Everything is the tip of a mystery.
João Guimarães Rosa
No one could deny that the yellow house, number 107, looked a bit odd. Funny, even.
An unobservant passer-by would easily attribute it to the light paint that peeled off the walls, or to the tacky curtains that hung out of the windows. But, after a close look, one could swear the colorful flowers on the balcony bent towards each other in a way that made them seem to be politely chatting all day long.
Most people would forget these details right after noticing them: it could be just another of the old, dusty thrift shops downtown. To the few of them who decided to go in, that funny house soon became unmistakable. After all, the city didn’t have any other stores that sold cures for every imaginable soul-ache, carefully bottled in crystalline glass.
To Berenice and Benjamin dos Santos, however, it was home.
Time passed in different ways inside Vó Úrsula’s house. Downstairs, in the store, the hours flew by even when there were no customers. Upstairs, where Benjamin lived with his cousin and his grandmother, the minutes seemed to flow as the cool and calm diaphanous waters of a river.
What intrigued him the most, though, was how time worked in the tight, cozy room in the attic, that he and Berenice had nicknamed The Nook. It went by quickly when it needed to, but it also could freeze the clock hands at the right split second and make a pleasant afternoon feel eternal.
He had questioned his grandmother about it, once, and her only reply had been a smile.
Benjamin hit his head on the wall with a startle when Berenice snapped her fingers in front of his face.
“Earth calling.” Berenice laughed at her own robotic voice. Despite his best efforts to look annoyed, he couldn’t suppress a grin. “A penny for your thoughts, sir? I won’t take ‘no’ as an answer,” she said. Benjamin giggled, dodging her tickling fingers.
“It’s nothing.” He pointed his chin towards her notebook, left open on the armrest. “What are you doing this time?”
“Oh, I’m glad you asked.” She tossed it to him, her eyes beaming as she explained. “It’s a comic for the university’s free press, you see. It’s about this captain from the Army who really wants to be a politician, but he’s dumb and clumsy and no one ever listens to him. One day, he wakes up to find out that he’s the President, and he has to pretend he knows what he’s doing, so no one finds out he’s actually a fraud.”
“What happens at the end?”
“I’m still deciding.” She shrugged and grabbed the notebook from his lap. “Ah, what is it? You’re making that face again.”
“The thinking Benjamin face.” Berenice crossed her legs and stretched her back. “Don’t look at me like that; it was your friend who came up with it.”
“Eustácio, of course. Who else would it be? He comes here more often than our own cat.”
“Uh, I…” Benjamin stuttered, feeling the blood flush to his face. “You…”
“I don’t mind, though. He’s always polite, and I like him, if you want my opinion.” She turned her head over her shoulder and glanced at the old clock on the wall. The store was about to close, and it was almost time for them to go downstairs and help Vó Úrsula organize it. “Have you got any plans for tonight?”
“It’s Wednesday evening, Berenice. Unless you consider studying geometry as plans…no, I don’t.” He jumped out of the bed onto the carpet on the floor that was, somehow, always warm. “The students’ union is meeting here tonight, isn’t it?”
“The free students’ union,” she corrected, and followed him down the spiral staircase.
“Does Grandma know?”
Berenice stopped at the top of the second staircase, hands on her hips. “What, that we’re having a meeting here?”
“No, of course she knows that. I’m talking about you writing for the free press.”
“Well, she hasn’t asked for the details of what we do at the meetings. And it’s not like it’s risky or anything. I’m just going to give it to Clarice, and she’ll pass it to her boyfriend, who helps to organize the papers. He just has to slip it in, nothing more.” She smiled at him, reassuring. “We don’t do dangerous, illegal things. You know, we’re not the MR-8.” Berenice snorted. “We’re just…students who like to think freely and critically. And I still insist that you should join us, at least once.”
Benjamin sighed. “You know my father doesn’t like me getting involved with these…things.”
“First, Uncle Michel is almost 400 kilometers away from here; he’ll never know. Second, nothing bad will happen inside this house. Vó Úrsula’s word.”
“I know,” he murmured.
A black cat came running upstairs and rubbed his fur against Benjamin’s heels.
“Hello, Ernesto!” he said, smiling, as he picked him up.
“So is this how you thank me for getting you out of the streets?” Berenice spoke to the animal, pretending to be annoyed while she caressed the back of his ears.
“It’s fair that he likes me more. I nearly broke my arm climbing that tree!”
“Stop being so dramatic! It was just a scratch.”
“A scratch that made me wear a splint for two weeks, you say?”
Berenice elbowed him and he laughed.
The staircase led to the dusty back of the store. Around them, bottles filled with colorful liquids were displayed on shelves made of dark wood that had been meticulously organized according to a logic only Vó Úrsula could understand. In the first weeks after Benjamin had moved to live with his grandmother, he would often get lost among them, as if there were an insurmountable maze between the shop and the house. Now, almost three years later, he was almost sure that the racks made way for him to pass.
He had also asked Vó Úrsula about that. And, as always, she had only smiled.
“There you are! Right on time!” Úrsula said from behind the counter. Her skin, the same deep shade of mahogany that her grandchildren had inherited from her, was bathed in the dim golden light from the lamp on the ceiling. “Your friend has just arrived, dear.”
Eustácio, leaning against the wall, gave Benjamin a shy smile when their eyes met. “Hi. Uh, I’m sorry about coming without warning, but…”
“Son, you know you’ll always be welcome here,” Vó Úrsula interrupted with a wide smile. “Berenice, my dear, will you help me over there? There are some new flasks I must label.”
“Of course, Grandma. It’s nice to see you, Eustácio.” She winked at him as she followed Vó Úrsula inside the store.
“Is everything all right?” Benjamin asked when they finally were left alone, after a long silence. Ernesto jumped to the floor with one fluid movement and meowed at the boys before escaping to the street.
“Yes. Yes, you don’t have to worry.”
He quickly understood. It wasn’t the first time that Eustácio had knocked at his door on a random evening, and it wasn’t the first time Benjamin couldn’t help but worry. It had taken him a while (and some straightforward hints from Berenice) to realize that his friend longed for space instead of advice, and that his simply being there was more than enough.
“Let’s go upstairs, so I’ll beat you at chess.”
“Not happening, Benjamin. I’ve been training.” His eyes glittered, and he smiled for the first time since he had arrived.
“Checkmate,” Benjamin said with a victorious smile, and finger-flicked the white king.
Eustácio sighed, exasperated, and covered his face with his hands. “You are unbelievable.”
He laughed and supressed a yawn. “Another round?”
“I propose a ten-minute truce,” Eustácio suggested, with his typical sideways smile. He glanced at the clock on the wall that patiently kept track of the flowing time. “Oh, I didn’t notice it was so late. I…should go.”
It was past midnight. The Nook was quiet, except for the loud voices of the students rising from the kitchen.
“It’s too late, Eustácio. It’s…” He interrupted himself before he could say dangerous. The stories about the police patrols that roamed the empty streets were known by all. The government had promised to fight crime, but much of the violence and fear that haunted the cities came from the so-called law enforcement, as well. “Do your aunt and uncle know you’re here?”
“Not really. They’re not home tonight, and I don’t think my cousins noticed when I left.” He took off his glasses and wiped the round lenses on his shirt. “We’ve got school tomorrow, anyway.”
“I’ve got a spare uniform, and I could lend you a notebook,” Benjamin said without thinking twice. Eustácio put his glasses back on and stared at him in silence. “Hm, it wouldn’t be a problem for me, and you wouldn’t have to go back alone.”
“Are you sure?” he asked in a quiet voice. “Won’t your grandmother mind?”
“Not even a little bit. The whole student union is downstairs, and they’re way noisier than you are. Everyone is always welcome,” Benjamin explained, while organizing the chess pieces inside the cardboard box, “as long as we clean up the mess we make.”
“Well, then…thank you.” Eustácio’s smile faded when loud, amused laughs came from downstairs. He let his gaze drift out of the small window, into the dark, moonless night, and bit his inner lip. “Your cousin and her friends remind me of so much my parents,” he said suddenly. “Their friends used to meet at our old house, and…and they were all so hopeful. They were sure that it would all end in a couple of years. And here we are.”
“None of this will last forever.” Benjamin was unsure if he believed his own words.
“It already feels like forever,” he murmured. “I miss them.”
“I’m sure they are all right, just waiting until it’s over so they can come back to you.” As soon as the words came to life, Benjamin remembered Vó Úrsulas advice about how a thin line separated hope from foolishness. He looked down to fidget with his fingers.
“Are you being kind or honest?” asked Eustácio gently, seeing through his embarrassment.
“A little bit of both,” he admitted.
“A little bit of both will do, I guess.”
Something inside Benjamin melted when Eustácio gave him a half-hearted smile and ran his fingers through his messy, curly hair. A quiet, cool darkness embraced the room when he turned off the lights, and, laying on the bed, he could only see the dim skyline of the city.
On the couch, Eustácio turned around under his sheets.
“Yeah?” He could hear his own heart beating in the fragile quiet that had surrounded them.
“It’s…it’s nothing. Good night.”
It was another hot, muggy day in the middle of winter. An invisible cloud of heat seemed to have overtaken the streets, and Benjamin’s shirt was wet with sweat under his heavy backpack. He stood for a moment on the threshold, enjoying the breath of fresh air that caressed his cheeks.
He frowned when his voice got lost in the empty hall.
“Berenice? Grandma?” he called again, and swallowed hard when no answer came. He locked the door and rubbed his sweaty palms against each other, turning to the store.
The simple decorations and the bottles were where Vó Úrsula had left them. Except for a sinking feeling in his chest, everything was where it should be. He searched the counter for one of the notes she used to write when she had to leave unexpectedly, and was about to go outside and ask their neighbors if they had seen something strange when Ernesto came from behind one of the racks. He meowed at the boy before turning around and heading upstairs. Half relieved, half resigned, Benjamin followed his cat.
As he reached the final steps, the soft buzz of polite talk grew louder. Ernesto stopped, looked at him for a long second, then turned around and went back downstairs. Benjamin shook his head and allowed himself to smile.
Vó Úrsula sat at the kitchen table, in front of a thin girl who could have been made of porcelain and whose muddy green eyes got wider when she saw him. She wasn’t unfamiliar, but he couldn’t remind where he’d seen her before.
“Benjamin, my dear, please don’t mind us,” said Vó Úrsula without turning to face him.
“Of…of course. Excuse me.” He smiled at the girl before heading to the attic, but she looked away. The voices only echoed again when he was too far away tounderstand the conversation.
He slammed the Nook’s door behind him, took off his shoes, and let his backpack fall on the floor. He jumped back when he caught a glimpse of Berenice, who laid on the sofa as she scribbled on her notebook.
“Oh, hey, you,” she said, barely lifting her eyes from her work.
“I didn’t know you’d be here this early.” He picked up one of the colorful cushions with a crochet pillow cover and sat by her side. “You and Grandma scared me. The shop was empty when I arrived. I thought…something might have happened to you.”
“Well, no. At least not yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our editor-in-chief and a journalist are missing, so we’re all on leave until our bosses decide what to do. It had something to do with the new retroactive censorship decree.” Berenice straightened her back and put her notebook on the floor. “And the police found Clarice’s boyfriend distributing the leaflets at the university, and he only came back two days later. He won’t even leave his bed.” She shook her head and opened her mouth to say something, but gave up.
“Vó Úrsula said we’re safe here, remember?” he suggested, unsure.
“Hiding here in safety isn’t worth anything when the whole world is falling apart. We must stop pretending everything is all right.”
“I know.” She ran her hands over her face, and Benjamin pretended to not see her eyes welling up with tears she rubbed away. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, it’s nothing.” He gave her a friendly squeeze on the knee, and she forced a smile. “Promise me you’ll stay safe.” She faced him, her eyes a reflection of Vó Úrsula’s. “Please. I can’t afford to lose you.”
“I’ll do my best, but promise you’ll do your best, too.”
“I do.” He rose his pinky. Berenice rolled her eyes and intertwined her finger with his. “Listen, did you already tell Grandma about it? I’m sure she may have one or two things to help.”
“I’m not sure if simpatias are efficient against guns, Ben. But no, not yet. It was odd, she wasn’t home when I arrived, and she didn’t leave a note. Have you seen her?”
“She was at the kitchen with a red-haired girl.”
“The one who’s always around?”
He frowned. “Yes, that one. I was trying to remember where I knew her from.”
Berenice crossed her legs and picked up her notebook from the floor. “Don’t you think she’s too young to come to a store that sells cures for soul-aches? I wouldn’t say she’s thirteen.”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Or maybe the world is upside-down and we haven’t noticed.”
“We’ll fix it, then. We have no other choice but to fix it.”
Benjamin smiled at her, telling himself to believe her words were true.
As on all Friday evenings, the shop was quiet. The crystalline silences that hid between the shelves and under the carpets crawled out as soon as Vó Úrsula and Berenice vanished into the street, and the house soon became so still it was possible to hear polite murmurs coming from the flowers on the balcony.
Benjamin didn’t mind the emptiness, though, especially when Eustácio was there to fill it.
He entered his bedroom balancing a bottle of lemonade in one hand and a jar of cookies in the other, and sat on the wooden floor. Eating at the Nook was one of the few strict prohibitions Vó Úrsula had determined, so the boys had non-verbally agreed to snack in Benjamin’s narrow room, equipped with an old desk and a bed.
He passed the jar to Eustácio, who seemed hesitant to accept it.
“Did you make these?” he asked after finally taking a small bite.
“Oh, no. It was one of Grandma’s clients who baked them for us, that’s why they’re this tasty.” Benjamin shoved another biscuit into his mouth at once. “He had backaches that would never go away, no matter what he did. Grandma said it turned out his soul was hurting so much that the pain began to affect his body. He brought us this to thank her,” he explained, and tapped the metallic lid with the tips of his fingers.
“May I ask you something?” said Eustácio quietly.
“How do the cures for soul-aches work? I’ve always wanted to ask you that, but…” he shook his head. “I never knew when.”
“I guess I’ll disappoint you, because I actually don’t know.” Eustácio refused the last cookie. Benjamin took it and put the jar aside. “It must have something to do with magic, though.”
“Magic?” He sounded incredulous.
“Oh, it’s…I just didn’t know you were the kind of person who believed in it.”
“It depends on what you call magic. I definitely don’t believe in witches who live in haunted castles and brew bubbling potions.” He looked around the room, the first place that had felt truly his and that, somehow, was always cozier than the one on his parents’ house. “But, when you look at the world, at life…there are always these tiny details no one can explain. Mysteries.” He smiled at Eustácio, whose cheeks turned a light, almost unnoticeable shade of red. “Some people call them miracles. I prefer to see it as magic.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“Living with Vó Úrsula and with Berenice teaches you something about things you can’t explain. Just like…just like when Berenice decided to bring Ernesto home. There are thousands of stray cats out there, and it was him that she always saw on her way to the university, and it was him who climbed the tree that day when we were coming back home.” He grinned when the memory of that cloudy afternoon came to his mind. “Ernesto is the strangest cat I’ve ever seen, and somehow he fits into this place as if he’d always belonged here. Also, I didn’t break any bones when I fell from the tree, which is another great miracle. Or…let’s see…”
“When you’re late for your first day at school, and the only seat available is behind a person who ends up becoming, uh…”
“A part of your life that has always seemed to be there,” completed Benjamin, without thinking.
“Yes, a part of your life that has always seemed to be there.” Eustácio came a little closer, and all Benjamin could see were his big, dark hazel eyes that seemed to embrace the entire universe behind the round lenses. “You are one of the best little mysteries in my life, Benjamin,” he said in a soft whisper.
Time stopped. Benjamin leant forward and kissed him.
When they pulled away a split second later, his racing heart was about to come out of his chest. Eustácio’s cheeks were flushed, but he didn’t look away.
“I’m…I’m sorry, I…Are you sure you…”
Eustácio interrupted him by pulling him closer, into a longer kiss.
Unable to look away from each other’s eyes, the boys stayed silent, breathing slowly, as if any sound could break the unending ephemerality of that moment. Eustácio’s fingertips ran down Benjamin’s cheek.
“It’s you. It’s always been you,” Benjamin said.
“It’s always been you, too,” Eustácio murmured.
Another eternity passed inside a single second. They giggled as children who had just begun to discover the world.
Eustácio grabbed Benjamin’s hand and held him back. “Are you sure your grandmother won’t mind it?”
“Hey. Relax.” He squeezed Eustácio’s hand and smiled, leading him downstairs. “I’m just going to show you the store.”
Eustácio’s laugh filled the empty house. Vó Úrsula had set off to see a friend without warning, so the store had been closed earlier on that drizzly Monday night, leaving the two boys alone, to their delight.
Everything had seemed to fall into place in the past few weeks. Berenice looked satisfied every morning before going to her newfound job. Eustácio’s visits to the house had become longer and more frequent. It could be the proximity of the mid-year vacations, but the bad news didn’t come as frequently as it did before, and Benjamin found himself smiling more often.
He stood on the tip of his toes and reached for one of the round bottles on the racks, filled with a burbling rose-colored liquid, that shimmered when bathed by sunlight. “For melancholy and dismay caused by the sudden awareness of the state of the world,” he read from the note attached to the cork. “Use in moderation.”
He passed it to Eustácio, who held the bottle with the caution of someone handling a precious gem. “It’s…beautiful. Strange, but beautiful.” He handed it back with a smile and looked over the other bottles on the shelf. “Bottled hope. It must be a best-seller these days,” he added.
“Well, Grandma is the one who prescribes it, but once she told me that most people go to her because of heartbreaks, and then end up figuring out that their souls were hurting more than they first thought,” Benjamin explained while putting the flask back in its original place. A rich yellow liquid that swirled inside the bottle caught his attention. “Here, take a look at this one. ‘Homesickness, longing: saudades in general. Be careful when…’ Ernesto, what are you up to?”
The cat turned to them and meowed. He ran to the back of the store, where he began to scratch the wall.
“Oh, Ernesto, please!” he complained.
Before Benjamin could stop him, the loud noise of a car parking came from outside, quickly followed by impatient knocks on the door.
Eustácio frowned at him. “I didn’t know your family had a car.”
They exchanged a meaningful look as color slowly vanished from Eustácio’s face. Ernesto meowed again, and the thumps became quicker and stronger.
“Come on,” whispered Benjamin, and he took his cold hand. They hurried to the back of the store as silently as they could, where Ernesto, rather annoyed, pawed the wall. It took Benjamin a few precious seconds to notice it was, in fact, a hidden door. He traced its shape with the tips of his fingers and made it open with a click.
“What is this?”
“I’m not sure. I guess it’s…” He peeked inside, but couldn’t see what was before his own nose. A soft perfume of rue and rosemary that resembled the one Vó Úrsula herself always used came out of the room, and Benjamin suddenly understood. “It must be the stock.”
Ernesto purred and slipped into the room.
“Are we supposed to be here?” Eustácio asked. His voice trailed off when indistinguishable voices began to shout outside. Benjamin could distinguish Vó Úrsula’s usually calm tone rising above the others.
“It let us find it.”
Ernesto meowed again. Outside, a key turned around in the lock one, two, three times. Still holding hands, the boys walked into the unknown, and the thin door closed behind them before the furious steps could storm the store.
Benjamin fumbled around in the dark until he could touch a wall, and helped Eustácio sit down against it. The sweet smell that invaded his lungs when he took a deep breath brought a strange sense of calm, as if he were on a safe shore watching a stormy sea.
“All I’m asking you to do is to be reasonable.” Vó Úrsula’s voice echoed, somewhere between calm and stern. “Honestly, Sérgio, I didn’t expect you to believe the tittle-tattle.”
“Tittle-tattle?” The man snorted. “Would you prefer to testify at the police station instead, Úrsula?”
“Testify about what? Witchcraft?” It was Vó Úrsula’s turn to laugh. “Flouting morality and good behavior?”
Eustácio gasped when the second man spoke. Benjamin drew closer to him. “What’s it?” he asked, on a murmur.
“My uncle,” was the faint answer. “It’s his voice.”
“Are you sure?”
As if to confirm it, Sérgio spoke again. “…Mr. Lisboa is a model citizen, and I have my own reasons to trust him. Úrsula, I know that you and I have our differences, but everything will be easier if you cooperate. Don’t make me call the police.”
This time, Vó Úrsula didn’t speak. Benjamin noticed Eustácio was shaking. It’s all right, he wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t leave his mouth.
“What the hell is this place?” mocked Mr. Lisboa, who appeared to be pacing around.
“It might not look as much, sir, but this is how I sustain my family. How can I help you today?” she asked in her most courteous voice.
“What do you want with my nephew?” he said, dry.
A shiver went down Benjamin’s spine and he closed his eyes, despite the darkness. By his side, Eustácio struggled against his own short breaths.
“Eustácio?” he called, but received no answer.
“I’m sorry?” said Vó Úrsula, after a quiet moment.
“The boy keeps slipping out to come here and thinks that I don’t notice. He’s up to something, just like his parents were,” he grunted.
“With all due respect, Mr. Braga, this is my store, and not the Communist Party headquarters. People come to me for different reasons, and I’m sure your nephew has his.” She sighed. “May I help you with something else?”
“I could call some of my men for you, Mr. Lisboa,” suggested Sérgio, breaking the silence.
Mr. Lisboa clicked his tongue. “I don’t think it will be necessary, Captain. I’ve seen enough.” His footsteps went back and forth, an angry animal walking in circles. “If the boy mysteriously pops around here anytime, Úrsula, kindly tell him that he doesn’t need to come back home. Cibele and I already know that he…” He held back. “Anyway. Take care, ma’am.”
“Can I help you with something else, Sérgio?”
He whispered something to her. The footsteps went away before Vó Úrsula could reply. When the door slammed with a loud blow, thunder boomed outside, and Benjamin could swear that the rain suddenly became heavier.
He put his hand on Eustácio’s shoulder.
“Please, don’t say anything,” Eustácio mumbled, and dissolved into silent tears.
A click echoed across the dark room, and a soft brush of light illuminated the dusty shelves when Vó Úrsula’s silhouette appeared in the door.
“Oh, my children,” was all that she said, but it was enough for Benjamin’s eyes to fill up with water.
“You,” said Berenice, resting her cup of tea on her crossed legs, “have got that look on your face. Again.”
“It’s nothing,” replied Benjamin, barely raising his eyes from his textbook. Between them, on the kitchen table, her latest disastrous attempt at baking a cake waited, untouched.
“It’s been ‘nothing’ for the past weeks, eh?”
“I’m just tired.”
She rested her chin on her hand and squinted at him. “Is it because of your friend?”
“No. I mean, that too.” The sentences in the physics textbook made less sense than they usually did. He closed it and shook his head, defeated. “I’m not even sure about what we are anymore. We haven’t talked since…that happened, and he hasn’t gone to school these last few days. Eustácio never skips class, Berenice.”
“He might just be sick.”
“You know what I’m talking about.” He sighed and added in a lower voice, “You know what happens out there.”
She looked down. “I do.”
They had heard the stories about people who vanished in the middle of the night and never came back the same, about far-off places where the unimaginable happened.
“And you know there’s nothing I can do about it,” he added.
“I do.” Berenice smiled sadly, and tapped her fingertips on the table. “Sometimes all we can do is give time to time, Ben, and hope that things will work out.”
“What if there isn’t enough time?”
“Then we pray for one of life’s miracles to happen. Or,” she said, her eyes sparkling, “you could just go across the street and ask the lady who brings back your lost love in seven days for help.”
“Eustácio is not my lost love, Berenice!”
She rose her eyebrows and leant back on her chair. “I never told you because I thought it would make you feel awkward, but I always found that you two looked rather cute together.”
“You’re making it awkward now.”
“It was my intention.”
Before he could think of a reply, the strident doorbell rang. He frowned at Berenice.
“It must be the salesman,” she said, reading his thoughts. He followed her downstairs, where neither Vó Úrsula nor Ernesto were anywhere to be seen.
“Where is Grandma?”
“Taking her evening nap, I guess.” Berenice was searching for the keys in the counter’s drawers when the bell sounded again. “I’m coming!” she yelled.
He waited besides her, cracking his knuckles. She unlocked the door, and his disappointment faded into astonishment when the red-haired girl, holding their cat in her arms, shyly stepped inside.
“I…I found him near my garden,” she explained, and handed him to Berenice. “I…he seemed to be lost.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Ernesto meowed, and she petted his head before putting him on the ground. “He likes to walk around the neighborhood, so you don’t have to worry if you see him wandering.”
“Is your grandmother home?” the girl asked bluntly. She wound and unwound her fingers in her white blouse.
Berenice glanced at her cousin.
“The store is closed,” he intervened. “Uh, maybe you should come back tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll be really quick, I promise.”
“Listen, hm…what’s your name?” Berenice asked.
“Listen, Clara, she was sleeping, and she hates it when we wake her up,” Berenice explained with an unusual patience. “Maybe we could help you. Right, Ben?”
“Right,” he nodded, and tried to smile at the girl.
“I don’t think you really can.” Benjamin and Berenice exchanged another look. “I’m sorry, but I…”
“Ah, there you are!” interrupted Vó Úrsula. Her long red dress dragged on the ground behind her, hiding her bare feet. “It’s nice to see you again, Clara, dear.”
“Ma’am, I heard about what happened, and when I found your cat in my garden, I knew I had to come.” She stumbled on her words and walked past the two cousins.
“You don’t need to call me that, dear. And…you may talk to me here,” she said, looking at Benjamin and Berenice. “I don’t mind if my grandchildren listen.”
Clara looked back before continuing, unsure. “I know that my father…my father was here. He discovered that you’ve been teaching me, and he was furious.” She took a shaky breath. “He told me I can never come back because you work for the Devil, but I know it’s not true…is it?”
“There is no Devil, Clara. Only us. Only people.” Vó Úrsula’s words hovered above their heads in the seconds that followed.
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have told him when he asked me, but…I was so scared. It was my fault, I’m sorry.” The girl shook her head. “I’ll understand if you can’t teach me anymore, I…”
“Oh, dear.” Vó Úrsula put her hand on Clara’s fragile shoulder and gave her a warm smile. “If I can teach you something more important than how to cure people’s souls, it’s that we should never let each other go, especially in times of need. You’ll always be welcome here.”
“Are…are you sure?”
“Of course. Now…your mother must be waiting for you. Go, but come back tomorrow at the usual time.”
Beaming, the girl relaxed her shoulders, as if her body had suddenly become lighter. “Oh, thank you. Thank you!”
“Stay safe,” warned Vó Úrsula. “Take care.”
“I will. Until tomorrow, Vó Úrsula!”
As fast as she had arrived, she turned around and left through the open door, not bothering to close it behind her. A fluttering veil of silence fell upon the store.
Úrsula turned around and sat behind the counter. Benjamin glanced at Berenice, who kept her eyes low.
“I should have told you two earlier,” Úrsula finally said, and placed her wrinkled hands on the table.
“Who is her father?” he asked at once.
Vó Úrsula shook her head and sighed. “Oh, Benjamin. Sérgio…Sérgio is not a stranger to me. Before you two came to live with me, even before the coup, we used to be friends. I’d spend the most pleasant evenings with him and little Clara.” She smiled, dwelling on memories. “But ‘64 happened and he changed into a man I no longer recognize. He must have been around when Eustácio’s uncle came looking for him. An ugly coincidence.”
“An ugly coincidence?” He felt his voice raise.
“Ben!…” Berenice reprimanded.
“What if you hadn’t arrived in time? What if Mr. Lisboa had decided to call the police, or denounce us? You know what they do to people like me, to people like Berenice, and even to people like you, Grandma! What does this man know and why is the girl so important to you?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Well, I definitely don’t!” he said, ignoring Berenice’s burning gaze. “I definitely don’t,” he repeated, his voice trailing off.
Vó Úrsula stood up, put her hands on the table, and looked around.
“Clara has eyes that can look into people’s souls, and hands that can soothe and heal them,” she explained. “Her father thinks it’s witchcraft, but it’s a gift. And just like my godmother taught me how to use my talents for the greater good, it’s now my time to pass it on.” She turned to her grandchildren, her honey-colored eyes sparkling in the shadows like one of the glittering flasks around them. “I’m getting older and older, and the world is still hurting. I now see that when I was busy looking outside, I forgot that my most precious things are here, inside my own family. You two know that I love you, unconditionally, and that I shall do everything within my reach to keep you safe. So I hope you’ll forgive me, but I also hope you’ll understand why I do what I do.”
Benjamin opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a shy, short sob, quickly followed by others. Before his brain could begin to work again, Berenice threw her arms around him, and Vó Úrsula came from behind the counter to embrace them both.
He closed his eyes and let the perfume of rue and rosemary take him to a quiet place where love and happiness would always be proven true.
Ernesto jumped from Benjamin’s lap even before the doorbell echoed across the empty house.
It was another Friday night, and Vó Úrsula and Berenice had already set off for their night-time excursions. Benjamin carefully placed his book on his bed, next to the steaming cup of tea, and went downstairs, jumping the last few steps, with Ernesto at his heels.
Outside, the heavy rain tapped on the windows in a surprisingly peaceful harmony. The calmness that had spread inside him faded when he unlocked the door to find Eustácio, holding a suitcase and soaked from head to toe, standing on the threshold.
“I have nowhere to go. I…”
Benjamin made him enter the store and pulled him into a long hug. Trembling, Eustácio dropped his suitcase on the floor and hugged him back.
“Heavens, I was worried about you,” he said.
“And I was awful to you,” Eustácio mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, everything’s fine now,” Benjamin reassured him, and smiled at him when they broke apart. “It really is. Listen, what happened? Did they tell you to leave? Are you all right?”
“Not…really,” he answered, perhaps all questions at once, and took off his glasses to rub his eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t even know what to say.”
“Then say nothing,’” he said gently, and headed to the stairs. “Come on, let’s find you some dry clothes and I’ll make you something warm to drink.”
Eustácio, however, didn’t move.
“What’s the matter?” Benjamin asked, turning back to him.
“It’s…” He took a deep breath and looked around. “Won’t your grandmother mind?”
“For heaven’s sake.” Something warm spread inside his chest, and he smiled when Ernesto walked around Eustácio’s feet, purring. The house bid him welcome. “You’re home.”
A gentle breeze came from outside. Benjamin, still waiting for sleepiness to come, stared at the full moon spreading its light on the dark, cloudy sky. Ernesto had curled up on the Nook’s parapet, and he was not sure whether the cat was asleep or just observing the empty street.
Eustácio, who was laying on the sofa, took another short breath and turned around under his sheets.
“Hey,” Benjamin called. “Can’t sleep?”
“Not at all.”
“That too,” he murmured.
In the darkness, Benjamin reached for the light switch, and the single lamp shed its weak yellowish light upon the room.
“Don’t worry about me; I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“No,” he admitted after a short pause, and laughed, humorless. “Would you mind if I, hm, stayed there with you for a little?” he asked, suddenly serious, in a shy murmur.
“Of course not.”
The bed felt wider as they tried to settle down. Benjamin turned off the lights and a comforting darkness fell upon the Nook as the two boys lay, in silence, side by side.
“They wanted to admit me to a clinic,” Eustácio said suddenly. “My uncle was fuming when I got home. Later he found out I’d overheard him talking to a preacher on the phone, so he wouldn’t let me go to class because he thought I’d run away or hide. That’s more or less what happened. I should have told you earlier.”
“Hey, it’s ok,” he managed to say, despite the growing lump in his throat. “You’re safe now and everything’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”
“I’m not sure, I…” He sighed and moved towards the edge of the mattress. “I don’t know where to go. I have no idea what to do next. I guess I never did, since Mom and Dad disappeared.”
“What do you mean?”
“I must find somewhere to live. I can’t stay here forever…can I?”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be forever, but I’m sure Berenice and Vó Úrsula wouldn’t mind if you stuck with us for as long as you need to. It’s home, remember?” Eustácio didn’t answer, but he turned his head on the pillow to look at him. “And…if us being whatever we are will make it weird or uncomfortable, then we can just be friends again, as we always were.” The words felt heavy and his stomach sank, but he smiled. “You’re still my best friend, after all.”
“Are you sure?” Eustácio said, almost voiceless.
Benjamin closed his eyes and inhaled the fresh air that came in through the window. The night smelled of a profound silence. He startled when Eustácio’s cold hand reached for his.
“Whatever we are, Ben…I like it. I like the idea of us.”
“It’s not a bad idea, when you stop to think about it.”
“No, it’s definitely not.”
Trying not to burst into relieved giggles, they pulled each other closer. Breathing had never felt so easy, and, caught in the middle of that ephemeral eternity, Benjamin let himself drift into sleep.
The next morning, when the first beams of sunlight woke them up, their fingers were still intertwined.
To most people, it was still the same old yellow house. An attentive passer-by could tell that something had changed on its facade, despite not being able to pinpoint exactly where. Maybe it was the curtains on the windows that seemed to glitter. Maybe it was the front door that seemed to smile, inviting. Or maybe it was the black cat that sometimes stood by the porch, and whose green eyes seemed to peek inside people’s souls.
The ones who dared to go in would find Vó Úrsula standing by the counter, and often a girl with hair as red as flames would be by her side. Sometimes, a kind, short young woman with fire in her eyes would pass by. Sometimes, a young man who had her same eyes would serve the customers tea, helped by another boy who didn’t speak much and whose hair was always messy.
On some nights, finely-tuned ears could hear voices full of hope coming out of the windows. On others, the neighborhood was more silent than usual, and the sharpest eyes could spot two figures at the attic’s small window. Most times, they would just stand together and look at the world outside.
It was, indeed, an odd house. Funny, even.
To Berenice, Benjamin, and Eustácio, however, it was home. And it would still be for the many years to come.