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Soil of Our Home, Storm of Our Lives

December 7, 2021

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Renan Bernardo is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Dark Matter Magazine, Three Crows Magazine, Simultaneous Times Podcast, and Life Beyond Us, an anthology organized by the European Astrobiology Institute. He was one of the writers selected for the Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest with his story “When It’s Time to Harvest.” In Brazil, he was a finalist for two important SFF awards and published multiple stories. His fiction has also appeared in Portuguese and Italian. He can be found on Twitter (@RenanBernardo) and his website www.renanbernardo.com.
Content Warning(s):
Terrorism/Bio-terrorism
by Renan Bernardo | Narrated by Sanderson Tavares

Seeing his daughter with her face bruised in the front yard was a matter of time.

Célia’s left eye was blackened and her lips were blotched with blood. Dollops of mud ran down from her cheeks to her upper lip. Her hands were clasped in front of her, smeared with sludge and shame. Her eyes were welled up, but she wasn’t crying. Her grandma, Alzira, used to say one must have a pretty good reason to cry, and Jota knew Célia couldn’t decide what exactly was a good reason. He couldn’t either.

Amor, tell me what happened.” Jota crouched before her, gently clutching her right hand and settling the ice bag on it. He recognized the stain of blood smeared on her swollen lips, the tiny droplets dabbing her chin. He knew damn well the mud came from the olericulture compound next to Aramá’s Elementary School, where the students had complementary activities. And if things hadn’t changed so much, that mud tasted a bit like radish.

“This boy called Grandma a terrorist.” Célia wept, probably deciding that was a good reason to cry. In his time, he often thought it was too until he learned to ignore the provocations directed at him or his mother.

Célia raised the ice bag and put it underneath her left eye. Jota rubbed the mud from her face and hands with a towel, then pulled her into a hug, smiling so she would know everything was fine.

“He said …” Célia wept close to his ear. “He said she was an … ugly demolition ball and a terrorist.”

Jota sighed, standing.

“Let’s go for a walk, amor.” Jota pulled Célia onto the sidewalk. “Breathe slowly … On your pace.” His mother did the same the first time an older boy punched him and said he was the son of landless filth.

Sunlight reflected along the windmills’ blades of Aramá’s wind factories. There were more people than usual on the streets. The city’s biggest June Party would start later and visitors arrived from Parapeúna, Valença, and even farther from Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. At the end of the street, a woman repaired the biogas lampposts in front of Beckerfield. The sprouses lined up a soft slope from Beckerfield’s fences, each house differing from the other in their treelike shapes. Between the sprouses, photovoltaic poles were bedecked with the party’s colored flags.

“Let’s rest here.” Jota turned below one of the purifier tanks that recycled water from the vast storm drains surrounding Aramá. “There are things about Grandma you need to learn.”

“Is it true she protected … terrorists? That she …”

“That she was a terrorist herself? Of course not, sweetie. People who call her that don’t really know her.” They were becoming fewer each year, but Aramá had its share of people who didn’t know the city’s history. Often the wrong assumptions came from the children of Rio de Janeiro landowners enrolled in Aramá’s schools because they’d become famous as the country’s best.

Jota grabbed Célia’s backpack and sat on a bench. She sat beside him, wiping tears and the remaining mud off her face.

Once, his mother had told him the city hadn’t always smelled like this. But that was so part of it—of him—that it was hard to notice unless he focused and sniffed the air. The sylvan scent that the breeze shoved from the sprouses was also how he remembered his mother, stooped over a tablet, programming what one day would be their future.

“What was she, then, Dad?” Célia asked.

“She never found out. Sometimes she introduced herself as a gardener, other times as a programmer. Not so commonly, a rebel.”

§

The bastards …

Alzira closed the kitchen shutters, as instructed by the prefecture, and turned back to the stockpot where she was cooking baião de dois—rice, green beans, coalho cheese—to feed the displaced people established near the golf course.

If it wasn’t enough that her town was becoming a hub for Rio de Janeiro’s evacuees, now terrorists were passing through.

Let the storm pass, Mami used to say. It was a good strategy. Just wait. Most things did pass if you let them go.

Her phone’s screen flashed on the counter. She stooped to look at it. Not Marcos. Just a local news update notification. Of course, it wasn’t the man for whom she promised a life, then abandoned overnight one year ago because she was on the verge of breaking out …

… and the Wrecking Balls are driving through RJ-147 toward Rio Preto,” said a grave voice in her mobile. “The terrorist group will be passing through Aramá at any moment. The police are still giving chase. Stay at home. If you see anything suspicious, use your public security app to send your location to the police.”

She scraped her teeth, turned off the news report, and resumed dropping chopped onion into the stockpot. Just ignore …

The Wrecking Balls. Brazil’s budding terrorist group passing through her town. Great … She didn’t know much about them, though. They assassinated landowners, blew up properties, and destroyed construction sites in the countryside.

An engine roared in the quiet street outside. Brakes pulled. Too close.

Just avoid it … Not all storms have to be contained by you.

The living room door bursts open.

§

“But how was she a gardener?” Célia frowned, putting down the ice bag and wiping the remaining mud stains off her face with purified water Jota had given her. “I never saw Grandma planting anything.”

“When you were born, she’d already stopped.” Jota straightened the disheveled tufts of Célia’s hair and tied them with her hairpin. A prolonged beep sounded across the city, reminding everyone that the thermal energy towers were switching on for the night.

“You said the cops had orders to … kill?” Célia pointed at a cop duo pedaling across the field, leisurely heading toward Beckerfield. “They seem nice, though.”

He’d always been reticent to tackle sensible matters with Célia. But she was nine years old and just had her face smacked. Jota was ten when his mother had placed him on the kitchen counter and told him what she did and why he had to be exceedingly careful on the streets. Luckily, things were safer for Célia.

“The cops are not the same,” Jota said. “They were … a different kind of police back then … The Order Squad.”

Célia gaped at him and put a finger over her mouth, thinking.

“And the displaced people you mentioned? Are they gone, right? The teacher says we’re gonna talk about displacement and refuge next month.”

Jota waved at the cops.

“Well …” He shrugged. “There are no more displaced people in Aramá. But they’re not gone at all.”

§

There were two terrorists inside her house. Inside Mami’s house. They were named Alfredo and Gui as they didn’t seem to be worried about hiding their names while talking with each other. The only thing they’d asked of her was a first aid kit, so she grabbed the one Marcos had given her as a gift and that she’d never used.

Alfredo was a black man wearing a dark turtleneck and frayed jeans. He was a few years older than Alzira: bald, face stubbled with unshaven beard, sporting a necklace with an almond-shaped pendant. His leg was hurt, and he’d come in toppling, falling to the sofa and groaning, more of disappointment than from pain.

Gui was a blonde young man in his twenties, acne scars mottling his cheeks. He wore a waist bag and his t-shirt stated If you move fast and break things, you might break yourself. Upon entering, he’d dumped an ecobag next to her TV rack.

Now Alzira stood in the middle of the living room with her hands clasped on her legs, eyes panning back and forth over them. They didn’t carry guns, not anything visible at least.

Gui kneeled and grimaced at the blood on his partner’s jeans.

“Sorry for breaking in,” Alfredo said, face twitching in pain.

She nodded because that was the only thing left to do. But was it still her house? The Wrecking Balls were famous for taking possession of properties, and their invasion might mean they’d just gotten one more. It’d been here where she’d learned how to cook, Mami’s steady hand steering hers, blending tapioca flour with shrimp to make tacacá. It was at the rustic wooden table opposite the door that she’d learned to code on an outdated computer, dreams of big cities force-fed by virtual, unreachable colleagues.

“Be still, Alfredo.” Gui pushed Alfredo back into the sofa and clicked the health kit open.

“I’m just tired.” Alfredo wheezed, pulling up his jeans. The wound was above his right ankle and was spattered with blood. “Only a graze caused by the drone shot.”

“We may have to run.” Gui glowered at him. “And you can’t run like this.” He inspected the first aid kit, fingers hovering over plasters, sterile gauze dressings, bandages, tweezers, and … back to plasters. He had no idea what he was doing.

“May I?” Alzira said.

Gui inspected her, frowning, then stepped aside.

Alzira kneeled before Alfredo. Taking care of a terrorist in her own house wasn’t what she’d had in mind when she exchanged Rio for Aramá. But the quicker she dealt with the duo, the quicker they’d leave her alone.

“What’s your name?” Alfredo said.

“Alzira.” Alfredo’s blood oozed close to where Mami sat to watch soap operas. Alzira gently pulled his leg aside so it wouldn’t stain the fake leather.

“I like names that start with ‘Al’.” He grinned. “Reminds me everything will be alright.”

Gui scoffed. “Can’t believe you’re losing your leg and still making stupid jokes.” He was peeking through the shutters. Alzira saw their dark green car properly parked on the sidewalk. Not smashing the flowers she’d cultivated when she arrived in an attempt to make the house look more like something Mami would love and less like the place she’d left unattended after Mami died.

“I’m not losing anything, boy.” Alfredo grunted when Alzira touched his wound with a sterile dressing. “Hey, hey, easy!”

“You told him you’re fine, man,” Alzira said, spraying more antiseptic into the wound. He bit his shirt’s sleeve. “So behave as if it’s true.”

Alfredo’s groan switched to laughter. His wound wasn’t serious. But it needed cleaning and bandaging to avoid infection.

All she knew about first aid she’d learned from Marcos. She was twenty-two when she exchanged Mami and Aramá’s peace for the chaos of a dying Rio. Marcos was twenty-five, a medical student, a glint in his eyes when he looked at her, mouth full of promises about the future, their future. Mami had told her Rio was no place for peace and prospects. The future begins right here, she used to say, though Alzira never quite figured out what she meant by that. Aramá was a far smaller city a decade ago, three or four dozen isolated houses spread around the golf course where the wealthy folks from Rio went to play. In the big city, the sea was creating an economic and humanitarian crisis across the streets, drowning homes, forcing tiny houses to bundle up three … six … nine more people than they should. Yet, Alzira always thought of herself as a woman who marched against the tide. Today she knew: she needed the thrill back then, the uncertainty of chasing storms and becoming someone besides the young countryside girl who earned a computing degree from an online college. So she went, dreams and risks stuffed in her backpack.

“You’re good to go,” Alzira said, rolling down Alfredo’s pants leg.

“Thank you,” Alfredo said. “Actually, I feel like nothing has happened. Are you a doctor?”

“Unemployed computer scientist.”

“Who does the work of a doctor. I told you we were lucky,” Alfredo said to Gui, standing and stumbling toward the table. Gui pulled out a chair for him.

Alzira felt a knot in her stomach. They were all at the table now. Like her, Uncle Thiago, and Aunt Kelly, had been years ago, drinking beer and talking loud, waiting for Mami’s tacacá. Only these people were strangers. One of the things she feared when she broke up with Marcos and moved back to Aramá was finding that her hometown wasn’t part of her anymore. That without her mother—the house’s soul—there wouldn’t be anything for her there, and she could simply not find the peace of mind she was looking for. And staring up at these two, smudging her table with hands dirtied with soil, she realized her fears might be creeping in faster than she thought.

“Hey, lady,” Gui said.

“Her name is Alzira,” Alfredo said. At first, she thought he was mocking her, but his face was serious.

“Alzira,” Gui said, rolling his eyes. He removed a paper-thin tablet from his waist bag and tapped on it. “How long does it take to get to the golf course?”

“Beckerfield? About ten minutes.” She packed the first aid tools back inside the kit, looking sideways to the ecobag they’d dropped on the floor. Inside were several brown spheres flaked with dirt. Her gut lurched. Bombs? Inside Mami’s house?

“Come sit with us,” said Alfredo. “We might stay here for a while. Our car broke.”

“Broke is not technically right,” Gui said, still focused on his tablet. “We’re out of charge.”

“I told you.” Alfredo’s eyes gleamed in genuine worry. “We’re bad planners.”

“We lack resources.”

“Bad planners often run out of resources.” Alfredo lowered his head on his hands.

Alzira sat at the other side of the table, facing the door behind the duo. They stank of an excessively traveled dirt road moldering under a weeklong rain.

An uncharged car, the two of them sitting with their backs to the door, no care to hide their identities … Yep, bad planners. But they didn’t seem the kind of people she’d call the police on, much less this new Order Squad that had been perpetrating atrocities across the state. Yet, they were terrorists. Invaders of Mami’s house. If her mother was alive, she’d be after them with a broom and a repertoire of nasty words. No matter how disparate from her image of terrorists they were. They’d brought bombs inside her house.

She slipped her hands into her shorts’ pocket and surreptitiously removed her phone keeping it beneath the table. Her thumb hovered above the public security app. Just a touch. The cops would arrest those two, and … Kill them …

Her hesitation was enough for Alfredo to raise his head and extend a hand to her with a sorry smile. She bit her lips and slid her phone across the table to him, unsure if she’d have touched the app.

“What’s that smell?” Alfredo sniffed the air.

“Baião de dois,” Alzira said, looking toward the kitchen to avoid his gaze. “I was cooking for the evacuees.” The plates she’d picked for them were piled up on the counter, twenty in total, though the evacuee count was already over fifty and increasing daily.

“Baião de dois …” Alfredo opened a smile. “Aunt Alícia’s favorite dish. She has a restaurant in Porto Velho. Been quite a few years since I’ve seen the woman …”

“Porto Velho in Rondônia?” Alzira’s mouth hinted at a smile, but she forced a serious expression. “Mami was from there. She came to Rio as a child.”

“See? It seems we have more than ‘Al’ in common.” Alfredo looked down at his hands. His knuckles were stained black, his fingers callused with grime. “Aunt Alícia never had the money to visit me. I used to go there twice a year to see her, but now …”

Alfredo fidgeted with his necklace. The pendant had thin silver lines scrawled on its surface.

Alzira stood and walked to the kitchen. Mami used to say you shouldn’t refuse food to a person. She’d cook for the neighborhood. Delicious Northern Food. Help me pay my daughter’s tuition. But if there was someone who couldn’t afford a dish, she’d give it freely. A few people certainly ripped her off, but Mami didn’t care. Food is not a possession, she used to say.

When Alzira moved from Aramá to Rio seven years ago, she went with Mami’s mind as her own. She volunteered on the beaches, helping to raise barriers that would impede the water from advancing. She lent her skills to relief units, programming apps that would help resettle the homeless and guide them out of the water’s path. Her day jobs had all been with companies that promised to spring Rio out of bad times. But as the years passed, she realized she’d become a battered city heritage herself, like a building slowly eroded by the rising tide.

The duo didn’t speak as she set the table with the pot of food and slid plates for them, serving generous portions of baião and filling two jars with water and ice.

“As my mother used to say, I have given you food, so now I have the upper hand. What’s your business here?” She went back to her seat, surprised at the steadiness of her voice.

They exchanged looks.

“None of your business,” Gui said, hesitant to take a spoonful of baião.

Alfredo scowled at him. “If you act like a damn terrorist, then that’s what people will call us.”

“You’re terrorists,” Alzira said. “I see the … explosives.” She pointed with her chin to the ecobag beside the TV rack.

“The buds?” Alfredo snickered. “They’re not bombs, Alzira.” He raised a finger. “They might be dangerous, I give you that. Otherwise, the skull pigs wouldn’t be chasing us. But they’re not weapons. No one really chases criminals because of their weapons … Criminals are chased because of the risk they impose to some … castes of society.”

“Why are you here, then?” She understood Mami now. Giving food to others at your own table, your own home, bestowed you with a kind of power and self-confidence.

“We’re… houseculturists.”

Gui giggled. “This name again? This is silly.”

“Do you know every property has a social function, Alzira?” Alfredo ignored his partner, taking big mouthfuls of the baião. “This is delicious, by the way. Not like Aunt Alícia’s though, but … differently good. You put more cheese and I think it made it … I just—I love it. It makes me feel funny.” He knocked his hands on the table and quirked up his mouth. “I wish I had the right word for it.”

“Social function …” Alzira said, bringing the conversation back on subject.

“All properties have a social function that’s in our Constitution.” Alfredo raised his fork, speaking with his mouth full. “It’s wrong—not to say cruel—to keep idle lands in a moment like this when coastal cities are failing all along the country. What we do is ensure this part of our Constitution is fulfilled.”

“Like the homeless and landless movements …” Alzira nodded, remembering how the Order Squad promised to chase social movements across the country. “You invade unused property and claim—”

Alfredo shook his head.

“We do something different …”

Gui glared at him.

“C’mon … If we want to refute the label of terrorists … If we don’t want to be called the Wrecking Balls … We might as well start telling everyone exactly what we do.”

Gui shook his head. Alfredo clamped his lips shut.

“So your business is in Beckerfield …” Alzira stooped to look at Gui’s tablet. He pulled it back and glowered at her. He had a map centered on the golf course.

“It’s been abandoned for a few years now,” Alfredo said. “It’s a sixty-hectare delusion. Did you ever see any Brazilian playing golf? It shouldn’t have been built in the first place.”

“How would you blow up a golf course? You might target the few corrupt companies exploiting the rivers nearby. If you set the course on fire, you’re probably putting my city on fire, and I can’t let you do that.”

Speaking of Aramá in such a way made her chest tickle with something she hadn’t felt since she established with Marcos in Rio and scrolled through a list of volunteer jobs, unaware the big city had a mouth large enough to crunch pieces of her.

“Who said anything about blowing up stuff, Alzira?” Alfredo said, his mouth full. “Forget bombs.”

Gui stared up at him, scorn etching his face.

“Oh. All right. The government says we blow stuff up.” Alfredo roared with laughter, then put a hand over his mouth when Gui slapped his shoulder.

Gui peeked out the window. It was growing dark. He eyed Alfredo, and they exchanged looks of mutual understanding.

“Alzira …” Alfredo snatched a napkin and wiped his mouth. “Can we stay for the night?”

“Why?” She asked, more because she was becoming curious about their … mission. Oddly enough, their request to sleep in her house didn’t strike as invasive to her. It felt like friends asking for a place to crash. Letting them spend the night should be wrong … Should feel wrong … Yet, it didn’t. Something Mami said that compelled Alzira to help others when she arrived in Rio was that you gotta treat everyone as good people until you see them do bad stuff. And these two looked like brothers at the end of an exhaustive trip.

“Dark is dangerous,” Alfredo said, standing and collecting his and Gui’s plates and cutlery, then hobbling toward the kitchen. “We know the skull pigs’ modus operandi. They remain undercover for twelve hours, no more than that, while their drones buzz around seeking our faces. But they can’t stay longer. There are other issues they’ll have to deal with. Not enough skull pigs for too much crisis.”

“Didn’t they tag your car?”

Alfredo shook his head and grinned. “Gui’s got gimmicks to fake GPS signals and a lovely device with nano-cells that changes the color of the vehicles we use. Pretty new tech.”

Alfredo darted a look at Alzira from the kitchen, his grin fading into a taut jaw.

“Rest assured we’ll leave at morning’s first light.”

Alzira nodded, unable to verbally consent to their request, but also unable to refuse. Unable to understand why, since before her plans in Rio started to crumble, she didn’t feel empty. She should be disgusted with herself.

When the sun set and the street lampposts came on, Alfredo was doing the dishes and muttering a song under his breath.

§

“Does it hurt?” Jota cupped Célia’s face, stopping on their way to Beckerfield. He inspected her eye. He knew it hurt. In his time, it hurt a lot, though more in his heart. High school had been the worst. The city was in turmoil back then and even national news was focusing on it. His mother had promised him it wouldn’t last forever. He wouldn’t have to worry about walking on the streets or meeting certain types of people at school. She’d put a lot of the blame on herself for being in the spotlight, but he knew she was doing what she could.

“It hurts,” Célia said. “But it will get better.”

He cast a smile at her. That mindset came from her grandma.

Up ahead, people were arriving for the first party night. They parked their electric bikes underneath the biogas lights. A crowd gathered in front of the Beckerfield’s flag-decorated fences that years ago had been an imposing wall. Girls with braided hair wearing flowered dresses laughed with boys in straw hats, taking turns to write love letters that would be delivered by cyclists during the party.

A bonfire had been lit in front of the nearest sprouses. The breeze brought the scent of veggie dog and canjica. A stocky man—the city’s police chief—was testing the microphones for the karaoke.

They entered Beckerfield. People waved at him and Célia from the sprouses’ windows. The sprouses themselves had different shapes and sizes, giving the field different shades of personality. The Castro’s sprouse looked like a bulky tree, while the Torres’s resembled a wooden igloo. The Ferreiras were a big family so they liked theirs cozily packed next to each other and shaped liked balloons.

Célia nodded.

“I want to show you something.” Jota clasped Célia’s hand and pulled her amidst the sprouses.

“Will you tell me more of Grandma?” Célia said, glancing at all the games and small theaters lined up in nearby stalls. “And Grandpa, too. I remember he told me jokes.”

“Yes, but first I have a gift for you.”

Célia whooped.

“What’s it, Dad?” She tugged at his sleeve. “What?”

“It’s a dollhouse.”

§

The first light of the morning shone through the shutters before Alzira could sleep. She was lying on her mother’s bed, staring up at the ceiling like she did on the day she had decided to tell Marcos she wouldn’t stay. He’d always supported her willingness to volunteer. But when she’d rose from bed that day, walked to the kitchen, and saw him there making cheese tapioca, he had the eyes of a man who knew he’d lost something. The next day, she left, disillusions stuffed in her backpack, but also maintaining a peace of mind that she hoped to cluster back together someday.

The light steps of someone came from the living room. She stood and quickly changed her clothes. Alfredo had slept on the sofa, supposedly guarding the door, and she’d given her bedroom to Gui.

Alfredo was peeking at the front door’s broken lock. His were the eyes of a man with not much left to lose.

“Didn’t want to wake you so early,” he said. “I was going to try to fix this and then nudge that sleepyhead to get going. I didn’t tell him, but I want this to be his last mission with me. He’s behind in a lot of his classes.”

Or maybe he still had a few things left to lose.

Alzira dismissed Alfredo with a head’s gesture. “Leave the lock.”

“You have a backyard, right?” Alfredo said, straightening his necklace.

She nodded. It was the place where Mami performed her experiments. Mami loved gardening but was never good at it. She could cultivate calendulas and candytufts in the front yard, but for each set of flowers glistening with dew in the pathway to the front door, Mami had a garden of failures in the back. Azaleas, ferns, orchids … When Alzira came from Rio for her mother’s memorial, she’d found nothing in the backyard but a patch of watered, well-trimmed turf. No flowers. As if Mami had left that empty space so her only daughter could cultivate something.

“I want to show you something,” Alfredo said. “Can we go outside?”

Alzira nodded.

She opened the backyard door in the kitchen. The grass was a bit overgrown, sneaking on the house’s wall and the washing tank. She didn’t have Mami’s patience. Or  Mami’s love of yard work.

Alfredo peeked around the turf and decided for a spot right in the middle. He crouched before it and yanked the grass with his bare hands. She gaped at him, wanting to protest. Mami would smack his head with a broomstick. Instead, she lowered beside him when he gestured to her.

Alfredo removed his necklace and unfastened its almond-shaped pendant.

“This is our … bomb,” he said, smiling. He exuded that same earthy scent Gui also carried.

He tucked the pendant in the soil and covered it with earth, rubbing his hand to flatten the soil. He had a tablet folded on his belt. He removed and unfolded it like a parchment.

“Gui developed most of it,” he said, tapping some icons. “The guy is a genius.”

The soil shifted. She blinked. Perhaps she was exhausted …

“This is a mini-version of our buds,” Alfredo said. “Each bud contains millions of nano-meristems, bots designed to replicate a blueprint that’s in this tablet. Almost any shape. It uses a mix of material from the soil and what we put in the bud itself. Gui knows the finer details, but it’s mostly minerals, organic matter, gas, water …”

A flimsy brown shoot sprang up from the soil.

“It then follows a pre-defined algorithm that knows how to best use the available resources. Like a tree in a program. One of this size grows faster than a plant, but bigger ones take more time. By now, my pendant is torn apart.”

After some minutes, the shoot swelled, first like a bubble, then forming vertices and acquiring a cubic shape. It was like watching a tree growing and rebelling against its usual growth patterns.

“Synthetic meristematic cells. What Gui calls merisynths increase the diameter of the house according to what’s in the blueprint, preserving a heartwood in its middle, pretty much like a real tree. But instead of creating layer upon layer of wood inside it …” Holes appeared in the shape growing in her garden. One, two, three … A small door and two small windows. Alfredo squiggled his fingers inside. “… The blueprint defines how many empty spaces this tiny house … this sprouse … will have. Its rooms”

The growth slowed. It looked like a miniature …

“Dollhouse …” Alfredo said. He slid a finger over its surface and knocked hard on it to show how resistant it was. “The bark protects it from the weather too. More importantly, we can program asbestos bark to grow and protect the houses from fire. It leaves the skull pigs disappointed.” He flashed a grin at her.

“You’re crying …” Alzira said. Tears streamed down Alfredo’s cheeks. “You must have a very good reason to be crying.”

“This was supposed to be a gift for Aunt Alícia.” He caressed the dollhouse’s angled rooftop.

“And why would you use it here?” She placed her hand over the hands of a man she considered a terrorist a few hours before.

“We can do more.” He wiped his tears. “But I’ve carried this one with me for a couple of years, and I always thought of Aunt Alícia when I looked at it. She was like a mother to me. I was afraid of the authorities making connections so I never went back to Porto Velho. Well …” He shrugged. “Sometimes life takes us into paths we don’t expect.”

He stood. Alzira helped him up when he grimaced putting weight on his injured leg.

Alfredo looked at the tiny house once more. “That’s what we do. That’s our wrecking ball.”

He walked back into the living room. Gui was already there, a reprimand etched on his face. Alfredo reached for his pocket and gave her mobile back to her with an apologetic face.

“People will remember this place, Alzira,” he said.

The future begins right here.

§

Alzira had given herself too easily in the past. She’d gouged out bits of herself, parts she’d thought to be dreams, and bequeathed them to Rio, to Marcos, to the relief units, and to her jobs. In the end, there was only enough left to turn back home.

She was already in the front yard when she heard the shooting. She ran toward the gunshots.

Beckerfield’s gates were opened, the huge walls covered with golf players looming over her. Their way of saying that this wasn’t her place even if it was her hometown.

More shots. The back of her head screamed. Go away. This is not what you need now.

Alzira crossed through to the entrance house and hopped up across the musty furniture clustered there. Her legs brushed the overgrown foliage when she exited the other side.

Three people ran deeper into the field, each clad in black. At four different points, she saw something…someone erupting from the ground, scattering fresh brown dirt.

A bush shook a few steps from her.

“Alzira … Go away.”

Alfredo. Hurt, hiding …

“It was a trap …” His ecobag was toppled beside him, buds spreading over the soil. “You have nothing to do with us …”

“It wasn’t me who came into your life,” she said, hands trembling, lips quivering. “You’re … hurt. Can you stand?” Blood expanded over his shirt above the waist.

“The pigs shot us … They were hidden. They got Gui …”

She hoisted Alfredo up and passed an arm around his shoulders. He limped forward. She glanced behind her, but there was no sign of the skull pigs.

“They might’ve killed Gui,” Alfredo groaned while she forced him toward the golf course’s entrance. “I saw him falling. I promised I’d give him a new computer to watch classes. Damn, why can’t I fulfill anything in this life? Please, tell my aunt I was going to visit … Let me just remember her number. It’s—”

“You won’t die.” Alzira pulled him quickly across the junk in the abandoned entrance. He was crying. She was too.

They trudged along the street, back to her home, to Mami’s place. From the moment she crossed Beckerfield’s gates, she didn’t look back. More shots were fired in the distance, but she wouldn’t look. There was no reason for looking back.

A crowd of evacuees was entering the course. Eyes curious, voices raising.

“It’s for you,” Alfredo said to them as they passed. “Go get them, make a fuss. Alzira—” He turned to her, breath clipped.

“What?” She said, not looking at him. “Be still, please.”

“I remembered the word I tried to say back then …” he whispered. “The cheese in the baião left it more … homemade. It made me feel as if I belonged, which is something I haven’t felt since I left Aunt Alícia.”

She nodded and paced along the street, leaving behind the shouting people, certain of their voices rising.

§

People gathered around the dollhouse Jota had planted on a patch of turf between two sprouses. They’d never seen the miniature kind, though the most skilled knew it could be made. He never wanted to show that to anyone before. His mother hadn’t taught the people about the tiny house she’d first seen planted in her own backyard—and that stayed there until Jota was a teenager. Not the time, she used to say. People will only want to sell them like Aramá souvenirs. But now it was the time. He’d heard about communities planting sprouses in Rio Preto, Volta Redonda, and even in the leveled parts of Rio de Janeiro. Inevitable days had arrived.

“So Grandpa and Uncle Guilherme fled …” Célia said, helping the boy wind the June party flags around the dollhouse.

“Yes. Uncle Guilherme hurt his arm but escaped. He managed to plant a bud between him and the squad. And Grandma She hid Grandpa from the authorities. But once the people entered Beckerfield … There are things that work like trees … Like sprouses … There was no turning back.”

§

Alzira sank a trowel into the soil and dug a chunk off it. She carefully placed a bud in the hole and covered it with earth. She tapped an icon on her tablet. All around her, other residents were doing the same, planting the seeds of home.

Not all storms were meant to be contained by her, Mami had reminded her when she first thought of coming back home, months before she passed away. But some were meant to be stirred by her.

© Renan Bernardo