Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games. But I did create the protagonist for this story as he is my own original creation. :)
Thump, Thump, Thump. With each swing more sweat drips down my face. Finally, after a few more cuts to the log of wood, I stop and catch my breath. I hear footsteps and to my surprise, I see Mrs. Willows hobbling my way.
Sometimes cutting her wood gets tedious, but then I remember the woman who was unstable just a few years ago. It seemed that Mr. Willows did everything for her. He cut the wood, raised the animals, even put food on the table. Mr. Willows lived a long life, well until the age of seventy-three, which I consider long in our district.
I can't help but smile as the wrinkled figure gets closer. Even though cutting wood is tiresome, I still enjoy it. I love how the scent of lumber creeps up into my nostrils. The way my muscles flex as my palm grips the handle. I even love the thumping noise that most people find irritating. I lay down the sleek axe and wrap my filthy hands around the tetchy bundle of wood. As I approach her, I hold out the freshly cut logs.
"Is this enough Mrs. Willows?"
"Yes dear that's more than enough for an old woman."
I nod, then walk over and place the bale of wood on her rugged porch. Stepping back, and observing the heap of logs, pride washes over me. I know if my father saw this, he would be proud. My father is a lumberjack or what I call a woodcutter. He works in the pines for up to eight to ten hours a day. He would come home dripping with sweat, and his hands bleeding from open sores.
When I was young, I used to cringe at the sight of the flesh peeling from his hands. I didn't understand how his skin could look so ragged. That was before I experienced the harsh labor myself. I tread back over to where Mrs. Willows is standing, her wooden cane wobbling as it holds her fragile frame steady. Speaking of my father, I almost forgot.
"Mrs. Willows, my father said it's going to get pretty chilly tonight, so you might want to double the amount of firewood." She looks at me with gratitude then hands me a stained wool cloth, an incentive, for me to wipe my sweaty forehead.
"Oakley, will you tell your father I said thank you for the warning," says Mrs. Willows.
"Yes ma'am," I answer.
"Thanks dear," says Mrs. Willows, "O' and Oakley."
"Yes, Mrs. Willows."
"Thank you for cutting my wood today."
"You're welcome Mrs. Willows. Just let me know if there's anything else I can help you with." I pick up the ax, readying myself for the next task.
"I will, but as for today, you've done enough," says Mrs. Willows as she motions me to hand over the ax.
I started helping Mrs. Willows when Mr. Willows died. I was on my way home when I passed by her house. I'd passed her house every day, never once stopping. This day something seemed different. That something was a bony woman, with matted grey hair and tear stained eyes, holding an ax and chopping violently at a rotted old stump. With each swing more tears flooded down her cheeks. I found it baffling that an elderly woman was outside trying to cut wood. Watching the old lady struggle nearly broke my heart and so from then on, I dedicated myself to her service.
When I'd finished a given task, Mrs. Willows would often offer a gift as payment. I thought the gesture was kind but I wouldn't accept. As time progressed forward, she continued to offer and I continued to decline. Well this dance went on until one day, when Mrs. Willows offered me a dozen eggs. I refused her gift immediately. I couldn't take eggs from an old woman. On that day, Mrs. Willows decided that she'd had enough of my polite declines and simply screamed, "Boy take these eggs!" So from that day on, I accepted her gifts no questions asked.
Speaking of gifts, I wonder what gift she will give me today. Will it be a vegetable from her deprived garden or maybe an egg or two from the rundown, wooden chicken pen out back? I try to think of more gifts she could possibly give, but the sparkling reflection of the ax catches my attention. Man does that thing glisten in the sunlight. It is so beautiful. Yet, never have I seen another ax in such polished condition. I have always wondered where she found such a striking creation. Starring at the shiny ax, I candidly blast out, "That's a nice ax you have Mrs. Willows, was it your husband's?"
What did I just say! Never have I mentioned her husband! What was I thinking? How could I be so blunt? What if she breaks down again?
Anxiously waiting for an answer, I curiously watch as she looks down, studying the ax, rubbing her bony fingers up and down the leather handle. What's she thinking? Is she going to cry? Are the memories she had with her husband trapped inside that blade of perfection?
"Why yes it was," she chuckles, "It seems like just yesterday he was walking in from the pines, his face covered with sweat and grim. In his hands he carried his raggedy water canteen and that ax. O' how he loved that thing." A modest smile spreads across her creased rose-colored lips. It's obvious that she loved the man. I hope to one day find a love like that, though I strongly doubt I will. The only thing people seem to find here is fear.
"It's in beautiful condition Mrs. Willows," I say, my eyes drifting along the sharp, yet beautiful, blade.
Looking at the polished ax, the image of my ax at home appears. I hate that wretched thing. The blade is blunt, and it takes me nearly an hour to cut one piece of wood. My father often jokes that using a blunt ax will help me develop muscles. He acts as if I don't have any. If he can't tell, I'm not scrawny anymore. Those days are over. If being blunt wasn't enough to make me hate it, just add the fact that it gives my palms fiery red blisters. The last time I used the thing, I had to soak my hands in salt water because my mom feared I would get an infection. The burning was excruciating, but that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was the hideous scabs and scars that came from the sores. All the girls here find it gross that my hands are covered with calluses, but I find that it gives them character.
"It was a gift from his father the day of his first reaping," says Mrs. Willows, faintly.
As embarrassment flushes my cheeks I look down to the ground. How could I be so ignorant as to stir up those memories about her husband? Memories only bring you pain during times like these. I jump when I feel lean fingers coil around my shoulder.
"Here, I believe my husband would've liked for you to have this," says Mrs. Willows.
I stand there speechless as she slips the ax into my filthy palm. What do I say? I do not deserve this. This ax was her husband's prized possession.
"Thank you," I say, my words surprising me. I guess I'm not so speechless after all.
Just then, the sharp sound snaps through the air. I flinch as I remember last year's Games. The image of our two tributes dying along with eight others in the bloodbath. To many in the district they were just empty faces or nameless tributes but to me, they were Jag and Lydia.
Jag was in my grade of school, and he was quiet, really quiet. He was also really thin and frail, but that was only because his family had so many mouths to feed. A family of eight in District 7 doesn't live too comfortably during this day and time. Lydia was our neighbor, Mr. Lums', eldest daughter. I still remember walking by their house while on my way to the Main Hall. The only thing I saw was the windows boarded and the door sealed shut. I knew what they were doing. Because it happens every year. The families, whose child is chosen at the reaping, board up their homes and wait for what is yet to come.
Anger stirs up inside me as I picture the boy from 2 thrusting a sword through Lydia's chest. I start to feel warm tears trickle down my cheeks, which a quickly wipe away. As my eyes water, more rage surges in my chest. I hate the Capitol!
The thing with me, is I only cry when I get mad. It seems that after watching the games for five years my emotions are dried up, especially when it comes to grief.
I look up to see Mrs. Willow's glossy eyes staring at me. Did she see me cry? Will she think I'm weak? Great, just great. I bet she thinks that I'm just like the many others in our district who ball their eyes out on reaping day.
"Son are you alright?"
"Yes ma'am, I'm fine." I'm not fine, but I don't feel like explaining my hatred of the Capitol, because after all it is illegal. It's illegal here in Panem to talk slander about the merciful and all-powerful Capitol. The Capitol takes rebelling of any form so serious that you can be killed on the spot for it.
I watch as a smile spreads across her pale lips. Why is she smiling? What could possibly make her happy on a day such as this one?
"You know what my husband would say when he could see I was angry?"
How is one of her husband's sayings going to help me? Trust me; my hatred for the Capitol is beyond kindling.
"He would say, "Hate may win some battles, but love will always win the war.""
Love? How does love make anything better? How does loving the Capitol make my life any better? The only thing the Capitol does is destroy and corrupt the things I love the most.
"I see you need time to think, but before I leave, let me give you some advice of my own."
I nod, letting her know I'm ready to hear her advice.
"Hatred will only cause more destruction."
There's a long eerie pause before Mrs. Willows speaks again.
"Oakley, I'll see you tomorrow," she turns to walk away but stops, "O' and Good luck today, and may the odds be so ever in your favor," says Mrs. Willows in a mocking Capitol voice.
I snicker at her awful impression, which turns my souring frown into a crooked smile. Mrs. Willows has a habit of making me laugh. She rather took on that job when I started helping her. Besides, I cannot help but laugh at that awful impression. Speaking of impressions, there's a girl in my grade of school, Amber, who does an amazing impression of our escort, Aster Adams. In fact, it's so good that some people call her Aster instead of Amber, which makes it even more hilarious.
I'm only a few feet away when the shrieking sound howls through the humid air. It's the train. The sound of an engine roaring and the polished wheels squealing. The screaming of the brakes sends a shiver down my spine, O' how I hate that sound. The high-pitched squeal of the whistle reminding us that today is the day where two lives change forever. The day we know as the reaping.
The Reaping is the day that the all-powerful Capitol selects two tributes, a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each District, to participate in a pageant known as the glorious Hunger Games. But this in no ordinary pageant. In this pageant the Capitol sends the unlucky twenty four tributes into an arena where they will fight to the death until only one remains. The person who remains will be known as the Victor. Each Victor is crowned by President Snow, and with their victory comes a bountiful of gifts for their district. It makes me sick at how the Capitol treats the Games like a festivity. All of this just to remind us of the Dark Days.
The Dark Days was the time in which the thirteen districts rebelled against the Capitol. Many died in the fight for freedom but in the end the fight was not strong enough because the Capitol was victorious. The Capitol defeated every district one by one, until it reached District 13. District 13 declined the offer to surrender so the Capitol destroyed them. My grandfather told me, before he died, that he remembered feeling the earth shake as the bombs went off. Since that day, the Capitol holds a video at the reaping, which reminds us of District 13 or in other words, what happens if we defy the Capitol.
What time is it? I look up frantically at the sun using it as my own personal watch. I'm going to be late! And my mother is going to kill me! She specifically told me not to be late, and that we would be gathering in the Main Hall at two o' clock.
I take off in full sprint making a left, then a right, then another left, thrashing my way through the thick brush, along with the occasional weaving through skinny pines. I slow down as I pass by the wood yard. The mountains of neatly stacked wood soaring into the blue August sky. The smell of lumber wafting through the air. I love that smell. The sweet smell of hickory. It is one of my favorite things about District 7. I make another sharp left making sure to avoid Mrs. Maple's yard. You always and I do mean always avoid Mrs. Maple's yard! Why? Because that woman is crazier than a loose bundled of twigs.
One time my friend Axel got a lash in the gallows because Mrs. Maple screamed bloody murder after a pine-cone "fell" into her yard. You see, Axel was her neighbor at the time and it all started when Axel and his younger brother were outside cleaning the yard of pine straw and pine-cones The gesture is something we do for our parents here in District 7 because it shows we love and respect them.
Anyway, Mrs. Maple accused Axel of trashing her yard. She also claimed that when she confronted him, he tried to hit her. Instantly I knew this was a lie, because if you knew Axel then you would know that he would never hit a woman, not only because he fears his father would kill him, but because he is too kind of a person. The kid wouldn't even harm a fly much less a pruned up old woman.
My eyes follow the old rooted trail until I see it, a wooden cabin. It is quite small but still it is roomy enough for my parents and me. Our cabin is identical to every other in District 7. It has the same wooden frame, old rotting porch, a wooden door, along with six raggedy windows.
As I jog down the pathway, carefully avoiding stubs, I see my mother standing outside on the porch, her eyes staring blankly into the sunset. Her ashy brown hair pinned in a small tight bun. The sight of my mother numbs my nerves.
I never knew why my mother, after that day, had to be so emotionless. It was as if her heart was now full of rugged stone and her eyes drained from tears. The loving mother that once wrapped me into her arms was now as affectionate as the Peacekeepers that stood watch in the Main Hall. I remember pleading and screaming at her to say something, anything. Well not anything, I only yearned for her say the words I love you. Those three words are what I miss hearing the most. Instead of saying anything, she just sat there with a cold look upon her face. She looked so dead inside, and I knew from that day on that my mother would never be the same. It was after that day that I learned how fast death changes someone. Death, now there's a word I'm all too familiar with. I remember when I met Death for the first time.
I walk in from school and hear my mom screaming, "My Baby!", "My Baby!" Wondering what she's talking about, I ease over to the bassinet and glance in it. What I saw puzzled me. It was my little brother Barkley lying there perfectly still, his face as pale as powder. He wasn't breathing, moving, anything. Confused, because I was young, I looked at my mom, tears rolling down her cheeks. Barkley was sick often because he was born early, but he always pulled through. Well, he didn't pull through that day, and because he didn't, it left me in utter shock. As disturbing as his lifeless body was, the only thing that still haunts me is my mother's face, the tears streaming from her bloodshot eyes. The look of pain in those eyes.
I hated watching her cry, mainly because it made me feel so helpless. I wanted everything to be back to normal, but something told me, my life would never be normal again. I tried to forget, but I wasn't like my dad; I couldn't just push it off and act as if it was all some nightmare that would soon fade away. The day that burns the brightest in my memory, is the day when I came home and my mom wasn't crying anymore. I was speechless because the house had never been this quiet. It was from that day on that she didn't weep one tear nor crack one smile. She was numb and I hated what death had done to her. I hated that when I lost Barkley, I lost my mother too. I cried myself to sleep countless times after thinking about my mother and the memories we once had. How she would sing while she washed the dishes. Her voice was full of such joy that it never failed to bring a smile upon my face. I'm not naïve; I know what death does to people. I saw what happened to the families that lost a child to the Games. How they crumbled after the death of a child. I know the pain of searing lost. But what I didn't know, was that pain, could conquer love. My mother being a prime example of that theory.
I rush up the steps, each one moaning with a creek. I ignore the annoying noise because I cannot wait to see my mother's face once I show her the ax. Mrs. Willow's act of kindness will force a smile on her face, I just know it. I strut over to my mother, giving her a slight peck on the cheek. After the kiss, my voice bursts of excitement, "Mother, look what Mrs. Willows gave me!" I show her the shiny steel axe, waving it repeatedly, like a child, in front of her grey eyes. She glances up at me, her nose crinkling before she speaks. "Son! I told you not to be late!" She motions me to give her the ax, and I do, which causes me to groan. Why must she act this way? Will she ever be happy?
"Oakley! Where were you? You're ten minutes late! And why do you smell so wretched!"
"Well mother, I was helping Mrs. Willows and I guess I just lost track of time."
"Why do you do this to me?" Says my mother as she lets out a sigh of disappointment before continuing her lecture, "Why must you make this day harder for me? All I ask is that you're on time, but no you can't even do that!" she glares at me, and I quickly look down, starring at the gaps in between the wooden floor. After an elongated pause, I finally muster up the courage to walk around my disappointed mother. The door creeks just like the steps, but I ignore it, and rush inside. I make my way to the back of the house. I walk into the bathroom, a small room with wooden floors along with a small rusted sink, dusty mirror, and an old metal bin, which sits in the middle in of the room. Stripping off my sweaty clothes, I run and pounce into the icy bath water. As my body immerses into the water, the hair on the back of my neck stands in full salute. Before my skin goes numb from the coldness, I grab an old pink brush with stained yellow bristles' and begin scrubbing.
I get out the metal bin and grab an old ragged cloth. Once I am dry, I walk down the hallway and into my room. The first thing I see is that my mother has already laid out on my bed, some of my father's old clothes, a solid white button up, dark dress pants, and a pair of holey white socks that look like they've had better days. I look down to see a pair of black dress shoes.
I slide on the enormous shirt, and colossal pants. I also grab a belt from the closet and strap it around my waist. I slip on the raggedy socks and slide into my scuffed shoes. As I stand, I stop, because the door squeaks. I wonder if my father is home early. No, my father never gets home early. Must just be my mother coming inside.
I walk out of my room and back into the bathroom. I stand in front of the dusty mirror and dig out a clump of grease that sits inside an old glass jar. I rub the grease through my unruly russet hair, slicking it back. I'm startled when I see my reflection in the mirror. Now seventeen, it seems I have lost all my boyish features. Looking down at my body, I realize this shirt makes me look larger than I actually am. I glance down at my arm and see my roughly defined bicep. Looks like that blunt ax did build me some muscle. I cannot help but laugh as I remember my dad calling me scrawny Tim. For a long time I was small and frail. Therefore, I was given the nickname scrawny Tim, which I hated. It was only until last year that I lost the flattering nickname. I can thank Mrs. Willows fattening gifts for that, along with all the hacking I did with that lovely blunt ax.
Studying my face, I see the dark circles hovering under my hazel eyes. Those circles are a reminder that I've wasted too many sleepless night worrying about things that I know could never be changed. So from this year on, I have vowed to be worry free. My new found proclamation causes a smile to spread across my lips. My teeth. Well they could look worse. At least they aren't as yellow as my friend Levon's, because his teeth could make a stick of butter look pale.
After walking out of the bathroom, I walk across the hall, and into the living room. As I enter the room the smell of pine straw and roasting deer hit me. My mother must have bought another pinst. Pinst is a small ball on tightly woven pin straw that our district uses as an air freshener. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my mother sitting in an old wooden chair, her eyes watching me. She still looks fearless. Why must she always look so strong? Emotion is not a bad thing, is it? As I walk to where she is sitting, I soon feel her arms wrapped tightly around me. The warmth of her body, trying to trick me into thinking I'm safe, and that not even the Capitol can pry me from her grip, but I know that these feelings are amiss, because neither her or my father can save me from the Reaping. Every child must go, unless you're bed bound or under the age of twelve, and if you don't show, you won't live to see your next Reaping.
When I hear the screeching horn it makes my heart sink into my belly. It's the sound that lets us know it is time to gather in the Main Hall. As I pull away from my mother grasp, I let out a smile and with the smile the words, "Don't worry, the odds are in my favor today." What an awful attempt for me to drown out the tide of anxiety that is building up in my chest. Why am I so scared? This isn't my first reaping. I need to man up. As we walk to the door, I slip her another peck on the cheek then I step outside to begin my journey. A journey that I make every year, and if the odds are in my favor, a journey that I will make next year.
A/N: A special thanks is due to many for helping me with this chapter. First, my cousin who has helped me from the beginning (she is an amazing editor.) Next, I would like to thank IceVeinsVillian, who was my faithful Beta Reader (please go check him out because he is an amazing writer.) Finally, I would like to thank luvakatsuki3 (another amazing writer that you should go check out) because she gave me suggestions from a reader's point a view, which was very helpful.
Read, review, but most importantly enjoy! :)