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The walls around us, p.4

The Walls Around Us, page 4


The Walls Around Us

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  I caught sight of her in the dim fizz of light from the EXIT sign that hung over the fire door. A devil-red glow, still faintly lit from the building’s emergency backup system, occasionally flickered. She was a crimson chalk outline moving with purpose. And calm.

  She seemed to know exactly where she was going.

  The fire door was a door we’d never seen opened. It wasn’t an emergency exit we were allowed to step through, even during emergencies. We assumed it shot straight outdoors, to the side yard, the staff parking lot, and all the fresh, free air beyond. This was the door D’amour tried to pull open. When it wouldn’t pull, she tried to kick it down.

  D’amour was slight, and she didn’t weigh all that much. She was flighty and kind of vapid and, we suspected, quite dumb.

  Now she was something else. She wasn’t acting dumb. She didn’t seem numbed up or high off whatever new substance Peaches was peddling. She seemed hell-bent. The light in her eyes was red with determination.

  She shoved her body against the steel-gray expanse of the door, yellow hair flying. She wanted out. I’d never seen anyone want out as badly as she did right then. But the door wouldn’t budge.

  Then she spotted the unbarred window.

  I caught the rest in flashes. It wasn’t that I couldn’t focus; it was the lightning, the summer storm raging through the window. She’d be dark, and then she’d go bright. Her yellow hair black, her yellow hair white. I caught her, foot kicking out and the perfect hit in the center of the glass that caved it in. Then came the second and third kicks that made it shatter. She’d gouged open the window into the night.

  This window was narrow, but so was D’amour. She was inside with us, breaking glass with her feet, and then she was outside apart from us, braving the wind and the rain.

  She bent down to untangle a chunk of long, sloppy hair from the window frame. Her hair came free, and then she was also. Free and running for the first set of gates.

  Thunder shook the scene. But it was only weather. At some point the storm would stop, and the sun would come out, and the whole world would then be there at D’amour’s fingertips. That was how we imagined escape to be, in the most blinding of our getaway fantasies. We had so many.

  Any inmate held here at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center would have rushed that open window. It was our dream, come to life. So why wasn’t I following D’amour? Why wasn’t I trying to escape along with her? I had a real way out now, open and calling me closer. I took a step, stumbled. I switched on the flashlight to find the stairs. No one was there to stop me—no one but myself.

  I should have run to it. Dived through, hoping the hole would fit me, kicking out more glass to make room if it didn’t. I should have been out there, in the storm, speeding for the closest gate. Any one of us would have abandoned whoever was left and gone running.

  Sometimes I’m sure I did do it. That maybe I buried it, blocked it out.

  I have this distant memory, hanging on a ratty clothesline in the backyard of my mind, and in this memory, I am running. There I am, running fast and hard for that window as if it’s a set of doors that will soon be slamming closed to passengers and I’ll lose my chance. I will lose at all chances forever. That feels real enough.

  Glass. Shards of it. The edge of the window slicing me with its teeth. Then pain.

  The pain tells me I really did do this; the pain is too precise for this not to have happened.

  And the storm. The storm, now that I’m out in it, pounds like an alarm of some kind, but not one shutting me down, face mashed to the ground, hands in surrender on my head. It calls me closer. Says it’s my time now; the whole rest of my life could be found on the other side of that gate. I’m not afraid. That’s why it feels so artificial. How could I not be afraid?

  I don’t remember much more, because, next, something slams against me, as heavy as a sack of stones. Reality.

  That memory—the pain and the wet and the getting closer, the shaky view of the approaching gate, the yellow-haired girl racing for it, and me on her heels, but clumsy on my feet, slipping in the mud, unsteady, about to go down—that memory blinks back. Blinks away. Gone.

  No matter how I may have pictured myself escaping this place—face-first or feet-first—truth is, I can’t leave it. I would never.

  That’s my real secret.

  If D’amour had made it out, and I mean for good, we may well have forgotten her. We always forgot girls, once they left us. A girl could be a legend among us for months, even years, but once she was transferred or—worse—released, we didn’t like to think so much about her. She got blacked out of our imaginary photos, erased from around our tables. We’d recite her stories until the names and specific characteristics faded away, until it was that-girl-in-green, that-girl-in-yellow. Until it was somegirl, which may as well have been any one of us.

  But this is what happened, instead, to inmate number 98307-25, the girl we knew as D’amour:

  She reached the first fence. She went for it across the mud, and she did make it, soaking wet and shaking. She grabbed her hands to the metal rungs and started to climb. She slipped a few times in the mud, and she lost a canvas shoe, but she kept climbing.

  She was a pinprick of movement rising up the length of the fence. We expected shots to ring out. The air horn. At the very least, we expected the release of the dogs.

  But it seemed the only eyes on her escape were our eyes. My eyes.

  My flashlight beam didn’t reach out there, but still I could see her. The lightning made it so I could.

  She was nearing the top of the fence. And we knew what was up there. Razor wire. Hadn’t I explained this to D’amour when she first got here? Didn’t I tell her what happened to the last girl who tried? A girl (we misplaced her name after she got transferred) made the climb during rec in the yard when the COs’ backs were turned. Broad daylight, in view of anyone and everyone, and she’d thought it a good idea to try her fate at the fence.

  We watched for a while, chuckling to ourselves, critiquing her moves, until, on delay, the COs caught on. They observed her climbing, and only looked on, weapons not even raised. I guess they knew what the razor wire had in store for her, and they had hushed to silence, waiting for the touch, and then the screams.

  D’amour didn’t scream when she reached the top of the fence. She was tougher than I’d given her credit for. She flinched and then, somehow, she vaulted herself up and over, with a blast of energy I hadn’t seen in all the months we’d shared a cell. She was covered in mud and almost impossible to make out in the dark storm. Or that could have been blood. Maybe the sharp barbs on the wire coils had sliced her clean through. But she did keep going, running for the second fence like she wouldn’t need her liver or her spleen on the outside if she could only make it.

  Here was another thing I’m not sure D’amour knew: The second fence was electrified.

  She might have assumed the storm had knocked out all the power on the property, including outside, so the second fence would be cold and climbable and not mortally armed to zap her like a third rail. It would have been a logical assumption after the locks had opened.

  She was wrong, though, and all it took was a single running leap for the fence without testing it first. One touch and that fence came alive.

  D’amour took every volt it had to give her. The sound was a sizzling snap booming through the night. The stink, which reached me, even as far away as I was standing, was like a burning tower of tires.

  It was the brightest light I’d ever seen.

  Then that light fell, fast, like a meteor into mud, dropping down into darkness.

  It was in that exact instant when it happened. And this can’t be explained to any of the other inmates when they ask if I saw D’amour get electrocuted, if I saw her go up in a white-blond burst of flames, and if it was awesome. Because, yes, I did see all that—and then I saw something else.

  Someone else.

  When D’amour went down in that flash o
f light, the walls shifted around us. A different kind of window came open. And someone just as bright slipped in.

  There Was a Face

  THERE WAS A face in the darkness, down the stairs in the open area near the canteen, a face I’d never seen before, and I found myself drawn to it. I’d had my flashlight trained on the window, but this face had gotten caught in the beam.

  I knew every face at Aurora Hills—the girls on C-wing and B-wing, on A-wing and even D-wing. The warden, at least from a distance, when we caught him through the window, getting in or out of his nice car. I knew the COs by their fat cheeks or their beard shapes, not to mention their knuckles on the crook of a shoulder, the certain kind of way they grabbed.

  This, though, was a face I couldn’t identify.

  She was a girl, but she wasn’t one of us. She was an outsider. A civilian. I’d been out with the book cart Thursday afternoon and would have noticed someone new being admitted. On Friday I’d kept my ears open, my head down. No one mentioned a new inmate. And she couldn’t have arrived today, because we never got new inmates on Saturdays. Every single day we talked of our comings and goings, who was being released, who was about to be transferred somewhere worse or somewhere worlds nicer and lucky them (we didn’t really mean that), who got sent to the hole and for what, who was moving wings and getting a new cellie, who wanted to move but got denied (Lola, again), and I listened to every word because I was always listening. I knew every name, every face, almost every crime confessed to and even some crimes best kept hidden. I had a good memory for details. Before my arrest, I made As in school.

  This wasn’t one of the girls I’d seen step off the blue bus from county jail. She was someone who didn’t belong. Someone from the outside who’d gotten in.

  I could tell just by looking at her. She had her hair up in a way we didn’t wear it here, a neat knot on the crown of her head held back with shiny clips that would get confiscated within seconds inside these walls. She wore jeans, actual blue jeans, tight enough to fit her, and a sleek little shirt in turquoise, a color not allowed on anyone visiting, since at a distance it blended with our greens. She wore jewelry—in her ears, around her neck and fingers, a circle of gold attached to one wrist. She looked well cared for. And exceptionally clean.

  I couldn’t fathom how she’d gotten herself in here in the middle of the night. Had she stowed away during visiting hours? Was she related to one of the COs?

  The outsider’s eyes drifted. At first I assumed she was taking us all in, but then I realized. When one of us lunged at another girl, the outsider didn’t flinch. And when one of us wailed close enough to burst the outsider’s eardrum, she didn’t shrink back. A gang of us crashed through the corridor, and the outsider didn’t turn to see, didn’t make a break for it, didn’t run with us or away from us. Didn’t do a single thing.

  She acted as if she couldn’t even see us. She was unfazed by the flashlight beam dancing all over her body, shining right in between her eyes.

  I left my safe, shielded spot by the wall and stepped closer to the railing, risking being seen. The outsider was down below, in the wide-open space between gated entrances to the different wings. We were often lined up there, on the way to rec or to class, and once or twice, after a violent incident they thought might inspire us, we were chained ankle to ankle, like a slow, sad train.

  The crowd had dispersed. The rest of us had gone off and left me here, with whoever this was. Their noise—our noise, because I belonged with them more than I did with her—shifted to the other side of the facility. Still, my eyes couldn’t leave her, and my feet wouldn’t take me from where my eyes held.

  She turned in a swift circle, like she’d heard me. But she didn’t look up. She didn’t raise her eyes to find me staring down on the crown of her barrette-filled head.

  I was about to call out to get her attention, when everything got confused. The flashlight in my hand started acting crazy. Everything its light touched was changing in the room around us. The walls were no longer the plain, sick-colored green I knew and the green they should have been. They were a riot of spray paint, filled with color.

  All around, on every wall and standing structure, were spray-painted tags, bright bubbles of letters, scribbles, swirls, sloppy and angry and awful all at once. It reminded me of something from outside: the graffiti found under a highway overpass, when passing through, fast, in a moving car. My mother used to say bums did it, but it was kids, I was sure of it, kids who wanted to be remembered, like I did.

  I used to find it beautiful, when I’d spy a patch of graffiti from the window of the car. Now I did not. Now it was everywhere, on our walls and marking up this place we knew. Too many colors. Ugly colors. I got woozy just from looking. It didn’t belong.

  Many of the tags were hard to read, but I could make out some. Stevi + Baby crawled up one wall (none of us were named Stevi or called Baby, at least by anyone locked up in here), and I wondered about them, if they were still together, Stevi and Baby, and I hoped they destroyed each other, that they broke up and got restraining orders. I hoped they never found true love.

  Many sets of initials, scrawled one over the other, cascaded from one side of the wide space to the other. Someone named Bridget Love had inscribed her name on every available surface, and someone else named Monster had taken it upon him- or herself to cover it up. I wanted to cover Monster who’d covered Bridget. I wanted to get rid of every last one of them. None of the names on the wall said Amber Smith. None said Mississippi or Lola or Little T. (we’d been teasing her for months, trying to dig out what the T stood for). None said Cherie or Jody or D’amour. Those were some of our names—and none of our names were anywhere I could see.

  I wouldn’t have known where I was, if not for the single painted letter high up on the wall, higher than even the highest tag of graffiti reached. A black-blocked stencil that said only B. That meant we were just outside B-wing.

  Nearby was a black piece of graffiti so enormous, my flashlight could barely catch it in one sweep. It said RIP.

  I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I noticed even more things wrong.

  The sign noting directions to the visiting area was gone. The postings about the rules we needed to obey (NO RUNNING, HANDS IN VIEW AT ALL TIMES) had been taken down. The grate blocking the canteen was broken clean off, and where the canteen should have been was a dark hole in the wall with nothing for sale.

  The only other thing the same was the window D’amour had thrown herself through to get outside. It was still broken.

  As I watched, a gust of wind blew what appeared to be a bundle of loose twigs and leaves across the grimy floor. It looked like no one had cleaned the floor in years.

  I didn’t think, not consciously, about what I did next. I started down the stairs, straight for the intruder. She was connected to this, somehow. She’d made this happen. I reached flat ground and went running. I sped up so much that I couldn’t get my feet to stop and almost rammed into her, and I wanted her to fall, wanted her flat on her back doing some explaining.

  Except there was no her.

  I rammed through air.

  I turned around.

  She wavered before me. Her face was urgent and stark white, like a face of the dead. So far, neither of us had said one word.

  She had these dark blue eyes, much like the sky outside, which had been filled with pounding rain and clapping thunder, but now I couldn’t hear the rain out there anymore. Or the thunder. I couldn’t hear anything at all, apart from her breathing. Blue like some kind of warning. No, we were beyond warning. Blue like being thrown off a cliff and sunk in the deep of the sea.

  That was what I saw when I looked at her. I had no idea what she saw when she looked at me. Especially after what she said next.

  “Ori?” she said.

  I shook my head, confused.

  “Ori? Is that you?” she said, muffled and mush-mouthed, like she was communicating through the paint and plaster and insulation of a wall bet
ween rooms, and I was on the other side, in that other room, my ear pressed to the wall, trying to catch what she said.

  She reached out, like to touch me, but I wouldn’t let her. Who did she think I was?

  She said it again—that name. And it was the sound of the name that brought it on again, that inside-itching, the prickling electricity in a quiet section of my brain.

  Then, yes.

  Yes, Ori. Remember? Yes, I remembered. Inmate number 47709-01. Her favorite book off the shelves was going to be the thick, chewed-up paperback we had of One Hundred Years of Solitude. She was going to say she’d be here long enough to read it one hundred times. She would wear her hair much like this stranger, tight and in a knot on the top of her head, but without barrettes because we weren’t allowed to have anything with sharp, stabbing ends. She’d have mangled feet that she never wanted any of us to see, and a thousand-yard stare. She’d have a kindness in her that would be foreign to us—and within a week or so, there wouldn’t be a girl among us who wanted her dead.

  She wasn’t here yet, but she would be soon. She’d have to be. She was our forty-second.

  But how did this intruder know who Ori was? And how did I, if Ori hadn’t come up our hill and stepped off the blue-painted bus to join us yet?

  A shift in the intruder’s face. I must have done something to frighten her, in the way I’ve always frightened people even when I don’t mean to. By my size maybe, since I know I’m a lot bigger than most girls, or by the scowl that’s always on my face, only it’s not a scowl, it’s just my face. But she didn’t know that, because she backed away, put up her hands as if to protect herself from me, and opened her small screw of a mouth. She let a sound come out, and the sound was even smaller, even more pathetic, than I expected. Her whole body was shivering like I was something revolting, and then I guess she knew exactly who and what I was, because she did what I should have done.

  She ran.

  We Lost

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