summary: For the past five years, sixteen-year-old Annie Cresta has feared being reaped into the Hunger Games, the deadly tournament that serves as a reminder of her mother, who years ago became a victor and died in tragedy. But the odds might not be in her favor as she finds herself facing the one thing that haunts her most. Pre-series Finnick/Annie.
The Hunger Games © Suzanne Collins
PART I: THE REAPING
A pebble taps at my window and rouses me from my sleep. My eyes flutter open and I sit up. I scoot out of bed and glance out from the crack in my curtains. A smile forms on my face. I turn and search in the darkness for the nook that hangs my beige coat and my leather sandals sitting beneath it. After I wrap the coat over my nightgown and slide on my sandals, I quietly open my door, careful not to open it all the way because the creakiness of metal would betray me. I slip into the hallway that is illuminated by a dim, blue nightlight inserted into the wall. I'm too old for a nightlight in my bedroom, but my little brother Todd is comforted by the miniscule lantern when he takes a trip to the bathroom. I look over my shoulder and listen. All I hear are faint breathing coming from Uncle Luke and Little Todd's rooms. They are both sound asleep.
I spin around to make my leave when something catches my eye. For a split-second, I think I see a ghost. She has twisted, dark hair clinging to her face, her skin is pale and ghastly, and her mouth is slightly open and is neither a smile nor a frown. At first, I think it is my mother, my hauntingly beautiful and dead mother. It takes me a moment to realize it's me. It is my reflection in the hallway mirror. I take in a breath in an effort to calm myself. Uncle Luke always did say that I looked like Mother. But I never want to be anything like her. I'm nothing like her.
I hastily escape the house before I waste any more time chasing ghosts and make my way to the side of the street where Maria Mayflower is waiting for me. Maria Mayflower is my oldest and dearest friend. I call her Mari for short. She wears a red hoodie, shorts, and socks and slippers. Whitish blonde hair rolls over her shoulders in curls and light freckles sprinkle over her cheeks in a delicate fashion. Mari's skin is tanned and freckled too, but then again, it's difficult to find someone who hasn't been kissed by the sun in District 4.
We greet each other and walk to our usual spot, the docks by the beach. We sit by the edge with clumps of rocks and pebbles in our hands that we gathered along the way and begin chucking them into the water. This is Mari's and my silent tradition of saying farewell to each other the day before the reaping ever since we were both twelve-years-old. I know that the chances of our names getting selected aren't plentiful, but for all I know, either one of us could get reaped tomorrow. It doesn't bother me too much since every year somebody tries to volunteer for whomever that gets reaped anyway, either at the prospect of becoming potential victors or, for the girls, the prospect of being mentored by our previous victor, Finnick Odair.
I remember the year Finnick Odair was reaped. I was twelve-years-old, a few months shy from thirteen, and it was Mari's and my first year at the reaping. I held her hand the entire time. I felt so afraid that I'd be reaped, so suffocated from being surrounded by so many people at one time, and so nauseous and on the verge of either tears or puking when I heard our escort call out for "Maria Mayflower." Mari and I just stood there like statues, unable to move, unable to think. People were staring at us, I was sure, probably more so at Mari than me, but I didn't have time to process this. Any of this. I couldn't face looking at Mari either, seeing what kind of expression she might have on her face. Mari was like me. Different. Not wanting to be reaped and never in the world dreaming to volunteer to do so. Of course, we each had our reasons—very different ones, though. Mari's parents are dead and she lives with her grandparents, who don't work anymore. She's an only child and the only one in her family that can get tessera now that she was old enough. In a few years, she'd be able to get a job and support them. If she was reaped and killed in the Games, she'd be leaving her only remaining family all alone.
And yet fate was cruel and Mari was chosen. I could hear a gut wrenching cry from the audience behind us. Mari's grandmother, perhaps? I didn't know. I didn't want to see her expression either. I could see the Peacekeepers heading their way towards us, inching closer and closer. Mari's hand was sweaty and clung to mine as if it was life itself. I squeezed her hand back and for that single moment I thought of no one but her, and I found myself mouthing, "I volunteer. I volunteer." It was like a dream. I could scarcely believe the words that were threatening to come out of my mouth. This seemed to go unnoticed by everything but Mari, who quickly covered my mouth with her free hand before I got any ideas. Our eyes finally met, both desperate and teary-eyed, and she was about to untangle our intertwined hands and I was about to lose her forever when another girl, an older one perhaps fifteen or sixteen, yelled out the words that I was unable to say. Soon, it became a sort of chant because a few other girls started to volunteer too, and soon our whole crowd started buzzing with an undeterminable number of voices. Eventually, the first girl who volunteered was selected, and Mari and I finally calmed down.
By the time the male tribute was going to be reaped, Finnick Odair volunteered himself before a name could be drawn. Usually, you would have to wait until someone was actually reaped and for the escort to ask if there were any volunteers first, but something about fourteen-year-old Finnick Odair's boldness and charisma pierced our district escort as well as everyone else. Even I was a little surprised. The only person who didn't seem too enthralled by Finnick Odair's enthusiasm was our previous victor then, as well as our oldest victor, Mags. If I didn't know any better, she almost looked a little sad. I didn't understand why. Volunteering during the reaping is looked proudly upon in District 4. But Mags was anything but proud.
It's been almost five years since then. I'm sixteen-years-old now. I'll be seventeen in a few months. Two more years, I think. Two more years until I'm nineteen. Two more years until they won't be able to call my name. Until I won't be eligible for the Games. Until I'm safe for good.
We continue chucking rocks for a while longer until Mari finally breaks the ice. "Maybe… I should volunteer tomorrow," she says.
It takes me a moment to take in what she had just said. "What?" I ask.
"I know what you're thinking, but hear me out," she continues quietly. No, Mari does not know what I'm thinking. Because I'm not thinking at all. The very idea of her volunteering doesn't compute well with me. I frown, but I say nothing and let her speak. "It's hard, okay? Working shifts and juggling academy classes. My grandparents are really depending on me. If I won, they could live in luxury. I'd be able to pay them back in full and more for all the years they've taken care of me."
"We've talked about this," I remind her. "You never wanted to get reaped because of your grandparents."
"And now I want to volunteer because of them," Mari says.
"The arena changes people, Mari." I know this more than anyone.
Mari shakes her head. "Exactly. Look at what happened to Finnick! He's fine!"
I roll my eyes. Of course, Finnick Odair looks fine. He spends most of his time getting lavished by the Capitol when he's not mentoring kids to their inevitable doom. I really don't see what Mari and the rest of Panem see in Finnick Odair besides his looks and charm. "But sometimes victors don't come out of the arena like Finnick Odair, Mari. Most tributes don't come out of the arena at all," I try to reason with her. "What if you…?" No, I can't finish that sentence. I won't. The memory of Mari almost getting reaped surfaces in my head, but I push it away.
Mari places her hand on mine. "I won't," she insists. "I'm going to win. I'm going to win and help my grandparents." She pauses and squeezes my hand like how I squeezed hers during that reaping so very long ago. "And… I won't end up like her, okay? I'll never end up like her. I promise, Annie."
I toss another rock into the water. Don't make promises you can't keep, I think. But I don't say this out loud.
I wake up before dawn and decide to take a morning swim before Uncle Luke and Little Todd wake up. No one typically swims or goes fishing this early in the morning, especially on the day of the reaping, so the ocean is entirely mine. I dive into the water and submerge myself into it. The water is cool and refreshing against my skin and I almost feel purified by its touch. It makes me almost forget about Mari's decision and today's reaping and my mother and everything. Almost. Once the sun begins to rise, I dry myself off and head back home. I shower, sleep for a while, and later eat breakfast with Uncle Luke and Little Todd, who excitedly talks about how Uncle Luke will take him to the beach later today to play with his friends. I smile and nod and act encouraging. I'm glad Little Todd hasn't mentioned the reaping. He doesn't quite understand it or the Games just yet. He won't be in primary school for another year or so, so he hasn't been taught or trained for the Hunger Games, which he thinks are as much of a game as building sandcastles or playing hide-and-seek. He's watched it on television before, but the Games are more like a movie to him and he falls asleep a quarter ways into it.
I look up from my meal and find Uncle Luke meeting my gaze. He gives me a small nod and smile, and my heart pangs a little with pain. I know Uncle Luke worries about me every time the reaping draws near. Of course, he would never say it, but I know. And I know it's more than that and it's more than me. It must hurt him more than I will ever know to see me standing there at the reaping every year since I was twelve and seeing a younger version of my mother, Molly, instead. His sister. Still innocent from the horrors of the arena. Untainted and pure. The way he will always remember her. I'm certain that my mother's reaping is my uncle's single regret. If the rules were different, he would have probably volunteered in her place or followed after her and protected her as the male tribute. But he was already nineteen by then and the Hunger Games could no longer claim him. My mother was an entirely different story.
When my mother was pregnant with me, no one knew except Uncle Luke and his wife Priscilla. Because I was an infant when Uncle Luke and Aunt Priscilla took me in, scarcely anyone knows that I'm my mother's child, a child of a previous victor. To everyone else, I am Molly Cresta's niece, Luke and Priscilla Cresta's daughter, Little Todd's older sister. In public, I play along with it because the truth is more complicated.
After breakfast, I take Little Todd out grocery shopping with me. When we're finished, I take Little Todd to the playground. I sit on a bench and watch as he plays with the other children. He's grinning and laughing, and I wonder if this will the last time I'll see Little Todd's smiling face. If it is, it would be a good memory to take with me. It is about noon when we return home and Uncle Luke urges us to get ready for the reaping. I let Little Todd take the first shower while I put away the groceries. When he's done, I take the next shower and figure out what clothes to wear. I ultimately decide to wear a green sundress that Uncle Luke bought for my birthday last year, grey stockings, and black flats. I brush my long, dark hair neatly before clipping the top half of my hair, letting the bottom half fall on my back, and fix my bangs a little, which is straight and covers my eyebrows. I apply light make-up before checking up on Little Todd, who's wearing a white, buttoned shirt, black pants, and matching black shoes. Seeing myself in the hallway mirror again, this time I am certain that the person I see is me, not a ghost and not my mother. I turn to see Uncle Luke staring at me with the same bittersweet expression while we were eating breakfast. I am certain that the person he sees is not me or a ghost.
The district square in front of the Justice Building is crowded when we arrive there. Boys and girls ages twelve through eighteen sign in and begin taking their places. I kneel down and hug Little Todd, cherishing his innocence and his smiles, and then I stand up and hug Uncle Luke, who was like a father to me and was more of parent to me than my own mother. For Little Todd, this is just another game. I'll enter the reaping and I'll return safe and sound. For Uncle Luke, this is the memory of his sister being reaped. His single regret haunting him for the rest of his life. For me, it's life or death.
I sign myself in and wander through the crowd. I file in line and find myself next to Mari again. She takes my hand and it's like we're twelve-year-olds again. It dawns on me that Mari will volunteer today, regardless of whether she is reaped or not. Perhaps it won't be me on that stage today. But that doesn't make me feel any better. This is Mari. Maria Mayflower. My best friend. My childhood friend. My oldest and dearest friend. I don't want to relive our first reaping.
As soon as all of the boys and girls have been checked in, the reaping begins. Our mayor, Phillip Stone, starts the ceremony by reciting Panem's history and then the names of District 4's previous victors. Among these names is my mother's name. Among these names are Mags and Finnick Odair. At the sound of her name, Mags merely nods and babbles something inaudible. I feel bad that they force her to come to reaping and mentor tributes every year at her aged state. She doesn't stand up as the audience claps for her. She's probably too frail to do so. At the sound of his name, Finnick Odair rises from his seat, smiling as the crowds clap and cheer and scream for him. The fellow girls in my age group, including Mari, seem more distracted by the sight, and the possible mentoring, of Finnick Odair than the thought of their own demise. I stare skeptically at our worshipped victor. To be fair, I can see why everyone fawns over him. It just bothers me that everyone's obsessed with someone who they don't even know, someone whose greatest accomplishment is the slaughter of twenty-three people. But I have to admit that much like the year he was reaped, Finnick Odair surprises me. Like what Mari said, he looks fine. In spite of her withering state, Mags does too. They're both nothing like my mother at all. As I think this, I find Finnick Odair looking straight at me, his sea green eyes meeting mine. The moment is brief and before I can blink he turns, and I am left to wonder whether I was seeing things or not. No, he wasn't looking at me, I decide.
Our district escort, Lydia Ambergale, will now draw the names of our district tributes. First, the girls. Then, the boys. Lydia Ambergale seems to be somewhere in her mid twenties. She wears an orange, ruffled dress and matching orange shoes that make her a few inches taller than she really is. She has short, blue pixie cut hair and matching blue polka dot stockings and jewelry. She has amber-colored eyes that compliment her name. Her skin is light and there are small orange dots that go vertically down her cheeks. She smiles at us as her fingers search daintily through the glass bowl of girl names.
I feel Mari's hand squeezing mine. That's right. Mari wants to volunteer. Mari is going to volunteer. She will volunteer today. I know this, and yet I still cannot find it in me to process it. The idea of it all scares me. I will have to watch Mari on the television screen as she is beautified, interviewed, and eventually put into the Games. I will see her fight, I will see her kill, and I might see her get killed. For that single moment I thought of no one but her, and I find myself wishing for the one thing I'd been running from ever since I turned twelve-years-old. I wish that it wasn't her in the Games. I wish it was me.
Lydia Ambergale finally lifts a folded paper from the glass bowl, unfolds it, and reads a name aloud.
My wish is granted.