The Worst That Could Happen

I wake up with a dead feeling in my stomach. It is the morning of the Reaping for the 74th Annual Hunger Games. My first thought is that this was going to be the worst day of my life.

My dad used to tell me that hunters have gut instincts. He said I needed to learn to listen to my gut. Your senses can pick up on something that is too vague for your mind to analyze, a scent on the air that is different, a change in the wind. So if you are hunting and you get a feeling that you are being stalked, you need to pay attention.

Dad had great instincts. The other men on his mining crew said he could always sense when the air wasn't right or if rocks were unstable. Two of them told me, at different times, that it couldn't have been an accident that killed my dad and Katniss's dad. Their instincts were too good and it was too much of a coincidence that the two miners leading the talk of rebellion had both been killed.

So now when I have a bad gut feeling, I try to figure out the clues my instincts are picking up. It does not take long to put them together.

First of all, my name is in the drawing 42 times, far more than the others. The next closest is Dan Nettle with 34. Most of the rest are much lower. There just isn't anyone else who has been taking tesserae for a large family since the age of 12.

The next problem is that I am not very quiet about how unfair this is. Officially, the Reaping is supposed to be random chance. To believe that you would have to trust the Capitol to tell the truth, which I do not. You would also have to ignore the many times that a District's biggest troublemaker's namewas called, which I cannot.

Add to that their suspicion that I will turn out like my father and I am doomed.

Altogether, after a few minutes I am certain that my name is going to be called today. Better to figure out the worst that could happen and plan for it. The good thing about knowing I will be chosen is it means that I can spend my day taking care of the things I need to do before I leave.

The sun is not up yet and the house is still quiet, time to sneak out and do some early morning hunting. I do my best thinking in the woods. Besides I can use something special for breakfast.

In just a few minutes I am under the fence and have my bow and knife. I decide to gather some berries while I watch for careless prey. I wonder if whoever is rigging the drawing has any idea how much I have learned in the woods. Tributes from District 12 usually don't last long, but I am not planning to die. I know how to hunt. I can handle a knife. I've only been in a couple of fist fights, but I think I won both of them. Little snares are my specialty. They won't work against well-trained Careers, but maybe I can rig up something bigger. I'm not as good with a bow and arrow as Katniss, but I'm good enough. These kills will not have to be clean.

Not very many berries on this bush. Someone, or something, has already stripped it clean. Then I see a squirrel running on a branch in a nearby tree. I have him before he reaches the end of the branch. Perfect. I will be back to do more hunting later, but I know just what to do with this squirrel.

This is part of my plan to deal with Katniss.

Katniss. I need a lot more time to figure out what to do about her, time I do not have. The first thing I am going to do is kiss her. I have never had any trouble kissing girls before, but then again, most of them are interested in kissing. And they are not usually armed and always deadly. I will just have to find a way.

The second thing I have to do is tell her how I feel about her, but that is going to be even harder than the kissing. The thing is I don't know exactly how I feel about her. I only know that I have never felt like this about anyone else. It's like I am incomplete when she isn't with me. Somehow I don't think she will understand that. Maybe kissing will help me put that feeling into better words.

Katniss does not particularly like squirrel, but the baker does. And fresh bread for breakfast should warm her up.

An hour later I meet Katniss at our spot on the rock. I stick an arrow in the loaf of bread just to make her laugh. And she does. She notices that it is warm, too. She brings basil and Prim's cheese. It all tastes great. Did she mean to bring something special for me, too? Always so hard to tell with her. So breakfast starts well.

We joke around in that obnoxious Capitol accent. I throw her a berry and she catches it in her mouth. She is so beautiful when she smiles. She hardly ever smiles, but when we are alone in the woods I can usually coax one out of her.

But I relax too much. One of the things I like about Katniss is that I can tell her things I can't say to anyone else. For years I have been dreaming of just getting away from this place, running off into the woods. I would never do it; I could never leave me family like that. I've never even told anyone that I think about it. I look at Katniss and think how easily we could survive together in the woods. And I say "We could do it, you know."

Big mistake. She hates the idea. She is too practical. Or maybe she thinks I am a coward who just wants to escape. I should have known not to bring that sort of thing up. She has no time for dreaming. Katniss is so loyal to Prim. Even thinking about leaving seems wrong to her. I add quickly "If we didn't have so many kids," but it is too late.

And I said that wrong, too. I made it sound like they were our kids. Katniss doesn't like that. "I never want to have kids," she says. But she can't feel that way. I know how much she loves Prim. I should keep my mouth shut. But I am still half-way in my dream world.

I say "I might. If I didn't live here," thinking that maybe someday, if I am a Victor, if there is a rebellion, if I woke up one day and the Capitol was just gone, somehow things could be different.

Katniss has no time for that. She says "But you do," and brings me back to District 12 with its hunger and its fences. This is why I can't kiss her. She has no interest in romance. "Forget it," I say, knowing I have gone about this all wrong. If I am a Victor, if I can keep her family safe, keep her from having to feed them, maybe then she will have time for kissing.

But I can't count on that. I have a chance in the Games, but there is no sure thing. I need to let her know how I feel before I leave.

After that, things do not go well in the woods. I am distracted. I can't stop thinking that this might be the last time I will ever walk in the meadow, the last time I will ever check these traps, the last time I will ever hunt side by side with Katniss. My arrow flies completely wide of a squirrel. Katniss gives me a quizzical look. I can't remember the last time I missed an easy target like that.

And I am disgusted with myself for not coming up with some way to kiss her.

So I blow it. But it isn't my last chance.

Our visit to the Hob does not help my mood. I usually trade away all my fish since they aren't very filling. My mom likes them though. I won't be around for dinner so I keep a few for the family. They will not be having a happy dinner tonight, but sooner or later they will be hungry.

While Katniss is trading her share of the fish I hear Darius laughing with a group of his cronies. When I look at them he signals with his head for me to come over. I do not like him. Katniss thinks he is okay, but I have seen the way he looks at her. I wonder how long it will be before he makes her an offer that will be very difficult to refuse. I need to be sure to come back from the arena.

"I just want you to know I have a lot riding on you today. I bet my whole paycheck that you'll be chosen and if you're a Victor I get my money back twenty-fold," Darius says when I approach.

"Happy to know I can help you out a bit," I say as lightly as I can. At least if I die he'll lose his bet. I wonder who is in on it when they rig the drawing. Probably not lowlife jerks like Darius. I leave with Katniss as soon as possible.

I cannot shake my foul mood. I have to keep reminding myself that it is better to know what is coming, better to have a plan. I give the Hob one last long look. Will I ever taste Greasy Sae's Mystery Stew again? Of all the things to miss.

We go to the mayor's. I need to get my family some cash before I go. Katniss has already promised to take care of them if my name gets pulled. Has she thought about how hard that will be? She will have to hunt for both of us on her own. Does she know how much my brothers can eat? She'll have no one to watch her back. She will have to teach Rory to hunt. He will have to able to take my place.

When Madge answers the door she is already in her Reaping dress. I hate how this whole day is tainted by the Reaping. Again I don't think. I say "Pretty dress." Girls in this District only wear dresses for Reapings.

"Well, if I end up going to the Capitol, I want to look nice, don't I?" says Marge.

If she goes to the Capitol no one she leaves behind will starve. But the odds are in her favor. I say something snippy to her. Katniss defends her. She is right. I am being a jerk. I say that "It's no one's fault. Just the way it is," but the damage is done.

Madge wishes Katniss good luck. Not me. She's the mayor's daughter. Does she know there's no point in wishing me luck? Of course not.

We walk to the Seam without talking. I wish I knew what to say to her. She touches my hand as we divide up the strawberries. I've never even held her hand. Maybe I can. I will have one last chance to see her before I leave. Surely even Katniss will soften for a last goodbye. I still haven't figured out what to say to her. Something will have to come to me.

Back at home I make sure to hug my mom and thank her for lunch. I talk to Vick about how he needs to help more around the house.

I pull Rory aside.

"Promise me that you will never, ever, take any tesserae," I say staring deep into his eyes.

"Why are you making me say this again?" he asks.

"Just say it."

"I promise," he says.

"You need to learn to hunt. If, for any reason, I can't teach you, ask Katniss. She can show you whatever you need to know. I have a decent bow and some arrows wrapped in leaves in the stump behind where I keep my stuff. You can have that one. Katniss will show you where it is."

I have outgrown that bow and arrows. They are basically just toys, but he can practice with them. Rory will be a good hunter. He is a lot like me.

"But I don't want Katniss to show me. I want you to."

"Sure, I will. Next weekend. But if I'm . . . busy, then I just wanted you to know you could ask her." Rory smiles. I hope he really will ask Katniss for help.

I hold Posy for a while and whisper silly things in her ear to make her laugh. The memory of that laugh will get me through a lot. I see my mom watching us from the kitchen table and I try to smile at her.

Then we are all off to the Reaping and my plans fall apart.

My gut had been right. This is the worst day of my life. I just had not seen how bad the worst thing that could happen could be.