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The walls around us, p.9

The Walls Around Us, page 9


The Walls Around Us

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  There’s a small ditch in the ground, and I’ve stumbled into it and rolled my ankle.

  Miles laughs, and Tommy laughs with him at first, then sees my face and shuts up. He gives me his arm, to help me out, but I don’t need him or anyone. I stretch out my ankle, massaging the tendon, and put some weight on my foot to make sure it’s fine. It is. I’m fine.

  When I look back at the far fence, of course that flash of her is gone. I don’t ask if they saw it, too. They didn’t. They couldn’t. Not even Miles could.

  “Let’s go in,” he says. He wants to prove something to me, like standing inside those walls will change me more than it can out here.

  I don’t need him to egg me on. I’m getting this tug, this desire to get closer. I’m finding all these questions, and they’re wanting answers. What would it be like to walk through those heavy doors at the front and hear them slam shut behind you? What would it be like under that roof, inside those walls? Was it freezing cold? Did you get issued a sweater? Or were you sweaty all the time? How did you sleep, did you get a pillow, were the beds long enough to stretch out your legs, and did the guards shout at you to get up in the morning, or did you have an alarm clock, could you sleep in ever, like on Saturdays, or was every day the same when you were jailed?

  I hadn’t let myself think this far before. Now I was wondering a whole ton of things. Underbelly things. Ignorant things. Like, were there strip searches and did you have to get naked and were there shower rapes, and if so, what did a girl use to rape another girl? Were there riots and big, burly guards beating prisoners with sticks? Or did they have stun guns, and what did that feel like, getting stunned? I bet there were whole new laws of civilization inside that you had to follow. If you were white, did you have to join a white gang, and if you were black, did you have to join a black gang? And what gang was there to join if you were neither, or if you were half one thing and half another, like Ori was? It’s not like I could ever have asked any of those questions out loud, then or now.

  Other things come at me, too. Because what would you do if you were almost about to turn sixteen, and fresh off the trial, the trial during which you refused to speak one word on the stand, not even coming to your own defense as a witness—that never made any sense to me, but I guess Ori had her reasons—and you walked in this door we just walked through and you stared down that hall we’re staring down now and then you realize? You realize. This is home now.

  It’s dark, and smells rank, and there’s water dripping from somewhere, this endless constant leak, and there’s glass on the ground, and this uneven, shifting cold making it so that one second you’re wet with humidity and the next you’re shivering. Everything is broken. Busted doors, shattered windows. The walls are painted over with graffiti splotches, and it looks like it’s been this way for a few years. But I know the hallway we’re standing in looked like something else entirely, when she was here.

  Sarabeth and Miles and Tommy, they’re around somewhere, but I don’t care. I’m trying to relive it, trying to walk her walk, wear her shoes or whatever, but there’s nothing I can do to put myself in her place. Not anymore.

  If I’d been on trial, I wouldn’t have ended up here. My parents wouldn’t have let it happen. But no one fought for Orianna Catherine Speerling.

  I’m thinking about that now. I’m thinking a lot about it. She had a patch of wildflowers and weeds somewhere in the back of her house, and she liked to dig in it. She often had dirty knees when my mother picked her up for ballet. A few times Ori brought my parents fresh-picked bouquets to put out in the foyer, but they were scraggly and too brightly colored for my mother, so she’d let the flowers die in a dry vase and then ditch them after a day. A nice gesture, my mom would say in the voice that said she didn’t think it was so nice at all, seeing as we were feeding Ori breakfast and dinner four, five times a week, which meant we were basically raising her.

  Ori didn’t know my mom said any of that. She only knew the flowers were gone, and so she’d bring along more next time she came over. I didn’t care what my mother said when Ori wasn’t around. “You can stay over anytime,” I told her, and I meant it more for me than for her. My suite of rooms upstairs was less lonely when she slept over.

  So she had me then. But without me, once I turned my back on her, because my attorney said I had to, she had practically nobody.

  Miles is up ahead. He seems to know his way around. “This way,” he says. “Over here.”

  Tommy is reading aloud snippets from the patches of graffiti we pass on the walls, spotlighting them with the flashlight, since it’s almost pitch-dark inside. “Ray Ray Six Oh Nine,” Tommy reads off the walls. “Holla K, love you, bitches.”

  I follow Tommy, and close behind us is Sarabeth, chirping at our heels.

  “Bridget Love, Bridget Love,” Tommy reads. “Monster. Monster. Monster.”

  It’s all nonsense that has nothing to do with Ori.

  “You think there are vagrants here?” Sarabeth says in a mouse voice at my ear. “Think they’ll come out and protect their home with baseball bats? Like, they’ve lived in the dark so long, the skin’s grown over their eyes?”

  I’m not sure what movie she’s been watching, so I ignore her. She doesn’t hear it. None of them hear it. I mean, how could they with Tommy? Now he’s jumping on things and kicking open doors and grandstanding in the guards’ booths, pretending he’s the sadist in charge of a prison full of naughty girls.

  What I hear is a rumbling hum. A faraway rumble.

  Miles has led us to a wing of cells, a lower deck and an upper deck of steel doors, all ringing some tables in the center of the room. The tables are bolted to the floor. As are the benches. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been bolted down and made permanent.

  It feels important that I say something, but only the most random thing pops into my head, like how cold it is, now that we’ve entered this area of the prison, though I seem to be the only one with the shivers, rubbing my exposed arms in my tank top, goose bumps rising.

  Up at the top of the room, if this gray void of space could be called a room, far over our heads and impossible to reach without a ladder, are the windows. Really, they’re gashes in the concrete. These gashes filter in some of the remaining light from outside, but very little, not enough to brighten the place.

  “So she was in here, this wing,” Miles says. He points to a specific green door. “That one. B-three. In her last letter she told me.”

  He wants me to react to the words last letter, but I don’t. I won’t. He wants me to ask what she told him in those letters, and I’m not going to give him that pleasure.

  The door to B-3 is wide-open. On the cinder-block wall beside the door there’s an old, torn piece of paper mounted in a plastic sleeve. It hangs upside down, about to come loose. I lift it up to see what it says, but all I can make out is one word and a couple numbers: 38 SMITH, which doesn’t in any way point to Ori.

  “That’s not her name,” I say, stepping away. “This isn’t her room.”

  “Hello, she had a cellmate,” he says. “Name could’ve been Smith something . . . I think it was Ashley? Amy? Anne? Something with an A.”

  Sarabeth studies the name, touches the two numbers with a finger. “Thirty-eight,” she says, musing like it means something. “What do you think her roommate did? Was she a murderer, too, you think?”

  Miles glares.

  “Probably,” I say. “Most of the girls here were.” I’ve done more reading about the accident, if it could be called that, than anyone knows.

  I push past Sarabeth and Miles and enter. Tommy is off behind us, climbing a table.

  The room is ridiculously small. My walk-in closet could fit two of these rooms with a little foyer area for stowing all my shoes. The window in the wall is tiny, and a carpet of vines is in the way, so the room is darker than it should be, even at the end of the day. I’d already grabbed the flashlight from Tommy—the way he was acting, he didn’t deserve it—so I l
et the beam of the flashlight explore every crevice while I stand in the doorway, only my toes edging in. I point my toes reflexively inside my covered sandals. There is a kind of power in an aggressively pointed foot, especially when nobody can see it.

  Behind me is a hush as we all let the flashlight do the work of showing us what had been hers in that last week, those last days, three Augusts ago. Even Tommy climbs off the table to join us at the edge, peering in.

  There’s a bunk bed, like you’d find at summer camp, but this one is the width of a tanning bed and looks as hard as actual stone. The bunk bed is bolted to the cinder-block wall, the way the benches and tables outside are. Most everything in here is a part of the walls, locked together and unable to be moved. I do see one loose chair, though, toppled over, and I find myself reaching over to right it. Ori sat on this chair. Maybe, if this really was her room. I carefully push the chair under the bolted-down desk. Ori wrote letters to Miles at that desk. Maybe, if that was her desk. Either way, she didn’t sit at this desk and write a letter to me.

  There is a horrid toilet, one that doesn’t even have a seat, one she’d have to use in front of her roommate, and in front of the guards and everyone else who could watch her through the door, and the smells, and the shame, and the inhumanity of it. I back away from the toilet, but there isn’t far to go. No one could dance in a room like this. If I extended a leg, it would hit hard wall.

  The microscopic window is open, but there are bars in front, so it’s not like anyone could’ve squeezed through. Brown leaves and fresh green leaves and dank water and a random scattering of twigs cover the top bunk bed. The bushy vines grow in through the bars, ragged green and reaching. A pink flower pulses off the end of one of the vines, bright like poison. It’s not a rose like the ones that were thrown at my feet. I don’t know what it is. I touch it and a buried thorn nips me.

  Miles hovers behind me, too near in this small space. There isn’t enough air for the both of us. There never was. But he’s not leaving, and I’m not leaving, and one of us will have to say something, one of us will have to say get out of the way, let me out.

  I don’t see Tommy anymore, so I figure he’s gone off somewhere, entertaining himself with more things to climb on or crash into or break. I don’t see Sarabeth, so she must have followed, and I make a mental note to check up on her spending voluntary alone time with my boyfriend, even though I have full plans to dump him before I leave for New York next week.

  “Can’t picture her in here, can you?” Miles says.

  I hear the faint rumble in the distance again. Now it’s far-off shouting and what sounds like chanting, like there’s a football game going on outside. Very low. Very hard to make out. But Miles has asked me a question, and by the way he stares, watching my mouth, waiting for it to open and reveal my answer, I know he won’t let us go anywhere until I’ve told him.

  “No, I can’t,” I say. I can’t picture any person I’ve ever known in here. And it’s not that I don’t have an imagination. It’s that I never thought I would know people who would do the kind of things that would get them locked up in a detention center like this one. It looks like a real prison, for real criminals. Then I remember and curl my toes.

  “Yeah,” he says. I’ve given the right answer.

  Sometimes I wonder about him, about how trusting he is when it comes to Ori. I wonder if he really thinks she was innocent. I wonder if he would fight to prove her innocence. I wonder, if he saw a blade aimed at him, a bloody blade grasped in a bloody hand, what he’d do. Like if he’d try to take it or shout for me to stop. Like if he’d run.

  “But I’m trying to picture it,” he goes, and where he’s pacing is blocking my way out. His legs are so long, he only needs to make one step back and forth in front of the doorway, one step, again and again, one step. “I need to, I think. That’s why I’ve come up here. Three times now—this is the third. I thought being up here would make it make more sense.”

  “Does it?” I say quietly.

  Miles and I were always kind of alike in some ways—how serious we’d get, how we’d shrink into ourselves and only Ori could make us come out. She used to say so. If Miles had gotten himself in trouble, I wonder what she would have done to protect him. How far she would have gone, I mean. Far enough to not come back? As far as she went for me?

  “No,” he spits out. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

  If I have to, I can see what Ori liked in this boy. It’s hard not to. There’s the liquid way he moves, which any dancer would notice, and the intense focus in his eyes when you’re the one he’s looking at. It’s like being cradled in the white-hot center of your very own spotlight.

  I’m drawn to it, the way I always am to that sort of light, which is kind of wicked of me, but if he put his hand on my shoulder and it slipped, or if he turned and his mouth got close to where my mouth was, I mean I wouldn’t be the one to stop it.

  “I was hoping,” I say. “I thought being here would make it easier to, you know . . .” I don’t know a thing. I don’t even know what I’m saying. “To have all this make sense.”

  “No.” He turns, and I can no longer see his face. “The only person who can make it make sense is you.”

  I feel a Sarabeth-like heat in my cheeks and have to glance away.

  “You,” he repeats.

  There’s something taped to the wall, and barely hanging on, crooked and tipped over on one side, blocked in part by the bed frame, and I distract myself with it. A piece of paper that’s held fast to this wall for three years. I reach out to see what it is.

  “Violet.” I hate the way he says my name just now. He makes it sound like violent.

  I’ve retrieved the piece of paper and make myself busy smoothing it out. I couldn’t picture Ori in here, not on that bed, top or bottom, not in this corner or that corner, not standing in the tiny patch of space taken up by Miles, not in the chair, not on the toilet, not the wall, pressed up against it, not sunk down on the concrete floor. But all of a sudden I can picture her with this piece of paper I’ve rescued, this drawing, and I feel sure she had her hands on it.

  It’s a head. A head without even a pair of its own shoulders.

  Something about the face strikes me. The mouth is tight. The eyes are mean. The ears stick out. It’s simple, it’s honest, it’s startling. I shut off the flashlight so I can’t see it.

  Miles says what I’m thinking. “Sure looks a lot like you.”

  It’s when he says it that I know it’s true. It’s a picture of me. She’s been in this cell and she’s drawn a picture of me and she’s left it here for me to find it. My hands can’t grip anymore and I drop it. And it’s when I’m bent down to the floor with my back turned. That’s when.

  The door to the room slams shut.

  Miles is on the other side of it—outside. I’m the only one still in the room.

  There can’t be more than a few steps between me and the door, but in the sudden darkness that falls like a sack’s been shoved down over my head, all sense of direction is meaningless. I push forward and knock my shin into what might be the toilet. A splash of something lukewarm, something slimy and wet. I retreat and hit wall. I step to the side and a wedge of what feels like steel cuts into my neck. That might be the bed. I whip backward, holding my throat. A whisper that seems to come from inside the walls swirls around me, like it’s slipping in from the rooms next door, the rooms around and above, through the cinder block somehow, creeping in.

  Is she gonna cry? Wait for it, wait for it. Ten on the bitch to flip her shit.

  Who? Do they mean me?

  “Stop it,” I shriek. “Stop.”

  I’m cramped, I’m cut in on all sides, I’m caught. In the smoking tunnel, we both were. Then she told me to go. She told me to get out of there, she’d take care of it, she’d be the one. She told me to run, and I did run, and a part of me has been running ever since.

  If I told that story in the courtroom, would it have made a difference? Would
I have landed here, with her? Would we both have eaten the poison and be remembered by a rotting teddy bear at the gate?

  I pull myself back and the whispers grind to a halt, the walls take a breath and settle, and there’s silence again. Complete silence and the lingering scent of dust. I sneeze.

  Somehow, with my arms stretched out in front of me, I reach the door. I think it’s the door. I look up, and it’s not as dark as it was a moment ago, and there’s a pane of glass cut into the door, and I can see out. Which means someone can see in. I can’t get the flashlight to stay on.

  Miles’s face is framed in the hole. The sound of his laughter is muffled, but I can tell by the shapes his mouth makes that he’s cracking up.

  I try to pull the door open, but it won’t give. “Very funny. Let me out, Miles. Open the door.”

  “How’s it feel?” he says through the face-hole. “Getting used to it?”

  “The door, Miles.” I say it up against the glass, my mouth mashed against it.

  “How many years you think you could handle?” he says. “In a cell like this?”

  “Miles. Just open the door.”

  He closes his eyes first, like a slow blink, as if he’s considering, and then he closes the hole. He does something, I don’t know what, to cover it so I can’t see out through the door. It could be that he’s holding his hand over the opening, or it could be that he’s slid shut the steel trap.

  It’s dark again. I’m pulling and pulling on the door, and I’m using all my weight, and there isn’t anything I can do to get it to come open.

  I can’t hear him on the other side. This room is that insulated, the door that thick. He’s shut me in and left me. He’s left me in her small, dark room.

  The cold grows more intense, prickling at me the way a swarm of mosquitoes and deerflies would, except there’s no summer heat. I’m afraid I’m going to hear those taunting whispers again. Hear them call me a bitch. I’m shaking now, and my breath makes crystal fumes around me, and the chill leaches into my bones, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to die alone.

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