It seems like forever before the show begins. The mayor steps up to the podium and says his spiel; the history of Panem, the Dark Days, the Treaty of Treason, the Games. I’m sick of hearing it. When he reads out the short list of District 8’s past victors, Woof rises from his seat and gives a wave. The crowd responds with the expected applause. He looks like he does every year: tired and bleary-eyed. I don’t think he sleeps at all when the reaping gets close. Mayor Card introduces Pontius Fairweather and takes his seat.
Pontius bounces up to the podium, simply bubbling with excitement. He’s sporting an especially impressive wig this year. It must increase his wind-resistance at least two fold. ‘Happy Hunger Games!’ he spews into the microphone, ‘Good luck to all this year’s hopefuls!’ I want to shove the word ‘hopefuls’ straight back down his privileged gullet and I know everyone else around me feels the same. ‘Since I know we all can’t wait to see who’ll be heading to the Capitol this year, let the lottery begin! First, the ladies…’
This is it. Pontius walks across the stage to the glass ball on the girls’ side. I’m straining to keep my muscles in check. I strong-arm my lungs into obedience. Breathe in, now breathe out. I can hear Violet’s breath growing frantic beside me. The girl to my other side is holding hers. I feel the sweat break out on my palms as Pontius reaches inside the ball. The square is so silent you can hear the rustling of the paper slips as he swirls his hand dramatically through them. His fingers close on one and it feels like they’ve closed around my throat. He pulls it out and holds it in front of his face. He clears his throat. ‘And this year’s female tribute for District 8 is…’ He unfolds the paper slip and pauses for effect before he announces,
‘Miss Renore Lowe!’
I hear Violet choke. My name. Renore Lowe is my name. Pontius Fairweather called my name. This was supposed to be it. The last year. I was going to make it, I was going to be free. My stomach drops right out of me, but I redouble my resolve to look confident. I know the cameras are training in on me. I shake off the shock and hold myself up. I turn to Violet, give her a firm hug and a reassuring look, then stride with deliberate dignity towards the stage. I alight the steps and shake Pontius’ hand, then the mayor’s, then Woof’s. Mayor Card looks disappointed. Does he actually care for me? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I must have made an impression on Woof. There’s something encouraging in his eyes as he studies me. I think it’s hope. I take my place beside the glass ball that cast my sentence. I stand the way I’ve seen Career tributes stand before. A straight-backed, wide-legged stance, with my hands clasped behind my back. I hold my chin high, showing all of Panem I’m above this. There’s a small smile on my lips, as if this were all of my own planning.
‘Now,’ Pontius projects over the murmuring of the crowd, ‘the gentlemen!’ It’s silent again as he crosses to the second glass ball and reaches in, delving deep before his pincers snap shut on a slip of paper. He pulls it out and, in the same dramatic fashion, reads out the name of the next victim. ‘This year’s male tribute for District 8 shall be… Mister Rafe Underhill!’
I know that name, too. I scan the boys’ cordons for movement, and find Rafe navigating towards the aisle from the nearest section. He’s eighteen like me. I know him, sort of. He’s an orphan as well. His parents were both killed in the same incident as mine were. How much we have in common. If looks could kill, I’d declare Rafe the victor right here and now. He looks daggers at Card and Woof and stares at Pontius’ hand as if it were the blade of a knife. But all of that is nothing to the look he gives me. His animosity is palpable and somehow, I get the feeling it’s personal.