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The walls around us, p.21

The Walls Around Us, page 21


The Walls Around Us

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  Ori never did talk much about Miles. I knew he was obsessed with her—that was plain—and I knew he liked to stay at the edges of rooms and watch her—that was creepy—but that was all I knew. He went to her school, so I didn’t know him from mine. I couldn’t read the guy at all. He could be drunk right now. He could be psychotic. He could be hiding a weapon behind his back, about to hack me to pieces.

  Who’s closer to the shovel? Who can get to it first? That’s what I’m thinking.

  “So where did you say Tommy was?” I ask, going for distraction. “Over there?” I scope out a bunch of nothing in the distance. “Is that him over there?”

  Miles doesn’t even turn to look.

  “He’s done with you,” he says.

  “Tommy’s done with me? Ha,” I say. “Ha. Ha.”

  “So if you call him, he’s not coming after you.”

  Now I am searching the property for Tommy, or for Sarabeth. Are they really down at the car? Both of them? Now I’m checking the long, gray wall that runs along the back of the prison. I scan the fenced-in area with the basketball hoops.

  “Oh yeah. I wanted to ask,” Miles says. The shift in his voice is hard not to notice. It’s almost like he’s performing for an audience gathered at the fence. “How’d you like the flowers?”

  The flowers. That bouquet, rigged to make me scream. Of course that was him. That’s all he is, just some dolt of a boy still enraged over the loss of his girlfriend. He doesn’t know where to fling his energy, so he’s flinging it at me.

  I need to be sensitive, here, I tell myself. Besides, he’s blocking the way out.

  “Thanks for the flowers,” I say. “So very nice of you. I hope you enjoyed the performance. So . . . are we going or what?”

  I keep my voice in that place between hard and soft, the air of not caring, the eye roll and whatever. But my head’s hammering. I’m hearing things. I can’t say the things are in Ori’s voice exactly, but it’s not not her voice. He knows. You know he knows. You think he’s just going to let you go off to New York, since he knows?

  I cock my head at him and study the kid. His eyes lidded, unfeeling. His mouth held tight. He’s let that scruffy chin beard grow in since Ori knew him. I bet she’d hate it, and if she didn’t, I would’ve taunted her about it, so in no time she probably would.

  Right now, though, I just want to rip it off his face, and if skin comes off with it, so what.

  I take a step forward, even without my sandal. The shovel’s a few feet behind me now. All I have to do is make a swift turn, clockwise, not even a full circle, and grab the handle. I can do a turn that fast in my sleep. It’s barely the effort of a single pirouette and I’m balanced here, on ground, on both feet. He’s got no idea what’s coming.

  What I hear next is strange, out of place, and I whirl around to see where it’s coming from. It’s a whispering, a tittering. A sucked-in gasp of breath. A few coughs. A hushed mob of voices coming from over my shoulder, just behind me.

  Then the sound cuts out.

  I feel it then. It feels like I’ve been knocked in the head. There are sequins in my eyes now, there are stars. I’m down in the dirt, and the last thing my open eyes see before they lose focus is my sandal. One of the straps is broken, and I need to get it fixed.

  Then I sense Miles above me, hovering. I sense others, too, circling. My feet point for no reason. A spotlight brightens all around me and I bask in it, my face raised up to let it light me, and it’s everything I ever hoped it would be. But then the spotlight dims. It darkens without warning and leaves me all alone down here, turning away from me like a traitor.

  Part VI:

  The Innocent

  No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

  —Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House


  We Regret

  WE REGRET SO much. We regretted what we did on the outside. We regretted taunting someone or egging someone on or being the one to do nothing. We regretted our cowardice. Our loyalties. Our hot tempers. How naive we were, how childish, how slow, how reckless, how senseless, how dumb.

  Most of us regretted our crimes, of course.

  We regretted the blades in our hands and the guns in our waistbands and the lies that dripped from our mouths. We regretted things like hitting our grandmother. Like lifting that baseball bat. Like breaking that window. We regretted a cold winter’s day in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven when we made a decision that would lead to a whole new world of regrets.

  But that’s us.

  I couldn’t know for sure if our newest inmate, Orianna Speerling, regretted going outside after her friend that day, if she wished she had taken one look at the bloody scene and had turned tail in her heavy, red costume and run and run.

  She should have—if she asked us. She should regret the day she met Violet Dumont.

  Sometimes it could be the smallest thing that could topple over a whole life and, in the end, destroy it. When we looked back on our own lives—the thirteen, fourteen years we had; the fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—it was from a great distance, as if we were in the clouds above ourselves picking out our existence from among a swarm of ants. Hard to see.

  We gazed down on what we were and tried to find that first mistake buried in our heap of mistakes, like how Mack focused in on when she stole the pink bike with the tassels, her first true regret. Each of us should have had one. D’amour’s involved a boy, and so did Cherie’s. Natty said she had no regrets, but we knew she was only confused by how many there were to shuffle through. Annemarie’s warped brain didn’t know the word regret, but she did miss her sister, sometimes, which was kind of the same thing. And I could have closed my diary before I wrote a word in it. I could have thrown away the tiny silver key. I did regret that.

  These were the gateway mistakes that opened the door to the next mistake, and the one after. If only Ori hadn’t gone to investigate the noise behind the theater—though that was one of her last regrets; others came before.

  Retreating back in time even further, back and back, with Ori shrinking shorter and shorter, and the light in her eyes growing brighter, brighter, brightest, we have to think that if only she hadn’t scuffled into that dance class at the age of seven and taken the spot next to the skinny girl with too many pins in her hair, then everything would have been different.

  She could have chosen another spot, sure. But why make her go to dance class at all? She could have fought her mom and said she’d rather play soccer instead. That was what she really wanted—to kick a ball around a grassy field with a bunch of boys—before she met Violet.

  That was the last year her mother was around, Ori told me. Her mother had been the one to sign her up for ballet; her dad, a long-haul trucker who had to change his route once it was only the two of them, wouldn’t have thought of it.

  Her mom left without warning on Ori’s half birthday, when she was tied between seven and eight years old. She has a memory she can’t escape, as we all do. The kind we want to shake from our skulls, or step back into and shout warnings. But what could she have done, at seven and a half, to stop this? It was an empty regret. What we call an inevitability.

  Her memory involves a woman with long hair—insanely long, in her memory, and dark, in her memory, it was darker than damp dirt. The remembered woman has bad teeth that jut out from her jaw, but her closed-mouth smile works to hide them. She approaches the creaky kitchen table. One table leg is shorter than the others, so it constantly tips. She serves a slice of freezer-burned ice-cream cake from the supermarket, the kind with the chalky flower garnishes that turn tongues blue. No candles, not seven and not eight.

  “Go on,” says the woman. “Eat.”

  The spoon fills. The woman watches the spoonfuls go down. A yellow, sagging suitcase in the doorway. The spoonfuls slowing. The sense of being sleepy. Saratoga Taxi honking in the driveway. A quick-c
losed door. The click of the lock. Eyelids so heavy. Then the quiet of an empty house and the darkness of two closed eyes.

  Her father found her hours later, asleep at the creaky kitchen table. The remaining ice cream on the plate had made soup.

  This was why, to Ori, the halfway mark of anything felt like it was begging for disaster. It was also why she couldn’t eat ice cream, which may have been lucky, since we never got ice cream in here.

  Many of us had lost our mothers (and some of us would have kicked them out ourselves as soon as we could walk, had we been able to pay the electric and drive the car). There was no new level of sympathy for being motherless—it was a common kind of hurt quite a few of us shared. But to have a mother there one moment and gone the next, no explanation, no cancer, no knife to the gut, no new boyfriend who says he’ll take her to the Bahamas just without the kids, not even a note on the table saying why. We understand how that might make a girl crumble.

  When the bad came for her, as it came charging for all of us here at Aurora Hills, Ori didn’t duck out of the way, like so many of us tried to. She didn’t deny, though she could have and should have. She hung her head. She let go of the weapon that had somehow ended up in her hand, and she watched it catch the light as it fell.

  It all made a sick and perfect kind of sense to her. Violet was pointing at her. Violet was crying and screaming and pointing. Then Violet was rescued from the scene and pulled away, and she couldn’t see Violet anymore.

  Ori was alone, but for the bodies. A police officer yelled for her to come out with her hands up, but she didn’t understand, and she was too slow, too slow to make sense of this, and then the police officer was on her, forcing her to her knees, making her understand. She didn’t struggle, the way Jody might have. She didn’t kick, like Polly surely would have. She didn’t keep her head raised, defiant, like any one of us would wish we had. She lay down like a log. Her costume was so heavy, and her body inside it was even heavier. The heaviest part of her was her head.

  She let them lift her and carry her to the police car. The backseat was the first cage she’d ever entered, but it felt familiar somehow, to be caged. Her hands felt freezer-burned. Her tongue felt heavy in her dry mouth, blue. She wondered if she should text Miles, and then she realized she didn’t have her phone.

  Besides, what could she have said in a text message? Soon this would be all over the news.

  Deep down, she believed everything good in her life was something she’d never deserved to have in the first place, and that included Miles. The deep-down feelings were the ones that came up first. The anger at Violet would come later. In those first minutes she had a random thought, slow like a drifting feather that takes forever to reach the ground. It took the shape of a yellow suitcase. It tasted like sweet cream mixed with codeine cough syrup, and made her eyes heavy with remembering. Her mother had been right to leave. Her mother now lived in Florida, of all places, and had a new family, two sun-bleached little girls (she knew because she’d looked her up on Facebook). Orianna Speerling closed her eyes and kept them closed until the police car reached the station. What was happening to her life was the first thing that made sense in seven and a half years.

  What do you deserve, if you don’t deserve a mother? I wouldn’t know. When I was halfway between seven and eight years old, my mother still loved me.

  I knew the truth about my new cellmate’s crime now, and knowing that was like knowing all. But there was something I was keeping from her.

  I couldn’t make my mouth say it, not to her, and not to any of the girls.

  It had been days since I’d been given the news of my approaching release. The woman who’d made it happen—my mother—did not write, and the idea of being let go, from out of nowhere, wrenched tighter around my neck like a noose. I wasn’t entirely sure what I deserved. I’d gotten so used to what I had in here.

  On the next visiting day, I approached the queue, to ask.

  Blitt was guarding the door, white-knuckling her list of approved names.

  “Nope,” she said, with a sharp shake of her head. “Not you.”

  “But maybe she’s here. Maybe I—”

  “Not on the list,” she said, which closed off all further communication. Of course my mother wouldn’t have driven all the way up here. Our first words after three years, one month, and however many days would take place in person and not inside these walls. And if she wouldn’t come here to face me, I wouldn’t collect-call her to try to gauge how much hate she had left for me from only the sound of her voice.

  Visitors could be heard on the other side of the green wall—I knew they were visitors from the way they talked too loud, too fast. Laughed when no one was laughing. Tried too hard. They also spoke of outside things, alien experiences, like visits to movie theaters and concert halls and items of clothing they’d walked into a store and bought. Through the reinforced window, laced with scratches from girls left waiting for their visitors, I could see in.

  I saw Lola shove through into the visiting area. Mack, crying at the first sight of her family, who came every week and called her Mackenzie, was swift on Lola’s heels. Even Kennedy had a visitor, a woman with shorn hair, so she must have known of Kennedy’s habit and didn’t want to come in tempting her. I heard the shorn woman—Kennedy’s mother? Big sister? Former parole officer? Lover? Pastor? Aunt?—ask after Kennedy’s faint echo of a black eye, and I heard Kennedy use an excuse my mother once used, which was that she’d been in the shower and accidentally knocked a bar of soap into her own eye. I saw Lola, at a nearby table with her own visitor, release a small, smug smile.

  Then I spotted Ori.

  A teenage boy was at her table, slouching and with hair in his eyes. Her hand and his hand were under the table, clasped together and stowed out of sight of the CO on duty nearby. So this was Miles.

  It made me want to shove a fist through the glass, if that glass was even breakable. She hadn’t mentioned a visit. She avoided talking to me about him—like she had to keep us in separate rooms. I wanted to get close enough to make him sit up straight and force his hair out of his eyes. I wanted to see how much he knew about her, and whether it was as much as I now knew. But Blitt was guarding the doorway.

  Though their hands touched in secret, and I can’t know how tightly their fingers were laced, how sweaty their palms, their faces showed me so much. His was rigid, and red with frustration. Hers was drawn, opaque as a swirling storm. He was trying to convince her of something. She was shaking her head no. I liked that.

  An adult hovered nearby—his parent or guardian?—and held out a bag of potato chips from the vending machine. Ori reached out to take a chip, but the adult shifted the bag across the table, to Miles. He grabbed a handful and gave them to Ori. She crunched. No one had ever shared anything from the vending machine with me, in all my years here.

  This wasn’t necessarily what love looked like, but it was close enough to cause the other girls, at separate tables with their own visitors, to turn and stare.

  After, I asked her what she and Miles were talking about.

  She shook off any surprise at how I found out but wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I told him there isn’t going to be any appeal,” she said. “And he should stop pushing me and pushing me. He should move on with his life.”

  “But . . . ,” I started. In fact, I agreed with him.

  We were in our cell, the steel door open because it wasn’t yet time to be locked in. It was here that the sound of an approaching CO quieted us. Santosusso came into view. He was smiling, and I wished he weren’t.

  “Amber,” he called to me. “Guess what? You’ve got a date on the books.”

  I approached the doorway, my feet bare and my shoes in the tub on the floor, my number on the wall above my head. Others from B-wing leaned in, listening. I saw Mississippi. She had ninety-three days left to serve on her sentence and was doing crunches against the wall. The crunches stopped. I watched Jody (more than two hundred days remaining) dr
op her hand of cards.

  They knew.

  Ori didn’t know. I sensed her behind me, brimming with questions.

  Santosusso told me the day of my coming release. It was in September, as had been promised. None of the other girls said a word.

  “Get ready,” Santosusso said, waving his arm at the tiered cell block, the barred doors, the green walls, the bolted-down tables and rock-hard, immovable chairs. “Soon you’ll be leaving all this.”

  I couldn’t imagine it.

  With Santosusso gone, the others came up to say their piece. I was offered congratulations, mumbled bits of luck. I was told to write letters, though they knew I wouldn’t. I was asked if I’d pass along messages to ex-boyfriends and current boyfriends and old friends. I was told to eat a good meal at the closest White Castle and think of them.

  She didn’t speak until they’d all left me be.

  “You’re getting out?” Ori said.

  One of my shoulders made a shruglike twitch.

  “Next week?”

  “Ten days,” I said, “yeah. I guess that is next week,” and how soon that seemed, ten days and only ten, ten out of how many hundred that had come before. My stomach heaved, and I almost made a break for our shared toilet, to throw my lunch up.

  “How long have you known?” she asked.

  “A while,” I admitted. “I was going to tell you.”

  “You deserve it,” she said, and how wrong she was. “They’re acting funny because they’re jealous. Everyone knows you should never have been here.” Wrong, again.

  I looked down at her hideous feet. All dancers have them, she’d told me. I wondered what those feet used to look like when they were moving, whipping around in the air, her body making pretty shapes for an audience. It seemed so absurd, but something about Ori made me believe it. Now I’d never get to see.

  “You know you’ll do fine out there, Amber,” she said, sensing my fear. “It’ll be good. Really. You’ll get to go back to school, and graduate. And see your sister, who misses you so much. And you’ll meet someone, I bet. Some guy, and you’ll have to write me and tell me all about him.”

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