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The walls around us, p.6

The Walls Around Us, page 6


The Walls Around Us

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  It was easy to know what was the matter, why I sobbed. Miss Willow had selected Ori to advance to pointe, which meant a whole new kind of training, plus separate special classes three times a week, and she hadn’t selected me. I needed more time to strengthen my ankles, she’d said. But Ori’s ankles were ready. Mine were still the wimpy spaghetti ankles of a little girl.

  Any other friend would have patted me on the back and assured me my time would be soon, but Ori made a promise, and she always kept her promises. She said she wouldn’t go on pointe until the day I got to. She wouldn’t wear the perfect pointe shoes Miss Willow had gifted her in charity because her dad wouldn’t have paid a dime for them until I had my own pink satin pair.

  I remember her fingers drawing down my spine. I remember her cheek on my cheek. I remember how she said, “Anything I do, you’ll get to do, too.” How she said, “I won’t do it until Miss Willow says you’re ready. I’ll wait for you.”

  She did wait. She waited six and a half months for me and my ankles to catch up to hers.

  And she didn’t bug me about it even once.

  Sarabeth is still fumbling with the velvet. She’s going off about all my roses. Apparently I have quite a lot, because so many people came to see me.

  “Sarabeth, stop. I don’t care about the flowers.”

  “Oh okay. You did wonderful, Vee. Everybody was saying.”

  “I know.”

  “Oh yeah, of course you know.” She quiets as I finger the back of the curtain, its ugly side only I can see. “Are you coming out? Tommy’s here. But I thought you said you were breaking up with him? But he’s here. And we’ve got the cast party, you know. And since it’s your last show, you’re a guest of honor . . .”

  Every graduating senior would be a guest of supposed honor at that cast party. Sarabeth was only a junior.

  I find the gap in the curtain and open it up and let her fill my arms again with all my bouquets. But as we’re gathering the last of my bouquets, Sarabeth lets out an earsplitting squeak. She starts swatting at me with sloppy, panicked hands like she does at the air when she sees a moth, instead of being normal and opening a window.

  Maybe Sarabeth has reason to freak out a little. One of the bouquets in my arms is leaking. And it’s not water.

  What’s coming out the bottom end of the carefully wrapped bouquet is brilliant red and thick, like lukewarm syrup. It seeps and smears and screams all down the front of me, congealing on my white tights. The bouquet is bleeding. It’s bleeding all over me.

  With horror, I tilt my neck and look down. My eyes aren’t sure what they’re seeing at first, and then the picture sharpens and my brain makes sense of it. There, in my arms, stuffed into delicate pink tissue paper, is a bouquet of disgusting trash: balled-up tissues and a few rags and what looks like a guy’s old white T-shirt, ripped into shreds but Fruit of the Loom still on the decapitated collar, all covered, soaked, sopping really, with blood.

  My arms go loose, and the bloody bouquet drops, spraying its contents everywhere. A hemorrhage. A nightmare. The blood spatters and clings to the curtain. It’s sticky, webbing up my fingers like with snot. Sarabeth’s bent over, gagging. A glop of thick, almost-black blood falls from my kneecap to the hard toe of my pointe shoe, and I stare at it, transfixed. I can tell by the smell it’s not real blood, because I promise you don’t ever forget the smell of that.

  “Oh my gosh,” Sarabeth squeaks. “Oh my gosh, Vee, oh my gosh.” She lifts a bloody arm, slick and glistening, and she points a bloody finger at the floor.

  A card has fallen out, one of those baby-size cards you get from the florist, but it’s facedown in a goopy puddle, and neither of us is making a move to pick it up.

  “Did someone really give you that bouquet?” Sarabeth says.

  “No, I gave it to myself, what do you think? Some bitches thought it’d be funny, obviously. They can’t say it to my face, so they do this.”

  “Say what to your face?” Sarabeth says, and I’ve never pitied her more for that pea brain she’s carrying around in that head of marshmallow fluff than I do right now.

  I stare at her until she glances away, flushing. Now she remembers.

  This shouldn’t be happening. None of this should. The girls who would have done something like this to me on my big night aren’t around anymore. It doesn’t connect. Because Harmony and Rachel, they’re gone. Ori got rid of them, everybody knows that. Ori got rid of them for me. And then Ori got gotten rid of, too, and now I’m the only one left.

  The thing I can’t get a grip on is how the bouquet ended up in my arms. Some bouquets were thrown at my feet, and some were handed directly to me, with an embrace, a congratulations. All this took place in front of everyone.

  The faces blur. Smiling, everyone all smiles, so it’s teeth and stretched lips and sour breath and sometimes whiffs of sucked-on mints or sneaked cigarettes. No one seemed cruel enough to present me with a bouquet filled with trick blood and grungy tissues and a sweaty gym shirt and then grin in my face and tell me congrats. No one who’s still alive, anyway.

  Cold creeps up my back. It reminds me of how I was looking for Ori—not the other two, only Ori—right before I went on, how something unspoken told me she might be out there, though she’s long dead. I’m not sure what I believe, but I know what the little voice in my head believes.

  She was here tonight, Vee. She came all the way here to see you.

  She wanted me to have the messy, explosive gift so I wouldn’t forget her, and so she wrapped it in pink paper, my favorite color, and into the pink folds she tucked a small card. From the ground, the side of the card that we can see says CONGRATULATIONS ON THIS JOYOUS DAY! It’s white and silver, or it once was, like it was meant for an anniversary celebration or a wedding, the kind of thing you get for free if you actually buy flowers. But someone had to go to the trouble to buy this card—or at least swipe it—just to take credit. If anyone signed it, that would be on the other side, currently facedown in the puddle.

  “Who’s the card say it’s from?” I ask.

  “I don’t want to touch it,” Sarabeth says. But she sees I’m waiting for her to do just that, so she bends, delicately, and lifts it, warped and dripping. She turns it over and reads.

  Her eyes tell all.

  Sometimes I forget that she was there three years ago—not with us, I mean, but somewhere. She did take classes at the studio like we did, even though she was back-row bad and sluglike when it came to catching on to floor routines and any up-tempo combination. We ignored her, but she was around. She’d remember. Maybe she was one of the girls who’d been shattered by it and gone around wailing backstage—I seem to remember hearing a few banshee wails when the police escorted me home. Later I heard that there was one girl who came upon the bloody scene out back behind the theater and flat-out fainted, which contaminated the area. Maybe that had been Sarabeth? Could that explain why she’s attached herself to me and blocked it all out?

  It’s funny how someone can witness the aftermath of a double murder, like after the bodies have gone cold and the scene’s gone quiet, and someone’s dropped a blanket over both corpses so all you can see are the pink feet, and that’s enough to break them. She wasn’t even there to see how it went down.

  Sarabeth’s eyes are very large and she says, “I think”—she gulps, she sniffles—“I think this is really nasty, whoever did this to you.”

  I don’t nod to agree with her. I can’t. I know this is only what I deserve.

  “We can’t go to the cast party like this, Vee,” Sarabeth says, assuming I’m going and she’s coming with. “It looks like we both got our periods at the same time.”

  It doesn’t look like that at all. It looks like we committed a gruesome murder. And then decorated our bodies with the blood. It looks horrific.

  “It’s in your hair, Vee. Ick, it’s in mine, too. We have to go shower and change. Let’s go out the back way. I don’t want my mom to see me like this—she’ll freak. Why’d t
hey write that on the card, anyways? Why’d they pretend to be her? Who’d be so mean?”

  She waits for answers, like I’m some sort of psychology expert.

  But this is not from the girls at the studio. I’d know Ori’s handwriting anywhere.

  I may have fooled the audience and my parents and Sarabeth and the admissions committee at Juilliard—I mean, how wowed were they by my audition? The ballet piece I prepared for them was the dance of the Firebird, from the Igor Stravinsky masterpiece, first performed in Paris in 1910, which had been Ori’s solo those three years ago, which I’d learned from mirroring Ori, and which I’d forever know by heart.

  But Ori wouldn’t have been fooled for a second. She always did know me better than anyone else did. She didn’t judge me, but she didn’t shy away from me, either. She knew what I was and, still, for some unknown reason I’ll be tossing over and over in my mind for my whole life, she stayed true to me, kept being my friend. I’m the one who turned away.

  Like tonight. Ori would have seen through my once-white, now red-stained leotard and the white, now red-spattered froof of my tutu, to what’s inside. Not the second leotard under the first one, but deeper, under my skin. The gross parts of the person I really am, the blood and guts, the ugliness, the slimy secrets, the liar I’m hiding in there, the true person I am, tangled up with the worms and rot.

  Never Again

  THE DAY MY best friend got sent to prison, I was a hundred miles away, eating cheese.

  That’s all I like to eat on the day of an audition, for protein, for energy, and for luck. One piece of cheese in the morning. Another piece an hour before, to give it time to go down the tubes and digest, and a tiny piece minutes before, gobbled up so quick, I hardly bother chewing, so it gives me that last bump I need before going on. Cheese breath doesn’t matter when your muscles are warm, your feet fast, and you dance like the star you are destined to be.

  It was the first week of August, the summer I was fifteen. That was the same summer Ori spent in jail, the holding place where they kept her until she got sent to Aurora Hills. It was my first summer without her, when the hole in my life seemed too humongous to face by looking right at it, so I didn’t let myself look. I was at an audition. I was eating a hunk of cheese. I was lacing the ribbons of my pointe shoes, knotting them neat at the back and tucking the knot in. I was humming Stravinsky, and then when that got weird, I switched to Tchaikovsky. Her life was over that summer, but mine? Only just beginning.

  I had my legs split, stomach pressed to floor, spine stretched as long as I could make it go. My arms were out, reaching. No one was on the other side, opposite me, to take my hands.

  I closed my eyes and did the breathing thing, the one she taught me, where I visualized myself onstage in New York City, where else, with the roses at my feet, the roses at my feet the roses at my feet, until, finally, I was ready. I had my rituals, and I wasn’t going to break them, even on the day she got shipped upstate.

  That was what I heard someone call it: “upstate.” Even though we already lived pretty far up. It was like she was being sent off to a work camp in Siberia—that was how far away it felt. Way too far to ever visit.

  She should’ve been with me at the audition, slipping the bobby pins in my hair and then I’d do hers, wrinkling her nose when I took out my cheese. Then again, if she’d been at the audition and not headed to prison, she for sure would’ve gotten a role, and I for sure would’ve been passed over, told try again next year, and there’d have been no roses at my waiting feet.

  I knew audition morning that it was the day they were announcing her sentencing. My parents made sure to tell me themselves. It was like they thought I’d feel better, knowing. Like I’d relax and sleep safer at night, knowing the exact number of days she’d be locked away.

  No one needed to tell me it was the day. I was well aware already. I streamed it on my computer during morning pliés. I saw how they put her in orange, and perp-walked her away, and there were details the cameras caught like how she had more makeup on her left eye than her right, and I wondered if she ran out of mascara, and then I wondered if she even had mascara in jail and if not, what the gunk on her left eye could be. I also noticed that her thick, dark hair, which I kind of envied since it grew stick-straight from her head and didn’t frizz, looked now like it was thinning and bits of her scalp peeked through. I wondered if it was possible to start going bald at fifteen, like from stress.

  Also, she seemed kind of pale. It could’ve been the cameras, or the orange of her outfit glaring against her skin, but she was usually nice and brown, never needing to lie out for a suntan, and now it was high summer and she looked like a ghoul. The Ori I knew, the Ori everyone knew, or used to know, was the kind of girl who seemed sure of herself no matter how she looked. She never cared as much as I did. She’d come away from sweating buckets in advanced ballet, and she’d be all glowy and dewy and full of life like this was a tampon commercial, when all I wanted was to dunk my head in a cold sink of water and hug my knees till the shakes stopped.

  But watching her there, live-streaming on the news, I was struck by what was missing. She was just putting one foot in front of the other, and barely. Her ankles were in chains, her arms behind her back. She was stringy-haired and wonky-eyed and alarmingly gray.

  The news lady was talking about the details of the crime. I put her on mute.

  I only wanted to see Ori. Now she was pushed through a door, and she didn’t look back once, and the door closed behind her, and the camera held on the shut door like we were in some kind of European film, and then the camera swiveled and swooped in on the crowd, going in close on the victims’ mothers, and I shut off the picture. I finished my last set of pliés.

  At the audition I sat alone, apart from the other girls, and snarfed down the cheese from my bag. Then I stood up and shook out my limbs and cracked my neck and cracked my knuckles and tried not to think of her, didn’t let myself think of her, got my number called, took my spot, didn’t think of her, did the combination, did it spot-on, did it with every step precise, didn’t think of her. Didn’t think of anything. Didn’t even feel my own feet, which was a miracle, because I had a pretty outrageous blister.

  I got the part, obviously. Only a role in the corps, where you have to move exactly the same as everyone else and dance background, the lowest you can go in ballet unless you’re on crew, carting around the scenery.

  They said I got it because I had solid technique. I had the right body. I had decent feet. My extension was fine, my training up to level. I had a lot of potential. I had a future, if I wanted it and worked for it.

  They didn’t say they were overtaken by my performance, that I took their breath away, made their hearts skip a beat, that I was unforgettable, astonishing even. If Ori had danced for them, those are things they might have said, once they got their breath back.

  Still, I got the part. And I got it because after my best friend was sent away to the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center in wherever-it-was-I-needed-to-look-at-a-map upstate, my luck kind of changed. My life started looking up. Everything I did was something she wouldn’t get to do, so I’d have to do it one better. I’d have to be her, in a way, because it wasn’t like she could be herself anymore. I didn’t have her natural talent, her spark. But I was good. And people started taking notice.

  I couldn’t help but think that by the time Ori got out, she’d be way too old and it would be way too late. She wouldn’t dance on a stage again, ever.

  Days passed after the audition, and after Ori was sentenced and sent to Aurora Hills, and I made a whole list of nevers in my head: Never again would Ori build a blanket fort with me. And never again would we hide under the blanket fort like little kids. Never again would Ori paint my toenails purple to match a purple bruise. Never again would Ori do one-bite, my-bite, two-bite, your-bite with a bowl of Cheerios. Never again would I catch Ori doing the sweet things she sometimes did for perfect strangers, and make fun of her fo
r them, like holding doors for slow, decrepit randoms and looking all over the neighborhood for that whiny brat’s overweight dog. Never again would Ori step on a stage and wow an audience to tears. Never again would Ori shake her head and get embarrassed when they said how perfect she was. How incredible. How stunning. How transcendent. Transcendent—they actually used that word. Never again would she ask me to please stop talking about it, and never again would I say, “Did you see how they looked at you? It’s like you’re the next Anna Pavlova.” Never again would she ask me, hours later, timid and shaky voiced, “Vee, you’re not feeling weird about what they said about me, are you? You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?” And never again would I have to lie through my straight teeth—hers were crooked, she really should have gotten braces—and say, “I’m okay—don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” Never again.

  I did plan to visit her up there, someday. And I did plan to write her back, sometime. I was thinking about what I’d say to her, since my attorney pulled me away after and told me not to speak a word to her, not just about the charges, but about anything at all.

  I knew we’d have a chance to talk one day. We had to. But I guess I wasn’t done with the never agains.

  Because never again would Ori see me, and never would I see Ori. We wouldn’t get to exchange a hello or good-bye or d’you want a piece of cheese or I like your leotard can I borrow it ever again. I wouldn’t get to look into her eyes and see if she hated me. If she deep down despised me. If she dreamed of getting out and murdering me with an ax or a gun point-blank at my temple, or if she’d choose to shoot me in the back like cowards in old Westerns got to make someone die. If she dreamed of doing to me what I woke up, sweating, flailing, heart pounding, dreaming she’d already done.

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