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We’re Always the Ones Who Leave

When they first come to our street, the blue jacarandas are in bloom, like they always are from September to December. Darkened seed pods fell on the pavement and crack under their shoes like eggshells, tiny bits of wood flying everywhere. It’s so beautiful, they tell us, smiling, eyes on the trees. It’s so beautiful that I wanted to take them all out of their roots and have them just for me.

They are, aren’t they? Everyone who comes to our street likes the trees. Their violet flowers pool on the roofs of parked cars and cover the cobblestones like a natural carpet. No, everything here is beautiful, they correct themselves, first the man, then the woman agrees, smiling, always smiling.

I smile back. Our narrow street is one of the branches from a large avenue, but it never attracts too much attention because it only has two ways: the left goes up, the right goes down. Some people like the houses, but they comment how worn out they are, how worm-eaten by time. Can’t the mayor do something? We don’t know, we usually say, we don’t know. Other people like the trees. But nobody really cares or even stops by, except for occasional visits to the only two businesses around: my mother’s grocery shop, and a family drugstore.

A coffee shop here would be good, continues the man, or maybe a boutique covered by those jacarandas . . . The woman nods, yes, it would be gorgeous. And it’s close to everything! There’s a hypermarket a few blocks from here, and my sister can visit us at any time.

They forget I’m here, dusting away all the fragmented seed pods they step on in front of our shop, crack crack crack under the soles of their shoes. Not just the pods, the flowers also look bruised after a heel carelessly mashes their petals, turning them ugly and slick.

My mother calls me back inside. You don’t go talking to strangers, she says, not a young lady like yourself. Didn’t I teach you about danger? The couple still talks outside, and they point at our little shop, one lifted finger above the boxes on display: Fuji apples, not as bright and beautiful as the Red Delicious sold by the hypermarket they mentioned, but ten times more delicious, several ripe persimmons looking like tomatoes about to burst, bunches of large Dwarf Cavendish bananas, several containers with fat strawberries—I need to take care of that. It’s too hot to leave strawberries outside during spring; they mold too fast.

The couple comes again a week later with a moving truck. Oh, it’s you again, the woman tells me, we’re neighbors now. Neighbors? I look around. There are no rent or sale signs on any doors. To my surprise, the house they purchased was the one by our side. But the Hondas . . . I start to say. Mom knows the Hondas since forever. Since before I was even alive. Four years ago, when my little sister Sofia was born, right after the divorce, they came to our house to bring food and gifts. They had family in Ivoti, where we bought all our strawberries and persimmons and grapes.

The Hondas are going back to their hometown, the woman says, smiling. I smile back, just to be polite. Strange thing, that they didn’t even tell us . . .

Anyway, she continues, you’re very cute, and I loooved talking to you, but can you ask your parents to close the shop for a little while? We have a lot of furniture, you know, and I don’t want it to get dirty if we accidentally hit your fruits.

Sure, I agree. Of course. We also wouldn’t want you to make a mess, I think of saying, but the lady is already in front of the truck, telling the workers where to put their wall lamps.

When our eyes meet, she smiles again.

The second neighbors to go are the Pereiras. We were never particularly close to them, it was more of a hello-how-are-you kind of relationship, but we always see each othern on the street. Mr. Pereira walked their Yorkshire thrice a day, one at seven in the morning, when I go to school, then after lunch, and a last time at six thirty to have time to go back home to watch the telenovela aired at seven with his wife. On those occasions, he would always wave when he saw me, and I would said: hi, Mr. Pereira, is everything going fine?

The entire street has those beautiful little houses, reminiscent of Portuguese colonial architecture, built at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Hondas had the most impressive home of all, the only ones with two floors on our side of the street besides us, but the Pereiras were not behind with their cerulean facade, the brick-colored door and windows, the golden ornaments made of stucco. The constructions might have been old and barely held together, but we care for them as we can, with the little we have.

The family who moves to their house is just as polite as our new neighbors. We’re envisioning a new boutique, they tell us, installing two namoradeira sculptures on each of the red windows. A boutique with a café, or maybe a cake shop. Something small and cozy.

Behind them, the shadows of the tallest trees crisscross the streets with black branches and leaves. I look at the statues, pretty, smiling, unblinking, their big brown and blue and green eyes reflecting the little sunlight that crossed the crown of the trees, their smiles vague and uncanny, their full lips stretching into their cheeks. They come in a myriad of colors, with different dresses, hairstyles, skin tones. Gorgeous, aren’t they? The new neighbors say proudly, tapping the heads of the sculptures like they had made them themselves. Bought them in Minas Gerais. Nothing like getting them from the source, don’t you think?

After the Hondas and the Pereiras, the next one was Ms. Real, who was diagnosed with cancer and went to live with her family in Canoas, then our pediatrician, Dr. Gleiser, who was treating Sofia’s asthma, just vanishes, replaced by a family of three. The child smiles gleefully from their window, leaning on the pane like one of the statues, the light shining on his face.

This time, I don’t smile back.

The bell of our grocery shop rings as someone opens the door. Mom glances at me, like she always does when one of the newcomers enters, as if saying: step back. Let me handle this. I can tell she wants to impress them because they look rich, and they’re all related, right? How would you even know that, Carolina, she told me yesterday as we watched TV after dinner, rubbing vinegar-soaked cotton on Sofia’s head. Because they all look the same, I answered, screwing up my face whenever my sister squealed irritably.

Stop moving, dammit, Sofia, said my mother. The acrid smell of apple cider took over our living room, and the lice made cracking sounds like the seed pods when mom took them with a comb and crushed them between her fingers. Crack. One louse. Crack, crack. Another. Look at the nits, she said, smearing a droplet of blood on her thumb. I’ll have to do this for you too.

Well, I can tell the new neighbors are all related, just like mom can tell that they’re rich. We’ve got to behave well in front of them, she mutters to me as one of them looks at the fruits on display. If they didn’t have money, they wouldn’t be buying the whole street.

Our client abandons the fruits and heads towards the cookies, standing on the other side of the shelf I choose to hide behind. The packets are organized by flavor: cassava, cornstarch, chocolate, water crackers, lemon, honey, gingerbread. I know them by heart; I’m the one who sorts them.

The customer sees me through the packets, her eyes luminous with the reflection of the colorful plastic around her. The shape of the strawberry vector on her pupils seems to look at me and say: TASTES LIKE REAL STRAWBERRIES, WITH A TOUCH OF CHOCOLATE DELIGHT!

She keeps staring. I lower my head. Stop, I think, look at any other way. She’s still there, immobile and unblinking, and I’m one of the products, like I taste like real strawberries with a touch of chocolate delight. Um, I start, but I don’t want to talk. The shop feels too crowded right now.

Bye, I say, going so fast to the door that I only notice that I’m running when I’m midway across the street. The drugstore, I think, the drugstore will have to do.

Good afternoon, Mr. Raimundo, I say, grabbing a handful of fennel gumdrops in the entrance, but the owner doesn’t hear me. He’s too busy talking to a young couple taking boxes and boxes of products. They’re buying several toothpastes, pills, hair products, combs, no, not this comb, the woman says. It needs to be wide-toothed because I have fine hair, she continues, shaking a handful of hair highlights, like she just came from the beach.

Mr. Raimundo moves slowly toward the other side of the store. He picks one of the combs, and asks: this one? No, that one breaks too easily. Actually, I want a hairbrush, a round one. I wait behind them, looking at the floor. Another customer comes in—it’s the man from the first day. He greets everyone else, then stands right in the spot between me and the young couple. So glad to see you two are adapting well, he tells them, and I take a step back. He can’t be cutting in line, can he?

The man doesn’t seem to notice. He gestures as he talks, his elbow almost slamming against my nose, and I give another step back. Um, I start saying, raising my voice, but the man just talks louder, and the couple laughs.

It’s like I’m transparent—my lines must be blurring and fading, my colors dying, my voice evaporating. Again I think of the strawberry eyes of the lady staring at me, and I wish I had been invisible then, not here. Here, the invisibility feels hostile, and I recoil before another of his gestures hits me.

Another person enters, stopping right behind me, checking the products by my side. I kneel down, pretending I’m looking at them too. A hand goes over my head to take a deodorant, and two bottles of aerosol spray fall over me. Other products start falling like dominoes: a package of swabs, a bag of cotton, pink roll-on deodorants, all sorts of things.

The last one is a blue bottle that falls heavily against my skull. Its cap rolls between my knees, and I feel something wet on the back of my head. Thick milk of magnesia falls in white drops, dripping from my hair to my cheeks to my chin to the floor. Fresh mint, the bottle reads, mocking me. The smell makes me almost throw up.

The person doesn’t say sorry; they don’t acknowledge me; they just smile, smile, smile.

At night, I wake up hearing voices. I search for my sister in the room, who should be sleeping on the trundle bed underneath mine, but she’s not there. Sofia, I listen, her name echoed hundreds of times, Sofia, Sofia.

Sofia? I call, trying to see if she went to the bathroom, but the door is still closed. The curtain flutters, and I see her little feet under it, half her body out of the window. Sofia, the voice keeps calling, and I walk to her side to see what she’s seeing.

Outside, the street is dark, and the warped black lines of the trees cover the sky, their branches tangled with electrical cables. The full panicles of the jacaranda move like hair, softly, like I know them to, but something’s not right. All lights have been turned off, even the ones from the utility poles, and someone keeps calling my sister’s name: Sofia, Sofia, Sofia . . .

Rubbing my eyes, I realize that the people down there are our new neighbors, and they’re looking up to Sofia, at her little arms reaching out to them. Sofia, they say, and I pull her to a tight hug, pressing her against my chest.

But Carol, she says, they were calling me. I don’t know what to tell her, because I’m also hearing the whispers, and that’s wrong to do with a child—it is, right? They might have been just saying hi. They might have been too distracted to notice me the other day in the drugstore. They might have just liked our street. Our placid, boring, battered street. That’s why they’re constructing a new coffee shop, an art gallery, a startup company. Because they like living here.

Still, I close the windows and take Sofia to sleep with me.

When I come back from school, all of our old neighbors are gone. Mr. Raimundo’s drugstore is closed and it has a new sign: COMING SOON—EDUCATIONAL TOYS—RAISING INTELLIGENT AND HAPPY CHILDREN. The construction workers rarely leave, and now they’re changing the facades of some of the more modern houses to look like the old ones, perfectly colonial and doll-like. One is pink, the other green, the other lavender lined with blue.

I think it’s looking pretty, says Sofia. She walks by my side, holding my hand. You think? I ask, and I hate that I agree. It’s pretty, so pretty it’s not even looking like a real street anymore. All the windows have namoradeira statues, so many they look like people watching us at all times. One of them stares at me with her big blue eyes, round and crystalline, ink over plaster. Her eyelashes point up, her full mouth is red, her light brown hair falls in two braids.

Blink blink.

I blink back, and I realize that’s not one of the sculptures. It’s the neighbor, cheek leaning against her hand, elbow against the window pane, the lipstick as red as her polka dot dress. Good afternoon, I say, but she won’t answer, and I pull Sofia to walk faster. You’re hurting me, she whines, and I shake my head, be quick, be quick.

We’re both breathless when we reach the grocery shop. Where’s mom? Sofia asks. Her voice sounds scared, and I understand why when I see the quantity of people inside. I clutch Sofia closer to me. There are people between all the shelves, talking loudly, walking around, checking the products. Finally, I see mom, but she’s circled by several demanding clients. No, I’m not interested, she says, and when she glances at us, I know she wants us upstairs.

We have always lived here, is the last thing I hear my mother say, as I scurry toward the stairs. Carol, Sofia complains, trying to escape from my grip, Carol, mom is there. Yeah, but mom is busy right now, I answer, but what I really want to say is mom wants you to be safe. I spend several hours watching from the stairs. More and more people come inside, and they all look the same to me, like this is a big family gathering, only at our place. They smile and talk and drink from the beers in the fridge, they eat the cookies on the shelves. It’s just a little bit, they tell my mother, who’s drowning between them.

Carolina, mom calls me hours later. I still hear the buzz from the lower floor, but she was able to escape. Her hair is disheveled, her face has paled to a worrying shade, her eyes are wide and blank. What are they still doing here? I ask, looking over her shoulder to the people moving downstairs. It’s just for a little while, she swears. We need to be nice, yes?

I lower my head.

Yes, I say.

First, the neighbors took the street, then our grocery shop, then the stairs. While mom was taking a shower, they took her bedroom and, since then, they have been living here. Good morning, I say to them before going to school. Our roommates have changed her double bed to a more sophisticated one, upholstered and gray, with a spotless, fluffy white duvet. The walls have been changed to fake wooden boards, rustic but modern, the photographs of my family have been boxed, my mother’s clothes have been donated. Now, she sleeps with us, and I have moved to the trundle bed.

It’s enough for us, I say. It’s like a sleepover, Sofia tells her. Mom smiles. It’s not that bad, she concedes. The neighbors allow us to use the bathroom a few times a day, and we thank them for their kindness. They’re refurbishing our grocery shop; it will look lovely, they claim. But no more of this industrialized crap, says the woman I talked to on the first day, throwing the packages of cookies in the trash: cassava, cornstarch, chocolate, water crackers, lemon, honey, gingerbread. Only whole food, now.

See, it’s not that bad, the three of us living here in my room. I don’t like it when I wake up at night, and see them looking at me from the keyhole. Sometimes, I look back, but they see through me. What they’re really seeing is the room. I check my hands: they’re real, they’re made of skin, bone, flesh. I look at the mirror just to make sure I’m not fading away.

At times, I lean against the window pane, reclining my face against my hand. The blue jacarandas are blooming outside. The neighbors look up to see me, and I hear them say my name: Carolina, Carolina, Carolina. Maybe they’re right; maybe we are being a little bit selfish. The room is too big for three people, I think. If we move the bed and take our clothes from the wardrobe, they can have half of it. It’s only polite, isn’t it?

It really is a lovely place, my neighbor tells me, as they move into our bedroom. The three of us are sleeping on the bed, our dresses and shirts and pants and underwear packed inside a bag on the floor. The only thing that separates them from us is a clothes rack with a curtain hanging from it. Can you give us a little bit more space? She smiles, he smiles. They’re changing the walls of the room now. It’s to refurbish it, you see.

I smile back.

Of course, we say, removing the bed. We don’t lie down to sleep anymore, we just pile around the bags. Sofia sleeps on our laps when we sit down on the floor, and my mother caresses my hair. I don’t like looking at their eyes, their huge, plastic eyes. If I look too much, I will give more, because I know, I knew from the start, now and forever—we will always be the ones who leave.

About the Author

H. Pueyo (@hachepueyo on Twitter) is an Argentine-Brazilian writer of comics and speculative fiction. She’s an Otherwise Fellow, and her work has appeared before in F&SF, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, among others. Find her online at hachepueyo.com.