The Hunger Games…from Peeta's point of view.
The Boy with the Bread
The Hunger Games
I wake up late today. I smell baking bread. The room where my brothers and I sleep is empty when I sit up and look around. I wonder why they let me sleep in while they work. Then I remember today is reaping day. We've been allowed to sleep in while our parents and my eldest brother takes the workload.
Only myself and my older brother, the middle brother, might get picked. This is his last year. Seven times his name is in the reaping ball. He probably wasn't able to sleep at all last night, and that's why he's not in the small room the three of us share above the bakery. Our eldest brother is not eligible for the reaping. He managed to get through those terrifying years between 12 and 18 safely. Lucky him. I still have this year plus two more. If I don't get picked today, that is.
My stomach becomes a knot of nerves. Even though I try not to dwell on the situation normally, I feel more anxious today then I have before. My name is only in that glass ball five times. Five times. I have never had to take out any tesserae. It's one of the perks of being born into a market family that sells food. But some other kids my age, they're not so lucky. Like the kids from the Seam. Some who are the sole providers for their families. Some who are not so lucky as to only have their name entered only five times. It was take out tesserae or starve for them, their only two options, as they're too young to work in the mines. They would never admit this, of course, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out who takes out tesserae. They're the ones that are absolutely terrified on reaping day.
My family avoids my eyes when I arrive downstairs. Of course. They're worried, but they won't bother comforting me or being friendly. Better to numb the pain by avoiding it. Better to pretend I don't exist. I might be dead soon anyway.
"Are you hungry, Peeta?" says my dad. The only one who cares about me enough to show me affection today.
I nod my head, sit down at the table. He places a plate in front of me. Cooked meat that looks suspiciously like squirrel, and a few berries, fresh bread. A rarity, fresh bread. Normally we only get fresh bread on special occasions. Like reaping day. Today. But the squirrel is another story. We eat squirrel at least once a week, even if my mother has no idea what it is or where…rather, who, it comes from. She thinks we buy the meat in the market. But that's not true. My father, any of us besides my mother, really, trades for it out the back door when she's not around. And that's clearly what he's done today. Which means that either she's been here or he has, or both. But most likely him. He'd let her sleep in today. They're probably already in the woods by now.
I eat quickly. Today I have a cake to decorate for the display. My mother barks at me to make it extra pretty. There's no need to. I'm good at what I do. She's just nervous, and that makes her snappish. At least, that's what I tell myself. My father places the three-tiered cake in front of me, ice cold. Fresh from the refrigerator. Chocolate. My mouth waters at the smell of it. But it's not to eat. Unless no one buys it, and by then it's gone stale. I throw myself into icing it, and I'm able to almost forget about the reaping. Almost.
But the downside to this is that two o'clock comes faster than I expect it to. I put the finishing touches on an iced flower, and slide it back into the refrigerator. Or at least, we call it the refrigerator. It's really just the coldest room in the house, underground with no windows and cold concrete. Tiny to reflect back the cold. Electricity is a rarity in District 12, despite the fact that mining coal is the designation for our district, and there's not enough to run a refrigerator full-time. We don't even own one.
I dress in my nicest clothes and comb back my hair to avoid my mother snapping at me. We close up the shop, my father locks the door behind him, tucks the key in his pocket. I take one last look at the bakery, my home, as we walk away. Just in case this is the last time I will ever see it. Then we head to the square where the crowd has already assembled and cameras are flashing on the roofs to catch our every move. The ridiculously dressed Capitol people are assembling on the stage. I spot Effie Trinket's signature dyed hair. Pink this year. Clashing with her spring green suit. The bright drop of color is conspicuous in Twelve, where nearly everything is a melancholy grey because it's covered in a permanent layer of coal dust that settles on everything. One thing's for sure about District 12, we're all extremely flammable.
My dad opens his mouth as if to say something. I hope he does, but he closes it instead, and pats me and then my brother on the shoulder. Then he follows my mother and oldest brother and disappears to the crowd. My brother and I sign in, and separate, me to stand with the other kids my age somewhere in the middle of the pen that encircles us all like animals for the slaughter. They barely afford me a nod. I don't blame them. They are too scared for themselves to worry about anyone else.
On the steps of the Justice building a hasty stage has been erected, covered in cloth and banners to disguise the shabbiness of it. Three chairs sit on the stage with a podium. And those glass balls. Those glass balls that contain five slips of paper with my name on it and seven for my brother. I find him in the crowd and we exchange a nervous look but nothing more.
The mayor steps up to the podium and starts to talk. I've heard the history of Panem so many times before I don't really care enough to listen. I could practically recite the whole thing from memory. The country that rose up out of the ashes of a landmass once called North America. The disaster that destroyed it, the brutal wars and famine. What was left was Panem, a country with a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts. The Dark Days, where the districts rebelled against the Capitol. Needless to say, the Capitol won, District Thirteen was destroyed, and the rest of us were cursed, or in the Capitol's opinion blessed, with the Hunger Games.
I barely bat an eyelash at it anymore. What was any more death and destruction, especially when it happened such a long time ago? It surrounds us every day. It's impossible to escape. If you haven't become at least semi-immune to the horrors of our world then you live in a cave. Lucky you.
"It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks," finishes the mayor.
Then he reads the list of past victors, which doesn't take that long considering that there have been only two in seventy-four years. In some districts, the richer ones, the ones where kids train their whole lives for the Hunger Games, it sometimes takes nearly half an hour to read off all the names.
Only one victor from District 12 is alive. Haymitch Abernathy. And he has never failed to appear in public drunk.
He's been missing until this moment, but as if on cue when the mayor reads his name he stumbles onto the stage. He hollers something unintelligible and falls into the empty chair on the stage. As expected, he is rip-roaring drunk. The crowd gives him a token applause and this confuses him. He staggers into Effie Trinket, clearly trying to cop a feel. She barely manages to fend him off. Despite my nervousness, I can't help but feel a little entertained. She recovers quickly and bounces to the microphone, as sickly bubbly as ever.
"Happy Hunger Games!" she says. "And may the odds be ever in your favor!"
She goes on a bit about the honor of being in District 12. Her pink hair has shifted slightly since her encounter with Haymitch and I realize it must be a wig.
Then it's time for the drawing, and she says as she always does, "Ladies first!" Her perfectly manicured claws scramble in the girl's glass bowl. For some reason the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as she unfolds the tiny slip of paper. She takes a deep breath and I barely have time to pray for her safety before she calls out a name. A name that is one in thousands. A name that might as well be her name.
Oh no, I think. Oh no, no, no.
I find her immediately. I'm always aware of where she is whenever she's in the same vicinity as me, so it's not that hard. Her eyes are wide with shock. Her face is drained of color, contrasting sharply against her dark braid, her eyes on her sister. Prim is walking away, small, tiny. Alone. Walking that lonely walk to the stage. Katniss makes a strangled cry, running towards her little sister. Everyone moves out of her way. I feel the gust of wind as she rushes past. My heart is thumping horribly.
"Prim!" she shouts, reaching her little sister and throwing herself in front of Prim in a protective stance. And I know what she's going to do before she does it.
"I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!"
There's a bit of confusion on the stage. District 12 has not had a volunteer in decades and the protocol has most likely faded from memory. So it confuses Effie Trinket.
"Lovely!" she says. "But I believe there's a small matter of introducing the reaping winner and then asking for volunteers, and if one does come forth then we, um…" she trails off, unsure.
"What does it matter?" says the mayor. His expression is pained slightly. "Let her comes forward."
Prim is screaming hysterically. It's exactly what I feel like doing, what I'm doing on the inside. I want to scream. I want to do everything in my power to stop her from going in that arena, where there's only a 24-to-1 chance she will ever come out again. I am borderline panicking, making rational thought difficult. The only thought in my head is that she can't go in there. She can't. She can't go in that arena.
Not without someone to protect her. Not without me.
And suddenly I'm doing something I never thought I would ever do.
I'm praying for my name to be drawn.
If it's not, I'll volunteer anyway.
"Well, bravo!" gushes Effie Trinket. "That's the spirit of the Games!" she's probably pleased to finally have a district with some action. "What's your name?"
"Katniss Everdeen," she replies into the microphone. There's a bit of a whining feedback and it echoes throughout the square, which is utterly silent aside from Prim's sobbing cries.
"I bet my buttons that was your sister. Don't want her to steal all the glory, do we?" says Effie Trinket with a winning smile. I feel a flash of anger at this off-hand comment. Because it's not about glory. It's about protection. There is no glory in the Hunger Games. Not in District 12. Everyone sent to the Capitol dies. And the only one who hasn't, who is supposed to be basking in glory, is basking in alcohol instead. "Come on everybody! Let's give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!"
I don't know what she expected to happen, but to the everlasting credit of the people of District 12 not a single person claps. The entire square is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I can sense the dissent in the crowd. Then they do something I don't expect. One by one, almost every member of the crowd presses three fingers to their lips and holds them in the air towards Katniss. An old and rarely used tradition, often seen at funerals. I don't do it. I can't. If I did that I'd be acknowledging she's going to her death. That's not going to happen.
Haymitch stumbles towards Katniss, throws an arm over her shoulders as he inspects her through a drunken haze.
"I like her! She's got lots of…spunk!" he slurs. He points towards a camera. "More than you!" he shouts. What is he thinking? Does he mean the other tributes or is he so drunk that he is actually challenging the Capitol?
Then he falls off the stage and is knocked unconscious. I don't really care that he's being drawn away on a stretcher. Because Effie Trinket's hand has been placed in the bowl of boy's names, and I prepare myself to shout out. But I find it's not necessary. She's calling out my name.
Someone was out there listening.
I'm shocked. I'm scared. I can't believe this managed to happen to me. The odds are not in my favor. Katniss is watching me with pity, dread. She knows me. I know she remembers me, what I did for her. You don't forget the person who saves you and your family from starving.
I've seen them before. The starving. The dying. The hungry. I know what it is when I see it. They raid our trash, looking for any bits of food they can find. The bakery is a popular place for the starving. I once saw a man die right in our backyard before the peacekeepers took him away. I didn't help him. I couldn't. We barely had enough stale bread to feed ourselves at the time.
When I saw her in my yard, after her father died, that haunted look in her eye, her clothes hanging off her thin frame, her father's jacket dripping wet from the rain, shivering in the icy cold. I wouldn't have let her become that dead man. I couldn't let her starve. No matter how bad of a beating I took for it. I burned the bread and threw it to her.
I saw her the next day at school, kept an eye on her. She looked healthier. At least she was no longer starving. She never thanked me, but I didn't expect her to. It was enough to keep her alive.
At least now her chances of survival were better, with me in the arena with her. I'm not going to let her die. I feel better knowing at least one person won't be gunning for her. At least she'll have someone to protect her. I'm not worth much, but I'm better than nothing. I'm better than another kid trying to kill her.
The mayor has us shake hands, and her hand in mine sends a tingle up my arm. She's looking at me now like she knows she's going to have to kill me, and wants nothing to do with it. I realize she'll have to.
Because I'm not going to die until I know without a doubt that she'll be the Victor.
The peacekeepers lead us to the Justice Building, and I'm taken into a separate room from Katniss.
My dad's a bit late coming in. He smells like cookies when he embraces me. He gives me a package, but I see the second one. I know it's meant for Katniss. The daughter of the woman he wanted to marry. I don't doubt there's some sort of strange affection, some kind of attachment to Katniss because he loved . . . probably still loves . . . her mother.
"I'm not going to let her die, dad," I say, feeling the tears burning my eyes. There's an odd look in his eyes at my words. "I'm going to keep her alive. Katniss is going to be the Victor. I'm not going to play by their rules."
His eyes are watery, but he grips my shoulder, looking me straight in the eyes.
"I'm so proud of you, son," he says softly. Hot drops fall down my cheeks. "I mean, I don't want you to die, of course . . . but . . . "
"I know," I say. I can barely choke the words out. He hugs me again, holding me longer and tighter than completely necessary.
"I love you, Peeta," he says, wiping his eyes when we break apart. "I'm sorry. I love you."
"I know, dad, I love you too. I'm sorry too."
He seemed reluctant to leave.
"Take care of her family, dad, please. Make sure they don't starve."
"You know I won't. I won't let them starve. I . . ."
He hugs me one more time, patting me on the back. And I want him to leave before I start sobbing. Before I can't take it anymore and I completely break down. I don't want my dad's last moment with me to be me being a crying wreck.
But once he's gone, I let the tears flow freely. When my brothers come in, I try to staunch the tears with my sleeve. They can barely look at me. They give me hugs and wish me luck, but nothing more than that.
Then it's my mother's turn.
I'm shocked when she puts her arms around me, holds me for more than a few seconds.
"Maybe District 12 will finally have a victor," she says when we break apart. For a moment I feel heartened by this vote of confidence. It's not going to happen, of course, but it still makes me feel better. Perhaps I'm wrong about her. Maybe she actually does care.
But then she crushes any hope, takes back anything nice she just said to me. She's good at that. Good at manipulating people. I just wish I wasn't her perpetual victim.
"She's a survivor, that one."
As in Katniss. Not me. Not her son. But a girl she could care less about. And now she's walking out the door without a second glance.
When I'm left alone, I let the walls come down until the peacekeepers come to take me to the car. But I don't try to hide my tears. What was the point in hiding them anymore?
Katniss watches me on the trip. I think she's checking me out. Thinking how hard it will be to fight me, what it will take to bring me down. I doubt she wants to kill me, but this is the Hunger Games. And only one person comes out. And she wants it to be her as much as I want it to be her.
The camera lenses flash in our direction as we board the train, and we pause so they can get a good look at us.
The train is incredible. Or, would be, if it wasn't taking me to my death. Haymitch, who doesn't look so hot after his nose-dive off the stage, goes to take a nap. My compartment is big, luxurious. I get my own bathroom and everything. The drawers are filled with clothes. I shower and change. The richly woven Capitol clothes are like nothing I've ever worn before. I mostly hang around my room during the hour before dinner, munching on my dad's cookies and watching the scenery roll by out the window, until Effie comes and collects me. She leaves to get Katniss.
She's changed her clothes as I have. She's got a token, a golden pin. I wonder who gave it to her, whether it was her mother or Prim or her friend Gale. Just the thought of him makes me jealous.
I notice the pin's a mockingjay. The reason I love Katniss. Well, perhaps not the reason, but the trigger. I'll never forget what my dad said, why her mom left my dad for Katniss's dad. 'Because when he sings, even the birds stop to listen.' And the same is true with Katniss. She has no idea what her voice can do. She is just like a mockingjay.
Effie asks where Haymitch is, and I tell her. She seems relieved, and I don't really blame her. Not dealing with Haymitch's drunkenness is a relief in and of itself.
The food is incredible. I've never seen so much good, fresh food in one place. Katniss and I both stuff ourselves, not paying heed to Effie's advice to hold off. When Effie makes a comment about last year's tributes not having any table manners, Katniss freezes, an irritated look on her face. I understand why this comment would make her angry. The kids last year were from the Seam, like Katniss. They never had enough to eat. The perpetually hungry. Katniss eats with her hands the rest of the meal, effectively irritating Effie. It's a bit funny.
I'm stuffed to bursting when the meal's over and feeling queasy. Katniss looks like she trying to keep her food down, too. We watch the other reapings. Our competition is diverse, but powerful and crafty. The careers, the tributes from 1, 2, and 4, are vicious-looking. The girl from district 5 looks sneaky. The saddest one is the twelve-year old from district eleven, with no one to take her place. And district 12. I'm pleased to see my emotions were hidden well and all I look is a bit scared and surprised. Not desperate. Not defiant. Good. Defiance won't keep Katniss alive.
They play the anthem, and when it's over Effie's in a state over her wig being crooked. "Your mentor has a lot to learn about presentation. A lot about televised behavior."
I can't hold it in anymore. Effie Trinket is so ridiculously stupid that this comment makes me laugh.
"He was drunk," I say, "He's drunk every year."
"Every day," says Katniss, smirking. I grin. It's the first direct thing she's said to me. The first joke we've ever shared.
"Yes," hisses Effie. "How odd you two find it funny."
For whatever reason her irritation just wants to make me laugh. Maybe because she's awful serious for someone dressed so ridiculously. It's hard to take her serious. Until she reminds us that Haymitch is our lifeline in these Games. I stop laughing. She's right. Plus there's that added thing of me wanting to keep Katniss alive instead of myself.
Speaking of Haymitch. He staggers into the compartment, reeking of alcohol. "I miss supper?" He slurs. Then he vomits all over the floor, falling into the mess. Effie Trinket hops away from the pool of sick.
"So laugh away!"