When they hauled her body into the wall cavity, they assumed she was dead. The two men came barging into her apartment just past midnight. They’d known it was a construction site, figured it would be empty. Desperation had driven them to hope that something valuable might’ve been left behind. Black-clad and hushed, they rifled through heaps of brick and rubble, scrounged the countertops for anything that glistened under moonlight. The half-torn hallway was empty one moment; then, they turned and there she was — a woman standing amid the demolition haze, eyes bright with terror. The scrawnier of the two brandished a slender pocketknife. It couldn’t have killed someone, hardly more than a can opener, but the night had an odd way of shaping perspectives.
Through the woman’s sleep-blurred eyes, the blade appeared twice its size, twice as sharp. Signage from a pub across the street bathed its edge in fluorescent red. She’d been born with a weak heart, and it stuttered. She collapsed — which, to the men, meant she’d dropped dead.
The knife clattered to the floor. One thief checked her pulse. Finding it still, they hauled her body up and over into a small hollow between the brick walls. They ran off into a back alley where even the streetlights couldn’t reach them.
Seconds later, there she was, awake again; not a corpse stowed away, but a woman abandoned to a dark gaping mouth. The air was warm and humid. Her fingers grasped at the walls, gathering layers of dust and dirt. Her nails scraped against hard shells that startled and skittered away. A stubborn woman might’ve slammed her fists against those skeletal walls so that her knuckles bled, screamed herself hoarse until footsteps came running. A dull one might have simply curled up and faded, figuring the best was well behind her. She was neither stubborn nor dull. She was tired. Her bones felt impossibly leaden. She turned to one side (which, in the cramped space, meant turning her cheek to the cold cement while her body remained supine), and she fell asleep.
Time moved differently in the hollows. A moment might’ve been a day or a year. All she knew was that for some sizable amount, she lived among construction workers and engineers. She quickly discovered a hole along the base of the wall. A way out.
The rooms were dangerous places full of helmeted men and prying eyes, so she only escaped for necessities, to scrounge up leftover drink and lunch during their afternoon breaks. Among their sightings, she became less person and more hearsay, more myth. She soon realized it wasn’t much worthwhile to take on a physical form, so she became ephemeral. She learned to subsist on things more real to her than breadcrumbs and sticky drops of beer.
One of the construction workers sang as he lay bricks. She’d never been to a concert or owned a radio, but she’d heard music from cars stuck in traffic and between the sliding doors of department stores. His voice was better than any she’d witnessed, smooth and crisp. He sang about a man in a garden and a green-eyed girl and a vast lake. She swallowed those images and was nourished.
Once they completed the roof and covered up all the building’s holes with vents and plaster, the apartment complex opened. Residents arrived. By then, she’d learned the curvature of the building’s bones. She’d found ways to move between the walls without exiting into those troublesome rooms. Instead, she vanished into the space between, jumping from cavity after cavity so that the entire building was within reach. The outside world had never treated her kindly; so, this was her conceding a step, building a realm of her own.
During those early days, when many of the units were vacant still, there was one apartment she lingered by most often, 23A. It housed a greying woman and three cats who loved to purr soothing vibrations against the heating vents. Every Christmas, the old woman had a visitor. A younger version of herself with a deep tan who smelled like salt, wind, and brine. They called this the sea. The visitor carried pictures of herself sailing across expansive blues and skimming cresting waves. The sea was endless in a way unlike anything the woman in the hollows had seen, even more so than the city visible when she floated through the rooftop antennae, those bright lights and skyscrapers far beyond their block of bare-bone concrete. For weeks after seeing those photographs, the woman envisioned her walls as restless waters. She slid along her steel support beams and leapt between columns as though she were gliding through currents.
A long while later, the building filled up. She sipped on the flutter of notes that filled her hovel whenever the harpist in 18B ran his scales. She chewed on the gritty clatter and crash of pans as the mother in 28A readied breakfast for her twins early in the morning before school; then, in the same familiar ruckus her children raised every Christmas when they visited with their own families and readied the food for a feast. Through them, the woman in the hollows was sustained.
The pipes froze during a snowstorm one winter. It was the disaster of the decade, with snow as high as dumpster trucks barring all exits. It caused a commotion louder and more chaotic than any she’d heard before, so unlike the usual music of the building. Electricity was out, so no food was cooked, and no smells melted into her hollows. Her world became all too familiar — full of unhearing noise and heavy silence. So, she reached into herself and felt the rush of water pour through, warm again. The lights flickered back on. Gas found its way through the stoves. For the entire storm, her building was the only one with water or power for miles. These people, her people, she would keep safe.
Kaitlin Tan (she/her) grew up between Manila, Philippines and Macao, SAR. She is currently a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University majoring in writing seminars and cognitive science. Her work has appeared in Contrary Magazine and is forthcoming in Unlikely Stories.