Nothing Goes to Waste
“Nothing goes to waste.”
I could hear my father’s voice echoing in my mind, always pestering me to do this, not do that, to do it all differently.
Pleasing him may forever prove impossible, but I couldn’t help myself from trying.
He wanted a boy. It was a fact, not something I guessed about or suppressed in my psyche. No, he told me all the time. Usually right after correcting me or pointing out some flaw.
Born small, I stayed that way. Doctor said it was a problem with one of my glands. My dad thought it was gender-related. My theory? Self preservation. My body had figured out early on that it was a target and best to make itself hard to hit. Stupid theory, I know, but it helps to think it.
You get picked on for being small long enough, you eventually figure there’s no benefit to be had. Tall kids play galaxy ball, some of them going off to make millions. Fat kids push each other across gravity mats, winning accolades from their countries. When I was growing up, small kids had their money taken away from them. And they got plenty of shouts, but not the good kind.
I was fourteen before I discovered the one thing small people were good for. Riding Theryls. The fastest quadrupeds on twelve planets. Of course, Theryl racing wasn’t that lucrative for the jockey, even as the owner made piles of credits and the studs sold for piles more. And outside the secretive gambling rings where a year’s wage might be put on the line for a single race, nobody could name a single Theryl jockey.
But it paid a wage. And it was something I could be good at. As good as the boys. Maybe good enough for my dad.
I quit school and got a job in the stables, working my way up. A trainer named Juinco took me under his wing, let me cool a few Theryls down after their workout, get comfortable in the saddle. I did a few amateur circuits first, then some smaller shows, finding more ladders to work my way up. Only now, the rungs weren’t a stretch because of my height, but thanks to my gender.
Still, I worked hard, my father’s voice always in my ear, urging me along. Eventually, owners saw that I didn’t drink or do the drugs other jockeys got into. I didn’t gamble away my meager pay. I finally got my shot.
“You sure you wanna go pro?” Juinco asked me. “It ain’t easy going back.”
Juinco knew, he was a retired jockey, like most trainers. He’d made the sacrifices you have to in order to compete. Every ounce mattered. I could do the calculations in my head, each tenth of an ounce meant three fourths of a second. That might be the difference between first and fifth.
I’d grown used to the hunger, starving myself for days before a race. The trick was to have enough energy to not pass out, but no more. If the blackness pushed in around your vision while you jounced down the track, you’d hit it perfect. I could do that. My dad had taught me to be perfect.
My new pro sponsor paid for the legal procedures, like the removal of most of my thigh muscles. You didn’t need them on a Theryl—it was almost all in the hamstrings and ass. My arms I already had down to mere sticks, using them as little as possible, starving myself enough to have my body absorb its own bone marrow. Every ounce meant almost three and a half seconds. There were so many parts of me I could let go of.
You can tell a lot about a Theyrl Jockey just by shaking their hand. If you feel a full set of fingers wrap around the side of your hand, you’re dealing with an amateur. Someone on one of the smaller circuits. A lightweight, but not light enough.
Unfortunately, even though the facts were well-known, the procedure couldn’t be performed “officially.” I suspected the race committee wasn’t solely to blame, the jockeys treated it like a rite of passage. Something each rider needed to do themselves.
Thumb and forefinger, that was all I needed to stay in the saddle. Even if I fell off once or twice a year, I would win twice that many extra races by shaving the superfluous weight. I hardly needed to do the math.
It was Juinco’s final lesson before I moved on to the pro ranks. He told me a hot plate was better than a welding iron, the flat surface cauterizing the wound quicker and cleaner. I bit down on a strap of leather, just like he’d said, and aligned the clippers around the base of my pinkie. One of the long handles went across my shoulder; the other was gripped in my other hand, one of its last acts as a fully-formed appendage.
I made sure the cooking plate was all the way up before closing my eyes and pulling the handles together. It made a loud pop as it went through the bone, and the pain was more of a dull throb than the bite of a sharp cut. My brain wanted to pass out, but I had mastered the art of taming that sensation. I pushed my bleeding nub against the hotplate, filling the room with a sizzle and the smell of cooked meat.
It reminded me of the step I’d forgotten. Juinco’s insistence returning to me at the odor of my burning flesh.
“Eat something before you start,” he’d said. I didn’t think it was important, but all of a sudden understood why. I salivated uncontrollably and glanced at the missing piece of me sitting on the table.
When was the last time I’d eaten? I couldn’t remember.
I could hear my dad’s voice, clear as the popping of hot juice on the hotplate.
“Nothing goes to waste.”