Against The Grain.
Against the grain-Against one's instincts, English Idiom.
"And the female tribute for District Seven is…Johanna Mason!"
The first emotion I feel is relief, it sweeps through me so quickly I almost cry out with it. Then I remember my Grandpa's advice 'Look weak!' I let out a small cry of fear and then make it look like I'm attempting to stifle it.
The other girls part for me as I make my way up to the stage, I see Acacia look at me and then try to smile in support but it looks more like a grimace and I can see the relief in her eyes, relief that it's not her.
I trip on my way up to the stage, my shoes are my mother's and are still too big, instead of catching myself I allow myself to fall heavily onto the wooden stage. It hurts and it helps the tears to form.
The escort, Eloise Barnet, comes and helps me to my feet and then guides me over to the centre of the stage. She is stick thin with the exception of enormous breasts which must be surgically altered because they are just too big to fit her frame. She's wearing a brown dress which looks so short it could be a top. Her hair is green as it is every year at The Reaping, to show that she's happy to be the escort for District Seven, Lumber. We've not had a victor for a few years but it could be worse, eleven and twelve haven't had victors for decades.
"Oopsy-Daisy, now for the boys." Her hand spends a ridiculous amount of time in the reaping bowl, trying to ramp up the tension or keep her face, or breasts, on the screen for as long as possible. Up close her face is freakishly smooth, she doesn't even have laughter lines, and her hair is black at the roots, like the tree will soon die of a gruesome disease.
I look around at the crowd, my hands in my pockets pinching my legs so hard that tears come and fall quickly. The adults avoid my gaze, they never like to look too long at the tributes, don't want them to know how relieved they are that it is not their children looking back at them. I'm so glad that Grandpa stayed at home, this would have been too painful for him, probably would have killed him on the spot before the cancer had chance.
"The male tribute for District Seven is…Oak Cross!" I recognise the name and when the boy steps forward I realise why, he's one of the most popular boys in school. It's his last year so he must be eighteen, almost free of the reaping but not quite. He's a couple of years ahead of me and I've never spoken to him, I'm glad of that now.
His mother shrieks and is held up by her husband who also looks distraught. Oak struts over to the stage with no sign of fear on his face. He reminds me of the way the Careers face The Reaping, as if they had planned the whole thing.
"Excellent, well I give you the tributes of District Seven for the seventy-first Hunger Games, Johanna Mason and Oak Cross, shake hands." Oak puts his massive hand out and I keep my eyes down as I shake, I'm pleased to note that his hand has a slight tremor, fear.
"Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favour!" She lets out a girlish giggle that grates on my every nerve, we will not get on well.
The crowd applauds and a few people shout out Oak's name, clearly friends of his or some of his many admirers. Eloise and some Peacekeepers walk us into the justice building and lead us into separate rooms.
"You'll have an hour with your visitors, to say bye-bye." Eloise says, beaming at me, I nod and sit on the nicest sofa I have ever seen. Eloise has a reputation of treating the tributes like toddlers, her patronising manner will not sit well with me, I've not been a child for a long time now. I expect no one to come, my Grandpa is days away from death and I have no other family.
I'm surprised when the door opens and Acacia slips in, looking unsure of the welcome she will receive.
"Hi." I say, wiping away the forced tears. I wonder if she thinks they are real. We used to be friends, best friends, she must know I'm acting.
"Hi." She replies, awkwardly. We haven't really spoken in months, I've been taking care of Grandpa and our friendship seemed to fade. At first she used to come around and sit with me but lately I've only seen her at school, with her new friends.
"Oh Johanna, I'm so sorry!" She says, breaking down and running over to hug me. I rub her back, comforting her which is surely the wrong way around. I've never been a hugger, my mother used to hug me all the time and any other hug would not be the same.
"It's okay, better than the community home." I say, with an optimistic smile.
"Is it?" She asks, pulling away. I've been paying close attention to the kids at the community home, trying to figure out if any of them look happy or cared for. I had considered running away when Grandpa died but now I won't have to.
"You've seen the kids from there, that Lucy doesn't say a word and the others are covered in bruises and…"
"But this is the Hunger Games, it's to the death!" I ignore this, shaking my head.
"Will you look in on Grandpa? He won't last long, maybe a week at the most, please Acacia."
"Of course I will, I'll ask Mom to make him some food and take it over. She'll understand, we'll take care of him, to the end." I'm surprised by this, I suspect that it will be Mrs Burton and not Acacia that takes care of him, she'd take care of the whole world if she could. She wanted to adopt me but she's already got six children and the mayor wouldn't allow it.
"Thank you." I say, relief again flooding through me.
"Maybe you could win?" She says, her eyes down so I know she doesn't believe it. "You're a born survivor!" She looks up at me and I know exactly what she's referring to.
"I can't hide in a tree this time, there might not even be trees." God, I hope there are trees.
"It worked for that girl last year…for a bit."
"She lost her mind, I'd rather die than…" I remember the scream that the Cresta girl made when her fellow tribute was beheaded. Grandpa left the room, muttering darkly about the Capitol. I'm fairly sure that he was one of the rebels that escaped prison and execution but I've never found the courage to ask him about it. Now I'll never know, I'll never see him again.
"Don't give up…" Acacia says, squeezing my hand.
"Grandpa gave me some advice, I'm going to follow it. Tell him I love him, please."
"I will, take this." She pulls up her sleeve and tugs off a woven bracelet. I made it for her, years ago. I still have mine on so I take it off and hold it out.
"We'll swap." I say, with a small smile, we used to swap them all the time when we were little, when everything was better and the thoughts of The Reaping were still years away.
"Yes, I'm really sorry I haven't helped more…"
"I didn't ask you to Cia, don't feel bad. Look after yourself."
"Don't worry about me! Could I ask you one favour?" As she's going to feed my dying Grandpa, or get her mother to, I can't really refuse.
"What about him?" I didn't know that she had spoken to Oak. We're not really with the 'in' crowd at school, although perhaps Acacia has changed in the past few months and I've been too distracted to notice.
"Don't kill him."
"Why?" Has she been seeing Oak? The thought is almost ludicrous. He's older and Acacia isn't the prettiest girl in the school, not by a long shot.
"For Maple, she's…she's pregnant, she's only just told me, our parents don't know yet, but Oak's the father." I'm surprised by this, Maple has just turned nineteen but I've never thought of her as the kind of girl that would get pregnant young, she was the smartest in her class at school. She got the best job in the lumber office, an apprentice accountant. She's a complete geek.
"I…does he know?"
"Yes, well he will soon, she's gone to see him now." I'd love to be a fly on the wall in that room.
"Are they like…together?" It's weird to be gossiping when I'm only a few minutes away from being led to my eventual premature death.
"Ha! No, he's Oak Cross! He's got like ten girlfriends but…Maple, she hopes he'll change. If he wins they'll…"
"Be rich and I'll be dead." I say, unable to keep the coldness out of my voice.
"I shouldn't have asked." She says, standing up.
"I'll try not to, I promise."
"Thanks Johanna, good luck." She stands up and I do too, we have a small hug and then she leaves and I'm left alone.
After twenty minutes the door opens and a Peacekeeper escorts me to the steps of the building. I join up with Eloise and Oak. Eloise brushes non-existent dust from my dungarees and I try not to slap away her hand.
There are also the two mentors waiting, Blight and Cynthia. Blight won four years ago when he was eighteen. Cynthia is at least seventy so I didn't see her Games. They're both known to dabble in Morphling but they aren't quite drug addicts, yet.
I get into a car and it moves quietly, unlike the Timber Lorries which shake the houses as they go past in the morning, an alarm clock that the whole district uses. Oak is talking to Blight about all the weapons he can use, I stare out of the window. We pass my house and I see the door open and a man standing there, he has a red cross on his bag.
"Wait!" I shout, the others look at me and the Peacekeeper hesitates, the car brakes slightly.
"Why?" Blight asks, his voice is deeper than I remember but it suits his face. He looks scary.
"My Grandpa, please…he's dying…the doctor's there! Just let me say goodbye, please!" Tears burn behind my eyes and Cynthia tells the driver to stop. Blight gets out, mutters something to the Peacekeeper and then holds my elbow as we move to the house, perhaps making sure I won't run off.
"Is he…?" I start but the doctor interrupts me.
"Nearly, say goodbye, perhaps don't tell him about The Reaping, he's not got long, he won't see any of it." I nod and Blight walks behind me.
My house is a simple log cabin, like most in the district. The smell of pine is everywhere and at certain times of the year it's stifling and contaminates every bite of food, every sip of water.
When I reach the room his breathing is so loud I know he's much worse than when I left him this morning.
"Grandpa?" I ask, his eyes flutter open, his blue eyes clearly showing a combination of pain and relief.
"Jo…" He murmurs, looking at me hopefully.
"Yes, it's okay, I wasn't chosen. I'm here." I've never been a good liar but I'm going to have to learn quickly.
"Thank God, thank God!" His voice is so weak, I glance at Blight in the corner and he edges out of the room, perhaps so the dying man won't see him and know that his only grandchild is lying to him when he's on his deathbed.
"I'm sorry…I love you…" He murmurs, I lean forward and kiss him on the forehead, he grips my hand and it's so weak I know he's only got minutes left.
"I love you too, Grandpa." As soon as I finish speaking I know he's gone, I hope he heard me.
I close his eyes and walk out of the house, like a sleepwalker. I don't look at the doctor or Blight, I just get back in the car and stare straight ahead. Cynthia passes me a tissue and I take it, thankful for my Grandpa's advice, I can show weakness.
I cry for the rest of the journey and when we get to the train station the cameras are there, my face must look horrendous and I don't slow the sobs as we walk past them. Blight practically lifts me onto the train and then Eloise takes over, flapping around me like I'm a two year old that's lost its favourite toy.
Eloise takes my hand and walks me to my room, she sits me on the bed and kneels in front of me. Her face shows no emotion, how can people tell when she's upset or scared? Perhaps people in the Capitol have no need for such emotions. She tells me dinner will be in two hours, I nod and she leaves.
I lie back on bed and cry loudly, my Grandpa is gone, I have no one left and I'm going to have to kill people if I want to survive, do I even want to survive this?
I cry myself out and look around at my room, the decoration is elaborate. It's like an alien world compared to the humble log cabins I have lived in all my life. I stand up and walk over to the wardrobe, the selection of clothes is mind-boggling. It would supply my entire school and there would still be extras.
I select a pair of pale blue cotton trousers and a thick maroon jumper. When I pull it on I realise it reminds me of my Grandpa. A pang goes through me but I try to suppress it, I should wait until I am with others to cry now. Look weak.
A knock on the door interrupts my minds strategy meeting and I slip a pair of black pumps onto my feet and walk over.
"Dinner time!" Eloise says brightly, she's so annoying I want to tell her to get lost but I am hungry, I should probably gain weight before the Games, it could look like I'm comfort eating.
"I'm coming." I say, pulling a tissue from my pocket and swiping it across my face.
When we reach the dining car everyone is already there. I sit down opposite Oak and Eloise sits next to me.
"Let's eat. You can have whatever you like, you can now enjoy the splendours of the Capitol, even chocolate and wine, aren't you lucky!" I think she's being sarcastic but I notice Blight suppress a snort and I realise she is genuine. She thinks we are lucky.
Oak looks delighted and starts piling food on his plate.
"So, let's find out all about you! Oak, you first dear." I start to fill my plate with the delicious looking food and listen to Oak describe his perfect life.
"I'm eighteen, I want to work on the trucks when I graduate. I'm smart and I know I'll come top of the class…"
"If you win you won't need to work." Blight says, taking a sip of a brown drink.
"Oh, cool! Well, I guess I'll just mess about all day, work out and stuff." He seems to forget that to have this luxury he'll have to kill or outlive twenty three other kids, including the girl sitting across from him.
"You're strong then?" Cynthia asks, biting into a potato. Her face is also quite smooth considering her age, perhaps Victors have surgery too.
"Yeah, I'm on the sports team, captain, and I can fight well, I've got five brothers."
"Good, we can work with that." Eloise says, making a note on some paper.
"We can do the charismatic, strong, good looking angle. The Odair path. Aim for a high score, maybe a ten if we're lucky." Blight says, his eyes passing over Oak's bulging biceps.
"I can get a twelve!" Oak replies indignantly.
"Hold your horses, Modesty, we haven't watched The Reaping's yet, wait till you see the Careers before you get cocky." Blight laughs and takes another sip of his drink. The Careers, kids who have been training their entire lives for this. We will have three days.
"Any news on the Cresta girl?" Cynthia asks, looking at Eloise. "Is she mentoring?"
"No, she's observing I think, until they sort her medication out." Again I remember the moment when Annie Cresta, last year's Victor from District Four, seemed to lose her mind in front of the whole of Panem.
"What about you, Johanna?" Cynthia asks, looking at me like I might burst into tears at any moment.
"I'm fifteen but…I…I'm not sure I'll be any good at anything." I reply, pinching my leg again to allow my eyes to fill with tears.
"I know you, aren't you the one whose father went nuts?" Oak asks, as casually as if he was asking about the weather.
"Yes, he was my father." I reply, trying to suppress the memories. I hear my brother's scream as close as if he is sitting next to me, I'm sure my face pales but no one comments on it.
"Mason…Mason…Mad-axe-Mason, I remember." Blight says, clearly trying to locate a memory. Cynthia gasps and takes a large gulp of her drink, I pick up my own glass and take a sip of a wine that tastes like honey. Eloise leans forward, clearly eager to be let into the secret.
"What? What happened?" I want to reply coldly but I manage to make my voice sound vulnerable.
"My father killed my mother and my little brother when I was eight, I hid in the trees to escape. He killed himself in the end." I don't add that he hung himself from the tree that I was hiding in, the gasp from Eloise tells me it's not needed, that the story is horrific enough without that.
"We can use that!" She says, picking up her notebook again as if I've just declared that I can kill people with superpowers.
"Do you have any family left now?" Cynthia asks, her voice soft. I shake my head and the tears fall. The act and my actual emotions mingle with the tears.
"A survivor, maybe a seven, see how the training goes." Blight says, I nod but instead I'm trying to think of ways to lower my score even further, I'll have to do something drastic.
"Can you use weapons?" He asks, I shake my head. He doesn't need to know I can throw an axe with such accuracy that I can decapitate a raccoon at over a hundred metres. I hate to use them, remembering my mother's scream when she was murdered, but Grandpa and I still need to eat and he taught me how to handle an axe even though I know he hated doing it. Perhaps he remembered teaching his son, not knowing that he would one day try kill his whole family.
The rest of the meal passes quickly and then we move to the sofas and watch The Reaping's. The Careers look huge and lethal. The male tribute from Six is only twelve. The tributes from Ten are cousins, odds not in that families favour. My Grandpa always said that The Reaping's were staged, perhaps he was a rebel and that is why I have been chosen.
The kids from Twelve look like they've never had a decent meal in their lives, their escort seems to deflate with disappointment. Their only mentor is asleep during the entire event.
"Excellent, well we'll be in the Capital in the morning, get a good night sleep, you'll need it when you meet you're stylists! Chop-chop, let the grownups talk!" We are literally shoo-ed out by Eloise.
I don't say goodnight to Oak, I don't even look at him.
I slip into a comfy-looking pair of pyjamas and then walk into the bathroom and brush my teeth. My face is swollen and red, I splash cold water on it and then walk back into my room and sink under the covers.
It's a huge bed, it could easily fit three people in it. The sheets are so soft and so unfamiliar. My blanket at home is a patchwork quilt that my mother made for me. I wonder what will happen to everything in Grandpa's house. Will Acacia think to collect things for me or is she just relieved that she won't have to watch Grandpa die?
Sleep doesn't come easy, my dreams are full of my parents and Grandpa, I have to kill them all with an axe, Oak tells me that he'll do it if I won't.
I wake screaming and Cynthia appears into my room and runs over to me, for a women who must be at least seventy she moves pretty quick.
"It's alright, dear." She says, hugging me, my first thought is to push her off but then I relax because I've not been hugged by a woman for such a long time, not since my mother put me to bed on the night that everything changed.
"Sshh, it's alright." She soothes.
"It's not…He's dead!" I splutter, she rubs my back.
"If you win we'll be your family, if you don't you'll be with him again, and your mother. Just relax, here's some sleep syrup, you'll need your energy for the makeover, trust me."
I nod and pull away, she passes me the syrup and I knock it back, she tucks me in and the thought of it makes me cry again, until the syrup drags me under.
A/N I've had this story in my head for a while, let me know what you think. It will be updated weekly.