Here it is. The final chapter of this tale. Thanks for sticking with it, even when it turned out to be absolutely depressing. Hopefully this final chapter will live up to your expectations.
Ernesto stared down at the letter in his hand, identical to the letters he'd received almost every December for nearly forty years. They rarely managed to arrive on the precise day, the postal service not reliable enough to manage that as his pursuit of fame took him all across Mexico. But the letters always found him eventually. Whether he was touring different cities in an attempt to win over the crowds or putting on real performances after he hired a new songwriter or when he started appearing in motion pictures or even now as he faded from view in semi-retirement, the letters found him at nearly the same time of the year.
They weren't long letters. Never more than a single sentence without even a signature, though the envelopes often contained other scraps of paper. Flyers for his performances, clipped articles from magazines and newspapers, ticket stubs from his films, and so on. Each piece of memorabilia catalogued the path of his career. It could have been the work of an eager fan. But the timing told him who it was better than a signature ever could. And if there was any doubt, the words made it clear.
It was always for nothing.
Imelda kept her word. Only the faintest whispers escaped Santa Cecilia, easily dismissed as wild and unsubstantiated rumors. Not even enough to put a blemish on his reputation. There was no focused attempt to drag him down. But she clearly followed his career. The letters sent around the anniversary of Héctor's death were proof of that. And she was reminding him that if he broke their deal, if he should use her husband's songs at any point, she would know and destroy everything that he'd built.
And he'd built a lot. Once he found a new songwriter, the first of several over the course of his career, people started to take notice of his music. Ernesto didn't become the most famous musician in the world, but he was a popular one with more records than he could count at the moment. He only served as the leading man in a couple films, but he was a supporting character in several more. He spent decades enjoying the fame, the parties, the alcohol, the women, and the adoration. Everything that he ever wanted was his and he earned them through his own merits.
And that was why Ernesto was sitting in a darkened room, nursing a drink in his hand despite his doctor's warnings about his age and his liver. It was also why he spent so much time over the years drinking so much even when tequila stirred up so many unwanted memories. He built his career on his own. Despite what he believed decades ago, he didn't need Héctor's songs to succeed. Héctor was right about that. He managed.
Héctor didn't need to die.
He didn't need to murder Héctor for those songs.
Ernesto downed the rest of his glass, focusing on the burn in his throat as he blinked blearily. With every year that passed, with each new millstone of success, and with every letter sent for the anniversary of Héctor's murder, the worse that the guilt seemed to gnaw at his gut. It would be different if Héctor's songs were the reason for his success. Then he could claim that it was worth it in the end. Or if he failed, Ernesto could have blamed Imelda for a mediocre career by denying him those songs. But this… It meant that murdering his best friend was truly for nothing.
He should have found another way. He should have just let Héctor go home. There was blood on his hands. He didn't need to kill him. That thought seemed to haunt him whenever he was sober or any time that he looked in the mirror, a thin scar on his chin reminding him of widow's boot and her fury. There was no reason for his death. It was almost like Héctor's ghost hovered over him at all times.
Ernesto blinked drowsily. How much did he drink? He couldn't remember. A few? Maybe more? While the whispers about murder never gained much traction since Imelda kept her word, the years before he finally retired contained rumors of alcoholism. That he would miss rehearsals and show up for performances drunk. What did those people know? He just hated rehearsals and thought they were a waste of time. And Ernesto knew that people always wanted a scandal and would exaggerate anything. Calling it an addiction would be a little extreme. He just needed something to smother out the memories of a shot glass filled with more than tequila.
"A toast," he mumbled, letting the letter flutter to the ground before pouring another drink. "To our friendship." He raised his glass briefly, spilling some in the attempt. "I would move… Heaven and Earth for you, mi amigo…"
Ernesto chuckled brokenly before muttering "salud" and tossing back the burning liquid down his throat. His doctor would hate him for this, but he couldn't care less. His liver could crawl off and die for all he cared. He just wanted to silence the guilt.
But it never stopped. It never went away. And there was not a single comforting lie that he could tell himself that made what happened right.
Ernesto felt himself drifting off in his armchair. And while he knew that he was no longer a young man and that his aching joints would not thank him, he let sleep claim him. Maybe a nap would help.
But as much as he wanted rest to bring a feeling of calm, when he woke up an untold amount of time later, Ernesto nearly threw a punch when he was greeted by a grinning skull.
Knocking on the door gently, Coco called, "Mamá?"
There was no answer, causing the woman to frown. It was already strange enough that her mamá wasn't up and working already. Even with her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters joining her in the workshop while Rosita helped watch little Berto, Imelda wasn't one to slow down with age. She was always the first to rise in the morning and the last to head to bed. Nothing could convince her to take it easy. Coco had certainly tried over the years.
But for the last few weeks, Mamá has seemed more run down than usual. She hid it well and didn't let it slow her down, but Coco knew her mamá well enough to spot the signs. Perhaps she was catching the start of a cold. Maybe Mamá was sleeping in…
…For the first time in over fifty years…
Worry squirmed around in her stomach as Coco knocked again. She couldn't hear anything. No voice calling out. No shifting mattress. No creaking floorboards. Mamá wasn't a heavy sleeper. Coco knew that she should hear some type of response.
Hesitating slightly, Coco slowly opened the door. The quiet creak sent a shiver up her spine for a reason that she couldn't explain. She was no longer a child who feared the dark and nameless things. She was a mother and even a grandmother. She couldn't let a silly thing like a creaking door and a silent room unnerve her.
She eased her way across the room. Coco saw her mamá curled under her blanket, not even trying to get ready for the day. Why did it disturb her so much to finally see Mamá taking it easy when she spent so long asking Mamá not to work so hard? Why did seeing Mamá sleep in for once leave a tightness in her chest?
Reaching towards her, Coco called gently, "Mamá? It's time to wake up."
As soon as her fingers wrapped around Mamá's hand and felt the coldness, horror and grief jolted through her like lightning. Her panicked call for Julio brought her husband running and the rest of her family quickly followed. But there was nothing that they could do to ease the heartache and loss. They could only share it as they discovered the lifeless body of the family matriarch.
Only after the day of sorrowful preparations and night fell again did a small realization come to her. Only as Coco settled into bed completely exhausted, Julio's arms around her and offering what comfort he could with his steady and dependable presence, did a soothing thought come to her. And that thought eased a little of the hurt.
After so many years apart, Mamá would finally get to see Papá again.
Imelda sat on the edge of the bench, staring down at her hands. She barely recognized them. How strange to realize that. She barely recognized her own hands. Pale bones without any flesh. No sagging and wrinkled skin over knobby knuckles. No visible blue veins that stood out against her complexion. No tiny scars that were faded and worn until they were barely visible. No calluses from a lifetime of crafting shoes. Only thin, pale bones.
It had been a shock when she first woke up, no longer in her familiar bedroom and her body reduced to a skeleton in a nightgown. And the only clues about what might have happened was the memory of waking up to an uncomfortable pressure in her upper back like someone squeezing, struggling to catch her breath, dizziness, and nausea before everything seemed to fade out of focus.
"A heart attack" suggested the polite Arrivals agent once she calmed down enough to listen. Imelda knew that she admittedly didn't react well to him at first. And the giant jaguar with wings crouched at the foot of the bed only made things worse. At least until she recognized the yellow eyes staring at her firmly, familiar eyes that once belonged to her faithful Pepita. But skeletons with colorful skulls and huge glowing creatures surrounding her in a strange place, her body as a collection of bones, was enough to scare her. And Imelda transformed fear into aggression and frustration that she unfortunately turned against the poor agent just doing his job.
She knew that she didn't react well to what happened. It might actually be a good thing that she passed during the night or else Imelda would have shown up with her boots. Trying to hit the man would only make things worse. But wearing only a nightgown and barefoot, Imelda could only lash out verbally. And she did. Viciously.
It took a while for her to calm down enough to let the agent get a word in edgewise. Especially when the large feline growled if the agent got too close. So even though she woke up in the middle of the afternoon, they didn't leave the large room filled with curtains until night fell.
The new room that she currently occupied was small with a few benches and little else. Oddly enough, the furniture appeared to have skull-like designs carved into them. Did they think that they would forget that they were skeletons if they didn't cover everything with death imagery? But the strange decorating decisions aside, Imelda could recognize waiting room when she saw one.
Pepita, now an alebrije according to the Arrivals agent, stalked off when they led her upstairs. Apparently she would wait outside of the building while they finished with her paperwork.
Imelda leaned forward, burying her head in her hands. Ay, there was so much paperwork. No one ever told her about death having so much paperwork. All the questions and forms left her head spinning. And then the agent mentioned contacting her deceased family, suggesting perhaps they could locate her parents and have them come down… As if that would make anything better.
She'd tried to make peace with her parents and the rest of her family. It was an uncomfortable peace while it lasted, but even the occasional offer to watch Coco for an evening when she and the twins were rushing to finish their orders or the birthday gifts of new dresses helped immensely. But even that temporary truce shattered when Coco was seven. Mamá's remark that it was past due that Imelda stop grieving and find herself a "real husband this time" sparked a fight that fractured the family once more. Imelda refused to go crawling back to them.
But the idea of starting over again with nothing wasn't comforting. Especially alone. She didn't even have a home or any money for supplies… or her brothers.
It hurt. The full impact of the situation was slowly sinking in, getting past the shock and her protective shell of frustration. She was dead. She couldn't go home. She was separated from her family. Oscar. Felipe. Coco. Julio. Rosita. Elena. Franco. Victoria. Even their newest member, Berto. All of them…
What would happen to her family now? What would happen to them without her there to take care of them? Would the business flounder? Would they finish her orders on time? How long would Oscar and Felipe survive without Imelda there to rein them in, keeping their more dangerous ideas from becoming reality?
…Who would be the one to find her body?
And now she couldn't stop worrying about that. Would one of her granddaughters stumble upon her dead body lying in bed? Or would her sweet Coco find her mamá lifeless instead? Or perhaps it would be her brothers, so grown up and yet undeserving of that painful discovery? All those possibilities broke her heart.
How could she feel her heart break when she was a skeleton? Why did she and the others have hair, hers still in the loose braid that she wore at night to keep it from tangling? Why did any of them have eyes? Imelda latched onto these impossible questions so she didn't have to think about what she'd lost and what might be happening to her family. Trying to figure out how skeleton people could possibly work was a little less stressful. It gave her time to harden her resolve and emotions.
A polite knock, a slight creak from the door opening, and the returning agent said, "Señora Imelda Rivera?"
Imelda's head raised slowly from where she'd buried her face in her hands. The Arrivals agent from before was standing with another skeleton, this one holding a bag and his clothes ruffled as if he'd thrown them on in a hurry because of the late hour. It was hard to judge age on someone without skin, but the tall and gangly figure looked rather young. Young enough to be her grandson. The vibrant and energetic markings on his face added to his youthful appearance.
Who was he? Why was he here? He didn't seem to share the same uniform as everyone else in this place.
But more distracting than his youth was the expression on his face. There was a mixture of excitement, nervousness, a little sadness, and desperate hope. And he kept shifting on his feet, as if physically fighting the urge to run towards her. Possibly out of the fear of overwhelming her on this particularly overwhelming occasion.
Then Imelda saw something familiar in his eyes just as she recognized Pepita's in her new form. She saw more love and adoration in his warm eyes than she could remember seeing anywhere else. Not since…
"Héctor…," she whispered, her hand coming up to her mouth as she stood suddenly.
The barely audible word seemed to shatter his restraint and he practically flung himself at her, dropping the bag in the process. The impact knocked Imelda back onto the bench and left him collapsing to the floor in front of her on his knees. It hurt slightly, jarring her bones, but the arms around her and the firm pressure of his ribcage pressing into her own made up for it. Imelda's own hands slid up his back until her fingers started digging into the fabric. Her head settled on his shoulder as he leaned into her, one of his hands slipping around the back of her skull and trying to somehow hold her closer.
The last time that Imelda held Héctor, nearly a lifetime ago, he'd been so still and silent. Completely lifeless and empty in her arms. But as they both clung to each other desperately, that painful memory of loss didn't belong. True, she couldn't feel his heart beating even when it should have been pounding. But his ribs shifted with each fast and deep breath, as if he'd just run across Santa Cecilia to see her. Which was silly because the room wasn't even that large and why should skeletons need to breathe at all, but she was merely thankful that they did because she needed him breathing, awake, and not in pain. She needed him to be all right and not like her memories of his final day.
She closed her eyes and just held him tightly, listening to his breathing. When she wasn't looking, she could almost pretend that neither of them were skeletons. The illusion wasn't perfect since while Héctor always felt thin, he'd never been quite this skinny. But it was close enough Imelda felt like she was in one of her dreams, the ones where her husband was still with her.
Then she heard a quiet, fast, and desperate sound. Héctor wasn't holding her in silence. He was breathing out a soft litany of apologies, declarations of how much he missed her, how much he loved her, how sorry that she was there and yet how happy he was to see her, and her name simply repeated. His words barely made sense as they continued in an endless cycle. They were more an improvised song than a conversation, but one that she dearly missed. So Imelda listened to his stream of quiet words, focusing more on the sound of his voice as she held on as if he might vanish at any moment.
To be honest, his tight grip hinted at a similar fear.
But the longer that she held onto him, her fingers digging into the fabric and possibly the edges of his shoulder blades so that no one could snatch her Héctor away again, the more she felt like crying. Could skeletons cry? They had eyes despite everything. And Imelda felt a tightness in her chest and her throat despite the fact that her chest was hollow and she literally didn't have a throat anymore. Not to mention that she was Imelda Rivera, matriarch of the family and founder of their shoemaking business. She was the strong and sturdy one. She served as the strength of the household, supporting the rest when they needed her. She couldn't afford to spare the time and energy for tears. Not since she was a young woman, at least.
But this was Héctor. Holding her. Like she'd wanted him to for decades. After waking up in a strange place, realizing that she was dead and that she'd left her family so far behind, and forcing herself to control the emotions that discovery stirred up, Héctor was with her. His arms were wrapped around her, his body pressed into hers, and his voice surrounded her. She felt safe. Héctor was there and, for once, she didn't have to be the strong one.
And with that vulnerable thought, Imelda surrendered. She collapsed further into his embrace, practically melting into his arms while he and the bench kept her pinned in place. Her breathing hitched slightly as something akin to sobs shook her frame. No tears yet though.
"I've missed you so much, Héctor," she whispered. "I am so, so sorry."
His desperate grip on her loosened slightly, causing Imelda's to tighten. But he wasn't trying to break the embrace. Héctor only pulled back a little, prompting her to open her eyes and meet his gaze once again.
"And why should you be sorry, mi amor?" asked Héctor gently.
"I'm sorry I couldn't… that I… that I was powerless," she said, her voice strained by the phantom feeling of a tight throat. "I couldn't keep you from dying, even with that selfish ultimatum that I never should have made. I couldn't make it back before you were in a coma. I couldn't stop your pain. And you were hurting so much. I couldn't even make Ernesto pay for what he did. I let your murderer live a long and happy life. I—"
"No, no, no," said Héctor quietly, pulling her back into a tight hug and interrupting her increasingly miserable stream of words. The wetness on her face now suggested that apparently skeletons could cry. "It's okay, Imelda. It's okay. Don't apologize. It's okay, mi amor."
Burying her face into his shoulder, Imelda couldn't find anything else to say. She felt his clothes growing wet from her tears. But part of her felt better, letting him hold her and comfort her as she cried. Imelda couldn't even begin to describe how much she missed him. Héctor was a skeleton, but she could feel warmth in his embrace and she'd missed that feeling.
"It wasn't your fault. No one could keep me from dying." Exhaling tiredly, Héctor said, "Ernesto apparently murdered me before I even reached the train. I was just stubborn enough to make it home first. I am sorry, though. I'm sorry that I couldn't stay with you. I tried. And I wish that you didn't have to watch it happen."
"I'm glad I was. It hurt, but I got to see you one last time. And you weren't alone. If I couldn't stop you from dying or from being in pain, I at least didn't want you to be alone."
"Were you alone?" he asked, his hands sliding from her shoulders along her arms. "When you died, I mean… Were you alone when it happened? Did… did it hurt, Imelda?"
Pulling back and shaking her head, Imelda said, "Not really. There was discomfort, but not much pain. And it was quick. I woke up briefly, trying to catch my breath, and then… I ended up here."
"That's good. At least you were spared that much."
Slowly, Héctor climbed off the floor and joined her on the bench. His previous position couldn't be that comfortable on his knees. His arm quickly wrapped around her, still holding her close. His other hand held hers, his thumb brushing back and forth across her knuckles. The gentle touch brought a smile to her face.
The Arrivals agent must have stepped out of the room at some point. Imelda appreciated the offered privacy. She just wanted to spend time with her husband.
"I've missed you," said Imelda softly, using her free hand to brush away the remaining tears. "Every single day. I've missed you every day that you've been gone. Your face. Your voice. Your touch…" She leaned into him more. "I've missed everything about you."
"I can't tell you how much I've wanted to hold you again," he murmured. "It's been far too long. Nearly a lifetime apart."
A lifetime. Imelda's eyes slid shut. She hadn't seen Héctor for decades. And in that time, she'd built a life. She created a business from the ground up. She raised their family.
She grew old. Without him.
Imelda remembered her initial impression when Héctor came in. He looked so young. As young as he did when he died. Young enough to be her grandchild rather than her husband. He was still a young man while she was an old woman.
"I hope you're not too disappointed after your long wait," said Imelda quietly.
Shifting slightly, he said, "Of course not. Why would I be?"
"Because I'm not exactly the same young señorita that you first met. It's been a long time and I… I'm not…"
His hand moving to cup her face and causing her to open her eyes again, Héctor said, "And you're still as beautiful as ever, mi amor."
With his other hand, he pulled hers up to his mouth. It didn't make any sense; they were both skeletons and neither of them had any skin, let alone lips. But with only a slight hesitation, as if making certain that she wanted it, Héctor pressed a kiss to her hand. A tender and sweet gesture accompanied by a soft click of bone-on-bone. It sent a warm and pleasant shiver up her spine. Such a small thing shouldn't affect her this strongly, but it had been such a long time…
"My hair is going gray," said Imelda softly.
"Silver," he corrected, sounding a little bolder. Héctor leaned over and kissed her hairline, sending another shiver through her from how good it felt. "And silver has always been prettier than gold." Another soft kiss to her stripe of lighter hair. "Silver like the moon. Silver like the stars. Leave it to you to find a way to grow more beautiful."
He shouldn't be this attractive without skin, his soft cheeks, his familiar nose, and all those other details that death robbed from him. And yet Imelda couldn't ignore the fluttering in her chest. Dead or alive, Héctor remained handsome in her eyes.
And, strangely enough, he acted like she remained beautiful to him. Even as an old woman.
"I grew old, Héctor," reminded Imelda. "Old and wrinkled. With sagging skin, crow's feet, and laugh lines. All of them. I have all the signs of being an old woman."
Had. She forgot for a moment. No skin meant no wrinkles. She was a skeleton. A skeleton and dead.
"No, mi amor. They were signs that you lived." Héctor kissed the edges of her eyes. "Signs that you laughed. That you were happy." Another kiss, this one to the edge of her mouth. "That's what I wanted, mi amor. I wanted you to be happy," he said. His thumb brushed along her cheekbone, as if tracing something. "And do you think I didn't know how you looked before dying? I was with you and our family every Día de Muertos. It was my favorite time of the year… getting to see you again."
Héctor's words and his chaste kisses left her feeling almost uncomfortably warm. It was ridiculous. She thought her passions had cooled with age. She was a great-grandmother by now. And she hadn't been near a man since his death. She thought that she was past those feelings. But Imelda was discovering they were only hibernating, waiting for her husband to rekindle those embers.
"You… You never remarried," he said quietly, still cupping her cheekbone. "I thought you would. There were other men in Santa Cecilia. Good ones."
Reaching for his face, Imelda whispered, "None of them were you."
She pressed against him again, but this time pulling Héctor into a deep kiss. It took a moment for him to respond and Imelda didn't immediately know how to do this without proper lips or a tongue. She even started to pull away, to give him a chance to break this off. But he returned the gesture when she tried to stop and they both grew more eager about the idea fairly quickly.
She pressed harder, forcing Héctor to twist on the bench and lean back. Her arms snaked around him, her fingers tightening into the fabric again and even digging between his ribs on his back. Héctor, forced to support both of their weight with one elbow, buried his free hand in her increasingly-loose braid. She felt his fingers moving slightly along her scalp. Or where her scalp used to be. She let one hand drift up to return the gesture in his own messy hair.
His mouth on hers, his body held in her arms, his fingers in her hair… She'd missed this. She needed this. The warmth that seemed to burn her seemed to spread. Imelda hadn't realized how much she needed this feeling. The kiss, with all the passion and energy of a pair of newly-weds behind it rather than something more restrained and appropriate for a grandmother, seemed to grow more enthusiastic with each passing moment.
The occasional click of teeth or bones should have been distracting, so different from how it felt and sounded in life. And their bodies were completely foreign, smooth and hard without the soft curves of warm flesh. And it had been decades since she did anything resembling this. Imelda was surprised that she even remembered. But some things could never be truly forgotten. And with the feelings of desire and want and need burning through her, Imelda's mouth and hands rediscovered the familiar motions. She wanted this. She wanted Héctor.
But though she felt like a young señorita as she leaned over him, nearly pressing him into the bench below with their shared kiss, it couldn't continue. No matter how much she desperately wanted her husband, an impulse stronger than her worries about being dead or what it would mean for her family, Imelda knew that they needed to stop.
Forcing herself to pull away and break off the kiss, she leaned back and said in a ragged voice, "We can't. Lo siento"
"Right… Right…" His voice rougher and deeper than before and breathing hard, Héctor pushed himself upright and gave a small nod. "I should have known. It's been a long time. It's fine. You… you don't…"
"I don't think the people who work here will leave us alone in this room long enough for what was about to happen," she said, smiling coyly at him.
Héctor stiffened, blinking in surprise as the meaning of words sank in. It was always fun when she could throw her spontaneous and creative husband completely for a loop.
Honestly, Imelda was still uncertain what they could and couldn't do as skeletons. But there didn't seem to be much logic in it. And she couldn't deny the heat ignited in her by his presence. She knew exactly what she was feeling and what she wanted to do now that her husband was within reach again. So she was hopeful about their limits. And Imelda would be perfectly happy to find out their capabilities on that front together. She just wanted to be with him as husband and wife once more, no matter what forms that might take.
It had been a long time. Too long. And the passion and desire that slumbered for decades was wide awake once again.
"There's… there's a house," Héctor said, ducking his head with a slight smile. "For you. For our family. I've had time to prepare. There's a house with room to expand over time. If you want, I have enough to take care of you if you want to rest after a long life of hard work. An artist who wanted to try out performance art in the afterlife seems fond of my music, so you don't have to work if you don't want. But if you don't want to be idle, there's also a workshop attached with as many tools as I could gather over the years and we can get whatever I missed. It may not be your old workshop, but you should be able to make shoes if you like."
He brushed his fingers across her face, tracing along what she suspected was her colorful facial markings. She would have to find a mirror eventually.
"But you're probably more interested in seeing the bedroom." Freezing as he realized what he'd said, Héctor corrected, "I mean, it's late and you've had a long day. You must be tired. I should take you home and get you in bed. I mean…"
Despite her earlier tears, Imelda couldn't help chuckling at his reaction. Apparently skeletons couldn't blush. If they could, she knew that Héctor's cheeks would be bright red as he buried his face in his hands with a groan. The awkwardness from the long separation was clearly a mutual thing to an extent. But that was fine. He was always so attractive when flustered.
Pulling his hands away, Imelda said, "I know what you mean, Héctor. And gracias."
"I… I brought you some clothes to wear," he said, gesturing at the bag he'd dropped by the door. "And some shoes. Not as good as yours, but you won't be barefoot for the trip.
Right. She was wearing only a nightgown. A change of clothes was certainly appreciated. She didn't know how far they were going.
Héctor stood up from the bench and reached out a hand to her. Imelda smiled and took it. Once he pulled her to her feet, he retrieved the nearly-forgotten bag of clothes and offered it to her.
"We'll need to bring Pepita with us when we leave," she said, pulling out a simple purple dress from the bag. He remembered her favorite color even after so long. "She's supposed to be waiting outside."
"Your cat ended up as an alebrije?" asked Héctor, looking like he was trying to decide if he should look away or not as she changed. "Why did they have the little thing wait outside?"
Horrifying visions of her family suffering while something wrenched her away from them, leaving her helpless as everyone she loved needed help, filled her mind and sent her sobbing back to awareness. Awakening on her side and shaking from the nightmare still clinging to her, Imelda couldn't see much in the darkened room. Nothing she recognized at least. And the nightmare made her strange surroundings worse.
This was wrong. Everything was absolutely wrong. The room was wrong. The feeling of being separated from her family, unable to hold her daughter or granddaughters or great-grandson, was wrong. Her body was wrong. She couldn't stop shaking from choking sobs, unable to push back the horror from the nightmare. This was—
An arm slipped around her fingers, intertwining with hers while pulling her spine flush with his sternum. Imelda briefly stiffened before relaxing into his hold. Recent memory worked past the lingering nightmare of loss and separation.
She was with Héctor. Maybe the others were out of reach, but her husband was with her once again.
A soft tune wove around her, Héctor humming in his half-asleep state. Trying to instinctively comfort and sooth her even before truly waking up, so similar to how he would rock Coco in the middle of the night. She'd missed that sound. Imelda smiled as her fingers tightened around his.
Many things might seem wrong now, but not this. Lying with her husband again… Kissing him again… Refamiliarizing herself with his new body and her own…
Her eyes adjusting to the dim light, she could make out more of the room. Thick curtains blocked out the light, though she could now make out the hints of dawn around the edges. And there was a shelf, one that she'd seen earlier. It was covered in drawings, family photographs, letters, and other small objects that she recalled leaving on the ofrenda over the years. He kept them in plain view of the bed. And in the corner rested a guitar case.
It wasn't the home that she'd lived in for decades. But the room felt like him. This could be home with time. As long as Héctor remained at her side, waiting together for the rest of their family and keeping her from dwelling on what she'd left behind, anywhere could be home.
Still humming quietly, Héctor rubbed his thumb across her knuckles. Bone against bone shouldn't be this comfortable. There was no softness of skin. But his hand, his arm around her body, and his ribs against her back felt as nice as when they were together in life. Even the quiet click as he brushed against her knuckles seemed soothing.
"Nightmare, mi amor?" he murmured, growing a little more awake.
Nodding, Imelda whispered, "Sí."
She felt him shift, pressing a kiss to the back of her head. His arms hugged her tighter.
"Lo siento. I remember those," he said softly. "They'll fade. I promise." He kissed her hair again. "It's all right. I'm here. It's going to be all right."
He was there. Sturdy. Dependable. Safe. Present. Real.
Imelda sank further into the mattress and pillow. His humming resumed, the sound vibrating his ribcage against her. Warm, comfortable, and with the man that she'd loved and missed for decades, she let herself drift back to sleep.
And thus this tale comes to an end. Imelda might be a bit overwhelmed right now (since she just died), but she won't go through it alone. Our lovely couple are reunited in death and are together again. I want to thank everyone for sticking with this story and for all your lovely feedback. I enjoyed writing this story and it is nice to know that you enjoyed reading it.