Strange Fruit

By Weezie24

Action / Drama


Cast (c. 2008): Jasmine Sanders as Tansy, Simon Baker as Brian Cresta, Stef Dawson as Annie Cresta, Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, Lynn Cohen as Mags, Amanda Bynes as Mari, Mila Kunis as Priscilla Lush, Zac Efron as Sean Halloran, Gail Bean as Pepper, Daniel Kaluuya as Root

The Reaping

When Tansy woke up, the other side of the bed was warm. This helped her regain a sense of calm as her fingers stretched out, seeking Annie’s warmth and finding the soft cotton of the sleeve of her half-sister’s nightgown and the cool, silken strands of her reddish-brown hair. The world outside the macramé-curtained window of their bedroom was still dark but the clock illuminated by a sliver of pale moonlight showed they were already two hours into the new morning. Tansy couldn’t remember the details of her dreams, only that they had been troubled and riddled with feelings of anxiety and dread. Of course they were. This was the day of the reaping.

She propped herself up on one elbow. Her eyes adjusted to the dark quickly enough for her to see the peaceful expression on Annie’s face, cocooned next to her in the sheets. In sleep, Annie looks younger, almost her age. Her face was as clean and white as a pearl. Her soft hair reminded Tansy of a warm and safe place she would hide with her friends as a child, back when she still lived in District 11 with her mother. Her mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they told her.

Her mother, a victor from 11 named Chicory Fields, had been an unstable woman for as long Tansy could remember. She had her good days, when she could laugh and smile and doted on Tansy like a normal mother, but more often than not her days were dark and sometimes even dangerous. Her mother tried to drown her demons with liquor, but they learned how to swim. There were times when it wasn’t safe to be in the same room with her. When her mother would scream and howl like a wounded animal and clutch the knife she slept with to her breast, lashing out anyone or anything foolish enough to get too close. On those days the only thing Tansy could do was watch, huddled in a corner and feeling utterly helpless, or wait outside the room with the door locked for her own safety, singing her mother’s favorite songs in the vain hope that one of them would reach her and bring back the smiling woman who loved to hold her close and tight, as if she was her most important treasure. Sometimes the songs did help, and her mother would let her come close enough to hold her and whisper reassuring words until she was calm enough to be coaxed into forcing herself to eat something. Her mother may have survived the arena, but whatever happened to her in there had destroyed her. It was hard on Tansy having to see her mother that way. A few other adults who had been friends with her mother back when they were still children, before she was reaped, tried to check on them whenever they could and helped Tansy learn how to take care of herself and her mother, but in 11 everyone worked in the fields and orchards from sunup to sundown and little time and effort could be spared to care for a mad woman and her child. But Tansy couldn’t blame them. They had their own troubles. Life was hard for everyone in 11.

The day that truly haunted Tansy was her eighth birthday. She had come home with ingredients for tansy cakes to an eerily silent home. She found her mother staring up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes. In one hand she clutched an empty jar of sleeping pills. In the other was a half-spilled bottle of white liquor. That large mansion of white marble with its empty echoing halls, where the two of them once lived together, had become a mausoleum. After the funeral, Tansy hid in small thicket of oaks and pines that had sprouted up near the Victor’s Village and gone largely left unchecked. She hid there for weeks living on bark, needles, nuts, and weeds in a desperate attempt to avoid being dragged away from her home and condemned to 11′s community home with the rest of the district’s mistreated and malnourished orphans. Her mother may not have been the most stable or suitable guardian for a small child, but she had at least been family and she had only ever actually hit Tansy once, an act which had been followed by days and days of tearful apologies and hugs and special treats to make up for it. Her mother was not a mean woman, unlike the matron of the community home, who was well known for her brutality. The effects of which could easily be seen in the vacant and hopeless stares and oppressive silence from the gaunt faces of the children under her care.

As far as Tansy knew at that point in time her mother had been her only family. Her mother never spoke of her father, and Tansy had stopped asking when she saw how much pain her questions seemed to cause. The only memento they had of him was a smooth pink stone that shimmered like flames in the sunlight. Her mother told her it was something called a conch pearl. She said it was a magic charm that, along with a phrase her father had taught her, used to help her face her darker days. The news that he was still alive and well in District 4 and had another daughter who was her older half sister, and that she was going to be sent to live with them instead of in 11′s community home had come as a huge shock. Despite the tragedy she was drowning in, for Tansy this was the first irrefutable evidence she had that miracles really did exist. That things didn’t always have to go from better to worse. That they could go from worse to better, too.

Back in the present, Tansy reached out to retrieve the small, oval-shaped pink pearl that Annie had woven into a hemp necklace for her so that she would always be able to carry it with her. Her sister said it was a good luck charm, to keep her safe. Annie changed the design every year as part of her present for reaping day, adding the prettiest of the small shells from the collection they combed from the beach together. This year the necklace had been woven into a choker with the hemp framing small, white shells all around with decorative knots interspaced between them and the conch pearl framed in the very center as its main feature. It was beautiful. The pink pearl was the only concrete memento she had left of her mother and her life in 11 outside of her memories.

The transition from 11 to 4 had been hard. The conch pearl was only spared because it had originally come from the coast off District 4. They wouldn’t let her take anything with her from 11. Not the clothes on her back. Not even her name. Her dusty cotton shirt, patched overalls, buckled shoes, and straw sunhat from 11 were stripped away and replaced with a clean dress and sandals from 4. Tansy Fields became Tansy Cresta. Talk about her life in 11 to outsiders was strictly forbidden. Residents in the districts were rarely allowed to travel outside of their own with the exception of the tributes reaped for the games. It was rarer still for a child to be born from parents belonging to two different districts.

But not impossible, as Tansy had learned. She had been conceived while her mother was conducting her victory tour. Due to some technical difficulties with the train, her mother was able to enjoy an extended stay in District 4, where she met a handsome young fisherman while walking along the beach one night. They had trouble sleeping because they were both lonely. They had both been through traumatic experiences. She had survived the games by sacrificing everything that made her human after the boy who came from home with her was killed right before her eyes. He had lost his wife when the boat they worked on was caught in a perfect storm, and the surf coming over the side had ripped her straight from his hands. Comforting each other during their nightly rendezvouses, Tansy’s mother and father developed feelings for each other that were very much like love. But they could not stay together. When the train was fixed, Tansy’s mother had to leave to continue her tour and her father stayed in 4 with Annie, who was only three-years-old at the time. Tansy was born nine months later, delivered by the local midwife, Ms. Mamie, on the kitchen table of one of the marble mansions of 11′s Victor Village.

Tansy ran her fingers gently over the choker her sister had made for her and tied it securely around her neck. Since she had awoken so early, she had just enough time for a swim. She swung her legs off the bed, slipped out of her nightgown, and pulled on her wetsuit. Then she secured her dark blonde hair, still in its protective style of box braids, in a bun behind her head. Before she left the room, she placed her gift to Annie on their night table for her to find when she awoke. This year her present was also a necklace. Tansy had dyed and waxed the hemp sea green to match her sister’s eyes and knotted and weaved the fine strings together in a thin band of undulating waves that dropped down into small beads made from blue and green sea glass. The main charm on the necklace was a piece of sea jade that she had wrapped with a thin stainless steel wire to make a stylized seahorse. Annie loved seahorses. And Tansy loved Annie. Even though they had different mothers, Annie had welcomed her with open arms. Annie gave her a new home. She was the first in 4 to completely accept her for who she was. Annie was the one who held her at night and taught her that it was okay to cry sometimes, that she didn’t have to hold it in and suffer alone. For the first time in her life, Tansy was able to act like a normal child. Annie wasn’t just an older sister to Tansy. She had become like a second mother. Tansy would do anything for her.

Moving into the front room of the house, Tansy spotted her father seated on the bench by the door while he pulled on his boots. Apparently he couldn’t sleep either. He was fully dressed and looked ready to go fishing, even though today was supposed to be a holiday for everyone in the district. He looked up when she reached out to grab a pair of sandals and plopped herself down on the floor near the bench to put them on.

“Got a light?” he asked. It was especially dangerous to swim alone in the dark.

“It’s right there,” she replied, nodding her head up at the coat rack where she had left her underwater headlamp hanging next to her rain slicker.

She watched him reach out and grab it for her out the corner of her eye while she finished tying the laces on her sandals. Even though her skin was naturally darker than her sister’s and father’s, and her hair had the same curly texture as her mother’s, she had definitely inherited his golden hair color and sea foam eyes. His face was weathered from constant exposure to the elements and the many worries that accompanied having two daughters who were near and around dating age, but he could still be considered a handsome man. He was kind like Annie, but he was a quiet man who usually kept his soft side hidden. When she first started living with him Tansy had thought his aloof attitude towards her might have been indifference or possibly even dislike, but she soon learned that he could be very affectionate once you got past his six layers of shyness, sarcasm, awkwardness, fear, vague dislike, and loneliness. In his own way Brian Cresta did care for his younger daughter, but he had never quite recovered from the loss of their mothers, whom he was reminded of every time he looked at them. Especially Annie, who was the spitting image of his first love and only wife.

Tansy strapped the light to her head and her father grabbed a lantern, a bucket, a small net, and his fishing pole. The oxygen tanks and flippers she normally used for the really deep diving she did for her work as a pearl diver in the oyster beds and maintaining the beds of the kelp forest farms were locked up at the warehouse, so she was free diving today.

The two of them left the house for the shore without another word. Their part of District 4, nicknamed Canning Row for all the seafood processing factories, was usually crawling with canners headed to the factories for their morning shifts and fishermen, longliners, trawlers, and deckhands headed for the marina. But that day the streets ripe with the smell of fish, preservatives, and metal were empty. Shutters on the cozy colorful homes were closed. The reaping wasn’t until two. May as well sleep in. If you could.

The Cresta home was near the edge of Canning Row and close enough to the shore to receive enough of the sea breeze to ward off most of the fumes wafting from the factory. They lived in the middle class part of town and were considered to be fairly well off. Being one of the wealthiest districts of Panem, even the poorest in 4 seemed better off than anyone she had known in 11, where no child, save perhaps the mayor’s daughter, could escape having to add their names into the drawing in exchange for tesserae. There were always hungry mouths in 11. She shuddered to imagine how many times her old friends must have their names entered for reaping by now. She still remembered her closest friends and thought about them often. She had already seen one or two familiar faces selected as tributes for her old district over the last four years, but no one she had been particularly close to, thankfully. Not that it made the games any easier to watch. It grew even harder as she came to know more of the residents of 4 better.

Upon her initial arrival, most of them had viewed her from afar with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. To them she was a strange fruit grafted from two trees that ordinarily should have never mixed. One of the main things they had teased her about was being unable to swim. That knowledge had been all but lost in 11. In fact, Tansy had been proud to be one of the few who was able to figure out how to do enough of a doggy paddle to be able keep her head above still water in emergencies. But she showed those District 4 kids who laughed at her in the end. Everyday, Tansy practiced swimming and diving with Annie until, eventually, she could swim farther and dive deeper than any of them. That shut most of them up, but a few of the meaner kids went out of their way to find other things to taunt her with. Tansy decided they weren’t worth paying much attention to after that.

With the playing field leveled and a little help and encouragement from Annie, she was eventually able to make one or two friends and a handful of tolerable acquaintances. The first friend she had made on her own was actually Mags, an elderly victor. Tansy hadn’t known how important she was at the time. She just thought she was a nice old lady who was wickedly skilled in making interesting fishing hooks and lures and seemed to have trouble talking. At the time, Mags was recovering from a stroke that had severely affected her ability to speak and she had gone down to the beach for some privacy because it was so frustrating for her to suddenly be unable to communicate properly with those around her. It was so bad that she had to learn sign language while she waited for her speech therapy to help her regain the ability to communicate verbally again. Finnick Odair, a young victor who she had mentored and stayed close to, was trying to learn too, but he wasn’t picking it up as fast as he thought he would.

Fortunately for Mags, Tansy happened to be very proficient in using sign language, because one of her friends back in 11 had been deaf. Delighted to find someone with whom she could have a real conversation with, Mags was only too happy to show Tansy how to make the kind of lure she had been working on. From then on the two of them would meet up at that spot to talk and exchange skills and have a little fun wading in the tide pools and exploring the hidden caves along that section of the beach. It was only a little under three years later, when Annie introduced her to her new boyfriend, the famous Finnick Odair, that Tansy learned who Mags really was. It was her first time meeting victors who appeared to be so well adjusted after having experienced the horrors of an arena, so it had come as a surprise to Tansy. But she couldn’t help but smile at the sly wink the old woman gave her when she was found out.

Tansy gave her head a small shake in attempt to chase away those unhappy thoughts about the danger that she and her sister and their younger friends still faced. There would be plenty of time to worry about that later. She and her father had almost reached the shed that he and several men from his crew rented together to store the small personal boats they used for recreation, and Tansy could see where the dark ocean melted into the sky, giving the illusion of a vast and endless space that seemed to stretch on forever. This was her favorite part about 4 aside from the abundance of food. A horizon without walls. The rest of the district was, of course, enclosed by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. It supposedly was electrified twenty-four hours a day as a deterrent to the predators that lived in the wild—packs of wild dogs, lone cougars, bears—but they seemed like a joke to Tansy compared to the utterly impenetrable and unending concrete walls of District 11. Especially since the fence around 4 ended in the west at the coast. The Capitol had given up on trying to fence in the sea long ago when they realized it would interfere too much with the ecosystems of their favorite foods and that it would mean cutting off the access fishermen would have to some of the rarer and more expensive delicacies. So if someone wanted to leave, all they had to do was go around it.

But no one ever did. Trespassing in the territory outside the district was illegal and poaching carried the severest of penalties. Unlike in 11, where the starving masses would no doubt risk it if they had weapons and could get out, here in 4 there was really no need, because food was plentiful and the rules regarding foraging within the district were less strict than they had been in 11, since the self-replenishing bounty of the ocean was available to all. The only real rules you had to watch out for were the limit placed on how much of certain species of sea life could be taken by one individual and what species were completely off limits, avoiding the offshore nurseries and farms, and staying within a set distance from the shore. It wasn’t safe to go out too far in the little dinghies citizens were allowed to own anyway. Only commercial ships built for deep-sea fishing that had special permits and were supervised by a guard of Peacekeepers could venture out farther than the border marked by the orange buoys and be gone for longer than a day without eliciting punishment. That was how the Capitol controlled them instead of the fence, by limiting their means of escape via the ocean. But again, no one tried. Tansy had learned in school how a few attempts were made early on in the district’s history to escape that way, because there used to be other countries on the other side of the ocean, back when the land that District 4 was built on was still called ‘California’, but needless to say each attempt had ended in disaster and death. And most people figured why take the risk? It had been so long since there was contact from the world outside Panem that no one knew if there was even anything left over there to run to. Life wasn’t so bad in 4. If only it weren’t for the reaping. No district, no matter how affluent, could escape the games.

Tansy and her father carried their small boat out to meet the waves. She climbed in first, carrying the lantern, which she placed on a hook attached to the side of the boat. Then he handed her the oars, gave the dinghy a shove, and hopped in with a practiced ease as it glided into the water. The waves were gentle today. Father and Daughter gave the Peacekeepers on duty a wave with their hands before taking up their oars to row further out. Her father stopped well within the legal limits. Tansy turned on her light and prepared to dive. Before she went over and under he handed her the net and asked her to snag him some bait. She returned moments later with some clams and mussels. He nodded in approval and scooped some water into the bucket as he held it out for her to dump the contents of her net into it. Tansy left her father to his fishing and swam away from the boat to avoid his hook and line before diving again.

Tansy loved diving in the ocean. It was probably the last truly quiet place on earth. The moment she sank beneath the surface and felt herself gliding weightlessly through the water, she was free. The rest of the world and all its troubles fell away, silenced by the deep blue. Her first experience with it was numinous. It took a while for her eyes to adjust to the salt, but once they did, she found herself surrounded by a wholly new, strange, and wonderful world that was more fantastic than anything she could have ever imagined. In that endless blue world full of alien creatures she was filled with a powerful, personal feeling of being overwhelmed and inspired, afraid and attracted all at once. While teaching her how to swim, Annie also taught her how to safely approach wild dolphins, what other sea life was safe, and what to say away from. The more accustomed she became to swimming in the ocean, the more Tansy began to push the envelope and explore. She swam side by side with whales and even sharks. It was dangerous but thrilling, and she found that as long as you respected a shark’s territory, most of them wouldn’t bother coming after you. The one time a shark did try to attack her, she was fortunate enough to be saved by a pod of dolphins she was on friendly terms with, and they helped her fight it off. Tansy loved the ocean, and it loved her back. It was a terrifying, beautiful, and awesome environment that she had the utmost respect for.

The ocean had taught her many things. The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish. Saltwater heals everything. When a wave comes, go deep. The best view comes under the deepest surface. Life itself was like the ocean: it could be calm or still, and rough or rigid, but in the end some kind of beauty could always be found in it, if you knew how to look. The most important lesson she learned from the oysters: she didn’t have to stay wounded. Sand irritated and hurt the oysters, and the oysters responded by turning it into a beautiful pearl. They showed her that it was possible to allow difficulties and challenges to serve her transformation into whatever kind of person she wanted to blossom into in a constructive way. The world was her oyster. It was up to her to find the pearls.

Tansy knew it was time to go when she saw the flickering light of the lantern being held over the side of their boat to call her back to it. Surfacing carefully, she dropped her net of shellfish into the bucket and hoisted herself up over the side while her father kept the boat steady. He had caught some nice cod and halibut, so they had plenty of ingredients to make a good fisherman’s stew, enough to share with the neighbors tonight.

Tonight. After the reaping, everyone was supposed to celebrate. And a lot of people did, out of relief their children had been spared for another year. But at least two families would pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come. The reaping was normally better received in 4 than it was in 11, because 4 was one of the districts that produced career tributes, children who had undergone special training for years in order to prepare for the games. Although this was technically against the rules, no one had ever done anything to stop it. Most of the Careers came from 4′s community home. Boy or girl, many of them saw it as an opportunity to escape a dull future of canning and gain a better status for him or her. The district also benefitted if a local tribute won. However, this was an awkward year for the Careers. None of the girls who were still eligible to volunteer as tributes had reached a level where their mentors felt comfortable recommending them. The current pool of female Careers were all either become to old, were still too young, or too lacking in talent to volunteer without it being considered suicide. And to have them die now, before they reached their full potential and stood a real chance of winning would be a waste of all the resources contributed to their training. So now there was no telling who would be sent to fight from among the girls. All bets were off this year. It would most likely end with whoever was unlucky enough to have their name picked.

“Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning,” her father said abruptly with a glance at the cloudy crimson sky. It was a good thing they went out when they did. They could tell by a feeling in the air and the shape of the clouds that the ocean was going to get rougher as the day wore on. It felt like a bad omen. Tansy shivered in the breeze.

The sky was a rosy pink by the time they reached home. Tansy and her father were greeted by the smell of tea, toasted bread, baking eggs, sardines, shallots, and garlic. Discarding their shoes, they followed their noses into the kitchen and found Annie removing the pot of fisherman’s eggs (a lot of dishes started with fisherman here), which she had made using the leftover fish in the icebox, from the oven. She was already wearing the necklace Tansy had made for her. They had returned just in time for breakfast.

The family of three sat down at the table to eat together. Annie chatted cheerfully about the schedule for the day and the plans she had made. She was delighted to hear they had such a good catch.

“Maybe later, after the reaping, we can go foraging for some wild figs,” Annie said excitedly. “They always taste better when you pick them yourself.”

“Figs aren’t in season yet,” Tansy replied. Seeing her sister’s disappointed face, she quickly added, “But Mags said we were welcome to help ourselves to some of her oranges while she’s gone.”

As mentors, Mags and Finnick would both be going to the Capitol along with the tributes and were expected to do their best to help whoever was unlucky enough to be chosen. Annie brightened at the idea of being able to enjoy some sweet oranges, but they all held an unspoken concern for their friends. It couldn’t be easy, going through that process over and over again, having to watch when the tributes they were responsible for who couldn’t win die.

Annie quickly started chatting again to fill the silence, suggesting they make the stew for lunch instead since she just remembered that she had invited Finnick and Mags to stop by before the reaping, if they had time. Then she told their father he should go ahead and take a bath first, because it was going to take hours to undo all of Tansy’s braids. Since there was no work today, it was the perfect time to let her hair have a chance to breathe.

After breakfast, the girls washed and dried the dishes while their father started drawing his bath. While Annie carefully undid Tansy’s protective hairstyle, Tansy began cleaning and prepping their latest catch. And she found a pearl, literally. Usually, one had to sift through nearly two tons of oysters before finding a decent pearl, even in the farms. But when she popped open one of the abalones that she had gathered to remove the meat and clean the shell, there was a medium-sized blue pearl with an iridescent sheen of shimmering green and purple. Abalone pearls were incredibly rare because they could not be cultured like the pearls from mussels and oysters. Tansy considered putting it aside for their collection of emergency funds but decided to give it to Annie for good luck. Since she was eighteen-years-old, this would be her last reaping. All she had to do was survive this one without getting picked, and she would be home free.

A tub of warm water waited for Tansy when Annie had finished helping her unwind the last of her braids. She scrubbed off the sand and salt from the ocean and beach and carefully massaged her hair with shampoo, making sure she got rid of whatever gunk might have accumulated in the parts of the braids that were harder to keep clean. Then she applied some coconut oil to it and waited a few minutes for it to soak in before rinsing her hair again. When she vacated the tub so Annie could have her turn, Tansy found her sister had laid out a lovely dress for her, a soft and frilly pink thing with a blue bow tied around the waist and a matching hair ribbon and shoes. Most likely because they were expected to dress up today and, if left to her own devices, Tansy would have undoubtedly chosen her outfit for comfort rather than appearance. She shrugged and put it on, and tied the blue ribbon around her damp curly hair like a headband. With her conch pearl choker in place, she was good to go.

Tansy went into the kitchen, put on an apron to protect her dress, and started making lunch. She toasted some more bread while she prepped the herbs and vegetables. When the bread was done, she removed it from the oven and wrapped it in a clean towel to keep it warm. The recipe for fisherman’s stew was very flexible. You could use any seafood you wanted as long as you got the sauce right. She started by heating up the pot and sautéing some chopped onions in butter. Then she added some minced garlic and red pepper flakes and sautéed those for thirty seconds. Next she added a few cans of diced tomatoes and their juices, some parsley and basil. She brought the mixture to a boil and added the cod and halibut and all of the shellfish. She covered it, brought the heat down to low, and cooked it about ten minutes, until the mussels and clams opened and the fish were opaque throughout. After that, it was ready to serve.

There was a knock at the door. Tansy removed the apron and answered it. She was greeted by Mags with a hug.

“Smells good,” Mags praised her, enjoying the delicious aroma permeating the Cresta home.

Tansy returned her hug and a smiled warmly at her. She kept her distance from Finnick and greeted him with a polite smile. She wasn’t as comfortable with him. Even though he had been dating Annie for a year, Tansy could count the number of times she had met him in person on one hand.

Finnick Odair was something of a living legend in Panem. Since he won the Sixty-fifth Hunger Games when he was only fourteen, he was still one of the youngest victors. Being from District 4, he was a Career, so the odds were already in his favor, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-colored hair and those incredible eyes. They were sea green like Annie’s, only much deeper, the kind you could drown in if you weren’t careful. Tansy had seen his game five years ago when she was still living in 11. While other tributes that year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick had never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. It took about a week for his competitors to realize that he was the one to kill, but it was too late. He was already good with the spears and knives he had found in the Cornucopia. When he received a silver parachute with a trident—which may be the most expensive gift she had ever seen given in the arena—it was all over. District 4′s industry is fishing. He had been on boats his whole life. The trident was a natural, deadly extension of his arm. He wove a net out of some kind of vine he found, used it to entangle his opponents so he could spear them with the trident, and within a matter of days the crown was his. The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favor for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he would keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stayed, and once he was gone, he never came back.

Tansy couldn’t argue that Finnick Odair wasn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But for all his exceptional good looks, he seemed a little too full of himself for her taste. She could honestly say he had never been attractive to her. Maybe he was too pretty, or maybe he was too easy to get, or maybe it was really just that he would be too easy to lose. However, if Annie and Mags liked him, she figured he couldn’t be all bad. Still, his serial flings made her worried for Annie. She didn’t want him to break her sister’s heart.

Finnick smirked when he saw what she was wearing. “Nice dress,” he remarked. He seemed to enjoy teasing her whenever they met.

Tansy gave him a frown. “Shut up. Annie picked it.”

As if summoned by the mere mention of her name, Annie appeared, fresh and clean, wearing the necklace Tansy made for her and a flowing sea green dress that matched her eyes with her hair pulled up in a wispy half twist. She smiled brightly when she saw their guests.

“Finnick! Mags!” she greeted each of them with a hug. She called out to their father to let him know it was time to eat.

Lunch was pleasant, despite Finnick’s teasing, which Tansy began to suspect might have served partly to distract everyone from their worries about the upcoming reaping. At one o’clock, the five of them headed for the town square. Attendance was mandatory unless you were on death’s door. This evening, officials will come around and check to see if this was the case. If not, you’d be imprisoned.

It was too bad, really, that they held the reaping in the square. The square was surrounded by shops, and on public market days, especially if there was good weather, it had a holiday feel to it. But that day, despite the bright banners hanging on the buildings, there was an air of grimness. The blue sky was darkening to a dull grey. The camera crews, perched like buzzards on rooftops, only added to the effect.

People filed in silently to sign in. The reaping was a good opportunity for the Capitol to keep tabs on the population as well. Twelve- through eighteen-year-olds were herded into roped areas marked off by ages, the oldest in the front, the young ones toward the back. Family members lined up around the perimeter, holding tightly to one another’s hands. But there were others, too, who had no one they loved at stake, or who no longer cared, who slipped among the crowd, taking bets on the two kids whose names would be drawn. Odds were given on their ages, whether they would be Careers or unprepared tributes, if they would break down and weep. Most refused the dealing with the racketeers but carefully. These people tended to be informers.

The Crestas and the two victors parted ways. It was time to assume their respective places for the reaping. As past victors and this year’s mentors Mags and Finnick would be expected to appear on stage. Annie gave everyone a hug and a kiss. Tansy hugged their father and Mags and gave Finnick a small wave as they turned to leave. The space got tighter, more claustrophobic as people arrived. The square was quite large, but not enough to hold District 4′s population of about one hundred and twelve thousand. Latecomers were directed to the adjacent streets, where they could watch the event on screens as it was televised live by the state.

Tansy found herself standing in a clump of fourteen-year-olds from Canning Row that were in her class at school. Among them was Mari Strand, the daughter of a canning factory foreman. Tansy supposed they could be called friends, at least Annie thought they were, but the two girls had mostly ended up together because neither of them really seemed to fit in anywhere else. Many of the girls in their group were attempting to smile but they all exchanged terse nods then focused their attention on the temporary stage that was set up before the Justice Building. It held seven chairs, a podium, and two large glass balls, one for the boys and one for the girls. Tansy stared at the paper slips in the girls’ ball. Three of them had Tansy Cresta written on them in careful handwriting. Seven of them had Annie Cresta.

Two of the seven chairs were filled with Mayor Seymour, who was a tall man with wavy brown hair, and Priscilla Lush, District 4′s escort, fresh from the capitol with her scary white grin, violet hair, and neon green skirt-suit that had square sleeves patterned with pastel pink, blue, orange, and gold sequins. The other chairs were filled with Finnick, Mags, and the rest of the surviving victors of District 4.

Just as the clock struck two, the mayor stepped up to the podium and began to read. It was the same story every year. He told of the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America. He listed the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason had given us the new laws to guarantee peace, and as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it had given us the Hunger Games.

The rules of the Hunger Games were simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes would be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watched—this was the Capitol’s way of reminding us how completely we were at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they used, the message was clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District 13.”

To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol required the districts to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others. The last tribute alive received a life of ease back home, and their district would be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food. All year, the Capitol would show the winning district gifts of grain and oil and even delicacies like sugar while the rest of them battled starvation.

“It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks,” intoned the mayor.

Then he read the list of past District 4 victors. It was much longer than the one they had in 11. Five are still alive, including Finnick and Mags. The crowd responded with its token applause, which naturally reached a roar that was punctuated by several squeals when Finnick’s name was called and he stood up and graced the crowd with a smile.

He caught the unimpressed look on Tansy’s face among the crowd and gave her wink. Tansy rolled her eyes in response when several of the girls around her started giggling uncontrollably and few of them even fainted, each convinced the playful wink had been meant for her. Mari raised an eyebrow at Tansy and gave her a look to let her know she thought all their classmates were idiots. Tansy suppressed a small smile.

Once the crowd had calmed down the mayor introduced Priscilla Lush. Bright and bubbly as ever, Priscilla trotted to the podium in her ridiculously high heels and gave her signature, “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor.” She went on a bit about what an honor it was to be here, how she looked forward to escorting another future victor from 4.

Through the crowd, Tansy spotted Annie looking back at her with a nervous smile, trying to silently reassure her that everything was going to be all right. But now Tansy was thinking again of her sister and her seven names in that big glass ball and how the odds are never in anyone’s favor. Seven wasn’t so bad, really. Not compared to the odds most of the children had back in 11. But this was 4. Aside from the seldom few who occasionally did need to apply for tesserae, the odds were good for everyone in 4. Which really meant the odds were fairly even and almost anyone could be picked. Annie turned away to focus on the stage again.

It was time for the drawing. Priscilla Lush said as she always did, “Ladies first!” and crossed to the glass ball with the girls’ names. She reached in, dug her hand deep into the ball, and pulled out a slip of paper. The crowd drew in a collective breath and then one could hear a pin drop. Tansy was feeling nauseous, clutching her conch pearl for security, and so desperately hoping that it wouldn’t be her, that it wouldn’t be her or Annie, who only had one year left before she would be safe.

Priscilla Lush crossed back to the podium, smoothed the slip of paper, and read out the name in a clear voice. And it wasn’t Tansy.

It was Annie Cresta.

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