One last time, I think to myself as I turn one, two, three times over in the warm, salty water that has constantly been my companion over the years. Men come and go, but water is always there. At least in district four, it is.
"Isla," my mother calls from on shore. "It's almost time to go. Come inside and get ready." She isn't being as rude as she usually is when she makes a request. That's natural of course. Everyone is kinder on Reaping Day.
I step slowly out of the soothing water, completely naked, and walk across the sandy shore. No one will see me this morning, and the sun feels much too nice for clothing. Any other day, Mother would shoot me for this behavior. I might as well take advantage of the times.
Even so, Mother shoves me into a robe the second she catches sight of me. "What are you thinking?" she asks angrily. "An engaged girl like you walking around like that? It's disgraceful."
"I wonder what my dearly beloved would say," I mumble with dark humor. I have always been acutely aware that I get special treatment for my appearance. Sure, I share similar features with most of the kids of my district—green eyes and golden skin. But something in the shape of my face and the curves of my body has ensured that my mother and I will not want for anything. My mom loves that about me. It's probably the only thing she loves, too. I can't say I was surprised to discover Mother had arranged a marriage, but I will openly admit to anyone who asks: I do not, nor will I ever love my fiancé. End of story.
My wedding is scheduled for next month, after my last reaping.
One last time, I think again. One final day of worrying. I realize it's silly to get all worked up about this. I probably won't be selected. I have never needed to enter my name in the Reaping extra times. Sure, there's poverty in District Four, but the Capitol likes fish. That has made it possible for our people to survive far better than those skinny kids who always show up as tributes from eleven and twelve.
I run my fingers through my hair as slowly as possible, just to make Mother angry. I love to antagonize her. She can sell my body to the highest bidder, but I'll keep my soul, thank you very much.
"Give me this," Mother finally says, grabbing hold of my hair and forcing me to bend over so she can towel it. Once it's been dried to her satisfaction, she knits it into a tight bun on top of my head, which I secretly plan to undo the moment I am out of her reach.
I take a step toward our mirror when her hands leave my head. I look somewhat like a younger version of my mother, with my skin stretched against my cheek bones by the horrible bun. I looked contained. I glance back at Mother, who gives a slight nod of approval. Of course she would approve—this is exactly how she does her own hair every morning.
"Well, not that this hasn't been a blast…" I say, and then turn around to pick out a dress in my bedroom, hoping against all odds that she would not follow me. As is turns out, she doesn't have to.
"I bought a new dress for you," she informs me. "Something you can wear to impress the Braxton family." The Braxton's are the lovely family I've been sold into by good old Mother dearest.
"Thanks. I'll be sure to try it on," I say, wondering if I could get away with finishing the statement as I had originally intended: "take it off, throw it away, and put on something else." I decide I can't change my hair and clothes, though.
Ten minutes later, I'm wearing an itchy dress, which constricts at the neck and flows all the way down to my ankles. The saddest part is that as far as clothing from my mother goes, this one is almost bearable. I sigh, fantasizing for only a moment, of becoming a tribute. It is a silly thing to fantasize about, for sure. Not only would I die immediately, but I would be no less of a captive in an arena than I would be at home. Yet, I can't completely deny that the idea of winning is enticing. If I somehow could win, I would be able to do whatever I want. Mother would not be able to control me. I would never marry.
"Okay," I say, swatting Mother's fidgeting fingers away from my face. "I'm getting out of here. See you afterwards."
"Wait," Mother commands me.
I don't wait. I walk out of our house and straight down the cobblestone street to the city square, where the children of District Four were separated by age and gender. I'm placed in the oldest group of females. There are about thirty of us. The odds are certainly in my favor. Yet, I feel a slight twinge of jealousy for those unlucky souls to whom the odds would soon show disfavor.
Deloris Ingratos, our new Grimm Reaper (as many of us District Four inhabitants like to call them) stands on stage, introducing herself, and explaining how our previous Reaper is now retired. I pull my hair free of its constrictions as she speaks, not really paying attention, because I already know what she is saying.
In fact, I am still not paying attention when her arm digs deep into a tank which contains my name. I don't even register the name she calls when she says it the first time. She has to repeat it. But suddenly, I am paying a great deal of attention when all the other girls in my group look at me.
"Eh, em," Deloris clears her throat. "That was, Miss Isla Valens."
Ingratos seems to spot me amongst my peers. She waves her hand to me encouragingly. "Come along, dear. We have a tight schedule."
I don't know if I am happy or not when I walk onto the stage. I think mostly unhappy. I am going to die. That is a fact. But something evil inside me also recognizes that I am stealing my mother's livelihood by going away. And I love it.
Of course the story isn't over yet. Of course, when some fifteen year old boy is called up to join me, the universe can't just leave me well enough alone for a week. No. Of course he has to volunteer. That's just the way life works. Always has, always will.
So, when Johan fricking Braxton takes his place on stage next to me, I think, Great. I am going to kill my fiancé.