From above, bells clanged.
You started so violently that only the curly-haired girl’s arms kept you from falling out of the bunk. She held you until you stopped shaking, your head tucked underneath her chin.
“Okay?” she finally asked.
“Okay,” you said, and she released you from her hold.
With your face no longer pressed against her shoulder, you realized that you couldn’t fully open your left eye. While following the curly-haired girl into the eating room, you prodded the skin around your eye. It was tender to the touch. You found that there was some pleasure to be had in the sensation of pain. In-between hasty bites of food, you pushed hard against your eyelid, hard enough to produce bright flashes of hurt.
The bells rang again, signaling the end of breakfast. Still not accustomed to the sound, you jumped in your seat and fell out of your chair. A small, dark-skinned girl held out her hand to you and helped you up.
“Hurry, hurry, Little Sister,” the curly-haired girl called to her on her way out of the room.
Out in the hallway, the others had placed themselves into two rows, boys on one side, girls on the other. The large boy and the curly-haired girl stood in front. You and the small girl, Little Sister, took your places at the end. A buzzer sounded and the doors in front of you slid open.
Four As—two males, two females—whirled into the room. They were so similar in height, build, and coloring that you titled the males One and Two, the females, Three and Four. One and Three positioned themselves at the head of the line and Two and Four were positioned at the foot. They marched you from the hallway at a brisk pace. Little Sister had to jog to keep up, but she seemed used to this extra effort. The lines stopped in front of another set of doors that opened to reveal a training room.
The other children fanned out around the space. Three placed you and Little Sister on a bench beside the door. Little Sister sat on her hands and swung her legs back and forth. She turned and studied you unabashedly. You ignored her.
Her hand reached out to touch your face. Your eye closed involuntarily. “Hurts?” she asked.
“Yes,” you replied.
She nodded. “Bruises are good. Scars are better. Makes you tough.” She pulled up the sleeve on her shirt and pointed to an old moon shaped scar on her shoulder. “Get the best scars from fighting.” She frowned. “No one will fight me.”
“You want to fight?” you asked.
She nodded so vigorously her head almost hit the wall. “You win and win and win and—” She slapped one hand on top of the other. “You’re the top.”
She sat on her hands and surveyed the room. “We could fight,” she said. “I dare you. You accept.”
“Don’t know,” you said.
“Scared?” she asked. This was a genuine question rather than a taunt.
“No,” you said.
“So, I dare you. You accept. We fight. Yes?”
While considering the prospect of a fight, your fingers found your bruised eye and pressed down hard. The pain made you feel slightly better.
Before you could respond to Little Sister, Three came over, patted each of you on the head, and motioned for both of you to follow her to the mats where Two waited along with a pale boy and a freckled, brown-eyed girl from your cohort. Two had a small device in his hand—the same one you remembered from glider training—and played a three tone signal. Pale-boy lowered himself enough so that Freckles could climb up and sit on his shoulders.
Two played the three tone signal again. You and Little Sister stared at the other pair of children waiting for them to act. They didn’t do anything. Two played the tones a third time. Still, nothing happened. Two shook his head and barked out something at Three, who came over, picked up Little Sister, and placed her on your shoulders. She was light, but the weight on your shoulders felt odd, and you almost toppled over. Three prevented Little Sister from falling backwards; Two stopped you from falling forward.
Once Little Sister was perched securely on your shoulders, you were apparently ready to train.
The other two children responded quickly and accurately to the tonal commands given by Two. Little Sister clutched at your hair as both of you watched Freckles perform a backbend off Pale-boy’s shoulders. Once she got to her feet again, she climbed up his back and stood atop his shoulders. His hands came up to grasp her ankles. He then walked slowly up and down the mats.
Turning to you and Little Sister, Two played the tone sequences again. When you didn’t respond, he amplified the sounds. Finally, Little Sister attempted to stand up. She fell, kicking you in the back of the head on her way down. She tried again and fell again, kicking you in the middle of your back. You stood as still and as solidly as possible. It didn’t help. You offered her your hands to help her up. This didn’t help either.
After your tenth attempt to execute this skill correctly, the bells rang. All activity in the room stopped, and the other children walked to a small alcove where they were given food. When Freckles and Pale-boy got up to join the others, Two stopped them with one hand on each of their chests. Three glanced once at him before coaxing you and Little Sister up off the mat. Little Sister tried and failed again to stand on top of your shoulders. You kept failing long after the food had been put away.
Eventually, Three placed you and Little Sister back on the bench by the doors, having relinquished the idea of the two of you learning anything. Freckles and Pale-boy were allowed to join the rest of the children. You noted, with some satisfaction, that when presented with more difficult skills, neither of them were very proficient.
When the training day ended, you were lined back up and marched back to your quarters. On each bed in the sleeping room was a new, stiff set of clothes. All the other children stripped off the old clothes and tossed them down a chute on the far wall before heading across the hall to the bathing room.
You were the last one to enter, and the only spout left was the one right by the door. It felt good to be immersed in the scalding water. You closed your eyes.
You did not hear anyone approaching, so you were entirely unprepared when hands gripped your shoulder and the back of your head and smashed your face into the wall. Pain bloomed across your forehead, and dark spots appeared in front of your eyes. Then, the hands shoved you forward, and you fell, your knees banging against the ground. None of the other boys offered to help you up. None of the other boys even saw you. You eventually pulled yourself up and limped back to the bunk room. You weren’t even aware your head was bleeding until you saw the trail of red dots you were leaving on the floor.
During dinner, you had to keep your sleeve pressed to your forehead, so blood wouldn’t drip on to the table. The sharp ache in your head prevented you from eating. The smell of the food was nauseating.
When you finally lay down in your bunk, your body told you a story of all the abuse it had procured that day. Your head and knees throbbed in time with your heart, and you could keenly feel every place Little Sister had whacked you with her flailing limbs. Among the lesser sensations was your still swollen eye. The aches leaked slowly from your skin.
One kick to the bottom of your bunk and the pain erupted again. When you opened your eyes, Pale-boy stared down at you. He grabbed your arm and pulled you after him into the fight room. The others had formed a ring around the room’s edges. The large boy stood alone in his corner. The curly-haired girl hovered by the door.
There was a weighty silence, and then Freckles stepped forward into the center of the room. Little Sister bounced up and down on her heels. But Freckles ignored her. Her gaze fixed only and deliberately on you. She pointed, and Pale-boy pushed you, stumbling, toward her. She waited for you to find your footing before punching you in the stomach. For one long second your lungs couldn’t find air. Then, she kicked your legs out from under you, and you were on your back, still wheezing, staring up at the ceiling. She straddled your body, pinning your arms down with her legs, crushing your wrist with her knee. You managed to push her off, climbing unsteadily back to your feet. You got in one good hit to her side before she came at you again, head lowered, sending you back to the floor. You shoved a hand in her face, pushing upward against her nose. She bit down on the fleshy part of your hand, forcing you to withdraw. With that last bit of resistance gone, one of her fists came flying at your nose. The other connected with your eye.
Freckles was deemed the obvious winner of the fight. You crawled off the mat. Your body couldn’t decide which pain to prioritize. Everything throbbed. Your left eye was sealed shut. The blood from your nose was running into your mouth, and you felt like throwing up.
You didn’t get a chance to catalog each hurt before Pale-boy selected you to fight, and two other boys stood you up and drug you out onto the mat again.
Everything in the room listed to the right. You attempted one hit with a weak and shaking fist. Pale-boy grabbed your hand and twisted. You couldn’t help it. It hurt, and you couldn’t help it. You screamed. He slammed you back against the wall and focused his fists on your torso. You curled in on yourself, making some attempt at protection. The blows didn’t stop. When your body was nothing more than a bright red flare of pain, someone finally pulled him away from you.
Before you could fall to the floor, an arm wrapped itself around your waist. Your legs wouldn’t function correctly. A voice in your ear coaxed you to drag one foot forward and then the other. It took a couple tries, but you managed to pull yourself forward. You imagined Freckles and Pale-boy smirking at you, but then you heard another fight starting. You were no longer of interest to anyone.
Your mind whited out the journey back to your bunk.
You blinked into awareness again when a pair of hands pushed you down to your bed. The curly-haired girl knelt in front of you. She seemed to realize that you were no longer capable of moving on your own; she helped you lift your legs up on to the bed and lie down on the mattress.
She sat beside you but did not touch you. Her inaction was a mercy. Before you slipped into unconsciousness, you heard her say, “Sorry, Little Brother. I couldn’t help.”
You woke the next morning to the clanging bells. You could not get up, so, you didn’t. The others shifted and shuffled around you. You slept again. The bells roused you again. You unsuccessfully attempted to lift yourself off the mattress. The movement ignited the raw pain emanating from your body. You faded into the sensory onslaught.
A hand touched your shoulder. You glanced upward with your one good eye. Three peered down at you and then hurried away.
Two male As came to the bunk room and removed you from the quarters.