I hear gasps and murmurs from all around the crowd. I look up towards Katniss. She is looking straight ahead, shock and disbelief engraved on her face. I’m having a hard time believing it myself. This is only Prim’s first year, meaning her name is only in the reaping ball once. Unless, of course, she signed up for a tessara, but I doubt Katniss would ever allow her to do that, not when she could sign up for it herself. I see Prim walking slowly and silently down the aisle leading up to the stage. She doesn’t cry, but you can see that the blood has drained from her face. Then I see Katniss moving toward her, slowly at first, then turning into a run, pushing people out of the way, crying her sister’s name.
“Prim! Prim!” Katniss screeches, almost choking. The crowd makes way for her as she runs to her sister, stepping in front of her and shielding her with her arms. As if to say Don’t take her. Take me instead. “I volunteer!” She screams in desperation. “I volunteer as tribute!”
A rumble of confusion. The gasps of the crowd. Prim’s screams of retaliation. I can’t believe what’s just happened. For a moment I’m convinced I’m back in my nightmare. District Twelve has never had a volunteer, at least not as long as I’ve been alive.
Effie seems at a loss for words. When she begins speaking, I can’t even tell what she says, still in shock from the sudden turn of events. Unlike some districts, where eligible kids train for their whole lives and then willingly volunteer, District 12 has never been that way. Representing your district in the Games is not an honor. Rather, it’s a death sentence. And we know it. Therefore, everyone seems to have forgotten how the volunteering process works, even Effie. As she fumbles for the words and tries to remember the official process, the Mayor brushes her off, saying, “What does is matter?” He’s right. One thing is for sure: Katniss is District 12’s female tribute for the 74th annual Hunger Games.
Risking her own life to save her sisters is a possibility I never would’ve imagined even in my worst nightmares, though it’s something I would never put past her. As long as she’s alive, Katniss will always protect her sister. Always.
Prim’s screaming slaps me back to reality. She’s clinging to her big sister. “No, Katniss!” She screams, “No! You can’t go!”
Katniss kneels down and says something to Prim, trying to wriggle through her tight grip, but I can’t hear her from this distance. Gale steps in and gently picks Prim up to keep her from fighting. She’s still screaming and squirming, trying to escape his firm yet caring grasp. Gale says something to Katniss, nodding toward the stage. I can tell he’s trying hard to hide his shock as well. He carries the protesting Prim away, and Katniss bravely marches forward to the stage.
Effie pipes up. “Well, bravo! That’s the spirit of the Games!” She says excitedly, giving a little clap. “What’s your name?”
“Katniss Everdeen.” Her voice is hollow.
“I bet my buttons that was your sister,” Effie says, jolly as always, as if a family hadn’t just been torn apart and loved one’s lives ruined forever. “Don’t want her to steal all the glory, do we? Come on everybody! Let’s give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!”
The square is completely silent. No one claps. Steal all the glory? Effie’s comment makes Katniss’ actions seem selfish, as if she wanted this. But we all know that there is nothing good about the Games; no glory and no prize could ever make up for the cost, the trauma. No, Katniss didn’t do it for attention or glory. She did it out of love, bravery, and sacrifice. Suddenly, everyone in the crowd, beginning with one or two people and then rippling through the masses until everyone has joined, begins to touch the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips, and we hold them out to Katniss. This is a very old District Twelve salute, a heartfelt sign of respect, appreciation, and an admirable goodbye, like something at a war funeral. I join in the salute, a final goodbye to the girl I’d never had the courage to tell the truth about how I feel.
Just then, bringing an end to the silence, drunken Haymitch staggers across the stage over to Katniss. He gives her a congratulatory clap on the shoulder and throws an arm around her. “Look at her! Look at this one! I like her!” He slurs. Katniss cringes at the smell of his breath. “Lots of….” Haymitch pauses, searching for the right word.”Spunk!” He concludes as he let’s go of Katniss and stumbles towards the front of the stage. He points into the camera that is recording us at this very moment. “More than you-” he yells, “-more than you!” He seems to be trying to mock whoever is watching. The other districts? The Capitol? Who knows. He takes another wobbly step forward and falls right off the stage. I can see a group of Peacekeepers approaching him with a stretcher in hand, plopping him on and carrying his unconscious body away from the scene.
Effie Trinket seems rather pleased with today’s events. I’m sure she didn’t wake up this morning expecting such a show, especially from District 12. “What an exciting day!” She says. “But more excitement to come! It’s time to choose our boy tribute!”
I bite my lip, feel my chest clench up. Now more than ever I hope I’m not picked. If I live, that means Katniss dies. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, stand being put in an arena and forced to kill her. I would kill myself first. I just hope that she will win and come back to me. Maybe then I would have the courage to tell her what I never could before.
Effie walks over dramatically, knowing every eye and every camera is on her. Each tap of her heels feels like a stab to my chest. She sticks her hand into the reaping ball and picks out the first slip she touches. Then she walks back to the microphone to read it, and my heart begins beating so fast that the blood pulsing through it is all I can seem to hear. Faintly, as if it were miles away, I hear Effie speak.
I hear my name. It’s as if I’m underwater, people murmuring all around me but I can’t make out what they’re saying. But that can’t be, it’s nearly impossible. Thousands of slips, only five with my name on it. Just as I convince myself that I’ve misheard her, everyone turns to look at me. Oh no. I’m District Twelve’s other tribute.
I hear Effie again, much clearer now. “Where are you, Peeta Mellark?” She says, teasingly.
The crowd makes way for me, their expressions filled with anywhere from relief to anguish. I pass a sea of familiar faces. Friends, classmates, customers from the bakery. I make it to the aisle and walk up to the stage stiffly, shock still engraved on my face. I try my best to contain my emotions, resisting the urge to scream, to cry, to simply make a run for it. I step up onto the stage, joining Katniss, Effie, and Mayor Undersee.
“Does anyone wish to volunteer for Peeta Mellark?”
She is answered with complete silence. No one in their right mind would want to take my place. I search the crowd for my brothers, my dad, my mom, but I can’t find them in the sea of faces.
The mayor steps forward and reads the same old, boring Treaty of Treason like he does every year, but I’m far beyond listening. I’ve given up trying to locate my family and stare blankly at a spot far off in the distance. I’m snapped back into reality when the mayor tells us to shake hands. I turn to Katniss and take her right hand in mine. Before we let go, I squeeze her hand, hoping to be as reassuring as possible, but I know it’s to no avail. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can heal the pieces that have already been broken. She’s looking at me, and a sense of recognition shows in her expression.
Though we’ve hardly ever spoken, there was one day, years ago, that I remember so vividly, and by the look in her eyes at this moment, she does too. Katniss and I were both 11 years old. Her father had been killed in the mine accident a few months earlier, and they had no income, no one to take care of them. Her mother didn’t work, Katniss was too young to sign up for tessarae, and they were slowly running out of food, money, and hope. She tried to keep it quiet, tried to do as best she could to single-handedly support her family. But after hearing about her dad passing away, I made an effort to keep an eye on her. I felt an obligation to, afraid no one else would. She would come to school, looking more and more miserable each day. Her face was sallow, her skin clung to her bones. She looked like she hadn’t eaten or slept in days. I so desperately wanted to help her, but I was afraid. My mother would kill me if I tried to steal food from our own bakery to give away to someone from Katniss’ end of town, the “Seam brats,” as my mother called them.
One night in mid-january I was downstairs in the bakery, helping to finish up the last batch of the day. Rain was coming down in cold, heavy sheets outside. I stood by the heat of the fire, content to be inside next to its warm glow.
My peace was quickly interrupted by the sound of my mother, who was yelling out the back door at someone outside. “Get out of here you filthy Seam brat! I’m sick of you bums pawing through my trash!” I peered out the window to see the culprit. It was Katniss. She was peeking in our trash bin, trying to find something, anything, that she could feed her family with. “Do you want me to call the Peacekeepers, report you for stealing? They’ll put you out of your misery if that’s what you want,” my mother taunted maniacally, as if Katniss were a stray, diseased animal scrounging for food. I peered at her from behind my mother’s back as she replaced the trash can lid and backed away. My mom returned to the kitchen, muttering obscenities under her breath. But I stayed by the door, watching Katniss stagger weakly away until she couldn’t take it anymore and collapsed against an old apple tree behind our pig pen.
My mother called me inside to take the loaves out of the oven and I followed, aching for Katniss, wishing there was something I could do. I put on my mitts and as I started to pull out the two loaves, I had an idea. As if by a clumsy accident, I dropped the loaves into the fire, then quickly dished them out again to correct my mistake. My mom, hearing the clatter, rushed over to where I was, saw the burnt bread in my hands, and reacted just as I’d expected her to.
“Peeta what the hell is your problem? I ask you to take the bread out of the oven and you burn it! It’s not a very hard task, I thought even you could handle it!” She shoved me out the door, continuing to yell about how much money I’d cost them, how I wouldn’t be eating breakfast the next day. She had a rolling pin in her right hand and raised it to hit me hard across the face. I could feel my eye and cheekbone throbbing, moved my hands to my face to defend myself, and I tried as hard as I could not to cry out from the pain.
She shoved me outside into the pouring rain. I walked over to the pig pen as my mother yelled from the doorway. “Feed it to the pig, you stupid creature! Why not? No one decent will buy burned bread!” I tore off chunks of the burned parts, tossing them into the trough as the pigs began to feast. I heard the chime of a bell, a customer, and the slam of the back door as my mom went back inside. I glanced back towards the door and then, seeing that the coast was clear, I tossed both loaves in Katniss’ direction. She looked at me in disbelief, confused as to why I was helping her. With my mission accomplished, I walked back into the bakery, glancing back only for a moment to see Katniss tucking the loaves into her jacket.
I saw her in school the next day. It seemed as if the life had returned to her eyes, just as the life was returning to the world around us. All of a sudden the flowers were in bloom, the sun was shining, and I saw Katniss smile for the first time in months. I could’ve sworn I caught her eye and saw her gaze settle on the purple welt on my cheek, the prize from the dreary night before.
As I look into her deep grey eyes in this moment as we break off our handshake, I can still see the girl from five years ago. Still poor, still desperate, still doing everything it takes to help her family. But now she is much stronger, much braver, and much more determined than before. If she’s my enemy in the Games, I don’t stand a chance.Add to favorites