‘Ruben.’ I say his name with dull surprise. I really didn’t expect to see him. I don’t know what to think of it. Should I be touched? I’m not. At least not much. I’m on the verge of being angry. But the way he looks is stopping me from lashing out. He walks over to the loveseat, running a nervous hand through his thinning, coppery-blond hair. He sits down beside me, close enough for our knees to touch. I move mine away and he flinches like I’d hit him.
‘Renore, I…’ he falters, wipes his palms on his trousers, and searches my face. For what? He won’t find it. He doesn’t. He looks down at his hands and tries speaking again. ‘I didn’t think this would happen. There are other girls with so many more entries than you. I thought for sure you were out of the reaping for good.'
I don’t know why he’s telling me this. Did he not think I’d thought of that? ‘And what did you think would happen?’ I hiss with more force than I intended. I’ll have to keep tabs on that. There can be no slip-ups on camera. I’m safe in here for now, though, so I follow through. ‘Did you think I’d still have time for you when I had to leave the Home next year and work fourteen hour shifts in the factories just so I can afford a bed and some bread every day? Did you think I’d give up seeing anyone else in my spare time? Or were you gonna be my hero? Whisk me away from the squalor and soil your good name by dumping your wife for the teenager you’ve been fucking in secret for four years?’
He turns scarlet, like he’s dipped his head in a dying vat. But instead of discouraging him, my rebuff revives him. He reaches out and catches my hands before I can pull away. His hands are moist with perspiration and the skin is baby-soft, despite his age. I take back what I said about everyone in District 8 knowing their way around a sewing kit. The man has never so much as threaded a needle. ‘Renore!’ He says my name like he’s begging for mercy. ‘Renore I care about you! Of course I wouldn’t have let you go hungry! I know – you’re right, it’s stupid of me to think we could be together, but… I just thought…’
‘That I could still be your bit on the side, happily ever after?’ I scoff at him. I twitch my chin toward the door. I have real friends waiting for me. ‘Goodbye, Ruben.’
I’m not his anymore. If I lose, I belong to the worms. If I win, I belong to the Capitol. I’m not dumb enough to believe otherwise.
He looks genuinely distressed now. I almost regret being harsh with him. There are a lot worse people out there than Ruben Card. And although I still think it’s laughable, I know he meant it when he said he cares for me. Or in any case, I know he thinks he does. I just can’t return those feelings. My lapse into pity gives him an opportunity. He lurches forward and kisses me with the awkward, feverish passion of a virginal adolescent. I let him, then I prise my hands from his and stand. Reluctantly, he rises to his feet, head hanging. He’s staring at the silk slippers. ‘I’m glad you wore them,’ he says, looking at my face one more time before he goes. ‘You look beautiful, Renore. You always did.’
Did. He probably doesn’t even realise it, but he’s talking like I’m dead already. Nice to know that someone who cares about me so much has so little faith in me. I throw aside the pity and revert to being angry. I have just enough time to compose myself before the guards let Violet and Maddy through the door.
‘Oh, Rini, I just can’t believe it!’ Maddy shrills, the two of them stampeding across the room to fling their arms around me. The younger girl buries her head in my bosom and sobs at high volume. I hold her tight with one arm, but it does nothing to calm the violent tremors crashing through her body. My other arm is fastened around Violet’s waist. She doesn’t say anything for a while, just clutches my head in her hands like it’s a precious, fragile thing, kisses me on the cheek, leans her forehead against mine and closes her teary eyes. I don’t cry. I only cry when I’m happy.
‘Please,’ comes Maddy’s muffled whimper, ‘please win, Renore. You have to. You have to come back.’
I reach up to stroke her hair, Violet’s too. After a moment, they’ve both calmed down a little and they pull away to look at me. I’m keeping the act up, this time for their sakes instead of the camera’s. If they see me strong and confident, maybe they’ll really believe I can win. Maybe it’ll help them get through the mandatory viewings of the broadcast. And if I lose, at least they’ll remember me this way; squaring up to my fate without fear. Hell, that’s a fine tradition here in District 8. They still haven’t managed to break us all. I give my friends a smile.
Violet speaks for the first time. ‘We don’t have much time left. We’ve wasted it crying.’ I can see her kicking herself for it. ‘I don’t know what to say, Renore. I really don’t. There were so many things in my head, but now that I’m here with you I just can’t say them. They all seem so… pointless.’
Maddy sniffles and sets her shoulders, trying to be brave, here at the end. ‘I’m going to save up all the best fabric I can get my hands on,’ she says with a shaky voice, nodding too much. ‘Yes. I’m going to make you the most beautiful dress. You can wear it on your victory tour.’ Her tear-stained smile is verging on manic and she’s wringing her hands like mad. I give her shoulder a squeeze and tell her thank you, I’ll look forward to it. ‘I-‘ she almost sobs again but chokes it back, ‘I’m. Going to go now. Okay? See you later, Ren- Rini. See you soon. I-‘ She wraps herself around me again and squeezes. ‘Love you.’ She steps back and looks at me one more time like she’s committing me to memory, takes a deep, steadying breath, smiles sadly and turns to go.
‘See you soon, Maddylin.’ I say softly to her back before it disappears behind the door. I turn to Vi, who hadn’t watched Maddy go, but kept staring at my face. I know her expressions so well. She’s thinking, hard. She's studying me and doing some kind of equation in her head. Her eyes narrow a little as a frown of logic-assisted hope spreads slowly across her features. She grabs me by the shoulders and holds me in front of her.
‘I think… no, I know you could do this, Renore. You could win this.’ She’s talking with such force of conviction, I almost feel like I’m being scolded. ‘It’s like we always said, looks can go a long way in the Games. You’re lucky. You’re so lucky! You’ve always been pretty. Pretty enough to get a lot of sponsors.'
'Thank you, Vi, I-'
'Even if you are a little too skinny. You’ve got great legs, though. Show a little skin here and there and they’ll shower you with food. And you’re smart. And you know how to play on people. You’re sneaky and manipulative. You think of the best lies.’
‘Gee, thanks, Vi.’
‘If you wrap the other tributes around your finger like you do, you can easily just stab them in the back.’
‘That’s a nice thought, Vi, I’ll keep it in mind.’
‘You’re not above using sex as a weapon. You’ve got that way of acting loose and putting out that makes men stupid. You’ve got that moral grey-area thing going on.’
‘I really can’t take much more of this flattery, Vi. You’re making me blush.’
‘And your dancing. Remember your dancing. There’s got to be some way you can use that. Maybe distraction?’
A Peacekeeper opens the door and steps inside, motioning to Violet. ‘Time’s up, girly. Say goodbye.’
‘You can do it, I know you can!’ Violet’s voice has been growing more and more excited and she’s nearly yelling now. She seizes me in the biggest hug she’s ever given me. She pulls away just as the Peacekeeper is about to come in and drag her away, but on the way out she stops again. She turns to me with a puzzled grin. ‘What was Daddy Ruben doing here? Come to give you a nice, long, stiff goodbye?’
Nice to see she’s gotten over this all so quickly. She doesn’t even say goodbye as she’s shooed through the door. She just winks and waves. Still, I’m glad this is the memory of her that I’ll be taking with me; her being her regular, cheeky self, never missing an opportunity to make fun of my ‘extracurricular activities’.
The Peacekeeper reappears in short order to escort me to the train. He lifts the visor on his helmet and I see that it’s Marcus Flint. I thought I’d recognised his voice. He winks and displays the slimiest grin. It’s seedy even for him, and that’s saying something. ‘Too bad we don’t have more time, Sweet Thing. I’d like to give you a long, stiff goodbye myself.’ As if I didn’t know what he meant, he licks his lips and adjusts his crotch to illustrate. He flicks the visor back down over his ugly face and motions me out the door. As I pass, he grabs a handful of my posterior and gives it a rough squeeze. ‘You know, it really is too bad. I’m really gonna miss this.’
It’s fine. Really it is. I just have to think of this as practice for the Capitol, for the Games. I walk on down the hall like he’s not even there. It’s not like I haven’t been putting up with Marcus for five years or more. I’ve been playing along all this time, why should it make me angry now?
When we get to the platform where the train is waiting, he deliberately trips me and pretends to help me up, but it’s just a ploy to get his hands on my breasts. ‘Just wanted one last feel,’ he whispers huskily in my ear. ‘I’ll probably never get another chance.’
Boy, is he ever right.
‘What am I going to do without you, huh?’ he simpers. ‘No one knows what I like the way you do.’
Free from his grasp and almost in the relative safety of the train, I turn and spit in his face. It’s just a pity his visor is in the way.
But he just cracks up. ‘That’s the stuff, baby! Mm! I’ll be having sweet dreams tonight!’ I hear him yelling after me as I slip into the train. ‘Hey! Good luck, Sweet Thing!’
His voice rings in my head along with Violet’s advice.