I wake up early today. Well, I wake up early every day, but today I wake up especially early. It is still dark outside. I have things to do before I meet my hunting partner...friend... best friend? Before I meet Katniss for breakfast.
I slip out of the bed I share with my two younger brothers as quietly as I can, hoping not to wake them. Throwing on my hunting clothes and picking up my boots from the end of the bed, I go to the kitchen and grab my hunting bag before I step outside. I slip on my boots before heading quickly down the street.
I don't see a soul as I make my way to the Meadow. I stop next to the fence that surrounds District Twelve, listening carefully to make sure it isn't live. In theory the fence is supposed to be electrified at all times, but in reality it rarely is. I crawl under a loose section and move quickly into the woods.
I check my traps and find a squirrel waiting for me. I quickly remove it, putting it into my bag and reset the trap. The other nearby traps yield nothing, so I head back to the fence, through the Meadow and into town.
I hope the baker is up and not his wife. The baker is fond of squirrels, but if his wife answers the door she is likely to chase me away with a string of obscenities rather than to trade. My luck is good. The baker answers the door and I trade him the squirrel for a fresh loaf of bread.
I make my way quickly back to the woods beyond the fence and to the rock ledge overlooking the valley. This is our special place; hidden behind a thicket of berries, yet overlooking the whole valley.
I take an arrow and stick it through the bread and put it back into my bag. Before long I hear her approaching. She is quiet, but I am a hunter. I know the sounds of the woods. And, I know her sounds. Yes, I know her.
Katniss Everdeen. My hunting partner. My best friend. The girl I hope to marry someday.
"Hey, Catnip," I say, using the nickname that only I have for her. As she comes into view I find myself smiling at her. It is rare for either of us to smile anywhere except the woods. It is our refuge. The one place where we are free to be ourselves. Away from responsibilities. Away from the prying eyes of the Capitol and the Peacekeepers.
"Look what I shot," I say as I hold out the bread.
She smiles, taking the bread from me and holding it close to her face. "Mm, still warm," she says. "What did it cost you?"
"Just a squirrel. Think the old man was feeling sentimental this morning. Even wished me luck," I answer.
"Well, we all feel a little closer today, don't we?" she says quietly. "Prim left us a cheese."
I smile again. "Thank you, Prim. We'll have a real feast." Putting on my best Capitol accent I say, "I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games!" I pluck a few blackberries, "And may the odds-" I toss one in an arc towards Katniss.
She catches it easily in her mouth and finishes my sentence, "- be ever in your favor!"
As I am slicing the bread, I watch her strip the bushes of their berries.
She has the coloring typical of the people who live in our part of town, the Seam: black hair, grey eyes, olive skin. She could be my sister, but we are not related. It is a good thing, since I feel anything but brotherly towards her. We call each other 'best friends.' I feel so much more than that, but I have never told her how I feel. I don't want to risk what we have now by pushing for more. Maybe when she is a little older, I tell myself.
She returns with the berries as I finish spreading the cheese on the bread, topping each piece with a basil leaf Prim had edged the cheese in. We settle back into the nook to eat, enjoying the view of the valley, the soft breeze, the sunshine and our feast of goat cheese and fresh bread.
If only this were really a holiday. A day we could spend together here in our own special world. A world where we could be safe from things like the Hunger Games.
On an ordinary Tuesday we would both be in school right now. But, it isn't really a holiday. It is the day of the Reaping. Today we will be standing in the square at two o'clock to hear the reading of the names.
"We could do it, you know," I say quietly.
"What?" She asks casually, not looking at me.
"Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it," I say fervently.
She looks at me as if I have lost my mind, and I quickly backpedal, "If we didn't have so many kids."
Not our kids, of course. We are only eighteen and sixteen. We have responsibilities. My two little brothers and sister. Katniss' sister, Prim. And our mothers. They would starve without us to provide for them.
"I never want to have kids," she says firmly, turning back to her contemplation of the valley.
I do. I want to have kids with her. All I say is, "I might. If I didn't live here." I understand how she feels. We live in a harsh world and the thought of bringing more children into it gives you pause.
"But you do live here," she says irritably.
"Forget it," I snap back.
There are a couple of minutes of awkward silence before she asks, "What do you want to do?"
I know she isn't referring to running away. She is back on task- asking me if we should hunt, fish or gather. "Let's fish at the lake. We can leave our poles and gather in the woods. Get something nice for tonight."
Tonight will be a time of celebration for most families. Those whose children's names were not called. Two families tonight will begin weeks of terror, wondering if their children will survive. Or- more likely- how they will die.
We have a successful morning, with a dozen fish, some greens and a whole gallon of strawberries. We go to the Hob, District 12's black market, and trade much of our haul for bread, paraffin and other necessities. Then we head to the Mayor's house with our strawberries. He has a fondness for them and we get our best price from him.
The Mayor's daughter Madge opens the door. She is probably Katniss' only friend other than me. They are both sixteen and two years behind me in school. She has the townie look: blonde hair and blue eyes. Madge is okay, I suppose. She is quiet like Katniss. I don't really know much about her. She keeps to herself much of the time. I have never seen her with a boy, although I know many of the merchant boys like her.
Today her drab school outfit has been replaced with an expensive white dress and her hair is curled and pulled up with a pink ribbon. She looks beautiful and festive in her Reaping clothes.
"Pretty dress," I say. She shoots me a look, trying to decide if it is a genuine compliment or not. I must admit, it is.
She smiles uncertainly and says, "Well, if I end up going to the Capitol, I want to look nice, don't I?"
This provokes me. She knows the odds of her being picked are miniscule compared to Katniss and me. "You won't be going to the Capitol," I say as I look at her expensive dress again. She is wearing a beautiful real gold pin on her dress. Expensive enough to feed a family for months, if not a whole year or more. She has never had to take tesserae in order to survive. "What can you have? Five entries? I had six when I was just twelve years old."
"That's not her fault," Katniss interrupts to remind me that, no, it is not her fault.
"No, it's no one's fault. Just the way it is," I agree harshly.
Madge doesn't look at me. She hands the money for the strawberries to Katniss saying, "Good luck, Katniss." No words of luck to me, even though we all know I have more entries than both of them together.
"You too," Katniss says as the door closes.
We walk back towards the Seam as I ruminate on the unfairness of the system. Every district citizen between the ages of twelve and eighteen are entered in the drawing automatically. Once at age twelve, twice at age thirteen and so on until you have seven entries at age eighteen. If you are poor, you can choose to add your name an extra time in exchange for a year's supply of grain and oil for one person. You can do this for each member of your family. Katniss and I have each had to sign up for tesserae multiple times since we were twelve, just for our families to survive. Madge has five entries. Katniss has twenty. I have forty-two.
It is hard not to resent those who have no need for tesserae and therefore are the least likely to be chosen on Reaping Day. I think the Capitol designed it this way deliberately, to keep us resentful and divided. If you are starving and divided how can you ever plan a rebellion?
When we reach the Seam, we divide our spoils, leaving two fish, a couple loaves of good bread, greens, a quart of strawberries, salt, paraffin and a bit of money for each.
"See you in the square," she says as she leaves.
"Wear something pretty," I call after her. Maybe it will help me to 'celebrate,' seeing Katniss in something other than her hunting clothes or her usual school outfit. She is always beautiful, although she never makes an effort and has no idea how all of the boys look at her. Me, most of all.
I head home and give this morning's haul to my mother. My brothers and sister are neat and clean and ready to go.
My mother hurries me into the bedroom, telling me to clean up and get ready. She brings in a bowl of water she has just warmed up for me and I see my father's dress shirt and trousers laid out on the bed. Seeing them brings on a wave of sadness as I remember the day five years ago when the sirens blared.
An ordinary day at school. I was sitting in class when suddenly the sirens sliced through the air. There was a moment of stunned stillness before we reacted. Everyone in town knows what the sirens mean. An accident at the mines. Most of our parents and many older brothers work in the mines.
I ran out of my class and found my younger brother, Rory, wandering the halls looking for me. We hurried to the edge of town where everyone was gathering to find out what had happened. There were thousands of people pressing in and I couldn't find our mother. We heard there was an explosion deep down in the mine. It was hours before we found our mother, waiting for our father to come out with the other miners. He never did.
I was thirteen and suddenly I was the man of the house. Responsible to take care of my mother and two younger brothers and the baby my mother was expecting in a few days.
Overnight, we had gone from one of the more secure families in the Seam to one of its poorest. We no longer had my father's income nor the fruits of his hunting. We would soon have five mouths to feed and no income. Even with my tesserae, it would be hard to survive.
Katniss' father had died in the same explosion, along with many others, but I hadn't met her, not yet.
I pull myself out of my reflection and get ready for the Reaping. I am eighteen, so this will be my last. Rory is twelve and it is his first. I didn't let him take tesserae. Next year, I won't be able to so he may have to, even if I go to work in the mines. If I am reaped this year, well, that is another thing I don't want to think about right now.
We eat a quiet lunch of bread made from the grain rations. We will save this morning's bounty for a celebratory meal tonight; when we know that Rory and I are safe from the Reaping.
We head for the square at 1:30. I carry my sister Posy most of the way. She is the only one excited. She sees the bright banners and camera crews. The huge television screens lit up across the square. Only she, at nearly five, is young enough to have no idea what the Reaping is about.
I hand her over to my mother as I head towards the roped off area with Rory. He will be near the back with the other twelve-year-olds. I will be in the front with the older kids. "Don't worry Rory. Your name is only in the ball once," I remind him, sensing his worry.
He looks at me, looking much wiser than a twelve year old should. "I'm worried about your forty-two slips. Not my one, Gale."
I pat him on the shoulder reassuringly, but I have no words of comfort. I fully expect my name to be called today. I have been trying to store up any extra game I could for the past few months to make up for what I will not be able to provide while I am gone. And, Katniss and I have a deal. If one of us gets Reaped, the other will take care of both families. It is a lot of responsibility to leave on the shoulders of a sixteen-year-old girl ... even one as tough and resourceful as Katniss. I must come back to them. To her. I have to win.
I make my way to the front, searching the crowd of sixteen-year-old girls for her as I pass. She doesn't notice me, as her attention is fixated on the stage. Most likely on the balls which hold the names of all of the teenagers in the district. One for the girls and one for the boys.
The Hunger Games are a punishment for the districts. A way to remind us that our ancestors tried to rebel against the Capitol and were crushed. One district was obliterated completely in the Dark Days. The remaining twelve districts are each required to sacrifice to the games one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen every year. The twenty-four tributes will be forced to fight to the death in a televised sporting event which is compulsory viewing for the whole country. To add insult to injury, we are required to treat it as a celebration.
It actually is a celebration in the Capitol, whose children are not required to participate.
At exactly two o'clock the Mayor comes to the podium and begins to read. He tells of the history of Panem and the Hunger Games. Reminding us of why we are here. As if we could ever forget.
He reads the names of District Twelve's two Victors. The only two we have had in seventy-three years. Only one still lives. Haymitch Abernathy, the middle-aged drunk who is trying to give a hug to the annoying Capitol escort, Effie Trinket.
She escapes his attentions and bounces up to the podium as the Mayor announces her. She trills her signature greeting, "Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!" in that annoying high-pitched Capitol accent.
I look towards Katniss again and she turns towards me, returning my halfhearted smile. She looks worried. Scared even. I have never seen her look so vulnerable. Is she thinking of her twenty slips or my forty-two? I turn away, suddenly realizing she is most worried about the one person in this world she loves more than anything. Her sister Prim. Prim and her one slip. I wish I could comfort her and remind her that one slip among thousands is nothing. Almost nothing.
My attention is drawn back towards the stage by Effie's excited announcement of, "Ladies first!" as she crosses the stage to the girls' reaping ball.
As she digs around in the ball I am repeating over and over in my mind, 'not Katniss, not Katniss, not Katniss. Please, anyone but Katniss.'
She finally selects a slip and returns to the podium, unfolding it slowly. I hold my breath. 'Not Katniss,' I think one more time.
Effie reads the name with a big smile. I get my wish. It's not Katniss Everdeen.
It's Primrose Everdeen.