pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed harshly. "Leticia…"
"I'm so sorry, Nieve!" Leti said. "I didn't mean to call you Abuelita. It just slipped out!"
Nieve glared hard at Leti. "Oh really? Because this is the first time in twenty years that you have ever called me Abuelita."
"Oh, is it? Well then… oops?" Leti smiled widely, in that way Héctor remembered she used to do when caught in a lie.
"You little…" Nieve growled.
"Another term of endearment, mija?" Héctor asked.
Both girls looked at him, and Héctor grinned nervously. "Th-that's what that was right? Because everyone in Shantytown is just one big family with different rolls and such… And it's funny! Because you called her your grandmother even though she's so young, right? I mean… Why else would you call her… that?"
Nieve didn't look him in the eye anymore, couldn't. She just stared down at the floor, looking sad and thoroughly ashamed. Leti bit her bottom lip and also couldn't meet his eyes. Héctor still felt the smile on his face, but he could also feel the blood draining from it too. And suddenly it was hard to breathe.
"I'll leave you two alone." Leti whispered and rushed out of the shanty as fast as she could.
Héctor didn't even notice. He just kept staring at this young girl in front of him, looking at every detail of her face to find… he didn't exactly know what. Similarities? It was hard since she didn't have any skin to look for dimples or curves of lips or anything like that.
She did have sharp cheekbones, though. Just like he did…
Finally Nieve looked up at him, her features schooled into a more neutral expression. Bending down she picked up an old wooden crate, walked over to him, and set it down in front of him. Then she turned back to the window and leaned against the railing. The exact same position that he first saw her in.
"Have a seat…"