The train barely rocked as it sped through the steep valleys of Panem. It was like it was barely moving at all; noiseless and smooth. I tucked my knees to my chest, my forehead pressed against the cool window pane. Smears of green spun into oblivion beneath us.
I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything. If I pretended that none of this was happening, I could numb myself, distance myself, and not have to deal with the pain of what I left behind. My chest squeezed tight—okay, no thinking about home, then.
I closed my eyes, begging the stinging in my eyes to go away. I didn’t want to cry here, in a train with strangers. I didn’t need to look weaker than I already did. And, let’s face it, I’m looking pretty bad—twelve, female, small and skinny. Unlike my sister, I had never touched a weapon in my life and wouldn’t know the first thing about killing anyone.
The thought sent sparks of ice down my spine.
The swish of a door sliding open sounded, and I squeezed my eyes shut tighter. The footfalls were too heavy to be Effie’s or Cale’s, and I didn’t want to talk to them, never mind anyone else. I heard the clink of glass, followed by the slosh of liquid. The sharp smell of alcohol filled the air. I was surprised that I could even name the substance—alcohol was rare in District 12. Why would we bother? We could barely buy food, never mind drink.
When the person finally spoke, the voice was deep, husky. “You know, you can’t hide out in here forever.”
Guess I wasn’t too good at pretending to sleep. I opened my eyes, but refused to turn. The coolness of the glass against my flushed skin felt too nice.
There was a low chuckle. “Trust me. I know about hiding, kid, and the problem with it? You’re always found.”
I shifted my body to look at the intruder. I’d seen him in old videos winning in his own Games. But he looked different now, aged. Rich blonde hair had darkened to greasy yellow, and his skin sagged from years of alcohol abuse. He was widely disliked throughout the districts, but respected all the same, mostly. I tried my hardest to stay away from the old mentor, though. Something about him made me cringe.
He raised the glass of amber alcohol to his lips and said, “You’ll die in these games. Undoubtedly.”
My lip started to quiver. I am not going to cry, I commanded, but the tears came anyway. The image of Haymitch blurred, and I felt wet heat trickle down my cheeks. Quickly, I swiped the tears off my face and looked away from him. He sighed, and poured himself another tumbler of the dark liquid.
In a quiet, cracked voice, I whispered, “Are you not supposed to tutor me?”
“Mentor,” he corrected. “Tutoring is something entirely different. Tutoring sounds like I want to help you, but mentoring? No. I’m stuck with teaching you how to keep yourself alive for all of the thirty seconds you’ll be in the Games.”
I flinched, but the words rolled off me like water. They didn't sink in and of that I was glad—I was alone and I had been sentenced to death. The only satisfaction I had right now was the fact I was undeniably numb.
Haymitch groaned and knocked the drink back quickly. He slammed the glass back onto the table and pointed a shaking finger at me. “Listen. From what I’ve heard, you were the worst possible candidate from the Everdeen family. Your sister would’ve been more use, what with that...” He waved his hand carelessly. “That bow and arrow. But, it seems we're stuck with you. So if you stopped snivelling and allowed us to try and find where your talents lie, then maybe...maybe we can keep you alive.”
I looked at him, eyes watery. I sniffed, and mumbled, “I’ll die, Haymitch, and you know that as well as anyone.”
He shook his head and his grey eyes turned hard. “Sometimes the least likely ones are the victors in the end.”
The words swam in my head as we arrived in Captiol. I hadn’t seen much of Cale—Effie had briefly mentioned that he was hiding out in his room. Not that I cared. There was one victor in all of this. It was unlikely to be me, but I had to give it a try. The less connection I had with the boy, the better.
The train glided to a stop. Effie, finally distracted from her self-preening, pressed a button on the wall and all of the blinds rolled up. I leapt away from the windows, heart racing. Crowds stood outside, cheering and banging on the doors of the train. I looked frantically to Effie, and she simply smiled dreamily out at the mob.
“Wonderful, isn’t it?” Her fake lashes fluttered as she raised a hand to wave graciously at the crowd. “All gathering to see you...”
I flushed, still warily watching the windows. “Me? Why?”
“Oh, your Reaping made quite the headline here,” she said, absent-mindedly. “The Capitol lapped it up like cream. A tearful girl begging to swap places with her darling little sister? Oh!” She clasped her hands together and smiled brightly, teeth glittering. “What a dream.”
I almost gagged. A dream? A dream? Did I miss what part of this was a dream?
Effie pulled me toward her and, to my embarrassment, began to check me over. I struggled not to shrink away as she lifted my skirts and huffed.
“Good lord, haven’t your designers heard that ruffle dresses and thick materials were out years ago?”
My teeth sunk into my bottom lip and I mumbled, “We don’t have designers, Effie.”
She glanced up and her whole face softened. With a waft of vanilla, she pulled me into a hug and said, “Of course not, my sweet Primrose. I forgot that those sort of luxuries were kept only for the most fortunate...oh, how silly of me!”
I politely ducked out of her grasp and shook my head. “It’s fine, I di—“
“Look at the time!” She cried. Grabbing my hand, she pulled me toward the train doors. The adoring cries of the crowd were muffled by the metal, but not diminished completely. Effie tutted loudly and called, “Haymitch! Haymitch? Have you got Cale ready yet?”
A loud grunt echoed through the open train compartment. A door burst open, making me jump, and the dark haired boy tumbled through. He staggered to his feet and meekly took his place beside Effie, head bowed. Effie scowled as Haymitch appeared after the boy.
“What on earth did you do to him?”
Haymitch growled, “He was a little reluctant to co-operate. I had to work with what I had.”
Exasperated, the Capitol woman rolled her eyes. I snuck a shy glance at Cale—his cheeks were sallow and pale, and his dark eyes fluttered shut. His long, black lashes brushed his cheeks, creating shadows on his slender nose and I found myself filled with envy. Why were such beautiful features wasted on a boy? A baker boy, as well?
I was pulled from my thoughts as the doors in front of me slid open. The cheers burst into life, bouncing off of me. I cringed away from the sudden light, but a hand on my back forced me forward.
“There we have it, folks! The last of the tributes, sent all the way from District 12! Can you believe how young they are? Surely those sweet features will reel in the sponsors!” The voice crying over the speakers was familiar to me, but I couldn’t pinpoint who it belonged to.
After positioning us for a few brief photographs, Effie pulled us both away through the swelling crowds. Haymitch followed behind, the pestering questions of fans met by noncommittal grunts. My cheeks stung with heat and I kept myself hidden behind Effie’s flamboyant getup. For once, I found myself thankful that the Capitol people dressed as bizarrely as they did.
We were shuffled unceremoniously into a sleek black car, and as soon as the door clicked shut, we were off. I sat at a window seat, huddled down into the leather. Cars were a rarity and I’d never been in one before. My stomach lurched as we swerved round corners and bends. Maybe I wasn’t going to turn into such a huge car fan after all.
I couldn’t imagine my mother owning one. The thought of my mother overwhelmed the panic, and suddenly I was reaching for the numbness again. It had become like a security blanket, one I could tuck nice and tight around myself to ward off any unwanted feelings.
I was unbelievably tired of thinking, of moving, of doing anything. I pressed my face into the hard interior of the car, and allowed my eyes to slip shut. It was almost impossible to think that I had been in District 12 just this morning, sitting stroking Buttercup as Katniss bathed in the back yard.
My fingers twitched, itching to bury themselves in the cat’s matted orange fur.
I almost snorted. Out of everything, what I was missing the most was my cat?
But it wasn’t funny. I knew exactly. why I was thinking of Buttercup.
Thinking of him hurt less than thinking of what really mattered. Of what would surely remove my blanket and leave me naked and bare. Of what would render me useless.