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The walls around us, p.12

The Walls Around Us, page 12

 

The Walls Around Us
 


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  But no one was threatening to hurt the new girl, not even Jody.

  “Huh,” one of us said. “So that’s the big-time murderer.”

  “Booooor-ing,” said another, with the yawp of a yawn.

  “I could take her,” mumbled one more.

  They filtered away, losing interest, suggesting card games, slinging gossip, wondering what would be for dinner, until I was alone in my cell.

  I was the only one still watching, but nothing more happened. She walked out of view, and I guess she was escorted inside, as we all had been. Next, I knew, came processing.

  She’d join us in B-wing within hours. She’d be wearing newbie orange. She’d sleep in the same kind of bed we slept in, count the mold flecks on the same stretch of ceiling that we’d been counting.

  Just because the papers and the news shows had all those stories about her and showed slideshows of her pictures, it didn’t make her special. We were, all of us, the exact opposite of special. We were bad. Broken. It was up to the state to rehabilitate us into something worthy, if it even could.

  Maybe, long ago, we used to be good. Maybe all little girls are good in the beginning. There might even be pictures of us from those easy days, when we wore braids and colorful barrettes, and played in sandboxes and on swing sets, if we knew days so easy or wore such barrettes. There was a photo of me in a red-checked shirt and two braids at the neighborhood park. I had a raised shovel and had lost a tooth, but I smiled anyway. My mother used to have that photo in a frame. But something happened to us between then and now. Something threw sand in our eyes, ground it in, and we couldn’t get it out. We still can’t.

  Orianna Speerling was shipped up here like anyone else. She was guilty; the juvenile justice system said so. So that had to mean she belonged.

  I Could Wait

  I COULD WAIT for her to show up in my cell, bundled blanket in her arms like a refugee, and make our introductions, try to be welcoming, the way I was with D’amour. But it was Tuesday afternoon, and on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I wheeled the book cart through the wings. I had to go.

  Most girls weren’t too interested in spending voluntary time flapping the pages of some stale, old book, but there was always someone needing the escape like a gulp of fresh water in the desert. Besides, not every book in our library was old. Some were fresh faced and still had the new-paper smell, and reading a new book before anyone else got to was like getting the first hot lunch and not the murky, lukewarm depths of the middle of the line, or, worse, canned-bean cold like the last few trays.

  Some were books we shouldn’t have even had, judging by the well-thumbed sections paged down for sharing, but thinking of what some girls did under cover of a strategically draped blanket while reading a certain section of The Clan of the Cave Bear made me squeamish. The point is, every book we had could save us in a different way—only, we had to open it. We had to drop our eyes to the page and drink in the words that were there.

  I’d wheel my cart onto a wing, top tier first, then bottom. I’d slow in cell doorways—this was during free time when we were allowed to drift around and have open doors, even allowed to have guests (no more than two at a time) in our small cells—and all I’d do was make my presence known, my cart seen. Someone on each wing always wanted something.

  I’d hand a book over, and it would be grabbed from my hand with something like hunger. I’d seen this happen with Anne of Green Gables and with every volume of Vampire Academy. With ragged, well-read copies of The Catcher in the Rye and with Speak. With the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita and a manual for repairing the engine of a 1982 Mustang. I’d seen an obscure, dust-encrusted edition of Good Morning, Midnight slipped inside a green jumpsuit, as if to keep it as close as possible, and come to think of it, I haven’t seen that book since.

  It was important, what I did. Necessary. And even for the arrival of my new cellmate, I couldn’t miss it.

  That was why, when I reported for duty and discovered my book cart missing, I wasn’t sure what to do. The library (technically a patch of hallway, but I insisted on calling it the library as if it were its own room) had been ransacked. Whole gaps of books were missing from the shelves I’d organized, and the cards on which I kept the borrowers’ names were tossed aside, the As with the Es, the Cs on the floor. But it was the cart that unhinged me. The cart was made of pale, glossy wood and built with shelves, two tiers like in our cell blocks, and with four rubber wheels, even though one of the wheels didn’t take to ground so well and spun and spun, making it difficult to steer. Not finding the cart made me want to howl. Made me want to scream.

  No one had messed with my cart before, or taken so many books with so much recklessness. We’d never had such an enthusiastic reader.

  Or worse. What if no one was even reading?

  There were a number of places the books could have made off to: a vat of rancid sauce in the kitchen; that bathroom outside D-wing no one could use because the toilets were eternally blocked up with chunks of concrete and gray silt. That was where my mind went. To destruction.

  I marched over to the closest CO’s office: I registered a small disappointment at seeing Blitt at the helm, all coffee breath and sneer. She could not be made to joke with us, like Marbleson could, like sometimes Long could, if hanging out with Marbleson. She didn’t bend to our wills after a peep down an open shirt, like Minko might, but that was a whole other dangerous game I wouldn’t play.

  “I was just in the library,” I said, knocking on the door jamb and jolting Blitt to attention. She’d been watching a rerun of the Orianna Speerling trial on TV.

  She smirked, and shut off the picture. “You mean the hallway, Inmate.”

  She never called us by our given names, last or first. We knew what she meant by it, hoping we’d feel like a scuffed ant under the sole of a shoe, but I suspected she was kind of slow in the head and just couldn’t remember our names.

  Refusing to call the library a library was a sticking point with me. The official books that belonged to the detention center, the regulation ones we used for our classes and had to read, by order of the Department of Education, were not shelved in what I knew as my library. They were on the other side of the facility, where we had school.

  We weren’t allowed to take those books back to our cells. Those books were for learning only. They couldn’t be used to carry messages or love notes, couldn’t snuggle up in bed or inspire a happy dream or a decent orgasm (some girls bragged—most were suspected of faking). The books in my hallway library were our own collection, and all from donations, often from church groups or private schools ditching their dog-eared copies for pristine new works. These books were ours and only ours.

  Owning something while under detention gave the time less weight. And Blitt knew that; it was why she kept calling it the hallway.

  “Where. Is. My. Cart?” I demanded. I didn’t talk often—to inmates, especially to COs—but when I did, I had a whole lot of saved-up air in my lungs and I could be loud.

  “My cart,” I spat out, fist on glass that wasn’t supposed to ever shatter, but maybe I could make it shatter, maybe my fist could. “What happened to my cart?”

  “Inmate, settle down,” Blitt said. “You want me to write you up for this? It’s just a cart. It’s a pile of books. Calm yourself.”

  It was the condescending act she used like a whip on a bare back. She had information, and I needed it. Steam shot from my ears, but I lowered my fist from the glass and my eyes from Blitt’s helmet head, and I took myself to a calm place, a faraway place. Sometimes I tried to picture it, and it looked a lot like Florida.

  “Want to lose your visiting privileges? No visitor next week or the week after? No visitor all month?”

  This was the perfect thing to say to incite me, but for a whole host of other reasons. And she knew it.

  “That’s right. You don’t get visitors, do you? You’ve never had a single one.”

  My eyes burned with a filmy liquid that could not
be called tears. Finally I had my breathing under control. I loosened the set bomb that was my fist.

  She waited. She waited a long time. Then she said, with a wink of her very tiny, very piglike eyes from behind her glasses, “I saw Ward wheeling your cart around over to C-wing.”

  “Cannibal Kennedy?” I roared, imagining all the stray hair I’d find in the pages after, wondering if she chewed on paper, too, if there’d be bite marks on the covers and gnawed pulp on the insides, wet slobber marks from her squicky tongue. I wondered, growing panicked, if there’d be smears.

  Blitt shrugged. She was useless now; she didn’t know anything else. “I figured she’d arranged something with you,” she said. “Since you were late today.”

  I’d just gotten out of Solitary—I wasn’t more than twenty minutes late for my usual shift. A half hour, tops.

  Then I remembered—because I’d overheard some girls talking. “Isn’t Kennedy . . .” I searched for a good word to prove I hadn’t seen the carnage at the hands of Lola the other night myself. “Uh, recovering?”

  “And what would you know about that, Inmate?”

  “Nothing.”

  “She got out of the infirmary this morning. Can’t say the same for your French fry of a cellmate, though.” She made a sizzling sound between her teeth.

  “Didn’t you hear? I’m getting someone else today.” I waved at her dark TV. “The new girl. Remember?”

  Maybe it was something I said, but the expression on her face was a funny one, a shifting and a sinking and a darkening. A blur. I couldn’t look at her anymore.

  It made me feel funny, too. Something about the word remember.

  I took off for C-wing, hoping to catch Kennedy. I started to run, and Blitt didn’t shout at me to stop running, as she lived to do. She didn’t threaten me with privileges taken if I didn’t slow down. She didn’t shout after me at all.

  I raced through the halls without passing another CO.

  It wasn’t long before I found Kennedy, exiting C-wing and heading for A. She was marked with bruises, her face the color of raw bacon, a meat item I hadn’t tasted since I was thirteen. But she was upright and walking, and she was well enough to push the cart with a haphazard pile of books on it. She steered it clumsily into walls and then righted it, switching directions, hitting the wall opposite. A book of Rimbaud’s collected poems dropped with his pretty-boy face to the floor tile, and she didn’t even go back to pick him up.

  It was a miracle she wasn’t dead, or in a coma, after the number Lola did on her.

  “Kennedy! Stop the cart.”

  She turned with what looked like a good amount of effort. She seemed to be having difficulty swiveling her swollen head on her swollen neck. Her ear was an eggplant, by color and almost by size. Kennedy always inspired sympathy — someone that pathetic had to, if we still bothered to care about worldly things like human suffering.

  But I didn’t care that Kennedy was a walking punching bag, her insides a sloppy soup from Lola’s stomping feet. I didn’t care that Lola had done this to her, and I didn’t care that Lola could turn and do this to any one of us next. All I wanted was my books back. I wouldn’t have minded if Kennedy dropped like a sack of potatoes, as she had the other night, just so she could get her grabby hands off my cart.

  She didn’t drop. Her fingers held fast to my cart though the whole rest of her wobbled.

  “It’s mine now, Amber,” she eked out. “You got transferred. Yesterday.” I stared at her as she spoke. The spittle at the corners of her mouth. The cut in her bottom lip that bloomed the red of a rose. She let go of the cart for a moment to wipe snot from her nose. “You’re in the kitchen now. The book cart isn’t yours anymore.”

  I didn’t understand. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. I wasn’t even gone three days and I lost my life-skills job and got moved and Santosusso didn’t tell me?

  There wasn’t much talking that could fix this.

  The cart came at her like a semi skidding into the opposite lane in the icy night. The cart slammed her in the shins, and then the cart reversed and made a run for it, like a semi doubling back over a pair of legs.

  It wasn’t me doing it. It was the cart.

  Then I was wrapped in a pair of thick arms, and I was flailing. Not Solitary again, not the hole, not more time on my sentence, because that was worse, we all knew that was the worst that could be thrown at us, more weeks, more months, more years.

  But it wasn’t a CO who had me; the arms holding me in place were in green.

  Jody. The towering brick house that was Jody. She was even bigger than me.

  She set me down and turned me to face her, hands still pressing on my shoulders to keep me glued to the floor. “She’s had enough.”

  Our eyes, together, found the sniveling lump on the floor. The lump sat up and leaned against the cinder-block wall, heaving. Then the lump grabbed a hunk of hair and started chomping.

  Between us—and unclaimed—was the book cart, splayed on its side, contents exploded, spines split and spilling, pages mashed up.

  I reached out an arm for it, though it was too far away to grab even one book, but Jody took the arm in her large hand and lowered it to my side. Behind her came Peaches, all swagger. “Hey, bitches,” she said, nodding to the lump on the floor and to me, still cradled in Jody’s arms, like a mother and child who had love for each other. I didn’t mind so much.

  Peaches righted the cart and, generously, which was unlike her since she never made any effort for anything that didn’t get her something in return, began to stack the books on the tiered shelves. Kennedy whimpered. Jody smoothed back my hair, straightened out my greens.

  “Why’d you go and do that, Amber? You don’t have a violent bone in your body,” Jody said. We all knew she knew violence, had grown up with it in her house, had hidden from it in closets during the night, had then gotten up in its face and run away from it, had modeled after it on the streets, had made a name for herself with it, had let it carry her all the way up here. She’d told all of us. Violence was what she knew, so you’d think she would have recognized it in me.

  Peaches nodded, eyeing me up. “The only innocent one here,” she recited, like she’d heard it somewhere before. That wasn’t a compliment. She was calling me weak. Saying I was a coward.

  I took a step toward the books, but Jody kept me back. What were they saying? That I wasn’t really one of them, that I didn’t belong here with them? That it wasn’t us against the state, us against the world?

  Peaches finished stacking the books and was now testing out the wheels, kicking at the bad one, trying to get it to spin all the way around. “This has nothing to do with you, Amber. There’s so much going on around here you don’t even know.”

  That couldn’t be. She didn’t have her ear to the ground like I did; she wasn’t always watching, absorbing, keeping track. Didn’t they know I was the one who kept track?

  “Can I have my cart back now?” I asked.

  They didn’t answer.

  “Can I have my cart?”

  “Peaches is gonna do the books now,” Jody said. “It makes sense. She’s got things to run around. She’s got things.”

  “Yeah,” Peaches piped in. “I got things.”

  Jody rammed the cart into the wall beside Peaches, and Peaches got it in her grip before it bounced back.

  We heard a miserable voice from the floor.

  “But it’s my job now,” Kennedy said. “They said.”

  We ignored her, as always. At least we were united in that.

  We heard the approaching thump of a CO, and we scattered. Peaches skated away on my book cart. Jody sped off, and for a giant, she vanished fast. Even Kennedy crawled a little ways, and then got to her feet and started lurching.

  I headed another way, and not for the library, or Blitt in her booth, or for B-wing. Not for anywhere really, because if I went back to my cell, there’d be a stranger taking over my space. I didn’t know where I was headed; all I knew was I h
ad to force myself to think of Florida and I had to be calm. Kennedy—and then Jody and Peaches—had taken all I had. What was this place to me if now I had nothing?

  I was outside the infirmary when I heard her. “Amber, Amber,” she called. “Where were you? Where’d you go? You should be here. Come here.” D’amour was inside, near the door. A few inmates were gathered at the foot of her bed. She was wrapped in white gauze all around her arms and legs, even covering patches of her face, mummified but still able to speak out of her throat, if a little raspily. Her once-blond hair, where it could be seen through the bandages, was the color of coal.

  She beckoned me over and continued her spiel. I’d come in the middle of something.

  “And everything we do, we’ll do again,” D’amour announced. She closed her eyes. She gestured at the air with her stiff, bandaged fingers.

  “And everything we see, we’ve seen now three times. And the doors were opened. But they’ve been opened three times. We run, and we run again, and we run. And they catch you and you go away three times, Amber.” She opened her eyes, nodded at me, kept on. “Then the new girl dances around the room three times, and three times Natty shouldn’t trip her. Tell her. And the plants are growing in the windows, and you say no, D’amour, no. And next summer it’s the same thing, except it’s four. And the summer after it’s five . . .”

  She kept going. She reached seven, she reached eight, she reached nine. She was speaking like some kind of hokey visionary, and we were her flock who climbed the mountain to drink it in and maybe get our fortunes told next. It was a load of nonsense.

  Or was it? A feeling tickled the bottoms of my feet, like something reaching up from deep down in me, wanting me to be reminded. To remember. Three times, D’amour had said at the beginning. I felt like I’d heard her say this already . . . three times.

  I didn’t want anyone to know that. “What’s wrong with her?” I whispered.

 
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