No matter how many times I walked these halls I’d never figure out how the hell to navigate this place. God, this internship wasn’t worth it. Just as I turned the corner, my big toe rammed into a metal crate filled with stacks of paper. “Fu..rrrickkk,” quickly changing the wording as a man rapidly approached.
Dressed in a stiff military uniform with what could only be a buzzcut underneath the dark cap on his head, the man smirked as he crossed the hallway over to the box/toe-murdering device. Deep breaths, deep breaths, smile. “Hey,” I said, casually brushing off the fact that I was probably now one toe short. The man bent down to where the box sat and looked up, unimpressed at my coverup.
“You know, if you wore the shoes listed as part of the uniform requirement for interns here, you might save yourself some limbs,” he retorted. I immediately stood up straight, almost making me the same height as the man’s chin when he stood back up. I nodded and tried to look as solemn as possible, adding a salute for good measure. “You’re right, sir. Gotta save some limbs for hauling these super incredibly important top secret documents.” Of course, I knew his name. I just didn’t like acknowledging it as part of my experiment to see how far I could push the guy before relieving me of internship duties.
The man rolled his eyes and pointed to his hair, which wouldn’t be visible from the cap anyway but definitely wasn’t visible with the buzzcut. “Every time we interact I lose a year off my life. This hair didn’t use to have salt in it,” he remarked with a finger digging into his cap. “Soter owes me a buffet every week after this to pay for the shit you put me through.” I frowned, thinking about my dad even attempting to cook.
“Well, you’re better off dunking your hand in a river and eating whatever comes up. Least it might be edible,” I said before the man launched into a recount of his vacation from the past month.
See, all of us lowlife 18-year-olds get stuck with intern duties when guys like these take time off. Once you go up the ranks though, The Nut isn’t too bad. As a higher-up, they practically beg you to take reprieves so the youngsters can get some training done for their future careers. Thank god that’s done for now.
Shit, I’d definitely just tuned out everything he said. “…but the splinter just went farther in so here I am,” the guy exclaimed as he finished some horror story that I definitely, gratefully didn’t hear. I crossed my arms and nodded, trying to look interested. “So I’m done for awhile right?”
The man sighed, knowing I didn’t hear a word. “Yep, probably for a couple months. I doubt anyone will be taking off ’til after the games so I guess you’re free,” he said. Oh yes, so free. So, so, so free. Until a week from now when we’re all sweltering in the heat in the middle of town squinting up at that stage.
I turned on my heels to go back through the maze of hallways to get to the personnel-only exit. “Hey, Salem, wait,” I heard just as my back was turned. I cocked my head slightly to signal that I was listening. He cleared his throat. “Tell your dad to report here a bit earlier in the morning. You know, with it coming up in a couple weeks and all. Gotta make some final tweaks.” My head bobbed in agreement before I turned the corner to focus on getting out of the facility without inflicting more bodily injuries.
Finally, the first whiff of fresh air for the day. Well, as fresh as it would ever get around here. District 2 wasn’t known for its spring daisies. Mostly it smelled like dirt, dust, and an odor you couldn’t really describe as much more than foul constantly being emitted from the quarries. I squinted as my eyes adjusted to the light. The Nut could use some serious interior decorating renovations, like maybe some lightbulbs so you could avoid stubbing toes on filing boxes strewn across the hallway floors. Looking up, the mountains seemed to tower over the facility. I could just make out a couple people the size of ants making the trek to the top, probably a training troop finishing up a fitness course for the week. I made my way home, trudging through the muddy ponds left in the street from last night’s downpour.
When I got to our porch, one of the stray cats my dad liked to feed was outside our door meowing for treats like she did everyday. We sort of had a routine down, where my dad fed her around 6:30 a.m. as he left for work before it was my turn around 5:30 p.m. getting home.
Right as the door shut, my uniform was off and I pulled on a white cotton shirt and gym shorts that hung on the coat rack. After feeding Lily, named when we found her floating on a lily pad one day after a downpour like last night’s, I collapsed onto the couch in the living area.
Grey static on the television slowly faded to images as I flipped through channels. An involuntary groan escaped my lips as the few options restarted and landed on the default channel, Capitol News. Unsurprisingly, a frail, regal woman probably around 60 years old sat being interviewed by a reporter with a searing-red mohawk. Her skin was so pale it was practically devoid of color, and her faded blonde hair was tied in a low ponytail so that streaks of grey roots were visible. She spoke slow and with the sort of tenderness that made you think a slight breeze could topple her over. Yet there was a firmness behind her voice that reminded me of the scariest, strictest teachers I had growing up. The ones who’d whip you for screwing up a word in an oral presentation with a smile on their face.
I guess that’s a generous comparison to make considering that this lady literally killed people for a living. Yep, that’s her. Minerva Parker: Head Gamemaker. She’d been Head Gamemaker for around 15 years now, instated just after the second Quarter Quell. From what I’d heard, there were some political disagreements and tensions after those games when the victor pulled a stunt to win that the Capitol didn’t like. Something about a forcefield.
Minerva had proved a ruthless boss over the past decade or more, and the news loved having her on with all her sly teases about fun new surprises for tributes. Coverage was especially ramping up now with the games kicking off in two weeks. Though there were never more than sneak peeks into the upcoming event, the news loved replaying past games to get everyone amped up. In the districts, that turned into mild irritation in the best case and fist fights and public whippings in the worst case. Even here, where we were basically the teacher’s pets of the Capitol, there was still unrest around July every year. We knew what was coming.
I’d never understood those of us who stomached it, much less looked forward to it. Sure, my dad and I sat pretty comfortably on cash with his fancy military job and a house in one of the standard, quality villages. But it didn’t make a difference when we all stood in that square dreading the names being called, dreading it like they did in Districts 3, 4, 7, 8, 12…
In the end, we were all the same. We all had to watch as friends and family got sent away to kill or be killed. In my case, I’ve been pretty lucky. Over the past years since I could remember watching, only two of my friends have competed. One being from District 1 and the other here, they both volunteered of course. They’d trained for years for that moment, and it paid off since they’re still around to brag about it all the goddam time.
Me on the other hand, I guess you could categorize me as a complete and utter failure to my father. For years he begged me to attend the academy where a lot of my classmates ended up, training to volunteer for the games and bring pride to their district, family, and the Capitol. Guess the bloodlust part of my brain never got switched on. Whatever, fine by me. Enjoy the fucking holiday. I had to compromise though, which is why I’d been picking up intern duties in The Nut for years to stifle some of the public embarrassment my dad felt for putting up with such a loser son.
A bang from the other room was preceded by some cuss words. My dad walked into the living room wiping the raindrops off his pants.
“Goddam cat,” he muttered. “Coldhearted bastard. You know, we feed her and let her wallow around that damn porch so much. You’d think the damned thing wouldn’t try to bite your ass comin’ in the door everyday.”
I turned my head away from Minerva’s horrifying attempt to stretch her taut skin into a laugh to look at him. You could see his biceps and pecs flexing as he shed his uniform to reveal a thin tank top underneath. If nothing else that was one thing about District 2 I could look forward to, being ripped at age 44. I already knew he’d be one of those men who wouldn’t lose their hair at 50. He’d probably still be able to climb up the mountains encircling our district at 70.
Growing up, my friends’ moms always told me how much I took after him. It got exhausting to hear sometimes because I’d never seen it. I think I was just too self conscious to admit that anything about my appearance wasn’t inferior to him. I’d been working on that recently, trying to be nicer when staring into the mirror.
It was true though. We had the same hair so dark brown it looked black, lean but athletic builds, same defined nose and fairly full lips. Same sense of humor that most people didn't know how to respond to. We both had a knack for saying things in such a somber way that you really couldn't tell if it was a joke or not. I liked it that way, people not being able to read me.
I smiled but ignored his feigned outrage. He loved that cat. “How was work?”
He sighed and walked across the room to shut the blinds even though we still had a few more hours of sunlight. He always liked it to be dark in the house. “Busy,” he responded. “You know how it gets around this time.”
Over the last couple years, the Capitol had increased our district’s involvement in the behind-the-scenes of the games. Maybe it was to satisfy some sadistic pleasure for the audience viewing, but military guys in The Nut like my dad were being consulted more on stuff like arena layouts and weapons to maximize the entertainment gore.
He snorted and diverted my attention to the screen again where a young man around 19 was just sitting down with Minerva and the reporter. My eyebrows raised, and I looked at my dad in surprise. “That’s him? Definitely don’t recognize him from last year.”
My dad shook his head. “First of all, you barely watched five minutes of it last year. Second, he was covered in dirt and guts the whole time, how would you?” He was right. I’d only watched enough of last year’s games to get the gist in case anyone in The Nut decided to play quiz bowl. I might’ve hated watching, but I didn’t hate it enough to get pistol whipped or tied to a post in the middle of town. The Hunger Games was required viewing here and everywhere else. No questioning that.
I turned my attention back to the interviewee as he crossed his legs and stared into the reporter.
Everything about him was sexy. The mess of dirty blonde hair on his head looked disheveled. Not like when you’d just woken up though, it was definitely purposefully styled that way to give the illusion of little effort. He had a chiseled jawline too and a tall, athletic stature. His tanned skin seemed to almost glow on screen, and he kept flashing smiles at the reporter that showed some damn good dentistry.
Then there was his signature look, the look that won over thousands of people during his interview before the games last year. Seductive.
He’d get this look in his eyes that made whoever he stared at flustered and uncomfortable. It made any moment in time private, almost a secret that shouldn’t be broadcasted. It’s like he stared through you instead of at you. He’d grin while sweeping his gaze up and down his target and talking in a smooth, sensual cadence that let your mind wander…
I felt my cheeks flare up with a slight heat before returning to the dimly-lit room as my dad snorted again. “Get a load of him. Can’t believe he’s there talking about killing instead of getting his nails done somewhere.”
I let out a noise that hopefully registered as agreement. “What’s his name again?” I asked, trying to recall the tribute list from last year. To be honest, I never cared to remember victor names like so many others did. People around here practically worshipped the ground they walked on, especially with our district producing so many success stories over the years. I guess I did remember that one from a few years ago.
Enobaria, the lunatic who ripped someone’s throat out with her bare teeth to win. After winning she’d had them filed down to look like shark teeth, which was something I’d had the displeasure of occasionally seeing up close and personal around The Nut. I tried to steer clear of her even if it meant hiding in a control room until she disappeared down the hallway. There’s legitimately something psychopathic about altering yourself to be a permanent reminder of your viciousness, your utter animalistic nature.
My dad rubbed his stubbled chin in thought. “Kenneth? Nick? Arsonic?” My memory was suddenly jogged.
“Finnick,” I said. “Finnick Odair.”
He snapped his fingers in recognition. “Ah, yes. Ocean boy. The one stabbing fuckers with a trident.” That did ring a bell from last year’s games.
A visual of him collapsed on the ground in exhaustion, his face and body caked in dried mud. The cameras followed another tribute in suspense as she half climbed, half slid her way down an embankment toward her victim. Then came the defining moment of the games. A soft ringing signaled a gift descending down to him. Into view came a golden object that reflected against the shimmer of the ocean tides turning several yards away. Three pointed tines with deathly sharp ends extended out from a long base covered in jewels. I remembered everybody raving for weeks after because of its unexpected beauty. It had to have been the single most expensive gift given to a tribute in the 65 years of the games. Finnick’s victory came perfectly full-circle as he was from District 4, the fishing district. The way he wielded that weapon made it obvious how dangerous and lethal he’d be, and thus it was no surprise when he won.
“Guess he has the utmost privilege of mentoring this year,” I quipped before noticing that they were discussing that very topic.
“Finnick,” the reporter started, “with the 66th Hunger Games coming up in just over two weeks, what can we expect from your district?” Finnick nodded and seemed to ponder the question before leaning in.
“I guess you can expect my tribute to be where I’m sitting now this time next year,” he said with a smile as the live audience and reporter began cackling and clapping.
“I love this guy! I love that spirit! We’ll be sure to replay this clip when he, or she, is indeed in the studio next year! Finnick Odair everyone!”
I let out a deep breath and turned the television off, suddenly remembering the uncertain circumstances that next week would bring.
finnick is aged up a bit to relieve me of the stress of writing dialogue for a 14/15-year-old boy.
Everyone in the world had something they’d be remembered by, some special skill or trait that got them through the whirlwind of shit life threw at you. I think mine was waking up so fucking late in the day that I couldn’t tell if it was even still light out. Didn’t help that my dad always had the blinds drawn. Groaning, I rolled onto the ground and struggled to get a questionably clean pair of shorts on. I sat up and reached for the blinds to peer out.
Thank god, still sunny. I couldn’t even imagine the ass whooping that would come if I missed another training session. Yeah, that was the other part of the father-son pact. Skipping out on years of official academy training meant annual internships at his work plus monthly weapons training starting at age 15 with a private tutor. Turning 18 almost nine months ago meant my name was in that bowl more times than my dad was comfortable with.
I got it, better to be safe than sorry. I didn’t really mind the training since my tutor was actually tolerable, and dare I say even badass. Incidentally, she’d won the games at the same age as me five years ago and would likely be mentoring one of our tributes this year.
Shit, I could use more cardio work.
By the time I’d jogged over to the massive field near our village, my shirt had turned from light grey to a dingy ash color with the July heat soaking through it. I could already see her 200 yards away setting up the targets outlined in human shapes. As she turned around when I got closer, I noticed a deep circle of bruises purpling around her left eye.
I whistled. “Sheesh, what side of the bed do you wake up on to get that type of beauty sleep?”
She smirked and flipped me off. “Oh fuck off. Nothin’ to get your panties in a twist about.” I could tell by the way she’d tensed up a bit that it wasn’t a conversation worth continuing. Bending down to tie a shoelace, I looked over at the pile of weapons on the ground by her side.
“Alright Ruthy, what’s the plan for today?” She hated me calling her that, which is exactly why I did it.
Ruth Langmore, she was something else. She was pretty in a kind of natural way that by the Capitol’s plastic surgery standards would mean downright ugly. Hell, I’d date her. If I was into girls. I thought about the image of the tanned greek god Finnick on television the other night. Yeah, I definitely liked guys.
Never really used the term ‘gay’ though because I never felt the need to say it to anyone. It really wasn’t anybody’s business but mine. I never pictured myself telling anyone but my dad, and even then I still hadn’t had the balls to do it up to this point. To be honest, I had no idea how he’d react. Casual comments thrown around every once in awhile put me off the idea though. Like the way he didn’t take Finnick seriously for being ‘too pretty’ for a guy. It’s not like he’d beat me or anything, but still.
Mostly I think he’d be disappointed about not having a blood-related kid to pass on the family name. Plinth.
I kind of always hated our last name and how it landed with a thud when you said it. Plinth, really? No Flickerman, no Langmore, no liveliness to it.
I’d always had a nagging feeling, something buried deep in the back of my brain about my feelings toward guys. What really cemented that fact was about two years ago in school when I got paired with an upperclassman to do a project on the benefits of constructing buildings out of concrete instead of limestone. I was still trying to be in denial at that point, but I noticed myself always staring at his forearm muscles and how they flexed when he wrote. How his jawline clenched in concentration while he bit his lip. He’d rest his hands on his thighs, and I realized I had an overwhelming urge to put my hands there too.
I never found out if he was into guys but sometimes saw him around The Nut. He was probably about 20 now and was working up the military ranks to become an officer. I remembered one time when I was filing paperwork, I’d suddenly heard screaming in the hallway.
I peered out to see him pleading with his mom as she shrieked. “You have no right, Marcus, no right!” Her words sounded slurred.
He held out his hand to calm her down as he gingerly extracted the arm of a little boy who the lady clung to. When he safely had the boy shielded behind his body, he pointed toward the exit. “Get the fuck out,” Marcus’s voice shook. “Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back. You fucking drunk fucking deadbeat.”
The woman slumped against the wall and let out an unnerving cackle. “I’m taking him,” she said. “I’m taking Cato and leaving this place.” She suddenly lurched toward the little boy, Cato, and yanked his arms to the side. When he started crying, she slapped him across the face. Her hysterical pleading for him to follow her echoed down the hall. That’s when I really started getting worried.
Marcus looked like he was about to sucker punch the living shit out of her, so I’d hit the fire alarm and jumped into the hallway to get their attention. The woman whipped around toward me, which gave Marcus just enough time to sweep his little brother up and disappear around the corner. The hallway filled with confused and panicked faces, and I’d lost her in the crowd. That was about a year ago. I hadn’t seen her back since. Marcus always brought his brother to work though, which seemed like a good sign.
I think he somehow knew I had triggered that alarm because he nodded with a knowing expression whenever we passed each other. Thank god we usually worked in opposite sides of the facility. I couldn’t even imagine getting work done if he was around. Granted, he was one of the hottest guys at our school and probably in the district so it wouldn’t surprise me if even some straight guys thought about getting a piece. Maybe that was my brain still mildly freaking out and trying to find any explanation for the terrifying experience of growing up and dealing with shit like this alone. No mom to wrap me up in a hug, she’d left us seven years ago, and no dad to have anything close to a deep conversation with since he was either working or sleeping.
I’d once had an older brother. He was gone too. My dad and I never talked about it, and the only time I’d seen him cry was at my brother’s funeral.
I noticed Ruth’s hand waving in front of my face, sucking me out of my thoughts.
“Helloooo, earth to Salem? Don’t tell me you forgot it.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, what? Forgot what?”
She ran a hand through her tight blonde curls and put her hands on her hips. “The fuckin’ knives, Salem. You said your dad had a buncha extras and that you’d bring them to practice with today.”
Yep, that sounded like something I’d said. Unfortunately, they were currently sitting on my kitchen counter along with Ruth’s payment for this month. “Fuck,” I said, trying my best to sound as surprised and apologetic as I could. “You know, with everything going on right now and the reaping and stuff…I completely forgot. Sorry, my brain’s scattered. I’ll bring your money to the reaping if that’s good?”
She sighed and picked up a weapon that looked like a cross between a bow and a rifle from the ground. Aptly named a crossbow.
“Whatever. Just don’t chew my ass out when you can’t use a knife for shit other than cuttin’ up a lettuce leaf.” As if it mattered, I thought to myself. This was the last training session before the reaping in a couple days.
I liked the crossbow better than any other weapon anyway. I guess you could add it to my ever-growing list of skills along with waking up late. I pretty much sucked at using anything Ruth had tried to teach me to use these last few years, but I wasn’t too bad with the crossbow. Ruth’s speciality was the axe, the weapon she’d used in her games to bludgeon tributes. Her attempts to have me follow in her footsteps had ended quickly. One time I’d tried to do this fancy spin I’d seen her do before releasing the axe. I ended up letting go of the handle before completing the turn, sending the axe rocketing toward her and almost taking her head off.
Since she could tell I was most drawn to the crossbow, that’s really what we’d focused on during sessions. Better to be fairly good at one thing than equally shitty at everything. Although, that’s where Ruth and I differed. She had this extraordinary ability to pick up on new techniques and weapons so quickly that she’d trained herself to use the bow far better than I’d ever be able to.
“Okay,” she said as she tossed the contraption over to me. “Show me somethin’ that isn’t complete dogshit.”
She had such a way with words. Her vocabulary was primarily comprised of cussing, which made most people around here avoid her. She always had a slight edge in her voice that made her sound aggravated even if she wasn’t. I don’t think she much cared though. Living in the Victor’s Village with her mom, a sister, and two brothers seemed to be all the company she wanted.
I positioned myself to face the targets about 80 yards away, resting the stock on my shoulder. We alternated each month using different types, but the recurve bow seemed to work with me the best. The one I used had a sleek black curve that delicately wrapped around the end of it. The curve was there to keep the string locked in place so I wouldn’t skin the hell out of my arm or accidentally shoot out someone’s window, though I’d definitely done both of those more than once.
I liked it the most out of all the ones we’d tried due to its power. Whereas some of the other bows were easier to maneuver, the recurve had a longer draw length that made it more difficult and strenuous. But with the longer draw came an energy, a strength that you just didn’t feel with the others. It was also loud as fuck. Like loud enough to cause panicked flocks of birds a hundred or more yards away to shoot from the trees into the sky. It had a remarkable power and speed but was definitely conspicuous enough to alert people around the general vicinity.
I positioned the bow so the curve rested on the ground vertical to my body before placing my foot in the foothold and pulling the string back to cock it, hearing the safety click. An arrow was then loaded onto the flight groove, which extended all the way down the barrel to perfectly align the arrow with the string. I rested my left hand, the one helping me aim, under the foregrip, while swiftly sliding my other hand under the rail beneath the strings and cables.
The movements were second-nature at this point with Ruth’s careful and consistent teaching all these years. I looked into the scope, sighted the human outline that came into view, and inhaled deeply to concentrate on steadying the bow. I heard the latch release as I pulled the trigger.
The string whipped forward, emitting a sharp thwap, sending the arrow hurtling toward the human outline before the even louder smack against the target.
After a few more rounds, Ruth squinted into the sun and took a couple steps forward. “Look at that, right dead in the center almost every time. You’ve had a good teacher, huh?”
I grinned and shrugged. “I’d say it’s more down to my pristine genetics and predisposition to kick fucking ass.”
She raised her eyebrows and motioned her hand for me to come near her. “You wanna talk about ass kickin’? C’mon, try me.”
Dammit. Every couple weeks she made me practice hand-to-hand combat with her in case, I don’t know, maybe I came across a grizzly bear on my way to work? Pretty sure my only plan of action in a fight would be to thrash around on the ground until the assailant got worried enough about my mental state to call a psychiatrist.
I raised my fists and stepped forward, taunting her by hopping from side to side around her. She didn’t seem to be making any moves so I tried swinging a left hook toward her right cheek.
Her right hand whipped up and connected with the side of my arm. She dragged my arm down and, as the momentum shifted my body weight forward, her knee raised up and connected with my stomach, then my groin.
“Hooooo fuck,” I wheezed before crumpling to the ground. My face landed in the damp grass. I waved my hand weakly in the air to signal a white flag. “Nope, nope. We’re done. I’m done for the day,” I managed to get out.
I’d never been too good at combat. Most men my age would be cursing themselves if they'd just gotten beat up by a girl. Misogynistic pricks. It's not like she'd won The Hunger Games or anything.
Ruth threw her head back in laughter but, seeing me roll around on the ground in pain, tried to stifle it by putting her hands over her mouth. “Oh shit, Salem. You really can’t fight for dick.”
While my mind searched for a brilliant comeback to pick up at least a couple shreds of dignity off the grass, I heard a shout in the distance. Ruth and I both turned our heads to see little Lucy run toward us. She lived in the house next to us and happily fed Lily when I got held up past supper at work.
“Hey! Hey!” I heard her squeak. She reached us and bent over to catch her breath before pointing at me. In between breaths, she managed to get the message across.
“Your…your dad…I think he’s in trouble. Saw a buncha guards break down the door. He’s with ‘em.”
My legs moved before my brain could register the rest of her explanation. I sprinted across the field, still holding my stomach in pain as I heard both of them call after me.
“Wait, hey, Salem! I’m comin’ too!” I could hear Ruth yell behind me.
if you haven't watched ozark, i recommend looking up a clip of ruth langmore to get the gist. and then watching ozark.
Six minutes. That’s the time it took to reach my house from the field.
By the time I’d stumbled onto the porch, heaving from the heat and physical exertion, both Lily and Ruth were already there. Lily was hiding behind a bush in between our houses while Ruth was already in the house. I couldn’t see her yet but could hear a string of cuss words in her familiar drawl emanating from inside.
“Well I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re from the fuckin’ asshole of President Snow himself, you can’t just barge into people’s homes like that breaking down doors and shit!” I heard her yell.
I leaned into the doorway, noticing that Lily was indeed not exaggerating about the door. Splinters of wood lay scattered around the entryway where the door had been kicked in. I wiped the sweat off my forehead before straightening up and doing my best to look calm and composed. The voices seemed to be coming from the living room, so I peeked around the corridor connecting the entryway to the kitchen. A jolt ran through my stomach.
There in the living area behind the couch where we watched television, my dad knelt on his knees with his hands behind his head. Two peacekeepers stood facing him with guns pointed at his face, and one unfamiliar man dressed in a suit stood off to the side near the window. Ruth stood several feet away on the opposite side of the man with another peacekeeper training his gun on her. She had her hands up too but was screaming like a bullet wasn’t seconds away from blasting into her chest.
My movement must’ve caught a peacekeeper’s eye because before I could digest the scene in front of me, I was sprawled out on the ground with a knee digging into my spine. I heard a cry from across the room followed by the sound of metal searing across skin. I could just raise my head enough to see my dad hit the ground and another peacekeeper taking a similar position onto his back.
“Leave him alone, please. He has nothing to do with this,” my dad said in a muffled voice with his cheek pressed to the ground.
The man in a suit meandered his way between the guards until his polished, copper dress shoes appeared eye-level with my face.
“I can presume that this is your boy. Is that right, Soter?” He had a strange cadence to his voice, his words almost too fluttery for his quite serious appearance. He continued his thought before my dad could respond. “Yet I’m unsure who this young lady is, though she does look familiar. I don’t suppose it’s your daughter. She bears more resemblance to one of the dishwashers I know in the cafeteria where these fine men eat,” he said, gesturing to the peacekeepers.
I craned my neck to the side to see how Ruth would react. She slowly ran her tongue across her top teeth. From years of my expert ability to annoy the shit out of her, that habit didn’t bode well for the future of this conversation.
“You know, it’s real funny you say that about resemblances,” she said, taking a step toward the man. “Because I could say the same thing about you and the old moldy piece of cheese I toss to the sewer rats every once in awhile. Actually, the similarities are uncanny for both.”
All I could hear was my labored breathing with the guard’s weight gradually pressing harder into my back. The man let out a slightly terrifying giggle and nodded his head toward the door. Immediately, the peacekeeper released my dad and lunged toward Ruth with another restraining her arms behind her back.
As they forced her toward the doorway despite her attempts to free herself, the man called after her.
“Don’t worry, dear Ruth. I know who you are. I wouldn’t dare harm one of our precious victors. Get home safely, and well wishes to your mother.”
With Ruth and two guards gone, it was just me, the guard on my back, my dad, and the creepy rat cheese man, to use Ruth’s beautiful comparison. He snapped at the remaining guard and the pressure lifted from my body all at once.
“Well,” the man began as he clasped his hands together, “let’s get started shall we?”
The last peacekeeper now stood at attention in the entryway while my dad and I occupied two armchairs facing each other in the living room. The man sat between us on the sofa facing the television. He rifled through a stack of papers in his lap. I shot my dad a concerned look, but he was refusing to make eye contact with me.
“Yes, yes, yes, this is what I’m looking for.” The man flashed a smile at my dad before reading off the paper. “Soter Plinth, here you are. What impressive work you’ve done for us these last 15 years, sir. I applaud you.”
My dad cleared his throat. “Thank you, General. I’ve dedicated myself to serving this district in any way I can.”
The man chuckled and frowned at him. “It seems less so recently though. How unfortunate.”
What the hell was he talking about?
I suddenly remembered I could speak without the crushing weight of the guard compressing my chest. “General, if I could intervene, I’m sure this is some sort of misunderstanding. My dad would never do anything to harm anyone he works with.” My words came out in a slow, measured way despite the anger flaring up in my cheeks.
How dare they come in here like this, beating our door down and treating us like criminals about to be sent to hang. I tried to focus on the General’s worn, wrinkled face to dull the memory that was trying to surface from the thought.
My brother, the last words he mouthed to me, the wink and raise of his lips to one side in a reassuring grin. The ground under him giving way to nothing. My mom gone soon after. The ground under me giving way too.
The General batted his eyes and leaned forward to rest his arms over his knees as he pondered my point. “I’m sorry,” he finally concluded. “I wish we could agree on this. But your father has breeched protocol in this case.”
I gave my dad a quizzical look. Seriously, what was this guy on about?
My dad wouldn’t even let me go to work if there was a single crease in my dress shirt. He practically had a meltdown when the tributes from last year went half a minute over their allotted interview time. He followed rules to a fault. It actually got damn annoying how much of a stickler he was about everything in our lives, especially ever since what happened seven years ago. My dad pressed his hands together in a pleading manner.
“General, I can tell you for a fact that things have been misconstrued. I assure you that the papers you found in my possession were solely for research purposes. I was interested in the material on open-pit versus underground extraction and how we might equip our people with new, more efficient methods similar to how they’d operated.”
My eyebrows shot up when the General sifted through papers to present one that looked like typed correspondence between two people accompanied by photos of a desolate landscape.
“And this?” He gestured to arrows signaling various locations across the land with what seemed like a weaving set of lines underneath the ground.
“That’s District 13,” I said bluntly. I still remembered the images we’d been shown throughout school of the wasteland. While it had once been like any other district, a place specializing in graphite mining, after the uprising it had been destroyed. No life left, wiped off the map of Panem.
My dad shrugged. “Reference photos to determine which techniques would work for our differing environmental landscapes.”
The General held up another paper that caused a slight inhale from my dad, which he tried covering with a cough.
“Understandable. And what about this one?”
I leaned over to get a peek at what had caused the subtle shift in behavior. Someone who normally never seemed threatened by anything. There were two images. One showed what looked like a bunker of some sort. You could see several lines of bunk beds stacked up on top of one another with several people in the background, their faces shrouded by the dark filter. The other image showed a large, hollow space with tables set up neatly throughout what looked like a mess hall. The visual was slightly blurred, but you could pick out several groups of people sitting around the open area. Both photos gave off a feeling of harshness, almost militaristic with the repetitive grey colors and rigid structures.
“I’m unsure of what you’re showing me, sir,” my dad finally said after looking the images over carefully.
“I’m unsure that I believe you,” the General responded. He turned the paper toward me. “Salem, do you know where this is?”
My mind worked to find an answer, trying to connect the other photo to these. But it was impossible to think of a correlation. Why would my dad be in trouble for having an old picture of District 13 and some random shots of what was probably a training center somewhere around here? I finally gave up on coming up with a genius explanation.
“I don’t actually. One of our training facilities?”
The man shook his head before alternating his gaze between me and my dad. “Well there’s no point in shutting up now, Soter. He’s seen the photos. And don't pretend like you don't know. You'd be doing your intelligence and years of working in analytics a disservice. Shall you tell him or I?”
My dad met my stare. “It’s District 13.”
I couldn’t even control the snort that came out. “Okay, so why is everybody losing their shit over some old ass pictures?”
I guess I didn’t realize the severity of the situation until my dad stood up.
“It’s District 13 now, Salem,” the ’S’ coming out as a hiss. He quickly sat back down and collected himself.
“General, I swear to you that I found these pictures last night going through some of our old digital records. I was planning on showing them to the higher-ups, including yourself, shortly after but most of them were in an emergency meeting that didn’t end until an hour ago.”
The General smiled, his expression almost as terrifying as Minerva’s attempt. “Don’t fret, Soter. Your job is safe. These past 15 years weren’t for nothing. I think I’ve come up with just the way to restore our trust in your loyalty.”
He motioned for me to leave with a wave of his hand. “Let’s work something out.”
After 15 minutes of anxiously pacing up and down the porch, occasionally catching a glimpse of Lucy across the road picking weeds from the grass, the General appeared in the entryway and strode past me.
“Lovely finally meeting you,” he said and extended his hand out toward mine. “I have every bit of faith in your talents. Remember, you are your father’s son.”
I shook his hand, perplexed. What deal had they agreed on?
I started to worry that my dad could’ve lost his job and rank he’d worked so hard to claim after all these years. Walking down the corridor, I stopped at the kitchen to see my dad retching into the sink.
“Dad, shit!” I rushed over to put my hand on his back. “Are you okay? The fuck happened?”
He turned around to face me, tears streaming down his face. I couldn’t tell if they were caused by the heaving or from something else.
“Dad, please, talk to me. What the hell did he say?” He was visibly shaking, and the color seemed to have drained from his usually flushed cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
“Seriously, Dad. I need you to tell me what the fuck’s going on. You’re freaking me out.”
Before I could reach for a rag on the counter to start cleaning his face up, he held out a paper toward me. It trembled in his hands before I snatched it from the air.
The side facing upward seemed to have 10 close-ups of faces I could almost place. I held the paper closer to read.
The very last image at the bottom. A man probably in his early 30s. Fairly scruffy, tangled hair that was too washed out by the glare to determine its color. Maybe blond with some darker streaks in it. He looked half asleep, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion. This guy definitely looked familiar. The text ran underneath.
District 12 Male/Female Mentor. Assignment:
There was nothing after the colon, it was left blank. I ran my eyes down the page and noticed that each picture was labeled with a district, gender, and assignment. The only notable distinction was that one other photo, the woman for District 9, was labeled as both male and female mentor like the man for District 12. I couldn't even imagine what that was like, only having one or two living victors in your district. I was jealous, though. Must be nice not having every other person you run into acting like the goddam world revolved around them for murdering a bunch of people. Bastards.
Looking at each person, a pattern started to become apparent. Each was labeled as mentor, but the assignment category was left blank. I flipped the page over to see 12 more images of faces that looked even more familiar.
Right away, Finnick’s photo caught my eye. Under his dazzling smile, the text read similar to the back.
District 4 Male Mentor. Assignment:
Again, assignments were left blank for everyone. I scanned upward to see Ruth’s stone face staring up at me. She didn’t even attempt at looking friendly. I was genuinely surprised her middle finger wasn’t visible flipping off the camera. It definitely wasn't her finest moment with her hair all wild and deep raccoon circles ringing her eyes. It looked like someone had barged into her room at 2 a.m. and shoved the flash in her face when she sat up. Something like that normally would’ve made me laugh. In fact, I would’ve held onto the photo for blackmail the next time she tried to make me do laps around the field in 90 fucking degree weather.
But something halted the laughter bubbling up in my throat. Something that froze me in place, paralyzed me from inhaling. A possibility, a nightmare, a reality that made me jolt awake at night in sheets drenched with sweat every once in awhile. Under Ruth’s name, unlike any of the other photos, the text continued where the others had been left blank. The two words were scrawled in sloppy handwriting like an afterthought but were very much still readable.
District 2 Male Mentor. Assignment: Salem Plinth
When I was young, this pig used to hobble by the house every morning when I left for school. I kind of hated it at first because of the weird snorts and squeals it made if I tried to get close to it. After a few weeks, the stupid thing grew on me. I started to feed it the leftover remnants of my breakfast in hopes it would let me pet it one day. Even named the little guy. I couldn’t tell you now what my 10-year-old brain came up with for a name, but I liked the routine we had.
A month later, my grandpa had come over to visit and stayed the night. The next morning I woke up to the smell of meat sizzling on the stove. My grandpa smiled when I came into the kitchen, holding up strips of it. “Bacon?” he asked me.
My thoughts always reverted to that moment whenever something bad happened. Couldn’t really tell you why. Maybe because it sort of traumatized my tiny child self. Before then, I’d never experienced a loss of something close to me. It was like a realization of how temporary everything was.
Then my brother died not long after, and he flooded that theory with new evidence. Things weren’t just temporary because that suggested a short time period. No, things were impermanent, which was worse. It meant that you could have something for so long, so many years, that it felt so solidified as part of your life. Until it washed away and you were left corroded and stranded in a body with memories you couldn’t make sense of.
Well, this was a seriously fucked-up situation. Even more than the pig if you could believe it. Not the usual forgetting a textbook at home or whacking yourself in the face with a baton during martial arts practice. Shit was royally fucked.
It’d been four days since the General had entered our house and set it on fire, metaphorically. Four days since I saw that paper with my name on it. I don’t remember much that’s happened since then. I’d rather not. But I owe you at least something, some scrap of the incredibly depressing events that led up to me presently burrowed under my bedsheets and barely eating.
I don’t think it really hit me at first. I’m lying, it did. Anyone who says something didn’t hit them at first are fucking lying too. The problem is it hits you so hard that you can’t feel it until your senses, shocked and numb, kick back in and bodyslam you into the unfathomable situation you’re now in. But let’s revisit that moment.
I’d read my name. My name, Salem Plinth. It was listed after the word ‘assignment.’ I looked up at my dad. He stood there shaking, about to lurch over the sink again. My hand extended outward to hold the piece of paper closer to him. The thing was, I couldn’t feel my hand. It felt like I wasn’t even in control of myself. I looked at my fingers and flexed them. The paper fluttered to the ground. Good, I was still in control. It took a bit of concentration, but I forced my chin down to look at the page.
“What is this?” I asked the floor.
As if I didn’t know. As if I didn’t know. But I didn’t know. I didn’t know, did I? No, I knew. No, I didn’t fucking know. It was a joke. That General, he liked jokes. He seemed like the type to prank you. He’d get a laugh out of scaring you shitless. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. My dad wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do it to me. He wouldn’t. Would he, to save himself? To save his job? No, he wouldn’t. My dad. He would. He wouldn’t.
He seized my arms in his hands then moved one of his hands up to my cheek. Then he had both of my cheeks squeezed in his hands so tight my lips puckered out like a fish.
“I had no choice,” his voice breaking. “You’re my son. You are, but you don’t belong to me. Not here, not how we live. I can’t keep you safe.”
Safe. Here it was, my senses reviving and roaring through me. A dam that had been held back for years. The barriers broken. The reservoir allowed to rush forward again.
“Safe? Safe?” I repeated back to him.
Never in your fucking life have you tried to keep me safe. What the fuck do you know about safe? Fuck you, fuck you. You didn’t keep our family safe you ruined us. My mom’s gone, my brother’s gone. My brother’s fucking dead because of you. Fuck you. Fuck you. How could you do this to me how could you do this? No, I don’t believe this. This isn’t possible. They can’t do it they can’t pick who goes in. They draw the names they draw them and people volunteer and people get picked but they can’t pick you they can’t. They can’t force me in like this. If they could even if they could why would you let this happen why didn’t you say something why didn’t you fight. What’d you do, oh my god what did you do. You let him walk out of here and you’re killing me you’re killing me just like my mother and my brother.
I found myself clutching his shirt in my hands, shaking him against the sink.
“Salem, please! I didn’t kill them!” he screamed before shoving me off.
I sunk to the ground and curled myself around his ankles. So much for being in control. I hadn’t even realized I’d said all of that out loud. I didn’t even remember opening my mouth or forming words. I must’ve been shrieking though since when I tried to speak again, my throat ached and my words came out pathetic and hoarse. My body racked with sobs.
“Dad, please. Do something.”
He bent down and curled his body over mine so that his mouth was close to my ear. “Listen to me. It wasn’t a fair deal. You have to understand. We would’ve been hung as traitors. He offered a way out. This was the only way, Salem. We would’ve both been dead.”
I disentangled myself from him and slumped against a cabinet. “Are you? A traitor?”
His face darkened. “Is that what you think of me?”
I shrugged. I didn’t care about what I said around him anymore so might as well be honest.
“If what the General said about 13 is true, if they’re still around, then you must be. If you’re working with them.”
My dad leaned in until I caught the scent of his citrus aftershave. “Let me tell you this, Salem. And then I’m going to leave the house, okay? I’m going to walk out the door and let you blow off steam. This is all very fucked up, I know. I’ve put you in a horrible situation, and I know this. Okay? Of course I do. You’re my son, and I love you. But you are not every piece of myself that I love, and you do not get to make this decision. Because you don’t make decisions logically. When I tell you that this was our only option, I’m telling you that this is the only way out. It’s bigger than us, okay? You can’t understand right now, but I need to be alive. And you have a good chance. I’ve seen you with the bow. You’ve been training for years. You might not be academy-level yet, but most of the others won’t hold a candle to your abilities. I’d bet on it.”
He paused to think about if there was anything more to say. Apparently there wasn’t. He stood up and turned around without letting me even absorb a fraction of what he’d just rambled on about. As he left the kitchen and turned the corner to leave, he turned his head back. It was the only bit that actually lodged in my mind.
“And I’m not a traitor. This movement, it’s been building far past your generation. Our family isn’t new to it, trust me. How can I be a traitor if I’m working for the people I believe in to give you, to give us all, a future worth living for? You can survive this, Salem, I know you can. You’ve got to survive so that we can live one day.”
Tomorrow was reaping day.
I glanced over at the clock on my nightstand, unable to tell how much light was left with the shades drawn as usual. 6:25 p.m. I managed to get down a couple pieces of bread and jam these past few days, but that was pretty much it. I felt weak. I dragged my body out from under the sheets and slipped some sneakers on. I needed to see my grandpa before tomorrow. They only gave you about five minutes to say goodbye, and that would most likely consist of my father and a friend from school. Maybe. If she cared enough to come, which was doubtful. I’d had two or three close friends when I was younger, but we grew apart. At least I wouldn’t be having to say goodbye to Ruth. That comforted me some. One person in this world who genuinely gave a shit about me.
My grandpa only lived four minutes away in the adjoining village. His house had a stunning view of the mountain peaks in the distance. I liked coming here during the summer. You could hear the summer camp kids scream and howl with excitement as they raced one another up to the top.
It might’ve also been due to how the shirtless camp counselors always took the route by my grandpa’s house back home, but hey. Sue me.
I rang the doorbell and saw Wishbone’s face for a second in the window by the door before he raced away barking his head off. That dog was a tank. An 85-pound, muscly German shepherd. I think I preferred Lily. At least I didn’t have to share my meatloaf dinners with her.
The door swung open, and my grandpa’s face lit up as he ushered me in. “Look who it is! I swear the last time I saw you was over a month ago!”
“Yeah, sorry Gramp. Been busy over at the looney bin.”
It was an inside joke between us two. My grandpa grew up working simple jobs in the quarries and always had an aversion to my dad’s intimidating, pretentious job in The Nut. I once suggested that the nut cases who worked there didn’t much like my dad. We both agreed that was a good sign. It would’ve been way more worrying if he was popular. That had given my grandpa the idea of calling it the nut house, which eventually evolved into the looney bin.
He furrowed his brows. He knew me well enough to know that something was off tonight. “What’s wrong?”
Fuck. I really should’ve jotted down a script of some kind to read off of. I wasn’t good at breaking bad news, and it was even more difficult with how emotionally drained these days had made me.
“Gramp, I don’t know how to tell you this.” I stopped, turning my head so he couldn’t see the tears welling up. Really thought this crying shit was done. I mean seriously, how was it physically possible for my eyes to produce any more tears?
He gestured for me to sit on a couch with him beside an enormous wooden display case packed with picture frames and antique saltshakers.
“Basically, a bunch of stuff went down with my dad and some higher-ups at work. I’ll let him tell you the details, but it was bad."
“How bad, did he get fired?” Gramp asked.
“I wish. It’s worse. They threatened to kill him. And me.”
Gramp shifted in his seat, realizing an ultimatum was coming. “Unless…?”
Here it went. “Unless I compete in the games this year. Gramp, I don’t have a choice. I’m getting reaped tomorrow.”
My tongue felt dry from the nerves. That was the first time I was admitting it out loud. The situation felt real. It was almost relieving to say it, though. Like a confirmation that it wasn’t me going insane from my nightmares. No, this was happening.
My grandpa covered his mouth with his hands as his eyes became shiny. “Salem, no! Your dad, he’s only a rank below those people! He can get you out of this!”
I shook my head and tried to smile. “Gramp, you weren’t there. It’s real bad. This is what I gotta do. I’ll be okay, really. I’ve had lots of training. I’m okay. I’ll beat all those fuckers, alright?”
Gramp pulled me in for a hug. I could feel the tears slide down his face and drip onto my shoulder.
“I’m so angry, Salem. This….they’re evil. Pure fucking evil.”
His words bit into me. They were evil. But I’d never heard someone call them, the Capitol, that before. Out loud, at least.
“I know. But seriously, don’t make me cry again. Hey, Gramp? I can’t cry anymore okay, so do something funny or I swear to god I’ll punch you.”
His body shook with laughter and he let go. “Fuckers.”
I could tell he was seething but holding it in for me.
Wishbone jumped up in my lap, crushing my balls as he sat down. Thanks, Wishbone. The comedic relief I could always count on.
“Alllright, fffuck, you are way too heavy to be doing this. Gramp, c’mon.”
As Gramp was attempting to lift the dog’s ass off me, I turned and noticed that the picture frames in the display actually held photos for the first time since I’d been over. I leaned over to get a closer look at the colorless images. They were clearly old with most of their edges worn and some faces so faded that they were barely visible.
“Hey, who’s this?” I asked, pointing to an image of a serious young man with a girl around his arm. My grandma scooted closer and adjusted his glasses.
“That right there is your father. That’s not your mom though, just some girl he took to a ball when they still had those at the military academy.”
I could see it now. He looked like how I might look in a few more years, granted I buffed up a little more. Okay, a lot more.
Another image caught my eye toward the lower left corner. It showed one guy maybe around 16 with another looking a bit older.
“And who’s that?” I inquired about the younger guy who was staring up at Gramp with a huge beam. I recognized him from previous photos he’d shown me but not the younger one who had his arm around my grandpa.
When I turned to look at him, I noticed that Gramp had this funny look on his face. Sad, I guess. Nostalgic.
“That was my brother.”
“You guys look happy. What happened to him?”
He sighed. “That boy was trouble. Always getting into shit he shouldn’t be in. Quite the rebel.”
Rebel, that word didn’t get thrown around a lot. Not in public. That was dangerous. Everyone avoided the word around here. The consequences of even uttering it outside of a history class…
My grandpa shook his head as if he knew where my mind had gone. “Not like that. Sejanus, he was just different from everyone. He wanted to do his own thing, forge his own path.”
I looked at the photo again. There was definitely a noticeable resemblance between us. We had some of the same features. Same angular nose and jaw, tall and lean builds, same big mouth and wide smile. It looked like his hair was pretty dark too, and even the same short haircut that I had.
“That was his name? Sejanus?”
“Yes, Sejanus Plinth. Your dad’s uncle and my brother. I guess he’d be your…what, granduncle? Is that a word?"
I shrugged. “Sure, let’s say it is. I’ve never met him though. I’m guessing he’s dead.”
“He is,” my grandpa started in a cautious tone. “I didn’t want to have to say it, but he had the same fate as your brother.”
My eyebrows shot up and I turned toward him. “He was executed?”
“He was. It was a long time ago. Just after the 10th Hunger Games. He was hung as a traitor in District 12.”
My mind began spinning. District 12, what the hell?
“Why District 12? Why was he there?”
Gramp’s hands fidgeted in his lap. He averted his gaze toward the window.
“Gramp…?” I pushed.
“This isn’t something we should talk about. It’s history, Salem. Dead, buried.”
I shook my head vigorously. “No way. How can you say it’s history when my brother not seven years ago was killed just like him? Was he a rebel, Gramp? Answer me!”
“I already told you,” he shot back in irritation, “Sejanus wasn’t a rebel. Not like your brother. He never did anything, he never killed anyone. It’s what he was about to do. Listen, I dug into this when it happened. It’s not worth it, Salem. You can’t change it. You’re about to fight to the death for god’s sake, worry about that!”
That was a valid point. But once I knew a hint of something being off, I couldn’t drop it. Especially if it was about my family.
“Please, Gramp. I wanna know. Dad never talks about this stuff. I want to know about our family.”
Gramp sighed and gave in. “Alright, but I never told you this okay? A long time ago, my brother Sejanus was a classmate of Coriolanus Snow.”
This man needed to get out and breathe in some fresh air every once in awhile, I thought. The fumes from the quarries that came in through the chimney were clearly getting to him.
“Yes, I know you don’t believe me. But this was a long time ago when things were different. See, my father made it rich as a munitions manufacturer and bought his way into the Capitol. He sided with them in the uprising, and they let him live in the Capitol and send Sejanus to this elite academy they ran.”
After every emotion I’d been through this week, this was the first time I was genuinely dumbfounded.
“Are you…fucking kidding me?” I sputtered. “Our…our family is Capitol?”
“No, not all,” Gramp qualified. “It was only my father, mother, and Sejanus who lived there. I refused to go with them. I said they could tie me to a truck and drag my lifeless body there, but there was no way in hell I would go.”
This was too much. I mean sure, I was gullible sometimes. But this?
I rubbed my thumb around in the place on my forehead where a headache was brewing.
“So, back to your brother and Snow. You know he’s the president of Panem?”
Gramp smiled wryly. “I’ve heard a rumor about that. Yes, they’d gone to school together. They actually were both mentors in the 10th games when the Capitol tried out mentorships for the first time. Academy students were chosen to mentor the tributes for that games. That ended fairly quickly if I remember right. It was a damn horrific mess of a year.”
I tried to recall if I’d ever watched those games. “Did Sejanus’s tribute win that year? And why’d he get killed?”
My grandpa pointed his finger toward a picture in the top right corner. I leaned up to see better. “See those three?”
He was pointing to a photograph of two guys and a girl. Immediately, I recognized the girl. She was definitely the victor of those games, though I think I'd only really seen the ending. I recalled a vague memory of how a couple classmates whose parents worked in The Nut had always referred to it as being one of the strangest games in history. Something about a snake charmer, rebel bombs, and tributes mysteriously falling ill. But it seemed like more than a coincidence now knowing that my dad’s uncle had been a mentor. Hell, maybe he'd been on screen for an interview and my dad had just never said anything. It was strange though. This girl bore a striking resemblance to Ruth. Even with her hair being brown instead of an almost bleach blonde, the curls were similar along with the defiant, rigid expression in her lips and grin. I couldn't even fully explain it. She just had that look about her that I'd seen on Ruth a hundred times. It was like a don't fuck with me, I've been through shit look.
I recognized one of the guys as Sejanus from the other photo. He only looked about two or three years older in this new picture. I pointed to the unfamiliar man on the right who bore the same buzzcut and uniform as Sejanus that was just visible before the visual cut off. Unlike the other two, his face was turned more into a somber frown than any sort of sign of joy. It looked like they were in a forest or meadow of some kind with a lake present in the backdrop. Gramp answered without me having to say a word.
“That would be President Coriolanus Snow himself, in the flesh.”
No fucking way. Well, this was the proof. I couldn’t believe it. Here he was, the scary ass leader of our country, hanging out with my grandpa’s brother.
“I’ve always wanted to scratch his face out or cut his head off the picture but never have. I don’t know. I can’t bring myself to touch it. It’s one of the only pictures I have of him. Sejanus, that is.”
I took my hand off the glass and sat back down. “Why would you want to get rid of it? You’re literally, like, famous. Like you know the president basically.”
Gramp gave me another one of those sad smiles.
“Well, two other things I should mention. First, my ma and pa raised that bastard. Second, I think that bastard murdered my brother. And I need you to do something for me when you see him. So three things."
The Hunger Games: A Night of Interviews
The title flashed across the screen before a man in an extravagant blue suit decorated with rhinestones appeared center stage. He sported a bronzed, copper hairdo and stood in front of a twinkling backdrop of glaringly fake stars in a night sky.
“…So starting tomorrow, make sure to visit your local post office! Staff will be there from eight in the morning to eight at night to help you, yes you, place your bets before The Hunger Games kicks off this Monday!”
“Jesus christ, you weren’t kidding. They look exactly alike. Even their mannerisms, like all the hand gestures and everything.”
Gramp looked over at my slightly horrified expression. “Told you,” he answered. “Television has always been in the Flickerman bloodline.”
I turned my attention back to the screen just as Lucky Flickerman did a twirl across the stage. “You’re telling me. Is terrible choice of hair color also in their blood?”
”Now remember, this is the very first time that you can spend money to send food straight into the arena to our tributes. So pay close attention to our guests tonight, and help make history by sending your favorite guy or gal a life-saving gift. I can already tell this year will be the most interesting games yet as we approach our 10th anniversary!”
“Wow,” I said, marveling at how ancient this tape really was. “Are you finally gonna tell me what you meant by what you said, Gramp?”
He shook his head and pointed to the screen. “Just keep watching. I won’t say a word until you watch this.”
An agonizing half hour dragged by as tributes showcased their skills, if you could call describing in-depth how to slaughter a cow or disembowel someone with a sewing needle a skill. My eyes were just about to flutter shut from boredom when Lucky’s chipper announcement shook me awake.
“And last but not least, our very final tribute of the night all the way from District 12, and accompanied by her mentor, Lucy Gray Baird and Coriolanus Snow!”
I shot Gramp an incredulous look. “What? But we’ve only seen about half the tributes! And where’s Sejanus?”
“Ah, yes. This was a very unique year for the tribute pool. Half of the damn field died before even going into the arena, can you believe that?”
Despite slumping on the couch during most of the interviews, Gramp had suddenly sat up and leaned in to catch every movement that Snow and his tribute made as they mounted the stage. Dressed in flowing rows of vibrant rainbow ruffles with powdered cheeks and piles of hair that almost made Lucky look dull, Lucy stood close to a man who looked to be about my age. His curls were neatly combed back, unlike the stern buzzcut in the photograph, and he stared down at Lucy in a way that none of the other mentors had looked at their tributes. His smile was warm, caring even, and he held out his arms proudly toward her after introducing himself and backing away from the stage.
I tried to gather my thoughts. It was a lot to digest, especially the thought of a young and charismatic Snow. It was hard to picture him being a normal kid in school, even popular, and best buds with my family. As much as that was difficult to imagine, it made complete sense that he’d had the winning tribute for that year. Powerful people had to originate from somewhere, and I guess this victory had marked his first step up to the throne.
I still didn’t understand Gramp’s comments about his connection to us and Sejanus’s murder, but he’d refused to speak until showing me something on this tape he’d scrounged up and dusted off. I couldn’t believe he'd got it working on the television, but Gramp never did like getting the latest technologies that seemed to come out every month.
District 2 always got the newest toys to play with straight from the Capitol. It sickened me if I thought about it for too long. Us sitting in air conditioning and worrying about a group assignment due next week, while people in districts like 7 and 12 were starving with barely any running water. That’s why I never got used to the July heat. We could crank the AC inside all year round, but we gathered outside on the same suffocating day every July praying that our name wasn’t called. Or in the case of some people in my district, bouncing off the walls waiting until they could step forward to volunteer. July was a hard crack across the face. Back to reality. We might have privileges far beyond anything other districts could fathom, but we weren’t Capitol. Even if some of us liked to pretend we were.
“How’d they die? Was Sejanus’s tribute one of them?” I asked Gramp as the spotlights trained on Lucy.
”Good evening, I’m Lucy Gray Baird, of the Covey Bairds. I started writing this song back in District 12, before I knew what the ending would be. It’s my words set to an old tune. Where I’m from, we call it a ballad. That’s a song that tells a story. And I guess this is mine. ‘The Ballad of Lucy Gray Baird.’ I hope you like it.”
Gramp seemed entranced by her voice, his mouth twitching after every line she sang. I’d almost forgotten my question when the last stanza dwindled down into silence.
“I remember it very well. It was broadcast to practically everyone who could watch. I doubt most people really watched though. At that time, it wasn’t mandatory like it is now. The Capitol had their mentors and tributes tour the arena before kickoff, but the rebels screwed up their plans and set a trap. Explosives had been planted around the entrance to the arena, and it killed a handful of both tributes and mentors.”
Honestly, that seemed like an ideal death compared to the impending doom they were facing. Obviously it was different for the mentors. I bet some of them had been friends with Snow and Sejanus.
“So that’s how Sejanus’s tribute died? I mean, he didn’t give an interview. I’m assuming the explosion happened before this.”
“The bombs did go off before the interviews but-” Gramp held his thought and skipped the tape forward.
He pressed play, and the screen jumped to a shot of an arena. It wasn’t like the arenas that tributes competed in now. This was a fucking arena, the kind where you could easily imagine gladiators fighting to the death with spikes and swords. If this was the setup for me in a week, I’d be dead in an hour. Hell, probably five minutes. The arena’s layout was crafted for brute force colliding together in what should’ve been a bloody but quick end.
Yet, extending around the very corners of the field, you could see several tunnels with debris piled around them. Good hiding places for weaker tributes who wouldn’t stand a chance in hand-to-hand combat. Particularly in front of one larger tunnel that seemed to be the entrance, a barricade consisting of concrete, wooden planks, and barbed wire had been set up with large steel poles guarding either side. That must’ve been where the majority of the explosives had been. Above the barricade, an enormous wooden scoreboard loomed over the sprawling field with endless rows of stadium seats towering upward until they stopped at a sturdy wall circling the entire perimeter. In the middle of the field, 14 tributes stood in a broad circle surrounding a pile of weapons. No cornucopia, no carefully-constructed structure to conceal the valuables inside. Just a pile of weapons that looked like they’d been dropped onto the ground by a hovercraft 700 yards in the air.
“What the fuck…” I murmured as the camera zoomed in to reveal a horrifying image. Atop the crossbeam centered between the two poles near the entrance, a figure hung lifeless and in chains. Jesus christ. Okay, maybe not the most appropriate reference to make. “Holy god, what the hell is that?”
“Marcus,” Gramp responded. “Sejanus’s tribute. From District 2.”
It was awful. The boy, looking not much younger than me, hung by his shackled wrists. The camera zoomed in even more to detect his mouth barely moving. I turned my head away to focus on Wishbone sitting on the ground next to Gramp’s feet.
“What happened to him?” I whispered, trying to control my churning stomach.
“I think he ran away when the bombs detonated. Ran into one of those tunnels when the gates got blown off. Capitol couldn’t find him for days, and no one knew where he was until this moment. Right as the games begin, he’s hanging there beaten and bloody but still alive. Talk about an opening shot.”
I noticed my hand shaking and rested it on the arm of the couch. “They wanted him to be alive,” I said. "They could’ve easily killed him, but they wanted this. This torture. Not just for him. For the other tributes to see, for the districts to see.”
Gramp pointed at me. “Bingo.”
What was equally sick, something that was just dawning on me, was that Sejanus was his mentor.
“Did Sejanus know him, Marcus? From when he still lived here?”
“We both did,” Gramp sighed. “I was older, but we all hung around together. You know boys. Getting into all sorts of trouble at school. He was a good kid. You know, Marcus’s brother and his family are still around here. Recognize the name Chapman?”
Chapman! The boy, or I guess I should say man now, from school who I'd done that project with. The man who helped me figure myself out a little more. The man who I’d helped in return by letting him escape with his little brother. Marcus and Cato.
“Hold on, yeah, Marcus. I went to school with him. He’s related to this Marcus?”
Gramp nodded. “Indeed, indeed. The Chapmans are a bit of a mess, but who can blame them once you’ve seen something like this? Horrendous. The older one, Marcus, it must be a family name. Or maybe he was named after this poor guy. Either way, depressing shit, huh?”
I opened my mouth to reply when the screen briefly cut to a balcony overlooking a mess hall with an immense screen positioned on the opposite wall projecting the games. The balcony held rows of chairs with figures I couldn’t quite make out sitting next to one another. The camera panned in on one young man sitting at the end of a row. My mouth remained agape. A tingling sensation ran from my shaking hand up through my arm.
It was him. Sejanus Plinth. His hair reminded me of the melted chocolates I sometimes found in my pockets, tucked away and forgotten about after a summer training session. All swirled around and tussled like he'd hopped out of bed and walked straight to his destination without caring to glance in a mirror. I had to admit that I was guilty of that too. His hair resembled the photo I’d seen of him with Saturn, his brother, my Gramp. It was unlike the harsh buzz in the other picture with Lucy and Snow. I liked it better that way, the unkempt version. It made him look softer and didn’t accentuate the severe, bony angles of his face like the buzzcut did. What wasn’t soft was the look in his eyes on the screen with the camera zooming in even closer. He was visibly shaking, and I caught his eye twitch ever so slightly. The man next to him leaned over to pat him on the thigh. My head whipped to the left to see Gramp’s reaction.
“That’s them, that’s Sejanus! And Snow right beside him!” He stayed quiet.
Snow had just grazed his pants, presumably to calm and maybe even restrain him, when Sejanus propelled out of the chair and raced forward. He grabbed a chair at the end of the front row and catapulted it toward the screen where it smashed into Marcus’s beaten face. Just as the chair began tumbling to the ground, the screen cut back to the arena where the gong had just sounded, sending some tributes dashing forward toward the weaponry pile while others booked it for the tunnels.
Gramp paused the tape and rested his chin on his fist. Seeing the image of his brother again, living and breathing, had clearly rattled him. I couldn’t imagine the feelings this had brought back to the surface. It’d rattled me, and I’d known about the guy for barely an hour.
“Goddam, Gramp. He really was quite the rebel.” I winked at him to make sure he knew I was kidding. Well, mostly. Hurling a chair in a Capitol building because they’d fucked with your tribute? That took guts. And maybe a bit of alcohol, who’s to say.
“He was something, he was. But can you blame him? Torturing some poor guy because he ran for his life, then stringing him up like some sacrificial lamb in the arena where people are supposed to be trying to kill him? It’s all kinds of fucked up. All kinds of evil.”
There was that word again, evil.
I stared at the still image of tributes fleeing in all directions like lab rats chasing the prized slice of cheese in a maze. “So do we see him again, or is this about it for his screen time?”
“There’s another bit here, and then another tape…” Gramp trailed off. “Well, it’s nothing. It’s from when he died.”
What? Gramp had footage of his death? Why the hell would someone want a video of their brother dying?
“Gramp, not to be a dick, but why would you have something like that?”
He waved me away and skipped forward.
Sejanus sat in the studio with Lucky, another man sitting just to the side of Sejanus wearing a stern expression.
“My father, next to Sejanus. Strabo Plinth.”
I raised my eyebrows. He looked a lot colder than the smiles I was used to from Gramp.
Lucky patted Sejanus on the leg. ”Sejanus, I’m sorry we didn’t get a moment with you yesterday to let you comment on the demise of your tribute, Marcus.”
Sejanus looked like shit. Sorry, Sej. But seriously, his face was covered in bruises and scrapes. Lucky commented on them, which Sejanus attributed to a biking accident. Yeah fucking right. That was the go-to excuse for anything growing up. One night last year, I’d went out drinking with a couple classmates and didn’t seem to notice a construction pit not yet filled in a few feet in front of me. My dad had said that I should get better at biking. And lying.
“We, the Plinth family,” Sejanus’s voice came out in a rasp, “would like to announce that we will be giving a prize for a full ride to the University to the mentor whose tribute wins The Hunger Games.”
I let out a snort. “Well he sounds absolutely over the moon about that. Why’d they do it?”
Gramp scratched his beard in thought. “I’m still not sure, you know. I remember calling up dad at the time. It had come up, but he’d said it was just typical Sejanus. He must’ve gotten himself in deep shit. Dad just paid his way out of everything like it was no big deal. Now you never saw me do that with your dad, Salem, did you? No, that’s shit parenting. Kid’s gotta learn lessons. You can’t just buy your way out of dealing with problems, you know? Of course, he didn’t do it when it really mattered, I guess. Left the kid to die in the end.”
“What do you mean, Gramp? You think he could’ve bribed them not to hang your brother?”
“I most certainly do. Salem, of course he could’ve. He was the richest man ever to come from the districts. Sure, he wasn’t Capitol. But I can tell you that he probably paid for half the buildings that their university has now. Sejanus, he got caught up in minor shit. A plan to run away and steal peacekeeper guns or something. He wasn’t a rebel, I’ll tell you that.”
Sure. Just a few days ago I would’ve said the same about my dad with absolute certainty. Now, I had no idea what he was capable of. Whatever Gramp or even I thought, doing anything outside of perfectly blending in was an act of rebellion. Sejanus might not have run away, but even planning something like that was an insurrection within itself.
“I’ve changed my mind. I want you to see the tape of him.”
My fingers froze their tap tap tapping on the couch. “No, I don’t need to see it. I believe you.”
Gramp shook his head vigorously. “Salem, I want you to see. I need you to understand. I want you to know what they do to us. You’ve grown up too sheltered, and look where you are now. Blindsided by the life you’ve been gifted and now…” Gramp covered his mouth as his eyes welled up. “Now they’re doing this to us again. They’re killing us. It’s your brother all over again, it’s Sejanus. All of us!”
I sighed and picked the remote up to give him time to get his emotions under control. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea, unearthing all these painful memories. I skipped forward until Lucy caught my eye.
“What’s with this girl Lucy?” I asked as she sprinted across the stands, whipping her head back every once in awhile.
“It’s Lucy Gray. That’s what she went by.”
I rolled my eyes, like it mattered. “Okay, so why is she with Sejanus and Snow in that one picture?”
At present, Lucy Gray, there, had scaled the stands and paused to watch as a stocky boy stumbled after her. He fell several times and had opened gashes across his face. A voiceover could be heard about the boy being her district partner. A drone flew in carrying water, but the boy swung a board and sent the bottle crashing into the stands. Lucy Gray had backed herself up against the wall of the arena and was cornered by another structure to her right. Drones began coming in fast carrying more bottles of water, and as they fell toward the boy and exploded on the ground, he began frantically batting the air and jerking from side to side. The camera zoomed in to reveal foam dribbling over his lips. He was rabid. Just as soon as he began sprinting down the stadium rows with drones honing in on him from all angles, he tripped and went careening over the wall. His body landed with a snap on the ground.
Lucy Gray eventually appeared next to him and laid a hand on his head. ”It’s okay. I’ll watch over you. I’m right here. I’m staying right here,” you could just hear her say. After she’d taken out a cloth and veiled his face with it, she disappeared through the tunnels.
I shivered thinking about her doing that. In just over a week, I’d be in her exact situation. Making last-minute life-or-death decisions, fleeing from people hunting me down, having to hunt myself if it came down to it. What if, like Lucy Gray, I knew someone in that arena? A friend from another district, or someone I grew to care for over the week? Someone I had to watch die and then walk away with nothing I could do? No, I refused. I couldn’t make friends like that. Unless it was someone I already knew, which was out of my control. But other than that, absolutely not. There was no room for caring. It was a weakness that I couldn’t afford now.
I skipped through the tape until a burst of color brought my finger down on the play button. Snakes of all colors seemed to explode out of the ground and across the field, sending several tributes rocketing toward opposite ends. One tried to make a break for the poles that Marcus had been hanging on. He was nowhere to be seen now. The snakes finally overtook him, fangs flashing all across his body until he was left still on the ground with multitudes of colors dripping down his sides.
A voice began narrating as another tribute scrambled up one of the poles. ”These are muttations we’ve developed in our labs in the Capitol. They’re only snakelets, but full-grown they’ll easily outrun a human, and that post will be no problem for them to climb. They’re designed to hunt humans and reproduce rapidly so any casualties can be swiftly replaced.”
I skipped forward again, uncomfortable with the tributes’ terror that I could feel radiating from the screen. There, play.
It was Lucy Gray again, this time moving backward onto the field from a tunnel. She swayed as snakes from all directions began slithering forward until they consumed her and replicated the rainbow ruffles down her dress. She began singing, and the snakes swayed to the rhythm.
“Gramp, that’s her! She’s the snake charmer! A couple people from school sometimes mention these games, and they always talk about a girl who was a snake charmer!”
“Yes, Snow’s tribute. You know, not many people have seen these games. It was a scandalous year what with the bombs and all. They actually stopped airing right after Lucy Gray won. No copies to be found anywhere.”
I pondered that. “I guess the Capitol didn’t want everyone to see them getting outsmarted, you know, with the rebel plan and snake charming. I bet the gamemaker wasn’t happy with her pulling a stunt like that.”
“No, definitely not,” Gramp agreed. “Though she got her karma, the evil bitch. I always hated her when she came on television. Made my skin crawl even as a child. I couldn’t tell you for sure, but there were rumors that the gamemaker after her landed his job with a little more than merit. Apparently she wasn’t planning on stepping down anytime soon, so he made copies of the games and released them to the Capitol and districts.”
Hey, I didn’t blame him. Sometimes you had to get dirty.
“So he framed her for releasing tapes of the games and got her fired?” I asked.
Gramp shrugged. “Basically. I don’t think the Capitol necessarily believed it was her, but they didn’t want to look weak. Her disappearing nine years after these games was the best option to get things under wraps again. I think most of the copies were confiscated by peacekeepers in the other districts, but there’s still a few lying around here in 2. Especially in The Nut. That’s how I got this one, from when I worked there for a bit ages ago. They keep a spare copy here and there for the archives. You’ll never see games damn near like it. I wanted it for personal reasons, obviously.”
As if I needed any more evidence of the peculiar nature of these games, the tape skipped and paused on Lucy Gray’s face again. This time, she was engaged in a struggle with a young man wielding an axe. He had her by the wrist while she squirmed to free herself. Then, just as he swung the axe down to meet her skull, she twisted downward and hugged him. Well, what looked like a hug anyway. It was bizarre. Clever, though. She held herself so near to his body that his lanky arms had no way of producing enough momentum to hit his target at that close of range. He abruptly shoved her away as his hand shot to touch the back of his neck.
I pounded the couch in excitement when a writhing pink snake emerged in his hand. He dropped to the ground, attempting to get up a few times to no avail. Lucy Gray rested a hand over her chest when he stopped moving on the ground. She waved to the camera, relief smeared across her face.
I whistled. “Girl’s a firecracker. How’d she get those snakes to follow her like that?”
“No one knows,” Gramp responded. “She’s the only tribute I’ve ever seen do something like that. Of course, she’s the only female victor from her district. It’s just her and the one from that Quarter Quell years ago. It’s funny, as much as District 12 flies under the radar, both of them seemed to cause quite a stir for the Capitol. Though I don’t think they stopped airing the Quell like they did with this one for some reason.”
Stretching, Gramp got up and lumbered over to the television. He popped the tape out and dug around behind the screen until another tape appeared in his hand.
“Gramp, really. You don’t need to show me. Just tell me what happened with Snow.”
His shoulders tensed, and he started pacing across the room with his arms crossed. “I don’t know, Salem. That’s the thing. I have no proof. But I know, I just know.”
I checked the time. 11:24 p.m. I should really be getting back. Not that I’d sleep for even a second tonight, but exhaustion had set in from the events of tonight.
“I visited ma and pa after Sejanus died,” Gramp continued pacing. “Guess who was there when I arrived? Coriolanus Snow. Motherfucker was in my brother’s bed. He’d practically replaced him!”
“Wait, wait, wait. So your parents took him in after Sejanus died? Why?”
Just then, the screen burst to life again. There was a field or forest of some sort and a crowd beginning to gather. The image was colorless and grainy, but peacekeepers could be seen dragging a figure onto what looked like a stage. The shot was from far away as if it was taken from a treetop. A noose around his neck, his mouth open in screams. No audio on this tape. And then a trapdoor opening beneath him, snapping his neck to the side.
Fuck, it was surely him.
I tried my best not to come across harsh, but I needed answers before I left. “Why do you have this tape, Gramp?”
“I went to 12 when I’d heard the news. I wanted to know what happened. They gave me the tape since rebel hangings in that area are always recorded. Guess they had no use for it. Sejanus was a nobody.” Gramp stopped pacing to sit back down on the couch. Wishbone hopped up between us. "I tried asking around, but one of the peacekeepers who’d been given the orders to seize him had said that I should ask my dad. That’s when I knew. I knew he’d known that Sejanus was going to be hanged. He did nothing!”
“Alright, so your dad knew. Where does Snow fit in?” I know, I was prying. I should’ve just shut up and consoled him. But it was irking me, the thought of that smug, pretentious guy not helping someone who supposedly was his friend.
Gramp walked over to the display case and retrieved the framed picture of Snow, Sejanus, and Lucy Gray together before sitting back down. He tapped the glass rapidly with his fingernail.
“I only stayed three days at their place to go to Sejanus’s funeral. I hated it there, couldn’t stand to stay longer. But the guest room I stayed in, it was next to Sejanus’s old room where Snow was. I swear to god, every night I’d wake up to him screaming bloody murder in his sleep. He was screaming Sejanus's name over and over. The guy was tormented over his death.”
“Because they were close, right?” I replied.
He tapped his finger against his temple. “See, that’s what I thought at first. I mean, I didn’t like the guy. The way he talked and dressed, all prim and proper. He was arrogant. But I couldn’t figure out why I had this sinking feeling around him. On the day before I left, he was out of the house. I thought I’d rummage through Sejanus’s room to see if I wanted to take anything. You know, a keepsake.”
Gramp waved the photo in the air, their faces flashing back and forth. “I found this in his room. It was in a box with some other things that Sejanus had taken to 12. Look.”
I leaned in as he pointed to the uniforms. I noticed a ’12’ etched into the collars of both the men. I snatched the photo out of his hand to look closer.
“Snow was with him in 12? What were they doing there?”
“Peacekeepers,” Gramp resigned. “My dad thought it’d be best for him to stay out of trouble. I never figured out why Snow was there, but their uniforms are the same. The asshole was there when he died!”
I nodded. I got it. This was his brother. He wanted to believe that it was Snow’s fault. Maybe as a form of payment to the Capitol to get himself back into their good books. But there was just no proof.
“Listen to me, Salem. He had something to do with it. After finding that photograph, I tucked it into my pocket and decided to confront him that night before I left…”
Coriolanus shut the door and kicked off his shoes, coming into the kitchen to see Saturn leaning on the counter. He twirled a spoon around a bowl of soup but didn’t take a bite.
“I’m sorry to hear about your departure tomorrow,” said Coriolanus. “I could always use an extra hand with the dishes.”
Saturn smiled before dumping the soup into the sink. Coriolanus flinched.
“Sorry,” Saturn said. “You’re not used to wasting food, huh? I guess you don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
Coriolanus hesitated for a second before grinning. “I guess not. What can I say? Your parents are very generous people.”
“Very generous,” Saturn repeated. “Yes, well, not generous enough to get Sejanus out of this one. They pay their way out of every other problem, but not their own son’s execution. The psychology behind it, I can’t even begin to unpack that.”
Coriolanus leaned back against the wall, taking a moment to decide how to respond. He eventually shrugged. “When you put it that way, it does sound cruel. But have you asked him if he even knew it was going to happen? I mean, if Sejanus didn’t know anyone in 12, there would’ve been no way to alert your family. I tell you, I was over at the academy with Dr. Gaul when we heard the news. I wished I could’ve turned back time and never let him go to that vile place.”
Saturn’s heart rate sped up. He could almost feel the photograph burning a hole through his pocket. “The academy?”
After removing his jacket and hanging it on the coatrack, Coriolanus opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of milk. “Yes, I was finishing up classes when the news arrived. I just wish he was here to go to university with the rest of our class. I think Sejanus would’ve wanted this for me, though. Your parents are too nice letting me stay here and paying the tuition. I could never repay them.”
“You were Sejanus’s only friend,” Saturn said. “Don’t worry, you’ve done enough.”
Snow had lied about being in 12 when Sejanus died. He’d seemed to be tormented with nightmares too. But was it enough? I didn’t know. It was all so long ago.
“Did you ever ask your dad about it?”
Gramp placed the picture frame on the table and stared at the screen where his brother hung.
“There was really no time since I was leaving the next morning. I already knew I’d never seem them again. I swore to myself that I’d never step foot in the Capitol again. And Coriolanus was always prowling around the house. The most that I got out of pa was when he was drunk late that night. He was barely comprehensible, slurring something about a negotiation and a test of loyalty. Couldn't understand a damn word.”
A negotiation? What would there have been to negotiate? Snow staying at the house? Them paying for his tuition? But it didn’t make sense. Why would Strabo agree to that if he didn’t get anything in return? That wasn’t a negotiation, it was a demand.
Gramp accidentally hit play, and the crowd started to disperse across the screen. As he got up to eject the tape, I noticed a slight skip in time. It was barely discernible, but several figures in the crowd jumped a few feet forward without moving. There it was again, another jump. Someone had obviously cut and spliced the footage, but the second time was a lot more noticeable. Sejanus’s body disappeared between the cuts after the crowd had moved away. Odd. Maybe the peacekeepers had dumped his body somewhere close to the stage but didn't want to get in trouble for not following protocol about disposing corpses.
I looked at the time again and yawned. “I’ve got to go, Gramp. What was it you wanted me to do if I see him? Snow?”
I am eight years old.
He clasps my hand in his. Fingers much bigger than mine, palms much rougher. He guides my hand to hold the fabric, my fingertips weaving in and out until he nods and I release it like he says how to do. He says it a lot, but I’m not a quick learner. Can’t get the timing right.
He moves my chin downward and to the side until I catch on to what he’s looking at.
There, a small ripple in the water. I wait like he says, his index finger held up to his lips. They’re fast, he says. Gotta get ‘em faster than fast. Pinchers poke out from the fabric and break the stillness of the surface. I feel a rapid tapping on the back of my shoulder. Go time, go go go.
I bring the net up and sling it on the sand. Droplets of water drip down my chin. Feels good in the heat, especially when we’ve been out baking all day.
He scrunches his nose and plants his hands in the sand to examine our catch. Aw, that’s just a little ol’ baby, he says before standing and brushing the grit off his knees.
He’s restive. Never known him to be different, always moving and shifting and looking for the next big catch. For a second I think he’ll chastise me for not having his luck at things like this. Only two small cod to take for mom and dad to cook. His chest gets real big and then deflates in a long exhale.
I squint up at his figure only partially blocking out the sun. He bends down and ruffles my hair. Don’t worry little bro, we’ll come back tomorrow, he says. He picks the cod up and dunks them in the shallow water along the shore to clean the sand off. I sift through the net until the creature is wriggling between my fingers.
I never have caught a crawdad before, not that it’s much to look at. My brother sometimes catches them along here if nothing else is biting. Something to keep him company until the big meal swims by.
I’ve never seen one like this before though. Its sapphire body twists and twinkles against my palm as a sunbeam reflects off its back. Usually they were duller colors. Back home we don’t have these things, these creatures and the sand sticking between yours toes and endless waves rolling so far out that it’s impossible to see where they end.
I like spending early summer down here. I like the smells devoid of the dust and grime that are back home. I like falling asleep on the sand until the heat burns my body awake. I like watching my brother try to get a group together to play games on the beach. The teens from around this area gather here after school lets out. Now that it’s summer, they hang around for most of the day. Smoking, drinking, kissing.
My brother motions for me to stand, the day’s activities wrapped up just in time for dinner. My fingertips open and the creature scurries back home. It’s there floating for just a second until the next wave laps it up and away. I grab the net and catch up to him.
He hunches down, a familiar move signaling me to hop on his back. I think he’s the only person I’ve ever seen do something like that. I accept. Not just because my feet are tired from walking miles of shoreline today. No one else does stuff like that back home. I like knowing how other people feel. It’s something you can’t get from just talking or looking at someone. Reassurance, maybe. Or just the confirmation that we’re all here experiencing the same moment, and I’m not just imagining it.
My brother starts running across the sand, my fingers digging into his shoulders. My head bobs up and down. I try to focus on not slipping and tumbling into the waves that will sweep me away like the crawdad. He lets out a howl that travels through the wind whipping by my ears. His string of whoops stops for a second, the sound still echoing down the beach, and he tilts his head back so I can hear him better against the rushing air.
“This is the life little bro!”
I am 17 years old.
I plant my hands in the sand and lean over to see what the net has brought up. Three, four, five, six cod. Too many for just us. I let two dry out on the sand and go to dip the net back in to release the rest.
Something glints off the water and catches my eye. I turn my head to see a boy plop down on the sand dune behind me. He struggles to strip his wetsuit off, leaving on only a pair of soaked boxers. The material slaps against the surfboard next to him.
He leans back into the embankment to watch the group down the beach try to snag the red and blue handkerchiefs peeking out of their pockets.
I get up and steady the net so that nothing manages to jump out. His eyes are closed. He doesn’t notice me approaching, the sand snuffing out any chance of footsteps. He holds his hand to his chest and seems to be messing with something.
I see what’s glinting now. Attached to a leather strap around his neck, a golden ring catches the sun’s beams every few seconds. An even smaller object is lodged in the ring, the top and bottom of it fastened to the same spots inside of the ring while its other two sides remain free to spin the object around and around in his fingers.
My figure obscures part of the sun and casts a shadow on his face. His eyelids flutter open at the sudden interruption. He shields his eyes from the remaining sun to get a look at me, his eyebrows furrowing in concentration. His features are softer than the rigid lines that structure my cheeks and jaw. Tanned skin undoubtedly from spending the summers either sprawled out on the shore or trimming and carving the waves for hours. The grey encircling his pupils matches the storm clouds rolling in that will soon cause groups all down the coastline to scatter.
“Whatd’ya got in there?”
I hold the net out so he can peer in.
He nods in approval. “Better than me,” he says, holding up a shell strewn on the sand next to his board. He raps it with his knuckle. “I don’t think there’s much meat in here.”
I hold the net out to him. “I was gonna toss these back anyway. They’d spoil before my dad got to cooking them up tomorrow. Just us two, so…”
He stares at me, his gaze flitting across my face. His fingers brush across my knuckles before the net is in his hands.
“Hey, thanks. You’re probably the only decent guy around here.”
He motions over to the shoreline. “Mom would kill me if I didn’t bring something back. Been trying to catch a clean wave all day, but it’s all choppy out there.”
He shakes his hair and sends sand flying in all directions. It’s crimped from the water, making it hard to tell its natural texture or color. He hoists the board up, balancing the net under one arm, and stands.
I take a slight step back and cross my arms. I’m suddenly conscious of the muscles across his stomach and biceps flexing in an effort to not drop any belongings.
“Wait, what’s choppy out there? The fish?”
He gives me a funny look, and his lips break into a smile. “Nah, the waves. You a benny?”
I try to mask my nerves with a laugh. It was easy looking down at him with his face all screwed up and half-blinded by the sun. Now he stands several inches taller than me and doesn’t seem to notice my efforts to keep distance between us.
“A what?” I ask.
“Well,” he replies, running his hands through his hair to unload any last remnants from the land. “That would be a yes. You’re not from around here. Where you from?”
“Two,” I immediately say. The words spill out automatically after years of the same routine questions. “My dad and I, we like coming down here for a month or so. His job lets him take some time off every year. We get to go wherever we want as long as it’s authorized. We head back in a week since, well, you know. July.”
He glances off to the side to spot the group making their way toward the houses behind the dunes. A bolt of lightning flashes a few miles away. I stop talking and let the conversation dwindle between us.
I shouldn’t say these things. That we get to go where we want. I’m wary about how others perceive me. It’s not supposed to be bragging, but of course it is. Of course. Few people outside our home get to do what we do. I know that.
He looks back at me. “Storm’s coming. Better get inside.”
He thanks me for the fish again. As I start walking down the shoreline, the opposite direction from where he and the group are heading, his voice makes me turn around.
“Hey!” He has to yell or his voice won’t carry against the wind beginning to pick up. “I didn’t catch your name! Mine’s Carrington! Percy Carrington!”
“Pl-,” I stop short and freeze.
Is it really a good idea to tell a stranger your full name? And what if he tries to come by the house? All it would take is a trip to the neighborhood information center where names are listed for each house number. I start to panic. What if he meets my dad? My dad can always pick up on when I’m acting off. I might be able to hide most of the time, but not with my dad. He notices everything. It’s why he’s irreplaceable at his job back home. We are the same. I’m not ready to tell him something like this. Not yet.
“Marcus!” I yell back against the breeze. “Marcus Chapman!”
9:30 a.m. My alarm buzzed across the nightstand until my fist slammed against the button. Reaping day.
I ran a hand through my hair in the mirror until it looked presentable. Decent, at least. I shuffled out into the kitchen where dad was frying potatoes in a pan.
He turned to look at me. I pulled the strings on my robe tighter and extended my arms out dramatically.
“I’m ready to fight to the death. You think I can run in this thing?”
He frowned, unamused. I don’t think he was over the events that had just recently transpired in this area of the house. Well, that makes two of us, father.
I forked a potato out of the pan and popped it in my mouth. “But on a serious note,” I said between chews, “did you know about Sejanus? Your uncle?”
He slammed the spatula down and dropped his head. “Of course, your fucking grandfather had to tell you that right before you leave. His timing is just impeccable.”
So is yours, dad.
I only shrugged. “I would’ve found out eventually. Not that it matters, that was like a million years ago.”
It did matter, but I wasn’t about to tell him the extent of our conversation. He was in enough trouble.
“So he told you that Sejanus was hung just like your brother? Great. Fantastic. Any other words of wisdom from him?”
“Oh, just that Sejanus was actually brave enough not to get anyone else involved in his shit. You know, forcing his son to die to save his own ass. Stuff like that. I don’t expect you to understand.”
I guess I wasn’t over it. Could you blame me?
He dug the spatula into one of the potatoes, causing it to smash apart in the sizzling pan.
“Salem, I will tell you this until my tongue falls out like one of those damn avoxes, which we could very well be or worse if you didn’t do this. We…do not… have a choice here.”
“So there are still people in District 13,” I countered. “And you actually had those photos and were in contact with people there. That’s what you’re saying? You’re admitting to it?”
He flung the spatula and sent it clattering into the sink in exasperation. “Yes! That’s what I’m saying! I fucked up, okay? So it’s either they kill us both for my fucking mistake, or we take this deal and you do this! And you can. Ruth’s the best in the game. Academy training doesn’t measure up in the slightest to her. Believe me. She’ll get you through this.”
A piece of potato peel got stuck in one of my bottom teeth. I tried to dislodge it with my tongue, but it only sank deeper down until I couldn’t feel it. Dammit. Hope the cameras today didn’t get any closeup shots.
“Okay, so if we’re really doing this whole honesty thing conveniently right before I get shipped off, you’re also aware that Sejanus and President Snow were friends? And that Snow lived with our family? And that grandpa thinks Snow fucking offed his brother?”
Even now, it sounded ridiculous.
“I’m aware, yes. I’m aware of my dad’s crazy ramblings and conspiracy theories. You need to stop talking to him before he gets you into some shit that you’ll regret.”
He’s gotta be joking. I couldn’t even begin to unpack that statement. Luckily I didn’t have to because just then, the alarms started.
Maybe it wasn’t right to describe them as alarms. It was more of a slow siren that built from a barely discernible buzz to a roaring that threatened to vibrate our books off their shelves.
My dad motioned for me to go back in my room to get dressed in the suit he’d laid out for me to borrow. Borrow, sure. That implied I’d be coming home in one piece to give it back.
I’d just turned around when a thought hit me. Fuck that. Why should I put on a suit just to be immediately stripped naked in the Capitol and dressed in some ludicrous construction outfit for the parade? Fuck them.
I waited in my room for several minutes, clutching what Gramp had given me, until I was sure that there wouldn’t possibly be enough time to change.
I slipped Gramp’s gift in my pocket, took one last sweeping look of my home, and headed out to meet my dad on the porch.
I could tell he was resisting the urge to erupt into a tirade. Instead, he simply put on his sunglasses to shield his face from July’s wrathful heat beating down. Early morning steam rose from the pavement from the rain we’d been getting these last few days. As we walked down the porch steps, I caught a glimpse of Lucy dressed in a bright red jumper dotted with white hearts. She held Lily in her arms. She was younger than 12, too young to be reaped for now. At least she’d be around to feed Lily. I winked and waved at her. She turned and disappeared through her front door.
When we’d completed the 15-minute trek from our village to the main square, I could feel the sweat beading down my back and chest under the thick layers of cotton. At least I’d worn actual shoes. My old training sneakers with a hole worn in one of the toes. By the time we’d walked through all these puddles, any type of slipper would’ve disintegrated into the mud.
A crowd had already gathered in the square in front of the stage covered in wreaths of white roses and wild cherries. Even the microphone and chairs on stage were adorned with the flower. Dad gave me a pat and mumbled something about seeing me after as I got in line to get my finger pricked.
I recognized a couple friends, more like acquaintances, in the crowd. They waved me over to where our age group was designated to stand.
“Hey, Salem,” the girl next to me said. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “A couple of us are meeting at the block tonight. We’re gonna get wasted. Wanna come?”
Apparently she was wasted now too because she didn’t even take a second glance at my outfit.
“Yeah, why not? Not like I’ll be doing anything else.”
Her face lit up, and she turned to her friend to whisper something in her ear. I had a feeling she liked me. She always made sure to sit next to me in classes, and she formed study groups that somehow managed to always include both of us. She’d never made a move though, thank god. I had no clue how I’d reject someone, especially a girl. I’d only had one girlfriend when I was 11. We’d dated for about two months before she dumped me for Jamison Conwell. Apparently he brought her extra pudding cups to lunch and, as she pointed out, I wouldn’t even share my peanut butter sandwiches.
And then there was last summer…
A high-pitched screech forced everyone to cover their ears. A woman tapped the microphone and beamed into the crowd. She wore a teal dress with giant sleeves bubbling outward, piles of matching-colored hair swirled into a high bun accompanied by platform shoes with sprigs of what looked like seaweed flowing out from the heels.
“Welcome, welcome!” Her voice was unsettlingly chipper considering the circumstances. But not surprising from someone of her kind. “This is the premiere event for what will be an extraordinary few weeks for us all! It is my honor to welcome you to the District 2 reaping of one male and one female for the 66th Hunger Games!”
I tried to fan myself with my hand, completely zoning out under the spotlights trained on the stage and crowd that only intensified the heat. The girl beside me looked over with a confused expression and whispered in my ear.
“Who is it?”
I squinted at the stage to see what she was talking about. “Who’s what?”
“The surprise guest she just said was coming,” she whispered.
Hell if I knew. And hell if I cared. Could we just get this over with already? Salem Plinth to the stage now, got it. No big deal.
Several peacekeepers started to part along the steps leading up to the stage, allowing four more peacekeepers armed with two guns each to mount the stage.
Okay, that was a bit excessive to get me and some poor little girl up there. I’m pretty sure a simple knife or taser would convince me to move. Hey, throw in a sedative to drown out this lady's voice on the ride to the Capitol and I'm your guy.
Hushed whispers turned to audible gasps in the crowd when the peacekeepers got to the center of the stage and stepped to the side.
From out behind the guards, President Snow walked forward to the podium adorned with the unnaturally bleached roses.