with Peeta. Who, by the way, clearly doesn’t want to be partnering up with me, either.
I hear Peeta’s voice in my head. She has no idea. The effect she can have. Obviously meant to demean me. Right? but a tiny part of me wonders if this was a compliment. That he meant I was appealing in some way. It’s weird, how much he’s noticed me. Like the attention he’s paid to my hunting. And apparently, I have not been as oblivious to him as I imagined, either. The flour. The wrestling. I have kept track of the boy with the bread.
It’s almost ten. I clean my teeth and smooth back my hair again. Anger temporarily blocked out my nervousness about meeting the other tributes, but now I can feel my anxiety rising again. By the time I meet Effie and Peeta at the elevator, I catch myself biting my nails. I stop at once.
The actual training rooms are below ground level of our building. With these elevators, the ride is less than a minute. The doors open into an enormous gymnasium filled with various weapons and obstacle courses. Although it’s not yet ten, we’re the last ones to arrive. The other tributes are gathered in a tense circle. They each have a cloth square with their district number on it pinned to their shirts. While someone pins the number 12 on my back, I do a quick assessment. Peeta and I are the only two dressed alike.
As soon as we join the circle, the head trainer, a tall, athletic woman named Atala steps up and begins to explain the training schedule. Experts in each skill will remain at their stations. We will be free to travel from area to area as we choose, per our mentor’s instructions. Some of the stations teach survival skills, others fighting techniques. We are forbidden to engage in any combative exercise with another tribute. There are assistants on hand if we want to practice with a partner. When Atala begins to read down the list of the skill stations, my eyes can’t help flitting around to the other tributes. It’s the first time we’ve been assembled, on level ground, in simple clothes. My heart sinks. Almost all of the boys and at least half of the girls are bigger than I am, even though many of the tributes have never been fed properly. You can see it in their bones, their skin, the hollow look in their eyes. I may be smaller naturally, but overall my family’s resourcefulness has given me an edge in that area. I stand straight, and while I’m thin, I’m strong. The meat and plants from the woods combined with the exertion it took to get them have given me a healthier body than most of those I see around me. The exceptions are the kids from the wealthier districts, the volunteers, the ones who have been fed and trained throughout their lives for this moment. The tributes from 1, 2, and 4
traditionally have this look about them. It’s technically against the rules to train tributes before they reach the Capitol but it happens every year. In District 12, we call them the Career Tributes, or just the Careers. And like as not, the winner will be one of them.
The slight advantage I held coming into the Training Center, my fiery entrance last night, seems to vanish in the presence of my competition. The other tributes were jealous of us, but not because we were amazing, because our stylists were. Now I see nothing but contempt in the glances of the Career Tributes. Each must have fifty to a hundred pounds on me. They project arrogance and brutality. When Atala releases us, they head straight for the deadliest-looking weapons in the gym and handle them with ease.
I’m thinking that it’s lucky I’m a fast runner when Peeta nudges my arm and I jump. He is still beside me, per Haymitch’s instructions. His expression is sober. “Where would you like to start?”
I look around at the Career Tributes who are showing off, clearly trying to intimidate the field. Then at the others, the underfed, the incompetent, shakily having their first lessons with a knife or an ax.
“Suppose we tie some knots,” I say.
“Right you are,” says Peeta. We cross to an empty station where the trainer seems pleased to have students. You get the feeling that the knot-tying class is not the Hunger games hot spot. When he realizes I know something about snares, he shows us a simple, excellent trap that will leave a human competitor dangling by a leg from a tree. We concentrate on this one skill for an hour until both of us have mastered it. Then we move on to camouflage. Peeta genuinely seems to enjoy this station, swirling a combination of mud and clay and berry juices around on his pale skin, weaving disguises from vines and leaves. The trainer who runs the camouflage station is full of enthusiasm at his work.
“I do the cakes,” he admits to me.
“The cakes?” I ask. I’ve been preoccupied with watching the boy from District 2 send a spear through a dummy’s heart from fifteen yards. “What cakes?”
“At home. The iced ones, for the bakery,” he says. He means the ones they display in the windows. Fancy cakes with flowers and pretty things painted in frosting. They’re for birthdays and New Year’s Day. When we’re in the square, Prim always drags me over to admire them, although we’d never be able to afford one. There’s little enough beauty in District 12, though, so I can hardly deny her this. I look more critically at the design on Peeta’s arm. The alternating pattern of light and dark suggests sunlight falling through the leaves in the woods. I wonder how he knows this, since I doubt he’s ever been beyond the fence. Has he been able to pick this up from just that scraggly old apple tree in his backyard? Somehow the whole thing—his skill, those inaccessible cakes, the praise of the camouflage expert—annoys me.
“It’s lovely. If only you could frost someone to death,” I say.
“Don’t be so superior. You can never tell what you’ll find in the arena. Say it’s actually a gigantic cake—” begins Peeta.
“Say we move on,” I break in.
So the next three days pass with Peeta and I going quietly from station to station. We do pick up some valuable skills, from starting fires, to knife throwing, to making shelter. Despite Haymitch’s order to appear mediocre, Peeta excels in hand-to-hand combat, and I sweep the edible plants test without blinking an eye. We steer clear of archery and weightlifting though, wanting to save those for our private sessions. The Gamemakers appeared early on the first day. Twenty or so men and women dressed in deep purple robes. They sit in the elevated stands that surround the gymnasium, sometimes wandering about to watch us, jotting down notes, other times eating at the endless banquet that has been set for them, ignoring the lot of us. But they do seem to be keeping their eye on the District 12 tributes. Several times I’ve looked up to find one fixated on me. They consult with the trainers during our meals as well. We see them all gathered together when we come back.
Breakfast and dinner are served on our floor, but at lunch the twenty-four of us eat in a dining room off the gymnasium. Food is arranged on carts around the room and you serve yourself. The Career Tributes tend to gather rowdily around one table, as if to prove their superiority, that they have no fear of one another and consider the rest of us beneath notice. Most of the other tributes sit alone, like lost sheep. No one says a word to us. Peeta and I eat together, and since Haymitch keeps dogging us about it, try to keep up a friendly conversation during the meals. It’s not easy to find a topic. Talking of home is painful. Talking of the present unbearable. One day, Peeta empties our breadbasket and points out how they have been careful to include types from the districts along with the refined bread of the Capitol. The fish-shaped loaf tinted green with seaweed from District 4. The crescent moon roll dotted with seeds from District 11. Somehow, although it’s made from the same stuff, it looks a lot more appetizing than the ugly drop biscuits that are the standard fare at home.
“And there you have it,” says Peeta, scooping the breads back in the basket.
“You certainly know a lot,” I say.
“Only about bread,” he says. “Okay, now laugh as if I’ve said something funny.”
We both give a somewhat convincing laugh and ignore the stares from around the room.
“All right, I’ll keep smiling pleasantly and you talk,” says Peeta. It’s wearing us both out, Haymitch’s direction to be friendly. Because ever since I slammed my door, there’s been a chill in the air between us. But we have our orders.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I was chased by a bear?”
“No, but it sounds fascinating,” says Peeta.
I try and animate my face as I recall the event, a true story, in which I’d foolishly challenged a black bear over the rights to a beehive. Peeta laughs and asks questions right on cue. He’s much better at this than I am.
On the second day, while we’re taking a shot at spear throwing, he whispers to me. “I think we have a shadow.”
I throw my spear, which I’m not too bad at actually, if I don’t have to throw too far, and see the little girl from District 11 standing back a bit, watching us. She’s the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark, eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with her arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It’s impossible not to think of a bird. I pick up another spear while Peeta throws. “I think her name’s Rue,” he says softly.
I bite my lip. Rue is a small yellow flower that grows in the Meadow. Rue. Primrose. Neither of them could tip the scale at seventy pounds soaking wet.
“What can we do about it?” I ask him, more harshly than I intended.
“Nothing to do,” he says back. “Just making conversation.”
Now that I know she’s there, it’s hard to ignore the child. She slips up and joins us at different stations. Like me, she’s clever with plants, climbs swiftly, and has good aim. She can hit the target every time with a slingshot. But what is a slingshot against a 220-pound male with a sword?
Back on the District 12 floor, Haymitch and Effie grill us throughout breakfast and dinner about every moment of the day. What we did, who watched us, how the other tributes size up. Cinna and Portia aren’t around, so there’s no one to add any sanity to the meals. Not that Haymitch and Effie are fighting anymore. Instead they seem to be of one mind, determined to whip us into shape. Full of endless directions about what we should do and not do in training. Peeta is more patient, but I become fed up and surly.
When we finally escape to bed on the second night, Peeta mumbles, “Someone ought to get Haymitch a drink.”
I make a sound that is somewhere between a snort and a laugh. Then catch myself. It’s messing with my mind too much, trying to keep straight when we’re supposedly friends and when we’re not. At least when we get into the arena, I’ll know where we stand. “Don’t. Don’t let’s pretend when there’s no one around.”
“All right, Katniss,” he says tiredly. After that, we only talk in front of people.
On the third day of training, they start to call us out of lunch for our private sessions with the Gamemakers. District by district, first the boy, then the girl tribute. As usual, District 12 is slated to go last. We linger in the dining room, unsure where else to go. No one comes back once they have left. As the room empties, the pressure to appear friendly lightens. By the time they call Rue, we are left alone. We sit in silence until they summon Peeta. He rises.
“Remember what Haymitch said about being sure to throw the weights.” The words come out of my mouth without permission.
“Thanks. I will,” he says. “You… shoot straight.”
I nod. I don’t know why I said anything at all. Although if I’m going to lose, I’d rather Peeta win than the others. Better for our district, for my mother and Prim.
After about fifteen minutes, they call my name. I smooth my hair, set my shoulders back, and walk into the gymnasium. Instantly, I know I’m in trouble. They’ve been here too long, the Gamemakers. Sat through twenty-three other demonstrations. Had too much to wine, most of them. Want more than anything to go home. There’s nothing I can do but continue with the plan. I walk to the archery station. Oh, the weapons! I’ve been itching to get my hands on them for days! Bows made of wood and plastic and metal and materials I can’t even name. Arrows with feathers cut in flawless uniform lines. I choose a bow, string it, and sling the matching quiver of arrows over my shoulder. There’s a shooting range, but it’s much too limited. Standard bull’s-eyes and human silhouettes. I walk to the center of the gymnasium and pick my first target. The dummy used for knife practice. Even as I pull back on the bow I know something is wrong. The string’s tighter than the one I use at home. The arrow’s more rigid. I miss the dummy by a couple of inches and lose what little attention I had been commanding. For a moment, I’m humiliated, then I head back to the bull’s-eye. I shoot again and again until I get the feel of these new weapons. Back in the center of the gymnasium, I take my initial position and skewer the dummy right through the heart. Then I sever the rope that holds the sandbag for boxing, and the bag splits open as it slams to the ground. Without pausing, I shoulder-roll forward, come up on one knee, and send an arrow into one of the hanging lights high above the gymnasium floor. A shower of sparks bursts from the fixture. It’s excellent shooting. I turn to the Gamemakers. A few are nodding approval, but the majority of them are fixated on a roast pig that has just arrived at their banquet table. Suddenly I am furious, that with my life on the line, they don’t even have the decency to pay attention to me. That I’m being upstaged by a dead pig. My heart starts to pound, I can feel my face burning. Without thinking, I pull an arrow from my quiver and send it straight at the Gamemakers’ table. I hear shouts of alarm as people stumble back. The arrow skewers the apple in the pig’s mouth and pins it to the wall behind it. Everyone stares at me in disbelief. “Thank you for your consideration,” I say. Then I give a slight bow and walk straight toward the exit without being dismissed.
As I stride toward the elevator, I fling my bow to one side and my quiver to the other. I brush past the gaping Avoxes who guard the elevators and hit the number twelve button with my fist. The doors slide together and I zip upward. I actually make it back to my floor before the tears start running down my cheeks. I can hear the others calling me from the sitting room, but I fly down the hall into my room, bolt the door, and fling myself onto my bed. Then I really begin to sob. Now I’ve done it! Now I’ve ruined everything! If I’d stood even a ghost of chance, it vanished when I sent that arrow flying at the Gamemakers. What will they do to me now? Arrest me? Execute me? Cut my tongue and turn me into an Avox so I can wait on the future tributes of Panem? What was I thinking, shooting at the Gamemakers? Of course, I wasn’t, I was shooting at that apple because I was so angry at being ignored. I wasn’t trying to kill one of them. If I were, they’d be dead!
Oh, what does it matter? It’s not like I was going to win the Games anyway. Who cares what they do to me? What really scares me is what they might do to my mother and Prim, how my family might suffer now because of my impulsiveness. Will they take their few belongings, or send my mother to prison and Prim to the community home, or kill them? They wouldn’t kill them, would they? Why not? What do they care?
I should have stayed and apologized. Or laughed, like it was a big joke. Then maybe I would have found some leniency. But instead I stalked out of the place in the most disrespectful manner possible.
Haymitch and Effie are knocking on my door. I shout for them to go away and eventually they do. It takes at least an hour for me to cry myself out. Then I just lay curled up on the bed, stroking the silken sheets, watching the sun set over the artificial candy Capitol.
At first, I expect guards to come for me. But as time passes, it seems less likely. I calm down. They still need a girl tribute from District 12, don’t they? If the Gamemakers want to punish me, they can do it publicly. Wait until I’m in the arena and sic starving wild animals on me. You can bet they’ll make sure I don’t have a bow and arrow to defend myself. Before that though, they’ll give me a score so low, no one in their right mind would sponsor me. That’s what will happen tonight. Since the training isn’t open to viewers, the Gamemakers announce a score for each player. It gives the audience a starting place for the betting that will continue throughout the Games. The number,