How had this happened to me? I was only twelve. It wasn’t like I had had an abundance of entries in the Reaping; only five. And it was my first Reaping! But it had happened. And nothing could be done about it now.
I was a contender in the dreaded Hunger Games.
That morning I had woken up to the laughter of the three youngest of my little siblings; Rani, Bryony, and Cedric. My parents were obviously already up; because my brothers and sisters hated to be awake when they weren’t. It was just like any other day.
If it wasn’t the Reaping.
In the years past, I had not been old enough to be entered in the Reaping, thankfully. So my family and I would go to the Square wondering who would be picked, but not as worried as the families of the potential tributes. But now, even though they tried to be cheerful, my parents and the two siblings who were old enough to understand the terrible concept, were terrified for me.
I was only supposed to be entered once, but my family’s been very hungry lately, and I had to take on at least four tesserae. We had gotten them a few days before, and even though the grain was not the best, we weren’t as hungry. That was good. But it meant that the odds were less in my favor than they had to be.
“Rue!” there was a giggle and suddenly I felt a smaller body jump on top of me, with only the thin, rough sheet separating me from my hyper five year old sister, Bryony. She could obviously tell that I was awake.
“Good morning, Bry,” I laughed, lifting myself out of bed, picking up my little sister and sitting her on my lap. At first glance, she was the mirror image of me; dark, velvety skin with chest length, wavy locks to match. But you’d have to spend only a day with us to uncover how different we really were; she craved attention and loved to talk, while I was quieter and didn’t mind my own company. But then again, she was only five.
“Can we go to the apple-place today?” she begged, looking up at me with the brown eyes that so matched mine. Apple-place was her phrase for the Orchards, because she was too young to say the big word completely. My heart sank; unintentionally, Bryony had reminded me of the scary day to come.
The room grew silent; even Rani and Cedric, who were only four and three, were quiet, despite the fact that they could not possibly understand what was going on.
My ten-year-old brother, Brent, who was taller than me even though he was two years younger, lifted Bryony off of my lap and into his arms.
“We can’t today, Bry,” he said quietly. “We’ve got to go somewhere.”
Just then, my mother came into the room, a smile that was probably a paradox plastered across her face. “We have until one,” she said. “Perhaps you could take them to the Orchards for a bit, Rue.” Her suggestion roused me from my initial stupor and I nodded.
“Come on, guys,” I said. I slipped on my sandals and wove my belt around my waist. Then I lifted up Rani, took Cedric’s hand and, with a quick goodbye to my mother, my siblings and I exited our small house and went out into the street.
District Eleven could not possibly look more deceiving on a day like today. As usual, the shop windows were adorned with pretty leaves and vines, and an array of fruits and vegetables was displayed neatly in almost every one; the shopkeepers here did anything to attract customers. But the brightness didn’t work for this particular occasion; even though it was meant to be a celebration, I still felt like there should be black tapestries, woven by the loom-savvy District Eight, hanging in every store, as a symbol of the Capitol’s cruel way of telling the Districts that they were the ultimate authority.
But I could not be downcast for long, because after a few minutes of walking, we came to the small produce stand I loved so much. Why did I love it so? Because of the man who worked there.
He was middle-aged, with mousy brown hair that was beginning to gray a bit and skin creased with forming wrinkles. He was entirely average, when it came to old men. But ever since I had first met him, I had thought he was the loveliest, greatest old man in the world, because he was always so cheerful. You couldn’t help but smile when you were around him.
Today he was singing one of my favorite songs, a happy tune about a farmer eating an apple and finding a worm in it. Bryony giggled as he finished; it was one of her favorites, too.
“Hello, Rue!” the man chuckled along with my sister as he greeted me with a smile. I grinned back.
“Hello!” I waved to him happily. “We’re off to the Orchard before the Reaping.” I managed to say the words without sinking into my stupor again.
“Well, have fun, then!” his smile got wider and mischievous—well, as mischievous as old men smiles can get—and he pulled out six slices of apple from a basket under his stall.
“Don’t tell anyone!” He whispered, and gave one to each of us. My siblings giggled; delighted to have a secret to keep along with a treat.
We gobbled the apple slices quickly and bit the man goodbye. “Happy Hunger Games,” I added, because it was the polite thing to say. But in reality, I didn’t think the Hunger Games were happy at all.
I could have sworn I saw his expression cloud for a moment before we turned the corner; so he was worried for me, too. Somehow that made me feel even worse.
We reached the gate that opened up to the orchard in a few minutes. If it had been any other day but today, nobody under the age of nine would have been allowed in, because they were not old enough to work. Little children could not be trusted not to eat the crops, and the mayor was very strict about that. But since the Reaping was supposed to be a national holiday, all ages were allowed in, but could only take one apple each.
I picked up a woven basket from beside the gate to put the six apples we would collect into later. Perhaps I would try to trade them for a bit of soup or a good loaf of bread after the Reaping, if indeed I made it through. Everyone was assuring me I would, but I was still worried.
The two older of my siblings took off to climb the trees immediately; I would have, but I had to watch Bryony, Cedric, and Rani. In a few seconds, I heard my eight year old sister Claiborne squeal. “Hi, Bluejay!” she shouted. I wondered what she could possibly be talking about when the unmistakable blue eyes of my best friend, Bluejay Sampson, peered through the branches of a tree a few feet away from me. There was a rustle and then a thump as she jumped out of the tree and landed perfectly on her feet, shaking a head a bit to settle her lovely chocolate locks into their normal style once again.
I had once asked Bluejay where she had gotten her name from; she looked nothing like a bird, did she? Her answer had been a simple whistle, just three notes, and suddenly there was a blue blur as a beautiful heather colored bid landed on her shoulder. The jay mimicked her whistle, and I had grinned.
After that, she had always joked that I should be called Mockingjay, because of the way ithose/i birds responded to imy/i whistles. I loved to sing to them while I was working in the Orchards, and, as they were born to, they sung back.
“Hi, Bluejay,” I smiled and repeated my sisters words to my friend. She danced over to me gracefully, took my hand, and swung it a few times.
“Hi, Rue,” she replied in her high pitched voice, higher and lovelier than the wind chimes my mother had hanging outside our door. “Happy Hunger Games.” It was Bluejay’s second Reaping; she was thirteen.
I just nodded.
“You’re not worried, are you?” her expression turned to concern. “Don’t be! I had more entries than you last year, and I wasn’t picked. You’ve only got five.” Her words cheered me a bit; she was right. No one I knew very well had ever been picked in my lifetime, as far as I could remember. I’d probably be lucky. But all the same, I wondered how Bluejay was not worried at all. She was in the Reaping eight times.
“Rue!” there was a pleading voice to my right, and I saw Bryony stretching up as far as she could go to reach what was probably the shiniest, reddest apple in the whole orchard. She didn’t even come halfway; it must have been at least six feet above the ground.
I tried to get it for her, but couldn’t. Not even Bluejay, who was pretty tall and thin for her age, could reach it. “Sorry, Bryony,” she said, and patted my sister’s head, her face apologetic. “We’ll have to get it some other time.”
Bryony pouted, looking put out. “It was the best apple,” she sniffed. Suddenly there was movement behind us, and a monster of a boy (well, not really monster, he was just big) pushed through the branches. I stared; he was tall and muscular, and had to be at least sixteen.
“I’ll get it for her,” he offered, and easily reached up to twist the red fruit off of it’s branch. He gently handed it to Bryony, and she smiled.
“Thanks!” she exclaimed, and dropped it happily into the basket in my hands. I looked over at the boy.
“Thank you,” I said politely. And then, because I thought I should, I said, “I’m Rue.”
He nodded. “Thresh,” he introduced himself. “Well, I’ve got to go. The Reaping starts in an hour, you know.” And he disappeared into the trees again. I blinked; I hadn’t realized the time.
“We should go,” I said. Bluejay nodded, and helped me gather Brent, Claiborne, Bryony, and Cedric. Rani was giggling in my arms, holding an apple.
“We have to leave?’ Bryony stared up at me. I nodded.
“Yes, Bry,” I said. “It’s time for the Reaping.
An hour later, I was positioned in the Square with the other twelve year olds, facing the stage where the tributes were chosen and the mayor at with District Eleven’s two past Hunger Games victors, the only two living of the four overall, and our Capitol representative, Darrell Redbloom. He was always looking sullen and unhappy.
The mayor made his usual speech, and my heart fluttered and missed a few beats. I could see my anxious family across the Clearing, waiting in dread for the District Eleven tributes to be chosen. My siblings looked worried as well. I wished I could assure them that everything was going to be okay, but I didn’t know that. Nobody did.
“And now, it is time for our first tribute to be selected.” Darrell reached into the glass bowl that contained the girls’ entries. A small slip of paper was drawn out; I could have sworn my heart stopped for a second. And then—
And my heart went cold as I gasped and stepped up. I could hear an anguished cry from my mother, but I could not register anything besides the stage I was supposed to walk up to.
I had just been damned to death, and there was no stopping it.
I mounted the stage, in some sort of trance, and was patted on the shoulder by someone; I couldn’t tell who. I heard a voice say, “Any volunteers?”
But no one answered. I was officially a tribute in the Hunger Games, because no one wanted to take my place. How had this happened? Why me?
If I would have been able to take in the faces of my district, I would have seen that they looked upset for me. But I couldn’t see anything around me; I was too stunned.
They began to clap for me, and I wanted to scream. Sure, clap when one of your own was condemned to be killed in what was supposed to be a Game. Well, in my eyes, no igame/i promised certain death to its losers. Even though I knew it was tradition, I still felt highly offended when they clapped.
A few seconds later, there was the sound of fluttering paper, and the name of the District Eleven male tribute was called. My heart definitely halted.
It was Thresh.