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The walls around us, p.20

The Walls Around Us, page 20

 

The Walls Around Us
 


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  Gone.

  When a dancer finds herself onstage, before an audience, and comes upon that dreaded moment that can happen even to the best of us, when her mind empties of her choreography in a flood of panic, there are three different reactions she can have. In each one, she’s like a wild animal in the headlights, but the question is, which animal will she be tonight? She could be a rabbit, squeaking with fear and jetting off into the safe and darkened wings. She could be a deer, frozen in place, arms raised up like two antlers. Or she could be something with teeth, like a mountain lion. She’ll charge forward with a set of steps, any steps, even if they aren’t the ones belonging to this song or this routine. She could dance anything, anything at all, because at least she’d have the chance of fooling them, the audience. In most cases, they are too stupid to know the difference.

  I would have thought my first instinct in the smoking tunnel would be to squeak away like a rabbit. That was pretty much how I’d been handling the two of them for years.

  But my body had other instincts I didn’t know about, and those instincts took me over. Truth is, and this is not bragging, I have never once been out onstage in front of an audience and forgotten my choreography. I know exactly what I’m doing at all times. At least my body does. It’s muscle memory. There’s always a part of you that’s left aware when your mind goes dark. Your hands do the work for you, just like a dancer’s highly trained feet.

  I blink out and when I come to, it’s everywhere. On the trees, on the ground, on my arms, in my eyes.

  Blood.

  All the blood.

  Blood on my pale blue costume, and then dirt on my costume and in my hair and in my mouth as we were rolling in it, Harmony and I, slicked wet with the blood and scrabbling in the hard dirt. Rachel was on me next, and then she was off me. She was so easy to push off. The tunnel kept us close—the three of us—and it also shielded our fight from the back door of the theater, if someone happened to wander outside and look behind the Dumpster. But there was so little room that there was nowhere for anyone to run, if anyone was thinking of being the rabbit and going running. There were three of us on the ground and I was all muscle memory, all instinct, bile-hot and vicious.

  Then there were four.

  There were eight arms, there were forty scratching fingers, there were four buns and then no buns as all hair came loose. There was one trucker hat and one crown. There were four mouths and eight legs and eight feet. There were sharp sticks. There were bobby pins everywhere. There were rocks. There were birds up in the trees, chirping.

  Ori pulled me off Harmony’s body, shaking me. “What did you do, Vee? What did you do?”

  Rachel was crumpled in the dirt, so tiny she could have been a child. The red marks were on her throat and neck.

  Harmony was on her back, eyeholes gazing upward at the dark ceiling of the tunnel, mouth open, nose mashed to a flattened lump of pus and blood. The center of her stomach was full of feathers, red feathers, but also blood, which to my eyes looked like feathers, and above us the birds still sang, though it was growing dark in our tunnel and we couldn’t see them.

  Rachel sat up then, like a zombie come back to sudden life, and grabbed onto Ori’s leg—cast in red tights, and the red hid all the blood—and then she dropped back down like it hadn’t happened and her hand opened and in the center of her palm was one red feather. I almost laughed. I almost laughed at all the red feathers covering the stage we were on and how Rachel was forgetting our choreography. Then Ori was turning to me, all blank faced like Harmony’s staring eyes were blank, and saying she was going to take it from me now.

  “Take what?” I said.

  “The knife,” she said.

  She reached out and unclasped my fingers from around it and took it from me. From out of my hand, she took the box cutter. I never had put it away.

  I’m thinking back. This is what I’ve done, over the years, thought and thought on it. Sometimes I tell the story to myself a different way, to see how it feels.

  But the story is what it is. The killer was always me.

  Ori must have known we’d be out in the tunnel. She might have seen us leave the wings, first the two of them, then me.

  She had to finish her rehearsal first—Miss Willow would have wanted to run it all the way through—and then she would have excused herself. She would have left the building in her costume, red feathers still pinned in her hair.

  That spring was the last time anyone used the tunnel for its first, more innocent purpose. I don’t know where people went to smoke anymore, but it wasn’t there. When the crime-scene tape finally got taken down, tattered and stretched out and barely hanging on, and the morbidly curious stopped coming around, all that was left was the tunnel itself: a passage from civilization into the woods behind the community theater.

  The bodies—there’d been two, in leotards and once-pink tights—had lain on the forest floor, with the leaves and dirt and pine needles. Now, to those who go searching and sneak out the back door, circle the Dumpster, and push through the hanging branches to stand in the spot where all of this happened, there are no signs. There are birds, still, like there are always birds. But they don’t sing any stories, because the only three witnesses to what went on in the tunnel are dead.

  The memory is blacked out from this place almost like it is in my own head. And when you can’t remember something, you grasp onto whatever you can. You turn things around and get them twisted.

  When I woke to Ori taking the box cutter from me, I immediately began the twisting.

  She had me in her arms, and if I had been flailing and fighting, I wasn’t anymore. I had gone frozen, deerlike. I was looking up, right at her.

  I guess what I was feeling could be described as shock. And people who are in shock are often confused. And there was blood. There was the color red, the color I coveted, and it may have been on me, but it was also on her.

  I opened my mouth. Then I said it.

  “What did you do, Ori? What did you do?”

  She let go of me. “Wait,” she said. “What?”

  “Ori,” my mouth said. Horror then, the twisting complete. “Ori, no.”

  The bloody weapon was in her hand. In those moments when I came back to myself, I saw the box cutter, and whose hand it was in, and I thought I knew what happened. I thought I saw the arc of her arm in the air and the guts of Harmony splayed open and the stab and the stab and the stab of the stabbing blade and birds singing and the tunnel squeezing out all light.

  “No,” I was saying. “No, Ori. No. No. No.”

  I looked down at the dirt. There was a lot of blood, and in the blood were all these red feathers from her costume. There were red feathers on the bodies, red feathers on the ground and in the tree branches, red feathers on me and on her, blood-soaked red feathers everywhere.

  Clean Hands

  I DIDN’T HAVE to spend the night in jail.

  I was questioned, released, as within moments, it felt like, my parents had secured me a very capable attorney. Ori was to make do with the public defender. She would have to stay overnight. The showcase was postponed, indefinitely. What remained of her glorious costume had been seized for evidence.

  Sometimes I don’t want to think about it, but there’s truth to it. Money—my parents’ having it—goes a long way. I was home the same night, peeling off my tights in my room. Washing my face in my sink. Washing my face a second time, a third time. Washing up, though I couldn’t get myself to feel remotely clean.

  It took me years to face this, but money can buy you freedom, because look at me—I’m free.

  Soon there was my mother, standing on the landing of my staircase, high enough that she could call up to me and I’d hear her, but too low to see me washing off the blood in my sink. I could see the crown of her blond head through the bars of the banister.

  “Darling,” she called up from the landing, “you need to eat something.”

  “I’m fine, Mom,” I called down to her.
“I’m not hungry.”

  My head, really, it was spinning. The blood had spattered my cheeks, and my white hand towel was pink now, my favorite color. And it had soaked through my tights, so it was all over my legs. The explanation was that I’d been there—I’d seen it. Surely I must have tried to stop it, the travesty, the killing of such young, talented girls with their whole lives ahead of them. Surely. My attorney advised saying nothing at all to this question, as for now it was assumed.

  “Darling,” my mom said, “I think you should come down and have dinner with us tonight.”

  This was a constant theme with her. Had I eaten yet? Would I eat now? Did I want to join them at the dining room table for more eating?

  Usually when she came up to the landing of my staircase to tell me I needed to eat something, it involved the same question she asked most nights. She’d say, “Is your friend joining us for dinner tonight?” Even though, most evenings, that would be a given, as Ori would have dinner at my house most nights, or we’d skip dinner and share a bag of M&M’s. Come to think of it, I didn’t even know if there was food at her dad’s. But my mom was always asking. She never did like my friend from the wrong side of town, did she? She never did approve of my being so close with the girl with no mother, the girl who lived only with her dad who did who knew what, the girl who went to public school and probably had sexual relations with her boyfriend and tracked mud into the house whenever she came over. I guess my mother was longing for the night when I said no, Ori wasn’t joining us for dinner, it’d be just the three of us tonight, like it used to be. That was this night.

  “Okay,” I said. “I’ll come down. Just let me wash up some more.”

  My mother clapped her hands, once, sharp, like she was delighted. She didn’t ask the questions maybe other parents would’ve asked. Maybe our attorney told her not to. She didn’t ask the questions, and by not asking, she was saying she believed me.

  I pulled a stray red feather from my arm and left it on the dresser.

  “Come down when you’re ready,” she called up. Then she left my landing.

  I had quite the appetite, which was very unlike me. There were three of us at the table that night. We had mashed potatoes, a roast, and pearl onions mixed with peas. I had a tall glass of juice, and in the glass I had cubes of ice. I cleaned my plate.

  As I ate, I considered. I’d give it a week or so, I told myself, and then I’d talk to Miss Willow about the showcase. I knew Ori’s role so well, I was practically her understudy. Other girls could step up to be the dancing princesses. Why not go on with the show, if here I was alive, and I could dance it?

  My parents, who were generous with their funding projects, helped do the convincing, but when we did perform the variations from The Firebird—the spring showcase postponed so long, it was no longer in the right season—I had a new costume. Fewer feathers. Only a couple sequins. Not so much fluff. Still, I was all in red that weekend, when I danced the starring role in the showcase. I couldn’t be missed, not from all the way in the nosebleeds, and the very last row.

  I was stunning, they told me. They were heavy on the praise, after she was gone, and after Harmony and Rachel were gone. Maybe because I was the only good one left. I was dazzling, they told me. I was transcendent, even, they said. I swear I read that in the local paper the next day.

  Even now, three years forward, my mind keeps whirring. Time gets confused. Was I dancing it that night, the night those two girls got themselves dead? Was I always dancing it? Was I always the star?

  Memories come up, and I keep needing to shove them down in the dirt where they belong. I keep seeing faces. At first it’s only Ori’s with her long, dark hair down from the bun, her hair that’s longer now, that almost reaches her knees now, since she’s been gone. Then I shake that away, and what comes are the others, their honey-colored hair shining and pinned up neatly, the sharp ends of their barrettes glimmering like we’re under stage lights. Their painted lashes batting at me in the mirror while I perform a step perfectly, and I know they’re hoping I’ll fumble and fall, and it kills them when I don’t. Their honey-haired heads swishing close together while they talked about me in the tunnel, and then what? The skip in my memory, and some time is lost. Their bloody, honeyed heads squashed on the ground. Another skip in my memory, and more time is lost. The back of the police car. The questions in the mirrored room. The strange, practically weightless feeling when, with my parents flanking me, my parents who’ve donated to the police department for the past fifteen years, the officer undoes the cuffs and says, “Thank you, Miss Dumont. You can go.”

  Time skips once more, and I’m looking at them during the car ride home, in the backseat, spreading them out on my lap and looking at them. My hands that they let me wash in the sink after.

  My clean hands. My mistake.

  I turn my body in the backseat, and my palms on the back windshield, pressed to glass, and the police station retreating, and the car moving, and my parents’ saying it’s over now, it’s over, and the mistake, getting smaller and smaller the farther down the road we get from the station, until it’s irreversible, it’s a speck, it’s gone away, it’s gone.

  Her word against my word.

  My hands against her hands.

  The worst thing I’ve ever done, and then some. I’m always looking down at them. Like when I’m lacing my ribbons on my pointe shoes. When I’m putting toothpaste on my toothbrush. When I’m pushing Tommy away and saying, “Not now.” When I’m scrolling through photos on my cell phone, thinking how maybe Harmony and Rachel didn’t have any pictures after all, since they never showed up anywhere in all these years. When I’m painting my toenails purple, alone. When I’m holding the barre, practicing alone in my room. When I’m folding my leotards to take with me down to the city. When I’m putting my makeup on. When I’m buttoning a button on my new turquoise shirt. When I’m closing the clasp of my charm bracelet and letting it drift down to the base of my wrist. When I’m eating a piece of cheese. When I’m alone in my room, doing nothing.

  I’m looking at them. Studying them. My hands that no one ever accused of doing anything so awful as to kill a girl. Two girls. Let’s count Ori and say three. My clean hands.

  Traitor

  “THERE YOU ARE,” he says from behind my back.

  He’s found me in this pit of green weeds and dirt out behind the prison, in this cage, with the body-size hole at my feet. Except now I’m all alone. The sun is setting behind the trees, and there’s the moon, somewhere up there, wanting to come out.

  “Hello, Miles,” I say. She’s gone now, and he’s probably the reason she took off. She never said “I love you” back, did she, Miles? I bet that’s crushed him.

  He’s standing at the edge of the overgrown garden, saying nothing.

  “Time to go?” I ask.

  “Didn’t you hear us calling you?”

  I shake my head.

  “We looked everywhere. Sarabeth’s bawling in the car. She couldn’t find you, and she freaked out. She’s been begging us to call the cops.”

  I guess I’ve been out here a good long while. All I can remember is Ori in orange, digging this hole, and the rest of what I remember is how she looked at me, so betrayed. She knows the real story, even if neither of us will say it aloud.

  “Sarabeth went back to the car?” I check my phone and see an endless scroll of her missed texts.

  Not funny. Where are u

  Omg this place is crrrrreepy

  But srsly where are you hiding? Can we lv soon?

  Tommy wants to go to Denny’s ok?

  Swear to god a ghost just tried to eat my hair haha not kidding omg

  I’m so out of here

  Ur scaring me! Are u coming out or what?

  And more even than that. I stop reading. There are no texts from my boyfriend, not even one, all afternoon, and I don’t know how long I’ve been missing.

  “So where’s Tommy?”

  Miles ignores the question.


  “Is Tommy down at the car, too? We should go. Sounds like Sarabeth really wants to get out of here.” I make for the exit in the fencing, but my sandal’s stuck in the loose dirt and I falter, rolling my ankle again, the same ankle as before, and if this turns into something serious before Juilliard, an injury that’ll keep me from dancing for even so much as a week, I’ll have a conniption. I pluck out my bare foot from the ground and brush it off. The sandal won’t come up so easily.

  “What’s that in your hand?” Miles says.

  For a moment there, for a gap in time that’s like holding your breath and trying to stay upright on one pointed toe, I forget where we are and think we’re in another place. Caged in, with green all around, the sky a dark ceiling back then because it was covered by tree branches, and the sky a dark ceiling now because it’s just growing dark. I think he’s caught me. I think, wildly, furiously, desperately, that I’ve been caught and can I get away with it a second time? Who will grab the blade from my hand now? Who’s going to take the blame?

  That’s not what he means, though. It’s the same color, yes, when I lift my hand and open my palm. Yes. It’s bloodred and pulsing even redder in what’s left of the light, and at first I think I’ve gashed open my hand and I wonder why it doesn’t hurt, why nothing hurts, why I haven’t felt a hurt in years. Then I focus. It’s only that feather from her costume, dirty with old gore, three years hidden in my bedroom, still smelling of murder and shame and, I admit it, relief. I’ve had the feather balled up in my hand this whole time.

  “Nothing,” I say. Now it drops into the dirt. The hole is deep. The shovel she was holding leans against the tall fence. It’s rusted and crusted over with dried mud. It’s not as shiny-steel new as I remember.

  Miles watches the feather fall. It takes forever. It holds in the air like a ghost is puppeting it, making it dance, and then it’s at the bottom of the ditch.

  Miles knows what it is. Miles knows everything that Ori’s told him. And he’s blocking my way out of the chain-link plot of dirt. He’s blocking my way. And he knows too much.

 
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