Annie opens her eyes, then immediately snaps them shut again. She left her window open last night, so her room this morning is a tidal wave of white light that still manages to burn, even through her eyelids. The only downside she can ever find to living on the coast is the sheer brightness of the sun. Though, she supposes, it could be this bright everywhere. She'll probably never find out, something she’s more than okay with. The only way she’ll ever leave District 4 is if she goes to the Capitol, and that's a fate she’s spent her entire life avoiding.
Reluctantly, she lets her eyes slide open, then, with a deep yawn, swings her feet off the bed and stands up. She walks over to her window and leans out of it, inhaling the smells of salt water and sand and fried fish that are wafting up to her from the street. The ocean is glittering, just a few blocks away from her, and the sounds of celebration echo from the whole city. She inhales another noseful of that intoxicating smell before looking down to see the commotion.
Kids are running through the streets, every which way, while adults walk slowly, chatting with each other, every now and then glancing around to see if they lost their child. Everyone seems to be dressed up. They’re all heading in one direction: towards the center of town. Annie smacks herself on the forehead and pulls back into her room when she realizes what day it is.
Even now, a little knot of anxiety bundles in her stomach, forcing her to take a deep breath. She’s managed to avoid being reaped for five years now. There are only six slips of paper in the bowl that have her name on them, meaning there’s only a six-in-some-high-number chance that she’ll be picked. Overall, the odds of her name coming out of that bowl are slim.
Fighting has never been Annie’s strong suit. Whenever they have mandatory training days in school, she always struggles through them. Because of that, she's always singled out. Poor, pathetic little Annie Cresta, who bruises like a peach and cries if someone gets hurt. Everyone else in her group always excels, but her arms were too weak to throw a trident properly. Or that’s what she tells people. She isn’t stupid; she knows how fortunate she is to grow up in District 4. There's always food on her table, even if she has to catch it. She’s never gone to bed hungry, which is more than people in some other Districts could say. She’s heard rumors that most of the people in 12 don’t have anything. Whether or not it's true, it makes Annie grateful, but also sad. Being from a richer district means a distinct advantage going into the arena. Annie isn’t necessarily weak. She just doesn’t want anyone to die.
A chorus of children’s laughter flies in through her window, pulling her out of her train of thought. All of a sudden, she has to go for a swim. Her nightgown is off in a flash, crumpled in a heap on her otherwise clean floor. Her favorite blue swimsuit is hanging on a hook by her dresser. It’s her most worn item of clothing. In fact, she usually wears it under any other outfit. She pulls an old white dress over her head, letting her long brown hair fan down her back, and runs down the hall. There's barely time for a brief "good morning" to her parents, and she's out the apartment door and down the stairs to the street, taking the steps two at a time, with unbrushed hair and no shoes.
The streets are about ten times as packed as they looked from above. The reaping isn’t for several hours, but everyone is heading to the square early. This is typical of District 4. People get excited about the Games. As she squeezes past a group of adults, she catches part of their conversation.
“I just hope my Camber gets picked this year,” one mother says to her friends. “He’s been training for so long—“
Annie covers her ears and starts to run through the people, and down side streets, until she reaches the beach. It's usually packed, but today it’s almost empty. There are only a few people scattered on towels around the sand. Promptly ignoring all of them, Annie sprints to the water, the white sand gripping between her toes, and pulls her dress off, letting it crumple on the sand like her nightgown on her floor.
She’s already waist-deep in the warm, blue water when she decides to dive. Eyes shut tight, she plunges into the ocean, water streaming through her hair and pulling all of her anxiety away. Just for a moment, she’s her normal self, and it’s any other day in the year. She exhales through her nose and reaches her hands ahead to help propel herself forward and then up to refill her lungs.
When she breaks the surface, she whips her hair back in a wide arc and lets her hands follow to smooth it back. Her eyes open slowly, out of habit, to try to keep out saltwater that barely bothers her anymore. She flips, effortlessly, on her back, allowing the waves to carry her out. The sun is warm on the front of her body, and she breathes deeply, closing her eyes as she exhales.
If she wasn't facing the possibility of her death, this could have been the beginning of a perfect day.
She floats on her back for a few minutes, stomach tight and arms just barely waving to keep her above water, when something yanks at her foot. Screaming, she kicks wildly and lifts her torso so she’s vertical again. When she rights herself, preparing to fight off a shark or some other monstrosity, she’s instead faced with her only friend, who’s laughing like a madman.
“That wasn’t funny, Finnick,” she scolds.
“You should’ve seen it from my perspective, Cresta,” he says, half laughing. “Your arms did that flailing thing. You look like a seal when you’re scared.”
She glares at him.
“I thought a gross fish thing was attacking me,” she tells him. “I guess I wasn’t too far off.”
He laughs again.
“What are you doing out here?” he asks. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the reaping?”
“I could ask you the same question, big-shot victor,” she replies. He shrugs, or makes a valiant attempt to. It must be difficult with his arms underwater.
“I just wanted to swim around for a while before I was stowed off to the Capitol for a few weeks. You don’t know how horrible it is to live without being able to wake up every morning and see… well, that,” he says, gesturing out toward the horizon. She stares silently at the glittering ocean that seems to stretch out forever before meeting the bright blue, cloudless sky.
“I’m nervous,” she finally blurts, turning back to him. He smiles, curiously, at her.
“What?” he asks.
“I’m nervous about the reaping,” she admits. “That’s why I’m out here. Swimming always calms me down.”
He laughs again.
“You’re a piece of work, Cresta,” he tells her.
“Is that good or bad?”
He tries to shrug again before changing the subject.
“We should probably head back to shore. I’ve got to start getting ready. I have to look absolutely perfect for the reaping,” he says, miming a hair flip.
“Yeah, you should go. It’ll take you ages to look good,” she jokes. As he shoves her shoulder, Annie thinks that maybe the only reason they’re friends is because she has never fawned over him like the rest of the country seems to.
“Go home and at least try to look presentable for the reaping, Cresta,” he says, smiling and shoving her shoulder again. He turns around then and begins to swim back to shore.
“You can just call me Annie, Finnick, remember?” she calls after him.
“No, I can’t,” he yells back.
She dives into the water, propelling herself forward quickly. A few seconds later, she emerges right next to him. It's an accident, but it makes her look more impressive.
“Wanna race?” she asks. The words are barely out of her mouth before she’s back underwater, knowing he’ll take her up. Finnick never misses an opportunity to show off. Every few seconds she comes up for air. He's nowhere to be seen. She quickly reaches the shore, mere seconds before he does. Her dress is only a few feet away, and she grabs it while he shakes the water from his hair.
The few people who were on the beach have left by now. Annie's more than a little relieved by this, and she knows Finnick is, too. It's never fun to be gawked at by a crowd.
“Beat you,” she gloats, pulling the dress over her head. It clings to her wet skin, but she doesn’t care.
Finnick rolls his eyes and starts walking in the other direction, toward his house in the Victor’s Village. Annie knows he’s silently disappointed.
“See you in a couple hours,” she yells across the sand. He holds up one hand, acknowledging her statement. She smiles and starts walking up the beach, back towards home.
When she walks in the door, she notices her parents aren’t home. They left a note on her door, telling her they went to the fish market. Her dad always makes her favorite meal before the reaping. It usually calms her down before the stress of waiting in a cheering crowd to hear if she's about to die or not.
Annie is the only person she knows who has zero desire to participate in the Hunger Games. Everyone else her age considers it an honor. She considers it a horrific death sentence. Because of this attitude, everyone at school ignores her. Or, worse, they don’t, and Annie comes home with bruises, fighting back tears. Finnick is an oddity for speaking to her. But, then, he can do anything he wants at this point.
She tries not to think about the coming afternoon as she fills the small tub in her bathroom, strips all of her clothes off, and climbs into the lukewarm water, which isn’t nearly as comforting as the ocean was. While she scrubs sand and salt from her skin and hair, she thinks, instead, about Finnick Odair.
They officially met a year before, at combat training, when he was her sparring coach. He stood back, giving her pointers while she threw half-hearted punches at him. Everyone around them would shoot jealous looks at her from time to time. They couldn’t believe weak little Annie had been paired with a victor. Not just a victor, too, but Finnick Odair.
Towards the end of their session, a patient but exasperated Finnick told her to punch him as hard as she could, which she only did out of nerves and pressure. Instead of hitting him in the stomach, which he was prepared for, she flinched and hit him in the jaw. When he recoiled in pain, tears bloomed in her eyes, and she raced forward, apologizing, to make sure he was okay. Even though he assured her he was, Annie still felt guilty. Even to this day, people make fun of her for it. The only violent thing she’s ever done, and it was an accident. Not only that, but she had cried in front of Finnick Odair. Overall, it was not Annie’s best moment. He seemed to think it was charming, though, or at least funny, because he started a conversation with her when they ran into each other at the fish market a few days later.
With her hair clean and her skin smooth, she climbs out of the bath and lets the water drain away. She wraps herself in a towel and walks back into her bedroom, where she quickly dries off and dresses in her best outfit. The dress is slinky, strapless, and purple, decorated with a long draped sash around her waist. It’s the only nice thing she really owns, thanks to her grandmother. She only has two pairs of shoes, both of which are sandals. She picks the ones that aren’t falling apart and pulls them on her feet. Usually, she hates shoes, but, today, they’re necessary.
She hears the door open from down the hall, and the chatter and rustle of bags tells Annie that her parents are home. She smiles and walks out into the combination kitchen and living room. Her dad is already busy cooking, a time when it's unwise to disturb him, but her mom sweeps her into a huge hug.
“They didn’t have the crab, Annie, I’m sorry,” she says, tucking her hair behind one ear. “But we got some scallops and shrimp, and that’ll still be good with our grain portion.”
“That’s fine, mom,” she says, kissing her on the cheek. “It sounds perfect.”
“Do you want me to do your hair?”
Annie nods. Her mom starts back into the master bedroom, and Annie follows behind her. Another ritual that helps to calm her down before the reaping.
Her mom sits at the edge of the bed, and pats the bit of mattress next to her. Annie sits down and turns her back to her mom, who begins to brush out her damp hair.
“What did you do today?” her mom asks as she struggles with a knot. Annie almost never brushes her hair.
“Went for a swim,” she says, shrugging.
“Yes,” she lies. Annie winces from a combination of the lie she told and the tangle her mom yanks through.
“Well, did you see anyone while you were there? A friend from school?”
“Mom, you know I don’t have any friends at school.”
“Annie, don’t be ridiculous. I’m sure a lot of people like you.”
When all the tangles are gone, she feels her mom separate her hair into two sections and twist them upward, one at a time, and clip the twists in place. The front is still loose, the way Annie likes it. Her mom secures a large barrette shaped like a starfish by her ear, then kisses the top of her head.
“You look lovely,” she tells her daughter, smoothing a hand down her cheek. Annie smiles.
“Thank you,” she replies.
They both stand and walk back into the living room, where her dad is tipping a package of scallops into the frying pan. He stirs them once, adds the shrimp, and then turns to his family. He opens his arms and Annie falls into them.
“You look gorgeous, kid,” he tells her.
“Thanks,” she mutters, smiling.
“And I don’t want you to be nervous, Annie,” he says, pulling away to look into her face. “It’s not your year. I can feel it. You’re going to be fine.”
She only nods in response, and he turns back to the frying pan. For an awkward moment, she stands there smoothing her dress. Unsure of what else to do, she sits at the small table where the three of them eat their meals. Her mom is already sitting there, but they don’t speak. Neither of them usually have much to say before the reaping. Annie is always too nervous. Her mom is too busy wishing she was excited, though she would never admit that.
After a few minutes that feel like hours, her dad serves lunch, which they all eat in silence. It isn’t much, just some fish and mushy grain, but it’s more than other Districts have. She recites that like a mantra at every meal. It’s not much, but it’s better than most. She chews slowly, briefly thinking she could slow down time if she takes a long time to eat. But the minutes still tick by, and she’s only just finished eating when it’s time to leave. Annie stands and puts her dish on the counter to wash when she gets home, then turns and nods to her parents.
She leaves the apartment first, with her head up and her shoulders square. They’re only on the second floor, so there’s only one staircase between them and the street, but each step feels like a mile. Everything's always really exaggerated right before the reaping, like she's taking her last steps, or her last breaths, or blinking for the last time and she's trying to enjoy these mundane things that she never appreciated.
The square is only five blocks down from their building, and it’s packed by the time they get there. Her mom kisses her on the cheek before fighting her way to the front of the spectators’ section. Her dad reaches up and rubs his palm down her cheek with a small smile before joining her mom. Taking a deep breath, she turns and wiggles her way through the crowd until she’s standing towards the front with the other 17-year-olds. She looks at the 18s ahead of her. Next year, she’ll be there. The year after, she’ll be back in the crowd with her parents.
Annie looks at the stage, where a microphone stands front and center. All around it are the two bowls containing the boys’ and girls’ names, as well as four occupied chairs and a handful of peacekeepers. The four people sitting down are the Mayor, Finnick, an old woman named Mags who Annie knows is the only living female victor from 4, and the District 4 escort, Mena Kari, who is talking to Finnick.
Mena’s dressed in aquamarine from her hair all the way down to her spiky high heels. It looks immaculate against her brown skin. Even her lips are painted that strange bright bluish green. Mena always dresses with an ocean theme on reaping day, and she's always beautiful, even if a little over the top.
A bell chimes over the speakers scattered around the square. The crowd woops and hollers, and Mena breaks off her conversation with Finnick. The mayor stands to lumber over to the microphone. He gives a short speech about how the districts rebelled and lost, and now the Capitol puts on the Hunger Games so the rebels can repent. Annie never listens to what he says. The same thing is drilled into her head every week at school. Finally he steps back, the crowd goes wild again, and Mena steps up to raise the microphone.
“Hello,” she breathes happily, glancing around the crowd. Everyone falls silent at once. “Welcome to the District Four Reaping for the 70th annual Hunger Games!”
The crowd roars; everyone except for Annie cheers and claps. Mena holds up her hands and silence falls again. She smiles widely at their reaction.
“You all know the drill by now, don’t you?” she asks, laughing. Everyone laughs with her. “I’ll draw one name from each bowl, one male and one female. If you hear your name, come up on stage, and then we’ll get you ready to compete in this year’s Hunger Games! And, as always, may the odds be ever in your favor!”
The crowd cheers again as she reaches for the bowl to her left. She rifles around with all the slips of paper for a moment before withdrawing one. She opens it and turns back to the crowd.
“This year’s male tribute is….” She glances at the paper. “Sebastian Dehlia!”
There is a sea of cheering that erupts as Sebastian dislodges himself from the group of 15s and moves up the middle pathway to the stage. He’s tall and muscular. His blond hair is short, his skin is tan. Overall, very attractive. He’ll probably do well in the arena. The entire way up, he pumps his fists in the air. He shakes hands with Mena, then Mags, then the Mayor, and finally Finnick before standing just behind Mena and to her left.
“Do we have any volunteer tributes?” Mena asks the crowd.
“I hope not!” Sebastian calls out, laughing. The whole crowd laughs, too. Even Finnick smiles. Volunteers are rare in District 4, since participating in the Games is such an honor, and no one would want to take that chance from another person.
Mena lifts her hands to make the crowd quiet again, then slides the slip of paper containing Sebastian’s name into her pocket. She reaches into the second bowl, to her right, digs around for an eternity, and withdraws the second slip of paper. Annie can feel her heartbeat in her ears. Spots appear in her vision, and she realizes that she stopped breathing. Mena turns back to the crowd.
“This year’s female tribute is….” She glances down again at the slip of paper in her hands. “Twenny Clearing!”
Another wave of noise fills the square. Annie cranes her neck, looking around the crowd of older kids. Tributes are usually 15 or older, since they have more slips in the bowls. She notices that all the older kids are looking back, though. She turns and sees a young girl, probably only 12-years-old, with dark hair and tan skin, slowly making her way up the pathway. She’s sheepishly waving to the people around her. There have been 12s before. They’re usually the most excited because they can’t believe how lucky they are to get picked their first year.
“Look, she’s so happy she’s crying!” says someone to Annie’s left. She looks at the girl more closely and sees that, yes, her cheeks are shiny with tears. She’s smiling, but her eyes look dead. She’s waving, but her hands are shaking.
This girl isn’t happy. This girl is terrified.
She reaches the stage, shakes hands with everyone, then stands to Mena’s right.
“Any volunteers?” Mena offers again, only because she has to. The crowd starts to laugh again. Because, to them, this girl obviously wants to go. Everyone wants to go. Twenny is crying harder now.
The next thing Annie knows, she’s in the pathway, walking to the stage. One of her hands is raised, the other holding up her skirt. She’s yelling something she can’t exactly comprehend, because she can’t hear anything. From head to toe, her entire body is shaking. The sun is still up, but her circulation has stopped. She’s frozen, but still she’s walking, she’s almost to the stage, and the girl, Twenny, is smiling now and so grateful.
Somehow, that rights everything. Warmth and feeling and all of Annie’s senses come crashing back to her. She hears the baffled crowd all around her, and she hears what she’s been yelling.
“I volunteer as tribute!”