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They bit, they kicked, sometimes they pulled out their own hair in such chunks they left hickey-like marks on their scalps that had to be washed and disinfected and covered with gauze. But they would rip off the gauze and wave it in the other kids’ faces, the other kids who had ruined their chances of being touched, of feeling human contact—any human contact at all—by retreating into corners, promising to behave. One time a girl drank an entire bottle of bathroom cleaner during chore hour. Locked herself in the bathroom with a device she had fashioned, quite skillfully, during arts-and-crafts that afternoon. She’d had to improvise the lock, for there were none in rooms where kids could not be supervised. Once there had been a camera in the bathroom, but too many kids had been spied on inappropriately, blackmailed by malignant, underpaid juvenile correctional officers.
     Layla swigged the entire bottle of cleaning fluid because she knew it had been watered down. The COs measured the fluid before kids used it to clean, then measured it again after chores were done. A drop less than expected was cause for reprimand: an hour in the “quiet room”, the evening without privileges (chaperoned walk in the razor-wire courtyard, extra glass of apple juice, et cetera, et cetera). Usually the most well-behaved kid was assigned bathroom duty, and it was considered an honor, a rite-of-passage even, to he or she who got to snap on the heavy-duty rubber gloves and scrub the toilet until all the day’s traces of urine, shit, vomit, spit, semen were gone. Anybody off the street would feel at ease to sit on that toilet.
     Layla often wished somebody off the street (not an actual street person because the facility was infested with them, but somebody off the street in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, maybe) would enter the facility just to use the bathroom. But the night she gulped the cleaning fluid like a bottle of warm, acrid beer, she had given up hope that the man with the briefcase would ever come to rescue her. The last time she had seen her father he walked out in the middle of her trial, arms in the air, muttering, excusing himself but he had to answer the page. He was an important doctor, and one of his important clients needed him. His clients paid for their healthcare. So Layla thought she could maybe get to her father more quickly that way, by drinking cleaning fluid, and if not, then at least somebody would have to pay attention to her until the poison was extracted from her body—if that could be done in time—and somebody, maybe Andrea, a mysterious CO in Layla’s mind, the only female on the boys’ side, would hold her hand while they pumped her stomach. Maybe even touch her hair, wipe damp strands of it from her face while she frothed at the mouth and vomited like a sick dog.
     But. Andrea was not there that night, she was at the other facility where boys as young as five were detained for murder—could they call it murder at five?—and at the exact moment when Layla’s eyes rolled toward the top of her skull like a pair of foggy marbles, as her face collapsed and contorted from the spasms in her chest, Andrea was handing her notice of resignation to her supervisor (I can’t take it here anymore) without apology, for how could a person be expected to apologize for refusing to work any longer with boys who had been born with evil black hearts?
      “A five-year-old knows it’s wrong to throw his baby sister over the balcony.” 
      “But you knew you’d be working with cases like this. Why else would you, would anyone, want to work here?”
      “I applied to work with the girls.”
      “You can’t if you resign.”
      “Then transfer me to the girls’ unit or I’m quitting.”
     It was a bold threat, to quit working at a facility where COs quit regularly and were replaced with ease as insulting as an ex-lover’s slap; but Andrea felt, after six months, it was her time to be bold. She detested the little rapists and murderers, the future arsonists and other monsters being preened for society, society’s unsuspecting welcome, for it would not know of the records expunged and burned the day these boys came of age. The greatest gift of all, freedom, would be granted to the very little fiends that had invaded the bodies of their helpless eighteen-month-old sisters, pointed guns at their parents and pulled the triggers, captured their neighbors’ cats pregnant with kittens and ripped open swollen bellies in visceral excitement and watched the unborn life leak out. While Andrea’s peers in graduate school had prepared for careers as researchers, statisticians, professors of criminology, she had acquired knowledge and skills specific to the Clermont Girls’ Correctional Facility. CGCF: A maximum-security experiment, a project designed by the government to “truly rehabilitate” young female offenders. It was the sister facility to CBCF, both just ten minutes outside the city, both identical in floor plan and failure to rehabilitate, though Andrea did not know this yet.
      “They’re just as bad there. Worse,” her supervisor said.
     Andrea waved her letter of resignation at him, a rotund man of late-fifties who had succeeded in delaying the physical wear that marked the faces of COs after just one year in the system. He was one of them, she thought contemptuously, one of those people who had studied to become a philosophizer of crime, a reticent idealist. And how easy that was! To speculate why four-year-old Eric had, while the parents slept, wedged a knife into his sleeping infant brother’s open mouth, wedged the knife so deep the infant could not cry out, for his tiny lungs were perforated. To speculate why eleven-year-old Bryan had attacked his napping mother with a claw hammer because he was sick of seeing her on the couch like a lazy cunt, just like his father was sick of it. Andrea had stopped trying to make her supervisor admit there was nothing at all to speculate about these cases. They were not riddled with psychological enigmas, they were not behavioral jigsaw puzzles; they were kids who knew what they wanted to do, did it, would do it again.
      “Are you nervous working with the boys?”
      “No. I applied to work with the girls.”
      “Fine. They’re short-staffed in the unit tonight. We’ll see how you feel about all of this tomorrow.”
     By the time Andrea was authorized to transfer to CGCF for the remainder of her shift (only three hours, during which all girls in the facility were asleep), Layla had been admitted to emergency and the regular COs were back on duty.
      “Little bitch,” the male chided as he and the female updated Layla’s docket.
      “Maybe this time she actually did it.”
      “Put us all out of our misery, why doesn’t she.”
     The COs looked up when Andrea cleared her throat, standing at the entrance of the kitchen where they were seated, stained coffee mugs on the table, torn-open box of tea biscuits beside. Andrea smiled, but the COs showed no interest. She helped herself to a tea biscuit, poured day-old coffee into a Styrofoam cup, sat down and inquired about Layla.
     The male whistled. “You think you seen it all over there with the boys? Layla’s about the sweetest thing we had here. Now what’s left are the girls nobody wants, not even this place. Mangy, miserable, violent things. So wretched inside and out makes you never want children. Do you?”
     These COs were the rough-and-tumble kind who knew the second before a kid was going to fly out of control, could suspend a kid in the air by his wrists, dangle him there like a piece of laundry clipped to a clothesline on a blustering day. And Andrea wondered: Had school made her too soft? All those hours she had spent studying, reading “classic cases” would have been better used jogging or jumping hurdles, training privately with a martial artist. These two COs appeared sturdier than lightning-struck tree stumps, expanded into their uniforms, were enlarged by their uniforms, their eagerness to break apart fights and administer discipline evident in the ropey veins of their foreheads and arms.
      “Take rooms one to four,” the female said, looking to her co-worker.
     The male conceded and pointed to a hallway across from the kitchen. There, at the end, was an orange plastic chair like the kind found in high school classrooms, the wooden desk at its side equally infantilizing, and that was where Andrea sat, in a state of bored agitation, until her shift ended three hours later.
     The next day her supervisor transferred her permanently to CGCF after she had finished eight hours in the boys’ unit. Layla was back by then, humbled by her near-death experience, enabled by a day of nurses and doctors touching her—gently—and asking if she was okay. Yes I am. Thank you for asking. She was beautiful, Layla was. Always quick to express remorse after she misbehaved, caused anyone pain or discomfort, though mostly she caused herself the pain and others inconvenience.
      “I don’t mean to, but sometimes I can’t stop myself.”
     Andrea listened to Layla’s story, her confessions, her pleas for validation, but her focus was on Layla, beautiful Layla with a prosthetic left leg. Not the whole leg, just up to the calf. The prosthetic was the crass kind that government subsidy afforded—basic, that awful man-made flesh color, like an exploded Barbie limb—even though her father was one of the wealthiest practitioners in the city.
      “He’s worried I’d be able to run faster with a better leg.”
      “Let me see if I can help you.”
      “Don’t bother. It’d just get stolen anyway.”
     Andrea spent the next week studying Layla’s case. She could not find information about why the girl was at the facility, only her conditions: two years detention, drug and alcohol therapy, life skills coaching, anger management, one year probation after discharge. The usual. Layla’s conditions were to be enforced on her as an adult (she had entered the system at sixteen), though, which suggested a sequence of serious offenses, and Andrea felt both disappointed and relieved to learn that girls weren’t favored by the system after all. Her six months at CBCF had exposed her to the ugliest features of humankind, packaged into boys as young as five, and she found comfort in the knowledge that girls could be just as odious. I never want children. I hate them all.
     And yet, the pinch in her bladder that had persisted for four months was now accompanied by a darkening of her nipples, which still looked pre-pubescent, maybe because Andrea had, in her teens, been afflicted with a hormonal imbalance that denied her the full breadth of puberty. But now her darkening nipples ached when she removed her bra each day after work. Dark, hard little pellets on her slightly raised chest area, where a man could spread his hands and feel the smoothness of Andrea, feel the tightness of her body and indulge, if he wished, in an otherwise strictly unacknowledged desire for youth.
     Andrea’s third week working with Layla, Layla said one morning at breakfast: “You going to keep it?”
     The three other girls from the wing looked at Andrea with expressions ranging from disgust—if they weren’t allowed to have babies then why could she?—to exasperation—they would have to get used to another new CO again? Anything to complicate their lives, as if living in this shithole wasn’t enough!
      “Put your knife down, Candy.”
     Candy smacked her knife back in place, directly to the left of her plate; all the girls had to keep their knives to the left unless granted permission to use them. “I was just going to offer to help out if you didn’t want to keep it.”
     But Andrea would never do such a thing. What was inside her, the four-month-old and growing thing inside her, was somebody else’s growing thing, too. And that somebody else, her boyfriend, the father, had rights. No, Andrea did not feel even the most infinitesimal of impulses to seize the knife from Candy and flip it around in her own hands like a precious instrument. It was just a knife, not meant for such things.
      “I said put your knife down, Candy.”
     Candy put her knife down once more and the other girls at the table, not including Layla, yawned obliquely. They were already bored with Andrea’s authority; it really didn’t matter to them if she was replaced with another CO. But Layla, Layla clicked her tongue with disapproval, smiled temperately, and Andrea felt the first kick—could it kick at only four months?—a small flutter in her lower abdomen made beautiful by the presence of this circumspect girl with a prosthetic leg. I’ll keep it if it’s a girl. If it’s a girl I’ll name it Layla.
     That night Andrea removed her bra slowly, paid close attention to her breasts once liberated from the unsightly garment (the color of Layla’s prosthetic leg) with heavy metal clips that chaffed the skin they pressed against all day.
      “When are you coming home?” she asked her boyfriend, who had phoned from his overseas conference, phoned every night after Andrea’s shift to make sure none of the kids had bitten or kicked, or worse.
      “Soon. Everything okay?”
      “Just getting used to working with the girls.”
      “Sure. Congratulations again.”
      “Thanks.” Andrea traced her index finger from her collarbone to her navel, a flushed patch appearing on the sharp, bony cliff of her breastplate. She pinched one brown nipple, then the other, incapable of imagining their potential to be suckled by tiny human lips, to be chewed by gums so soft the pain might go away. I can’t. I cannot name her Layla. For what if it was born a boy, a boy without arms or without legs, without any limbs at all, without a docket that stated very clearly why he was there and what she had to do with him? What if he threw her cat over the balcony before his fifth birthday because he had seen the tenant on the facing balcony do the same (impossible, of course, because the tenant was an elderly man who never stepped outdoors for fear his white, veiny skin would melt from sun exposure)? What if Bradley didn’t like this thing that had grown inside her? Left one day for a conference and never returned, left Andrea to inflate in such an unattractive, grotesque way that she could never again be seen in a bikini, for the plum-colored skids on her breasts and thighs had revealed the ugliness of life, turned her into someone hideous.
      “What do you think of the name Layla?”
      “That one of your girls?”
      “She’s got a prosthetic leg.”
      “Poor thing.”
     Andrea and Bradley recited loving words, promised unwavering affection, planned a vacation somewhere nice, tropical, distant and remote, hung up. Andrea felt the pinch in her bladder of the past four months tighten; felt the need to urinate so urgently she barely made it to the bathroom. She pressed her hand to her pelvis, a gentle press for it felt like her bladder had become suddenly inflamed, and even though she had to urinate badly the urine came out in a slow, precise stream. Thick. Invisible sickles that made her groan. Bladder infection? Unable to stand—worried she would stand only to have to sit again and cradle her pelvis—Andrea grabbed the pen and notepad from the magazine rack beside the toilet and began to list names of boys,

© April L. Ford

This electronic version of “Layla” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of  the  publisher and the author. It appears in collection The Poor Children by April L. Ford, published in the U.S. by SFWP, 2015; originally published in Short Story Journal NS Vol. 18, Number 1.   Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio
April L FordApril L. Ford grew up in Quebec. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize (2016 edition) for her short story "Project Fumarase," and her debut story collection, The Poor Children, won Grand Prize for the Santa Fe Writers Project 2013 Literary Awards Program for Fiction. April has spent time at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts as a Robert Johnson Fellow, and at Ucross Foundation as a Writer in Residence. She is managing editor of Digital Americana Magazine and teaches creative writing at SUNY College at Oneonta.
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