Something must have died in the walls of the house. A squirrel, a raccoon, a family of mice. It filled the bedroom with alien rot, curled up Beck’s top lip, her smile one of disgust.
“What the fuck is that smell?” she asked.
“I don’t smell anything,” Mark said, “and language, come on, Beck.” He was playing with the baby, Turner. There were floppy stuffed animals arranged in rows on the bed. Mark turned to them and said, “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, my client is innocent!” He whirled toward Turner, who squealed with glee. Mark would be trying the bar again in February.
Beck went around the room sniffing. Turner stood up and wobbled behind her. Beck had taken to strategically ignoring him, which he tolerated just fine, far better than Mark did. She said it was to foster independence, but really, she worried she might come unglued from answering Turner’s every need, and she needed these little rebellions against motherhood. Her biceps were huge from carrying her child and she thought she might disappear.
The smell was strongest near the head of the bed, on the south wall. It had been an unusually warm few weeks, lots of Texas sunshine even this deep into fall, and whatever it was seemed to be baking in the walls.
The smell radiated. She bent down and stuck her head between the bed and the dresser. Her nose was thick with it, piss and rot. She suppressed a gag. There was a heat to it, the smell a kind of lure, drawing her in underneath all the vileness. She stood up.
“Here,” she said to no one. Turner tripped over one of Mark’s loafers and began to scream.
Mark worked four days a week at a small firm, prepping casework and repeatedly explaining to senior partners how the copy machine worked. He was doggedly ambitious, but made no secret of how much he hated the work. He and Beck did their best to avoid the reality of the situation: that if he’d passed the bar he wouldn’t be there, that if her pregnancy hadn’t been so fraught with depression and an unexpected onset of preeclampsia—Beck had always been healthy, a runner—he might’ve had more time to study for the bar, that if they had stuck to their plan of waiting until he was thirty-two and she was thirty to have a child they wouldn’t have the added burden of a house payment. On and on, and no getting out of it now. At night in bed together, the baby monitor hissing slightly, one or the other of them would say, “We got here entirely on purpose.” And it was true, or true enough.
That night, Beck lay awake until the early hours, the smell gnawing at her. Eventually she got up and tromped around the room by the light of her phone, searching. It seemed to be both everywhere she wasn’t and also emanating from her, or at least stuck to her skin. Yet when she left the room, it was gone.
Eventually her investigation woke Mark. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“You really don’t smell that?”
“I don’t. Go to sleep. I’ll have the guy come out and look.”
Beck hated the guy. He was a craggly, gnomish misogynist of a maintenance man who always found a way to make her feel stupid even as she knew that he was basically less than a nobody to her. Mark’s response to him was to shrug and say, Some people are assholes, nothing to do about it.
“Don’t call the guy. It’s fine. Get some sleep.”
Mark was already out, though. She thought she might sleep on the couch, but she didn’t. She wandered the room until dawn.
On two of the days Mark was at work, Turner went to a daycare that masqueraded as an early development center for gifted babies. There was no standard of admission—any baby whose family could afford it was considered gifted. Most days, she would spend a few hours afterward wandering the aisles of a grocery store or a Target, picking up items and dropping them into a cart. More often than not, she would abandon the half-filled cart along the way and leave with the one or two items she really needed. It was meditative, the filling up and then the letting go.
After dropping Turner off Monday morning, she went instead to a hardware store. At first she wasn’t sure what she was doing there, what solution she hoped to find, so she drifted through the store like she would any other. She passed pallets of wood, the rainbow of paint samples all agleam, the senseless specificity of each different type of screw and bolt and washer, all of it unknown to her, so very far from her understanding of house while still being exactly what a house was made of.
It was the sledgehammer that stopped her. She stared at it for a moment in all its dumb potential before hoisting it off the rack and placing it head down in front of her. It came up to her chest. She put her hands on the smoothed wood, a sensible, unpainted handle that suggested an urgency and simplicity of purpose. She thought that a person with a sledgehammer would know everything they needed to know.
She picked it up. She found gloves in one aisle, goggles in another.
She passed a woman and her three-year-old daughter trying to pick out a bird feeder and seed. The woman would hold one up and say Well what do you think? What do you think, darling? Which one would the birds like? Are you excited to see the birds? Beck thought if she swung the hammer around with all her strength, the whole city block might fall down around them.
Back home, she moved everything into one corner of the bedroom, kicking stuffed animals, a blanket, a breast pump into a heap. She wiggled the oak nightstand out of the way, braced herself against the bed and pushed it aside. Underneath was a dead cockroach and a condom wrapper with a used condom stuffed inside. She picked them up with a paper towel. They made the same sound between her fingers, both desiccated and dust-fluffed.
With everything out of the way, the smell was stronger, thick enough to blot out thought. Beck lost access to herself beyond being a body, a stink-led mammal working on instinct.
She brought the hammer down in a wide pendulum swing. It struck the wall hard and went through easily. She felt a little spark of joy in her. She raised the hammer high and swung it down again, making a ragged hole to the left of the first. She swung again, and the drywall cracked wide, joining the two holes.
She waited, thinking some skeletal starving thing might come scrabbling out at her, or a horde of teeming insectile filth. But nothing moved except the dust swirling, the ragged air in her chest. She raised the sledge and swung again.
She kept swinging. Dust cut across the sunlight slanting into the room. It was like something was pouring out from the wall and into her, from the hammer up into her arms. Each swing’s moment of connection was an answer thunking at her core.
When she was done she let the hammer fall. She knelt down and looked at the wound she’d made, a hole about the size of her child. She thought if she worked at it she could squeeze on through. She was sweaty, coated with sheetrock dust.
She couldn’t see anything dead in there by the light of her cell phone screen. The emergency flashlights that her father had bought her every third or fourth Christmas since she turned eighteen were all in the closet, unplugged and uncharged. The smell seemed muted since she’d begun hammering, and she wondered if it was actually lessening or if adrenaline had distorted her perception or if maybe the smell was imagined.
She shimmied into the hole, a shark born in reverse.
For dinner she made spaghetti. She’d cleaned up the mess, covered the hole with the dresser. It had been hot inside the wall. When she got in there she felt gingerly around at the sheetrock, the studs. Her palm grazed an exposed nail. She pressed her back to the outer wall of the house and pushed against the inner wall with her hands, stretching out the tensed, knotty muscles of her back. The air smelled faintly of mold. There was no dead animal that she could tell.
At the kitchen table, Beck felt like she’d left at least half of herself back in the wall. Turner grabbed some spaghetti with a fat fist and flung it. He could play with spaghetti for hours. Beck would nurse him later, after dinner. Mark was saying something about client liability. Beck thought of being in the wall. She could feel herself going a little flush. She squeezed her legs together and tried to think of something else. Behind her the living room, all that wild space. She thought There is a used diaper on the coffee table. You left it there.
It was a tight fit. As she made her way sideward through the wall, she felt carefully for anything that might cut, splinter, bruise. She braced herself with each footstep. She wasn’t afraid of injury but of giving herself away. Mark was a thoroughly reasonable man. It made him a good husband, but not much for indulgence in mystery.
Passing each stud required her to suck in, chafed her tender breasts. She couldn’t say why she was doing this, but what was the point in saying everything all the time? Words were such ugly things, dividing the world into true and not true. In the wall, words didn’t carry the sense they normally did. There just wasn’t enough room for them. She made herself smaller by letting them go, was able to squeeze beyond the studs one by one, part of her knowing she should go back, the rest of her knowing she should go on. The air was dry. It scratched at her throat. She stopped and listened, smelled. Sweat carved its way down her dirty limbs. There was nothing else in here with her. There was barely even her anymore.
If she reached out, she could feel a place where the path inside the wall diverged. She could either continue around the edge of the house or explore one of the inner walls. She wanted very much to do both at once.
That night the smell returned. By then she’d explored enough to know that there wasn’t anything actually in the wall. All she’d discovered was the smell of cut wood and mildew, the bones of the house, the stillness of air long unbreathed. She was the only thing that had ever moved in the wall. She rolled over in bed and put her head to the hole and inhaled. If anything the smell had grown. Her nostrils burned, and she put a hand behind the dresser, feeling the chalky edges. The wall felt brittle and fibrous near the hole. How strange, the things we think are solid.
She went into the other room and woke Turner, kissed his feather-haired head, and took him into her room, hoping he would notice the smell too. But he grabbed at her breast and put his head down, went back to sleep in her arms. She bounced him aggressively, brought his face down near the hole. He didn’t react at all except to smile at this new game, like what a silly mommy. He was normally such a sensitive boy.
She pinched his leg then, harder than she should’ve. He went still in her arms, and there was a moment where it seemed like nothing would happen next. Then the boy began to wail, and his cries brought on something heavy in her, not guilt but grief. Mark stirred, and she hurried the boy to the living room and cried right along with him, shushing him, promising to make it better. Promising all of herself and more.
She got to where she knew exactly where she was between the rooms of the house. Here the bathroom, here the garage, here pipes that ran from guest bath to kitchen that she had to straddle awkwardly. Once she got her foot stuck for half an hour, thirty minutes of panic before she was able to continue. Though time wasn’t really the same in the wall. It slowed. She’d set the alarm clock each morning and place it facing the hole, a beacon that went off in the mid-afternoon, giving her time to move the furniture back and clean up and get Turner as though they’d been together all day.
The secret of it thrilled her. She had been secretless for years, since when she and Mark had first dated and she’d quit smoking for him. Not that he ever asked her to. She just knew he hated it, and she knew he was a worrier. One day she said, Hey, I quit smoking and he lit up and kissed her and said he was so proud. She kept smoking at work and around certain friends for about eight months after that day. When he caught her he didn’t even get angry. He just looked at her with a crestfallen face and said, Oh. It was far too sincere to be manipulative. And that was that. No more smoking.
Turner had an earache and had to stay home. Beck put medicine in his ears, rocked him while he wailed, let him nurse unending. His fever was bad enough that his eyes were wild and blank while he looked up at her, but the thermometer said he was okay and her pediatrician had recently retired without warning. She’d yet to find another, and the burden of it seemed both silly and far too immense. When he finally fell asleep she put him in his crib and stood at the entrance to the wall, waiting for permission that wouldn’t come. She thought if she could just hold her breath long enough it might stop time entirely. She knelt down near the hole and did something sort of like praying. The smell was there like always, but it had changed, become a part of her life instead of an intrusion into it. Still it made her uneasy and ill, an intolerable part of her that she only knew one way to escape.
She entered the wall, made her way as quickly as she could to Turner’s room, and listened. She thought she could feel him on the other side, in his crib, fists balled at the sides of his head like he was still a newborn, which he always did when he had a fever. She settled in where she stood. She waited for either his cries or for something more real to happen.
That night, Mark came in holding Turner while Beck was peeing. “You closed the door,” he said, as though the fact were absurd. Turner was wet-faced and ruddy.
He frowned. “Where’s the koala?”
Beck bit down hard on her cheek. “The fucking koala?”
Turner started up again. There were scratches on Beck’s arms, and she crossed them as though she was angry to hide the marks. And she was angry, though she couldn’t say at what.
In the wall Beck gave in to wave after wave of memory. Once she was in love with only herself. Once she was this horrible crashing comet of a girl. Once she would check herself in the mirror, drunk with a fake ID, and say, You. Yes, you. And then smile wide with dazzling teeth. Once she was pregnant and got to be more than and then even more than herself, before she became less. Once she was sure of her ability to affect change in the world, to pick up a glass of water and have it actually rise up off the table to her lips. It’s so strange, living every single day of a life. It makes no sense whatsoever.
She forgot herself, and edged further and further from the hole. Once a man filled up a woman’s heart, and then a little boy, and she let them claim more and more of her. Once a woman was glad to give every bit of herself away, and still it would be wrong to say the woman regretted doing it, because she didn’t. She only wished to be back in that time when she was able to give and give, when it was the only thing there was to do.
Once there was a desiccated something in the wall, and a hammer, and a woman who could feel her way forward but not see.
Beck sunk down as far as she could, her knees banging the drywall, ending in a kind of half squat. She could lie down sideways, but she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to get up again. She stayed that way for hours, sweat dripping down the small of her back and off her nose.
Outside the wall, the smell of dead things nearly made her retch. In the wall, there was only dry air, though it smelled strongest of death at the entrance to the wall. As she got a few feet away in either direction, it faded entirely. She spent the morning and most of the afternoon feeling her way along until she ended up either somewhere near the bathroom or the baby’s room. She was far enough away from the entrance to be in utter darkness. The air was musty. Something crunched when she shifted her foot. A peace came over her that felt like longing. In the distance, through the wall, the child.
While Turner was napping Mark came home and she undid his belt and pushed him down on the couch. She felt wild, a little dangerous, like when they’d first been dating and she’d goaded Mark into doing it in several public places, including an IHOP bathroom and in a back corner of his law school library. He always needed a little convincing that it was okay to give in to this kind of thing. She found it endearing, but it bothered her how rarely these kinds of moments were his idea.
She pressed herself down on him, pushing his shoulders back into the couch cushion. It was a thread-worn couch they got on Craigslist, and it groaned beneath them. Beck tried to let go, tried to immerse herself fully in the moment, but she couldn’t. A part of her wasn’t there. She closed her eyes and pictured the things she couldn’t see when she was in the wall. In the wall she felt weightless, devoid of hard things like tooth or bone. In the wall she was her own secret. This is what she was thinking when she came.
At night, after Mark and the baby had gone to sleep, Beck sat quietly in bed listening to her own breathing. She reached an arm up and tapped the wall softly with a knuckle. From inside the wall, Beck tapped back. A peace settled over everything, and the house breathed softly all together.
She spent the day entirely in the wall. She took Turner to daycare again that morning, though it wasn’t a scheduled day. She claimed a doctor’s appointment and handed the wailing boy over. Her heart broke clean in half like always, but the smell had overpowered her on waking. She thought if anything it was becoming more powerful. She refused to believe that the smell might be psychosomatic, or that it might be something of her own making. In the wall she thought about sense, about the phrase making sense, and how it admitted to a kind of creation in the interpretation of reality. Mark still didn’t smell anything.
That evening she avoided the bedroom so she wouldn’t give herself away. Mark hardly noticed. He was busy doting on Turner, studying, and diddling with his phone. She grew annoyed by his not noticing, as though she were a child playing mental hide-and-seek with him. After the sun was fully set she got her headphones and went into the garage for her running shoes and then walked out the front door without a word. It was so humid her phone screen was slicked with moisture. She couldn’t get it to respond to her touch, couldn’t set any music to play. But it didn’t matter, because when she looked up from it and at her neighborhood her breath caught. The world was so large and dark. The starlight came from a time before she existed, before she was even an idea of a person. How could a person enter into this without being flattened by the enormity of it all?
She ran back to the garage and wept, her palms flat against the wall, her forehead pressed against it. Then she curled her fingers up, scraping away a bit of drywall with her nails, and then she was scratching, and her lip turned up into a snarl, and she was clawing at the wall the way an animal would, leaving deep gouges with her nails, knowing that something was wrong, that she was too brittle, or too combustible, or something else, and she needed to get away, and what was there to do but keep burrowing into the wall, and then a fingernail bent back and broke, sending a small shock of pain up her finger, and she stopped.
Beck came back to herself. The damage to the wall was plainly visible and at eye level. There would be no hiding it, and any excuse she came up with would be thin. Catching herself while falling, an animal loose in the garage—anything she could think of was too obviously a lie. If and when Mark asked, there would be only one true thing: I don’t know. It would start an unraveling between them, but there was nothing different she could say.
Mark ate his breakfast over a textbook. When Beck walked in with Turner he looked up and said, “I slept weird. My legs feel funny. I think I pinched a nerve on the couch the other day.”
Beck tapped the book. “You’re just nervous.” She went to the counter and poured herself a cup of coffee. She shifted Turner away from her free hand and took a sip, and the rich warmth of it flooded into her. She realized how much she’d missed it these past two years.
Mark grimaced. “What about him?”
“He’ll be fine.” She headbutted the boy, who smiled. “Won’t you? Just a little secondhand caffeine. You’ll be bright-eyed in daycare and nap a little later, once you’re back home, yeah?”
“Daycare? It’s Wednesday.”
Beck took another sip of coffee. “Huh. I thought it was Thursday. Probably I need this more than I thought.”
Mark made his be careful face and looked back to his textbook. After a second, he said, “Did you ever figure out that smell?”
Beck’s shoulders tensed up. “Are you telling me you smelled it?”
“No, but who knows. Should I call someone?”
“No. It went away.” Somewhere between the bathroom and living room, Beck felt herself sigh in relief.
As soon as Mark left, she set to work. Took Turner to daycare. She didn’t bother with an excuse. She just handed him over. Drove back home, creeping past the line at every stoplight, her left foot bouncing. Ate the remains of a soggy bowl of cereal in the kitchen. Cleaned it, cleaned the kitchen, cleaned the whole house. Moved the dresser just enough to get into the hole, then pulled it close to the wall behind her.
In the darkness she could breathe and be real. She made her way forward, determined to search every nook, every dead end, to climb over the doorframes and under the window mountings and fully know her home. It was rough going, and she quickly became knee-scraped and filthy, but it was also exhilarating. With each obstacle passed, each corner turned, she felt closer to the thing inside the wall.
There was a light, pale and wintry. Beck couldn’t tell how far it was or what it might be, but she kept edging toward it, an inch at a time. It seemed the walls had been getting tighter, trying to bar her progress. The studs hugged her so snugly now that she often found herself not touching the ground at all as she pulled herself through. The light didn’t seem to grow any brighter, but it seemed larger, more of a presence around her. The dead darkness became a cave-lit murk. The dry air thickened.
Beck thought of saying something there in the wall, but couldn’t find anything. She was slicked with sweat. Her clothes were torn and filthy. Her mouth burned, ragged with thirst and need.
The walls began tearing at her clothes and she pressed on. The time for caution had passed. Suddenly the space widened, and she was able to walk facing forward. Behind her, she could hear the sounds of the house, of her husband arriving home with the baby. She could hear her name, and she ran. Her muscles, stiff and achy from the effort of squeezing through the tight spaces, loosened. As she ran, things unfurled behind her—first her clothes, which went to tatters from the force of her motion. Then her hair, which came off in strands and then great locks, lost in the liminal space between the wall, which had widened out so much that it seemed infinite. Her skin came away, making her fingers look like linneas in bloom before flaking off in papery sheets. The muscle began loosening and peeling back in fibrous strands. Still she ran, because the running was there. Time flowed in both directions as she ran, and the ground wore away at her bones until she fell, her crumbling feet kept together by the ligaments, scraps of skin, and little else. She kept on, nails and elbows. There was screaming behind her, the howl of loss and a need for relief. She joined in as she crawled on. Ahead of her was the light, and she could see herself there in it, reaching out, a Beck at once bounded and infinite and whole, a Beck never forced to the precipice of decision, but also Beck herself, the Beck she had become, and all she had to do was get to the light. She scrabbled onward, through the pain and the splintering of bone. And when she did finally reach the source of the light, when she found the hole leading outside, when she took hold of the outstretched hand and scrabbled out into the evening wild, while far away she could hear the sounds of her house come alive with panicked father and broken child, there was nothing at all left of her.
Zach VandeZande is the author of Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth Press, 2008) and the forthcoming Lesser American Boys (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Gettysburg Review, Word Riot, Portland Review, Cutbank, Passages North, Beloit, PRISM International, Slice Magazine, Atlas Review, Necessary Fiction, Crack the Spine, The Boiler, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in North Carolina with a person and a dog.