Chest tight, I smiled up at Katniss, trying not to show how scared I was. Her serene expression didn’t change, but she squeezed my hand lightly. Nerves flickered in her dark eyes, and she quickly glanced away before I could properly see.
I knew why she was scared. This was only my first Reaping, but her fourth. While Primrose Everdeen was written on only one of those slips of paper, Katniss Everdeen was written on twenty. My stomach tightened at the thought, but I forced myself to stay calm. No point in making Katniss even more uneasy about the whole thing.
My mother emerged from the back bedroom, her slender fingers neatly pushing pins into her light hair. I looked much more than my mother than my father. He’d been the typical olive skinned, dark haired person that belonged in the Seam. My sister had adopted the same look, her long dark hair, as usual, tied into a slightly messy side ponytail. I’d much rather look like her; I was stared at while at school or in town for my fair hair and light skin.
Katniss stiffened as my mother neared her. Her hand flexed around mine, squeezing tighter.
My mother bit her lower lip and gently said, “Ready, girls?”
Before Katniss could bite back, I nodded. “As ready as we’ll ever be.”
She smiled emptily, hand gently ruffling my hair. Katniss’ jaw tightened, and she pulled me to my feet.
“Come on,” she said, speaking only to me. “It’s time, little duck.”
We walked in silence to the centre of District 12. The nearer we got to the middle of the town, the more locals joined us, and the group melted into the crowd already gathered in front of the Justice Building. I made sure not to let go of Katniss’ hand—she’d kill me if I got lost now.
She pulled me, her grip not harsh but still firm, toward my age line. Nausea furled in my gut, tightening my throat. I wanted to dig my heels in, yank my hand from hers and run home as fast as I could. This was the most dangerous day of the year for twelve to eighteen year olds, and I’d never had to feel the fear of it before. Listening as the girl tribute was picked in the past four years had been awful, but I’d obviously feared for Katniss, not myself.
But now, it could be either or none of us. And my stomach didn’t seem to want to cope with that.
Kneeling down in front of me, Katniss took a deep breath and said, “Prim, there is no way you’ll get chosen, okay? So stop worrying.” I opened my mouth but she cut me off. “Don’t lie and say you aren’t. Your face gets all crinkly and grumpy.”
A hysterical laugh bubbled up into my throat. “I’m not just worried for me.”
Her face smoothed sympathetically, and she sighed, “I’ve done this four times, little duck. What’s two more? There are tons of names in there, and yours in only in once.”
“Yours is in twenty.”
“Wow, thanks for the helpful advice.”
I shook my head and looked down. “Sorry, sorry. I’ll see you after, okay?”
Katniss smiled, and for a moment, I could see a glimpse of my father. Not that I remembered him that much. His photo sat in the living room, and I often sat and looked at it, trying to dredge up at least one real memory of him. It never seemed to work, though. He was simply a photo to me. There was no emotional tie to him for me.
I pressed a kiss to my sister’s head. With one last hug, she got to her feet and went to join her own line. I watched as her eyes met with Gale’s, and I fought the urge to roll my own. They claimed to be just friends, but he coped unbelievably well with her strong temper and wild mouth. Neither of those ever tended to be directed at me, but from what he’d told me, I appreciated that they were pretty scary times.
My mother nervously stood with the other spectators. Next to the plump baker’s wife, she looked like a ghost of a woman. A frail white spirit.
Taking a deep breath, I focused my gaze on the stage. The hum of nervous voices surrounding me quietened to silence as a vibrant woman strode out onto the creaky wood.
She looked unreal. Hair and dress an eye-stinging fuchsia, the woman smiled brightly at the crowd. The expression seemed alien, out of place in such a dull district. When the crowd didn’t react, her white face fell and she coughed, shuffling with the cards in her hands.
I fisted my hands in my dress, trying to ignore how sweaty my palms were.
The pink woman stepped up to the microphone, a long claw tapping on it once, before crying, “Hello, District 12! I, Effie Trinket, am more than delighted to be announcing your tributes for the 74th Hunger Games.”
A camera spun silently a little away from Effie. Now I knew why she was being so over the top.
“Well,” Effie continued, looking down at the pale faces in the town centre. “Without further ado, I’ll get on with the Reaping, shall I? And remember—may the odds be ever in your favour.”
My lips shifted as she spoke the words, and my brain flinched at the irony of them. The odds would never be in our favour. The tributes from 12 were usually the ones to die first—it was hardly surprising, considering we were the last and least desirable district.
Effie Trinket shifted toward the globe containing the female names. She extended a pink clawed hand into the clear bowl. My breath caught as she sifted through hundreds of names.
Don’t let it be Katniss, please don’t let it be Katniss.
Sweat trickled down my forehead. I could feel the stray hairs on my neck curling with the humidity. Lungs burning with the effort of holding my breath, I dug my nails into my palms and begged for it not to be my sister.
Effie plucked a single piece of paper, shaking off a few others, and brought it in front of her face. Heavily made-up eyes glanced across the slip and she smiled, tilting the microphone toward her mouth.
Anyone, I begged. Anyone but her.
My stomach dropped to the soles of my feet.
Anyone but her. I hadn’t meant me.
I heard my name being called again, but I couldn’t remember how to move my legs. Lead slunk through my veins like oil, seeping into every crevice of my limbs. White gloves reached for me and suddenly, I was being shoved to the stage. Nothing in me resisted.
This was a death sentence.
“Prim! Let her go!”
Despite the hands shoving my head down, I desperately turned my neck. Katniss was shoving against two Peacekeepers, face screwed up in anger, tears streaming down her cheeks. She looked insane, crazy. My own face screwed up, and hot, ugly tears trickled off my round face.
I wanted to go home.
“Please! I volunteer! I volunteer!”
But Effie simply shook her head sadly as I was shoved onto stage. “I’m sorry, dear, but volunteering has been illegal for several years, you know that. But here we have it! Our first District 12 tribute—Primrose Everdeen!”
There was no clapping. I stared out, unfeeling and unmoving, at the sea of shocked faces gazing up at me. It was custom for a young tribute to be shocking—the blood being spilled seemed even more innocent, for some reason. Katniss still struggled with the Peacekeepers, her arms reaching for me. Tears falling from my jaw, I shook my head at her, lip quivering.
Stop, I wanted to say. It’s no good, Katniss. You can’t do anything.
She eventually seemed to give up. Her body slumped, collapsing to the ground. A figure darted from his own line, arms reaching for her—I recognised the dark hair and broad shoulders. Gale. How unsurprising.
Numbly, I watched as he helped her to her feet and gently coaxed her back to her own line. Hollow cheeked, he threw one look at me. Even though I couldn’t possibly hear him, Gale mouthed something at me, and I understood immediately.
Stay alive, Prim.
Not good luck, Prim, or I know you'll probably die but at least I’ll be here for Katniss. No, there it was, clear as day. Stay alive, Prim—almost as if...
As if he believed in me.
As if he believed I actually could stay alive.
I'd always thought myself of something Gale tolerated for the sake of Katniss. He was always nice to me, always offering to help, but I had gotten the impression I was something of an insect to him. Annoying, always around and hard to get rid of.
Clearly, I wasn't.
Through the haze, I vaguely heard the male tribute’s name being announced. It sounded familiar, one I heard regularly, one I used myself...Cale. Cale Mellark. The youngest baker son—he was in my Math class. Two older brothers, Darren and Peeta, who both worked in the bakery and a younger sister, Ella, who was little more than a baby.
Cale Mellark, fourteen years of age. Primrose Everdeen, twelve years of age. Both destined for death, and both supposed to be perfectly fine with that. Dying before we even got a chance to live.
He numbly climbed onto the stage. Hair dark enough to be black, a white-faced Cale took his position beside me. My skin felt icy cold. A quiet cloak of panic settled over me, and it felt large enough that I was certain even Cale could feel it.
“There we have it!” Effie cried over the speakers. “Our two tributes from District 12. As always, family members are welcome to say goodbye before the train leaves in ten minutes...”
I didn’t hear the rest. The Peacekeepers shuffled the two of us back into the Justice Building. A part of me was thankful—leaving meant not having to see the pity on each of the faces looking up at me, or the heartbreak in my mother’s expression. It might have been selfish, but I didn’t need anyone else’s pain. I had enough of my own.
A Peacekeeper clamped his hand down on my shoulder and guided me toward a room. Inside, it was dark and panelled with wood—the musky, woody smell reminded me of our own house. Of home. My stomach contracted, and I quickly sat down in one of the chairs beside the empty fireplace.
The door burst open before I had any time to collect my thoughts. Arms smothered me instantly, and I simply leaned into the first neck I could find. A hand pressed against the back of my head.
“Prim, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t do anything—“
I pushed away and shook my head, smiling sadly. “Katniss, don’t be stupid. And don’t sit at home and beat yourself up about it.” My voice sounded small and weak, and I cleared my throat. I didn’t need them feeling any guiltier than they already did. I looked up at my mother and sister—for the first time in their entire lives, they wore the same face. Something about that sent warmth into my heart. Even if the expression was united over my certain death.
I took each of their hands and croakily said, “If I don’t come back from this--”
My mother scowled at me and grabbed me into an uncharacteristically harsh hug. I closed my eyes and pressed my nose into the crook of her neck. I didn’t know when the next time I could hug her would be. If ever.
The bones of her ribs and hips pressing into me, my mother abruptly pulled back a little to say, “Primrose Everdeen. You will be coming out of that arena. If you don’t...if you...” She seemed to lose steam, and her arms fell away from me limply. Eyes filling with tears, she pressed a gentle kiss to my forehead and whispered, “I love you, Prim.”
My chest clenched hard, and I fought to keep the tears inside. “I love you too.”
As soon as my mother pulled away, Katniss kissed both of my cheeks and smoothed my hair back. Her own eyes were damp, but the frown remained on her face. She plucked something golden from her pocket and pinned it to my dress collar. Frowning, I smoothed my fingers over the cool metal. It was a badge, a golden circle emphasising the bird in the centre.
“It’s a Mockingjay,” she whispered, fingers idly tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’ll keep you safe. Brave, too. And whenever you miss home, or us, or feel scared...just pin it on. Okay?”
Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I met her gaze and nodded. “Okay. But promise me one thing.”
“Anything, little duck.”
Peacekeepers marched through the doors, seizing me by each arm. Katniss let out a snarl, but my mother wisely grabbed onto her arm. They pulled me toward the door and I quickly said, “Look after Buttercup, Katniss. Promise me!”
She nodded limply. Through tired lips, she whispered, “I promise, Prim.”
And the doors between us slammed shut.