Chapter 1: School is a Wonderful Place
Author's Note: This is a revised chapter. I've tried to go through and make the narrative a bit smoother, fix all my errors in grammar and tenses, and add more things. I really appreciate all the comments and lovely reviews I've gotten on this fic and I hope you all like the revisions.
How did I get here? As I turn, facing all of my peers and teachers at the reaping, I can't help but feel disbelief. Sure, I have been preparing myself for this eventuality, but I still can't believe I'm up here. That I'll go there. To the Hunger Games.
I can feel myself starting to panic, but I close my eyes and recite the things that I know about myself in my head: My name is Wiress Mihos. I am fourteen years old and I am in the Mechanical Engineering Program in the District 3 school. My father is insane. My mother has disappeared. I'm a genius and a Mechanic and an Inventor. And now, I'm the newest Tribute for District 3.
Somehow, a blunt retelling of the facts is most helpful in calming myself down...
When I was younger, I loved school. I'm sure a lot of kids would say that, but for me, school was a haven. It meant everything to me. Everything.
School time meant that I could get away from the basement that I lived in. It meant that for one meal, I wouldn't have to eat rodents and cockroaches and whatever edible something my father managed to scrounge up from the garbage. It meant that the mothers in the building would take care of me during the week, give me somewhere to sleep that didn't stink of garbage, get me away from my crazy father. Someplace quiet where I could do my homework.
I'd actually get clean clothes once a week, too. And a bath.
In school, I was on the track for mechanical engineering, where they challenged my brain and let me use it, on anything, everything. Even if I was only seven, one of the youngest they'd ever had in that program...they listened to me, to my ideas. I was contributing.
I made people laugh, too. They mostly liked me. School was the best place ever.
It hadn't always been bad with my father. It had been just us two for a long time. I didn't remember my mother, for she went away when I was very young. Father had been a fairly happy person once. He taught me nursery rhymes, a lot of them. He had a steady job back then in a factory. We lived on the third floor of our building, and there were lots of the mothers who helped my father take care of me, so I wouldn't have to go to a Community House.
And then, when I was around five, he began to fall apart. He started to sleep in and to stay up late. He forgot to go to work. He started to behave very strangely. And our economic situation began to take a downturn.
My father would talk about things, terrifying things. He began to feel as if people were watching him, conspiring against him. Sometimes he would speak to invisible people. But he didn't scare me. He was my father.
When you're poor in District 3, you just start moving down, the less money you make, the lower down in the building you move. We began to move, every few months, down and down. The air was worse the lower you went, the water was worse, the living situation was worse. We just kept getting notifications to move our residence every few months, as Dad sold off our possessions. And then, shortly after I turned five, we finally landed where we'd stay till I was thirteen: the basement. After that, he did odd jobs, tinkered, but mostly, he was unemployed.
It wasn't entirely his fault, of course. People talked, and didn't much care if I were listening or not, and they didn't mince words. They usually used words like "insane" and "dead battery" to refer to him, and I guess he was. He'd start out every few months, feeling reformed, and head off to work in a factory. For a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, he'd be okay...and then it would start. He'd start talking about cracks in his head, and people with no faces and the noise in his head, the voices. And he'd stop showing up for work. Then, of course, they'd fire him.
And it would be an anxious time for me, worrying about going to a Community House, because no one wanted to go to a Community House, and especially not if you were a girl. So we lived in the basement, where people threw their garbage, and we lived on their leavings, not that there were many. I trapped and cooked rats and mice. Cockroaches were good too if you knew how to cook them.
The women who had helped my father before continued to help him, and me, though they couldn't give him a place to live, they sometimes let me sleep in their apartments, let me eat with them when they could, and I played with their children.
And they made sure that when I turned five, I went to school.
I wasn't the most popular girl in school, though I was liked, but it wasn't quite the same. I wasn't pretty. I had long, dark hair that never quite got clean enough, clothes that were mostly thread and patches, and bad skin from eating mostly garbage and vermin. I was skinny and homely with a persistent wheezing cough from living in the worst area possible. The only pretty thing about me was my teeth. Dad said once that I inherited the good teeth from Mom. It was the only time he'd ever talked about her without crying.
Kids at school could be mean, of course, and I often got called names. The one that hurt the most was "rat face". I still think of myself like that sometimes. Boys mostly called me that. Most of the girls didn't look so different than me, so they didn't care much.
But mostly, people liked me anyway, because I made them laugh. To be honest, it never took much. Perhaps just letting loose a spring during a quiet moment. Or saying something snarky at the right time. My teachers put up with it, mostly because I was one of the top students in the school, and because most of the time, I was courteous and kind. District Three was a bleak place to live, though we don't know any different, anyway. There are hardly any plants, no flowers, no trees, though we know they're out there...we see pictures in books. But for us, it was just factories, miles of factories, and tall tenements to live in, and a sky that was always dreary and grey, and smelled of stale machine oil and smoke.
So maybe I was the bright spot in someone's dreary day.
The day I was picked for the Mechanical Engineering Program was one of the best days of my life. I was newly seven years old, just heading into school on the first day when my teacher caught me. He brought me into a room where several of the teachers, teachers for older students, ones I didn't know, were sitting, and one man in very fine clothes, who was holding a clipboard of some sort and looking very official.
They stood me at a workbench, and there were machine parts all over it, machine parts and tools, and they told me, "We want you to build a working motor from these parts. Work as quickly as possible, but take all the time you need."
I looked over the items on the table. This wasn't a kit. This was a hodge-podge of weird parts and magnets and wire. And so I worked quickly to organize my space, setting the tools where I wanted them and organizing the parts as best I could, and then they started the timer. It was an exhilarating exercise, and one I threw myself wholly into. I knew how to construct a simple motor; in Three you learned that from when you were very small, but the parts would not make anything simple.
But from the moment I saw the parts, I knew how they could fit together, and for the most part, I was right. I bent over the workbench, working as quickly as my fingers could, fitting parts to magnets to wire. Though I was quick, I was also careful, discarding errors as soon as I could tell they were wrong.
In twenty minutes, they were able to plug in my motor, and hear its quiet hum. It was a proud moment for me. I wasn't sure why they were having me do it at the time, but I had loved the challenge.
The man with the clipboard was writing a mile-a-minute. Finally, he stood up and said, "She should be in the Mechanical Engineering track immediately." Then he stood in front of me, and patted my head. "Good luck to you, Wiress. We in the Capitol will be expecting great things from you." And with that, he left, and my teachers were congratulating me.
My eyes widened. It was the first time I'd ever been spoken to by anyone from the Capitol.