The new children had nightmares. When they woke you up, you pulled your blanket over your ears. This was fairly effective at muffling their whimpering. In the mornings, their exhaustion and misery were visible. You did not comfort them.
Instead, you became an expert at erasing them. You did not see them falling asleep at breakfast, did not hear them stumbling in line on the way to training, did not feel them hit the mats during training. And, so, you didn’t have to be reminded of who they had replaced, and they could not prod the raw place inside you that missed and missed and missed your family. They were no longer a physical nagging reminder of what was lost.
And so, their nightmares no longer bothered you. You slept peacefully and without dreams.
But they did bother Little Sister. Unable to sleep, she padded to each of the beds and poked the new children awake. They looked up at her, their eyes wet and luminous in the dark. “Stop,” she told them. “Stop.” They did not understand her, so they just moved further away from her rough, prodding fingers.
Because her initial methodology proved unsuccessful, she took to sleeping curled up against your back. It was getting difficult for your small bed to accommodate both of you, and she shifted and squirmed with every sound. While she slept fitfully, you did not sleep at all.
In the dark of the room, the pathetic, little sounds emanating from the beds around you reverberated in your ears and grated against your teeth. Their misery seemed designed and deliberate.
So, you planned your own designed and deliberate actions in response.
The others had apparently done the same. At mealtimes, Curly shoved the children out of their chairs, often without rhyme or reason. So, they flinched when they saw him (either in or out of the eating room). He took pleasure in their reactions, grinning a feral grin as he watched them shrink away from him. Eventually, Little Sister became his partner, taking the victim’s food while they flailed on the floor. She took a handful of whatever was on their plates, leaned down, and chewed right in front of their faces. Sometimes she spit the food out, leaving it half-mashed and dripping spit in the middle of the recently vacated chair. Papa Boy and Fly took turns keeping the new children out of the game room, and this became their new favorite game. MJ spent most of her time in bed.
These little annoyances were fine, but you had your eye on something bigger.
You and Little Sister trained with two new pairs of children, and during training, they watched you and Little Sister to see what they were supposed to do. Either they did not quite trust Ma or did not quite trust themselves to read her signals correctly. Regardless, it would be easy to mislead them. So, this is what you did. In the evenings, after training, you offered to teach them the tone signals. You positioned them in the middle of the hallway, hummed out the signal sounds, and you demonstrated the proper formation to go with each.
Their confusion in training was a pleasure to watch. Their heads swiveled between Ma and you and, paralyzed by indecision, they would do nothing. Their willfulness was swiftly corrected.
You became someone to be feared. The children skirted around you in the bunk room and would not occupy the eating room when you were present. In the mornings and evenings, they would creep in to get their food and creep out again. The extra space provided by their absence was enjoyed. Curly and Little Sister stretched out across multiple chairs and tossed food in their mouths with their hands. Papa Boy and Fly sat on top of the tables to eat.
Papa Boy tapped you on the head and, beaming at you, said, “Excellent.”
Fly applauded you when you got up to take food to MJ that she likely wouldn’t eat.
Because they had nowhere else to go with their fear and anger, the new children attacked each other. There were fights in the showers and in the hallways. Life rapidly devolved.
Creating chaos was not as fun as you had imagined. It actually was exhausting, so while the others exulted, you retreated. You weren’t the only one to do so. There was a dark-eyed boy who appeared to exist outside the disorder. He was silent, and he interacted with no one. But one evening, amidst the cacophony and confusion of the living quarters, he approached you. He spoke garbled words you couldn’t understand.
So, you decided to teach him your language. You started by teaching him your name. His face was intent and serious, mouthing the word before he spoke it. He said it carefully and quietly. You nodded and smiled at him when he got it right. He nodded back. He did not offer you his name even after you asked. He just shrugged. You realized no one had bothered to name him.
You brought him to MJ, tapping her gently in the face until she opened her eyes.
“He needs a name,” you told her.
She just blinked and rolled over.
You looked back at the boy. You stared at his earnest face, hoping for inspiration, but no name came to you. So, in your head, he became No Name.
The lessons continued, the two of you crouched beside your bunk, you giving him word after word. It was, of course, inevitable that other children would join you. After a month, you had a class of four.
You assumed that as you learned them, you would be responsible for naming them just as others had named you, but none of the names you conceived seemed adequate to contain your clever pupils. So it was fortunate that the children opted to name themselves, using their new vocabulary. Each one selected a word they found pleasing and adopted it for their own. This is how you ended up with a boy named Yellow and a girl named Cube. The other girl skipped between Rabbit and Castle before deciding to call herself Cat. No Name took the longest to decide. He offered you his name quietly and without fanfare.
“Joy,” he said.
“Joy,” you repeated.
He nodded and sat down by the wall.
Your class was not enough to create a connection to bind everyone together. You were not confident enough to become attached to Yellow, Cube, Cat, and Joy. You liked them, but you also knew that separations were inevitable. The four children also did not cleave to each other as you thought they would. They were mostly amiable, but you thought they would become family. They did not.
Everything kept rolling noisily and somewhat violently along. The established hierarchies went unchallenged, the new children kept beating on each other in the halls, and MJ slept through it all.
Then, after months of stasis, there was an alteration. One day following a performance, the trainers divided you into two groups, one for the males—one for the females. This division was not immediately alarming to anyone but MJ. She looked at the trainers’ faces and then dropped to the floor and started to cry. Ma and the other female trainer pulled her up by her arms and dragged her along with the other females toward your living quarters.
The male trainers flanked your group and marched you in the opposite directions. There was not time to consider where you were headed. They led you into new corridors that smelled bitter and sharp. Up ahead, you could see a pair of doors gliding open. When you crossed over the threshold, you were confronted with a space you already knew. There was the bunk room, the silver tiled shower room, the game room, the eating room.
They had placed you in a new living quarters. The trainers left you to make meaning of this latest and strangest change. The old quarters were not broken or damaged. Everything still functioned perfectly. And yet, here was this new space.
You followed Papa Boy and Curly into the bunk room. They claimed the bunks closest to the wall. You walked up and down the room, touching the starched sheets, glancing under the beds. You returned to them and shrugged. They shrugged in return.
You were growing used to the inexplicable.
(Still, Papa Boy and Curly spent the night sleeping in the hallway by the doors. Still, you were relieved to see the girls in the morning.)
Despite the overt similarities, the rules of the old space—the boundary lines demarcating who controlled and who could occupy which spaces—no longer applied. Shared confusion had rewritten the terms of your community. You treated each other with indifference rather than violence and cruelty.
This treatment transferred to the new arrivals. Within a month, all the empty beds in your quarters were filled, but you barely registered the new occupants. When the new arrivals discovered that you didn’t care about them at all, they relaxed into apathy as well.
There were so many of you, it seemed that bodies were being piled into training and into performances.
The audiences appeared to love the new additions.
The trainers did not.
No one asked what you felt, so you opted to feel nothing.