"Seriously, Gale?" I jump up to wrestle my bow out of his grip. He simply raises his hand higher which leaves it completely out of my grasp. He towers over me, his grey eyes sparkling in amusement and his dark hair glistening in the sunlight. Peeta is watching us laughing hysterically and I turn to scowl at him. "Shut up, Peeta. You guys need to stop ganging up on me!"
"Aw, Catnip, we're just teasing," Gale banters as he lowers the bow. I reach for it and he swiftly darts out of the way, tossing it to Peeta who puts it behind his back. He backs up slowly and I stalk towards him narrowing my eyes. His bright blue eyes stare back at me in mischief.
"If you don't give it to me, I'm telling your dad you closed the shop early yesterday."
His jaw drops. "I closed five minutes early! It was slow and I had to pee!"
"He doesn't know that." I give him my sweetest smile and he glowers at me before handing over the bow, rolling his eyes. One hand goes through his tousled blonde hair as he huffs at me. I smile in triumph and stick my tongue out at him and Gale.
"See? Us girls always win, even if the odds aren't always in our favor."
"Pansy," Gale chuckles. He nudges Peeta in the stomach with his elbow. Peeta sighs and shrugs, stooping down to tie a shoelace. He doesn't argue back with Gale; he knows he was joking. Honestly Peeta's dad probably wouldn't be angry, but it's the day before the Reaping- everyone has been a bit tense. He flicks off a piece of dirt stuck to his shoe and stands, looking around us at the forest.
I smile at my best friends and lead the three of us back towards the fence. Gale is carrying our kill for the day and Peeta lags behind stomping through the twigs as usual. He doesn't hunt but he enjoys coming out with us occasionally to get away from the bakery and from all of the people in town.
We all find solace in each other when everything else gets crazy, especially the last few days.
The three of us have been around each other non stop to avoid our families who are driving us insane. My Mother has just been staring off into space as usual, sometimes lucid enough to have a normal conversation, sometimes not. Prim, bless her heart, does nothing but cry. This is her first year in the Reaping. Every night I sing her to sleep and she still wakes up screaming.
Gale's mom alternates between working herself to death and worrying over her children and what would happen if any of their names are drawn. His mom is the strongest woman I know, but at this time every year she's an emotional wreck. Both of our fathers are gone because of the mining explosion when we were young so at least we don't have to worry about that.
Meanwhile, Peeta's mother is crazy as usual. Lately every night after he gets off work he usually comes to my house to hang out, every day just a little more withdrawn. Usually the more he comes over, the worse it is.
His dad helps as much as he can; Peeta says he's going to leave his mother one of these days but he still hasn't done it yet. He says his mom threatens to take the kids away, and he doesn't want to try her. I don't blame him. The last thing I would want for my kids is for them to be stuck with a witch like her.
We walk through the trees as a small group of misfit kids from District 12, three teenagers who have been through everything together. We walk closer to the fence, to our families, to the day of the Reaping.
We walk towards an unknown future.
Later that night we all lay in my backyard on our backs under an old oak tree. It's our spot, the place we all retreat to. A blanket is spread out underneath us and the branches rustle overhead as a lamp illuminates us.
We're all quiet tonight in anticipation and fear of tomorrow. It's like this every year; as hard as we try to make it seem like we're alright, the fear always takes over. Peeta is the first to break the silence.
"So, tomorrow..." He trails off and lets the words hang in the air.
Gale scoffs. "Two poor unlucky people are getting dragged to their death."
"You never know," I mumble. "Maybe someone from District 12 will win this year."
He rolls his eyes. "Don't be naive, Catnip. We haven't had a victor since Haymitch. Do you know how old he is?"
"He's an alcoholic," Peeta murmurs. "I don't blame him. I can only imagine what the games do to a person."
"Exactly. He's a drunk, and even when he's supposed to be mentoring our tributes he does nothing but drink away his sorrows. I've heard plenty of stories. Don't feel too bad for him. He's just a lowlife piece of scum." He pauses. "Besides, the games are nothing but an outlet for the sick freaks from the Capitol. Anyone who wants to watch it is seriously demented."
"Gale," I say harshly. He stops talking and shuts his mouth. His jaw tenses as he exhales sharply. He chews the inside of his cheek and rolls his eyes. We're all quiet. The crickets are chirping in the distance.
"I've got a bad feeling about tomorrow," Peeta whispers, a quiet sigh escaping his body as he flips over on his stomach to face us. His eyes meet mine, unwavering, and he closes them. He puts his head in his hands. "I don't know why, and it might sound crazy. I just do."
The three of us are quiet for a moment as the atmosphere changes around us. This is the first time any of us has actually spoken of our fear of going into the games. An uncomfortable air surrounds us and then breaks.
Gale turns over and puts a hand on Peeta's shoulder. "You don't sound crazy, man. It could happen to anyone. But it can't happen to you; you're too good. You're the best of us." He gives him a small smile. "Besides, out of the three of us, we all know I'm the most likely to go in."
Neither of us argue with that; it's true. Peeta only has his name in sixteen times; I have mine in twenty.
Gale's is in forty-two.
The odds are not in his favor tomorrow.
I look at both of them and my heart breaks. I can't see myself without having the two of them in my life. Gale is strong, independent, and rough, whereas Peeta is inquisitive, sensitive, and gentle. The two of them are all I have outside of my family. We all have so much history. Without a doubt we'll take care of the family of the person who leaves, but then something else comes to mind.
"Let's make a pact." The two of them look up at me, their eyes flickering to each other for a moment before looking at me again. "If one of us goes, we fulfill one last wish of the person whose name was called. We can all think of something now and say it out loud. We'll make a pact. Here. Tonight."
"I want my family taken care of," Gale says first.
I roll my eyes. "That goes without saying, Gale. I know if I left, you and Peeta would provide for Mom and Prim. I trust you guys. And I know if one of you left I would make sure they're taken care of as well. Am I right?" They both nod in agreement. "Something different. Something little or big or anything."
"Like what then?" Gale seems impatient as he watches me.
"If I could have one last wish, it would be that Prim would learn how to hunt. That way she could provide for herself if she needs to and if her name did happen to be called in the reaping one day, she might have a fighting chance."
The two of them are quiet for a few moments. Gale sighs. "Done. And even if your name doesn't get called, we could still do that. It wouldn't hurt to teach her."
I nod. "That's true. But as of right now, she's never had to learn. She's only twelve. She's had me. If I get called, I need you guys to step up."
"But I don't hunt." Peeta interrupts us. "How would I be able to help?"
I pause for a moment, thinking of how to arrange my words right. "Peeta, you're the most patient person I know. When Gale gets frustrated, you'd be the one to calm him and Prim down. You would be the encouraging voice leading them forward. Trust me, you'll help."
He gives me a small smile and nods. I turn on my belly to face both of them, my head resting on my propped elbows. Peeta's voice is quiet as he begins to speak.
"I always worry about the two of you." Gale and I both snap our heads up as we look at him. "What? Let's face it, I'm like the peacekeeper of the three of us. When something goes wrong, everyone talks to me, everyone depends on me. And don't get me wrong, I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way," he insists, his eyes gazing intently into mine. He takes a deep breath. "But I need to know that you two will be okay. I need to know you'll move on with your lives and not give up when I'm gone."
"Seriously. My last wish would be for you both to keep living without me. I love you guys." He pauses. "And my Dad. I need you guys to make sure my Dad is okay." I blink back tears and lean forward and lean my head on Peeta's shoulder. He leans his head on top of mine and I can feel his body let out a long breath. I look up and see Gale staring at us. I straighten and sit up, crossing my legs.
"Your turn, Gale."
"I just want to be remembered."
My eyebrows furrow as I look at him. "Of course you would be remembered. Are you kidding me? We could never forget you."
"I don't want to die as just another tribute, District 12, coal miner. I want to be remembered as Gale Hawthorne, bad ass hunter. Or Gale Hawthorne, family man. Or even just Gale Hawthorne, best friend. I don't want to leave as just another person. I want to be remembered as someone special to you," he says, looking me directly in the eyes.
I have a feeling that this request isn't for Peeta, but for me. I feel slightly uncomfortable at this and I shift positions, breaking eye contact. The longing in his eyes doesn't disappear as they drift away. Peeta's eyes flicker to me and back to Gale.
"So it's agreed. Prim will learn to hunt. We learn to live without Peeta. We don't forget Gale and his bad ass-ness." The tension is gone as the boys chuckle and nod in agreement.
I can't let my fear show as I get Prim ready the next morning. I sit her on the bed and begin to braid her hair into pigtails. She didnt get any sleep last night and I can tell she's exhausted. We're both quiet as I stand over her, my fingers weaving strand after strand over and underneath each other. Her breathing is erratic as she digs her tiny fingernails into her thigh. She is shaking.
"It'll be okay, little duck," I murmur as I tie one braid off. I turn her to her other side as I begin on the next pigtail.
"Then why am I so afraid?" She barely whispers the words as a stray tear falls down her cheek. Her lower lip begins to quiver and she bites down on it.
"Come here, sweetie." I sigh and pull her close to me, smoothing down her hair. I rest my chin on top of her head as she begins to cry in my arms. Tears gather in my eyes as the helplessness settles in. I am powerless against the games. Powerless.
But I am strong, and I am stubborn.
I will always find a way when Prim is involved.
I pull her back to face me. "Little duck, I want you to listen to me. Nothing will happen to you. Ever. Your name is only in there once; it's impossible."
"Last year it was Jerrika's first time in the Reaping and she went," she whispers. "What if it's me this time?" I close my eyes, remembering the little brunette girl from last year. She wailed all the way to the stage and wailed until her last breath in the games when a boy from 8 cornered her with a club in hand.
Prim cried for days.
"Do you trust me?"
She closes her eyes as the tears run down her cheeks. She nods and I cup her face with my hands. She looks up at me. "I trust you." Her little arms wrap around me as she clutches the dress I'm borrowing from Mom today.
"Alright, then. Trust that it'll be okay. It will, Prim. I promise." I kiss her forehead as I pull out her outfit she will be wearing today. Our mother stands in the doorway watching us patiently as she looks down at her watch. She hasn't said a word all morning. We stalk towards her quietly as we stoop down to put our shoes on.
Mom leads the way as we walk out of the door towards the square. We walk, the three of us twitching in nervousness. Hoards of people surround us as we all walk together in an eerie silence filled with fear. As we approach the square Mom walks over to stand with the family members not in the Reaping this year.
The square is quite beautiful, sadly enough. If it weren't for the horrible memories this part of town possesses I'm sure many people from District 12 would visit it more often. Prim and I sign in as we separate to go to our designated roped off areas. The air is warm and dry and sky looks grey as I look around and see Madge and Delly from school standing in the corner, avoiding anyone's glances.
I look over to the boys side and see Gale standing towards the front of the group and Peeta standing somewhere towards the middle. Both are watching me and both somehow look calm and serene which I know is just a facade.
"It'll be okay," Peeta mouths to me. He gives me a small smile and nods. My eyes drift to Gale and he doesn't mouth anything. He just watches me, smiling softly. The smile doesn't reach his eyes though. His eyes widen and a flash of fear courses through them. His breathing accelerates, I can see that from here; I don't understand why, but then I hear the familiar sound we are all terrified of on this day every year.
The clock strikes two.
The chime rings through the square.