Not forgetting MJ was an absorbing enterprise.
In the mornings, when Little Sister greeted you, you remembered the day MJ named you. In the evenings, sliding your body under the blanket on your bed, you remembered that she would let you curl up in her bed, tucked into the curve of her body, her breath, hot and soft against your head. You bound these memories to yourself, using them to muffle the everyday un-kindnesses. You wondered if it was possible to live your life backwards. You wondered if it was possible to live a life where you only remembered good things.
Some nights you would dream of MJ’s wide, unmoving eyes, and you would wake up crying, sadness laying heavy across your chest. By the time the morning bells rang, the sadness had absorbed into your skin. Movement was an effort. Your legs were the trunks of trees, your feet the roots, dug deep into the earth. Breathing hurt. Everything hurt.
The only thing you could remember was that MJ was gone. MJ had died. MJ was dead.
So, you wrapped yourself in the sound of her laugh, while around you there were more changes.
The performances had stopped. They stopped for a very long time. Instead of performing, you trained, but you didn’t practice any of the more exacting routines. You reverted back to the old maneuvers which you rehearsed so many times, they ingrained into your muscles.
Crowds watched from above. Their numbers soon dwindled.
The trainers were bored. They half-heartedly watched you to make sure you didn’t hurt yourselves or each other, giving you mostly incomplete tone sequences to follow, knowing you could fill in the blanks.
Then, they brought in new trainers to work with you. The old trainers loitered by the walls and watched them make mistakes. You did not give them problems, but you did not help them either. They played the wrong tone sequences. You knew what they wanted, but it was more entertaining to act confused. They would play the same wrong sequence over and over, and when you failed to perform, they would shock you. The shocks were light. They were clearly scared to do too much. After watching them flail around for a while, the older trainers would step in, explain to them precisely what they did wrong. Cowed, the new trainers would try again. They kept failing, but at least they stopped shocking you.
Once the new trainers were broken in, the performances were reinstated, but they were different. The number of trainers in the arena doubled. The number of children was halved, but you still performed with Papa Boy and Little Sister and Curly and Fly.
The trainers were perched on every platform, standing behind you when you were performing. They were close enough to catch you if you happened to fall. Some of the new ones didn’t know well enough to keep out of your way. You kicked one of them in the stomach. Little Sister knocked a couple of them down. After that, the trainers on your platform flinched whenever you moved. So, they placed Ma on your platform. She kept out of your way, but she kept calling out praise to you and Little Sister. Her words were meant only for you, and they were intended to be a comfort. Instead, they were a distraction. You wished that she would be quiet, but she proved incapable of silence. So, then, you wished that she would occupy a space other than your platform. The ground seemed ideal.
The use of the gliders was limited. They moved slower, so you slogged through the air. You couldn’t fly above a particular height either, so it was impossible to perform most of the more interesting routines.
But then they taught you something new.
These routines were slower, deliberate, and intricate, like dancing. You had to focus on the placement of your limbs, the tilt of your head, how your glider moved in conjunction with the others. The routines weren’t as exciting, but you didn’t hate them.
The audiences didn’t either. They were less vocal than they had been in the past, but their eyes followed you intently. The applauded fervently at the end of every performance.
The trainers seemed pleased. They joked with each other during training and were familiar with the audiences during performances. They were free and easy with affection with all of you. You wanted to bite the hands that touched your back and shoulders. You hated their happiness. You assumed the others would as well, but they just seemed bored and indifferent. No one was as angry as you were. No one else carried a ball of resentment around, nestled in the center of their chests. You could not understand.
One evening you found Papa Boy in the game room. His attention was focused on the maze game. You stood at his shoulder watching him wander around the maze. He did not ask why you were there, but he did not tell you to go away.
After his third trip around the maze, you asked, “You think about MJ?”
He blinked hard. His figure in the game got stuck in a juncture between two walls. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
“Yes,” he said.
“You angry?” you asked. You needed him to be angry. You needed someone else to hurt as badly as you did.
“Yes,” he said.
“I feel bad,” you said. This was the least of what you were feeling, but it was the only word you could find.
Papa Boy seemed to understand. “They took something from us,” he said.
“Yes,” you said.
“They took something from her,” he said.
“Yes,” you said.
“We should take from them,” he said.
You nodded, but you did not understand. You did not know what he wanted to take. Or what he could take. Nothing could be taken from the training room. Everything was either too big or bolted down. He couldn’t take a glider. He could try, but the trainers would shock him until he lost consciousness. There was nothing to be taken from the arena, unless he wanted to try to fly into the crowd. There were lots of things to be destroyed in the living quarters. He could wreck the games, break the plates, tear through mattresses and pillows, and shred blankets. But he wasn’t after destruction, and there was no reason to take anything from the living quarters.
The opportunities for stealing were few. The objects to be stolen were fewer. Still, you looked around the spaces you inhabited.
Finally, days later, you asked Papa Boy, “What can we take?”
He smiled, teeth bared.
His plan was undeniably cruel, but it was not undeserved. It also didn’t technically involve taking anything. Still, the thought of it was enough to poke a hole in your resentment.
Papa Boy told Curly. You told Little Sister. She told Fly. Little Sister and Curly wanted to implement the plan immediately. Fly adapted and fixed the problems none of you had seen. You could not practice what you would be doing in the arena, so everyone had to be completely, entirely sure of their actions. Fly created a series of signals to help coordinate your movements. At night, when everyone else was asleep, you and Papa Boy and Curly talked the plan through over and over. Finally, when you had memorized the signals and the plan, Papa Boy made the decision to implement it.
You were standing in the tunnel when he gave the signal, a low tuneless hum designed to be ignorable. Little Sister grasped your wrist, and, linked together, you walked into the arena.
The performance began and proceeded smoothly. The audience was appreciative. The trainers appeared satisfied.
There was a brief pause before the finale during which you were all to remain motionless, perched on your gliders above the platforms. But Papa Boy snapped his fingers three times in sequence, and you moved. He, Curly, and Fly dove downward toward Ma who was standing on the left edge of your platform. You and Little Sister flew toward her, near enough to make her stumble back. She fell.
She screamed as she flailed down toward the arena floor, the sound of her voice tinny in your ears. You didn’t know why she was panicking. She would be fine. The floor was soft enough to cushion her fall. She might be bruised, but she wouldn’t be permanently broken. You watched her hit the arena floor and go flying back upward. The other trainers ran after her, trying to herd her body. She fell again and before anyone could catch her, she bounced again. The right side of her body banged against one of the lower platforms. Her limbs stopped thrashing. When she finally landed for good, she hit the ground with a solid thud and rolled. There was blood on her face.
One of the male trainers scooped her up and carried her from the arena. In his arms, Ma was still and silent. You thought of MJ.
You wondered if Ma was dead.
Two of the trainers lowered all of you down to the arena floor. Four of the trainers trapped you back in the tunnel.
You stood by Papa Boy. “We took,” you said.
“Yes,” he said.
You did not know what to think or what to do, so you leaned your body into his and let him support you. You wept, but you did not know why you were crying.
Finally, the trainers let you back inside.