The morning of the my third reaping is still and gray.
I wrap my arms tightly around myself as I walk to the town square. Beside me is Will, and I can feel his shivering from the cold. Or maybe he’s shaking with fear. It is his first reaping, after all.
“It’ll be alright, Will.” I say.
“But….what about Elise?” He says, and I immediately tense up. Elise. She’s our older sister. Or she was, before she was killed in the games three years ago. I reach into the pocket of my dress and run my fingers over the small red cloth inside.
The piece of cloth came from Elise’s favorite dress. Now I take it wherever I go, trying to keep a piece of her with me.
“It’ll be alright.” I repeat, tucking a strand of red hair, the same color as my mother’s, behind my ear. I am tall for my age, but my wide eyes show my youth.
Will looks more like our father and Elise. His hair is dark brown, as are his eyes. He’s twelve, but small, though he likes to act tough. Sometimes I believe he is as old as he pretends to be, then I remember how his eyes are always tear-filled on the anniversary of Elise’s death.
We reach the town square, where we have to seperate into our respective age groups.
“Charlotte…” Will says, panic rising in his voice.
“It’s okay, Will.” I say, trying to fight my own nerves. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”
He clenches his jaw and nods. I watch him march off like a little soldier to the huddle of twelve year olds. Once he disappears, I turn and make my way into the crowd.
“Charlie!!” I turn and see my three best friends waiting for me a few feet away. Isabella, who’s been my friend since birth, is lovely as usual: her long, white blonde hair combined with her white lace dress makes her look positively angelic, but her usually bright blue eyes are dark with fear. Her twin brother, Jake, looks relaxed, but his hands are just barely shaking. And finally there’s Alex, taller than everyone else, cleaning his square-rimmed glasses. He puts them back on and smiles at me, running a hand through his brown hair like he always does when he’s nervous.
The Reaping day makes a mess out of everyone.
“Hey,” I say. “Everyone okay?”
They all nod, then Alex says, “How’s Will?”
“He’s…” I glance off in the direction of the area roped off for the twelve year olds, but I can’t see him. “He’s fine. He’ll be fine.”
Isabella and Jake nod, but Alex continues to look at me, concerned.
Suddenly, the mike onstage comes to life. We are forced to sit through a half hour of pomp and circumstance: speeches, videos, and ceremonies commemerating the “glorious occasion” of the games.
I remember standing in this very place, just a few feet away, when Elise was called up to the stage. I remember the way the air seemed to leave my lungs, how my scream started out silent, then grew into a shriek of anguish. I remember my father pushing through the crowd while trying to find me, Will clinging to the shirt, our mother sobbing.
I try so hard to forget. But I remember.
Soon, too soon, it’s time to select the tributes. I watch our escort dip their hand into the large glass bowl. I close my eyes.
Our family can’t go through this again. Lightning can’t strike twice. The odds are in our favor. I tell myself these things.
A slip of paper is selected, unfolded, and smoothed out.
Then a name is called out.
And it’s mine.
I’m falling to my knees, but everything feels slow, as if I’m moving through honey.
I feel my friend’s hands lifting me off the ground. Alex grabs my hand and leads me to the stage. There are tears in his eyes.
And then the screaming begins.
It’s Will, I can tell: he shrieks my name over and over, but it’s too late. Alex and I reach the stage, and he squeezes my hand.
I turn to him and whisper: “Please don’t let go of my hand.”
“I have to,” He says. “I’m sorry, Charlie. Be brave.”
I nod and blink away tears. Then I ascend the stage.
Everything else blurs together: I can see my parent’s faces, pale and tear stained, in the distance. I see Will, who’s pushed forward and is now at the very bottom of the stage. Another tribute, a girl from my school, is called. Then we are led into the Justice Building. The door shuts behind us with a thud, blocking out the light beyond it.