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The walls around us, p.24

The Walls Around Us, page 24


The Walls Around Us

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  But she hasn’t been let out for a boy. She knows that, as we do. There is a whole life out there, waiting for her. Even the shoes fit.

  Miles tries to help her stand up, but it’s all too much for her, too much. For a moment, she has no breath in her lungs. Her knees bend back down to the ground, and her legs, still muscled, still strong, have turned to jelly. She’s in the grass, on the damp ground outside the fence. And the ground here is littered with stuffed bears and headless dolls and doll heads, and candles burned down to the nub so no match could ever hope to light them. There are ragged, crumpled pieces of colored paper that give best wishes to the dead for an eternity in heaven (or in hell), though what exists beyond this iron gate is neither.

  Miles crouches down at her side. “C’mon. They want to get going.”

  He points to a green sports car she’s never seen before in her life.

  He’s still trying to pull her up. “You said good-bye like you wanted. But we’ve got to drive back. Juilliard is waiting. I thought you said you had to pack.”

  Remember? We are pushing her to remember.

  In increments, particle by particle and piece by piece, she begins to recall it. Then, as she stands back up again, she sees it. The glint like a spark in the darkest patch of night. She bends down to pick up the delicate gold strand from where it must have fallen. She recognizes it right away as Violet’s.

  Miniature sculpted ballerinas hang from the strand, tinkling. How tiny their toes are, how spindle-thin their raised arms, too minuscule to contain fingers. But there is a knot in the chain she can’t get out, a clump of dried mud or fungus or something in the clasp. It’s blood, but she doesn’t catch that.

  The bracelet fits around her wrist as if it had been made for her. Violet had never let her even try the bracelet on before, since it was expensive, she said, and all those charms were special, bought for her by her dad, and her parents wouldn’t like it.

  “Let’s go,” says Miles.

  Someone is leaning out the open window of the green car, someone she recognizes, vaguely, from a long time before. Violet used to be cruel and call this girl Rooster.

  “We waited forever!” the girl says. “We were so worried. We were going to call the police!”

  And another boy, in the driver’s seat, is waving her over impatiently now. He’s hungry, he says. He wants to stop and get something to eat.

  And Miles again. Miles. “It’s over now,” he says low, near her ear.

  And he’s pulling her by her arm. And he has her weight and she lets him help her, and then she doesn’t need his help and she wants to walk on her own two feet and she lets go.

  And she is lighter than air. And she walks on air to the car. And does he not know where she’s been? And does anyone know where she’s been? And for how long?

  She has no idea we’re still watching. She’s split off, become separate from us, so she doesn’t feel our gaze hovering over her as she takes one last look at our iron gate and then goes back, to prop up a few teddy bears that have fallen and to take a peek at the cards and signs that say our names, looking for her own name.

  She’ll never find it, because when she exited the gate, her name was sponged off in an instant and replaced with another.

  We will always be an even forty-two.

  She gets in the car. She wears her seat belt, as she believes in safety first. Tommy starts the engine, and Sarabeth gives her a hug. Miles holds on, firm, to her hand. Once inside the car, she does not look back again.

  She got her justice, thanks to us—and, thanks to her, we will always be watching the road, to see who might climb the hill and take the place of one of us. To see who might claim our guilt, so we could be innocent, too.

  For us, it is perpetually August. We come awake in our cells, sweating. We wear our green sleeping clothes because it’s night and our green jumpsuits are hung up for tomorrow on our hooks. We hear the rain and the wind. We don’t hear the locks coming open, for reasons we don’t think we’ll ever know, but we do hear Lola scream. We hear Jody ram her thick skull against the door, and we hear the door come open and her roar of delight as she shares the news.

  We step out of our cages. We are free, like we sense we’ve been before. We’re alive, or are we? At least we know she is.

  We lose sight of her when the car makes the turn. We can see the green sports car with the stripes for as long as it keeps straight on our road, but when the car heads for the highway, that takes her out of our line of sight. We can’t follow now. Our world stops where the gate stops. Our feet can’t run that road.

  We wish we could see her down in the city some of us had been born in and some of us had committed our crimes in and some of us had never gotten to visit, and wished we could have at least climbed the Statue of Liberty once, before. Violet will tell us all about it, in time. She got so close.

  But Violet’s not the one anymore. It’s Ori we’re wishing we could see.

  She’ll be wearing black, for us. That’s how we picture it when she steps out onstage and stuns the crowd. She will be everything we couldn’t be, and more.

  In our heads we will give her a standing ovation. From down the hill and down the state and hours away, hours and years and memories, we hope she can hear us. Our applause. How proud of her, how thrilled for her, how envious we’ll be. We’ll clap our hands for her. We’ll stand in our seats. We’ll shout, we’ll wolf whistle, we’ll scream. We’ll make thunder for her. We’ll make thunder for ourselves.

  In the sky above the ruins of what was once the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center, there will be a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder, and then we’ll be washed in rain.


  My agent, Michael Bourret, believed in me and in this strangely woven idea and helped me be brave. My editor, Elise Howard, gave me a beautiful new home and saw the heart of the story I wanted to tell, guiding the book into everything I hoped it could be. I am honored and grateful to work with them both.

  Thank you to my wonderful publisher Algonquin:

  Eileen Lawrence, Emma Boyer, Krestyna Lypen, Kelly Bowen, Elisabeth Scharlatt, Emily Parliman, Connie Gabbert,

  Donna Holstein, Jay Lyon, Shayna Gunn, Sarah Alpert, Craig Popelars, Lauren Mosely, Brooke Csuka, Debra Linn, Brunson Hoole, Jane Steele, and everyone who worked on this book.

  Special thanks to these amazing women: Libba Bray, Camille DeAngelis, Gayle Forman, Michelle Hodkin, Kim Liggett, Micol Ostow, Julie Strauss-Gabel, and Courtney Summers.

  Thank you to my Brooklyn workshop, in which some key scenes were written: Aaron Zimmerman, Libba Bray, Ben Jones, and Susanna Schrobsdorff. To the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series organizers Ellen Datlow and Matthew

  Kressel, and everyone who came to hear me read these words for the first time. To Lauren Abramo at Dystel & Goderich, Asale Angel-Ajani, Cat Clarke and Caroline Clarke, Lavonne Cooper, Rachel Fershleiser at Tumblr Books, Barry Goldblatt, Margot Knight at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (and everyone on staff!), Kelly Jensen, David Levithan, Martha Mihalick, Molly O’Neill, Cristin Stickles, April Tucholke, Sara Zarr, the Binders, and my Djerassi writers, who’ve been cheering me on during the writing and publishing of this book. Finally, thank you, especially, to my readers who continue to support my weird stories. I appreciate every one of you.

  This book was written thanks to fellowships from the Hambidge Center, the Millay Colony, and a miraculous emergency residency at the MacDowell Colony, where I wrote more than forty-three thousand words of the first draft in a whirlwind two weeks and would never have made my deadline otherwise. (Grateful thanks to Karen Keenan!) Thanks also to my local writing spots: the Writers Room, Housing Works, and Think Coffee, home of the best baristas in New York City.

  The epigraphs are from authors and books that influenced me as a young person and as a writer finding her voice. Special thanks to Margaret Atwood, Heather O’Neill, and Alice Sebold, and to the estates and publishers of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Shirl
ey Jackson, and Jean Rhys for allowing me to use these quotes from works that meant so much to me.

  Love and thanks to my beloved mom, Arlene Seymour; my brother, Joshua Suma; and my little sister, Laurel Rose Eng.

  And to Erik Ryerson, my partner-in-crime and my partner in this life: Thank you for the late nights spent reading this manuscript, the eternal support and belief in me, the plot genius, the website, the patience with my mess, and the title.

  The Walls Around Us

  by Nova Ren Suma

  Questions for Discussion

  Questions for Discussion

  1. Is either Amber or Violet a sympathetic narrator? Why or why not?

  2. On page 8, when describing the night the gates went up and the inmates had the chance to escape, Amber says, “I get hung up on it sometimes, on what if things had gone another way. If I’d made it past the gates and gotten out. If I’d run.” What would have happened had Amber run? Where might she have gone?

  3. Consider the books and authors that are mentioned throughout the novel (e.g., Watership Down, Libba Bray, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and the quotes chosen as section openers. How do they contribute to the overall tone and atmosphere? What do they add to the plot?

  4. On page 280, Amber says, “I couldn’t know for sure if our newest inmate, Orianna Speerling, regretted going outside after her friend that day.” What do you suspect?

  5. When Orianna receives the only red cup in the dining hall, her reaction is markedly different than that of her fellow inmates. Why does she respond the way she does? Why do you think she influences the other girls’ feelings about the red cup going forward? How does Ori change the mood of the inmates in general?

  6. Three years after Ori’s death, Violet still believes she is the inferior dancer, even though she’s become the star. How do Violet’s insecurity and jealousy shape her character and actions? Why does she remain jealous of Orianna even after Orianna’s death?

  7. Violet’s account of the murder changes as she repeats her telling of it. What do you make of the different accounts she gives us over the course of the novel? Similarly, Amber gradually changes some details in the stories she tells us. How do the various versions of events—and their timing—affect your feelings about Violet and Amber? How do they affect your reading experience?

  8. On page 70, Violet describes how Orianna’s face changed after her conviction. On page 143, when describing her own trial, Amber says, “I weighed less, back then. I hadn’t yet had my growth spurt. My shoulders hadn’t filled out. Still, there was something menacing they saw in me, even at that size.” How does a person’s appearance influence what you assume about his or her character or personality? Do you believe you can ever tell whether or not someone “did it” just by looking at them?

  9. Amber makes frequent references to seeing Orianna on the news before she arrived in jail. She tells the reader that Orianna was nicknamed the “Bloody Ballerina.” Think about real-life murder cases you’ve seen play out in the media. How do things like nicknames affect your perception of an accused person? How does news coverage affect how Orianna is treated in jail?

  10. As you read The Walls Around Us, did you believe Amber was innocent or that she shouldn’t be in jail? Did the guilty receive the right punishments in the end? If your answer is no, discuss what the right punishments would have been.

  11. Why do you think being in charge of the book cart is so important to Amber?

  12. On page 312, when the officers are counting the girls in the dining hall, Amber says, “It seems we are meant to stay at full capacity, which for this facility is forty-two girls.” How does the number forty-two play a role in the novel? Why do you think the author decided it was important to keep the number of inmates at forty-two?

  13. How did you interpret the ending? Do you think all readers will reach the same conclusion? Why or why not?

  Reader’s Guide by Emily Parliman

  Erik Ryerson

  NOVA REN SUMA has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and a BA in writing and photography from Antioch College and has been awarded a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is the author of Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone. Nova lives in New York City, and her website is

  A well-read life begins here.

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  Published by


  an imprint of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

  Post Office Box 2225

  Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

  a division of


  225 Varick Street

  New York, New York 10014

  © 2015 by Nova Ren Suma.

  All rights reserved.

  Excerpt on p. 1 from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. First Anchor Books Edition, April 1998. Also published by Vintage. Copyright © 1985, 1986 by O. W. Toad Ltd. Used with permission of the author. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company and by permission of McClelland & Stewart and by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. All rights reserved.

  Brief excerpt on p. 21 from p. 266 from Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill. Copyright © 2006 by Heather O’Neill. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

  Excerpt on p. 67 from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Copyright © 1966 by Jean Rhys. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., and by permission of the Wallace Literary Agency, Inc.

  Excerpt on p. 131 from “Epitaph,” in Second April, 1921, by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

  Excerpt on p. 227 from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, published by Little, Brown and Company.

  Excerpt on p. 277 from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, copyright © 1959 by Shirley Jackson; copyright renewed © 1987 by Laurence Hyman, Barry Hyman, Sarah Webster, and Joanne Schnurer. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, and by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.

  ISBN 978-1-61620-486-0



  Nova Ren Suma, The Walls Around Us



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