She was six when her parents took her to the Tribunal. She hardly remembers it—dim flashes of men and women in Peacekeeper uniforms, and a woman who, on her worst days, she supposes is her mother crying and whispering “she’s a monster.” over and over again before she gave Clove to the doctor for examinations and testing.
But she remembers the next part. They asked her questions numbering in the thousands. “What do you eat everyday, Clove? Do you go to school? Where do you live?” and, most importantly, “Did you kill that rattlesnake?” She nodded even though she knew deep within herself that she hadn’t. It had been run over by a car long before she found it and used it for a dolly, but her mother had seen her carrying it and screamed and been so, so angry. She had insisted, no, demanded that Clove had killed it in cold blood, and slowly she began to believe it herself.
The night before her Hunger Games, she would dream that a snake wielding a long, thin sword tore apart her face. She would be screaming, so loud that every District in every world could hear her, and Cato would burst in wielding the knife he was really not supposed to have and asking her where the attacker was and yelling, oh, yelling in that half mad way only he does. And their mentors would burst in and take Cato’s knife and yell some more and give Clove sleeping pills that only made it more impossible to sleep.
But they asked her questions, so many questions, until she broke down and began to cry in her seat. When they asked her what was wrong, turned her face toward the sky and screamed until they gave her a piece of chicken that was a little too raw for her tastes. She ate it anyway. Clove wasn’t the type to complain.
Then they smiled at her, showing all of their teeth, and ordered a tall blond girl who would die in her Games that same year to take her to the little kid dorm, which was gloomy with chipping murals and hard mattresses.
The other children ignored her. It didn’t matter to her, though, because the tall girl smiled knowingly and whispered, “They ignore all the winners, sweetie.” Then she gave her a wooden rattlesnake doll and kissed the top of her dark hair and left, waving with two fingers in a mock salute.
Clove doesn’t remember her real last name. She was the eighteenth six-year-old to join her Class, so she was Clove 18. For a while, there was a dark skinned, perennially happy girl named Clove 4, and she was just addressed as Eighteen to minimize confusion. But Clove 4 died of a flu that made her perennially sad when Clove was eight, so from then on, she was addressed as Clove.
The year Clove 4 died was the same year her Class was finally completed, when twenty four of the strongest, most bloodthirsty eight-year-olds in all of District Two began their training in earnest.
Before, she had spent her days being taught to read and write by the older kids. She made a game of tracing the dried blood splatters on their black and white clothes, which never quite came out despite the valiant efforts of launderers. The blond girl who had given her the treasured rattlesnake doll taught her occasionally. She used proper voices when she read the stories of victories and love, and all of the children and teenagers alike gathered around her, until the teenager’s Teacher grabbed her out in the hallway and yelled at her. “You’re a potential Tribute, not a mother. Keep it together, Twenty Three, or you’ll be kept from training this week.”
She read in a strict monotone after that. Most of the others deserted her for better readers, but not Clove, who perched in her lap and used her rattlesnake to act out the scenes. Twenty Three always gave her a tight, secret smile before leaving.
None of them questioned why they never saw them again after winter, save the boy and girl who were Tributes that year. The boy won.
Starting official training was harder than any of them had expected. She was small and fast, but the swords and crossbows were far too heavy for her to lift, let alone aim. The Teacher gave her a box of dull knives to start with, and Clove soon excelled. By her tenth birthday, she could hit any target at almost any range, moving or otherwise. A smiling instructor presented her with her very own box of knives as well as a sharpening kit, and Clove was suddenly promoted from the seventeenth to the fifth most lethal force in her Class.
Eventually, she mastered the sword and the crossbow and every other weapon that had ever been in an arena. But the knives—they spoke to her, in ways that no other weapon did. She was soon judged as the most dangerous girl in her Class, no competition.
On her eleventh birthday, they blindfolded her and a boy with skin, hair, and eyes so light he had been teased for being Albino as a child. They were placed in a simulated forest filled with real wildlife, told to partner up, and kill ten animals of their choosing. No bugs were allowed.
Her first kill was a badger with eyes that she swore pleaded with her. Clove did not cry, but she did throw knives at a tree for over two hours afterward, which was the equivalent to unabashed sobbing in her eyes. The boy cooked the badger over a fire. She carved her name into his arm and didn’t care if she lost a thousand points for breaking the alliance. They divided the mock arena into two sides, and kept to their separate parts for the rest of the simulation.
She went on to kill two squirrels, four birds she didn’t care enough to name, one rabbit, and one housecat that was probably put in there as a joke. Her final kill was a rattlesnake with grey marking up the side. She was led out of the pretend arena screaming and crying at the ceiling, which was painted with unrealistically puffy clouds that made her sick to her stomach.
Clove was marked mentally unstable and watched more closely than ever before. Her knives were taken away, which only served to unhinge her more, and she was given two weeks of rest in the Hospital to calm her.
She shared a room with a boy named Cato 1, who had chopped his fellow potential Tributes head off after he accidentally shot him in the leg with a crossbow.
He spent days staring out the window and not speaking. A couple times, she wondered if he would jump out of it, but he stayed in his bed, much to her relief. They gave her a dart board. She practiced her throwing religiously.
On the third day, she was struck by a whim and threw the dart at his head. He caught it in midair. She screamed in delight. He didn’t say a word.
They did not interact again until the day she left. He whispered. “Thank you.” in her ear, kissed her forehead, and went back to his window without acknowledging the way her heart was racing.
She went back to training with more vigor than ever before. When a girl named Theta 12 surpassed her in skill at the sword, she practiced for days until the hard piece of metal was less like a sword and more like a weapon of mass destruction. She hacked apart dummy’s like they were butter, destroyed people much older and more skilled than her in mock battles that sometimes took hours to play to completion. She was an unstoppable killing machine. Once, fourteen-year-old Clove overheard two of her Teachers saying she was the best potential Tribute they had ever seen.
During one of her mock battles, she spotted Cato 1 in the audience. After defeating the twenty something master shooter, she waved at him jauntily and shouted, “Hey, soldier.”
He laughed at her and turned away.
When she was fifteen and he was seventeen, they had their first mock battle. The master swordsman versus the girl who could kill Goliath, assuming she had the right knives. The best of two Classes. It was the battle of the decade. Spectators showed up, and even the four-year-old Class, which only had ten students, was allowed to come. If the Teachers knew of their shared past in the mental ward, they didn’t comment on it.
It lasted ten minutes.
The gong sounded, and they were at each others throats in seconds. He slammed her against the wall, sword at her throat, faces inches apart. She raised an eyebrow and slammed him in the stomach with the toes of her boots. While he was recovering, she straddled him and began to carve her name in his arm, a calling card she saved for the special fights.
She was on the ‘o’ when he flipped her over by her hair. Clove screamed in anger, but she couldn’t overpower the boy. She glared at his blue eyes for three seconds, and then the match was over and he was declared champion and she was very, very angry.
That night, she tracked stole a keycard from one of his Classmates and broke into his arm. While he was sleeping, she numbed his arm and finished carving her name, kissing him full on the mouth when she was done. He jerked awake, but Clove was nowhere to be found.