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The walls around us, p.17

The Walls Around Us, page 17

 

The Walls Around Us
 


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  All I could do was go back to my first option. I thanked them for my freedom, the way a newly freed slave would thank her former master.

  We all stood, four chairs scraping against the floor. My wrists were still loose and my head was still raised. We stood together in a room, like people do.

  The door was open, and I was told I could go through it now, back to my cell, or wherever I was supposed to be this morning, and there’d be more news closer to September. Santosusso came back in to escort me, and the two women and the Viking went out first, leaving their best wishes. I didn’t expect to ever see them again in my lifetime.

  “See?” Santosusso said, smiling and flashing me his dimples. “What did I tell you? Good news, right?”

  “Yes,” I said. My mouth couldn’t make a smile. “Thank you.”

  I could tell he wanted the best for me. Of course, he assumed that would be getting out. Everyone always thought that, not of what we had to go back to, at home. Maybe our parents had thrown away our mattresses. Maybe they’d told our siblings we’d been run over by trains, to make our absence fonder.

  Not everyone had a parent. It could be that nothing was waiting for us. Our keys would no longer fit the locks. We’d resort to ringing the bell, saying we’ve come home, can’t we come in?

  The eye in the peephole would show itself, and that eye could belong to a stranger, as our family had moved halfway across the country and never informed us. Or that eye could belong to the woman who carried us for nine months, who labored for fourteen hours, who was sliced open with a C-section to give us life, and now wished she never did.

  The juvenile correctional system could let us out into the world, but it could not control who would be out there, willing to claim us.

  They’d said my mother had wanted me released, but until I saw her, until I heard that from her own mouth, I wouldn’t be able to believe it.

  Santosusso was walking me down the corridor, confused maybe as to why I wasn’t leaping around for joy. He’d gone silent. We passed the window Ori had tried to see out of, and the blue sky flashed, and I turned my face away.

  It was hard to take, knowing the release was mine and mine only. I would get out, and all the rest of us would stay here.

  I thought of my new cellmate. Who would get her through her first winter? Not an ounce of me felt like celebrating.

  Santosusso didn’t escort me back to B-wing but to the academic wing, since it was morning and class was still in session. He let me go outside the classroom, and then there I was, with this piece of news so gigantic I didn’t know how I’d ever put it into words.

  That was when I heard the voices. Two girls were also out of class—and they were “congregating.” We weren’t allowed to “congregate” during class time; it was one of the rules.

  I peered around the corner. There was Ori, still in orange (they’d issue her a few sets of gen-pop greens so she could match the majority of us in time; usually it took a few weeks). Her hair was loose and hung down to shield her face, but there was a diamond shine to her eyes. She couldn’t hope to hide it.

  Seeing her tugged at me, reminding me that I’d be leaving her behind. She was the last person I wanted to tell. How would I say it? Tell her she just got shoved in this cage, but they’re opening the door for me, they’re letting me fly free?

  Ori was deep in conversation with Peaches, of all people. We all knew that Peaches couldn’t be counted as a friend. The only time she showed interest in anyone other than herself was when we were buying what she was selling.

  I strained to listen, but they hid their whispers with their hands. I caught only, “What can I do? Tell me.” That was Ori. I didn’t catch the answer.

  Peaches had a way of keeping a stash of pills tucked firm between her big and second toes, hidden in her canvas slip-ons. She could walk by the guards’ booth with her spine straight, without a telltale duck waddle, fully stocked and ready to distribute, and no CO could tell. But the summer had gone dry. Ever since the locks had come open, nothing new had been transported in. If Peaches had no pills to peddle, why was Ori huddled in the corner with her, having this intense conversation?

  A door opened, and Ori went one way, Peaches the other. I crossed the hall and went to class. Ori followed, dropping off her bathroom pass at the teacher’s desk.

  Our eyes met, and whatever she was hiding sparkled there, bright and beaming.

  The thought of leaving turned worse. Was she getting into drugs now? How long before she turned into D’amour?

  Hours later Ori arrived, late from lunch, to B-wing. I heard her before I saw her. I heard the glide and shuffle of the wheels of the cart (I’d know that sound anywhere), as the back wheel kept getting stuck and someone struggled to right it. Ori came into view with the book cart and an elated grin.

  Was she running the book cart now? Had she been transferred to the library? A bubble of mistrust and rage came up my throat first, but then it settled at the sight of her unwavering smile, at the diamonds in her eyes. I swallowed it, and my fists loosened.

  “It’s yours again,” she said, stopping the cart in our doorway. “I talked to Peaches. I talked to a CO. It’s yours.”

  How? I couldn’t make sense of it, but it was in my hands again, made of wood and piled with stories. There was The Book Thief. There was The Giver. Both Flowers in the Attic and its sequel, Petals on the Wind. There were the names on the spines, and though they weren’t alphabetized, I told myself I’d fix that later: Woodson, Atwood, de la Peña, Christie, Allende, Gaiman, Myers, Zarr. There was that long-missing copy from the witch series lots of us got addicted to: Sweep, Volume 3.

  This was the trill of happiness those three officials had been expecting when they told me I was about to be released early into the care of my family. I didn’t feel it then, but I was filled up with it now. I was full to bursting.

  I lifted my eyes to Ori’s. “But,” I said.

  She only let her eyes sparkle.

  “But how?”

  She only shook her head.

  I should have told her then. But I couldn’t find a way, in that moment, to admit that it didn’t much matter anymore. Come September, the cart would be free for the taking. And even as I thought this, I felt the creeping, crawling sense of something more I was forgetting make its way up my trembling legs. A foreknowledge that I kept pushing back. A blanking of my mind.

  Something about seeing September.

  Something about how none of us would.

  Then it passed, and I was only leaning my weight on the cart.

  She winked and took off, saying she’d be late for her life-skills job in the back garden and mumbling about some favor she had to do for Peaches.

  I didn’t think too much of it. The cart was mine again. And Ori did that for me.

  That was the kind of person she was.

  It wasn’t only me. She made these gestures with so many of us that August. She had this way about her. She’d overhear that something was wrong, and she’d try her hand at making it right. She’d find a lost shoe before one of us got in trouble and had to ask to be issued another. She’d sacrifice her chocolate pudding to someone on dessert restriction. She’d wade in and correct a miscommunication between two warring girls, until the fists lowered and everyone went away laughing. She was one of us, sure, but she was more. She was better.

  We began to talk about her when she wasn’t around to hear. Since I was her cellie and knew her better than anyone else, I got asked to join in.

  “Do you think she did it?” Mirabel asked. She, herself, always claimed innocence when it came to her own crime (reckless driving; running over a kid), though every last one of us knew she was guilty and knew she killed the kid.

  “I don’t know,” Cherie said. “Do you think she did it?”

  Mirabel shrugged and they all, every girl on B-wing, looked to me.

  I opened my mouth, but someone interrupted.

  “Judges don’t see everything, you know,” one gir
l said.

  “Judges are blind and dumb,” another said. “Mine was a certified idiot.”

  “They decide as soon as they meet you. Ten seconds in. If you’re poor. If you’re brown. If you’re black. If you’ve got an accent. If your skirt’s too short. If your nose is ugly—sorry, Cherie. If you’re chewing gum. If you’re breathing funny. If nobody from your family is there. If you’re any of that? Or all of that? Have a nice life, because you’re out of there.”

  We liked to exaggerate their biases—to us they were true. Besides, some of us had seen pictures of the pretty, gleaming victims on TV. We knew who mattered.

  “But she was holding the knife,” one of us said.

  “It wasn’t a knife. It was a box cutter.”

  Okay, that sounded serious. But still.

  “But she was holding the box cutter. They caught her with it. I saw it on the news when I was talking to a CO.”

  “There’s got to be a reason.”

  “Like maybe she was cutting up some boxes?”

  “Like maybe she was hanging on to it. Like for a friend.”

  “My cousin got shipped upstate because of some gun in his glove compartment, but he didn’t fire it. It wasn’t his.”

  “My dad got picked up just for looking like some thug. Mistaken identity. That happens.”

  “My girl Nadia? From Peekskill? They said she was cooking in her kitchen, but it was just her mom’s boyfriend used the place sometimes, and she’s in Rikers now, looking at ten years.”

  We liked to talk of failed justice. To expose all the cracks in the system: How many times it had treated us and those close to us unfairly; how many times it had proven itself rigged. We were told that everyone faced equal treatment, but we knew the truth. We only had to look around and see who was here.

  Then again, we also liked to make excuses.

  “Okay, so what if she did do it? But it’s not her fault. Like temporary insanity?”

  “Totally possible. My brother goes temporarily insane all the time.”

  “Or she could’ve taken something . . .”

  “Crank?”

  “Dust?”

  “Bath salts?”

  “Ate a bad hamburger? Got indigestion? That’d make me want to kill someone.”

  They stopped chattering. They all looked to me. “What do you think? You think she did what they say?”

  What I felt, and why I felt it, couldn’t be said aloud, here, with so many of us listening. We kept the mushy stuff to ourselves. We held hands under tables, if we did even that.

  But Orianna Speerling had changed me. I wanted everyone to see the good in her, far more than I’d ever want the same for myself.

  “She’s innocent,” I announced. I knew it as if I had DNA evidence in a tagged bag in my foot locker. I felt so sure, as if I could stand up and prove it in a court of law.

  Later that night, when she was on the bunk above me, I looked upward, at the ceiling of my bed, which was the bottom of hers. “Hey, Ori? You awake?”

  “Now I am,” she said, though not unkindly.

  “Tell me what happened. With that girl in the picture. Violet. With the box cutter. With everything. Tell me the truth.” We knew we weren’t supposed to ask these things, but here I was, for the first time ever, asking.

  She shifted in the bed slab above me. She breathed out a long breath, but she didn’t say no. Soon she’d start talking, and I’d know if she was the killer everyone on the outside said she was.

  I already had my mind made up, before she started telling me.

  You see, there were many things I knew, even though I was locked inside the walls of the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center and had been, since I turned fourteen.

  I knew that just because people on the outside were free and clean, it didn’t mean they were the good ones. They were the worst kind of liars. They were total assholes. They were traitors. They were bitches. They were snitches. They were cowards. They claimed they had your best interests at heart, but really they were in it for themselves. They said what they wanted about us. They threw us under buses, and then they walked away. Not everything said about us by those on the outside was the truth, not even close.

  Even without Ori having to tell me, I knew.

  Part V:

  Vee and Ori

  “How to Commit the Perfect Murder” was an old game in heaven. I always chose the icicle: the weapon melts away.

  —Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

  Violet:

  Not Sorry

  I END UP outside the prison, panting and bracing myself against a gray stone wall.

  I ran from whatever I saw in there—all I know is I ran. I don’t know anything else.

  The wall, the whole side of the building really, is covered in climbing ivy, and I’m mashed against it, my lungs fisting up in my chest. Then I see the oily green leaves running through my fingers and snatch my hands away. Just watch—I’ll get a nasty rash from this tomorrow.

  I’m not going back in. No way am I going back inside. I don’t know what’s gone wrong with my mind that I thought I was face-to-face with a girl who’s been dead three summers now, and then I found myself face-to-face with someone else. That maze of a place is playing tricks on me. Or someone else is.

  Tommy, I think. Sarabeth, I think. Miles.

  I pull open the heavy door and lean into the building. Darkness. Though not silence. There’s tittering. There’s some low murmuring, some rapid whispering. Then someone goes, “Shh!” and there’s a sudden hush. I feel oddly like I’m hiding behind the velvet curtain and the audience caught me peeking.

  “You guys!” I shout into the darkness. “Let’s go. Come out, okay? Come out.”

  The quiet holds. It holds steady for the longest while, and in the distance, deep into the pooling blackness at the end of the corridor, I think I hear a rhythmic drip. Like someone’s left a faucet on. It drips, and drips.

  I pull out my phone and text Sarabeth. I text Tommy. A notice at the top of my texts says Sending . . .

  No response.

  The last text I got was from Sarabeth, from like two hours ago, which is weird, because I didn’t realize we’ve been in here that long, and I never heard my phone ping when the message landed. It says:

  Not funny. Where are u

  That’s it. No details about where she might be. No attempt to come after me, either. I mean, she could’ve hiked back down to the car by now. She could be curled up on Tommy’s revolting green-and-white-striped hood, snacking on a protein bar and picking her nails, one of her bad habits. I call her, and it cuts to voice mail after the first ring.

  A memory bubbles up. Three years ago, when I was fifteen and Sarabeth was fourteen and I called her Rooster, she wasn’t exactly a friend of mine. She hasn’t been holding that grudge for all this time, has she? Storing it up, acting dumb, waiting for the chance to bite?

  I turn and look behind me, at what’s out here. The light is falling, the afternoon turning to evening, which will pretty soon turn over into night. The forest in the distance looks thicker, wilder than I noticed before. It would be kind of beautiful if this weren’t a prison where dozens of girls died. Between me and the forest at the edge of the property are three separate tall fences, barbed-wire walls, some that have been knocked down, some with holes wide enough for a large animal to charge through, but some still swaying in the wind, still standing.

  I call out, one last time, through the dark doorway. “If you’re in there, come out now.”

  The silence shifts. More whispers. Some scuffling. A cough. I let go of the heavy door and let it slam closed. Let them find another way out.

  “Okay, then,” I say aloud to myself. It feels better to be talking and making noise to cover up whatever else is out here, so I keep it up. “I’ll just go around front.”

  Except, the thing is, I can’t find the front. The gray stone building seems to go on for miles, and there’s no sidewalk around it. The only patch of paved a
rea heads out back, to this fenced-in square where there are two ancient basketball hoops, the netting hanging by a thread, and not much else. Chain-link surrounds it, making an outdoor cage.

  Past it is another fenced-off area, and that’s what catches my attention. My ears flood with noise. My eyes catch a spot of fire. Orange. Bright as neon. Practically blinding.

  My phone pings, or I think it does, but what’s that? What’s that over there?

  I find myself on a gravel pathway, narrow and winding. Over my shoulder, far away and behind me, I hear voices calling. Could be Sarabeth, or could be Tommy, but I don’t answer. They took too long.

  My body walks me forward. My muscles buzz, my skin warms, a pulse of blood sounds out in my ears like a bass drum. I let my body do the thinking, like I’m used to doing, my feet crunching gravel, step after step, like a dance memorized for the stage. My body steers me through the chain-link, knowing exactly how to solve the maze.

  She’s there in the weeds, you see. She’s been there all along. And she’s been digging.

  I’m almost there, one last fence between us, when she looks up from the pit at her feet and rests her weight on her propped-up shovel and takes a drink of me.

  Her eyes on me are shockingly cold.

  The sun above—it’s going down faster than I can understand, like time is moving at high speed.

  She doesn’t wave. She wears a bright orange puff suit, like she had on in the news. She picks up the shovel in both hands, grips it, plunges it back into the earth. The scent of fresh dirt. The wind tickling the hair at the back of my neck, exposed because I have it knotted up. The gravel under my feet, every sharp protruding stone through my sandals’ soles. I’m hot. I’m cold. My ankle throbs. My shin aches. There’s a crick in my knee. There’s a pang in my neck, and I can’t swallow. I’m dry mouthed. I’m dripping sweat. This is the impossible moment I’ve wanted and dreaded for three years.

  She pauses in her digging again, to study me.

  Do I look any different to her, in the time that’s passed since she last saw me? I was fifteen. Now I’m eighteen. Can she tell? Have I lost my baby fat? Have I aged into my face? Are my ears as Dumbo-huge as they used to be? Can she tell I had my eyebrows done? Does she like the shape of my new eyebrows? She’s never seen this shirt I’m wearing. Does she think it’s my color? It’s brighter than I used to wear. Does she notice? Would she have borrowed it from my closet? I’m taller now, I’ve grown two and a half inches. Can she see that? Would she want to stand right behind me, spine to spine, skull to skull, to see who’s taller now? Would she get on her toes, or would she protest if I got on mine?

 
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