I concentrate hard on the icing swirls of the cakes before me. First a golden sheaf of wheat, then the pale green of grass, and even some blue to represent sky, I suppose. I don't really know. I'm in a quiet zone where nothing can touch me, and it is a rare and precious thing in this house.
Naturally, it is shattered by my brother Deni.
"Sheaves for the Reaping?" he snorts, looking over my shoulder.
I almost start at his proximity, but years of schooling instant reactions for fear of reprisals hold me in good stead, and I continue swirling as though I hadn't heard.
"Supposed to be clever or something?" Deni snarls, plunking his huge frame into a nearby chair, the force causing even the sturdy kitchen table to tremble, and the cake to teeter slightly. I reach quickly to protect it, and he grins.
"It's not her," he says, and is rewarded when I stop icing for a moment, motionless, a sliver of fear slicing through me. His grin broadens. Deni, like my mother, loves fear. Thrives on it. After a moment I lift the knife again and begin smoothing the edges of the huge cake.
His words trouble me less than they usually would. I hate that Deni knows about her, but she is on my mind today more than usual, because of the Reaping. Today is the day the Capitol chooses the one boy and one girl who fight in the arena custom-built for pain, and as always on a Reaping Day I am consumed with the nightmare, the endless living nightmare I've had as long as I can remember. The one that takes Katniss Everdeen, puts her on a stage and then on an arena, and televise her death to me and the entire watching world.
I've loved her, of course, as far back as I can remember. I'm not entirely sure how Deni picked up on it, but it's enough that he has.
I continue to swirl icing in silence and Deni grows annoyed. "She has her name in twenty times," he informs me, as though this will be news to me. There's very little about Katniss I don't know.
"The odds aren't exactly in anyone's favour," I say mildly, choosing another knife.
My name is in five times, which is enough for me. The poor - like Katniss and her family - enter their names additional times for tesserae, grain and oil for a year. I know that Katniss has entered on behalf of her mother and sister every year, and every year my heart sinks still lower. The odds may be in no one's favour, but it's even more true for Katniss.
"Gale Hawthorne's name is in 42 times," Deni adds, as though musing to himself, but his eyes slide towards me. "Might help you out some."
Suddenly I am angry. Red-hot anger, at his words implying that I am wishing for Gale to be chosen so the way is cleared for me. He's her hunting partner, her best friend, and from what I can tell, if he's not already in love with her and she with him, it's just a matter of time. And what chance do I stand, the baker's son, who she's never even spoken to? Gale is tall and strong and handsome and...he fits her. I hate to admit it, and I hate that Deni is a little bit right, and I hate that part of me deep inside that stirs a bit in an evil way when I think what would happen if Gale was Reaped today and Katniss needed someone...
But I don't wish for anyone else to die, and still less to be the second-best love of Katniss' life because she had to watch her first die on screen before a quiet, watching world.
"Shut up," I say, laying the knife down. My eyes are blazing and my arms are tense. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
Deni's eyes narrow slightly, as though evaluating where to land a blow, and then, to my surprise, he laughs.
"I'm only joking, little bro", he says, rising smoothly, and I know my father has just appeared. My mother wouldn't cause a change of heart or attitude - Deni knows as well as I do that she not only is unmoved if he lays a hand against me, but also encourages it - but my father still affects him, even though Deni would never admit it. My father glances at his oldest son and then at the cake I'm working on.
"Good work, Peeta," he says quietly, and I smile slightly. My father isn't a man of many words, but I think we can all agree I'm his favourite. It hasn't saved me any beatings - my father has lived this long from self-preservation, not strength - but it helps sometimes.
"Yeah, good work," Deni says mockingly. "Can't wait to celebrate tonight, after all the excitement." His words sneer, trying desperately to cover an anguish that even he can't plumb the depths of.
"It's for the mayor," I say, giving up on the cake. It's as good as it will ever be, and if I'm honest I know that the last half hour has been spent fixing things that didn't need fixed. Deni's arrival and taunting words have reminded me that I've simply been avoiding the coming pain.
He would know all about pain, I think, as Deni slouches out of the kitchen and my father follows, quietly. I stare out the big window at the gardens beyond, not seeing them. I see Deni the day Selena was Reaped, his face drained of colour, eyes burning pools of pain. They were going to be married. They hadn't told anyone yet, because Selena was only 17, and no one in the Districts ever thought about a wedding until their 19th birthday had gone and they were safe. But Selena had told me, one night when I was sitting by the ovens, nursing a burnt finger. For once I was in pain that was not caused by my mother, although I wouldn't put it past her to set my hand in the fire as punishment for some small imagined offense. She'd know, though, that doing that would prevent me being able to ice the cakes, and that would lose us money. My mother, constantly consumed by money.
Selena had come quietly into the kitchen, and sat beside me. She often did that, when Deni was out making deliveries and had not yet returned. We usually sat in silence, but when I turned my head to acknowledge her, I saw that her eyes were sparkling. Like she was - happy.
Happiness was such a strange concept in District 12 that I spoke up.
"What is it?" I asked, looking at her.
She looked startled, and then I saw her decide to tell me. "Deni and I are going to be married," she whispered. "As soon as I'm 19," she added unnecessarily.
In spite of the sudden clench of fear I felt for her, for Deni, for those who clung to hope in a life like this, I couldn't help smiling. When Selena's eyes sparkled, happiness was found for a moment.
"Well, good," I said simply. "We can't wait to get Deni out of the house," I added, smiling to take the sting from my words, but I saw that she heard none. She knew there wasn't a great deal of love lost between Deni and me - between any of my family and me. She smiled back.
"You make him a better person, you know," I told her.
Her green eyes suddenly went a little sad. "I know," she admitted quietly. "What if - " she stumbled and couldn't speak. I knew what she was thinking. I reached over and took her hand impulsively.
"Hey," I said quickly, and then wondered what I was going to say. "Don't," I managed. "You can't think like that. Just think of Deni." She had two more Reapings to go, and that could feel like a lifetime. But two more, and they would be free. Deni was 18, so this was his last year.
She smiled through tears, and withdrew her hand. I knew she didn't fear Deni - he was hardly jealous of his 13 year old brother, who only had eyes for Katniss even then - but we both knew my mother's bizarre reasons for beatings, and we crushed any open displays of kindness, no matter how small.
"I don't think I'd survive it," Selena said almost casually, and I stared at the fading coals in silence. Who would? Those arenas were crafted with death in mind, and Selena was a slim, beautiful girl whose greatest efforts went into her schoolbooks.
"I'd want to die well," I said finally. I didn't imagine I would win, either - I had no skills to speak of unless you counted a learned ability to talk myself out of trouble and think on my feet - but I'd sen some of the Tributes become like snarling, evil dogs, and I didn't want to go down that way.
"What do you mean?" Selena asked, her long hair brushing a shoulder.
I shrugged. "With pride," I said. It sounded foolish to my 13 year old mind, but Selena seemed to understand.
"Like you're not just a - a piece?" she said.
I looked over at the chess board that sat in the corner of the kitchen. Sometimes, when Deni was in a good mood, or my father was feeling generous, they would let me peer over their shoulders as they played. I even played Deni once, but was smart enough not to win. I was pleased that I knew how to win, in my mind, but I knew enough to expect a beating if I did.
"Yes," I said, looking at the pieces standing arrayed on their squares. "A piece in their Games."
Selena mulled that over while I went back to staring at the fire, and a few minutes later Deni came in and she left.
Two weeks later she was dead.
The only good thing to be said about it was that it was quick. The Reaping day - Deni's bloodless face - a short goodbye before she got on the train. There were the usual interviews, with Selena in a floor-length, shimmering green gown that made me want to paint her as a mermaid, and it was painfully obvious to us that Selena had no edge at all. She wasn't fierce, she wasn't sexy, she was just a beautiful girl with hope wiped from her eyes. Caesar Flickerman, the interminable interviewer, who had been doing these interviews since before I was born, was kind and gentle with her, and pretended to believe her when she said there was no boyfriend at home in District 12. But maybe because her eyes, so mild til then, got hard suddenly, and only hate filled them. Caesar was smart enough to know that any story in those eyes wouldn't be dragged out by his gentle urgings - or maybe he didn't see it. I saw it, and Deni, pretending to play chess in the corner, saw it. He knew where the hate was directed, and I saw it glowing in his eyes, too. Dark and smouldering and burning like fire. Like rebellion.
It almost frightened me, but I knew that was what the Capitol wanted - fear. It sowed fear with every Games, every Victory Tour. I'd heard stories of victors whose family and friends were mysteriously killed, and had even heard that our District's lone living victor, Haymitch Abernathy, had seen it happen to those he loved. And I knew without being told that Deni and Selena had discussed this very prospect, and had agreed never to allow the Capitol that information.
On the interview, Selena's eyes went back to mild, and Caesar moved on. We watched, of course, as the Capitol intended. Watched as the Tributes were paraded before cheering crowds, as they appeared in a frozen wilderness, with snow and ice everywhere. Watched as Selena, running to the cornucopia for supplies or a weapon, slipped on the ice and fell. Watched as her fellow Tribute from District 12 flashed past without a look. And watched the ice axe sail through the air and embed itself in her skull - and thanks to the talents of the Capitol's television crews, watched as the life faded from her emerald green eyes.
We watched, too, as the light and hope and anything good faded from Deni's eyes over the weeks and months and years that followed. He'd never had much, but what he had came from Selena, and when she left - when the Capitol took her - it departed, too.
That was when he really started beating me. And when I started thinking about what I could do, what I could have that would give me even the slightest edge in those horrible, brutal Games. I started thinking of Deni as an enemy - not as himself, but in the abstract sense. Someone to fight, as practice for the Games. Every once in a while I would actually defeat him, momentarily, and those hate-filled eyes would flicker slightly before settling back to darkness.
I started lifting, too. Heavy sacks of flour. The huge tools used for the bakery ovens. Barrels of oil delivered for tesserae at the Hall of Justice. And wrestling. Not just Deni, or my other brother Sim, but competitions at school.
Of course, none of it would really help, I think drearily, my mind appearing back to Reaping Day and my eyes focusing outside the window - but one had to do something.
From upstairs I hear the shrill voice of my mother beginning her daily harangue against my father, and I turn back to the cakes lying before me, and to the burden of the day.
It's heavy, and weighs on me daily: how to avoid a beating, and how to keep my mind off Katniss Everdeen.
Some days, I'd rather face the Games.
My father appears downstairs, escaping my mother's shrewish voice, and doesn't meet my eyes. I think he sees something in mine, something he reads as condemnation for not fighting back. Perhaps he does see it.
There's the softest of knocks at the back door, almost like a thump of snow, although it's not winter. My father's head and mine swivel at the same time - first, towards the ceiling, to see if my mother heard - and second, back to the back door.
We glance at each other, and then my father moves to the door. Our fear is not for who might be there, since those who show up at the crack of dawn at our back door are usually safe people. We just need to get rid of them quickly for their and our sakes.
We take our usual positions - me at the foot of the stairs, pretending busy employment moving wood from one kindling box to another - and my father to the window next to the door. He glances out, and then back to me.
"Gale," he mouths, turning to open the door.
I relax and tense at the same time. Gale is like a shadow, and moves like a cat, so we don't have to worry if my mother appears. He can hear her tread on the stairs before we do, and disappear like a mist. But it's Gale, and as much as I'd like to like the guy, I can't show much friendliness to someone who is a strong, handsome, familiar best friend of the girl I'm impossibly in love with. I'm always a little afraid Gale will see it in my eyes - he's a hunter, after all - so I do my best to avoid his company.
I can se through to the back door from where I stand - having given up the kindling pretense - and I see Gale holding up a fat grey squirrel.
It's a good shot, but I can see at a glance that it wasn't shot by Katniss. A year or so ago, my father pointed out that she always shoots them exactly in the eye - not in the body. Same with the rabbits, and even the deer.
My father glances back at me, and gestures to the loaves of bread lining the tables. I know which one he expects me to choose - the dark, small ones made with our coarser, cheaper wheat flour - but without even thinking I reach for the good loaf, the white one, the best our bakery has to offer.
My father gives Gale a "hold on" look and steps back into the room where Gale can't see or hear us.
"What are you doing?" he hisses, snatching the good loaf. "You know your mother will notice."
I stand my ground. "Let her," I say almost casually. "What's one more beating? I don't care."
"Well I do," he mutters, even though we both wonder sometimes if that's true. He's setting down the loaf when I say it.
"You know that bread will go to Katniss' family today," I say.
If there's any good weakness in my father, it's for Katniss' mother, who he loved once. Perhaps loves still. He hesitates.
"It's Reaping Day," I press on. I know I'm putting both he and I in danger, but when it comes to Katniss we're both weak - I for her, and he for her mother's sake. The thought that Katniss could be selected and possibly killed tips the balance, as I knew it would, and he stares at the good bread before lifting it and returning to the back door.
I hear my father say quietly, "Good luck", but I don't hear Gale take the bread or leaving. He's silent as always. When my father comes back in, I see he is holding the squirrel.
"Only one?" I say in surprise. Usually a loaf of that quality, my father would get two or three.
"It's Reaping Day," he says accusingly, throwing my words back at me, and I almost smile.
Instead, I turn and begin shifting the bread loaves on their trays. I am past master at the art of doing this smoothly and so often that my mother can't always tell when there are loaves missing. It's much easier when it's just one.
There are few customers today. It's supposed to be a holiday, Reaping Day, but the mere thought of being celebratory when your children may be chosen to go to their deaths seems to put a damper on things. My mother is unmoved, bustling about at her usual frenetic pace, often fiddling with things to no purpose, and causing more harm than good. We all move around her, like players in a game, only slightly less deadly than those organised by the Capitol. Those end in death. This one simply ends in pain.
A few people come in during the morning, and at noon we're about ready to close up shop when the bell tinkles and, without even waiting for a reply, in steps Brand Tilleck. He's a big, beefy man with thick black hair, a nose that has been broken more times than probably he can even count, and dark eyes that I hate lookin ginto. I think I'd hate Brand anyway, just for looking dark and evil, but it's his favourite pasttime that embitters me more than anything else.
He's my father's brother, technically, but they couldn't be more dissimilar. Brand is a booker, one who takes bets on anything and everything. He comes into his own on Reaping Days, and Games times, of course, when there's really something to bet on - but his little business flourishes, managing to stay alive and well during the rest of the year as well. Number of speeches made by President Snow - death tolls by District - victor deaths in a year - oddly (or not so oddly) enough, most of the betting centres on death. It's all we really think about here in Twelve, after all, so why not turn it to a profit? At least that's how Brand thinks, and I hate him for it. I hate him for being just one more reminder of fear and death.
I hate him too for the way he influences my mother. Oddly enough there's nothing what you would call inappropriate there - Brand seems to be one of those men who would rather prey on other men's forbidden appetites than give into them himself - but he can always count on my mother to take a bet. It's not even the fact that much of the money my mother presses into his hairy black hands is the result of my hard labour - money doesn't mean that much to me - it's the greedy, grasping nature built in to my angry mother than Brand encourages, and fuels, and feeds. I hate him for that most of all, and he knows it.
My eyes harden as they met his, and he smiles in a smirky way, top lip creeping up over his dirty black teeth to meet a dirty black moustache.
"Peeta," he says, acknowledging me. "Happy Hunger Games."
"May the odds be never in your favour," I reply coolly, and his half-smile disappears.
"Yes, exactly," says my mother, rushing past and mishearing me. She lives with me and hears me every day, but she does not recognise my purposeful insult, as Brand does.
But he's not in the business of winning me over, so he turns his attentions to my mother.
"Well, Deckla?" he says in what he believes to be a winning tone. "Feeling lucky today?"
"I might be, if these boys would try to stay out of the Reaping," says my mother, as though it were at all possible.
"How about it, Peeta?" says Brand, black eyes glinting. I think he's like a hairy beetle. "Do you feel lucky?"
I feel sick, but it's not for my own luck, or lack thereof. The closer we get to Reaping, the louder my head pounds, and I feel like everyone can read my thoughts, they are shouting so loud. "Not Katniss! Not Katniss!" I don't even spare a wish that I won't be called, because that will only end my agony faster, and in my experience of life, agony is never cut short but is drawn out for days and years and probably a lifetime.
"Yeah," I say smoothly, hoping to throw off his odds. "Want to place a bet on me getting chosen? You'll lose."
He frowns slightly, as though considering this. His beetle eyes flick to my mother's, and she hesitates. "No, not Peeta," she says.
The mere fact that my mother could even consider this bet for a moment sends a surge of anger through me so fierce that I want to yell, or run, or bang Brand's head against a wall for encouraging this in her. Brand misses this look in my eye, fortunately, because he's looking at her.
My brother Sim will turn 19 tomorrow. It doesn't matter for the Games if his birthday is tomorrow or in six months' time, since he's still 18, but it's a particular reminder of how close he is to being free. Tomorrow will either be a day of great celebration and relief for him and our family, or it will be doubly painful. I'm no fonder of Sim than I am of Deni, but I don't want either of them killed by the Capitol for amusement. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. I wouldn't even wish it on my mother.
She almost smiles. "Sim is one day away from safety," she says.
"That doesn't matter for the Reaping," Brand replies, and I see her cast him a look. Not even my mother knows if Brand can have an influence on the names chosen, but we both have wondered often enough if he does. enough times when someone got chosen when it seemed impossible - but then random choice can seem impossible. Truth is stranger than fiction.
"That's true," my mother admits. She considers a bet on her son's life and then dismisses it. "No, too hard to call," she says, and then they sit at the table to discuss odds while I tidy up the kitchen. I tune out their voices for the most part until one name draws me up with a shock.
"- Katniss Everdeen?" Brand is saying, looking at a crumpled list on the table before him.
"She's a good hunter," my mother admits reluctantly. She hates saying anything positive about anyone.
"Pretty, too," Brand says lazily, and I have to turn away, hands shaking so fiercely I can't hold the broom. It clatters a little, but I channel my shaking into pretend sweeping, and neither at the table notice.
"If she wins, she could make out well at the Capitol," Brand leers, and now I want to beat him with the broom.
Everyone knows the victors are celebrities at the Capitol, and it's implied if not directly known that this includes clandestine or even obvious relationships with many partners. I have my suspicions that this is not always by victor choice, but yet another way for the Capitol to own its District slaves - even the victors. But the thought of this fate awaiting Katniss, who despite the dirt and hopelessness of District Twelve is the most beautiful girl I've ever known or could imagine, brings a physical pain that almost shocks me more than Brand's words. And my mother is actually nodding.
"You know, if she and Gale got chosen, District Twelve might have a chance," she says, and I'm surprised at her knowledge of Katniss' best friend. But he is remarkably strong and tall, and if I'm objective I have to admit she's right. Of course, I'm not objective in the slightest.
Deni wanders in, almost cheerfully for him. Reaping Day holds no fears for him now that his greatest fear was fulfilled. They can't touch him anymore. Fear for me or Sim is nonexistent, or even irrelevant, as though we're related to someone else.
"Well? Who's in the running?" he asks, leaning against a door frame.
"What would you rate Katniss Everdeen or Gale Hawthorne?" Brand asks him.
Deni's eyes flick towards me so briefly I'm not even sure they did, and he replies unconcernedly. "Gale's a big guy. Not sure how deadly he is, though."
"He hunts," Brand responds.
"Mostly traps," my mother argues. As they debate the issue, I feel a rush of almost affection for this big brother I hardly know. He is the only one in my family who knows my secret, and in Deni's hands that could be a great deal of power. But I think of Selena, and realise that Deni is probably the only person in the world who knows a little of how I feel today. It was different for him, of course - Selena not only knew him but loved him back - but sometimes I wonder if I could love Katniss more even if she did know me, or if I got to know her. Or if she loved me back. But that's too painful, so I push it away.
"He does stand a good chance," my mother is admitting, when Deni interrupts.
"But he hasn't been chosen," he says. "Leave the bets on his performance to later. Who else have you got for the girls?"
"Well, there's Madge -"
"The mayor's daughter?" Deni snorts. "Not likely."
We all, including me, nod at this summation. Although technically Madge has as many entries as I have, I'd be willing to bet that her name isn't chosen. Mayors have some privileges, even in District Twelve.
"Is it?" My mother asks Brand directly. "Likely?"
"No," Brand replies smoothly, and there's a ripple of something in our faces, because he goes on with, "She's got four times fewer entries than Katniss."
I want to groan. We're back to this topic again. It's bad enough that I have to endure my own horrible imaginings, but to have to listen to it debated by others is far worse.
Just imagine what it will be like to see it on screen, my mind whispers, and I push that away.
But it gets worse still.
"What do you say, Peeta?" Brand asks me. "Odds on Katniss?"
He doesn't know - he can't know. He's just fishing. I rattle around in my mind and scrape up the first name I can think of, someone who is the direct opposite of the hunter-girl with eyes of steel grey.
"Delly Cartwright could give you better odds," I say. "She knows Madge, and you all know Katniss and Madge are friends."
There's enough truth here to throw them off. Madge and Katniss being 'friends' is a long stretch - other than her family, and Gale (who practically is family), Katniss doesn't invite friends. She's remote, and silent, and downright rude at times. But she is deadly, and even I know it.
"Good point," Deni submits, and for the second time today I'm grateful. I only hope I don't pay for it later - Deni has an odd sense of how I can repay what he perceives as debts. But when it comes to Katniss, I'll pay whatever is owed.
"How about odds on District Twelve having a champion?" Brand asks.
My mother laughs suddenly. "You know, I might actually take that one this year."
District Twelve has only ever had two winners in 73 years of Games. One died many years before I was born, and the other - Haymitch - is only in a semi-living state, being drunk more often than not. It crosses my mind that if anyone has reason to escape pain, he does, and I feel more sorry for him than anything else. Brand seems to read my thoughts.
"If Haymitch doesn't screw things up for the Tributes," he says.
My mother frowns. "That's true, he'd be a terrible mentor."
She thinks about this. Tributes are supposed to be mentored by previous victors, but in Haymitch's case I wonder if he simply wishes them well and enjoys the Capitol's alcohol until they are dead.
"No, I think I'll take it," she decides suddenly. "If the Tributes are good, even Haymitch will see it."
She must know something about him I don't, I think, but I see Brand nodding and realise that they all must have known each other growing up. And both Brand and my mother, though greedy and horrible, are not stupid. She and Brand begin haggling amounts - of bread and cakes rather than coin - and I tune out again. Money will come into play once the Tributes are chosen, but not until then. Right now my mother is getting better odds because she's betting on District Twelve before the Reaping. Still feeling sick for more reasons than I can name, I go upstairs to change.
Just after half past one we're walking to the Square. I'm in a clean white shirt and dark trousers, as though it's the holiday we're forced to pretend it is. When I went to put it on I was surprised to discover it didn't fit as well as the last time I wore it, but with my mind in a whirl I can't even remember when that was. All that throwing around sacks of flour and volunteering to chop kindling might be paying off. Well, I doubt it will help much if I'm chosen - unless the arena is actually a giant cake or something. I grin suddenly, surprising myself and my brother Sim, marching stiffly beside me.
"What's so funny?" he growls, and my grin slides away.
"Nothing," I manage, truthfully, because I'm suddenly struggling to speak, much less smile.
Katniss has just come into view, and instead of the normal leap of pleasure, all I feel is immeasurable pain.
She doesn't see me, of course. I've long given up on even catching her eye, admitting that I wouldn't have a clue what to do with it if I succeeded. Sometimes when this happens, I wonder to myself why I keep on loving her so desperately. Of course, part of it is the beauty she brings into a place of dirt and deep misery. Her cheeks are rosy from being out hunting every day, grey eyes alert, long dark hair with glints of red pulled into a simple braid down her back. It's not hanging simply today, but a complex web of braids are wound around her head. She looks a little rebellious about it, as though it wasn't her choice.
Rebellious. Stubborn. Easily angered. Solitary. Fierce. Strong. All of these are reasons to give up entirely, but I don't bother even entertaining the idea anymore. I used to try, chronicling her bad traits in my mind, but it always backfired the second someone else would mention one. My mind would instantly jump to her defense, although I wasn't her verbal supporter. I didn't want stories of poor lovesick Peeta Mellark getting back to her, ruining my hopes for good. I wanted her to find me strong, and trustworthy, and someone she needed.
But Katniss Everdeen didn't need anybody. She seemed to live with the goal of making that message clear.
She seems a little on edge today, though, and I see her giving constant glances to where the younger children stand, and then I see her sister Prim.
How could I forget? Prim is 12 now, and this is her first Reaping. If there is anyone in the world Katniss loves, or softens for, it's her baby sister Primrose, who the whole world loves. You can't help it. She's the exact opposite of Katniss - agreeable, pliant, gentle, friendly, calm, fragile. You could see why Katniss lives to protect her. I look at Prim, and suddenly I think of her cat, and for the second time on the most horrible day of the year, I smile.
It was a few years ago. I was coming home from school, slowly, dreading a return to the anger and blows. At least school was a break from all that. I was so deep in thought that I didn't notice the cat until I was at the back door.
Animals of any kind are rare in Twelve. Although no one openly admits to eating cat or dog, it's a fact that they aren't seen much, especially in the Seam, the poorest area, where Katniss and Gale and their families live. I wouldn't put it past Katniss to do anything to save her family, even killing and eating a cat. But the fact is they're not kept as pets, since no one would waste food on them, and the wild animals in the woods eat them if we don't.
But against all those odds, here was an orange-and-white striped tabby, cringing in the corner and staring at me with yellow eyes. It seemed an odd shape - very skinny all over, and fat in the middle - and I suddenly realised with a shock that this cat was pregnant.
What to do? I thought quickly. My mother would beat it to death. She thought nothing of beating children, including her sons, and cats ranked even lower in her estimation. Perhaps that was why I wanted to save it.
I rigged up a little cardboard shelter out behind the pig pen. It was easy to do, and safe, since my mother never went near the pig. That was my job.
"Stinking, ugly thing wants company like itself," she'd snarl with a nasty smile.
I fed the cat as best I could, even managing to give it a little milk now and then, and leftover or burnt bread bits soaked in either water or milk. About a week later the kittens were born - sorry, straggly things, barely able to utter a quiet mew.
It got harder to feed the cat as the kittens grew, and I was terrified my mother would find them all. I was coming home one day, thinking about where I could move them, when I stopped short in horror.
There was my mother, bakery oven paddle in hand, beating that cat with all her strength. I was standing motionless in shock and fear when I heard the pathetic mew of a tiny orange kitten, struggling to escape from under his mother. And I saw my mother, in direct contrast to this orange cat who was protecting her babies' lives to the death.
I'd been afraid of my mother all my life. Been angry, many times. But in that moment I hated her with all my strength.
There was no need to kill them - and even less to do so brutally, viciously, heartlessly. I realised my mother beat helpless things because she liked it. It crossed my mind that she would have been a strong contender if she'd ever been chosen for the Games.
"Stop it," I said, and was surprised to hear my voice calm and quiet, not screaming or shaking. I didn't expect the words, but somehow they came. "They're dead anyway. I'll get rid of them."
My mother looked at me suspiciously, and I expected her to turn on me with the bakery paddle. She must have decided it wasn't worth the bother, because she threw it down in the mud.
"Clean that up," she ordered as she went back in the house.
Great, I thought, staring at the tiny orange kitten, the lone survivor. What do I do with you?
It was then that I thought of Prim. She was only about eight or nine, though she looked much younger, being so tiny, partly from her natural body shape and partly from hunger. But she was a fierce protector of anything or anyone hurting or tiny or persecuted, especially animals. I'd seen her one day with a tiny bird in her hands, sobbing as though her heart would break. Katniss had found her, and although the look on her face had clearly been wonder and confusion that anyone would waste that much attention or love on a bird, she was gentle as she took her sister home. Prim would love this kitten, I thought, and what is more she'd save it if she possibly could.
I waited for my opportunity, securing the tiny kitten in a corner beyond the pig pen, somewhere even my mother wouldn't look. And it had to be moved or she'd kill this one too.
It got harder and harder to feed the little thing, since my mother's suspicions were high, and he got worse. His little belly was swollen, and at a guess he was swarming with fleas. I knew I didn't have much time - and then she came.
Prim loved to stand at the shop windows and stare at the cakes. It brought me pleasure, since I was the one who decorated them, to see her little eyes light up and forget her poverty and all the ugliness around her. She'd even bring Katniss sometimes, but Katniss looked at the cakes with anger, as though all that sugar wasted on a pretty cake was indecent. I'd never win her over with my cake-decorating skills.
I could win Prim over with the kitten, I knew, but I couldn't give it to her. Partly because my mother would find out, and partly because a part of me knew somehow that Katniss hated debt in any form, and would probably insist on paying for it or something, even if Prim did manage to keep it.
But my father could do it, I thought. Sometimes I caught him looking at his family of burly boys and giving a sigh, as though he could do with a little daughter who loved him and would be petted by him.
So there was Prim, standing and smiling at my cakes, and there was my father, taking out the loaves from the display.
"Tell her - the kitten," I muttered, on the pretext of helping him with the loaves.
My father was a quiet, steady man, but he wasn't slow. Years of being married to my mother kept his wits sharp.
"Where?" he muttered back, lips hardly moving. It was a skill we'd both perfected. We'd even try to use words without letters like 'b' or 's' so that our lips didn't have to move much.
"Yard - corner - Daisy," I said. Daisy was the pig.
He nodded, almost imperceptibly, but then my mother appeared out of nowhere and we both froze. What now? She'd likely be here for a while, and Prim was already tearing her eyes away from the cakes. One glance at my father and we both moved - he to the front door, me to the back. As we expected, my mother yelled at me first.
"Where are you going?" she shrilled, and under cover of that I heard my father telling Prim to go round the back alley, home to the Seam. She didn't question why - she knew my father for a friend, and perhaps he had seen less friendly Peacekeepers nearby - and went.
"Daisy got out again," I said to my mother, and to my relief she gave up on me and turned on my father, asking why he was opening the front door.
I hurried out back as fast as I could, and released the straggling kitten into the alley. If Prim didn't save it, no one could, so its odds were as good as they could be right now.
It worked like things rarely did, in Twelve. I made noises at Daisy's pen, opening and shutting the gate and telling her to stay put this time, and went back in the house. Through the back window I saw the tiny morsel of kittenhood crouched, wet in the now-falling rain, directly in the middle of the alley, and Prim's hurried steps towards it. She almost stepped on it, and then gasped, and clutched it to her chest, fleas and all. As she hurried away in the darkness, I smiled, a rare occurrence in our house.
I heard later that Prim had named the kitten Buttercup, and from time to time I would see him slinking around the square. I'd always throw him something if I could, and even wondered if he knew me, when once he sat on his haunches and stared after me. Probably not, but I was glad to have saved a little life, and brought a little joy to Katniss' fragile, beautiful sister.
She stands behind me now, away with the other twelve year olds, barely visible. I glance backwards once, but don't dare to do it again. She's dressed in a ruffled blouse and skirt which I would know anywhere - the outfit Katniss wore for our first Reaping. The year the nightmares began. Katniss chosen for the Games. Being killed with a giant ice axe like the one that sliced into Selena. Screaming for help on a screen above the heads of thousands of helpless people who can do nothing to help - and they're all me. Prim's shirt has come untucked, and it hangs out like a little tail at her back.
I look at Katniss and see her face is white, set, and scared. Not for herself, I realise, but for Prim's fear. This is one area where Katniss, too, is helpless.
She glances at Gale, up with the 18's, near my brother Sim. He looks back at her, as though he feels her eyes on him, and gives her a reassuring nod, and I see her shoulders relax slightly.
I'm consumed with jealousy for their easy friendship, for his support, for all they have in common from their dark hair and grey eyes to their hunting skills and starving families. I wish I could hate him, but I can't. Hate is an exhausting emotion, and I use it up on my mother. And it's not Gale's fault that Katniss cares for him. I'd take it if I had it, too.
I look up to the stage, where everything is set to send two more children from District Twelve to their deaths. Madge's father, the mayor, is there, along with Effie Trinket from the Capitol, an overly cheerful and brightly-dressed woman whose bright attitude and dress feels like a slap in the face to all of us dull, pale slaves. There are two glass balls in which the names of all the boys and girls are written on slips of paper, and I wonder again if Brand knows. Or if all the slips say the same thing.
The mayor reads the same story - the history of Panem, the Dark Days, the uprising of twelve districts against their parent Capitol, the terrible rebellion that left in its wake the Hunger Games, cruel and evil, a reminder that we move at the will of the Capitol. My mind wanders as the mayor reads the same words I've heard every year since I was born.
"It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks," the mayor says dully, and no one looks the slightest bit repentant, or thankful.
After the mayor Effie, in her bright green suit and ridiculously pink hair, makes her own cheerful speech, all the more incongruous on this wretched day. I see Gale look back at Katniss with what is almost a smile, as though he is entertained. Goodness knows we're short of that here. But in Katniss' face I see only her fear that he will be reaped, and in Gale's his for her, and my pain and Gale's are one as we both look back to the stage, for the drawing of the names.
Effie Trinket trills out "Ladies first!", as though it's an honour, a privilege of some kind, and crosses over to the glass ball holding the names of the girls. There are thousands of slips there, but all I can think of is Katniss' name on every single one. There's a deep breath taken and then held by the entire crowd, and you could hear a pin drop as she pulls out the slip.
My head is pounding and I can't breathe - it'll be over soon, I think, it's fine, they won't take her, they can't, and Effie reads the name, clearly, so there are no mistakes. And it's not Katniss, but my mind is being given conflicting signals because she's safe, she's safe, but why did I hear 'Everdeen'?
And then I realise who has been called, and my heart sinks to my clean shoes and I feel Katniss' pain like a rip in my heart.
I know what Katniss will do before, I think, even she does. I'm even surprised it takes so long, but she's obviously in shock. Her face pales, her legs crumple, and a boy from the Seam, standing next to her, grips her arm to hold her up. I want to hold her, too, to take her in my arms and protect her from everything, from pain, from nightmares come real, but I can't. I can't because she doesn't even know me, and I can't because my own nightmare is coming true before my eyes, but with odd events that don't seem to fit. Because no matter how many times I feared her being lost to me, I never imagined this.
I wait in misery for it to happen. I see Prim walking up stiffly, tucking her shirt into her skirt as she passes her sister, and then Katniss is screaming, a strangled, hoarse cry, one that resounds in my head and is the precursor to the words that will tear my world apart.
"I volunteer!" she gasps out, barely able to speak, but eyes blazing. She never hesitates for a moment once the initial shock is passed, and I love her for this, her wild and unrestrained love for her little sister. I love this, and I hate it at the same time as she gasps it out again, to make sure they've all heard. "I volunteer as tribute!"
It's been so long since someone from District 12 has volunteered that everyone on the stage is thrown into some confusion. I think of my brother Sim, and whether he would volunteer if I were called, and in spite of my pain I want to laugh aloud. He's a day away from a Hunger-Games-free life, and we've never even been friends. Volunteer? What a laugh. Briefly I wonder if I would, but before my mind can wrap itself around that awful impossibility I become aware that Prim is screaming, and Gale is there to drag her away, saying something to Katniss as she turns to go up the stage. Of course. Gale. The friend, the brother-type, the man would would one day be her husband. He will take care of Prim, and her mother, and he will love Katniss every minute she appears on those terrible screens.
She's there now, face multiplied on several screens, eyes wide and staring, yet hard, and defiant for all that. I see her jaw settle, and realise that she has already decided to fight, to prevent the tears, not to be seen as weak before the whole of Panem. She's already thinking beyond today. I can hardly breathe at the thought of losing who I never had, and she is already thinking ahead to the Games. The other Tributes. The interviews. The commentators, trying to decide whether she is a weakling or a warrior.
No, she is no weakling, this Katniss Everdeen. She is strong, and brave, and so beautiful, standing there staring her death in the face. Effie attempts applause, and in the silence that follows, without even realising it, I put three fingers to my lips and almost raise my left hand when I catch myself and stop.
It's an old gesture, one that is sometimes used at funerals. It's a salute, a thank you, and a goodbye all in one. It's only used in the Districts - never in the Capitol. And I almost reached out from the crowd, with all the Capitol cameras looking on, and gave it.
But someone in the crowd saw it. Or maybe they had the idea at the same time. Maybe we all did. And the whole crowd stands there, left hands out, and there is silence and beauty and love, and I see tears forming in Katniss' eyes on screen.
It's my worst nightmare, Katniss in pain and me powerless to help, forced to watch from the crowd as a nobody. Haymitch stumbles across the stage and yells gleefully, "Look at her!", as though anyone could do anything else. "Look at this one! I like her. Lots of..."
He hesitates, and my mind supplies a thousand words. Bravery. Courage. Love. Pride. Power. Beauty. Life. Spirit. But he picks one I hadn't thought of yet, because it sounds like something you'd use for a kid, not this 16 year old girl radiant in a noble sacrifice.
"Spunk!" he says in triumph, and releases her from his awkward hug. "More than you," he says, and I know that even though he doesn't know me, he's talking to me, he's calling me out for all my cowardice in front of the District, in front of the whole world. I'd never volunteer for Sim, for Deni, even for Gale. Well, maybe for Gale, I think suddenly, realising I could never put Katniss through the pain that now faces me. The thought gives me a little courage, and I see Haymitch is now addressing the Capitol via camera. "More than you!" he shouts, and I hope they're listening, I hope they hear him - and then he falls off the stage in a drunken heap. Every camera swings to his crumpled figure, but I'm still looking at Katniss, and I'm near enough the stage to hear her give a choked, broken sound, almost like a cry, and then suddenly she places her hands behind her back and stands tall and her face settles into lines of determination and resolve.
She's so beautiful, so strong in her stand for her sister and against the Capitol, that I can't take my mind or my eyes off her and I'm only vaguely aware of Effie babbling and words being said and crossing the stage, until I'm brought back with a shock as powerful as a lightning bolt when Effie sounds out my name like a trumpet sound.
I am confused, bewildered. Why is she saying my name? What does she need me for? And then I see the slip in her hand and the look on her face and I feel the figures around me dropping back and it has happened, it's happening, the nightmare I never even thought to fear, the worst evil that the Capitol could have crafted if they had planned for a thousand years.
They want me to kill Katniss Everden.