The Tesserae Coaltion

I try to keep quiet when I go down the hall to the bathroom, but Edder still curses at me for waking him up. It's his last Reap Day, and he figures that his seven entries are putting him in a lot more danger than my five, so he shouldn't have to bake this morning. I ignore him until he goes back to sleep. What he doesn't know won't hurt my dad, annoy my mother, or put a stop to Madge Undersee's plan. The Peacekeepers can only pretend not to recognize us if our parents aren't running down there screaming.

There's not much work for Edder, anyway. We'll only be open for a few hours before the Reaping, and Dad and I can handle it. Dad said he'd handle it alone if it weren't for Cray's cake. Cray ordered it especially, and it's big and expensive, and he wants it before the Reaping. He orders one every year-a big sheet cake, decorated with a Hunger Games motif, as gory as I can possibly make it with sugar and frosting. There's a lot of business on Reaping morning, but most of it is for the small rolls and breads that District Twelve families can sometimes afford for their feasts, and Dad can make those in his sleep. He once suggested that we ought to give them away on Reap Day-just one per family, of course-and Mom nearly fainted. Instead, he accidentally misshapes about half of them while they're rising, and regretfully has to sell them or trade them at very low prices. Mom has caught on, of course, but I guess she figures she can compromise one day a year, and she can't stop him, anyway.

I wonder about them sometimes. My parents, I mean. I did the math and I know they got married because of my oldest brother Jonadab being on the way-Jonadab got married last month and is going to make them grandparents this winter-but you'd think that would at least mean that at some point, they liked each other. I don't think it works otherwise. And they did have two more of us. So they're not strangers. They just seem like they are.

Dad is already at the cooling racks checking on Cray's cake when I get to the kitchen. I am not surprised. I don't think he's slept the night before Reaping since Jonadab turned twelve. He just sits in the kitchen with our photographs, and writes out lists of things he hopes we'll do with our lives. He doesn't show us the lists. It makes me feel kind of bad about what Madge and Delly and a few of the others of us are doing. But he's not the only parent in District Twelve who loves his kids.

He gives me a tired-looking smile. "I think it's cool enough for you to start. Do you have a design?"

I nod and fish around in the drawer for my sketch pad. It's a huge expense, but it's paid for itself. Not many in District Twelve can afford my cakes, but the Peacekeepers have told their families at home, and I get orders from a lot of different places. I keep the sketchbook wrapped in plastic so it doesn't get greasy, and it takes a minute to free up. "Hope we've got a lot of raspberries," I say, and hand it to Dad.

He looks at my design distastefully. He'd prefer we refuse to make these cakes, but the money is too good, and we barely break even on anything else. The first year, when I was eleven, Cray had come in asking for a cake decorated with bodies and body parts. I'd seen Dad recoil, so I said that it was impossible to make something like that look real with the things we could frost cakes with. It's not-it's actually not even hard-but Cray doesn't know this, and settles for bloody weapons. This year, he'll get a pile of knives, an axe, and, running diagonally between them, a bronze spear. Raspberry blood will seep out from under the knives.

Dad hands it back to me like it might be infested with weevils and tells me to get to it.

We talk while we work, which is one of the reasons I like baking (and probably one of the reasons that Edder and Jonadab never did; Dad's stories bore them). I like history. So does Dad. No one really teaches much of it, but Dad's father taught him things from the family, and his father before that, and so on. Dad doesn't talk much to anyone else, but he really is a good storyteller when it's just us. He tells me about his grandfather, who was supposed to have been a rebel in the Dark Days, and about how the family, a long time earlier, came from a land called Ireland. "We were called 'Mullarkey' then," he says. "And they got away from the plague back home, two steps ahead of it, as the tale goes, coming here. Apparently, there was a long history of coming here when there was hunger in Ireland."

"Guess they didn't do much better here," I say.

"No one was doing well," Dad says. As he puts the first batch of bread into the oven, he goes on to a story about his cousin Briddy, who ran away with a Peacekeeper-a scandal for both of them, and no one ever heard what happened, but Dad always liked him. I ask him about Katniss Everdeen's mother, and he just says, "Peeta, I've told you everything there is."

Dad knows I like Katniss. At first, I think it made him happy. Then I think it started bothering him, and he told me once that he should never have mentioned Mrs. Everdeen to me. I don't know why he did. I just remember that there had been another big fight in the house the night before school started, and Dad was in one of his faraway moods.

I shrug, and start building up a pile of sugar knives that I carved last night. I'll frost them in silver, with the handles in chocolate. "What about Mom?" I ask.

Dad looks surprised. "What about her?"

"Do you have stories about Mom?"

He thinks about it for a long time, then says, "Did you know she was going to be an actress? She used to do our commercials. She had a scholarship to go to the Capitol and learn all about acting."

"But she didn't go."

"They wouldn't wait until after Jonadab was born, and we weren't all invited, at any rate." He blinks slowly, then says, "She chose to stay, Peeta. She chose to stay with us. It's important to remember that."

The conversation is interrupted as the bread finishes up, and someone with uncanny timing shows up at the back door. Dad comes back with a squirrel and starts fishing around on the cooling rack for a good loaf. I look out the window and see Gale Hawthorne, a boy from Edder's class. I know Edder doesn't like him much, and once they had a fight out by the slag heap. Edder still says Gale cheated, but that's probably because he lost. Quick. Everyone who fights with Gale loses.

I decide to take the bread out myself, thinking I might ask him to say hello to Katniss Everdeen for me, but in the end, I lose my nerve. It's probably not a good idea to ask another man to say hello to his girlfriend for you, once I think about it. He already doesn't like town kids much-I guess we look pretty safe and pampered to him. If I start asking questions about his girlfriend, I might end up the second Mellark he's beaten up. Instead, I tell him, "Good luck today," and he nods at me coolly and takes the bread. As he walks away, I see him stick an arrow into it for some reason.

When I get back to the kitchen, Dad is inspecting my cake. His nose is wrinkled.

"Is it wrong?" I ask.

"It's what the customer wants," he says. "And you did a fine job with it. This is an abuse of your talents. I'm sorry, Peeta."

"It's good money," I tell him.

"So your mother reminds me every year." He sighs. "We need half of it for supplies and shipping and taxes. But I want you to keep half, Peeta. Buy paints. Use your talent in a better way."

I smile and nod. By the time I get back, he'll have realized-or Mom will have realized-that we'll need sugar soon, and sugar is not cheap. There's also a bread pan that's cracked, and, a flour bin with a seal on it that's getting a little questionable. Paints are not going to be on the budget. I spend the next half hour putting finishing touches on it. Cray likes his bloody weapons to look as real as I can get them.

I get the cake ready to transport, and put it onto a little hand-cart that I use for deliveries in town. I can lift quite a few cakes, but if I get off balance, it's worth more than my ego if I drop them. Dad helps me secure it, and checks the wheels to make sure the cart won't overturn. The whole operation takes a good deal longer than it ought to.

"After I deliver it," I say, "do you mind if I head over to the mayor's? Madge Undersee's having a little get-together."

Dad looks at me steadily, then, out of nowhere, embraces me. "You're my good son," he says, and I can tell by his voice that he's crying. I am not surprised when I pull away and find that his face is wet.

"Dad, I-"

"Just go," he says, and turns back to his breads.

And it strikes me that it's possible that we haven't been as careful as we thought. That my father knows that my name isn't in the Reaping Ball five times, but twenty. That he's realized where the mysterious deliveries of tessera grain and oil to the community home and some of the poor old people have been coming from. I want to tell him that I still have fewer entries that a lot of people, that I'm probably perfectly safe, but we all agreed not to tell our parents. If even one of them starts a stink, the Peacekeepers will have to start checking to see that the tesserae are going to the families they are assigned to. Instead I say, "I love you, Dad." He says something in return that might be "I love you, too," but it's pretty choked up.

Mom isn't choked up when I pass her in the living room, where she's doing the books. She tells me to make sure I slop the pigs before I put on my good clothes for the Reaping, because she can't afford to have Mrs. Hawthorne clean the same clothes twice. I promise her I'll do it. I hate the pigs. They were a wedding gift to my parents from Aunt Rooba, and I guess they've covered a few bad times financially (pigs are good at nothing if not making little pork chops), but I can't even walk by their sty without thinking about throwing them perfectly good bread while a girl-my favorite girl in the world-starved in the freezing rain not twenty feet away. I gave her the bread as soon as Mom looked away. I've thought since that I should have given her one of the pigs.

I guess Mom would have noticed that, though. I got a black eye for the bread. I'm guessing I'd have been kicked out to live in the sty if I'd given Katniss a pig. Dad might have saved me-he doesn't stand up to her often, but he almost kicked her out of the house when he saw my eye, and only a lot of begging from my brothers and me stopped that fight-but, on the other hand, he counts on the pigs during slow times, too.

I wheel the cart out into the street. Next door, the door of the shoe store opens and Delly Cartwright comes out, already dressed in a frothy pink dress. She has a red ribbon in her hair, and has put on make-up. She's even been allowed a nice pair of shoes from the inventory. The Cartwrights do well. The Peacekeepers get their boots from District Eight, but the rest of their footwear comes from the Cartwrights' store, and they do go through shoes at a quick pace.

"Headed for Madge's?" Delly asks, falling in beside me.

"Cray's first. His cake."

"Is it that thing with the knives you were showing me?"

"Yeah. It actually turned out pretty cool."

"Always does," she says. "Someday, I'm going to hire you to make me a wedding cake."

"You mean you're not planning on me being the groom?" I ask, faking shock.

"Sorry to crush your fragile ego, but no." She grins. This is an old joke. Our parents have all been trying to pair us off since we were little, and neither of us has ever been remotely interested in the other. So we tease each other about it non-stop. It's good to have a friend that I can literally say anything at all to.

We walk together to Cray's, where a bunch of girls from our year are already gathering, hoping he'll pay for their company after the Reaping. They are all skinny Seam girls. They look at the cart hungrily, and I am tempted-so tempted-to just accidentally tip it over and let them all have the cake. Unfortunately, I'd have to pay for it, and I don't have that kind of money. Maybe I could unbalance it a little, and they could knock it over themselves after Cray has paid.

One of the girls-I think her name is Verbena-gives me a hopeful sort of look and opens a button on her shirt. I shake my head, and she turns to ignore me pointedly. Delly watches all of this with a pained expression. Cray comes out and pays me, and takes the cake inside. The girls rush the door, but it's already closed. They sit down on the steps.

I walk the cart home and leave it by the pigsty. Dad will bring it in. Delly and I walk on through the square, then turn off at the little path that leads beside Breen's haberdashery and into a woodsier part of town. There is a restaurant here, a proper one that no one local can afford to eat in. This is now Jonadab's business, or the one he shares with his wife and in-laws. He leans out the window on the top floor and calls down, "Hey, Peeta, sneaking away?"

"You caught me," I say. "Delly and I are going to go live in the woods with the bears."

"Wolves are better," Jonadab says. "All the stories say so."

"We'll keep it in mind."

He looks at me for a long time, then says, "Well... good luck. Odds in your favor and everything. Tell Eds, too. You, too, Delly."

I nod, then his wife calls him, and he disappears from the window.

"I don't think your brother ever wished me luck before," Delly says.

"They're having a baby," I say. "I think he's thinking about the Reaping more than he did when he was in it. It's the third time he's wished me luck."

After the restaurant, we pass Denton's pub and the Reeds' sewing shop-the latter is the only one used more by locals than by peacekeepers and visitors-then we go around a curve and reach the small, boarded up building brick building at the end of the lane. The sign used to say "Donner Books and Stationery," but about half of the letters have been weathered away since the elder Donners died. Madge Undersee has the key to the building. She will have the store when she grows up. It's her mother's now, but Mrs. Undersee always seems too ill to run a business, and being the mayor's wife is full time job anyway. It would have gone to her twin sister, Maysilee, who loved it, but of course, Maysilee Donner died in the arena.

The door opens, and Madge beckons us impatiently inside. She doesn't talk much, or spend any time with the rest of us from town-except for this. For this, she screwed up her courage and talked to me. I talked to everyone else. I don't mind. I like people, and I wish I'd thought of it myself.

"Are we late?" Delly asks.

Madge shakes her head. "No. But I have to get back. My mother can't find out about this-she'd be really afraid-and she's got a dress out for me and she's ready to do my hair. I can only make up so many reasons to be out."

She leads the way down to the basement, where we have the month's supply of tessera grain and oil. I have three tesserae, Delly has one (but is nerving herself up to take a second next year). Madge herself has taken on two, but she's a tribute's relative and they love that, so she's always at risk. In the corner, I can see Cyprian Murphy, who worked really hard to find the courage to take on his single tessera, but who's great at getting the distribution system together. Ely Breen is eighteen, so his two tesserae cost him a good bit of risk. Suza Pike took three tesserae, but she's only thirteen, so it doesn't mean that many extra entries. We'll make her take fewer next year. Abbalar Hook signed up for his first tessera last month, and looks pretty puffed up about it, hovering over the little box of grain and oil with a delighted expression on his face.

We're still missing Birdie McCarthy and Lilah Vick, but I guess we're not expecting them, because Madge goes up to the stack of boxes that she's made into a podium, and says, "It's time to start. We have to be quick. We all have to be back for the Reaping. Cyp?"

Cyprian comes up and gives a report. The community home has enough for the little children from what we have, and they make the older ones take tesserae for themselves. An older man we'd been sneaking grain to passed away, but there is no lack of need. There is an old woman named Eartha who's had to retire from the mines and is currently in a shack hacking out the last of her lungs. A young family that had lost its father, whose children weren't old enough for tesserae (my mind flashes again on Katniss Everdeen, the rain pushing her hair down around her face, her eyes sunken and, seemingly, partly dead already). There is also a proposal that we take on tesserae for a classmate, Arden Fisher, who has been very sick and would never make it in the arena, but that's tabled-it's too late for this year, and he might get better by next year. And it would mean telling someone.

Cyprian finishes up with the practical stuff-who's taking how much grain to what recipients tonight after the Reaping. There's a science to it after doing it for ten months, making sure we're not seen, and so far, no one has any idea, except maybe my dad. I'm supposed to take the first bunch to Eartha tonight, and find a good place to leave things for her.

Delly raises her hand. "Shouldn't we have back up, in case, you know... one of us has to... leave?"

Madge nods sharply. "Everyone look to the closest girl on the left if you're a girl, and the closest boy if you're a boy. If that person gets called, you do his or her job."

I look to my left and see Ely. I think I can handle the community home trip, though I'll have to take the handcart.

With that, she dismisses the meeting. I expect her to rush off, since she was so worried, but instead, while almost everyone leaves, she starts digging around in the boxes behind her podium.

Delly and I look at each other and move toward her. "Um, Madge?" Delly says.

Madge looks up. "You can go. I just need to find something."

"We'll help," I offer. "What is it?"

She shoves boxes our way. "A jewelry box. I doubt there's more than one. It'll be my aunt's."

Neither Delly nor I says anything about this. We just go through the boxes she hands us. I don't see a jewelry box, and move on to another.

"What is it you're looking for?" Delly asks.

"It's a round pin," Madge says. "It has a mockingjay. It was supposed to be my aunt's district token, but they wouldn't let her have it. I saw a picture of it. Haymitch brought it back... after. They said it was because of the pin that she couldn't have it, but I've seen other pins. So I'm guessing they just didn't like it for some reason. If I get Reaped, I want to be wearing it on television. For Aunt Maysilee."

I don't know why Madge is so devoted to her aunt, who she never met. But while most of us are taking tesserae to help hungry people, Madge is taking them because she wants to be like her aunt. She says she doesn't have any right to not have as much risk as anyone else. We had to stop her from taking more tesserae. I think she just came up with the idea of giving away food as a way to get other people to join her.

She goes back to her search, not saying anything much for the next ten minutes other than "Try over in the corner" and "No one better have stolen it." This is the Madge Undersee most people know. We are about to give up-she's worried about her mother-when Delly stumbles on a box that was shoved under a radiator. Inside it are things from a ladies' dressing table-dried up perfume and make-up, hairbrushes and ribbons, and a little jewelry box. Madge opens it up, makes a bitterly triumphant sort of sound, then pockets something gold. She doesn't show it to us.

We all leave together, and Madge locks up the store. My brother doesn't lean out his window as we go by the restaurant this time, and we hardly see anyone else, either. Everyone must be getting ready for the Reaping. We pass near the fence as we come into town, and I see Gale and Katniss coming back, looking quiet. They have fish. I hope they had a good morning. Katniss looks distracted.

I realize I've stopped when Madge smacks my shoulder and says, "You should talk to her. Or try to. She might not talk back. I can sit with her for a week and neither of says anything. We're still friends."

"Her boyfriend probably wouldn't like that," Delly says.

"Her what?" Madge says, looking confused.

There is no time to discuss this, because Mrs. Undersee has come outside, and is calling frantically across the square for Madge, who paints on a demure smile and runs back home, one hand in her pocket, securing the pin.

"Do you want to have lunch before Reaping?" Delly asks me as we reach the shoe store.

I shake my head. "I have to slop the pigs, then take a bath and change, or I won't have to worry about the arena, because my mother will kill me."

"Well, I'll see you there, then. With the sixteens."

"Yeah. See you there."

I wave her back into the shoe store, then go to the pigsty and throw in some slops. I look over toward the trash bins, where Katniss Everdeen once sat in the rain, and I wonder what I would do if her name is called. She is needed here. She doesn't take tesserae just to bring in a little extra food for someone else, she takes them because her family needs them. She hunts. She sells things. I watch her, sometimes. The way she picked herself up from that muddy ground, the way she cleaned herself off and stood up tall and refused to back down... I don't know how she did it, but I admire it a lot. It makes me think it's possible to actually make a difference for people. I'm not the only one who feels that way, either.

Madge is right. I should talk to her. She might rabbit away-she always seems ashamed that I saw her that way. I should tell her she doesn't have to feel like that. The girl she is now is strong. But knowing that the girl in the rain is underneath makes her strength amazing.

After the Reaping.

I'll worry about it then.

I go back inside and clean up, getting into the decent clothes Mom has set out for me. Edder is doing the same. I'm glad for Mom's coldness right now, because the closer it gets to two o'clock, the more I feel the weight of those twenty slips of paper. Mom can keep things together, get Edder and me looking respectable. Dad tries, but I can see the fear in his eyes. He isn't talking. He seems to have lost his voice. Before we go outside, where the crowd is already getting too large for comfort, he grabs hold of us and hugs us tight. Edder rolls his eyes and goes off to sit with the eighteens (he avoids Gale Hawthorne by a large measure).

I look at Dad.

Dad says, "Peeta, I-" But he can't follow it up. Mom shoos me forward, and I go to sit with the sixteens, by Delly and our friend Sylvanus Holt. I can see Katniss Everdeen on the far side of the group. I resolve to find her after the Reaping and talk to her, but then again, I've been resolving that for four years, and I've never done it.

I look over my shoulder and see Mom and Dad at the edge of the crowd. Jonadab has joined them. Dad is crying, and I wonder, for the first time in ten months, if I've done the right thing, if I'm hurting my father just to feel better about myself.

It's too late to do anything about it.

And it probably won't matter. My name is in the ball twenty times, but it's twenty out of thousands, and there are plenty here whose odds are worse.