You woke up groggy and disoriented in absolute darkness. You were still in the truck. The metal surrounding you hummed and rattled. You started singing to yourself. You stopped when you recognized the song as one of L1’s.
You were almost asleep again when the truck took a sharp turn to the left. Without sight and with nothing to hold on to, you went sliding across the truck, and your head slammed into one of the truck’s walls. The intensity of the pain brought tears to your eyes. You pulled your knees into your chest, pressing them against your abdomen, and waited for the hurt to disappear. It didn’t. You lost consciousness in-between waves of nausea and pain.
The second time you woke, someone was lifting you out of the truck. The movement reignited the throbbing in your head, and you vomited on whoever was carrying you. You heard a yelp of disgust, and your body was abruptly passed on to someone else. Somewhere between the truck and the building, you passed out again.
The third time you woke, someone was probing the sore spot on your head. You opened your eyes. The room was dimly lit. As far as you could tell, the only actual object in the room was the bed you were laying on. You attempted to crane your neck upward to see more, but found that there was a strap across your forehead. You slowly became aware of the other things attached to and restraining your body: straps across your arms and legs, a plastic cuff encircling your left wrist, a needle piercing the skin on your right hand, something small and cold stuck to the side of your head.
A tiny, pale female A stood to your left. She turned around and, seeing that you were awake, blinked rapidly at you and then spun abruptly away, leaving the room. She returned a couple minutes later, hesitating inside the door. Then, in one quick motion, she strode across the room and placed her hands on your face, her fore fingers and thumbs holding your eyes wide open. You waited, but nothing happened. Out of the corner of your eye, you saw the A shake her head. She released her hold of you, one of her nails scraping across your cheek. Your hands itched to rub the stinging skin.
The A reached up and grabbed something behind your head. She positioned and repositioned a small silver bar in front of your face. Once it was placed to her satisfaction, her trembling fingers held your eyelids open again.
Bright lights flashed. You couldn’t shift your face away from the light. You couldn’t blink. Your eyes started watering. The A abruptly detached her hands from your face. Your eyes closed immediately. The lights kept flashing, but they became less irritating—little red explosions behind tightly shut lids.
Eventually, the explosions stopped. You didn’t reopen your eyes until the restraining straps, the plastic cuff, and the needle were removed. Above you stood another female A—this one more solidly built. She smiled at you, patted you on the face and removed the small cold thing that was attached to your temple. She moved quietly around the room, putting away all the objects she had detached from your body. Coming back to the bed, she wedged her arm under your shoulders and hauled you upright.
You had your first clear picture of the room you occupied. But, oddly, the objects in the room were hazy and muddled. The pain in your head that had receded to an echo returned full force. You leaned back into the wall. The A tilted your head to one side, rubbed down a spot on your neck, and jabbed another needle into your neck. She held her hand over your eyes for a moment, her fingers soft and warm against your face. When she removed her hand, the pain was gone.
She allowed you to jump down from the bed and then took your hand and walked with you out of the room. There was little discernable difference between the hallways in this new building and those in the previous one. Even the doors opened the same way. The A waved her hand in front of a set of doors that responded by sliding open, neat and efficient.
The doors led into short corridor. Four rooms branched off from it, two on one side, two on the other. None of them had doors. The two of you stopped outside the first room. Inside were seven bunks. You let go of the A’s hand and wandered over to the bunk closest to the door, placing your hand against one of the metal posts of the bed. You sat down on the bottom bed and bounced once and again. You crawled up toward the pillow and pounded it with your fist before running your fingers over the starchy blanket. When you looked up again, the A had disappeared.
Shrugging to yourself, you laid down on the bed. Staring at the upper bunk, you made plans to examine the other rooms. They were probably all the same, but your curiosity demanded to be sated.
You did not intend to fall asleep. You fell asleep anyway.
You woke up when something jostled the bottom of the bed. Above you loomed a large subgroup B boy with dark hair and brownish skin similar to your own. He lifted up his foot and kicked the bottom of the bunk again. When that still wasn’t enough to dislodge you, he grabbed you by the forearms and pulled you from the bed.
He dropped you on to the floor and started yelling. You distantly realized that you could understand most of the words he was spitting at you most of which were some variation of “mine” and “get off.”
You had to crawl under the next bunk to escape from the boy. A curly-haired girl helped you stand and ushered you to the other side of the room. The boy stalked toward the two of you and kept yelling. The girl shoved you behind herself then started yelling back at the boy. Her words were less intelligible than his, but you heard her request, less than politely, for the boy to leave you alone. The boy scowled but retreated from the room.
The girl seated you on the bed furthest from the door and, kneeling in front of you, examined your arms where the boy had grabbed you.
“Not hurt?” she asked.
You shook your head no.
She smiled at you, patted you on the head, and then wandered from the room. After a while, you heard the sound of water running. You got up to investigate.
Next to the bunk room was a tiled room similar to the one you were used to being cleaned in. There was a partition dividing the room in half and spouts high on the walls that seemed to be activated by movement. When one of the boys moved underneath a spout, water—what appeared to be clear, fresh water—fell down on him. You waved your hand underneath one of the spouts and grinned as water soaked your arm. The large boy noticed your presence and yelled at you again. None of the other boys joined his tirade, but none of them stopped him either. You edged back out of the room.
On the other side of the hallway was a room with one long table surrounded by twenty chairs bolted to the floor. The room next to this one was very small and completely empty except for some blue mats on the floor. Having nowhere else to explore and nothing else to do, you went back to the bunk room. Eventually, the curly-haired girl came looking for you. She poked her head inside the doorway and, spotting you siting on the bed, waved you over.
“Food,” she said, taking your hand and leading you across the hall to the room with the table.
On the far side of this room was an opening in the wall that you had overlooked during your earlier exploration. You could see that it housed a line of trays, and each tray contained food—much more interesting food than you were used to receiving. The curly-haired girl got a tray for herself and then handed one to you.
The boys had settled at one end of the table. The large boy was seated at the chair closest to the door. He snarled at you when you walked by. The curly-haired girl balanced her tray in one hand and punched him hard on the shoulder with the other. He attempted to return her strike, but, laughing, she danced out of his reach. She placed you in the chair beside her at the other end of the table. The other girls clustered around her.
Their chatter encircled you, but your focus remained entirely on the novelty of having something other than mush to eat. You couldn’t decide what to eat first, eyes roaming from the vegetables to the rice to the bread. With hesitant fingers, you reached out to pick up the bread. It was warm underneath your fingers. It smelled beautiful. Its taste was unremarkable though a vast improvement over your usual fare. You ate it slowly, allowing it to dissolve on your tongue. By the time you finished it, almost everyone else at the table had completed their meal.
When she rose to put up her tray, the curly-haired girl leaned close to you, dug her fingers into your shoulder, and said, “Eat. Now.”
Her insistence was odd. You had no intention of doing otherwise. You turned your attention back to your plate, picking up a piece of broccoli and popping it into your mouth. Before you could reach for another piece, a hand reached out and pulled your plate across the table. The large boy glowered at you and began shoveling your food into his mouth. You could do nothing but silently watch as one handful after another disappeared. At some point, he must have gotten full because rather than eating the final two handfuls of rice, he picked them up, ground the grains into paste with his fist, and then reached over to smear the concoction into your hair and face. Somehow rice ended up in your ear. Then, he upended the almost empty plate and its remnants on to the floor.
He leaned across the table, his face inches from yours, and said, “Everything is mine. Nothing is yours. Yes?”
You looked at him dumbly. He slapped your face, grabbed your arms, and repeated, “Everything is mine. Nothing is yours.”
You nodded. He slapped you again. “Say. Say.”
“Nothing is mine,” you said.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Nothing,” you repeated.
Apparently satisfied, he withdrew from the room.
You didn’t move from the table until the curly-haired girl came to retrieve you. With her came a girl whose brown hair formed a soft fuzzy halo around her head. They took your hands and led you into the tiled room, removed your clothing, and placed you under one of the spouts. Warm water covered your skin. The curly-haired girl scrubbed your hair until all the vestiges of rice were gone. The girl with the halo hair wiped down your face.
Once you were fully clean and dressed again, the curly-haired girl leaned down to cup her hands around your face. “Listen next time. Yes?” she said.
“Yes,” you responded.
The girls took your hands again, and, sheltered between them, you exited the room. They led you back to the bunk room and nudged you toward what was now your bed.
The curly-haired girl climbed up and settled herself in the bunk above you. The girl with the halo hair sat on the bed across from you and fidgeted, her eyes roaming from you to the other girl to the open doorway.
From above you, the curly-haired girl sighed and said, “Go. Take him. No trouble. Yes?”
“No trouble,” the girl agreed, and, grabbing your hand, she pulled you across the hallway into the group that ringed the edges of the formerly empty room. She elbowed her way in to a prime viewing spot and pulled you close to her so that you could also see the action.
You watched as one of the girls slammed one of the boys into a wall. The boy retaliated, grabbing the girl’s wrists and dumping her on to the mat. He raised his foot to kick her in the stomach, but before he could make contact, she seized his ankle with both hands and twisted it, sending him sprawling to the floor.
Other than sharp pants of exertion, the fighters were completely silent. The only sounds were the wild shouts from the spectators. Only one spectator, the large boy, did not cheer for either combatant. He just watched them from the far corner of the room with a satisfied smile on his face.
Feeling vaguely nauseous, you backed out of the room.
The curly-haired girl seemed unsurprised by your return.
“Come,” she said, patting a spot on her bed.
You climbed up and sat down, allowing your legs to dangle from the edge of the bunk. You wondered if S would have been frightened sleeping up this high. You could picture L1 and L2 leaping from bunk to bunk to bunk and could see L2 balancing perfectly on the edges of the beds. You could hear their laughter in your head.
Small tremors shook your body.
The curly-haired girl wrapped her hands gently around your shoulders and pulled you up next to her. You did not intend to cry. You cried anyway. She tucked you more firmly into her body, stroked your hair, and hummed a little, off-key melody.
Curled up beside her, you fell asleep.