You were returned three days later in the middle of the night.
You could not sleep; the sounds of the others—snoring, snuffling, rustling of sheets—rasped against your nerves. You rose from your bunk and soundlessly paced the length of the room.
You discovered that Freckles and Pale-boy slept opposite each other. You planted yourself in the space between their bunks and watched them. In sleep, their faces were gentle. Her hands were tucked underneath her pillow, his fisted innocently in his blanket. They were harmless. Even if they woke now, with their reflexes slowed by sleep, you could hurt them both easily. Your fists could collapse the cartilage in a nose and crush the delicate skin around an eye. But catching them unware would rarely be an option. You’d have to come up with a different plan.
You crossed soundlessly into the fight room. You walked the perimeter of the room, your hands trailing across the walls, until you were no longer afraid. Then, you sat down in the center of the room, folding your hands under your feet. Staring out into the dark bunk room, you waited for morning.
When the bells rang—and you heard the others moving around—you headed to the eating room. After picking up your tray, you sat down with your back against the far wall. You ate carelessly, your fingers rooting around on the plate for food, and kept your eyes on the door. The curly-haired girl entered and, seeing you, hesitated. The other children pushed around her. She eventually fell in line with the others, but, after getting her food, she put her tray down on the table and approached you.
“Little Brother,” she said.
She held her hand out to you. You stared at it. She left her hand hovering there in the space between her body and yours. You lifted up the bowl of mush to your mouth, your eyes watching her over the bowl’s rim. Her hand closed, fingers curling into her palm. She returned to the table.
When Little Sister entered the room, she exclaimed—happily and loudly—at your presence. She dropped down next to you without bothering to pick up food first. She reached for the fruit on your plate. You let her take it.
You were watching the table.
Without you and Little Sister, there were eight empty chairs that served as a buffer between the large boy’s group and the curly haired girl’s, making it easier for them to ignore each other. No matter how riotous the large boy’s group became no one on the other side of the table even blinked an eye in their direction.
On his side of the table, the large boy was holding court. He rarely spoke, instead allowing those around him to fill the air with their constant chatter and suffocate the room with their ceaseless motion. One boy tossed up pieces of fruit to catch in his mouth while the boy sitting next to him kept stealing the pieces out of mid-air and shoveling them down his own throat. Freckles had stolen a plate of food and was engaging in a game of keep-away with the boy sitting across from her. Their laughter was pitiless and unkind.
On her side of the table, almost no one spoke. They appeared to be experiencing a quiet misery together, so their casual touching—a tug of the hair, a hand on a shoulder—was not a form of affection but a consolation.
That day you and Little Sister were trained separately from the others. You found the training simultaneously strenuous and boring. In the time between instructions, Little Sister kept attempting to touch the scars on your face. You were finally able to allow her fingers to stroke the raised pinkish lines without flinching.
At dinner, you and Little Sister sat in your spots on the floor. Little Sister happily picked at her food while you watched the same patterns you had observed at breakfast emerge again; there was the same buffer, the same morose silence from one side of the table, the same mocking laughter from the other. You and Little Sister were the only disruption.
The two of you were an object of curiosity, if not one of discussion. Even the large boy could not overlook you. Throughout the meal, his eyes kept flicking over in your direction. You were certain that he would physically pull you from the floor just as you were certain you wouldn’t fight him. (Little Sister didn’t deserve to be harmed.) But he did nothing other than observe with considerable curiosity. You attempted to make yourself as dull a specimen as possible.
After dinner, the curly-haired girl stopped you on the way to the fight room, her hands pressing down hard on your shoulders. “No trouble,” she said. “No. Trouble.”
You detached her hands from your shoulders and walked away from her.
In the fight room, the others had already collected around the room’s edges. You found an empty spot on the wall where you could stand. Little Sister scampered in and occupied the space to your left. She knocked her arm against yours and grinned at you. You weren’t sure why she was so pleased, but there was some comfort in having her there—especially since you were trembling so much it felt like your muscles were going to jump out of your skin.
Nothing started until the large boy arrived. He did not look at or speak to anyone before taking up residence in his corner.
You expected one of the confident, bullying, angry children—Pale-boy or Freckles—to start the fights. You expected them to pick on one of the younger children, someone weak and unprepared. This did not happen. One of the curly-haired girl’s morose companions stepped into the center of the room. He selected Freckles as his opponent. The fight took more time than you expected. In the end, Freckles won, though there was blood flowing from her nose and from a cut across her forehead. The boy crawled off the mat and sat propped against the wall with his legs pulled up to his chest and his slightly broken face resting against his knees. No one approached or attempted to help him.
The next four fights followed this same pattern. One of the curly-haired girl’s companions issued a challenge to one of the children from the large boy’s group. All of the challengers lost. No one walked away undamaged. No one walked away happy. Even the victors appeared relieved rather than pleased. In the sixth fight, however, a blue-eyed female challenged Freckles; Freckles lost. Her loss incited no celebration. Both of the combatants isolated themselves in separate corners of the room, rubbing at bruises and wiping away blood.
Once they had deserted the mats, Little Sister bounded into the center of the room. She selected her opponent. Her selection ignored her. She selected another and was ignored again. The others disregarded her increasingly frenetic movements; most of them were slumped against the walls, exhausted. Their reactions to her were telling; Little Sister’s actions had happened many times before.
The large boy stepped forward, forcing Little Sister to retreat back to your side. He stood at the room and surveyed everyone, nodded once, and left the room. The others filed out after him.
Back in the bunk room, Freckles ceded her bed up to the challenger, settling herself on a bunk not far from yours. The curly-haired girl noted her presence with a slight incline of her head. Freckles nodded back and laid down on her bunk.
In the morning at breakfast, Freckles occupied a chair opposite from the curly-haired girl and accepted the consoling touches of the others. On the other end of the table, the blue-eyed girl sat next to Pale-boy who promptly attempted to steal her food. In retaliation, she dumped his mush on to his lap. The laugher was riotous.
It occurred to you that you would need to learn how to fight. The logistics of this proposition, however, were difficult to figure. Those adept at fighting seemed unlikely to be willing to teach you. Learning on the go was not an option unless you were willing to be pummeled on a nightly basis. Your mind gnawed at this problem all day. That night, when Little Sister once again sprang into the center of the room, you heeded her request for a fight.
She looked confused, but her confusion quickly shifted to joy, and she took a swing at your head. You were both so inexperienced that the fight devolved into flailing limbs with occasional, completely accidental, contact. By the time you had both retreated to opposite edges of the mat, the room had emptied. You hadn’t even noticed anyone leaving. From the doorway, the curly-haired girl watched the two of you.
“MJ!” Little Sister said happily between exhaled breaths. “I got to fight!”
The curly-haired girl, MJ, walked into the room. “Come,” she said, holding out hands to each of you.
You shook your head and motioned to Little Sister to come at you again. She punched you ineffectually in the shoulder, and you retaliated with a light slap to the side of her head. She laughed.
“Come,” MJ said again.
“No,” you said. Little Sister slammed her body into yours, and you both fell to the floor.
“Come now!” MJ said.
“No,” you said, and you wrapped your arms around MJ’s legs, forcing her to lose her balance and topple to the floor. She landed on her back with a solid thud. Her body quivered on the mat, gasping for air. You scrambled toward her and hesitantly placed your open hand on her chest. Her eyes snapped open. She glared at you, threw off your hand, and got to her feet. She hit you in the mouth once and again.
She poked you in the chest with her finger and yelled, “Dumb! Dumb boy!”
You pushed her back, both hands against her shoulders. “Need to fight.”
From behind you, Little Sister echoed your words. “Need to fight,” she said. “Need to fight.”
MJ stalked out of the room.
That night you came abruptly out of sleep. Someone’s hands were shaking your shoulders. Once your eyes adjusted to the dark, you saw that it was MJ. Little Sister stood at the end of your bunk. She giggled and waved at you. MJ shushed her then turned back to you and motioned for you to follow her.
The three of you ended up back in the fight room. MJ positioned you and Little Sister opposite each other.
She stood a few feet away and said softly, “Need to fight? Learn to fight.” She planted her feet solidly, put her fists up, and nodded at you and Little Sister. “Copy,” she said.
You shared a grin with Little Sister and raised your fists.