On the March Equinox in the southernmost point on the surface of the Earth, in a place contemptuously called District 9, one could witness a remarkable sight. It was still early afternoon in the winter grain fields growing around the villages that occupied the interior regions of the district, and yet half the sun had already dropped below the horizon.
The sky had in fact changed little over the past 22 hours. Every habitant of the farming sector, including me, had woken up to the dim light of a still setting sun and it would be midnight before what people here poetically described as “the last glimpse”.
Normally, there would be a festival to commemorate such an occasion. After all, we only ever got to witness a sunset once a year, the same with sunrise. Today’s atmosphere, however, was not one of celebration. For some obscure reason, the annual Writer Games’ Reaping took place on this particular time of the year.
In the square of the district’s largest and wealthiest town, a place which many of the poorer habitants from the farming sector would be lucky to even step foot on under normal circumstances, I stood amidst countless other girls, my age and younger, who dawdled to their correct positions in the rows forming in front of me, the boys across from us doing the same.
Being older and the tallest one by far, I had positioned myself at the very end of the last row, where other nineteen year old girls stood in their carefully picked dresses.
The chilling late autumn air was heavier than usual, the tension and abnormal silence that filled it an oppressing weight on such young human shoulders. No one spoke or made any unnecessary sounds. The stench of fear hung all around me; having spent so much time with animals I knew what it felt like, the dry taste it left on a person’s mouth.
As Aurora Strange, our host for at least four years now, went through her usual speech, I inspected my left side, eyes scanning the row till they fell on my target.
Disgust seeped through my mind as soon as I took in the odd image of Demeter dressed in a dark winter blue dress, the one I had seen so many times on her cousin, that hugged her body, her dark hair, which used to be much shorter and messier, braided and tied with a matching ribbon. She could not look any more different from me and my stained white shirt, which I wore under a long jacket, my worn jeans and working boots.
My choice of outfit, different as it may have been from the others, had yet to receive any odd looks. Everyone was already used to the fact that big, weird old Rye never dressed up for anything, not even for the annual Reaping. Demeter and I had never cared for clothes or looks, and had never worried about the games... that had obviously changed for her though.
She had her eyes closed, chin tilted slightly to the darkening heavens, hands clasped against her chest, lips moving rapidly in silent murmurs. After a few seconds of watching her, I saw her opening her eyes and turning her head to the space behind the rows where all the adults and non eligible children where.
He was there, looking just as nervous as Demeter but turning to give her a smile and a fugitive wave with his good hand, the one I didn’t brake. Though her expression was hidden from me, I did notice when Demeter’s fingers rubbed the silver band on her left ring finger - the same one that pathetic excuse for a human had on his finger.
Tearing my eyes from that image, my hands clenched in an effort to control my growing anger. The fight I had with Demeter this morning kept repeating in my head, three particular words forever imprinted in my wall of better forgotten memories.
“You are heartless!”
So many people had uttered those words to me that they had actually lost their meaning. They had never once affected me. So why had they hurt so much when Demeter said them? What was different? Had I really convinced myself that Demeter thought differently? That she would never call me such?
When had I started letting feelings cloud my judgement?
“This year’s female tribute is...” Strange’s voice rang a bit louder over the microphone, catching my attention. The girls around held their breaths, some bringing their head down in prayer, others staring straight ahead, their wide eyes blind to their surroundings.
For the first time in a Reaping, I felt lost. Suddenly, it didn’t matter who was chosen, it didn’t matter who was sent to their death. There were no feelings of injustice, rage, dread or fear for me or for others. It was like my first Reaping day, when there was no Demeter holding my hand, telling me that if I was chosen, that she would volunteer and kill everyone from the Capitol, and that if she was chosen and I volunteered, she would kill me when I got back.
“That’s irrational,” I always told her, frowning in confusion. “Nothing’s irrational when you do it for love,” she would say right back, grinning like a feral cat.
Before that, everything felt numb and pointless. Just like it does right now.
“... Demeter Wheaton.”
There was a commotion in the last row as all the girls turned to stare at Demeter frozen in her place, eyes wide in terror and mouth agape.
My heart skipped a beat and my throat went dry.
It was only after a few seconds later and a second call from Aurora Strange that Demeter moved. With one step after the other, she left the row and headed towards the stage , walking like a prisoner towards their execution.
“No, Demeter!” It should’ve been my voice, but it wasn’t. The man that Demeter claimed to love managed to escape from the grasp of the Peacekeepers to run towards her, but was caught before reaching her.
He was a fool. Demeter had tried to appear brave and strong to the cameras, trying to increase her changed of survival, but that man’s move tore that plan to shreds. She broke down in tears, yelling at the Peacekeepers to let him go.
I couldn’t watch any more of that.
“I volunteer...” those words barely left my mouth, only loud enough for the girls around me to hear, whose faces betrayed their surprise. Realizing that no one else had heard it, I took a deep breath and tried again, much louder, “I volunteer!”
Everything went silence once more. Miss Strange smiled towards me with those yellow painted lips of hers and beckoned to me. The girls stepped aside to let me pass and I did so, but before going to the stage, my feet stopped near a now struggling Demeter, who had clung to her fiancé when she was let go, but turned immediately to me when she saw me leaving my place on the row.
“No, Rye, what are you doing?” Tears stained her cheeks as she fought with the Peacekeepers that stood between us.
“Being irrational,” my lips turned up into a bitter smile. “Guess I’m not so heartless after all.” My eyes bore into hers, trying to tell her what I could not express in words.
She turned still and looked at me for a moment before letting a mournful smile grace her features. “It’s not irrational if you do it for love,” she laughed, smile turning into a weak grin. “I’ll beat some sense into that big head of yours when you get back.”
“That’s a promise,” I reply with the same grin before turning around and walking, with my head held high and face set in stone towards a smiling Miss Strange.