Chapter 1: 1921
"I'm going home Ernesto! Hate me if you want, but my mind is made up."
Héctor wrenched his suitcase out of Ernesto's desperate grasp and headed toward the door, drooping a little under the weight of his cases and the feeling that his lifelong friendship and potential business partnership was coming to an end. He didn't want to end things badly with Ernesto, and he did enjoy performing for other people, but the five long months spent away from his family was too much to bear any longer.
For a while now his thoughts and dreams were clouded with images of his beautiful Imelda turning her back on him in anger, refusing to listen to his apologies. And his little Coco… Ay, those were the worst! She would just stare at him in his dreams, her head tilted quizzically at the strange man standing before her, no recognition in his eyes. He had been gone too long! She had forgotten her Papá! It was during those dreams that he would wake up with a gasp, his arms reaching out to pull his phantom daughter close to him, only to swipe at air.
Little by little his homesickness manifested from a little twinge to a full on ache in his chest and stomach, and it was also affecting his performance on stage and his relationship with Ernesto. He couldn't keep this up any longer. He felt that if he didn't leave right there and now, he would probably never get the chance to see his girls ever again.
"Oh, I could never hate you." Ernesto said, and Héctor could hear the smile in his voice. He turned around and quirked an eyebrow at his friend. What was he going to say this time to get him to stay? "If you must go, then I'm… I'm sending you off with a toast!"
Huh. That's a surprise.
Héctor watched as Ernesto headed over to the little table that served as their makeshift wet bar. A toast? That was a very kind gesture on Ernesto's part. Maybe even he could see that he and Héctor needed some time apart. But that got him thinking.
Sending me off?
Did Ernesto really think that he wanted to end everything? No, that's not what he was saying at all! He just couldn't spend all of Coco's childhood away from her, and away from the arms of his beloved Imelda. He had to salvage this.
"This isn't the end you know, Ernesto."
His friend stiffened and turned around, a shot glass in each hand and a puzzled look on his face. "Qué?"
"What I'm saying is I'm not giving up like you think. I thought I would get inspiration to write music when I was on the road, you know, seeing all the sights. But then I realized that it's only stifled me. All of my best songs were inspired by my girls, so who knows; maybe when I get home I'll write you a dozen more songs that day!" Héctor laughed a little and stared at the ground. "I just… I just don't think I'm cut out with this touring gig like you are. I could just be the writer that stays at home and writes you hit after hit, and you be the performer who travels the world and sings for the people. We can still be a great team! What do you say to that?"
He looked up and was surprised at the expression on Ernesto's face. He looked… stricken. His eyes were large and looked like he was staring at something far into the distance. Héctor's heart lurched for his friend. He really did think he was abandoning him! "Look, if you want, I… guess I can stay for tonight and we can talk about it some more. But first that drink, eh?"
Héctor reached for the drink, but as soon as his fingers touched the glass, Ernesto let out a gasp as if he had been burned and left the glass slip through his fingers. Both jumped at the glass shattered on the ground and watched as the wooden floorboards soaked up the liquid. Neither men said anything for a moment, but Ernesto panted as if he just sprinted a few blocks and trembled a little. The man's obvious distress was lost on Héctor, who huffed out a small sigh.
"Fine... I tried to keep this partnership going, but if that's how you're going to be-"
"No!" shouted Ernesto, and Héctor jumped again. Ernesto clung to Héctor's arm, sounding much more desperate than he had a few seconds ago. "No, Héctor, I-I… I hear what you're saying, a-and your right. Absolutely right, mi amigo! You should go home to your familia. I'm s-… I'm sorry. I'm so… so sorry." Ernesto hung his head and trembled some more and this time Héctor noticed.
"I'm sorry about the drink! I admit, I was… furious when you said that you were leaving. But then you said-… And I-… couldn't let you drink that!"
"Why? What was wrong with it?"
"It was…" Ernesto paused for a few seconds before lifting his head, a cocky smile on his face and a mischievous glint in his eyes. "It was the Del Toro! I wanted to see you spit it out as soon as it hit your tongue!"
"Ay, pendejo! I wouldn't spit it out, I would vomit it out!" Héctor gagged as Ernesto laughed. "Dios mio, I don't understand why you drink that, that… It's not even tequila, its floor cleaner in a fancy bottle!"
"It's for more refined palates, amigo."
"So what, that was your way of petty revenge for my supposed leaving?" Héctor smirked.
"Yes, petty…" Ernesto's smile faded, and Héctor couldn't see any emotion in his eyes anymore. They appeared dead. "You should go. I'll stay here, and finish up the set performances."
"Yes, go…" Ernesto whispered. "Give Imelda my love, and Coco too." He turned, walked back to the bed and sat down on the mattress. "I'll write to you, so… Don't worry about me. I'll be back to Santa Cecilia right behind you."
Héctor smiled. "Like I said, this isn't the end." He picked up his suitcase walked through the doorway. "But for now, adios mi hermano!" He kicked the door closed and made his way to the train station down the street, his whole body clenched with excitement at seeing his girls again and his heart lighter that he still had his best friend.
"Adios…" Ernesto whispered, as he watched where the poisoned tequila had spilled, slowly leaving a bleached, discolored stain in the wood.