There were more changes. The equipment in the training room disappeared and was replaced with newer, shinier versions. The new mats were made of the same material as the floor of the arena, bouncy and soft and unnatural—though your sense of what was and was not natural was fading.
You still knew that ground was not supposed to feel spongy. You could still remember trees, and sometimes you dreamed about them, but you couldn’t remember the feel of bark or leaves. You knew that one was supposed to be rough and ridged and the other was supposed to be smooth and waxy, but those memories had left your fingers.
You knew the arena was technically outdoors. But it wasn’t. Not really. The air felt stale, or, when there were too many people in the arena, crowded and hot. You always wondered it if it would feel fresher outside the walls. Maybe it would be worse—smoggy and smoky and polluted. It’s not as if you knew what was out there. But the impracticable dream of escape still had its allure. You still kept the idea that one day, following an impossible series of events, you could scale the walls or run out the doors or smash through the windows, and you would be gone.
You wondered if anyone else had thoughts similar to yours.
You couldn’t ask.
It wasn’t that you were afraid that they wouldn’t understand you. You knew they wouldn’t understand you, but being understood held less importance than it once had. It was that there was no one to ask. Your former pupils didn’t want to speak to anyone. Joy spent every evening in the game room. He had beaten all the games and was now attempting to smash all the high scores. This, for him, was serious. He bit one boy who tried to take his place at the shooting game. Yellow spent every evening carving into the hallway walls with a loose tile he found in a corner of the new shower room. His designs were crude little pictograms of people and animals.
Papa Boy and Curly would speak to you but only to mock the trainers. Curly was an excellent mimic. Papa Boy’s impressions were laughably bad. The only trainer you could imitate was Ma, so, you gave them her stupid high pitched voice, her mood swings, and the inane waving she did with her fingers when you did something wrong.
You liked their laugher. You liked the feeling of solidarity you felt when you were with them. And so you could not tell them that you were scared that you had lost too many pieces of yourself to ever recover who you used to be.
Sometimes you had to struggle to keep the images of your mother and your siblings in your head. Sometimes, after days when Ma was frustrated with everything you did or the performances were too exhausting or you got injured, you lost them temporarily. To stave off the eventuality of losing them entirely, you began to recall their faces every night before you fell asleep and every morning as you marched to training. Their features were already fuzzy, so it would not be long before you lost their eyes or the shape of their mouths when they smiled.
You held on tightly because you didn’t want to lose anything else, but loss was inevitable.
It started with the older boys.
The two male trainers came to the living quarters in the evenings. They lined you up in the hallway, selected the boy they wanted, and guided him through the doors, their hands pressing down hard on his shoulders. This pattern reoccurred with each of the older boys. When the boys returned, they appeared small and shrunken, their shoulders hunched forward. They looked ashamed. Their behaviors were odd. Some of them went directly to the showers. Some went directly to bed. Papa Boy spent hours wandering around the virtual maze in the game room. Curly lay in his bunk facing the wall and hummed to himself.
None of them would say what happened.
Little Sister told you the older girls were being taken as well. They acted just as strangely when they returned, but MJ wasn’t as reticent as the boys. Over and over she said “they took something from me.” She would not elaborate further.
While all the children were emotionally wounded, MJ was the only one who opted out of training, and no amount of shocking would get her to move. Eventually, the trainers left her alone and allowed her to come back of her own accord. After a week, she did.
Strangely, she worked with cheerful vigor and interest. She encouraged everyone else, calling out advice to other groups and pairs. She joked with Papa Boy and teased the others in her training group, giving them nicknames, allowing her fingers to flick arms, twist strands of hair, tickle necks and sides.
MJ’s good mood infected everyone. And suddenly, training was fun.
Even the trainers were happy. They smiled and were affectionate with you. The touch was grounding. It made you remember that Ma wasn’t completely horrible.
You and Little Sister knew enough—and were content enough—to show off a little in training. You pushed beyond what Ma asked for, flipping your bodies over and over, balancing and walking on your hands. Ma stood at the edge of the mat and shook her head at you, but when you finished, she ran her fingers through your hair and patted Little Sister on the head. The other children in your training group tried to copy you. They ended up with some fairly interesting bruises, but they appeared to enjoy themselves.
But because the younger children appeared eager to try new things, the trainers were willing to push you further, teaching new, more exciting, more difficult movements that required complete, unwavering focus.
You loved it. You loved finally doing something that wasn’t repetitive and boring. You loved having to think and calculate and plan four steps in advance to avoid hurting yourself or Little Sister or anyone else.
The performances were exciting again. Every three weeks you had a new move to add or some new twist to an old maneuver.
These times were good. They were the best you could remember ever having. It wasn’t that you didn’t still miss home. You still wanted fresh air and the sound of high grass blades scraping against each other in the wind. But at the current moment, your temporary home wasn’t completely intolerable. You had a family again, you were learning again, you were treated decently, you slept well.
Then, during a Saturday performance where everything was going right, something shifted.
You were standing on a platform with Little Sister at your side. You were ready, waiting for the next signal, and something flew above your head. You wondered what signal you missed, and you looked up to see MJ on a glider, zooming directly upward as fast as she could go. She only had control for a second longer before one of the trainers took over control of the glider and started lowering it to the ground. MJ looked around, confused, shifting her feet and trying to get the glider to move with her. When it wouldn’t, she detached one foot and then the other, raised her arms over her head, and dove, beautifully, feet pointed, off the glider.
No one moved fast enough, so her body landed on a platform below you with an audible crack. Her neck was twisted so that her eyes, unblinking, stared blankly upward. Both arms looked floppy like the bones in them had disappeared. A bone stuck out of her left leg, blood dripping from its jagged edges. Blood was seeping into her hair and soaking into her clothes.
You couldn’t stop staring. You kept waiting for her to move, for her eyes to close and open again. You counted to ten and then to twenty and then you realized she was dead. You realized the spectators were screaming. You were silent. So was Little Sister. So was everyone else.
The trainers rounded you up and stuck you back inside the glass tunnel. They didn’t move you further, their attention focused on the panicked crowd. From the tunnel, you could no longer see MJ’s body. You needed to see her body. You needed to see the tangible proof that she was dead. Otherwise it wasn’t real. You could turn around and see MJ standing behind you. You would see her in training the next day. You would hear her laughing across the room. Her face would be alive and vivid, and you could get that false image of her dead, blank eyes out of your head.
You pressed your body into the side of the glass tunnel. You needed to see her body.
You did not get to see it. The trainers cleared the stands and then herded all of you back inside.
You didn’t know what happened to MJ after that. You dreamed that they sent her back home. She was too damaged to perform anymore, so they sent her back to her family. But then you woke up, and you remembered her on the platform. You remembered that she was dead.
For weeks, the living quarters were quiet. Training was subdued. There were no performances.
You didn’t cry. Some of the other children did. Those who were most upset were the ones who had barely known her. You and Fly and Curly and Little Sister and Papa Boy held your emotions close, and you did not talk about what happened.
You added MJ’s face to the others that you recalled every night and every morning.
You had already lost her. The worst thing you could do now was forget her.