Adam Heckel twisted his hands in his lap and shifted himself on the lumpy couch in the music school’s locker room. A freshman at Belton University, he’d pledged the band fraternity, Beta Alpha Nu Delta. At least the hazing hadn’t been too bad so far. Nothing compared to other fraternities. Sure, he’d stayed up all night cleaning after the frat party a couple of nights ago. And the older guys had forced the pledges to sing in polka dot boxers outside the girls’ dorm at three in the morning. But at least no one had shoved his head in a toilet like in high school. Yet.
“Heckel. Get over here.” Barry, the senior trombonist, waved one large arm, gesturing for Adam to join him next to the lockers.
A twinge of terror passed through Adam’s body as he strode next to the guy. The metal bars on the instrument lockers brought back uncomfortable memories from high school. Playing the bassoon hadn’t been an easy choice, especially when the other kids found out the unfortunate Spanish translation of the word. After that discovery, they’d stuffed him in a locker on a regular basis.
Barry crossed his arms. “So what do you think?”
“Um, about what?” Adam’s voice squeaked.
“About the Fraternity Fall Festival. It’s up to you pledges to decide what to do.”
Adam swallowed. “How about a chili cookoff?”
“No good.” Barry scowled. “The Fijis do that every year.”
“Maybe a haunted house?”
“Are you an idiot?” Barry wagged his finger. “Every fraternity on this entire campus does a haunted house. We wouldn’t stand a chance to win.”
Adam wouldn’t dream of joining one of the other fraternities. He only wanted to join Beta Alpha Nu Delta to meet fellow musicians.
“You pledges better come up with something brilliant by Halloween.” Barry held his fist inches from Adam’s nose. “That’s two days away. If you fail and nobody shows up, don’t expect an acceptance letter come Initiation. And you’ll have me to reckon with.”
Adam shuddered. College wasn’t so different from high school after all.
Miguel Guzmán took a deep breath, then placed his fingers on the keys. The sound of the organ shattered the silence of the recital hall. He got the best practice room at the school, one of the advantages of being an organ major. Good thing, too. He needed the practice, considering the challenging set he’d planned for Mass on All Saints Day. Only a few days away. Normally it wasn’t hard to choose repertoire for Sunday services. Play Bach and everyone would be happy. But this time he prayed the congregation wouldn’t boo him from the balcony. What would they think of his prelude selection, Messiaen’s “Apparition de l’église éternelle,” or Jean Langlais’ “Incantation pour un jour Saint” for postlude? Would they murder him for his modern taste? Not that he didn’t enjoy the classics. But you could only play Bach so many times in a year and maintain your sanity.
The dissonant chords mirrored his mood. It had only been a year since the accident. He closed his eyes to block out the memory. Time to focus on the music at hand.
A knock wrenched him from his reverie. The door creaked open to reveal Adam Heckel standing in the doorway.
“A bit intense for Sunday church, don’t you think?” Adam strode next to the organ bench.
Miguel sighed. “Oh no. If you as a music major think it’s too much, what on earth will the priest say?”
Adam shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Father Joseph seems pretty open-minded about music.”
Miguel ran a hand through his thick black hair. “I hope you’re right. When can I schedule you to play?”
Adam laughed. “You think they’d want to hear a bassoon solo?”
“Sure. You said Father Joseph likes new music.”
“I suppose you could schedule me sometime in Advent. But in return, I need a favor.”
“What kind?” Miguel frowned.
Adam shifted on the balls of his feet.
“Come on. I’m sure I’ll say yes.”
“All right. Here goes. I need you to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor at a Halloween concert for Beta Alpha Nu Delta. I know you hate fraternities, and probably think the holiday is sacrilegious, but I’m out of options.”
Miguel’s breath caught in his throat. Didn’t see that coming. “Why do you want to be in that frat anyway? I saw how they treated you and the other pledges last weekend. I want nothing to do with them.”
Adam scrunched up his nose. “I was afraid you’d say that. Anything I can do to change your mind? Play two services during Advent?”
“It’s not just the fraternity.” Miguel dropped his gaze. “I have other plans that night.”
“I see.” Adam sighed. “Thought it was worth a shot. You know how everyone loves creepy organ music this time of year.”
Miguel gritted his teeth. “Yes. I’m aware.”
“Well, I’d better figure out something else before Barry decides to kill me.” Adam turned to leave. “Sorry to interrupt your practice time.”
Halloween night, Adam glanced around the nearly empty recital hall. So far, no one but his fellow pledge brothers had showed up for the Halloween concert. One of the trumpeters had dressed up as a ghost in what Adam guessed was a dirty sheet off his dorm room bed. A freshman clarinetist in a chicken suit was squawking through scales onstage. How appropriate.
Adam adjusted his own Grim Reaper costume. What was the point of spending fifty dollars on this outfit for no one to show up? Besides, he’d spent all day decorating the stage when he should’ve been practicing. A collection of jack-o-lanterns beamed from the sides, and a giant witch hung from the ceiling. In the center of the stage, he’d covered the old organ in faux cobwebs.
A second later, Barry barged through the recital hall doors dressed as Frankenstein’s monster, followed by the rest of the upperclassmen in similar attire.
“Heckel, where’s the audience?” He crossed his thick arms.
Adam glanced out the window where a large crowd of sorority girls clustered around the chili cook off table. Maybe he should’ve come up with a party that involved food rather than esoteric classical music. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry’s not good enough.” Barry yanked Adam’s arms behind his back. “Hey, Russel, hand me the duct tape.”
A guy in a wizard hat pulled a roll of duct tape from his cloak and handed it to Barry.
Adam flinched as the sticky material cemented his wrists together, followed by a strip over his mouth.
“Take him to my car.” Barry barked. The wizard yanked him by the arms down the aisle and into the chilly night air.
“Get in.” He shoved him into the back seat. Barry climbed into the driver’s seat. “Looks like you won’t get a bid after all.”
Miguel punched the brakes of his old sedan as a group of trick-or-treaters crossed the street in front of him. Why’d they all wear such dark costumes instead of something easier to see at night? Obviously these kids hadn’t grown up in a Hispanic home on Día de los Muertos.
He fingered his own suit covered in red and gold trim. Every year, he wore the traditional attire along with Mama’s homemade calavera skull mask.
A few miles later, he pulled into a deserted cemetery and parked the car. Other than a few moonbeams which cast shadows through the trees, darkness enveloped the place. If anyone else saw him here, they’d think him crazy. But who cared? He wasn’t doing this for them. Tonight he would honor Camila.
A lump formed in his throat as he grabbed the bouquet of marigolds from the passenger seat, along with a couple candles and a lighter. The holiday had been more fun in the past when he’d celebrated with his family. But this year was different. He brushed tears from his eyes as he marched toward his little sister’s grave. The image of a semi crashing into their car flashed before his eyes. Only nine months since the accident.
A moment later, a loud moan pierced the silence. Who else would be here at this time of night? Was it some kind of Halloween prank? The cry rent the air again, louder than before.
Heartbeat pounding, Miguel squinted in the direction of the noise. For a moment he froze, rooted to the spot. “Who’s there?”
“AAaaam,” the muffled voice mumbled.
“Adam, is that you?” Miguel rushed to the tall obelisk where Adam sat duct-taped to the stone. Kneeling beside his friend, he pulled the tape from Adam’s mouth. “What happened?”
“Barry and the other frat guys,” Adam gasped. “They were furious about the turnout for the Halloween Concert, so they brought me here and left.”
Miguel’s heartbeat quickened as he scrambled to free Adam. “I knew they were scumbags, but I can’t believe they’d sink this low. They should go to jail for this.”
Tears streamed down Adam’s cheeks. “I was stupid to want to be one of them.”
Miguel pulled the last of the tape off Adam’s wrists.
“Thanks.” Adam shivered. “This place gives me the creeps.”
“It doesn’t for you?” Adam’s eyes grew large.
“Not really.” Miguel shrugged. “I come here every year to visit my grandparents’ graves. This place is my tie to history. It’s part of the Hispanic way of life.”
Adam gestured at the bouquet of flowers. “Is that why you brought those?”
Miguel shook his head. “Not tonight. These are for…”—he swallowed—“my sister. Camila.”
“Oh, Miguel, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”
“It’s okay.” He blinked back a tear. “She was only ten. I was supposed to protect her. I should’ve seen that truck coming.” He winced. “I don’t like to talk about it. It’s still… You know.”
“I get it.” Adam patted him on the back. “I lost my older brother when I was a kid. He was my best friend. Always stood up for me at school. Once he was gone, nobody looked out for me anymore.” He glanced at his wrist, still red from the tape.
Adam rubbed his forehead. “Any chance you’d give me a ride back when you’re done? No need to rush. I’ll wait here.”
Miguel placed a hand on his shoulder. “Come with me if you want. I could use a brother about now.”
“Really?” Adam’s eyes brightened.
As they walked in silence to Camila’s grave, the tightness in Miguel’s chest loosened. Maybe having a friend with him tonight was better than going through this alone. He needed a brother.
Miguel knelt beside the tombstone and pulled a picture of Camila and himself from his suit pocket.
“That’s her?” Adam knelt next to him. “Looks like you two were close.”
Miguel bit his lip, unable to form words. He laid the bouquet on the grave and handed the candles and lighter to Adam, who flicked on the flame and lit the wicks. For several moments, the two sat together in silence in the soft glow of the flickering candles.
“I suppose we’d better get back.” Miguel sighed. “I’ve got a concert to play.”
Adam jerked his head up. “What? There’s no way I’m going back.”
“I thought you wanted me to play Bach?”
“You told me no. Besides, don’t you play at Mass early tomorrow?”
Miguel chuckled. “Maybe I need a dress rehearsal. And I want to show those fake brothers of yours what a Halloween concert’s really like.”
Adam grinned at his reflection in Miguel’s car mirror. “This is awesome! No one will recognize me. I can’t believe you had a spare mask on hand.”
Miguel laughed. “What’d you expect on Día de los Muertos?”
“The artistry on this skull is incredible.” Adam leaned closer to the mirror. The lines swirled around his eyes and mouth in multiple directions.
“Mom made it for me years ago. She often gives them as gifts.”
They pulled into the music school’s parking lot. Outside, a crowd of people still clustered around the chili cook-off table. Even the BAND brothers.
Adam climbed out of the car. “Smells like they subbed alcohol for the chili.”
Miguel clicked his door shut and hit the lock button. “Yeah, I’ll bet they snuck in some booze.”
A glance at a burly guy standing next to the table sent a shiver down Adam’s spine. “Barry’s chugging something. Don’t let him see me.”
Miguel nodded as he pulled out his phone. “Head inside the recital hall and make sure everything’s ready for me.”
Darkness enveloped Adam as he stepped into the empty room. Sure enough, all the others had bailed for the night for the more exciting party outside. Would anyone turn up if Miguel played? Or was it too late?
A couple minutes later, an eerie spotlight shone from the ceiling, illuminating the antique organ. Miguel crept out from a backstage door, an intimidating sight in his suit and mask. He climbed onto the bench, raised his hands above the cobwebbed keys, and began to play.
The strains of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor burst from the instrument like a phantom from a grave. Miguel must’ve pulled out all the stops.
The recital hall doors flew open. A dozen costumed students streamed inside, followed by the rest of the crowd, cups in hand. Guys dressed as zombies. Girls in slender black cat costumes. A few people looked familiar, but most Adam had never seen before. Must not have been from the music school. Why couldn’t he have pulled this off sooner? What a turnout!
The intensity of the music rose as the batlike notes swirled around the hall. After Miguel reached the dramatic conclusion, the students jumped to their feet with applause. “Bravo, Beta Mu’s,” someone cheered.
Miguel took a deep bow.
Barry clambered onstage, a plastic cup clutched in his hands. “I wanna thank you all for coming today. My brothers and I have been planning this for weeks—”
A police siren blared outside.
“Who called the cops?” A guy in a zombie outfit cried. “Let’s get outta here.”
The students poured out the door as quickly as they’d come. Several policemen barged into the room as Barry scrambled off the front of the stage.
Miguel pointed to him. “Here’s your guy.”
One of the cops rushed to Barry and pinned him to the ground. “He’s the one who duct-taped the kid to the tombstone?”
With a swift motion, Miguel peeled off his mask. “Yep.”
Barry gasped. “You connivin’ little—”
“No time for that now.” The policeman guided Barry to the exit. “You’re coming with me. And we’ll inform the college of your hazardous hazing. Don’t plan to resume your frat for several weeks.”
Barry scowled as the cop ushered him out the door.
Adam flashed Miguel a smile. “Thanks, man. I owe you.”
Miguel clapped him on the back. “What’s a friend for? But I’m sorry you won’t have a fraternity to join anymore.”
“It’s ok. I know who my true brothers are.” He grinned. “Thanks for bringing me Bach from the grave.”