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The walls around us, p.11

The Walls Around Us, page 11


The Walls Around Us

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  Morning came. Sunday morning. Or, wait, was it Monday now? It couldn’t already be Tuesday, could it?

  I sat up, on the floor in my cell in Solitary. I found my feet. My throat scratched from old screams, so I kept it quiet, rubbing it from the outside, over the skin, as if that might help. My skin was raw from the sandpaper walls. I stood. Then I got dizzy and sat back down.

  Here in Solitary, the lights were on at all hours, which meant the hours spun without my being able to keep track. Only meals shoved through the food slot let me know time was actually passing. If I happened to sleep through it—on the mattress against the wall, gray, and also as cold and hard as the door—the tray of food would be taken back, like I’d rejected it. I couldn’t be sure how many meals I missed.

  My memory was a distant boat I’d set sail in the river, and the current was too strong to snatch it back. Though I’d never had a little boat; I’d never lived near a river. I’d never even been the kind of girl who’d play near raging, flighty things. My outside life, cut short at the age of thirteen, when I was arrested, had been far more careful.

  This carefulness, noticed by all my teachers in school and always mentioned on my report cards, ended up being held against me in court. I seemed calculated, they said. It spoke of premeditation in my stepfather’s death, they said. It was in my diary.

  “A thirteen-year-old is absolutely capable of planning the perfect murder.” Someone in court said that.

  My hands were folded on the table as those words were said. I wouldn’t look at any faces, but I couldn’t close my ears. A so-called expert witness spoke of what a young mind is able to understand, its sense of right and wrong, and how we lived solely in the moment, without thought of consequence, as the frontal lobe is not fully developed until age twenty-five.

  I didn’t know anything about any frontal lobes. As I listened, I thought, How could it be called the “perfect” murder if I am sitting here right now, accused? I wondered how they could know so much about my brain without lifting open my skull and poking through it. I expected my lawyer, a pale pinch-faced woman who’d been assigned to me by the court, to speak up. But my hands were folded so carefully. And my shoes were laced up nice, with one knot each. And if my clothes were too tight, I didn’t fidget and let it show.

  Behind me, across the aisle of the small courtroom, sitting for the other side, the side seeking justice for her dead husband, was my mother.

  Pearl wasn’t in the room, of course, since she was only seven then. I’ve wondered ever since, wondered at night in B-wing and wondered now, in the forced solitude and under the bright lights in D-wing, what my little half sister had been told about me, what she understood. It was her father who was taken from her, a man she happily called “Daddy” while I’d spat at the ground when my mother said I should start calling him “Dad.”

  I weighed less, back then. I hadn’t yet had my growth spurt. My shoulders hadn’t filled out. Still, there was something menacing they saw in me, even at that size. If I stood before the judge now, this big, my jaw set by my habit of tightening it, he would have handed me a guilty conviction in ten seconds instead of taking a recess and coming back with it in an hour and ten minutes.

  People can’t move on until the finger is pointed, and the gavel’s come down. This is called closure, and it’s also called justice, and they are not always the same thing.

  I thought for sure I was in Solitary for days on end, maybe even a week. My leg hairs grew, my stomach shrank. But when the door at last opened, it hadn’t been a full seventy-two hours. I’d made it to Tuesday.

  The lock turned, and the hole in the door—down low, to traffic the food trays—flopped open, and I could see two gray-clad legs. A CO.

  I didn’t know which guard was assigned to D-wing that week. It could have been Long or Marbleson, sporting the black eye I’d gifted one of them. It could have been Minko. None of us wanted to be trapped alone with Minko.

  I retreated against the wall as the locks—more installed on this door than in other wings—snapped open.

  If those two gray legs did belong to Minko, I had to be ready. My mind spun over how I might be able to injure him, hoping permanently. If it would be better to use my knuckles, or get some leverage and kick with my foot. (One of us—Polly, in A-wing—once fought off a would-be rapist with a hockey stick to the solar plexus. When she reenacted the scene for us, making do with an invisible weapon, she mimicked the sound of his pain and defeat and shame, a deep soul-crushing whimper. We loved to picture her assaulter going down, fish-eyed and flopping on the sidewalk, so we asked her to act out this story again and again.)

  I would be like Polly if I had to be, though I had no sports equipment with which to take him down.

  But no. It wasn’t Minko. The door cranked open, and the CO who entered was Santosusso. He was practically as young as we were, and cheery, no matter the day. Of course, he was also new. I couldn’t have been more lucky.

  “Hey there,” he said. He glanced at a clipboard. “Amber, right?”

  His eyes skittered around the pitiful space, avoiding me and mine. He seemed ashamed at having to witness me in here. This was his first summer, and we’d caught him acting like he cared. It gave some of us the heebie-jeebies. Others found it endearing. Mississippi was in love with him, and so was Lian. But Peaches warned he might snap at any moment, as it was always the nice ones who had the sickest of the sick stuff buried behind their big blue eyes—and we should watch our backs with him.

  “Yeah,” I said weakly, acknowledging my name.

  It was weird that he called us by our first names; most COs used last names for us as if we were enlisted in the military, and a few just called us “Inmate,” as they were used to working at adult maximum-security facilities, where the prisoners didn’t even deserve names.

  “Time to go back to B-wing, Amber,” he said, actually smiling at me. He even had two identical dimples, one on each side of his face. He looked like a boy at my old school. Like a civilian, offering to take a walk with another civilian.

  When I didn’t come forward, when I didn’t immediately offer up my wrists so he could cuff them for the walk home, he softened further. “How’re you doing? What’s going on?”

  These questions confused and disturbed me. Maybe it would have been better to be confronted with Minko—at least I knew what he wanted. I would have known I was right to be on guard.

  I shrugged. He flashed his dimples.

  Except, now that we were talking, now that the door was open, and air was coming in, I remembered I had so many questions. First I needed to know the day. It was Tuesday, he said, which felt impossible in every way, but I went with it. Questions dropped from my mouth, one after the other, faster than the one before. “What happened?” I wanted to know. “Were you there? Did you see? Did they catch everyone? What was it? What went wrong? Could it happen again?”

  He interrupted to explain that this was his first shift since Friday, so he wasn’t clear on what happened Saturday night, if that’s what I was asking.

  But he must know something.

  “Is she dead?” I said. “D’amour.”

  “The blonde?” he said, not unkindly. “Drug trafficking, right?”

  I didn’t take the bait. We don’t talk about one another’s crimes to anyone in authority. We know what we know, and we don’t ask after what we don’t know. I wouldn’t agree or deny that I was aware of what she’d done to get her eighteen months—and I wouldn’t put in an opinion on if she was guilty or if she was innocent. It’s best to say we’re all innocent.

  “I saw her at the fence,” I said. “I saw her go up in lights.” That was the only way I could think to describe it, like she was a fireworks show for the Fourth of July, a holiday we didn’t get to celebrate in here.

  “She’s okay,” he said. “In the infirmary. Second-degree burns, I think I heard. But she’s not bad off enough to be transferred.”

  I guess I didn’t react.

p; “She’s alive,” he continued, assuring me. “That fence is electric, you know. But she’s okay. Really.” Maybe he thought I cared more about her well-being than I did. That I’d been crying over her in here. For D’amour, I hadn’t shed one tear.

  He secured my wrists—the usual protocol when being transported from one cell to another; we got used to it—and we started out the door.

  “I’ll tell D’amour you were asking about her,” he said casually as he shuffled me forward. “She’s not coming back to B-wing.”

  “What? Why not?”

  “She’s moving to A-wing. You’re getting a new roomie today.”

  “Who’s getting transferred? Lola? Kennedy?”

  “Oh no. Yeah, that’s a whole other story. You’re getting someone brand-new.”

  I was made to walk ahead of him, and I considered this piece of information. The prick of memory nipped me. We were passing the stairwell between B-wing and the canteen. The sensation of having known what he was telling me, known it was coming because I’d lived it before, grabbed me.

  She was coming. She was the next thing to come, after the locks. Once she was here, everything would go wrong. Of that I felt certain.

  I jolted in Santosusso’s grasp. We’d reached the entry gate to B-wing. We were almost home.

  “Cuffs too tight?” he asked.

  I shook my head. I knew I shouldn’t ask, shouldn’t let him in on anything more than I had already because he wasn’t one of us, no matter how young he was and how nice he seemed with his dimples. I asked anyway. “Does her name”—it was coming to me, there it was—“start with an O?”

  “You been watching the news? I thought they monitored what played on the rec TVs. But yeah. You know who I mean, then. It’s in all the papers, too. Keep an eye on yourself, all right?”

  “What’d she do?”

  Even as I said it, I felt I should know the answer. Something in his face said so, too. Then his face shifted, and darkened, and I lost the two dimples, and everything else was a blur. I felt his hands turning the handcuffs lock to let mine go, and I sensed him drifting off, leaving me before the open door to my cell as if I’d wandered here all alone without needing permission from anybody.

  It was an odd moment, and that was only the beginning.

  The sign that said WYATT had been removed from the cinder-block wall outside my cell, and a new sign, one that said SPEERLING, was attached in its place.

  D’amour’s things had been cleared out of our shared cell, and the top bunk was stripped, indicating a new arrival would show up soon.

  This new arrival would be our forty-second.

  She Was Surrounded

  SHE WAS SURROUNDED by guards. She came in under siege, as if she might lunge and go for the closest throat. But, from our vantage point, from our place of wisdom and experience and occasional regret, she looked nothing like the rumors made her out to be, so much so that I began to wonder if they’d been mistaken. If they’d caught the wrong girl.

  She was known by the state as inmate number 47709-01, and known by the public as Orianna Speerling, but if we’d followed the sensationalized news stories, we’d have heard the press call her the “Bloody Ballerina,” and we would have come up with a few pictures of our own thanks to that.

  I watched—many of us were watching—from my cell window as the short blue bus from the county jail approached the curb. The COs converged before the bus door even opened.

  We always made an effort to check out the new arrivals, but something about today drew more of us than ever before. We looked down from above, from our cells, as those of us on the south side of the facility always did when the bus was due to arrive. Sometimes we were looking for family: long-lost cousins and half sisters from estranged, despised fathers we wished were dead (the fathers, not the sisters). Or we’d see a friend we didn’t want joining us here, so witnessing her step off the bus with her ankles in chains broke another jagged bit off what remained of our hearts. Sometimes, on good days when the sun was shining for us, we would spot an enemy from outside emerging from that bus. This was a gift from the universe, a reason to fold our hands in the night and mutter our thank-yous because she’d been handed over, like a sweet treat on a plate. No matter who it was, the fact is it could always be someone.

  That day, the blue bus held just one girl.

  “D’you think she’ll get her own room and no one’ll ever see her, like with Annemarie?”

  Many of us had heard of little Annemarie, and some of us had spotted her from a distance. No one relished the idea of her getting released into the general population.

  “Nah, I heard she’s in B-wing. With Amber.”

  They spoke about me as if I weren’t right there.

  “Think she’ll go psycho killer and slit Amber’s throat in the night?”

  “Oh, sure. If she can find something sharp.”

  “If not, she could just strangle her.”

  “True. You can do that with your bare hands.”

  “Or a bedsheet.”

  They then discussed all the other everyday weapons we had available, for those with a creative streak and a worthy target.

  I kept any reactions to myself. It was so rare to hear my name aloud, spoken by another girl here, that I felt my cheeks heating up more than they were already, which was to a slow boil, thanks to the upstate August humidity. I wanted to cover my whole face with my hands.

  The other girls often didn’t speak to me directly, unless they had to when I wheeled around the library cart. It was more like they spoke near me and I listened in. I thought of us together as one, and included myself in their conversations, like a silent partner hovering behind their chairs.

  But all that changed as the other girls gathered at my window, peering down. It was hearing my name aloud, being acknowledged in a way I often wasn’t. That was when it settled over me. The feeling of being included. Of belonging. Like we were family now, more than ever before.

  Someone poked me hard in the ribs, indicating I should move over, and my side pulsed from the pain, but I didn’t mind. I wasn’t used to being touched. This new girl, this Orianna Speerling, she’d turned me into a celebrity simply because she was one. Any girl made to share a cell with her would have been treated the same.

  “Watch your back,” a voice said in my ear, and the guffaw told me it was Jody.

  “I’m not scared,” I said, and a bunch of them laughed, thumping me on the back and massaging my shoulders like they were going to push me to the center of the ring for a boxing bout.

  We returned our attention to the new inmate down below. Three COs were waiting to receive her from the county guys.

  She paused on the lip of the sidewalk—she actually stopped moving, as if she had all day to dawdle and wanted to check out the view first—and we watched her. We watched her gaze at our gray stone walls, which we knew rose like a fortress. We watched her take a breath in the thin air and gaze upward, at our windows, and we wondered if she could see our peering eyes.

  She was tall, and maybe too thin, from what we could tell, with her wearing the shapeless jumpsuit from jail. On the back it claimed her county: Saratoga. We whispered that rich girls lived there, in big fat houses, with their fancy cars; there weren’t many of us, inside, who came from money, and we immediately disliked anyone who did. But none of us had ever been to Saratoga, so we didn’t know for sure.

  The new girl had medium-brown skin and thick, straight black hair too long to keep in here—she’d learn that soon enough. None of us could tell if she was Latina or mixed. Some of us thought that mattered, but others of us said it didn’t matter what you looked like in here. You were here, after all.

  The ugliest of us, and those who didn’t waste their canteen accounts on items that could be substituted for eyeliner or mascara, said this all the time.

  Mirabel started taking bets. The odds were stacked against anyone who thought the new girl wouldn’t put up a fight. Most everyone assumed she was taking
a moment before an exciting, explosive show of violence. They bet their Reese’s on it.

  Other bets went down saying at least she’d cry.

  A few of us thought she’d try to make a run for it, but that was only wishful thinking, because it was kind of funny when a girl thought she’d get anywhere with her ankles in chains.

  I didn’t place a bet. I knew I’d be alone with her soon enough. It felt like playing a trick on your own dog.

  We waited, and watched. And nothing.

  She didn’t try to raise a buckled fist. She didn’t sob. She didn’t make even one attempt at a shackled, running leap.

  The longer we watched, the more we wanted to take back our bets, and save our Reese’s Cups. Mirabel heaved a loud sigh and dropped her running tally. Cherie scarfed one of the Reese’s she’d bet on the win, and the cramped space filled with the scent of peanut butter.

  Down below, the new girl was taking her first steps onto the cracked sidewalk. There was something about the way she held her body, with a magnetic kind of grace that, if we ignored the telltale armed guards and the desolate barbed-wire fencing in the background, if we ignored the things we always tried to ignore, it made us forget where we were for a moment.

  She didn’t look foam-mouthed or haunted and on edge, her head full of razors. She didn’t look like a killer at all to us, and this the opinion of killers.

  She looked like a girl on a sunny sidewalk on a summer’s day. Calm and at peace. Free.

  We blinked. Was this the notorious criminal we’d overheard the COs talking about? The girl whose face some of us had seen flash on the guards’ TV?

  Maybe she’d crumble before she got to us and by the time she reached B-wing, she’d be a shell of her former self. If not, reality would hit her fast once she was inside. We always said this when the rare princess arrived, and then a group of us would gang up on the girl out by the woodshop and make sure. Her dose of the real world. The floor meeting her face, hard.

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