Chapter One - Dawn
Imagine a world similar to your own. It’s not hard. Look out your window - if you have a window within your reach - and observe. Maybe there are trees, swaying slightly in a wind, their leaves being gently caressed by an invisible current. Maybe you see dirt, hard packed, lying in clumps around you, a rich aroma signifying nature, perhaps Earth itself. Or skyscrapers, shooting up into the air like rockets trying to achieve liftoff, silver-tiled roofs gleaming under the sun. And the sky. A brilliant, blinding blue; surrounded by clouds floating lazily as if pushed by a breath, quickly stolen away by the folds of the atmosphere. Or maybe it’s night, where an inky blackness surrounds you, solely lit by lights from a nearby city, twinkling in the distance.
You get the image.
What if I told you that everything, everything, you see, could be gone in the span of a second? No more trees. No more dirt or skyscrapers or azure sky.
It’s called death. And it’s a little more common here.
So, when I stand here, on top of the tall white cliffs, wind whipping my face, I can’t help but think. If I die. If I leave today and never come back, this will be the last time I see this place. A world, literally sprawling around me, seeming to go on for ever and ever. Deep down - of course - I know it doesn’t. To the north are the smaller camps, places where you get sent if you’re poor or you don’t have enough talent to snag a good job back in the main body of the district. It’s more barren up there, freezing. I can’t imagine how they’d live in there, deep in the woods. Even now, despite the sun already having risen a while ago, I shiver as I sit perched on my height, staring down at the acres of forest. Whips of mist still seem to drift between the trees, tendrils of fog that dance around with seemingly malicious intent.
I couldn’t survive up there, where nature rules. Where it’s cold and harsh and unforgiving. I like my home, in it’s small, warm, not-so-glorious glory.
I couldn’t survive in the Games either, though.
“It’s getting late.”
The voice comes as no surprise, but I still whirl around to face the speaker. A girl, not much older than myself, with short dark hair and brilliant amber eyes stands, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest. Like me, she’s decked out in layers, feather-down jacket and a woollen hat. Her boots are caked with dried mud, despite the fact that it hasn’t rained in a long time, and she sighs deeply as she stoops down to sit next to me on the grassy perch.
“Still freezing.” I retaliate, returning her concerned gaze. I don’t think either of us feels like talking today, but words go unsaid between us. She passes me a small black canteen, and warmth floods through my fingertips, despite already being covered by thick gloves.
“It’s always freezing in Seven, Ellis,” Llea sighs, taking a swing of her drink. Following her example, I take a similar sip from the flask, and I’m immediately grateful. The warm tea seems to almost seep into my veins, warming me in a flash. “It’s never not freezing.”
I frown at her. “Liar. Remember last month?”
“What, for a day?” she looks at me like I’m hopeless. “And even them, it was still shitty weather.”
I remember that day. It seemed like an age ago - time draws on as the harshness of winter comes nearer - when we’d been graced with one day of reprise from nature’s cold grip. The morning had come like any other, slipped in through the cracks in my curtain in a stream of golden light. And when I had stared outside, it was like I knew something was different. The air was stagnant, as if holding it’s breath, and the world outside was still. When I stepped outside, I had felt sunlight - real sunlight - on my skin, beating down on me, harsh warmth like I had never felt before. That day, nobody had worked much in the woods. During the summer, when days are longer, we’re all excused from school to work in the lumber forests, and Llea had been the first to call for a break. We’d sat under the trees, talking and laughing for hours, until the heavens opened up in a stream of warm summer rain. Back there, on that day, it felt like we’d been somewhere else entirely. Somewhere where there was no work, or peacekeepers, or games, or even the Capitol. Somewhere, deep in the woods, where we were finally free. It was as if the universe knew what was to come, and was giving us a day of reprise from long nights awake, frozen to the bone, eyes glued open from cold.
The next day was the first day of autumn. And with autumn, came the Games.
Nobody in Seven likes the games. For such a widespread area, we have a strikingly small population, so the risks of being chosen are much higher for everybody. That’s why, while usually Llea and I spend most of our time engaged in constant conversation, we don’t speak much today. Deep down I know the odds are still small, but it doesn’t help the relentless throbbing of fear that seems to grow like a cancer in my chest.
“I liked the rain,” I turn my head to follow her gaze out into the wilderness. If you were to walk in that direction far enough, you’d reach the border with One. Our neighbours don’t like to venture into the small forestland, though, and there’s a giant wall separating the two, with only very few people being able to enter and trade the lumber they need to make furniture over there. “It was different.”
“Of course you did.” she doesn’t say it sarcastically, rather like this is typical of me - which it is. “It’s you, Ellis. You like different.”
“What, like you don’t?” I turn to face her. “‘Hi, I’m Llea Porter and I hate all things cool and unique. I like to blend into a crowd and I definitely didn’t try to dye my hair blonde once, or burn holes in my ears to get them pierced. There’s totally nothing I like more than to be simple and boring.”
Despite herself, Llea laughs. “Trust you to be a little shit any day, Ell.”
“That’s not even insulting. Would you really like me to go insulting?”
“Oh, shut the fuck up.” I roll my eyes, glad the fear’s dissolved a bit. I don’t need to wallow around in panic right now, I can do that once we get to the reaping. Right now I need to forget that it’s even a thing that’s about to happen, and Llea’s the best person for that.
There’s a brief pause as our conversation lulls for a bit. Finally, Llea speaks up again, brushing strands of dark hair behind her ear. Her hair isn’t even, she cuts it like that on purpose. I wasn’t lying when I said that she tried to dye her hair blonde once, she did. But, despite our status as an upper-middle class district, hair dye isn’t really easy to come by.
“I wonder what the other districts are doing today.” she says, under her breath. This comment takes me back for a second. It’s not like her to wonder about other people, that’s usually my job.
“Why’d you ask?”
“Just thinking. We see them every year, in the games, but I bet they live so differently than us.”
“I dunno. It’s the Capitol I wonder about, to be honest. How’d they grow up to be such assholes?”
She groans. “Oh, please don’t go all psychology on me. I hate it when you do that.”
Waggling my eyes suggestively, I lean in closer to her face. “Yeah? I bet you hate it because you have repressed thoughts and ideas that you don’t want me finding out. Or maybe you hate it because you subconsciously don’t want to find our yourself.”
Scoffing, she slaps my face away. “Where’d you come up with that bullshit, anyways?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know, hm?”
“I said, fuck off Ellis.”
Laughing, she pelts me with some small stones that have been scattered around our feet. In the distance, I can see small figures coming out of the forest, their bodies dancing through the wood. For most people, it’d be hard to see through the trees, (and without my glasses I’d be near blind) but we’ve grown to learn to pick up even the smallest thing in the woods. Usually animals are scared off by the hard noise of axes, and the stampede of boots on the undergrowth, but sometimes we’ll come across one or two. At the sight of them, we both stop.
“Guess it’s time to go, huh?” her voice seems to have a dropped an octave.
I sigh, standing up and brushing the dirt off my trousers. Despite my gender, Llea and I stand at roughly about the same height - she’s fairly tall, I’m fairly short - which she often teases me about. Granted, she’s a year older, so maybe it makes a bit of sense. I can easily see the concern in her eyes, as she stares behind me.
“Two more years for you.” I try to keep my voice upbeat. “Then it’ll all be over.”
She sighs. “Yeah, I guess it will.” Clearing her throat, she tries to mimic my tone. “At least I get to wear a nice dress.”
“Exactly!” Deep down, I’m not sure I trust Llea’s sense of style. To me ‘dark and about as short as her thighs’ isn’t exactly reaping material, but whatever makes her happy, I guess. It’s funny how Llea and I are friends. She’s pretty obsessed with keeping a ‘coolkid’ image about her, whereas I pretty much just go with what I go. She’s pretty mean. I can’t insult anyone for shit. At least we both share the same sense of humour. We’ve been friends for years, though, ever since I got caught too high up a tree to come down as a kid, and she sat with me until an adult came along. Though the gesture seemed sweet, I think she just meant to taunt me about how stupid i was to get stuck in the first place.
Gosh, I don’t know what I would do without her.
People often pair us together as a couple, which we’re far from. It’s not that I’ve never considered it - though that was brief, and I got scared at the prospect immediately - but rather, Llea’s gender preference ranges on the side of feminine. And though she’s told me on numerous occasions that I’m the ‘ultimate girl’, it would never work. Which is fine by me.
“Er…” I pause, not knowing what to say. We’ll have to part ways here, she lives on the other side of the clearing. That’s how it works in Seven. There’s not really any neighbourhoods, or structure in where people live, nor is there any central point for people to gather other than the centre of town, where the market and shops are. The school is situated a little bit away, but as this is reaping day, it’s obviously closed. “I guess I’ll see you there?”
“Yeah, you will.” she nods. “Clean yourself up, Ell.”
“Don’t I always?” That’s sarcasm, of course. I don’t care much for my appearance, and I can come across as rather scruffy sometimes.
“Yeah, yeah.” she yanks at my curly hair. “Try to comb that monster too.”
“Don’t insult my hair!” I turn to her. “But really…”
“I know.” she pauses. “See you soon.”
It’s our standard goodbye. “See you soon.”
Parting our separate ways, I make my way through the woods, trudging over roots and branches and I walk the path I know like the back of my hand.
As I walk, I begin to think. I know that the odds of me getting chosen are so small, I shouldn’t be bothered, but I am. Just the thought of being up there, in the arena, makes my blood run cold. Surrounded by people who want you dead - and I’m not just talking about the tributes - makes me feel sick, and as much as I try to block it from my mind, it creeps back in. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t kill anyone. I don’t know how to handle a weapon, or how to run fast, or how to outsmart people. The only thing I am is silly and stupid, and when I’m scared, I’m not even that. I wouldn’t survive a second.
It doesn’t take me long to reach my home, a small, one-story house in a small clearing. A river runs behind it, with laundry drying on hard rocks nearby the current, and a tiny pile of firewood lying by the entrance. Yanking off my dirty boots, I peep my head in the door.
“Aspen?” I call for my sister. “You there?”
“Coming!” the familiar voice is nearby, and immediately my sister’s face appears around the doorway of her room. She and I look alike, wavy ash-brown hair and skin dotted with moles and freckles. However, while my eyes are an indeterminable greenish blue, hers are a light brown, and creased with worry. Despite only being about ten years older than me, in this moment, she looks old enough to be my mother. “You’re late.”
“Sorry.” I say, though I’m not really sorry.
“And he lies,” she sees right through me. “You were dragging it on, weren’t you?” I give a non-comical shrug. I do have a tendency to procrastinate, and this is no exception. “C’mere.”
“Nooo,” I groan as she strides across our small living room and grabs me into a headlock. “Getoffme.”
“Never.” Aspen sounds like she’s joking, but I know how worried she is. She clings onto my, and the headlock turns into a hug, “You’ll be fine, you know that, right?” she sounds like she’s trying to convince herself more than me.
“I’ll be fine.” I repeat, not really believing the words. It’s hard - even for me - to remain optimistic on a day like this. “Really, Aspen.”
It takes a moment, but eventually she lets go. “Go get changed.”
“Kay.” I take that as a cue to leave into my room, closing the door gently behind me. My room is a mess, dirty clothes strewn haphazardly on the floor, my bed undone and my blanket crumpled from a night of tossing and turning. Laid out on the floor near the door is my outfit. Grey button-up shirt and dark pants. Shivering as I change out of my jacket, I pull them on as quickly as I can, and attempt to tame the wild curls of my hair. I fail, of course.
Peering into the tiny mirror that stands near my door, I try my best winning smile. With my nerves, it comes across as crooked and wavering. I try again. Better.
Smiling’s my only defence. I can smile. I can joke. I can be my stupid, sarcastic self, that much is easy. I’m not an idiot, and I know that if I can get sponsors on my side, maybe I could survive longer than anticipated. So, every year before the reapings, I try to smile. If I get chosen, I’ll pull a smile on my face, and act like I actually have won a lottery.
Smiling. The last defence of the doomed.
Except I’m not doomed.
(Somehow, I doubt that.)