It isn’t running away they’re afraid of.
We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes,
the ones you can open in yourself,
given a cutting edge.
— Margaret Atwood,
The Handmaid’s Tale
WE WENT WILD
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.