In the world where death was a deity waiting to strike at any moment, Will lost himself in fishing.
His father had died eight months ago, right on Will’s sixteenth birthday, and since then fishing had turned from interest to full-blown obsession. There was no point in going home, no one was waiting there, so more and more often Will climbed the fence and went to the stream, as far from his District as he dared. He lied on the brown, wet sand, staring at the sky for hours, listening to the soft joint melody of birds, water and wind.
He made his own fishing lures. Will could spend hours wandering around the forest, looking for feathers or shells, reveling in the task as much as in fishing itself. He brought some rusty table spoons from home and made lures from them as well, doubting the fish would be attracted to the dull orange but hoping nonetheless.
In the forest, he didn’t have to speak. Holding his self-made fishing rod, Will closed his eyes and let himself feel.
Freedom. Nature. Peace. Memories of his father, smiling at him and teaching him how to cook, playing with him on the floor of their house while the mandatory TV installed in the room was showing other children and teenagers brutally killing one another.
Will lived in his imagination, leaving reality behind. The pictures were so vivid, so bright that every time he opened his eyes he felt briefly stunned, seeing the grayness of the world around him.
People in his District Nine were polite yet suspicious of him. They bought his fish, gave him occasional pieces of rubbish that he immediately reconstructed into lures, but the moment his back was turned, they called him weird, and deranged, and infantile.
‘He rarely speaks,’ they said. ‘He spends all his time in the forest. God knows what he’s doing there. There is something wrong with him. Just look in his eyes.’
Will might not have been social, but some part of him longed to be accepted, so every hurtful remark left its scar. It also made his desire to retreat stronger, so forest had become his new home. Mostly.
He missed people, he missed talking sometimes, and while he knew his life was in danger every year, he couldn’t let himself run away for good. Fishing was great, but Will doubted he could eat only fish for the rest of his life. Winters were severe, and the thought of killing forest animals for their fur and meat made him shudder.
He’d killed a small boar, once. It came from nowhere, shrieking and lunging at him, looking half-crazed. For a moment Will was scared, but then… then a feeling more powerful, more intoxicating filled him, and instead of running, he attacked.
He still couldn’t say how he’d managed to kill that boar using his hands only. In the end he found himself covered with blood and scratches, so excited that it was difficult to breathe, feeling triumph, rapture and satisfaction.
It didn’t last long, though. Almost immediately guilt and revulsion overwhelmed him, so Will buried the body, not taking even a piece of it despite his stomach’s loud protests. He decorated the grave with grass and his favorite fishing lures, mourning the life he’d taken, ashamed that he’d enjoyed doing it so much.
His imagination was a gift — and a curse. Imagining things helped to pass time, but it also meant that Will saw himself dead on more than one occasion. He saw himself swallowed by water, the quiet stream suddenly transforming into enraged, lethal wave. He saw himself torn and eaten by animals that usually stayed away from the District, but sometimes wandered too close.
And of course he imagined himself chosen. He imagined himself a tribute at the Games, competing and irrevocably failing at saving his life.
After those gruesome visions, Will thought he was prepared for everything.
He was wrong.
The day of this year’s Choosing ceremony was grim. The thunder threatened to break the sky, the air was thick with impending rain.
Will was feeling restless. Strange anxiety was coursing through his veins, causing him to shake ever so subtly. Maybe it was from the cold, but maybe, just maybe, something was really going to happen.
“One. Two. Three,” he said slowly, aloud. Hearing his own voice made him feel a little more grounded.
All people of District Nine from twelve to eighteen could be chosen to participate, but Will’s name was written only five times. Five cards with his name among hundreds — what were the odds?
“Hey! Hey, Will!” Jimmy Price, the closest thing to a friend Will had, was waving at him frantically. “Come here, let’s stand together.”
A warm feeling enveloped him, and Will, smiling, approached the boy.
“Hi,” he greeted. “You’re okay?”
“As okay as I can possibly be,” Jimmy shuddered and glanced at the empty stage. “Just two more years of this and we can forget about those fucking Games.”
“We won’t forget,” Will said emotionlessly. “Not even after they are cancelled.”
“The Games will never be cancelled,” the bitterness in Jimmy’s voice was unmistakable. “As long as Matthew Brown and future members of his family are elected as Presidents, we will always get chosen and we will always get killed. That family is crazy.”
Will carefully put his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, wanting to comfort despite the futility of it. Each of the people gathered in front of the stage was stiff and numb with tension, and no gesture, no words would help until the two condemned were chosen.
District Nine had only one winner during long years of its existence. Brian Zeller, who wasn’t the strongest or the smartest, but who’d gotten lucky and won. Will didn’t know him personally, but he remembered the boy Brian had once been. Carefree, joyous and laughing all the time — until the day he’d been taken to the capital.
He’d come back, but Will had never seen him smile again.
“Hello, everyone!” a familiar voice exclaimed, and Will glanced at the stage. Freddie Lounds, the escort for their District, was standing between two large glass balls filled with cards. The expression on her face could only be described as cheerful, and not for the first time Will wondered if it was pretence, or if she was really that shallow, genuinely not seeing hundreds of pale, frightened faces in the crowd beneath.
“I’m happy to announce the start of our Eighty Third Games!” Freddie declared, already gazing at the glass balls. “Let’s hear the anthem first, and then we’ll get to the most exciting part.”
Will closed his eyes, letting his imagination take him far away from this circus. He entered the forest, looked at the stream, glistening blue and silver. A feeling of peace started to slowly soothe his mind, but it was all gone in a blink when he heard, “We’ll start with the girls.”
Reluctantly opening his eyes, Will stared at Freddie who was busy fingering through the cards, choosing which one to grab.
Finally she settled on one of them and brought it to the surface. The silence in the stadium became dead — Will could hear other people’s heartbeats, all accelerated like panicked animals’.
“Reba McClane,” Freddie’s bright voice announced, and initially relieved sights turned into indignant and angry ones when people realized who had been chosen.
Will’s heart clenched painfully in his chest as he watched Reba, small, blind Reba slowly making her way up stage. She was blinking fast, as though hoping to wake up from a nightmare, and tears were already overfilling her eyes, flowing down her cheeks.
“This is a joke,” Will growled, and in the silence his voice sounded so loud that everyone immediately looked at him.
His embarrassment was short-lived, paling in the face of Reba’s suffering. Her pain was so palpable that Will barely kept himself on his feet, aching to help but knowing he couldn’t.
Not fair. It was not fair. Not fair. Their District didn’t have many chances as it was, almost no chances at all against career tributes from the first three Districts, who spent their lives training for the Games. They were always the strongest, the cruelest and the deadliest. Reba wouldn’t survive a day on the arena.
“Here, here,” Freddie muttered, carefully helping Reba get on stage. She was clearly uncomfortable with what’d happened, but there was only small comfort in that.
“Okay,” she said finally, when it became obvious Reba wasn’t going to say a word. “We have our girl, let’s move on to the boys!”
Will clenched his jaw so tight it almost hurt, glaring daggers at the glass ball. When Freddie’s hand grabbed a card, he suddenly knew with absolute clarity whose name was written on it.
“William Graham!” Freddie read, and Jimmy gasped, taking a step back.
For a moment, Will was motionless. Then he slowly moved toward the stage, trying to keep a neutral expression on his face, feeling strangely empty.
Freddie asked him something, he answered, but he couldn’t recall a word. The only thought pulsating in his head was, ‘I didn’t say goodbye’. To the forest. To the stream. To his house.
He hadn’t said goodbye, and now he never would, because the idea of surviving the Games was ludicrous.
At some point the numbness dissipated… and blind panic came in its place.
Will was sure his whole body was shaking, but that was all he remembered from his journey to the railway station. Sitting in a place more comfortable than he could ever imagine, he squeezed Reba’s hand tighter, supporting and being supported.
He didn’t look back, but he did whisper ‘goodbye’ to the images in his mind. They were all he had left. The images, and Reba.
“My condolences,” Brian Zeller said the moment he entered the room. Will turned to him, still slow and uncomprehending from shock. “I’m sorry you were chosen, but you can’t change anything now. Both of you are most certainly going to die, so I suggest you accept it and enjoy the food and the luxury you’ll have for this month. You can’t keep your life, but you can die sated.”
Will stared at him.
“That’s an interesting way to look at it,” he finally said. “Why are you so certain we are going to die?”
“Because it’s the truth,” Brian shrugged. “I know who you are. The artistic fisherman and the blind girl. You can’t fight and you are neither strong nor cunning. I’ll do what I can to help you, but you won’t have any sponsors because you are just not interesting enough. Well, you have a pretty face,” Brian nodded at Will, then looked at Reba, “and you will evoke pity in people, but there will be other pretty faces and other sob stories, so you have no chances.”
“That’s not very encouraging,” Reba murmured, staring unseeingly through the window. “But thank you for honesty.”
“Although you didn’t have to be such an asshole about it,” Will added with contempt. Brian sighed tiredly.
“Last year’s tribute, Clarice,” he said. “She was the one who I thought could really win. She had it all — beauty, brains, stamina. Fate seemed to be on our side, because other tributes, even career ones, were surprisingly weak — it could be a lucky year for our District. I bonded with Clarice, I risked everything. I made deals with rich people, persuading them to place a bet on her. But Clarice died within first twenty seconds of the Games — one of the tributes pushed her and she hit her head. A rock and bad luck, that’s all it took. I stopped hoping after that. Of course you may live for a while — hell, you can probably survive the first day if you take off running instead of fighting for weapons, but in the end? It won’t matter. And it’d be really better if you accepted it now.”
“I’m not afraid of death,” Will said calmly. Now that the shock was starting to retreat, he managed to find his balance again. “But I’m also not ready to give up that easily.”
“You might change your mind after you see this year’s tributes,” Brian muttered darkly, nodding at the TV. The repeat of the Choosing ceremony was starting, so Will moved to the screen and helped Reba to sit closer.
“I’ll be telling you what I see,” he whispered, and she nodded gratefully.
The footage from District One filled the screen, and Will stared at the smug face of the male escort.
“We’ll start with the guys this year,” he declared. “And… the winner from District One is… Mason Verger.”
A short, heavily muscled man stepped on the stage, glaring at the cameras so angrily that Will felt unease burning under his skin.
“He looks like a scarecrow,” he told Reba. “I’d never think he was the career tribute.”
Reba laughed shortly, and encouraged, Will took her hand once again.
The female ‘winner’ was a young girl named Beverly Katz. Apart from her coldness, Will couldn’t read anything, so he settled on describing her physical appearance to Reba.
Tributes from District Two, Tobias Budge and Margot Regrev, were both impressive and almost regal. W ill took his time thinking of how to describe them, not wanting to scare Reba, but unwilling to lie to her.
“They look dangerous,” he said finally, and she nodded, hearing everything he hadn’t said.
Their chances had just diminished.
When Bedelia Du Maurier was chosen as a female tribute of District Three, Will felt unease transforming into nervousness.
“Bedelia looks small and fragile,” he told Reba. “But there is something off about her. Her eyes aren’t dead, but they are… unfeeling. Malicious.”
“I already don’t want to meet her,” Reba remarked. Will wanted to reply, but the ability to speak abandoned him after the name ‘Hannibal Lecter’ sounded and a young man with light brown hair made his way upward. He stopped near the escort and looked at the nearest camera, and the intensity of his stare burned Will through the screen and the distance between them. The aura of this man was dark with the whispers of cruelty, promises of pain, and there was something unearthly, something predatory in his posture. He wasn’t just dangerous — he was deadly.
“I think I got it,” Reba said dryly. “You don’t have to tell.”
“He is very intelligent,” Will murmured softly. “He is capable of calculated violence. He is strong. I don’t think anyone will have many chances against him.”
The screen started to show scenes from District Four, but the cold, amused face of Hannibal Lecter was still in front of Will’s eyes.
The District Four couple turned out to be in love with each other. Jack Сrawford and Phyllis Belles looked like their world was ending, and Will’s heart ached just from looking at them.
“They aren’t vile,” he said to R eba. “They seem like good, kind people. I can’t imagine them killing anyone.”
“If even you can’t imagine it, then probably they are really unable to kill,” Reba mused, and Will chuckled despite the grief he could still feel.
Franklyn Froideveaux and Abigail Hobbs were tributes from District Five, and both of them resembled frightened kids rather than fighters.
District Six was being presented by a business-like girl Kade Prurnell and by a weird young man named Frederick Chilton.
“He looks like a grasshopper,” Will drawled, and Reba giggled, closing her mouth with her hand.
After Hannibal Lecter other tributes lost the ability to scare Will much, so he watched more or less calmly how Abel Gideon and Alana Bloom were selected in District Seven, and how wild and crazed Francis Dolarhyde and enraged Marissa Schurr took their places in District Eight.
“It’s our turn now,” Will noted, tensing involuntarily when the images of his District started to play.
Reba looked even smaller and more vulnerable, slowly moving toward the stage, afraid, but undefeated. When Will saw himself, he groaned and hit his head against the window, wanting to die from shame.
Could he look any more frightened? Great, just great. He showed himself as pale wide-eyed child, trembling from the fear of being chosen. The only positive moment was when he took Reba’s hand, smiling at her soothingly, but overall? This was his death sentence. No one would take him seriously now.
After that disgrace Randall Tier and Georgia Madchen from District Ten and Garret Jacobs and Chiyoh Murasaki from District Twelve didn’t have much impact on Will, though he took a moment to grieve the fate of brother and sister from District Eleven, Cassie and Nicholas Boyle. How did those things even happen? It was like someone had chosen beforehand which names should be added to the glass balls, because it seemed like too big of coincidence.
“So,” Reba said, after the Ceremony came to an end. “What do you say? No chances?”
“No chances,” Will agreed forlornly. He carefully touched a piece of bread in front of him and inhaled the smell of it deeply, closing his eyes.
The last dull shreds of hope to survive drowned in a merciless ocean of reality, and Will found himself letting go.
Brian was right. They couldn’t win… but they could allow themselves a couple of happy weeks.
He accepted the inevitable truth, and for the first time since the Choosing Will felt free again.