Chapter 1

 

The shining blade spins past me in a blur of silver. It flies towards Katniss, barley missing her head, and sticks into a tree with a thunk. Shock floods her face, and she bolts off. The knife’s owner runs to retrieve her blade and takes off after Katniss, who is running as fast as she can, her bow in hand. She reaches into her quiver for an arrow when suddenly, she trips on a tree root. Her bow, her lifeline, flies out of her hands as she falls to the ground. She just has enough time to roll over and look up before the other girl catches up, knife in hand, poised to attack.

I awake frantically in a cold sweat. This dream has been haunting my sleep these last few nights, each time becoming more and more realー so real I’m afraid that when I open my eyes, my dreams will come to life, and I’ll be in the middle of it all. This dream made my heart plummet like no other had. Jarring, violent, like a battle stirring inside your chest. Every night I watch as Katniss gets chased down, and I always awake right before she’s killed, each night in a different and more gruesome way. These nightmares seem to be trying to tell me something. Then I roll over in my bed and realize: the reaping is today. I sure hope I’m not right.

Downstairs I hear my mom calling my name. You can tell by the tone in her voice that she’s been hollering at me longer than she can stand. She’s screaming in an almost murderous voice now, “Peeta get your buns down here right now! I’m warning you! If you’re not down here by the time I count to ten, I’m gonna throw that lazy butt of yours into the oven and feed you to the pigs!”

I know she’s not kidding. Well, maybe she’s exaggerating a little, but she won’t hesitate to give me a nice hard swat with her good friend the rolling pin. I can tell that I’m not her favorite kid. That’s why she’s yelling at me instead of my brothers, who are still drooling on their pillows. I swing my legs over the bed and clobber down the stairs. Five… six… seven… eight…

With two seconds to spare, I arrive in the kitchen. “Peeta will it kill you to learn how to walk like a human being instead of an elephant?” My mother sneers. “If you get picked today and you walk like that in the arena, you’ll be the first dead for sure.”

“Wow, gee, thanks for the encouragement, mom,” I say. “I’ll definitely keep it in mind.”

My mother disregards my back talk. “Your father has been up for hours and he needs your help getting things prepped for today. Just because the reaping is this afternoon doesn’t mean the work stops.”

Our family owns the bakery in town, and we’re always up at the crack of dawn so that we can have fresh baked goods on the shelves and ready before we open. We live above the shop, and every day I get to wake up to the smell of cookies in the oven. Today the smell is more bittersweet than usual, because I know that there’s a chance, however small, that this will be my last morning here.

Some of the cakes I finished yesterday are displayed in the window, decorated in colorful flowers and intricate designs. Decorating is my favorite job, and it’s usually reserved for me since I’ve turned out to have quite the knack for it. The customers always comment on them and passers-by often stop to look. Too bad hardly anybody can afford them.

I take an apron off the coat rack, shake it out, and put it on. My dad instructs me to go fetch some more flour from the storage room. I grab a large bag, probably weighing about a hundred pounds, and sling it over my shoulder to bring into the kitchen. After years of having to haul these around, I’ve become pretty strong and well built, which might serve me well if indeed the odds aren’t in my favor today.

Then I hear a knock at the door. Who could it be at this time of the day? The sun is just starting to come out, and the reaping doesn’t begin until two o’clock. Most people try to sleep in; that is, if they can survive their nightmares. My father goes over to the door and opens it. It’s Gale, Katniss’ best friend and hunting partner. We’re not really friends, but we see each other at school now and then. He gives me a nod which I return. Then he looks back up at my father.

“What brings you here today, boy?” My dad says

“Sorry to interrupt you so early, sir. I was just trying to see what I could get for this,” he holds up a dead squirrel.

“Oh,” My dad turns around and grabs a small loaf of bread from a basket, leftovers from yesterday, but still good. “Here, take this.”

He gives him the bread, Gale handing over the squirrel in return.

“Thank you, this is very generous,” Gale says.

“Well, everybody feels a little closer today, don’t they?” My father responds with sympathy.

“Yeah, they do,” Gale says solemnly, his eyes dropping to look at his feet.

“Well, hurry along now. Good luck today lad. Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favor.”

“Thank you very much, sir.” He nods his head and walks away.

“I wonder what he was doing out this early,” my father says to me. I simply shrug my shoulders.”You know, stuff like that breaks my heart,” my father continues. “That poor kid has probably signed up for two dozen tessare just to feed his family. He’s going to need all the luck in the world today.”

I nod my head in solemn agreement. During the reaping, two kids, a boy and a girl from each district between the ages twelve and eighteen, are chosen at random out of two large glass balls. They are filled with tiny slips of paper with the children’s names written on them. The number of times your name is in there depends on two things: firstly, your age. When you turn twelve, your name goes in once. When you turn thirteen, twice, and so on until you reach 18. When you turn 19, you are no longer eligible and your name is out of the reaping ball for good. But, say you are like Katniss or Gale’s family, and you don’t have enough to eat. You can sign up for something called a tessera. This gives you a year’s supply of grain and oil for one person, but it costs you one more slip of paper with your name on it in the reaping ball. I’ve never had to sign up for tesserae, so I have better odds than a lot of people. My name will be in the reaping ball five times today. But, there’s still that tiny chance, five in a couple thousand, that I could get picked, and all I can think today is please don’t be me, please don’t be me. And then there’s Katniss, the girl I’ve had a crush on for so long, who doesn’t have the odds in her favor. I worry about her more than anyone. If her name is pulled, I don’t know what I would do. Because the fate of the two kids selected, called “tributes,” is a fight to the death. Twenty-four tributes go in, only one comes out. The reaping is like a lottery that no one wants to win.

My dad snaps me out of my trance and hands me a pan of sugar cookies, fresh from the oven. “Frost these,” he says. “Maybe some flowers or something happy. Just do your thing.”

I take the pan and set them down on a table next to the window looking over the square. I pull up a stool and begin to frost. A pointed tip and some soft yellow piping give me a  textured dandelion. A smooth tip and some deep red frosting give me a rose. It reminds me of the Capitol and our dictating president, President Snow, who has a strong passion for roses and his own personal greenhouse outside of his mansion. I frost wide white petals with pale pink and brown speckles, a lily. I have created a bed of flower cookies and packaged them in small white boxes when I hear the clock chime that signals it’s 11:00. The reaping starts in three hours.

“Peeta, wake your brothers! They need to get ready!” My mother yells from the back room as she helps my father knead dough. “I don’t want them running to the square at the last minute like last year!”

I run upstairs to the room that my brothers and I share. Rotee, who’s 21 now, lays sprawled over his mattress snoring obnoxiously. Next to him is my 18-year-old brother Ryean, sleeping soundly, occasionally twitching. I try to gently shake them awake, but despite my mother allowing them to sleep in instead of me, they try to slap my hands away, grunting and complaining. In one final effort, I roll Rotee out of bed and he falls to the floor making a loud thud.

“What is going on up there?” My mother screams savagely.

Rotee and Ryean snap awake, intimidated by my mother’s threatening tone. “Nothing,” we all say in unison.

While my brothers collect themselves I run to be the first one in the shower. I quickly rinse myself off, scrubbing the flour and dried icing from my skin and shampooing my short blonde waves of hair. When I emerge from the bathroom, my brothers battle to be the next one in.

Since today is the reaping, you’re expected to look and dress your best, which, to us, isn’t much. All I have are some hand-me-down black pants and a pale blue button down shirt. I dress quickly and run a comb through my hair, then make my way back downstairs for a quick breakfast.

I get out a bruised apple, an old roll, and some goat cheese. Most of what we eat is the stuff that’s too old to sell. We don’t want to waste food, but we reserve the quality stuff for customers or special occasions. I cut the apple into slices, smother the roll in cheese and top it with the apples. I sink my teeth into my breakfast, finally realizing the grumbling of my stomach. But I really shouldn’t complain. Most people in District Twelve, my home, go hungry. At least I have enough to eat. We’re one of the poorest districts, and left and right there are people dropping dead from starvation. Families struggle to feed their children, single moms can’t keep up, people too old to work can hardly afford a grain of rice. I’m lucky, and because my family owns the bakery, we at least have some income and a steady supply of food.

By the time my brothers are showered and dressed, it’s nearly time to go. The reaping takes place in the town square, just steps from out front door, and through the windows I can already see kids lining up.

My mom and dad are bustling, cleaning up the bakery. I grab a wet cloth and wipe the flour covered counters, then take a broom and sweep the floor.

“Go on boys, we’ll meet you there. Go sign in,” our dad says as he ushers us out the door. “Oh, and good luck,” he adds.

The square is almost full. Most people get here an hour early since there’s a long line to sign in. If you’re not at the reaping and don’t have a good excuse, which boils down to either dying or dead, you’ll be arrested. We reach the front of the line within about fifteen minutes and sign in. This allows the Capitol to keep track of the population in the districts. The kids eligible are filed into roped off sections for each age group. The eighteens in the front, the twelves near the back. I head to the sixteen-year-old’s section and Ryean to the eighteens. Rotee meets my parents at the back behind the twelves where the parents and bystanders watch.

        I look up at the stage over the heads of the other kids. The two large glass reaping balls are filled almost to the brim with those tiny slips with our names written on them. There must be thousands in there. I wonder who will have their life destroyed today by one slip of paper. Please don’t be me. Please don’t be me.

Behind the reaping balls sit three chairs. Two occupied, one empty. In one of the chairs sits the mayor, Mayor Undersee. A simple, tall, nearly bald man. Next to him sits his complete opposite. It’s Effie Trinket, District 12’s escort. She arrived from the Capitol this morning, and you can tell she feels anything but at home. She sticks out like a sore thumb: dressed in a bright green, tight suit embellished with flowers and pins, and atop her head sits a freakish curly pink wig, which seems to be her signature accessory. She and the Mayor exchange glances and anxiously look at the empty seat.

The clock strikes two, and Mayor Undersee decides not to wait for the person expected to occupy the third chair. He walks up to a podium set between the two glass balls and begins to read in a clear, authoritative voice from a sheet of paper. It says the same thing it does every year: how the Hunger Games began seventy-four years ago at the end of the Dark Days, a period in which thirteen districts began an uprising against the Capitol. The Capitol defeated the districts, completely destroying the thirteenth. Then came the Treaty of Treason, an agreement between the Capitol and the remaining twelve districts. It gave us our laws that would help keep peace and, to remind us to never repeat what happened during the Dark Days, the Hunger Games was created.

The districts are punished for the Dark Days by being forced to provide two “tributes,” one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to take part in the Hunger Games. They are put into a huge outdoor arena, which changes every year, and over several weeks, they must fight to the death. The last tribute alive is the winner, the Victor. The whole event is televised, so that we can all experience the horrors of watching our children, loved ones, classmates, and friends die before our eyes. It’s a reminder to all the Districts that the Capitol still has complete control over us. That no matter what we do, they always win. That if we so much as though about another rebellion, they could obliterate us in an instant.

The lone Victor of the Games receives prizes and riches: a nice house in Victor’s Village, all the money you could ever need, and food and delicacies for everyone in their district. The prospect of a Victor is what the Capitol uses to treat the Hunger Games as an event, where everybody places their bets, picks their favorites, and cheers them on as they kill innocent people. But they have no choice. It’s kill or be killed, and no matter who you are going into the games, no one is ever the same coming out.

As the mayor talks, I look around the square at the tense faces of all the kids. I can’t help thinking that two of them will have to be put through the worst trauma imaginable. I find Katniss a few rows ahead of me and to the right, also in the roped off area for the sixteens. She’s looking around too, no doubt for Gale. She must be really worried about him. His name must be in there dozens of time. Then again, so is hers. But Katniss isn’t one to worry about herself. I bring my focus back to the stage as Mayor Undersee finishes up his mandatory speech.

The mayor now reads off all the previous District 12 victors, which doesn’t take very long. In the 74 years since the Games began we’ve only had two, and just one is still alive: Haymitch Abernathy. Upon hearing his name, Haymitch staggers out onto the stage yelling slurs, and he collapses into the third chair. As usual, he’s drunk, really drunk. Every Victor has a coping mechanism, something to help them forget what they’ve been through. For Haymitch, it’s alcohol, and lots of it. He leans over and tries to give Effie what could be a hug, but she starts fending him off like a cat. God forbid he mess up her wig. I can almost hear the laughter from all of Panem, watching this reaping, which at this very moment is being televised. No wonder District 12 is the laughing stock of the whole country.

When he’s finished and there’s a dull applause for Haymitch, the mayor gestures towards Effie and introduces her. “As always, the lovely Miss Effie Trinket will select this year’s District Twelve tributes.”

Effie happily hops out of her chair, delighted to be away from Haymitch, who I can imagine doesn’t smell too pleasant. She walks up to the podium in her pointy high heels and taps the microphone with her long, perfectly manicured nails. As always, she starts off with her cheerful “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor! I am so excited to be here once again. And I’m happy to have the honor to select the District 12 tributes for the 74th annual Hunger Games.” She pauses, as if expecting applause, but none follows. “Ladies first!”

Please don’t pick Katniss, please don’t pick Katniss. I can hear Effie’s shoes tapping on the stage as she walks to the glass ball on the right and then back over to the podium with the slip of paper she has selected. She smooths it out and announces the name.

“Primrose-“

I let out a sigh of relief upon hearing the first syllable out of Effie’s mouth, knowing it’s not Katniss.

“-Everdeen.”

Primrose Everdeen? It takes me a moment for the name to register in my brain, then it dawns on me. The only thing worse than Katniss’ name being selected is the name of the person she loves more than anything in the world: her 12-year old little sister.

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