People talk of cities as “full” and “cramped,” they say they don’t want to live in them because they’re too noisy and smelly and crowded, crowded, crowded. But Diana never saw it like that. There are plenty of places in cities that are empty, blank, flush with negative space. However, it’s not the pretty “face” of cities that are bare, not Times Square or Harajuku neighborhood or Piccadilly Square.
It’s the belly and the heart and the insides, the “bad” neighborhoods with office buildings with basements where barely even rats make nests. Car junk yards with only dead bodies of metal and stiff broken tires and wheels. Alleyways that are too dark and narrow for even bums to spend a night in.
There are empty places in cities, but there’s usually a reason for it. Reasons you don’t usually want to find out. Diana was coming home from her second job with cigarette smoke still powdering her clothes and the street lights just now flickering on.
It was the type of street where they rarely replaced the bulbs and cars sat on cinder blocks and the rest of Chicago sent blankets and food bank stuff to in the winters. It was fine though, it fit her lifestyle well enough. After Diana cut all her hair off and learned to growl instead of smile she had been fine on her own as she walked home in the evenings.
She had her earbuds in and was listening to a podcast on the true crime murder of Spider Savage when a figure caught her eye. Diana was taught to never stop for anyone in most parts of the city, but this was a woman she recognized.
Diana took an earbud out as an older woman in a lank floral dress stood and stared down a narrow side street. Her face was blank and mouth slightly parted. Her hands were stiff beside her like she forgot how to move them and her body was tense with pinched shoulder blades. Her purse was dropped on the ground beside her.
“Miss Hernandez?” Diana asked tentatively.
The older woman had her hair in a loose bun and there were deep wrinkles under her mouth and eyes that hadn’t been there before. She glanced over toward Diana after a pause like she was traveling across several state lines just to reach her.
“Did you hear that?” She whispered and her lips barely moved as she said it.
Diana frowned slightly and she went to stand next to the woman. “Are you, uh, feeling alright?” She whispered because there was something breakable about Miss Hernandez’s expression. “I mean, how… have you been?”
It was a non-question. Diana knew how the other woman was doing since last October, it had been year now, and she knew how she was doing after the amber alert had been sent out. Very, very badly.
Her eyes turned back to the side street. “Listen…” She said softly and Diana looked down the alley.
It looked like a normal street that wasn’t really a street, one of those caverns of the city that was carved out for no discernible reason. The shops on either side didn’t have any fire escapes leading down onto it’s damp concrete. Some trash bags were piled up haphazardly by the walls, but no hulking green bins were situated in the small space.
The walls around it were brick and stone and the space would only be big enough for them to walk into side by side if their shoulders were touching. It was narrow and smelled of something wet and slightly turned. Like bad milk maybe.
The hairs on Diana’s arm started to stand on end as she really looked down the street more carefully. There were no lights casting any glow down its dank insides. Her neck started to prickle as she realized there were no windows facing into the street. It was just walls and ground, and distant polluted skies above.
It was a long several minutes of silence with Miss Hernandez standing beside her. She was the type of woman who wanted to join a community garden if she ever got time off. She wanted to do more needlework that said things like “Not Taking Stupid Questions at This Time” if she ever got time off. She was the type of woman who kept the door of the apartment open when she was cooking and hated church music but went every Sunday nonetheless.
Well, that was her before October. Now she was mostly long faces and urgent phone conversations that ended with red eyes.
It was several long minutes with Diana standing there in silence before she turned to Miss Hernandez. “Want me to take you home?”
She shook her head and it came. Soft, and distant, and wispy.
“I dunno…” A small voice called with girlish tickle to the words. “It’s a little late.”
The words sounded like nonsense, but the voice itself was unmistakable. “Miss Hernandez,” Diana said quickly and whipped around, “That can’t be Dominique.”
Miss Hernandez gave her one short look and then straightened up. “So you do hear it too.” She started walking.
Diana didn’t want to manhandle a middle-aged woman, but there were no windows facing the inside of this alley. “Wait.” She grabbed for Miss Hernandez, but she was already out of reach and plodding down the street with her practical clogs clacking.
Diana started jogging after her.
“Huh, I’m not sure.” The child’s voice said from somewhere far ahead.
“Dominique!” Miss Hernandez called and her pace quickened. “Sunshine.”
Diana reached for her, “you can’t.”
Miss Hernandez turned with a surprising amount of force and pushed Diana away. “I have to. If there’s any chance, I have to.” She spat, “don’t try and stop me.”
Diana stood there for a moment, dumbstruck. This wasn’t the type of woman to raise her voice, but there was a fire to her eyes that could have burned down Chicago a second time.
“If you say so…” Dominique said softly from somewhere ahead.
Miss Hernandez kept walking.
Diana glanced at the place where the narrow street turned and thought about turning around. She could go home and come back later with more people. She even considered calling the police, but she doubted that would do anything good. Miss Hernandez took a left turn and disappeared.
And she was the woman who knocked on Diana’s door on Christmas when she was alone and asked if she wanted something hot to eat. She bought her candles to light when her cat died. She had lived in her hall ever since Diana was kicked out of her own home.
Diana took a deep breath and reached into her purse to get her keys out. She put each one between her fists like wolverine claws and then followed after.
The next turn brought them to someplace that didn’t look like it should exist from the outside. The walls opened up and these strange wooden boxes piled high one either side, they looked like old-fashioned crates and thick canvas fabric draped over them.
Diana covered her nose as the smell of rotten milk sharpened. “Miss Hernandez,” Diana reached deep inside herself for something more. Something soft to offer or comfort to provide. “She’s been gone for a year. Please…”
Bits of wood were strewn across the ground as they kept walking. Boxes and canvas and shards of wood piled high on either side of them with something looming at the end of it all.
Diana took another deep breath but rotten milk layered over her tongue and something even more putrid under that. She forced herself not to gag.
She finally reached out and grabbed Miss Hernandez’s shoulder to stop her.
Miss Hernandez wasn’t looking at her though. She was looking at the end of the street, “Dominique?”
“Alright, sure, I’m coming.” The girl’s voice was crisp and clear through the night air and there was no doubt it was hers.
“Please! Come back,” Diana could feel her shaking. “We can talk about it. I won’t be mad. Never.”
“I’m coming.” The wall itself seemed to shifted and Diana realized there was something beside them. Tucked in between the boxes and so still she hadn’t noticed before.
She turned and it was not Dominique.
There are many empty parts of cities. Caverns and hollows and places where your footsteps echo and echo and echo. And they are empty for a reason.