Charlie had multiple Announcement Days, but only once had she actually seen a clip of the Program.
It was early in the morning while channel-surfing last year. Around six, maybe? Everyone knew what happened in those games, of fucking course, but, the second she saw it, it put things into a whole new perspective.
One girl on top of another. One hand holding a knife, plunging and plunging and plunging even when the other girl tried to crawl away, then slowly stilled. The camera had managed to get a shot of her face, both faces. One face was still, the light slowly fading from her eyes. The other was distorted, like some animal.
Charlie had switched it off. It was the only thing she could do. But that image had been stained into her memory. As she went about her business that day, the image came back again and again. Knife goes in, knife goes out. Her skin crawled each time. She remembered cooking dinner with Toni that evening, and, just for a moment, she picture the knife going in, the knife going out. Toni’s eyes, slowly fading away. She hated the thought of it. Even as she tried to sleep, the idea of stabbing someone like that stuck with her. Even now, she still sometimes thought about it.
Charlie had always been scared that one day, she or Toni would be picked. She didn’t want to die, and she didn’t want Toni to die, either. So she kept picturing it and picturing it, imagining what she’d do, and wondering if there was a way to prevent it. She even tried to look up the odds of her school being picked for the Program, and everyone assured her it was slim. And even if it was, it was “a great honor.” But she’d look it up, and look it up some more, just to remind herself that she didn’t have to go through that.
That made Announcement Day difficult for her. She kept thinking, being so sure, that this time, this will be the time she’d be taken away to die. She would just pray she was wrong, that she and her class were going to be okay.
So, she started the same ritual she had every Announcement Day. Sit down, grab onto the chair, close your eyes, and don’t open them until it’s over. It was hard to sit through, but it helped a little. It helped to breathe, too, but it was even harder.
Charlie heard the General’s voice boom across the auditorium, and, even if her eyes were closed, she still could see his face in her mind’s eye. Gray hair, blue eyes, face like a statue. She kept gripping tighter and tighter, hoping they’d pass over NSA. Please, please.
But that didn’t happen. She almost opened her eyes when she heard it. She felt her heart sink, her skin tremble. It was her school, her grade. It had to be a joke? No, it wasn’t. She continued her vice grip on the chair, as she heard noises of people shuffling in. A new voice came on, and said something about Mexico. God, she didn’t know. She couldn’t think straight, she just couldn’t.
Keep those eyes closed. Don’t look at their faces. Don’t look too scared. Keep that grip tight. Stay calm, try to stay calm, please try to stay calm.
That made Charlie open her eyes. She saw everyone looking right at her. She saw what looked like soldiers, glancing in her direction. Her vision grew dark around the edges, her head felt dizzy. She tried to stand up, hoping it was some kind of joke or dream. But it was too real. Too, too real. What breaths came out, they came out loud and ragged. She felt like she was going to vomit, she felt like she was going to die on the spot.
Slowly, she got to her feet, her legs feeling like all the bones had been removed. But, she took steps towards the designated area. A second later, and those steps became a swift stomp.