A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
BY AOIFE O’CONNELL
The cell smells of piss and dirt, and it reminds Dee of her old apartment. When she had moved into the abandoned building, the squatters were ubiquitous and stubborn and she’d had to pay them to go. Sometimes at night when she wasn’t out, she’d think about where they were. But she didn’t know how to find them, and she didn’t care that much, so eventually she’d forgotten they were ever there, even though it was their place first.
“You’re lucky,” the guard says, reviewing the cell with obvious distaste. “Wilkes left last week. You got the whole place to yourself.”
Dee smiles and nods curtly. Her dyed, damaged hair dips and brushes her shoulders. “Well,” the guard mutters. “Good luck.”
After he leaves and locks the door, she examines the cell. A bunk bed sags in the corner, the mattress is gray and littered with stains and holes. There is a flimsy set of drawers next to the bed. As if I have anything to put in them, she thinks, annoyed. It seemed to only stand as a reminder of all that she no longer had.
That night, as she lies on the bed, accustomed to the scratchiness of a worn, thin blanket, Dee wonders. The cons that came here, captured by the law, were in two groups: those who had succeeded in their skill― the ones who had spent years pilfering or murdering― and those who had not. Dee refuses to believe she is in the latter group.
She had succeeded, hadn’t she? She had money (not a lot, admittedly), and a house (an apartment, actually), and food (but not every night). She knew what she was doing: under the blanket of darkness, and occasionally the light of desperate stars, she would scamper from her apartment. She wouldn’t walk towards the bars and clubs, where smoke, murmurs, and music drifted from the windows. Instead, she would creep towards the streets where houses were larger and spaces between them were filled with giant bushes and creeping vines. There, amidst these sturdy brick houses and behind gates masked with rust, the Augustine Cemetery waited for her.
When Dee does it, when she opens a coffin and roots around, it doesn’t feel wrong at all. Yes, there is a body lying there, preserved in an ornate box surrounded by dirt, and yes, it seems so disrespectful and cruel. Maybe it was the thought of revenge. The thought that one of these old rich women could be Dee’s mother. Maybe that was why it was okay.
The next morning, she wakes to light from a tiny window in the corner shining a perfect golden square on the floor beside her. It looks like a stage, as though a performer is about to walk out and stand in that square and sing.
A few minutes later (or was it an hour? Dee isn’t sure) a guard approaches her cell, pushing a rickety metal cart. Slowly and deliberately, he spoons pale oatmeal into a chipped plastic cup. Without saying a word, he pushes it through the bars in the door and continues down the aisle, a multitude of grays.
She rolls out of bed and looks in the mirror. tril tomrouw, someone had etched in the glass as if it were a diary. you ain’t never leaving, someone else had written. you stuck in this hellhole 4evr. Dee ignores the words and looks at herself. Her bleached blonde hair is tangled and dirty, her once bright brown eyes are now dull. Her crooked nose she had once tried to hide seems to glare at her through freckles.
A silver ring is jammed on her pinkie. The guards couldn’t get it off when she arrived, so they left it, stuck, on her finger. It is thin and plain, but she would rather die than part with it. The metal once aggravated her skin and turned it the color of algae. Dee remembers when she found the ring, perched on the window sill above the sink. She never recalled her mother wearing it, but it couldn’t have belonged to anyone else. Dee had picked it up, clutching the shining silver as if it was a baby.
“Mommy,” she had called into the giant house. Her voice echoed in the empty rooms. “Mommy, I found your ring. I’ll bring it to you.” Dee had run off, her cheeks flushed and eyes bright with the expectation of a hug and an “Oh, Dorothy, thank you, sweetie! I was looking everywhere for this.” Dee hadn’t found her mother. But she had found her father, drunk and screaming, on the porch.
Next to him, a butterfly danced in the wind, its golden wings glinting in the light. Dee had remembered a story her mother had once told her, about a caterpillar that turned into a butterfly. He was small and lonely and all the other bugs teased him, but when he became a silver butterfly they all begged for forgiveness. When she had told it, Dee had smiled and clutched her mother’s hand.
A memory within a memory, Dee thinks.
“Daddy,” she’d asked. “Daddy, where’s Mom? I found her ring.” Dee cupped her hands and showed it to him. He’d looked at her and grinned wildly, his eyes bloodshot, his beard overgrown like a thousand brown weeds. He glanced at the ring and then looked away. “She’s got no need for that anymore.”
Dee never saw her again.
Now, the ring is tarnished and tight. Once, Dee had tried to take it off, forgetting a time when she had put it on, but it was stuck. The ring is part of her. She doesn’t notice it anymore. Maybe she’ll glance down one day, and see the ring, and remember that day, the day that she had found it, the day that her mother left and her father gave up.
Dee discovers there is not much to do in jail. She toys with her hair, braiding it and then unbraiding it, and then fiddles with her nails. She thinks about getting a new tattoo. A rose, she decides, on her shoulder. Already, she has a star behind her left ear. Soon the guard comes around again. He is brawny, and has reddish hair that falls into his eyes.
“Come on,” he says, unlocking the door. “Go outside. Lunch is in twenty minutes.” He escorts her down the hallway, leads her past rows of women in dark blue jumpsuits. They stare at the guard with so much hatred it frightens Dee. Their loathing combined with their alarming appearances― tufts of blond hair, black eyes, gold teeth ―make Dee walk faster. Is that what she looks like? she wonders. Does she look that wild?
Outside, the sun is blinding. There is a large rectangle of dust surrounded by a concrete wall, dotted with benches and tattoo-covered women in navy jumpsuits. The guard walks off and joins the group of others standing near the wall.
Alone, Dee heads to a bench where two women who look about her age sit and talk. One has long black hair that flows down her back like a waterfall, and the other has a plethora of holes down her ear where earrings used to be. She sits down next to them, introduces herself. The girl with black hair is Minnie, and the girl with the piercings is Astrid.
“So, Dee,” Astrid says, twirling a lock of wavy blond hair in her spindly fingers, “What’s your story?” Dee looks at her, confused.
“Why you’re here, dummie,” Minnie adds. “What’d you do.”
“Ah,” Dee says. “I’m a graverobber. I rob… graves. For a few years now, actually―” she catches herself. You can trust no one. Her personal motto since the day her mother left. Trust no one with your heart, with your secrets. Especially not in jail.
“Huh. Kinda twisted.” Astrid remarks.
Dee stares at her ring. “Yeah, sometimes,” she pauses. “What about you two? How’d you wind up here?”
Astrid grins, glances at Minnie. “Some way or another…”
“Tell us more about you,” Minnie drawls, interrupting her friend. Her voice is thick with a Boston accent. “Where’d you come up from? I’m sure there’s more to you than just shakin’ down dead people.” The way Minnie says it seems to demean Dee, as if graverobbing was inferior to her specialty. Annoyed, she shrugs. “C’mon, Dee,” Minnie presses, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear like a little girl. “When’d your life turn?” Before she can answer, the guards send the women into their cells, leaving Dee to grapple over the question.
Every day, this continues. Dee spends most of her time thinking, and when she isn’t, she talks with Astrid and Minnie, who seem to want to hear everything about her but reveal nothing about their own pasts. A month passes, and then two. Dee doesn’t know if she’ll have a trial, or when. She no longer cares.
She falls into a rhythm, a steady heartbeat. At night, she mulls over the question Minnie asked her the first day they met: when’d your life turn?
Was it the day her mother left an angry husband and an eager to please daughter with nothing but debt and a house full of ghosts? Or was it when her father died, leaving her on the streets? Every night, Dee remembers, her memories the souvenirs of a life so long ago.
She recalls when she robbed her first grave. She was so inexperienced, so green. The whole process of getting into the cemetery was easy; the night watchman slumped, asleep, on a bench, leaving the gates wide open and inviting. She had clawed at the dirt like a dog, the dark, damp dirt full of squirming pink worms. She had brought a small spade, the kind kids use at the beach, and it took her half the night to reach the coffin. Large and sturdy, the wooden box was ornate: pale blue irises draped over viridescent vines dotted with pink roses. A robin, bright and red, perched on a vine. Why so beautiful? Dee had wondered. Why so pretty when no one sees?
Inside, the woman’s face was young, and pale. Her smooth skin stretched over her round face. Dee tries not to remember the faces, but she remembers this one. Golden hair curled around her like a halo, and Dee felt the first twinge of regret.
Around the woman’s neck lay a gorgeous silver necklace lined with violet colored jewels and shining pearls. Crouching in the huge hole she had dug herself, Dee slid her hands behind the woman’s neck, unhooked the necklace, and slid it into her pocket.
“Thanks,” she whispered, but no one heard her. Dee looked up. Ropes of mist-colored clouds shrouded the ebony sky; a few stars twinkled in the darkness; the moon was full and yellow and glowing. She stepped out of the pit and carelessly threw dirt over the coffin. Tendrils of fog enveloped her in the lonely night as she walked home.
The day she is proclaimed not guilty, Dee cries. Astrid and Minnie left months ago, slinking away together for their trial. She still does not know what they did. When she is released, it has been nearly two years. She is twenty two. Her whole life stretches out before her.
She becomes an accountant and she hates it. She was always good with numbers, but detests the dry monotony of a company’s expenses. Every morning, she wakes to the steady vibration of her alarm clock. There are no more late nights digging in the graveyard, no nervous excitement when she slides jewelry in her pocket. This was what her life was supposed to be, wasn’t it? A boring job, a small house, two kids? Dee wants her old life back, when she was a thief. She craves the delicious thrill of pearls in her palm, dirt beneath her nails, a spade in her hand.
She marries a man with a large smile, an inability to sit still, and a large inheritance. His name is David and she hates him. He loves her, and when he proposed, she said yes. Sometimes she wonders why. Their two children grow old quickly, and so, it seems, does she.
One day, she is sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of steaming black coffee. She is 50; time has slipped out of her hands like a rope. Her youngest child, a fifteen year old girl with long hair and long legs, walks into the room with the newspaper. She drops it in front of her mother, a morning ritual they’ve had forever.
“Thanks, honey,” Dee mumbles, peering at the front page.
She gasps. There, on the front page, are two women: one with a plethora of piercings, the other with black hair flowing down her back like a waterfall. Partners in Crime: Two Women Rob Bank, Take $60 Million in Cash and Escape, the headline reads.
“Do you know them?” Mathilda asks, sliding a piece of bread into the toaster. Dee shakes her head, stunned. “Then why are you so surprised?” She ignores the question and reads the article. It was them.
“…The two women have been identified as Astrid McCulfroy and Minerva Wilson, who previously were in jail almost 30 years ago for the attempted homicide of billionaire Henry Miller…” Dee shakes her head again.
“Mom?” Mathilda taps her mother on the shoulder. “Mom, what happened? Do you know them?”
“No, sweetie. I don’t know them.” Dee can only whisper. She looks up, at her stupid daughter, at her depressing kitchen. She thinks of David, showering in their bathroom. Of her job. Of her whole dismal life.
She remembers, once, standing in an alleyway after her father had died. Only sixteen years old, she was lost. Nowhere to go. He’d left her with nothing. She had stared at the ugly backsides of buildings, at the colorful tags of graffiti artists. There is one phrase she remembers; one phrase that she had forgotten until now. If you want to fly, the streaks of blue read, give up everything that weighs you down. A butterfly, intricate and golden, fluttered above the words.
Then Dee remembers, even before her father died, her mother telling her a story about a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
That night, she leaves. She brings nothing but a wad of cash she takes from her husband’s wallet. As she walks down the sidewalk, moonlight glints off her ring, and from far away, it appears she is holding a star.
Aoife O’Connell is an eighth grade student in Los Angeles, California. When she isn’t hanging out with friends, you can find her reading or writing in her room.