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The walls around us, p.13

The Walls Around Us, page 13


The Walls Around Us

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  “She got zapped in the head,” Little T. whispered back. “Lightning.”

  “No, it was the fence. You think that’s what did it?”

  Little T. gave a shrug. “I got my meds. Got to go.”

  She crushed the tiny paper cup a nurse must have given her, though I didn’t see any nurses, dropped it in the trash, and backed away. The rest of the girls drifted off, too, leaving me alone with D’amour, the two of us, the way I was used to, in the night, in our small shared space, where we huddled behind a barred door until our jailers said it could open.

  “You understand, don’t you, Amber?” she said.

  “Yeah,” I said. “I think so.” I wasn’t even lying. I’d witnessed some things she hadn’t even mentioned.

  I wanted to tell her about the intruder, but before I could, D’amour had her arm up, pointing with a rigid stabbing motion at the wall. She shook and shook her head, her bandages coming loose and revealing fried patches of skin. She covered her blinking eyes.

  I turned, slowly, to see what had unsettled her so, expecting to find the white walls of the infirmary, this being the whitest room in the whole facility. Expecting to roll my eyes at her crazy, dismiss the ramblings of her sautéed brain. It would have been so much easier that way.

  Instead, I saw what she saw.

  Colors. Whorls and splashes and squiggles and scribbles and vacant, senseless streaks. The graffiti again. The unforgettable Bridget Love was here again, so-and-so plus so-and-so, and another RIP.

  But more than that. Even worse. The cinder blocks of our walls were broken through, chipped out like kicked-in teeth, and the ceiling was crumbling down over our heads, shedding silt and concrete dust that was gray and sharper than sand. The floor was black with mold, and spongy with moss, so my feet sank. Through the gaping holes in the walls, I could see out. I could see as far as the parking lot, which had no vehicles in it and was taken over by weeds. Past that I could see that what surrounded us was edging in even closer than before. The forest was coming for our fences. The trees were growing through our gates. The vines hadn’t stopped climbing. We were being swallowed. We were being choked in leaves and moss and living, searing green.

  This was all that would be left of us in not so many years. Time didn’t matter much in eternity. The days of this sentence couldn’t be marked off on a wall and counted.

  Through a gouge in the ceiling I could see up and up, to a picturesque piece of heaven, which was really only a chunk of blue sky. It was a perfectly nice August day, wherever we were. It always would be.

  I rushed out of the infirmary.

  And with that, with the simple act of leaving the room and getting away from D’amour, the walls in the corridor returned to their clean, solid color, their familiar green, which matched my jumpsuit, also green, the one I somehow knew would be the jumpsuit I’d forevermore be wearing. As I walked the hallway toward B-wing, I was only following steps I’d taken before. We all were. We always would be.

  We kept forgetting. And we also couldn’t let go.

  We Were Eye-To-Eye

  WE WERE EYE-TO-EYE at the door to my cell. Our cell now. Her eyes were brown, and deep; mine were brown, too, but I hadn’t looked in a workable mirror in some time, so maybe they’d changed. We met there in the doorway, staring at each other.

  It was only a moment, but there was a flicker, some kind of connection, like the passing memory of having known each other before. Then it was snuffed out, like when the lights go down at night before we’re ready, and all we can do is make the hatch mark in the cinder block to show one more day served toward release, toward our new life. It was hoped we might have two lives—the way cats are said to have nine. This life we ruined, and another, for after.

  She dropped her gaze first. Then she stepped aside for me, so I could enter.

  She’d claimed D’amour’s top bunk and D’amour’s shelves. Her canvas slip-ons were where D’amour’s had been, in the tub outside the door, and her feet were socked and narrow and quite long. She’d already claimed D’amour’s only hook. Now it was her hook. Now we would breathe the same air. She would sleep to the sound of my heart beating, and I’d sleep to the sound of hers.

  Neither of us had spoken. I should have gone first. Said, Welcome. Or something shorter and more cryptic, like Hey. Here was the moment to drop some wisdom from my three years, one month, and fifteen days of being incarcerated at Aurora Hills, but I kept it back. I’d tried to be helpful the last time, with D’amour. And look where that got me.

  Besides, I had other things on my mind. The loss of my book cart. The transfer to the kitchen, which was noted and official now, listed under my name outside the cell. All the rest—the sense of what was coming—seemed so far away. It was a forgetting like a heavy door being closed. It would take a lot of effort to push it open.

  I sat on my bottom bunk, curled my knees in. A job in the kitchen would involve spills and smells that were sour, rancid, sickening. There would be burns from oven racks and hot plates. Wrinkled palms from searing dishwater. I’d be pruned after every shift. I’d stink.

  What there wouldn’t be were the books, the soothing sound as they cascaded open, a thumb flicked to give them a good, fast skim. There wouldn’t be a way to travel from wing to wing, listening. No wheels on the cart spinning, carrying the stories, the words.

  I felt gutted. Alone.

  Alone like in the interrogation room at the police station, when they didn’t bring me a glass of water, and they didn’t let me leave the table, and they said they had my diary, and they said they saw what I wrote in it, and I asked for my mom, and I asked who gave them my diary, and I said I was thirsty, and I asked again for my mom, and they didn’t bring me a glass of water, and my mom didn’t come.

  The new girl hovered near me.

  “Did I do something?” she asked. “Are you upset you have to room with me?”

  I grunted.

  I’d been in long enough to know how to act around a cold-blooded killer. We could never be caught seeming nervous. We should always reveal only a small, tip-of-the-iceberg version of ourselves, and submerge the rest. The very last thing we should show is fear, and if we did, we were toast.

  She didn’t look so much like a cold-blooded killer, but still. This was better. Safe.

  “Did they tell you who I am?” Her voice was the one shaking.

  “Orianna,” I said, the name bubbling up without any effort to grab it.

  “Call me Ori. I don’t mind.”

  Somehow I’d expected that. I gave her a nod. Her knees were jittering in her baggy orange pants—I could see the outlines of them beneath the thin fabric, rocking. She didn’t ask if I knew what she had done.

  “I guess I’m your new roommate,” she said. It was funny the way she talked, as if the small space we were made to exist in could be called a room. That simple word could make it seem like we were anywhere but in a dank, dark prison.

  “Cellmate,” I corrected. She shouldn’t sugarcoat it.

  “That’s what I meant.”

  “I’m Amber. You can call me Amber.”

  “I know. They told me. I heard you’re innocent.”

  “Who said that?”

  “The others.”

  Part of me bristled at the idea of being talked about behind my back, but I also liked it, liked being a topic of conversation, visible when I’d thought I wasn’t. I kind of liked it a lot. If I could have smiled, I would have, but my face always seemed to contradict what I was thinking. I knew I looked angry when I was sad. I looked angry when I was happy. Angry when I was checking the clock on the wall to see what time it was. I’d been told I came out of the womb looking angry, my brows furrowed, my mouth like a knife. It was when I really was angry that I wondered if I finally looked like myself.

  “What are you here for?” she asked. “I mean, what do they say you did?”

  “You’re not supposed to ask me that.”

  In the interrogation room at the police stati
on, no one had thought me innocent. My own stepfather would have stood up out of his grave and pointed a crooked finger at me. (The fingers of his right hand were crooked in the sockets from a fist punched against unforgiving wood when he was aiming for a dodging head.) He would have declared me guilty if he still could.

  “Sorry,” she said.

  I made myself busy smoothing the sheets on my bunk. She would not shut up.

  “If you’re innocent,” she said, to my back, “you must be so pissed off, then. I mean, you must hate every single person here.”

  How wrong she was. She was new, so she didn’t sense the connection. Didn’t know the rhythm of our feet in the corridors, how it felt to be in tune with them, two feet among so many. To look like everyone else, to wear what they were wearing, to eat what they were eating, to stand up and be counted when they were counted, to sit down when they were allowed to sit. To fit in somewhere in the world, even if there were chains and gates and fences to keep us from running. And more—to have felt the magic of that night, that one night, when bungled technology failed our captors and winked instead in our direction. When the place was ours and the COs had vanished and we didn’t know or care where, and the rain came down, and the song that played was made of our wails and our screams. We remembered it like a dream.

  And she’d missed it.

  She didn’t know. She thought I was thinking of my innocence.

  “How many years did you get?” she asked.

  That was one question it was okay to answer. We all shared our time, and lamented over every last day.

  But when I thought then of the time I had left, I didn’t bristle. My blood didn’t boil. My eyes didn’t sting with the effort of not tearing up.

  I didn’t know how to say the words to her, or to anyone, but I wasn’t enraged anymore about my sentence. In the beginning I was, choking on it in the night when my first cellmate was sleeping (Eva; breaking and entering; out in seven months). But I guess I’d softened. I’d gotten used to being here. I got used to the rules and having my jumpsuit buttons done all the way up and my shoes off inside the cell and my books off the bed and my eyes on the floor when a CO yelled in my face. The bad things, the very bad—like stripping down for the cough-and-squat we didn’t like to speak of—I guess I got used to them. I settled, the way people do.

  I’ve heard, or I read somewhere, that humans can find ways to adapt to most anything.

  Now Ori paused, and made herself busy with her jumpsuits, folding them and neatening them, though we were issued only three and she was already wearing one. She was being shy now. Maybe I would show her the ropes, give her the what-to-always-do and the what-to-never-ever-do if you want to keep the nose unbroken on your God-given face. She had only me to show her. Look at how her hands were shaking, folding her oranges. I was all she had.

  As she worked, she kept her eyes on the wall.

  “Aren’t you going to ask me if I did it?” she said. Maybe she wanted to pronounce herself innocent so we could be the same; that could be what this was.

  I kept my mouth closed and did not ask. That was how to live around here, without asking too many questions. Better not to go around dangling your curiosities for everyone to view. That would be rude.

  “No?” she said, wanting me to ask it.

  “No. That’s none of my business.”

  It was the most private thing we had left—held even closer than our bodies, because our bodies were searched, all holes and crevices and cavities in every horrible way that could be imagined. But no one could shake out the truth from inside us. They couldn’t search us for that.

  Our guilt and our innocence were only our own, and she should know to keep it that way.

  “You can ask me . . . ,” she started.

  “No,” I said. “I can’t.”

  “Sorry.” She apologized a lot.

  I tried to remember how many she’d been said to kill—only two, or was it three?

  I wondered what happened after she got her first taste. Would two dead be enough for her? Would three, four? Would any amount ever be enough? Would she always be chasing after more?

  All questions I could not, and would not, ask her out loud. Least of all the question of whether or not she was guilty.

  Then again, there were methods of wringing it out. The first way was easiest, and didn’t even involve an improvised weapon, which was good, because all I had in the cell were two books and an extra bar of soap. There was a way of solving the question of her guilt without having to ask. There was always a way, and after enough time inside, we found our methods of digging without causing offense. I didn’t even need words.

  Guilt is in the eyes, for those of us who’ve been around long enough and know what to look for. And the first thing I saw of her were her two wide, brown eyes.

  Hers didn’t skitter or blink at odd moments. There was no shifting, no blank haze. When she looked at me—when I let her meet my gaze—I couldn’t find the telltale signs, the way another one of us (Mirabel, Lola, Polly, Cherie, Little T., D’amour, I could go on) might have given away her true colors by a shrewd sideways glance or a distinct pupil jitter. This new girl only eyed me back. She wasn’t trying to hide anything that I could make out. She wasn’t trying to pull one over on me. I could sleep in the bunk below her with my bare neck exposed without any ounce of worry that night.

  Mostly what I found in her eyes was a singular feeling, and it struck me. Past the sadness, I mean. Beyond that, and down deep in her sockets, what I found was surprise.

  Part of her still didn’t believe she was locked away in here. Only a skilled sociopath, a true mastermind, or a girl sentenced for a crime she did not commit when she thought the world would never do something like that to her, would reflect this back to me.

  Life. We’d long known it was cruel. But she was new. I guess this was her first reckoning.

  “Hey, so—,” I started, until I heard it coming.

  In the quiet it rang out. I heard the familiar glide and shuffle, shuffle and glide, the back wheel on the left spinning loose on its axle, off-track, and off-rhythm, from the others. The book cart came to a stop in front of our open doorway. There were a few minutes remaining of free time, and the cart had finally arrived on B-wing.

  But I wasn’t at the helm, and Ori wouldn’t know me to be. For her, from day one at Aurora Hills, the girl who ran the book cart and worked the library would be Peaches.

  Peaches raised her chin to me. “What you want?”

  I shook my head. I would not take a book, and I would not take one of her pills as an apology.

  “Ah. Too soon.”

  I stared down the wall, which did not stare back at me. I wouldn’t let her rattle me. The cart barely had any books on it, and the ones there were just tossed on, upside down, disorganized. It hurt to look.

  “Got to check your window,” Peaches said, shoving herself into our already cramped space to climb up on what was now Ori’s top bunk. Ours was the only cell window that would open—everyone knew that. She plunged her arm out the barred window, searching against the stone wall outside, and came up empty. She tried again, and again empty. Then she climbed back down.

  Ori watched without comment, confusion all over her face. I’d have to warn her about showing so much of herself so easily.

  “There’s this plant,” Peaches explained to her. “Like this vine. I need it. But it looks like the last bitch who was in here smoked that shit all up.” She shot a glance at me that I did not return.

  “Need it?” Ori said. “For what?”

  Peaches smirked and twisted her lips. She turned to me. “You sure you don’t want nothing, Amber?”

  “Nope,” I said.

  “Not a little story to read?”

  “No, thanks.”

  Her attention shifted to my cellie. “You?”

  Ori eyed the both of us. She must have sensed that something was up. Then, quietly, “I guess I don’t feel much like reading. Maybe later?”
  Peaches snorted, like she’d said something funny. “Okay, killa. Suit yourself.” She wheeled the cart away, on to the next cell. The skip and slide of the wheels, the slide, the skip.

  Ori’s face was stricken. “Do you think she knows? Does everybody know?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “She called me . . .” She couldn’t say it.

  I shrugged.

  She peeked out into the open space at the center of B-wing, where Peaches was wheeling away my cart. “You wanted a book, didn’t you?”

  I shrugged once more.

  “I could tell.” She waited for me to say more, but I wasn’t going to—obviously I wasn’t. But then I did.

  “She took it from me,” I said.

  “What? A book? Like which one?”

  I shook my head, wishing I hadn’t uttered a word. “Not just one. All of them. Everything. She took everything.”

  She had this dense look on her face, as though she struggled with it, trying to understand. “Can’t you just ask for them back? Explain it to her?”

  I scoffed. “You don’t understand this place at all.”

  “But—,” she started. I waved her off.

  “Don’t talk about things you don’t know,” I said. “Chow time soon. Don’t ever eat the peas or the meat loaf. The days that suck are the days we have both peas and meat loaf, so those are the days you don’t eat. Be sure to sit with me. Make sure to throw away your fork and spoon when you’re done or they’ll search you. Don’t look at me like that. They’re plastic. You’ll learn.”

  It wasn’t until the night, when we were alone again, and more alone than before because our door was sealed in the frame and its lock was turned and we couldn’t get out this time, though once we had—it wasn’t until this moment that she again chose to talk to me. She’d been quiet all through counts and dinner, all through after-dinner social and after-dinner counts. She’d been quiet as we undressed in front of each other. And when the locks turned, a momentous occasion for any girl’s first night in Aurora Hills, I kept quiet myself, to let her have her moment.

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