A/N - Originally written as an entry for the 2018 Cocos Locos Angst-Off, my prompt being "You're the only family I have left."
River Teeth (n) — The last thing you're left with when all else is stripped away.
It wasn't just illegal, but it was also wrong. Or at least, it was meant to be wrong. In other words, most people thought it was wrong, in which case there was room for debate on the subject. It was fine.
The sign on the door very clearly read Prohibido perros. Or at least, this was what Héctor had told him when they had first checked in, and Ernesto had no reason to doubt his friend. Though even now, two hours after settling in the hotel, it pained him that he couldn't read the words with precise assurity himself. Sure, he understood the idea of the letters. He just couldn't force them to stick in one place for long.
His curse marred his past all the way to childhood. His mamá could never explain it; his papá had never believed. No, no, nothing could be wrong with his perfect youngest son. Try a little harder, push a little farther, do a little better; why can't you be more like your siblings, intelligent, hardworking; make something of yourself and not strum the silly guitar strings on the porch all day…
It was a shameful secret, and one he preferred to keep to himself. After all, Héctor did not struggle when it came to reading. No, he loved it. All day he would spend sometimes, poring over his notebook at every train, every restaurant, every opportunity. Even late evenings by the light of a solitary, dying candle in a dreary hotel. And if he wasn't filling the pages with new songs, then he was writing letters home to his precious Imelda and baby girl.
Yes, Héctor had been born to write. Ernesto, wish though he might, did not share his best friend's gift. One look from him was enough to make words slide along a page, twisting sideways and bending back on themselves. Placing something flat against a book, like the upper ridge of his forearm, helped in some cases. But not enough—Never enough—and it wasn't something that a man was meant to do in public any more than he might reach down and give himself a scratch. Not a proper gentleman, anyway. Ha. If Héctor had a gift for wooing words into line, then Ernesto had a wretched curse he knew he didn't deserve.
Perhaps this was why he loved to draw as much as he did. Letters were clutter, but drawing came more naturally. As a matter of fact, he was sitting on his bed in their little hotel room and drawing right now, with the curtains pulled back to let in the fading sunlight. Their little slice of freedom just south of the realms of paradise.
And despite the sign at the hotel's front that denied entry to dogs, Ernesto also had his favorite companion in the world sitting snugly in his lap. Verónica wasn't entirely a chihuahueño, but she wasn't entirely a pequeño lebrel italiano either (He'd looked the names of those breeds up in a big city library once and memorized them carefully–took a few weeks, but puppies were his childhood passion, and he hadn't hated the effort as much as he hated projects at school).
In truth, his estimation of Verónica's heritage was only that: a mere guess, and possibly a wrong one. All Ernesto knew for sure was, his little angel was small and sooty-faced, with little white boots for paws, and he brought her everywhere. Smuggling her beneath his coat when he and Héctor traversed the higher ends of various towns, mostly. And of course he never allowed her onstage during performances lest she become lost among the crowd. But he brought Verónica every step of his journeys nonetheless. How could he not? Héctor had his little wife and his tender daughter to return to someday. A family. Ernesto struggled every day to swallow his jealous envy. Sure, Héctor had a life waiting for him in quaint little Santa Cecilia. But after the fire had stolen every memory of Ernesto's old life in the family tienda de mascotas with his papá and four brothers, he had nothing left to his name but the dog who had escaped along with him.
The fire was distant now, and Verónica was getting older every day. She wobbled when she walked, and white fur wrapped around the tip of her muzzle like snow. Ernesto always pretended not to notice. But that day in the hotel, as he used his careful pen to bring his imagination to life within his notebook, he happened to glance up and catch Héctor watching him from the other bed in their room. Just then, Verónica let out a scratchy noise along the lines of a whine, or a cough. The younger musician plucked two strings on his beautiful guitar and shook his head.
"My friend, maybe you should just let her go after all these years, ah? We can afford to stall the tour a bit, and perhaps stop by Santa Cecilia. I can see mi familia, and you can leave Verónica with Coco and Imelda. Coco will look after her well, you know she will. She always did love kissing that silly pooch's nose."
Ernesto chuckled. "Oh, I could never turn back now. Not when we've come so far from home, and so close to achieving our dreams at last." He scrubbed the white spots just above Verónica's eyes with his palm. "We'll return to Santa Cecilia someday soon, but not just yet. You don't know Verónica like I do. She has some fight left in her yet."
Besides, he thought, rubbing his hand down the back of Verónica's neck. Coaxing Héctor away from his wife and young daughter had been difficult enough the first time. If his friend saw his old hometown again, he'd more likely than not lose his nerve, and then where would their traveling musical duo be?
Verónica nosed the crook of his elbow and let out a yawn. Ernesto tugged the thin hotel blankets higher, and allowed his wandering eyes to fall on his journal again.
He could still remember the day when he was fifteen, and young Héctor had brought him the little book. Not that he'd even been able to use it for the first several weeks–when Héctor had arrived at the family animal shop, Ernesto had been lying on his bed with a broken arm, with Verónica snuggled against his chest in much the same way she was now. Alas, sweet Verónica, who yearned to ease his pain. She had left his side only for food or a quick romp outside. Her loyalty was unending, and she would never leave him. Nor could Ernesto ever leave her, even if it was in the care of sweet little Coco. Verónica was his familia. And family comes first.
Of course, just as he came to that conclusion, Verónica decided that the warm sheets did not hold her interest after all. She stood, padded carefully across Ernesto's covered legs, and dropped to the floor. Ah, well. Ernesto flipped his journal to its very first page.
"I brought you a present," Héctor had said that day when he'd arrived with the journal in hand. He'd been so small and gangly then, with wild black hair and a teasing lilt to his smile. He'd waved the journal in the air, mocking Ernesto's lack of mobility… but not in a cruel way. Ernesto had rolled his eyes and laughed although it hurt his ribs, for his silly friend had always known just the right way to cheer him up. Since he could not draw, he'd hugged Verónica tight and allowed Héctor to sit on the foot of his bed, while Ernesto dictated the pictures he saw in his mind's eye. Bright lights, tall platforms, swirling dresses. Héctor, faithful Héctor, had tried his best to copy them down with his limited artistry. The effort was appreciated, even if he lacked Ernesto's careful skill.
By the door, Verónica stretched onto her hind paws, nosing at the bulging left-hand pocket of Ernesto's coat where it hung on the rack. One paw scraped the wall. A whine trickled into her voice. Ernesto closed the journal and sat up.
"Silly pooch. Here, Héctor. Look." When his friend stopped stroking the guitar strings, Ernesto gestured to the little dog. "She knows I only keep her treats in my left pocket. Is that not the most adorable thing?"
"It is very cute," Héctor conceded, his smirky grin trickling across his face like a ripple in a pond. He lowered the guitar. "So, what do you keep in your right pocket to chase her away?"
Ernesto's smile faltered just a smidgen. Oh. Um. Well. Er. Yeah. See, heeeere's the thing that most people never have the chance to understand. Poison is never an easy word to bring up in conversation with your best friend since toddlerhood, so, you know. He just… didn't try.
"Only my journal, most days, my friend." So saying, Ernesto grabbed the old notebook and waved it Hector's way. He chuckled. "You know, I suppose I had better keep a closer eye on this. I would not take kindly to doggy drool ruining my life's work. You may write our songs, Héctor, but I have the artist's eye for stage design. And one of these days, we shall be the biggest spitfires to ever come out of Santa Cecilia."
"'Our songs?'" Héctor asked, a slight note of jealous possessiveness creeping into his voice. Ernesto looked up in surprise to find his friend's brows knitted together more tightly than a stitch on a sweater. Héctor sat on the bed with both hands squeezing the neck of his guitar, his legs stretched out. He fixed Ernesto with a very peculiar stare. Ernesto lowered his pen.
"Oh, come, Héctor. You do not think you alone are responsible for bringing our works to life. You may be the one who writes them down, but without my stage talent, they would not be as memorable as they are. You share your words with me, I share my designs with you. That would make them ours, would it not?"
"I suppose," Héctor said slowly, his words stiff and unnatural in his mouth.
Ernesto paused, not missing the way Héctor's knuckles tightened even more around his beloved white guitar. And so… Ernesto, very carefully, eased up on the topic with a lighthearted shrug. "Of course, I mean no ill offense, my friend. I only mean that neither of us would be much of anyone without the other. Don't you agree?"
His voice turned distant when he said it, his attention wandering away. But Ernesto had known Héctor since they were practically toddlers. He had wounded his best friend's pride tonight, and Héctor was only falling silent on this matter because he didn't wish to start a fight. He never did. That's precisely what made him the perfect friend.
In silence, Ernesto returned his attention to his journal and found his favorite design of all. He was a simple man with simple wants, dreaming of nothing more than performing on a stage that he had designed, and singing songs capable of softening even the hardest of hearts. Listening to Héctor play Remember Me, he found himself leaning back and shutting his eyes. The song was a lullaby he'd written for his daughter, and so far he had been resistant to sharing it. Perhaps he could be coaxed one day.
In his mind's eye, it was all so clear. He would ride backwards all the way to the top of the stage on moving steps, with exactly 38 beautiful dancing girls on either side. Fireworks above, and instruments all around. Héctor had suggested adding a large bell in the tower decoration they would stand under at the end of the song, but Ernesto wasn't sure he liked that idea yet.
He had planned it to the final click of the final heel, but only in his head. Nothing written. And that was why he and Héctor made such a perfect team. Héctor passed his hours in putting words together, and Ernesto passed his time designing the birthplaces of their music and fame. Héctor could not think grand enough to dazzle crowds, and Ernesto could not write simple sentences to his satisfaction (let alone prepare an entire piece of music). It was simple. Alone, Héctor's showmanship would never impress, and Ernesto would never have the skill to play by sight. But Héctor could dance, and Ernesto could match a new tune so long as his friend played beside him. Together, they composed songs that were unforgettable.
The words and the drawings tucked away in their respective journals were not Héctor's songs. They were not Ernesto's songs. They were their songs. Neither one would last without the work of the other to hold them up. They needed one another. Desperately. Ernesto understood that.
But did Héctor?
"She's a smart dog," Ernesto mused, watching Verónica trot back towards his bed with a single dog biscuit in her mouth.
Héctor rolled his eyes in good spirits. He tipped his hat forward over his face. "Let's hope she's smart enough to stay quiet indoors. I would rather we weren't kicked out onto the streets tonight."
"Have no fear, my friend." Ernesto pulled Verónica into his arms. "My darling and I are the couple of the century. No one would dare try to tear us apart."
Verónica began licking at his lips in reply, and he fell back with a laugh.
"I miss Imelda," Héctor said, and Ernesto looked at him. "I did not give her a very good last kiss when we left Santa Cecilia."
"Leaving… can be painful," Ernesto said carefully. "But we've come so close to achieving our dreams. We've nearly done it all."
"Ah, well." Héctor chuckled, and slipped out of bed. He stretched his arms towards the ceiling, lifting on his toes. "It was our big day, leaving home to see the world. I wouldn't have wanted to bore you with my silly old sentimentality. I'll give her the biggest kiss when I come home."
"I'm sure you will, my friend."
So it went, from town to town, and hotel to hotel. Héctor brought his guitar and his songs, and Ernesto brought Verónica.
And then… that final night… they had chorizos. They were friends.
An hour later, they were not.
"I'm going home, Ernesto," Héctor said, cold and crushing.
Ernesto gawked at the back of his head. His hands felt for strength against the table. It–it was unthinkable. How was it that the best friend of his youth could turn out so–so–selfish? Although in retrospect, of course Héctor wouldn't understand Ernesto's dream. After all, this life of playing music for the world was but a pastime for him. A hobby! Quitting was convenience, failure was not the end. Music was not his last desperate thread to cling to. Because selfish Héctor still had a family to return home to. Ernesto had no one. No one but the dog.
So Ernesto poisoned him with a sprinkle of arsenic. Héctor was dead before he even reached the train station. The limp flop his body made against the brick road was disconcerting, but Ernesto managed to keep his nerve with just a lick of his lips.
His first order of business, of course, was to take Héctor's songbook for his own. Committing the songs to memory would take hours upon hours of careful study, and struggling to read the music notes would be harder. Fine. This sealed the deal. He would become the world's greatest musician, who played only their songs—his songs—and never anything he hadn't already memorized to perfection. Because Ernesto could not do this without Héctor. And Héctor had known that, and left him up a creek like this anyway.
The songbook went into the pocket of his coat, where he'd once carried the little vial of poison disguised as a travel swig of drink. He'd left his drawing journal behind for this very short walk, too, and this new book fit just as snugly against his side. Then Ernesto lifted his friend, feigning that he was leading an unconscious drinking partner home, and made the short trip over the bridge. Across the river. Upstream instead of down. As he stumbled along, he tilted back his head.
"The stars look so much brighter here than they ever did in Santa Cecilia, old friend. I wish you understood how to appreciate the arts."
Héctor's body was disposed of appropriately. Ernesto returned to their little hotel room so far from home. He hadn't locked the door. When he opened it, he found himself walking in on Verónica. She sat like the queen she was in the center of his bed, her jaws stuffed with wrinkled pages ripped straight from his drawing journal.
"Abajo!" he cried out of impulse, gaping down at her. Verónica reached for him with a paw as though begging for a treat. Ha, not likely. Ernesto scooped her up and dropped her on the table behind him. Glasses rattled, and one tipped over. He dropped into a crouch, and began to piece together what remained of his life's work. Things were torn, memories stained. The damage she'd managed to commit in such a short time was impressive, really.
But it was fine. All fine. Ernesto breathed through his nose. He wouldn't let himself cry over some silly old drawings. It really wasn't a big deal. By this point in his life, he'd run his pen across those pages so many times, adoring the smooth process of it more than the end result. He recalled most of the designs by heart, or at least some of their larger aspects. The details would come together in the end. All it would take was a little bit of planning, a little bit of care, a little bit of work. It would be okay, he could come back from this, it was fine. He would rise above. He was Ernesto de la Cruz!
And Ernesto de la Cruz turned around with a huff of annoyance, still patting the crumpled pages into a straight stack, and felt absolute chills race across his blood.
He had put Verónica on the table.
Right beside the arsenic.
Which was now tipped over.
Its cap gone.
And the bottle, by this point, very empty.
His mouth fell open. Stiff, broken, he watched the curious dog lick up the last droplets of the spilled poison.
The torn pages fluttered from his hand, one by one, as though they were feathers in a dream. The journal slapped after them. The noise of it shocked Ernesto's system into action. He lurched forward, tearing Verónica away from the table. She was warm, and happy, and alive, and it was much too soon to let her go. Ernesto shoved his fingers inside her mouth, scraping them past her teeth, searching for a prayer, searching for hope!
"No," he choked out. His knees hit the floor. He sat, numb and staring, and held the dog like a limp, dead thing even as she licked his hand and wagged her tail. She was innocent. His voice hitched. "Por favor, mi tesoro. Not here. Not like this."
Then the snot. Entire goopy strings of it, dribbling from his nose like the drool of an animal. Why did there always have to be so much snot when you cried? As if losing someone you loved wasn't hard enough. Ernesto hunched his shoulders, clutching Verónica's tiny, shuddering body more tightly to his chest. The poison acted fast. She was already shaking from her whimpers. His poor little girl. The pain had to be incredible, and she was so scared. Some faithful companion he was, if he couldn't even take her pain away. What a cruel joke her life had been: Escaping the fire that had killed his family as a child, only to die in the end anyway. Ernesto's next word left him in a sob. "Forgive me, Verónica! Sweet innocent pup you are. That wasn't for you. It was never meant for you."
Verónica whined, leaning her chin against the crook of his arm. Her eyes blinked up at him, and they were the eyes of an angel torn from the heavenly world. Ernesto readjusted his position so he was sitting cross-legged instead of up on his knees. He clenched that poor, mangy mutt against his chest and hugged her with every muscle capable of hugging in his entire body.
"Don't go," he whispered to her nose. One of his own tears splashed directly into her eye. "Please. Please, mi tesoro. Don't do this. Stay here with me, even though I don't deserve your sweet spirit and your bubbled laughs. My best friend walked out on me, and I am alone in the world. Have I not suffered enough?"
The only response he received was ragged panting in his ear. Ernesto leaned so far forward, his nose practically smashed against the floorboards.
"Por favor, por favor… Stay here, Verónica. Please, you must. You're the only family I have left."
And Ernesto realized then that he could tell no one of this. For if a man and a dog passed away the same night, of the same cause, and a connection was ever made between the two of them, then people might begin to talk. It would not be the good kind of talk. First they would begin to question, then they would begin to whisper.
Héctor's body might need to be disposed of more carefully now, but that could wait. Ernesto couldn't bring himself to move. Not until Verónica gave up her twitching. He had to be here when she did. The poor mutt's life had been hard enough. She didn't deserve to die out here, almost alone.
And so he waited, and bled deep inside.
Marking her gravesite, when he finally finished burying her, was a struggle. His cursed eyes refused to tell him whether or not he'd spelled her name correctly. It was a long name. Ernesto worked out the letters anyway, running them over and over through his head and carefully mimicking their shape. It wasn't a carved stone. Just paper. Which hurt. Dearly. Verónica deserved a proper burial.
There. After what had to be two hours in the cold, it was finished. Taking up his lantern by the handle, Ernesto rose to his feet. His toes were bare and caked in mud. With the end of his thumb, he brushed a few of his tears away, and swore he'd never cry again. Not real tears, anyway.
Héctor had already checked out of the hotel when he'd set off for the train station. Ernesto's plan had always been to stay another night or three, for although the room was simple, it carried with it a certain simple charm. Would it look suspicious if he, too, suddenly dropped by the office and insisted that he'd had enough? The room hadn't been as cheap as he and Héctor had hoped it would be, and he needed to keep pace with the schedule he'd planned for their (his) tour…
Ernesto realized he didn't care. If it cost him money, fine. He'd be rich one day. A few disappointed fans? One day he'd have thousands. He just couldn't stay in that room anymore. And so he turned, hands shoved deep inside his jacket pockets, and walked away along the street. Sure, his things were still back there. And yes, eventually he'd return for them. But tonight, he needed to be alone with his thoughts, by surrounding himself with pleasant people at the nearest bar. That was understandable, wasn't it?
He closed his eyes. Burying a dog on hotel premises was very illegal, but Verónica was family. And somehow, that made it feel just a little less wrong.