Reaping Day is Matt's worst nightmare.
Not that it's anyone's favorite day, really, or a time that they prepare for weeks in advance, at least not with a positive connotation. The preparing is done with tiptoed footfalls and nights spent lying in bed awake staring at the ceiling. It's done during breakfast when every child between the ages of twelve and eighteen watches their parents with troubled eyes, noting the way that their spoons shake on the way to their mouths and that they don't initiate conversation. It's done in gleaming training arenas in Districts One, Two, and Four, where parents have learned to turn off the affection they feel towards their children at a very young age so that when the kids are brought into the Games, there is no sadness because they have no emotional connection.
That is how the preparing is done, and Matt hates the time of year when his mother falls silent and doesn't answer him right away when he speaks to her.
It's his last year, he thinks. His last year. After this, he's out forever. He's eighteen, he will no longer have his name in the Reaping Ball after this year and he can relax. He has no siblings, no one to look out for, and he and his family can go on living the way that they always have, that they always had before he was twelve years old, except without the worry that he will ever be in the Games again.
There are so many names. He can't be the one that's picked. He's only in there ten or eleven times. He took the tessarae a few years ago when his family was having an especially bad year, then again last year in secret, against his mother's wishes. They were starving and she wouldn't let him take tessarae but he could see the way her eyes were dull and lifeless. She was hungry. She was not used to being hungry and it scared Matt and so he took the tessarae. District 5 wasn't supposed to see that side of poverty, but the Capitol had been up in arms about something that had happened inside, some kind of shortage of one of the Districts' supplies and so all the Districts except One, Two, and Four had taken the hit.
She'd exploded on him when she found out.
"Matt, how could you do this? How could you go directly against my orders and taken that goddamned tessarae out? I swear on my grave, I'll go to the Peacekeepers right now and ask them to retract the offer-"
"Mom! Settle down, it's okay. It's okay, Mom. I'm seventeen. Reaping Day is coming up. I bet you a million dollars I'm not going to be picked."
She'd screamed at him some more and he'd let her and then gone up to his room and let his father calm her down. And when Reaping Day came, she wouldn't speak to him. And he waited with his breath held to see if he would be picked after all, and he wasn't, and when he came back home that day his mother held him so tight he could hardly breathe and she wept into his hair and whispered that she was sorry, she was sorry for screaming at him and she was sorry that she had let him go to the Reaping without even telling him that she loved him because what if he had been picked? And then she would get thirty or forty seconds with him before he went off to the Capitol and that was not enough time for a mother and a son to say their last words to each other.
He had gone back to work and forgotten about the whole thing, or tried to, anyway. He caught his mother watching him sometimes when she thought he didn't see. Making sure that he was still there, even though it would be absurd for him to have gone anywhere. She just wanted to make sure he was always there because she had come so close to losing him without being able to apologise.
And now it's Reaping Day again and Matt is actually in a good mood for once.
He's mulled over it for a very long time. After all, there's no way for him not to be thinking about it. After Reaping Day there are about two or three days when you feel intense relief that you haven't been picked and for a while everything seems alright. You forget about the Games because they take the tributes off and there's no word of them until they do their interviews and their tribute parade and so you can take your mind off of it for a little bit. You can go back to your normal life and pretend like everything's alright. But then it creeps back into your mind. You remember that there's always next year. And you start dreading every passing day again and it's always in your thoughts. What if it's me this time. What am I supposed to do if they call my name and I have to make the walk to the Justice Building and stand up on that stage. Fuck that, what am I supposed to do in the Games? How do I make people like me so they send me gifts and how am I supposed to even survive for a god damned minute when something like this has just happened to me, how do I even begin to process the fact that I am in the Games and that there is a three point eight percent chance of me getting out of here alive? How do I even begin to understand that my life is not protected, that I am not entitled to my survival, and that I am probably going to die in the next few days, if not right away at the Cornucopia?
So Matt has been thinking about it every second of every day. It is the background soundtrack to his world. He thinks about the Capitol and he thinks about the silver train he sees pull into District 5 every year and take the tributes away. He thinks about the interviews he's seen with past tributes and how very beautiful the one girl three years ago looked with her custom-made silver dress with the gold lining all over it, made to resemble a power plant theme, or a gear, or something like that. He didn't know, he just knew it represented District 5 perfectly and it was the first time he was ever proud of the tributes from his district. He prayed for her to win. He wanted it so badly. Her face was always set in this expression that made him understand just how determined she was to get back home alive.
He remembered that she did so well in the Games. Her interviews had gone flawlessly and she'd played up the fact that she had an older brother that had died in the Games when she was very young, and that she was going to avenge him. She'd been so elegant in her rage. He'd watched the sparks inside her come alive. She'd made it out of the Cornucopia with some kind of blowtorch that made fireballs, small ones, and she'd taken down seven tributes just by hiding around the network of caves that the arena had been and letting them loose.
And then she'd teamed up with District 4. It had been so beautiful. He'd been a boy that didn't want to team up with his own Careers and he'd decided she was valuable, and he'd taught her things. How to swim. How to catch fish. Which fish were edible and which ones had skin so rough they were like sandpaper and which ones were poisonous and could make you vomit up everything you'd eaten that day and the one before it. (They'd done this to one of the tributes and Matt had watched in awe that two people could learn so much from each other. The District 5 girl had been the one to catch the poisonous fish and swap it out with a normal one and when the tribute had unknowingly eaten the poisonous fish and ended up going into shock from the damage done to his system, District 4 had been so proud of District 5. They'd hugged for what seemed like forever and Matt could see the sun shining in District 4's face.)
But then he'd turned on her. They were the last tributes besides a male from District 9 and a female from District 2. And he'd told her that they were going to split up, that they'd each take on a different tribute and see what it came to, and they'd hugged one last time for posterity's sake. They had spent most of the Games touching in at least some way.
She'd sighed during the hug, and the whole Capitol thought it was this romantic thing and that the two of them were in love, that one of them would probably be killed by the tribute they went off to face and that fate would have its hand and they wouldn't have to kill each other. You could hear people swooning in front of their screens and you could tell the people who were betting on District 4 were kind of hoping that maybe District 5 would win if 4 couldn't, and vice versa. It was this whole big thing and everyone was in love with the idea of love.
And then District 5 dropped to the floor of the cave and District 4 grinned smugly in the darkness.
No one knew what had happened at first. District 5 was dead, that was the only thing that anyone knew, and the cannon went off and the hovercraft appeared and took her away. Everyone was in an uproar. People in the Capitol were drinking themselves into oblivion from confusion because that was the only way they knew how to delay their emotions for a little bit, and District 5 was crying that night. Matt remembered going to sleep with tears in his eyes because his district's tribute had been too beautiful and too pure and too lovely to die, but she did anyway. "It's not fair," he'd cried into his pillow. He was fifteen and he shouldn't have been crying because only kids cried. But it wasn't fair. And he realised slowly that it didn't matter. Because life didn't care what was fair and what wasn't. There was no rule that said that District 5 had to win because it was the fair thing to happen. There was no law protecting her from death.
The story came out the next day. Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith looked as if this had been the best Games they'd narrated in years, and it was. Caesar explained everything with a barely suppressible grin.
District 4 had taken something in the Cornucopia at the start of the games that no one recognized, so no one worried about it. It was this little box, and everyone assumed it had a flask of water in it, or a flashlight, or something that wasn't a big deal. They'd put it out of their minds. Really it had been a box filled with tiny pins, each clear in color and barely visible. As they played through the flashbacks, it was revealed that every time District 4 and District 5 had touched in what had seemed like a display of affection, District 4 had pushed another pin into District 5. She hadn't known. It was impossible for her to feel them and he had disguised it as a pat on the arm, or a rub on the back. They were impossible for her to see, too, and so she never removed them because she never knew they were there. There were twenty-six of them, as was the magic number in the Capitol, and District 4 had pushed the twenty-sixth into District 5 as they embraced. No one knew exactly how the pins affected her, but they knew that they had killed her. And District 4 had been planning it the whole time.
He'd gone home the victor after taking on the District 9 boy. District 2 had been attacked by some terrible creature lurking in the cave waters. It had blended in with the wall. She'd never known it was there and while she was filling her thermos with water it reached up, grabbed her wrist, and brought her down with it. It had been so terrible to see from the point of view of the camera underneath the water and watch what she must have been able to see. The sunlight from outside of the cave touching the surface of the water as she drowned. Hope so close, but inaccessible. And District 9 had been so easy. He'd just been lucky. That's all. He'd gotten lucky shots and used evasion, and when District 4 found him, he'd tried to fight back. He'd thrown the daggers he'd picked up at the Cornucopia but they had mostly been used to gut fish and it was all too easy for District 4 to sink the daggers right back into 9's body.
That had been the first time he'd questioned the Games.
"Matt, please don't glare at your breakfast. It's not becoming."
Matt looks up. His mom's across the table and she's trying to look serious but she's sort of laughing. He doesn't question her – he probably looked pretty stupid staring angrily at the oatmeal in his bowl, and he starts to laugh a little, too. It's okay, he tells himself, you're eighteen and you're not going to get picked. And he believes it almost wholeheartedly. He was just reminiscing, he tells his mom, which is true. He was thinking about the Games, about the past victors and the past arenas. Just out of curiosity of this year, he says. He's eager to see what they have planned for this time. Neither of them support the Games, but they go along with them the best that they can and try to have as much fun as the Capitol seems doing it. Matt talks strategies with his father and both of them make disappointed sounds when their favorite tribute makes a bad move, and then they talk about how it could have been fixed, and it's fun, at least once the corpses have been cleared off of the screen.
And Matt's mother, she comes alive during the interviews. She holds her hand in front of her mouth to hide the fact that it's hanging open when she sees the different fashions that the tributes are dressed up in. She loves the beautiful silken dresses and she just about loses her mind when the boys wear suits themed with their district. I'm going to get you in a suit like that someday, Matt, she tells him, and and Matt's dad says hopefully it won't be under those circumstances, and they all laugh. And Matt tells her only in her dreams will he wear a suit like that because you sure as hell can't have fun playing around in the dirt with a suit and everything is okay for a little bit. They're able to forget the horrible reality of the Games.
Matt wonders if that's how everyone else does it, or if they just accept it by now.
The crowd's full of all kinds of people and all kinds of emotions.
There's the older kids, like Matt. The seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds that are confident because they know they are almost at the end of their Reapings. They've been lucky enough to avoid all of them so far, so who says they can't go another one or two times the same way? Then there are the fourteen- through sixteen-year-olds. Their eyes are hardened. They want to have the confidence that the older kids have, they want to think they're safe, but they know. They know there is every possibility of them being picked, even though the older kids have their names in more times. There are so many of the fourteen- through sixteen-year-olds and the odds are definitely not in their favor. And then there's the youngest ones, the twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, and they're absolutely terrified. They've spent so much time preparing for this. They are all dressed their very best with their hair done up nice and they've all taken baths with new soap before they came to the Reaping because god damn it if they weren't going to look their best in case they ended up getting reaped. And they don't want to listen to how uncommon it is for a twelve- or thirteen-year-old to get picked – all demographics point to a more fifteen- through seventeen-year old age range, as there's always more of them somehow – they just know that this is dangerous and this is scary and they do not want to be here. So their eyes are the biggest and it hurts just looking at them. Some of them are even afraid of the preliminaries, the Peacekeepers taking their information and their blood sample, and it's terrifying to know that that is something that scares them so badly when it is about to get much, much worse.
Matt stands there in the middle of several boys he's seen around the district. District 5 is somewhat of a small city or a large suburb, albeit barely any Capitol-style buildings and only a few stores. Matt prefers to stay close to his family's house but he's ventured out sometimes to see the other kids from the neighborhood hanging out together. He's gone into the "city", or what passes for one in Five, here and there. Most of the boys around him are from farther into the city, but he's talked to them on several occasions.
"Are you gonna be okay?" asks a boy named Costly from beside him. Costly's one of the boys that Matt sees more often, usually when he goes into the city to trade for supplies he needs for the family, food and firewood and so on.
Matt nods, trying to reassure himself. It's okay. It's okay. He will not get picked. He stands taller, the confidence building in his chest. "Yeah, it's cool. I'm just, you know. Nervous."
"You shouldn't be, man. You're out of here after today. No more worryin' about the Games or anythin'. Just wait twenty minutes and you'll be out of the Reaping for good."
Hearing it out of someone else's mouth just builds the confidence in Matt's chest. It makes it more real, because someone else has noticed his opinion and agreed with it without even hearing it, so it's not like he talked Costly into it. Costly came up with that opinion all on his own. And Matt believes him. He will not get picked. He is out of here in twenty minutes. He feels himself smiling. He's fairly certain no one's ever smiled before the actual Reaping. Maybe afterwards, when the eighteen-year-olds clap each other on the back and congratulate each other on getting out of the Games for life.
It's pretty obvious when Agrippa Trechér comes onto the stage.
Agrippa has been the escort for District 5 for as long as Matt can remember. He's only been alive for eighteen years, though, and he doesn't remember much before he was ten years old. Besides, she looks pretty young. Thirty at the oldest, he thinks, although she's from the Capitol and who knows how much surgery she could have done to appear younger. Her voice is what makes Matt stick with the guess that she's young, though. It's high and melodic and bright and even with that thick Capitol accent, the sing-song she presents her words with and the way she carefully enunciates each of her words, he can still see her as not much older than a schoolgirl.
She's done this thing every year where she's had the projectors go dark and the lights on the front of the Justice Building go out. And then the spotlights come on and she more or less prances through the doors like she should be on every Capitol news segment from six p.m. to eight p.m. simply for being her. She's just this exploding fireball of energy and Matt has always found it refreshing to watch her. She's the kind of person that makes the Games what they are.
Predictably enough, she does it this year, too, and the crowd goes wild because they know that's what they're supposed to do. The older boys each year usually do catcalls and jump around like idiots and do all kinds of crazy things because they can enjoy it now. They're more or less safe, even though there have been a few years where an older boy has gotten picked and it's been a slap in the face because he thought he was homefree. And then he has to stand up there in his humiliation, going from cheering to being so incredibly terrified in the span of three minutes.
Agrippa announces herself, as always, and goes through the usual spiel about how honorable the Games are, how the victor is showered with praise and adoration as he comes back home, about this and that pumping up the Games like you should be fucking grateful to be in them instead of wanting to curl up in a corner and die because it's easier than dealing with the reality of the situation.
She reaches into the reaping ball. Matt's confidence hasn't swayed even one little bit. He starts to move his arm to elbow Costly and tell him how great it would be if it was that kid Yitz that's always bothering everyone in town with his constant tagging along to try and act like an older kid, and he gets his arm about halfway up and he hears, "The male tribute from District 5 for the 83rd Annual Hunger Games is...Matthias Garetty."