Morning has just broken, yet I've been awake for hours, tossing and turning and fighting off my nightmares about the day that has just begun – Reaping day. I lie in the same spot for what feels like forever, but eventually my mind is so alive with terrifying thoughts that I have to get up. As soon as I leave my bedroom I go about my morning routine as usual; I bathe in the small pond outside our house, shadowed by large trees that keep me hidden from people walking by. Then I make a breakfast that consists of porridge and bread for my mother and sister Edie, carefully checking all the bread I use to make sure I give them the freshest parts and leave the staler bits for myself. I do all this in the hopes that when my mother and sister come for breakfast, they'll see my calm exterior and this will, in turn, relax them. I check on Edie and, to my surprise, she's still sleeping. Today will be her second reaping, and I can tell she's just as scared as she was last year; she hasn't had more than four hours sleep tonight and has had several nightmares, which I think will probably become a recurring event until she's old enough to be excluded from the reapings. Edie's name is in the bowl only two times, the absolute minimum for someone aged thirteen, and I'm thankful for that. I would give my right arm before I let Edie sign up for tesserae, meaning that although our family would have more oil and grain for the year, her name would be entered more and more times, making it even more likely for her to be reaped. Instead, I signed up for tesserae when I was thirteen years old, and now, at the age of seventeen, my name will be in the bowl 48 times. I'm not too worried, though. By the time my mother was eighteen her name was in the bowl over sixty times, but she was never reaped, and so I figure that today the odds will be in my favour.
I slowly exit Edie's room and peer at the clock in the small living area of our house. It's only eleven o'clock, and the reaping doesn't start until two, so I figure I have at least two hours before we have to leave. My mother sits at the dining table with a large bucket of water, carefully hand washing the clothes Edie and I will wear to the reaping. I expect Edie to wake up any moment; to saunter tiredly to the dining table and start eating her porridge, but as the minutes pass not one sound comes from her room. I sit, looking out at District Four through the large window next to me, and watch the waves crashing onto the sand at the beach a few hundred metres away from home. Although my chances of being picked for the Games are more and more every year, I allow myself to relax a little. A false sense of security, I think to myself. That's what's happened to me. I've gone five years, each time an extremely eligible candidate for the games, and have been left untouched by the Capitol. I am not safe. I know that I will probably never be safe in the hands of the Capitol, but today most of the worries that cloud my mind are for Edie, not myself. Just as I am about to get lost in my thoughts, a figure emerges in the waves that I have been watching so closely. No big deal, I think quickly, dismissing the figure. Some people still work on reaping day, including my own father, so whoever it is is probably out to catch some fish before everyone is summoned to the town square. But a nagging concern still lingers in the back of my mind, and I find myself watching the water more intensely than ever. The figure is still there, but there is no boat to speak of. It suddenly occurs to me that they could be drowning.
I wait a few seconds, and it seems that no one is trying to help them. In a shorter time than it took me to decide to save the swimmer, I am out the door of our house and sprinting barefoot across the white sand. As I near the water, I hear the muffled screams of a person who is swallowing far too much salt water. I remove my thin blue shirt as I run and immediately dive into the shallow water, beginning a short, fast swim to whoever it is that needs my help. I feel her before I can see her, soft hair tangled in my fingers as I reach my hands out before me. I grab her waist, hoisting her up above the water, and hear her coughing and spluttering and taking in lots of deep breaths.
"Keep your head above water!" I shout quickly, and try to keep the girl as far above the surface as I possibly can whilst she mumbles some form of assent. I use my one free arm to direct us both back to the sand, and although the rescue has taken all my energy, the rush of adrenaline that replaces it allows me to carry her well past the shoreline. I finally collapse onto my knees, lowering the girl gently on the sand, when she turns her head away from me and her breakfast makes an unwelcome reappearance. A small crowd has gathered a few feet away from us, and a man quickly hands me a bottle of water for the girl. I see my mother standing tentatively on our porch, wet clothes still hanging from her clenched fists. I doubt she would be angry with me for leaving so suddenly without an explanation, especially because my stopping to say anything to her might have meant the difference between this girl's life and death.
"What's your name?" I ask her as I feed her sips of the water. She swallows thirstily for at least a minute before answering me.
"Adara… Lucett." She says hoarsely, coughing a little more. We sit for a few minutes, her propped up on her elbows and me feeding her water, until she finally feels able to sit up. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," I reply gently. "Were you caught in a rip?" This is the only explanation I can think of, seeing as District Four's industry is fishing, and there's not a single person I know who can't swim properly. A rip tide is dangerous to even the best swimmers; one minute you've got your feet on the ocean floor and you think you can handle the current, the next you're well out of your depths and each useless attempt to get back to shore only makes you more exhausted. I remember the very first time I got caught in a rip. I was only seven but already an advanced swimmer for my age, and my father took me out fishing in shallow water. We had only small nets and spears to aid us, but being from Four, it's all we needed. I saw what I thought was an abnormally large cod a few feet away from me, and even though I knew that I'd probably never be able to catch it, I had to at least try. I dived into the water, causing a pretty big splash, and swam to keep up with the fleeing cod. It was huge as I'd anticipated, but after several attempts to pin it with my spear I realised it was a futile attempt. I surfaced, looking around for my father, but he was much further away than I'd thought. I tried for a few moments to get back to him, but every time I looked up I realised that I was not getting any closer, in fact I was being pulled further out to sea by the current. I tired out quickly, and before long the only thing I found myself able to do was scream. My father was there, though, as fast as lightning, his hands clasped around my wrists, helping me back to shore. I'd swallowed a very small amount of salt water, so except for my being a little shaken there wasn't really any damage done. Actually, 'a little shaken' is a bit of an understatement. I found myself having nightmares nearly every night, reliving the incident in my head, sometimes with twisted variations. One night I'd be running through a tunnel, a pack of wild dogs snapping at my heels, the end of the tunnel moving no closer as I'd sprint toward it. The next night I'd be back in the sea, only this time it would be thousands of jellyfish threatening to sting me to death. Let's just say I didn't get much sleep for a while after that.
"I think so. What's your name?" Adara's curious voice forces me back into reality.
"Aedan Sparks." I tell her.
"Thank you for saving my life, Aedan Sparks." At that moment, a man I can only assume to be Adara's father breaks through the ever growing crowd.
"Adara!" He runs towards us, dropping to his knees opposite me and wrapping his arms around his daughter. "Thank you, boy." He says, directing his attention to me.
"You're welcome," I say to them both. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my mother standing in the exact same spot she was earlier, and realise that I should probably be getting back to her.
"I'm sorry Adara, Mr. Lucett, I have to be getting home," I stand, handing Adara the depleted water bottle. "Good luck for later." I grab my shirt from the sand and begin to make my way back home, smiling courteously as the Lucetts continue to thank me long after I've left the beach and walked back onto the porch of my house. My mother drops our clothes onto the small bench that leans against the wall and embraces me immediately.
"Well done Aedan, well done." She says. I let her hug me a few moments longer before walking back inside my house. I catch sight of myself in the mirror and immediately know that my mother would want me to bathe again, so I go out and wash myself in the pond for the second time today. By the time I come back inside it's getting on for half twelve and to my surprise my sister is still not awake. I put on the pale green shirt and light trousers that my mother washed for me and slowly make my way to Edie's room. My mother is already there. We stand over Edie for a moment, not wanting to ruin her peaceful sleep, but the reaping is imminent, and lateness isn't something that the Capitol will tolerate. In the end it's me who wakes her, while my mother goes to trade some grain for fresh fish that we'll enjoy tonight after the reaping.
"Is it time to go?" Edie asks me, her voice almost a whisper, as she rubs her eyes and sits up in her bed.
"Not yet. Here, eat your porridge." I prop Edie's pillows up behind her and place the bowl of porridge on her lap. Her face lights up as I pass her the fresh bread, and she eats it in seconds without taking a break between bites. I can't help but laugh as I watch her; anyone would think that she's never seen a scrap of food in her life, when really she probably eats more than me and my mother put together. "Slow down! You'll make yourself sick." I tell her, not wanting a repeat of last time, when both Edie and my mother were ill and I spent a whole day out in the pond trying to get the smell of vomit off Edie's bed sheets. "Eat up and then get dressed – there's some clothes out for you."
"Can I go for a swim before we leave?" I can't help but laugh, but then I quickly remember that Edie has no idea about my ordeal with Adara Lucett this morning, and I decide it's best not to worry her with the details. In the end I simply shake my head.
"Sorry." I say. "We have to get ready, then go to the town square and sign in." I see the disappointment in her face and decide to try and compensate. "We'll go swimming tomorrow – I'll get some bread and fish and we can make a whole day of it. Maybe dad can even take an hour or two off work and join us." Edie grins up at me and nods, and I feel relieved that now she has something to look forward to, which will hopefully take her mind off the reaping, even if for just a little bit. "Eat up." I say as I leave her room.
My mother returns from the market just as Edie creeps out of her room, holding an empty bowl at her side. We embrace, just as we have for the last five years before the reaping and she tells us how everything will be all right. I move before they do, not wanting them to get too emotional because then we'd all probably end up crying. I gut the fish she's brought back for us and prepare it for the evening's meal while she makes sure that Edie is ready to leave, and before I know it my friend Cai is knocking at our door, ready to set off for the town square. Cai is short and stocky – some people mistake his large figure for fat instead of muscle, but in reality he's one of the strongest men in Four, even at only seventeen. Everyone thinks he'd make a good career. He doesn't argue.
Cai looks around all the other kids making their way to the reaping as we walk, my mother and Edie trailing hand-in-hand a few hundred feet behind us. He flips a small coin out his pocket and thrusts it in my hand.
"I bet you that it'll be Lena Thorne this year." He smirks and nods toward Lena, a small fifteen year old girl who's struggling to carry her baby sister Drea as she walks. Cai has been my friend for years, but even now something about him suggests that he might not be all there mentally. Maybe it's his willingness to bet on which of our District's children will be slated for the Games when he, being only seventeen years old, is still not safe from the reapings. Or perhaps it's the unnerving fact that last year, when he told me that fourteen-year-old Tiff Bloom would be going into the arena, he was right.
"You know we're too young to bet, Cai." I look at him disapprovingly, though I quickly slip the coin into my pocket. Not because I'm taking up his bet, but because Cai is one of the wealthier people in District Four and I'm sure he won't miss it. "And even if we were old enough, I still wouldn't bet on anyone."
"Don't be such a wuss, Aedan!" Cai calls after me as I run ahead to greet Lena, and carefully offer to take Drea from her, as it's clear she can't carry the fussy two year old by herself. I continue to walk with Lena, leaving Cai to walk by himself for a while, and eventually Edie catches up to us and we talk about fishing, my rescuing Adara Lucett this morning (apparently word of the ordeal has spread through the whole district), and whatever other topics we can occupy ourselves with without bringing up the reaping. But the walk can only last so long, and before we know it we're in the town square, holding our arms out while the workers from the Capitol take our blood to make sure that everyone's present. I hug my mother and Edie for what feels like a lifetime, quickly embrace my father who has come straight from work, and after saying goodbye to Lena I join the other seventeen year old boys, who are all looking fairly calm – though I figure it's just so they don't seem weak if they get chosen – and concentrate on making sure my own cool exterior never falters. When everyone seems to have arrived, the guests, including Mayor Ash, file silently on to the stage behind our extravagant escort Peach Windson. Her face looks sour and bored as ever, and I wonder how she has the audacity to look bored when she's about to tell two children that they have to leave their families and friends and compete in the Hunger Games.
Peach is the type of woman that could intimidate you with a simple look. Although she's probably in her mid-twenties, her skin is a sickly blue and you can tell that it has been greatly, albeit unnecessarily, enhanced. I expect she would be pretty attractive if not for her Capitol makeover. She wears a knee-length green dress with a shiny gold pattern inlaid into the fabric along with some unusual gold accessory in her flowing white hair. The dress could actually be deemed acceptable, if not extravagant, formalwear here in District Four, however her blue skin, white hair and surgically altered features make her an unmistakable, therefore extremely hateable, product of the Capitol.
"Welcome!" She trills, feigning excitement. "How lovely to be back in District Four… again." She says in a tone that lets us all know it is clearly not lovely to be back in District Four, again. "It's time to select this year's tributes! But before we do, here's a short film brought to you by the Capitol!"
We stand and watch the same short film that most of us have seen too many times, reminding us of how The Hunger Games are a punishment for the people's rebellion in the Dark Days, and how being chosen as tribute is an honour, and the victor will be bathed in riches for the remainder of his, or her, lifetime.
"Wonderful!" Peach says as the film draws to a close. "Now, it's time to choose your male tribute!" She makes her way over to the left side of the stage, walking twice as slowly as she did before as to not trip up again.
"May the odds be ever in your favour." She purrs at no-one in particular. She reaches her hand in the bowl slowly, I'm guessing to create tension, and plucks a white, sealed slip of paper from the many that surround it. She makes her way back to the microphone, slow as ever, and pulls the black seal from the paper. We give her an antagonising second to smooth the paper out and take in the name that sits in black and white before her. She takes the suspense angle way too far – just as I start to think she may never read out the name, two small words escape her lips.
The whole District takes a breath; partly from relief, partly from sorrow. I simply stand, unmoving as the whole square turns to look at me. Perhaps there's more than one Aedan Sparks living in Four? Of course not. Perhaps Peach read the name wrong? Don't be stupid. Only the peacekeepers, ushering me up to the stage, snap me back to reality, and I feel a single tear rolling down my cheek. I force myself to hide my emotion, knowing that at this point there's no going back, and crying will only make me an easy target. I know that the reapings will be televised later on, and it angers me to know that even though I saved a girl's life this morning, no-one outside the District will know. Surely if word spread to the Capitol that I saved Adara Lucett from drowning the same day of my reaping, it would get me more sponsors? Perhaps I'll tell them myself.
Thousands of thoughts race through my mind; who will I face in the arena? What kinds of tricks will the Capitol play on us? Who will be coming with me? and before I know it I'm on the stage, thousands of people looking up at me, as Peach fishes another small slip of paper from the girls' bowl. I take one last look at the girls, wondering which one of them it could possibly be. I catch sight of Lena, teary eyes meeting my gaze, and hope that Cai will not be right two years in a row. Several other names find their way into my mind, but as Peach breaks the seal on the paper, I find myself hoping for a stranger. A girl so distanced from me that I'll find myself struggling to empathize for her. Peach reads the name, and for the first time I see a genuine emotion on her face: confusion. She ushers forward Mayor Ash and the two exchange confused words before Peach returns to the microphone. And, the girl, of course I know her. It's the closest I could possibly get.
It's my own little sister.