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The walls around us, p.8

The Walls Around Us, page 8


The Walls Around Us

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  “He knows how to find the place. He’s been up there before, you know.”

  “There’s GPS in your phone.”

  Tommy gets defensive. You’d think his loyalties are all with Miles instead of with me. Miles wants to see her, too, Tommy goes, and I’m like, we’re not seeing anybody, she’s not there to see. Then he’s like, doesn’t Miles deserve to come, because he wrote her letters, and he even visited her up there, one time with his stepdad, before she died, and I never got on her visiting list, did I? This is the most Tommy has ever said on the subject of Orianna Speerling, who he didn’t even know when she was alive. I had no idea he had this much information.

  I zip my mouth, keep it in. “Fine, Tommy. Let’s just go, then.”

  I snap my fingers at Sarabeth, causing her to step on a rock sideways and flail and fumble, the graceful thing that she is.

  Miles smirks. He heads for the curb, opening the garden gate without having to search around for the hidden latch first, because he knows where it’s hiding. He used to come here all the time, but never to see me.

  Maybe that was when things shifted, between Ori and me. She got with Miles, for no good reason I could put a finger on, and she wasn’t always around like she’d been before him.

  Ori used to peek out the window and communicate with him—they had a set of hand signals, ones she never shared with me—and then she’d turn to me, in my bedroom, and she’d say, “Miles just wants to talk. I’m going down for a few minutes.” At some point between slipping on a pair of shoes and finding a hoodie, she’d pause. Then she’d have to say it, because this was my house. “Want to come with?” Of course I never wanted to go down there and watch her make out with him on my patio furniture. “Nah,” I’d say. “Go. I’ll be fine.”

  She’d tiptoe back up my staircase after I stopped waiting for her. She’d slip in under the covers, because by then I’d be in bed, making my breaths even so it seemed like I was asleep. She’d whisper my name, but it’d be a quiet whisper, halfhearted. She’d sigh. She’d flop over a few times on the mattress, shuffle the pillows, try to get comfortable. Then she’d sigh again, and I’d hear it, I couldn’t not hear it, it would fill up the room in the dark night: the contented sigh of her happiness. I kept my eyes closed.

  “Let’s go,” I say. We all head for Tommy’s ridiculous green car, with the too-big tires and the white racing stripe. Before I can call out a claim for it, Miles is taking shotgun and I have to squeeze in the tight backseat with Sarabeth, who’s reminding us she might get a little queasy and it’s no big deal, but if she asks Tommy to pull over, that’s why.

  Miles sits face-forward, playing with his phone. That was how I found out about him and Ori in the first place—those text messages he was sending and the messages she was sending back. She was trying to hide it from me, as if I wouldn’t like it. She was right.

  “You good up there?” I call out to Miles. “Got enough room to stretch your legs?” The driver’s seat is wedged into my knees, so I sure don’t.

  Miles doesn’t respond. He doesn’t need to. The seething hatred coming off him is so strong, I half expect the windows to fog over, frogs to rain down, a crack to open up in the cul-de-sac and take me. And maybe after that a tornado.

  As we start moving, I feel, distantly, a spot of warmth on my body. I realize it’s Sarabeth’s hand. She is patting my arm. I think she’s trying to comfort me.

  It brings me back.

  Not to any warm and shimmering memory between me and Sarabeth—she’s nothing to me. More to a warm hand on my shoulder. Two warm hands. If Ori were here, she’d tell me to ignore him. She’d shove her head between the two front seats and demand that he be nice to me. Why? Because she said.

  Then again, the thought of Ori being here and not nowhere, which is where she is, makes my conscience rumble.

  She didn’t like it when people were mean to me. Way back when we were girls, she could have slipped into any of the cliques at our dance studio and stalked off, smiling. It could have been Harmony, Rachel, and Orianna. Or Harmony and Orianna, with Rachel kicked to the curb, and maybe Harmony would have been the one to start calling her Ori. I wouldn’t have known her, apart from having to stand next to her at the barre to do demonstrations, or sometimes sharing the floor during a group combination and avoiding her kicks to the shins. But she chose me and only me—maybe because she saw no one else had.

  She had a way of seeking out the weirdo, like she wanted to be some kind of protector. The outcast no one else was conversing with, she’d go over and sit next to, make it less awkward for everyone, help that freak feel less alone. Look at Miles. He was a nobody she plucked from nothingness.

  I glare at him in the passenger seat, narrow my eyes, thinking this. Until the thought about-faces and I realize what it might say: Out of everyone Ori could have been friends with, charity cases and otherwise, she zeroed in on me.

  The drive isn’t so long. The way I’ve acted, anyone would’ve thought the detention center was days and days away, practically in another country. It’s up north near Lake Ontario and the Canadian border, sure, but we don’t live so far from the border ourselves. At most, if Tommy follows the speed limit, the drive is three hours, a day trip closer than Niagara Falls.

  “You shouldn’t be wearing that,” Miles says, from out of nowhere. These are the first words he’s spoken in nearly an hour, since we left my cul-de-sac and hit I-90. His words aren’t aimed at me but at Sarabeth, who he must know from school, since they both go to public.

  She turns crimson. It’s what she does at the slightest push. When we’re doing barre work and Miss Willow adjusts Sarabeth’s arms or makes a microscopic correction to her turnout, Sarabeth’s cheeks flame. Her freckles pop like blood spatter. The only things not reddened on her whole body will be her hands, her feet, and the very tip of her nose. It’s here I remember, randomly, for the first time in forever, that I used to call her Rooster, though Ori didn’t seem to like when I did.

  “What, why?” Sarabeth says. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

  I get it before she does. Miles only means the sweater she has on, borrowed from my room. It’s striped and has a hood. Orange stripes, yellow stripes, blue stripes, green stripes. A black stripe here and there. It was a revolting number of colors to wear at once, and of course it wasn’t mine. It was Ori’s. Another thing of hers still mingled with the stuff in my room.

  Miles would remember that sweater. He’d remember Ori in it. He did seem like the kind of boyfriend who paid attention.

  “He means your sweater,” I tell Sarabeth.

  “Oh,” she says. “It’s not mine. It’s Vee’s.”

  Miles’s gaze lifts to my face. This is the first time he’s met my eyes. “It’s not yours. It’s hers. Did you steal it from her before or after you got her sent to prison?”

  I’m thrown for a loop, but then Tommy blasts the horn like there’s a deer in the road, except there is no deer, there’s only me now, Ori’s not coming back, she’s never coming back, she’s gone.

  And Miles is right. I did do that.

  “Who cares whose shirt is whose!” Tommy shouts. “Miles, is this the exit?” And this draws Miles’s attention back to the highway, to where we’re headed, to the gate, the shrine for the girls who never got out.

  I need to see it for myself, before I move on. I know we won’t be able to get near the building where she was held—there are gates and chains and everything’s all locked up, and we’re not trespassing and getting ourselves arrested, because I’ve got Juilliard in a week. But maybe we’ll see a guard tower. Some barbed wire. Something connected to her. Something.

  Will that be enough? We exit the first highway for a second highway, then finally swerve off all highways onto a wooded, increasingly narrow road. The place isn’t at all familiar, but it’s also everything I thought it would be. There are bumps and pits in the badly paved road, so my stomach lurches up to my throat, and Sarabeth hangs her head to her knees, sa
ying she’s queasy. We’re going up and up, on a steady incline, but too many trees are in the way to see where. The sky is smaller above us, as the trees close in, and then the sky is cut out completely. We’re close.

  I get a chill. I almost want to ask for the sweater back. Other than that, I feel nothing.

  We pass an old street sign, bent over and shrouded in hanging leaves. It says:



  I still feel nothing.

  Miles is the one who tells us where to stop before the gate is even in sight. He really has been here before. Tommy’s not sure where to park his car. He’s so precious about the paint job and doesn’t want any passing cars to swipe it, but it’s not like there’s a parking lot here to welcome visitors. It’s not like there’s valet service.

  Soon I’m standing in the backwoods on a one-lane road before the entrance to the girls’ detention center. In one hand is a bouquet of drooping carnations that we bought at a supermarket on the way over, and in the other hand, clutched in my fist, is the feather from Ori’s last-ever costume. Something tells me she wants me to leave it here.

  She’ll see it, somehow, this gesture I’m making. She’s looking down from high up on that hill, and she’ll understand. She’ll see it and she’ll let go. Of me. And we’ll move on, to our two different futures. Mine involves the sparkle and lights of the city, and Juilliard, and the big stage, and fame and recognition and everything I’ve ever wanted. Hers involves eternity in a dark hole.

  I approach the pathetic-looking shrine at the closed and chained gate. I appreciate that they stay back, letting me have my moment. We haven’t seen one other car since making the turn at the first old sign that said AURORA HILLS DETENTION CENTER, 11 MILES. There are no mourners here. No tourists. No rubberneckers. No one to sideswipe Tommy’s car.

  There are the four of us and all those stuffed animals at the gate.

  I go in close, crouch down on my knees. There are dry candles. None are lit. The pile of filthy teddy bears I saw in the photos online is still there. There are other things, too. A blue dolphin. A baby doll with a hard, plastic head and a soft, plush body. Her parts are all black with decay, and one leg has rotted all the way off.

  There is a music box. The whirling ballerina inside is the size of the ones on my charm bracelet my parents got me, that bracelet Ori always loved, the one I still wear most every day, and when I open the box, it starts to spin; it starts its song, its dance. But this music-box ballerina is made of plastic and breaks off easily in my fingers. The box still sings and spins, but now there’s no one to do the dancing. I palm the ballerina and slip it into my jeans pocket.

  I start to read the cards, the ones that aren’t too weathered. The three of them stand behind me, probably noticing what catches my attention, what I touch and don’t touch, what I step on, squash, drop on the ground. I wish they’d leave me alone. There’s something about being here that makes me want to be alone.

  Off to the side, wedged into the iron grate, is a water-warped piece of paper. It’s not colorful. The handwriting is small, contained, penned by an adult. When I get close, I can make out some of the words: despicable, garbage, you monsters. And I wonder who drove all the way up here to leave this piece of hate mail for the dead.

  I close my eyes and do the breathing thing. I tell myself to think of New York. A gnat-size voice inside me wonders if I’d be headed to the city if Ori had never been sent here or—better? Worse?—if she’d been found innocent of all charges.

  Then I hear him. Miles. “You know the way in is right over there? A hole in the fence. The prison is up that hill. It’s not so far.”

  “No. Way,” Tommy says, his voice booming. He’s faking surprise. He knew.

  “Wait, wait,” Sarabeth says, because no one ever tells her anything. “I thought we were just stopping here to leave the flowers. We’re going in?” She lowers her cell phone in the midst of taking a photo.

  “You want to drive all the way up here, see some gate, then turn around and go home?” Tommy says. “Miles is saying there’s a way up. So we’re going up.”

  “There’s a way,” Miles mumbles. “I’ve done it before.”

  “But it’ll be dark soon,” Sarabeth says.

  She turns to me. It’s late afternoon now, creeping on into evening, since we had to wait forever for her to get off work.

  “Then we’ll take flashlights,” Tommy says, like she’s slow. “Doubt we’ll need ’em.”

  “But it’s illegal,” Sarabeth goes, mostly to herself, because they’re not even listening.

  Tommy runs back to his car to dig in the trunk for flashlights. He finds only one and says the rest of us will have to use the light of our phones. He even has a few cans of spray paint, purchased, I assume, right before he came to pick us up.

  Miles has turned all his attention to me. His eyes are as black as mud, his hair sticks up without a care, and his mouth is a small sneer, taunting me, twitching.

  “Vee?” Sarabeth says from somewhere behind me. “Violet? Hey. Uh, are we really going up there? Do you think maybe I could wait in the car?”

  I ignore her. We all do.

  Miles has been close to Ori, and I haven’t. He’s been up there, and I haven’t. He’s seen what she’s seen. He knows too many things I don’t know.

  And then I’m remembering things. More things. Like the things they had, between the two of them, together. That time she told me she slept with him in his parents’ basement and how momentous it was and how he held her after. And I guess I was supposed to coo and say, “Aw,” but I couldn’t. Because why did everything come so easily for her but was such an effort for me? She barely practiced outside of class. She had the most perfect, flexible dancer’s feet, and she didn’t do strengthening exercises to work her ankles and metatarsals like I did. She didn’t sleep in her pointe shoes to mold her arches—they were just built like that. She had a boyfriend, and he maybe even loved her.

  “What?” she said, after she told me about Miles and I still hadn’t said a word. “You don’t think we should’ve waited, do you?”

  “I can’t tell you what to do. You always do what you want. When’s the last time you thought about me first?”

  It was a weird question, one she’d get a chance to answer for me later.

  Now here’s Miles, black eyes blazing and hands in knuckled fists, daring me to go up that hill like he knows something I don’t.

  “You coming?” he says. He doesn’t ask Sarabeth, he doesn’t ask Tommy. The person he’s asking is me.

  So am I? Will I go see where she lived her last days and ate her last poisoned meal and retched her last retch? Do I have the stomach for it? Do I have the strength? Do I have the heart? Which is funny, the kind of funny that’s actually sad, because that was the last thing Ori said to me, in the courtroom. It was what she hissed at me when she was dragged past me by the court officers, with her face dripping snot, and a fury in her eyes I’d never seen before. These were her last words to me:

  “You know what you did, Vee. Do you even have a heart?”

  I do. I swear I do. Just show me the hole in the fence.


  IT LOOMS UP there. The place is so much bigger than I thought.

  By the time we’ve climbed the hill, pushing through undergrowth and fallen razor wire and thorny sections of weeds to find ourselves in sight of the giant, gray stone structure that was shut down three summers ago by the state, we’re panting. Our hearts are racing. Even mine, and I should have the stamina for a hike like this.

  Miles takes charge at a section of fencing that’s been knocked over. If we go through here, then weave back the other way and duck under there, he tells us, we can get in.

  “It looks dangerous,” I distantly hear Sarabeth protest as she points out a sign that says the fence is electric.

  “The power’s off to the whole place,” Miles says. “They shut it down years ago. You’re not going to fry.

  Sarabeth squeaks.

  Miles looks to me. I nod and take a step. I’m not getting stopped by a dead electric fence.

  Tommy turns to me in surprise. “You didn’t tell me she was in maximum security!”

  “She killed two people. What do you expect?” I feel my mouth say. It almost hurts to say it, and hurts more to hear it. The patch of sky above us darkens, like a storm passing over our heads.

  The way Miles glowers at me it’s like, give him a rock from the ground at his feet or one of those cans of spray paint or any other object nearby that could be used as a weapon, and the body count will soon reach three. Four, his eyes correct me, if we’re honest and include Ori.

  I give him my back and head for the next fence.

  The place looks like something from deep in the last century. The guards’ towers are empty now, but they’re menacing all the same, their watching eyes trained on us. The walls of the prison are gray. The trees are far away, kept back with gravel lots and layers of fencing. Just as far away is any sense of escape. The place looks like a fortress.

  They used to lock up kids here, girls, I heard, as young as thirteen. I can’t make sense of it. A flash of Ori comes at me. It’s her ghost now looming in the gravel, one hand on the far fence, the way she was when I last saw her, at fifteen going on sixteen. But no, it’s not the Ori I knew. It’s an Ori I never knew. The Ori I made her into.

  She wears a blazing orange outfit that hurts my eyes. The sinking afternoon sun is brighter than it was before, making her glow like a lit lantern. Her hair is greasy, parted crooked, stuffed sloppily behind her ears. She holds—it doesn’t make sense, but it’s what I see—a shovel. Wooden handle in her grip. The scoop propped in the dirt at her feet like she’s been digging.

  What is she trying to tell me? Her other hand opens, palm out, facing me. It presses against the fence. She might be waving me closer.

  Is this happening? I think it is.

  I take a step forward, and because I have my eyes on her, I don’t see it and fall in.

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