I give the woman across from me a small smile as she takes down my name for registration, trying to appear brave and cheerful. Even though I’m standing with the twelve-years-old, I am still dwarfed by the girls behind me. Which says a lot about my chances of surviving should I be picked for the Games. The registration woman clearly realises this too, for she gives me a sad smile as she points me towards my designated area.
“I’m sorry,” she mouths, and before I have time to reply the surging crowd pushes me away from the registration area.
The atmosphere of the square is palpating with fear and grimness, with rows of ashen-faced boys and girls standing shoulder to shoulder. I slip into an empty space next to a girl I vaguely know, and proceed to scan the edge of the assembly area for my family. The bobbing head of my mother guides my sight to them, her faded headscarf a dot of scarlet in a sea of dark hair. I stand on my tiptoes to wave to them, and they each blow a kiss back at me. Father’s face is pained; I know he is blaming himself for each of those rations I brought home on my twelfth birthday and the months in between. It’s not his fault though, far from it. I had decided myself to take the tessera against my parents’ wishes, and now, for the first time, I’m regretting it. But the happy glow from my siblings’ eyes helps me squash down these selfish regrets. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Rue. They’ll survive for another year at the very least, and that’s all that matters.
Two little taps on the microphone brings my attention away from my family and towards the stage. The ridiculous District Eleven escort, Aqua Stynes, is standing expectantly in front of the microphone. I wonder yet again how she can manage to stand on those sky-high heels, and how her thin neck can support that monstrous blue wig on her head. But that is beside the point. My fists clench at my sides as she begins to speak.
“Welcome to the Seventy-Fourth annual Hunger Games!” she gushes in that sickly sweet voice of hers, “And may the odds be ever in your favour!”
I tune out after this greeting, my stomach already too filled with butterflies to listen any further about the Hunger Games. Eventually she passes the microphone to our Mayor, who proceeds to make the customary speech about the Games’ history. I close my eyes as the video capturing the pain of the Rebellion comes up on screen.
“And now, to the part you’ve all been waiting for,” says Aqua as she plucks the microphone from the Mayor’s hand, “As always, ladies first.”
Breaths are held as she plunges her perfectly-manicured hand into a huge glass bowl. She takes her time with the picking, swirling her wrist this way and that before settling on a single slip of paper. She makes a show of unfolding the paper, letting each second slip by as the tension builds up in the Square. She may be good for not much, but Aqua Stynes sure knows how to do her job.
“Rue Thornton,” she announces to the Square after an excruciating silence.
Heads snap my way, their eyes all filled with relief and pity. Relief that they are safe for another year, and pity for me and my destined death. Because I will die; no one from District Eleven have made it back since Chaff, and that was a good thirty years ago. My chest feels like it’s going to burst from lack of oxygen, and no matter how much I try I cannot let go of that breath I was holding.
“Rue Thornton, please come up,” Aqua says again.
What am I thinking, waiting for all this to disappear as though it’s just a nightmare? It’s utterly foolish, except I can’t help but hope that she will send me back once she sees me. Not you, sweetheart, I imagine Aqua saying, Didn’t you know there is another Rue Thornton here in District Eleven? She’s the one who will be District Eleven’s tribute; you can go back to your family now.
Obviously that did not happen. I have learnt to breathe again on that short journey from my standing place to the stage, although my breathing is still very much ragged. I hide my shaking hands behind me as I face the crowd full of relieved children, trying hard not to look at my family. I know what is coming next, although it seems like a pointless ritual. Smiling sadly at me, Aqua turns to the Square and ask if there are any volunteers. An eerie silence envelopes the crowd, and my heart drops. Of course no one will volunteer. A sob breaks out from my mother as Aqua raises my hand high, announcing that I am the girl tribute from District Eleven. It is all official now. There is no way back.
I stand as though in a trance, and wait for the boy tribute to be picked and for this whole thing to be over. Aqua did not drag out the announcement this time; I guess she sensed that District Eleven have had enough of the drama. I do not recognise the name that she calls out, but I know immediately who the boy is when I see his massive hulk walking towards the stage. Thresh, an older boy who prefers to work alone in the fields. A boy big enough and strong enough to crush me with his little finger. I really don’t stand a chance.
I extend my hand shyly when Aqua requests that we perform the customary tributes’ handshake, hoping that my fingers won’t be crushed by his huge ones. Thresh’s hand is surprisingly gentle though, and I work up enough courage to lift my eyes and face him. His golden eyes are sad, with flashes of anger that I’m sure is directed silently at the Capitol and their cruel joke. He squeezes my hand, as though wanting to pass some of his strength to my wisp of a frame. I give him a tentative smile, a tiny one because the muscles at the corners of my mouth fail to move up anymore. Thank you, and good luck Thresh.
“Let’s give it up for Rue and Thresh, tributes of District Eleven!” says Aqua loudly, breaking the moment.
Slow claps start from the edge of the Square, although I know people are far from the mood of celebrating. I scan the Square for the first time since my name was called out, looking for my family and trying to memorise them before my time’s up. Anise is looking straight at me with her right fist on her heart, her seven-years-old eyes much older and sadder than they’re supposed to be. Slowly she reaches that fist out, uncurling her fingers and directing them towards me. The rest of my family copy her, from Ma and Pa to Lilith, Rose, Zac and Violet. Go with our
love, they say with their gesture and streaming eyes.
Aqua puts her hand lightly on my shoulder in that painful moment, and guides me gently offstage and towards the Justice Building. Thresh is right behind me, his footfall heavy. My time in District Eleven has just been reduced from infinite to a mere hour. I just want to curl up in a ball and cry, but I don’t even have time for that. I think sometimes people forget that being twelve is still being a child, a vulnerable child who is definitely not ready for the slaughtering nightmare of the Hunger Games.