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The walls around us, p.7

The Walls Around Us, page 7

 

The Walls Around Us
 


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  The worst was this: Never again would I get to see Ori alive.

  I will always remember where I was the day she got sent to Aurora Hills—the audition, doing my cheese ritual, snagging that role in the corps—but I don’t know where I was when she, and all those other girls with her, died. I wouldn’t have been back in school yet, because it was still August. Probably I was at the ballet studio, because where else would I have been, testing out the limits of my body, as I liked to when I had the studio to myself, trying to perfect a step, or get my leaps to go even higher or my split to go down even farther, or trying for a triple pirouette because I hadn’t mastered that yet, but soon I would.

  Our ballet studio’s spring showcase had been postponed that year, as anyone would have expected after losing three featured dancers in the cast, but when I took the stage at some point that summer as the Firebird, the role that had originally been hers, I was better than anyone expected. My costume wasn’t as elaborate as hers had been, but I was enchanting, I heard someone say. Unforgettable.

  I could have been doing any number of ordinary things the day she died: Taking my second or third shower of the day. Breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes. Watching old Bolshoi performances on YouTube. Sitting through another meal with my parents, then going up to the barre installed in my suite to work it off after. Draining my toe blisters. Cleaning my room.

  All I know is that I wasn’t thinking of her. I kept myself busy to make sure.

  My mother and father were the ones who gave me the news, together, one weekend on the white couch in the living room even though we didn’t ever sit on that couch, or go in that room, unless we had the excuse of company. I heard odd phrases, confusing patches of sentences that didn’t connect to anything, so I had to piece the whole truth together later, from a few choice Google searches.

  “. . . mass poisoning . . . ,” my father said.

  “. . . the lord works in mysterious ways . . . ,” my mother said.

  “. . . I’m sure there was quite a lot of vomiting. Honey, do you need some water?”

  “. . . right near the Falls, such lovely wine country . . .”

  “. . . why, yes, dear, some of them were gangerbangers, or is it gangbangers?”

  “. . . forty-two dead . . .”

  “. . . forty-two girls . . .”

  “. . . suicide pact, you’d expect . . .”

  “. . . no one knows for sure . . .”

  “. . . how about some pâté for lunch?” That last bit was my mother.

  And because I didn’t see it for myself, I don’t think I let myself believe. She was in that place not even a month. She couldn’t be gone for good. I still hadn’t come to visit.

  I turned sixteen that fall after Ori died, and that was the year I danced the part of Odette in our school’s showcase at the community theater. And I felt fine. I turned seventeen, the following fall, and danced the part of Giselle, which would have been a feat if Jon hadn’t dropped me during our pas de deux and the audience hushed to a deadening silence, and I tried not to think how that’s what she hears, now, every day. I still felt fine. I turned eighteen. She’d never get to. I felt fine. I auditioned for two summer intensives, and for a few repertory companies, to be a trainee, had some hiccups, some bad luck, some morons not letting me in, but then I saw the call for Juilliard auditions.

  The school was known for not just ballet but contemporary, which made my coach say it wasn’t the ideal fit, but there was something that spoke to me. Ori, maybe. Ori’s eyes I was seeing through. So I tried to channel her, I tried to be her on the dance floor, I expanded my practice hours, I doubled up on my cubes of cheese.

  Even though I hadn’t danced the role of the Firebird since I was fifteen, that was what I chose to embody for the solo I prepared for the Juilliard audition. I danced what haunted me. I owed her this acknowledgment. Whenever I practiced it, in the studio or at home, with my coach adjusting me or all alone in the mirror, I felt her there with me, shadowing my every move. I felt her inside me sometimes. She breathed when I breathed. Her body stretched when mine stretched. I felt the blisters on her toes pop when mine popped.

  When I got in, it’s like we both got in. The months went on. Had a little scare with Achilles tendinitis, but I got over it, it wasn’t so bad, I felt fine. Started hooking up with Jon, dumped him, felt fine, ended up with Tommy, who didn’t even study ballet, which was fine. Let Sarabeth from our ballet studio hang around. Let her think we were best friends. Graduated high school. GPA: perfectly fine. Summer started, my last summer at home. Knew I’d get around to dumping Tommy sooner or later. Let life happen, I guess, and in between, practiced at the barre every day, looked in the mirror every day to see if I looked okay, if I looked fine.

  Because what’s inside is getting harder to hide.

  After my standing ovation and the bouquet full of blood that had me and Sarabeth sneaking out of the theater and going back to my house to change before the cast party, I find myself doing it again. Looking. I’ve washed my face for the third time and lifted up my neck, dripping, to study myself in the mirror. At first I look decent. Wet, but fine. Then I see it. There’s a speck of red I didn’t catch, a droplet of fake blood on my earlobe. I wipe it off and take a taste of my finger. Like candy.

  Sarabeth hovers in the doorway. “Vee? D’you have any clothes I could borrow?”

  “You can wear whatever’s in the tall dresser, or what’s on the left side of the closet. That’s the stuff I’m not taking with me.”

  She waits. It’s like she’s afraid or something.

  “And just go ahead and keep it,” I say. “Whatever it is.”

  “Really? You sure?”

  “Keep whatever you want.” I’m never coming back, I feel it.

  Her face creases. “Okay. I don’t know what’ll fit me, but okay.”

  She drifts out of sight, and then I look again in the mirror to see if the guilt is written all over my face. No matter how many times I wash it, I keep seeing red.

  “We’re not going to the cast party, are we?” she calls.

  “Nah,” I say, even though I know my parents are there, my coaches are there, Miss Willow, who’s been my instructor all these years, is there. My mother’s called twice already, and I’m waiting for her to call again.

  I wash my face one more time. When I come out of the bathroom, Sarabeth’s been digging in my closet and has a take-pile started on the floor. It happens in slow motion, when she reaches up to remove a shirt from a hanger and the sleeve gets caught on the shelf above. She gives a tug, and that’s the jolt that does it.

  It drops from the heights of the walk-in closet directly onto me, its sharp, pointy end striking me between the eyes, dead on, like there’s some red-circled target on me I wasn’t able to wash off with soap.

  I’m down, now, on the carpeted floor of the walk-in closet, on my knees, the gaudy red costume feather crushed in my hand, and I see another trace of her, though I was so sure I’d gotten rid of them all. But there, lined up with all the old pairs of pointe shoes I’d crashed through, worn out, grown out of, broken a little, broken clean in half, got bored of, spilled cola on, their shredded toes, their blackened bottoms, their scraggly ribbons, there. A pair of hers I missed. I know they’re hers because of the initials marked on the inside of the satin sheath: Not VAD, for Violet Allegra Dumont. I always use my middle initial so no one can say I have VD on my toe shoes. Ori copied me and used hers, too. OCS. That’s what it says on the satin. O for Orianna. C for Catherine. S for Speerling. Blood pulsing in my arms. Blood pounding in my head.

  I remove a shoe and hold it. The box has been softened to mush, the ribbons are frayed, and the satin on the bottom of the toe, where it touches floor, is peeled open. It smells dreadful, like it’s been rotting six feet underground for years.

  The shank, the hard bottom piece that runs along the sole, has been cut three-quarters of the way down with a box cutter to give the shoes new life after the shanks got broken f
rom dancing, which happens. Ori and I read about this shanking method online, how real-life ballerinas adjust their shoes so they can use them for longer. Ori didn’t have the money to keep buying new pairs, and she felt funny when I tricked my parents into paying for hers, so we’d make these adjustments. She’d hold the shoe steady for the operation. I’d slice.

  And it’s the cut that sends me back. I can see the ridge, the line we made with the Sharpie, the deep carving. I can remember the feel of the box cutter in my hand. We were in the studio’s dressing room, the two of us in a corner, and the others, a whole group of them, were hissing and laughing across the way.

  I made a deep, straight cut, and I wanted to ask her, Why are you here, with me? Why aren’t you with them, over there?

  I sliced too hard, with too much force, and nipped my finger. She wrapped a tourniquet of tissue around my injured hand, and a drop of my blood got on her tights. The tiniest fleck.

  But that was later, closer to the end.

  She could have chosen anybody. But I had nobody in the beginning, and she wanted somebody even if she didn’t know it. The moment was cemented one evening, early on in our ballet training, when no one came to pick her up when class was over. My mother was inside, discussing making a donation to the dance studio, as she would begin to do each year, and she’d told me to wait out front, in the car. Instead, I’d gone wandering.

  That was when I spotted the girl from class: the one with the very, very long hair, like no one ever took her to get it cut at a salon, and her funny, made-up-sounding name, Orianna, like two names squashed together. We got to talking. We were about eight years old then, I’d say. Even then, I had ideas.

  “I’m gonna be a prima ballerina someday,” I told her. It was something I used to tell everyone back then, until it became so obvious, years later, and everyone started telling me.

  “You will,” she said. She didn’t announce that she was, too.

  “I’m gonna be famous. I write it down every night, so in the morning it knows to come true.”

  “That’s a good idea,” she said.

  “What about you?”

  She looked at me oddly, and now it hangs heavy over me, like even then she knew she had no future. “I don’t know yet,” was all she said.

  She checked the parking lot again. No cars were slowing on the road.

  “He’s not coming,” she said. “Probably he forgot.”

  “C’mon,” I said, and I took her hand. I had no siblings, no close friends at school, no one I touched like this before, apart from my parents when they used to make me hold on to them when crossing a street.

  Her palm was thin and felt so soft. Her skin was cool, like she never got sweaty. She let me pull for a moment, and didn’t stand up, so I thought she wouldn’t come with me, and I was about to let go. Then she stood and my hand was in her hand and we went running. A brown car shrieked over the curb, coming to a hard stop right before us and almost clipping our legs, ending our dance careers before they even got started. It wasn’t her dad. The driver honked at us, blasting his horn and yelling out the window. What were we trying to do, kill ourselves and everyone around us? But we were children then, and we were just figuring out how to live. The car finished its U-turn and headed back for the road. I laughed. I believed in writing down my future, but I didn’t know to keep an eye on hers.

  I led my new friend to my mom’s car, and I opened the door and showed her the backseat. “Come on,” I said. “Get in.”

  I still wonder what would have happened if that car had hit us, or if her dad had showed up on time, or if she hadn’t climbed into the backseat and we hadn’t ended up taking her home.

  Now she’s gone. I’m in my bedroom with Sarabeth ten years later, and I turn and I swear, it’s like Ori’s back in the room, lounging out on my bed behind me, a waterfall of dark pin-straight hair, muscled legs, and blazing toe blisters. The awareness of her is back. The loss of her is back. The heavy weight of what was done, too, is back, in my bed, and I’ll have to sleep with it every night until I do something and face what I’ve done.

  I never visited her, never had the chance. Ask me and that’s what I’ll say to the question. The truth is, even if I’d had the chance, even if there hadn’t been that freak accident or suicide pact or bad batch of dinner in the cafeteria that offed the whole population less than a month after she got put away, I’m not sure I would’ve gone to visit her behind bars.

  What would I have said?

  What would it have looked like, that reunion?

  I heard about Aurora Hills. It’s closed now. Vandals have had their way with it—I read that somewhere online. Graffiti and broken windows and fires set in the hallways.

  People who knew the girl prisoners who died are drawn to the gate outside Aurora Hills, down at the bottom of the hill. There was a photo on some website—that’s how I know. Family members go there, friends. Sometimes the curious, or a morbid freak who gets hot off the idea of all those dead girls. It’s August now, the third summer, and soon, people will be gathering to remember. I have an urge that’s sudden. I want to get up there before the families do, before the candles and the singing and the prayers, before the anniversary, before August 30. Before I leave for New York City. I can see it now. In that pile of rotting stuffed-bear corpses I saw online, bow-tied bears and fairy bears and chubster bears and puny baby bears, the runts no one wanted. At the gate with the bears and the cards poorly drawn by children at some demented elementary school, and the flowers, the mass grave of rotting flowers, yeah, down somewhere in all that, dug in deep, I might have to leave a little something.

  There’s nowhere else to do it—she wasn’t buried in a cemetery, so there’s no grave to visit. Her dad had her cremated, right before he moved away.

  Sarabeth is hovering over me, bug-eyed. I barely have to turn to let her know I’m speaking to her now. “You up for a little road trip?”

  “How long a drive? I get carsick . . . Can I pick the music?” she starts, but then she gets it. My hand has come open and the bright, crimson-dyed feather is visible on my palm. Does she remember? I do.

  It’s from the headpiece of the Firebird costume, the last costume Ori ever wore, and the last connecting link between her and me. Ori’s telling me it’s not something I’ll be able to put away and forget, like I tried to do with her. Never again, she’s saying. Never again.

  The Hole in the Fence

  IT’S THE NEXT day, and I get Tommy to drive. He’ll be over soon.

  Sarabeth assures me she’s coming, even though she gets carsick and I won’t let her pick the music, and we have to wait to leave until after she gets off work. Then she wants to borrow a sweater because she’s cold, constantly, even in summer, and I tell her to see what’s left in the tall dresser. Then we have to make up a story for my parents, and it’s already afternoon by the time we go downstairs to meet Tommy, who’s parked outside but doesn’t want to come in for some reason he won’t say.

  Sarabeth and I head down and spot his car at the curb, but it’s empty. We find him in the rock garden, directly below my bedroom, like he’s keeping tabs on me. He’s not alone.

  Tommy’s leaning against the lattice and kind of gives me a nod when I approach, which isn’t his usual. Maybe I should’ve texted him back after the showcase last night. But the shape lurking in the shadows behind Tommy is what makes me grab for a hold of the wall to steady myself. I can’t let them see that, though, so I act like I’ve got an itch on my ankle.

  I scratch a few times and straighten up. “Miles,” I say, nodding.

  Just look who it is. Ori’s Miles, the one and only, all in black, surprise, and sporting his usual cowlick like he doesn’t own a hairbrush to his name. Years have passed since I last had to look at him, and he seems taller now, scowlier.

  He nods back, doesn’t meet my eyes. No hello. I look between Miles and Tommy, Tommy and Miles. What, they’re buddies now? Where Tommy goes, Miles goes, too?

  Tommy won’
t meet my eyes. His gaze holds steady on my feet. It’s summer and I’m in sandals, though my toes are completely covered. He knows I hate when he looks too closely at my feet. His ball cap is on backward, begging for an adjustment, and there’s something like moss growing on his cheeks, which I realize, with dull horror, is his attempt at growing a beard. Ballet dancers never have beards.

  “Hi, Tommy! Hi, Miles. I didn’t know you were coming!” Sarabeth says, ever oblivious.

  “Tommy?” I want his explanation. I want him to tell me why he’s brought that kid here to my property tonight, letting him tag along on our drive up to the prison, which is my personal expedition and nothing to do with anybody else, apart from Tommy being the one to drive because I already sold my car and Sarabeth can’t use her parents’ SUV. I told him it was private. None of his business. And his response was to invite Ori’s ex?

  Tommy pulls me aside against the lattice, so we can have a moment alone.

  I think he’s going to stutter out an apology maybe, try to explain. But no. He gives me a kiss, and I wonder if it’s hit him yet, that I have so many important things all about to start happening for me, and I’m not going to spend any time looking backward. Does he get that? There are things he doesn’t ask of me, ever: Like, Are we breaking up or what? Or even, Hey, weren’t you best friends with a convicted murderer, and weren’t you a witness on the case, and didn’t she die in some bizarre poisoning, and now, suddenly, you want to go visit the scene of the accident—and, hey, what’s up with that?

  Nothing. The boy has asked me nothing.

  I give him a little shove so he gets his scratchy face away from mine. “What is he doing here?” Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Sarabeth smiling and attempting to make small talk with Miles, and I’ll have to set her straight on who we’re speaking to later.

  “I asked him to come,” Tommy says.

  “Why,” I say dully.

 
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