by Danielle LeClerc


Water was the first thing she thought of that day.


Water that broke on the curve of her forehead, sliding into her eye socket and into her dark hair, all rat’s tails after a night’s rolling.


Kai Ying sat up and raised one bone shoulder to the cement, then the other.  Grandmother says it’s important to stretch mindfully each morning if you’ve slept in a hard, cold place.  But today she rushed the familiar movements: cheating when her nose opened to smell the water.  Cheating as she strained to identify the sounds coming from the stairwell and the floor above.  Nowhere in the shadows could she see her mother or father.

In fact the whole floor seemed deserted, even the washing area where everyone’s crayon coloured plastic basins stood.  Work began early in the Hero Building, but there were always a few bodies still knocking pans or pulling an odd sock when Kai Ying got up.  She wondered where Bo was.

Every second drew long as Xinjiang noodles while she wiggled into her favourite sneakers.  Good sneakers so stretched and worn they are practically a part of your natural body.  These she could count on if it came to balancing on a window ledge, or scaling wall chunks and the bent bones of stuff people didn’t want anymore.  Finally she pulled an extra sweater over the three she’d slept in and set out to investigate.

Water everywhere.  It dripped from the tops of cubby-hole window wells; it fanned out from the cement feet of numerically positioned pillars and it pooled at the instinctive borders between each family space.  Suddenly a pair of coveralls rushed past the bright square of the stairwell door.  What was it doing open?  Her thoughts swirled faster than she could catch them, but Kai Ying was certain she’d never seen that door unlocked, let alone standing open.

She rushed to the jamb with a little polka aimed at keeping her feet out of the water and the light from the doorway.  Crouching, she peered down into the landing.  Their half of the door came about as high as her neck, and everybody had to fold-up when jumping down.  The bottom half lead to ceiling space above The Fourth Floor, where wires and ducts ran the walls and concrete buttresses, lighting and heating the accounting office below.

A thin, dark rope of water unwound slowly on the stairs, sliding a finger into each pit and crack, over filling them before spilling onto the next step.  Like a new river in an old bed, the finger stretched onto the landing and poked into the dark of the half door under her knees.

The Fourth must be under water!”  Kai Ying thrilled.  “Now, which way?”  Clamour and voices seduced her up the stairs and down in equal measures, so after a moment Kai Ying set her back teeth and followed the water up.

Of course, using the common stairs during the day was against the rules.  Not being seen was practically the first thing about living in-between.  But The Fifth Floor coaxed and tickled and dared her to take a peek.  She just had to see what was going on up there.  With a hop, she was on the fourth-and-a-half floor landing and scuttling up the stairs, keeping low against the wall.  If she heard an Outsider coming, she’d flee back to her door and close it quickly.

The Fifth was shared by an insurance company, where the ladies all wore sharp office heels and short, thin skirts; and a real estate developer where the boss had an old hairy mole and sometimes kept one of the telephone girls late after all the others had left.  In the lobby where the heavy glass doors of each office stared across at each other, Mr. Zhong the Rubbish Man and XieXie’s fat father mopped water into a large red bucket.  As they mopped, they talked, and as they talked, they smoked, the mouth ends of their cigarettes damp and mushy.

“How far up you think it goes?”  XieXie’s father asked.

“Maybe a long way,” replied the Rubbish Man.

XieXie’s father nodded and leaned on his mop handle, sucking deeply at his smoke.  “Gonna be a bad day.”

“Yeah,” laughed the Rubbish Man, “but not as bad as these smart bastards are going to have when they get in on Monday.”  He curled his lips at the tightly locked glass.

XieXie’s father laughed and coughed, and coughed and laughed.

Suddenly heavy feet echoed below Kai Ying: two voices speaking English, getting louder.  One was even and foreign sounding, like the click-click of those sharp office heels.

“So many stairs!  I don’t like it.”

The other voice halted a little, it was soft around the syllables.  “…I … also don’t like.”

Good news!  “I have to find Bo.”  Kai Ying ran up to the fifth-and-a-half floor landing.  Her upstairs neighbours’ door was also sprung, and Kai Ying scrambled up the frame to the in-between floor and pulled the door behind her.  She hunched in the shadows between the jamb and the Chang’s cook stove to wait for the outsiders to pass.  This floor was as dark and still as her own must be, downstairs without her.

Huang Xiansheng must have shut off the elevators.”

She imagined the big electrician up in the cables on his hands and knees with water spreading in circles on his dark jeans.  Huang Xiansheng had beautiful jeans that made him look set-apart, like people on the advertising posters.  Although he was technically an Outsider because he had a home somewhere through the big doors and out in the city, he was still one of them.  Not like the cold-eyed front-desk men in fancy caps and jackets, who would sneer or kick you if they caught you in the halls.

The English teacher was here, that meant that the school hadn’t been closed.  Kai Ying had to find Bo and steer her up to The Ninth.

There would be a lot of people in the stairwell if the elevators were stopped.  She couldn’t risk it, darting up the steps to Bo’s floor when the coast looked clear.  Knock, “one… two-three-four… five… six:” the private code that opened any door in the Hero building with In-Between people behind.  Instead, Kai Ying chose the telephone access shaft that scaled one corner of the building.              The shaft was a narrow square cut through all 28 cement floors from the ground to the sky.  A column of wire rungs ran up and up, past holes to each in-between level.  The two girls always played on The 15th: grip the ladder and lean out, way out.  Arch your back over the terror of a deadly drop through the ink-dark.  The 15th was as high as they dared go, and it had taken them two years to get that far.  Kai Ying held had things back; Bo was practically fearless.

Today there was no traffic in the conduit, and only soggy, empty family areas on each in-between floor where she stopped to shout for Bo.  The halls rang with her neighbours, running about with mops and buckets, oblivious to her.  But Bo was nowhere, and they were probably already missing the first part of their lesson!  By the time Kai Ying reached The Ninth where the school was, she still hadn’t found Bo or the source of the water.  Kai Ying dropped into the space above the 9th floor ceiling and scuttled along cement rafters where she could hear the 9 o’clock class, the one with kids her own age, repeating new words.

“T-shirt, dress, pants, jacket, shoes…”

But instead of taking the usual spot above the classroom, she shimmied to the common area between the school and the construction company.  She was almost half way along the concrete spine of the ceiling before she noticed it was completely dry.

The water must begin here, on The Ninth!

Over the common area by the elevator, Kai Ying saw a knot of kids from various in-between floors, and there in the middle was Bo.  They had popped up a ventilation screen and were watching the activity below.  A wedge of light came through the crack to light their dusty brown faces.

“Bo, there you are!”  Kai Ying said in a fierce whisper.  Bo waved and held out a hand, making space at the crack for her friend.

“What’s going on?”

“A pipe broke in the construction office, and you know it’s closed on Sunday.  They had to smash the glass door and break the wall to find the pipe.  Look, there’s your Dad.”  Kai Ying’s father had his sleeves rolled up over thick arms, he was emptying buckets filled by seven moppers and then emptying them again.

“Wow.  Hey, class started, are you coming?”

I was waiting for you,” sniffed Bo.  Kai Ying pushed up the tip of her nose like a pig and crossed her eyes, then scrambled ahead.

“Socks,” the teacher said.

“Socks, socks, socks, socks,” the girls whispered to eachother, bellies on a concrete rafter.  They listened for one of the Outsider kids to shout the meaning of this new word.

“…Wadz*- hahahahahaha!”  That was Tom Ba-dom-bom, whose new yo-yo Bo and Kai Ying had drooled over from their cracks and holes last week.

“Do you have cho wadz?”  The teacher asked of Tom, and the laughing in the classroom covered the giggles in the dark above.