The Hunger Games: Morphling

Chapter One: Awakening

Screaming. That seemed to be how it always started. We never could have handled it otherwise.

Some of us tried to hide it with a closed fist pressed against our mouths, forcing ourselves to hold it together, to force down the screams. The tears. The vomit. All three. But mostly we tried to be stoic. Stoicism was the only way to protect our families from the pain of seeing us suffer for the circumstances.

Really, in that vulnerable of a position, the best any of us could do was to protect our families from seeing the fear that clutched us on reaping day…more like clamped onto us like a giant, collective vise, because the months, weeks, days leading up to that day, it wore on us all, some more than others. Like the 12 year-olds and those who had signed on to put our names in more times for oil and grain-the tesserae-or those of us who knew our luck was running thin.

Like me.

The morning of the reaping fell on an exceptionally warm summer day. When I woke, I was covered in a sheen of sweat, my bed sheets clinging to me, pasted down by the sweat pooling around me in my bed. I sat up, my fist smashed into my lips to squelch the screams that begged to be released. A strangled scream still managed to slip through my mouth before my fist made full contact. I clutched my other hand over also, determined to hold the remainder of my terror in. I would not scream. I would not scream. I would not scream in order to protect my family. I had thought that the pools of sweat had been blood. I threw back my sheets. Just sweat.

My heart was still pounding, threatening to hammer itself out of my chest or put me into cardiac arrest. Once I was sure I was no longer going to scream, I put my other hand over my chest. Then I focused on breathing. Deep breaths in an attempt to calm myself. Breathe, breathe, breathe. After a few more minutes I was mostly sure I would be able to semi-hold myself together. I dropped my hands to my sides and decided there was no way I would be getting back to sleep. Instead, I stood up and pulled off my sopping night clothes. I left them wadded in a bundle which I shoved under my bed to worry with later, when there were-hopefully-less pressing matters with which to deal.

First, I wanted to see my mother. I opened my bedroom door and moved down the narrow hallway. I did not knock before entering her bedroom, knowing she would not answer. It was so dark inside. It always was. At least one room in nearly every house in District 6 had a similarly dark room. Trying not to dwell on the reason for the darkness, I sat on the edge of her bed. "Mother?"

Of course, she did not even stir.

I bent over her and brushed her long, matted hair out of her face, smoothing it back on her pillow. She was the only one I could really protect, and it was the most important thing in my life. Her protection. "I'm sorry," I mumbled, sitting back. "I wish I could be more like you." I took her hand. It remained limp in mine. "I wish I didn't cry." I sniffed harder. There I went again. "It's just so hard." I started playing with her hair again. "I know it's life. It could happen to any one of us."

I so wished she would wake up and talk to me. I wanted her to stroke my hair, to tell me that it would not be me. I would not be chosen.

"I just know it will be me."

Since she did not respond, I lifted her hand to my face and pressed my lips to it. Then I gently placed her hand back on her stomach, resting upward so that the morphling drip remained undisturbed. I smoothed down the white tape holding the needle and IV in place, then I stood and left the bedroom, shutting the door-and the light out-firmly. I only wished I could shut out the rest of reality as aptly as I could hers…as she could her own.

"What are you doing up already?"

I jumped a little and turned toward the voice. My brother was standing in the doorway, watching me. I placed my hand on my chest, attempting to calm my heart for the second time that morning. "Kill me off before the reaping, Lycus."

"Relax. Why so tense?"

I just looked at him. Then, "Why are you up, anyway?" I noticed he was wearing the clothes from the day before. Not unusual in our District, as we cannot have an extensive wardrobe and wear repeats for consecutive days at times, but on reaping day… "Did you come home last night?"

"What's it to you?" His voice was a little too hostile. Not what I needed. Not on that day. Not with the uncertainty of how much longer I would be around to be his sister, in my morbid thoughts.

He could tell he had hurt my feelings. He could always tell. And it was generally a safe bet to say that my feelings were easily hurt, so a harsh word or sarcasm tended to always have the same effect on me. "Sorry, Persephone," he said. "I was out late. It was easier to wait until the morning to come back."

I nodded, deciding he was right. Nighttime is never fun at our house anyway. Sleep can be hard to come by often.

"Hey," he said. "It's not going to be you."

I shook my head. "Sure."

"What makes you so certain that you'll be reaped? Out of all the girls in our District?"

I shook my head again. "If you haven't noticed, we aren't exactly the luckiest family in District 6."

He shrugged, clearly unconcerned. Or maybe he was simply pretending to be. "Hey, I never got reaped."

I turned away from him so he would not see the tears threatening to fall.

"Hey, come back."

"I've got to get ready."

"So do I. Hold on."

I turned. "What?" I demanded.

He watched my face closely. I could not stand that concerned look in his eyes…and I started crying.

"Don't cry."

"I'm not crying."

"Sure you aren't."

"Does it even matter?" I wiped my hand across my face. "I thought I would be past crying over this by now."

"That never happens," Lycus said.

"You don't do it."

He did not say anything, but from the way he turned away from me abruptly, toward our mother's room, I wondered. I did not want to think of him that way. He was my older brother. It made me feel better to think of him as being strong. There had to be one strong person in our family. "Go get ready," he said. "I'll get Mom up."

"She'll need me to help her get dressed-"

"Don't worry about it. Just get ready and get yourself to the Justice Center,' he said, pushing open Mother's bedroom door.

"Um…"

He turned, caught my eye, and smiled. "It'll be okay. I'll be there and you'll be coming home tonight."

I got in the shower and waited for the water to warm. I gave up after about thirty seconds. Our water cuts off in the showers after five minutes. If it was not warm by then, it never would be. I was not dirty, so I washed my hair and rinsed off. I switched off the water just before it manually cut itself off. It was a game I had been playing since I was a little girl. The pipes began groaning and gave one blast of hot water before shutting off. Before our sewage system was improved, a person might have gotten a shower of pesticides. Or, worst, hard water to ruin the shower. Then you were stuck stinking until 24 hours passed for the next water allotment.

I wrapped my hair in a towel and picked up a wide-toothed comb to rake through my hair hanging, dripping, down my hack, trying to not pull.

Lycus was wrong. I wondered if it would be worse for him, knowing his sister would die in a few weeks and he would be left alone with his morphling mother…he just did not love Mother like I did. He had been close to our father and had taken his death hard. Morphling overdose. Our whole family was almost executed. Things like morphling-related deaths in the districts do not go unnoticed in The Capitol. That was how I knew that it would not be a coincidence if I ended up in The Arena before I turned nineteen…I just got dressed and tried to put it out of my mind. My father was gone. There was nothing about it that any of my family could do…not at that point, not anymore.

Someone knocked on my bedroom door. I pulled it open to find Lycus waiting.

"Ready?" he asked,

Never. But I nodded, not making eye-contact. I pushed past him and headed down the hallway. "Is mother ready?"

He kept his eyes on the ground. "Yes."

She was sitting on the living-room sofa. Her hair was combed and she was dressed. She had tried to cover the purple circles under her eyes with makeup-she had a basket sitting on the back of the toilet of a couple of cosmetic items, some cover-up, powder, a lipstick-that she had since I could remember. The same items. She wore long sleeves to cover the marks on her arms.

"Mom?" I sat beside her on the sofa and took her hand gently in mine.

She focused on me. She smiled, her blank eyes a little more alive with recognition. At least she was alive to the world enough to focus on her own daughter. She needed to be as normal as possible in public, especially on the day of the reaping. Which was the only time of the year she had to be out, pretty much.

"Hi," she said, her voice barely a croak. I figured out long ago that her esophagus was raw from vomiting so much due to drug ingestion. I had grown accustomed to her voice though.

I smoothed her glossy hair behind her shoulder. "Do you need some water?"

She stared at me then, nodding, looking confused.

"Lycus."

"What?"

I looked over at him. He was standing at the opposite end of the room, staring out the window where he had flipped up the blinds.

I took my mother's hand. "Could you get her some water?"

"Fine," he said, seemingly grateful to have something to do.

"Mom, do you know what today is?" I asked her.

"No, sweetie."

I tried to smile. "You don't know why we're all dressed up?"

"Is it your birthday?"

"Of course not. You know when my birthday is, mother." More like my death day, but that was not something I needed to say.

She frowned, trying to remember.

"Mom, my birthday is in the winter, remember?"

"Yes, you're my January baby." She stroked her hand over my cheek. "My New Years' baby."

Actually, I was born on the fourth of January, but in our District I had come the closest that year, so that was what my mother always said. "Yes," I whispered, leaning my cheek into her caressing fingers, enjoying the feeling of being touched again. I even allowed my eyes to drift closed. One more time relishing the comforting touch of my mother that always meant safety-only safety in District 6 came only after the age of 18, the oldest possible reaping age.

"What day is it, then?"

She brought me back from my short, sweet escape. I had to acknowledge the reality that it was-

"It's reaping day," Lycus said. He set a glass of water on the table.

"Reaping day?"

"Yes," I said gently. I handed her the water.

"Oh, no."

She froze. I recognized that paralyzed look in her eyes. It was a lot like the one she wore most of her waking hours-drug-induced, that is. And like the ones you see every year, with every reaping. Every boy and girl Tribute. Except maybe for the Careers. But definitely, at least when they died…

"Mother, it's okay." I was then the one who was stroking her face. "Lycus is 19. He's not even in the pool."

"My boy?"

"Yeah, mom," he said from across the room. "I'm not going to be a Tribute."

"Good. Good," she said, visibly relaxing. She seemed to gain more of a grip on reality with that, but it also meant…"What about you?" Mother asked.

"I'm still in the pool."

"Oh."

She looked at me, then pulled me against her bony chest. I closed my eyes again and let her envelop me in her skeletal arms.

"It will be okay, mother."

"They can't have you."

"Mother…"

"Mom." Lycus came over. He pulled her off of me. "She hasn't even been reaped. Let's just go to the Justice Center and get this over with, okay?"

I grabbed Mother's hand. I still wanted her to hold me. I still felt safe with her,

"Okay," she said mechanically.

Mechanical. I guessed that was just how we had to do everything in life. It was always easier than thinking. Or feeling.

We walked outside hand-in-hand. Lycus held my hand, though-not Mother's. I linked my arm through Mother's and leaned my head against her, thinking about how she was the single-most important person in the world to me, ever since my father died and I realized how easily things could be taken away. And also because my mother needed me. I carried her drip. I cleaned up her vomit. I tucked her in at night.

Lycus had too for a time, but our shared duties had become my own when he had grown tired of being Mother's caretaker. I thrived on it. I had a soft-spot for pathetic or helpless individuals. There are a lot of those in District 6. We are the transportation district, but a large number of the population were morphling addicts.

What is interesting about that fact is that my father once explained to me that before Panem, when it had been called North America, it was a common thing to say that those who sold drugs for a living said that they were in transportation. Of course, I was not sure if he knew what he was saying, or if it was an accurate statement, but it stuck with me. Obviously I kept that little tidbit of knowledge to myself, like it was my secret joke. An inside joke between me and my father, holding us together after his death. All we had were our memories. Well, Lycus and myself. My mother could barely remember who she was, much less specific details about conversations with forgotten family members. She knew that something terrible had happened, but she could not even remember our father. She only remembered the pain, which was why she lied in bed with an illegal morphling drip to get her on with life.

I gripped her more firmly as the three of us boarded the tram which was to transport us to the Justice Center for the reaping. If what Mother needed to get through the pain was darkness and drugs, that was what she would receive. I knew she would never recover and I just wanted to keep her as close to me as possible, as long as we could be together, so that I could take care of her. And on days like that day-reaping day-when she was not completely dead to the world, I needed the comfort that her presence provided. I needed her loving touch and her gentle embraces, as skeletal as they were. I needed the love that I knew she radiated even in her unconscious states. I just needed her…

"What are you doing?" Lycus asked me.

I wiped my hand across my face. "What do you mean?"

"I promise you that you will not be chosen. Stop crying, okay?" Lycus was not nurturing like me. He hated physical contact, and he hated emotions even more.

"Sure," I mumbled. Instead of listening to him though, I laid my head on Mother's lap. I knew she had already forgotten-whether voluntarily or not-why we were on the tram and to where we were traveling.

She twisted her fingers through my hair and stroked my back all the way to the Justice Center, and it felt so good-and, although I did not want to admit, final-that I did not care who saw it, or what anybody traveling with us thought.