The CompetitionMature

           We watch the reapings in District 1 and 2, but they’re just for show. In both districts, a boy and a girl each volunteer as tribute. In District 1, the volunteers look as though they could be brother and sister, but their last names are different. Rafe mutters something about inbreeding which shocks Pontius. Their first names are typical of 1: Brilliant and Sugar. Brilliant is a tall, handsome boy with golden hair and blue eyes. He’s seventeen and well-built, but in spite of his name, he doesn’t look too bright. Sugar is, as District 1 girls go, surprisingly plain. I had expected my main competition in the looks department to come from the first district. She looks strong, though. Tall and broad and athletic. For some ridiculous reason, Marcus Flint’s voice creeps into my head. Sugar, eh? Hope she tastes sweeter than she looks. Great. Not only am I already going crazy enough to hear voices, but my newfound imaginary friend is a lecherous swine.

            The volunteers from District 2, Rom and Theo, look tough. Neither of them are tall, but they wear very serious expressions as they climb the stairs to the stage. From District 3 come a gangly fifteen-year-old boy named Led and a trembling thirteen-year-old girl called Switch who wears enormous spectacles. In District 4, the boy volunteers, but the girl is reaped. She’s sixteen and rather cute, with freckled cheeks and copper-blonde hair that reminds me of Ruben’s. Her name is Coral, the boy is called Ray. District 5 gives us Albert and Minerva, two sixteen-year-olds who don’t look in any way threatening. Which makes me nervous. The reaping in 6 produces Brendan, a sickly looking boy who won’t make it through the bloodbath, and Keelee, a stocky lass with curly brown hair who might last awhile without food. It turns out she’s the daughter of that district’s mayor. District 7 comes up on the screen and I’m fidgeting, knowing what’s to come next. I watch a waif of a twelve-year-old girl get reaped and I feel a little sick. The name they announced is Aneka Carver. I hope I never see her in the arena. Or that girl from 3. Next, a boy called Ash mounts the stage. He’s intimidating. He’s tall, with arms like tree trunks, and he’s wearing a scowl that could rival Rafe’s. Speaking of whom…

            District 8 is on-screen now. I relive the moment Pontius called out my name, this time from the eye of the audience. I’m proud to see that my manipulation of my face and body is spot on. I had achieved exactly the effect I’d been going for, maybe even better. The cameras found me by following the turned heads of my peers and by that time I had clamped down on my shock. My face looks calm, a little cocky even. I watch myself slip through the crowd and climb the steps with easy grace. My smile is bright as I shake hands with Pontius, Ruben Card, and Woof. I’m not a very big person, but as I take my Career-inspired stance on the stage, my presence is enormous. I look as cool and confident as if I had already won. Now, watching it on screen, I’m even fooling myself. Which, funny enough, gives me real confidence. We watch Rafe getting reaped, then the two of us shaking hands and being lead away. I find myself gripping the arm of the sofa as the broadcast cuts to the train station. We see Rafe’s convoy pull up and him getting on the train without turning back, then the car I arrived in rolls into shot. I see Marcus open the door for me and promptly stick his foot under mine to make me stumble, then grab my chest as he catches me. My face is full of dangerous dignity as I hurry toward the train. Marcus is less than a step behind. He gives me a hand up onto the train. I turn, my face puckers and-

            -the shot cuts abruptly away.

            I almost drop my glass. I guess the Capitol decided it wouldn’t do to show such open insubordination on all the screens across Panem. That’s a bit of a relief. But the edit was hastily done. Just before we move on to District 9’s reaping, there’s another shot of our train and, clearly visible in front of it, Marcus Flint turns toward the cameras, an obvious splat on his visor. He takes off his helmet, laughing, and turns it around in his hands. The cameras are now focused on the train as it starts up and speeds away, a chattering reporter in the foreground. But I’m watching a slightly out-of-focus Marcus who, as he’s walking off-shot towards his Peacekeeper buddies, lifts the helmet to his face and licks it. He’s disgusting, but in such a ridiculous way it makes me want to laugh. I struggle to keep from just dropping to the floor in front of Pontius and Rafe. I think it’s more than just Marcus - my anxiety is making me feel manic. So they cut away from the actual moment I spat in a Peacekeeper’s face, but anyone with a single brain cell will surely be able to piece together the evidence from the following footage. It may throw some of the Capitol folk off- Pontius hasn’t said anything- but it certainly won’t fool the people of District 8. Not for a second. I get the feeling whoever bodged the edit has already lost his job. Maybe even his life.

            I get a grip by focusing on the rest of the recap. District 9 is sending a boy with bad teeth named Husk, and a short, wiry girl named Geena. In 10, the girl reaped is a homely but healthy-looking lass called Lolabell and the boy, Teks, is much like Brilliant from District 1: strong and good-looking, but dull in the eyes. Unlike Brilliant, he has sandy brown hair and eyes to match. Pontius refills my glass as we reach District 11. A girl who’s missing three and a half fingers on one hand gets reaped, and no one volunteers for her. Her name is Apple. The male tribute, Vonn, looks like he might have a better chance. He’s eighteen and tall, and he looks pretty smart. But he’s also thin and seems kind-natured, both of which could be a disadvantage. Especially the latter.

            Last up is District 12. Haymitch Abernathy is at least a little tipsy, if I’m being generous. I’ve watched his drinking get steadily worse since he won the second Quarter Quell five years ago. I see him twice a year on the screens, so it’s not hard to track his progress. This year, he’s swigging from a bottle right there on the stage. But he’s not drunk enough to forget where he is or what’s happening. His face is dark and void of optimism. I don't feel the disdain for him that so many of his own district's people openly display. In fact, the saving grace of this experience is that I might get to meet him, if only once. District 8-ers don’t generally go in for the victor-worship the Capitol pushes; but we saw how Haymitch made a mockery of the Gamesmakers, how he was punished for it, and how he goes on nonetheless, drunk or not. We respect that. I respect that. And no one else knows this, but he might be the only reason I last more than a day in the arena, assuming I do. He was my mentor long before Woof.

            The girl reaped is from the poor side of 12, the Seam. I can tell by the grey eyes and dark hair, like Haymitch’s. She’s fourteen and probably has no idea what a full belly feels like. Her limbs are like knitting needles. Her name is Kayna. The boy who climbs the stage a few moments later is also from the Seam, but a year older. He’s skinny, too. He’s introduced as Billy. After a few more minutes of footage showing the last two tributes boarding their train, the anthem of Panem plays again and the broadcast ends.

            I drain the last of my brandy and politely turn down Pontius’ offer of a refill. All in all, I think, I’m lucky. The competition doesn’t look too tough this year. If I get in with the Careers, maybe I can do what Violet says and stab them in the back after they take care of the rest for me. I tell Woof and Pontius that I’m tired and, after gushing to the latter about how wonderful dinner was (which makes Rafe look physically ill), I excuse myself.

            I make my way to my compartment, kick off my shoes, wriggle out of my dress and slide into bed. I try not to think about the faces of my fellow tributes. Marcus’ spit-spattered helmet drifts across my mind instead, then Haymitch and his liquor bottle, then conscious thought fades into dreaming.

The End

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