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The walls around us, p.5

The Walls Around Us, page 5


The Walls Around Us

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WE LOST THE connection. I lost my sense of time. This could have lasted a few seconds. It could have been a whole hour frozen in the summer heat.

  She’d gone running, and all that was left was this raw feeling inside me. This burn going all down my throat until it met my stomach and turned heavy, dangerous. Until it became a bomb.

  I’d felt this before.

  The first time was the day of my mother’s wedding, when I was in grade school. She’d worn a white dress for him, which was bursting at the seams thanks to him, seeing as she was months into carrying his child. She’d said yes. She’d made her choice, which involved plugging up her ears and covering her eyes. The choice of telling the ER doctor I’d slammed my arm into the kitchen door, or calling herself so very clumsy as to knock a bar of soap into her own eye while taking a shower. The choice of him over me, over herself, and that day at city hall would seal it.

  I gave her warnings: I puked on the floor of the car on the way over, and that was why I was walking into the courthouse without socks or shoes. I grabbed her arm in the parking lot—she’d made me wear lacy, white gloves to go with my scratchy, too-tight dress. I yanked her arm, holding her back, pulling so hard, the lace webbing between my fingers ripped apart and my bare skin was exposed.

  I didn’t want to go in, I told her. Could I stay in the car?

  I remembered what she’d said to me and the way she’d said it, with an intense, blinding light in her eyes. She’d said, “Do something for me this once. Make me happy.” And she went off without me, the white veil slipping off the back of her head as she walked straight up the steps and into the courthouse, where my soon-to-be stepfather was waiting. She knew I’d follow. A feeling came over me. Fury, roiling in my gut. Fury mixed up with a tinge of fear, rising and rising as I took the stairs. It was because I knew, even then, that she couldn’t hear me. She wasn’t listening.

  The second time was the week after my stepfather’s accident, years later. When the two police officers called me out of first-period language arts class at school, the same feeling from the wedding day billowed around me as I walked up the aisle with my book held against my chest. (We were reading Watership Down; I wanted to like it more than I did.) I remembered little details like the turned-down corner of the page, so I could save my place. My dirty fingernails, blackened and oily like I’d been digging in wet earth. The thudding of my heart in my chest. I never did find out how that book ends.

  Fury, mixed together with fear, because I was afraid I knew what they were going to tell me. They wouldn’t believe me. No one ever did.

  Everything I know about bombs tells me they are built to explode. But something must set them off first. There must be a trigger before the noise goes off, before the big burst of bright, choking smoke. Otherwise a girl could stay quiet for years.

  When the intruder ran from me, she set something off in me.

  Maybe it was how she’d been so close, her clean, bare shoulder in reaching distance of my hands. I’d gotten a good look at her. She had a bracelet on her wrist that caught my eye, a gold strand with tinkling charms. I could make out every last charm on that gold bracelet. A ballerina. A second ballerina. A third ballerina. And more. All ballerinas. All the gold charms were ballerinas. I’d never even seen a ballerina in real life. The miniature gold ballerinas had their legs flung out of their sockets. Their arms thrown up in the air, their miniature toes pointed. Every last one the same. She’d stroked the bracelet with her hand. She held one little gold figure tight in the palm of her hand like she could squeeze it to pulp, but when she’d opened her palm, it was still there.

  This tugged at me.

  The intruder looked like she had everything, and that bothered me. She wasn’t pretty like her outside parts. Not smooth-skinned and high-cheek-boned and glossed like her thin lips, not made of tinkling gold. Inside she was swollen and ugly-red, inflamed with crusty secrets. There was a smell, too; she leaked it out each time she let out a breath. She was rotten.

  All I know is when she started running, I, too, started running. I needed to get away from her—that wretched, white-faced thing who called me by the wrong name. I needed to get away from what she’d done to our corridor, our walls, our home. Now that the state had taken custody of us for the life of our sentences, it was our home even if we would never admit that out loud. She had no right.

  I heard the pounding of feet behind me, and I was sure it was her chasing me. Had she gotten turned around? Decided to come back for me?

  But I knew this facility better than she did, better than any person, apart from the COs. I’d been here since I was barely fourteen—longer than anyone.

  I turned a corner. I took a right, a left, another right. She was coming fast behind me.

  This passage took me into the back hallways that housed the laundry and then past the laundry itself, deeper into the center of the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. I kept thinking that surely a CO would appear and I’d be caught, but there were no COs anywhere to stop us. There was no one except the two of us.

  A gray steel door stood between me and turning back, and I shoved it open. The lock was undone, and when the door went slamming outward, the shock of what was there was more than I could take.

  The fresh air hit like a fist to the eye, and I was down. On my back. In the gravel lot outside the detention center. Above me was the stretch of sky, a clear view of a sliver of moon. Around me was tall grass, run wild with weeds and fallen vines and dropped trash. I’d made it outside. The entire sky was above me, the whole clear sky.

  Only, no storm was raging, as there had been just minutes before. There wasn’t even a sprinkle of rain. The gravel pellets beneath my body were bone-dry. The fencing in front of me had fallen over. A gust of summer wind cascaded past me, smelling sweet.

  Any second now, she should come bursting out of the door behind me. If I looked up, she should be standing over me, wavering in the quiet night with her glimmering gold chain, her feet planted within kicking distance of my spinning head.

  She didn’t come.

  I was alone, outside, in a dense thatch of silence that felt like my life before. Before I was accused, when the whole world, my mom and little half sister included, still thought me innocent. That kind of summer from childhood, when the sprinklers in the backyard come on all for you, and the ice pop on a stick is yours for the licking, and school hasn’t started up again and it feels like it never will, and your mother hasn’t married that man yet, your mother hasn’t even met him yet, and it’s still just your mother and you. What I mean is, it reminded me of one of the happiest moments of childhood, before broken wrists and purpling bruises and nasty names hissed when my mother’s back was turned. Before “Who do you think you are? You’re ugly. You’re nobody.” Before a hard, hot twist of a pinch under the dining room table and bursting into tears and being made to sit all night, for five hours, at the table in the dark room until I choked down the cold dinner because he told my mother I had to, because he’d said. I mean before. Before the accident they said wasn’t an accident. Before I was charged and convicted. Before riding the blue-painted bus up this hill and being ushered inside this building. There was a time when I could have grown up to be almost anything I wanted, like some of the stories promise in our more happy, hopeful books. I did once have a future.

  I pressed myself against the gray stone wall of the facility. The stones were cold, but dry and smooth, and they felt right against my back. They welcomed me. Told me to not let go, to stay.

  Then the quiet bubble burst. A pop-popping and a slam shook the wall behind me, snaking up my back like an earthquake jolting from the calm.

  Shouting. The piercing shriek of a whistle. The COs had come out from wherever they’d been. If they’d been sleeping, they’d awoken. If they’d been locked up, they’d broken free. The outdoor lights blazed up, aloft on poles and trained down on every entrance. A spotlight found my upturned face. It wasn’t long before a CO discovered me on the ground, splaye
d out before the wide-open door. I was drenched from the pouring rain that was once again falling and puddling around me, soaking me through.

  A thick trunk of an arm wound around my neck, and I was lifted up and plunked down inside the building, a bag of meat and bones more than a girl.

  I met the concrete, face-first, as we were made to do whenever a group of us got out of hand. I had eyes to the floor, nose mashed to the ground. I kept still, hands on my head. But I could see out the still-open door if I lifted my head an inch, and what I saw wasn’t the clear night I’d run out into.

  The storm was raging. I guess it had never stopped.

  And I guess, when I got lifted to my feet, that I began clawing and flailing and using my elbows. I was kicking and pounding my fists on the closest surface, which turned out to be the unyielding body of the guard. The bomb inside me had gone off, and I couldn’t stop myself any longer; I couldn’t keep it in. I didn’t even know why or what I was fighting. This was familiar, safe. We knew that the why didn’t matter sometimes, and if we wanted a fight, we could always find a what.

  I was forced back through the familiar corridors, and in slow motion, as the plain green walls surrounded me, and the graffiti disappeared and I saw for sure everything was back to the way I remembered, I calmed. I loosened my clenched fists. My mouth closed, and at that point I heard an end to the screaming.

  The only things moving through my mind were questions.

  Who was that girl? How’d she get in? Did she have anything to do with the locks opening? With the night going so wild? With the rain stopping and starting again? With everything getting so confused and me caught up in it?

  And why did the name Ori sound so familiar—so significant, like the right key slid into a rusted, forgotten lock?

  I wouldn’t find any answers in what remained of the night. I was secured in a chair as the COs herded down the rest of us, told to shut up, told to mind my own business, told to chill out and wait for my turn. It would take hours, but all of us did get caught. Not one of us made it past the perimeter, though quite a few of us had tried. All we knew was that we’d tasted it, hadn’t we? Freedom. Free-floating air on our tongues.

  What I’d seen was our after. I’d been allowed to witness what would become of this place, after we were gone.

  Rest in Peace. Except none of us could do any resting.

  For now, the electronic lock system had been resecured, and the power had come back on, so there was nothing hiding in the darkness anymore except the truth. A CO came to retrieve me, at last, but he led me to D-wing instead of B. That was bad, though it would get much worse.

  As the gate to D-wing came into view, I knew that we had about three short weeks left. And then, nothing. At that, I was shoved in the hole and locked in.

  Part III:


  Justice. I’ve heard that word. I tried it out. I wrote it down. I wrote it down several times and always it looked like a damn cold lie to me. There is no justice.

  —Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

  Worms and Rot

  YEAH, THE AUDIENCE loved me.

  I mean, of course they gave me a standing ovation. They practically ate me up, which was how they used to act with Ori, before all of what happened here more than three years ago, when she got arrested right before she was supposed to play the Firebird, the starring role in our spring showcase. Before everyone turned their backs on her and my parents made me cut ties with her and attend the other girls’ funerals and the dance studio almost even got shut down. Before, I mean. People used to cheer for her onstage the way they now cheered for me.

  So much is about how you look on the outside. That’s what matters to most people. Smooth your hair and bobby-pin it down. Use as many pins as you need. Be sure to flick the eyeliner crumble out from the corners of your eyes. Wear your prettiest clothes. Pale noncolor colors help, like powder pink. Keep that good-girl mask on and no one will see past it to the bad, unstable girl inside. At least they never did with me.

  On the inside, if they could’ve seen, Ori was good. She loved to dance, and she didn’t need music to do it, even on sidewalks or in the middle of the street. She despised wearing shoes, and didn’t care what anyone thought of the oozing toe blisters on her busted-up ballerina feet. She once burst into heaving sobs when I accidentally ran over that cat in the road, and she stumbled out into the glare of the headlights and stripped off her own coat to bundle the animal in, holding its matted body in her arms until it stopped convulsing and finally was dead. She completely ruined her coat. I stayed at the wheel.

  Those are some things that no one at the trial got to hear.

  Because on the outside? After Harmony and Rachel were dead? Something went wrong with Ori’s face. I try not to think too hard and remember too much about that day—it’s best not to—but I do remember the change in her face and how sudden. Her cheeks sunk in. Her eye sockets hollowed, the whites gone yellow. Her mouth hung open in shock, I guess, and her dad couldn’t afford a dentist, so anyone could see her crooked front teeth. When people decide there’s ugliness inside you, they’ll be looking to find it on your face.

  Plus the practical matters, too, which made casting her as the enemy fit kind of nicely, in a world where people with sad home lives were the ones to do the sad, bad things.

  She wasn’t from a decent family like mine, that was obvious from where she lived. She had no mom, and lots of people had questions about her dad. My own mother went around asking me, after, “When was the last time you saw her father? Is he ever home? Is anyone ever around to watch her?” like that would have made a difference. I tried to explain how her dad drove for a trucking company, and could be away sometimes for two weeks, or maybe I didn’t explain. Maybe I just said I didn’t know. Lack of parental supervision makes children into devils, my mother likes to say. Read the news, and you’ll see so many abandoned young people doing horrible things.

  “I had this girl at our house.” My mother, again. “I fed her my food. I washed her sheets.” My mother said a lot more than this—and she bought very expensive sheets—but the point is she spoke to what so many people were thinking. It was easy to find Ori bad in the days and weeks after, the clues suddenly there for the picking. It wasn’t so easy with me.

  It’s curtain call now, when all the dancers of the night return to the stage for more applause, plus some flowers, I hope, if anyone thought to bring roses to toss at our feet.

  I go out alone to gather my flowers. I try to remember how good it felt to dance for all these people, but I’m cold inside again, I’m an empty tunnel that meets a dead end.

  After curtain call, the cast backs away from the swish of velvet that’s swept in for the last time tonight, and everyone’s still engulfed in that warm after-show glow from making it through a whole performance without disaster. The audience didn’t dash for the exits when the long, boring adagio came on. None of the dancers fell and broke a tailbone. The little tulip in the first row didn’t spin around and hit the little tulip in the second row, like she did during dress rehearsal, which got cut short because both tulips cried. No fires. No one puked. No dead bodies out behind the Dumpster and girls running in screaming that someone should call 911.

  We did good. Now that the curtain’s closed and the show’s over, the older dancers give a big whoop and giggle and wrap arms around one another, kiss-kiss on both cheeks like they’re in France, a twirl in the air, a ring-around-the-rosy like they’re children. They are, basically.

  I kiss no cheeks. I hug nobody.

  What I do is back away, farther and deeper into the closest pocket of wings. In my arms are all my flowers. I need a moment to myself, and it’s not to count my bouquets.

  It’s not until I’m out of view, in the backmost section of curtains at the rear wall of the stage, two velvet layers deep and only concrete beyond that, when I let myself hunch over and everything I’ve been holding in leaks out. It’s the performance tonight that did it. How well it went, h
ow every single thing is coming together for me, piece by piece, my dreams coming true, when I’m not sure I truly deserve to have these dreams.

  I fold up my knees and press my face into my white tights, press it hard, grind it in, and I open my mouth. And nothing. No sound comes out. The ache is sharp, it burns, like maybe how it’d feel to be the one who got stabbed. Something sweeps me up in the thought of that, the powerful visual of the knife going in, the plunge-and-stick, because there would be bones and muscle and ligaments and squidgy, lumpy organs past the skin, and a blade wouldn’t go in smooth, like into a plate of flan.

  I’m on the floor, my back to the wall. I don’t care that I’m getting the white costume grimy and crushing the tulle. I don’t need this tutu. Juilliard has tutus. Everything is totally fine. No one knows.

  Sarabeth is cursed with clown feet, so I know it’s her on the other side of the curtain before she says my name.

  “Vee?” she goes. “You dropped all your flowers.” At some point I must have let the bouquets fall, because there are so many flowers scattered about, it’s like someone ransacked some old lady’s garden.

  I kind of hum from behind the wall of curtain. I’m noticing how, back here, where the audience never goes, this side of the curtain is tattered and plain. No velvet shine. No glimmer and sparkle. It’s moth-eaten. It’s frayed. And it smells—like wet dog.

  “My mom got me flowers just like you,” Sarabeth babbles as she searches for a gap in the curtain. “I mean, not roses. Not like you have roses. I mean, I know I didn’t have a solo, but it’s still special that she got me flowers, don’t you think, Vee?”

  The thing about Sarabeth, who I know counts herself as my best friend now, though we’ve never had an out-loud conversation about it, is that she doesn’t know when to let me be.

  She doesn’t understand me.

  Being best friends with Ori wasn’t ever like this. She once found me crying in the back rehearsal room after ballet class, and maybe we were twelve then, maybe we were thirteen, and she crept in, careful not to give me a scare, and she placed a hand on my back, drawing pictures along my spine, the way I liked her to during our sleepovers. “What’s the matter, Vee?” she asked me. She knew that when I cried too hard I got the hiccups, and she didn’t laugh when my ribs rocked as the hiccups came.

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