People say you feel a lot of things when death stares you in the face. Your life flashing before your eyes, perhaps…maybe faces of people you loved spinning around you, or places you cherish from your childhood. I didn't feel any of those things; thought nothing of my happier moments.
Instead, I stood there like a statue – without thought or movement.
A ringing started up in my ears as I heard Cicero's voice calling out: "Skye? Skye Holdrege?"
I feel a push on my shoulder, and girls around me have started to back away. Too late now: I need to get moving. I'm dismayed by this turn of events – frightened, scared – but they're all just thoughts. My brain is swimming in an ashen sea, crawling through muddy muck and unable to process anything but the gray storm clouds and stony Justice Hall before me. I numbly feel a drop of rain running down the inside of my nose, narrowly avoiding my eye and spilling down my lip.
"There you are," Cicero's seen me. "Stand tall. Have pride in your district – come up so we all can see you."
Pride?! He has no idea – no idea – what I'm going through. A surge of emotion hits me, and it takes all my will not to double over with nausea. Oh God. He called my name, didn't he? He called it. Wants me to come up – wants me to step up in front of everyone and hold my head up, ready to die. I can't. Can't do it – can't die now. What about the life I wanted to live? What about what I was telling Reed earlier, on the Hill – the life we can make out of all this misery? Why am I chosen for this?
I can't bear to look back at the two sixteen year-old sections. I know Reed will be looking at me, stern-faced and solemn, as if to say I told you this life is useless. Shrike will already be a mess.
A Peacekeeper puts a hand on me, jarring me into action. I plant one foot in front of the other, stepping right into a muddy puddle and ignoring the wetness that infects my sock.
The rain's picking up.
I trudge the fifty meters or so past a thousand pairs of staring eyes, careful not to look into any one of them. I'm barely hanging on to my sense of control right now as it is; I can't think about what would happen if someone called out to me, or I caught a friend bursting into tears. There'll be time for that later – when I'm not in front of the cameras.
Not like it'll matter. We all know my chances are not good; the odds aren't in my favor.
Thump. I place my right foot on the first granite step to the stage platform, my eyes staring down at the ground. Cicero's somewhere above me, beckoning me to come join him at the microphone, but I'm in no hurry to make myself known. This isn't what I wanted.
Thump. Thump. Two steps. Three. Our district's escort – my escort – grabs my hand, pulling me up to the stage and leading me to the microphone like a cow to slaughter. I'm beyond thinking at this point as he announces me to the Capitol audience.
"Let's have a round of applause, shall we?" Cicero asks District 9.
He's answered by a crack of lightning across the sky, illuminating ten million raindrops on their suicidal charge towards the ground. I can see myself in each of them – barreling towards a fate I don't quite understand but dread, unable to stop my fall as I plunge into the abyss.
"For our gentlemen," Cicero continues the show, pushing me behind him as he does so.
I look back with forlorn eyes at the two people who will be my mentors. Selene doesn't bother to look at me; she's busy chewing something viscous between her teeth. Omaha's her opposite: His eyes stare like beacons into my own, unwavering, unmoving. He sees something – whether it's good or bad, I don't know. That man's seen a lot of his tributes die; seen a lot of connections and relationships cut off at the end of a sword, arrow, or spear. I can't imagine he's thinking much differently about the chances of the meek fifteen year-old girl in front of him now.
I haven't even noticed Cicero digging around the boys' bowl, but he's got another slip up and ready. Before I can silently whisper a hope that Reed isn't picked, my new escort delivers the verdict: "Ames Sioux!"
A square shape slithers out of the seventeen year-old section, and I'm introduced to a tribute with much better chances of coming home than I.
Ames isn't a particularly tall kid – he's only about as tall as I am, and I'm 5'5" or so – but he's built like a rhinoceros. From shoulders to waist, my fellow tribute looks like a single slab of meat. His heavy-set jaw and thick, ink-black hair only complement his big-boned stature, and his arms aren't indicative of a slouch either. His lower body isn't as well-built, with legs that look like they won't be able to outrun a faster volunteer tribute from the likes of District 1 or 2. Nonetheless, I question whether or not a direct hit from a spear or sword is even going to touch him, with all that build up top.
He makes me nervous – and it's not just his shape. That look in his eyes; that gaze that tells of someone with little to live for and nothing to lose – it's the mark of a man indifferent to killing.
Ames tromps up the steps with little emotion weakly taking and dropping Cicero's hand before waddling up next to me. He doesn't even bother to make eye contact until our escort orders us to shake, giving me the faintest of glances before staring off into space. I'm starting to wonder whether there's even anything under all that muscle and sinew, and I'm not just talking about brains.
"Our tributes, District 9," Cicero stands before us like some sort of twisted ringmaster, raising his hands in premature celebration. "This year, perhaps, they'll bring him a winner."
Very poor wording, Cicero, I think. "Perhaps." That's convincing.
I don't get time to dwell as two burly Peacekeepers shove Ames and I through the Justice Hall's heavy oak doors. I steal one last glance out onto District 9 – catching the thousands of eyes still staring at the two of us, saying all too many silent goodbyes – before the doors close with a heavy thud.
Alone. Alone, alone – I'm alone as the Peacekeeper shuts me into an ornate room decorated with red, smooth furniture. Pictures of places I can't put a name on – lands from history, perhaps, or other districts I'll never see – stare back at me from mahogany walls.
A small pool of water's forming around my feet, dripping off of my hair and clothes. The room's cold – some sort of central air conditioning or something, like at the school and shops in town. I clutch my arms and sit down on a couch, huddling as tightly as I can to conserve body heat. It's nice and warm outside, but with the temperature differential, the windows have fogged over. I can't even see District 9 anymore; even when I wipe away the glaze from the window, all that confronts me is the pounding rain and occasional flash of lightning.
I hear a "Damn, it's freezing in here," from the other side of the door, followed by the Peacekeeper's announcement of a three minute allotment. Before I know it, my first two guests are here.
"How can you think about – " Shrike's in the process of yelling at Reed when she spots me. She's already beyond a mess: Her eyes are as red as a sunrise, and her long blonde hair's all out of sorts from the rain. Seeing me huddled up on the couch doesn't do anything to ease her frantic state.
"Oh God, Skye," Shrike panics and runs over to the couch, standing in front of me and hesitating on whether she should sit down or keep her distance. "I'm sorry…I…don't know what to say."
Why am I the one who has to compose herself? "It's okay," I stand up and pull Shrike into a hug, burying my face in her shoulder. She proceeds to unleash a torrent of tears down my hair, my second shower of the day – good thing it's not her in the Games. Actually, the Capitol might be weird enough to like this. Take notes, Skye.
"Well," Reed finally speaks up as he watches Shrike and I. "Look, Skye…you're a quick learner. Learn what you can; figure out how to use a weapon and kill somebody. That big guy over there – he's nothing to the Capitol, but you can be. You're likeable; just show 'em how."
"That's specific," I critique. "I'm just a kid from District 9, Reed. I'm not some girl who's been trained all her life for this like they are in District 4 or 2 or something."
"So show them you're still human," he shrugs. "Those meaty kids? They're not. You can be – you can be the thing they want to see. Then show them you're willing to take victory, too."
"How am I supposed to kill somebody?" I yell at him, growing hysterical. His cool-headedness can be a great asset, but not when I'm barely keeping my wits about me. "The most I've ever killed is a street rat or a bug. I can't go talk to another kid and then stab them! That's…that's…"
"That's called being a Victor," he finishes.
"Reed! Please!" Shrike cuts him off. "Skye, okay – he's right that you can make the Capitol love you; you've done it with us…"
That's because you're my friends, I think. Likability is not one of my stronger suits, and I have my doubts on whether or not the Capitol's going to give an iota about some anxious fifteen year-old from a wayward district. Still, better not tell Shrike that.
"I will," I lie to her, faking a smile. "Love you, Shrike."
She grabs my tightly as the Peacekeeper barges into the room, peeling her off of me. Shrike elicits a squeak of discomfort as Reed grabs my shoulder, his eyes boring into mine for a split second.
"Do what you have to," he tells me firmly. "Don't let anything else get in the way. I'll be waiting for you here."
Just like that, three minutes are up and they're gone.
The sound of frenetic arguing comes in through the door, but it's not either of my friends. It's someone from Ames's room, and it's so loud that I can just make out the words:
"Kill her. Kill all of them. They're not people anymore."
I slump back down onto my couch. Is that what we all are in the Games? No longer people, no longer children – but just numbers to be run over and gored? It's the same thing Reed was getting at: Don't let anything else get in the way.
By "anything," I'm assuming he's referring to my conscience. Unfortunately, I don't know if I can do that. I've never had to do that – never had to make these kinds of black-and-white decisions; who lives, who dies.
It's all so simple when it's just numbers. It's not so simple when it's faces and families.
The door opens again – blasts open – as my brother barges in, slamming the door behind him. He's a sopping heap of dirty clothes and matted hair, soaked while waiting for his turn to give me a last goodbye. I'm thankful he's here; I don't know how long I can hold my feelings in anymore.
"Sage," I choke up as my eyes start to flood. "I…dunno what I'm doing…"
"Hey, sis," he grabs my arm, pulling me up and into a hug. I can't hang on and proceed to cry all over his wet shirt, silently cursing myself for losing my composure like this. It's excusable in the eyes of the world – it is the Hunger Games, after all, and I have a darn good chance of ending up dead soon – but it's not okay in my eyes. Not for me. Not when I have to be strong to survive.
"I'm not gonna let you go until they force me out," Sage re-assures me before continuing, patting me on the back for good measure. "Things are grim but you can come back. I expect you to come back."
"How?" I whine into his chest. "I can't do any of the – "
"Shh," he silences me. "Make a few friends while you're there. It'll make the crowds like you more, and you'll have a better chance at making the later rounds inside the arena. When you have a chance to do something to help yourself – do it. Things are gonna hurt; you're gonna feel bad. Everyone does in this kind of thing. Everyone wants to go home…but I want that to be you."
I throw aside all pretenses of being strong and open up to my brother in what may be the last time I see him: "I'm scared, Sage. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I don't know how to win; how to kill someone, how to deal with all the…the guilt, if I do win…"
"One step at a time, Skye," he pulls me closer. "First, you're gonna get on that train. Next, you'll listen to what your mentors have to say and teach you. Little by little, that'll grow until the last step – you getting off that train back here in District 9. You'll be alright, sis. You'll come home."
Before we have a chance to do anything more, the Peacekeeper's back. I clutch Sage as hard as I can, but it's no use: The white-armored, silent man yanks my brother from my arms and forces him back towards the door. My heart races: I don't want to lose him.
"Sage!" I yell futilely. "Wait! Don't go!"
"I'll be waiting when you come back, Skye!" he calls, slowly backing into the doorway at the Peacekeeper's shoves. "I love you! Come back!"
That's it. That's all I get, with the slamming of the door leaving me alone again.
Alone. Alone, alone alone…
Nobody else comes to see me – not any other children my age, not any adults I know – not even my father, who I figure isn't able to summon the courage to tell a daughter he never sees goodbye. I'm not too distressed by that; we wouldn't have anything to talk about, anyway.
The loneliness kills me over the next hour, however. Here, alone, in my room…surrounded by the trappings of wealth and fancy garnishes, I feel poorer than I've ever been.
Without a sound, I curl up on the wet, dirty floor, wrap my arms around my knees, and cry.