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The walls around us, p.23

The Walls Around Us, page 23

 

The Walls Around Us
 


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  None of us knows for sure it has always been me.

  Here we are, pointing fingers and devolving into arguments, and those arguments can last all night, now that we have eternity. Because, when we think of it that way, what’s a night or two?

  We don’t know what they say about us on the outside. They don’t deliver newspapers up here.

  We were the juvenile delinquents of Aurora Hills, and while a good number of us were sent up for some of the worst crimes anyone could imagine, more often the crimes that sealed our fates started off teaspoon-size. The virgin infractions for a few of us were laughable: Writing our name on an already written-on wall. Jumping a train turnstile. Pocketing a tube of lipstick.

  We were infamous only after. Before our names were drawn in crayon by Sunday school children onto construction paper angels left on the fence down at the bottom of the hill, these were names not many people would remember.

  The scene when the ambulances climbed the hill and the gates opened and the police found us was one that couldn’t be hidden from the public. Word of a tragedy travels. People delight in demise. So it was chaos in the cafeteria—and that was after we were all dead. Officials were brought in to make a count of all of us, just as we were used to being counted multiple times a day.

  The bodies were numbered at forty-one, including those who’d been served their dinner in their Solitary cells on D-wing, and the one still bedded in the infirmary. Forty-one.

  Which could not be, Aurora Hills corrections officers said, as there were no escapees left unaccounted for, every girl locked in her rightful place, and so the count should be forty-two.

  Those counting went back to the head of the line of bodies, clipboards at the ready. One, two, three. Four, five, six. Enough of us to build a small army, had we still been fight-worthy. Enough of us to make a true mark on the world, good or bad, had we lived. Ten, twenty, thirty. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine.

  Forty.

  Forty-one.

  They’d counted. Then they had to count again.

  As they neared the end of one more count, there was a pause—had they lost a girl in the shuffle? Had one been released to the morgue without the right people being notified; who is to answer for this; will we have to try doing the count over, again? Oh, sorry.

  They must have miscounted before, because suddenly the outcome was right. They reached the final body and it was as expected: forty-two.

  There was so much activity after we died that we must have made it worse, with all our confusion. Some of us were still clinging to our throats, wanting to spit the bad bits out. Others of us drifted. We didn’t need our legs to walk, but we needed some sense of direction to propel us through the crowd, and it was a challenge to get control at first. We headed for the kitchen, but none of us could find the obvious culprit. There was a frenzy around the spilled plates and cooking pots, causing a haze that made the living humans—those in uniform trying to perform the forensic investigation—start gagging even with their protective masks on and have to leave the room.

  Immediately after death, emotions are so raw. We were powder white and livid, but it was too late to stop what had already happened. The bodies we left under the sheets out in the cafeteria had choked and turned green.

  The frenzy of discovery lasted a long time, and when we’d finally calmed, there was no one else left in the kitchen with us. The living had gone. They’d left, and they’d carted out our bodies with them. There was no one guarding our doors. There was no one working our gates.

  There was quiet.

  Outside these walls, time marched forward without us. We died early one evening in late August, but the world didn’t stay put in that humid state. We were so preoccupied howling and crying and being wounded and wronged and upset, I guess it took us a while to see it.

  A rainstorm broke through and then dried up. The wind swept up the hill, and the air chilled. The leaves fell and the snow covered them. The ice decorated our windows and then melted clean away. The tree in our rec field bloomed in pale flowers, and the ivy that climbed our gray stone walls flowered in bright colors and grew thorns. The heat came, and by the next August, the world outside our walls had grown wilder, but beyond that it hadn’t much changed. The only difference out there, if we took it down to the nitpicky details we could see through our chicken-wired windows, was that no one from groundskeeping had kept up with the gardening or the mowing of the lawns.

  As time moved forward and the seasons changed, the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center in the far northern reaches of our already northern state was closed. No new girls came in, and there were no newly freed girls to be let out. The second August came around. A third August came, and a third August went.

  Now it’s another August, marking the day we overdosed on the poison plant mixed in with our green peas, and we can no longer tell just which August we’re living in. We forget what day it is. We forget there’s a reason we wanted to skip dinner. We forget what’s coming, and that it’s already come, again and again.

  The outside world hasn’t forgotten us entirely, but the people don’t think of us often anymore. We are names above a rotting mound of teddy bears on an iron gate. We are hated, and occasionally, by those who can see it in their hearts to forgive, we are mourned. We are proclaimed, by believers who, if only they’d spent time with us before our end, think we could have been saved.

  Saved from what?

  From living these weeks over and over, we guess. From forgetting—and then remembering, so much worse each time, because we tried so very hard the last time not to forget.

  We have some ideas about the afterlife, about why we’re still here. The thing about a life being cut short, when it’s not by choice and not with any rhyme or reason or hinted at by diagnosis or threat, is that sometimes, some of you will want to hang on.

  We do. We can’t seem to find a way to leave.

  When She Returns

  WHEN SHE RETURNS, we gather by the window slits, charting her progress through our yard behind the facility. We move from window to window, from wall to wall, watching as she weaves through our fence lines, as she wanders our grounds in the shadow of our barbed wire without seeming to sense any of us eyeing her from above.

  The intruder never once looks up at our barred windows, though we will her to do so. A few of us shout down at her, but all she seems to hear is the wind.

  Some of us get shaken at the sight of her, so clearly is she from another world. We critique her clothes. Make fun of her tightly slicked hair, her shiny barrettes. We brag about what we’ll do to humble her, if she comes up here and gets close. But there’s a sadness beneath our mocking, a shred of jealousy. We won’t say it, but we know she’s still alive. Everything about the way she walks and holds herself tells us she is free.

  “Has anyone seen her before?” some of us ask the others. “Who is she, anyway, and where’d she come from?” None of us offer up any answers, especially me. I’m waiting for Ori to come to the window and recognize her. Then I’ll help explain.

  Ori rushes then into B-wing, and by her face I know she’s seen Violet, the girl who’s come again to haunt us. The ghost from her past who now all of us can see.

  Dirt covers Ori’s arms and crusts her knees—she must have been working out in the garden again. She’s come running inside to find me, as if there’s something I can do.

  “She’s back,” she says, panic rising in her eyes. “I don’t know why she’s here. She’s not sorry.”

  The question is why. I’m beginning to sense the answer rising.

  I’ve turned from the others, so I don’t realize at first where they’re going or what they have in mind, though I should have. They get down there faster than I expect—the gathering noise outside tells me.

  Ori, though, isn’t moving. “I don’t want to see her ever again,” she says, and a prickle of electricity inside me says she won’t have to. We’ve got other plans.

  Ori has no idea what
we’re about to do. She doesn’t go down to watch, but I can’t help it.

  There they are—there we are—outside in the rec area behind the facility. I emerge from the back door, and find myself drawn closer. We’re all hanging back, watching.

  The intruder is no longer on her own. A boy has joined her. I recognize Miles straightaway, and I’m delighted to see what might happen with the two of them facing off, but I know this is not something most of the rest of us will understand. They don’t know who he is, who they both are, how they got in here, why the boy is so angry at the girl, why the girl might seem so familiar, why she becomes as bright as a beacon and the boy turns faceless and forgettable, and they don’t much care about him.

  Still, we step closer. The light in the sky flickers. We feel it in our bones. That’s all we are now—bones. We sense that something is about to happen, and more, that we will be the ones to make it happen.

  We hope Ori is watching from the windows, because this is for her.

  Jody steps up. Natty gets a distinct smile on her face as she cracks her knuckles. But it’s little Annemarie, emerged from D-wing as if she traveled like vapor through the flimsiest of our walls, who is quick-thinking, and so resourceful. She’s got a shovel in hand, and she whips it fast. Barrettes go flying. For a lovely moment, the intruder seems to coast through the air, dancing for us, and some of us have never seen that kind of dancing, but then she drops into the dirt with a hard thump. A leg goes crooked. A foot bends funny. Her mouth opens, and red drips out. She’s stopped moving, even when Jody gives her a kick.

  A piece of jewelry has fallen, and before anyone can say the word, we know it’s too shiny to stay here. It may be gold, but among us it’s worth nothing. Polly, who has the best pitching arm, throws it over our heads to get rid of it. We don’t know where it lands, except that it’s far away.

  We’ve forgotten about the boy entirely. We can’t even see a trace of him anymore. Our hunger is for the guilty one. The girl. Only the guilty can truly see us, just as our shadowed eyes want to focus in on the guilty right back. We recognize the light she carries—blinking, beckoning, telling us what she’s done—like a long-lost sister will recognize you as family after years apart because you share the same nose.

  The body rolls into the hole and makes so much noise. To look at the body—so compact, with the long legs and the long arms—we assume she would have weighed a few ounces, her bones made of cotton puffs and air. But it’s like a box of dishes pitched off the side. She makes such a clatter. And we’ve always heard ballerinas were full of grace.

  This girl down in the hole is the brightest light I’ve ever seen. She belongs with us.

  I climb down into the ditch. Mississippi puts out an arm to help me.

  I place the fallen girl’s head in my lap and stroke her hair, now that it’s lost its pins and decorations. The back of her skull has a giant gash from the shovel, and I cover the soft, gooey spot with my hand. She is showing up so clear that I can feel the strands now, come loose from her bun. We are both hurting. It’s the first time that I let myself feel that I am. My hands move along, to trace the planes of her face. My hands are red from her, and on her face I get some smears. I am getting to know her, the way I’ve gotten to know Orianna Speerling before her, and D’amour Wyatt before that.

  The others drift away. They’re letting me have her.

  She comes to, but only to convulse, choking on what’s left of her breath. It won’t be long. There can’t be much air remaining in her lungs now, and the seeping gash in the back of her head will end it all soon, since she’s losing so much blood.

  “Ori?” she sputters, the very last living word she lets out. She still thinks I’m her friend. I’m not her friend; I never will be. But I guess now we’re family.

  “No,” I say. “Not Ori. But you’ll meet me soon enough.”

  We hear the sirens in the far-off distance like they’ve come calling for someone else. It’s only as the sirens get closer that we realize, yes, this is happening again. This is our last day again, and this sound belongs to us.

  Again.

  The swarm of people in the cafeteria makes it hard to keep track of one another. We call out over the din, but what we’re doing is creating the din, howling and crying and bleating our panic, the way we always do. Each time we reach this day, we go through it at this heightened state, and then we forget. We want to forget. We forget that, too. We forget it’s what we wanted.

  We are lined up for count again; that’s eternal. The warden has a long list of all our names. I’m on it and checked off quickly. Ori is on it, but she’s not so easily found. I don’t know where she is.

  We hear them counting. We watch from the ceiling, look down from above. They have reached thirty. They have reached thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three.

  They have reached forty now—and how long does it take to walk down a row and count all of our bodies? We’re so impatient—they have reached forty-one.

  Here they pause. They don’t see her yet, but I do. I know it’s her by the funny bend in her foot. They can’t hear me point her out; they’re not so attuned.

  Forty-two. She is right there—just look. Forty-two.

  Finally a head swivels. One of the COs, but they’ve all gone as gray and blurry as distant spirits and I can’t tell which one. There. They see her. A small crowd gathers. She’s not wearing a jumpsuit like the others are. She’s covered in dirt, as if she’d been buried and dug out of the ground to join us here. It makes sense they’re so confused.

  “Which one is this?” one of the COs says.

  The other rattles off names from his list of different inmates. There are a lot of us, but none of the names he gives belongs to the girl on the ground.

  They haven’t noticed her twisted leg, the way it bends backward at an angle that defies medical science. They haven’t turned her over to view the gash in her head.

  All we know is she is now one of us. We lost one of our number and no one noticed, but how quickly our number has been restored. It seems we are meant to stay at full capacity, which for this facility is forty-two girls.

  They use the blue-painted bus to cart all the bodies away. It takes three trips. We watch the front landing area from our window slits, crowded around the openings as we used to on the days new inmates were due to arrive.

  We watch them take us out in body bags, and from this distance we can’t tell whose body is whose inside the opaque plastic. We can only guess at what belongs to us, whose hanging arm or whose dangling foot, whose hair is caught in the zipper.

  Our bodies are piled in the back. There we are, so still, so docile, we no longer need chains. The doors are closed on us, and the bus leaves the curb for the last time and heads for the gate.

  Violet Dumont (cold-blooded murderer of two fifteen-year-old girls, traitor, and unrepentant liar; never caught, never sentenced, never jailed, not until she visited us and we made it right) is new among us and not yet sure of our ways or our rules. She refuses to look out the window with the rest of us.

  She’s having a hard time settling in, which so many of us can relate to. We wonder how she’ll break on her first night, and we offer up a few suggestions and catcalls and bets to pass the time. I abstain, as she now has top bunk in our shared cell, and I don’t want my eyes clawed out while I’m sleeping.

  We figure she might rave and kick and fight the first night the locks slam closed, but she’ll get used to it, in time. She’ll have to, now she’s finally being punished for what she did.

  All we can tell her of eternity is what we have right here.

  If We’d Known

  IF WE’D KNOWN, we might not have been so angry, so fused solid with rage, so willing to kick a girl when she was down and walk away.

  This is night. And we’ve finally located the one we called Ori.

  The late-August heat hovers over her as she descends the hill and gets on her knees to crawl through the hole in the fence.

  If she cou
ld see a mirror in the night—a mirror better than the tinfoil hung for vanity in our cells—she would be struck by the changes. When she was sent upstate, after sentencing, she had round cheeks and dark, endlessly long hair. The detention center made her cut her hair, and the stress and shock and fear of being accused and then found guilty for a crime she did not commit took away the apples in her cheeks and most of the shine from her eyes. If she saw who she would turn into, outside our walls, upon exiting the hole in our fence, she would have been startled.

  Three years have passed on the outside. Outside our walls, she is eighteen.

  We watch her down there, now. We see how she’s just emerged through the hole in the fence.

  There is a hand, a boy’s hand, and it’s reaching out to help her up. The night sounds keep in time with her breathing—a bleating of insects, a rustling in the woods, but no birds beyond a lone owl. If she looks up, she could have seen stars. Look up, we want to tell her. For us. Look up.

  “Hey,” the boy says. “You okay?”

  Miles is just as she remembered him, but more wild-eyed maybe. Longer hair, scruffy chin beard and stubble. He seems dazed, but he’s only out of breath from running down the hill. Did he see what she saw? We can’t know. But we can assure her it’s him, absolutely and inexplicably him, though she doesn’t need us to tell her.

  She would know for sure it is really Miles when she took his hand and felt his palm, which would be warm and dry and strong in grip, as strong as she remembered. She could trace his lines. She could reach up and map his face, draw the whorls in his ears, stick her fingers inside, though he used to hate when she did that and he’d squirm and say stop. She could lean in close and breathe in the particular smell of his neck, which would be just as she remembered, as he still used the same soap. She could put her mouth to his and make like she was going to kiss him, only she’d suck his bottom lip, taking it inside her mouth like she wouldn’t let go and holding it there, a piece of him. She hasn’t been able to do so many things to him in so long.

 
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