Luisa nudged me in the ribs as Cassandra Goodwin neared us, her tired eyes glaring at our group of giggling girls. I plucked my embroidery frame off the tabletop and tried to look as busy as possible, but I couldn’t even hold my needle still because I was laughing so much. Lena kicked my foot from beneath the table, but her serious face telling me to shut up was only making me grin wider.
“Will you all stop that racket?” Cassandra commanded loudly, “What’s the damn use of school, if gossipy twats like you lot don’t even do any of the work? Zip it, and work a little faster on your textile samples. They’re due in about half an hour.”
“We’re sorry, Matron Goodwin,” I told her, perhaps smiling a little too widely.
“Don’t give me that impertinent look, Gisela,” she snapped, too tired and annoyed to look at me kindly, “Get back to work, or else don’t blame me.”
I bit my lips and said nothing. Picking up the needle, I stabbed it through the white fabric and continued with my embroidery. So far it looked like a lopsided fat bird, nothing like the golden mockingjay that I was meant to make. I was going to fail Detailed Textiles, and only in my first year too. I didn’t know how the other eleven-year-olds were managing to produce such elaborate designs. Oh well, I was destined to work in the weaving factories anyway. That kind of generic job suited my clumsy fingers much better.
“Undo the threads and give it to me,” Luisa whispered from beside me, “I’ll do it for you. Your fat pigeon’s going to get you into a lot of trouble.”
“Aww don’t worry about me,” I told her, “I wasn’t planning on passing this class anyway. But if you really want...”
“Trade the embroidery for the rosette?” she suggested, then added after a look at my horrified face, “Just let me borrow it for a couple of days?”
Grudgingly I unpinned the wrought iron rosette on my blouse and handed it over. Despite what I said about not caring, I really didn’t want to get into trouble with Matron Goodwin. I heard that she can be particularly nasty to naughty girls.
“Only for three days,” I reminded Luisa. She nodded and picked up my embroidery frame, her deft fingers removing the threads and sewing them back. My pigeon was transformed into a proper mockingjay in no time.
I left the finished mockingjay on Matron Goodwin’s table as I filed out after the others. Usually we would all run out of class, but today everyone’s feet dragged. No one wanted to get home, because that meant getting ready for the reaping. Getting ready for our first ever reaping in the Writer Games.
“Well, adios then,” I told Luisa and Lena as we parted ways, “May the odds be ever in our favour, eh?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Lena quietly, “My name’s in there seven times.”
“But there are others with five times that amount of slips, Lena,” I tried to reassure her, my voice sounding much lighter and convincing than my heart, “Really, we’ll be just fine. Why, I bet we’ll be giggling at the back of Detailed Textiles tomorrow afternoon, and Matron Goodwin will be glaring at me again. Just the same as ever.”
“If you say so,” my two best friends replied, “See you at two then.”
I smiled at them, and then turned right to walk home. Mum was waiting for me in the front room, her brows creased in worry. She was going through it all again, the terror of the reapings and the fear that her children would be chosen. She had a couple of years of no worries when Karl passed his teens unscathed, but it was my turn all too soon.
“Come on, ‘sela,” she took my hand to guide me to the bedroom, where a new dress lay on the mattress.
It was beautiful, if a little eccentric. Mum had used all her creativity to make the sea-coloured dress for me, patching up pieces of shimmering blue with deep greens and pale creams. They were fabric bits leftover from making Capitol fashion in the factory where Mum worked. But somehow, after they’ve been patched up by her, it looked like something worthy of a designer.
She brushed my hair into soft curls, adding a blue ribbon as a headband. Karl growled and stomped out of the house when he saw me sitting in my new clothes. My stepfather sighed as he watched Karl’s receding back. We all knew what my big brother thought about the Capitol and these Games. He returned moments later, when my little half-sisters ran after him.
“It’s not fair that you only get to be pretty for them,” he muttered angrily, his words lost between the babbling voices of my sisters.
If I was scared about the Games before, Karl’s anger had made the butterflies swarm around my stomach like crazy. He trailed behind us as we made our way into the Square, and spent the rest of the time glowering at the stage where the Mayor sat. I found Luisa and Lena, and together we stood with the other girls. Time passed in a blur as Coral Folster, District 8’s escort, introduced the Twenty-Fifth Games and passed the microphone to the Mayor. All too soon she was dipping her perfectly-manicured hand into the glass bowl containing the girls’ names. I clutched my best friends’ hands like lifelines as she unfolded the paper.
“Gisela Eisenberg,” she announced to the dead silent square.
My knees buckled.