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The walls around us, p.10

The Walls Around Us, page 10


The Walls Around Us

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  “Let me out!” I scream.

  Then I hear the strangest thing: the solid clonk and clank of a lock being turned. The door seems to vibrate, though no one said anything about Miles’s having a key. There’s a moment when I forget where I am, who I am, what I did.

  I’m at the door. I touch the ice-cold surface and feel it hum.

  I give it a shove. It opens outward. It wasn’t locked at all, was it? All I had to do was push.


  HAS IT GOTTEN darker?

  I was in Ori’s cell with the door shut on me for a few minutes, and now the large space outside is flooded with blackness, warm and tacky like tar, making me sweat and my clothes stick to my already sticky skin. I can feel the thick droplets slink down my spine, pooling in the small of my back. The dampness leaks down out of my hair, stinging as it reaches my eyes. I’m embarrassed at how I acted in there, how I screamed. Plus, my neck is sore from where I walked into the hard bunk, my hip aches from where I hit the wall, and there’s a pulsing swell on my shin.

  “Tommy? Sarabeth?”

  There’s a distant sound, a far-reaching echo, but it may just be my own voice battling against the walls.

  No Tommy. No Sarabeth.

  Though I kind of hate myself for it, I yell for him.


  I’m disturbed I even thought for one single beat of a second that he might kiss me, and, worse, that I was about to kiss him back. That I wasn’t even considering shoving him away.

  There’s no answer. Nothing. No Miles. No Sarabeth, no Tommy. No anybody.

  I start walking, the flashlight on and out. Now it decides to start working again.

  I can’t trust my ears. I keep hearing these whorls of sound, but when I stop, and try to listen, they’re gone. Is that Sarabeth shouting? Tommy? No, too much noise for it to be just one person. And those gashes of windows give barely any light, and my flashlight shows only the smallest, dimmest circle. All I can do is keep going down this corridor.

  A Beyoncé song comes into my head randomly, and I don’t even like Beyoncé. It takes hold of me, and then I lose it, the melody, the lyrics. I don’t even know what song it was.

  The walls in this section of hallway have fallen. There are shelves, knocked over and spilling onto the floor. It takes me a moment to realize that the squishy, mossy ground I’m walking on isn’t grass but is made of damp, rotting paper. These are books. A piece of furniture blocks the way forward like a fallen tree—another bookshelf—and I have to scale it. My sandal gets caught in a mound of waterlogged books, and what had once been a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s sticks to the sole of my shoe. I kick it off. It’s not until I’m past all that when I realize the flashlight isn’t in my hand anymore, that I must’ve let it fall.

  I hear Tommy. He’s shouting that he’s found the power supply—he’s always had a thing for playing with plugs and coming dangerously close to getting himself electrocuted—and he’s trying to see what will happen if he hits the switch. I call out to him, around that corner or the next, to quit messing around, but it’s too late. He’s gone and flipped the switch. He’s made the power come on.

  A whole series of lights blaze. But the glow is sick-green and soupy, and the sound is blaring, earsplitting—an air-raid siren, like we’re under attack.

  I hear cursing. Tommy’s screwed something up. Lights flash and bulbs seem to pop and there’s a charred, throat-burning stink in the air. There’s a spark in the room, quick and gone, like lightning. My gold charm bracelet catches the light.

  I feel for the bracelet around my wrist. It’s still there. Ori didn’t crave expensive things, but she always had her eye on this bracelet. She liked to tinker with the little ballerinas hung all around the chain, dancing them on my wrist. She knew I got a new charm each year from my dad for my birthday, 24 karat, and she knew I wouldn’t miss a charm or two, because by now there were so many, but I never detached one and let her have it. I never let her borrow the bracelet, either, to try on her graceful wrist, not even in the safety of my bedroom so she wouldn’t lose it.

  I’m in a wide-open space. It’s quiet now. My eyes have adjusted enough so I can make out what’s on the walls: patches of graffiti and crumbling dust and hanging pipes and dangling pillows of what’s probably asbestos. I lift my hand to cover my mouth and nose.

  Then I’m hit. Something rushes through me. A shock of cold, face-first, and then gone. This is another thing that makes no sense. And I know that I can’t tell anyone, not Sarabeth, not Tommy, especially not Miles, because none of them would believe me, and I don’t want to be questioned. I don’t want to question myself.

  The thing is, I see her. Or someone. I swear on my life that I see someone who wasn’t there just two seconds before. I step forward. I know this doesn’t make any sense, but I say her name. I say, “Ori? Is that you?” And she doesn’t say anything back, but there’s this shuffling, this shift-and-shuffle in the dark, and then quick movement, fast, faster, a dance I can’t keep up with, and I’m the one who can always keep up.

  She’s coming for me, the pieces and particles of her are connecting together in a hazy shaft of gray light, the particles and pieces are walking on human legs. She’s wearing green. She’s seen me, and she’s coming down the stairs toward me, and she’s wearing green, and she’s come out.

  She’s reached me now, is inches away, and says, in a low voice, almost a growl, “Who are you? How’d you get in here?”

  And then I see all these things at once: The green is army-drab, not a bright, happy color that Ori would like, not at all. The figure isn’t as tall as Ori used to be, since she’d always been taller than me, by a couple inches at least. The figure isn’t as thin as Ori—whoever this is, it’s thick and barrel-chested, practically a bulldozer. The voice sounds nothing at all like hers.

  I don’t know who this is. Or what.

  I step back, sputtering. “Who are you?”

  “Who are you?”

  “What are you doing here?”

  “What are you doing here?”

  I’m trying to communicate with a ghost.

  My legs take over, the way they do after I’ve memorized a combination and there’s my cue. They know what they’re doing, my legs. I’ve trained them well. Here they go, but not in a pas de bourrée or a pas de chat or any quick-moving step my feet could shuffle through from memory. They do what I need them to do, the most basic action. They run.

  Part IV:

  Amber and Orianna

  She is happy where she lies

  With the dust upon her eyes.

  —Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Epitaph”

  I Found Myself

  I FOUND MYSELF alone for the first time in three years, one month, and thirteen days. (I was counting.) I had a cell of my own, with the door sealed closed, its window hole covered and dark. I had privacy.

  Only, we all knew to be careful what we wished for. Maybe to not do so much wishing after all. Because this wasn’t a gift; it was Solitary, in D-wing, a section of the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center I’d only heard about, through passed-along stories and a few bold lies. (We’d heard there was a girl who tried to eat other girls’ ears off, and that, after two separate ear incidents, she was housed in D and never saw sunlight, like a carnivorous mole. The Suicides, as we called them, were also housed in this wing, where the nightly rounds were constant. Officially this was known as Suicide Watch. The Suicides were strip-searched for pens or pencils at the end of each school session, every single day, all because one Suicide tried to gouge a hole in her own throat with a blue-inked Bic way back in 1993. Only one of these stories was a lie.)

  In my years at Aurora Hills, I’d wheeled my book cart past the entrance to D-wing many times. I’d detour on purpose. I’d let the wheels slow, the cart stutter, and I’d take the opportunity to peek in. It looked grayer than our other three wings, and there was more howling. In my travels, that was all I could hear or see.

  Now, thoug
h, I was inside, and I didn’t know how long I’d be staying. When one of us was brought to Solitary, otherwise known as the hole, none of us knew when she’d be getting out. I’d heard rumors the ear-eater was still here.

  The doors in Solitary were different from the green doors on the regular wings. As were my clothes, now caution yellow and easy to spot in a shadowed hallway, if the locks let themselves go again and I got out for a second time in one weekend. The doors were thicker here and built with reinforced panels, like armored barricades. They were stone gray, as if someone thought they weren’t even worth painting a real color. The surface was scratchy, and rough against skin, I discovered, after shoving myself against my door, trying to get someone’s attention through the closed hole. My face and neck came away stippled in raised dots. Scrapes on my forearms and the palms of my hands oozed and stung.

  That was my first night. And the floor was where I must have spent it.

  Outside D-wing, most of us had been returned to our cells. The last sound of the night that most of us heard was the clank and crank of the locks as each of our steel doors resealed behind us. Our hearts sank, our spirits dropped. Our guts tied themselves back up into their familiar knots. The night came to an end.

  We heard other things, too, since we were wide awake and wanting answers. We heard the COs’ muffled talk from behind our locked doors. We couldn’t make out all the words but could sense the shock in their voices, the confusion, maybe even the fear. It wasn’t often that we sensed fear coming from our captors.

  The COs were recounting what happened to them when the locks came open—how they all had their backs turned at the same moment, how each one of them on night duty, all across the compound, had been caught unawares. One had been in the toilet. Two had stepped out for a smoke. One was checking fuses and got stuck in the dark basement, feeling for a way out. This grand coincidence felt to us like magic, or like a miracle—either/or, because in the end it gave us the same thing.

  We didn’t feel sorry for the COs, not one bit. We hoped they’d be reprimanded for losing track of us, punished, and severely. Some of us wanted them all fired. A couple of us fantasized they’d be lined up against the wall out behind the facility and beaten with chains.

  Some of us had their hand marks still on us, from when they grabbed us, our eardrums burst from their machine-gun shouts when they yelled for us to get down on the ground. One of us had gotten caught with Minko, the worst of the COs, on the stairwell, and thanks to him, she wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably in a chair for days.

  We were collecting all our own stories. They were ours to share, not theirs.

  The last thing Jody, in B-wing, remembered from our hour outside our cells was a closed door rammed in her face by one of the COs. He grinned when he sent the door swinging. It knocked her clean out, and didn’t feel as good as when she did it to herself.

  Others of us turned ourselves around when we heard the COs coming, like Cherie, who raced back to her cell in B-wing like she’d never left it, and hid her face under her pillow as if she’d kept it there all night. Peaches played statue in a dark corner, until it was safe to come out. A-wing was there for her when she got back. Natty sang quietly to herself, eyes on the floor so she wouldn’t be accused of insubordination, and sang louder when she went wandering, but scooted back to A-wing the second she was told she was out of bounds.

  A couple of us didn’t even take part, so we couldn’t be blamed.

  In C-wing, Mack had used the opportunity to daydream. She imagined her life in rewind: starting with not hiding that stash in her school locker and not elbowing the vice principal in the face, which got her expelled and then locked up, to rewinding all the way back in time, back five years, six years, seven, eight, nine years, to the first mistake she believed set her fate in motion. She was eight, little beaded braids and squeaky-new sneakers, walking right on past that pink bike on the sidewalk and not swiping it for her own. She pictured—and was still picturing, when her cellmate returned—just leaving that bike be.

  Lola returned to a swift reminder. When she’d ditched the cell and gone running, she’d given one quick glance back at Kennedy—a sack of frizz on the floor, barely recognizable as human—and then she got caught up in the crowd, her body surging through corridors with our bodies, her feet hitting concrete with our stampeding feet, and she forgot how she’d left Kennedy unconscious or maybe even dead, and how much more time would be added to her sentence if Kennedy was dead.

  Lola checked the floor as soon as she entered her cell, but Kennedy was not where she’d left her. Lola choked on the envious thought that maybe hair-eating Kennedy, out of all of us, Kennedy, the least deserving, Kennedy, the most despised, the most pathetic, had been the one to get free. Then she choked on laughter when she realized that Kennedy had simply dragged herself, like a wounded animal going off into the fields to croak, under the bed.

  D’amour was discovered by a CO outside, one charred hand fused to the electric fence, but that news wouldn’t make the rounds until later.

  Most of us were back in our usual cells. Still, some of us wore our smiles to sleep, our jaw muscles aching from permagrin. Some of us heard the whimpers of our cellmates in the bunks above or below, and told them to shut up or felt the tears coming and couldn’t say a word because we were too choked up ourselves.

  It took hours to corral us all, to count us, to come back around and count us again. We thought that would be the big event of our summer—the night everyone would be talking about for years to come, a legend in these walls, a brilliant glimpse of the passing sun. We had no idea.

  After the COs completed their rounds, we did our own kind of counting.

  We had roll call in the darkness, from inside our cells. If anyone was missing, we wanted to know about it first, before the morning bell and the fluorescent lights flared.

  “You there?” said a voice through the heating vents in C-wing.

  The vents of A-wing answered, “I’m here.” And more and more of us, “Here. Here. Here.”

  We said our names. We claimed our spaces.

  In B-wing the vents were set low to the floor and hissed clouds of dust in summer (though they stayed quiet when we needed that hiss for warmth in winter), but at a certain angle, once our vision adjusted to the low light, a blur of movement could be made out from the cell next door. There was next door’s eye. Next door’s mouth. The voice clear as crystal, even if the face looked diced and sliced through the grate.

  Here. We made it back. We didn’t get far. Disappointment was in our voices as we said it. Here, here, still here.

  That night, all through Aurora Hills, we spoke to one another. We checked up. We checked in. The COs couldn’t have stopped us if they tried.

  “How far did you get?” we all wanted to know.

  Those of us who had stayed put in our bed slabs were quiet. Those of us who made it only as far as the visiting room, and broke the glass mask of the vending machine and gorged on salty snacks till our tongues blistered, said as much, but it was the girls who tried for the doors, who tried to lift the gates, eyes set on the road, those were the girls who spoke of their adventures with true pride.

  Had I been in my usual cell in B-wing, I would have communicated through the vents like the others. I would have wondered about D’amour and asked if anyone else had seen her. We would have made a few guesses, among us, to how much electricity could run through a living body before it took too much and got itself dead. But mostly I would have listened to what everyone else said. I wouldn’t have gone to sleep until I’d heard absolutely everything.

  But in D-wing, I discovered, there was no way to communicate except by pounding something heavy against the wall. There wasn’t much to pound, since no unattached chairs or personal items were allowed, but there were hands attached to arms, and attached to legs there were feet. There was always something to slam against a wall, once a girl got to looking.

  D-wing had its own kind of Morse code, and I’d
pick it up quickly, though I might not have been clear on what the codes meant. I assumed that three short pounds meant we were making it through the abyss alive and kicking, and other sets of pounds and rhythms meant Stay strong, sister and Are you awake? and Fuck the police. Two slams meant that we were hungry, not like our neighbors could do anything about that. One slam, made with the whole body, could mean a number of things: Let me out, which was obvious. Weren’t those tuna fish guts they called a sandwich disgusting? I’m protesting by throwing my entire being at this wall. Or, say if a girl keeled over and her body slammed against the wall, it meant, possibly, that she passed out. I couldn’t be sure.

  I tried to communicate with thumps and slaps from my feet and hands, but they got sore after a while.



  I made it outside.

  I think.

  I saw someone who shouldn’t be here.

  I swear.

  I had a chance to run, but I didn’t take it.

  Don’t know why.

  This turned to gibberish against the wall, but that didn’t stop me from trying. Usually I felt connected to the other girls, even if they didn’t acknowledge me at lunch or bumped my shoulder in the hallway and went on walking. Now I felt entirely separate.

  After a while, all attempts at communication faded out. We were tired.

  In the harsh light of morning, when we awoke behind our locked doors, this would feel like a massacre.

  I knew that better than any of us. I’d been wet from rain, my throat all screamed out, mud in my hair and mud in my eyelashes, the grit of mud in my mouth, when they caught me. I was outside the facility. I think it was Long who had me, or it was Marbleson. At some point when I was kicking, there were two of them holding me, keeping count of my legs, and it wasn’t my fault they lost track of one and Marbleson (or was it Long?) got the black eye. All for this, I was accused of assaulting a guard.

  One thing I knew for sure was that our walls were green again, and clean. The way they should be. And even in the stress of spending a night in the hole, this was a small comfort I clutched close to me, the way I used to have a stuffed lamb I slept with every night, before my mother married him, when I was still happy, and a kid.

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