You and Little Sister were returned to your living quarters. MJ and the large boy were not.
Strange days followed. Though a couple of the children attempted to reinstate the fights, this endeavor didn’t take off. The evenings became blank white spaces needing to be filled with activity.
You did not have the same problem filling your days. Each one was spent in the company of Little Sister and Three—the fair-haired female trainer.
The comprehensive list of what you and Little Sister had learned was very short: she could climb up your back without jabbing you repeatedly (for the most part), you could balance her on your shoulders without dropping her (very often), and you could get her back down to the mat without injuring anyone (almost). You had also learned to do a few skills in tandem: handstands (Little Sister could balance longer than you could), somersaults (you could each manage three in a row forward and two backwards), and cartwheels (Little Sister was better at these as well as you always landed too heavily). Three had been attempting to teach you to do a front flip but gave up the third time you collapsed into each other and Little Sister’s hand busted open your nose while your elbow gave her a black eye.
That day, while you were both holding cool, white, squishy pads to your broken faces, Three tried to teach you what you assumed was her name. It was two funny sounded syllables. She repeated it over and over again. You and Little Sister blinked at each other but said nothing. Three’s speech became slower and more insistent, creating long deliberate pauses between the parts of her name.
“Ma,” Little Sister blurted. “Ma.”
Three’s face brightened. She leaned toward Little Sister, placing one hand on her shoulder and the other on her knee. She repeated her name, louder, her face inches from Little Sister’s.
“Ma,” Little Sister said again. “Ma.”
Three shook her head and said both syllables of her name.
“Ma,” Little Sister insisted.
Three sat back on her heels and exhaled. She turned to you.
“Ma,” you said.
Three—Ma—smiled, tapped both of you on the head, and took away the white, squishy pads from your faces. Your nose was no longer swollen. Little Sister’s eye was no longer bruised. Training began again.
Undeterred by your failure to learn her full name, Ma attempted to teach you more words.
During another halt in training—Little Sister had jammed two of her fingers trying to land a cartwheel—Ma knelt down in front of the two of you. Little Sister ignored her, pressing her face into your leg, closing her eyes, and cuddling her hand into her chest. Ma focused on you. She picked up your hand and placed it on your chest and said a word. She repeated it again and again, each time placing your hand flat against your chest. To make her happy you attempted to replicate the sounds she made. You must have gotten the sounds right because she clapped her hands and kissed you on the head.
Then, she turned her attention to Little Sister. Ma tapped her on the forehead and coaxed her to open her eyes. Little Sister rolled her head in Ma’s direction. Ma offered her a different word, but she couldn’t get Little Sister to focus long enough to learn her word. So, you said Little Sister’s word too. Ma nodded at you, repeated the word and pointed at Little Sister. At that point, you realized the words she had given you were names.
She had named you, assigned you each one small word to identify you to the world. You didn’t like the words she had chosen. They sounded hard and cold. But you had no other option except to respond to the names. Ma would not call you by anything else.
You forgot your frustration with the names the day Ma introduced you to the gliders again.
When she brought you to the big empty room, you ran to the tiny, slender machine and placed your hands and face against its shiny surface. Even though it wasn’t turned on, you thought you could already feel its soft vibration singing to you. Behind you, you heard the other machine switch on. Little Sister nudged her machine sideways to tap you in the shoulder. You stood up and grinned at her before slipping your feet into your glider and turning it on. The humming beneath your feet was familiar and friendly.
You heard Ma calling your names. When that failed to gain your attention, she played a series of recognizable tones that you could have easily followed. But Little Sister tapped her glider with yours and took off across the room. You had no choice but to chase her. Ma’s voice became increasingly distant as you circled higher and higher in the room. Little Sister’s laughter soared, light and buoyant, bouncing against the walls and ceiling. She was within an arm’s reach of you when the glider stopped responding to your commands. It slowed down seemingly by itself and lowered itself to the floor.
Ma was standing in the middle of the room, gripping a small device in her hand. She had stripped you of control of the glider. She finally turned the machines off, and despite several attempts, neither you nor Little Sister could turn them back on.
Ma frowned at the two of you while her fingers flitted around a small, flat, red box clipped to her hip. Her fingers tapped the button. A brief shock darted across your skin. She pressed the box again, her fingers lingering longer this time. The subsequent shock burrowed into your muscles.
Ma stepped forward and brushed her hand over your cheek and Little Sister’s hair. She spoke to you softly. You inferred that independent play with the gliders would not be tolerated.
You were eventually taught to fly, very slowly, with Little Sister sitting on your shoulders. You were glad that Ma never asked her to stand. You carried images in your head of Little Sister smashing her head into the floor and blood matting down her curly hair.
Little Sister did not like being denied the use of her own glider. She revealed her displeasure by knotting her fingers in your hair and pulling at your scalp. The message was clear: you should not be having fun if she wasn’t. You weren’t actually having fun at all, but you couldn’t get her to believe this. So, you carried her around on your shoulders, feeling like she was trying to pull your head apart piece by piece, flying so slowly around the room that you might as well have been walking.
The glider had lost its power and appeal. Training once again assumed its mantle of dullness.
Fortunately, MJ and the large boy were finally returned to the living quarters.
One day after training, MJ was waiting for you in the bunk room. From her spot on her bed, she watched the other children file into the room, deposit their clothing in the wall chute, and head to the shower room. Some of the children glanced at her, others tapped at her bare feet when they passed by her, but she only hopped down to greet you and Little Sister.
She placed her arms around Little Sister first, drawing her in close and nestling Little Sister’s head under her chin. Little Sister closed her eyes and molded herself into MJ. MJ finally let her go—though Little Sister kept hold of her hand—and embraced you. You placed your head against her shoulder. She smelled warm and familiar. You could smell your own scent as well: stale sweat and something sour and cold. You let her go and went to wash.
The large boy, you discovered later, had encamped in the former fight room. Someone brought him blankets and a pillow, and he nested in the middle of the room. Someone else brought him food which he picked at but mostly ignored. When you marched to training in the morning, he lined up behind you and Little Sister and meandered, at his own pace, lagging after everyone else. You weren’t sure, but you thought that a couple of the children may have attempted to get him to start the fights up again. He didn’t do so, but he also didn’t vacate the fight room.
Without the presence of the large boy, everything in the living quarters became looser. In the eating room, the table no longer had sides. In fact, the table was not in much use at all. The children fanned out around the room to eat or took their food to the hallway or ate on their beds. The evenings became devoted to play rather than to violence. At the end of each day, the small toys that the trainers had given you were unearthed from under beds, and the children cajoled the little holographic animals into action. The toys were swapped and exchanged often. No one appeared to have a favorite; one toy was as good as another.
You could not watch these games without evoking the memory of pain, so you searched for places where you could avoid hearing or watching the others. The only place you could find was the former fight room. No one played in there. The large boy had yet to abandon it.
You had convinced yourself that you were not afraid of him. Still, you waited for his permission before you entered his space. From his nest in the middle of the room, he spotted you standing in the doorway.
He nodded at you. “Come,” he said. “Sit.”
“Don’t want to play?” he asked.
“No,” you said.
“No,” he repeated. “No. Me too.”
The large boy looked around the room and then back at you. “Want to fight?” he asked.
“Why?” you asked.
He shrugged. “Was what we did. Before.”
“No,” you said.
“Okay,” he said.
“What do you want?” you asked.
He was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, “A name.”
You nodded. This was something you had been considering, but all you could give him was a part of your own name. “Brother?” you asked him.
He considered this name. Before he could comment on it, another voice spoke. “Papa Boy,” MJ said, leaning inside the room.
He looked up at her. “Yes,” he said.