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The walls around us, p.15

The Walls Around Us, page 15


The Walls Around Us

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  My life-skills assignment was in the kitchen then, and I’d catch a glimpse of her out the windows, which were larger and gave more light than any other windows in the whole facility. I’d see Ori in the dirt, communing with the worms. I noticed how the groundskeeper kept his distance from her, but he must have heard the stories. He had to have been wondering about her.

  Weren’t we all, from girl to guard, from criminal to civilian? We wanted a glimpse at the monster inside. We thought we could catch a peek sometimes, a shiftiness in the eyes maybe. A rumble.

  Each of us had our own monster, distinct to us. We were all different, one girl to the next, like snowflakes.

  But Ori’s monster wasn’t showing. And I tried to see it. I tried very hard to make out what was wrong with her, to have been found guilty and shipped up here, no effort at an appeal. Because I couldn’t figure it out. No way she actually was innocent, was there? The way the girls went around saying about me?

  Her true self sparkled sometimes. Told me things in the way a premonition might have, if I’d seen the light. I knew there was something I was forgetting. My mind was dragging around a heavy part of itself. Like a phantom limb, it itched every once in a while; it prickled with electricity even though I couldn’t lift it out.

  All my attention was on Ori. I was judge and jury all rolled into one, and I was beginning to believe she shouldn’t be here.

  For instance, the cup. The way she saw that cup, when to us it was something entirely different.

  We could never choose our dishes or utensils in the cafeteria. We had to take the trays we were given, and the food we were given, though we could choose to chew and swallow and digest that food or starve, when the macaroni was extra rancid or the soup looked weird. But Ori had this one cup she liked to use, from the collection in the cafeteria.

  Sometimes the red cup would be among those serviced in the dishwasher and offered at the meal that day. Any girl among us might find it on her tray. There was the luck of the draw to getting the red cup, instead of one of the many white cups or one of the grays. Before Ori arrived here, it was bad luck to find the bright object there on our trays, filled with the milk or the sour-tasting orange juice or the flat soda drink we were given. Most of us wouldn’t dare take a sip. Whatever filled the red cup was cursed, and we’d rather be parched than drink it down.

  Then came Ori. And, we realized, she always saw the good in something first, before any bad. Even after Rafferty caught her out of line, even when she tamped herself down and got quiet and went through all the motions without any outburst, any protest, even then. Her true self kept peeking out.

  She saw what we couldn’t. When it came to the inmates, she saw through our hard exteriors and the teardrops needled under our eyes and the bloodied scrapes on our knuckles from our wall-punching. It was like she saw that time one of us gave our only twenty-dollar bill to the man on the corner who slept in the box. Or she saw the time another one of us found the snail on the sidewalk and saved it from being smashed by walking feet, carrying its shell and slime over to the grass. She saw our outside goodness, those far-back memories in the rearview of our old lives, and she saw our inside goodness, too.

  I had no idea how.

  She saw us as we could be, if we weren’t locked up in here. She saw what the judge couldn’t see and what the public defender only pretended to see and what our own mothers, who refused to come on visiting day, should have seen.

  Imagine a person who still looks at you the way your mother used to, when you were little and two-braided and good. That was Orianna Speerling, our new inmate, the closing of our circle, our forty-two.

  So when the red cup landed on her tray for the first time, the second week of her endless sentenced weeks, Ori did something strange, something that caught us off guard. She looked down at the bright red spot on her tray, and she smiled. This smile lit up her face. We hadn’t seen her face like this, hadn’t seen that smile, ever, so a few of us in line stopped and took a moment just to behold it.

  “You sick or something?” Natty asked her.

  Cherie put a hand on her arm though there was to be no touching. “Hey. Are you okay?”

  Ori only smiled, kept the light on, kept smiling. She turned to me. “Look what I got,” she said. “Can you believe it!”

  We each dropped our gaze in disbelief to her warped plastic tray, melted in on one side from the defectively hot corner of the dishwasher. In the cupped compartments on the tray there was a glop of potato, a slop of meat, a sludge of green beans, a rock-hard whole-wheat roll, and a slice of yellow cake with no icing. She didn’t mean any of that, clearly. In the cup hole, there it was, the dreaded red cup. It contained a bluish dribble of what we had to assume was milk.

  “The good cup’s mine,” she said, “for today.” Almost like she wanted us to know that tomorrow the cup could belong to any one of us.

  Ori and I went down the line, to grab our plastic utensils, and found a table to sit where we wouldn’t be pounded for taking someone’s preferred seat. She slid in across from me. We kept our heads down, as usual. I put my spoon in the gelatinous glop of potatoes and took a slithering bite.

  When I glanced up, still, there on her face: the smile.

  It made me lose hold of where we were for a moment. Confused me.

  Happiness for no reason made a certain kind of light in here. Pulsing. Causing a blazing flare in the middle of the cafeteria. It hurt our eyes. It called attention.

  “This will be a good day,” she said, and everyone in the near vicinity turned to look. “That’s what this means,” she said. Some of the girls started whispering. One of the girls at our table—Mack—got up to move somewhere else.

  “You shouldn’t drink out of that,” I told Ori. “We don’t ever . . . we never—”

  I should have warned her sooner. She held the red cup to her chapped lips and took a passionate swig of the maybe-probably milk.

  We didn’t understand. The other girls with nine months left to their sentences, two years, two and a half months, two hundred twenty days, none of us understood. A “good” day? The last good moment for some of us was when we thought we’d get away with it. That the cop chasing us would stumble and fall. The alley we rushed into would have a detour, a way out. The getaway car would pull up, passenger door whipping open, and speed us into innocence. That was the last we knew of good.

  For others, our good moments were few and far between. In the shower stall sometimes, two minutes left and the running water miraculously still hot on our sore shoulders. Sneaking a kiss with a girl whose eyes reminded us of a boyfriend’s outside. Sneaking a kiss, period. Sneaking a moment to ourselves anywhere, anytime.

  For me, it was being in the library, skimming a finger through a newly arrived book. That was always my good thing. Now, my last good thing.

  But Ori saw good around every gray corner. She saw a brightly colored cup land on her tray of sad, terrible food in the detention center where she was to live out the last years of her teens, and she saw promise. She saw happiness. She saw a chance to drink the maybe-probably milk out of something nice-looking for a change, which would transform the watery, curdled taste into something rich and delicious.

  She finished her red cup of milk, with a whole bunch of us staring. She set down the cup with a contented sigh. “That was good,” she said.

  After that, the red cup was coveted. Girls wanted to find it sitting there, milk-filled or juice-filled or even tap-water-filled, on their trays. Sometimes a fight broke out over who got to drink out of it, and, twice that summer, girls were sent to the infirmary or the hole because someone said she had it first. Ori made it wanted. She acted like it was lucky. And forever after, it was.

  We Revealed Ourselves

  WE REVEALED OURSELVES in art therapy, forcibly, in assigned groups once a week. Art therapy was run by an enthusiastic hippie, and mostly involved us drawing some abomination on a piece of cheap paper, then sitting in a circle to share it with the group a

  In her first session that August, my new cellmate didn’t draw lumpy dragons like D’amour had, or cars like Mirabel did. No curvaceous porn-star silhouettes like Natty, who always spent most of the session coloring in the plump lips. She drew something important. She didn’t know it then, but it was a message directed at me.

  Ori drew a face. In her drawing—graphite pencil, all gray—the nose was a normal nose. The mouth was a normal mouth. The ears were normal ears. The eyebrows were thin and barely there, but normal enough. The neck was long, and no one knew where it ended because its lines swept off the page, so it could have been a giraffe neck, for all we knew.

  The drawing was just a person’s face. In pencil. That was it.

  Even our group leader had few words for Ori in the sharing part of the session. This was her favorite time because she could interpret and read us the same way she liked to read star charts, digging through the murk and grime of our pasts.

  But the hippie took a moment of silence, eyeing Ori’s plain page. “A boy,” she said—hopefully, I thought. She did seem to adore the idea of love affairs, so long as they didn’t invade our circle of chairs.

  Ori shook her head. “A girl.”

  “Oh!” the hippie said with an open mind, waiting for Ori to name the girl and their connection, but Ori didn’t volunteer. All she was willing to say had already been said, on that piece of paper in the form of that penciled head.

  “A very realistic portrait, Miss Speerling, thank you.” Though, she suggested, next time perhaps, if she were so inclined, Ori might try letting go and giving her subconscious a big, fat yes. The hippie loved for us to tell our imaginations yes. She had no idea how dangerous that could be.

  She was pleased with Cherie’s contribution, which was a tree with the head of a man and the feet of a bird, possibly a chicken, and spiked eyelashes made of razor blades.

  My own drawing was a house made of books, but where there should have been a door, there was a book, and where there should have been windows, there were books, and where the chimney should have been open to let the smoke out, a book was covering the hole, so if anyone was in the house, they couldn’t get out. They’d suffocate, to be found years later, a desiccated corpse still marking its place in the book it had been reading with a knobby finger bone, head caved in by an avalanche of fallen books. As I said, I liked books.

  Our hippie glowed with the miserable pride of a kindergarten teacher. She said I was finally getting somewhere. She urged me to dig even deeper next week, to push myself, to open up that book-door and let us see what I was concealing inside my book-walls. She wanted the walls to come crashing down. I was ready.

  Natty rolled her eyes. Her drawing showed she was ready, too, she said. She was ready for some dick.

  Our group leader flushed and mumbled a canned response about inappropriate behavior, which we’d just been talked to about last week.

  I didn’t let Natty distract me with her nonsense. I was struck by Ori’s drawing. Something about that face.

  It was giving me memories. And the room was spinning, and all of it (the face, somehow familiar, the room, somehow spinning, the hippie telling us to calm down or she’d call in a CO) made me unsteady in my chair. I tipped.

  I recognized this face, you see. I remembered.

  There was something I was supposed to remember.

  I face-planted myself on the ground without a CO to help me.

  The intruder. She’d broken through our walls and saw me, only me, and then she went running.

  Ori had drawn our visitor, though Ori hadn’t been locked up with us that night, so she couldn’t have seen her. She couldn’t have known. I’d told no one.

  Now I remembered with perfect detail the face of the intruder—the exact same eyes, nose, lips as in this drawing. The intruder had called me not my own name but another girl’s name, one that had tugged on me then but that I’d since pushed down and let sink to the bottom of the pool of names I kept track of, which now, right then, was forty-two.


  She was the one who helped me up off the floor, now, not our group leader, and not Mississippi, who’d been sitting in the chair closest to me. Ori lifted me up, though we weren’t supposed to be touching; it was an infraction that could get us both sent to Solitary if the hippie wanted to be obnoxious about it and report us to a CO.

  Ori had a question on her face, and I answered with a question right back from mine. I was standing now, and she stepped away and let go.

  It was not that she was a brilliant artist; it was mostly the eyes, the frigid, deep blue eyes.

  Then I blinked. Because she’d used only graphite pencil, which was gray, and I must have imagined the blue.

  “Take your seats, girls,” the hippie said. The bells around her neckline tinkled.

  Ori folded her drawing carefully and didn’t ask me there why I’d reacted so. We had all night to talk, she knew.

  She took the drawing back to our cell after the session was over, after rec in the yard and dinner of gray cups and mashed carrots and patties of possible meat, after lining up to walk back to our wing, after waiting for what felt like forever to walk back, after walking, and standing for count in the corridor and removing our slip-on shoes before we stepped in.

  When our wing made count, she turned to me, and the question from earlier was still hovering on her face. We were locked in, then, alone with our questions.

  “What happened?” she said. “Why’d you freak out?”

  I insinuated the drawing in her fisted hand. No need to say anything more, because the lights flashed. We had to change out of our jumpsuits into our pajamas now. We had to take turns at the sink and the toilet and make ready to get into our bed slabs for another night.

  I was careful then, in those last moments between telling and not-telling. I changed with my back to her, aware of her body moving, breathing. Aware of what bodies were capable of, which was betrayal and lies. I’d learned that from having friends on the outside.

  The friends I had back at home when I was thirteen were the very first people to talk to the police. They told what I’d confided at sleepovers, in buried chat messages, on the top of the bleachers when we climbed up there to try very hard to not have fun at pep rallies. These were the true friends I’d had in seventh grade, the ones who judged me guilty before any courtroom could do the same.

  I couldn’t recall the last time I’d had a true friend. A secret-keeper. A girl who would risk the hole to help me up when I fell off a chair.

  I had begun to feel something for Ori, something I’d never felt for any of the other girls who’d been in here with me, even when I knew so much about them, from reading their notes slipped between the pages of books, and listening in on their secrets. I’d found the letter Ori had started and abandoned, but that was all I had on her. I’d heard her name at mail call and knew someone was communicating with her, but she kept those envelopes stowed away in her foot locker, careful not to let me see beyond the postmark noting they’d been mailed from Saratoga Springs. That was all I knew, and I wanted more. I wanted to know all.

  But she was the one who got out the next question.

  “Your drawing today . . . ,” she started. “What did you used to draw before?”

  “Regular houses.”

  She waited to see if I’d say more.

  “Brick houses with windows and doors and chimneys with the puffs of smoke coming out. I guess normal houses, like the ones people live in.”

  She didn’t ask if I’d lived in a house like that (I had) or if I ever peopled the houses I drew, showed the family out front on the green-crayoned grass under the yellow-crayoned sun, standing on their stick legs, holding stick hands maybe, wide-smiling mouths on stick necks.

  I did not.

  We were always careful with what we produced in art therapy—we caught on to this quickly—because indicating something on the page pointed an arrow not at it but at you.

  “Aren’t you a
ngry?” Ori asked me then. “You don’t seem angry. You should be more angry. Your life’s ruined because no one believed you.”

  It was. They hadn’t.

  “Are you?” I asked.

  “Angry?” she said. “No.” Her scribbles while reading about Cleopatra had shown otherwise.

  She saw my face, and I expected her to flat-out keep up the lie. She had no idea I’d seen it, even if she couldn’t find it in the pharaohs book the next day.

  Instead she added, “Maybe sometimes, okay? Sometimes I get so mad, I don’t even feel like me. But I’m here. This isn’t ending. I’m not gonna wake up tomorrow someplace else like this never even happened. So . . .”


  “So what’s the point?”

  I sat on my bottom bunk. She sounded so sensible. Her feet were bare, and her toes were long and hideous, and one of the nails was rot black and not from polish. She didn’t try to hide them. I looked up at her face, and her eyes were honest. I couldn’t help but wonder, if I’d met her on the outside, like at school, grade seven, if she’d been my friend, like up at the top of the bleachers with the others so we could ignore the pep rally, and if I’d said the things I’d said about my stepfather, who happened to meet his maker in a fiery accident not long after, what would she have done with that information? Would she have told her parents and gone to the police, like I discovered friends do? Or would she have been another kind of friend, the good and true kind of friend who’d have my back? Who’d stand up in a court of law and say I meant no harm. Who’d put her neck out. Lie for me.

  I had to change the subject.

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