My father says that if any district parent doesn't teach their child some way to survive in the arena it is the same as neglect. It's tempting fate too much. Just asking for them to be reaped and die defenceless. So he has made a point of teaching me.
He had to be creative about it: weapons are banned in district 4. Luckily fishing tools aren't. As soon as I could walk and talk with any reliability he taught me to spear fish with a trident, taught me to gut the fish with knives. My mother taught me to make nets and to tie elaborate knots, although she would specify that she wasn't teaching me for the games. That she hoped I would have a chance to do something more with my life.
My father and I would watch the games together each year and discuss the tributes strategies while my mother frantically did housework and tutted disapprovingly. Somehow this made the barbarism of the games a little easier to swallow. At least this way, if the odds are not in my favour, my father knows he has done all within his power to bring me back home. I suppose that, at least, is a comfort to him. Even if it's not to my mother.
Tributes run in our family. My uncle, my cousin and my great aunt all competed. All were murdered on the fifth day of the games. I guess that is why my father is so worried; Just waiting for another Odair to be reaped, for another Odair to drop dead… On the fifth day.
Our house sits on the edge of the square so each reaping day I sit on the old bench my grandfather made and watch the people walk by. On reaping day they make interesting watching. Families huddle together as they jolly each other along as if, should one of them stray too far, their name is sure to be plucked from the reaping ball. Friends chatter, joking idly while trying to cover quivering lips. Some walk boldly, some scuttle and some drag their feet, kicking each loose stone.
"Hey, Finnick!" I turn and see Eoghan, decked out in his best clothes, leading his little sister to what, I assume, must be her first reaping.
"You're heading out early," I say.
"Sick of waiting," he replies. "Need to get it out the way for another year. Want to tag along?"
"Sure." I push myself off the bench and catch up with them. Eoghan's little sister glares at me and ducks down behind her brother. We used to tease her something rotten and always made her play the drowning victim in our games on the beach. She was a quiet little thing, thoughtful my mother would say, definitely not worth noticing.
"You feeling lucky, Odair?"
"Oh, the odds are definitely in my favour."
Despite there still being plenty of time the square is completely packed. The three of us sign in and Eoghan pushes his sister towards the rest of the twelves while we join the fourteens. She looks like she might protest for a moment then simply throws her arms around his shoulders.
"See you later!" she whispers and nervously runs away.
Eoghan rolls his eyes, unsuccessfully trying to shrug it off. I turn away from him; I don't want to see the look on his face.
If anything the wait is worse standing in the square. There is a hum of nervous energy that ripples through the body like a soft tide lapping at the edge of the beach. As the space gets tighter it becomes harder to see through the crowd. Still, I just manage to wink at Maeve Colligan, a haughty girl in our year who always comes out first in tests. She blushes and I watch in satisfaction as she turns angrily to her friend to complain about that arrogant, Finnick Odair.
The usual procedure commences; the chairs on stage are filled with victors and the mayor and Augustus Parke sashays onto the stage dressed in a scaly purple monstrosity of a suit. He always looks like a child's drawing of a tropical fish; his pouty mouth and his wide eyes popping ridiculously out his head. I always have a horrible feeling that this getup is for our benefit, as if seeing some enhanced fish-freak is going to make us feel any less scared.
Eoghan and I mouth the words along with the mayor's speech but fall silent and still as Augustus Parke approaches the first of the two large reaping balls. I watch the girls as they collectively hold their breath, waiting to see who is going to be picked. Maeve is hiding her head in her hands. Eoghan's little sister has a glazed expression on her face, almost as if she isn't there at all.
"Jeannie O'Brien!" Augustus calls. The crowd cheers and a girl is taken up to the stage. Augustus attempts some kind of awkward small talk that just sounds flat and ridiculous at such a time. Sensing the crowd's reaction he tries to grin, pushing his squashed mouth into something he would probably call a smile but it looks more like a grimace.
When no volunteers opt to take Jeannie's place Augustus shuffles across to the ball containing the names of all the boys of district 4. My name is in there three times. I watch his carefully manicured hand as it rifles through the tiny pieces of paper seeking out the exact right one. As he pulls it to the surface my stomach give a final, uncomfortable lurch. Perhaps, I shouldn't be surprised when he calls out my name.
But no amount of preparation can tell you how to cope with the shock.
A salty breeze sweeps through the square and all eyes turn to watch me. The rest of the fourteens clear a pathway and I have no choice but to strut to the stage in a poor imitation of the confident tributes I have seen in previous years. I am vaguely aware of the crowd cheering so I nod to them, wave, and even give a bow but all the while I'm searching through the faces trying to find my parents. As I mount the stage steps I finally see them. My mother is clinging to my father, some might think it was in fear for me but I can see the fire in her eyes, see the whiteness of her knuckles as she clutches him. For a moment my smile slips away so I turn from them to the girl tribute at my side.
Jeannie O'Brien is eighteen, tall with spectacularly red hair. I had seen her before in school, down on the beach, sat on a bench in town. Always alone. There are always rumours about her but I never pay too much attention to them. We shake hands, her grip is tight and for a moment I worry she won't let go. A slight tremble runs from her arm to mine.
"Jeannie?" I whisper.
Her hand snaps back and she defensively crosses her arms across her chest. I notice how muscular her arms are. That kind of toning that only comes from training. So why so scared, Jeannie O'Brien?
The mayor gestures towards the justice building and we both follow the peacekeepers inside, the crowd roaring triumphantly.
I don't follow the twists and turns the peacekeepers lead me down before I reach the small room. Even when they close the door on me and leave me alone my mind is still struggling to catch up.
I remember asking my father once what he thought it would be like sitting in the justice building and saying goodbye to everyone you love. He just told me that if I was ever here it would not be goodbye, that I would be coming back. One thing I never considered was how easy these things are to discuss and prepare and how difficult they are live through.
Automatically I reach for the piece of rope I keep in my pocket and begin twisting its familiar coils through my hands. I don't have to think about what I am doing which is good because I can't think of anything.
The door slowly opens and my parents emerge. Both their faces are red, tense; I can tell they have been fighting. Wordlessly they join me on the sofa; one sat on either side of me and they each place a hand on my knees.
"I know what to do," I say, cutting across my father's words.
"Don't you forget-"
"You've got me so well trained I don't think I could ever forget."
He shakes his head, "Just don't forget who you are."
"How could I ever forget that?"
"Just don't, all right?"
He pats my leg and moves away from the sofa, walking over to the window where he stares out towards the sea. He doesn't need to say anymore, we both know what the other means to say. Still I had expected him to say more- drill strategy into my head one last time, say he was counting on me to come back, that he will miss me. But he doesn't. The words just aren't there.
I turn to my mother. Tears are silently running down her cheeks. I take her hand in mine and gently smooth it.
"You're too young," she tells me.
"I'll be a bit older tomorrow," I tell her, "And the day after, and the day after that. Who knows, maybe by the time I get to the games I'll be old enough."
She shakes her head as another wave of tears streams down her face. "And look after Jeannie, you two have to stick together now."
"I'm sure she can look after herself."
"At least she'll help remind you where you're from."
The peacekeepers open the door so I hug both my parents goodbye and my mother kisses my forehead. Then, they are gone and I return to tying knots.
I don't know why my mother asked me to look after Jeannie, she is my rival, after all. Besides, she is older than me; there is no way she will be looking to a fourteen year old for help and advice.
The minutes slowly tick by and my hands subconsciously make a noose. I have it slipped round my neck like a necklace when Eoghan peers into the room.
"Oh sorry, you busy?" he smiles, "Maybe I should come back later…"
I take the rope from around my neck and untangle the noose, stuffing the rope into my pocket. "Nah, just practising. For the arena"
"Sure." Eoghan awkwardly shuffles from one foot to the other, searching for the right words to say. "You looked good out there. You been practising your tribute face?"
"Every day in the mirror. Think I might greet the cameras at the train station with this one," I throw my head back and pout moodily. "Get the ladies swooning."
"Do that any more and you'll give Augustus Parke a run for his money."
"Oh no, you've figure out my strategy. I was hoping that if I out fish-face my escort they would force us to switch places."
"Maybe next year, eh?"
A difficult silence falls between us.
"I'll see you around, yeah?" I say. There is no way I can conceivably say goodbye to my friend.
"Yeah, sure," he replies.
Awkwardly we pat each other on the back and he backs out of the room before either of us says something too much.
Left alone again I walk over to the window and stare out, just as my father had done. The sun is beaming down. Birds are swooping lazily over the endless stretch of water that glistens in the afternoon light. No matter where I go, no matter what happens, District 4 will be right here waiting. Life will still continue as sure as day turns to night.
"I'll be back," I whisper, "Even if it means making sure the games only last four days."