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The walls around us, p.14

The Walls Around Us, page 14

 

The Walls Around Us
 


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  We got into our beds. The lights went down, and B-wing hushed. I let my eyes close. I didn’t think of her attacking me with a carved eye-gouger made from a plastic spoon, even though I hadn’t seen for sure if she’d properly disposed of her plastic spoon, because I knew what I knew from before. I also knew other things, unremembered things, and it was only with my eyes closed and the blackness coming in to cover me that I sensed the tug and tickle that indicated they might come back.

  What I was forgetting, I mean. What we all were.

  I rolled over, away from it. I drifted. The walls held me close. I let my bare feet touch the bare wall, which was cold even in hot weather, eternally cold, the way I liked it. I found it comforting. I sank.

  Then she woke me. “Um, Amber?”

  I tossed over, my name a distant, bobbing thing I didn’t need to pull from the water.

  “Amber?”

  I let an arm drop. I let a foot leave the wall.

  “Amber, are you awake?”

  I cocked one eye open. This, here, this was my angry face. “Now I am.”

  “You were humming.”

  I wiped the dribble of spit from my mouth, and the slick on my flat, rock-hard pillow made me have to turn the pillow over to try the other side, which felt even more flat and even more like a rock. I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep so easily now.

  “Sorry. I thought you were awake.”

  “I wasn’t.” I looked up and could see her dangling, muscled leg.

  “What’s that song you were humming?”

  “Don’t know. I was asleep.”

  A long moment passed, and I let my eyes close again.

  “Do you dream of it?” she said.

  “What,” I said, “what I did, you mean?”

  “No,” she rushed to say. “I’m not saying you did it. I’m not saying that. I mean of before. Home, I guess. Like, do you still dream of it even though you’re here?”

  Maybe she was trying to needle out the truth from me, still. “If we talk too loud, the CO will come, you know,” I said.

  “Oh. Sorry.”

  My mind flashed me a single picture in the dark of our cell: It was an orange truck being licked by an orange ball of flames. And then my mind went orange and closed itself up.

  It’s not something I ever talked about. Other girls didn’t ask. No one wanted to know how charred he was when they found him in the carcass of the truck, how passersby could only stand back and watch him barbecue. How no one could save him, because then they would have gotten barbecued, too.

  None of the girls knew how I wished him dead. It wouldn’t have been so memorable to confess that, anyway, seeing how many of them had also wished men in their lives dead. We could have put together a chorus.

  They wouldn’t have wanted to know about the lists in my diary, the collection I was building of all the ways he might die, in case.

  Simple things, at first. Domestic things.

  Slip on the ice while shoveling the driveway.

  Fall off the roof while cleaning the gutters.

  Get electrocuted by the blender while making a protein shake.

  Then I started researching.

  Spider bite. Snake bite. Wasp sting. Accelerated Lyme disease.

  I sought out outlandish stories in newspapers.

  Get hit by bathroom debris from a 747.

  Fall in a manhole while crossing the street.

  I had an idea, and I got on a roll.

  Choke on a grape. On a peanut. On a Dorito. On a piece of hamburger meat in the parking lot of the McDonald’s.

  I got creative, and the ideas got more violent, more picturesque.

  Mauled by a bear. Knifed in the gut by a masked robber. Run over by a Trailways bus. Decapitated by a Frisbee. Cut in half by a falling oak tree and then buried under its stump.

  Suicide, with rope. Suicide, by exhaust pipe. Suicide, by oven. Suicide, old-fashioned, in a warm tub with a razor.

  Pills, all kinds, in handfuls, swallowed until he foamed and choked.

  So much was wishful thinking.

  Shot to the head. Slice to the throat. Drano in the coffee. A two-by-four with nails in it smacked over his thick skull. Set the whole house on fire with him in it, and run.

  (Car wreck was an early, obvious entry to the ongoing list. It hadn’t occurred to me there’d be all those flames, so it was kind of like dying in a fire, too.)

  If I told about my list, if I let that out, I’d have to let out the rest, like what he’d done to me or to my mom that would prompt me to make such a list, what he may have started doing to my little half sister, because I’d seen three purple blooms on her arm that looked like finger marks, even though she said she just fell off her bike. These were things that I couldn’t find a way to talk about in the dark or in the sun. I couldn’t put them to words in any kind of light. So I made my lists instead.

  The thing was this: Writing something down on a piece of paper does not make it come true. It’s like wishing on a set of birthday candles. Who ever woke up the next day to receive her pony?

  Ori hadn’t said a word in a long while. Maybe she was sleeping. But I wasn’t. I was awake. I was remembering. I was alive, and he wasn’t.

  “Almost every night,” I said. I didn’t wait for her to ask me what I meant. I was falling back into it, as I’d been before she’d woken me. I was sinking, lowering, dropping, seeing the flashes. The orange truck. The hot burning hand on a windshield. The drifting, toxic scent of gasoline. The glorious black smoke.

  I wasn’t there to witness it, but how I wish I had been.

  I Was Curious

  I WAS CURIOUS about her, more and more curious. I watched her for the whole rest of the week. While she sat beside me in the cafeteria, where I told her to sit. While she stood for count outside our shared cell, where she was told to stand. Sometimes while she slept, which involved creeping up the ladder a ways to peer into her bunk, to see if she was really sleeping. (She was. She slept on her back, with her hands curled on her chest, as if she were squeezed into a coffin.) I turned away, though, in the night, whenever she got up to pee.

  I noticed that she scribbled letters during class—at first, I didn’t know who to. And there were times when she tried to see herself in the wedge of mirror on the wall of our cell, moving around in front of it as if a different angle would illuminate what she was hoping to find. Fear scrunched up her face sometimes when she did this. Other times, she looked the way she had when I first met her, which was sad, though not anymore so surprised.

  I couldn’t help but notice her feet, which had weird knobs up near her toes and rough, red spots. That was how I first learned that, on the outside, the way some of us were carjackers and gangbangers, and others of us were troublemakers and bullies and mother-haters, she was something none of us were: a ballet dancer.

  This sounded silly to us, like coming in saying you ride elephants, or you paint your face white and mime to strangers on the street for nickels.

  But it was true: The news had flashed all those tutu’d pictures, bunheaded and serious, with what looked like deformed stilts molded to the ends of her pink feet. Lots of us had seen. And, once, I caught her leaning with her leg out, and then, before I could blink, she was practically halved and doing the splits with her cheek touching her knee. When she saw me looking, she crumpled up her legs again and slouched.

  “Why don’t you do that stuff?” I said. “Show us or something.” She had to know we sought out entertainment anywhere we could find it. We always asked Natty to sing. And we had Cherie doing magic tricks when no one wanted to play gin rummy or spit, though about half the time she guessed wrong about which card we held in our hands.

  Ori’s face stilled. Her jaw turned to concrete.

  “What?” she finally said between her teeth. “Do what?”

  “Dance.”

  She shook her head.

  “Not in here,” I said, of our cell. Obviously there was no room. “Out there. Or where they
make us do that yoga-stretching sometimes, maybe there.”

  “I don’t.” She went to the mirror, which was not a mirror, and tried to look in. Then she gave up and looked at the wall. “I don’t dance.”

  “But—”

  “Not anymore.”

  She spoke like she’d cast it off forever, the way Lian swore she’d never again touch a drop of booze. She acted like even hearing the word made her sick to her stomach, made some invisible part of her scream out in hurt.

  Other than this, her first days in Aurora Hills made me think of my own. She moved through our halls under that same cloud of gummed numb I remembered being stuck inside. She didn’t show fear. She knew she shouldn’t. She couldn’t. We’d feed on fear like we were wolves, and then there’d be nothing left to her but bones and the ugly, misshapen skin of her feet. We’d leave at least her feet alone.

  She didn’t fight with anyone, even when one of us got up in her face and tried to get a rise out of her. She didn’t cry, not that I heard. Maybe she had that same buggy feeling I did, the one that crawled in her ears at night and scratched out the bad things. The one that said, Now you’re here, you’d better get used to it. You’ll never leave.

  I didn’t know, because, after that first night with all her questions, she’d gone quiet. I guess reality was setting in.

  I watched her in class, for something more telling. Like I’d told her, classes were a nuisance. We had them mornings, five days a week. It was mandated by the state, but in each subject there was just one teacher for all girls age fifteen and older. When you read a lot, like me, what was there to learn in a class like that? Those of us beyond the material were given a seat in the back and a book to train our eyes on and told to study on our own. In this way, I taught myself algebra. I interpreted the symbolism in Shakespeare plays and made up my own answers. I considered the philosophies of Plato and Kant. I learned to knit, from a book, without needles and without yarn. I memorized the names of Egyptian pharaohs and European dictators. I did the same practice tests for the general-equivalency diploma over and over until I aced each one.

  Ori ended up in a seat in the back of the room, too. She got the book of pharaohs, now that I was done with it, and she sat, eyes glazed, chin bobbing over the two-page spread of Cleopatra, just as I had, admiring the majestic gold crown. She got out a piece of paper. She asked for a pencil. I turned back to my Foundations of Astronomy textbook, mildewed and squishy in one corner, but a real find. When I looked up forty-three minutes later, she was still on Cleopatra. The book was upside down.

  She wasn’t absorbing everything she could about the Egyptian dynasties. Instead, she had her arms wrapped around the book to form a protective tent, and inside the tent she was writing a letter—furiously. The pencil made gashes in the paper, open wounds. At one point, a whole half of the page was torn away.

  She saw the teacher glance up, and mistaking that gesture to mean the teacher cared, she hid the letter in a random page, near Xerxes the Great. I lagged on the way out of the classroom and pulled it out, speed-read it while in step for the door, and dropped it again in the nearest receptacle (a box of worn English textbooks from 1983) before entering the hallway. Loose paper without a reason to be carrying it was contraband.

  What I remember from my brisk skim was this: The handwriting was practically illegible, so maybe Ori should have been in a desk up front, learning basics with the fourteen-year-olds. But I’d caught these words:

  How do you sleep at night

  that time we went to Great Adventure and we

  It should be you.

  ROT. IN. HELL!!!!!!

  This wasn’t a love note. Ori wanted someone dead the way I’d wanted my stepfather dead. Who? And somehow, in my wildest dreams, the fiery, smoky ones that filled my head at night, there was a part of me that believed that writing did hold some kind of magic. I wrote it. Car wreck. Car wreck. Car wreck. And then it came true. Maybe Ori believed, too.

  Getting a glimpse at her hidden letter made me watch her all the more. We were all of us hiding something. And since we knew that as well as we now knew our numbers, which took the place of our names, since we were escorted in here, trying to keep our secrets tucked in, we always had an eye out for someone else dropping one of hers.

  The week went on, and I didn’t take my eyes off her.

  In Aurora Hills, infractions were picked up easily, as Ori would soon learn. She’d be more careful. There were many things that would get the COs riled up. Wearing shoes inside the cells. Being late for a meal. Showering at off-hours or not showering enough. Talking back or talking too much. Laughing (they thought we were laughing at them). Walking fast (they thought we were running). Sleeping at night with a blanket pulled up over our heads so they couldn’t see us in our beds at all times.

  Worse were scratch marks on our arms, legs, anywhere that could be self-inflicted, even if we had a monstrous itch that needed scratching. We shouldn’t give in to temptation. No one wanted to be a Suicide, because then we didn’t get to have the lights off when we slept, and no cover of blanket at night, only a thin sheet, and in the daytime, all day, in front of COs and everyone, anyone under Suicide Watch couldn’t wear a bra. The straps could be used to strangle, we were told, thus giving us ideas.

  I warned Ori about becoming a Suicide, but I couldn’t warn her in time about every last thing.

  It’d take a day or two, usually, before a new girl got on the wrong side of a CO. This meant a show of force. A power trip. The way we saw it, the guards jumped us and face-planted us and then, after all this, they told us to calm ourselves down. The way they saw it, it was discipline, and we deserved it.

  Ori had wandered off from the line when it happened to her the first time. We were in formation, heading for lunch, when something out the window caught her eye. She drifted for the glass and put her hand on it, as best she could, what with the bars in the way. Out through that window was a bright summer’s day, the blue sky with the sun shining, the green trees swaying in the breeze, a butterfly maybe—we saw them sometimes, flitting by. All of what was out there was proof of the world going on and forgetting us, and maybe that was what called her to stop. We didn’t know, and it ended too fast for us to ask her.

  A CO, Rafferty, had caught sight of her and shouted for her to keep moving. To return to the line. She was holding us all up, and if she did it for much longer, she’d keep us all from getting chow. Some of us whined, our bellies growling, but others of us didn’t want the rubbery ham sandwich of the day, anyway, and looked on with faint smiles, knowing what was coming. It would be entertainment to watch her struggle, see her fly.

  I wanted to speak up—warn her somehow—but I kept my mouth shut, because I didn’t want it, next, to be me.

  “Speerling!” Rafferty shouted to her.

  She had her back to us, her face pressed between the bars protecting the window, the bright blue sky in her eyes.

  “Back in line, Speerling!”

  Her ears were plugged with memories, maybe. Her head pounding with regrets.

  Rafferty left the head of our line and started charging. We oohed, we aahed, we backed away. One of us had a weak moment and covered her eyes.

  Mississippi said she saw Ori grab ahold of those window bars and hold them tight. Mirabel said Ori didn’t hold on at all; she only seemed shocked to be lifted off the ground, her mouth in a big, wide O, her hair a spill that clogged up the CO’s eyes.

  We all saw her go down, though. We saw Rafferty with his hands on her, and then she was flat on the floor, her arms awkwardly crooked behind her back and a man in uniform straddling her, and it was all some of us could do not to have flashbacks of our most heart-stopping arrests.

  The “face-down restraint procedure” may have technically been illegal to use on juveniles in our state, but that didn’t stop the COs from training in it, Olympic-style. The move involved them doing this thing with their arms hooked around our necks, coming at us from behind and scooping us into
the air, and then sailing us forward on our stomachs until floor met face and arms bent behind backs and we could go nowhere.

  They held us down, our nose and lips mashed to the ground, wriggling or still, struggling or writhing or trying to kick, crying or seething or playing dead. And, no matter what we did or felt or didn’t do, we were theirs. We were their game.

  Now Ori was truly one of us.

  When she’d calmed enough for Rafferty to let her go, he allowed her to stand on her own. Her cheeks were tomatoes and tears dripped off the tip of her nose. She wiped her face with her sleeve. We smirked, or we tried to meet her eyes and give a smile to show we’d been there, or we looked down at our canvas shoes.

  “Now get in line, Speerling,” Rafferty commanded. “Chow time.”

  She took her space in line, which was directly behind me. She stood up straight, and with her posture and her height, she was tall and she was steady. I could have reached out my hand behind me and patted her on the arm, maybe, but being caught touching would lose me even more privileges, and I’d already lost my cart. All I did was turn my neck, ever so slightly, and give her a nod. Then we started walking for the cafeteria as if nothing had happened. She didn’t steal a glance at the barred window and the blue sky beyond it as we went past. None of us did. It had been wrecked for us now, like by a bulldozer. It had been blown to bits by an atom bomb.

  By the second week of her stay, Ori had gotten used to all the things we’d gotten used to: the face-downs and the strip searches, the squat-and-coughs, the shame. Plus the small things, and they added up. Being told our lives were over. Being told the electric chair should be legal, even for someone under eighteen. Being called “Inmate” instead of our given names by some of the COs who liked to play this was real prison. She got used to the sound of the lock turning on our cell door every night, that cold clunk.

  All this she survived without complaint or many questions. It was odd, how easily she surrendered. It wasn’t that she’d gone soft. It was almost like she’d given up. Given in.

  We were deep into August. We all had our life-skills assignments a couple afternoons a week. Ori’s job was with the groundskeeper, outside under the hot sun. She dug in the dirt and pulled weeds in the garden. She learned how to use a shovel properly, which could come in handy for burying things instead of planting them. She also had access to whatever it was that girls like Peaches and D’amour were after, but I don’t think that had anything to do with her enjoyment. Digging out there seemed to be the one thing she wanted to do.

 
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