My lip was split down the middle, warm blood trickling down my face and onto my chin. It was completely gross, but afterwards, when I got the chance to, I didn't dab at it like a middle-aged lady with wet wipes. I wore it proudly, like a battle scar. I hoped that maybe all these hardened criminals at Belnesse would think I was Someone Not To Be Messed With, rather than Someone We Can Pick On.
"Why the- what the hell? Why the hell did you punch me?" I moaned, clutching at the side of my face with my hand, too frightened to think of something resourceful like screaming.
Sorianne didn't answer immediately, just looked at me, her head tilted slightly to one side. Her face broke into a cruel kind of half-grin, her foot tapping and caressing the linoleum floor as she waited for me to pull myself together. "Follow me," she said, bored of waiting. She sped up down the corridor, calling over her shoulder, "You can meet everyone else in the common room. It's like a bloody Enid Blyton book, this place."
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and followed her. I would ask again why she punched me, but I decided it would definitely be in my best interests to keep my mouth shut until I got used to Belnesse. Maybe that was how everyone greeted everyone else, in a camp for the criminally leaning.
I never asked why she punched me again. In the end she told me herself, months later. At the time, I’d suspected it was some sort of messed up way of showing me that she was in charge, but in reality it was so much more than that. I'd have had to ask her to be sure though, and she'd probably have punched me again if I did that. And even if I had asked her, I could never be absolutely, 100% certain because there's always the chance that she'd lie. Sorianne lies a lot. More than I do, at least. God, I sound like a psychologist.
When we got to the common room, I took the liberty of noticing the girl sprawled out across the floor rather than the shabby furniture or graffiti walls. There had obviously been an attempt at some point to cover up the graffiti, but it hadn’t been very effective.
The girl on the floor was moaning slightly, her eyes closed, rocking herself backwards and forwards and flailing her arms. She looked a little bit like a dying fish, but a lot more like the exact sort of crazy person I’d always expected to find in a place like Belnesse. She didn’t pause or anything when I entered the room which I thought was kind of rude. Even if I was a complete nut-job, I’m sure I’d always acknowledge someone coming into the room. I’d at least admonish them for staring at me. It’s only manners.
Sorianne noticed me watching, and raised her eyebrow. “That’s Cecily,” she said. “Normally this is the time she strips naked and goes outside to connect with nature. But she’s had a ban from going outside because she's a danger to herself. And others. So she can’t.”
Her voice was so flat, so completely monotone, that I had no idea whether she was joking or not.
“Oh,” I replied nervously, hoping she wouldn’t punch me again. “So…” I tailed off, fixing my eyes to the floor with too much superglue. Willing myself to calm down, I forced my head upwards and scanned the room quickly. Girls sat talking on sofas lining the walls, blending in with the wooden furniture.
Wooden girls with wooden souls and wooden lives committing wooden crimes.
I wondered if they were going to do something obligingly stereotypical like play cards. That’s all they seem to do in prison or casinos or any sort of unsavoury place there is, at least in movies. I looked up at Sorianne hesitantly. She stood about a head taller than me and was waiting for me to say something, her arms folded in this adult-looking sort of impatience.
“Erm…Are we going to play cards?” I asked at last, struggling to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound too stupid. Someone in the corner of the room giggled, but I wasn’t sure if it was at me or at something someone else had said. Sorianne coughed in disbelief.
“No. No, whatever-you-said-your-name-is, we’re –“
“Haydrienne. My name’s Haydrienne,” I butted in, before shutting up quickly. Sorianne glared at me like I was whatever insect is smaller than an ant.
“No, Haydrienne,” she said, her voice slightly louder. “No, we’re not going to play cards, we’re going to skip around like fairies and bake muffins to give to our parents.” There was a high pitched snigger from a girl sitting nearby – this time, clearly directed at me - and Cecily had stopped rocking on the floor and started listening to Sorianne instead. Personally, I thought that rocking on the floor sounded a lot more fun, but it’s not like anyone would have cared about my opinion then, anyway.
I bit my lip. Hard.
“Are we going to play cards?” asked the girl who had sniggered, her voice a mocking taunt at my own, her ginger hair like rope and sawdust.
Sorianne laughed. “God. What do you think we’re going to do?” Something told me that the answer wasn’t merely ‘play cards’. I stayed silent, but no one seemed to mind all that much, fiddling with their hair and looking as imposing as a group of hardened criminal teenagers can. Which is pretty imposing. A couple more girls had wandered over, taking a vague sort of interest in me being humiliated. When I hadn’t spoken for a while, the sniggering girl meandered over to a shelf that looked like it had seen better days. She sifted through various objects, picking up first a flimsy, partly torn rag, and then putting it down in favour of picking at her nails with the graphite end of a pencil.
She smiled at me. I wanted to scream.
Sorianne clapped me on the shoulder, like old men do to young boys in movies. “Hurry up,” she said, like she hadn’t just been standing around talking. “I need to show you the mess hell still, or Cassels will kill me.” She bared her teeth in a distorted kind of smile. She really, really didn’t look like the sort of person Ms. Cassels would be able to kill without being killed first, but I didn’t argue. I already knew better than that.
“Right. The mess hall. Where we eat?” I asked, following her out of the room.
“Where else?” said Sorianne. She paused before she shut the door, exchanging a dark look with the girl who had been sniggering like they were exchanging words in a silent code or something. Then she raised her hand, signing something in the air between them. The other girl nodded.
When the door slammed shut, like the barrier that had already sprung between my life before Belnesse and my time in the prison, I whirled to face Sorianne. “Was that a code?” I said, referencing the gestures she’d made to the other girl.
“You guys have a code?” I cried, incredulous, forgetting myself. “I thought codes were for boy scouts.”
She snorted. “Watch it.” But she didn’t seem that bothered. Then she sighed. “What else is there to do, really? I might as well invent a code. It passes the time, you know?”
I didn’t know, but I didn’t say anything about not knowing. I was quiet. Then – “Who is she?”
“The girl. The one you have the code with. The ginger one.”
“Her name’s Joan.”
The way Sorianne said Joan’s name, the way her tone bowed and her voice broke under the weight of the word, made me realise for the first time that Sorianne, despite what I’d originally thought, was not the pack leader of the girls at Belnesse. Joan was – though I had no idea how or why, because Joan was much scrawnier than Sorianne. I know why now, of course, but at the time I’d jumped to the first conclusion that brawn is what determines the hierarchy in places like kiddy prison. I didn’t bank on its counter-weight, brain, coming into the equation.
brawn + brain = master criminal megamind
I tugged at my plaits. “How long have you been at Belnesse, then?” When Sorianne didn’t answer, I figured she hadn’t heard. Personally, I mishear people all the time. I’m sure I’ve got something wrong with my ears, but when I used to complain about it my parents dismissed it as nothing. It probably is nothing, to be honest, but it’s nice to disagree with my parents about things. Makes me feel like a proper teenager. “Sorianne? How long’ve you been at this place?”
This time she definitely heard me. Her footsteps puttered to a stop, and she turned to look me in the eye, scowling like she’d been cursed to be permanently miserable as a baby. “Look,” she said. “Look, stop asking me questions. They’re stupid, anyway.”
She started walking again, showing me the mess hall offhandedly, and then later the dormitories and the school room. I had my own room for the first week. To help me get settled in.
I didn’t ask any more questions.