Photo by Vitor Paladini on Unsplash

Neighbor, Apartment 706

It swept across my window like the shadow of an enormous bird, only it wasn’t flying. It was falling.

I was prepping lunch with Núbia, my maid. We have to work together now, because of the pandemic. My cook’s too old to ride the bus here—she’s high-risk—and my other helper, who does the heavy cleaning, has a small child and no one to look after it. I wouldn’t want all three maids crowded in here anyway. (In the favela they live piled on top of each other, a petri dish for the virus.) Thankfully, Núbia’s agreed to live with me, in the little room by the kitchen. I made it nice, with a fan and a TV. Some nights I hear her on the phone with her mother, crying. She must feel guilty being here, so safe and comfortable with me.

The other apartments have maids who come and go every day like there’s no quarantine; they’re putting us all at risk. I said as much in our Condo Association meeting over Zoom, but no one listens. Everyone does whatever they want, and who’s going to stop them? Certainly not our President, who calls this a “little bitty cold.” Well, at least Núbia’s good company.

If she hadn’t been with me when the shadow passed over the kitchen window, I’d have thought I imagined it. It was like a shade had been pulled and then lifted. In that split second, I remembered Vovó Dulce, my mother’s mother. She used to live in the countryside, in the Great House of a sugar mill that was our family’s since the Portuguese civilized this place. It’s been sold now—chopped up for government housing projects—but Vovó Dulce held on as long as she could. We used to visit during the São João holiday, when we’d make a bonfire in Vovó’s front yard and set off firecrackers. She’d sit on the porch, tiny and shriveled like an old passionfruit. She used to tell us stories about the Devil appearing to her as a red goat. Once, on the porch, she screamed. It sounded like a crow cawing. After we ran to her, Vovó Dulce said she’d seen “the shadow of death.” Then she counted us, one by one, to make sure we were all there. I thought she was crazy, until a farmhand ran to the porch and said there’d been an accident—a truck piled high with sugarcane had flipped on the road outside the gate. The driver was dead and so were some poor souls caught walking when the falling cane smothered them.

Every day I wake believing I’ve got a tickle in my throat, or that my breathing’s shallow, or that I’m more tired than normal. What is normal now?

When that shadow fell across Núbia and me, we stared at each other. For the first time, I saw that her eyes are hazel, not brown. They have flecks of green and yellow in them, like a field. I grabbed Núbia’s hand and held it, wet from washing vegetables, and rough—so rough—even though she’s thirty years younger than me. In that moment, her hand so warm in mine, her face close enough to kiss, I thought: Who is this girl? How can I not know the color of her eyes?

After the shadow lifted, we heard an empty thump, like a sack of flour hitting pavement. It was only after I let go of Núbia’s hand and phoned the doorman that we discovered the truth. It wasn’t a bird or a bag of flour. It was a little boy.

Building Manager

The shit I’ve seen in this building, you wouldn’t believe. There’s actual shit: three floor’s worth of flooded toilets after the hippie in 1305 decided it was a good idea to flush cloth wipes. Then there’s the mental shit that I clean up every day. (I tell my wife: I’m the building psychologist, social worker, peacemaker.) When Ms. Ivanilda, with dementia, from 901 breaks out of her apartment, I’m the one who finds her—usually in the doorman’s booth, pressing the button to open the front gate—and brings her home to her husband. When the politician’s son in 1703 tried to get back at his father by crashing his vintage Porsche into the garden pergola, I tugged the boy from the driver’s seat and held him while he cried like a baby. When residents complained that the main stairwell smelled like piss, I stayed late and caught the philosophy professor from 602 peeing in the stairway because he liked “the freedom of it.” Well, I found him a secret, less central place to have his “freedom.” People think the favela’s a mess; they should spend a day in this highrise.

I live across the water, in Brasília Teimosa, where the Capibaribe River meets the sea. “Teimosa” because, over the years, rich cabras have tried to claim the land and kick us out, but we don’t budge. Back in the ’50s, when I was a baby, five fishermen from our neighborhood sailed their boats all the way to Rio de Janeiro. They asked the President to stop a politician from tearing down the community to build a fancy port. Guess what? That port didn’t get built. My father and his father were fishermen here, too. Then big seafood companies took over and there wasn’t enough fish anymore. I had to learn how to fix things: toilets, sinks, electric panels, loose tiles, wobbly doors. I tell my wife: I’ve always been an essential worker.

This area used to be docks and warehouses, until they built this highrise ten years ago. Twenty-five stories. Fifty apartments. A penthouse party room with a wet bar. A pool. A garden area. And four elevator banks—three for residents, one for workers.

I’ve been building manager from the beginning. Everyone calls me Dedinho, because I lost my little finger in a work accident years ago. Only Dr. Fred, in 1202, calls me by name. I was happy to see him move in—a fancy doctor, blacker than me! I told my wife the news when I got home. Now we both say that our daughters will own apartments here one day. My youngest, Isis, studies at the Federal University. All her classes are canceled now, and she’s sulking at home, but she’ll pull through. Neide, my oldest, is a nurse. The neighborhood pitched in and bought her a face shield and N95’s. We haven’t seen her in months because she doesn’t want to get us sick. I call her on WhatsApp every day, just to see her face.

When I met Dr. Fred and saw how young and handsome he was—thick-shouldered and tall—I thought: I’ll introduce him to my Neide. Why not? She’s a beautiful girl, and smart, and they’re both in medicine. Then Fred introduced another doctor as his husband. I’m not going to judge, because I’m not God and don’t pretend to be, but I did tell Dr. Fred this: it’s a shame a man like him won’t have children of his own.

When I saw that little boy twisted on the stone patio, I called Dr. Fred. The boy’s name was Marley, like the singer. Five years old. Big brown eyes. He had the prettiest smile; it’s a shame it got covered up by a mask. I know you’re smiling under there! I liked to tease Marley. I can see it in your eyes! He stuck to his mother, Maísa, like glue. She worked in 602, for Ms. Rosí. I’d seen the two of them—Marley and Maísa—arrive together every day, because school was canceled on account of the virus. That boy had energy. He was like a little light bulb, as bright as could be. Some news outlets are running reports now, saying Marley was a handful, that he was hyperactive and a bad listener. I’ll tell you what he was: curious. He asked questions and expected answers. What’s wrong with that? Whenever he visited, I asked Marley if he’d help me fix things. I let him unscrew one of the AC unit panels, just so he could see what was inside. There’s a whole world in there! I said to him. Tio Jorge will show you.

Five minutes before he fell, Maísa came downstairs alone to walk Ms. Rosí’s dog—a yippy, rat-looking thing. Police say that Marley didn’t want to be up there, in 602, without his mother. He escaped the apartment. Ms. Rosí was distracted; she had her manicure appointment that day. She cared more about her pretty nails than that little boy. Somehow Marley ended up on the ninth floor. He climbed on top of an AC unit, on a utility balcony, and lost his footing.

Maísa got back from walking the dog and it had already happened. She started breathing funny, like no air was going in or out. I slipped the mask off her face. You’ve got to breathe, love, I said, like she was my own child. Breathe for him, because he’s still here.

The dog kept tugging at Maísa’s hand. Her arm was limp, like it was dead. I slipped the leash off her wrist and set the animal free.

Sleeping’s not easy now. I can’t settle my mind. Most nights, I leave my wife in bed and WhatsApp with Neide, who’s awake, too, at the hospital.

I want to help them, she says. But there are too many.

Just help one, I tell her. One’s enough. One’s the whole world.

Doctor, Apartment 1202

Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.

He wrote this song before he died from a rare, fast-growing Acral Melanoma. It started as a speck under his toenail that hurt when he kicked a soccer ball. Soon he couldn’t play soccer at all.

I never could play.

Fred’s got a brain, that’s his muscle, Mamãe used to say. Even back then, she knew. We both did. I liked to watch her get dressed up. I liked to try on her perfumes. I studied drawings of Spider-Man and Superman, staring at the filets of muscle in their quadriceps and the bulging squares of their pectorals, not because I wanted those muscles for myself, but because they were so beautiful that they made something inside of me hum—a vibration so delicious it hurt.

When I was a boy, I was so skinny I could pop my scapulae out so they resembled wings. Don’t do that! Mamãe would yell. She shuddered and said I looked like a baby bird, fallen from the nest. It doesn’t hurt, I’d tell her. In fact, it felt good to be able to do something extraordinary with my body. I wanted to be a beautiful superhero. I wanted to be a bird and fly.

That day, when the inter-phone rang, I thought it was another COVID scare in the building. I almost yelled: I’m a dermatologist for God’s sake! Early on, the couple in 1405 was diagnosed after returning from Italy. They gave it to their maid, Elisângela, who died. After that, everyone was afraid, but not so cautious as to let their maids stay home with paid salaries. I told Rafael: we won’t put anyone at risk. I didn’t grow up with a maid, and I don’t need one now. We take the stairs, never the elevator. We wear masks anytime we leave the apartment. We order groceries and pay the motoboys big tips. We both suspended our private practices. Botox is not an essential service, though my patients would disagree. Rafael’s an orthopedist, so he’s on call at a few private hospitals for emergencies. I still take shifts at the public hospital, where we see more cases of leprosy and leishmaniasis than any twenty-first-century city should. Now they’re stretched so thin they’ve even got me dressing head-to-toe in PPE and screening COVID patients. You’d think the people in this condo would listen to science, take precautions. Instead, they walk around without masks and then phone Rafael and me when they have the tiniest tickle in their throats. Rafael’s much nicer to them than I am. Get a test, is all I advise. What I really want to say to them is: Now you call me ‘Doctor’?

How many of them looked me up and down in the elevator and whispered, like they were giving some kindly advice: Son, this is the social elevator. You need to use the one for service.

That morning, it wasn’t any of our neighbors on the inter-phone. It was Jorge. His voice was high and frantic. Someone had fallen. A little boy. Marley.

We’d climbed the building’s stairs together many times. (After the pandemic, Marley’s mother, Maísa, didn’t take the elevator either). Maísa laughed the kind of laugh that made you want to join her. My mother had that laugh. Laugh so you don’t cry—isn’t that what the samba says? And her little boy—Marley—was electric. Always pinging off the stairwell’s walls, always talking. I used to ask him if he was running for mayor because he was so social.

Not mayor, President of the Republic! he replied.

President Marley, I said.

Maísa smiled and stroked her son’s head. It fit perfectly under her palm, like it was made for her hands.

My mother gave me a foreign name. Fred, like Astaire? I asked when I was old enough to muster the courage. Or Freddie Mercury? She shook her head. The name came to her when she was pregnant. It sounded manly, like she’d hoped her boy would be.

At the public hospital, before COVID, a seventy-five-year-old Black female with Type 2 diabetic psoriasis sat behind my exam curtain and, when she saw me, said: You’re my doctor? I thought she was going to demand to be treated by another physician. It’s happened plenty of times before. Instead, she took my hands, kissed them, and said, God bless us! I’ve never had a doctor my color in all my life! Seventy-five years I’ve waited! She called her daughter to join us behind the curtain and asked to take a picture. She put her arm around my waist and smiled for the camera. I took out my phone, so that I could have a picture, too. This was my mistake. My patient saw the home screen photo of Rafael and me kissing during Carnaval. The patient slid her arm from around me. You’d better beg God’s forgiveness, she warned.

“He fell! He fell!” Mr. Jorge kept saying over the inter-phone.

The panic in his voice made me rush. I put on my mask, my gloves. I took the stairs two-by-two.

A fall. Maybe a broken bone, I thought. Rafael was the useful one in such situations, but he was on-call that morning. They’d have to settle for me.

I never wanted to cut open bodies, to stand for sixteen hours performing surgery, to clamp and separate and suction, to resuscitate and stabilize. I never wanted to save lives. I wanted to exist in my own life.

In med school, those of us who chose the “soft tracks” (dermatology, plastic surgery, radiology) were treated like we weren’t real doctors. Like we’d picked our specialties because we weren’t good enough to study the others. Early on, when we practiced on cadavers, I opened my locker and found a pair of testes sitting inside, cut away from their sack of skin. They had a dull shine, like two oval stones. The four female students opened their lockers and yelped—they’d gotten the same gift. A harmless prank, the administration called it when we complained.

During rounds, one of those girls—she’d gone to private schools all her life; she’d traveled the world—said that her Black patients had thicker skin. She couldn’t get needles in them. Maybe you don’t know how to give an injection, I told her. She called me a misogynist and reported me. The complaint went on my official record.

Maísa worked for the couple in 602. He’s the youngest mayor of a beach town an hour away, but chooses to live here, in the city. His wife, Rosí, is the “First Lady”—that’s what Rafael and I called her when we felt petty. She wore so much jewelry that she sounded like a belly dancer—clinking and tinkling—every time she stepped inside the elevator. At our Condo Association meetings, back when we all congregated in the building’s party room, the First Lady said we needed more cameras, more razor wire, a keypad to enter the lobby. But she was one of the few who actually called me “Dr. Fred,” and never confused me with the gardener or the carwash boy, never told me to take a different elevator. That morning, she left a five-year-old to fend for himself, and he fell thirty-five meters over a railing. If he’d been the white son of one of her friends, would she have left him alone? Did she think he had thicker skin?

When I saw Marley sprawled out, I rested a hand on the patio’s pillar to keep myself upright. Mr. Jorge was holding Maísa tight, rocking her like they were dancing. The ground floor’s inter-phone was ringing, ringing, ringing. A little dog was barking. It wouldn’t stop. Then it was on me, jumping and clawing. It nipped my ankle and the shock of its bite woke me. I moved to Marley’s side.

His head was intact. He was still warm. He hadn’t soiled himself. I pressed two fingers to his neck and I felt the flutter of his beating heart.

We had to get him to a hospital, fast. A public ambulance would take hours to arrive, if it arrived at all. These days, even a private ambulance would take too long and cost a small fortune. We needed to transport him in a car, but what if he had a neck injury? A spinal fracture? Why was I home that day and not Rafael? For the first time, I regretted having studied dermatology.

The First Lady was suddenly downstairs, leaning over us, shrieking. “He ran off! He wouldn’t listen! He wouldn’t listen!”

“Shut up!” I heard myself yell.

She had an SUV. We could put down the backseat and lay Marley flat. I ordered Jorge to get a neck brace from the woman in 1402—she’d had a car accident a few months back. It was the cheap kind of brace they sell at pharmacies, but it would have to do.

The First Lady drove. I stayed in the back, on my knees, keeping Marley’s head very still. His mother lay next to him, holding his hand. I watched his chest rise and fall. We went to Restauração—the best hospital in the city for trauma but the worst for recovery. They’ll save your life and then you’ll die of infection.

“When he’s conscious, we’ll transfer him to a private facility,” I heard myself say to Maísa. “I’ll take care of it.”

I wasn’t thinking straight. Marley wasn’t covered under my insurance. If he was paralyzed, or had serious internal injuries, or needed rounds of surgeries, keeping him alive at a private hospital would cost more than any of us could afford.

At night, I dream I’m falling. I wake and my lungs feel like two popped balloons. Rafael rocks me and whispers: Breathe, love. Breathe.

We will move. The market’s soft and we’ll lose money on whatever deal we make, but I don’t care. I want a house. One story. Close to the ground.


Every day feels like a dream I can’t escape. Elevator doors close behind me and I move into ice-cold apartments, ACs blasting, no fresh air. The world’s foggy behind my face shield. My voice is strange under my mask. I hold and scrape clients’ feet, old and young, men and women. I massage their hands. I clip away everything dead and thick and yellow. I paint and shine. I leave them all as soft as babies.

My hands are red and stinging from soap, sanitizer, the sweat that collects inside my medical gloves. Each night I strip in my doorway, put my dirty clothes in a plastic bag, then run into the shower.

Some clients appreciate how careful I am. They wear their own masks and open windows, or have us sit outside on their balconies. Other clients call me “the girl in the bubble.” They lecture me—I shouldn’t worry about catching anything from them because they are careful, they are clean, they have immune systems like oxen, they’ve never been sick a day in their lives.

Ms. Rosí joked that her maid and I could wear spacesuits if it made us feel safe, but she wasn’t putting on a mask in her own home. She said it cheerfully, in a way that made you feel like she was offering a cup of coffee. Sometimes she did offer me coffee, ordering Maísa to make it. She did that cheerfully, too. That’s just how Ms. Rosí was—always smiling.

She was my first customer that day. Maísa let me in through the service entrance. The apartment’s alarm beeped—Ding! Ding!—like we were in a fancy shop. Maísa’s little boy, Marley, was in the kitchen. He wore a mask with puppies on it. Seeing me, he hid behind his mother. Ms. Rosí’s Yorkie barked and ran in circles, sliding across the kitchen tiles like they were oiled.

“Biju!” Ms. Rosí scolded. “She doesn’t know there’s a person under all that safety gear.”

It was hard to hear over the Yorkie’s commotion. Marley reached for the dog and the animal rounded and snarled, taking the boy’s finger between its teeth. In a flash, Maísa tugged the dog away and inspected the bite. His finger was swollen but not bleeding. She kissed Marley, wiping away his tears with her thumbs.

“I told you, she doesn’t like to be picked up,” Ms. Rosí said. “Does he need band-aids? Ice?”

The dog growled and yipped at the air. Maísa and her boy stayed safe inside their bubble of whispers and kisses, immune to noise and questions.

Biju skittered across the kitchen to me, her new target. Her nails clawed my leg.

“Maísa!” Ms. Rosí yelled.

Mother and son looked up, bubble broken.

“Take her on a walk,” Ms. Rosí ordered. “I need peace and quiet.”

“Let’s go, amor,” Maisa said to her son. The boy shook his head.

Maísa took a pink leash off its peg by the door. Biju quieted and trembled. “Come on, Marley,” Maísa called. “Get your flip-flops.”

He sniffled. “I don’t want to go.”

“It’s fine to leave him,” Ms. Rosí said. “He and Biju need some space.”

Maísa sighed. “Then stay with Ms. Rosí and I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

Marley tugged at his mother’s uniform—blue scrubs, like an orderly. “I don’t want to stay.”

“Let your mother walk the boring dog,” Ms. Rosí said, her voice tight with cheerfulness. “You can have cookies and watch Disney!”

Biju’s barks grew more insistent.

Ms. Rosí led me to the living room, where there was a leather chair with a plastic foot tub in front of it. Maísa had already filled the tub with warm water. Ms. Rosí guided me to a tiny stool. In the kitchen, Biju yipped. Marley and Maísa negotiated in whispers.

Ms. Rosí slipped her feet into the sudsy water. “This quarantine is making us all crazy,” she whispered. “His creche closed. Maísa had nowhere to put him. I let her bring him, so she doesn’t miss work. He’s not a bad boy but he gets Biju so agitated.”

The back door beeped—Ding! Ding!—when Maísa left. The dog’s barks got quieter down the hall, then disappeared.

Marley shuffled into the living room. His eyelashes were thick and dark, like a doll’s. He had the chubbiness of a toddler—his belly round, little folds of skin at his wrists and neck. I waved my gloved hand and tried to smile, hoping he could see it in my eyes.

“Marley!” Ms. Rosí called. “Come! Turn on the TV.”

The boy didn’t move.

“Do you want to help me?” I called. “You can look at the polishes.”

He shook his head.

I raised five brothers and five sisters. Most people think this explains why I don’t have a child of my own, and I don’t correct them. The truth is, a few years ago I had terrible pain in my back. I thought it was my job—all the bending and stooping. Then I started bleeding too much when it was my time of the month. I wore a pad as thick as a diaper, and even that wasn’t enough to soak it all up. I got so tired I could barely work. A clinic doctor sent me for an ultrasound. There, in that dark room, the tech slid her camera over my belly—sticky and cold—until she stopped. On the screen, in black and white, I saw it: an egg, growing inside me. Then she found others, all different sizes: a pebble, a grape, a pitomba. The doctor from the public hospital said that my fibroids would grow so large, there’d be no room left inside of me. He said I should have surgery, take everything out. Instead of pulling weeds, we take away their plot, he said. It was only after I’d spent a week recovering in the hospital, the cut under my belly button crusting into a scar, that I found out they could’ve sliced each fibroid away, or broken them apart using lasers, but both procedures cost money and time.

Some men think I’ve had a baby; the scar’s nearly the same as a C-section’s. To one man, I told the truth—I didn’t have a uterus anymore. Later, during a fight, he said I wasn’t a real woman.

“Get your cookies, honey. As many as you want!” Rosí said, then winked at Marley.

He shuffled back to the kitchen. Before I’d even rubbed the old polish from her fingernails, we heard: “Ding! Ding!”

“Marley?” Ms. Rosí called.

There was no answer. She took her feet from the plastic tub and slipped them into flip flops.

“Marley!” She cried, squeaking into the kitchen.

I heard Ding! Ding! at her exit. A few minutes later, they returned. Ding! Ding!

“You can’t go out,” Ms. Rosí said, breathless. “She’ll be back before you know it.”

There was the clink of cookies dropping onto a plate.

“Here you go!” Ms. Rosí said. “Be a good boy.”

She’d just walked into the living room when we heard: Ding! Ding!

I nearly chuckled. I was glad Ms. Rosí couldn’t see my face under the mask, but I could see hers. The smile had disappeared. She walked quickly into the kitchen.

Ding! Ding!

Ding! Ding!

Back they came, the boy begging now. “But I changed my mind!”

“She’ll be up soon,” Ms. Rosí replied, all the joking in her voice gone.

Quickly, I met Marley and Ms. Rosí in the kitchen. “I can take him downstairs,” I said. “It’s not far.”

Ms. Rosí gave me a stern look. “Marley can wait ten minutes, can’t you?”

Marley looked from her to me and back again. “I don’t know.”

“Of course you do!” Ms. Rosí said, cheerful again. “Look how many cookies are on this plate: one, two, three, four, five, six! I bet if you eat these one by one, your mom will be back by the time you’re done.”

Marley stared at the plate. Ms. Rosí and I went back to the living room.

Ding! Ding!

Ms. Rosí left a trail of water from the living room to the kitchen. After his fifth escape, they took much longer coming back. It was my turn to get annoyed—I had clients back-to-back that day. One delay would cause others.

When Ms. Rosí finally returned, Marley wasn’t with her. She flopped into the chair. Her eyes were wet.

“I give up,” she said. “Even he won’t stay.”

Before I could ask where Marley was, we heard it: a man’s wail, rising like a siren.

Now the police want to interview me; I have an appointment at the station. Friends say I might need a lawyer. Ms. Rosí calls and calls, leaving voicemails. She says it’s urgent. She was arrested a few days after Marley died because police found security tapes from the hallway and the elevator. There’s no sound, and the footage is grainy, but that doesn’t stop every news channel from playing the tapes on repeat. There’s Ms. Rosí, cell phone in hand, guiding Marley back from the stairwell once, twice, three, four times. In the beginning she smiles. In the end, she tugs his arm. The fifth time, Marley gets on the residents’ elevator. Ms. Rosí blocks the door with her body. He speaks, twisting his mask in his hands. She says something back to him, then slaps the ground floor button. Ms. Rosí steps away. The doors shut.

In the footage, Marley stares at himself in the elevator’s mirrored walls. The ride takes longer than expected. Someone on a higher floor had called the car before Ms. Rosí had pressed the “ground” button. The elevator goes up, not down.




The doors open. All of the floors look the same in that building; they were designed that way. Marley steps outside.

I’ve thought of phoning Maísa, but I don’t have her number. Even if I did, what would I say? That I was worried about my schedule? That I didn’t want to lose Ms. Rosí as a client, so I didn’t insist on guiding Marley downstairs? That, in the moment, he’d felt like an inconvenience, not a little boy?

Maybe I’ll tell her that I’ve started picking up stones—smooth ones, rough ones. Some are pebbles, others are the size of grapes and pitombas. I carry them from job to job in my pockets and my purse. Heavy. Hidden.

Owner, Apartment 602

God only knows how I got us to the hospital. I can’t remember the trip, I drove so fast. In the Emergency Room, I stood with Maísa and held her hand.

I haven’t seen her since. Not in person, anyway. She’s always on TV, being followed into and out of the sheriff’s office, or giving interviews on her porch, where she demands justice. I need to be punished, Maísa says. I need to pay for my crime. My husband, Vítor, says I shouldn’t watch the news, shouldn’t read the papers. My lawyer says I shouldn’t talk to the press, shouldn’t post on social media, shouldn’t contact Maísa, should never say the words: “I’m sorry.”

“You feel terrible about this tragic accident,” he says, his eyes bright blue above his mask. “You did everything you could.”

The Condo Association has sent a letter ordering Vítor and me to pay for extra security. There are camera crews outside the gates, ready to ambush the neighbors, the doorman, and the maids. Mobs of protestors on the street shout, “Justice for Marley!” and hold signs that say, “Black Lives Matter,” as if Brazil’s as bad as the United States. As if we’re racist here.

I’ve known Maísa my whole life. Her mother, Dilma, worked in my house when I was little. Maísa and I played together—hide and seek, dress up, Marco-Polo in the pool. By the time we were twelve this stopped, of course. After that, the few times Maísa came over to our house—to pick up her mother after work, or to earn a little extra as a server at our Christmas parties—she and I always smiled at each other. A few years ago, I found out Maísa was pregnant and that the baby’s father had disappeared. I made it a point to hire her. Vítor wasn’t happy; we’d have to pay her maternity leave. But I insisted, and ever since that day, Maísa cleaned, cooked, and walked Biju. Once in a while she’d make brigadeiro and we’d sit in the kitchen and eat it straight out of the pot, together. I didn’t make her use a different set of plates and utensils like other people do with their maids. She and I could really talk. We’d laugh about Biju, who I’d bought to be a lap dog but who’d turned into a dictator. We’d gossip about the neighbors; Maísa would tell me every secret thing their maids knew. Sometimes she’d tell me about her life—her mother’s health problems, her son, a bad date she’d been on. Sometimes I’d even tell her about Vítor and me—the fertility treatments, the hormones that made me cry for no reason, the failed tests.

When the pandemic hit, Vítor moved into his office, an hour away on the beach. He’s mayor and they needed him there. I offered to join him, but he said the city was better for me. We married young. He’s from a good family, like mine. He had ambitions and made me laugh. And he’s hefty, like me. When I was twelve I started dieting—cabbage diet, soup diet, smoothie diet. Nothing worked. When I was fifteen I got liposuction for my birthday but even that didn’t last. Money down the drain, my mother said. At first, Vítor said that there was more of me to love. It was only when I couldn’t get pregnant that he started telling me to lose weight—maybe then the IVF would work better. I went on more diets, met with nutritionists, but nothing helped. My body holds every calorie, but it won’t hold a baby.

During quarantine, there was nowhere for me to go, no one for me to see. The only person I had was Maísa. When schools closed, I told Maísa that she could bring the boy here, so she didn’t have to miss work. I thought it would be cheerful, to have a child in the house. I bought a stuffed elephant for him. I got a subscription to the Disney channel.

Marley was different than I’d imagined. He was always climbing things, always sliding across the tiles in his socks. He followed Maísa, constantly asking “why this?” and “why that?” He didn’t like the sound of the vacuum cleaner. He squeezed Biju, then cried when she bit him. He fed Biju things she shouldn’t eat, and she’d have diarrhea all over the rug. Worst of all, Maísa wasn’t the same when her son was around. With him here, she acted exasperated with me, like I was the one bothering her.

Sometimes I stayed in my room with Biju and tried to hold her, but she squirmed and bit to get out of my arms. The only thing that felt easy was when I got my nails done. Even though Ariane dressed like she was heading into a leprosy ward—gloves, mask, face shield—it felt comforting to have her here. She and I would laugh. She’d tell me stories of the houses she visited. She’d massage my hands and feet; it felt good to be touched.

It all happened so fast.

Maísa would be better off walking Biju on her own. It was only fifteen minutes. I could take care of a child for fifteen minutes, couldn’t I? But he kept leaving, no matter how many cookies I gave him, no matter what I offered or how much I begged. The last time I chased after him in the hall, my feet were still wet and I slipped and nearly fell. I grabbed Marley’s arm. His eyes were so wide that I turned to see who was behind us, scaring him. There was no one. Only me.

On the news, Maísa wears a mask with her son’s picture on it. She says he died because of my vanity, my impatience. In the security video the police showed me, a woman pressed a button in the elevator, then let the doors close with a boy inside. Why? They asked me.




The woman in the video is me, but it can’t be. Can it?

Everything’s hazy now. I take pills to sleep, pills to wake. The prosecutor’s charged me with gross negligence. The news says I could spend twelve years in jail. I’ve had to change my phone number three times because of threats.


Rich cunt.

Fat bitch.

I hope you rot in hell.

I hope your pretty nails get ripped out one by one in prison.

How can people be so cruel? How did this happen to me?


If I love him enough, he’ll be safe.

I believed this.

Fifty-eight seconds.
The time from when he left the elevator to when he fell.

Wherever there’s a clock—at the police station, in the lawyer’s office—I watch it.
The tiniest hand moves in its circle. I hold my breath. Count.

A mass of twenty kilos falls thirty-five meters in 2.8 seconds.
There’s a calculator on the internet for this.

One-one thousand
Two-one thousand
Almost three.
Not quite.

There was a time I felt sorry for her. She had no one.
I had him.

100,000 Reais.
How much she paid to get free on bail.

Thirty prisoners in a six-by-six meter cell.
I’d be there now if I’d left a white child alone,
to fall.

Neglect is a kind of hate.

A two-piece, in blue.
The bathing suit I borrowed from her when we were girls and she asked me to swim in her pool and play Marco-Polo. The next day, when my mother cleaned their house, we found that suit in the trash.

Two lawyers volunteering their time for me, making sure the judge holds her feet to the fire.

Twelve years: the maximum sentence.

Five years, two days, three hours
How long he was with me.

Seventy-three years
How long a woman like me can expect to live these days.

Forty-three years
How much longer I’ll have to survive without him.

People from church tell me:
Look to Mary, our blessed Mother. She, too, lost a son.

Hers came back.

He loved to climb—onto the kitchen counter, up closet shelves, along stairway rails. When I’d come home from work, he’d scramble right over our gate.
You’re Spider-Man, I told him. One day you’ll climb right out of here,
into someplace better.

Here am I.
What Mary said when she found out she was expecting a son.

Twenty-five interviews I’ve given.
On our porch.
In his empty room.
Outside of her highrise.
In front of a mural of him—my son—with angel’s wings.

“Will you ever forgive her?”

Why do they expect me to?

“Do you blame yourself?”

There were dirty clothes in the hamper that still had his smell.
I’ve put them in a Zip-lock. I let myself open it once every few days,
so he doesn’t escape.

An anchor weighing six kilos can hold a boat weighing a thousand.

My anger keeps me from floating off, into nothingness.

No one can take it from me.

Someone set up a fund so I don’t have to clean houses anymore.

I think of him, climbing.
I’m going back to school.
I’m going to be a lawyer, then a judge.

Reporters laugh when I tell them this.
Their imaginations are too small to hold me.

We’re in another lockdown. There aren’t enough vaccines. Not enough hospital beds. In Manaus, people pay bribes for oxygen. Our President says running this country is torture.
Her trial is delayed.

In school, we learned that the Capibaribe River starts as a puddle 270 kilometers away. It crosses our entire state, growing and growing, until it divides our city.

All rivers flow to the sea, but the sea is never full. There’s always room.
Like a mother’s heart.

Here I am.

Frances de Pontes Peebles

Frances de Pontes Peebles is the author of the novels The Seamstress and The Air You Breathe. She is a 2020 Creative Writing Fellow in Literature from The National Endowment for the Arts. A native of Pernambuco, Brazil, she holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her short stories have appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories, Zoetrope: All-Story, Missouri Review, and Indiana Review.