I have never claimed to be a good writer or even an adequate one, but Foxface just won't leave me alone...
I don't own The Hunger Games or any of its characters.
When I look out of the window it's cloudy and dark. It looks as if there's a storm coming, but then that is nothing new in District 5. We are known in the Capitol as the district where the weather never changes, and I don't mean in a positive way. However this doesn't matter much to me as I don't really see daylight that much anyway. There is always work to do in the laboratories of District 5, always another experiment to set up or a set of results to record. I laugh at this thought because I sound like an old woman, one who is weary of life. Well I am really, weary that is, not old. I am only sixteen.
The bell rings loudly, distracting me from my thoughts. I head off down the corridor, weaving through the hoards of lab workers. Most of them are my age or younger - we have to go to school in the evening so finish work at six, which is two hours earlier than everyone else. This is how District 5 is operated. District 11 has its orchards and fields, District 12 has its mines and District 5 has its laboratories. The Capitol would have us believe we are at the heart of all important scientific experiments in Panem and that we are vital to the development of the country. Although it's more than my life is worth to voice my thoughts, I believe that I know differently. District 5 is where the Capitol government hides its uglier experiments that are not suitable for the sensitive eyes of its people, because, as we all know, nothing is worse to the citizens of the Capitol than ugliness.
I take my usual place in the corner of the dining hall, a huge square building with very tiny windows that are so high up I can see only a small line of light. I sit alone, which is also usual. I have sat alone every evening since I was brought here from the Community Home two years ago. I suppose it's my own fault really as I have never made much of an effort to make friends.
I was here because I was 'chosen' by the Capitol's representatives in District 5, the garishly coloured and hugely feared overseers of the labs. I still remember the day they arrived. A man and a woman like no others my thirteen year old self had ever seen. She was tall and unnaturally thin, he was her complete opposite, short and fat. I had never seen a fat person before. They introduced themselves as Octavian and Atia as they fiddled with their matching electric-blue hair and adjusted their clothes, preening like the vividly coloured birds that we test new cosmetics on in the labs. We were instructed to complete a set of tests that I found relatively easy. I was shocked when most of the others didn't. They called me gifted and said my intelligence was almost abnormal. Rubbish, I thought. If I was that intelligent I would have realised what was happening and answered the questions wrongly. Then I wouldn't be living this life.
I eat my food quickly. It is nutritious but tasteless, and as normal there is never quite enough of it to stop me feeling hungry. I start to think about going to the schoolroom for yet another compulsory lecture on the history of Panem and the righteousness of the Capitol when the room suddenly goes quiet. The man I hate more than any other in the world walks into the room and heads for the stage at the front of the hall. His name is Lucius Vorenus and he is the governor of Laboratory 7. He is the man that murdered my father. But I could never prove it, and of course even if I could it would make little difference.
I remember my parents, well Father anyway, surprisingly well considering I was six years old when I last saw them. My last memory of my father, whom I idolised in a similar way to the manner in which his murderer idolises the Capitol, is of him standing in the same lab where I work now, arguing with Octavian over an experiment. I have never found out what the argument was about, but I suspect that a number of people who heard and saw too much have been given their lives only in exchange for their silence.
I had been hiding in one of the store cupboards, as my father had sent me to bed only moments before and of course expected that I stay there. I can still see it now, as if it had been filmed and now replays over and over in my head. He left the room only to walk into Lucius and his 'assistants'. Lucius injected my father with a substance from a syringe he took from his pocket and Father fell to the ground instantly. He was dragged down another corridor by two of the assistants and I never saw him again. To my eternal shame I watched this happen from my den in the cupboard without making a sound. Even as a small child I had sensed this was something I shouldn't know about and that to reveal my knowledge would have dire consequences.
Now my mother was a different story. Even now I can't imagine why Father married her. I suppose she must have been different once but I can't see it. It's hard to think well of the woman who abandoned me in the Community Home because she did not want her reputation to be tainted by my father's disgrace as a result of bringing up his child. It didn't seem to occur to her that I was her child too.
All I remember of her besides her great betrayal is a petite woman with vivid red hair and a permanent frown on her face. Father used to tell me that the frown was there because she was concentrating on work. Maybe this was true. She was successful in the end. She invented a potion that could make even the oldest, most wrinkled citizen of the Capitol's skin appear more youthful and now Mercia Whitehouse is one of the best known and most respected scientists outside of the Capitol itself. She married again and even had more children, or so I heard on one of the many compulsory broadcasts I've been forced to watch. But I never saw her again.
I force myself back to the present as Lucius steps onto the platform and looks down on us with his cold, grey eyes.
"There will be no lessons today," he says. "Our esteemed guests from the Capitol have arrived slightly ahead of schedule and will need to be welcomed back in the appropriate way."
Of course. It's the reaping tomorrow. I had almost forgotten. Almost. But I could never forget that the appropriate way meant smiling and laughing while they prepare to send two more innocents to their deaths at the same time as eating more food than I see in a year.
Like every person in Panem, I have watched the Hunger Games and its associated ceremonies for my entire life. The Hunger Games have never been optional. What better way could there be for the Capitol to control the districts than making their children murder each other live on national television and forcing them to watch? It's certainly effective, I'll give them that much.
My name will be written on five slips of paper that go into the girls' reaping ball tomorrow. In that respect I'm lucky. Many of the poorer children have no choice but to take tesserae so that their families don't starve. In exchange for having their name written on another slip of paper they are given a quantity of grain and oil for one person that is supposed to last them for the year. The bigger your family the more times your name goes in the reaping ball. Until the next reaping when they have to go through the whole process again. I have never needed tesserae. I was fed enough to stay alive at the Community Home and, now that I am useful to the Capitol, my food is more than adequate.
I'm starting to get nervous now and I try to push all thoughts of tomorrow from my mind. The rational part of my brain is telling me that worrying about it will not make it go away, will not stop Icarus Holsworthy from drawing my name if that is what's meant to be. Every other part of me is repeating the same words over and over: "Please not me, please not me…"
Once the reaping is over for another year I can convince myself that I wouldn't really care if I was chosen as one of District 5's two tributes. If I were to be selected there would be, realistically, probably a ninety-five percent chance that I wouldn't even survive the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Away from reaping day that seems preferable to the hundred percent chance of dying as a glorified slave to the Capitol in this place at some unknown time in the future. At this moment in time though, my only thought is that I really don't want to die.
I get up from my chair, knowing that I will not be one of the 'lucky' ones who are chosen to wait on 'our esteemed guests'. But as I walk towards the door I remember exactly what I'm walking away from. When any important visitors arrive they are provided with a feast in what we know as the Banquet Hall. I know from past experience that when the food and drink has been laid out on the enormous tables, all of the people who will be waiting on our guests will be called out of the room for a short discussion about the correct way to behave in front of people from the Capitol. In other words they will be told exactly what to say, which I also know from past experience to be not a lot at all, and more importantly what their fate will be if they disgrace the district. During that short period of time there is a completely unoccupied and unguarded room full of food. To me this is an invitation to see if there's something there that they wouldn't notice was missing. I have done this on numerous occasions and as a result always cheered up when important people visited the laboratories, despite the circumstances. I never eat better than I do on the nights when there is a feast in the Banquet Hall. After all, stealing is an offence punishable by death in all of the districts of Panem, but you are only punished if you're caught.
I leave the dining hall with a very different purpose in mind. In case anybody is watching me I turn left in the direction of my cousin Cassie's office, which is what I would normally do. When I'm almost there I double back and go in the direction of the Banquet Hall. It's complete chaos, with lots and lots of people running around making preparations in a very narrow corridor. I'm obviously just that little bit too early. There is a small storage room next to the main room's side entrance and I go in there, quickly shutting the door behind me and pushing away the memories I have of hiding in a similar place ten years ago. There is nothing I can do now but wait.
I stand as close to the door as I can so I can be ready to run if somebody comes in. For some unknown reason, the door has a long mirror attached to the back of it and I study the reflection staring back at me. Although I'm sixteen, I could pass for as much as two or three years younger. Even as a young child I had always been small, and years of barely having enough to eat has ensured that I didn't grow much bigger. Not like the children of the Capitol and the wealthier districts. I am probably the size of the average ten-year-old from District 1. My hair is the auburn colour of a fox's fur and I suppose if I'm honest with myself this isn't the only fox-like aspect of my appearance. On the very few occasions that I have seen my reflection I have never thought myself pretty.
Then I notice everything has gone quiet outside, so I press my ear against the door to make sure everyone else has gone. When I'm certain I can't hear anything I reach down and take off my shoes. Running into the hall sounding like a herd of elephants would just be stupid and I hope that I will never be that. I open the door slightly and slide through the small gap, poised to dive back in if I should hear somebody in the corridor. There is nobody, so I tiptoe down to the entrance door. They even leave it open. The first time I did this it had all seemed too good to be true and I had been so convinced it was a trap that it took at least an hour for my heart rate to return to normal. I walk into the room and face the tables. They are all lined up against one wall and are covered in dishes of all kinds of meat and fruit and vegetables. I take my already open bag from my back and put a few fruits from each of the dishes nearest to me inside it. The secret to this is to never take so much of one thing that it becomes noticeable. This is very difficult to stick to with the strawberries though. They've always been my favourites.
I can tell from the voices next door that the not-offending-the-Capitol lecture will come to an end very soon so I turn and leave as quickly as I can, grabbing a few rolls of bread as I go. I know that Cassie disapproves of this 'habit of stealing' that I have but I also know she would never dream of reporting me. Especially if I donate some of the food to her.
Cassie is my cousin, my father's brother's daughter. She's ten years older than me and as Father was very close to his brother, I saw a lot of her when I was younger. I worshipped her and used to follow her everywhere. She hated me for it, or she pretended she did anyway. I always knew she didn't really because although she could and frequently did call me all manner of names, there had been trouble for any of the other children who tried to copy her. That is the sort of thing which stays in a person's mind, and I missed her when I was taken away. When I arrived back I discovered that she was working here doing research work for the Capitol and, despite the age difference, she has been my only friend ever since.
"Cassiopeia!" I call as loudly as I dare, knowing how she hates her full name.
My father and uncle must have had a strange sense of humour. I say this because, knowing the fashion in the Capitol for giving their children names that had been popular amongst Romans, a civilisation so ancient that little is known about them, even in the Capitol, they had deliberately given their daughters names from a rival ancient culture, that of Greece. She is Cassiopeia and I am Lysandra. If it wasn't for the fact that it's the only thing I have that Father had given me then I would hate my name as much as my cousin hates hers.
The office door opens quickly and I am pulled roughly inside.
"What do you think you're doing wandering around the corridors at this time of night?"
"Bringing you dinner." I reply.
I'm relieved to see the anger leave my cousin's face at the mention of food. Sitting beside her, I remove a pile of paperwork and scientific equipment from the desk while ignoring the accompanying "Lysa, don't touch that" and replace it with my bag.
"Why do you do it?" she asks.
"If I'm going to the Capitol tomorrow then I want to go on a full stomach."
"You won't be going to the Capitol. You only have five entries, there's virtually no chance."
"There's always a chance, Cass." I say.
The nervous feeling in my stomach I'd pushed away earlier returns worse than ever so I try to distract myself by unpacking the food. We eat in silence for most of the time and I make every effort to enjoy it despite the feeling of having butterflies in my stomach. When we've both finished I stand up and go to leave, but Cassie grabs my wrist tightly. She's looking at me as if she's going to say something serious but what actually comes out is far from that.
"Lysandra, what are you wearing to the reaping?"
I laugh at the absurdity of the question and reply by gesturing to the dark blue tunic and black trousers that I have on now. "I'm the disowned one, remember. I really don't have that much choice."
"You have the green tunic, the colour suits you better than that blue does."
"Whatever you say. I should leave now." I say, suddenly wanting to be alone. "Good night, Cassie."
"Good night, Lysa," she replies quietly to my retreating back as I leave the room.
I walk to my bedroom with my shoes off again, not wanting to be caught in the corridors alone past curfew. Curfew is an unspoken rule rather than an official one. It's amazing how many people and experiments seem to disappear overnight and, as every sensible person in District 5 knows, seeing something you're not meant to see, however unintentionally, is a very unwise thing to do.
I reach the bedroom, which is literally a room with a bed in it and very little else, and sit down on the narrow bed. I don't feel tired. I never sleep the night before the reaping, but then I imagine the same could be said for most of the children of Panem. The ones between the ages of twelve and eighteen anyway. I sometimes wish that I'd been born in one of the districts that have Career Tributes. The Careers are children who are specifically trained for the Games, hated by the non-Career districts because they end so many of their children's lives but adored by their own. I can see the logic behind that admiration - if there are always volunteers for the Games then even if their own children are chosen they won't have to participate. If I was chosen I can say with absolute certainty that nobody would volunteer for me.
I must have fallen asleep at some stage, because when I open my eyes I can see the daylight through the many holes in the curtains that cover the room's single, tiny window. My first thought is that the alarm bell didn't sound this morning. Less than a second later I remember why. The Reaping.
I force myself to get up, have a wash and get dressed. I brush my hair and tie it back with a piece of green ribbon that I had found in one of the labs. Two seconds later I pull the ribbon from my hair and throw it onto the bed. It would never stay there anyway. My hair always does what it wants to do and my opinion on the matter means very little. And what it wants to do is be left loose.
I give in as usual and look down at myself. I don't have a mirror in my room but I can see enough to know that my clothes are clean and neat. That's good enough for me. If I do go to the Capitol I am determined to do so looking presentable, but I have no intention of dressing up for them. Not that I have much of a choice of outfits even if I wanted to.
Then there's a loud knocking on my door, which interrupts my thoughts. There is only one person that would be here to see me at this time so I open the door.
"I told you the green looked better."
"Does it matter, Cassie. I will be just another face in the crowd."
"The green stands out more. I need to be able to find you so I can keep an eye on you."
I feel myself smiling slightly at her comment. "I haven't needed you to look out for me since I was six years old."
"I know, but you know it makes me feel better if I do."
"You are not in any way responsible for what happened, Cass," I tell her firmly.
I don't understand how she can possibly believe she had anything to do with me being sent to the Community Home. She'd been my age at the time and even if she had been the age she is now she still would have been completely powerless to do anything. I feel the familiar anger that always rises up inside me when we talk about the past. She's the only family that I have and I suppose that I do love her, whatever that means, but I just can't stop the resentment I feel. When her father died she still had her mother. She wasn't abandoned like I was. She got to keep her name.
I turn away from her as I think of that, knowing that she would see the anger written all over my face. My father's surname had been Redwood, as hers still is, but I will forever be known as Lysandra Newton. My name was changed, like those of all District 5 Community Home children, to that of the dormitory where they slept, all named after famous scientists whose names live on long after their discoveries have become obsolete.
"I know. It's just that…"
"We can talk about it this afternoon," I say.
She nods agreement and we leave the room, heading out of the building towards the main square.
During the so called Dark Days when the Districts were at war with the Capitol, much of District 5 was destroyed. Not in the same way as District 13 of course, but destroyed nevertheless. After the Capitol had subdued and subjugated the districts it had rebuilt most of the buildings, obviously with the focus being on the labs and the places to house the people that worked in them. They built all of the labs in a big square, two to each side, and it's in the centre of this square where they hold the reaping.
It's not raining but it's typically cold and grey when we reach the square. Cassie and I sign in and I walk towards the roped area reserved for the sixteen year olds.
"Lysandra!" Cassie calls. "May the odds be ever in your favour."
I run back to her and she hugs me tightly for a second. I return her hug just as fiercely in what is a very uncharacteristic show of affection. Then we are separated by Peacekeepers, who need to get more people into the square and seem to be attempting to do so as quickly as possible. I look at the big clock on the roof of Laboratory 1 and see that it's ten o'clock already. All of the reapings are held at half hourly intervals so that the audience in the Capitol are able to watch all twelve without interruptions. Of course, if something interesting happens, like one of the tributes breaking down and crying in front of the whole nation before having to be dragged onto the stage by the Peacekeepers, which has happened on more than one occasion that I have seen, the broadcasting from the other, later districts would be delayed anyway. The Capitol audience are the first priority of the Hunger Games. It is essential that they are entertained. Having said that, the Peacekeepers of District 5 obviously don't want to answer to the mayor if the Capitol is kept waiting and they only have half an hour to go. I can see the cameras ready and waiting on the tops of the buildings already.
I duck under the rope barrier that segregates the sixteen-year-olds from the rest of the population and stand as close as I can to the back. I turn to look into the crowd that's gathering behind the children, mostly anxious parents and relatives, but I can't see Cassie. The youngest children are always put at the back and I can see them, terrified expressions on their faces, trying desperately to stand as close to their parents as possible. They are the ones who are still young enough to believe their parents could actually do something to protect them if their name is called. Even as I watch, one young girl has to be physically separated from her mother by the Peacekeepers.
We are tightly packed within the square as they have to get the entire district of around five thousand people into an area that is really too small. I look up at the boy standing closest to me. I vaguely recognise him and think that he works in Laboratory 7 too. Despite this I realise I don't even know his name. He smiles grimly and moves a step closer. I find that I'm slightly comforted by his presence.
The clock strikes once to signal the half hour and silence immediately falls over the entire square. I turn to look up at the stage that's been set up in front of Laboratory 1. It has four elaborate gold chairs upon it, three of which are occupied. Mayor Stafford rises from his chair and walks to the front of the stage. He begins to go through the same speech that he recites every year. He tells us of the formation of Panem from the remains of what had been called North America, of the Capitol and the thirteen districts, and later of the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. He tells us of the Capitol's victory and the total destruction of District 13. I've heard this speech so many times and the mayor really does have the most monotonous voice that I have ever had the misfortune of listening to. As a result I am very easily distracted. My attention is initially attracted by the two other people on the stage. They are Icarus Holsworthy, District 5's escort from the Capitol, a tall man with a very large and round belly and violently purple hair which clashes horrifically with his orange suit, and a thin stern looking woman by the name of Viola Stafford. She is the mayor's wife but she is also a Hunger Games victor. It is obviously her turn to mentor the district's tributes this year.
Currently, Icarus and Viola are having an incredibly heated discussion behind the mayor's back, each of them obviously trying to get their point across without interrupting Mayor Stafford. Surely they must realise that the entire population of Panem will be watching them right now? Icarus gestures towards the crowd and I suddenly understand what they are arguing about - the unoccupied chair on the stage. This chair should be taken by the second previous victor, but he is currently standing in front of the group of eighteen-year-olds, torn between taking up his required position in the ceremony and comforting his fiancée, a slightly built, dark haired girl who I know has taken more tesserae than is good for her.
When my attention returns to the mayor he is finishing his speech by describing the rules of the Hunger Games. There are very few rules actually. Twenty-four tributes, two from each district, thrown into an 'arena' and forced to fight to the death. That is all there is to it really. Oh, and the fact that if anyone tries to protest then their entire district will suffer the same fate as District 13.
The mayor reels off the list of past victors, of which we have a grand total of seven, including his own wife and the young man currently being dragged onto the stage by Icarus Holsworthy, Marcus Arrowsmith. I remember the year that Marcus won. It had been only a couple of years ago, the year when there was so little action in the arena that the Gamemakers had decided to liven up proceedings by destroying all of the food in a storm. That had been the end of the Career Tributes' advantage over the rest and Marcus had won by simply outlasting the rest.
Before I know it, Mayor Stafford has introduced Icarus Holsworthy, who immediately prances onto the stage looking like he takes a great deal more pleasure out of this than he really should. He doesn't seem to me to be a truly evil man, he just has no concept of what he's doing. Father told me once that while there are plenty of people in the Capitol who know exactly what they are doing to the people of the districts, it is just a fact of life to the vast majority and they really do think of us as an inferior species.
"Happy Hunger Games to you all!"
He gives the same cheery greeting every year. What kind of response does he expect? He is about to send two innocent children to almost certain death. Does he expect us to rejoice in that? He carries on talking for a minute, the usual speech about how proud he is to represent District 5. Centre of Panem's scientific research, anyone? Then the moment of truth has arrived. He approaches the girl's reaping ball and draws out a slip of paper. Everybody is silent.
Don't let it be me. Please don't let it be me, I think desperately to myself. There are hundreds of slips in that ball and the ironic thing is that being first in the Community Home and then later in the labs has given me the advantage of not needing to take tesserae. It is not to be though.
I am stunned for a second. Despite trying to rationalise the whole thing in my head on numerous occasions, I know now that I never really considered what would happen if I was chosen and how I would react. I hear an anguished call of my name and know it was Cassie. I will not shame her by weeping in front of the entire nation. I bite my lip so hard that I can taste blood and walk towards the stage. I mount the steps and take my place between Icarus and Marcus, neither of whom look me in the eye.
"Congratulations to our newest tribute, Lysandra Newton!" shouts Icarus.
He begins to clap, which everybody knows is their signal to follow. A half hearted round of applause follows and when he sees that's the best he is going to get, Icarus moves to the other reaping ball.
I stare into the crowd, studying the expressions on their faces. I stop doing this almost immediately. The mixture of sadness that anybody has to be chosen at all and relief that it is either not themselves or their relatives shows clearly and makes it even harder for me to stop myself from crying. I begin to look for Cassie but I can't see her anywhere, despite the bright red tunic that she was wearing.
I don't recognise the name of the unfortunate who is to be my fellow tribute. He looks as terrified as I imagine I had looked. Seventeen years old and condemned to death. Alecto is tall, well, taller than me anyway which isn't hard, and very thin. I don't recognise his face from the dining room so think that he is not the son of a laboratory worker. He is probably from one of the families that lives on the outskirts of the district, scratching a living as best they can with next to nothing. Another victim of the need for tesserae I would think, judging by the wailing woman surrounded by at least six young children at the foot of the stage, to whom he bears more than a slight resemblance.
We shake hands and then turn to face the crowd as the mayor reads the Treaty of Treason and Panem's anthem plays. I will not cry, I say to myself, I will not.