For three hundred and sixty four days, we hold our breath. The days tick by on the calendar and our apprehension grows greater. Time speeds on regardless of how we feel, we head toward either our salvation or our inevitable doom. Today, would have been a lovely day had we been celebrating for other reasons, but today was the day of the Reaping. Tonight, for this one day, the whole District would breathe but the family of one girl and one boy. The world would crush in on them, threatening everything they love or hold dear. But everyone else would experience a brief respite—for one day. Then even though the Games were going on, the fear and apprehension would start again. There would only be three hundred and sixty four days till it happened again—and each day the weight would press in more until it was almost suffocating. There was only one day of breathing, one day of knowing that everyone was safe. That was it, that's all we had.
The sun was just dawning when I awoke. Today was supposed to be celebration—The Reaping. I felt the heat in my chest burn, I hated this. Each year we were lead like cows to the slaughter, and two of us would leave forever. I thought of what I wanted to do, of how I longed for this to stop. But I had family, people I loved. I couldn't risk that. I was only fifteen, and I was all they had left.
Rising to my feet, I pulled on some simple work clothes. Slipping outside, I grabbed some logs for the fire. Throwing them on the hearth, I squatted there until a fire was roaring and warmed my hands. I could see my sister and brother stirring in their bed before they dozed back to sleep. Quietly, I did my few chores and heated the water. It was easiest for me to bath before they were up.
Placing the large tub in front of the fire, I poured the warm water in until it was full enough for me to bath. Piling my clothing on the floor, I eased myself into the water. Relaxing, I let my thoughts roam. There wasn't' much time today. I'd stored up enough wood last night for today. I'd worked past dark to chop extra lumber for today so that we'd have enough pay to make it through yesterday and today. All my chores had been done, and some money set aside for a special treat for after the Reaping. Our better clothes were hung out for us to dress in. All I had to do was get my brother, Sven, and my sister, Greta ready and help our grandmother to get ready, and then have our lunch. If I was lucky, I could steal away to see Ivan before we had to make our way to the square. My face flushed as I thought of him. I'd never expected to be so happy. He was kind, generous and loving. He understood me and my ways, which was something in it's self. But why, after all had he noticed me?
I was nothing that special really. I was pert, and sarcastic. I was strong. I was everything that wasn't feminine, except for my hair. It was long, silky brown. My only redeeming physical feature I prided myself on, my one beautiful quality. But when he looked at me—I felt my face flush again. He was the only guy who had ever made me blush, the only guy I'd ever been interested in and who liked me for me.
Before my thoughts could continue, I saw a downy head look up from the pile of blankets from a bed. Greta was waking, which meant that Sven wouldn't be long after. Quickly, I hurried to wash my hair and scrub off quickly before they woke up fully. I had barely wrapped a towel around me, when Sven came bounding out of bed.
His wrinkly little arms were stretching up at me. "Jo! We haf bath soon?"
I brushed the brown curly locks back from three year old Sven's forehead as I kissed his cheek. "Yes, just let me pull my clothes back on. Okay?" My voice was always so gentle with him, and my family. I had learned to speak to Ivan the same way. I remember his surprise at hearing me speak so nicely, so calmly to my family. It wasn't how I reacted to others with my sarcasm that fell just short of bitterness. I didn't smile away from those I loved, not until Ivan. He loved my smile—and always rewarded it's rarity with a kiss.
Pulling the clothes back on from this morning, I dumped the bath and heated some more water. Greta was already out of bed, and yawning. As I poured the warm water into the tub, I could see my five year old sister, Greta and Sven crawling into the tub. As they scrubbed up, and splashed in the water I warmed our bread. It was a rare luxury that I had splurged on for us the night before. It was stupid really, but I wanted them to feel warm and safe. They didn't quite understand what today meant—and what it meant for me.
I found myself leaning on the table, breathing deeply. I could feel a little surge of panic shooting up into me. Grandma and I were all they had left. Our father died in an accident almost four years ago, I was only eleven, my sister only one, and my mother was only a few months along with Sven. That meant that Liam, my eighteen year old brother was the breadwinner for the family. But that didn't last long, and neither did my mother—as one after the other they too went beyond pain or suffering. As their pine boxes closed, I was the only one left behind to suffer—to eek out a living for what was left of our family.
The world wouldn't be that cruel would it? We deserved some respite, didn't we? I would be safe today. We had to be, because what would happen if we weren't?