Prim stands frozen for ten seconds, the sound of her name still ringing in her ears completely foreign on Effie Trinket’s capitol accented tongue. (It feels like suddenly plunging into the worst kind of dream). The girls around her stare and start to back up, parting way for her to walk ahead. Prim swallows and self consciously checks the back of her shirt, tucking in the loose fabric. She walks robotically – feet forward one after another and Peacekeepers at her side.
“Prim!” Katniss runs up and shoves her aside just before the stage steps. “I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!”
“Lovely!” Effie starts, “But I believe -”
Before Effie can say a word more Prim grips Katniss’ arm “No!”
Katniss tries to push her back further, “Get out of here, Prim.”
“I said no! You can’t volunteer!”
“This is…” Effie stammers. “I don’t know if the rules…”
“You chose me and I want to go!” Prim shouts at Effie, her voice screechy and so high that Katniss turns around in shock to stare at her. “I am the tribute!”
“No, Prim, no,” Katniss grips her shoulders. “I will go. I can hunt, you know that, I have a chance –”
“Exactly,” Prim whispers, “you have a chance here. You can keep mom alive.”
Katniss breathes in sharply. “No, Prim, you can’t sacrifice yourself for her. You don’t have to worry about me if –”
“You deserve to have a life too, Katniss!” Prim insists and she feels tears on her face though her voice does not quaver. “You’ve done so much for me and now I can do this instead of you.”
“We would die in a year or two without you anyway!” Prim whispers suddenly harsher than she’s ever sounded in her life, so much so that Katniss’ mouth snaps shut and her eyes practically bug out of her head with shock.
Prim puts on her best imitation of Katniss’ brave face and squeezes Katniss’ hand. “They chose me, not you.”
Katniss remains in place as Prim lets go of her hand and walks around Katniss and up the stairs to stand beside Effie. Effie opens her mouth twice like some ridiculous fish. At the foot of the stairs Prim sees Katniss fall to her knees out of the corner of her eye. Gale suddenly appears and sweeps her into his arms, carrying her away as if due to injury.
Effie clears her throat loudly, trying to regain control. “Our tribute, Primrose Everdeen!”
The audience stares, clearly torn with sorrow and confusion and a under current Prim recognizes from when Katniss looks at their mother – anger.
When Effie calls the boy, “Peeta Mellark,” a kind of peace settles over Prim. She’s still afraid, still absolutely terrified, but for the first time in her life – always the one protected, the one cared for, always the little one who waits for help – for the first time Prim feels like the hero.
When Prim says goodbye to Katniss and her mother none of them cry. Prim knows Katniss would not cry in order to spare Prim’s feelings so Prim will do the same.
“I’m supposed to protect you, Prim. Not the other way around,” Katniss insists. “Maybe we could still…”
Katniss shakes her head and hugs Prim so hard it hurts but Prim does not tell her to stop.
“Take care of Buttercup and Lady,” Prim asks.
Katniss nods against Prim’s head. “All right, I will.”
Prim’s mother gazes straight ahead over Prim, the kind of stare from those horrible days when two parents turned into one. Then she looks down at Prim and smiles, wider than the earliest memory Prim has of her mother’s happiest face.
“I love you, Prim, I love you.”
On the train Haymitch stumbles around, drunker than maybe he’d even been on stage at the Reaping but Prim really has no way to tell. Peeta glares, more furious with each sarcastic comment Haymitch makes until he nearly stabs Haymitch’s hand with a dinner knife earning him a punch in the face.
“At least you’ve got a bit of fire,” Haymitch grumbles at Peeta as Peeta pulls himself off the floor. Haymitch’s eyes tick to Prim. “And what about you, miss sacrificial lamb; hiding a wolf maybe?”
Prim thinks she would be a goat instead of a lamb, a tiny bleat and a bell on her neck but if you get behind her then you’ll get a swift kick.
“If only,” she says out loud.
“Ah yes, ‘if only,’ not like your sister charging up like that so cocky.”
Peeta growls. “Haymitch, don’t you say that about Kat-”
“Just because she’s braver doesn’t mean she should have to die for me,” Prim interrupts Peeta and Haymitch abruptly stops drinking. Prim breathes in and keeps his gaze. “I should be able to do that for her at least.”
Instead of a sarcastic reply Haymitch stares at her for a long time until his glass slips the two centimeters down out of his loose grip to clink on the table. He presses his lips together, glances quickly at Peeta now holding a napkin with ice to his face, then back to her closed expression.
“All right,” Haymitch shakes his head and his hands ball into fists, “damn you both, but all right.”
In bed Prim stares at the ceiling, her eyes empty buckets with all the water inside her. She dreams of a glass ball trapping her within and Katniss pounding on the glass from the outside screaming.
Before they reach the Capitol all four of them watch the Reaping replay on the train. Effie prattles on and on about the selections in other districts and how she does not believe there has ever been a volunteer turned away by the original tribute before, “So exciting!”
“Not the word I’d choose, fluffy,” Haymitch grumbles at her while Peeta discreetly rolls his eyes.
Prim watches the faces on the screen. Each expression seems uniquely different; no type of fear the same, no measure of eagerness whole or pure, no determination without a crack. Prim wonders what each person thought as they took the stage. Did they hope for a volunteer to take their place? What will they think when they sit as she sits now and watch her turn her own sister away?
Prim tries to remember names – Glimmer, Marvel, Clove, Sarra, Benny, Lara, Justin – Prim would rather they be human to her because if she has to die she wants to know the name of who ever wields the knife.
When Prim sees Thresh and Rue of District 11 she recognizes herself in Rue. (She wonders if Rue has an older sister too, one perhaps not so brave as Katniss). Rue’s face mirrors the same emotions whirling inside Prim since Effie’s voice first shouted her name: determination paired with resignation all painted over with fear.
Yet when District 12 plays last of all and Prim sees her own face, she hardly recognizes the girl on the screen.
The Capitol glistens like a jewel, like crystal, like every fancy thing Prim could imagine and then ten times more. The buildings appear unreal, something that was only ever a fantasy on television screens. Yet here the entire city rolls in front of them. Prim and Peeta press their faces against the window, absolutely amazed and enthralled.
The citizens of the Capitol cheer and wave as their train whizzes by, greeting the lambs for the slaughter. The two of them wave back, happy smiles for their fate.
“Prim…” Peeta says suddenly as the train slides into a tunnel. “I’m going to look out for you.”
Prim watches him and thinks, ‘But who will look out for you?’
When Prim’s stylist Cinna arrives, looking her naked body up and down, the reality of her situation rears its head. The shield of calm Prim had crafted for her goodbyes and the train ride to the Capitol cracks when Cinna looks far too normal to keep this journey in a box of unreal fantasy. (Prim certainly wouldn’t wish Katniss in her place but the desire to run all the way back to District 12 hits her so hard Prim cannot help but wonder how in the world she turned Katniss away).
Cinna smiles, “Your hair is quite lovely. I think the two braids work well with your face and can really keep that image of innocence.”
“Thank you,” Prim replies and a tear escapes her eye.
Cinna watches her a moment then turns and hands Prim’s robe to her. Prim folds it around herself as if she could hide inside the sleek fabric, become something so small no one would notice her presence.
“It’s all right to cry,” Cinna says, “better to do it now, right?”
Prim manages a smile. “So I don’t look weak on camera?”
Cinna shrugs his shoulders very slightly. “You are very young, Prim. To them you are a little flower to be cooed over – not something weak or strong.”
“You’re strange for someone from the Capitol.”
“Met a lot of us, have you?”
Prim smiles again, not at all offended by his slight jab. “Do you have any siblings?”
Cinna crosses his arms. “Like an older sister?”
“What would you have done if they’d volunteered for you?”
Cinna remains silent for a moment and his expression seems very far away until he drops his arms and takes both her hands. “Not been as brave as you.”
“Or as foolish?”
When their chariot pulls out into the streets the sound of the crowd nearly knocks Prim off her feet. The cheers momentarily block out her senses, something animal and insane, a wild sound of mad elation and excitement. Prim’s heart crackles along with the flames rising over Peeta and her. She sees people pointing, uneven shrieks of surprise added to the sound. Peeta holds her hand tightly and she feels his pulse racing just as fast as hers through his hand.
The two of them are a pair of comets streaking through the night, their chariot the asteroid they ride on. They are a pair of runaway stars falling through the sky to outshine the others who stay still. They are the most beautiful jewels lighting up the night and no pair before them can best their coal fueled fire.
“I have an idea,” Peeta says with his mouth pulled taut in a grin, “come here.”
Peeta grips her waist, glancing at her quickly with a nod toward his shoulder. Prim grins back at him, bounces her feet and he lifts her high up onto his shoulders. She wobbles for one second then Peeta’s hands latch onto her shins and she lifts her arms up into the air as if the two of them have already won the crown.
The applause shoots up and the cheers ring louder than anything Prim has heard before.
If she ignores the end of this story – forgets about the arena with its avenues of death waiting ahead – then the story becomes a fairytale. Prim is the princess from a far off land arriving in the foreign kingdom to sounds of praise. She is a goddess allowing her people a chance to marvel at her majesty, to praise her fiery power. She sits higher than everyone else, burns a thousand times brighter, and in the back of the parade, on Peeta’s shoulders she is the most magnificent creature in the entire world.
In bed Prim cries into her plush pillow until exhaustion pulls her under to dreams of broken crowns and crumbling castles.
Haymitch stares at the table with one hand on his fork stabbed into his plate. “What was I thinking?” He mutters over and over. “Nothing I can do… I can’t… I should just…”
“Haymitch, please,” Peeta implores, “we need some sort of strategy, don’t we? Okay, I know we’re both long shots but -”
“More than long!” Haymitch snaps. “The parade was one thing but actually training…”
“But we should at least try, right?”
“Try, certainly. But what way to try?” Haymitch shakes his head and growls in frustration. “What was I thinking…”
Prim watches his face as it shifts back and forth over emotions, a painting unsure of what it wants to be. She remembers her father coming home from the mines, coal dust making him as black at the night sky, and how his expression always had two parts, happiness and sorrow then relief and resignation. Prim wonders what it feels like to be as old as Haymitch, four times her age, or to be so tired. Haymitch bears more time than years on his face.
“It’s all right, Haymitch,” Prim says, her soft voice breaking through their minor squabble. “We know we can’t win. It’s all right.”
Peeta makes a choked off noise back in his throat and throws a hand into his hair, glaring at the floor. Haymitch lets his fork drop from his hand and stares at Prim.
Prim knows faces say more than words. Prim remembers her father’s saying ‘love love love’ even through the blur of time; Prim remembers her mother, blank and vacant as Katniss screamed at her, saying only ‘why.’ Katniss always said ‘keep out’ to the whole world but to Prim she said ‘love’ just as strongly as their father had. Prim wonders sometimes what her face says to everyone else.
Now Haymitch’s steady gaze says the same thing over and over and over: ‘I don’t want to care.’ But his face also says, ‘it’s too late now.’
“How did you get in…” Haymitch mutters out loud.
Prim realizes her face must say ‘love me.’
“I don’t think we should go to the combat areas.”
Prim nods. “Wouldn’t want to turn into target practice.”
“Not yet,” Peeta mutters.
“We should split up, I think.”
Peeta frowns down at her. “Haymitch said we should stick together.”
“But if we go to different stations then when we’re back together in the evening we can teach each other what we’ve learned. We’ll learn double the amount the others are, right?”
Peeta stares at her, head cocked to the side. “You’re not much like Katniss, are you?”
Prim thinks of Katniss with a bow in her hand, the way the birds fall from the sky as natural as snow; how quiet Katniss moves so Prim only hears her come into the house half the time before Katniss stands right beside her. Prim knows Katniss could send an arrow straight into the heart of every other tribute here.
“No, not much.”
Oddly a sliver of happiness takes up a warm seat in a corner of Prim’s heart with the knowledge that Katniss will now never become a killer.
In bed Prim falls asleep quicker than nights at home and she dreams of a sword between her fingers which she plunges into her chest.
“And what is this plant?” Prim asks, holding up a card for Peeta.
Peeta frowns and rolls his eyes up, checking the catalog in his head.
“It’s a spice…”
“Sage! Safe plant.”
Prim smiles and Peeta holds up a card for her.
“And this is –”
“Clover, edible, that’s easy!”
Peeta raises his eyebrows. “What kind of clover?”
“You’re just jealous I got it so quickly.”
“Doesn’t hurt to be exact.” Peeta wiggles the card.
Prim purses her lips back at him. “White clover.”
“Ding ding.” Peeta puts the card back down and sifts through the pack.
Prim smiles imagining the room as large school house, just another day learning new things or refreshing the old. Perhaps next period will be history or geometry.
Across the room, Lara from 5 practices making a fire, the perfect shade to match her hair. The boy from 10 with the limp clumsily throws a knife, hitting the wall instead of the target. Peter from 7 ties sticks together with thick ropes which look like vines into a circular shape. Rue from 11 climbs a rope in the middle of the room, hanging upside down when she reaches the top. She catches Prim’s eye and smiles.
“Should we try camouflage?” Peeta asks.
Prim smiles back at Rue then nods to Peeta. “Sure.”
If Prim is the princess then Rue must be the fairy, flying above their heads.
Prim knows she has no fighting skill to show during her private session. Prim cannot wield a sword or shoot an arrow. She has no strength to throw heavy weights like Peeta nor can she throw daggers with accuracy like Clove did each day during training. Prim heals instead of hurts.
When Prim enters the empty room, the Gamemakers feasting along the wall, only three bother to look in her direction, one waving slightly for her to proceed. Prim stands still in the center of the room, her hand twirling the end of one braid.
‘What would Katniss do?’
Katniss would play the hunter: bow and arrow in hand, stalking her prey, an arrow into every target, hearts and heads so there would be little mess and no waste. Katniss would melt into the surroundings of the gymnasium and the Gamemakers would only see her flying arrows hitting true.
Prim, however, is not Katniss.
Prim moves to one of the survival tables and the stack of plant identifications. She goes through the pack, holding up each card for the Gamemakers to see the backsides, and identifies every plant in the pack. She misses a few but correctly names most. The Gamemakers barely acknowledge the noise of her voice.
Prim drops the cards, a few floating onto the ground. She knows she must do something unique, something to make her have a face instead of just ‘District 12 female.’ She knows she has no offense so she must try defense.
Two minutes later one Gamemaker says, “Seneca, didn’t we have a tribute?”
“The last tribute, wasn’t she here?”
Murmurs of surprise start to grow along with the clatter of forgotten plates and dropped silverware.
“I saw her…”
“Yes, me too, a small thing.”
“She has to be here,” Seneca Crane insists. “What was her name? It was, let me see… Ah! Primrose! Primrose Everdeen!”
“I’m here.” Prim peeks out from underneath the red velvet of Seneca’s chair.
The Gamemakers gasp in surprise; Seneca himself jumps up and whirls around to stare at her as she appears under his feet. A number of the men begin to chuckle and whisper in each other’s ears.
As Prim walks out back to the suite for District 12, she breathes slowly in and out to control her hammering heart. Prim decides her role is not the princess in this fairytale but the star to wish upon, safe in the sky hidden among thousands like it even when it burns bright.
“Peeta Mellark – eight.”
Portia smiles and shakes Peeta’s shoulder then grins over at Cinna.
Effie claps her hands together. “That is a completely manageable score, Peeta.”
Haymitch raises his eyebrows and shrugs. Peeta shakes his head back at Haymitch and smiles a little.
He looks down at Prim. “Not so bad, huh?”
“Good job,” she says.
Then the screen changes and her face flashes with her characteristic blond braids. “Primrose Everdeen – six.”
Cinna pats the top of her head. “Halfway there, right?”
Haymitch only looks at her again with the same tired eyes. She wants to tell him her life is not his responsibility, that this is not his fault, that he doesn’t need to carry another lost soul with him after the games are done.
In bed Prim fails to sleep and wonders only how she grew up so many years in only a few days.
Effie teaches Prim to walk in heels. Effie shows her how to curtsy, tells her to keep her chin up at all times.
“You are a little lady so you have to act like one.”
Effie gives her dresses to try on, to walk in so she will be prepared for whatever style Cinna decides on. Prim feels like a doll or maybe a marionette; Pinocchio come to life? (Prim wonders if Effie could even teach her to fly).
“Here we are, Prim,” Haymitch says as they sit across from each other. “The final farce.”
“So what do I do?”
Haymitch sighs with twenty-four years in his expression. “I swear you could do nothing but smile and they would love you.”
Cinna dresses her in pink, the softer, younger sister of red. Thick straps cover Prim’s shoulders but leave her arms bare. The bodice portion of the dress sports white gems in a twisting diagonal stripe down to her waist, each one reflecting the light. Then down to her ankles the dress ruffles, layer after layer, so she appears child-like but formal: a prefect little lady. The final touch comes from the high curved collar along the back of her neck reaching almost to the top of her head. Cinna puts a white jeweled tiara on top of her head then lights the collar on fire.
In the mirror Prim looks like a candle lit princess, complete with glowing crown.
On stage the crowd gasps and coos, a collective sound of surprise and affection for Prim alone. Prim thinks of Katniss and turns the butterflies in her stomach into shooting stars straight up to her smile; the little duck now the little princess.
Caesar asks, “During the reaping your older sister volunteered for you but you told her no.”
Prim smiles and simply nods.
“Why did you do that? I checked,” Caesar flashes a knowing look to the crowd, “and no volunteer has even been refused by the originally chosen tribute. So why did you tell her no?”
Prim keeps on her smile and gazes over the crowd, speaking only to Katniss. “I couldn’t let my sister go in my place. Katniss has taken care of me all her life, done everything for me. I wanted to take care of her for once.”
The crowd sighs together with love.
When Peeta takes the stage he tells the crowd a woeful tale: he is in love with Katniss Everdeen and how could he ever win her love, should he win the games, if he has to kill her little sister?
Haymitch says goodbye that night.
“I hope you get to punch a career or two in the face,” he jests to Peeta.
Peeta shakes his head. “I hope they don’t get that close.”
“Both of you,” Haymitch adds, serious for once, “run from the cornucopia right away, make for the woods - whatever cover there is - and try to find water.” He focuses on Prim and smiles. “Hide for as long as you can.”
Haymitch hugs her fiercely before he leaves and Prim knows she won another heart without trying.
Instead of sleeping, Peeta knocks on Prim’s door and the two of them climb out onto the roof. They sit side by side, knees touching, and look down at the glowing lights of the Capitol parties accompanied by the sounds of crowds still clogging the streets.
“Do you really love my sister?” Prim asks.
“Yeah… yeah, I do.” Peeta wraps his arms around his knees and leans forward. “I guess I wanted her to know that before I die.”
“She’ll be mad.”
Peeta laughs. “Maybe a bit but I hope my death will at least soften the embarrassment some.”
Prim laughs as well despite the grim reality behind the humor. Then she looks over at Peeta. “What did you want to be when you grew up?”
Peeta turns abruptly and opens his mouth. He shuts it again and shakes his head. “I… Well, I don’t know. I always assumed I would work in the bakery. One of my brothers would take it over after my parents die so I thought I’d stay on with them.”
“But what did you want?”
Peeta tilts his head and shrugs his shoulders. “Well, I like to paint.” He laughs softly. “It’s funny but I never really thought about wanting to be or do anything for myself. I just knew where I would end up.” He turns back to her. “What about you?”
Prim shrugs just as he did. “I just wanted to be with my family and be happy.”
Peeta nods then glances back down at the crowds below. “A happy family… that would be nice.”
Suddenly Prim reaches over and takes one of Peeta’s hands from off his legs. She folds it in her own and squeezes. Peeta squeezes her hand back then looks up at the sky. He props his other arm up on his knee and rests his head on his hand. “It’s weird to think these are the same stars as at home, that they could be connected in any way at all.”
Prim stares up at the cloudless sky. Prim wonders if the stars notice them at all so far below. If she was a star would she notice a small girl on top of a roof looking up? Would she care about children dying for sport or would she only shine on against the blackness giving strands of hope?
If Prim is a star to wish by then she wishes for the fear to turn to peace, for the nerves to turn to calm; she wishes for it to be painless, to be quick, to be over so fast Katniss has no time to cry and her mother no chance to scream. She wishes…
“I wish we were back home, Peeta.”
Peeta breathes out slowly and squeezes her hand again. “Me too, Prim.”
In bed Prim cries silent tears for wishes which cannot come true.
Primrose Everdeen waits beside a large clear cylinder tube which will take her to the last days or hours or moments of her life. Cinna stands beside her and ties up the ends of her braids with the purple ribbons Katniss would always put in her hair at home in District 12.
“Good luck, Prim,” Cinna says and Prim sees how his face says, ‘I’m sorry.’
Prim wonders how Cinna can feel so real when the rest of the Capitol feels like Wonderland.
“Stick close to Peeta if you can. He won’t hurt you.”
Prim nods. “I know.”
Cinna pulls the last bit of ribbon tight and steps back. Prim pauses then steps toward him and hugs Cinna tightly. Cinna pets her hair slowly and feels as warm as summer sun in fields by the fences of District 12. They step apart and Prim turns briskly so she cannot see the sorrow masked on Cinna’s face. She strides forward – a princess not a duck, a burning star – and steps into the tube.
Cinna mouths, ‘Good bye,’ as she begins to rise.
The sun blinds her, brighter than herself, and then Prim sees the green grass and the golden Cornucopia. The tributes all stand poised for flight. Prim clenches her fists, the fear suddenly sharper and her nerves so tense she may shatter to pieces. Prim’s eyes swoop around the circle trying to find familiar faces, trying to find the people who will let her run away.
She sees Lara, she sees Rue, she sees Peeta and he looks right back at her with the same exact fear.
The count down hits one and Prim jumps off her metal stand. Prim runs toward the woods with no thought for the packs or the weapons. She picks a tree and makes it her star, her wish for safety. The tree is a pine, tall with branches at the bottom and though Prim has never been fond of climbing she knows she can.
Then a sharp pain shoots up Prim’s leg and she stumbles to her knees, half flipped around by the force of the blow.
‘Keep moving!’ Katniss shouts in her mind.
Then another knife hits her in the chest just below her ribs. Prim falls back against the ground with a sound like a squawk. A part of her laughs at turning into a bird all of a sudden when so many days ago she was only a goat.
‘Maybe now I can fly.’
Prim slides a hand over her stomach and feels the wet blood flowing over her jacket. Prim slowly pulls her hand up in front of her face. Maybe she needs to prove to herself her blood is really red and not the fire of a star? Prim laughs and chokes a little on the blood in her throat. Her legs are twisted underneath her, a knife sticking out of her chest and blood leaking out of her body from two wounds. Prim remembers her mother healing mine accident victims, patching up abrasions or making the way easier for those too hurt to save.
“I’m the second one,” Prim whispers.
Prim lets her hand fall then gazes up at the sky. She sees the branches of some trees at the top of her vision, swaying against a breeze. (The trees remind her of Katniss, her protector, her sister, the one she loved most of all). Beyond the trees she sees only open air, the sun blotting out all color.
“The sun is a star,” Prim mutters, “the star in the day.”
So Prim is not the princess after all but in fact the star; she will fly up to burn on in the sky. The sun shines brighter as silence sets in and Prim sees only light.