The rain drums down on the reaping stage as my brother and I hurry to the fifteen-year-old section. Although it's been drizzling since this morning, no one put up any sort of tarp beforehand, so now the escort is babbling about her makeup being ruined. It's pretty funny to watch.
Nice that something today is funny. Everything else is pretty serious. We might have to get new reaping clothes if this keeps up. Not to mention—well, we're in the reaping. Matt and I don't have the best chances of getting picked, since we're both just fifteen. But it happens.
All I can say is it'd better not happen to us.
Matt and I stand quietly—normal for him, not so much for me—as the mayor belts out the Treaty of Treason and the escort comes up. The girl is drawn. I don't know her. The escort hurries over toward the boys' bowl, quickly removing the cloth someone had thrown over it at some point to pluck out a slip.
My twin brother freezes, and I'm just as shocked at first.
But not quite shocked enough to stop from shouting, "I volunteer for tribute!"
That was two months ago. It seems like so much longer, though. After everything I've been through since I said those words…
I instinctively wince. It's hard to believe what I've done. I… wanted to be a hero. To my brother and to anyone else I could. I wanted to help someone. But…
Considering I got out alive, it should be obvious that didn't happen.
I made friends. I protected them by killing other people. I unwittingly led them to their own deaths. I made more friends. They died, too. No matter what I did, I couldn't save anyone. Anyone but myself.
And now I'm going back home. I'm a little bit excited, but… I can't be that happy. I don't think I'll ever be. I've killed people. I've ripped them away from their families, their friends, their futures… I can barely live with it.
I know I'm never going to forgive myself. Then… Why would my family? They saw what I did. Why would they welcome a murderer into their house? I know my parents love their son, and my brother loves his only sibling. But that was before. Things aren't the same now. Now I'm a killer. I wasn't one before. Just because they welcomed that me then—it doesn't have anything to do with if they'll accept me now!
I just notice the train coming to a stop, and my heart rate goes up. I'm at the station. My family's going to be waiting for me here.
I stand up, slowing my breath.
I don't know. I want to see them. I want to know they're okay, for sure. I've been told, but hearing they're all right and being right there in front of them isn't the same thing.
But at the same time I want to stay here. I want to know them as the people who love me. And if I see them acting differently now, it'd be ruined.
I don't know. What am I going to do? What are they going to do?
The door clicks open, and the escort trots out in front of me. Shaking a little, I step out after her.
The station's not as crowded as I thought it'd be. My escort is talking up the only cameramen in sight right now.
I take another look around. And then I finally see them.
Mom. Dad. Matt. They're here, after all. About a metre away, just registering my appearance.
I look back at them, heart still throbbing hard. My throat's a little dry.
What should I say? What could I say?
"…Hey," I finally voice weakly.
I inhale deeply, taking a few hesitant steps toward them.
And suddenly my mother's arms are around me. She chokes out my name in a sob before Dad and Matt join the embrace. A hugely warm feeling overwhelms me, and I find myself in tears as well as I cling to them back.
"You're back… You're back…" Mom whispers over and over again, stroking the back of my head.
We stay this way for an indefinitely long moment before Dad softly announces it's time to go home.
Home. Something about the word… It's just so nice to hear… A place you know, where everyone loves you. And I'm finally going back.
The fact that we'll be moving right back out soon enough nags at the back of my head. But… I guess I don't really mind. Doesn't matter what building it is. As long as my family's there, it can always be home.
Slowly unraveling our little circle, we start walking back more-or-less single file. Mom keeps a tight grip on my hand, and Matt's arm remains resting over my shoulders.
It's just a few minutes before the sharp outline of our rooftop makes my heart quicken again. I'm home. Home. Just like nothing ever happened…
…Well, that's not the case… A lot has happened… Why are they acting like it hasn't?
I glance over at my brother, and he beams at me. I smile back, losing my never to ask, and face forward again.
They're just acting like nothing happened at all. Like I didn't murder human beings out there. Like I'm exactly the same. Why? Are they afraid I'll break down if they say anything about it? Are they unwilling to recognise it themselves? Or maybe… Maybe they're just putting on an act… Maybe they really don't forgive me… The thought hurts so much, but I couldn't blame them for it. A lot of people aren't going to forgive me—including myself. Why should they be any different?
The thought haunts me for the rest of the evening, even though everyone's trying to let me enjoy myself. We have a nice supper, play with the dogs, just sit awhile in each others' presence, and then it's time to go to bed.
Matt and I walk to our shared room matching steps. He pulls the dividing curtain across halfway to get in his nightclothes. I hesitate, but do the same.
Well… If I want to ask anyone… Now's a pretty good time.
My throat going dry a little, I swallow.
"Yeah?" He slides the curtain back and looks at me innocently.
I avert my gaze downward, wrinkling the leg of my pyjamas in my hand. "What… What do you really think?" I start quietly. "I mean… I mean, you can't be doing what you should be right now! You know just as much as I do that I've killed people! That's not right! That's not forgivable! So why—why are you acting like nothing even happened?"
Matt hesitates before striding over and sitting on my bed next to me.
"You're right," he starts, meeting my gaze only for a moment. "You did horrible things. You killed people. You ripped up their families. But…" He shakes his head. "But you're still my brother. I know you're still the same guy, even if you let yourself go crazy for a while. And… No matter what you do… I can always forgive you. So can Mom and Dad. So can a lot of other people. I'm not denying that you became a total monster back there. But you're out of the arena now. You're allowed to be a good person again." He closes his eyes and smiles at me. "And I know you will be."
I end up smiling back at him. "I'll definitely try." I look back down. "But… Can you really forgive me, just like that? I mean, you don't know what it was like for them! All of those families I destroyed with my own two hands!"
He laughs humourlessly. "I think I can identify with them." Matt looks back into my eyes. "When I'd wake up, every morning… No matter how you were when I saw you last… I'd see that empty bed over there, and I'd—I'd always have this horrible, horrible feeling that something had happened to you while I wasn't watching… That you wouldn't come back…" He takes hold of his elbows. "It was the worst feeling in the world."
I try to imagine how it would be the other way around and shudder. I wouldn't be able to take that. That's why I volunteered. I can't stand the thought of anything happening to Matt. I guess it's kind of… kind of self-righteous to think he wouldn't feel the same way.
"So you know… You know I made people feel like that and worse… And you'd still forgive me?"
"Yes," he answers, without hesitation. "Yes, I would. And I do." He puts his arm over my shoulders and squeezes. "No matter what you do, no matter what you've done, you're still my brother, and I still love you."
I lean into his shoulder a little bit. "Thanks. I love you, too, man."
We sit there in silence for a while before Matt pulls his arm back to his side and gets up. "Well, we'd better get to sleep," he announces, nodding down at me.
"Yeah. I'm getting tired, anyway," I admit, stretching.
Matt smiles at me one last time before padding over to his side and throwing back his covers.
Tunneling into my own sheets, I pull the wonderfully-familiar texture all the way up to my chin. I roll over a little to face Matt's side of the room.
"Good night, Matt."
"Good night," he echoes pleasantly, reopening his eyes to say one last thing.
"And welcome home, bro. Welcome home."