The bitterly cold wind takes my breath away and threatens to knock me over. I rub hands together, blowing hot air into them. Even though it's probably the most dangerous natural area left in Panem, I love it. With the frigid temperatures, mountain lions, and even a bear once in a blue moon. It's more like home than my real home. "Home," I laugh to myself. You can call that house whatever you want, just not 'home'. It is anything but.
That one bedroom cabin I'm bound to is not my home. A home is somewhere you should feel safe and loved. This snowy mountain range is my home and that's how I want to keep it. I feel safe here. Loved? In a sense, yes.
My father wanted a girl. So when I was born he begged my mother to have another. She died in the process, along with the child. So I'm left with my alcoholic father who doesn't even work anymore, forcing me to provide for us.
District 7 is starting to show the signs of summer. The bears have woken from hibernation, cutting me from the streams and the fish they hold. Flowers adding some much needed color. But it's just a ruse because today they will call the names and tarnish any beauty I can find.
I'm almost too absorbed in thought that the rustling noise to my back eludes me. I pose my knife into a throwing position. It continues. "Stop messing around," I say, hoping it is my hunting partner. This would be a usual prank for him, he likes to use my paranoia for jokes. I don't find it all too funny.
Then a small, white animal bursts from the brush, mouth agape and ready to kill. Before it can get five feet I throw my knife, it sticks into the animal's back. I crouching by the thing, now recognizing as a common snowfox: I must have strolled too close to its den. The beautiful, paper white fur is stained crimson where my knife entered. They usually live in the arctic desert to the north, but some have made their home in my forest.
I'm about to take out the knife when I notice that it's still breathing. A shallow breath, but this snow fox is still alive. From the look of it, a mother. Now her pups are going to die because I killed her. I hate this: I hate killing the animals so I can survive. They shouldn't die because of my country's poverty.
"Flick, you're doing it again," a voice scolds. I look up to find my hunting partner. His shaggy black hair is tucked into a cap. When he looks at me I feel as he's looking right through. He is very intimidating. And I used to find him intimidating, but after some five years of working together the intimidation turns to protection.
"Doing what?" I ask, knowing the answer all too well.
He crouches by the fox and takes out his sheathed knife. "If you did not kill this animal, it would have killed you. And you have to eat." Everything he says is true, but I still feel bad about it. He then stabs the fox in the heart and her small breaths stop.
There's a stillness in the air while Leto skins the fox that I can't get around. Like the forest is silencing itself for us.
We share an embrace and he plants a kiss on my lips. Somehow it wards off the cold, but only for a second.
"Did you stop by and talk to Moxie?" I ask.
"She said thanks again for the bear meat. Was cutting some up to sell today when I got there." Leto digs around in his pack and produces a loaf of bread. "It was just sitting there and I asked Moxie about. She said that she was going to throw it out so I should just take it, put it to use." Leto and I share a glance, we both know Moxie's true intentions, it's so hard for her to show emotion these days.
"Zucchini," I say taking the bread, holding it close to warm me. We find a place to huddle down in and eat the bread. I pretty much inhale it because I didn't eat much for supper the night before.
"I wanted to talk to you about something," Leto mutters, avoiding eye contact.
"Yes?" We talk in hushed voices because even beyond the threshold of District 7 you can never know who is listening. Human or animal.
"Since we're both good hunters, and don't really have families," he says. Leto's own father moved away before he was born, and his mother and younger brother died in a freak wood mill fire three years ago, when he was sixteen. He's been alone since. Except for Moxie and me, I suppose.
"What are you getting at?"
He looks me in the eyes, his overwhelming blue eyes look soft and scared now. "We should run away."
For anyone else this would be impossible. But Leto and I have been hunting for years, we know the land, it would be easy for us to survive. Does he really hate District 7 so much to leave it? Do I? We sit there in silence for a minute as I think. I do want to leave, but the risk is so high. If I say yes, we could both die. "When?" I ask to break the silence. He smiles.
"Right now, tonight, in the morning. It's up to you." This isn't like him. I've known Leto for a good chunk of my life. He likes making the decisions, being in control. If he's leaving so much up to me, he must be as uncertain as I am.
Leaving sounds pretty appealing. No more of my father, the Peacekeepers. No more of the Hunger Games. I wouldn't have to watch those kids die every year, which has been silently driving me crazy. How could a sane person take joy in another humans pain and death? They couldn't. The Capitol is insane.
"We would need to pack, and have a good night of sleep." As soon as I say that, Leto's face lights up. He stuffs the fox meat into his game bag, then looks at me very oddly, almost sad.
"What about this afternoon?" he asks. "There's still a chance you could-"
My hand finds his. "I'll be fine. It's my last reaping." He manages a smile, but we both know I've got bad odds. I'll have twenty-one of my names in the reaping ball. Sure, tons of other guys have more than me, but that's still a lot. There was this one boy last year with fifty-some entries. He was chosen and didn't last five minutes.
As we walk back to our prison of a District, I notice that Leto keeps looking at me and when I try to catch his glance, he looks away. Like he doesn't want to look me in the eyes. He's acting very strange, even for what we just talked about.
I stop him just outside city limits and try looking him in the eyes. But he avoids my gaze. "Something wrong?" I ask. He turns and faces the snow covered woods we just came from. Then me, looking me in the eyes, smiling ever so slightly. His bright blue eyes peering into my dull gray ones. "You okay?" I try again, quietly.
"Perfect," he says smoothly, still looking me in the eyes.
"We should get going," I say turning towards District 7. And as soon as I start he kisses my cheek, which turns to locked lips soon enough. My idle hands find their way around his back. He does the same, forcing me closer to him.
I'm not sure what Leto and I are. I mean we kiss, and nothing else. Once, Leto tried for more but I stopped him and he's never pushed those boundaries again. Never talking about the things that transpire. This dance started up about a year ago when Leto decided he liked me and I decided to let my guard down.
He pulls away, still inches from my face and just looks at me. His warm breath tingling my lips. We focus on one another eyes, both of us waiting for a response from the other. "I'm worried," he says with his strong arms wrapped around me, rocking side-to-side ever so gently.
Is he talking about the reaping, or us running away? Probably the latter. I take a deep breath to clear my head. "Everything will be okay." Though, I'm not so sure. There's so much to worry about. I'd offer to run away right now, but we need supplies. Sleep would be secondary right now. "We could leave today," I propose, hoping he won't think I'm being rash.
He smiles. "You're so amazing." This makes me smile too.
"Is that a yes?"
"Of course it is," he says hugging me tightly. His warm body protects me from the still frozen forest. "But the reaping is in less than an hour." No way we could get back to town, pack, and return to the forest within that timeframe. And if someone doesn't show up for the reaping, the Peacekeepers will come looking for you. That's the last thing we need.
"We'll meet back here after," I say strategically. He nods and tightens the bag over his shoulder.
"Okay," he confirms. We decide who is to bring what.
As we're about to depart, Leto brings me in close again. He turns his cap around, causing his hair to become even more discorded, then kisses me. This one's different. The last was gentle, weak even. But this is so intense, passionate. As if we'll never see each other again. Which is a possibility I suppose, what with the cloud of my being sent to the Capitol hanging over our heads.
After a few seconds of ecstasy, I lose my breath and have to pull away.
"I love you," Leto says while his breath tickles my lips as a feather would. His words hit me like a ton of bricks; I'm completely stunned.
A distant siren rings. "The reaping will start in, forty-five minutes," an impossibly loud, mechanical voice says.
Leto's face is blank. The announcement hasn't fazed him at all. Just the opposite of me: we need to leave right now if we're to make it to the reaping on time. "We should leave," I say. I know I should respond to his comment, but I don't know what to say.
"Yeah," he says with as much emotion as the dead fox in his bag.
I want to comfort him. Tell him how I feel towards him. That he's my best friend, and the only person in this world that I deeply care about. And the only person that I know cares about me. But I don't think I love him. Love opens you up to so many things. Good and bad. It's the bad I'm scared of. I'm comfortable with whatever we have now. Why'd he have to go and change that?
We part ways in such painful silence.
As I open my door I find my dad sprawled out on the couch. Either passed out from alcohol, or hasn't even woken up yet. The whole district is required to go to the reaping so I have only one option. I'm forced to say the four worst words ever: "The reaping is today."
Thankfully, my father is a light sleeper, so I don't have to repeat myself. "Go away," he mumbles. I take his advice and head to the bathroom to clean up. "Where's my stuff?"
His words anger me. I hate having to provide for the two of us but I have even more hatred towards the fact the he knows it and exploits it. "Sorry. Between risking my life and the reaping, I must of forgotten to get your alcohol."
"Don't give me attitude!" he yells. I ignore him and continue to the bedroom. Does he even care that I could be sent to the Capitol today? He mustn't.
After washing up I find something nice to wear. We've had to sell most of our finer clothes in the past year, so all that remains is one of my father's old dress shirts. Slightly too big for me, but it will do. Solid black with red seams and buttons. It's made out of some type of silk, I think. Very simple, very expensive. I wonder where he got it.
I join my father in the kitchen to see his progress. To my surprise, he looks presentable, clean. His light brown hair has been neatly combed, which is the one thing I share with my father. People say we resemble each other. I don't see it.
"Where did you get that?" he asks me, referring to the slightly itchy shirt. I suppose our spat about the alcohol is over, but there's still a permanent bitterness between us.
"In the closet. I thought you wouldn't mind." He makes a throaty noise. "Is it special?"
He pauses, takes a drink of liquor and looks down at the glass. "I got married in that."
"Oh," I stammer. If there's one thing I know about my father, it's that he loved my mother with his whole being. I've heard people tell me how he reacted when she died: he lost the will to live. That's probably why he drinks, to escape reality. I wonder if it works. Does he long for her even in his drunken state? Or is he too incoherent to even remember his own name?
I feel bad that I brought up such bad memories. "I can take it off, if you want." He looks at me quizzically.
"No. She would want you to wear it," he says finishing his liquor.
My mother died when I was just an infant, so I've never felt her absence. Just a distance father. There was a time where my father did care though. It feels so very long ago, I think I was around ten when he gave in. I don't know why he just started drinking. Caring has turned into mere toleration of each other. Most days I can't stand to be around him.
We leave the house and walk to the reaping square in silence. Maybe deep down he does still care for me. Maybe. But I refuse to believe it. If he cared, he would choose spending time with me over spending it in a drunken fog.
At the reaping square, I neatly print my name on the sign-in sheet, Flick Mistral. Among other things, this helps keep track of District 7's population of nearly six-thousand. I turn to my father. His eyebrows are scrunched together, the same way they are when I tell him we're out of his favorite drink. "Good luck," he says flatly.
"Yeah," I retaliate just as cold.
My father makes his way to the sidelines. I join the crowd of eighteen-year-old males, the section closest to the stage. As I do, I notice the camera crews perched on the buildings like ravens waiting to pick clean the bones of a fallen animal. They'll capture every tear, every word, every facial expression of the two who will be the tributes of this year's Games.
More people join the crowd and I begin to feel besieged by the amount of possible tributes around me. Anyone of them could be pick. Any of them could die.
Onstage is our infamous district escort: Electra Dellsie. She wears a bright pink dress suit that hurts my eyes to look at. Her hair is an unnatural shade of yellow, it reminds my of an overly ripe lemon. These features give her an unreal quality, like she'll transform into a giant insect and walk right off stage as if it's the norm around here; I find her appearance comical. I'd laugh if I wasn't here right now.
The two mentors of District 7 are Blight Tyro and Harva Nesh. They sit onstage talking quietly. Blight's a big guy, not exactly over-weight, but close. In my district, having a few extra pounds on you is a very rare thing. So he stands out. Well, he'd stand out no matter what he looks like, seeing that he won the Hunger Games and has become something of a celebrity around here. He's in his early twenties with short blond hair. Blond hair is also very rare in my district. The majority have brown or black.
Harva Nesh is just the opposite. Lanky, straight black hair. Quite old also, in her sixties, I think. She won her games before I was even born. I've talked to this victor once. She's crass to say the least.
The mayor stands up and approaches the microphone. He reads the same thing as he does every year. How Panem rose from the ashes of a destroyed North America. The District rebelled and the Hunger Games began. Blah, blah, blah. I've heard this so many times. I'm just staring at the boy's reaping ball, twenty-one of them have my name on them. Now he reads the list of our victors of District 7. In sixty-six years, we've had five, the two onstage being the only ones still breathing. The other three died of various things. The Mayor finishes his speeches and introduces Electra Dellsie.
Electra blabs about what an honor it is to be here, but I can tell she's itching to be bumped up to a better district. "Well, lets get to it! And may the odds be ever in your favor!" She walks over to the girl's reaping ball and says, "Ladies first." As she waves her hand over the orb, it reminds me of a stork searching for fish in a river. She quickly grabs a slip of paper, prances back to her podium and unfolds it. "Marla Curt!"
Sadly, I know this girl, we went to school together. She's one year my junior. Though she was never nice to me, or anyone for that matter. I feel for her; no one deserves this. Marla walks up to the stage. Her face is blank. No emotion, no feeling. Nothing.
Electra gingerly asks if anyone would like to volunteer. Nobody does, of course. If I remember right she has a younger sister, but I doubt Marla would want her life in exchange of her's. And even if Marla was the nicest girl in District 7, I still doubt any volunteers would show.
Electra walks to the boy's reaping ball. I feel my heart begin to quicken. Not me, I think. Please, not me. Electra does the same stork hand gesture while pulling out the paper. Once she's chosen a victim she struts back to her podium, wetting her artificial lips. Please, I plead. Not me. Electra opens her mouth and speaks the very words I dread.