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The Walls Around Us



We went Wild that hot night. We howled, we raged, we screamed. We were girls — some of us fourteen and fifteen; some sixteen, seventeen — but when the locks came undone, the doors of our cells gaping open and no one to shove us back in, we made the noise of savage animals, of men.

We flooded the corridors, crowding together in the clammy, cooped-up dark. We abandoned our assigned colors — green for most of us, yellow for those of us in seg­regation, traffic-cone orange for anyone unlucky enough to be new. We left behind our jumpsuit skins. We showed off our angry, wobbly tattoos.

When outside the thunder crashed, we overtook A-wing and B-wing. When lightning flashed, we mobbed C-wing.

We even took our chances in D-wing, which held Suicide Watch and Solitary.

We were gasoline rushing for a lit match. We were bared teeth. Balled fists. A stampede of slick feet. We went wild, like anyone would. We lost our fool heads.

Just try to understand. After the crimes that had put us inside, after all the hideous things we were accused of and convicted of, the things some of us had done without apol­ogy and the things some of us had sworn we were innocent of doing (sworn on our mothers if we had mothers, sworn on our pets if we ever had a puppy dog or a scrawny cat, sworn on our own measly lives if we had nobody), after all that time behind bars, on this night we were free we were free we were free.

Some of us found that terrifying.

On this night, the first Saturday of that now-infamous August, there were forty-one girls locked up in the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center in the far northern reaches of the state, which meant we were one shy of full capacity. We weren’t yet forty-two.

To our surprise, to our wide-eyed delight, the cells of B-wing and C-wing, of A-wing and even D-wing, had come open, and there we stood, a thunder of thudding hearts in the darkness. We stood outside our cages. We stood outside.

We looked to the guards’ stations: They were unmanned.

We looked to the sliding gates at the end of our corri­dors: They were wide-open.

We looked to the floodlights ringing the high ceiling: The bulbs had gone dim.

We looked (or we tried to look; it was the way our bodies pulled) through the window slits and into the storm pound­ing outside, all across the compound. If only we could see past the triple-fenced perimeter, over and beyond the coils of barbed wire. Past the guards’ tower. Past the steep road that plunged downhill to the tall iron gate at the bottom. We remembered, from when the blue-painted short bus from the county jail had carried us up here. We remembered we weren’t so far from the public road.

That was when it hit us — how little time we were sure to have before the corrections officers returned to their posts. Maybe we should have been sensible about our sudden free­dom, cautious. We weren’t. We didn’t stop to question the open locks. Not then. We didn’t pause to wonder why the emergency lights hadn’t blinked on, why the alarms didn’t blare. We didn’t think, either, about the COs who were sup­posed to be on night duty — where they could have gone, why their booths were empty, their chairs bare.

We scattered. We spread out. We pushed through barri­ers that were always locked to us before. We ran.

The night burst open the way a good riot tends to, when it takes over the yard and no one knows who started what, or cares. The shouts and screams, the whoops and wails. Forty-one of the worst female juvenile offenders in the state set loose without warning or reason or armed guards to take us down. It was beautiful and it was powerful, like lightning in our hands.

Some of us weren’t thinking and only wanted to kick in the glass fronts of the vending machines in the canteen for snacks or pillage pills from the clinic to get a fix. Some of us wanted to pound a face in and jump someone, jump anyone;

it didn’t matter who. A couple of us simply wanted to slip out back under the murky cloud covering and shoot some hoops in the rain.

Then there were those of us, the ones with brains, who took a breath. And considered. Because, with no COs com­ing at us with clubs out, no alarms bleating or intercoms crackling commands to herd us back to our cells, the night really was ours, for the first time in days. Weeks. Months. Years.

And what’s a girl to do with her first free night in years?

The most violent among us — the daddy killers, the slit­ters of strangers’ throats, the point-blank shooters of plead­ing gas-station attendants — would later admit to finding a sense of peace in the plush darkness, a kind of justice not offered by the juvenile courts.

Sure, some of us knew we didn’t deserve this reprieve. Not one of us was truly innocent, not when we were made to stand in the light, our bits and cavities and cavity fill­ings exposed. When we faced this truth inside ourselves, it somehow felt more ugly than the day we witnessed the judge say “guilty” and heard the courtroom cheer.

That was why a few of us hung back. Didn’t leave our cells, where we kept our drawings and our love letters. Where we stowed our one good comb and stashed all our Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which were like gold doubloons up in Aurora Hills, since we didn’t have access to cash. Some of us stayed put in the place we knew.

Because what was out there? Who would keep us safe, on the outside?

Where, really, would a girl from Aurora Hills, who’d disappointed her family and scared off English teachers and social workers and public defenders and anyone who tried to help her, a girl who’d terrorized her neighborhood, who was as good as garbage (she’d been told), who was probably best left forgotten (she’d read this in letters from home), where would a girl like that go?

A lot of us did try to run — even if it was only habit. Some of us had been running all our lives. We ran because we could and because we couldn’t not. We ran for our lives. We still thought they were worth running for.

Most of us didn’t get far. We got distracted. Overexcited. Overcome. A couple of us came to a stop somewhere in one of the hallways outside our designated wing and sank to the cracked and pitted floor in gratitude, as if we’d been acquitted of all our crimes, our records expunged.

This felt like everything we’d dared let ourselves dream up, when the taunting fantasies slipped in between the bars. Wishes for fast getaway cars or Rapunzel ropes to climb out the narrow window openings. Pleas for forgiveness, for ven­geance, for glittery new lives on some far-off riviera where we’d never again have to face hate or law or pain. It was hap­pening. To us. We never did believe it could happen to kids like us.

Some of us cried.

There we were, set loose on the defenseless night, in­stantly wanting everything we could imagine: To thumb a ride at the nearest freeway. To call an old boyfriend and get laid. To have a never-ending breadstick feast at the Olive Garden. To sleep under fluffy covers in a large, soft bed.

That August marked my third summer at Aurora Hills. I’d been locked up here since I was fourteen (manslaugh­ter; I pled innocent; I stuffed myself into a skirt and sheer hose for trial; my mother turned her face away when I was found guilty and hasn’t looked my way since). But it’s not my arrival I find myself thinking about, now that we have so much time to sit here thinking. It’s not the judge’s ruling and the deafening years of my sentence and how I landed here because not one person believed me when I said I didn’t do it. I let go of all that a long time ago.

It’s this one night that I keep coming back to. That first Saturday in August, when the locks couldn’t hold us. That brief gift of freedom we’d take to our graves.

I get hung up on it sometimes, on what if things had gone another way. If I’d made it past the gates and gotten out. If I’d run.

Maybe I would have made it over the three sets of fenc­ing and down the hill to the free patch of road and my part in this story would be over. Maybe all that was about to come tumbling at us after this, someone else would have to bear witness to. Someone else would have to do the remembering.

Because that was the night we went wild. I remem­ber how we fought and we cried and we hid and we flung ourselves through windows and we pumped our legs with everything we had and we went running as far as we could make it, which wasn’t far.

On that night, we felt emotions we hadn’t had a taste of for six months, twelve months, eleven and a half weeks, nine hundred and nine days.

We were alive. I remember it that way. We were still alive, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the darkness, so we couldn’t see how close we were to the end.




I SLIP BEHIND the curtain — it’s almost time, get the spotlight ready, soon I’ll be on.

This’ll be my last dance before I leave town. My last chance to make them remember me, and remember me they will.

When I’m onstage, I’m all for them, and they’re all for me. I feed off what they give me, and they bask in what I give them.

When I’m offstage, these people are nothing to me. I’ve got some level of hate for practically almost everyone I run into on any given day. But in the midst of dancing? When they’re watching me and I’m letting them watch? I’ve got so much love, I’m like a whole different person.

After tonight, the final Saturday performance, I’ll be packing my bags for Juilliard, for the city. I got in. I graduated high school two months ago. I sold my car as of last week. I have my dorm assignment. My roommate’s a modern-contemporary dancer from Oklahoma or some tornado state. I’ve stocked up on Grishkos in the size and style I like, since I have strong feet and high arches and can kill a pair of pointe shoes every ten days. I’ve been tracking the time left like this is a prison sentence and by the end of August the cuffs will come off and I’ll be free.

I shouldn’t say that. I shouldn’t even think it. Not after what happened to her, where they sent her. Aurora Hills is a real and actual prison, with barbed wire and chains and those baggy orange puff suits you see on TV, though they don’t call it a prison. Since it’s for under-eighteens, they say it’s a “detention center” instead.

It was August when she got bussed up there. Early Au­gust, almost exactly three years ago.

I should stay positioned in the wings, since my solo is the second number after intermission, but I pull on some socks over my pointe shoes and cruise away from the stage area. I head for the exit out back, like I’ve got something radioactive to chuck in the Dumpster.

Back behind the Dumpster is what the older girls called the smoking tunnel, for obvious reasons. The thing is, it’s not technically a tunnel. The trees are thick overhead, and the branches hang low, playing ceiling. But it dead-ends against a thicket of trees, so if it’s a tunnel headed some­where, I’ve never seen where.

The tunnel is all entirely green inside, and in August surely infested with deerflies and mosquitoes. You’d think someone would have chopped down these trees since, made a memorial like a park bench with the girls’ names engraved on it or at least a fountain, but I guess people don’t do that with places they’d rather not remember.

I don’t go in, but I don’t leave, either. I throw a back­ward glance at the theater door.

If anyone notices the cinder block propping it open, I’ll say I’m getting fresh air before my solo. Could be that all the most elite soloists, from the New York City Ballet and ABT to the Royal Ballet and Bolshoi and beyond, go out to grab a few breaths behind the Dumpster before dazzling everyone onstage. No one at our studio is near as good as I am anymore, so they wouldn’t know.

It’s not air I need. It’s to take one last look inside.

No one’s in the tunnel. No one’s huddled under the web of tree branches, only leg warmers and crisscrossed pink rib­bons visible from the outside. No vicious little titters. No smoke. No giggle fits. No toe shoe slamming down on a blazing butt, crushing it in the dirt. There’s nothing. There’s nobody.

I can’t even explain why I thought there might be. Why I keep looking for her, everywhere, why any sudden noise or shadow-shift gives me the creeps.

Every August it’s like Orianna Speerling forces her way up through my brain. Every August it feels like Ori’s back — I’m the one who gave her that nickname, Ori — but she’s not here in the smoking tunnel, there’s no trace of her anywhere out here, and why would there be?

Intermission’s over, and I’ve got to get to stage. It’s when I’m circling the Dumpster again that I catch sight of the exit door swinging shut. Someone’s kicked out the cinder block. But whoever’s done it isn’t fast enough for me, because I leap for the door with all I’ve got, crossing space and time like I do in my choreography, and the door’s in my hands before it hits the jamb, and I coast through it, and they thought they could get me to miss my solo, and they were wrong.

Fast before anyone spots me, I’m in place, in the wings. I don’t know who was messing with me, but I do know no one’s looking at me, not directly. All the other dancers, they’re avoiding eye contact, they’re not even wishing me to break a leg. This tells me everyone’s guilty, every last one.

It occurs to me as I hear the hush of the audience mem­bers taking their seats after intermission. It occurs to me. Everyone here wants me to go away, don’t they? They can’t wait to be rid of me.

So let them be rid of me. Let them wish they never met me. I’m up next, after this medley.

The curtain sweeps open. Some predictable music, some off-count blur of movement — nothing worth watching like I’m about to be.

I shift in the wings and peek through the hanging velvet to scan the seats at orchestra level. Miss Willow, my dance instructor, has rented this theater for the studio’s showcase as she does every season, and I forget, each time, how big the place is, how many seats. I spot my mother. My father. My aunt and cousins, who probably got forced to be here tonight, and I don’t even care. My mother’s friends, too, a whole row of them. My dance coaches — the old one my parents fired when I didn’t get into the summer intensive and the new one I’ve had since. I spot my boyfriend, Tommy, yawning and playing some game on his phone. Some of the older girls have even snuck out from backstage to watch me, slipping into aisle seats so they can rush back in when my piece is done. I see Sarabeth, sitting alone. In another row I see Ivana and Renata and Chelsea P. and Chelsea C. I see people from town, like the handsy lady from the flower shop, the nosy guy from the coffee place. I see my math teacher. I see my mailman, though he has to be here because his daughter is a tulip in beginning ballet. But most of these people have come here tonight to see me off. I’d say the great majority of the audience is here for me.

Besides the people I know, I also see strangers, a whole bunch of strangers, out into the back row and up into the mezzanine. I’ve never performed for this many people be­fore. Even in court during Ori’s trial there weren’t this many people. The music stops, and horsey Bianca — she shouldn’t have had a solo, but she’s a graduated senior, too, and off to SUNY Nowhere where they don’t even have a dance program — tramples offstage into the wings. The applause is faint, polite. “Good luck out there, Vee!” she says as she passes, though “luck” is the last thing you should ever wish an oncoming dancer.

Vee is the nickname Ori gave to me.

The lights go down before I can check the nosebleeds, which tells me that’s where she’d be seated if she were here, up as high as the rows go, looking down on me.

But she’s not here. Of course she’s not. The reality is she’s dead, and she’s been dead going on three years.

Ori’s dead because of what happened out behind the theater, in the tunnel made out of trees. She’s dead because she got sent to that place upstate, locked up with those monsters. And she got sent there because of me.

Besides, if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t be watching from the audience. No, she’d be here at my side, in costume like I am, backstage with me.

We’d be together in the wings, about to go on. It’d be a duet instead of two separate solos. If this were our last performance here in town before college, I know she would have wanted it that way.

I’d get anxious, and she’d take my shoulders — she was taller, and her hands were thinner, but with surprising grip — and she’d hold me in place to keep my nerves in check and she’d tell me, Breathe, Vee, breathe.

She wouldn’t be feeling any of this pressure to be per­fect, like I am. She’d be relaxed, loose, even smiling. She would’ve told horsey Bianca she was wonderful, and that it didn’t matter how hard she stomped when she torpedoed through her grand jetés. She would have gone and wished every dancer here to break a leg, even the bitches, and she wouldn’t have meant it with any sort of malice, the way I would’ve.

I know she would have talked me out of this plain cos­tume, the simple white tutu I’ve got on, the white tights, the small white flower pinned in my hair. She would have wanted to go out in color. Bright, bold. As many colors as she could get away with — that was Ori. For class, she used to pair a red leg warmer with a blue one, pulled up high on her thighs over pale pink tights, a purple leotard with a green tank on top, a fuchsia bra, straps showing. The band holding her black hair off her face would be yellow maybe, with polka dots. I thought she looked kind of ridiculous, and I don’t know why Miss Willow let her get away with it. But then Ori would dance, and when she danced, you forgot things like mismatched leg warmers and too many colors clashing. You could only watch what she could do, you had to see.

For Ori, dancing came naturally, without a nervous stomach or worries she’d forget the steps. She danced like it was meant to be, in a way that couldn’t be copied, no mat­ter how carefully I watched her move, mirroring my body after hers and trying to get my limbs to loosen up and act more free.

She had this vivid spark of life in her, wanting out, and you could see it clear when she took the floor. I’d never wit­nessed anyone move like that — I guess I won’t ever again.

If Ori and I were dancing a duet tonight, she for sure would have been better than me. The audience would have basked in her, loved her, followed her light across the stage. My light would have been background.

That’s the truth, or it could have been. It’s no longer the truth anymore.

I let the curtain drop.

I’m on, I hear my cue. I take my first steps out onto the stage, and next I hear her voice, what she would have said to me, had she been here.

Breathe, Vee. Go be amazing. Go show them. Let them all see.

She used to say things like that all the time.

I’m at my mark. The darkness lifts, and my body lifts with it, and I’m tall now, as tall as Ori because she had only a couple inches on me, taller even, because maybe since she’s been gone I grew. I’m balanced on pointe, on one leg, with­out a tremor, without sway. The spot of light circles me, and I’m growing warm inside it.

I wonder how I look, from out there in the audience, to those strangers in the seats who know me this way only, who have no idea.

I don’t need a mirror to tell me. I look like I belong up here. I’ve got new Grishkos on, broken in this morning by massaging the shank and slamming the hard cast of the box into a door. My mother sewed on the ribbons with the tini­est stitches — no one could ever hope to see them. My hair is pinned slick with shine to my head, and the tutu is a rigid ring around my middle, not as flimsy as it might seem. I’m entirely in white. I wanted it that color. I asked for it.

The audience holds its breath for me. Ori’s not the one up here, I am. The audience eyes my bent and poised leg, my arms molded in a graceful line over my head, my lifted and lengthened spine. All my weight is on a single toe. I hold. At least a dozen people watching from the wings want me to fall, and I’m not falling.

Now comes the building crescendo of music, every little increment of movement from my body studied in mirrored reflection, coached and corrected into place. It may not be as free-form as Ori would have done it, but it’s impressive because I’m so precise. I make no mistakes, not a single one. People in the audience can’t hear the clomp of the brand-new shoes as I touch my weight to ground between each whip-fast pirouette. Or if they do hear, if they’re seated close enough to the stage to hear, they ignore it. They want it our secret. They want me to win.

The Walls Around Us
by by Nova Ren Suma