Usually, Careers are the bad guys. But as I squirm in my tight-fitted dress in the thirty-sixth District One Reaping, I can’t help thinking that I am the good guy here. Peacekeepers swarm the children on all sides, every single one of us trained to fight. Their empty glares bore into us, watching for any movement. This place is full of havoc — nobody loves anybody, everyone hoards everything, and ironically, Peacekeepers are the least peaceful people known to mankind. My left eye twitches slightly, but I don’t dare reach to itch it. Any movement may signify that I may want to join the other twenty-three tributes in the arena — which I really, desperately don’t.
In the pen holding all the boys, my older friend Lucas looks over at me. As an eighteen-year-old, he put his name in 132 times. Mine is only in twice — twelve-year-olds are the youngest able to compete. His girlfriend, Melissa, holds my hand tight as the representative from the Capitol draws a name from the ball in the centre of the stage.
I stare at my surroundings vigilantly, soaking in all I see. For all I know, this could be the last I see of my beloved home District. It’s hell, but I’ve heard it’s better than Twelve or even Eight. I hold on to my corset, shivering in the early evening cold.
“And our male tribute, who I’m sure will bring glory to us all, is...”
I hold my breath and see a huge wave of tension lapse over every single boy in the vicinity. They all look desperate, pleading, hoping — to be picked or not I can’t tell. I know Lucas doesn’t want his fate to end this way. He’ll marry Melissa one day, and have children, and open his own bakery. He’ll laugh with me about his children as they stumble around his kitchen floor. And I’ll keep living on my own. Just me, and my old cat, and silence, and the icy mountains. All I need.
“Lucas Chintero!” The Capitol representative’s voice splits my thoughts with the piercing sound of the name I never thought she would say. My best friend — older by six years, but still my best friend — trudges his way through the crowd and perches himself on the stage, next to the orange-haired capitol lady. Her wide goggly eyes, near black skin, and vibrant smile all clash viciously with Luc’s grim frown, tousled grey hair and pale, sunburnt skin.
Melissa scowls, holding my hand even tighter. They are like parents to me, and now one will face the almost certain threat of death. I whimper a little, getting a jab in the side from one of the Peacekeepers. The three red, bleeding spots in my side from the prongs of his staff sting, but not nearly as much as Melissa and I are stinging from the loss of our friend — our loved one. Lucas isn’t gone yet, though, I remind myself. Not yet.
I see, in the crowd of males, many hang their heads or sigh in annoyance — they want a chance to be Victors. Why couldn’t the capital just let them volunteer? All other years, all of them, anybody was allowed volunteer. But this year, all Careers were chosen by the draw. Good thing all of us were trained.
“Jerboa Flowers?” comes the Rep’s voice, again slicing my thoughts in two with her shrill manner of speech, this time saying my name.
Speechless, I stagger to the stage. My feet tangle themselves up as I walk, landing me face first in fresh green grass. My face, now stinging and speckled with mud, turns red as I turn to face my District. My eyes search the audience for Melissa, who is currently standing, gaping, at the stage. Silent tears flood her cheeks as she looks up at us. Her lover, her twelve-year-old friend, now strolling casually into the world’s most renowned fight to the death.
The Hunger Games.
My arms ache. My mind whirs. And every time it comes to a halt, it’s one thought — TRAIN.
The tributes around me hit the dummies and trainers with sheer force. The Careers (including myself) crowd in front of the archery dummies.
The girl from District Four is lethal with a bow. I’m second best, but that’s still nothing in comparison to Leef. Arrow after arrow is collected from her quiver and launched with scary accuracy into the hearts and brains of the dummies. I shiver, imagining my face as one of them — an arrow penetrating the head, Leef glaring around triumphantly, the others applauding her vigilantly. Lucas wraps an arm around my shoulder when he sees my evident discomfort.
“It’ll be alright. You’re a Career! You’ll have three whole districts looking out for you. And in the end...” he gestures at the others, smiling gladly. “Who knows? You might win.”
I look at Leef and the looming figures of Tricksie and Fremann, the extremely tall District Two tributes. The other tribute from Four, Joe, glares stoically at me. He glares stoically at everything, though. Tall, loud, grumpy... would it be too hard to get past the other Careers?
I nod weakly at Lucas, and he hands me an arrow. Without even aiming too much, I loose it. It glides solidly and lands itself, smack-bang in the centre of Leef’s arrow. The shaft splits and it embeds itself solidly in the heart of whatever unlucky tribute the dummy would replace.
I stand back and Leef gives me an approving tap on the shoulder. “Good one, Baby Swan!” She calls me this because of my heart-shaped face and pointed eyes. When I climb a tree, she says, it’s almost like I have wings.
I smile at her. She laughs and calls to the rest of the group that we’re going sparring. Fremann and Lucas follow us over.
“Good to see you here again,” says the guarding Peacekeeper. Her face suggests the opposite, but she must have paid attention to me, as she passes me my favourite weapons — twin short swords. I feel their familiar weight on my arms as I heft them out of their sheaths. I look over my shoulder to see Leef aiming a rubber-tipped training arrow at me.
“Think fast, Baby Swan!”
The world slows around me as the arrow arcs gracefully across the training room. Every tribute and Peacekeeper looks our way, watching the same thing I am; an arrow flying at a little girl with swords too big for her arms. I pay no attention to the gawking onlookers, swirling the twin short swords with practiced ease. The arrow rebounds off my blades like a rubber ball would a wall.
The room bursts into cheers, the most enthusiastic coming from the onlooking Careers. I’m beaming on the inside, but I put the swords back and glide over to the medicinal herbs station. I learn how to treat a wound —
“Clean the wound with any water or snow available. Then, staunch it with moss, again if available. If not, take a part off your shirt and proceed with the next step — bandaging.”
I follow the steps repeatedly on imaginary cuts, mouthing the words until it’s embedded in my brain. I get a sudden and unpleasant shock as a knife digs in to my arm, making a shrill gasp of pain escape me. The air on the open flesh isn’t unfamiliar. I press my lips tight and look up at the attacker.
I scowled. I’d never liked Joe. Now that he’d actually attacked me, I become sure the feeling is mutual. “Don’t worry, kid. It’s part of standard routine around here — cut yourself to prove what medicines you know. Look at my dagger.”
I look. Rivulets of my blood coat the razor-sharp edge, and the silver it’s made of glimmers in the harsh lighting. Anger cuts far deeper than the dagger as I glare at the dark crimson trickled running down the blade. How is this supposed to help me in any way with healing the cut —
I glance at Joe, finally getting what he means. He smiles back at me. “Yep. You got it, Flowers.” I nod at him. How did I not realise that the type of metal the cut was dealt with could help me heal it faster? Certain moss was better at treating certain metal. Silver and steel in particular leave traces of themselves in the blood, and different mosses are good at sensing unhealthy metals in the blood. Sometimes I hate the Capitol’s genetic malformations, but these medicinal plants are awesome.
I patch up the wound and look back up at Joe. “You and me, kid,” he says, gazing distantly at Leef and Tricksie sparring in the sword craft area, “we’re the brains of the Careers. Once they don’t need us, we can still survive. And if they decide to keep us till the end... well, chances are we won’t be chosen. That’s the one thing we have in common.” He slinks off, before I can ask him any questions. Not that I want to. I know what he means; a twelve year old, scrawny swan and a seventeen-year-old, bony engineer probably won’t even be in the last three, if it’s up to the other Careers.
Leef comes to collect me and take me back to my quarters, as she often does. She thinks I won’t last too. I can tell by the hint of sadness in her eyes as she says “good night, Baby Swan.” She will win, and take home wealth beyond belief, and end up tearing herself apart when she realises what she let happen to me and the thirteen-and-fourteen-year-olds from Six. Children. Just little kids. All hoping to make something of themselves, even if it is just living on their own in the mountains.
That night, I sit at the dining table with Luna, the Capitol lady from the Reaping, Lucas, and our tutor, Franklin. She smiles at me sadly throughout our entire dinner, as if she finally realises I know what’s going on. Franky taught me how to use short swords six years ago, when she came home from her hunger games. She chats merrily about things — I notice she carefully avoids the games at all costs. Tired of her blabber, and wanting to know the truth, I speak for the first time that dinner.
“Franky, why does nobody think I can win?” She stops short and a still silence fills the room. I glance briefly from Luna to Lucas. Luna is more interested in her chicken, and Lucas... just looks away from me. Franky glares at him, but he doesn’t notice. He’s already leaving. So is Luna.
Tears begin to flood my eyes as I come to my senses. I am named after a desert fruit, Jerboa. Now, I am drowning in the desert of my own emotional torment, a flurry of sand stirring my heart into one big golden pile of mush. It will melt, deform, and in the arena, stop. Franky looks at me, a strange mix of confusion, anger, and sadness plastered all over her features.
“Jerboa.” She reaches across the table and grabs my hand. I don’t even bother jerking it away. “You... you’re so young. And though I’ve been training you for six years, and you’re my best student... well. The other tributes somehow don’t think you’re good enough to stay in the game. But I’m about to tell you something I wouldn’t dream of telling Lucas.”
She looks around the still, empty dining room, as if my best friend could be anywhere. Finally satisfied, she turns back to me, drawing her face in close to mine. “When the Careers are done with you, run. I’ve seen you climb. Just go up a tree like you usually would. You move faster in the branches than they can run on the ground. Go, go go. And never ever stop.”
I nod, my face bleached with fear. So, my survival and victory rely on my climbing ability — which I have barely used since I came to the Capitol two weeks ago — and the off chance that there might be trees in the arena. Well. No pressure.
“And kid?” I look up at Franky, who’s risen to her feet. “Follow the other Careers. They’ll go to the Cornucopia and make sure all of you have the best weapons you need. Leef will have a bow, Luc will have a spear, Joe will settle for throwing knives, Tricksie loves her daggers, and Fremann will go straight for the mace. Don’t worry about a thing — they’ll make sure you get your double short swords. You’re better than all of them, you know?” She gestures to the bandage over the cut Joe gave me, and then at the swords hanging on the wall. “If you shoot like you did today, or even use your swords as masterfully as ever, or heal injuries half as well as you usually do, they’ll realise they’re nothing without you. Okay?”
I nod, and slink away from the table. It’s not like I can sleep, so I sit on the end of my bed and think. I’ll have to kill Tricksie, and Fremann, and Joe and Leef and —
“Lucas!” He’s standing in the doorway, and by how comfortable he looks leaning against the wooden doorframe, I assume he has been for ten minutes.
“What are you doing here? It’s... wow, it’s twelve o’clock.”
“You’re twelve,” he says, as if correcting me. I sniff, blatantly admitting he’s right. I’m a kid. I should sleep as much as possible. But is sleep really possible right now?
“Yeah. I guess. I just... the evaluations and interviews are tomorrow. I’m scared, Lucas. Really scared.”
He sits next to me on the bed and puts a hand on my head. “Okay. I’m gonna be honest with you. We’re not gonna let you win, Jerboa. We can’t. A twelve-year-old running with us through whatever arena would be disastrous. We can’t trust you to be quiet or calm or helpful to us in battle, and we would have a hard time feeding you. Just... I’m sorry. Okay?”
I pause. I look at him, and a million thoughts crowd my head at once. How does he not see that I know all this? How long are they planning on keeping me? How could they abandon me, just a kid, to die? Why are they more valuable than me?
“Boa, we elder ones have things to go back to. Melissa, my farm, my future bakery... and you’re an orphan with nobody and nothing to go back to except Finnick the cat, and —“
“Leave,” I say, my voice hushed and full of warning.
I vault into an upright position and haul Lucas to his feet. How? How does he think telling me he’ll kill me eventually will just be brushed off like crumbs on a table?
Lucas looks at me gently, surprisingly not even a hint of anger in his eyes. Just sadness, and a heap of it at that. Weird. Luc hates it when I yell at him, and will usually stay mad no matter what he’s being yelled at for.
He exits the room, leaving me to ball the crumpled duvet in my fists. I lay down, and as tears scramble their way out of my eyelids, not for the first time this games, I face reality. I will die. Luc will kill me. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.