Disclaimer: Hunger Games belongs to Suzanne Collins and any other entities who have purchased the rights.
I wake as always to the low whine that signals the end of the night-shift. Six am exactly, the dawn light a pale orange-grey through the smog. I shiver as my bare toes hit the icy metal wall, reminding me of the sewing I neglected last night in favour of my current project. As one of the top students in my year I am part of the senior science and innovation class, where we are taught to design and build useful objects. For most of our district's residents, life during and after school revolves around the factory production lines unless you can offer something better. I plan on being part of the latter group.
A gentle humming reaches my ears as I curl over under the sheet and try to go back to sleep, and I can make out the words through the thin wall. Balia singing Malcon back to sleep with one of the songs our Grandma taught us before she passed. A sleepy grunt echoes from the other bunk below me and I hear Pella shift her head under her bedding to block out the noise. Soon enough the sound of footsteps and doors drowns out the lilting song as the workers from our building arrive home for a few hours rest. Normally the morning shift would have already left, but today is Reaping day. The day the annual sacrifices will be chosen to die for the Capitol's entertainment. At least we get to sleep in, sort of.
As the clamour of tired workers returning home dies away I can still hear the gentle humming punctuated by sobs. It's the first year Balia is eligible for the games and Malcon has spent the last two weeks in abject terror that she will go away and leave him on his own. Well, he wouldn't be on his own, but in his head Balia is the only one that counts.
There were complications when Malcy was born, complications that nearly killed both him and my mother five years ago. She was too old to be having her fifth child, or that's what Julez's mother said as she directed us to wash out the bloodstained cloths and fetch powders from her bag while my mother lay screaming. I had been only Balia's age at the time, but father and Ezra were on shift so Pella and I had to help out. The blood flow to my little brother's brain had been cut off at one stage, and he'd been blue in the face when he finally appeared until Tereza blew in his lungs and got them working. As he grew up it was clear something wasn't right; he didn't start talking until he was nearly four, and his eyes are often unfocused when anyone except Balia speaks to him. She is the centre of his little world, and I sometimes wonder if he realises the rest of us are here at all. I'm still not sure how he will cope when he starts school this fall.
A low mutter brings me back to the present, my charming older sister who seems to find nothing good about the world, especially before breakfast. She is usually part of the morning shift at the microchip assembly line on Silica Avenue, and Reaping day is the only day of the year she gets to sleep in. It's her second year now that she is safe, and I can't help but envy that feeling of security, the knowledge that she won't ever have to go off and fight to the death with twenty-three other children that is still two ceremonies from my grasp.
Giving up on my plans of further rest, I roll off the bed and clamber down the three rungs to the floor, gasping again as my bare toes hit the cold floor. Pella glares at me as I slip out the door towards the kitchen, just like usual. Mother is already awake, boiling the kettle and plugging in the toaster as she slices bread from this week's loaf. Some mornings we don't get any power at all, so we always make the most of it on days that it's here. Another of the few good things about this time of year is the reliable power to the apartments, though the factories are on a different line and almost never go down. The toaster is an old one that I rescued and repaired when I was ten, and it is still working now. A testament to the power of knowledge and a decent soldering iron.
I start fetching out the plates and glasses while mother toasts the slices two at a time, piling them up so I can butter them. We always have butter and syrup for breakfast reaping day just in case it's the last time we eat together as a family. As I finish the first plate Pella wanders out, her short hair dishevelled from sleep. Balia pokes her head out when she hears the clatter of crockery and reappears a few seconds later towing Malcon behind her.
I tousle my brother's thick dark curls as I pass Balia his plate and he gives me that same half-vacant look I've come to expect. Today his wide eyes are red-rimmed and his ashen cheeks are streaked with tears as he clutches the back of Balia's shirt desperately. If my sister's one entry amongst the thousands is somehow chosen today, I'm not sure how we will deal with him. Then I remember that I should be worrying more about my own entries than my sister's. That year that Malcy was born and the year after my mother was too sick to work so both Pella and I took out some tesserae. Even though we haven't needed it since, those entries still count and today I will have eleven slips of paper in the giant ball that bear my name.
My father's arrival at the table, followed by a knock on the front door that is Ezra and his new wife Laney forces me to put aside my worries. Ezra hugs us each in turn, lingering over myself and Balia before turning to the family to announce their wonderful news. As we all congratulate a blushing Laney on her newly discovered pregnancy, I can't help but wish they had waited until this afternoon to tell us, once we were assured of our safety for another year.
As I start on my food I find myself suddenly shivering, and then a wave of almost nausea strikes, making the bread and syrup seem dry in my mouth. Three times in my life I have had this feeling of pressing uneasiness swamp me, and each time it has marked a moment of tragedy. The day Grandpa electrocuted himself when I was six, the morning of Malcy's birth and the night of the apartment fire last year that killed over a hundred people including three of the girls from my class. As the dreaded feeling surges in my stomach and shiver down my spine, I somehow know that today is not going to end well.
After breakfast we take turns to use the tiny shower cubicle, though the icy water never quite removes the layer of grey dust from my skin. The pollution in the air seeps into the very pores of our district's skin, leaving us ashen-faced and sickly-looking. My hair usually washes up a little better, and the 60 seconds of water is enough to get the grey dust coating out of my dark waves. Mother passes in my reaping clothes, and I squeeze out the worst of the water from my hair before surrendering the room to Balia. The dress is one of Pella's old ones, faded purple with a sash around the middle. It hangs awkwardly just above my knees, my slightly taller frame unusual for our family and indeed our district. Pella is already dressed in her new outfit, its pale yellow material making her appear even more unhealthy than usual. Over her shoulder, Ezra catches my eye and laughs silently, clearly thinking the same thing. He will probably duck out as we are leaving to change into his best shirt and trousers, and will still beat us to the bus.
I check the clock as Balia steps out in my old blue dress, where the dimmed display reads 0840. Plenty of time to make the bus-ride to the square. Hopefully we won't have to rush like last year. Our district is one of the largest in terms of population, and though they never give us complete numbers in school, it's not hard to estimate the other districts' numbers based on what is required for each trade. Every apartment block is provided a bus to transport the inhabitants to the central square, unless they prefer to walk the ten miles to the only open space inside the district walls with enough room to fit the majority of the population. Usually the first thirty-thousand or so cram into the actual square including the twelve thousand eligible to become our newest tributes. The remainder are shifted into the four cross-streets, around seventy-five hundred to each, where the warehouse sides are covered in temporary screens for their viewing. Our family usually sticks to the south-east cross-street, the closest to our drop-off point to avoid the crushing crowd and the worst of the book-keepers.
Our bus leaves at nine, and is just as packed and stuffy as always. One of the joys of district three: ice-cold nights and humid, wretchedly hot days for half the year. The other half is plain cold. One of the few good things about spending twelve hours in a factory shift or six hours in school is the temperature regulation at 70 degrees.
Thankfully we make the twenty-minute journey without incident, and Balia repeats over and over how good Malcy is to not throw a tantrum this year as we wait to sign in. Of course there is every chance he will throw one once he realises that Balia will be heading to the square rather than the shaded alcove between factories. Ezra, who is probably the next best with our youngest sibling scoops him up and lets him kiss us one last time before we go our separate ways. We get about ten steps before the howling starts, and I grab Balia forcefully by the hand and tow her away from our brother's screams. Hopefully once we are out of sight he will calm down enough that the peacekeepers won't make an issue of it. I have seen them strike crying children before, and the parents too if they try to object.
One year a young woman holding a bawling baby tried to slip down a side-street to calm her child down. It was during the name-drawing, so everyone else was watching the screens, which was why only I saw the frustrated guard take the infant and slam its wailing head into a wall. The mother had seemed too shocked to do anything, and had simply slid down the wall cradling the lifeless bundle in her arms in abject silence.
It has always left me feeling edgy around the white-suited men and my premonitory feeling from this morning leaves me doubly anticipating disaster of some sort. As we join the line of adolescents outside the reaping zone I realise that the trembling I can feel isn't just my own. I turn and force a hopefully supportive smile for Balia, who stares back at me for a few seconds before taking a deep breath and forcing her chin up. She drops my hand and smiles back, and it is only the slight quiver of her lower lip that betrays her fear.
"Just remember your probability lessons," I whisper as we near the front of the line, reaching down to brush a curl from her face before turning back towards the roped square that is starting to fill. Surely, surely with only one entry amongst the thousands Balia will be safe. Even my eleven in at least fifty-thousand is fairly safe. A lot safer than many girls my age.
The roped areas are separated by age, and I get time for a brief hug before sending Balia off to the front, where the smallest children are huddled together. I remember the terror I felt during my first reaping, absolutely certain like everyone else nearby that I would be one of the rare twelve-year-olds chosen for certain death. The terror has been less every year, despite the increased entries as I get closer and closer to that glorious age of safety and freedom. Pella wasted a week's pay on a chocolate after her last reaping, while Ezra and his friends found a spirits-dealer in one of the shaded alleys and came home so roaring drunk that he wakened our entire level.
I have already decided that when, when I survive my last reaping in twelve months time I will celebrate by buying something new from the bookstore and sitting down to read it from start to finish.
Lost in my daydreams of the library I will someday own, I am startled to hear the digitalised chime that signals eleven o'clock. My just above average height allows me to see past the sea of dark hair to the stage as the mayor takes the podium to begin his usual speech. He is a large man for district three, nearly five feet ten, with a rounded girth that suggests three solid meals a day. His voice is not as great as his build would suggest and even with the amplification, his retelling of Panem's history fades into its usual monotonous murmur.
To his right sits our Capitol Escort, Carmenius Fallow, his white-blonde hair smoothed into spikes and streaked with electric blue that clashes horribly with his magenta waistcoat. He smothers a yawn and plays with his dangling earring, foot tapping as he waits to launch into his part of the ceremony. This is his fourth year as our escort and has commented repeatedly in interviews about how disappointing the tributes in his care have been.
Our two former victors sit on Mayor Redden's left, both trying not to look too bored as they bake in the morning sun that has found a gap through the smog layer. Cupros Glint looks as sour as ever as he shades his eyes, his stringy grey hair as unkempt as his mismatched clothes. In contrast, Beetee Chan sits with his chin resting on his clasped knuckles, the sun glinting off his thick glasses as he glances from face to face in the crowd. He won fourteen years ago, only the second thirteen-year-old victor in the history of the games, and is still quite young looking now. His suit is immaculately pressed, most likely with the new ironing rod that he patented last year. Mister Yoona brought a prototype into our tech class last month for us to take apart and study; the schematic sketch is sitting in a drawer in the side of my bed. I brought it home to examine how the circuitry differed from the electric hairdryers that came into fashion a few years back as my essay project for this term. Something to look at when I get home perhaps.
After ten minutes the mumbling pauses and I re-focus to see Mayor Redden gesturing first to Beetee who gives a jerky nod, and then to Cupros, who continues to glare, giving no acknowledgement to the scattered applause from the crowd. Coughing lightly, the mayor turns to Carmenius, who pastes a wide grin on his face and bounds to the microphone.
"Now ladies and gents, I hope you're all having a happy Hunger Games?"
He pauses, as always for a response from the crowd, then pouts, as always, when there is only silence.
"I don't know about you but I'm excited to see our tributes from this wonderful district. I'm sure we'll have a winner this year!"
Despite the buoyant note in his voice I recognise these as the same words as every year. It's well known that he is getting desperate for a victor, having moved from Eleven to Three a few years back only to see Chaff Hazelwood win the very next games. This will be his tenth year as an escort in total and he is still chasing that first winner.
After a few more banal comments he gleefully rubs his hands together and approaches the giant glass balls. The entire square is suddenly silent enough to hear the jingle of the metal chains dangling from his boots as he steps forwards. Every breath is held as the perfectly manicured hand waves back and forth between one bowl and the other before eventually darting into the midst of the boys' and drawing a single slip of paper. The other girls nearby me relax with their momentary respite, while the boys tremble on the edge of barely controlled fear. Almost directly in front of me a wiry boy with glasses and tufted dark hair is clenching his fists so tightly that his whole body shakes. Carmenius seems to savour the extended moment of silent terror and peels the slip open with great care, smiling at the crowd as he reads the name to himself first. His eyes rove from left to right, as though he knows us well enough to pick the unfortunate out from the sea of ashen faces and one group at a time stiffens in fear then relaxes slightly when his gaze passes.
A gentle cough from the stage seems to remind him that the Capitol broadcasters won't be happy if we run overtime in our boring, Career-less district and he finally announces the name.
There is a soft moan from behind me, and I turn to see one of the eighteen-year-old girls biting down on her lip as the tears trickle down her face. The scuffled footsteps make me turn back to see a thin boy, shaking from head to toe, approach the stage. When he turns to face the crowd his eyes focus on a point just over my shoulder and I realize they look alike enough to be related.
I hope for both their sakes she isn't chosen next. Please, I think silently as Carmenius prances back to the reaping balls again, forcing the sneer of disgust at another useless tribute away in favour for his manic grin. Please don't choose Balia, please don't choose that poor girl, please, please, please don't choose me.
The capitolian's hand plunges again into the depths of the paper-filled orb and comes away with two slips. I repeat my silent mantra as the crowd holds its breath, watching him weigh each hidden name up before finally dropping one back. Again I wonder if he enjoys the cruel taunting, the knowledge that whichever pour soul is chosen could have been free by his dropping the other slip.
There is a muffled sob of relief behind me and I have a moment to be glad for the girl before I realize what I just heard. My name. Me.
But I don't want to die.