“Anger ventilated often hurries towards
forgiveness; anger concealed often
hardens into revenge.”
—Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton
My room feels like a tomb tonight. Five minutes ago, I spoke the unspeakable. I opened my mouth and I ruined eight years of wall building and damage control. This was not supposed to happen.
“In the end, we will remember not the
words of our enemies, but the
silence of our friends.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
The door to the farewell chamber closes behind me with a soft thud, and I am sealed inside the luxurious little farewell room. I’m not expecting anyone—there really isn’t ‘friendship’ in Amsteel, and it’s not as if we get a great deal of contact with the outside world. I had a few companions at the community home, but that was a very long time ago and I burned those bridges after It. I also have no family to speak of- my mother is dead and I don’t even know who my father is. And still I keep waiting for someone to walk in the door—wishing so fiercely that he was going to come. He’d pull me into an embrace and I’d feel his nose brush my neck.
But Lochlan isn’t coming through that door. Nobody does. So I just sit on the bench, cradling my chin in my hands and staring at the shiny wood-paneled floor. I suddenly feel so incredibly alone, even though now I am no more isolated that I have been for years—where is my family, bidding me farewell, waiting and praying for me to come home? Dead. They are dead.
I stand up when the peacekeepers come for me and Cato and I meet halfway down the hallway; I can tell by his expression that he didn’t many visitors, if any. This is how it is here, though—best not to have anything to loose. The peacekeepers lead us to a waiting automobile, and from there we drive to the train depot. Citizens have gathered on both sides of the carriageway, waving, cheering, throwing flowers into the convertible’s bed. I catch a daffodil and I try to give a smile, though I’m sure it looks grim: I’ve never been one for a great deal of smiling. Cato is good at this sort of thing, though—he waves his arms and flashes a straight, white smile and flexes his formidable muscles under his button-up. I’m not going to be like him, though. So instead I look ahead, keeping my chin up and my face stoic with perhaps a flare of pride. I round my shoulders, I let my mouth turn into the slightest of smiles and the loneliness soon disappears—how can I feel in such a way when I am surrounded by such jubilation, such patriotism? And directed towards me, as well! It’s as if I am some sort of war hero going off to an important battle. At this thought, I raise my chin up a little higher and even wave aristocratically at our audience—listen, listen to that, they are cheering! They are cheering for me!
The crowds thin out once we near the depot—peacekeepers are pushing them back and barring civilians from entering to the station, save for a few reporters, who approach us when we get out.
“How are you feeling in this very moment?” I woman with a microphone asks me. “What is it like to be one of the youngest tributes in the history of District Two?”
“I am honored, and I’m more than capable of being the youngest victor, as well,” I say as the train doors hiss open.
“My weapon of choice?” I hear Cato say, facing another reporter. “A flat-bladed sword. Large, lethal and strong, just like me.”
“And what about you, Clove? What is your weapon?”
I brush my hair behind my ears, trying to appear dignified and regal. “I throw knives. I never miss.”
The woman is about to ask something else, but she’s too slow—we’re already being escorted into the waiting locomotive. There are flashing camera lights, shouted questions, our faces on television screens, and then, as the doors slide shut, silence. I stand and face them for a moment, just staring through the thick, bulletproof windows, absorbing how quickly the momentum of my previously inconsequential life has changed.
“Are you coming?”
Cato’s reflection is staring at me, reflected in the polished glass as the train hums and moves forward, out of the depot and, eventually, out of Two.
“I didn’t know we were in such a hurry.” Spite stretches and twists my voice until it almost sounds as if I’m cursing him.
“I’m only trying to help-”
I scoff and brush past him, heading towards the main car where are mentor is sure to be waiting. “Oh yes, because you’re so good at helping. Are you perhaps compensating for something?”
He doesn’t respond, just shoves his hands into his trouser pockets. Where was the arrogant asshole now? Where was the brave, charming career boy who caught roses in his teeth and blew kisses to the girls? I knocked it out of him. I have him in the palm of my hand, because I know his moment of weakness, his moment of spinelessness and fear; I know it and no-one else does, and I’m sure he’d like to keep it that way. That is why he is not fighting with me, not shouting or denying.
Thrift is waiting for us at the dining table, picking delicately at a piece of roast pork on her china plate. When we enter the room, she looks up and smiles pleasantly. Not a smirk, not a sneer, but a genuine smile that sends shivers up my spine.
“Good afternoon—you two must be the lucky ones,” she says. Her large, dark eyes take us in, one by one, her glossed lips still pulled into that saccharine smile. “I think this year will be a good year for Two.”
We still stand, looking, I suppose, rather insipid and slow, and she beckons us with her fork. “Well come on, do you expect me to eat this all on my own?” Then she understands, and, if I look closely, I can see her congenial expression turn ever so slightly darker, a little more sinister. “It’s not poisoned and I have taken my medication, if that’s why you’re so wary, darlings. No child-strangling for this girl, not tonight.”
Cato grunts, but I am the first to break the stillness and sit in the booth across from her. He takes his chances sitting beside me, for nobody likes being closer than a yard to Thrift, not even he and his hulking six foot frame. She notices his unease and revels in it. “So. You—the big one. What do you do?”
“Anything,” he says flatly, “I can fence, I can stab, I can throw a spear and I’m strong.”
Thrift looks only vaguely interested. “Yes, just like every other muscle boys who comes around. Give him a sword and he can kill, but he has the mind of a little child.”
Cato frowns. “I’m not stupid, if that’s what you’re implying-”
“Oh really? What makes you any different from the idiots with their big steel toys?” she asks, her voice taunting. “I’ve seen the likes of you—prepared quite a few of them for the slaughter. You are all brawn. The boy from One- he was like you. Tall, broad, strapping—he could break your trachea in one punch, he could have snapped me like a twig.” Thrift takes a sip of her tea. “But he was a fool. I’m sure you remember how I killed him—‘Look over there, Herod, off that ledge right there; I think I may see a tribute down there!’” She throws her head back and laughs—it tinkles like a bell. “I hardly had to bump him and down he went!”
“I’m not like that,” he replies forebodingly.
“Bullshit. I bet this little girl over here could beat you with ease. Brutes never win. They come in second. You’ve been treated like a king at that academy, haven’t you? They feed you more than the others, they convince you that you’re special, different than the rest: that you’ll surely win.” She drops a few sugar cubes into her cup unequivocally. “But really, you’re just a prized pig being fattened up for the slaughter. That’s what they want—they don’t want you, they don’t you to be happy—they want bragging rights. They want you to win. The only reason they would ever balk at your death is the fact that they just wasted, what, six years on you? And that goes for you too, little darling: you were born to die.”
“That’s not true,” Cato growls. “Our District values us-”
“Our District values what we do for them, you silly, stupid boy,” Thrift replies, condescending. “What about her? What about this girl here? They smeared the arena with her brother because he didn’t enjoy killing as much as the others—he embarrassed the Academy because he wasn’t a killing machine. I’ve done my research, dear, I know you’re from the gutter—once an unwanted, always an unwanted, eh? They left you in that home to rot. The only reason you’re here is because you were selected before the scouters knew who you were. They don’t care about you. And you,” she turns to Cato, “they only care about winners. Your mummy, she wasn’t winner enough for them, they knew it from the get go. They didn’t stop her when she spiraled into her drugs and her morphling and her booze, did they? They didn’t take you in when she closed her doors on you, did they? No. They put you in the gutter, just like your little partner, here.”
Cato stands and slams his hands onto the table, making the utensils jump. “You’re a fucking liar! You live in the lap of luxury and here you are bashing your district-”
“Sit down, you silly meathead,” Thrift snorts, hardly looking up from her food. They love me because I have nothing to lose, no emotional baggage to slow me down. I was never a child. They value me because I am a weapon. The more human you are, the weaker they will see you as, and the shorter you will live. Prove to me that you two aren’t just conceited, egotistical automatons that bluster and stab and do not think. There is a fine line between sanity and madness, you see, and as careers, you must walk that line one foot in front of the other if you want to get the glory, if you want to be admired, not kicked to the curb like your mother. You’re about to go into the Games and here you two are, afraid of me.” With a patronizing chuckle, she leans back in her chair, folding her dainty little hands in her lap while she regarded us. “I am the least of your worries, children. Perhaps I am insane, but are we not all a little mad?”
She looks from I to Cato, her eyes bright buttons in her heart-shaped face. “Now we will be arriving in the Capitol very soon—just a few more hours, actually. From the moment we leave this train, you are no longer yourselves, you are no longer children, you are no longer human: you are careers, and you are going to act like them.
“Cato—I see that temper of yours and I think I like it. From now on, there is no clenching of fists and gritting teeth; embrace it. Now is your chance to be vicious, a monster. Add that to that overconfident façade of yours and you will be ideal.”
“But I’m not a monster,” Cato argues, looking dismayed.
“You are now. It’s better than what you really are: a frightened, insecure, violent little boy.”
He’s bristling again—his arms are trembling. “You’re wrong.”
“Am I? Am I really?” Thrift croons. “I know the likes of you: you love and you hate your mum; love her because you have to, hate her for abandoning you, hate the world for thinking of her whenever they see you. You snap sometimes—you can’t control yourself and you hurt people. That’s all you know how to do now—that is why you are here.”
Cato exits the booth, ruptured in his fury, in his rage at her accuracy.
“You think you are so strong and clever,” Thrift says, “but you are just a little boy.”
He roars, and suddenly draws his hand back as if to strike her—but just as his hand descends, he spins round and sends his fist into the wall instead. His knuckles break through the wallpaper and yield against the hard, vibrating metal, sending a loud bang through the room like a clap of thunder.
Cato stands there for a moment, draws back his hand, examines the blood seeping from his knuckles. Confused, angry, ashamed, bewildered. Everything’s quiet for a moment, and then, just like that, he turns away and disappears down the hallway towards our rooms.
Thrift has shifted her gaze from the gaping hole in the wall to me. “Now that I’m done with him…”
“I’m not going to sit here and let you do what you did to him, to me,” I find myself saying. “If you want to psychoanalyze me, I’m leaving.”
My mentor leans forward. “Blunt and honest. That’s a good touch.” She’s quiet for a moment, just looking at me.
“What?” I snap.
“Just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with you.”
“There’s nothing you’re going to do. I am going to be myself.”
“No you aren’t. The Capitol is not interested in little Clove from the Academy who fancies twine bracelets, target practice and brain puzzlers. They want a ruthless backstabber, a strategist: bloodthirsty and cunning. That is what you will be.” Her tone is so matter-of-fact, so blasé that it quite nearly scares me.
“I want to be different,” I venture. “All the tributes from here are like that. I don’t want to be exactly like that.”
“Your brother was different and look at where that got him.” She notices me jaw setting and she looks amused. “They wanted Cashmere to win because she was—is like me. She is brutal and selfish and clever. Now let me make something clear to you, darling: I do not care about your little identity crisis, all right? I want to bring one of you back alive so I can get rewarded. And here’s some advice from someone who knows what you will be faced with: cruelty and viciousness will be, I assure you, the only way you can win.”
After taking a shower and changing into a nightgown, I am drawn to the living room car. The television is murmuring quietly, lighting up the room, and Cato is sitting upon the sofa, his lap covered in a plush blanket. He seems to feel my presence in the doorframe and he turns to me.
“Coverage of the Reapings,” he says, pointing his non-bruised hand at the screen. We’re silent for a moment, and then he sighs. “Are you going to sit and watch or not?”
I bite my lip, shifting my wait from foot to foot for a moment, but I decide to break my ‘arm’s length’ rule and sake a seat beside him. “Are there any ones to look out for?”
He shakes his head. “Not yet.”
“The girl’s pretty, but she’s an airhead and the boy’s a spear-thrower, but nothing better than I’ve seen before.”
The coverage is on District 9 now, and the usual unwilling tributes shuffle up, their heads down, their eyes wide. Nothing new. Then District 10 comes up—an ordinary girl and a boy with a crippled foot. He looks somewhat familiar. There’s a small clamor from the Justice Hall platform, and the camera’s swing to its source: the young mentor, Blaise Calder. The crippled boy is his younger cousin. I watch in dismay was the victor collapses, his body thrashing as the seizure takes hold of him, watch as the peacekeepers drag him off stage, watch as his cousin limps on stage, his green eyes terror-stricken, his ashen brown hair sticking up in a cowlick on the back of his head.
“Hard to believe he won anything,” Cato says quietly. “Just look at him—he’s ruined.”
“I’ve seen his interviews, though. At least he’s good,” I reply.
“Good people don’t last,” he says, half to himself.
I don’t respond, just continue watching the screen. District 11 passes as usual, though the boy looks very formidable, even taller than Cato and well-built, too. And then comes Twelve. A young girl is called up; that’s always a pity. The little ones never have a chance. But wait a moment—someone is volunteering. Someone is volunteering. She looks perhaps my age—lean, rather plain with braided hair. She takes the girl in her arms and hugs her.
“Go back with mother, Prim,” she says.
“No,” the little girl cries, “no!”
I draw my knees up to my chest and bite the inside of my cheek.
“I volunteer in the name of Amsteel Academy.”
The young man stands tall and solemn, broken away from the boys and looking into the cameras. His face is reflected on the high definition screens in the square.
“No, Lochlan! No!”
He turns to follow the voice and sees the girl, standing among the audience. She woke up three hours early just to get a close up spot. She is nine now, even skinnier than before—bonier, stark, with tangled hair and dirty cheeks. The home has not been kind to her since he left.
The escort looks taken aback, peering round at the source of the voice. The camera’s swing and now everyone can see her frantic little face. “Who… who was that?”
“Lochlan please, please, don’t do this, don’t go there!” she cries out, despite the rush of shocked mutterings and exclamations. This is the first objection at a Reaping in years.
Her brother runs to her, pushes through the crowd and reaches through the barrier. He holds her cheek gently in one hand. “Sssh, sssh, don’t do this, you’ll be punished. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine, Clove. I’ll win. For you.”
But you didn’t.
I stare at the television, feeling resentment grow in my stomach. Those girls have a mother to go back to. That little one has a living sister, one that would die for her—they have someone to come home to. And look—look at the people, holding their hands up in that salute—the one they do at funerals. Goodbye, farewell to someone brave and beloved. Nobody did that for Lochlan when he told me he’d when for me, when he fought off the peacekeepers who were trying to drag me away. Everyone just looked at him with disdain: “look at him, showing emotions like that—what a weakling”. But here is this girl—who has never known the abuse of a community home, never violated, never abandoned and left for dead by a careless parent—and she is being treated like she is a hero.
It’s not fair.
“You’re thinking about him, aren’t you?”
My district partner’s voice interrupts my internal raging and I whip back into control of myself, try to bury the emotions. “It’s none of your business what I’m thinking about.”
“Look, what the hell have I done to make you hate me like this?” The minute these words leave his mouth I can tell he regrets them. But it’s too late to pull them back. Wrath and hurt and agony are bubbling, brimming. If this had caught me in a normal circumstance, under my normal barrier, I would have simply disregarded it, buried them even farther, so far that I couldn’t reach these emotions. But he has prodded me when I was vulnerable—my only time of vulnerability, and now I can’t prevent myself.
“Why?” I ask, leaping to my feet and facing him.
“In the community home. You saw what he did to me. You could have saved me. You could have saved me!” My voice is splintering in my throat. “But you didn’t! You just stood back and you watched- watched as my innocence was taken away.”
“I’m sorry, I-”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re sorry, Cato! That doesn’t change anything! I’m fucked up now, I’m broken— the Games, they’re my only way to be something, to make me stop feeling so- so soiled! Don’t you dare think that all this training, all this preparation, all this ridiculous sword-brandishing bravado of yours will ever change the fact that, when you were eleven years old, you were a dirty little coward who turned a blind eye as your best friend raped me.”
He stares at me and I don’t realize I’m about to cry until my eyes start blurring. No, no, no, I haven’t cried in five years! I hate him, I hate Thrift, I hate the tears threatening to break through—this fills me until I turn my back on him and race back to my room.
“I object to violence because when it appears to do
good, the good is only temporary;
the evil it does is permanent.”
The Tribute Quarters are surprisingly lavish—fancier than anything I have ever experienced. Years of cramped, dirty rooms filled with crying children followed by the blank, steely chambers of Amsteel are all I have ever known; I have only felt velvet once, when I accidently brushed past a wealthier citizen in town when I was a child. But this place—it’s practically furnished with it.
There are approximately three guards standing about—perhaps to make sure Cato and I don’t scuffle, which, admittedly, makes me a bit uncomfortable. I don’t like being around so many people. One of them tells us that there are various meals ready-prepared in the dining room, and that we can choose whether we want to eat together at the table or in our separate rooms. Cato opens his mouth, then closes it again, perhaps thinking better of it; I simply tell them that I would like to be served in my room. Anyway, I might as well keep from conversing with him for as long as I can; I know that we will have to team up eventually, discuss plans and tactics and how long to keep the District One tributes around, but for now, I have to keep him at arms length. Keep It from my mind as long as I possibly can.
The comforter swallows me up as I perch at the foot of the bed, my empty plate on the ground. The television illuminates the room, casting lines of blue light across the planes of my face—the red velvet curtains are closed, so the flickering screen is the only source of light. I pull the blanket a little tighter round my shoulders, pretending I’m in some sort of burrow deep underground; it’s snowing outside and I am about to hibernate, safe and sound until spring arrives. The click of the channel-changer interrupts the silence at equal intervals as I channel-surf.
I must admit that—even though I am from a district very close to the Capitol—I just can’t seem to understand their entertainment. All the stations seem filled to brimming with silly adverts for remedial things that no-one really needs (though I suppose the people of the Capitol beg to differ) and reality shows that really make little sense. Where is the engagement? The kind of things that help you learn, that make you think and solve puzzles? I don’t know. Perhaps cleverness is only valued in the districts.
After quite a lot of clicking, I finally pause when I see the images of a past game flicker across the telie. It’s a recent one, perhaps the seventy-first. It was also, if my memory is correct, deemed the bloodiest. But that isn’t really what makes it stand out to me. What stands out to me is that the 71st games was the first victory for an outlier district in over eighteen years. The Capitol certainly didn’t favor the outcome—they actually went out of their way to kill him off. District 10. Blaise Calder. He stirred the underdogs up, that one. He arranged all but three of them into a rebellion against the Ones and Twos at the cornucopia, and while I always root for my district, I must admit that he was an absolutely brilliant strategist, and only fifteen years old.
I’ve tuned into the third day, just as the game makers send in the giant, underground worm to break up the outlier allegiance and drive them from the cornucopia. I remember how much that creature had frightened me, sent me into terrifying nightmares every time I closed my eyes. The games were set in a frozen tundra that year, complete with glacier and frozen alpine forest, so there was nowhere for them to hide; only run to the forest as fast as they could. The carnivorous worm, which was easily a hundred feet long, devoured at least three children and bit off the leg of the District 5 girl. Blaise dragged her to the forest and held her hand while she died.
My districts attack them in the forest on the sixth day. Even 10’s district partner with her crossbow couldn’t hold her own. We would have killed all of them if it weren’t for the stray smilodon muttation that decapitated the boy from One and sent the rest of them running. I’m sure the game makers regret that.
The games grow boring during the center of it—Blaise and his two remaining allies cross a glacier and the control panel sets off a geyser from under the ice and the boiling steam nearly kills him, but his mentor sends him a parachute with medicine. Then the makers send a pack of wolverine creatures after them, driving them onto a frozen river. The ice breaks and the mute girl from Eight goes down. Blaise chases after her, running along the see-through ice and trying to find a hole to pull her up, even after her cannon fires. Then the monstrous boy from six—Titus, the one who went mad and ate his victims—attacks them on the ninth day. He stabs Blaise one in the arm and is about to snap the neck of the young boy from Twelve when there’s an avalanche. The allies manage to climb halfway up a tree, and Titus is crushed.
Now there are only three contestants left- Ten, the Twelve boy (perhaps his name was Vesper?), and the girl from One. I’ve had a hatred for One ever since Lochlan’s games, and I remember silently urging this Ten boy on as my peers and I watched in the training room. The finale is surely horrifying—one of the most violent I can recall. The girl sneaks up on them and gores the Twelve boy, then falls upon Ten. They fight for what seems like an eternity, Blaise’s sword against her sickle. They gouge each other and claw and bite, but soon she’s overpowers him, for he’s very slender, almost delicate. She kneels upon his chest and begins slamming his head against the rocks beneath them, stabbing him in the chest, and I’m waiting for him to die, but somehow he doesn’t. And then the girl coughs up blood and falls over. The Twelve boy has managed to drag himself up and stick her with her own knife. Her cannon fires.
The two allies lay in the snow, red halos growing round them, and when the final cannon fires, I had been scarcely able to tell who had died. But then Claudius Templesmith’s voice had echoed through the arena as the hovercraft lowered: Blaise Calder, winner of the 71st Hunger Games!
Rumor has it that the boy’s heart stopped completely four times after the games—twice in the hovercraft’s operating table, once in the Capitol hospital and once after his interview when an aggressive reporter had bumped into him and send him falling against the railing of Caesar’s stage. His body was already frail and this made him eternally bleed. But what I remember most was his victory tour and his speech in Twelve. The severe head trauma and nerve damage he underwent during the finale had made him prone to twitches and nervous breakdowns, but when he laid eyes upon the parents of his young ally, he had a seizure and had to be taken away.
I switch of the television, shuddering slightly, remembering the girl from One. I don’t want to end up like her. I don’t want to loose my mind like that. She could have just slit his throat and ended it, but she didn’t—she wanted to make him suffer. I don’t want to go mad like that. But I suppose the Games can do that to people—make them change. I’ll kill, but I… I’m not sure. I just don’t want to be mad, I don’t want the bloodlust that seems to seize everyone from my District during their games. I’ll be like Lochlan, I’ll be different. I’ll be myself—strong, clever, above the rest. I’ll have to spill blood and I’ll have to slaughter, but… but I’m not doing it for fun, I’m not doing it just to kill. I’m doing this for my brother and my district. That doesn’t make me a monster, right?
I wake up early, before the sun even rises. I always do. The pale morning light falls through the half-drawn blinds in lines, catching freckles of dust, turning them into pyres, shifting like sand. I reach out and they swirl round my fingers, disappearing as soon as they leave the light. Life is like that, isn’t it? You’re invisible, small, inconsequential for so long, and then, if you are lucky, there is one small moment when you stand apart. You are covered in light, you shine, you’re iridescent. And then, just like that, your light goes out and you are forgotten. I hold the dust in my palm—I won’t be dust. I will stay in that light, I will make them remember me. There’s no other option.
Time drags its feet, moving slowly. I flip through the channels, I think about the possible types of arenas I could be faced with, and then I see the bloody, sneering face of the One girl as she stabs Blaise, over and over and over. Such cold glee, such exultation, such psychosis. I am supposed to see the other tributes as nothing, as inhuman, and perhaps this may not be too hard to do. After all, how many times have I myself been dehumanized? Too many to count on both hands. But there’s something off about actually enjoying, reveling in the act of killing. Humans are capable of so many things, but could I really go so far as to take pleasure in murder? No, its not murder, its survival, it’s necessary, essential in these games. This is what I’ve been trained to do. I will not be fond of slaughtering; I will be a soldier, a defendant of my district, killing for reasons of honor. Yes of course.
The hours pass, and suddenly I want to see what dress they will put me in for the reaping—they said something about it being in the closet. I put it on and look at myself in the mirror for a moment. I don’t recognize myself without my training uniform. That girl looking back at me is not Clove. She is spritely and petite, swathed in gold. Specially made to fit me. My hair is slightly tousled from sleeping on it, but I know that, as I eat breakfast, there will be a stylist to prepare me. Us. But, to avoid dirtying it with my food, I remove the dress and lay it gently upon the bed. It watches me, waiting, as I slip into a simple frock and pants and walk quietly into the dining room. Cato looks up from his omelet, and I wonder what he’s thinking about. Is he just vacant, like so many other meatheads that have volunteered before him? Has all the substance been sucked from him since he was selected for the Academy? Training does that to people, sometimes. When they get what they want, when they’re stronger than the others and the Wardens and trainers shower them with praise—they become arrogant prats, hotheaded bastards with their heads permanently caught in their ass. That or they practically become prostitutes, like Abril; good looks can do that to you. This is why I am almost glad that I am not gorgeous—I am wiry, harsh from years of training and the fists and abuse of the home. I am not a spoiled lapdog—I never get things handed to me; I have to claw and fight for them. That is why I am going to win.
He looks at me for a little while, and I keep his gaze; breaking it will make me seem inferior. His eyes are blue; that much has stayed the same. They’re darker than mine—almost grey. There are creases on his forehead, crumpled by anxiety or austerity, or perhaps both; Amsteel ages you quicker. When you’re at Amsteel, you are not a child—you are a weapon.
He says this as the stylist combs his hair. He has lost the bravado that he’s infamous for—now his voice is just solemn. I don’t reply, though, just stare at him, peppering perhaps a little malice into my gaze. He did nothing. He stood back and did nothing while the only thing I had left was ripped from me, when I had no-one to protect me. Lochlan couldn’t save me, but Cato could have. He could have preserved my innocence.
But he didn’t.
My brows crease into a glare and he looks away.
He remembers. He has to.
I take a seat rather awkwardly, making sure to remain several chairs down from him, and my hair-dresser/makeup artist descends upon me like a harpy. She quite literally rips a brush through my hair, dredging up tangles and knots and making my eyes water, and talks the entire time. I don’t remember her name nor care about a thing that is coming from her lipstick-coated mouth, so I simply sit complacently and eat my breakfast. Yes, this is far better than the swill they feed us at the academy—muscle shakes, protein bars, raw fiber. I don’t think I’ve tasted butter in… God, perhaps I’ve never tasted butter…
“…And I really think you two will enjoy yourselves,” the stylist is babbling, “such grandeur, such lavishness, and you’ll be in good hands with Thrift-”
I freeze and look up. “Who?”
“Well, your mentor, silly.”
Oh God, not her.
That’s the first thing that goes through my mind, but I don’t speak it aloud. The stylist prattles on, oblivious to my dread, but I know Cato has seen the brief alarm in my face. I’m sure he understands it, too.
When my makeup is done and my dress styled perfectly to my body, the bodyguards lead us to the back exit of Amsteel, down restricted hallways to avoid the pupils. There is an automobile idling just inside the opening gate, and thankfully it is not the same one that took Lochlan away from me, away from the community home. This is the second time I’ve been in one, but this one is nicer than the Selection car. This one has smooth leather seats, arm rests, glossy windows. It’s not very big, though, and when Cato and I sit, his broad shoulder brushes mine. I try not to shudder.
The car purrs to life and trundles out of Amsteel, and I am in the real world. Tall, reflective steel and marble buildings rise up on both sides and I can immediately tell that we are in the privileged part of town. A side of town I am not at all familiar with. My fingers fall down the glass, leaving faint streaky smudges of oil, slightly blurring the profligate scenery outside. I catch a reflection of my face for a moment: a freckled mask, blank and emotionless as a piece of paper.
The journey, short as it may be, is done in silence. I almost want Cato to speak to me again so I can shoot him down, but he seems to know better. Perhaps he isn’t the brain-dead sack of muscle that I thought he was. It’s late morning now, the sky blonde at the horizon and melting into a pale, hard blue as it receded. It’s wonderful—I don’t see the sky often. But though it’s early, there is a growing crowd gathering on the footpaths, making their way towards the town square. We don’t have to worry about them, though, nor the other cars trying to get to the same destination: Amsteel cars get first priority, a special peacekeeper escort through the throng. Having parked and exited the vehicle, we sign in with the overseers, providing a blood sample to ID us, and then we are lead through the mob of children, who are sorting into their various age groups. Unlike most districts, none of them look pensive or anxious—they know that, even if their name is called, Amsteel will always provide a volunteer. Cato and I walk down the isle, receiving admiring looks from the younger kids and envious ones from the academy pupils: it’s always clear who the volunteers will be, hence the escort. We part at the sixteens—he goes ahead, with the other eighteens.
An hour passes, then another, and the crowd grows, the town square swells and overflows with children. Our district is very overpopulated, and if I look round, it’s easy to pick out the poor, latchkey and orphanage ones, ones that I used to look like. They have starving eyes, their shoulders are thin, their faces have hardened. They are not children anymore. They are just very small, withered, brow-beaten adults. They are no better than the outlier district’s young, perhaps some of them worse: look in the dark crevices and gutters of a large city and you will find things you do not want to see.
My observations, however, are cut short when I see the mayor walk from City Hall. I am so close I can see her face clearly from where I am, though I still look at the elephantine screens on my right, out of habit. Mayor Casterbridge is an older woman, perhaps forty, with elegantly slanted, almond-shaped eyes and a willowy build, and she is one of the few politicians around here who doesn’t dye her hair; I can see streaks of grey running from her temple. She looks as if she might have been quite beautiful once. Following her is her son, Ajax, then a few other figureheads in District Two, then our escort, Pluto Purefoy. He’s a cocky, egotistical twat, in all honesty—he and his ridiculous moustache and gelled hair. Blah. But now I see our mentor this year, and just glimpsing her sends chills up my spine.
Thrift Pembroke is a psychopath. This is not my opinion—this is verified fact. She takes medication for it—her sponsors had to send her a capsule of pills during the first day of her games so she wouldn’t snap and ruin everything. But on the third week, the pills were soiled and her mentor couldn’t send her more in time. Then again, I suppose her madness was what helped her win the games—she just lost touch with everything. She gauged out the eye of one of her allies before decapitating her, and in one of the final battles she bit off her competitor’s finger. Now the Capitol forces her to take the medication at all times, but I heard a rumor that she didn’t one day and nearly strangled the tribute she was training.
But that isn’t the only thing that terrifies me about her. The psychosis can be stemmed, and on the outside, she is perfectly normal—no, exceptional. Absolutely gorgeous. Petite, curvy, doe-eyed, long, auburn hair that cascades her narrow shoulders, baby-faced, even at the age of twenty-four: the picture of an angel. This hides a ruthless, conniving, emotionless and manipulative succubus. She slept with both her district partner and the One boy, and the moment they fell for her, they really were dead. She slit the throat of her district partner while he slept, and pushed the other off a cliff while they were walking by it. She is a veritable Beelzebub, but I can’t choose my mentor.
By the time I stop analyzing my inevitable mentor, my sociopathic lifeline, the Treaty of Treason has been recited and Pluto is reaching into the bowl that contains the girl’s names. My chest is contracting against my heart and my ears are ringing: this is really happening. This is really happening. I look over at the camera crews flitting round the stage and the audience, and the blood in my veins pounds even more. He’s called the name, he’s called the name-
“Now are there any volunteers?”
I break free of my row and hold my head as high as I can. “I volunteer. I volunteer in the name of Amsteel Academy.”
My voice sounds alien to me as it reverberates through the square, and from the non-Amsteel members, there is shock: what is a sixteen doing volunteering? Is this a mistake? But then there is cheering and clapping, and pride fills me like steam fills the bellows as I ascend the stairs to the platform and take the bizarrely soft hands of our escort.
“What is your name, darling?” Pluto asks, and I glance over at his eyes—the fake contacts have turned them purple.
“Clove Lozier.” I make sure to enunciate my last name the correct way, not loh-zeer like it is read, but loz-ie-ay, the proper title. I want to sound strong and gallant and clever, so I try to inflect my voice the proper way.
“So are you, by any chance, related to our late tribute, Lochlan?”
My throat tightens but I don’t let it hinder my reply. “Yes I am.”
“Well isn’t that just superb?” Pluto gushes, his hand moving to my shoulder. “Well let’s hear it for our young Clove, the first sixteen since the 28th Hunger Games!”
The applause grows and I look out at the upturned faces and I am suddenly so happy to be part of this, so exultant in the knowledge that, for the first time, I matter. It dies down, though, when Pluto moves onto the boy’s bowl. He calls out a name and a nervous-looking thirteen-year-old steps up. But before he even asks for a volunteer, out comes Cato—he’s turned on his haughty, supercilious persona and is now swaggering towards the stage.
What a fucking joke.
“And your name, young man?” Pluto asks.
“Cato,” he says, “Cato Pennant.”
Pluto crows. “We’re just filled with familiar faces today, aren’t we? Tell me, aren’t you the son of one of our victors, Miss Aldaine Pennant?”
A very brief, practically microscopic flicker of pain goes across the contours of his face, but he buries it immediately. “Yes.”
“Is she in the audience today? No? Couldn’t make it? That’s a shame. I’m sure she is proud of you!” our escort drawls, and this is a complete lie, of course. Aldaine Pennant is one of our district’s collection of fucked up victors, or FUV’s, as they’ve come to be known. They’re the ones who either couldn’t recover from the stress of the games or got hooked on drugs and alcohol in the course of the victory celebrations. Aldaine is both. That is why Cato ended up in a similar boat as I, because she drunkenly fucked a complete stranger and she produced a baby she did not want nor deserve. She kept him for awhile, let her various boyfriends rough him up and hit him when they were high or drunk or both, but one day he ran away. He lived on the street for awhile, and when he returned to the mansion, the doors were locked and he was relocated to the home with the humiliation of knowing he was not wanted. Boo-hoo. Just like the rest of us.
Cato and I have to shake hands, as is the custom. His hand is very large and it eclipses mine, closing my knuckles in the folds of his fingers. I meet his eyes again, and I see recognition, confusion, and perhaps, just perhaps, regret.
“In peace, sons bury their fathers.
In war, fathers bury their sons.”
“Are you prepared to loose, little girl?”
“Are you prepared to swallow your teeth?”
Abril stares me down across the dueling square, a sneer upon her face. She knows she beat me at the quarter match, and it makes my blood boil to know how much the Wardens favor her. And she’s eighteen now—they’ll definitely be betting on her to be this years tribute, just like her sister. But not this year.
Not this year.
I clench my fists until my bruised knuckles turn white. My hands are very small—all of me is. When others see me, they usually assume that I haven’t even gone through puberty, much less that I am a student at Amsteel Academy, the finest training center in all of Panem. I let them think this—might as well give them a surprise when I win the games. And perhaps now is my year. It’s customary for all the eighteens to compete in the Selection and go on to volunteer, and I’ve been training longer than any of them. Most started when they were twelve, but not I. I started when I was ten, and now here I am, two years younger and battling their strongest.
“Now this is to be a clean fight,” Judah says as he steps between us. He’s a trainer, the trainer of all the girls in our year, and I’m quite sure he’s slept with more than one. Abril is his current whore. “No strangling, no eye-goring, no biting,” he continues, “at least not while I am looking. When the bell sounds, you may commence.” His eyes wander over to Abril, drifting down her curves. She winks at him, and he smiles slightly.
I hate them.
Judah steps back, leaving the few yards between my opponent and I completely open, but I feel naked without my knives. What I wouldn’t give to be back in the target range during the first section of Selection, hurling blades at the moving mannequins, pretending they’re… they’re him. But I’m here, and the Reaping is less than twenty-four hours away.
The sound of the timer pulls me back, and this time I don’t charge at her. That’s what all the other girls have done, and look where that got them. I’m sore and bruised from my previous fights, but I don’t feel any of that now. I just see her, moving towards me with her fists drawn. The sounds of our chanting peers fade and blur, like I have just dunked my head in a bucket of water; I don’t even acknowledge the eyes of the Wardens and the selected boy. Stressing will do me no good, not now.
Abril is just a couple feet away—now is the time to move. I take two steps forward and at the moment she throws her fist, I lean back. Air hits me as her knuckles just barely clear my throat. I’ve studied her technique since my numerous failures against her—she’s the brute force type. She doesn’t value tactics or cunning; she values her speed and brutality, and judging from her height and muscles, I can’t blame her. She’s a fucking wild cat, like the muttations in last year’s games. But I know her, now—I’ve gotten inside that pretty, arrogant head of hers. I know her moves, I know her thoughts, I know how her pathetic little brain works. I may not be as attractive as her, but looks, contrary to so many beliefs, are not everything.
She flies past me, slamming against the ropes that border the dueling square. I can only imagine the look of bafflement on her silly face. But I don’t have time to gloat—I only have a few seconds on her, just a few seconds until she regains her balance and lays me out like last month, so I leap onto her back and wind my arm round her neck in a choke hold. She doesn’t buckle as quickly as I had hoped—am I really that light?—instead she twists and writhes in my grasp, her sharp, manicured nails digging into my arms. I don’t give, though. I hoist myself up farther, twisting my legs round her waist to keep me elevated, and for once I am tall, taller than 5’2”.
“You’re a filthy little bitch,” Abril hisses, arching her back and nearly dislodging me. “If I—if I had my mace-”
I tighten my grip, muffling her words. “You’d be dead, because I’d have stuck you already,” is my reply before she pushes backward. We fall to the floor and I hit the matt hard, crushed beneath her lean, sharp shoulders. Then we roll, a grunting, snarling tangle of hair and eyes and bared teeth and bloody nails. She manages to get to her knees, though, and when she does she begins to slam me onto the ground repeatedly, knocking the breath from my lungs. But I just grit my teeth and press my arm against her throat as tight as I possibly can. Persevere, persevere, persevere. You’re stubborn, Clove, you’re stubborn—you can do this.
Soon she starts to weaken, but still she slams me and I know I can’t keep this up much longer; can’t volunteer with a concussion, can I? In a last ditch attempt, I reach my hand over towards her smooth brown collar, loosening my grip, feeling around until I find it. Then I jab my finger into the pressure point and Abril collapses, unconscious.
The room has gone quiet; I notice this as soon as I separate myself and stand up. I do have friends, at least companions who I socialize with occasionally, but they’re not cheering for me anymore, not now—I suppose they never actually thought I’d make it.
“Well,” stutters Judah, glancing between me and his current sex toy, who is still crumpled, now drooling upon the ground, “I… I don’t-” he looks up at the Wardens. “Can she really be a tribute? She’s only sixteen…”
“Absolutely not,” Rafe, the chief Warden says. She is severe and solemn, looking down from the elevated balcony with prim distaste. “It’s against regulations.”
“I’ve trained longer than any of them!” This pours from my mouth before I can stop it. “Age means nothing!”
“You’ll be slaughtered and we will have to deal with the reproductions,” she counters.
“Just let her go.”
This voice belongs to neither Warden Rafe nor Judah. It’s familiar to me, though. I follow it to its source.
“She’s trained with the eighteens and harder than a lot of them—I don’t think her age makes much of a difference,” Cato says. He must be the Selected for this year’s Games—why else would he be with the Wardens? But why the hell is he vouching for me? We knew each other once, but that was a very long time ago; surely he’s forgotten? He’s grown since the last time I saw him, in both width and height. Broad shoulders, long legs, cropped, pale blonde hair; certainly not the same boy I knew from the community home, not the same boy who partially witnessed It. The thing that changed everything, changed my life, my emotions, me. But then again, I’m not that same girl either, am I?
He meets my gaze for a moment, and I’m not sure who breaks first—either way, we both duck our heads and look away almost immediately. It’s inevitable, of course: we both know he fucked up and there is nothing he can ever do to go back and change what happened.
While this is taking place, Rafe narrows her eyes and exchanges murmured words between the other Wardens. My chest is tight and my heart’s in my mouth and I don’t know whether I want to scream or simply punch someone in the face. I do neither, though—just stand here in the center of the dueling ring, the only movement being Abril as she comes to her senses, disgruntled and petulant. The other eighteens are silent for the most part, though there are still occasional muffled comments exchanged between girls; I pay them no heed.
Finally—good God, finally—they stand and stare me down for a moment. All these eyes on me, scrutinizing me like this, makes my skin crawl a bit. I don’t like being regarded as a piece of meat.
“Clove Lozier,” Warden Rafe says, “do you swear to strive to bring honor to your district, even at the cost of your life?”
I nod automatically.
“Will you play by the rules and regulations of the Hunger Games and fight with valor, cleverness and veneration, despite the pain and temptations that await you as tribute?”
Warden Rafe presses a button and the balcony lowers itself slowly until it’s at the same level as the dueling square. I approach her, as I’ve seen so many other girls do, and take her hand: the act of sealing my loyalty. Her fingers are slender and cold and wrinkled and I hope that she cannot see the gooseflesh crawling up my arms.
“You’re ready, then?”
“I am, Madame. I’ve trained six years for this, and I will not dishonor your name or the name of District Two.” I hope my voice sounds steadier than I feel. I don’t doubt my capabilities nor do I doubt my allegiance, but there’s this flicker of uncertainty now: I’m really doing this. I’m going to be killing children in a few weeks time, but this is what I’ve been trained to do since pre-pubescence. This is how I will claw myself out of a veritable hell, how I will validate the meaning of six years of bloody knuckles, broken noses, split lips, fractured ribs. This is how I will prove that a Lozier can win, that Lochlan didn’t die for nothing.
When we’re done shaking, I bow my head to the other Wardens and try not to look at Cato. Thinking of him makes me think of It, and thinking of It makes me feel weak, and if I feel weak, they might notice it in my face. Then they will see past everything that I have layered upon my surface, tear down my walls, and the eight years I’ve spent building them up will be confirmed to be futile. Utterly futile.
“Now,” Warden Rafe says, breaking my concentration, “you may return to your chamber for fifteen minutes to gather what you will need for the Reaping. Then you and your district partner will be escorted to the Tribute Quarters, where you will spend the night before the reaping.” She looks from I to Cato in a businesslike manner. “You will be awoken at eight AM and driven to the town square, where you will volunteer accordingly. I hope to see courage and fierceness from you both: make our Academy and our district proud.”
The Tribute Quarters is the small apartment attached to the west wing of the academy. It’s only used once a year, to keep the two volunteers separated from the rest of the student body—evidently a boy was killed in his chamber by one of his competitors twenty or thirty years ago, and thus the Quarters were erected as a precautionary measure. The competition here is cutthroat, and I’m honestly—in the back of my mind—relieved for this separation, for I can see Abril glaring at me from the peripheries of my vision. She would snap my neck in an instant if it didn’t run the risk of her being expelled and beaten by the Supervisors’ clubs. That’s generally the punishment for excessive violence here: cracking a few ribs or breaking a bone is generally overlooked, or even smiled upon by some of the more vindictive trainers (“It’s excellent practice—a good way to apply yourself!”), but the infliction of more lethal damage will inevitably lead to expulsion and, in the most vicious cases, stringent punishment. Occasionally, if the murder is brutal enough, a friend or family member of the victim is allowed to kill the perpetrator: an eye for an eye, so to speak. It’s generally a public event; I’ve witnessed two.
The walk to my chamber is broken between congratulations from peers and scowls from opponents—Abril even goes so far as to shove me in one of the hallways, but my appointed bodyguard throws her aside as if she were a child’s plaything.
“I’ll cheer when you’re killed,” she spits after me. “But at least I’ll have the satisfaction in knowing that, when you’re body’s shipped back in the box, there will be nobody to claim it, just like your broth-”
I spin round and punch her as hard as I’ve ever hit anyone before. My hand meets her nose and there is a satisfying crack, seconds before a faucet of red begins dribbling down her chin. I push her into the wall, though I have to get onto the tips of my toes to keep her there—I’ve got the collar of her training jacket gripped tight in my fingers.
“I should kill you,” I hiss, hitting her against the paneling again. “But if I did, I’d be expelled. Say one more word about Lochlan, Abril—one more word and your teeth will be next. Come on, I dare you. Say one more word about my brother.”
Her brown eyes are wide and frightened like that of a cornered animal, framed by blood and dark, glossy curls. Perhaps if she had sneered at me I would have beat her face in, anyway, but this terror, so alien and childlike, makes me balk, and I release her, step away.
“Not so tough anymore, are you?” I ask. “I hope your nose stays crooked—perhaps now Judah will find a prettier whore to play with.”
She wipes the blood from her chin, the fear ebbing, replaced by umbrage and resentment, but speaks no further, and like a cat that has just been kicked, she slinks off sulkily. My bodyguard says nothing as we turn back down the hall, seemingly unperturbed by this scuffle and exchange of death threats. This, after all, if a relatively common occurrence at Amsteel.
The door shuts behind me, leaving me alone in my chamber. I glance round at the drab steel walls, the cast-iron bed frame, the small, circular window that looks out onto Amsteel’s concrete courtyard and it’s high walls, topped off by electrified barb wire—I’d often lay in bed and listen to the quiet hum, waiting for it to lull me to sleep. This place has been my home for six years, and yet the more I see, the more I take it in as I am doing now, the more it looks like a prison. I sit upon the hard mattress and run my hand along the sheets, looking round at the room I have slept in every night since I was selected from the community home, and I know now that I won’t miss it. I can’t miss something that has no character, no impression of myself—it’s forbidden to customize your quarters here; uniform compliance is essential.
But we are allowed to keep a box for special things and belongings we have found and collected over the years. The idea behind this is to give us a selection of things that could potentially be our district token if the time came; for the most part, Amsteel discourages tokens that can be used as weapons, such as hidden poison or pins. We’re careers, after all—we’re supposed to be honorable, at least those of us from Two, and there really is no need for extra assistance; we have built-in sponsors and generally complete control over the cornucopia. Hidden weapons are silly and infantile, like a child trying to sneak candy from a store. So when I get my own box, a little cared, mahogany thing, I know exactly what I’m taking.
“Lochlan, please, please don’t go there! You’re too kind to be one of them!”
The boy holds the weeping girl in his arms, his nose in her hair, waiting for her to calm down. It takes awhile—desperation makes her incoherent. The boy is sixteen, the girl seven, and yet he seems so much older and she so much younger.
“I have to go,” he says softly, running his gentle fingers through her tresses. “While I’m there, the Academy will send you food and other things, to support you while I’m gone. I’ve been selected, they want me, Clove. If I can volunteer when I’m eighteen, if I can win, we’ll have a nice big house and you’ll never, ever have to look at this place again. I promise.”
She pulls away from him, tears pausing on her freckled cheek. “But when can I see you? You’ll be training so much…”
“Once a year.”
Her throat tightens and she can hardly speak. “No, no, that’s not enough! Please, please don’t leave me here, I need you!”
She’s beginning to sob again and the boy takes her small face in his hands. They are warm and calloused, familiar. Comfort washes over her immediately.
“Everything will be all right,” he tells her. “Perhaps I won’t be selected for the Games—they still give us money to live off of when we graduate. Then I’ll come back for you, Clove, you know I will. I always come back. That’s what big brothers do—we come back.” He leans forward and presses his forehead against hers, their dark hair meshing, their blue eyes just centimeters in separation. Their only difference is her freckles—she got them from her father, whoever he was. The father of her brother was a drug addict. Their common link had been severed when she was born, premature, to an alcohol-wasted prostitute, their mother. She never got to hold her crying, freckled daughter in her arms because she was already dead. But then there was Lochlan. There was always Lochlan.
Suddenly, the girl feels something being tied to her wrist, and she opens her eyes, looks down. Her brother has fastened a little twine bracelet with red beads to her wrist, his mouth pulled up in a melancholy smile. “I made it. For you.” He kisses her once on her forehead, once on her nose. “To show you you’re not alone. You’re never, ever alone; just remember I love you and that I’m coming back soon. Clove. Clove, listen to me—listen to me. I’ll come back for you. I will. Don’t cry.”
“Come on, we don’t have all day,” one of the Scouters says, re-entering the hallway where they were saying goodbye.
The boy stands up but his sister clings to him, wrapping her thin arms round his waist. “Don’t go, Lochlan, don’t go, don’t go, I love you! I love you, don’t go, don’t leave me here alone—I need you! You’re all I have!”
He bends down and pulls her into a tight embrace, so tight that it hurts, but she never wants him to let go. She clutches the flannel of his shirt tight in her hands, frantic, distressed—of all the people in the world, why did it have to be him, the only person she had ever loved, the only person that she could not imagine living without?
Cold panic grips her as he starts to move away from her—no, no, no, no! She says it over and over again, but he squirms loose of her, taking her face, kissing her, telling her to be strong and clever. But now he is leaving, going away, and one of the home’s staff is holding her back as she watches her beloved brother walk out the door. A few moments pass but she finally breaks free and tears down the hallway, into the front yard of the building. As she presses her smudged, puffy face against the wrought-iron gates, she can see him climbing into the automobile.
“Lochlan!” she screams. “Lochlan please! Lochlan! Don’t go, don’t go!”
He turns his head for a moment and tears are running down his cheeks. And then, just like that, he’s gone.
The girl bangs her fists against the bars and screams until she can taste blood in her mouth, screams until her lungs are about to shatter and deflate. The staff try to hold her again but she squirms and wrestles and thrashes until she is loose. She runs to the girl’s lavatory, locks herself in one of the stalls, and weeps until her strength fails her and she falls to the grimy tiles.
I slip the little twine bracelet onto my wrist—it’s tighter than it was the last time I wore it. Then again, six years changes things. The string is rough and warm, like him. You’re not alone, you’re not alone. For a while I simply sit upon my bed, rubbing my token and staring out the window. Was this how he felt? The night before his games? Had he been afraid, or had he been indifferent, like me? I’m not excited like some of our past tributes—I don’t look forward to slaughtering kids my age, even younger, sometimes. But it’s a necessary act, the only way. I’ll even have to kill Cato, if I make it that far. I suppose it wouldn’t be incredibly hard; just pretend he’s a training mannequin, just a soulless, characterless piece of plastic. That’s how much we’re supposed to value human life here. And maybe I might even enjoy it a little; he may not remember what that boy did to me, but I do. I do, and he could have stopped it. Maybe I’ll tell him that while I throw my knife at his chest.