Part One: The Journey
I wake up before the sun has risen. I need to get up though, I have a family to feed. Ever since my father died four years ago, I've been holding my family together. I have two younger brothers, a sister and a mom, all of them need food, I have to include myself also. It's hard to take care of the five of us, but I'd to anything and everything for my family.
I get out of bed and dress as quietly as I can, I don't want to wake my family. My mother shifts and turns my way.
"Gale." She whispers.
"Yes?" I ask.
"Stay careful, son." My mom says.
"Of course I will." I promise gently.
With that, I leave my small house, walking out into the beautiful spring morning. As I walk to the baker's shop, I wonder what it's like to not live in the Seam. The Seam is the nickname for the poorer part of district 12, it is also where I live.
My country Panem (which was once called North America) is split up into twelve districts. It used to be split up into thirteen, but the thirteenth was demolished after it rebelled against the Capitol. I live in district 12, which is known for mining and probably the smallest and meekest of the districts.
The Capitol, I think with contempt and disgust. The Capitol is a city far away that rules Panem. It is full of people who understand nothing, and people who are brutally violent. The Capitol has life great, the average person's biggest worry is what clothes to wear or what new exotic color they should die their hair. Here in district 12, it's a fight for food and survival.
By the time I reach the baker's shop, the sun has peeked out from behind the horizon. I gently knock on the door. I broad shouldered man answers.
"Hello, Gale." He the baker says warmly. "Are you here to make a trade?"
"Yes." I respond, pulling a dead squirrel from my backpack.
Hunting is my main source of gathering food. It's extremely illegal, hunting is a very punishable infraction, but I do it anyway. It's either hunt and eat or starve and die. Besides, the Peacekeepers in our district buy my kills, not lock me up like they're supposed to. There's a fence that surrounds district 12 for the purpose of keeping us rebels in, but there are many holes and weak spots to crawl through. It's supposed to be charged with electricity, but it rarely ever is. I hunt with Katniss, my best friend since both of our fathers died in the terrible mining accident. Just thinking about Katniss makes my whole body go warm and I feel very exposed.
I turn red and shift my weight nervously for no apparent reason.
The baker goes into his shop and returns with a loaf of bread. The aroma from the bakery wafts into my nose and makes my mouth water. The baker hands me the bread and takes my squirrel. The bread is worth more than my squirrel, but the baker is generous, especially today.
"Thank you." I say with as much meaning as I can emphasize.
"You're welcome, and thank you." The baker says. He pauses a moment before adding. "Good luck."
"Thanks, you too." I say before turning to heading off to hunt.
The baker wished me good luck because it's reaping day. To punish the twelve districts for district thirteen's rebellion, the Capitol devised the Hunger Games. Every year, every kids ages 12-18 in the twelve districts is forced to enter their name into a big ball to be candidates for the Hunger Games. If you're twelve you enter your name once, if you're thirteen you enter it twice and so on. If you're desperate for food, like many people in district twelve, you can sign up for tesserae. Each time you add your name in again, you get a tiny supply of grain and oil to feed one person for a year. You can sign up for tesserae as many times as you want, but they all add up throughout the years. Since I'm eighteen and have been feeding a family of five for seven years, my name will be entered forty two times this year.
Each year, an unlucky boy and girl from every district are randomly chosen from the list of names to participate in the Hunger Games. In the Hunger Games, the twenty four children are forced to fight each other in a complicated arena until one winner remains. The whole cruel event is televised, people in the Capitol find it amusing. Here in district twelve, nobody is laughing.
I head off to the woods, angrily thinking about the Capitol. My growing animosity for the Capitol has to remain somewhat hidden or else I'll be dead. The Capitol doesn't tolerate much, and loves to show it's brutal control to the citizens of Panem. That is the point of the Hunger Games.
I relax more with every step I get closer to the woods. The woods is the only place I can be myself and speak freely. And I get to be with Katniss when I'm in the woods, and I can speak my mind to her. Katniss is two years younger than me and we met after our fathers died. I still long for my dad, the pain never stops. I know he'd want me to care for the family, so I do. Katniss and I formed a bond, being fatherless and having to feed a family, we lean on each other for support and help each other get food.
Finally I reach the huge fence and wriggle my way through a small hole that is my most common way of entry to my hunting area. I walk into the woods and grab some of my well hidden weapons. I have to hide weapons in the woods because it's also illegal to posses them in district twelve. Also, I need them to catch my food and protect myself from predators that lurk outside of district 12. They fence keeps them out of the city, but nothing protects me from harm in the woods.
I continue to hike until I find that spot where I usually meet with Katniss in a valley by the woods. I wait until I hear her footsteps approaching. My face brightens when Katniss comes up.
Katniss has the same dark hair, gray eyes and olive skin that I do. Some people think we're related but we're not. A lot of people from the Seam look that way.
"Hey, Catnip." I say. Catnip isn't her real name, but when I first heard Katniss say her name, it was barely audible and I had thought she said Catnip. The nickname was confirmed after a lynx started following Katniss around in the woods. We had to kill it because it scared off game, but it was pretty amusing.
"Look what I shot." I say, holding up the bread I bought with my arrow stuck in it.
Katniss laughs, I love it when I make her do that. Her laugh loosens something inside of me but I don't know quite what. Katniss hardly ever smiles and laughs outside of the woods, I feel privileged to be able to hear her laugh.
The bread I traded was real bread of good quality, unlike the bread we usually eat. Katniss takes the loaf, removing the arrow and sniffs it. I can even smell the wonderful fragrance from over here.
"Mm, still warm." Katniss says. "What did it cost you?"
"Just a squirrel." I say, Katniss looking astonished. "Think the old man was feeling sentimental this morning, even wished me luck." Normally, bread like this would've cost a lot more than what I traded for it.
"Well, we all feel a little closer today, don't we?" Katniss says, not even bothering to roll her eyes.
It's true. Today is my last reaping, but I'm not at all relieved. After this year, I have to watch my siblings' reapings. Just as, if not more, horrifying than my own.
"Prim left us a cheese." Katniss says. She takes out the cheese. Prim is Katniss's little sister. Prim is small, sweet and owns a goat that produces milk. The cheese looks delicious, softening in the sun.
"Thank you Prim. We'll have a real feast." I say. I start to talk in a Capitol accent, mocking Effie Trinket, the exuberantly upbeat woman who comes every year to read off the names in the reaping. "I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games!" I take a few berries from a nearby bush. "And may the odds-"
I toss a berry to Katniss. She catches it with her mouth and I let her finish Effie Trinket's catchphrase.
"Be ever in your favor!" She says with false enthusiasm.
We joke about it because it's defiance to the Capitol. The objective is to be scared, which we are, but we don't want to give the Capitol what it wants. Also, the Capitol accent is so foreign sounding that it's easy to make fun of.
I pull out a knife and slice the thick, warm bread. It's smell drifts into my nose and my stomach rumbles. I'm used to this hungry feeling.
Since my father died, we didn't get his income from working in the mines anymore. So my mom took up jobs and worked hard, worked for her family. She tires herself past exhaustion because she's devoted to her family. Indefatigable, my mothers does anything she can to keep her children fed. Me, at the age of thirteen, had to start hunting more often, going out into the woods and making illegal trades. It's hard work but now, five years later, we're all still alive. Soon I'll be nineteen and I'll have to work in the mines. I don't want to go to the mines, my father died there and I won't be able to set foot down there without thinking about how much I miss him. I have to work in the mines though, if I want to feed my family, it's my only choice. I'll have to work in that wretched, claustrophobic area twelve hours a day, six days a week. Sunday will be my only day of rest but I'll have to spend it hunting, which I don't mind.
I spread the bread slices with the tempting cheese, gingerly placing a Basil leaf on each slice. Katniss picks blackberries while I do so.
We decide to picnic in a place hidden by rocks, so nobody can see us, but we can easily overlook the beautiful valley. The valley is dense with vegetation, there's so many resources, but we can't gather them all at once. It's a gorgeous day, warm and cloudless with a slight breeze. The food is amazing, the bread warms my mouth and the cheese soaks it slightly. The berries hit my mouth like bombs of flavor. I just wish I could stay here with Katniss and be myself, but I have to go back home for the reaping. In the woods I can either forget about life's troubles, or rant on about them, both of which are common things I do. Then an idea strikes me.
"We could do it, you know." I say.
"What?" Katniss asks.
"Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it." I say. I can tell that Katniss thinks that it's quixotic, but the idea spreads rapidly throughout me. Katniss and I can make shelter and find enough food. It'd be all we'd need. We could escape the nefarious claws of the Capital and raise a family of our own. I imagine it would feel nice, not worrying about losing our children or being trapped in the mines, just living life out here. Then I remember my family.
"If we didn't have so many kids." I add quickly.
They're not our kids, but our siblings and mothers might as well be. Katniss and I are the main supporters for both of our families. They couldn't live without us, leaving would mean killing them. Neither of us could do that, so our loving families are what keeps us anchored in this horrible country.
"I never want to have kids." Katniss says bitterly.
"I might. If I didn't live here." I say. Having kids would mean risking losing them to the Hunger Games or starvation. I couldn't live through that, watching them die. I really would like to have kids some day.
"But you do live here." Katniss reminds me, agitated.
Thank you Katniss, captain obvious, for reminding me of the horrible life I lead. Also, I'd like to thank you for crushing my dreams. I hold back my sarcastic thoughts and decide to say something much shorter.
"Forget it." I snap.
Well that was awkward. Katniss probably thinks that I want to leave my family behind, I'd never do that. I was just dreaming, am I not allowed to do that? I'm still a kid, but I'm the man of my house. Can't I think about how much better life can be? And the kids thing? Wouldn't you rather have kids and loose them than never have them at all? At least you're giving them a short life rather than not letting them exist at all. But I suppose if you never had kids you wouldn't have to watch them die and you'd never know what you're missing.
"What do you want to do?" Katniss asks. We can hunt, fish or gather.
"Let's fish at the lake. We can leave our poles and gather in the woods. Get something good for tonight." I say.
People are supposed to celebrate tonight after the reaping. Most families do because their children are safe for another year. But two families will be grieving, knowing that their child probably won't ever come back.
We get a lot of food today. By late morning, we have a dozen fish, some greens and a gallon of strawberries. A few years ago, Katniss found the patch of strawberries but I had the idea to cover it with netting to protect it from animals. It's the efficient team work like this that keeps us going.
Katniss think I'm a snare wizard, I guess I do know a lot about snares. You just have to combine knowledge of catching the animal, keeping it there and making sure that it's safe from other hungry guests. If you have all that and good construction, then you can make a snare. We each have our strengths. I'm good with snares and Katniss is an archery master. I can shoot an animal, but Katniss could hit a snake's eye in darkness. Katniss's expertise with the bow and arrow is unfathomable.
On the way home we stop by the Hob. The Hob is a black market that is in a building that used to be a warehouse for storing coal until better systems were discovered. Most businesses are closed now on reaping day, but the Hob remains open and pretty busy. We trade six fish for good bread and two for salt. Greasy Sae, a thin old woman who sells soup, takes half of our greens and gives us a couple chunks of paraffin. Greasy Sae doesn't give us the best trade possible, but she's the only one who will buy a wild dog. We don't try to hunt wild dogs, but if you're attacked by one, you really have no choice.
When we're done trading at the Hob, we go to the back door of the mayor's house to sell half the strawberries. The mayor has a sweet spot for strawberries, he always buys from us. The mayor's daughter, Madge, answers the door. She's Katniss's age. She's really not that much of a snob as I suspected, being the mayor's daughter, but I envy her fancy, perfect, rich life.
Today she's wearing an expensive looking dress with her blond hair up in a pink ribbon. You're supposed to dress up for reaping.
"Pretty dress." I say.
Madge looks at me, probably trying to figure out if I meant what I said or I'm being bitter. If she guessed the second one, she's right.
"Well, if I end up going to the Capitol, I want to look nice, don't I?" Madge says.
It's my turn to read Madge. I'm thinking she's messing with me.
"You won't be going to the Capitol," I say coolly. I look at a small golden pin on Madge's dress. It's beautiful and wonderfully crafted. Probably made of real gold. I wonder how many other expensive things Madge has. "What can you have? Five entries? I had six when I was just twelve years old."
It's true. Madge doesn't have to worry about going to the Hunger Games. I, with forty two entries, do. And if I live, I'll be scared for life probably both physically and mentally. If I die, my family will probably go down too.
"That's not her fault." Katniss says.
Katniss is right. I can count on her to have moral rectitude when I just turn bitter. But it's not my fault either that I'm poor and have a starving family. It's not my fault that my name is entered in the reaping ball forty two times.
"No, it's no one's fault. Just the way it is." I say.
Madge's face is aloof. She gives Katniss the money for the berries.
"Good luck, Katniss." Madge says.
"You, too." Katniss replies before the door closes.
Katniss and I are pretty silent on the way back home. I can tell she doesn't like the way I talked to Madge. The reaping system isn't fair at all. Katniss has slightly over four times as much a chance of going to the Hunger Games as Madge, just because of their wealth. Katniss and I need to sign up for tesserae. Madge doesn't have to go to bed with her stomach growling, she doesn't have to worry about medical bills, she doesn't have to fight to live. It's difficult not to resent families who don't have to sign up for tesserae. I give up my mental war because I know that it isn't Madge's fault, I just need to take it out on someone. Tesserae are just another thing the Capitol does to cause resentment in our district. It's just a way to split the rich and the poor with a thick line of hatred. The Capitol uses tesserae as an advantage to have us divided among ourselves.
My face must be fixed in the stony position that I force it to be often. I just need to seal my burning emotions, I don't want to show them to the world and be vulnerable. Katniss thinks it's pointless how I yell at the Capitol in the woods. She says it doesn't help, but it does help. It's not going to keep me alive or fed, but it relieves the monster that's weaving up inside of me every time I think about the Capitol. Katniss hates the Capitol, but she doesn't find as much point in expressing that loathing as I do. She will someday, I just know it. Someday when the Capitol does something to really provoke her.
Katniss and I split what's left of our trades. We each get two fish, a few loaves of bread, greens, a quart of strawberries, salt, paraffin, and some money.
"See you in the square." Katniss says.
"Wear something pretty." I say flatly, still in a bad mood.
When I get home, there's a bathtub waiting for me.
Rory, Vick and Posy have already bathed and dressed. I don't need to worry about them today, only next year will Rory have to go through the reaping. This year we're safe. Well, except for me.
"How did the hunt go?" My mother asks.
"Good." I say, pouring the purchases on our table.
My mother looks down at the food and smiles. She looks back up at me with the same look plastered on her face, but her mouth is in congruent to her eyes. Her eyes hold a sad look, she knows how many entries I have in the reaping ball, and she doesn't want to loose me to the Hunger Games. She knows that if I make it this year, she'll never have to worry about me again. But this won't be the last time I see that look in her eyes, my three little siblings have to go through this, too.
"You need a bath, Gale." My mother says, ruffling my hair.
I nod and head to the bathroom.
The bath would be quite relaxing if it weren't reaping day. Every minute that passes, my worry grows rapidly. If I go to the Hunger Games, I'll surely die. Katniss couldn't keep feeding both of our families for a lifetime, could she?
I step out of the bath when I'm clean and as I shake off the water, I hope to shake of my nervousness. It doesn't work, so I slowly get dressed in a suit that I couldn't ever picture myself wearing. I look in the mirror and think how different I look. Clean, dressed up, definitely unlike me.
I step out of the bathroom and into my living room. Three year old Posy comes and clings to my leg. She looks up at me and I return her smile. This is what I'm hunting for, this is why I sign up for tesserae.
"Posy! You have something on your face, I told you not to get dirty!" My mother tries to yell sharply. Her face softens when her daughter reluctantly waddles on over to her. It really is hard to get mad at little Posy.
As I watch my mother clean Posy's face, Rory and Vick surprise attack me from behind. I let out a battle cry and the three of us begin to wrestle. I know I could take down both my eleven and nine year old brother, but I give them a chance.
"Hey, boys, boys!" My mother shouts. "No wrestling, we just got you cleaned up!"
"But mom!" Rory complains.
My mother walks over to us and fixes all of us up, making sure our hair lies flat and our shirts are tucked in. She gives us all a sad smile and walks back over to where she begins cooking our supper.
I look over at my family and the burning hatred for the Capitol wells up inside me again. It's not fair that my mom works for all of us, that I have to break the law so we can survive, that my innocent little siblings may have to die brutal deaths in a cruel arena.
It's one o'clock and we head for the district square. Everybody in the district has to come to the reaping if they don't want to go to jail. The square is big, but it can't hold the whole district, so you want to get there early unless you want to be crowded in the nearby streets.
We make it to the square and my mother looks at all of us. One by one, she kisses each of our foreheads. When she gets to me, she locks me in an embrace that would knock me over if I didn't see it coming.
"I love you." She whispers, holding back tears. "You look so much like your father."
"I love you, too." I say back. My mother mourns my father, but she can't spend too much time grieving, she has a family to take care of.
As my mother steps away, my siblings circle me and hug me too. Pain fills me as I think about separating from my family. I can't look worried in front of my brothers and sister.
"So, I'll see you guys after the reaping is over." I say after we've broken apart. I have to savor these moments when we're all together.
Rory and Vick nod but my mother stays grim, the same smile still stuck on her face. It's the only thing she can do to prevent breaking down.
I throw my family one last glance, along with a reassuring smile. It's all I can do to keep them calm
I head to the eighteen year old section, which is nearest the stage. Behind the eighteen year old section is the seventeen year olds, then the sixteen year olds and so on.
The rest of my grade stands around me, shifting nervously. Normally, I would've talked to my friends and acquaintances, but now, with so much tension and worry, nobody breaks out in friendly chat. My eyes meet with a rich boy in my grade. We stare at each other for a moment before looking away. We both know that I have six times the chance as him of becoming the district twelve boy tribute.
The square is elaborately decorated, but the reaping is no celebration. The only people who find entertainment are the betters. Some disgusting people make bets on which two kids will get picked in the reaping, or which part of the district they are from, or if they will cry when they get picked. Thinking about the people who have the heart to do that just makes me sick.
As two o'clock creeps slowly closer, people make there way into the square until it overflows. Next year, if I'm alive, I'll be one of the people who settles on the outside, not in the age separated sections.
I glance up at the familiar stage which holds three chairs, a podium and two large glass balls, one for each gender. I look at the boys' ball. Forty two of the slips in the ball have Gale Hawethorn written on them. In the girls' ball, twenty slips have Katniss Everdeen's name, and one small slip has Primrose Everdeen written on it. It's Prim's first reaping, her whole family must be nervous. We all know that Prim would never survive the Hunger Games. She couldn't hurt a fly.
Mayor Undersee, Madge's father, sits in one of the chairs. Effie Trinket, district twelve's escort, occupies another. Effie Trinket's hair is a shade of revolting pink. People from the Capitol are more adventurous about their bodies than people in the districts. People from the Capitol die their hair weird colors, pierce their bodies in interesting places, wear a lot of strange cosmetics and even tattoo their whole bodies different colors.
I notice one empty seat on the stage, it seems to be causing much concern to the mayor and Effie Trinket.
At two o'clock, the mayor walks up to the podium to read off what he reads every year. He tells the history of Panem, how it rose from the ashes of what used to be North America. He covers all the natural disasters that destroyed much land and the war that all resulted in Panem, the glorious country ruled by the wonderful city in control of thirteen amazing districts. Then came the Dark Days, the rebelling districts. Twelve districts were defeated and the thirteenth was destroyed. The Treaty of Treason gave us new laws of peace and the annual reminded that the Dark Days must never occur again, so there we have the Hunger Games.
The mayor doesn't say this, but the Hunger Games are a punishment and a slap in the face to the districts. The Capitol shows us that they can just take our children and force them to kill each other and we have no power over it whatsoever. The Hunger Games show us the greatness of the Capitol and how they can crush every district like a bug. That we can't rebel if we want to live. We have to watch our children die.
It doesn't matter how much the speech glorifies the Capitol, it depicts the gruesome message that we all have figured out.
Also, to make it more unbearable and to divide the districts, the Capitol televises the Hunger Games. This makes the districts compete like a silly sport and we all begin to hate each other, hoping for one of our district's tributes to win. The tribute who wins gets to live a life of fame and fortune, and their district gets gifts all throughout the year, most of the gifts being food. This is why the districts are desperate for their tribute to win. Does anyone else notice these impetuous division strategies of the Capitol?
"It is both a time for repentance and thanks." Says the mayor.
Thanks? Thanks for what? Thanks for killing our children, for sitting by and laughing while our district starves?
The mayor reads the list of the past District 12 victors. In seventy four years, we've had only two, making us the laughing stock to the whole country. Only one of our victors, Haymitch Abernathy, is still alive. He staggers onto the stage, late and obviously drunk. The crowd applauds politely and our past victor tries to hug Effie Trinket. Effie Trinket manages to scoot away, and I let out a small snicker, barely a breath.
The nervous mayor creates a diversion by introducing Effie Trinket. The annoyingly bubbly woman trots up to the podium with a smile.
"Happy Hunger Games!" She says cheerfully. "And may the odds be ever in your favor."
Effie Trinket goes rambling on with words that mean nothing to me, and I'm able to tune them out. I look over at Katniss, a slight smile pinches my face. Katniss has twenty slips of paper in the reaping ball, more than a lot of girls. A pang of worry fills me. I don't want to loose my best friend to the Hunger Games. I wonder if she is thinking the same thing about me. I turn away, wishing I could talk to Katniss.
It's time for the drawing, so Effie Trinket crosses to the girls' ball.
"Ladies first!" She says.
She reaches into the big ball and draws a slip of paper. I wonder how hard it must be, knowing that you'll be the one who draws the fate of a child. The one person who summons them to their death, that you could change who might die by waiting a second longer. Chills creep up my back as I pray that the paper Effie Trinket chooses doesn't have Katniss's name on it. It doesn't. Instead, she reads off the name.