The words didn't register in my mind for a few seconds after they'd been spoken. It was like everything was muddled, like I was swimming through a lake and could never quite break the surface. Numbly, I felt someone shaking my shoulder but I didn't understand why they were being so persistent. I hadn't done anything wrong; at least, I didn't think I had.
"Mirabelle Reed? Come on, don't be so shy! I need you to join me up on stage!" Effie Trinket's lilting voice rang through the silent square with an eeriness to it. Suddenly, the person who was shaking my shoulder hastily whispered, "Your name was called. You have to go up there." I wanted to look at her like she was crazy but then I realized she was right. Mirabelle Reed. My name.
Wait. Effie Trinket had just said my name.
My stomach churned as my feet made their way through the sea of fourteen year old girls that I was forced to stand with during the reaping. Two Peacekeepers followed next to my sides as I walked down the aisle way to the stage, and I saw Effie's face relax into a wide smile when she realized that first District 12 tribute had been found. All the time I was walking, I was praying inside my head, please someone volunteer, please someone volunteer. But I should've known better. No one would dare volunteer for the games, especially after what had happened last year, with both of our tributes not even making it past the bloodbath. Primrose Everdeen, the younger sister of Katniss, was still mourning her sister's death, coming to school everyday with her face red and puffy. I never really knew how the baker fared after his son died, but I'd heard he never had baked a loaf of bread the same way again.
Too in shock to twist my hands together in anxiety, I just let my arms hang stoic by my sides, my fingers brushing against the pale blue cotton of my dress as I walked up the stairs of the stage.
"Well, it's nice to see that our tribute didn't get lost on her journey up here!" Effie jokingly stated, hoping to get a laugh from the citizens, but you could hear a pin drop in the place. I guess in an effort to redeem herself, she fluffed up her hair and made her way to the boy's bowl, saying, "Now, for the gentlemen!"
Her ridiculously pink nails swirled around in the papers for a few seconds before she finally chose a slip. Taking a few more moments of anxious silence to walk back to the microphone, Effie opened the scrap of paper and announced loudly, "Flint Mulberry."
No. No. Anybody but him. My heart dropped to the ground as the boy, well actually he is more reminiscent of a man, stepped out from the eighteen-year-olds' roped off section, proceeding to join me and Effie up on stage. I could tell from his body language that he didn't like his predicament either, the way his mouth was down turned slightly as the Peacekeepers helped him up the old wooden stairs, the boy shaking them off as he came closer to us.
This wasn't fair. Not for him, not for me. We were two kids from the community home so I doubt that anyone cared we were potentially going to die in a few weeks, but I cared, so much that it hurt. Flint and I had known each other for as long as I can remember. He was the only kid that I'd let myself trust in the home because if you let too many people in, they would cause you pain at some point; stealing your few belongings, eating the small ration that was supposed to be yours at dinner, etc. We'd grown so close that we were practically brother and sister, practically family. He would sing little songs to lull me to sleep after I'd woken from a nightmare and braid my hair in a French plait to calm me after a hard day at school. I couldn't imagine not having him around for the rest of my life, not being there for me when I had to come back to hellish place I called home.
But there was something about our situation that was even more unfair than the before mentioned. Flint was blind. How could the Capitol expect a blind boy to fight in the Hunger Games when he couldn't even see his competitors? It was just so absurd that I wanted to scream and throw some type of fit but I managed to grab hold of myself, hoping my angered expression came off as something else on the cameras.
"Now, shake hands. That's good, " Effie monitored as Flint and I took the other's hand and reluctantly shook, "It is my pleasure to present the tributes for District 12! May the odds be ever in your favor!"
We both turned to the audience and then were ushered off the stage, into the depths of the justice building with me gripping Flint's rough hand as we walked through the marble floored hallways. As the Peacekeepers began to take us to our separate receiving rooms, Flint kissed my forehead softly and whispered, "You'll be okay, Miri."
Then we were shoved apart and thrown into empty velvet adorned rooms to await visitors who were going to wish us well in the arena. I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to receive any because I never really spoke to anyone besides Flint so I sat down on the fanciest couch I had ever seen and let everything that had happened sink in.
I was going to compete in the Hunger Games. Against Flint. And probably die within the first few days. But I was going to do everything I could to make sure that Flint came back. He was so selfless and basically never complained about anything unless his opinion was really strong. He deserved to come back home and maybe the Capitol could fix his eyesight with all of the advanced medicines and operations they have there. I just knew he would love to just see the world once, even if it would be all of the horrible people in the Capitol who were only cheering because he had won a death match.
Suddenly, the door cracked open and Rowan Froste walked in, a boy I barely knew but had talked to on occasion because he worked at the Hob, where I sometimes traded game I had slain with my dagger for food, money, or trinkets on Flint's birthday. He was a tall, tan-skinned man with fairly handsome features who I could've had a crush on if I saw him more often, and he ran a hand through his chestnut brown hair before coming to kneel down in front of my sitting position.
"This belongs to you," he said and pulled out something from a pocket on his forest green pants, holding it out in his palm for me to examine. A silver heart-shaped locket glinted in the faint afternoon sunlight shining in between the curtained windows, slung on a delicate chain and my mouth almost dropped open. It couldn't belong to me, I mean, I'd never once held anything that beautiful in my entire life. I just…didn't feel worthy.
I looked back up at his face and shook my head, about to disagree with him but he stopped me, saying, "It was your mother's. Someone swiped it off of her body after she'd died and traded it at the Hob. Ma instantly recognized it and hid it away until she decided it was time to give it to you." He ran a hand through his hair again and added, "I would've made her give it to you sooner, but if you knew my ma, she's as stubborn as an ox."
I couldn't believe it. I was looking at a piece of my mother, a piece of my past that I barely had the strength to uncover. It seemed like only yesterday that she'd died, along with my father, the pain being so fresh. I can still remember my father being up there on a makeshift stage in front of the community, tied to a pole, looking at me and my mother like we were the only things holding him onto the earth. A Peacekeeper began to take aim with a gun, the sight of it scaring the little five-year-old I was, but before he could fire, my mother ran through the crowd and up onto the stage, shielding my father protectively. The gunshot still haunted my memories, along with my father screaming her name as she fell limp to the ground.
"Hey, are you okay?" Snapping back to reality at the sound of Rowan's voice, I ignored the tears welling in my bottom eyelid and glanced at his slightly worried face, whispering, "Thank you. You… you don't what this means to me."
He simply nodded and asked, "Do you want me to help you put in on?"
"Sure." I lifted up the end of my French braid that Flint had done for me this morning and allowed his large hands to clasp the locket around my neck. The jewelry felt cool against my skin and I admired its simplistic beauty, the way it just seemed to pull my outfit together.
"One more thing," I heard Rowan say then felt his soft lips on my cheek, kissing the skin briefly before moving his mouth to my ear, "Kick ass in there."
I laughed lightly and watched his large build leave the room, wondering why I had never spent more than three minutes in conversation with him. But I didn't have long to ponder.
"Come on," I whipped my head up to see a Peacekeeper glowering at me, "We board the train in less than two minutes."
The inside of the train was breath taking. Gleaming wood tables, velveteen couches, silk curtains, a feast laid out for us. Most of the food sitting on the plates looked to pretty to eat, but some part of me was afraid that they would take the food away from us if we didn't eat it fast enough. Not once in either of our lives had Flint and I ever eaten food like what was set out in front of us. Effie just laughed in her silly Capitol way at what my reaction was to the sight, and said, "Well, don't you look like you've just seen the president!"
She laughed again, and told us to follow her down the hallway, me holding on to Flint's arm and helping to guide him after her. She led us to a couple of doors and opened a specific one, saying," This is Flint's room. Isn't it just wonderful?"
Personally, I thought her comment was a little insensitive, since Flint couldn't even see it, but instead of getting mad or frustrated, he just walked over to where he presumed the bed was and ran his hands over the sheets, a small smile gracing his lips.
"Yeah, it is." He said and let his smile grow as he began to make his way around the room, closing his eyes at certain parts on his adventure as if trying to picture what the materials looked like. I could've watched him explore his room the rest of the night, the way his face lit up like a child's whenever he reached a new corner of the unfamiliar space, but Effie's voice caused me to turn around.
"And this is your room." She said, knocking against the wood of the door right across the hall, and then informed us that dinner was in twenty minutes and 'we'd better not be late.' I nodded and turned back to face Flint who was now laying down on the bed, eyes closed and chest moving subtly up and down. Not sure if he was asleep or not, I tentatively asked, "Are you going to be okay if I leave?"
"Yeah, I think I'm gonna take a nap, but I think the better question is whether you'll be okay if I go to sleep." He said and a smirk replaced his smile as he placed his arms behind his head.
"Goodnight, Flint." I said in a singsong voice, my heart warming as I heard his familiar chuckle when I closed the door. Not bothering to look at my bedroom yet, I decided to have a little bit to eat, and then check out the rest of our car. I made my way back into the main compartment and surveyed the different foods that were available for me to devour at my leisure. After a few minutes of eyeing the hot pink cupcakes that were frosted with orange icing, I picked one of them up and took a bite, marveling at its taste. I wondered if all Capitol foods tasted as magnificent as it as I wandered around, opening random doors and finding out that we had a game room, a theater room, and a spa room, which I was sure Effie was all too excited to use.
I eventually made my way to a door at the end of the car, opening it and then jumping about three feet in the air as a loud rushing noise invaded my ears. Curious, I walked into the small space, which I guessed was what connected the train cars together as we rode along through the districts, and looked around. It wasn't any bigger than a medium sized restroom and on either side it had doors that presumably led to my car and an unknown one. Taking another bite of my half finished cupcake, I tried to look through the window that provided visual access to the next car but unfortunately, it proved to be taller than my five foot four stature.
Unfortunately, as I was standing on my tiptoes, trying to look in, the train went over a bump and threw me into the door, it being unlocked and tossing me into the strange space. I stumbled for a few seconds until I ran into something hard, not a wall, but something almost as strong.
"Look what we have here, Finnick. A wayward tribute far from home." What ever I was leaning against rumbled as the words traveled into the silence and I lifted my head out of what ended up being a fitted white t-shirt that was covering a well-defined chest. A boy who looked probably older than his years was staring down at me with an amused expression, his piercing blue eyes searching my face for an explanation as to why I was in their car. For a few moments, I couldn't tear my gaze away as I realized who I was staring at. Cato Kingsley. The arrogant, bloodthirsty, and um, gorgeous victor of the 74th Hunger Games.
And I had managed to smudge orange frosting along his tan and, not to mention again, gorgeous bicep. Smooth, Mirabelle, smooth.
"I… uh…I fell." I managed to say and them mentally slapped myself as hard as I could for saying something so stupid. Cato chuckled and one of his trademark smirks that made Capitol women fall over themselves to get in a twelve-foot-radius of him slid onto his face, rendering me speechless. "Yeah, angel, I got that far. What I didn't catch is why you fell into our dining car."
I was becoming more flustered with every second that passed and when I saw the handsome Finnick Odair, victor of the 65th Hunger Games, step out from behind Cato's large frame, I swear my mind went completely. Not knowing what to do, I let my eyes flicker back and forth from Cato's face, to the icing on his arm, trying to conjure up something remotely intelligent to say.
"I'm, uh, sorry?" It came out sounding more like a question than an apology and caused both victors to laugh, but not in a mean way, more like I was just something funny to brighten up their day.
"S'okay, angel. But I think you might want to set your cupcake down before you get orange frosting on anything else." Cato took the pastry from my hand and put it on a table a few feet away from him, allowing me to back away from his chest in the process. I stood awkwardly as both of the men stared at me, not knowing whether to leave abruptly or say something to them. Before I could make a choice though, Finnick asked me, "So, what's your name and what district are you from?"
"My name's Mirabelle and I'm, uh, from District 12." I didn't dare look up at their faces to see what their reaction would be to where I live. My district was the laughing stock of the twelve and to make matters worse, we hadn't had a victor in about fifty years. Sad, I know. But I couldn't change anything about it now so I just waited for someone to speak.
"Well, you're pretty enough to get some sponsors, so all hope isn't lost on you yet." I whipped my head up at Cato's comment and stared at him in disbelief. Cato Kingsley had called me pretty. Me, Mirabelle Reed, had just been called pretty by one of the most famous guys in Panem. "You-you think I'm pretty?" I stuttered.
He shrugged and walked over to a couch similar to the one in my car's main compartment, letting himself fall into a sitting position as he grabbed a bottle of brown liquid to take a swig of. Finnick followed suit and I was left standing alone while the two victors watched the reapings play out on the television screen. It had seemed they'd already watched the reapings from Districts 1, 2, 3, and 4 by the time I'd come in so I was in the middle of watching District 5's exuberant escort announce the name of the girl tribute, Maple Kotnik, and seeing her walk from the sixteen-year-olds' section with tears flooding down her cheeks.
"Bloodbath." Cato and Finnick uttered in unison, followed by Cato taking another sip of his drink and I was taken aback by their insensitive bluntness. How could they just so carelessly rate how far the person will last in the Games without even knowing them, or what their strengths and weaknesses are? They said the same thing about the District 5 boy and I winced at the sound of their unfeeling voices. They were in the Games, they knew what it was like, so shouldn't they be more lenient with emotions towards us tributes? Or was I wrong to even assume that?
Once we'd gotten through the district ten reaping, Cato looked over at me and just seemed to notice that I had been standing the whole time, offering, "You can sit down if you want." He tapped his hand against the cushion next to him and I cautiously obliged, smoothing out my worn dress as I sat.
"Poppy Briarwood, " said the green skinned escort for District 11 and a man from the solemn audience cried out as a girl from the seventeen-year-old girls' roped off sector came forward, yelling, "No, please, somebody volunteer for my daughter! She's all I have left! Please!"
The girl kept walking towards the stage, ignoring her father's pleas, and she kept her face strong, not letting any emotions slip as she stood next to the escort except for a single tear that escaped from her left eye.
"Well, that certainly was one of the most emotionally vocalized reapings we've ever had from District 11, don't you think, Caesar?" The image on the screen faded to a scene where Claudius Templesmith and Caesar Flickerman were discussing the reapings over mugs of what I guessed was coffee, and Caesar nodded, saying, "Yes, usually that district is among the quieter ones when it come to Games season."
They became silent again as the boy tribute was selected, the reaping now projected in a small box in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. A large boy stepped into the aisle way from eighteen-year-olds' and he looked absolutely menacing on screen. It made me wonder how terrifying it would be to actually meet him face-to-face.
"It looks like we could potentially have another Thresh this year, Claudius," Caesar exclaimed and I felt Cato stiffen beside me. Thresh had been Cato's final kill in the Games last year and apparently he still hadn't gotten over the fact a boy from a lesser district could've had the chance to beat him. But as soon a Cato had grabbed his sword and went after him, we all knew he was a goner. What Cato lacked in strength, he had in experience and ultimately, timing was what brought the brute down in the end.
"Another Thresh my ass," I heard Cato mumble and I shuddered at how venomous his words were. He really had hated that guy. But my fear from his tone went away as Claudius and Caesar moved on to the District 12 reaping. Effie Trinket was smiling and blabbering away on stage before ending her opening speech to select the girl tribute. She waited a few seconds for dramatic effect and then pulled out a tiny slip of white paper, opening it with care and announcing gleefully, "Mirabelle Reed."
Even though it had been hours ago that it had happened, the shock of my name being called hit me full force as I sat on that couch, fresh horror squeezing my stomach. I watched painfully as the cameras zoomed in on my blank face, alerted that the chosen girl was me by the person shaking my shoulder. The person, I realized now, was Jensen Stone, a girl who sat next to me in school. I silently sent her a thank you because if she hadn't shaken my shoulder, I probably wouldn't have made it to that stage.
I was surprised at how small I looked as I walked to meet Effie, seeming no older than a twelve-year-old. I'd never thought of myself as that tiny but I guess that's what malnourishment can do to you over time. Thankfully, my face had stayed blank as I stood next to our excited escort, but as soon as she called Flint's name, it contorted into what looked like disbelief mixed with fury. I hated to watch Flint in his trouble to make it to where Effie and I stood, his mouth taut as he tried to listen for any sound that would give him a clue to where the stage was.
"Is…is that boy blind, Caesar?" Claudius's face contained a surprised expression as they both watched Flint make his way to Effie and me. We shook hands and then stared out at the crowd, that movement allowing the cameras to get a good look at Flint's eyes, broadcasting the thin layer of milky film covering his irises.
"I believe he is." I could almost hear all of Panem gasp at his words and my heart broke because I knew that Flint would never get any sponsors now. "May the odds be ever in his favor, then."
"But the girl, Caesar, she looks like she has some promise. The look on her face after the boy was called…it was just heart-wrenching, wasn't it?" Freezing as soon as I realized they were talking about me, I leaned in closer to hear them, even though the volume was perfectly loud enough. I could feel Cato and Finnick's eyes on me as Caesar answered, "Yes, it certainly was. I'm anxious to see what she'll bring to the table, come time to enter the arena. And to be frank, I wouldn't be surprised if she scored among the top contenders when the Gamekeeper's results come in. She just seems like she has something up her sleeve."
They thought I could make it. They thought I was something to watch out for. A burst of hope sprung up inside me, telling me that I had a chance to win this thing, but then I realized if I won, Flint would be dead. Just the thought of him gone caused the squeezing feeling to return to my stomach and I turned away from the screen as Claudius and Caesar signed off, a Capitol endorsed commercial taking the place of their smiling faces.
"Well, that was interesting." Finnick was the first to stand from the couch and he made his way to a fully stocked table, similar to the one back in my car. He took a bite of an exotic looking fruit shaped like a star, and said, "Kid, you'd better start working your ass off because some of those careers are going to be serious competition in the arena."
I didn't understand why he would be giving me advice so I just chalked his actions up to trying to mess with my head before the Games start. Nodding, I sat in my place on the couch and noticing Cato hadn't moved from his spot either. Then, all of a sudden, he turned to face me, his blue eyes trying to read me like a book, trying to see what I was hiding. It scared me, how intense his gaze was, and I grew very aware of how close I was to him and the possibility of having one of my limbs removed. I'd seen what he'd done last year in the arena and I really didn't want to end up like one of his bloodbath victims.
"Yeah, the tributes from two are just as ruthless as the year before so I'd watch out for them," Cato said, his voice distracted as he kept searching my face, finally turning away when he found nothing. My heart was racing just from that brief moment of interaction with him and I found it strange because I barely knew the guy. I couldn't have…feelings for him yet. Could I?
"Where have you been, Mirabelle? You're fifteen minutes late, we're all waiting for you and…" Everyone looked up as Effie barreled into the room, with me staring like a deer in headlights as she finished her sentence, "…you're sitting in a room with Cato Kingsley and Finnick Odair, the mentors of your biggest competitors."
Instantly snapping back to his arrogant self, Cato switched on his smirk and walked across the room to join Finnick, saying as he passed the escort, "Hey, Effie. Don't you just look like a vision from the Capitol."
Effie flustered from the victor's attention and fixed her powder-puff pink wig as she shot Cato a flirtatious yet reserved glance. "Well, I dress everyday like it's an important one. Thank you for noticing."
"You've got a cute tribute this year. Tell Haymitch that if he plays his cards right, he could have sponsors lining up at the door for this girl." Cato winked at me and I felt a blush creep onto my cheeks, probably causing me to look like a tomato. God, I felt like such an easy person to mess with, letting all of my feelings float to the surface like that.
"I'll be sure to let him know. Now, Mirabelle," She motioned for me to come towards her and I stood from the comfortable couch, "Haymitch and Flint are waiting for us, so if you don't mind, boys." Effie graciously nodded towards the handsome victors and then placed her arm around my shoulder, guiding me away from them and leading me back into our car.
I could tell she was mad. Her lips were pulled taut as she whispered, "What were you thinking, fraternizing with your competition? Are you planning to get yourself killed as fast as you can?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to run into them, it…it just happened." Effie just sighed exasperatedly at my attempt at an apology and said, "Well, let's not mention that it did, shall we?"
Nodding, I plastered a smile on my face as we entered the main compartment and took notice that Haymitch was probably already drunk so he wouldn't care if I was late. Flint was absentmindedly dragging his fork back and forth across his plate, but his head whipped over to us at the sound of our footsteps, smiling in greeting. I took a seat next to him and whispered, "Sorry, I locked myself in the game room and couldn't get out."
I'd hoped it was convincing enough for him, but Flint knew me too well. "Sure you did, Miri. Sure you did."
"You finally decided to return, did you?" Haymitch's voice was slightly slurred as he took a gulp of what smelled strongly like alcohol. Great, I thought, we have a drunk as a mentor. Yeah, he'll totally get us past the bloodbath.
"There was an incident. But I'm sure you can overlook it, right?" Effie said, shooting me a look that said if-you-tell-him-there'll-be-hell-to-pay. Haymitch just grumbled something under his breath about going to take a nap and stumbled towards what I presumed to be his room. He didn't quite make it, though. About five feet down the hall, he passed out cold, falling against the wall and sliding to the floor.
"Oh my," Effie looked absolutely disgusted and I struggled to stifle my giggles along with Flint, who had heard the thump and guessed correctly.
This was going to be a long and eventful train ride.