Spectators kept dropping bags into the arena, so the bag collections grew.
Shiny, well-demarcated stacks decorated the floors under the beds, but, suddenly, it was not enough just to possess them or count them or have the largest collection of them. Something more utilitarian needed to be done with them.
One evening, Fly twisted and knotted her bags together. She looped her creation around her neck twice and was pleased with her work.
A new entertainment was born.
Rings formed spirals around fingers and elegant, looping bracelets and necklaces glistened around wrists and necks. Bands wound through hair and crowns, elaborate with spikes and domes, balanced on heads. Everything was made to be traded and shared. Special works were gifted one to another.
Everyone was careful to hide away their treasures in the mornings. You did not dare to wear them to training. The trainers were unpredictable. They might say nothing, or they might shock you and then rip off your ornamentations. It was better, far better, to keep your possessions away from the trainers entirely.
More discreet hiding places became a necessity. Eventually, MJ worked a slit open in her mattress. She collected the jewelry, packing it carefully into the mattress padding. When all of the jewelry could no longer fit in one mattress, Papa Boy opened up his for business. Soon there were jewelry nooks all across the room. You kept your bracelets and Little Sister’s necklaces in your mattress. You liked hearing them crinkle under your hand when you pressed down on the soft surface. That crinkle spoke safety.
Then, one day when you returned from training, your collections were gone.
Little Sister was the first to discover the absence. She ran to your bed and leapt on top. There was no lovely crinkling. There was no noise at all, but the sound of her body thumping against the stiff sheets. Frenzied hands dug into the mattress and came up empty. Other searches were conducted. All were fruitless. The only salvaged piece was a ring that Fly had stored in her shoe.
That night you slept in groupings and piles. The loss burned deep, tattooing itself into your bones. The only comfort was found in the weight and pressure of each other’s limbs. In the morning, you woke sluggish and sad, and it took you a moment to remember why. You were all still clumped in bed when the trainers came for you. They pulled you from the beds and stacked you in the halls and took you to training.
It was a performance day. The crowds of As were already pressed up against the viewing windows.
Ma, smiling and cheerful, welcomed them. You heard her explain what you were going to be doing. You heard her play the tones. You heard her play the tones again and again and again. You and Fly and Little Sister and Angel stood and did nothing. You did not sit down. You did not touch each other. You stood and stared at Ma.
The shocks, when they came, were short and quick and successive.
Ma explained to her audience that you all had been sick and that you probably still weren’t well enough to train.
So, you were herded back to your living quarters.
A woman came to check you over. She pulled each of you into the hallway by the arm and perfunctorily placed cold instruments against your head and chest.
The lights were turned off in the quarters after she left. You assumed you were supposed to sleep. No one did. You sat on the beds and waited for the trainers to come and get you. Finally, they came and lined you up and marched you from the quarters to the glass tunnel.
You could already hear the pounding pulse of the crowd’s noise. At the front of the line, Papa Boy and MJ had their heads tilted together. He spoke. She nodded and turned to speak to Echo who stood behind her. The message travelled quickly through the line, and lit you up, creating tingling sparks in your fingers and your toes. Your mind, open and alive, thrummed with the now, with the awareness and excitement of the present.
You entered the arena with the trainers who smiled and waved at the crowd.
You received commands to mount the gliders. Some of the children did, and some of the wrong children climbed aboard the wrong gliders. Little Sister zoomed right over Ma’s head. Fly grabbed your hand and took off, bounding to the middle of the arena. You grabbed Freckles and Sun along the way. The four of you circled the arena, bouncing out of reach of the trainers who were frantically attempting to catch and corral you.
They did manage to stop and turn off the gliders. But the children who had been on the gliders leapt free of the machines and nimbly ran out of the reach of the trainers.
You chased each other and hid behind the platforms. When you tired, you all collapsed, chests heaving, faces red with exertion, bodies brimming, then overflowing with happiness and the perfect execution of power.
You were not shocked in the arena. You were not shocked on your way out of the arena. You were not shocked when you were returned to your quarters.
You were left there, joyous, buoyant, jubilant. In the showers, you splashed water at each other. You ran around and slipped and banged your limbs on the tiles. The pain could not crowd out your pleasure. You had won. For once, you had won, and the victory was beautiful.
That night, you slept deeply and happily.
In the morning, no one came to bring you to training.
It took another day before the routines began again.
The next week, the first of the children disappeared. Fourteen children went to training. Only twelve came back. Sun and Blue were the first to go. Freckles and Fuzzy who trained with them had no explanation.
“They were taken,” Freckles said.
“This happened before,” MJ said. She did not elaborate.
“They must be sick,” Fuzzy said.
You all nodded. Everyone had spent nights in the sterile rooms of white and chrome.
But Sun and Blue did not return the next day.
Training continued. Freckles and Fuzzy were added to another training group. Then, they disappeared as well.
Because you did not see any of them being taken, their absences held an air of unreality. Their unoccupied spaces in the bunk room sagged with the expectancy of their return.
Then, one day you saw the disappearance happen. You were in training when an unfamiliar male—one with grey hair and posture so upright it looked like his body couldn’t possibly bend in two—entered the training room and spoke quietly to Ma. You could not hear what he said, but Ma nodded at his words and led him over to the four of you. He grasped Little Sister and Angel by the arms and pulled them from the room. Little Sister wrenched her body out of his grasp. She tried to run back to you. The man grabbed Little Sister again and dragged her from the room.
Ma had to shock you and Fly eleven times before you finally responded to her commands again.
You knew Little Sister would not be returned. An ocean of sinking hopelessness grew in your chest.
You had lost six. The empty beds became deafening, glaring silences.
Little Sister had been gone for three days. You waited in the shower room until it was empty, all the other children sleepwalking to the eating room or to the bunk room. You ran your fingers over the cool, water-slick walls of the room. You placed your head against the wall and closed your eyes. You pulled your head away from the tiles. You rammed your forehead into the wall. You rammed your forehead into the wall over and over again until blood was rolling down your face and stinging in your eyes. You slumped down against the wall, closed your eyes and floated away on ebbing waves of pain.
When you woke, you were tethered to a white and chrome bed. There was pressure on your forehead but no pain. You slept. You woke again when you felt sturdy hands on your head. The female caring for you was competent but not gentle. She did not stroke your hair or face. She did not speak or look directly at you. She slathered something cold on your forehead and left. You slept some more. Eventually, you were prodded awake and brought back to the living quarters.
More absences—like black, gaping holes—greeted you. MJ and Papa Boy were still there. So were Fly and Curly. They welcomed you back, their hands touching you carefully like if they came too close, pressed too hard, you would disappear again. MJ kept sweeping her fingers over your eyebrows and placing her palm on your forehead. You slept that night, curled beside her in her bed.
Other children arrived. They came one or two at a time. They occupied beds that were not theirs. You bullied a boy out of the bed that had been Little Sister’s, kicking the bottom of the bunk until he got up. He tried to fight you. Papa Boy picked him up and moved him across the room.
None of the new children could understand any of you when you spoke. No one bothered to teach them. You left them isolated.
You and MJ and Papa Boy and Fly and Curly grew hostile and insular.
And then one day, two weeks after she was taken, Little Sister was returned. She was sitting in the corridor, waiting for you to return from training. Her hair had been shorn off and a bandage had been applied above her ear. She shrieked when she saw you and affixed herself to your side. MJ bent to kiss her head and stroke what was left of her hair.
Nothing was measurably better after her return, but at least nothing was worse.
And the days kept groaning on.