LOVE FROM A FAR
It was reaping day again. It was the second quarter quell, and twice as many tributes as usual were being sent to the hunger games. I remained perfectly still in my perch, overlooking the hob from the rafters. Doing the math I knew the odds were definitely not in my favor.
Entries in the reaping were cumulative you started with one automatic entry the year you were twelve, and received an additional entry each year. The minimum an eighteen year old had was seven. But, collecting tesserae increased your entries, one for each family member you provided for, those were also cumulative. If a family member died you stopped collecting the tesserae immediately, but it still counted towards the game.
I added my entries in my head, my name would go into the reaping ball ninety four times and I was only sixteen years. Well, forty nine were my own, the other forty five I volunteered for. They were Cedaris Everdeen's and Jaxon Hawthorne's entries.
The rules for volunteering were easy. You could wait till a name was drawn and then volunteer or you could go to the Justice building and anonymously take someone else's entries. I have done just that. My mother has a successful dress stall in the Hob, and she is being courted by the District's Tailor, a successful widower. My sister is just a year older than the tailors son. And even if everything else fails the Everdeen's and the Hawthorn's will make sure they are fed. Without them their families might not eat.
The odds are definitely not in my favor. I can over hear the gamesmaker's front men taking bets as the merchants arrive. I am even money to be reaped, I am not even worth betting on.
I am a seventh son. Families that large are rare in the seam. My older brothers had come as pairs. Having all survived into our teens is rarer still. The odds had not been in Veiner's favor the year I was eleven. His name was reaped, he had done better then most from District twelve, he had survived to the final five. Three career tributes had surrounded him, drove him into the open and killed him. He took two of them with him in a ghastly blood bath. I watched, all of district twelve, as well as, all of Panem had.
In the four months from the forty fifth hunger games to my twelfth birthday, my family barely scraped by without transverse. Veiner had been collecting tesserae for the family since Tink and Jinx turned nineteen . Since, Rainer his twin was already eighteen and the reaping was over, he could not collect tesserae. My mother was frugal. And our bellies were rarely ever hollow, but they were never full.
My father, Trace Hawthorn and Hemlock Everdeen hunted on Sundays, the fence was electrified the rest of the week. But, the mines were closed on Sunday, so only the town square shops and victor's village had power. They had created a gap at the bottom of the fence so they could escape to the woods. It provided some meat for the week, but most of their take was traded right here in the hob for other necessities.
We boys took turns tagging along. I took my first buck with the help of my best friend Cedaris Everdeen. We were only ten, it was both one of the best and one of the worst days of my life. We were still small and the buck was huge. Its rack had twenty four points. I gutted the beast and secured the entrails in my game bag so we could bury them in the meadow. We found a long branch and secured the animal, still we struggled under the weight. If we got caught after we buried the entrails, we could claim we found it injured, put it out of its misery and were bringing it to the peacekeepers. We didn't get caught. We sold the buck to the butcher for more money than either family had ever seen.
The horns blasted just after midnight. The entire populace filed into the square, attendance at public punishment was required. As I entered the square my breath caught in my chest, a scream in my throat. The buck hung from one post, the butcher from another. The butcher was caned forty times while being questioned, even though he lost all awareness somewhere around twenty five. They sentenced him to death. He never betrayed us, he took our names with him. The head peacekeeper had his second retrieve a large wooden block and a long thick sword. The second positioned the butcher.
The Head Peacekeeper stepped to the left of the block and spoke. "If you sentence a man to die you must be willing to complete the task. If you can not maybe the man should not die."
The Head Peacekeeper raised his sword, the cut was clean, the mans head rolled silently across the grass. I watched the blood spray and pool, in the moonlight it was not red, it was a deep grotesque purple. I pronounced my first death sentence that day. I vomited there in the square, and the angry young man I would become was born.
My quiet reflection is interrupted by tinkling laughter. It Greasy Sae and her daughter. There is much speculation that the child's father was my brother Veiner. Greasy won't say. I always make sure Greasy has meat for her stew. I make sure she gets more than fair value when we trade. I keep sweets in my pocket for the child. My mother keeps the child in dresses and ribbons.
The sun is starting to rise, soon my safe harbor will become an oven. I smell coffee wafting up from the bakers stall. He sends his youngest son to sell day old items to the miners on the way to the mine. I swing down just to the left of my mothers stall, toss the boy a coin and wait for my coffee and roll. When he hands me my cheese roll and coffee, I slip him a second coin and whisper make sure she eats. He barely nods and his smile never fully curves. But the first coin was enough to cover the bill for both meals.
The boy hides a cheese roll for me twice a week. If his mother knew she would lock him in the extra proofing box. Its a room the size of a sheet tray, it is dark, damp and over one hundred degrees. He works the hob now for his protection. She almost killed him, he burnt a tray of Christmas breads. He was in there for three days, the healer barely saved him. His dad moved him to the hob after that. The second coin is for him, he is in love.
I head out of the hob, my next stop will be Torn's still. I stop drinking my coffee when the cup is half full. Torn won't take her white liquor to the hob today. Spirits and the reaping mixed can get ugly. Torn is adjusting valves on the still, she looks up, I flip her a coin.
She flips it back "I don't sell liquor on reaping day. "
I looked straight at Torn "The odds are not in my favor, I won't be coming home tonight, maybe never."
Torn picked up a ceramic jug. It was her personal stash. It was said that jug had been in the family for centuries, it came from an ancestor named Jack. She filled my coffee cup. Torn ran her hand along my jaw. She had never touched me before. She leaned against my chest, stood on her tip-toes and kissed me. I was stunned, I hadn't moved, I hadn't kissed her back. She turned and ran, over her shoulder she yelled "stay alive."
It is ten the reaping is at two. I head home to bathe. I finish my coffee, feeling more in my own skin. I am going to use one of our two rain barrels it is selfish but I want to feel like me only clean when I leave. I will be leaving everything behind. I didn't want to owe anyone, some how her kiss seems to put me in Torn's debt.
I am not shy, I strip down and climb into the rain barrel. Its warm from the sun, my muscles relax. I go over my life checking the lose ends. It has been a rough year since the last games. The talk of rebellion is getting worse. The peacekeepers are torturing people and asking questions later, often too late. There are curfews, and peacekeepers on patrol all night. I lost one of my brothers to the tension.
Maysilee Donner has been taking sewing lessons from mother. She was working on her dress for the harvest dance. Before they realized the time passing, the sun had set. Anyone under eighteen was forbidden from being on the street without an adult after dark. I wanted to walk her myself, maybe I'd manage the courage to tell her how I felt. I wasn't eighteen , and I wasn't going to tag along like a lost pup.
Mom, had Rainer walk her. He was walking in the alley behind the shops, headed home, it was more protected from the winds. Some young peacekeeper had jumped him. Maysilee had seen the attack from her bedroom window. They accused him of trying to break into the grocery. He had been whipped in the square before Maysilee could reach him. He died from the infections. The real message from the peacekeeper was "Seam boys stay away from the merchant girls."
The mine collapse had taken my father, my remaining brothers and many friends just a week later. The east mine was closed. They were alternating teams. Everyone worked a little at the west mine. Many were hungry but few starved. It was during this time I found a safe reliable exit to the forest. I took over all the hunting dividing the haul between the three families. I take an extra portion for the extra risk. I spread the extra around the seam. Like the bread boy, he takes care of me, so I take care of him. Its business I owe no one. No one is my friend. I have already learned, freedom doesn't exist, everything costs and no one is safe. I rarely smile, I see everything. I forget nothing, ever, I am not forgiving.
Jaxon, Cedaris and I do not even speak in the District. We have all seen and lost too much. We meet deep in the woods and only on Sunday. The small building by the lake has been kept by the Everdeen men since the rebellion. It is said to be where rebels meet to plan. We think we are rebels. Cedaris charms the mockingjays, Jaxon sharpens our weapons and I clean our kills. We rage against the Capitol. We have no idea what true rebellion is or what it really costs.
I reflect on the fact that I will have to kill in the arena. I have already killed. The head peacekeeper who killed the butcher. A hot summer night I climbed the tree next to his house. Slipped onto the balcony, in the door, it was open to let a breeze through. I woke him with the tip of the knife to his throat. When I saw the recognition in his eyes I slit it clean. He never made a sound. The news footage showed only a pure black shadow. Some suspected it was me. The blood spilling from the wound haunts my nights, but I have no remorse over his death.
I pull myself from the water. Find my outfit hanging over the footboard of the bed. I slip on the navy trousers and light blue shirt. I have one last stop. I go straight to the cemetery. The family stone, I run my hand across its face, all the dead are simply listed on the stone. I read aloud from the list "Paul, John, David, Tink, Jinx, Veiner, and Rainer." they are the latest additions, only Veiner and Rainer are actually buried here, the mine ate the rest. I sit, just lost, for the rest of my time. Many things haunt me but nothing gives me joy. Seven men, all gone, all their lives over, will I join them before this is game is finished. The horn blasts its warning, thirty minutes. I head for the square.
I register and find myself in the boys corral. I stand with the other sixteen year old's. I don't look like most of them, most of them still look like scrawny boys. I scan the crowd, a few of us look like men. We stand out in the sea of children. I know each and every one of the others by name.
The stage has only three seats. One for the Mayor, one for Ezera the District twelve Escort, the last for Samme Hedgestone, the only district twelve tribute to ever become Victor. The Mayor stands to speak. It is the standard reading, I pay no attention.
Samme is a small woman, few highlights of her win ever play. I wonder how much help she could actually be. She is dressed simply. Her hair, as dark as a moon less night, is pulled back severely from her face. It is held by several long pins in a silver cage at the back of her head. Her face is too thin and her eyes too large. She looks much like the China dolls in the luxury shop window, the kind only the merchants daughters have. Her dress a soft floral print, I recognize it as one I saw my mother sewing last week. She was only thirteen when she had won the thirty third hunger games seventeen years ago. Until you looked into her eyes she still looked thirteen.
Ezera is fairly new to the job as escort. She replaced Jars after the forty five games. She is tall for a woman, but very thin for one from the Capitol. With her finery stripped away she would probably pass for an underfed waif from the seam. Her hair appears to be metallic in color and sheen. Strips of gold, silver and copper. But it is held off her face by two simple braids, the rest flows down her back. Her eyes are so pale blue they appear grey. Her makeup is simple, the only hint of capitol extravagance are the tattoo's that run from her temple, down the side of her face and neck to disappear over her shoulder down her back. From a distance they appear to be simple. irregular spots, but once in a close up I thought they looked like leopards skin. Her dress is a silk brocade of pale pink and sage green. Honestly, in the grotesque distortion that defines Capitol beauty, she seems to be the exception, the real thing, a true beauty.
As the Mayor drones on I start to look for her in the girls corral. I want to be watching her face when my name is pulled from the reaping ball. Will she even care? Will, she look at me differently if I am a tribute? Will she consider me good enough if I come home a Victor?
Now it is Ezera speaking, she is using that high pitched Capitol voice, looking at her I am sure it is unnatural. As she yells the standard ladies first I return to scanning the girls. I still haven't found her as Ezera pulls and reads the first name. Ruthie Tabernacle, I hear the scream first, when I find the screaming girl, she is way to the back. Her fist are balled in the skirts of a girl only slightly taller. Her head pulled up against the older girls chest. The crowd has opened forming a path to the stage. The girl is moving now. She is but twelve years. I go back to looking for her, the only one that matters to me.
I finally find her, she is there in the group of merchant girls. The blond heads and blue eyes seem to define the group. Just as our eyes meet I hear Ezera's voice again. Maysilee Donner. I have only felt this way once before, eerily it was in this same square. I see her register the shock, her mouth opens perfectly round, I do not hear the sound. The air has left my lungs and my own scream is stuck in my head. I vomit for only the second time in my life.