The days fly past. It has been almost a month since the Quarter Quell announcement, and life goes on. The reaping is less than a week away, but no one says anything much about it. Well, no point in thinking about it. I pack a bag of my favorite mint sweets that are filled with chocolate, my sketchbook and pencil and head to the meadow over at the border of District 12, near the Seam. I have always liked going to the meadow. It is, admittedly, not as pretty as it might seem, but it is quiet, peaceful and more importantly, full of wild plants. I love flowers, and all kinds of plants, really, even the poisonous kind. They are beautiful and seemingly harmless and weak, but actually full of poison, strong enough to kill its enemies. They're kind of like people, really.
After a ten-minute or so walk, I reach the meadow. The grass is a little brownish and sparse, nothing like the lush greenery that lies on the other side of the fence that surrounds it. Not that anyone would ever dream of going over the fence; you can get killed for doing that. I see a dark head among the grass, and when the head is raised I see that it belongs to Haymitch Abernathy. For a second I feel a little flustered and nervous, and consider leaving. Would he see a merchant kid like me as an intruder? Well, who cares? I square my shoulders and head into the meadow, determined to soak up some sunlight and have a nice, relaxed day away from my mother's nagging.
Haymitch Abernathy is not your typical Seam boy. He is more daring, bold and bad-tempered and arrogant as well. I have no iota of idea why, but these traits seem attractive to quite a few girls in the school. That, plus the fact that he is, I have to admit, kind of good-looking in a scruffy way. He shares the same traits as the Seam kids, with his curly dark hair and grey eyes, but his are different. They are not dead, empty and sullen; they are bright with mischief and a dangerous glint. He is lanky, but not as scarily skinny as most of the Seam children are.
I ignore his curious glance and hold my head high, find my usual spot under a pine tree and flop down onto the soft, downy grass. I inhale the fresh scent of pine needles, pop a sweet into my mouth and flick through my sketchbook. I sketch a dandelion I find among the foliage for a bit, then abandon my sketchbook at a side and gaze up at the tree.
A flash of grey feathers flit among the leaves. A mockingjay, I think. A cross-breed between the mockingbird and jabberjay, created by the Capitol during the Dark Days. In fact, I distinctly remember seeing a mockingjay pin back at home. I think it belonged to my mother. I make a mental note to look for it later.
I have never been a good singer, but I hum softly. A simple tune- Do Re Mi. As the seconds tick by, and no answer returns, I feel a sinking disappointment. Well, guess the mockingjays agree that I can't sing. At that moment, a shrill and beautiful Do Re Mi tune reverberates through the meadow, and slowly, more and more mockingjays repeat the tune. I smile.
"Not afraid of getting your pretty dress dirtied?" says a voice sarcastically, wiping the smile straight from my face. I raise myself up to see Haymitch looking at me.
"I thought you'd gone," I say, ignoring his jibe.
"What's a merchant kid doing here? I always thought you people were too highbrow for places like this."
"I always come here, but I've never seen you around. What's the occasion?" I reply, ignoring his jibe.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Haymitch laughs mockingly.
I breathe in deeply, trying to stop myself from reaching over and strangling him. His gaze drops to the open sketchbook lying next to me.
"You drew it?" He raises an eyebrow, referring to the oleander sketch. He bends down and reads aloud, "Oleander. Considered one of the most deceptive plants in the world. Beautiful yet toxic enough to kill. All parts are poisonous. Causes vomiting, bloody diarrhea, loss of consciousness, death if consumed."
"If you eat the honey from a bee that consumed its nectar, you'll die," I blurt out unknowingly.
"Well, thanks for that Biology lesson." Haymitch rises to his full height. "You'll make an excellent doctor."
That will never happen. My parents will never hear of it. But a girl can dream, can't she? I break into a smile, still in awe that he is even talking to me. Haymitch Abernathy, of all people. Maybe we can even become friends? "Thanks. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"It's Camellia's birthday," he sighs. "Wait, you do know I have a girlfriend, right? I wouldn't want you getting any ideas." He smirks.
I roll my eyes, "You wish." Everyone knows that Camellia Wetherby is Haymitch's childhood friend, best friend, girlfriend and all that. They've been practically joined at the hip ever since they were little kids. She's a petite and sweet girl, always smiling. God knows what she sees in Haymitch Abernathy. Well, to each her own.
"Are you looking for flowers for her?" I ask.
"Nah, she likes mint," he says. "It's great stuff to chew on if you're hungry. Oh, wait, you merchant kids never go hungry."
I can hear the bitterness in his voice, and guilt rises up inside me again. "Here, you want a sweet?" I offer him the bag of mint sweets I brought along.
A dark expression clouds Haymitch's face. "I don't need your pity. We don't need your pity."
I stand up abruptly, tuck my notebook under my arm and the pencil behind my ear.
"See you around," I say as I walk away.
"You forgot something," Haymitch calls out, pointing to my paper bag of mint sweets.
I pull a face, "They're disgusting. Help me chuck it, will you?" I've tried, and I can't help if he wants to accept my help. If he wants the sweets, he'll take them. If he doesn't want them, it's none of my concern anyway. With that, I head towards home.
My mother combs out my long blonde hair, smooths out my bangs and picks at some imaginary lint on my simple white dress with the tiniest of ruffles at the hem. I put on the only shoes I ever wear, my scuffed grey flats that I have had since I was about ten. My mother frowns disapprovingly at them, but says nothing. How could she, when this could be the last time she is seeing her daughter?
"You look beautiful," Fern says, grinning.
"So do you," I smile. Her hair, which is slightly shorter than mine, has been put up into a neat ballerina bun, and she is wearing a blue frock and shoes.
"Let's have dinner," Mom says, herding us to the dining room where we are served warm bread and vegetable soup. No one says much all throughout dinner. Finally, at about 1pm, we make our way to the square where the reaping takes place annually. Every citizen has to go, or if they find you hiding, off to jail you go.
The square looks grey and sullen, a million miles away from its usual cheerful and happy hubbub. Bright banners fly from the buildings, and high-tech cameras from the Capitol loom above us, perched on the roofs. The square is crowded with people, waiting, watching, signing in.
"See you later," my father says gruffly, and my mother wraps Fern and me in a quick hug that lasts about a millisecond. We nod and join the queue to sign in. I turn and try to catch a glimpse of my parents, but they have already melted into the crowd.
"Fern, Maysilee," a voice whispers. I whip my head around and see Holly in the queue, about three people away from us.
I wave to her, but snap back to attention when the person sitting at the desk in front of the queue calls out, "Next."
He grabs my hand, pricks it with a needle and presses the spot of blood on my finger to the piece of paper on the desk, all in one seamless, well-trained movement. He scans the blood stain on the paper with some electronic gadget, and says, "Go ahead." I am pushed along in the crowd, until I find myself standing among a cluster of fifteen-year-olds, some from the Seam, some from the merchant side. I feel panic bubbling up inside me, until I see Fern and Holly a few feet away from me, and the panic subsides a little. Fern smiles at me, and somehow I dredge up a smile of my own.
I stare straight ahead, at the stage in front of the Justice Building, the only building in District 12 that can actually be described as 'grand'. It is flanked by two huge screens showing live footage of the crowd. On the stage, there is a podium in the center, and two large glass bowls filled with slips of folded paper. The mayor sits on a chair on the stage, and he keeps wiping his brow with a large handkerchief. The District 12 escort, a woman named Valencia Mirabella, who frankly looks like a mix between a wild turkey and a cotton candy in her ridiculous Capitol fashion choice of lime green hair and hot pink suit, sits next to him. Her face looks ridiculously bright and artificial. A small, scrawny and pale woman sits next to her, grinning to herself and occasionally letting out a bark of laughter. At 2pm, the mayor makes his way to the podium and tells us about the history of Panem, how it rose out of the ashes of a country once called North America. He tells of the Dark Days, and why the Hunger Games was born as a result. He says the rules of the Games, and how the winner will live in complete luxury and riches for the rest of his life, and how the winning district will be showered with gifts and food. As if all these money and material goods can wipe away memories of killing 23 other tributes and watching them die.
He proceeds on to read the past winners of District 12. The victors of previous Hunger Games will go on to mentor future batches of tributes. As the case may be, we only have one winner, an eccentric middle-aged woman named Denia Fletcher. Everyone reckons that she's completely loony. Not only is she completely off the rails, she is an alcoholic and drug addict. It is quite a wonder how she has lived past forty. She suddenly starts cackling from her seat next to the escort, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. It isn't hard to see why District 12 hasn't produced a victor in decades, if Denia is the mentor. The mayor shoots Denia a look and continues, "As we celebrate our second Quarter Quell, as a reminder that two rebels died for each Capitol citizen, each district is to send twice as many tributes, 2 males and 2 females."
"May we invite Miss Valencia Mirabella to do the honor of picking the tributes for District 12," the mayor finishes, and Valencia rises from her chair, making her way to the podium daintily.
She taps on the microphone, and announces with a flourish, as she always does, "Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor! What a beautiful day it is, isn't it? It is my honor to be here today, District 12 is a lovely, lovely district! Now, as usual, ladies first!"
Her scarily high heels embellished with feathers tap against the floor as she walks over to the glass ball. She puts her bony hand in and digs around before pulling out a slip of paper. My eyes close and I find myself praying, "Please, please, don't let it be Fern... Don't let it be Holly..."
"Tansy Hayes." The cameras pick out a thirteen-year-old Seam girl in the crowd, and she stares back with wide, horror-filled eyes. She stands there, her face drained of blood, shell-shocked. The crowd murmurs, as they always do when a twelve or thirteen-year-old gets picked. It's not fair, not when they are pitted against huge, strong tributes, especially those from the wealthier districts. A middle-aged woman cries out, lunging forward, but two Peacekeepers hold her back. Tansy Hayes seems to snap back to reality, as she slowly walks towards the stage, her hands clenched so tight they're turning white. I give her props for not breaking down.
It seems a little weird as Valencia Mirabella digs around for another name in the female glass bowl, since usually she would have already moved on to the male tribute.
I can't breathe. It can't be real. It's only when I start choking for air when I realize I have to breathe. It must be a dream, a nightmare. How many names are in there? Thousands? My name is only in there three times. It must be a mistake. I feel my head spinning, my heart thumping like a freight train, and I think I am starting to hyperventilate when I feel two pairs of arms grab onto mine, clinging to me desperately. I look into the eyes of Holly and Fern, whose eyes are wild with panic.
"No, no, no, no, no," Fern is murmuring, her voice getting shakier and higher. Tears start rolling down her cheeks, and I have to look away before I break down too. Holly grabs so tightly on my arm that I can feel a bruise forming. She shakes her head at me frantically, her eyes conveying the words her lips can't form. Well, it's true. I'm a tribute. And there's no helping it, nothing I can do. In fact, all this will be televised, and everyone in Panem will see me. Suddenly, I make up my mind. I can't let them see what a weakling, what a coward I am, not if I want to have even the tiniest chance of surviving. Not that I even stand a chance, among 47 other tributes, but I do not want to be a failure, a coward. I will not cower. Slowly but firmly, I disengage my arms from Fern and Holly's iron grips. It feels quite surreal as the crowd parts to let me through. I force myself to walk straight towards the stage, to ignore Fern's howls.
"No! Maysilee! Maysilee!" she's screaming, weeping. I have to blink furiously to keep the tears at bay. I fix a rigid, determined expression on my face as I ascend the steps. I stand next to the girl, Tansy, and stare straight ahead. I will not look at my parents. I will not look at Fern or Holly. I will not.
"Well, well, well!" Valencia Mirabella exclaims in a bright voice. "How wonderful! Now for our boy tributes!" She crosses over to the other glass bowl and picks out a name.
"Ebon Avery," she reads, and at once the cameras focus on the boy, whom I think I have seen around school and in town a few times. It is easy to tell that he is a merchant kid from dark blonde hair and blue eyes. He is quite tall and skinny, and looks about seventeen. He rubs his eyes furiously and walks to the stage quickly. No one is crying for him.
"And our last tribute!" Valencia beams and reaches into the bowl. "Haymitch Abernathy!"
I feel hollow, and almost as choked-up as I had been when my very own name was called. Why? Why him? I find myself digging my nails into my arm as I see him walk briskly to the stage, the shock in his grey eyes replaced by defiance. I see Camellia, his girlfriend, crying silently and the people beside her hesitantly patting her shoulder. A dark-haired, grey-eyed woman at the side is weeping, clinging onto a little boy who looks remarkably like Haymitch.
The mayor proceeds on to read the Treaty of Treason, and he may have been speaking Russian for all I understood. My mind is still a whirlwind, thoughts bouncing to and fro and driving me almost insane. The sharp pain my left arm distracts me momentarily, and I see that I have punctured the skin with my fingernails, and blood is now oozing out of the wound. I hide my arm behind my back.
The mayor finishes his speech and gestures for the tributes to shake hands. There is a bit of awkward confusion as there are four of us, not the usual two. Finally, we line up in a line and take turns shaking one another's hands. I shake Tansy's hand, which is cold and clammy. I can see the fear in her eyes, and feel a wave of sympathy for her even though I am no better off than she is. I give her hand a reassuring squeeze and tilt the corners of my mouth up about a millimeter. I think she understands that it is supposed to be a smile, and she returns me an equally shaky smile. Next, I shake hands with Ebon, whose hand is sweating profusely. Surreptitiously, I wipe my hand on my dress and move on. Haymitch's hand feels warm, his grip firm. I can't tell what he is thinking as I look into his eyes.
We turn back to the crowd as the Panem anthem blares out from the speakers.
Next chapter: The Goodbye