John Watson wakes up alone. But he’s woken up alone for three years, so that doesn’t come as any great shock to him.
What surprises him, just for a moment, is the utter silence from the trees. He can tell he’s late by the angle of the sunlight streaming through the gaps between the cheap mortar and the uneven slatted logs of his walls. On a normal day, he would have been at school two hours ago—the workers in the forest usually wake him. But there is no school today, and the loggers aren’t hard at work. On this day, no one goes into the forest.
It’s the day of the reaping.
John exhales. Not late, just disoriented. The reaping ceremony only happens once annually, the one day out of the year that all of District 7 sleeps in. Hard to get used to that. He sits up, rolls his shoulders, yawns. Better get moving. It’s ten in the morning or just about, and he, like everyone else, has to be in front of the Justice Building by noon.
After stretching out, rolling his head from side to side, and easing himself off of the firm mattress, John makes his way over to the sink to splash cold water on his face and neck. There. Much better. Awake now. And because it’s the day of the reaping, he takes the time to scrub his visible parts raw—face, neck, hands, even gets the dirt under his nails—and put on a clean cotton shirt. Never know when the cameras might linger on you, his mother used to say, and do you want all of Panem looking at your dirty nose?
John hopes it doesn’t come to that, because the only reason all of Panem would look at him would be if he’s picked for the Games. No one in District 7 wants to be picked for the Games. The prospect is a grim one, but now that he’s older it doesn’t scare him as much. At twelve and thirteen, he trembled at the reaping, held his head high and squeezed his eyes shut tight and silently mouthed, “Don’t pick me, not me, please not me.” Something’s changed inside him since then, though. In the past few years, while he waited to hear the names read, his mind mostly remained blank and safe.
For breakfast, he fixes himself some oatmeal with the oats and milk Harry had forced upon him when he’d last seen her a couple of days before. It’s high-quality stuff—near-fresh grain from District 11 that only she could afford—and as it simmers John looks out the window and thinks, well, at least it’s a nice day for a reaping. A couple of years back, they all had to stand around in the rain while the key players bustled back and forth on the stage under dripping umbrellas.
John eats in silence. On a day like today, he’s struck by how quiet and open this little cabin is now compared to how it used to be. It was once so full that he had to share a bed with Harry, but he doesn’t miss that. Some of the time, he doesn’t even miss her. Harry was always noisy and abrasive. She has her own place now, and that’s probably for the best. Still, it sometimes gets lonely, having no one to talk to.
District 7 is sparsely populated but vast, so John sets out for the Justice Building right after he finishes his oatmeal, knowing that he’s got a good hour’s walk ahead of him. Along the way, he merges into a stream of other citizens also walking to the square, and manages to join up with Mike Stamford, a friend of his from school.
“John,” says Mike, a pleasant boy with a round face. The rest of him would be rounder, too, if there were enough food to go around—as it is, he’s stocky, and a little slower than John.
“Mike.” John nods his greeting. “How’d you sleep?”
“Like a baby. You?”
“Fine, fine. Almost forgot what day it was.”
“Ha! Wouldn’t that have been something?”
“Something,” in this case, would be imprisonment, the punishment for staying home. John shrugs, and they don’t say much after that. There’s not much to say. All around them, people are quiet, staring straight ahead. Everyone’s mind is on the reaping.
Each year, one girl and one boy are selected from the twelve Districts of Panem and sent to the Capitol to participate in the Hunger Games. A race for survival, the Games pit the twenty-four tributes against each other a fight to the death broadcast on live TV. It’s a form of penance: seventy-five years prior, the Districts of Panem, thirteen at the time, rose up against the Capitol. But the rebellion was quashed, District 13 destroyed, and the twelve others subdued, forced to send their children off to die.
Supposedly, there’s glory in the Games. The Capitol provides for the victors for the rest of their lives; the winner’s Districts are rewarded with food and goods. But the odds are long, and in most Districts the Games are viewed as a death sentence.
So that’s why everyone’s quiet, and no one works today, and children have the day off from school. Every single person in District 7 is too busy thinking. Young men and women wish fervently not to get picked as their families pray not to lose a child to the Games. John has no parents to hope on his behalf—they were killed, three years prior, in a logging accident. Hard to do anything from the grave. His sister might be hoping for him, but at this time of day she’s probably already drunk out of her mind.
He finds out when he reaches the square in front of the Justice Building. The three chairs on the temporary stage are all occupied: one by the mayor, one by the presenter from the Capitol, and one by the only living victor from District 7, John’s sister Harriet. He and Harry are as different as night and day. Harry, three years older, is dark and angular; John is fair and a little softer around the edges. While John goes to stand with the rest of the seventeen-year-olds, shoulders squared, Harry remains slouched forward in her chair on the stage, clearly out of it.
At least she’s here, though. Someone must have been around to her house to rouse her. Two years ago, she stumbled in so late that she almost missed the ceremony. Last year, Clara had been around to look after her. But Clara doesn’t live with Harry anymore. John spots her on the side of the square, standing with the rest of the adults, her corn-yellow hair pulled back from her face in a braid.
There’s a lot of ceremony now for the mayor to wade through. John looks past him and at his sister. When Harry notices, she waves lazily from her seat with a liquor-soaked smile. He wants to tell her to stop embarrassing herself, but he’s powerless to speak.
“Good afternoon, everyone, and happy Hunger Games!”
That shrill voice snaps him back to attention. The person reading the names this year is a woman named Violet—apparently the previous District 7 presenter had aged too much for the Capitol cameras. She’s as perky and upbeat as the last one, though, when she steps up to the podium. All of her, save her hair, which is puffy and white and clearly a wig, has been dyed a light purple. John idly wonders which came first: her name, or the hue? He catches Mike having the same thought next to him and they share a smile, then look down at their feet and wait as she talks about what a privilege this is, her first time being involved in the Games, and how exciting it is, and how charming their District is. Actually, the word she uses is “quaint.”
And then her purple hand with its long purple nails reaches into the glass ball containing the girls’ names, and John flashes back to the year when Harry had been picked, and how he hadn’t cried for her then because he hadn’t had any tears left after their parents died only two months before, and how he hadn’t known what to say to her before she went off to the Capitol, and how he was so sure it was the last time he’d ever see her—and then it wasn’t. But miracles don’t happen twice, and he finds himself wishing selfishly, desperately that Violet doesn’t select a girl he knows well, because he is really, really terrible with goodbyes.
Crossing back to the podium, slip of paper in hand, Violet intones, “Molly Hooper.”
John’s immediately filled with relief—no one he knows—but shame washes it away as soon as Molly steps up to the podium. He didn’t know her by name, but he recognizes her when he sees her. Molly Hooper can’t be more than fourteen. She’s the daughter of the healer and nearly drowning in her dress, which upon closer examination is one of her father’s old shirts, belted at the waist. She mounts the stage with as much dignity as she can muster, but still glances over her shoulder a couple of times for a glimpse at her family. A poor mouse of a girl.
The crowd’s murmurs sound like the buzzing of angry bees. No one likes seeing someone so young sent into the arena. But Violet pays them no heed, ushering Molly forward. Although the girl’s trying her best, she’s on the verge of tears.
“There she is,” Violet says, smoothing Molly’s shirt-dress over her shoulders. “The female tribute for District 7, Molly Hooper. Unless there are any volunteers?” She looks out at the crowd, but no one steps up. Even when the tribute’s so small and miserable looking, every girl’s thinking that she’s just glad it wasn’t her, or her sister, or her friend. John knows that, and he averts his eyes so that he doesn’t have to see Molly screwing up her face, trying not to cry. The burden of collective guilt settles on the shoulders of District 7 even as the crowd dutifully applauds for her.
This is the Capitol’s most powerful weapon, that guilt, the knowledge that families have to just stand by as their children plucked right out of their hands. But what could they do? John wonders miserably. What could any of them do? Storm the stage? Take her back? No, they’re live on camera—the Capitol would be upon them in the blink of an eye.
“And now for the boys,” Violet cries, almost maniacally determined to remain cheerful. Her purple claw scrambles around in the other glass ball, and John doesn’t know what he’s thinking. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. He’s thinks he might be hoping they don’t pick someone young again, and after that he’s hoping it’s not one of his friends. Mike would be awful in the Games. Some of the boys from the lumberyard might fare all right, but they all have families to help support, and if they don’t come back it’d be a great loss.
John’s not thinking of himself. He could go off to the Games and lose and everyone else would go on just fine. His only family is taken care of. His friends would manage. He doesn’t want to die—he doesn’t want it to be him, make no mistake, but if it were…
But it won’t be. Nothing happens to him.
And maybe that’s why it’s such a shock when Violet calls his name.