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An Obsession with Words: The Games of Wiress Ohmstead


Thriller / Scifi


The morning I was reaped, it was hot and hazy. I woke with a quick start, my head jerking up from where I had fallen asleep over an old textbook of my father's (basic anatomy). A small puddle of drool smeared a diagram of the peripheral nervous system.

The clock on the wall by the desk where I'd passed out ticked slowly, displaying the time (6:55AM). It was my favorite clock, with a wooden-carved mouse at the top, hoarding a hunk of cheese and looking out gleefully. I stared at it for almost a full minute, mesmerized (as I often was even at my age) by the comforting patterns. It did it's best to bring me to a fuller consciousness as I came to.

I twisted in my desk chair to peer out the window. The haze already coated the city skyline (almost wholly visible from my high-rise tenement window), and it made everything look sick and yellow. When I had dozed off last night, it had been raining heavily, and the humidity added to the already thick atmosphere.

It would be a long, miserable day downtown. And not just because the Reaping Ceremony was today.

My parents were probably already awake and in the main room having coffee and toast. My father got up pretty early on normal days to beat the rush-hour crush downtown. He was one of the few daddies I knew of who wasn't an engineer, inventor, or a salesman of new prototypes. He was a dentist. A boring dentist, one of those jobs I was sure all of the districts had. My mother stayed at home and sometimes hired herself out as a repairwoman. On this day, though, it wasn't the ride to work that had them up. Reaping Day had all of the parents of Panem up before daybreak.

It would be my older brother's last year in the Reaping pool. Edison had evaded being chosen. I wasn't surprised, as he never needed to sign up for tesserae, and therefore was one name in a bin of hundreds of names. I had my name in only once each year as well. So this year, Edison had nine slips of paper and I had four. Our odds were both good. Being a middle-class family, we never starved (though we rarely ate luxuriously) and had to increase our chances for being chosen for death.

I was fifteen, but as I got myself ready for the long day ahead, I could help but feel like I was a fifty-year old. My neck was stiff from the way I'd slept at my study desk. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed with the textbook, even if just to finish the chapter I'd started. I hated quitting a book in the middle of a section! I guess I overcompensated for how I felt by tying my limp hair into two low-hanging pigtails and slipped into a spearmint-green dress. The skirt hem didn't hit my knees. It was too small. Or my legs were too long.

I didn't normally care very much about what I looked like. I didn't have any friends. At school, I sat by myself during the lunch hour and walked home with my protective brother. I didn't care very much about being attractive or pleasing to boys. I was the daughter of Dr. Ohmstead, a plain-looking man, and Alma Ohmstead, his equally-plain wife. My older brother, Edison, looked just like Daddy, and I looked like a pretty even mix of Mommy and Daddy's genetic makeup. Plain, plain, and plain. I never looked like any of those girls in the Hunger Games, the dolled-up young ladies who got the 'Capitol Treatment' before being shipped off to the death yards and arenas. My long, plain face, ashy skin, and lifeless brown hair, by contrast, were inconsequential.

I liked that.

Getting ready didn't take but fifteen minutes. We would leave for the inner city to sign in for the Reaping by nine, so I went back to my textbook until I had to be by the front door.

Books were really my whole life. Living in a refurbished tenement building just inside the border of District 3's central city, there wasn't much to do or see. I didn't get together with the other daughters in the building. Most families around this area were the non-district-specialist families, those of us who weren't inventors and technological geniuses. But that isn't to say my family wasn't intelligent. Daddy was the best dentist in the district for a reason, combining both a gentle touch and a quick mind, he had a reputation as being instinctual for his lot in life. Mommy, on the other hand, was where I got my need to read and to take in facts and information. Edison was like Daddy…that is to say, instinctual.

My best memories came from those summer days as a littler girl, when Mommy was on a job and Edison and I had to go to work with Daddy. Edison loved watching Daddy work on patients. I didn't. The amount of discomfort those people felt, even with Daddy's gentle hand, was enough to make me feel nauseated. So I'd retreat to the empty exam room, heist a tech manual off the wall, and curl up in the dental chair to read for hours straight. No matter the subject, I devoured it. Sometimes I'd complete an entire textbook, start to finish, in one day.

Now, I sat at my desk reading one of those same textbooks. Sometimes if I'm reading a certain passage, I can tune out and feel the comfortable cushion of the old dental chair beneath my legs, and hear the hum of Daddy's radio from the next room, effectively masking the less-pleasant sounds of the drills and whirring brushes.

Before I knew it, Daddy was knocking on my door frame and looking in at me.

"Wiress, it's time."

I looked up. For as plain as he was, Daddy's kind smile flattered him, and it could make me feel safe even in the scariest places. His eyes were soft, kind, and worried. I felt like he was looking at me as if for the last time. I smiled and closed the tome I was devoted to and went to him.

"Daddy," I said softly (my voice always being rather quiet and airy). "We'll be home for a late dinner."

"I hope so," he smiled weakly. I took my meek disposition from Daddy, and when he was worried, he was at his most moody. He gave me a once-over and sighed woefully.

"I thought we bought you a new dress for today—" he reached out to tug gently at the high-necked lace collar of my dress, further emphasizing the juvenile style of it.

I shook my head. "Next year, when I'm sixteen. That's what Mommy said."

Daddy clicked his tongue in disapproval. "That dress is too short and childish. You're a woman this year," he replied. I shrugged. Perhaps physically I was newly a woman, though mentally I still felt simultaneously pre-pubescent and elderly. In the year since the Reaping Ceremony of last summer, I had shot up in height, sprouted hips and breasts, and menstruated for the first time. All in less than a year (unusual, according to the anatomy books I'd read over the years). In District 3, most of this isn't talked about in anything other than purely anatomical and technical terms, but Daddy in particular seemed to take my venture through puberty as an emotional trigger.

"Next year," I repeated. Daddy smiled.

"Your mother and brother are already downstairs. Let's go."

Off we went to the Inner City. I was never one to understand or empathize with the emotions of others, but I understood why Daddy treated me with extra care that day.

I, like every other teenager in Panem, was marching toward potential execution.

The Inner City of District 3 didn't have a single shred of nature to be seen. All metal and mortar. It was full of factories, businesses, and artificial life. The air was always heavy with smog and smoke. The sounds were loud and shrill. My senses were overloaded every time we made our way in. I was only glad my school wasn't in the Inner City. I was fortunate to not have to experience this mass of sensory overload daily.

I covered my ears as my family and I made our way past the other citizen of District 3, the ones without children in the Reaping. Very young children gaped at us in the arms of their solemn mothers. Older teens who had survived their last Reaping Ceremony the previous year were the only ones looking genuinely at ease. I, for one, couldn't wait to pass Reaping age. Upon turning nineteen, I could begin training to become a researcher or an archivist. I know Edison wanted to apply to study abroad as an indentured student of the Capitol. He wanted to study defensive technology in District 2, for which he would need to pass a rigorous test and get an inter-district passport.

It was closing in on noon when we finally made it through the queues and signed in. Edison didn't show any display of emotion or lack of confidence as he bid Daddy and Mommy goodbye. He put his hand on my shoulder as we made our way to the floor of the stadium where the Reapings in District 3 took place. Mommy and Daddy would watch, as they always did, on a large screen from the mezzanine.

"I have to go to the boys' section," Edison said as we weaved around our fellow youths. "We will meet Mom and Dad at the mezzanine entrance."

"I know, Edison," I sighed, still trying to adjust to the uncomfortable atmosphere.

"Hey, Wirey!" he suddenly said with firmness as he turned me around. He looked me directly in the eye (more discomfort).


Edison had always treated me like a baby, even as I grew. He always insisted on being my keeper, and it had always gotten on my nerves. My first Reaping, when a girl from my group who happened to share my name was pulled, he refused to let go of my hand for the entirety of that year's Games, and would force me to leave the room with him whenever our screens announced the death of a Tribute (as if I couldn't guess what was happening). The girl who shared my name didn't survive the first day.

In fact, most of District 3's Tributes rarely made it past the first day. The one notable exception had been the young man who actually won the Games three years ago (he was sixteen). His name was Beetee Latier, a handsome, bespectacled, dark-skinned boy who used his knowledge of electricity to take out his opponents and win for our District for the first time in over twenty-five years. He was the only District 3 Mentor. The only other Victor from our District committed suicide soon after he won, way before I was born.

I remember Daddy muttering something about Beetee Latier being his patient. I never recalled seeing him when I spent my summer holidays in Daddy's office.

"Wiress, just…just relax. You'll be fine." Edison then turned and whisked himself away before I had a chance to respond. I shrugged and casually moved to join the District 3 younger girls' group (District 3 separated its' potential Tributes into the younger kids ages 12-15, and the older ones, who were 16-18 years). I stood in the second-to-last row with my peers.

Most girls in District 3 grow up with a rather modest taste in clothing. It made sense. Feathery gowns and primpy fashions were for the upper-class Districts., the ones that provided the Capitol with frivolities. District 3 didn't have a need for fancy dresses. They were simply inconvenient. I planned on instilling the same values in my own future daughters. Of course, on Reaping days, everyone is dressed to the nines, or as close to the nines as possible. I still look frumpy in my ill-fitting green girls' dress and loose pigtails.

I didn't have to wait long before the Ceremony began. Our Capitol Liaison/Escort, an uppity lady with rainbow-colored hair (ridiculous) named Plume Desrosiers began her usual spiel about glorifying Panem with our ongoing sacrifice, etc., etc. I hated Plume. I just never liked her love of watching the children of Panem battle to the death. It was sickening, really.

Beetee Latier followed Plume's introductions with a quick speech of his own that seemed more or less written for him. He spoke of the honor he felt in winning the 41st Games for the sake of District 3 and how he hoped that he would be able to pass that honor on to whoever was about to be called. I had no idea what his 'being a Mentor' meant. Advice and suggestions could only get a Tribute so far when there were 23 others out with the mindset of 'kill or be killed.' So far, Beetee's efforts didn't do very much. Last year, both of our tributes were quite young (13 and 14) and died on the first day at the Cornucopia bloodbath that usually began the Games every year. The year after Beetee won, the female Tribute, a girl named Curie, had survived until the end stage by hiding and living off of cactus hearts and scorpions she killed in the desert arena, only to be beheaded as she slept by the boy who would go on to win that year: a Career Tribute from District 1. Watching Curie's parents receiving the half-sincere gratitude of that Career during his Victory Tour that winter was hard for me to watch. She was their only child.

Beetee left the stage adjusting his bow tie, his face never falling out of that stone-set neutral glare he wore for the Reaping.

Plume retook the stage with the bins of names at last. My heart didn't skip a beat. The odds were always in my favor. Four slips of paper among thousands. If I could calculate the exact odds…

I didn't even notice at first when Plume announced the Female Tribute's name:

"Wiress Ohmstead."

The numbers in my mind faded away as I looked up, when she called the name the second time.

"Wiress. Ohm-STEAD."

Girls around me stared in my direction. Two towering Peacekeepers were advancing on me. Things fell into place quickly in my head…and then it hit as the Peacekeepers positioned themselves at my side.

"Come on up, dear!" Plume chimed happily from the stage.

Events began unfolding as a blur as everything came together in my mind. Images of beheaded children, murderous Careers, cheering clown-faced Capitol citizens, and vast, open, scary arenas whirred by as I was escorted to the stage. The entire stadium was silent, aside from a few mutters of curious and relieved parents from the mezzanine. I couldn't make out any individual voices, of course. Were Mommy and Daddy crying? Had they run out of the bleachers in sadness? Were they too stunned to speak at all? All I could visualize was Daddy's sad, plain face watching me die on a giant screen in less than two weeks. His baby. No, his young woman. Reduced to a bloody corpse on a battlefield.

And where was Edison? How was he taking this? I ascended the steps to the stage as if I was climbing up to the steps of a gallows. I'd read about gallows and hangings in books. It was still a semi-regularly enforced method of public execution in the outlying districts. In District 3, crime was low, but those executions that did happen were not public around here, and were supposedly carried out by an electric chamber. I always thought of gallows as tall, imposing, and final, which they were.

Sort of like how I felt climbing those stairs. Plume skitted over to me as I walked towards the center of the stage, still in shock.

"Our Female Tribute from District 3, Wiress Ohmstead!" she announced, pushing me forward. A small, formal, polite applause from the crowd rose up.

I heard nothing. Suddenly, Plume started speaking a foreign language as she repeated the steps for the Male Tribute ("Intel Morgenstern!") The tears, a rather odd sensation of my eyes flooding over, began coming then. I didn't even see what Intel Morgenstern looked like from behind the tears.

"Shake hands, Tributes!" Plume encouraged. Nothing in my body moved.

"Well, come on, you two!" she repeated.

A warm hand touched my shoulder. Edison was on the stage?

No. I turned to see the gentle touch belonged to Beetee Latier. Either I was taller than I thought, or he was short for a young man, as we stood nearly eye-to-eye in spite of our three-year age difference. His eyes were brown and sympathetic. They gave me the courage to move again.

I reached out my hand to take the pale, plump hand of my Male Partner, Intel Morgenstern. He looked about my age. His hair was shaggy and curly. His blue eyes were stiff. His teeth could have used my father's care, as they were crooked and yellowish.

"Happy Hunger Games! And…May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor!" Plume cheered as Intel and I were formally taken into custody.

I glared at her. Beetee's hand never left my shoulder, even as we were pushed off of the stage and back into the van waiting to take us to the Justice Building nearby, where we would see our family one last time before leaving home for certain death.

Beetee's Journal

June 30th (Reaping Day-44th AHG)

District 3's Tributes look too much like last year's: defenseless. I suppose I am awaiting another year of failure and tragedy. I only hope it is quick and less terrible than last year, especially for them.

Especially for her.

The Female Tribute this year is Wiress Ohmstead. And I know her. I know her quite well.

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