Edition 12: Inside Ferndale by Lee Murray
Lee Murray was the winner of the 2013 Story Quest competition. Judges were impressed with her story of young women shunted into the system, and how reform fails the best of them. While not supernatural, she invokes true horror in the girls’ plight. SY
Ferndale Hostelry for Girls: a pretty name for a juvie detention centre, and a place I’d never heard of until I came up on the last charge. It was my third offence, this time for assault on a teacher, but the snotty cow deserved it, and everyone knows the law has no teeth when it comes to teens. So I was sitting in the courtroom not worrying, picking at the frayed knees of my jeans, waiting for my parents to arrive at the hearing. Only they never did. And when Judge Eastergard realized they weren’t going to show, he sent me to Ferndale. He said, if my parents weren’t willing to take on the job of straightening me out, the state would have to do it for them.
Eastergard may as well have sent me to prison. Hell, it was a prison. One for kids. There were no cigarettes. No alcohol. No TV after ten. At Ferndale, they told me when to wake up. When to eat. When to pee. And the good-cop bad-cop thing? They had it mastered. One minute, pursed-lipped guards were checking under the mattresses and rifling through drawers, and the next, sweet-voiced counselors offered milky smiles and stupid suggestions: “Come on, Storm, we’re here to help: a problem shared is a problem halved, after all.” Silly do-gooders. They didn’t know anything.
At Ferndale, the staff referred to us as “clients,” which was bullshit: we were inmates in brightly painted cells. And I was here until I could prove I could be responsible. They put me in a room at the end of a corridor, near a disused stairwell, with Becca and Callie. Painted in thick coats of yellow—someone’s idea of cheerful—its windows looked onto the corridor on one side, and onto the street on the other. The last to arrive, I got the bed in the middle. I’d planned to keep to myself, but it’s hard to stay separate from people when you share a menstrual cycle. It hadn’t taken long before the three of us started lying awake at night, watching the wild movements of the security guard’s torch on the ceiling, whispering to each other like we were at summer camp.
Those two were nothing like me. I’m as dark as my moods. Depressing as a downpour, my mother once said of me. On good days she’d laugh it off, saying it served her right for naming me Storm in the first place. Maybe there’s something in that: I can be a walking thunderstorm, especially if I’m off my meds. But if I’m a tempest, then Becca was crystal. She described herself as fluette, which she said was French, or maybe Italian. It meant she resembled a champagne glass. An odd way to describe yourself, but Becca was like that: always talking in metaphors. Listening to her was like conjuring up an entire elm tree from a single serrated leaf. Still, a champagne glass described Becca pretty well, because she was skinny and pale and fragile. I’d noticed some silvery white scars on her wrist too, although she tried to hide them by tugging down the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Callie though, she was fire to Becca’s crystal and my turbulence. It helped that she had red hair, flashing eyes, and a tongue that lashed out and burned. She had this practical way of sorting things: like swiping food, getting us TV privileges, and knowing how to work the counselling roster to get out of cleaning duties. Callie taught me plenty of things that helped me get through this place. I didn’t know how either girl ended up here: Becca probably because she was unstable, and Callie…Well, I suppose she must’ve done something. An unwritten rule of Ferndale was that you didn’t ask questions, and if you knew things, it was best to keep your mouth shut.
Becca came from a town up north. It can’t have been that far from here, because on Thursdays when visiting hours were on, her sister used to make the trip down to see her. I haven’t had any visitors. My family is too embarrassed. To be fair, my parents stuck at it for a while, playing the supportive parents, turning up to counselling and stuff when it was just petty theft, but the assault charge had been the limit, and now they pretend I don’t exist. It’s okay. I like it that way. Lately, there wouldn’t have been much to say to them anyway. Callie didn’t get any visitors, either. Mostly, she would flip her hair and shrug, and say she didn’t care. Other times though, when the guards were being jerks or she was on her period, she’d get pissed off. Six foster families, she’d say; you’d think someone from child services would make an effort. I could see why it’d make her mad, why she’d become a mix of flat statements and sharp jabs.
On visiting days, when the other girls would get scrubbed up and presented to their families like old furniture that’d been recycled and displayed in a boutique, Callie and I used to hang out together. Then one time, a few months in, I worked out how to jimmy the lock on the out-of-bounds stairwell. Leaving it pulled to so no one would know, we sneaked down the stairs and stumbled on a room that branched off the basement. It was full of junk: unused building materials and old bits of furniture scattered around. I figured the building debris had come from the baby-care facility the Ferndale governors had put in a couple of years ago, but the room had been left half-built as well. Plasterboard was only half nailed on in places, with pink insulation springing out of the gaps like cheap fairy costumes on a shop rack. I sat on one of the pallets, while Callie perched on a stack of tiles.
What a relief to get away from the guards and counselors and watchers; to be sitting there with no one telling us what to do. Callie pulled out a packet of smokes. She lit one and took a drag of the precious contraband before handing it to me. I took a suck, savoring the taste before exhaling. Damn, I’d missed smoking.
“Where did you get them?” I asked, passing it back.
She shook her head, gave me an enigmatic smile and took another drag. She blew a funnel of smoke into the air, her head back like a wolf baying at the moon. There wasn’t any moon though, just patchy light from the grubby little window above our heads. “Oh, that’s good.”
I laughed. “If only they knew were down here. They’d be so jealous. We’re fucking smoking, while everyone else upstairs is squeaky clean and on their best behavior.”
“I know, right?” Callie grinned. She blew another smoke squall.
Afterwards, Callie found the perfect place to hide the rest of the packet: inside an unfinished wall, behind a wad of insulation and between two sheets of drywall. Callie and I had a secret, and I felt almost heady. For the first time, I had a proper friend.
I’d been at Ferndale for about three months before Vagras noticed Becca. Or maybe he’d singled her out before I realised, and had been watching her for a while, I don’t know. But one night, the security guard came into our room and dragged Becca from her bed.
“Come with me,” he hissed under his breath, his big hand wrapped around her upper arm. He yanked her towards the door.
“Hey!” I called out, not really thinking. I started to get up, reaching out for my friend. If he jerked too hard, he’d break her. Vagras swung his torch at me, pointing the light right in my eyes, forcing me to squeeze them shut.
“Shut up. You didn’t see anything. Got it?”
After that, I lay rigid in my bed, not daring to move. I’m certain Callie was awake too but she didn’t say anything. For once, there was no wild torchlight from the corridor. Apart from the thrum of my pulse in my ears, it was quiet. Finally, the door opened and Becca crept to bed, her skinny shoulders shaking.
I waited until I was sure Vagras wasn’t coming back, before I called to her. “Becca? You okay?”
Lying on her back, she turned her head to stare at me. “It freezes in the white,” she said. “Not moving…invisible…’
Guessing I wasn’t going to get any sense out of her, I turned to Callie. “We should do something,” I whispered across the gap between our beds.
“Why? Who would believe us?”
“But she needs our help.”
“Becca needs to help herself, Storm.”
I frowned in the darkness. “But he hurt her. She’s the victim.”
“That’s the problem. She behaves like a victim, all poems and vulnerability. As long as she’s like that, shits like Vagras are going to abuse her. She needs to take responsibility for herself. Sure, we could stick our necks out and help her, but that won’t stop it happening again.”
I climbed into bed with Becca and held her tight. Her shaking didn’t stop the whole night. But Callie was right. It happened again. And again. Until the day Beverly from the room next door found Becca dangling from the shower rose by her A-cup bra.
The Ferndale inquisition went into full swing; the pursed-lipped guards and sweet-voiced counselors all eager to jump in and have their say:
“Did she say anything to indicate she might do this?”
“Had any of the other girls been bothering her?”
“Was she suffering depression?”
I figured they should know all that. Wasn’t that what the counseling was for?
They questioned Callie and me as well, but neither of us said anything. The guards found a school exercise book of Becca’s poems taped to the back of the dresser, but since all the poems were sad, it didn’t tell them much. Ferndale had closed up. Only Beverly was talking and she was loving it; telling and retelling the story of how she’d found poor Becca in the showers. Even through clouds of steam, Beverly had seen the sickly swing of Becca’s body, the purple bruising where the bra strap had cut into her neck, the pale bluish tinge to her skin, her swollen tongue. Later, in our room, Callie, sarcastic, said how lucky we were that Beverly had such sharp eyesight.
Next to mine, Becca’s empty bed was closed up and tight, accusing us.
Because it happened overnight, Ferndale beefed up the security. For several weeks, Vagras didn’t visit us again. But we were expecting it. After a while, Callie and I wondered if he was visiting some other girl in another room, but no-one else died, and no-one else seemed any more fucked up than usual.
Then, one night, I’m walking back from the dinner room, when Vagras arrives to start his shift. I figure I’m safe enough in the hall, as there are other staff about, but still I veer away from him, keeping to my side of the corridor, my eyes on the floor. At the last moment, he leans in, tipping an imaginary hat at me.
“See you tonight,” he says, and then he swaggers off, like the last cowboy in a shoot-out. To anyone else, it might’ve sounded innocent, but I know.
Instantly, my blood congeals. It turns as thick as cold gravy, my heart struggling to force it through my veins. Palms sweating and knees shaking, I’m barely able to stagger back to my room, where I sink onto my bed, trembling in panic. I need to talk to Callie. I need to tell her that Vagras is coming for me, that I’m next in line for the night-time trips to the corridor. But Callie is at a counseling group. For a second, I think about telling one of the counselors, but who would believe me? Especially since no one said anything when it happened to Becca. And with her gone, what is there to accuse him of: he said ‘see you tonight’ and I didn’t like his tone?
But I don’t want to be like Becca.
Suddenly, what Callie said about taking responsibility jumps into my head. I might not be able to get out of Ferndale, but I can hide, at least until I manage to think of a way out—one that doesn’t involve swinging from a shower rose. There’s the place Callie and I found…
My hands shaking, I leave a note under Callie’s pillow to warn her. I write Vagras and put an X beside it. Callie will know what it means. Then, as soon as the corridor is clear, I fly down the stairwell and into the basement room. Where? Where can I hide so he won’t find me? Then I remember the wall. Even if Vagras does come down here, he’ll never think to look inside the wall. In the room perhaps, but not there.
I take a look. It’s going to be tight, but I figure I’ll just fit. Kicking the cigarettes into the gap, I hold the insulation in my left hand and inch my way in, my right cheek scraping against the wall, my knees locked. I hold my breath, panicking for a second that I’ve got myself stuck, but I wiggle my right arm in little further and eventually the pressure eases. Finally, I’m in. I open my fingers and let the insulation expand to fill the space, hiding me from view.
Vagras won’t be able to find me here. I figure I’ll hide here for a while, until I can think of what to do next.
Hours later, I still haven’t thought of anything. My neck is stiff and my cheek scraped raw. I’m too scared to sneak out, in case Vagras is still hunting for me.
A whisper. “Storm?”
In my hiding place, I feel my heart shudder against the drywall. It’s late. After midnight, I think.
Please don’t let it be…
A brusque movement and the pink insulation is pulled away. Light streams in, forcing me to blink. I wince, bumping my forehead on the wall. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust.
“Callie?” I whisper. My voice is scratchy, like the needle on a vintage record player.
“It’s me,” she says. She peers in, mercifully reducing the glare. I realise she’s turned on the basement light.
My whole body sags. If not for the walls, I’d collapse. I close my eyes. Compose myself.
“Vagras?” I ask.
“It’s okay. He’s not here.”
I exhale, a shallow breath, since there’s no space for a deep one.
“Pull me out, will you?” I say. “I jammed myself in and now I can hardly move.” I lift my left arm to shoulder height and crab-walk my fingers along the wall towards her. “Here, take my hand.”
Abruptly, Callie turns away, a frown flitting across her face.
Adrenalin explodes in my chest like a starter gun.
Vagras! He’s followed her.
I shrink back into my space as my friend darts away, light flooding the gap again.
But the light flickers and there’s a clatter. A grunt. Then I hear scraping, like something being pulled. A tiny gasp.
I squeeze myself tighter into the wall.
Please no, not Callie too.
I strain my ears. Far away, echoing across the basement, I detect the faintest rattle, then silence.
Suddenly, Callie pushes her face back into the gap, startling me.
Relief engulfs me. “I thought it was him,” I say, tears pooling in the back of my eyes.
“It’s okay. I stopped him,” she says flatly. She steps back and this time I see the blood. Her t-shirt is splattered in red. Deep down, I’m not surprised. No one ever said why Callie was sent to Ferndale. Ignoring the ache in my arm, I reach my hand out to her, my tears streaming.
“It’s okay,” I murmur. “You had to.”
“Hmm,” she says, and something in her tone scares me.
“We’ll break that little window,” I say quickly, surprised I haven’t thought of it before now. “If we pile up some stuff; maybe we can climb high enough to crawl out. We have to get you out of Ferndale, Callie, or you’ll be stuck in detention forever.”
Callie pulls back at that, pausing a moment to consider my suggestion. “But I’ve only got four more months here, Storm,” she says deliberately. “And there’s the note you left, and the fact that you’ve been off your meds since Becca died.”
“I’ll tell them.” She smiles then, and it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. “And since I’m not the one who took to her teacher with a broom handle,” she says, “I think a better story would be for you to take the blame. Yes, it’s best if you stay here, Storm, and take responsibility for what you did to Vagras. That way, we can both finish our terms.”
What I did to Vagras?
My heart pounds, but I don’t have time to react because suddenly, Callie is stuffing the insulation back in the crack, pushing it in deep, stifling the light.
What the hell?
Understanding hits me finally, chilling me to the core. She’s boarding up the gap.
There are six nails.
The sound of the hammer drowns out my pleading. Afterwards, I scream my shallow scream for hours.
Lee Murray writes fiction for adults and children, twice winning New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction and fantasy writing. However, she has only recently turned her hand to horror, and finds teenagers to be far more terrifying than spiders or zombies.