When I wake up, I feel the chill of the early morning slithering its way under the rough canvas of my sheets. I lethargically opened my eyes, gazing over to see my mother's tired and beaten down face with her eyes shut and sleeping as peacefully as she can. Even though she's a good couple of feet away from me and sleeping in the other rough bed next to mine, I can smell the warm fumes of boiling beef stew and steaming vegetables prancing from her body. It's a comforting scent, just like the Inn we live in. I watch her frown softly, turning her head to bury it into her pillow. She's probably having a not so nice dream. But who can blame her; today is the day of the Reaping.
I carefully slide the blankets from my body and sitting up, pausing when the frame of the bed groans before flinging my legs over the edge. My toes graze the icy floorboards but I pull on a pair of grey, old socks just before slipping them into my only pair of boots. They're good boots, strong leather with a fake bronze frame to keep them in shape. They're about two sizes bigger than my feet but they'll last me for a couple more years. I pull on my cargo trousers and a black shirt, standing up off of my bed. I turn to see my mother yawn and turn over in her sleep, the irritating sheets wrapped around her legs like a wrapper on a boiled sweet. Not that I've ever had one before, only those with money to spare have ever tasted one.
I quickly pulled on my heavy, thick jacket and grabbed my forage bag before sneaking past our beds and slipping through the door. I leave my home, the Benbow Inn, as tranquil as possible, trying my hardest not to wake up any sleeping customers in the other rooms or they'll get grumpy and leave before buying any breakfast my mother slaves over to make.
I live in District Twelve, probably the poorest District in Panem. District Twelve is the mining District, where in the early hours of morning, men and women head to work through the cinder streets, grime and dirt smeared over their faces and dust trapped under their nails. Not all people do but most. The miners get little pay, hardly enough for food but the richer people who live in the uptown part of District Twelve called the Merchant, get a better choice. My mother lived up town but moved down to this part of District Twelve named the Seam to live with my rat of a father. After ten years of living with us unhappily, he moved up north and remarried to a young blonde, leaving me and my mother to fend for ourselves.
Only a few good things came out of Mother marrying Father. He bought her the Inn with money left to him when his father died, he brought home money until my mother opened the Inn and most importantly, he taught me how to hunt.
It was the only thing my Father taught me, other than to keep my mouth shut about the Capitol in public. He even went to the extremes of crafting me a large bow with hundreds of arrows to shoot prey. He taught me the basics, how to handle the bow and how far to pull the arrow back depending on the distance between you and the prey. We worked on targets first until I shot rabbits under his guidance. He always corrected me and did examples to show me how to do it. It was the only fatherly thing he could do. He made fishing poles out of long, flexible sticks and strong string from the Hob, the black market of District Twelve. He taught me which berries were poisonous and which were not and how to identify them and which weeds were ok to scrounge from the earth and eat. We hid the bows and arrows high up in a hollow tree, tucked inside and tied so it wouldn't fall to the ground.
As the morning sun peeked over the mining mountains, I hurried to the high, chain-linked fence that enclosed the whole of District Twelve and what was between me and the forest. It was supposed to be electrified twenty four hours a day to keep out flesh-eating animals but we're lucky to get a couple of hours of electricity in the evenings, so it's safe to touch. Instinct takes over so I listen for a quiet hum but the fence is as silent as a stone. Hidden by a bunch of thorny bushes, I lay on my stomach and slipped myself through a three foot gap. There are other weak points in the fence but this one is the closest to home, even though we live on the border of the Seam and the Merchant.
As soon as I'm in between the trees, I clamber up one of the tall ones with strong branches not too high to reach. I climb up until I see a small hole in the bark and I reach in and grab my bow and a few dozen arrows. I tug it to loosen the string and pull them out. I peel the waterproof covers off of the sheath of arrows and the fine bow, a rare weapon in the District. There are a few dozen scattered around the trees, most made of yew while mine is made of ash. My father would have made good money selling them but if the officials found out he would have been publicly executed for inciting a rebellion.
As for Peacekeepers, the ones who make sure that we all follow the laws of the capitol, they turn a blind eye to a few hunters because, like many, they're hungry for fresh meat. In fact, they like to buy in the Hob but if any arming was in the Seam, it would never be allowed.
I jump down to the ground, draw an arrow and slowly sneak out into the thick forest. After a few minutes, an ashen rabbit leaps past. As cute as the animal is, I fire my arrow, piercing it through the eye. It falls to the ground, dead as a doorknob. I hurry to collect it in case any predators are hunting and steal my kill. Removing the arrow, I wrap the rabbit in a think cloth and bury it in my forage bag.
"Nice shot." Complemented a voice. I snapped my head around to face a girl my age with flaming red hair and luminous green eyes. Her skin is a tone of creamy pale brown, slightly darker than my own. Her hair tumbles past her shoulders, cascading down to the pockets of her jacket. She gathers it with her hands and ties it back with a ribbon. Her name is Anna Smollet, the only girl who can bring me out of my shell and make me smile.
"Thanks." I reply with a smirk. I and Anna are hunting partners. Every morning, just after the crack of dawn, we meet up in the forest ready to hunt. While I am skilled with a bow, Anna can build traps and spot fish lurking in the waters. Her senses are hyper, making her able to see, smell and hear things better and further away than I can. It's handy when hunting.
Anna jumped down from the high branch, landing on her feet perfectly like a cat. She holds up a huge loaf of bread with an arrow sticking from the centre. "Look what I shot!" She grinned. I laughed and plucked the arrow from the bread. I hovered my nose above the gaping slice and inhaled the warm scent. It smelled absolutely delicious, so tasty, in fact, my mouth watered with saliva.
"What did it cost?" I asked.
"Just a rabbit. The baker was feeling a bit generous today." Anna replied, placing the bred back into her forage bag.
We trekked up a small hill, to a rocky ledge hidden by berry bushes overlooking a valley. The place was bursting with summer life. The berries were juicy and humungous and the trees were green and majestic. The day was glorious; the sun beaming in the blue sky with white, puffy clouds like tails of snow rabbits floating in the sky. I and Anna feasted on the bread and the fresh edible blackberries.
"The Reaping's today." Anna said glumly. Anna is the youngest of three. Her older brother, Jonathan, turned nineteen a few months ago so he wouldn't be in the Reaping. However, Anna's older sister, Amelia, would be attending her last reaping. "How many times is your name in the bowl?" She asked.
"Four times, I think." I replied.
You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen, twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eighteen, the final year of eligibility, when your name goes into the pool seven times. That's true for every citizen in all twelve districts in the entire country of Panem. But here's the catch. Say you are poor and starving, you can opt to add your name more times in exchange for tesserae. Each tesserae is worth a meager year's supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for each of your family members as well.
"You?" I asked.
"Same." Anna answered. We both had slim chances then. Anna lived in the Merchant, both parents are healers. Both her siblings can hunt after being taught by their cousin who died in the Hunger Games a couple years back. Her sister taught her how to make traps and I taught her how to use a bow and arrow, even giving her a set my Father made. She's not bad but has a habit of firing a bit too much to the left.
"What about your sister?" I asked. Anna froze mid chew.
"Twenty." She muttered. My heart dropped a bit.
"I'm sure she won't get chosen. After all, there are thousands of slips in the girl's bowl, right?" I reassured, trying to get her out of a bad mood.
"I guess." She mumbled. After a few minutes of silence, Anna spoke up again. "You know if I get chosen?" she said.
"You're not going to get chosen." I interrupted.
"Yeah but if I am, promise you'll look after my family for me? Make sure they get game and stuff?" She said. I looked into her emerald eyes and nodded.
"I promise." I answered. Anna looked as if a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. "And if I get chosen, look after my mum for me? Make sure she eats?" I asked.
"Of course I will." Anna swore. We swapped smiles and finished off our bread before starting to head back to the District. On the way, we stopped to catch a few fish. Anna checked her traps and caught three squirrels and a baby rabbit. We picked a few blueberries and packed them into a box ready to sell. We harvest some dandelions for salad tonight, if we weren't chosen, and some greens. Finally, we got to the fence and hid out bows and arrows. Anna slid under the fence first and me after her and we swung by the Hob on our way home.
The Hob is the local black market that is held in an abandoned, old warehouse that once stored coal until they came up with a more efficient system that transported coal directly from the mines to the trains. Even though most businesses are closed on reaping day, the Hob is still fairly busy. We trade the squirrels for bread and the rabbit for a small bag of sugar. Anna keeps half of the fish and we trade the others for some money which we split between us. Greasy Sae, an old, bony woman who sells bowls of hot soup from her kettle, takes half the greens off our hands in exchange for a couple chunks of paraffin for candles. Even though we could do better elsewhere, Anna and I try our best to stay on good terms with Greasy Sae because she's the only one who takes wild dog. We don't hunt them purposely but if you are attacked and you take out one or two, well, meat is meat and nobody would turn their noses up to a good leg of dog, apart from the Peacekeepers who can afford to be a bit choosier.
Once our business in the Hob is finished for the day, we head towards the Mayor's house to sell the blueberries. Once we knock on the back door, the Mayor answers almost immediately. The Mayor is a stocky built man with a long face and barely any hair. His skin is a dark shade and like wrinkly, brown satin and his sunken-in eyes is a deep shade of brown. Today, he's wearing a navy tuxedo with a red little bow tie and his mayor necklace of a wrought iron chain with little pieces of fake coal to symbolize District Twelve. His Reaping Day clothes.
He gives us a sad little smile, pity reflecting from his eyes. "Same as always?" He asks, pulling out a wallet with little gold coins. Anna nods and we silently swap the berries for six gold coins. We split the money between us and as we turn to leave, the Mayor stops us. "Good luck today, kids. I hope you both don't get chosen." He croaks. The Mayor never liked the Reaping. He always had tears gleaming from his eyes every time he saw the terrified and hysterical faces of the tributes. He's lucky he doesn't have any children to worry about but I'm sure he feels that all the kids in the District are his responsibility. He's a good Mayor, lasted several elections. I'll be sad to see him retire; if I see him retire.
"Thanks, Mayor Flint." Anna chimes sweetly but her face sours as we head back down the alley. An older kid, Scroop, is waiting at the end of the alley. He's about nineteen, tall but thin with silver hair and tense, golden eyes. He always tries to make bad trades with us to let us pass but we normally just turn and go the other way if he's got nothing good. "What do you want?" Spat Anna when we came face to face with Scroop himself.
"I've got rabbit. Two fishes or six coins for it. Want it?" He asked in a raspy voice.
"No." I reply and we both turn to walk away.
"How about three slices of bread for a fish?" He tries again.
"We've got bread." Anna sneered. Scroop but a two-fingered hand into a large back and pulled out a sharp knife.
"Three fishes and a rabbit. Your choice?" He said, waving the good as new knife around in the air.
"We've got plenty of knives." I muttered. Tired of his rubbish deals, Anna turns and walks back up the alley. I take another glance at the knife before following her back. "What a waste of time." I mumble.
"Yeah, he needs to start getting better stuff." Anna grumbled back. We walked into the town square, where the stage was prepared with two glass bowls with shreads of names ready to be drawn and reveal the fate for two tragic kids. This is where we split up. Anna goes north, up into the Merchant and me south for a few yards until I come to the Inn. "I'll see you later, at the Reaping" Anna says.
"Wear something pretty." I tell her before we shake hands and go our separate ways. I head towards the Inn, walking down the silent streets.
The Inn is a tall, three story house with two chimneys and loads of bedrooms but only big enough for a bed, a basin and a wardrobe. In mine and my mother's room are just two beds with our clothes piled up underneath. The scent of warm soup and sizzling meat is wafting from the ajar windows of the ground level. I don't go through the front door; if I did, the smell of raw meat might turn customers off and they would leave. I made that mistake a couple of years back until I changed my mind to go the back way instead. I swing open the back door and step directly into the kitchen. The ovens are on and baking away while pots on the hobs are boiling. The dishes in the dishwasher are washing away but there are still a few dirty plates in the sink. I put away my trade and game before rolling up my sleeves and scrubbing the grease and crumbs off of the white china. My mom bought these plates out of her own money, the money her parents left her. Sometimes I still can't believe that she left the luxury part of District Twelve for the part filled with grime and dirt only to be abandoned years later with a child.
"Jim?" I turn my head to see Mom entering the kitchen with a pile of used plates. She places them on the counted and taking me into her arms, embracing me tightly like it's the last time. She always does this on Reaping day, afraid that it would be the last day she'll ever see me. I hug back, taking in her warm aroma of hot food and soap. We pulled away and I gazed at my Mother.
A quick thing about my mother: Her name is Sarah Hawkins and she's the best person in the whole Panem.
She looks like me, or I look like her, with a medium shade of brown hair but with a few grey streaks but I never think of her as old. Her face is worn with stress lines and worry lines but her laser blue eyes stand out like a cat among a flock of pigeons. She always wears this cream dress with a scarlet corset and food stains with a white apron. Other than her Sunday best, this outfit is the only clothing she has.
"What did you get?" She asks, trying to avoid the petrifying subject of the Hunger Games.
"Some candles, the sugar you wanted, some greens and dandelions for salad, some money and game." I answered.
"So salad and game for dinner tonight then?" Mom asked. After the reaping, people are supposed to celebrate, knowing their children will be safe for another year while at least two families shut their windows, lock their doors and weep through the night, not knowing if their children will live to their next birthday.
"Yeah." I reply.
"Now go get ready while I close up for the Reaping. It's less an hour away." She sighs. I don't protest; I walk up the creaky stairs to our room on the first floor. I pull off jacket and kick it under my bed. I remove my boots, my shirt and trousers and pull on a white t-shirt and black, smart trousers and shoes. I do up the buttons and re-tie my rat tail with a blue bobble, Mom comes in to change so I leave and head to the bathroom to give my face a quick wash and floss my teeth with some floss I traded a rabbit for a couple of weeks ago.
Mom comes down the stairs when I wait at the bottom. She's wearing a blue-violet dress with her hair tied back with a huge navy bow. Her eyes were bloodshot; she had been crying. I didn't ask her about it.
At one o'clock, we headed to the square which was full of people of all ages. Attendance is mandatory unless you're on death's door. If you don't attend, you'll be imprisoned. The Square is one of the few places in District Twelve that is pleasant. All around its line with little shops and personal stalls and with beautiful weather, it felt like a holiday to be there. But today, despite the colorful banners, there is a grimness and depression in the air. The camera crews, perched on rooftops like large buzzards, only add to the effect.
People file in silently and sign in. It's a good opportunity for the Capitol to keep tabs on the population of the District. Twelve to eighteen year olds are herded into roped-off areas. The one on the right is for girls and the one on the left is for boys. The young ones are lined up in the back while the older ones are standing in the front. Families stand in the side lines, gripping each other's hands even if they're never met before. I watch my mom stand next to Anna's family who all are hoping that neither of the two girls gets picked. Anna's sister, Amelia, has a boyfriend, who is a regular at the Inn. I think his name is Delbert Doppler or something like that. Right now, he's standing between my Mom and Anna's Mom. There are a few people, mostly men, holding little slips and chatting to each other silently. These guys are betters called Racketeers who bet on who's names shall be pulled out of the two glass bowls. These guys have no family of kids to care about or care about anyone else's children; Scroop is one of them and he's holding about a dozen slips. The odds are based on ages, if they live in the Seam or in the Merchant or how poor their family is. Compared to most kids in the Seam, my chances of being picked into to Hunger Games are slim, not impossible, but slim.
The space gets tighter as more people crowd in. The square is quite large but not big enough to hold the District's population of about eight thousand. Late comers are directed into the adjacent streets where they watch the Reaping on screens.
After a while, I find myself standing in a clump of fifteen year old boys. We all exchange terse nods before focusing on the stage set up before the Justice Building, holding three chairs and two glass balls on a podium, one girls and one for boys. Staring at the boy's glass ball, I think about the four slices of paper with the name 'James Pleiades Hawkins' written in careful handwriting.
Two of the three chairs are filled. Sitting on one of them was Mayor Flint, and on the other was Charlotte la Bouff, District Twelve's escort, fresh from the Capital with her scary white grin, bouncy blonde hair and twelve stone, shocking pink dress. They murmured to each other, giving worried and questioning glances to the empty seat.
Just as the town clock strikes two, the Mayor stands up to the podium and begins to read. It's the same story each year. He tells of the History of Panem, the country that rose from the ashes of a place called North America. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us new laws to guarantee peace and, as a reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the tributes must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.
Taking kids from each District and forcing them to kill each other while we watch – this is the Capitol's way of reminding us that we are at their mercy and how little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the message is clear: "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there's nothing you can do about it. If you lift a finger, we will destroy you like we did with District Thirteen." To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol makes us treat the Hunger Games like a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others. The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district showered with prizes, largely consisting of food. All year, the Capitol will show the winning district gifts of grain and oil and even delicacies like sugar while the rest of us battle starvation.
"It is both a time for repentance and for thanks." Intones the Mayor before starting to read out the list of past District Twelve victors. In Sixty nine years, we've only had two. Only one is still alive. John Silver, an obese, middle-aged man, who at this moment was hurrying on stage, stumbling apologies for being so late. Apparently, he over slept on his nap but we all know that Silver likes his alcohol just before the reaping and has never appeared on time for the Reaping in the last twenty seven years. He's still a bit drunk; not totally sober. He tries to hug Charlotte but she pulls away, slapping away Silver's hands. In the Games, John's left arm and leg was hacked off by a tribute from District Four just before another tribute from District Seven sliced the other tribute in half. Silver played dead until the tribute passed and then made his escape by hopping. His left eye and ear had been mauled by an animal but still, after all these unfortunate events to Silver, he survived by the last tribute accidently eating a poisonous berry. The Capitol gave Silver a robotic left arm, leg, ear and eye to replace the ones he lost. He is known in the Capitol as 'The Survivor of District Twelve'.
The Mayor starts to look distressed, knowing that this is all being filmed live and now, District Twelve is the laughing stock of Panem. He quickly pulls the attention back to the reaping by introducing Charlotte La Bouff.
Bright and bubbly, Charlotte La Bouff, gets up and staggers to the podium, and wishes "Happy Hunger Games" to everyone with a cheerful smile. But nobody is smiling back. She then goes on for a bit about what an honor it is to be here but we all know she wants to get bumped up to a District where there are victors, not slightly drunk cyborgs.
It's time for the drawing and Charlotte says "Ladies first" as always and reaches into the glass ball to pull out a name. She digs her hand in, ruffles the papers around and pulls out a slim piece of paper. She draws a collective breath and silence falls over the District. Charlotte leans into the mike, just as I begin to feel nauseous and worrying that it's Anna.
Charlotte reads the name out in a clear voice. And it's not Anna.
It's her sister, Amelia Smollet.