My skin feels cold in the early morning air; tendrils curl across it like vines, like the ferns framing our front porch. It feels good just to feel something; I've never forgotten the months after the accident, when I woke up feeling absolutely nothing. Frozen, completely paralyzed, aware of myself but unable to open my eyes or feel the ground beneath me or the blankets above me.
On all of those mornings, I wondered if I was dead.
Of course, I should have died in the accident four years ago. Nobody knows how I survived. Father thinks it's his strength coming out in me. Clarrine just reckons it served me right for wanting a solitary job, shunning the company of others. I don't know what I think. All I know about it is this:
I was in the pine plantation, checking the circumferences of the trees. That's something the little kids are given to do – no axes involved, no saws, it's supposed to be perfectly safe. So there I was with my tape measure and my chisel, carving the trees' sizes into their own bark. I remember that I used to press a kiss to my fingers, and then to the tree where I'd cut it. I'm only doing my job, I'd think, and so are you. You grow, and I measure you. I'm sure we'd both rather do something else.
I think I'd adore living anywhere instead of Seven – despite being surrounded by trees twenty-four-seven, I've managed to turn out allergic to most kinds of sap. Depending on where I am, just breathing can throw me into an uncontrollable fit.
Well, I guess that's one thing the accident cured.
I'd just finished carving my five-hundredth tree of the morning, the milestone at which I always gave myself a ten-minute break. I lay facedown in the grass, inhaling the rich smell of the blades. We don't get too much grass around District Seven. There's often too much sawdust in the air, or too many trees blocking the light, or too many paths cutting through the turf. Perhaps because of that, I loved grass with all my heart: it was so hard for it to live, clinging thinly in the soil, nutrients stolen by the all-important trees, thirsting for rain that rarely comes. It gave me hope, every day I saw it, that maybe I could hold on to life too.
Even when I couldn't lie down in the grass anymore, it gave me hope.
My eyes had just drifted closed when there was a shout above me. I scrambled to my feet, looked upwards. Somebody was hanging in the tree, clutching at a branch far too thin to support their weight for long. An axe balanced precariously a few inches away, caught in a fork. I glanced higher and saw the certain signs of cut limbs. The cutter must have dropped their axe, and was now scrambling to retrieve it. I ran a few steps backwards – curious or not, I wasn't about to stand beneath a loose axe.
The cutter – a woman, I saw, as she shifted out from the trunk into the light – swung one hand up towards the axe. My own hands flashed out, trying to warn her, she couldn't grab it. Her fingers brushed the handle; with a triumphant yell, she pulled it back towards her.
Too fast. It spun free, flying through the air, straight towards me. I panicked, like the stupid child I was, and tried to run away rather than to the sides. I still don't know why I didn't take a few steps left or right, and be completely out of its path. But I didn't think. I just ran, only making a few steps before I tripped. My face was grazed by another protruding root. I remember that graze so well.
It was the last sensation I felt with any clarity.
Because one second, maybe two, after that, the axe thudded into my back.
Kids at school used to ask me if I felt any pain, if there was any blood. My answer is the same every time: I just don't remember. I know the axe hit me, I've seen the scars in a mirror and the lasting damage it did is fairly conclusive proof, but I didn't feel it. I guess I blacked out. One second I'm lying on the ground, tripped by a tangled root, and the next I'm waking up in the medicine tent, Father clutching one of my hands and sobbing.
My spine was severed about two-thirds of the way down. That means that I can move my arms and lift my head, but I'll never be able to control anything lower than my waist. It's like I just don't have legs. Kids ask me what that's like, too. I ask them in return, What's it like to have no wings? They go all confused, I dunno, Not meant to, Just normal I guess. Then I smile; they've answered their own question.
It's different for everyone though. For a while I lived with a man who'd suffered a similar accident about ten years before. I guess they thought that his minders could care for me too. He swore that he could tell the weather with his legs; that they tingled when it was going to rain, and when they ached it was going to snow. He was right, too – I don't know how, but his legs predicted every rain- and snowstorm that year, hours in advance.
I'm just grateful to feel anything at all. The axe could easily have landed further up my body – or killed me. So I'm rejoicing in the cool air across my skin, happy to simply know that it's cool without having to ask somebody.
Father comes in to wake me up, as if I didn't pull myself out of my own nightmares before dawn every morning. He doesn't know that though, there's no way I'd trust him with something like that.
"Hey, Avie, how're ya t'day?" His smile, painfully forced as usual, breaks through my haze.
"Not great," I shrug. It's not actually true, I feel better than most days, but I don't feel like getting into a conversation. I don't do this often, I'd start looking like too much of a burden, but it gets him to leave me alone when I need it most.
"Aww, too bad. Today bein' the reapin' and all!"
Damn him and his stupid love of the Games. I just know he's going to force me into one of Mom's outfits so I look my skeletal, crippled 'best' – in other words, still irredeemably hideous. And then I'll be dragged (that's literally) to the reaping, shoved into my age area and left. Sometimes they remember to put out a chair for me. Sometimes they don't, and Father just flops me out onto the ground. Thankfully, the other girls in my age group aren't so neglectful, and they always help hold me up.
"Y'know the Games are real important to me. And this is a real special one, too, the fourth Quarter Quell! Y're lucky to be a part of it, y'know, even if y'don' get picked."
I… what? Even if I don't? I've been lucky for four years. My luck will have run out if I get picked. But he won't get it, of course. People tell me that he was never quite right in the head before he won the Games, and that of course blew everything out of control. Now he thinks the Games are great and wonderful and such an honor and every year he's wanted me to take part. Now that Clarrine's in the reaping, I don't know if Father's pressuring her instead. Every year he's whispered at me to volunteer, volunteer, volunteer, and every year I've pretended I'm unable to lift my arms. Hopefully he'll leave me alone this year, and transfer all his focus on to Clarrine. For an instant, that thought feels wonderful, until I realize that it means I must want my sister to be made to feel uncomfortable and ashamed – or, if she goes along with him, to fight in the Games. That feels bad enough, but then I feel worse that I don't feel worse about it.
Awkwardly, Father picks me up and I'm slung in his arms like a baby. I guess he's thankful that's he's tall and solid, and I'm short and stick-thin. Personally I don't mind being short. What's height when you're lying down? He thumps down the corridor towards the kitchen, either not noticing or not caring about the way my arms flop out and smack the walls. I grit my teeth and say nothing about the aching pain leaking through my skin. Unceremoniously he dumps me in my chair – high-backed, with a narrow seat enclosed on two sides so it holds me upright – and turns to my sister.
"Mornin', Clarrie! How y'doin'?" He ruffles my sister's curls and smiles at her, the broad, genuine smile I wish he'd give me. I know I'm a pain, I know I make a huge amount of work for him, but I'd think, or I used to anyway, that he could occasionally give me a smile.
"I'm good, Dad," Clarrine gushes, her usual style of communication, smiling up at Father. Stupid suck-up kiss-ass… Clarrine tries so hard to get on his good side that I wonder if she's going to volunteer this year, just to win his eternal favor. And it will be eternal, for the rest of her life – three weeks, most likely, but if she won... If Clarrine, at twelve, won the Games, won the Quarter Quell… I can't imagine how happy he'd be. I picture myself getting quietly shunted aside, further and further, as the two victors get closer and closer.
"Y'first reapin' t'day!" Father beams like this is actually a good thing, like the fact that Clarrine could, theoretically, be dead in a few weeks is the best thing since bread. "We're gonna make ya beautiful."
We? Who is this we? Certainly not me – the two of them go off together, leaving me forgotten, stuck at the table. And certainly not Mom, she wouldn't come out of her room just for this.
Mom's sort of like Father, not right in the head, except she's far worse. For some reason she just can't tolerate being around people, just can't. It's like the allergic reaction I have to sap. She's managed to speak to me a couple of times, but I barely know who she is.
I close my eyes and try to drift back towards sleep. Sleep has always been something of a haven for me – a place I don't have to deal with my family, a place where feeling nothing is a good thing.
But sleep won't come.
Father and Clarrine will probably be several hours getting her ready for the reaping before they think to come for me. All I can do is sit in my chair and occupy myself somehow. Mostly I make things, little carvings and colored knotted bits of fabric. It's something I can do on my own and I love it beyond measure. When I'm making a tiny model tree from scrap shavings and sap it's easy to forget the absence of my legs, the absence of my family, and what is practically the absence of life.
But Father's forgotten to put anything out for me. This has happened before, but rarely; he leaves me in the chair all day but most of the time there's something for me to play with. Sure, sometimes it's socks that need darning or a shirt that needs patching, but that's okay. I actually enjoy contributing something real, something valued, and even sewing occupies me.
But today the table is blank and empty. I resign myself to a long wait. I do a lot of waiting. It totally sucks to be completely dependant on other people.
It's hours later, the sun's slid a couple of inches across the floor, by the time Father and Clarrine pop out of the dressing room.
"Aw, Avie, we forgot all about ya!" Father actually looks slightly downcast, but I think that's just because I'm not going to look special at the reaping. No, thankfully there's only time to shove my body into my usual clothes, a loose shirt and pants, before we have to go.
We have a sort of sled that Father drags me on whenever we have to go anywhere that's too far away for me to be carried. Basically it's a large slab, about the size of a door, with a long handle coming off one end. I lie on the slab and try not to fall off while Father drags me behind him. It's awkward and stupid, and whenever we pass people they try not to look at me. They know we're all poor, they know I'm useless, they know I'll never be able to work – yet they still think that dragging me along like a piece of garbage is going too far. Father's a Hunger Games victor, surely he can afford to pay somebody to carry me around? And he can; he just doesn't think I'm worth it.
I think what I hate the most about it is that sometimes I don't think I'm worth it either.
My heart starts hammering and I close my eyes, refusing to look out at the tiny houses and stores, like blocking out my vision will block out the reaping that's about to happen, but I can tell we've arrived when the sound of people stops getting louder, meaning we're right in it. Over the babble of voices and crying I hear Father arranging the tick-off of my name, since I obviously can't do it for myself. Then he lifts me over one of the rope barriers and deposits me into the arms of two of the girls standing inside the section. And he's gone.
Clarrine isn't, though. As Lytra and Cel, the two girls holding me up, try to get my helpless body organized, my sister ducks out of her section and runs over.
Father wasn't wrong, she is beautiful. She's dressed in what appears to be a dress made of flowers. I know it's not, because I made it myself. I know how the fabric and stitches cooperate to make that effect. But it's gorgeous and realistic, and she looks lovely in it. Some colorful blossoms are twined through her curls. She doesn't look twelve, maybe ten, barely.
"Father's been telling me what a coward you always are," she says with a sneering lip. "So I just came to tell you not to get any courage up this year. It's my turn. I'm going out there and I'm going to win, and he'll finally have to pay more attention to me." Clarrine spins in a swirl of fabric that I made for her and strides away, oozing confidence from every pore.
I'm really sick of her. She's always so pushy, and blames me for every moment that Father has to spend on me. Never mind that this morning alone he was so devoted to her that I was forgotten for hours. I hardly care that she's determined to die. Father will probably hate me for not volunteering first – especially now that I know, and by volunteering I could save her.
But I don't want to. Clarrine's not my problem. She may be my sister, but I barely know her, and this is what she wants. She explicitly told me not to volunteer this year.
"What a bitch," Cel says, looking after her. "I can't believe she called you a coward, I mean, really, after everything that's happened to you?"
"Little sisters, huh?" The words are casual but I think she knows I'm also trying to apologize being unceremoniously dumped on her and Lytra by my father. There should be a chair, but once again it's been forgotten. At least they'd rather hold me up then let me sprawl in the dirt.
Our mayor steps up on the wooden (what else?) stage and holds up a rolled scroll. Without preamble, he begins to read the Treaty of Treason.
I know that most people usually tone out during this part, but I listen. There's so little going on normally that I can't afford to ignore anything that happens, even if it is as repugnant as this. We don't know all that much about the Capitol, when it comes down to it. All we see is the orchestrated appearance on the annual Hunger Games broadcasts, and maybe the occasional announcement from President Snow. For all we know, the Capitol's a smoking ruin just like District Thirteen, and everything's faked just to make us believe they're untouchable.
But no. The tributes have to go somewhere. Somebody's running the Games.
So I pay attention to the words about disasters and death. I listen to the familiar story of rebellion and retaliation.
"And now, live from the Capitol, President Snow and the reading of the card." The mayor turns to the massive screen set up just behind the stage, which has been carefully cleared to allow full viewing. Lytra and Cel tug me up higher so I can see too.
President Snow appears, still looking neat and trim despite his age. "On the twenty-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that their children were dying because of their choice to initiate violence, every district was made to hold an election and vote on the tributes who would represent it." I'm so glad I wasn't part of that one. Picking who you want to send to almost certain death… It's almost as bad, maybe worse, than actually killing somebody. "On the fiftieth anniversary, as a reminder that two rebels died for each Capitol citizen, each district was required to send twice as many tributes." That actually doesn't sound as bad as the first one, to me. Sure, twice as many people died, twice as many families were ruined… but the people who didn't lose a loved one didn't lose their self-respect. Self-tolerance, even; I think I'd almost rather kill myself than vote, as if it were civilized, on who I want to die. "On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes were reaped from the existing pool of victors." Father's told us about that year – the year that District Twelve got off 'soft' because they only had one previous victor, a man called Haymitch. That year only twenty-two, not twenty-three, people died. Haymitch was one, apparently. The President opens an envelope, removes a small piece of stiff paper. "On the hundredth anniversary, as a reminder that even the slightest rebellion against the Capitol will not be tolerated, the male and female tributes will be the most disabled children in the district."
Disabled…? They're going to fill the Hunger Games with disabled children…
"Aviary!" shouts a voice as the screen goes black. "Aviary, that's you! Aviary, you're in!"
I'm dead, is what I am.
I've seen the Hunger Games, I've heard stories from Father – it must be him shouting now. I know about the unbelievably physical nature of the Games. I've seen those plates that the tributes rise on, and I've known I would just have to lie there, helpless, waiting for someone to kill me.
And that's exactly what's going to happen to me…
Father's ecstatic, but every other voice I can hear is panicking with the unjustness of it. Disabled… I hear that word being thrown around everywhere.
It's obvious that I'm going to be the girl; with my father's shouts of support there's no way they can give it to anyone else. I'm dead.
I don't want to die. I've managed to hold on for so long. I got over my death wish six months after the accident, and since then I've only thought about killing myself once. I was doing so well, I really believed that I could survive… and now it's over.
So who's the boy? Who's a disabled boy between twelve and eighteen? I can't think of anybody off the top of my head, but then again I don't get out much.
Lytra and Cel have turned to me in horror, mouths ajar. Suddenly it's like they realize they're holding up a walking corpse, because they drop me.
I hit the ground and flinch. My eyes are flush with grass.
Grass struggles in our district. The trees take all the nutrients from the soil and we can't afford to let any go to waste. So the grass is always torn up.
But not thrown away. I remember as a child bringing home grass for Father to cook for us, because we were that desperate. Even as a victor's family, we still had to eat the grass to survive.
I feel like the grass now. I feel delicate, easy to rip up and kill. I feel unwanted, soon to be sacrificed to the hunger of the Capitol.
The mayor makes another announcement, voice shaking, but louder than before, trying to be heard over the upset rumble of the crowd.
"A contingent from the Capitol will be dispersed to determine the tributes later this week. Mental and physical disabilities will be taken into account." His head drops to his chest, the paper flutters unnoticed from his hand. "Please return home now."
I'm not sure I hear a word. My face is still down in the dirt, either everybody's too shocked to notice me or they're too horrified to touch a tribute. I'd like to say I understand how they feel, but honestly, I'm the dead one. I'm the one who's going to be hacked to bits or eaten by animals (or tributes, that's happened in the past), or burned alive or crushed or something.
"I can't believe it!" Clarrine throws herself into my field of vision and shoves me onto my back. She glares down into my face, looking ready to spit. "This was supposed to be my year! And suddenly it's all about you!"
Anger makes the words fly. "I didn't ask for this, you heard them! Hey, maybe you should convince them that you have brain damage, I bet it's even true!" I grab her ankle and jerk it sideways, tripping her and knocking her into the dirt.
"Bitch!" she screams, leaping up and brushing at her dress. "I hope you're happy!"
Nobody looks at us. Everybody's either disgusted with the idea of disabled kids killing each other, or relieved that they're safe. We're just sort of forgotten. Clarrine looks really annoyed but as far as I'm concerned, that's normal.
It takes a couple of minutes for Father to come and find us himself. I just try to smile and nod as he swings me up into his arms, shouting out how proud he is of me.
Yeah, because it's real difficult to lie there and wait while somebody runs up to kill you.
Despite Father's loud praises, nobody looks at me. I know from the years that I've been in the reaping, I try not to look at the tributes. Partly because it's so easy to imagine myself in their place, but mostly because they're almost certainly dead. It's easier just to forget about them now, pretend like they already don't exist. And meeting their eyes always made me feel guilty that I hadn't volunteered. I possessed the capacity to save their lives, and I did nothing.
Guess it's all coming back on me now. At least nobody will feel bad this year for not volunteering. The tributes selected don't get a choice. There's no last-minute way out.
Past Hunger Games begin to swim through my head, all the televised drama and death spinning behind my eyes. I see everything I'll have to go through before I even get to the arena – the chariot rides, the interviews, the training scores. I don't know how I'll be able to do it. I can't even stand up. I can barely lift the tools I work with. My arm aches from the effort of grabbing Clarrine just now.
I've got no hope in this at all.
Previous victors have almost always been charismatic or special, even before they got into the arena. The girl who won last year had the best sense of humor I've ever heard – her interview before the Games had me laughing so hard I hurt. The boy who won the year before was only twelve, and looked so helpless and sweet that people pitied him, and tried to keep him alive. Humor? Not when I've had no-one to practice with, no-one to learn jokes from. Helpless? Sure, but this year, everybody's going to be helpless. Every kid is going to be the 'weakest' boy or girl in their district. And I'm pretty bad off, but I can't be the weakest kid in all Panem. I've got nothing. There's no reason anybody would pay money to save me.
I'm already dead.
So why go through all that terror and stress only to reach certain death? Why shouldn't I just die now and save myself all that heart-rending trouble?
There's a slight problem, though. I'd need help. I can't get myself within reach of a knife or anything else lethal. And nobody's going to help me for fear of gaining the Capitol's ire. A few years ago, a mother here in Seven killed her twelve-year-old daughter, who'd been selected as tribute. Out of mercy, she said, so that the girl could die painlessly, surrounded by people who loved her. I thought it was the best possible outcome, certainly for the girl, and the family was spared the heartbreak of watching their daughter being slaughtered, or, almost worse, slaughter someone else's child.
Of course, the Capitol didn't see it that way.
They took all the other children in that family – and the extended family too, all the girl's cousins between twelve and eighteen – and put them into the arena. That year, instead of the normal twenty-three deaths, there were thirty-two. An extra nine children died because of that mother's act of mercy. All the children taken to pay for the girl's death were killed, none of them won. Father thinks the Gamemakers rigged the arena to make sure none of them survived, just to make the mother hurt that much worse.
So there's no chance that anyone would help me. I can't kill myself and nobody's going to do it for me.
Until I hit the arena, that is. Then I'll have twenty-three willing murderers.
I won't be sick, not now, not with Father and Clarrine watching. I swallow firmly and order my empty stomach to be still. I just have to accept that I'm going to be killed in the arena, and I have to get through all the pre-Games stuff too. I just have to grit my teeth and do it.
There's no other choice. It's not like I want to be killed on national television, or even smile my way through the lead-up. But I have to do it. I have to go through that, and then I have to die.
Father sets me down as soon as we're back inside the house, groaning about my weight in his arms. I don't know what he's complaining about. What with me getting no exercise at all, not even walking around the house, the muscles in my legs are completely atrophied, all shrunken and wasted, my skin like paper and lying almost directly on my bones. My arms are slightly better, but not much; crafting isn't much of a workout. Additionally, we're poor to start with and Father often forgets to feed me, and I'm too shy to remind him, so I'm lucky if I get one full meal per day. Consequently, I may be sixteen but I probably weigh less than Clarrine.
As if I didn't need another thing against me in the arena. I've got no fat reserves, no muscles to convert into energy in an emergency situation with no food. Starvation usually takes about thirty days, right, with plenty of water? About three with nothing at all? I'd probably die in less than one.
Damn these Games! I've never been this morbid, not even after the accident. I was suicidal, but not morbid. I'm not even a confirmed tribute, not officially, and I'm already thinking about my death as a foregone conclusion.
Which of course it is, but I still hate the Games for making me think like this. All my cheer, my resilience, gone.
Father and Clarrine have disappeared, probably to scrub off her makeup and put away the dress and ribbons she was wearing. They've left me in my usual chair, the one with the high back and arms so I don't fall out. And now, until the 'contingent' from the Capitol arrives to determine the tributes, I basically have to go back to normal. Lying on my back. Staring at the ceiling. Asking to be carried outside. Doing nothing. Frozen.
Dying shouldn't be that hard, after all. I'm half-dead already.