“I can’t believe you didn’t rescue Peeta.” “I know,” he replies. There’s a sense of incompleteness. And not because he hasn’t apologized. But because we were a team. We had a deal to keep Peeta safe. A drunken, unrealistic deal made in the dark of night, but a deal just the same. And in my heart of hearts, I know we both failed.
What if they’re not going to kill me? What if they have more plans for me? A new way to remake, train, and use me?
I won’t do it. If I can’t kill myself in this room, I will take the first opportunity outside of it to finish the job. They can fatten me up. They can give me a full body polish, dress me up, and make me beautiful again. They can design dream weapons that come to life in my hands, but they will never again brainwash me into the necessity of using them. I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself. I think that Peeta was onto something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin it any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war. But in the end, who does it benefit?No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.
The stage creaked as District 10’s escort strode up to the microphone. The entire area had gone silent, the occasional ruffle of clothing or a soft cough being the only reprieves. Tatiana Asquith cleared her throat in the microphone, her pursed, brightly colored lips standing out from her pale white skin. Where our skin was light bronze, hers was like pale milk. The red of her lipstick was reminiscent of the blood shed in past Games, and for a moment I wondered if she would be so cruel as to plan it like that.
She smiled down at us, her teeth straight and shiny. “Welcome, District 10! Happy Hunger Games!” Tatiana launched into the story of the Dark Days and the birth of the Hunger Games, one that everyone in the districts has heard so many times that we could recite it along with her. She took short breaks between sentences, making our history feel more disjointed and strange.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the 12-year-old girls clumped together. They held each others hands, small bodies pressed tightly against each other, and all I could think about was how that sense of community would end soon. The Hunger Games caused just enough damage to destroy any togetherness we might have while we’re still able to be reaped. If we worked together as a district, maybe there would be a way for us to do something about the Games, to fight back somehow.
But when Tatiana spoke the infamous words (“May the odds be ever in your favor!”) and I felt the crowd recoil from their neighbors, I knew that we would not be able to fight back for a very long time. We might not ever be able to fight back.
Tatiana’s puffy black sleeves seemed like they would interfere with her ability to snatch a name from the bowl, but with the elegant poise of someone who had been on TV for so many years of her life, she just smiled at the camera and reached in.
The girls around me scrunched away. We were all in our own little bubbles of fear, of what if’s and anxiety. Tatiana slowly unfolded the slip of paper. I closed my eyes. My heart pounded. I swallowed heavily, thinking of Maisie’s confidence, of Mother and Father’s quiet reassurance, of Bailey’s kind eyes. We were a family. We were survivors. We would be okay.
I opened my eyes, staring straight into a camera as Tatiana Asquith called my name as the female tribute from District 10.
I let out a strangled gasp, or maybe the person next to me did, and then I stopped breathing. Ice cold fear wrapped around my body and squeezed. The girls around me moved away even more, making a path for the Peacekeepers to retrieve me when they saw I wasn’t moving my myself. The men who took money from the Capitol grabbed my arms, pulling me, urging me, to walk. I couldn’t feel my legs, but when I looked down they were moving at an awkward pace, like that of a newborn calf. I swore they were trembling, but my vision was beginning to blur with tears, and I was just trying to keep the sob from escaping me.
The Peacekeeper’s hands were covered with black gloves, but that didn’t make their grip any less harsh. Bruises were probably already forming with the way they were dragging me across the main square. I probably wouldn’t be alive long enough for the bruises to heal. I felt bile climbing up my throat.
They brought me to the foot of the stage, then released me. I froze, but with a shove in the back, my feet began to climb the steps. My district was still silent. My palms were sweating and my heart was beating faster than I could ever remember as Tatiana shook my hand, beaming down at me. Up close her eyes were sleepy and framed by dramatic makeup. She said a few words to me (maybe a “Congratulations!” in her Capitol accent), dropping my hand a second later.
"Are there any volunteers?“ She waited for a second, scanning my district with joyous eyes. "No? Then we’ll move on to the boys.” It was a production to her, some elaborate staging before the real show. The people in the Capitol who would watch this would be enraptured with her breezy manner as she reached into the bowl to pick out the boy’s name.
The boy I would have to fight to the death.
I looked over the crowd, not processing that these people, my neighbors, the people I’ve traded with, the people I’ve survived with, were sending me to the Capitol to kill other kids. Their faces all blurred together, even Colton’s, who I’m sure was swimming somewhere in that ocean of people. I tasted my breakfast on my tongue again, this time in the form of a thick liquid that was begging me to open my mouth. I swallowed it back down, my heart hammering against my ribs.
For a fleeting moment, I regretted all the tesserae I’d taken for my family. I couldn’t remember how many times my name was in the bowl Tatiana stood behind. If I hadn’t done it, if I hadn’t taken so much, would I have even been called?
And then my moment of anger and selfishness was over, because I’d reminded myself of how I contributed to keeping my family alive, and because Colton’s name fell out of Tatiana’s blood-stained lips.
For one of the only times ever, fear overcame Colton’s normally placid features. The Peacekeepers forced him to the stage too, the usually short walk dragging into seconds, then minutes. My little brother’s big brown eyes were wide as he looked around. He didn’t seem to be processing anything besides the simple action of walking, and even with that he was struggling, stumbling over the uneven stones. My little brother, my baby brother, my best friend. The person who would have to die for me to go home, if I even wanted to go home without him. Our eyes met and all I saw were the promises we’d made that would never get fulfilled, the jokes we’d laughed at, the plans we’d concocted, and then I had to look away before I began wailing at the unfairness.
My gaze landed on Tatiana. Clothed in a black dress, she looked like the Grim Reaper. The black bonnet on her head was her hood, only it didn’t mask her face, it provided a stark contrast to her pale flesh. Her red nails were piercing the white slips of paper as if they were her a part of her death book. I could practically see the blood that dripped down her lips, smearing onto her exposed chest and coating her hands scarlet. Her scythe was the microphone propped up in front of her, helping her cull the children of the districts down into manageable numbers. My body shook with anger.
Colton shambled up the steps. I grabbed his hand, clammy palm meeting clammy palm, and looked at him, my eyes conveying my emotions far better than I could hope to.
"Any volunteers to be the male tribute from District 10? Any volunteers at all? No volunteers? Then these are your tributes, District-“
"I volunteer!” The boy who stepped out of the crowd had no shoes. His shirt was ripped, his pants covered in stains. I didn’t know his name but I had seen him before near the orphanage where he lived. He was dirty and poor and now he was my hero.
I hadn’t even turned to Colton before the Peacekeepers were there, dragging him back off the stage for the orphan boy to take his place. The Peacekeepers tightened their hold around Colton, who was now fighting to get away from them, finally broken out of his stupor. They pushed him deep into the crowd, the kids who composed it swallowing him without another thought, accepting him back into the district.
The orphan boy stood next to me. He smelled strongly of manure, and I saw Tatiana’s nose wrinkle briefly before her wide, TV-ready grin reappeared. I could only stare at him in awe. He had saved my brother’s life.
"What’s your name?“ Tatiana asked the orphan.
He looked up at her, then to the crowd, then back at her. His mouth was set in grim determination. "Wesley Cofield.” He had only a small grimace as he said his last name, which all orphans in District 10 had. Wesley looked down at his dirt-stained feet.
"Your tributes, District 10!“ Tatiana clapped. The look of pride in her eyes was real, and it made beads of sweat drip down my back. My toes curled in my shoes. The district softly clapped. They felt relief. Relief that it wasn’t one of them, that it wasn’t one of their kids. That it wasn’t someone who mattered to them. Just a poor farm girl and an orphan boy, I could almost hear them saying, now let’s go back to work.
I hated my district for turning their backs on us, but I could remember all the times I’d breathed a sigh of relief after another reaping went by and I was able to return home. I never spared a thought to the two kids who could and likely would, die that year, until the Games went live. And then I would feel pity, because, God, being murdered by other victims was a terrible way to go. I had thought this while I snuggled back into my threadbare blanket, while I sipped a spoonful of broth, while I became more and more compliant with the Capitol.