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The walls around us, p.16

The Walls Around Us, page 16


The Walls Around Us

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  “Who’s the boy?” I was testing her.

  “My drawing, you mean? Why does everyone think that drawing’s of a boy?”

  “Someone’s writing you letters.” There were three already.

  “That’s Miles,” she said so quietly, I could barely hear.

  We needed to keep quiet anyway, because the CO would be making his rounds of the lower tier soon. The light would come shoving in through the window hole in our door, and we’d need to have our mouths shut at that point. We shouldn’t risk talking, but I wanted to hear about this Miles, this three-letters-so-far Miles. This boy.

  (The last time I touched a boy was maybe four years ago, on accident, at the town pool. He’d jumped off the diving board in the deep end and his hip connected with my bare shoulder, but it didn’t hurt that much. Red swim trunks with the pockets sticking out like wings. Water up my nose. The sting of chlorine.)

  Had Miles been the one she’d told to rot in hell, then crossed it out because she’d wanted to take it back? Was he the person who’d gone with her to Great Adventure?

  She was doing it again, though. Like in the cafeteria, with the red cup. She was smiling.

  “He was kind of like my boyfriend . . . We never named it officially, but I guess that’s what he was.”

  “He sure writes you a lot. Three letters already.”


  She’d hidden two.

  “Five? He’s got to be your boyfriend, then. Only boyfriends bother writing so much.”

  “He’s trying to get on my visitor list, but I guess they won’t let him. I guess I don’t have the clearance. Family only, so far.”

  “Mmm,” I said. I’d been cleared for years, and no one—not family, not nonfamily, not anyone—had come to visit.

  “The thing about Miles . . . ,” she started.

  We heard an approaching CO, and we got in place in bed, fast. The noise came and went, and I looked up into the darkness overtop me, and I asked her.

  “What? What’s the thing about him?”

  “He’s the only one who believed me.”

  The captivating idea of someone on the outside thinking I was innocent. Believing it so deeply as to write me stories about it, to go on record, on paper, where anyone could just pick it up and read it. I was glad that all I’d seen of her three (now five) letters from Miles were the Saratoga Springs postmarks and her name on the front. If I’d seen the insides, the naked parts where he confessed his belief in her, in her perfect innocence, in the idea that she was wrongly accused, it would have choked me up. It was choking me even to imagine it. Choked me like with tears.

  She sensed that, maybe. She changed the subject. “But Miles isn’t the person in the picture, you know.”

  I up and said it. “I’ve seen her before. The girl you drew.”

  Now she was the one who got quiet.

  “I think it was her. Like in a dream. But it wasn’t any dream. It was what happened before you got here. She visited, and she asked for you, but you weren’t here yet.”

  I felt a shifting in the bed above me. Though the whole structure was bolted to the wall, I felt a jolt and a lurch as if it could come loose and drop us, one flat on top of the other, to the hard ground. But she was only climbing off her top bunk to come down to my level.

  She wanted to see my eyes, I think. However much of them she could make out in our patch of darkness. She must have thought there’d be a way to tell if I was lying.

  Here I was more afraid of this than at the idea of her long, graceful arm reaching out in the darkness and slicing my throat. I’d heard she killed those girls with knives. Everyone was saying that.

  “Explain,” she said.

  I told her about our night. She wasn’t there with us then, but she was a part of us now, and I told her. The locks, how they opened; the doors, how they let go. Our pounding feet in the darkness and the tide that took us and the great wide-open sea.

  How we thought we lost D’amour. The flash of electricity, almost lightning, and then that girl, an exact replica of the gray face in art therapy.

  I was describing her, all I remembered, every last thing. It was when I mentioned the one detail, only then, that I think Ori believed me.

  “She had a gold bracelet with little people on it. These little—”

  “Ballet dancers,” she finished. She seemed as frightened as I was, suddenly. I made the connection. How, of all things on the girl’s gold wrist, it would be the very thing Ori used to be. Like it was her, caught on the chain, for all eternity.

  I nodded. “Her eyes,” I added, “were very blue.”

  “Oh,” she said. “Oh.”


  “How’d she get up here?”

  I didn’t know.

  “She was looking for me. She was saying my name.”

  I nodded, yes, I think she was. A dream, I said; it had to be. A hallucination. A slip of reality. A slip of memory. A slip.

  But to see Ori’s face in the moonlight through our narrow window slit, to see her eyes widen, the slack of shock in her open mouth. To see all that, none of us would think so.

  “What did she say about me?” she said. “What did she say I did?”

  A CO was coming, and Ori jumped back up into bed. We both kept still as he made his rounds past our door, shining the light in through our hole, blazing us up, and then leaving us alone, leaving us be.

  Finally she leaned down.

  “Her name is Violet Dumont,” she said. “That’s her name. She’s why I’m in here.”

  Then she stopped talking, because she’d said too much.

  Was Violet Dumont one of the girls she’d killed? I sat up, waiting for more, but Ori’s head wasn’t in view any longer. She’d gone quiet now. She wasn’t telling. She was learning to keep her one true secret, and she’d learned that from me.

  They Called

  THEY CALLED ME in, first thing the next morning. A random Tuesday. There was no hearing I knew of, no counselor to meet with, no infraction to argue against. I couldn’t think of any reason they’d call me in.

  Santosusso was the CO who escorted me to the wood-paneled room in a part of the facility I’d never visited. He seemed oddly joyful about getting to take me, almost giddy. I could swear there was a spring in his step as he led me out of B-wing, a jaunty tilt to his blue-brimmed cap, a bounce to his gun. “This is going to make your day,” he told me. “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but this could be good.”

  Santosusso opened the door, and there they were, seated all to one side of a long table.

  The state had sent three people. Two were women, one round and mean faced; one slim and sharp nailed and meaner. The third was a man, much larger than the two women combined, engulfing the chair he sat in. He wore a red beard, as if he’d been plucked from the great Norse myths of Thor. The Viking nodded at me; the two mean-faced women did not.

  The walls of this room were made from wood panels like planks on the deck of a ship. It made the room seem darker, danker, even with the ceiling lights on. It gave an underwater feeling to the proceedings, as if I were drowning and they could reach out an arm across the table and choose to save me. Or not.

  On the other side of the long table was one chair. That was to be for me. Santosusso led me to it and then sat me down. I placed my hands in full view on the table. My wrists were free.

  “Good afternoon, Miss Smith,” the round woman said. “Thank you for joining us today,” she added, as if I’d had any choice in the matter.

  Then they told Santosusso to leave us be. He’d be right outside the door, he said, reassuringly—and I didn’t know if that was meant for me, or for the people employed by the state who were about to be alone in a room with me.

  The door closed. My hands on the table stayed artfully still, like plastic mannequin hands that had all five fingers molded together.

  Then they told me the news.

  I wasn’t clear on the details, and I didn’t have the legal
knowledge that Peaches did, from studying in case she ever got a new trial, seeing as she planned to stand up and go on defense for herself.

  The gist was this: Something had happened on the outside, while I’d been serving my time. It was a “change of heart.” This couldn’t be a legal term, but the thin, mean-faced woman did say those words.

  Whatever had happened on the outside had not been communicated to me until now. No letters or lawyers’ visits, not a dime added to my canteen account so I could buy Reese’s Cups. But that didn’t mean my mother hadn’t been fighting for me, the Viking said, leaning across the expanse of the table so he could almost pat my arm—almost. He didn’t do it.

  The gist was not that I was innocent. No. Never would they come here and admit to something like that, because that would be admitting to a miscarriage of justice, a terrible mistake made by those in charge. And we all knew they did not make mistakes.

  Instead, I think they were saying that I’d been punished long enough for such a young person. There were questions lingering, about how much I’d understood at the time, about the almost-accidental nature of the impassioned crime that took place, as in, was it even an actual crime?

  Such as, how was I to know that the fuel line I cut in my stepfather’s truck engine would cause the gas leak that would cause the truck to explode like a box of firecrackers? I was only thirteen at the time, a child.

  There was no evidence that I’d studied any of the engine manuals he kept on his neatly organized shelves in the garage. The garage was off-limits to everyone in the family but him, and no one had seen me enter his space, lights off, quietly letting the door slip shut one afternoon while he was still at work. That was a fantasy no one could outright prove.

  There wasn’t any evidence that either of the back tires had been punctured with the smallest of holes so the air wouldn’t be felt leaking until he was driving on the road. No knowledge of any gasoline spillage on the floor mats, and no way to check anyway, what with the truck destroyed in a ball of fire and, when the fire was finally put out, so little remaining, they needed dental records to identify his remains.

  This kind of crime wasn’t as clear-cut as some others, such as a stabbing. At least then there was a murder weapon. Fingerprints. If they got lucky, a telltale trail of blood.

  (Stabbing was an option I’d listed in my diary, though the three adults from the state did not bring up the diary the police had seized for evidence. And I did not remind them of the tiny book I had kept wedged in the wall beside my bed. The diary that contained my list, my proof of premeditation, my downfall.)

  It was amazing, really, that I got put away for one man’s driving accident. At the time of the incident, I was home sick from school.

  But more amazing to me was the idea of my mother, back home, changing her mind.

  This was the same woman who hadn’t said a word to me in all these years. She hadn’t come to visit. She wouldn’t accept my collect calls, so I stopped calling. She never bothered to answer the letters I used to send her, so I stopped sending letters. The same woman. My mother.

  “Do you understand, Miss Smith?” the round woman asked me. “Your release papers are in progress. The final date is yet to be determined, but it will be in September.”

  No, I did not understand.

  “Miss Smith,” the thin woman said, “you can talk. You can say something.”

  “But does she know?” I choked out.

  “She . . . who?” The thin woman shuffled her papers, and the round woman gazed, searching, at the shuffling words, which were every last thing they had on me. The Viking stared at me instead, searching my face.

  “My little sister,” I said. “My half sister. My . . . Pearl. She just turned ten, in June.”

  “We don’t know anything about that,” one of the women said.

  I thought of Pearl, how she’d been seven the last time I saw her. She’d been carrying her Little Mermaid lunch box that morning, wearing her patent-leather shoes, black and mirror-shiny and with the taps built into the toes. Pearl, whose father burned alive in a car. Did anyone ever let her in on the details of that? Pearl, whose big sister got sent away soon after. Did she know why? Did anyone ever sit her down and tell her?

  The morning of, little Pearl had tapped out of the kitchen, swinging her mermaid box. Then she’d spotted me in the next room, curled up on the couch. Wrapped in a green wool blanket, a cool washcloth draped over my forehead, I was feigning sick so I could skip school. I remember how she’d tapped across the hallway and into the den. How as soon as she entered the den, the plush carpet dampened her taps, swallowing them in silence. How she’d placed her lunch box on the floor and her small hand on my cheek. How she’d seemed so serious.

  “You got a very bad fever,” Pearl pronounced, like a miniature doctor, “but you’ll be okay, Bambi.” Bambi was her word for Amber, ever since she’d learned to talk, and since then, everyone in my family called me Bambi. “Everything will be okay tomorrow.”

  I don’t remember what I said back to her, if anything.

  Everything would be, if not “okay,” then certainly settled, by tomorrow.

  “Bye-bye, Bambi,” Pearl had said. She was so little. So trusting and helpless. I didn’t want him to ever hurt her.

  “Bye, Pea,” I’d said. “Have a good day at school.”

  She stepped onto the wooden floor of the hallway beyond the carpet and she tap-tap-tapped to the foyer and she tap-tap-tapped to the bottom of the stairs and she tap-tap-tapped a few last times, for good measure. Then she took off her tap shoes and put on her purple sneakers with the Velcro straps, like our mother always made her do before driving her to school.

  I couldn’t imagine that Pearl could still love me. Couldn’t picture how she’d greet me, once I came home, looking like I did now, hardened up like I was now, after all these years inside.

  “This news has surely startled you, Miss Smith. Do you have any questions for us?”

  Smiles. Three.

  I had only one question: “You’re really letting me out?”

  Three affirmatives. Details followed. Details about a transport bus I would take to a facility closer to my mother’s house, because she wouldn’t be able to come up to get me herself. Details on clothes they would provide for me, because I’d outgrown the ones I came in wearing. More details would come in September.

  They wanted me to say thank you. That was what was expected of me here and now: gratitude, and lots of it. Possibly tears.

  When I learned my stepfather had died on the road near our house, in his truck, I didn’t cry. I didn’t show much emotion at all at first. They left me alone, thinking I was in shock. I had a washcloth over my forehead, because it had been assumed I’d had a fever. Then they saw the couch was empty, the washcloth abandoned. They found me in the furnished basement, a part of the house he’d claimed as his own. I had my bare toes squished in his plush carpet, his drumsticks in my hands. I wasn’t banging his snares, I wasn’t hitting his bass, but I was on his stool, behind his kit, where I’d been told never to go. I was humming a song, and for days after, during the wake and during the funeral, after the hole was dug and the dirt dropped on the coffin, the headstone raised up with the BELOVED carved in gray stone, through the sobbing fits my mother would have whenever she passed the framed photo on the mantel that held her and him and my half sister and not me, through all these things I hummed it. The wrenching emotion that came out of her at losing the deep and passionate love of her life—not her children, but a man—told me what I already knew: There was no one my mother loved more than him.

  All during these events and up until the police came for me, I was humming.

  It was a song he used to play, a song I despised because it was a song from his youth that he adored. “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” I’d hum. It turned my stomach, that song, sickened me with its sweet, raunchy whine. But in the name of hate, I’d hum it, the disgusting song he’d bang out on that drum kit no more.

  When I made a plan, I kept to it. When poisoning his dinner didn’t work (he thought he had a hangover and needed to sleep it off), and when causing him to slip and fall on the roof when he was fixing the shingles didn’t work (he did slip; he only sprained an ankle), and when stabbing him with a steak knife didn’t work (I picked up the knife, got freaked out, put the knife back in the drawer)—when all of the other options didn’t work, I became resourceful. I listed the failures, and the dates of the attempts, in my diary. And I thought and thought. The prosecutor was right to call this premeditated. It was something I meditated on constantly, a soothing hum. I hoped on it. I prayed to it, as if it were a small gold god on a shelf.

  Let me find a way.

  Let me find the way.

  Let me disappear him for good.

  I heard how, when his truck blew out on the road, the whole cab went up in a blaze. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I’d messed with the truck every way I could think of. At least one of my attempts must have worked.

  A family passing in a car stopped but could do nothing. No one could get that close to the fire. They could only watch him clawing at the windows, howling in the melting red heat, and then it erupted in black smoke and they couldn’t see him anymore. I heard it would have been terribly painful for him, in his last minutes. Agony, someone said. Excruciating—I remembered having to look up that word in the dictionary after I read it online.

  I wasn’t humming, then, in the wood-paneled room with the three visitors from the state across the table. I’d stopped humming for good at the trial. I didn’t like to be reminded, so I squashed the habit. Turned out the only time I still hummed that song was when I was asleep.

  The three visitors from the state studied my reactions. I couldn’t figure out what they wanted from me.

  I didn’t make any sounds. I didn’t laugh, hysterically, disbelievingly, though many of us would have, at sudden, sinking news like this. I could have held my head in my hands, trying to cover my face from view. I could have cried, and the cries could have been loud, louder than any sound I’d made since coming to this place. I could have done something else to show I’d fooled them all.

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