My laugh echoed in the empty forest as I swung from one tree branch to another, risking a glance behind me to see my pursuer. Reaching the end of another line of trees, I used my momentum to propel my body up and around the tree branch, doing a complete circle before I finally let go. As I soared through the air, I contorted my body into a flip before I reached the ground and landed on my feet, arms out for balance. I straightened my body, looking out across the golden fields in front of me as I stood at the edge of the tree line. I breathed in deeply, only to be knocked down onto the grass by a heavy force.
“Luke,” I let out a laugh, my voice muffled by the ground, “What in Panem was that for?” In an attempted to push him off of me, I wiggled my body and pushed my hands against his chest to no avail. His muscular body leaned heavily on mine, making it harder to breathe.
“You’re getting my clothes dirty.” I whined, letting my body go still. His chest vibrated against mine in a rumbling laughter, and although I couldn’t see his face, I could imagine his sneaky grin.
“Since when have you ever been worried about how your clothes look? Or your hair, for that matter?” Luke propped himself up on his elbows, an impish grin plastered on his face. My smile matched his as I gazed up at him, looking into his hazel eyes that I was so jealous of when we were younger. The eyes of my best friend used to be so clear, almost always containing a glint that let you know he was up to something. Now, his entire face was guarded, as if he would never fully escape the arena he had recently left.
There was no doubt in my mind that he would never forget the 72nd Hunger Games, or forget the new problems he has to face with the Capital. You would think that after being crowned victor, the problems would end. Instead, he was constantly being whisked away by the Capital for reasons I couldn’t understand. Today was one of those days, since he would have to serve as the District 9 mentor for whoever was reaped.
I knew better then to bring up the subject of his victory. It would only bring back unwanted memories of the arena, for both Luke and for myself. While Luke was in the arena, I was stuck in District 9, watching as my best friend fought for his life against 23 others. During the finale, Luke watched as the psychotic girl from District 1 picked off the remaining members of his alliance, leaving them to face off as the final two. In the end he managed to knock her off the side of the cliff, but not before she delivered a nasty cut down his arm, leaving a permanent scar that even the Capital couldn’t fix.
Once he returned, he was never the same. For the first few weeks he refused to see anyone, and it wasn’t until after his victory tour that we were able to rekindle our friendship. Even then, it was different. His whole demeanor had changed from the fun-loving boy I used to know, to a careful, guarded man.
My eyes fixated on the long, jagged scar that ran down his forearm. Avoiding his eyes, I traced my forefinger lightly down it. Luke inhaled sharply, his body going rigid and quickly rolling off of mine. I sat up and avoided his stare to save myself from future embarrassment. We were both on edge today, and my mood instantly dampened once I realized why.
“The reaping is today,” I stated glumly, my eyes downcast. “I still have two years left, Luke. You know how many times my name is in the bowl. What if-” The words caught in my throat and my hands shook slightly as I thought of the possibilities. District 9 wasn’t exactly the largest district, and I knew the odds were not in my favor.
Luke remained silent, his body stretched out next to mine as we looked up at the blue sky. The sun beat down on us, almost as if it was teasing us. Such a nice day, but such a horrible event was taking place. How ironic.
“We should go, Jules. We can’t be late for the reaping.” Luke voiced my own thoughts, standing up and offering me a hand.
I sighed as I ran my hand through my knotty ponytail, knowing that I would have a hard time making myself look nice. I punched his arm lightly, and took off through the woods, racing him back toward the town.
I have always been ‘one of the guys’ for as long as I can remember. So, given that, you can imagine how horrible it was for me to be standing in front of the mirror in a light pink dress with a matching ribbon in my hair.
“Juliet, you look so nice!” My thirteen-year-old sister shrieked as she finished tying the ribbon into a perfect bow at the end of my braid. Kit turned me around, and I came face to face with her big, innocent blue eyes. She seemed as if she was not the slightest bit worried for the reaping, but she was just a much better actress than me. Unlike Kit, my name would be in that bowl countless times. Being seventeen, my chance was already high, and I had taken on as much tesserae as I could so she wouldn’t have to.
“Is this really necessary?” I grumbled, giving Kit a pleading look. At least I had managed to dissuade Kit from leaving my hair down in curls. I fingered the intricate braid that ran down my shoulder, slightly in awe at Kit’s skill.
“Luke will love you in this!” She squealed, avoiding my question. I rolled my eyes in exasperation. I had explained to her countless times that Luke and I were best friends and that we didn’t think about each other in that way, but she was a romantic at heart.
She sighed at my sour expression. “Just because you act like a boy doesn’t mean you can’t date one.” She shook her head in mock disappointment before pushing me out the door of our shared bedroom.
I took Kit by the hand and we made our way to the town center where the reaping was held. After going through the standard procedure, I made my way to the seventeen-year-old section, pausing for a moment to give Kit one last reassuring hug.
“We’ll be okay.” I mumbled against her hair as I held her close, more for me then for her. She pulled away with a smile and walked off to meet her friends. I took a deep breath before entering my section, pushing past a group of weeping girls. Judging by their fancy dresses and perfect makeup, I assumed they belonged to the richer part of the district. They obviously didn’t have to worry about tesserae increasing their chances. I scoffed.
Girls. This was why I didn’t get along with them.
I turned my attention to our escort who was taking the stage. Luke was seated toward the back of the stage, a stone-cold expression on his face. His sharp blue eyes were focused on the escort, but I could tell he wasn’t really listening. Next to him sat an older man, Barrick, obviously drunk. His head lolled to the side and he looked sloppy, as if he had just woken up. Barrick had won the 53rd Hunger Games at the ages of 18, and shortly after, like a lot of victors, resorted to alcohol to solve his problems. The most recent victor besides Luke had been Amira, but she was killed almost years ago. I was too young at the time to remember exactly what had happened, but I wasn’t sure if anyone really knew.
Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I once again averted my attention to our escort, Hilda. Decked out in orange head to toe, she looked like a carrot. I grinned at the thought, but it shortly disappeared when I realized I had missed the entire introduction to the reaping.
Someone was about to get picked. I just hoped it wasn’t Kit. Or me.
“How about ladies first!” Hilda giggled, reaching her fingers into the clear bowl. Her long fingernails wiggled in the glass before plucking a single white paper. My gaze settled on Luke’s rigid stature. His hands gripped the underside of his chair so hard that his knuckles turned white. His stare looked cloudy and unfocused, and I felt a pang of pity for him. It would be his first year as a mentor, and considering Hutch was incapable of doing anymore then drinking his way through the games, he was basically alone.
It took a moment to register before I finally processed the name that was called.
“Is there a Juliet Breyer in the audience?” Hilda cleared her throat, looking around as if expecting someone to hold up a sign, pointing to the next victim of the Hunger Games.
I heard a sob coming from the thirteen-year-old section, and I vaguely recognized Kit’s high-pitched wail. Seemingly in a daze, I took a few hesitant steps toward the stage, only to be roughly grabbed by a peacekeeper who hurried my approach. I winced, knowing that would leave a bruise. The pain shocked me out of my dream-like state, and I thrashed, attempting to shake the peacekeeper off of me. Kit’s sobs pierced through the quiet air, each one louder than the first.
I managed to catch my balance after being roughly pushed onto the stage. I desperately tried to catch Luke’s gaze, but his face was turned away from me, unusually pale compared to his normal tan complexion. Swallowing deeply, I answered Hilda’s question, confirming my name and age. My voice sounded detached, as if it belonged to someone else.
Hilda gave me a smile, unfazed by my inability to form more than a few coherent sentences.
“Now onto the men! Who will be the lovely man representing District 9 in the 73rd Hunger Games?” I spent the next few seconds frantically searching the crowd for Kit, although I was exactly sure I wanted to see her in such a state.
“Atlas Lennox!” Our escort’s voice rang through the silence, welcoming a tall, broad shouldered boy up to the stage. I recognized him from school, but I had never held a conversation with him. He would have seemed like a normal kid, except for the creepy smirk making its way onto his face, like he was enjoying this. His blond hair was almost white, and his grey eyes didn’t hold the same shine that Luke’s had. Instead, they held something that caused a shiver to go up my spine.
I reluctantly shook hands with him, feeling his cold, stiff hands against my sweating ones.
Well, this sucked.