"Hali let's go! Mom is waiting!" I sat up from the sand with a jolt as Dove called out to me. Turning my head to the right, I could see her tiny form standing on the wooden walkway that stretched along the border of the beach, leading down to the harbor where all the boats were docked.
Slowly, I pulled myself up from sitting, brushing the damn sand off the pleated folds of my dress. My sister waited, arms crossed over her tiny, eleven year old, body, watching me as I stepped up onto the boards. She peered at me even closer as I pulled on my shoes, having left them there to avoid filling them with sand. I had no doubt there was something she wanted to ask, but she didn't pester until we were on our way back up the pathway, toward the line of houses where ours was located. From a distance I could see my parents gathering the rest of their siblings, including my older brother and his wife, on the steps.
"Are you going to volunteer this year, Hali?" Dove finally asked as we past the first of the houses on our road. "Auxton said Daddy forbade him from volunteering when he hasn't finished the classes. But you finished yours right?"
I had, earlier on in the year I'd finished the last of the classes that made up District Four's education system. For the most part they were simple lessons on math and reading, a few on history and here and there a practical lesson in the various jobs in District Four. But once you reached fifteen you were expected to pass the physical education classes as well. They were masked as endurance training in preparation to hard labor hauling fish in on the ships or loading the processed catch into Capitol trains to be transported; when in reality they were basic preparation for the Games.
"I don't think so." I shook my head. "I don't want to go into the arena"
"It's an honor though," Dove's eyes were bright as she spoke through the smile on her face. "Daddy says being a tribute is the only way to really prove our worth to the Capitol. He says we should do whatever it takes to be good enough to win for District Four"
I knew what our father thought about the games already, and had for years. The moment our older brother had been old enough to join the reaping, he'd been pushing one of us to volunteer for the games on our own accord. It was only recently that he decided sixteen was a good age to do so, after watching the twelve year old boy that'd volunteered the year before last die almost immediately. Fours were career tributes, always top of the game and very rarely out of it before the final eight. It was an unspoken rule that the fours present at least on tribute that was within the top three years of tribute age. With a sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen year old, we always stood a chance at befriending the other careers early and bringing home a Victor.
"I think Auxton wants to be like Finnick" Dove had continued on without my notice, speaking in a hushed tone as we'd now reached our family.
I grimaced. Finnick Odair was the most recent Victor of District Four, having won two years before. He'd since gained popularity as the youngest to ever win, being fourteen at the time of his Victory. As a result he was now a local celebrity, both among the district and in the Capitol.
"There you are!" Our mother's eyes focused on me, narrowing the moment she saw me. "Hali what have you done to your dress! Come here!" She seized my arm, pulling me closer so that she could frantically brush the rest of the sand off my dress. "No time to change, we have to go we'll be late!" She said, pushing Dove and I into the group with the rest of our siblings, herding us in the direction of the town center. There were three of us still eligible this year, out of six. I was the oldest at sixteen, followed by my brother Auxton at fourteen, and our sister Lettie at twelve. The twins, Dove and Marsh, would be twelve next year and would enter the reaping. While our older brother, Sebastian, had aged out of it the year Auxton aged into it.
The sun fell on us hot and heavy as we joined the others, walking with all of District Four's residents to gather in the city square; every soul standing to face the line of Peacekeepers that stood on the steps of City Hall. Adults and children remained on the outskirts, lining the sidewalks and leaning against storefronts; those who'd outgrown the reaping and those too young to have joined it. In the center were the rest of us, boys and girls starting at twelve years and ending at eighteen. We stood youngest to oldest, front to back, splitting into boys on the left and girls on the right. A thin walkway, corded off by silver chains, separated us and left room to approach the stairs. Situated on the balcony of the justice building, off to the right of the square, was the high platform of the Victors; currently occupied currently by four people, all who were conversing amongst themselves and ignoring the crowd.
"Chin up, Hali," My mother said as she straightened the color on the navy blue dress she'd chosen. She'd already sent the others into the ranks, saving me for last. "You've moved a row back this year with the sixteens and seventeens, don't forget. And find your brother and sister before you meet us at the market, okay?"
"You could volunteer if you'd like," My father tussled my hair, much to my mother's disgust. "We'd all be right here rooting for you. And you've already finished the courses" He beamed with pride as he looked me over.
"Yes, Mother. Yes Father" I nodded in agreement as she patted my carefully brushed hair and stepped back, pulling the youngest of my siblings with her. Dove waved as she took her and Marsh with her to the line of adults and babies standing at the edge of the square.
I moved into my place in the alphabetical line that I'd stood in for the last four years, right in between Maria Adahe and Natalia Bash, both who'd been there since Sheera Bavie had been reaped two years before. Neither of them even so much as glanced at me as I slipped in between them, continuing on as if I wasn't there.
"I hope it's me this year" Maria whispered, her head turning to Natalia. "I took all the classes leading up to it, and my family's never had a tribute."
"My cousin went in, when she was sixteen. She's been the only one selected since then, but I want to go in too" Natalia nodded with a seriousness to her face.
Before they could continue their conversation, the speakers lining the square crackled to life. Panem's anthem played loudly over them, accompanied by the marching of the Peacekeepers as they stepped aside and allowed our mayor to step to the podium. He cleared his throat, beckoning for silence in the crowd.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of District Four, we are gathered here today to celebrate the sixty seventh Hunger Games!" There was a small cheer from the crowd, mostly coming from the boys section of the square. Several of them hooted in excitement, eliciting another hand motion from the mayor. He continued as the shouting died down. "To reap our tributes for the year, please welcome, Miss Aelerie Lumes. The successor to our former District Four escort, Miss Lysta Bright"
More cheering and clapping erupted across the square as a brightly colored woman emerged from City Hall. She was dressed in what I could only assume was an attempt at an ocean themed outfit, with seafoam green curls piled atop her head, and a shawl made of a seaweed colored silk wrapped around her tiny frame. She smiled, revealing perfectly straight teeth, and batted her extended eyelashes at the crowd.
"Welcome, District Four!" Her voice was coated in sugar, sweet and gritty against the ear. She waved in an elaborate hand motion. "I am pleased to take the place of your former escort, and wish her well in her further endeavors. However I am more pleased to have the honor of selecting your tributes. As always, we'll start with the ladies"
Every eye was trained on Aelerie as she dipped her hand into the massive glass bowl to her left. She swished around the tiny slips of paper inside, finally settling on one in particular. With practiced ceremony she withdrew it and moved back to her podium, her tall heels audibly clicking against the stone.
"Your female tribute from District Four is," We all watched as she slowly unfolded the paper in her hands, reading the name twice over before she spoke it. "Hali Anais!"
I sucked in a breath of air as she spoke my name. Natalia and Maria were both staring, as were most of the other girls who knew my name and where I stood. The rest of the crowd celebrated, but the older girls standing with me glowered as I made my way to the peacekeeper in the aisle. He unhooked the chain, giving me room to step into the walkway and make my way to the stairs. As a passed I found the envious look of my brother, and the confused curiosity of my little sister.
Aelerie met me at the top of the stairs, clapping me on the shoulder and turning me to the crowd. "Smile" She hissed as she turned back to the microphone, motion for the crowd to once again settle. "Now for the boys!" I didn't watch as she stepped to their bowl, instead finding my parents in the crowd. They were standing off to the right, right at the edge of the sidewalk so that the twins could sit on the curb and still see the spectacle. A grin had split my father's face, a tense smile on my mother's. Beside them, Sebastian and his wife grimaced as they watched me stand on stage. Dove and Marsh only waved.
"And for the boys" My attention snapped back to the woman beside me as she unfolded the new paper in her hands. "Manta Escott!" A loud cheer came from the back of the boys section as they jubilantly pushed one of their own into the walkway. The boy who emerged came from the back row, marking him as one of the eighteen year olds. He was tall, with honey blonde hair, wearing a bright smile. Confidence rolled off him as he jogged up the stairs to stand on the other side of Aelerie.
"Any volunteers?" Aelerie asked, her eyes scanning the crowd. As I expected, hands shot into the air, their owners shouting alongside them. I found Maria and Natalia, both of them raising their hands as high as they could and jumping in an effort to be noticed. On the other side, Auxton was raising his own hand, despite our Father's warning. After a moment Aelerie spoke again. "Mr. Escott, do you accept a volunteer?"
"No" He answered. The crowd of boys groaned. She turned to me, waiting for silence once again.
"Miss, Anais. Do you accept a volunteer?" Aelerie looked expectantly at me.
I thought back to the grin on my father's face, and the excitement on my brothers. I scanned them all slowly, starting with my mother and ending with Auxton and little Lettie in the crowd below. Finally my eyes strayed upwards, resting on the Victors platform and on the four that watched the stage with curious expressions.