Even though it goes against my Katniss Guideline – not to look at her too often of she'll get that edgy suspicious look about her – I can't help but look. The unhappy voices from the crowd arose, as they always do whenever twelve-year-olds get chosen, but Katniss seemed to hear none of it. Her face was devoid of color, and she stood frozen. I have the thought that one hard breath will make her tumble over, which is a rare thing to say about Katniss, as she always looks so tough. Even when she's by herself at school.
I look away from her and, along with everyone else, at her little sister, Prim, who's making her way to the stage. She's so tiny, I think, and there's a stirring inside me at this injustice. I don't really know Prim, not the way many others do, certainly not the way Katniss does, but I know she's the sweetest little girl. We wave to each other when she looks in the bakery windows at my cakes. She's extremely well loved in this town.
By the time Prim has reached the stage, Katniss lets out a strangled yell, "Prim!" Now all eyes, including mine, are on her again, and she cries out her sister's name in a clearer voice, running up to where her sister stands. I know where she's going with this before she says, "I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!"
Both Effie Trinket and Mayor Undersee are clearly confused right now, as District 12 hasn't had a volunteer in a very long time. Not in my lifetime, that's for sure. We all know the procedure, though, as there are volunteers in several districts every year. In the Career tribute's districts, 1, 2 and 4, there's somewhat of a complicated procedure that none of us really knows, because there are a lot of people there who want to be the tribute.
Considering District 12 has only ever had two winners in the past seventy-three years, saying you'll volunteer to be a tribute is the sane as saying you volunteer to be killed.
There's a terrible crushing in my stomach and somewhat of a roaring in my ears as I watch the scene of Prim grabbing at Katniss' dress, yelling her name, saying she can't go. Gale Hawthorne appears and pulls Prim back, leaving Katniss to walk up onstage.
I feel like I'm losing someone precious, someone vital to my life, even though she probably has no clue who I am. I've never even talked to Katniss, but I feel like I'm near tears because I'm almost certain she won't be coming home. She's a tough girl, a hunter, but she hasn't trained the way Career tributes have trained. I'm suddenly so angry at myself for never telling her how I feel, never letting her know that I've liked her since we were five. I've lost my chance and Katniss has practically signed a death warrant. This entire thing, these games, they just aren't fair.
It's not surprising when no one in the crowd claps for her braveness when Effie Trinket commends it. We never clap here. Because we know that this is wrong. It is surprising when the crowd takes up a District 12 salute. It's a rarely used gesture on someone who's still living, and even though it's a surprise, I'm among the first to press my three fingers to my mouth and hold them out to her, my mind screaming that even though she has no idea, I've always been here for her.
I can feel my throat clogging up from the tears I want to shed but can't. My friends, my family, except for possibly my father, they all have no clue how I feel about Katniss. How could they, when I've kept it one of my most well-hidden secrets? The salute begins to ebb as Haymitch makes a typical Haymitch Abernathy scene: putting his arm around Katniss, then plummeting off the stage.
Now most people look at him, including the cameras, but I still look at her. She'd had a brave face on, when she took Prim's place, when the salute was given to her, when Haymitch did his thing. Now, when she thinks she's not being watched so closely, her composure completely falls. Her mouth opens and I think I hear a terrible sound from her, before she balls her hands together and puts them behind her back, and her mask is up once more.
My mind is still focused on Katniss when Effie declares that it's time to pick a male tribute. I shake myself out of my Katniss worry stupor long enough to wish that Lucern doesn't get chosen, hope none of my friends do, and, absurdly, tack Gale Hawthorne onto that prayer. I know they're friends – dating, whatever – and I know the thought that he's taking care of her family for her makes her feel better. I can see it in the way they make their eye contact, the way it relaxes her.
Effie picks a strip of paper. Not Lucern, I think, not Gale, either. Then she does something that takes me completely by surprise, and announces, "Peeta Mellark!"
It feels like ice is sliding through my veins, because that's me. Peeta Mellark is my name. Now everyone looks over at me, and I can read the sadness, the pity, the sympathy in my friends' eyes as they pat me on the shoulder as I begin to walk by them. I have to be moving on some sort of autopilot, because I can feel the stiffness in my joints and I feel unnatural walking up to the stage.
I pass the eighteen-year-old men's group, and I make eye contact with Lucern. He's sad, he even has a brim of tears in his eyes already. He doesn't volunteer to take my place, though. I don't expect him to, but I don't blame him: I don't think I would if the situation was reversed. Now I try to hold my head up as I start to mount the stairs. I feel like each step is a step closer to death, and by the time I reach my place next to Katniss, memories are swamping me and I'm no longer paying attention to what's going on in the ceremony.
I remember playing with Delly Cartwright. We're very young, maybe five or six. She's a little chubby, always has been, and is, as always, delightful. The game we're playing is very familiar, as we played it almost every single day. It's a game where she plays the mom and I play the dad. She has two little baby dolls who are our children that we, creatively, name after ourselves. I am, creatively, a baker, and she is a stay-at-home-mother. We run around, laugh, scream, and just play until my mom makes me go home.
Then I remember my first day working in the bakery. I'm ten, which is the age my mother deems old enough to work with the ovens. She says a ten-year-old will be completely fine as long as they're not stupid. Regardless of her words, my father has never made it a secret that he'd prefer to wait until we are at least thirteen before we work daily in the bakery. He very rarely opposes her, but this is a subject they've argued about several times. She always wins in the end, by saying, "Thirteen? They're old enough to compete in the Hunger Games by then! They can go and fight to the death at age twelve, but they can't bake bread? You imbecile!"
There really is no arguing with the point she makes about the Hunger Games, because it's completely true. Nonetheless, I burn myself taking the bread out of the oven. Five times. Both of my brothers are jokesters, always have been, but even they don't joke about how hard it can be to jumpstart working in the bakery. Thyler is thirteen, Lucern is twelve, and by the time I was ten, we all were put to work. My mother sees the burns I have on my hands and forearms and shakes her head at me. It's my father who knew this was coming, and takes me aside before I go to bed and rubs on a salve that makes the pain of the burns disappear. He tells me that it'll get better.
And it does. After only a month or two, I've acclimated to the early hours, to the work, the burns. I acclimate to everything, except for one thing. My mother. Back in the days of playing with Delly Cartwright, my mom was all right. She arranged play dates and was strict about us making our beds, but she didn't start the corporal punishments until we messed up in the bakery. The first time she hits me, I cry, which makes my brothers call me a wimp. It hurts, all of it, but I move on.
Then I'm thrust into a memory I have of me at twelve. It's the morning of my first reaping, and both my brothers have tried to calm my nerves. They joke, taunt, comfort, and try to distract me from my fear that, against all odds, I'm chosen. Nothing works. The only good thing about this day, besides sleeping in, is the fact that reaping mornings are dedicated times for my mother to knit, so she's not here to see what a nervous wreck I am.
When my brothers have given up trying to cheer me, I go downstairs to the bakery and see my father taking out a freshly baked cake. He gestures for me to come over, takes out the frosting and all of the design tools, then says he's busy and asks me to decorate it for him. I've never been trusted with a task this great in the bakery before, but I accept it. After years of watching my father do this, I know how to work the frosting tools. I go about the work, putting a base layer on, then designing flowers to go on it.
At the end, I step back and am actually happy of what I just did. I hadn't really thought it would come out well, but it did. And it calmed my nerves, just like my father thought it would. I take off my apron and we all head to town square. It seems that all my worrying was for nothing, as I'm not chosen and neither are my brothers. We walk back to the bakery, tripping and pushing each other, laughing.
Then I come to an abrupt stop outside the bakery, because there it is. My cake. It's on display. My dad comes to a stop behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder. It's not the warmth from his hand that warms me inside, though. It's pride.
I start to come back to myself, in the present, here, standing on this stage. The stage that promises I will be soon going to my death in the Hunger Games. And I try to keep that feeling of pride with me. But it's too hard, and I'm too overwhelmed. Nerves wrack my body as I continue to listen to the mayor as he goes over the Treaty of Treason and why these games are necessary.
I try to take deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out.
It does help calm me down, but barely. I feel that I've just regained control of my nervous system when Mayor Undersee motions for Katniss and I to shake hands. I meet his eyes when he does this and I know there is compassion there. Compassion for me, and possibly Katniss; she does sit with his daughter at lunch. The mayor and my father are extremely similar beings. Smart, intuitive, quiet. They have a friendship that goes back years. So do Madge and I. Not a close one, but a friendship nonetheless. The mayor and I keep eye contact for one more moment and I wonder how he feels knowing that he's sending me off to die, when just last week I had dinner at his house with my family.
I turn back to face Katniss, and I feel like it's silly of me to note that this is the closest to her I've ever been. But I can't help having the thought. She still has that composure up, has on that mask. But I'm looking into her eyes and I can see her nerves. We take each other's hand – hers surprises me with its strength and the roughness of her skin. I want to ease those nerves I see away, but I don't know how, and I doubt she'd welcome any of my words. So I just give her hand a gentle squeeze.
The anthem starts playing and all of the sudden I'm struck with a thought. Something that hadn't even occurred to me yet. The Hunger Games means killing whoever is not you in that arena. Katniss Everdeen will be in that arena with me.
I am supposed to kill Katniss Everdeen.
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