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The walls around us, p.3

The Walls Around Us, page 3


The Walls Around Us

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  When she looked up, dizzy with the spins and slumped on her knees, Jody saw there was no guard. Even the booth that Woolings, the night CO, napped in when he was supposed to be watching us was empty.

  She knew she’d been locked in at the start of the night—as we all were, on every wing, every night. But, somehow, the electronic deadbolts on Jody’s barred door were undone. And not just hers; all the deadbolts on all the doors had come open.

  When the new lock system had been installed earlier that summer—fully electronic and controlled from a command center in the deep heart of the facility—we had entertained a host of teasing thoughts; we couldn’t help it. In our fantasies (which starred ourselves, of course, as superheroes instead of criminals), the door leading to the command center didn’t hold. How easily we could sneak in to push the red button (we pictured a single red button that controlled every last lock, a red button begging to be pounded and right there in the open for us to find).

  We imagined it. We wished for it. We played it out in our minds. If we were the type to pray, we prayed. But the power of those locks, and of the juvenile detention system, was stronger than any of our fantasies.

  Until that August night.

  Jody was the first of us to step out of her cell. But even cruel, boorish Jody (sentenced to a solid year, for stomping a rival gang member’s head) knew freedom was meant to be shared with those around her.

  She had a reputation among us, and it wasn’t for being kind. She once shanked a new girl with a sharpened piece of fork plastic for daring to arrive with cheerful, Easter egg hair. But when it came down to it, in the moments that mattered, it was all of us against the corrections officers. Us against the warden. Us against the state. Us against the whole world.

  Jody yelled out to her neighbors, who got up to try their doors. Then they yelled to the others, and they tried their doors. More and more of us, breath held, pins and needles cascading through our arms, hope trilling through our hearts, we went to our doors and we reached out and we gave a push.

  The doors opened. And, just like that, we realized it was true. We’d been set free.

  I Held Back

  I HELD BACK in the doorway of my cell in B-wing, below the sign that said 91188-38 SMITH, which had followed me to every cell I’d been assigned to these past three years. This exact spot was where we stood to be counted by the COs, every morning and again at midday, after academic classes, and one last time, to cap off the night, before being caged into a small compartment of stale air with our cellmate.

  But no one was attempting to count or corral us now, and any CO who showed up to try would have failed. I may have been the one inmate in B-wing who wasn’t moving. Jody, once she alerted us to the open locks, gave a war cry and went rampaging out of the wing. I caught sight of Mississippi (possession of a loaded firearm; seven months) and Cherie (sixteen weeks for soliciting an undercover officer and resisting arrest; lies, she insisted, dirty lies!) bolting into the shadows. And other girls—faceless in the dark, numberless—shoved past and exploded out of the open exit at the end of our wing.

  Behind me, still inside our shared cell, inmate number 98307-25—D’amour Wyatt—was rummaging through her foot locker, the small, combination-secured box where we kept our private items. (Probably, knowing D’amour, she was digging out some stash of drugs she bought off Peaches, our resident dealer ever since the last one got released.) But I couldn’t know for sure. D’amour never showed me the contents of her box, and I never showed her mine. When we were searched by guards, randomly, every few weeks or so, I noticed how little she’d collected over her months inside. She didn’t even have her own comb.

  D’amour had been rooming in my cell since she got here. In the beginning, she was leaking shock at being locked up with the likes of us, practically comatose her first week and needing me to explain every last thing. I remember how she’d shuffled in, as if dragging herself on clubfeet. Her glazed eyes, pale as green bottle glass, her sniffle-squeaks. She sweated up her one set of bedsheets the first few nights, like she’d caught some kind of third-world fever from being near us. During the day, she walked around, a frazzled, whimpering mess of yellow-white hair and pink, flushed cheeks, even without the help of borrowed Maybelline (contraband, worth a whole heaping handful of Reese’s Cups). She stood out.

  As D’amour’s cellmate, I was responsible for her. If she cried too much, I was expected to quiet her. If she stared too hard or for too long at someone like Lola, I had to explain the workings of this place and who shouldn’t be looked directly in the eyes unless she acknowledged you first. It was a matter of respect.

  Soon enough, D’amour did get her bearings. She found her place here, in the way most of us did, once we accepted that our freedom had been stolen and our every move watched, and that now we were forced to dress alike in a baggy wardrobe that was orange for the first few weeks and then yellow or, in most cases, green. Once we made it to greens, most of us stopped kicking and screaming and crying at night.

  D’amour also stopped listening to me.

  It came to a head last August, when the girls of Aurora Hills discovered that the vines growing on the outside of our facility’s gray stone walls were creeping ever closer to one of our cell windows, and could be grabbed at by a skinny-wristed arm plunged through the bars. Those bars and that window happened to be in the very cell I shared with D’amour. Our window had somehow wedged itself open, and D’amour said there was no reason to point that out to the COs. What the girls of Aurora Hills wanted were those vines and the flowers that grew on them. And D’amour had scrawny arms. And she was willing to be dangled, armpit wedged against the bars, fingers stretching, reaching, for however long it took.

  Some of us said the vines kind of looked like jimsonweed, which we’d witnessed growing in wild patches on the sides of highways and in unmowed fields behind our high schools. Some of us had ideas. We were also desperate to escape this place, however and in whatever fraction of a way we could.

  And so the experimentation began. The vine’s leaves were gen-pop green; they tasted disgusting. But in late summer, in the nighttime when the COs had the lights down, the blooms opened. They were shaped like alien heads, the petals pink and thick and sweaty and a bear to pluck off. At least they were edible, to those of us who could stomach something so sweet, like a pulpy gumdrop laced with corn syrup. Some of us spat it out and suggested that smoking or snorting might be a better way to get a buzz.

  D’amour was the first volunteer. She smoked the first batch. Then she snorted way too much and turned green (a noxious contrast to her already pink cheeks) and started retching. Before that, though, her eyes had sparkled like diamonds, her pupils exploded, and she said she saw creatures floating over our heads, gassy-gray and smoke-breathing, and they were talking to her, telling her nice things, and singing her songs sometimes, and the songs were beautiful, even more beautiful than when Natty sang to us before the COs told her to shut her trap. That was how we discovered that the unidentified climbing plant growing on the stone walls of the building was a pretty potent hallucinogen.

  We waited for the COs to put a stop to it, to command that the vines be cut down and burned in a pit in the yard, but they didn’t notice. And soon enough, September came, and the blooms closed up, shrinking in on themselves like shriveled beetles.

  D’amour turned to other options. She became known for being willing to try anything. Lately, there were more visits from Peaches (her crime possession with intent to sell; her sentence a year and nine months—sometimes we were only what we were on the outside, not less, and not more). Some nights I checked D’amour’s pulse in the bunk above mine, simply to be sure her heart was still beating.

  Thirteen months I spent in a cell with D’amour, breathing her air as she breathed mine. I didn’t judge her for her habits. I didn’t nag her to please at least run a comb through her hair. I even let her keep her drawings on the walls, the deformed dragons she said she’d seen in her hallucinations. She
collared and named them like dogs: Horace and Gladys. Boris and Lazarus and Mazzy Star. I thought we had a bond, after thirteen months. Some kind of understanding.

  But, as soon as the lock on our shared door came open, as soon as she heard Jody yelling that we’d been set free, she turned on me.

  She rummaged in her foot locker and then burst out of our cell. She paused for a moment in our doorway, but not to share a word with me.

  “Hey,” I started, “where do you think you’re going?”

  She didn’t acknowledge me. All she did was grab her canvas slip-on shoes from the plastic tub, shoving them on her feet. Then she bolted.

  I guess the sudden open darkness didn’t frighten her. I guess nothing did. With one last streak of pale hair—the palest on the unit—my cellmate was gone.

  That was how I ended up alone, with nobody watching out for me, and me not needing to watch out for anybody else. All of B-wing had been emptied. There was nothing to do but wait for a CO to find me. Or start running. I took off.

  If a CO appeared out of thin air and caught me—two rough hands shoving me to ground, or, worse, no hands and instead the swing of a baton—they’d assume I was like the others. Heading for trouble. Aching for it. All around me, girls were shrieking and careening down corridors, out for blood and out for the nearest exit. Every last one of us needed to be contained.

  But I had a different purpose, a sudden destination in mind. I wanted to make sure it was still there, I told myself, that’s all. It had nothing to do with how I felt safer there than even inside my cell. It wasn’t pathetic. It didn’t prove I was a coward. It was where I should have known I’d end up.

  The prisoners’ library was in the corridor outside the cafeteria. It was never locked, and there wasn’t even a door to close it off, so none of the books were safe from looters, or from anyone else who wanted to destroy something dear to someone else. I expected to come upon a spill of books, from here to at least the end of the hallway. Every shelf to be toppled, book covers stomped on, pages pissed on and spat on, torn skins dropping down from the black sky. I came, expecting some touch of chaos, but I guess that would have meant someone else besides me cared.

  The books were on the shelves, still alphabetized, thanks to me. My eyes adjusted to the low light, and as best as I could, I checked their home spaces on each shelf by touch and by memory. Nothing was missing.

  Zora Neale Hurston was in her place under H. Under B, as she should be, was Libba Bray. Sylvia Plath and Francine Pascal took up an entire shelf of P. The dusty Dreiser was under D, though no one but me had read Sister Carrie. I’d read everything here, sometimes twice.

  I sank to the floor. Crawled behind the desk and tucked my knees in, though the space was too tight for me and my shins and bare feet stuck out. No matter how well I thought I knew all the girls here, I was still separate from them. Always would be. Hearing the frenzy in the distance, being unable to not hear it, made me aware of the divide all the more.

  On the afternoons I wheeled the library cart around to each wing—every wing except D-wing, which lost all privileges, the least of which was book-borrowing—I always knew the titles certain girls would want. Jody loved bodice rippers and any romance (you’d never guess it to hear her mouth), and Peaches was using her time inside to study up on the law. Little T.’s taste in novels leaned toward the classics, and she was always hogging our one copy of Jane Eyre.

  Our private taste in books showed a hint of our secret selves, and sometimes I was the only one who got to see those secrets.

  Of course I’d skim the books later, after they were returned, searching for smudges and feeling for turned corners, and thinking maybe there’d be a message inside for me. There never was.

  There were messages—just for everyone else. For girls on A-wing and B-wing, for a girl on C who’d been on B just a month before. Whole conversations I wasn’t a part of. Coded messages I couldn’t hope to unravel.

  On library days, when I doled out the books as part of my life-skills job in the afternoons (we all had to have them; I was lucky), I could be counted on to deliver an important message written in tiny script on a small square of toilet paper, secreted in my cart and wheeled from one wing to another. Some of the notes were intimate, blush-worthy, girl on girl, and for no one else’s eyes but theirs.

  Then there were the nasty notes. Hate so fine-tuned and full of passion, it could get confused for something else. The usual bodily threats. Graphic descriptions of disembowelment and shit-slinging. Mother-insults. Creative cursing. I read those notes, too.

  No one could have known if I read the message I was passing, fast, if I maybe memorized it and ran through its words later, gaining access to confidences and dingy, unspoken secrets.

  No one knew how much I remembered. How I thought it was important that someone here made an effort to remember.

  I couldn’t even remember why, but I knew I should.

  There were other ways to gather information outside the library, apart from the usual eavesdropping in the cafeteria or slow-drifting past a heated conversation in the yard. The beauty salon was another setup inside Aurora Hills meant to teach us “life skills,” for our eventual release. Only those of us without any strikes for three months running could stand with a pair of scissors against the nape of another girl’s neck, or let ourselves be scissored. All under adult supervision, obviously. And when a girl was in the chair, her hair wet and combed for cutting, she tended to talk. Anyone could have been in the next chair getting a trim and pretending not to listen. Anyone.

  It was a good thing my hair grew out so quickly.

  Still, for all my ways, and with all my chances to overhear something worth hearing, I hadn’t caught a single piece of information about a jailbreak, even from the girls who made friendly with the COs. No one was talking. No one hinted that something this big was coming, something this glorious. No one knew.

  So how come I had this prickly feeling? This scratching at me from deep inside?

  Like we’d run these halls before, on a night just like this one. Like we’d pushed open our unlocked doors and we’d gazed in equal parts joy and confusion and knee-knocking fear at the empty guards’ stations, and we’d taken our chances, and we’d thrown those chances to the wind, and we’d kept on running. All of this was familiar.

  Like we’d lived this night already. Like we’d live it again, after this. We’d eternally be circling back around to relive it, and we’d never make it out, and we’d never stop running, and I couldn’t fathom how I knew this or why it would be so, even if I did.

  I was huddled behind the library desk, hoping the darkness would shield my legs and all the rest of me, feeling no small comfort from the surrounding shelves containing all my books. And I was asking myself, Could I be right? What if I was? What if this had happened already, and this space behind the desk was waiting for me to fill it, as I always did and always would?

  If I was right, then I could predict what would come next. I centered in on myself, and dug around, and let my mind swing open. It came to me.

  Right about now, I’d hear a song.

  It’d be Natty (fourteen months; domestic assault against her mother—they were arguing over the use of a curling iron). Natty would come sailing through this corridor any moment now, and she’d be singing something familiar. Her voice would carry, and anyone nearby would hear it and hush for a moment, forgetting where they were, forgetting who they were, needing a listen. Natty was the only inmate here who could make every last one of us stop and pay attention without threat of violence. Pop stars had nothing on Natty, except their freedom.

  I held my breath, waiting. The distant noise shifted, same as before. The darkness kept its shape. Maybe I was wrong.

  Then I heard her. Natty came bounding around the bend in the corridor, sailing past the bookcases and the library desk where I was huddled, belting out Beyoncé for no apparent reason.

  It was just as I remembered: hiding here, catching Natty’s
passing song. A glimmer of memory. A warmth filling me as I recognized the song—I’d heard it on the outside, before I came to be in here, and Natty had brought that all back to me, as she always could—and then the warmth sinking and leaking out my toes when I realized what it meant.

  I knew what was coming. This night would end, and soon. Which meant I had somewhere to be.

  Something rolled over to me on the floor, a flashlight one of the COs must have dropped, only it looked different from the usual black flashlights they kept clipped to their belts with their weapons. This one was made of cheap yellow plastic, like something someone would pack for a camping trip, if that someone was out in the world the way I wasn’t and could sleep a whole night under the stars.

  I kept the yellow light, gripped it tight in my hand. I squeezed out from behind the library desk and made myself stand up. I found my footing and wished that I’d thought, like D’amour, to grab my canvas slip-on shoes.

  Something was pulling me down the corridor, after Natty and toward the heart of the noise. I remembered now. Something was about to happen, and I was meant to be its witness.

  I Let It Carry Me

  I LET IT carry me. The noise. The loud rush of inmates felt like something liquid and fast-moving enough to pull me along with them, and I didn’t fight it. I felt it—them, all of them—pushing me forward, wanting me to be the one.

  Then it—they—let go.

  I landed on the stairwell between B-wing and the store window of the canteen, which was closed off with a grate for the night. This spot, which offered a wide view of the facility from the protection of a wall to lean against, secure from sneak attacks, was usually taken in daytime by an armed guard. I kept the found flashlight dark, not wanting to call attention to myself. I waited. Watched.

  Natty was long gone, and she’d taken the shivery notes of her song with her. Now in her place was the girl who didn’t wait for me to follow. My cellmate, D’amour.

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