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The walls around us, p.2

The Walls Around Us, page 2


The Walls Around Us

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  I’d get anxious, and she’d take my shoulders—she was taller, and her hands were thinner, but with surprising grip—and she’d hold me in place to keep my nerves in check and she’d tell me, Breathe, Vee, breathe.

  She wouldn’t be feeling any of this pressure to be perfect, like I am. She’d be relaxed, loose, even smiling. She would’ve told horsey Bianca she was wonderful, and that it didn’t matter how hard she stomped when she torpedoed through her grand jetés. She would have gone and wished every dancer here to break a leg, even the bitches, and she wouldn’t have meant it with any sort of malice, the way I would’ve.

  I know she would have talked me out of this plain costume, the simple white tutu I’ve got on, the white tights, the small white flower pinned in my hair. She would have wanted to go out in color. Bright, bold. As many colors as she could get away with—that was Ori. For class, she used to pair a red leg warmer with a blue one, pulled up high on her thighs over pale pink tights, a purple leotard with a green tank on top, a fuchsia bra, straps showing. The band holding her black hair off her face would be yellow maybe, with polka dots. I thought she looked kind of ridiculous, and I don’t know why Miss Willow let her get away with it. But then Ori would dance, and when she danced, you forgot things like mismatched leg warmers and too many colors clashing. You could only watch what she could do, you had to see.

  For Ori, dancing came naturally, without a nervous stomach or worries she’d forget the steps. She danced like it was meant to be, in a way that couldn’t be copied, no matter how carefully I watched her move, mirroring my body after hers and trying to get my limbs to loosen up and act more free.

  She had this vivid spark of life in her, wanting out, and you could see it clear when she took the floor. I’d never witnessed anyone move like that—I guess I won’t ever again.

  If Ori and I were dancing a duet tonight, she for sure would have been better than me. The audience would have basked in her, loved her, followed her light across the stage. My light would have been background.

  That’s the truth, or it could have been. It’s no longer the truth anymore.

  I let the curtain drop.

  I’m on, I hear my cue. I take my first steps out onto the stage, and next I hear her voice, what she would have said to me, had she been here.

  Breathe, Vee. Go be amazing. Go show them. Let them all see.

  She used to say things like that all the time.

  I’m at my mark. The darkness lifts, and my body lifts with it, and I’m tall now, as tall as Ori because she had only a couple inches on me, taller even, because maybe since she’s been gone I grew. I’m balanced on pointe, on one leg, without a tremor, without sway. The spot of light circles me, and I’m growing warm inside it.

  I wonder how I look, from out there in the audience, to those strangers in the seats who know me this way only, who have no idea.

  I don’t need a mirror to tell me. I look like I belong up here. I’ve got new Grishkos on, broken in this morning by massaging the shank and slamming the hard cast of the box into a door. My mother sewed on the ribbons with the tiniest stitches—no one could ever hope to see them. My hair is pinned slick with shine to my head, and the tutu is a rigid ring around my middle, not as flimsy as it might seem. I’m entirely in white. I wanted it that color. I asked for it.

  The audience holds its breath for me. Ori’s not the one up here, I am. The audience eyes my bent and poised leg, my arms molded in a graceful line over my head, my lifted and lengthened spine. All my weight is on a single toe. I hold. At least a dozen people watching from the wings want me to fall, and I’m not falling.

  Now comes the building crescendo of music, every little increment of movement from my body studied in mirrored reflection, coached and corrected into place. It may not be as free-form as Ori would have done it, but it’s impressive because I’m so precise. I make no mistakes, not a single one. People in the audience can’t hear the clomp of the brand-new shoes as I touch my weight to ground between each whip-fast pirouette. Or if they do hear, if they’re seated close enough to the stage to hear, they ignore it. They want it our secret. They want me to win.

  But there’s another secret. Inside, past the tulle and the skintight stretch of fabric going three layers deep, I’ve got things I can’t talk about. Things Ori knew, and only Ori knew. If you peel away the first layer, and the second layer and the third layer, underneath would be something ugly. Something broken. Eyes clawed out and blood still clinging to her neck, her arms, her face. Sometimes I think I still have the blood on my face. There’s this thumping, and it’s not my pristine pair of pointe shoes touching floor for the first night in their short lives. It’s what’s going on in my head. It’s a stampede.

  It may look like I’m dancing, but I’m somewhere else. I’m out there behind the Dumpster, in the tunnel of trees, and I’m screaming and flinging my arms, and dirt is everywhere, and rocks and twigs and leaves and blackness, the whole world getting knocked out like a set of teeth. I’m out there even now, as much as I’m in here.

  Before I know it, I reach the end of the choreography. I can barely keep it together, but still I finish my solo with a flourish, poised on one rock-solid leg.


  They say nothing, do nothing. I can hear them all breathe.

  Then it happens. The seats creak and shift and people rise to their feet. I’ve given them everything, I’ve given them too much this time, and then I realize, it takes me a moment to realize. These people really have no idea, do they? I showed them, and they couldn’t see. They start cheering for me. These people—family, friends, strangers, all those innocent strangers—they stand on their feet for me and their hands smack and smack with increasing violence, and they shower me with noise like they wish I never had to leave this town or this stage. They’re praising me. They’re showing me how much they love me and have always loved me, no matter what. Look how blind they are. They’re giving me a standing O.

  Part II:

  Inmate #91188-38

  We were just acting out the strangest, tragic little roles, pretending to be criminals in order to get by. We gave very convincing performances.

  —Heather O’Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals


  It Was Too Late

  IT WAS TOO late in the night for any wishful thinking. Past midnight. Past hoping. None of us was lying around in bed, holding our breath, willing the nearest CO on night duty to have a heart and let us out. That was not how it happened.

  We never would have guessed at what was coming, not that night and not on our first day at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center, when we emerged from the blue-painted bus from the county jail and looked up at these gray walls, this gray place.

  Because this was true even when we stepped through the gate for processing: Even when we were stripped and searched and deloused and dressed in the orange jumpsuit and photographed and shackled to the wall while they chose a wing among A or B or C or even D in which to put us. Even when they determined our gang affiliation (I had none) and calculated our threat to the open population (mine was moderate). Even when they diagnosed, in seconds, whether or not we were suicidal, which meant restrictions on privileges like getting to keep our glasses outside the classroom or being allowed to sleep with the lights off or be civilized and wear a bra. (I could keep my reading glasses and was issued two identical sad, gray bras.) Even when we were shoved in the cage, our wrists freed and the barred door closed, and we heard the lock turning and making the choking sound that stopped hard in that last, low clunk, and that was it, we were inside, we were done. Even then, we never thought we’d see it all get reversed, in an instant.

  We never thought the locks would decide to open on their own.

  We were on our bed slabs, sandwiched in our bunks, which was where we spent all our nights and where we woke, trapped, on all our mornings. We slept, those of us who could sleep. We drifted, those of us who couldn’t sink into full, eyes-closed
unconsciousness. We did what we could to make it through another night inside.

  Some of us knew for sure it was a Saturday, the first one of August. Some of us kept track of days, as Lian did (her charge was manslaughter, like mine, though her weapon was a handgun and she had only ninety-nine days remaining on her sentence; I had far more). There were those of us, like Lian, who kept track of every passing hour, notching the wall beside our bunks or carving up the private patches of our bodies beneath scratchy, state-issued underclothes. Some of our thighs and cinder blocks said we had two months left; some said two years.

  Then there were those of us who didn’t want to keep track, whose sentences ran as long as a set of train tracks to all the places we’d never been. We pretended weeks were days, and years were weeks. That we still got to live our lives out in the sunshine.

  There was Annemarie, held for her own protection in D-wing. (Murder in the first degree; chef’s knife; once she turned eighteen, she’d get sent downstate, to an adult correctional facility, to serve out the rest of her time with other full-grown murderers.) For some of us, like baby-faced Annemarie, a girl so tiny she barely grazed my shoulders, it was simply thinking of the nights left, the time still to do, that made her go gray.

  Some of us didn’t have that much time left on our sentences, but still we felt like every hour was stolen from us, like the branches had been ripped clean off our growing trees. Over in C-wing, Little T. was cranky, even though she had less than a month left. (Her conviction was for assault, in the play yard at school; she said the girl had it coming.) Little T. was always cranky, but on that night she was more so. There was a leak dripping down from the ceiling, which meant it was raining.

  This was why, when we argued over it later, when it was only us and our memories of the night to pry open, we were divided. Not everyone agreed it was August, and calendars were no help to us anymore. Annemarie was convinced it was still July, and Lian wished it were already September. Little T. could say only that it was raining.

  What we did agree on was that it was hot and it was dark. It was a deep, sweat-drenched night sometime in the worst stink of summer when the locks came open. None of us could argue over that.

  The gray stone building that housed us was more than a century old and was so far north, its shadow practically fell on foreign land. Like every detention center, every stop on the chain between jail and long-term juvie, Aurora Hills had its quirks that only those of us inside could know and appreciate. We knew the way the heating vents were situated, so a girl in A-wing could speak in a low, clear voice to a girl in C-wing simply by pressing her mouth to the wall and letting her words scurry off into the ducts and dusty airways that connected the wings. We knew that the hallway outside the woodshop was out of reach of surveillance cameras, so if a girl wanted to cut another girl, or press her up against the wall and slip her some tongue, that would be where to do it.

  There were other details, small secrets, like the way sugar-soft snowflakes landed on our upturned faces from the sprinkler system in B-wing during wintertime. Like how sometimes, without the excuse of a holiday, what the cafeteria served as meat loaf tasted to us like a fudgy, springy slice of devil’s food cake baked by one of our dead grandmas if eaten with our eyes closed. Any place can be made to feel like home. And one thing many of us had in common was how we’d dreaded living at home and desperately needed to escape that sinking ship. Home is where the heart is, and where the hell is, and where the hate is, and where the hopelessness is. Which made Aurora Hills pretty much like home.

  We were each assigned to one of the four wings, and each wing had two tiers. The cells were arranged in an even square, the top tier lined with guardrails, each cell facing its mirror opposite across the way. Sound carried, voices juggling back and forth across the gathering space on the first floor. That space was where we spent our free time when we weren’t made to sit through classes, forced to learn out of gnarled books so old whole generations above us had napped and drooled all over them. In the gathering space near our cells, we gambled over worn decks of cards and told stories about our former lives on the outside—exaggerating our virgin acts with boys and with crime.

  Inside our cells, if we’d made friends with our cellies, we could choose or not choose to share our secrets.

  We were kept two to a cell, sleeping one above the other with the low, scratched ceiling looming over the one who got top.

  Our small rooms, longer than they were wide, contained two desks barely large enough to hold a sheet of paper, and two sets of shelves sturdy enough to contain two books each, if the books were skimpy and thin. There were two squares of mirror, made of an unknown metallic substance that wouldn’t shatter. These poor excuses for mirrors reflected smears of our faces, in chunks, and not a whole head.

  We had two lockers and two hooks. We were always asking for more hooks. We had one toilet and one shrunken sink. We had a door that was green-painted and walls that were mildew-blossomed and always growing new blooms. We had cockroaches. We had ants. There were rats in the walls, and mice in the ceilings. We had plastic tubs outside our doors in which to stow our canvas slip-ons, so whenever we were inside our rooms, we didn’t have shoes.

  There were two windows. One was in the door, facing the hallway; the other was in the wall, looking toward the outside.

  The first window was covered in wire mesh and belonged to the COs; that window was molded into each heavy cell door so our guards had a way to check on us, whenever they wanted, when we were undressing or napping or doing push-ups with one arm bent behind our backs, or when we were jammed flat against the door, glaring back at them through the hole.

  But the second window was ours. It was a horizontal gash high up in the wall. Through it, we saw a wash of green if we were on the bottom tier of the wing, and that green was the surrounding forest beyond the fence lines. If we were on the upper deck, one floor above, we saw sky.

  D’amour (smuggling of a controlled substance, on behalf of a very persuasive boyfriend; eighteen months) had the top bunk above mine. We were in B-wing. D’amour slept facing the window, eyes on the moon if she could find it, as she did on all nights.

  We slept while it rained, those of us who could sleep. We counted mistakes like sheep, those of us, like me, and like D’amour, who couldn’t sleep.

  Then the deadbolts came open.

  I’d like to say there was something to alert us, a certain charge in the air that caught our unsuspecting toes. But that would be romantic, and that would be a lie. There was nothing apart from time passing. The minutes moving forward, giving no warning.

  Lola was the first of us to shout out, from the bottom floor of C-wing. She’d been jolted awake, once again, to see her cellmate standing like a stop sign in the darkness, as immobile as the stones wedged together to make the walls.

  Kennedy was the cellmate no one wanted, known for her creepy habits, like munching her fingers and eating her own hair. She also had a habit of sleepwalking, though there wasn’t far, in a locked compartment as tight as ours, to go walking. She wouldn’t reveal her reasons for being here, but we could imagine: obsessive trespassing; cannibalizing other people’s hair.

  Lately she’d started watching Lola sleep. It wasn’t that she touched or made threats. She simply stood, silent, inches from her cellie’s slack, unconscious face, and let her eyes do the wandering.

  We couldn’t blame Lola for reacting the way she did.

  Lola had a good number of months left for holding up a corner store and beating the clerk to unconsciousness. The judge found her so remorseless, so lacking in empathy, that he threw the book at her. But—she believed and we agreed with her—she’d calmed that raging part of her since then, tamped it down and tied it up in her own private basement, until this night, when she woke to find Cannibal Kennedy’s eyes all over her. Again.

  What we heard was shouting. Then the quake and shudder of a body being slammed against a cinder-block wall. We heard a gurgle and a crack and a sq
uash and a thump.

  What wasn’t strange was hearing noise from Lola’s cell at night. We’d gotten used to her shouting at Kennedy, just as we were used to a new girl whimpering when the first hours of the first long night set in—and how it was often the ones who looked the toughest, and acted the hardest, who cried out for their mommies.

  What was strange was that no CO came to investigate. Kennedy crumpled down the wall until she made a slack pile of limbs at the bottom. Lola went back to bed and didn’t help her up.

  If the locks were open then, Lola wasn’t the one to notice, and Kennedy was out cold at that point, so it wasn’t like she would have known.

  It happened to be a girl on B-wing—my wing—who was the first to make the discovery. Jody, down on the bottom deck.

  Jody got up in the middle of the night, as she did most nights. She had this pastime she enjoyed, a kind of hobby. It involving ramming herself into the door of her cell, butting her head against the cold, rock-hard surface like a bull wired up for a fight. She liked the crash of impact and the shaken rush to the skull, then falling back, dazed and nursing a new goose egg on her forehead. It was a comfort to her, a hurt she looked forward to because she was in control of its coming. Like nothing else in her life, this was something she owned all to herself. She chose when.

  She climbed down off the top bunk and took position. She lunged, poised, like a sprinter. She kicked off the steel toilet and set herself flying. All that stood between her and feeling something was the gap of air before the closed door.

  She wanted that hit. She was expecting it. She didn’t expect to find little resistance and have the door swing outward and tumble her through to the slippery tiled floor on the other side.

  Had a CO been huddling outside her door, playing a trick on her? That was something Rafferty might pull, but he only worked days.

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