You clung to Papa Boy as long as you could, your fingers digging into the flesh on his arm. The trainers did not bother to dislodge you when they prodded you out of the glass tunnel and back into the facility, but Papa Boy peeled your hand from his arm and then took your hand in his own.
The trainers lined all of you up in the hallway outside the arena and studied your faces for a long, silent moment. Then, they separated you and Papa Boy and Little Sister and Fly and Curly from the others. The other children were herded back to the living quarters, and the six of you were left in the hall. You were left in the hall for a long time. You and Papa Boy sat down. Little Sister placed her head against your leg and fell asleep. Fly and Curly played a clapping game for a while before they got bored. Two young trainers were left with you.
Later, you would wonder why you didn’t run. You probably could have overtaken the trainers. You were fast, faster than they were, and most of you were bigger. But you still didn’t move. Maybe it was fear that kept you immobile. You did not know what you would do once you got outside. You could only run so far. You did not know how far you were from home.
But maybe it was the knowledge that no matter how fast you ran, how many trainers you eluded, escape would always be impossible. This facility, these trainers, the prescribed routines, the day-to-day indignities—they were your life now, and nothing would ever change.
Finally, the older trainers returned. They yanked you away from Papa Boy and Little Sister. You went without protest or complaint. The trainers gripped each of you by the shoulders and walked you, slowly to the white and chrome rooms. You were isolated from each other, one child to one room.
The trainers closed you in, shut the doors, and dimmed the lights. You sat in the corner and waited. No food was brought to you. You grew hungry, but the hunger was not so overwhelming that you could not ignore it. You slept, and when you awoke, you were slumped over on the floor. There was no change in the lighting, but food was waiting for you by the door. You scrambled across the floor and ate with your hands. Then, you crawled on top of the bed and waited. You focused your eyes on the door. You willed it to open. It didn’t.
You thought about the others, and then you banged on the wall behind you. There was no response. You banged on the opposite wall. You still heard nothing.
You wondered if they had removed the other children already. You wondered if you were alone. You breath came in short, shallow pants, and you had to sit down on the floor and breathe deeply. Panic still hummed under your skin. You had not been alone in a very long time.
You wondered if you were going to be alone here forever. You wondered if this was your punishment.
You thought about Ma. You thought you might deserve to be punished. But there was no way you could have known what would happen, and you hadn’t wanted her to get hurt. But she did. And you had caused it. But maybe she deserved it. She had not always been kind. She had hurt you. She had hurt Little Sister.
But you wondered if a hurt plus a hurt equaled anything but more pain.
MJ had been hurt. MJ was the only one who had been completely innocent, and she was gone. MJ had always been kind. She held and caressed and kept peace. MJ didn’t hurt anyone. MJ wouldn’t have allowed you to hurt anyone. She would have cut and curtailed your plan, so it would not be mean or ugly or dangerous. Instead, it would be joyous like your first rebellion. Separation would have been inevitable, but MJ would have made sure that this punishment was not meaningless.
You were unbalanced without her. You were unbalanced without the others. If you lost them, you would lose what was left of yourself.
You knocked on the walls again. You strained to hear a response. None came.
You began to search the room for sharp objects. The drawers and cabinets were locked. There was nothing loose on the floor, nothing on the bed of padded plastic and foam. But there were plenty of hard surfaces. You remembered slamming your head into the shower wall and feeling the tiles breaking under your skin. So, you sat facing the far wall, and you crashed your head into the plaster until the movement became repetitive, and you no longer felt any pain.
You must have lost consciousness at some point because you woke up in a new room, squirming under straps that held you to a bed. You heard someone else breathing the deep solid breaths of sleep. Panic bled out from your skin. You craned your head to the side, and you saw Little Sister, her arms wrapped in white bandages. She must have been more successful in finding sharp objects than you had been. You avoided thinking about the others, choosing instead to focus on the concrete realness of Little Sister, present, here in the room with you.
You were scared to sleep, but, eventually, you succumbed to your body’s weariness.
You woke again to the sound of Little Sister’s voice. She was telling you a story. You remained completely still until she was finished. You wanted to know the end. You finally turned your head to look at her and were greeted with her laugh. You could not touch each other, so you gave words, like comfort, to each other.
You were both reluctant to sleep, but the morning came quickly, and both of you were still alive and present.
Someone came to remove the bandages, but they left you strapped to the beds.
You and Little Sister wondered about life outside your room. It seemed difficult to believe that the other children were still going through their daily routines.
In the evening, a small girl in a white coat came into the room and shoved one needle into Little Sister’s arm and another into yours. In your last conscious minutes, you realized you were going somewhere, and you hoped Little Sister was going with you.
When you woke later, you were secured in the back of a truck. Little Sister’s small warm body was next to yours.
You were going to get to keep her. She was going to stay with you.
There, in the dark, listening to the vibrations of the metal walls, you exhaled until your lungs felt empty.
Then, softly and silently, you cried.